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Information and Opinion from a Traditional Jewish Perspective

Archives Of Previous Articles XXVII


'A JEWISH MAN...'

Yossi Huttler

One of my favorite moments of the Jewish year occurs on the night of Purim, a chapter and four verses into the Megilla-reading. Achashverosh the king has been presented, his queen Vashti has come and gone and Mordechai is about to be introduced. The text of the scroll itself indicates a pause, seeming to draw attention to what follows. The reader traditionally stops, anticipation fills the momentary silence and then the congregation reads aloud: "Ish Yehudi. . .," "A Jewish man..." The collective "sh" sounds softly emphatic.

Most years we arrive at this moment in a jumble of emotions. Those who have observed that day's fast of Ta'anit Esther feel the effects associated with the lack of food and drink: hunger, thirst, headache and fatigue. And yet, an almost palpable giddiness suffuses the air: Purim is here and we will soon be eating and celebrating. Some may already be in costume; gragers are poised, awaiting Haman's first mention.

Each Jewish holiday has distinctive qualities, and elicits equally distinctive responses from its celebrants. For reasons I have never fully understood, I have found Purim a particular challenge. It's not the Megillah story; somehow, it always retains its suspense and poignancy. But the revelry and the getups discomfit me, although since becoming a father I can access Purim better through the unbridled delight my sons take in the costumes and commotion. But at this juncture, that all lies ahead. Right now the moment is breathless.

By nature I am uncomfortable in the spotlight, but I am a ba'al koreh, a congregational reader, and it is primarily through chanting the Megillah that I experience Purim. Many aspects of the weekly Torah-chanting are exaggerated in the Megillah: the listeners are more attentive; the verses are longer; and the cantillation sounds more dramatized, sentences cascading up and down, subtle shifts between major and minor keys, from the Esther tune to echoes of Eichah, the book of Lamentations. At no other time of the year, arguably, does the performer of a Jewish ritual have so much attention focused on him. Standing at the bimah, I feel the power of the congregation hanging (pardon the pun) on every word of the narrative.

It is at this point - "Ish Yehudi..." - that I most acutely feel the mood of the Megillah, of the holiday itself. Rashi remarks that Mordechai is referred to as a Yehudi because he was among those who were taken captive together with the Judean royalty, who then became known as Yehudim. Mordechai thus came to this designation not just because of his personal qualities, but because he, like others during those tumultuous times, identified and involved himself with the great national and spiritual catastrophe that had befallen the Jews of that era.

And although those few words succinctly sum up a great religious-historic personality, I find something both timeless and universal in the description. Mordechai, a leader, from the tribe of Benjamin, is described first and foremost as, essentially, what every Jew today is: "Ish Yehudi hayah be'Shushan ha'birah, " a Jew in a foreign city. To my mind, this phrase concisely encapsulates our condition in the Diaspora: Jews, beyond labels and divisions, negotiating the vagaries of history's vicissitudes in a non-Jewish milieu.

Wasn't it this recognition of our Jewish common denominator, after all, that forged the focus, and resultant unity, that brought about the Purim miracle? The Megillah is replete with references to Jewish unity as the antidote to attempted genocide. Appealing to Esther's sense of Jewish solidarity, Mordechai directs her to risk her life and intercede with the king. And once Esther decides to act, she tells Mordechai, "Go and gather all the Jews," i.e., make them of one mind and purpose - repentance and prayer to G-d - in order to avert the decree. The Jews respond in kind: The Megillah recounts several times that they acted as a "congregation," a single unit; and in so doing, they merited redemption.

Our rabbis teach us that the days of Purim are the most propitious time of the year to achieve Jewish unity, and that the food gifts and alms for the poor, the mitzvot of the day, represent the expression of unity achieved by the Jews during the events of the Megillah, which led to their deliverance. We foster unity when we share with our friends and provide for the needy. How appropriate are these mitzvot to a holiday in which we celebrate the fact that G-d saved our ancestors from a fate in which all Jewry were the intended victims, and in which the salvation came about through the unified efforts of those intended victims.

Each year, when I reach this moment in the Megillah reading, the sublime words make me shiver. "Ish Yehudi hayah be'Shushan ha'birah:" To me, the understated message in that plaintive phrase, collectively read aloud, offers a subtle glimpse of the unity that once was ours, and remains our holy aspiration.

[Mr. Huttler is an assistant District Attorney in Brooklyn, and an oral historian who has worked for the Shoah Foundation]

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FIGHTING IRON WITH IRONY

A Contemporary Purim Thought

Rabbi Avi Shafran

On a beautiful clear night in 1924 at Landsberg am Lech, where he was imprisoned by the Bavarian government, Adolf Hitler remarked to Rudolf Hess: "You know... it's only the moon I hate. For it is something dead and terrible and inhuman... It is as if there still lives in the moon a part of the terror it once sent down to earth... I hate it!"

A chill accompanied my first encounter with that quote. Because the Jewish religious tradition sees the ever-rejuvenating, shining disk of the moon as a symbol of the Jewish people. Indeed, the very first commandment we Jews were given as a people, while still awaiting the Exodus in Egypt, was to identify ourselves through our calendar with the moon. The moon Hitler feared.

There is much other oddness about Hitler with connections to ancient Jewish tradition, things like his fondness for ravens, in Jewish lore associated with cruelty; he went so far as to issue special orders protecting the birds. And like his fascination with the art of Franz von Stuck (the artist who had the "greatest impact" on his life, he once said), whose major themes are snakes and sinister women. In the Jewish mystical tradition, snakes evoke evil and its embodiment, Amalek; and there are hints of an antithetical relationship between the irredeemable wickedness of Amalek and women.

And then there is the matter of the most loathsome of Hitler's henchmen, Julius Streicher, the editor of Der Sturmer, the premier journal of Jew-baiting.At its peak in 1938, print runs of Streicher's vile tabloid ran as high as 2,000,000. A typical offering included a close-up of the face of a deformed Jew above the legend "The Scum of Humanity: This Jew says that he is a member of [G-d's] chosen people." Another displayed a cartoon of a vampire bat with a grotesquely exaggerated nose and a Jewish star on its chest. In yet another, a Jewish butcher was depicted snidely dropping a rat into his meat grinder and, elsewhere in the issue, the punctured necks of handsome German youths were shown bleeding into a bowl held by a Jew more gargoyle than human.

In 1935, speaking to a closed meeting of a Nazi student organization, Streicher, displaying an unarguably Amalekian approach, declared:

"All our struggles are in vain if the battle against the Jews is not fought to the finish. It is not enough to get the Jews out of Germany. No, they must be destroyed throughout the entire world so that humanity will be free of them."

The suspicion that in Streicher's blind, baseless, and absolute hatred of the Jews lay the legacy of Amalek makes the story of his capture and death nothing short of chilling.

Purim is the only Jewish holiday that celebrates the defeat of an Amalekite, Haman. Even a passing familiarity with the Purim story is sufficient to know that the downfall of its villain is saturated with what seem to be chance ironies; he turns up at the wrong place at the wrong time, and all that he so carefully plans eventually comes to backfire on him in an almost comical way - a theme The Book of Esther characterizes with the words v'nahafoch hu, " and it was turned upside down!"

Such "chance" happenings are the very hallmark, of Amalek's defeat - a fact reflected in the "casting of lots" from which Purim takes its name. Chance, Esther teaches us, is an illusion; God is in charge. Amalek may fight with iron but he is defeated with irony.

As was Streicher. In the days after Germany's final defeat, an American major, Henry Plitt, received a tip about a high-ranking Nazi living in an Austrian town. He accosted a short, bearded artist, who he though might be SS Chief Heinrich Himmler, and asked him his name.

"Joseph Sailer," came the reply from the man, who was painting a canvas on an easel.

Plitt later recounted: "I don't know why I said [it, but] I said, 'And what about Julius Streicher?'"

"Ya, der bin ich," the man with the paintbrush responded. "Yes, that is me."

When Major Plitt brought his serendipitous catch to Berchtesgaden, he later recounted, a reporter told him that he had "killed the greatest story of the war." When he asked how, the reporter responded "Can you imagine if a guy named Cohen or Goldberg or Levy had captured this arch-anti-Semite, what a great story it would be?"

Major Plitt recalled telling the reporter "I'm Jewish" and how "that's when the microphones came into my face and the cameras started clicking."

Another happy irony in Streicher's life involved the fate of his considerable estate. As reported in Stars and Stripes in late 1945, his considerable possessions were converted to cash and used to create an agricultural training school for Jews intending to settle in Palestine. Just as Haman's riches, as recorded in the Book of Esther, were bestowed upon his nemesis Mordechai.

There is a good deal more of interest in the life of Julius Streicher to associate him with Jewish traditions about Amalek. But one of the most shocking narratives about him is the one concerning his death. Streicher was of one of the Nazis tried, convicted, and hanged at Nuremberg in 1946.

During the trial, Streicher remained disgustingly true to form. When the prosecution showed a film of the concentration camps as they had been found by the Allies, a spotlight was left on the defendants' box for security reasons. Many present preferred to watch the defendants' reactions rather than the mounds of bodies, matchstick limbs and common graves. Few of the defendants could bear to watch the film for long. Goering seemed calm at first, but eventually began to nervously wipe his sweaty palms. Schacht turned away; Ribbentrop buried his face in his hands. Keitel wiped his reddened eyes with a handkerchief. Only Streicher leaned forward throughout, looking anxiously at the film and excitedly nodding his head.

While no proof was found that Streicher had ever killed a Jew by his own hand, the tribunal nevertheless decided that his clear-cut incitement of others to the task constituted the act of a war criminal; and so he was sentenced, along with ten other defendants, to hang.

And hang he did. But not before taking the opportunity to share a few final words with the journalists present at the gallows. "Heil Hitler. Now I go to God," he announced. And then, just before the trap sprang open, he blurted out most clearly: "Purim Feast 1946!" - an odd thing to say in any event, but especially so on an October morning.

The "Amalek-irony" of the Nuremberg executions doesn't end there, either. The Book of Esther recounts how Haman's ten sons were hanged in Shushan. An eleventh child, a daughter, committed suicide earlier, according to an account in the Talmud. At Nuremberg, while eleven men were condemned to execution by hanging, only ten were actually hanged. The eleventh, the foppish, effeminate Goering, died in his cell only hours before the execution; he had crushed a hidden cyanide capsule between his teeth.

Something even more striking was noted by the late Belzer Rebbe. In scrolls of the Book of Esther, the names of the ten sons of Haman are unusually prominent; they are written in two parallel columns, a highly unusual configuration. Odder still is the fact that three letters in the list, following an unexplained halachic tradition, are written very small, and one very large. The large letter is the Hebrew character for the number six (Hebrew letters all have numeric values); the small letters, added together, yield the number 707. If the large letter is taken to refer to the millennium and 707 to the year in the millennium, something fascinating emerges. According to Jewish reckoning, the present year is 5765. The year 5707 - the 707th year in the sixth millennium - was the year we know as 1946, when ten sworn enemies of the Jewish people were hanged in Nuremberg, just as ten others had been in Shushan more than two thousand years earlier.

The Book of Esther, (9:13), moreover, refers to the hanging of Haman's sons in the future tense, after the event had been recounted, presaging, it might seem, some hanging yet to happen.

To believing Jews, the Holocaust was the tip of an unimaginable iceberg of evil, stretching far and deep into the past even as one of its ugly tips punctured the relative peace of the modern world.

And so, as we prepare to celebrate Purim and the downfall of the Amalekite Haman, especially these days, when Jew-hatred has once again made itself manifest in the world, we would do well to ponder that the evil he represents may have been defeated at times throughout history but it has not yet been vanquished.

[Rabbi Shafran serves as public affairs director for Agudath Israel of America]

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BETWEEN

Rabbi Avi Shafran

Tuesday is the last day of the week that the end-of-the-Sabbath Havdalah blessing may be recited if it was forgotten on Saturday night. Although I recited the blessing as usual on Saturday night, the words of Havdalah seemed to push their way into my mind this past Tuesday afternoon at Madison Square Garden, one of three New York-area venues that together hosted approximately 50,000 Jewish men, women and children who turned out locally to celebrate the "Siyum HaShas," the most recent cycle-completion of the 7 ½ -year page-per-day Talmud study program known as Daf Yomi. What sparked the Havdalah-thought was the astonishing aptness of the blessing's words.

Midtown Manhattan, with all its din and shameless commercialism, seemed like a different planet from the vast arena within, which was quickly filling with modestly-dressed Jews of all ages - men and boys taking their seats in one section; women and girls in another. The juxtaposition of the two worlds marvelously embodied the idea of contrast that forms the essence of Havdalah (literally, "separation").

"Blessed are You, G-d...," the blessing begins, "hamavdil bein kodesh lichol" - "Who separates between holy and mundane."

Gazing out onto the arena floor, usually a place of performers singing, or athletes running, jumping and throwing balls, I watched celebrants engrossed in their afternoon Mincha-prayers. The two images were similarly dissonant. The stands, normally the scene of raucous cheering and shouting (and worse), were packed with people honoring "players" of a very different sort from the usual - accomplished not in physical prowess and ephemeral things, but rather in spiritual strength and eternal ones.

"... Bein ohr lachoshech," Havdalah continues, "...Between light and darkness..."

At a later point during the evening's proceedings, an announcement was made that the event was being dedicated, as it has been in the past, to the memory of the Jewish victims of the Holocaust. Before Kaddish was recited in their memory, one speaker noted how, seven and a half years earlier, two Holocaust survivors who had been in attendance at the previous Siyum Hashas had independently made the same observation. Each had looked around at the tens of thousands of Jews present, and thought the same unthinkable thought: At the height of the Holocaust, more Jews than this were killed in a single day.

The mere post-war survival of any degree of Jewish determination and continuity would have constituted a minor miracle. The formidable flourishing of both over recent decades is nothing short of astounding, a tribute to the wondrous Jewish ability (sadly, much challenged over history) to persevere and rebound from even the most grievous sorts of adversity. The Siyum itself, in fact, was powerful testimony to that.

"... Bein Yisroel lo'amim" - "between the Jewish people and the nations [of the world]."

A contrast whose sheer power one had to personally experience to fully appreciate was manifest later in the evening, after the completion of the Talmud and its beginning anew, after the inspiring addresses and heartfelt songs, after the memorial Kaddish and the tears - and, after the Talmud-completion itself, the dancing that suffused the arena in joy.

The program ended with Maariv, the evening prayer. And when the first verse of Shma - the Jewish credo declaring G-d's relationship to the Jewish people and His unity - was pronounced loudly in unison, the sound of tens of thousands of people proclaiming those truths with all of their hearts and all of their souls was overpowering. It seemed to shake time and space themselves.

And yet, somehow, no less powerful was the absolute stillness that marked the silent Amidah-prayer that followed shortly thereafter. The transition reminded me of how the holy, determined activity of every Friday's waning hours yield to the utter calm and peace of the Sabbath.

"...Bein yom hashvi'i li'sheshes yimei hama'aseh..." - "...between the seventh day and the six days of action."

And then there was a final contrast, too, one that underlay the very fact of the gathering.

The Jewish community, even the observant one, is not particularly known for its internal harmony. We Jews can be a fractious and quarrelsome people; we care deeply, after all, about many things.

But at the Siyum HaShas, Jews from different backgrounds and of different approaches to life were fused for those hours by a superceding unity of purpose. And there was no denying what obliterated their differences. It was precisely what forged the original Jewish unity at Mount Sinai.

It was the holiness that is the Torah.

"Blessed are You, G-d," Havdalah concludes, as it begins, "Who separates between holy and mundane."

[Rabbi Shafran is director of public affairs for Agudath Israel of America.]

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THE SECRET OF THE JEWS

Rabbi Avi Shafran

The air was electric in Jewish communities across the continent and around the world for weeks before it happened.

"It" was the Daf Yomi Siyum HaShas, which occurs but once every 7 ½ years and took place on March 1, for the eleventh time since the Talmud-study program it celebrates was introduced. This most recent Siyum HaShas ("Completion of the Talmud") brought together more Jews than any other event in contemporary times - indeed, in recent history. The number of participants in North America alone was estimated at 120,000.

The Siyum HaShas lauds the accomplishment of the tens of thousands who have completed the study of the entire Babylonian Talmud through the Daf Yomi ("Page-per-Day") program conceived by Rabbi Meir Shapiro, a yeshiva dean in pre-war Lublin, Poland. It was in 1923 at the First International Congress of the Agudath Israel World Movement that he presented his plan for a challenging and unified study of the Talmud, and the Siyum HaShas celebration has long been organized and sponsored by Agudath Israel of America, the organization I am privileged to serve.

Although the men, women and children who attended the Siyum HaShas were paying tribute to those who completed the Daf Yomi program, the event might more properly seen as a celebration of Torah study itself, of the Jewish ideal of laboring over, and internalizing, the texts and wisdom of our religious tradition.

It is in fact, in its deepest sense, a celebration of the secret of Jewish perseverance, something, ironically, that was well understood by some of our worst enemies.

The Nazis, for instance, considered the Jews a race, but at least some of them also recognized what empowers and preserves our people.

Writing in 1930, Alfred Rosenberg, Hitler's chief ideologue, identified "the honorless character of the Jew" as "embodied in the Talmud and in Shulchan-Aruch [the Code of Jewish Law]."

Perhaps even more telling is a 1940 directive issued by the German Highest Security Office. It prohibits Jewish emigration from occupied Poland on the ground that an influx of "Rabbiner, Talmud-lehrer" - "rabbis, teachers of Talmud" - and in fact "jeder orthodoxe Ostjude" - "every Eastern European Orthodox Jew" - could foster "geistige Erneuerung" - "spiritual renewal" - among American Jewry.

That fear, thank G-d, proved well-founded indeed; Torah-committed Jewish immigrants, although they arrived for the most part only after the Second World War, helped rejuvenate Jewish life on these and other shores, rebuilding Jewish communal and educational institutions and fostering traditional Jewish observance in new lands. The scope and enthusiasm of the Siyum HaShas was undeniable evidence of that.

Those Nazis knew that Jewish religious life and Torah-study were the greatest threats to the ultimate success of their genocidal plan, that our people's preservation and future depend on our fealty to the essence of our past.

And so the Siyum HaShas, ostensibly the marking of a program's end (and re-beginning), was also something else: a declaration of victory, a defiant mass-embrace of what some of our more perspicacious enemies tried, and failed, to stifle. The singing and dancing and prayers that filled Madison Square Garden, the Continental Airlines Arena and the Javits Center in the New York area; and the Walt Disney Concert Hall in Los Angeles, the Rosemont Theatre in Chicago, the Ricoh Centre in Toronto and dozens of other venues across the continent, reflected a deep and joyful commitment to the fullness of our religious heritage, to what some of the darkest forces in the world have tried, and failed, to eradicate.

On March 2, Daf Yomi students returned to the first page of the Talmud. Other Jews continued their Torah-studies too; for some it was the Bible and its commentaries; for others, works on Jewish law, whether about kashrut, proper speech, the Sabbath or any other realm of Torah. All were inspired anew to drink in and be nurtured by the mother's milk of the Jewish people.

Each and every one of us Jews can be - should be - part of that essential effort and priceless privilege.

[Rabbi Avi Shafran is director of public affairs for Agudath Israel of America]

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FURY, FICTION AND FACT

Rabbi Avi Shafran

Tova Mirvis is clearly a woman scorned. The Jewish novelist unleashed her fury, in a recent issue of the Forward, at essayist Wendy Shalit, for the latter's having dared, in the pages of The New York Times Book Review, to critique the state of contemporary Jewish fiction.

What Ms. Shalit noted was the fact that a good deal of recent Jewish fiction seems to take pains to paint Orthodox Jews, especially what some like to call the "ultra" variety, in rather ugly colors. In response, Ms. Mirvis accuses her of seeking to censor, a la Iranian mullahs, high-minded artists, like the novelist herself.

All Ms. Shalit did, though - presumably permitted, too, in a free society - was point out some literary emperors' strangely stained clothes. The stark bizarreness of the portrayals of traditionally observant Jews in the books she cited is remarkable. An Orthodox man showing more anxiety about the milk and meat dishes in a Jewish woman's kitchen than he does about sinning with her, a fistfight that breaks out in a synagogue over who will read from the Torah and a religious man who abandons his wheelchair-bound and pregnant wife in order to spit on immodestly clad female strangers - are but several.

Unthinking, uncaring or phony people, to be sure, exist within the Orthodox community, as they do in every subset of society. But when Orthodox characters seem so reflexively and consistently characterized in such odd ways, and lauded novels seem so devoid of honest, intelligent and caring members of the species, might one be forgiven for, um, noticing?

Ms. Mirvis harrumphs that calling attention to the phenomenon is "attacking books," and informs us that "the variety and particularity of human experience... is the stuff of fiction." She goes on to accuse Ms. Shalit of espousing "an approach to literature in which the message matters most of all." Ms. Shalit, asserts Ms. Mirvis, is advocating "fiction as kiruv, or outreach, books kosher enough to be handed out from mitzvah mobiles... fiction as travel brochure..."

Nowhere, though, does Ms. Shalit suggest that novels about Jews be written as Jewish outreach aids. What she does contend, and I think reasonably, is that the recurrence of outlandish portrayals of Orthodox Jews in recent American Jewish fiction means one of two things: Either that most Orthodox Jews are in fact hypocritical oddballs - a judgment Ms. Shalit's own experience (and that of countless other intimates of the Orthodox world) contradicts. Or that some celebrated American Jewish writers are permitting their imaginations to run wild at the expense of an identifiable group of their co-religionists.

Taking further offense at the suggestion that some writers seek to portray a Jewish world with which they may be less familiar than they think, Ms. Mirvis cites her personal intimacy with Orthodox life - her having sat "in the synagogue every Sabbath as a little girl," "being draped" under [her] father's prayer shawl," and her participation in "afikomen hunts." Fine experiences, all. But whether they truly conferred intimate insights into the lives of Jews who live their Judaism seriously and fully is an open question (as is what fevered visions were apparently experienced under that prayer shawl).

Ms. Mirvis does raise a valid point. "Since when," she asks, "must a fiction writer actually have lived the life he or she writes about?" She is right; good fiction must necessarily involve the imagination. But there are other questions here too (we're Jewish, after all). Namely, does a particular group of Jewish writers, by mere virtue of their common profession and ethnicity, have an unalienable right to regularly portray their differently-observant fellow Jews as ridiculous caricatures? And if it does, do not others have a right of their own to voice perplexity over the portrayals?

Literature, Ms. Mirvis goes on to assert, is meant to be "dangerous." Indeed. But its dangerousness lies in its ability not only to open minds and stimulate thought, but to inspire revulsion and encourage prejudice as well. Art, in fact, has been co-opted on more than a few occasions over history to promote all manner of nasty images. "The Merchant of Venice" and "The Passion" are only mild examples. More tragically effective ones have helped fuel considerable hatred and mayhem over the years, in particular with Jews as their marks. To raise the possibility that some contemporary Jewish fiction writers' sense of responsibility may be less than commensurate with their talent does not evidence a witch hunt - or even, as Ms. Mirvis preciously dubs it, a tzitzit check. It is, rather, what one might well call straightforward deconstructive literary criticism - and a well-warranted attempt to warn readers.

I am, I must confess, not a consumer of contemporary fiction. But I can state as a matter of fact that over a decade of closely monitoring the press, I have witnessed a good deal of truly imaginative misrepresentation of Orthodox Jews in the ostensibly nonfiction world of the general and Jewish media.

And so I'm hardly surprised that the Ugly Ortho has apparently become a mainstay of the world of Jewish fiction as well.

Were only that revelation met by Jewish authors with not fury but reflection.

[Rabbi Shafran is director of public affairs for Agudath Israel of America]

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OF RITES AND RISKS

Rabbi Avi Shafran

Not long ago, a Jewish family in New York suffered a terrible tragedy, the death of one of their infant twin boys. The cause was determined to be an infection of herpes simplex type 1, the virus that causes cold sores - and for which, according to the National Institutes of Health, antibodies are present (indicating at least a one-time infection) in up to 90% of adults. The HSV-1 virus causes only discomfort in adults, but in a baby, with its undeveloped immune system, the infection can be more dangerous, even fatal on rare occasions. This case, sadly, was one of those rare occasions.

The tragedy, however, did not remain a private one. It became the focus of media reports around the world, because of the possibility, raised by New York City health authorities, that the infant may have contracted the virus from the ritual circumciser who performed his bris, or Jewish ritual circumcision. Since the circumciser, or mohel (plural: mohelim), applied oral suction to the wound, which is a part of the bris-procedure in many Jewish communities, the suspicion arose that the virus may have been present in the mohel, at least in a dormant stage, and may have thus passed on to the baby during the procedure.

The mohel in question, who is widely respected and experienced (he has reportedly performed over 12,000 circumcisions), is currently under order to refrain from the oral suctioning procedure and to undergo tests for the herpes virus. He is cooperating with health authorities.

Many Jewish ritual circumcisers, particularly in the haredi community, consider the time-honored - and, for most of Jewish history, universal - oral method to be an indispensable religious requirement. Others, though, address the Jewish religious law of applying suction to the wound (itself, interestingly, based on a health concern, the drawing of infectious agents away from the wound) by employing an intervening glass tube. Some use gauze compresses and dispense with the suction altogether.

And so calls have been issued to insist that all mohelim hew to those approaches.

Two doctors, for example, in a study in The Pediatrics Infectious Disease Journal urged that "public health officials and leaders of the Jewish community should act to modify the part of the circumcision ritual that involves direct oral contact with the blood... of neonates."

Rabbi Dr. Moshe Tendler, an Orthodox rabbi and biologist, is even more adamant. "I'm particularly disturbed," he told a reporter, "that once this information becomes available, the mohelim don't do what they're told," namely dispense with the oral suctioning procedure.

In a medical paper in Pediatrics, a group of medical doctors and researchers, including Rabbi Dr. Tendler, assert, without evidence or citation, that "the great majority of ritual circumcisions" are performed without oral suction. They further declare that Orthodox religious authorities who insist on the traditional method (a list that includes some of the most distinguished rabbinic leaders of recent decades) have done so only because they "have felt threatened by criticism of the old religious customs."

Scientists should certainly offer the results of their research. They are perfectly welcome, too, to take positions on medically related matters. But when they begin to wax derisive of rabbinic authorities, impugning their motivations and challenging their religious decisions, expertise threatens to morph into arrogance.

To be sure, were infections like the one that took the life of the New York infant to be proven likely, or even common, results of oral suctioning, medical authorities would have the right to do what was necessary to protect the public - and religious authorities would be no less concerned. Indeed, even in Talmudic times, when a risk was perceived by the deaths of a baby's brothers after their circumcisions (implying hemophilia), the newborn was not to be circumcised at all unless it became clear that he was healthy.

But the evidence of material risk as a result of traditional circumcision is far from persuasive. In fact, a number of pediatricians and pediatric urologists with scores of years of experience between them serving communities in which countless baby boys were circumcised in the traditional manner - have reported that they have never seen even one case of circumcision-related herpes infection in newborns.

So if there is a risk in the age-old method, it does not appear at present to be a great one. And while our first reaction might well be to righteously insist that "any risk is too great," we might pause to consider: Is there no risk at all to circumcision itself? Or to any of myriad activities that society happily sanctions without any pang of conscience - not only things like bungee-jumping and motorcycle riding (or SUV driving), but prosaic activities, too, like high school football, cosmetic surgery and crossing city streets?

And so the questions must be asked: Should religious practices be more subject than entertainment or vanity to governmental or societal coercion? Does that really square with our nation's commitment to religious freedom?

They shouldn't, of course, and it doesn't.

[Rabbi Shafran is director of public affairs for Agudath Israel of America]

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THE MODERN ART OF DECEPTION

Rabbi Avi Shafran

As the world-renowned Museum of Modern Art in Manhattan prepared to open an exhibition of documentary films including several that critics charge are anti-Israel, Nuran Dib, a 10-year-old Palestinian girl, was shot in the face and killed while she stood outside her school in the southern Gaza strip. Witnesses said that the shot came from a nearby Israeli military post, and Hamas militants responded to the girl's death by firing mortars at nearby Jewish communities. Palestinian Prime Minister Ahmad Qurei called the killing a "war crime."

The MoMA exhibition, set to open on February 10, is intended to highlight provocative global issues, according to its organizers. So it is not surprising that four of the offerings concern the Middle-East. All of them, though, in the words of The New York Sun, "take a starkly anti-Israel stance."

One film, "Forbidden to Wander," depicts Israeli soldiers as a malevolent presence as it tells the tale of a young Arab-American woman's escape from an Israeli attack and her rescue by a Palestinian man; a second, "Paradise Lost," focuses on a female PLO activist in the 1970s who, as, the film distributor explains, "became a role model for many young women"; a third, "Still Life," according to MoMA, "reveal[s] the destructive effects of occupation"; and a fourth, "Detail," presents the plight of a Palestinian family unable to transport a sick child to a hospital because of an Israeli roadblock.

Curiously, another of the films to be screened by MoMA, touches on Judaism, or, at least, on a Jewish religious rite: the mikvah, or Jewish ritual bath.

The film is entitled "Purity," a reference to the spiritual effect that immersion in the mikvah provides. Both men and women use the mikvah, but it is an essential part of the life of observant married women, as they immerse in the special bath upon the end of their menses before resuming physical intimacy with their husbands - which is suspended during their periods and seven days thereafter . As it happens, many Jewish women who are otherwise less than fully observant, including a number of self-described feminists, have embraced mikvah-observance in recent years. They claim that the monthly suspension of physical contact between husbands and wives helps their husbands regard them as partners in something more than a mere physical sense. What is more, they say, immersion in a mikvah touches something deep in their souls, providing a tangible expression of the renewal they viscerally feel each month. Despite its title, "Purity" offers a rather more jaundiced perspective.

The film features three women who voice resentment and disgust concerning their use of the mikvah. The filmmaker herself, who was raised in a secular family but married an Orthodox man, admits that she didn't like Jewish marriage laws from the start. She found the separation period trying (understandable; few of life's valuable things are attained with ease), and decided that the laws were only "an ancient myth" that contemporary Jews don't need to be "dragging along" into the present.

As in the case of the MoMA films dealing with the Middle East, of course, there is an unshared "rest of the story" here. "Purity" does not offer the viewer any example of the vast majority of observant Jewish women, those who consider the laws relating to mikvah-use, while challenging, sublime and ennobling above all; and who (along with their husbands) consider their relationships with their spouses to be stronger, holier and more enriched as a result of their observance.

And that dearth - no less than the vacuum of any Israeli perspective among the political films - deeply misleads. Images are powerful tools for providing information, but equally powerful tools for spreading misinformation. One need only recall the photograph that appeared on the front page of The New York Times on September 30, 2000, of a bloodied boy with an angry Israeli policeman standing over him, holding a club and shouting. The ostensible "Palestinian" youth in fact turned out to be a Jewish one (who had been beaten by a Palestinian), and the officer had been calling for assistance.

A few months earlier, another photograph, of an Arab boy killed while cowering alongside his father during a firefight, was made the virtual recruitment poster for the Intifada. It took several years before professional investigations, including one underwritten by a German television station, yielded the near-certain conclusion that it was Palestinian fire - not Israeli, as had been regularly claimed - that killed the boy. Countless hearts and minds were poisoned by both falsehoods before the "rest of the story" in each case emerged. And many still refuse to relinquish their treasured lies.

When New Yorkers and the tourists who flock to "the City" from around the world visit MoMA this month, those who choose to view the documentary films about the Middle East, or the one about mikvah, will see only small and misleading parts of larger stories. That they won't likely realize that is both the filmmakers' hope and a tragedy.

The Israel Defense Forces consistently denied that, at the time Nuran Dib was killed, any of its soldiers in the area had fired a weapon. As it happened, a day after Hamas' "retaliation" for the girl's death, the Palestinian Authority informed Israel that it had arrested a man who had been firing a gun in the area at the time, one of a group of Palestinians celebrating their return from Mecca.

[Rabbi Shafran is director of public affairs for Agudath Israel of America]

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AN UNHOLY HERITAGE

Rabbi Avi Shafran

Two young people were killed a day apart in Israel recently, one a Palestinian, the other an Israeli. The circumstances of their deaths are more than revealing; they go to the core of the conflict that consumed them.

At first glance the youths were just two more "innocent victims" caught in a "cycle of violence" - as the media is wont to portray such things. But platitudes are no replacement for perception.

Seventeen-year-old Ella Abukasis, a Jewish resident of the southern Israeli town of Sderot, was critically wounded when a Kassam rocket fired from the nearby Gaza Strip exploded near her and her siblings as they were returning home from a religious youth group meeting. When Ella heard the siren warning of an incoming missile, she dove atop her 11-year-old brother Tamir to protect him. He was wounded but would recover; his sister would not. Six days later, she succumbed.

One day before that, Salahadin Abu Mohsen, a 13-year-old Palestinian boy, joined a group of youths who were taunting and throwing rocks at a group of Israeli soldiers patrolling Tubas, a West Bank village near Jenin. The troops did not react to the taunts and rocks, or to the crowd of adults that had gathered menacingly around. But when they saw one boy - Salahadin - brandish what seemed to be a gun, one of the soldiers shot him in the chest. He died in the ambulance transporting him to a hospital. Witnesses and medical sources told the Agence France-Presse news service that what the boy had pointed at the soldiers was a toy replica of a gun he had received as a present for a Muslim holiday.

Ella Abukasis, true to her religious heritage, valued life. She could not have known that her instinctive move to preserve her brother's life would mean the end of her own, but her first thought as danger loomed was to protect. Jewish religious law is itself fiercely protective of life, permitting almost every law in the Torah to be violated to save a life.

Salahadin Abu Mohsen was true to a heritage too, that of the substantial majority of Palestinians favoring violence against Israelis. That unholy heritage has roots in the radical Islamism that plagues so many countries in the contemporary world, to be sure, but in the wider Arab cultural milieu as well. The day this is being written, The New York Times reports that leaflets being handed out in Iraq in anticipation of elections there warn of "wash[ing] the streets of Baghdad with the voters' blood," and carry the further message: "To those of you who think you can vote and then run away, we will shadow you and catch you, and we will cut off your heads and the heads of your children."

Now that the architect of Middle-Eastern terrorism has returned what was left of his soul to his Creator and the Palestinian public has elected a new leader, hopes have been voiced for the dawning of at least the beginning of the beginning of a Mid-East peace process. While Mr. Abbas has disturbingly saluted his predecessor and used offensive rhetoric when addressing his people, the dream stubbornly persists that his condemnations of violence (albeit as counterproductive to Palestinian aspirations, not as immoral) reflect a more essential part of his being. And that, as a result, he will, as he has pledged, truly attempt to rein in groups like Hamas that live for death; and deal in good faith with his Israeli counterpart.

The most fundamental obstacle to peace in the Middle East, though, is not Mr. Abbas, or even Hamas and the other factions pledged to the murder of innocent men, women and children. The most vexing impediment is something both more subtle and more formidable: a Palestinian populace that does not disapprove of its youngsters throwing rocks at soldiers and that, even amid the copious carnage of terrorism and reprisals, sees a toy gun as an appropriate holiday gift for a little boy.

[Rabbi Shafran is director of public affairs for Agudath Israel of America.]

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LE DIFFERENCE

Rabbi Avi Shafran

A conference of the National Bureau of Economic Research doesn't seem like the kind of gathering to yield a brouhaha, but Lawrence H. Summers, the president of Harvard University, managed to raise a considerable uproar at the recent symposium with his suggestion that there may be innate differences between men and women.

He was speculating, it was reported, about why there are so few women on science and engineering faculties at research universities, and put forth several hypotheses. Among them were: simple discrimination; the likelihood that women with children might not be willing to invest the time and energy necessary to achieve such academic stature; and the possibility that women's minds were not as geared to advanced mathematics as those of men.

That latter theory did not find favor with everyone present. Massachusetts Institute of Technology biologist Nancy Hopkins, for instance, shut her laptop in anger after Mr. Summers' remark and stormed out of the conference, later saying "I felt I was going to be sick... My heart was pounding and my breath was shallow." Her reaction didn't say much for her scientific objectivity, nor, as many a wag noted, did it do much to counter a common stereotype of women as emotional and rash. It did, though, reflect what emerged as a widespread reaction.

"I am offended and furious about your remarks," read one letter to Mr. Summers, from Maud Lavin, an associate professor at the School of the Art Institute of Chicago, whose sentiments were echoed by numerous others. "Arguments of innate gender difference in math are hogwash," she continued, "and indirectly serve to feed virulent prejudices still alas very alive, and now even more so due to your ill-informed remarks."

I do not know if women on average are less capable than men of higher mathematical comprehension (that's certainly not the case in my home). But what is intriguing, and telling, is the breadth and depth of the negative gut reaction to the very idea that there may in fact be gender differences beyond the obvious physical ones.

Judaism certainly implies that there are, assigning distinct roles to men and to women. Women, for instance, are exempt from some mitzvot, or commandments (generally, time-determined positive ones, although there are exceptions); and other mitzvot (like lighting the Shabbat candles or separating and burning the prescribed portion from a loaf of dough) are preferably to be performed by women.

What is more, the Talmudic tradition considers men to have more of a particular type of human perception (da'at) than women; and considers women to have more of another type (bina) than men. While the precise meaning of the Hebrew terms are beyond both this writer and the scope of an essay like this one, both forms of perception are clearly formidable - and different.

That there are deep differences in the respective psychologies of the genders is certainly not news to most parents who have children of both flavors. A story that Mr. Summers himself was reported to have told, about his own attempt to raise a gender stereotype-neutral daughter, likely brought a smile of recognition to many a mother and father's face. He recounted how he once bought his little girl two trucks to play with, and she quickly named them "daddy-truck" and "baby truck."

It would, likewise, take a determined and creative mind indeed to explain the fact that the overwhelming majority of violence in the world is male-generated, and the overwhelming majority of caregivers are female.

Innate gender differences, of course, should not preclude, or dissuade, women from being engineers or men from being nurses (or women from being race-car drivers, or men from asking for directions). But neither should they be dismissed as meaningless or insulting.

Such dismissal is, unfortunately, the entrenched attitude of much of the supposedly open-minded contemporary world, even of the Jewish one. And that is particularly lamentable, because it distracts us from the invaluable Jewish idea that life is about not uniformity but responsibility.

"Da'at," "bina," predilections, aptitudes - all are real and important things, but what should matter most to us is not what cards we may have been dealt but rather what we choose to do with the hand we hold. That, in the eyes of Judaism, is the great equalizer: We are judged in the World-to-Come not by the abilities or psychologies or professions we had in this world but by what we did with them.

Whatever particular aptitudes we may possess, as men or women, engineers or artists, scientists or teachers or diggers of ditches, whether we choose to employ them in the service of our fellows and our Creator is, in the end, what makes all le difference.

[Rabbi Shafran is director of public affairs for Agudath Israel of America]

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JEW-HATRED ABROAD AND AT HOME

Rabbi Avi Shafran

The arrival of the United States State Department's first annual report on global anti-Semitism was rightfully welcomed by a host of observers. Equally rightly, it engendered some puzzlement.

For while the report, mandated by last year's Global Anti-Semitism Review Act, recognizes that "the demonization of Israel or vilification of Israeli leaders, sometimes through comparisons with Nazi leaders, and through the use of Nazi symbols... indicates an anti-Semitic bias," and details the states of Jew-hatred in dozens of nations, it seems to give countries in the Near-East and Middle-East something of a pass regarding their promotion of animus against Jews.

Only 86 words, for instance, are devoted to the Palestinian Authority, where television sermons routinely denigrate Jews and deny the Holocaust; Brazil merited 149.

Egypt, as it happens, received a full entry. The report notes that the country's ruling National Democratic Party (NDP) newspaper, Al-Lewa al-Islami, published articles denying the Holocaust, but adds that the writer was subsequently banned from the paper, and the editor who had approved his article had been fired.

The report acknowledges, too, that "anti-Semitic articles and opinion" appeared in the Egyptian press and electronic media during the period covered by the report (July 1, 2003-December 15, 2004).

But that reference somehow doesn't do justice to the sheer outrageousness of some of the anti-Jewish slander in Egypt's press. Like an article written on August 17, 2004 by a columnist for the weekly magazine Aqidati, published by a foundation linked to the NDP. According to a Middle East Media Research Institute (MEMRI) translation, the column asserted, among other interesting things, that the main entrance to the Knesset carries the inscription: "Compassion toward a non-Jew is forbidden... When a non-Jew falls into a ditch, the Jew should close the ditch on him with a big boulder until he dies, so that the enemies will lose one person and the Jews will be able to preserve their dream of the Promised Land, the Greater Israel!"

The column also quoted an Egyptian professor who explained that "the Jews believe wholeheartedly that violence and blood are the only things that safeguard their lives," that rabbis preach about the "obligation to carry on the conflict with all other nations" and that Jews slaughter non-Jews and drain their blood for religious rituals.

Iran is also mentioned in the State Department report, which notes that "according to some NGOs [Non-Governmental Organizations], the media [in Iran] contained anti-Semitic content, including articles and editorial cartoons."

The report isn't designed to provide details, but one wishes that, rather than "anti-Semitic content," some description could have been invoked that conveyed the degree of Jew-hatred evident in things like the weekly television series "Zahara's Blue Eyes" that premiered on Iran's Sahar-1 TV station on December 13. The storyline concerns an Israeli military commander and candidate for prime minister who is being kept alive by organs stolen from Arab children. Israelis are portrayed as ghoulish thieves of body parts. In a pivotal scene, a group of Israelis visits a classroom in a Palestinian Authority school, ostensibly to conduct eye exams, but "in truth" to find a pair of eyes - those of the series' title - to replace the candidate's own.

The program appears short on character development but its plot seems a sure winner for its viewer demographic. A snippet of dialogue (courtesy, too, of MEMRI):

General: "Sir, there are 32 children that you haven't seen yet and there is also a ship docked at the shore with a cargo of artificial fetuses..."

Candidate: "This one! Her eyes remind me of my wife!"

An interview with the series' writer and director, also broadcast on December 13, offered the interviewer's judgment that the plot contains "a beautiful idea," and the interviewee's gratification at the fact that "Fortunately, the Iranian Islamic Republic and our Islamic regime have made many films and series like 'Zahra's Blue Eyes,' which is a film about children."

Some critics of the recent State Department report also felt that a reference to anti-Semitism in the United States should have been included as well. While there is, blessedly, no government-sanctioned or abetted anti-Semitism in our country, of course, there are nevertheless some ugly things to be found under some American rocks. That fact, the critics contend, should have been included in the report, especially considering the increased use of anti-Israel rhetoric as a more "respectable" stand-in for traditional Jew-hatred.

While our nation is deservedly beloved to its protected and respected Jewish citizens, and is one of the few nations in the world with Jewish citizens that has never promulgated curbs on their rights, a case can indeed be made that the State Department report should have included some indication of the anti-Semitic trends that exist among some parts of the American populace. Unofficial, subtle and hidden hatred, after all, is hatred too - and often even more insidious than the official, blatant and open sort.

As serendipity would have it, as this was being written, I received an e-mail from a woman I surmised to be non-Jewish (not too many Mary Jo's in the tribe). She had copied me on a letter to the editor she had written to a midwest Jewish weekly, taking issue with an article of mine that had been published there, about the animal rights group PETA's claims against a kosher meat-processing plant. My correspondent decried "the recently-exposed crimes of kosher slaughter of live animals." I sent her a more detailed explanation of Agudath Israel's position, and she responded with an even more spirited denigration of not only the plant in question but of shechita, or Jewish ritual animal-slaughter, itself.

I wrote back to defend the Jewish religious tradition, noting in passing that Judaism "introduced the very concept of kindness to animals... to civilization."

Her response was telling. "One can only ponder what has happened to those high concepts," she wrote, "when one sees for decades and even centuries the rampant examples of grotesque meanness... in Jewish ritual slaughter of cows, pigs and Palestinian humans."

And so, with her unguarded moment's exposure of not only her ignorance (pigs?) but her more deep-seated thoughts, Mary Jo reminded me that, even a country as wonderful as ours is not immune to an ancient yet persistent madness. The State Department would have done well to acknowledge that too.

[Rabbi Avi Shafran is director of public affairs for Agudath Israel of America]

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NOT A CHANCE

Rabbi Avi Shafran

As formidable as the wall of water that obliterated Indian Ocean coastlines last month are the questions, about G-D, fate and chastisement, that the tsunami left on the shores.

Some chose to see in the catastrophe only further support for their conviction that there is no Supreme Being. If there were, they proclaimed, how could He possibly have allowed such loss of life, limbs and homes? Others, like Azizan Abdul Razak, a Muslim cleric in Malaysia, saw the disaster as a simple reminder from G-d that "He created the world and can destroy the world."

Yet others, like Greek Orthodox theologian Costas Kyriakides, somehow managed to combine a belief in a Divine Being with something bordering on His disassociation from the world. "I don't personally attach any theological significance to this," he said.

An American Reform rabbi, Shira Milgrom, who was in India when the tsunami struck, expressed a similar detachment of G-D from human affairs, saying about those, herself included, who managed to flee before the wave, "It is not by the grace of G-D... this is luck."

The stance of the Jewish religious tradition, though, is well evidenced in its literature throughout the ages - ages that supplied no small amount of tragically trying times for Jews. What Judaism teaches is that adversity - wherever it strikes, whomever it takes and whomever its spares, always has a reason, even when it cannot easily - or at all - be discerned.

That goes for adversity of every sort and scale. The question "Why?" being asked by so many over recent weeks is a ubiquitous one. But it is a question that, even unanswered, cannot challenge the conviction that a Creator has endowed our lives with meaning.

Victor Frankl, the eminent psychotherapist and survivor of Auschwitz, may have put it best. "Either belief in G-D is unconditional," he wrote, "or it is not belief at all."

"If it is unconditional," he explains, "it will stand and face the fact that six million died in the Nazi Holocaust; if it is not unconditional it will fall away if only a single innocent child has to die... There is no point in bargaining with G-D, say, by arguing: 'Up to six thousand or even one million victims of the Holocaust I maintain my belief in Thee; but from one million upward nothing can be done any longer and I am sorry but I must renounce my belief in Thee.'

And so, the Jewish response to all disaster is to regard what has happened as, even if entirely confounding, somehow still entirely just - the essence, in fact, of the Jewish blessing recited upon personal tragedy: "Baruch Ata...Dayan Ha'emet" - "Blessed are You... the true Judge." And to engage in introspection.

No one but a prophet can associate any tragedy with any particular sin, but sin is not difficult to discern in our world, or in ourselves. Materialism and immorality are pandemic in our world; tribal and religious strife, terrorism and claims of divine directives to kill and maim are embraced, even celebrated, by large swaths of humanity. Might a message about any or all of those things lie in the sorrow sown by the recent waves of destruction? One hopes that those whom the shoes may fit elect to wear them.

But then there is the fact that each of us is a microcosm, with failed challenges of his or her own - which Jewish sources in fact consider to feed larger societal failings. We may not personally act immorally or murderously, but there are more subtle realms of evil. The Talmud, for instance, speaks of malicious gossip as a sort of murder, and considers unwarranted hatred to be a wildly destructive force.

Which is why the response of many rabbis who represent the fullness of the Jewish heritage has been a generalized call to repentance. Let all who have been anguished by the tsunami's terrible toll, each nation, each culture, each people and each person, do whatever it or they or he or she may feel is necessary. But let there be a response, not a dismissal. Let us recognize, in other words, that G-D guides the world, and that, despite the appearance of randomness or capriciousness, nothing happens without a reason.

In the realm of the visible, there are encouraging signs. The outpouring of aid from Western nations to the survivors of the tsunami has been astounding; and in one of the hardest hit countries, Sri Lanka, Tamil rebels have reportedly worked together with government troops to repair roads and lives in the aftermath of the disaster. One can only hope that people the world over, in addition to opening their wallets, have opened their minds as well, and examined who they are in the light of who they should be.

Because, while we cannot know what or whose spiritual failings might have rendered innocent people vulnerable to the recent natural disaster, one thing authentic Judaism insists is that it was not a matter of chance.

[Rabbi Shafran is director of public affairs for Agudath Israel of America]

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THE PETA PRINCIPLE

Rabbi Avi Shafran

Now that the blood has settled, a clearer perspective might be had about the recent brouhaha over shechita, or Jewish ritual slaughter, at a meat-processing plant in Iowa.

Yes, the beginning of that sentence was meant to jar. Blood and attendant unpleasantness are part and parcel of the process of turning livestock into meat, and most people are content to interact only with the final product.

Some, though, choose not to do even that. They include people who are repulsed by the thought of eating what was once alive, and others who feel that meat consumption is a wasteful use of natural resources. Yet others shun meat for health or religious reasons.

And then there are the folks at People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals, or PETA, who object to all killing of animals because, as Ingrid Newkirk, the group's co-founder and president, famously put it, "a rat is a pig is a dog is a boy" - because of their belief, in other words, that animals are no different from humans.

The Jewish religious tradition forbids causing animals unnecessary pain. And there are observant Jews who are vegetarians; our tradition even teaches that the first man and woman - indeed all of humanity until Noah - were divinely forbidden to eat meat. But the Jewish faith expressly permits the killing of animals for human needs, including food. Which animals may be eaten and how to dispatch them are topics dealt with at considerable length in Jewish legal literature.

Indeed, the "PETA Principle," the moral equating of animals and humans, is an affront to the very essence of Jewish belief, which exalts the human being, alone among G-d's creations, as, among other things, the possessor of free will, a being capable of choosing to do good or bad. That distinction is introduced in Genesis, where the first man is commanded to "rule over" the animal world.

The notion that humans are mere animals can lead to ethical obscenities, like PETA's appeal to the director of the federal penitentiary where Timothy McVeigh was awaiting execution, that the mass murderer not be served meat so that he "not be allowed to take even one more life." Or the group's lodging of a protest with Yasir Arafat over a terrorist attack because the donkey carrying the explosives detonated in the attack was killed. Or its "Holocaust on Your Plate" campaign, comparing the killing of chickens and cows to the murder of Jewish men, women and children. Or solemn declarations like Ms. Newkirk's that "Six million Jews died in concentration camps, but six billion broiler chickens will die this year in slaughterhouses."

And so when PETA launched a media blitz several weeks ago, sending scores of journalists and others copies of surreptitiously filmed and carefully edited videotapes of animals being slaughtered at the AgriProcessors plant in Postville, Iowa - the largest producer of "glatt" - or highest-standard - kosher meat in the nation - the immediate reaction on the part of some Jewish organizations and many of those in the kosher food industry was understandably negative.

The video, to be sure, was disturbing. Although the PETA "mole" who secretly recorded the film likely witnessed thousands of unremarkable slaughters during his months on the job, the edited film showed a number of animals that seemed conscious after the act of shechita. In one case, an animal even righted itself and took several steps before collapsing.

Every method of animal slaughter yields a small percentage of such unfortunate results, when some degree of consciousness persists longer than it should. What PETA claims, though, is that what was depicted on its edited video of operations at the Iowa plant represents fully a quarter of the animals slaughtered over the seven-week period during which the video was made.

There is reason to be skeptical about this claim. A subsequent visit to the plant by Dr. I.M. Levinger, a veterinary surgeon and physiologist, yielded his testimony that, of the as many as 150 animals he saw slaughtered over the course of his two-day visit, only a single cow exhibited any conscious activity after shechita.

What is more, USDA inspectors are typically present on the killing floor during animal slaughter, to ensure that the process complies with federal standards. The inspectors present at the Postville plant during the period PETA compiled the images in its video presumably saw the entire picture, and never complained about any inordinately high number of post-slaughter displays of consciousness. A high-level USDA official, for that matter, visited the plant after PETA released its video to personally observe the allegedly inhumane practices and take appropriate action; what he saw apparently persuaded him that there was no need to shut down the plant or alter its basic practices.

Likewise, top officials from the kashrut organizations that certify AgriProcessors' meat visited the plant to monitor the shechita process and found that signs of post-slaughter consciousness were extremely rare. Indeed, Iowa's Secretary of Agriculture, Patty Judge, who had initially expressed her deep chagrin after watching PETA's video - even calling for a federal investigation - concluded, after a personal visit to the plant, that the shechita there "...was humane... and there was absolutely no problem with the way they [the animals] were handled."

Those personal observations confirm what scientific theory would have predicted: that the incidence of displays of post-slaughter consciousness is more rare in cases of shechita than when non-kosher methods of slaughter are employed. That is because, as Dr. S.D. Rosen, MA, MD, Faculty of Medicine, Imperial College, London, noted earlier this year in a monograph in the Veterinary Record, studies have shown that after the cutting of the trachea, esophagus and carotid arteries - the shechita process in essence - an animal's consciousness is lost within approximately two seconds, and irreversibly.

The evidence would appear to suggest, therefore, that PETA is grossly exaggerating the frequency of post-shechita signs of consciousness at the Iowa plant. Perhaps it should not be surprising that PETA's 25% figure differs so dramatically from what others have seen. Because, while the group's concern that animals not be caused unnecessary pain is commendable, PETA also has an ultimate, and openly declared, goal: to stop people from eating meat. And so, if a bit of dissembling is necessary to move in that direction, well... wouldn't you stretch the truth to save Jews from Nazis?

Precision, though, is not the only thing PETA seems prepared to sacrifice in order to achieve its goal. Our nation's commitment to religious liberty, in PETA's eyes, is eminently expendable as well.

Even though the Iowa plant has discontinued a bleeding-facilitating arterial cut that PETA deemed a "dismemberment" of live animals, the animal rights group is now demanding, among other things, that U.S. government regulations regarding animal slaughter be changed in fundamental ways and that the type of restraining pen required by some decisors of Jewish law be outlawed. These are not minor points; they touch, and not gently, upon the issue of rabbinic authority and religious autonomy. And that game is zero-sum: What constitutes proper animal-slaughter methods for observant American Jews will necessarily be determined in the future either by rabbis or by advocates for animal-rights.

Shechita was attacked and outlawed by the Nazis when they came to power in Germany. Today, animal rights activists have succeeded in banning it in several European and Scandinavian countries. If PETA's misleading campaign is not seen for the partisan salvo it is, our own country may be next.

[Rabbi Avi Shafran is director of public affairs for Agudath Israel of America.]

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MS. CARDIN'S COMMENDABLE MANDATE

Rabbi Avi Shafran

In her address to the recent United Jewish Communities General Assembly in Cleveland, and in a subsequent essay in Forward, veteran Jewish leader Shoshana Cardin exhorted her fellow American Jews to make the effort to more deeply understand Jewish teachings and ethics, the better to help "influence the national agenda." While there are far more basic reasons for making that effort, Ms. Cardin's mandate is a worthy one indeed.

She specifically referenced what the Jewish religious tradition has to say about social responsibility, ethics and morality, which, of course, is much. The Jewish imperatives of kindness and charity have animated Jewish communities for millennia and, blessedly, have come to be embraced by enlightened societies around the world, including our own.

But Jewish tradition also embodies ideas about which many American Jews seem ignorant or ambivalent. And they are ideas that inform important contemporary social issues, like the value of potential human life, or the meaning of marriage.

To be sure, a Judaism-informed attitude toward abortion would insist on the right to terminate a pregnancy in some circumstances: Jewish religious law in fact requires the abortion of the unborn child of a Jewish mother if her continued pregnancy endangers her life; or, according to some authorities, in certain other exceptional situations as well. At the same time, though, in the overwhelming majority of cases, Jewish law clearly regards abortion as a dire wrong. To maintain that Judaism considers abortion a sacrosanct and unlimited "right" is little different than maintaining a general "right" to assault because it is sanctioned by the Torah where, for instance, it will prevent a murder.

One might argue, of course, that the even remote possibility that limiting the right to abortion in any way might lead to its wholesale outlawing mandates a truly libertarian law, like the one bequeathed us by Roe v. Wade. Or one might assert (as my organization does, following the guidance of the religious leaders at its helm) that the essentially unlimited legal right to abortion sends a wrong and dangerous message to society that life, even when mere physical, social or economic discomfort is at stake, is expendable - and that abortion should be legal only in circumscribed cases.

But if Jewish values are to inform the Jewish debate, the discussion must begin with the Jewish alpha-point, that Judaism unambiguously disapproves of all but the rare abortion. That, unfortunately, does not happen; in fact, some Jewish groups routinely misrepresent Jewish law in efforts to promote the "abortion as a woman's right" point of view, which has no basis whatsoever in Jewish tradition.

A similar Judaism-disconnect is evident regarding many Jews' attitude toward "same-sex marriage." Homosexual relationships are forbidden by the Torah - in the case of males, explicitly, strongly and for Jews and non-Jews alike. Here, too, one might argue that placing legal curbs on what relationships are honored with the moniker of "marriage" is unwise (although consistency would insist on a similarly libertarian attitude toward incestuous or multiple-partner unions). Or one might feel that secular law should reflect time-honored moral values that have their source in Judaism. But, once again, one thing should be beyond argument: If Jewish tradition is to be accorded weight, there can be no doubt about - or misrepresentation of - that tradition's unequivocal attitude toward homosexual acts.

While the principles that have come to inform the Democratic Party's "moral issues" stances may resonate strongly with many American Jews, the need for Jews to think more Jewishly - Ms. Cardin's mandate - demands that we eschew the conceptual calisthenics routinely employed to conflate Jewish values with a political party's platform.

As it happens, and ironically, Ms. Cardin's challenge also undermines the insinuation of her essay (even more explicit, reportedly, in her speech), that the Republican Party and President Bush stand in opposition to Jewish values, and that the recent election results heighten the concern, in her words, "that we are fast becoming guests in an increasingly Christian nation."

It extends no respect for Judaism to consider moral values like respect for human fetal life and the traditional definition of marriage to be inherently Christian. There may or may not be reason to fear the Christianization of American law, but that specter should not be confused with American society's moralization, its embrace of timeless and sublime - indeed deeply Jewish - truths.

In the end, we American Jews may properly agree to disagree about how our religious heritage should, or should not, influence our positions on contemporary issues. But we all - Democrats, Republicans and Independents alike - would do well to heed Ms. Cardin's challenge, that as we consider our positions, we become more conversant with the content of our faith.

[Rabbi Avi Shafran is director of public affairs for Agudath Israel of America]

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SOULLESS

Rabbi Avi Shafran

It would seem a promising premise for story about Chelm, Jewish folklore's fabled town of the clueless. The resident philosopher sagely informs his fellow citizens that since he can't perceive his own face directly he must not have one. Besides, he explains to the townsfolk, as anyone can plainly see, what seems to be his face clearly resides in his mirror.

The Chelm tale idea is inspired not by hopeless simpletons but by celebrated scientists. Like Yale psychology professor Paul Bloom, the author of a new book, "Descartes' Baby," about, as its subtitle puts it, "what makes us human." In a New York Times op-ed, Professor Bloom lamented human beings' stubborn commitment to "dualism," the philosophical idea that people possess both physical and spiritual components. He pities those who, like his six-year-old son, insist on pretending that there is an "I" somehow separate from the physical cells of one's body and brain.

The boy's father, though, knows that his son's intuition is wrong. "The qualities of mental life that we associate with souls are purely corporeal," he asserts confidently. "They emerge from biochemical processes in the brain."

Joining the call to re-educate and enlighten the backward masses is Professor Bloom's admirer at Harvard, the gifted psychology professor Steven Pinker, who, in a newsmagazine essay of his own, mocks those who think of the brain as "a pocket PC for the soul, managing information at the behest of a ghostly user." Professor Pinker advises us to set aside such "childlike intuitions and traditional dogmas" and recognize that what we conceive of as the soul is nothing more than "the activity of the brain."

Or, as they might say back at the University of Chelm, since the soul seems perceptible only through the brain, the brain, perforce, must be the soul.

Sometimes, though, intuitions are right and interpretations of evidence (especially the lack of it) wrong. Scientists, after all, as the noted British psychologist H. J. Eyesenck famously observed, can be "just as ordinary, pig-headed and unreasonable as anybody else, and their unusually high intelligence only makes their prejudices all the more dangerous." Some, moreover, are prone to a perilous folly: the confidence - despite the long and what-should-be chastening history of science, littered with beliefs once coddled, then discarded - that they have, eureka, arrived at conclusive knowledge.

Were the contemporary dualism debate merely academic, we might reasonably choose to ignore it. Unfortunately, though, the denial of humanity's specialness - the unmistakable ghost in the Bloom/Pinker philosophy-machine - is of all too formidable import.

The negation of the concept of a soul - the holy spark of the divine that was infused into the first man and that makes all his descendants special, requiring them to act in a special way - has had, and continues to have, deep repercussions in broader society.

The idea of the soul goes to the very heart of many a contemporary social issue. It directly influences society's attitudes regarding a universe of moral concerns, from animal rights to abortion; from the meaning of marriage to the treatment of the terminally ill.

In the absence of the concept of a human soul, there is simply nothing to justify considering humans inherently more worthy than animals, nothing to prevent us from casually terminating a yet-unborn life, nothing to prevent us from considering any "personal lifestyle" less proper than any other, nothing to prevent us from coldly ending the life of a patient in extremis. Indeed, employing our brains just a bit further, neither would we be justified to consider any insect our inferior, nor prevented from embracing unbridled immorality or wanton murder. Put succinctly, without affirmation of the soul, society is, in the word's deepest sense, soulless.

There is no escaping the fact; the game's zero-sum: Either humans are something qualitatively different from the rest of the biosphere, sublimated by their souls and the responsibilities that attend them; or they are not. And a society that chooses to believe the latter is a society where no person has any reason to aspire to anything beyond the gratification of the instincts or desires we share with the animal sphere. A world in denial of the soul might craft a utilitarian social contract. But right and wrong would have no meaning at all; for the individual, there would be only the cold calculus of biological survival and the pursuit of pleasure.

The notion is hardly novel, of course. Humanity has encountered "materialists"-those who see reality as limited entirely to the physical - on a number of occasions. Men bent on de-spiritualizing humanity's essence were the high priests of the Age of Reason and the glory days of Communism.

The very first "materialists," though, may well have been the ancient Greeks, who placed capricious gods where, today, some professors seek to ensconce nerves and synapses.

Hellas, focused as it was on reason and inquiry, produced unprecedented celebration of the physical world. Hundreds of years before the Common Era, Erastothenes calculated the earth's circumference to within one percent; Euclid conceived and developed geometry; Aristarchus proposed a heliocentric theory of the solar system. And the early Greeks' investigation of the physical world included as well, and prominently, the human being. But only as a physical specimen, essentially an animal.

Accordingly, much of Hellenist thought revolved around the belief that the enjoyment of life was the most worthwhile goal of man. The words "cynic," "epicurean," and "hedonist" all stem from Greek philosophical schools.

And so it followed almost logically that the culture that was Greece saw the Jewish focus on the divine as an affront. The Sabbath denied the unstopping nature of the physical world; circumcision implied that the body is imperfect; the Jewish calendar imparted holiness where there is only mundane periodicity; and modesty or any sort of limits on indulgence in physical pleasure were simply unnatural.

The Greeks had their "gods," of course, but they were diametric to holiness, modeled entirely on the worst examples of human beings, evidencing the basest of inclinations. And while Hellenist philosophers spoke of a "soul," they employed the word to refer only to what we would call the personality or intellect. The idea of a being "in the image of G-d, of a soul that can make choices and merit eternal existence, was utterly indigestible to the Greek world-view.

As it is indispensable to the Jewish one. With the passage of centuries and the example of those who lived the Jewish faith, humanity became heir to the earth-shattering idea that it is in fact special within creation, and charged with living as special; that our souls are eternal and what we do makes a difference.

Our recent celebration of Chanukah focused on the crucial difference between the ideals that animated the Jewish people and those that embodied Hellenism. May the holiness that seeped into the world through our Chanukah candles help counter the modern-day attempts to deny reality, and leave a more soulful world in its wake.

[Rabbi Avi Shafran is director of public affairs for Agudath Israel of America.]

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THE NON-OLYMPIC FLAME

Rabbi Avi Shafran

All the pomp and glitter that attended the Athens Olympics this past summer, all the celebrated athletes and venerated ideals, obscured the true dark heart of the Games.

For although the modern Olympics are presented as a paragon of good-natured competition and a vehicle for global unity, their roots, stretching back to the ancient Greek Olympics, are gnarled and ugly.

In their original incarnation, the Games were fiercely xenophobic; only Greek-speakers needed apply. And their competitions could be beastly and bloody; the original Olympians were single-mindedly focused on victory, even at the cost of limb or life. That should not surprise anyone familiar with ancient Greek culture; in Hellas, death was an acceptable, even noble, outcome of competitive displays of physical prowess. The ancient Greeks did not subscribe to our contemporary notions of moral good or bad; those were bequeathals to the world from the Jews, whose beliefs puzzled the Greeks, and whose own rejection of Hellenism, as it happens, is at the core of what the Jewish holiday Chanukah commemorates.

What is surprising, and depressing, is that the modern Games, for all their life-affirming pageantry and paeans about the "spirit of friendship," possess a moral shabbiness all their own.

True, they may no longer feature events like the pankration, a form of extreme fighting that regularly saw competitors maimed or killed. And the primitive desire to utterly crush one's opponent that animated ancient Greek competitors is at least somewhat sublimated these days. But the egotism and amorality are still apparent; as is the antipathy for Jews.

Some still alive remember the summer Games of 1936 in Berlin, which Adolph Hitler exploited to help promote the Third Reich's image.

Many more recall the murder of 11 Israelis by Arab terrorists at the 1972 Munich Olympics - and how International Olympic Committee president Avery Brundage boldly declared, after a one-day suspension of the competition, that "the Games must go on!"

This year, as it happened, there was a memorial service for those 11 slaughtered Israelis, at the Israeli ambassador's residence. Addressing the small gathering, the widow of one of the murdered athletes asked why, considering that the "whole Olympic family" had been attacked by the terrorists in 1972, the participants were gathered in a private home and not at an IOC-sponsored memorial in the presence of all the Olympians.

The answer was not supplied, but it is likely not unrelated to the fact that when Olympic federation representatives gathered in Kuala Lumpur two years earlier to prepare for the Athens Games, 199 flags were flown, including the one adopted by the Palestinians, but Israel's was not among them.

Relevant, too, was the unpleasantness of Arash Miresmaeili, the Iranian judo wrestler who had been scheduled this year to compete with an Israeli but who, it seems, stuffed himself with food during the days before the bout so he would be disqualified for his weight class. Quoted in an Iranian newspaper as having "refused" to compete with an Israeli, he was awarded $115,000 by Iran for "sacrificing" a gold medal. The IOC, for its part, pretended that the entire episode was just the unfortunate saga of an athlete who neglected to count his calories.

There is no dearth of Israel-hatred these days in the world, nor of what most of it really is: Jew-hatred. But the particular Jew-focused animus that has accompanied the Olympics in modern times might serve as well as a reminder of something more fundamental: how diametric the essence of the Games is to the Jewish faith.

The Greeks' highest ideal was physical accomplishment; the Jews', moral. In contrast to the Olympic motto of "citius, altius, fortius" - "swifter, higher, stronger" - the Jewish credo was a simple, hopeful "holier."

The Hellenist worldview placed the human being on the highest pedestal. Nature was perfect and the human body and mind were its highest expressions. What "gods" were paid homage in Hellas were but actors in a sort of celestial soap-opera. The idea of an ultimate Creator, and that He expects self-control from His free-willed creations, was seen by the Greeks as just so much Jewish pollution.

In the second century before the Common Era, the Seleucid Empire sought to impose Greek belief on its subjects, including the Jews in Judea, who were ordered to abandon practices that seemed particularly antagonistic to Greek belief. According to Jewish historical accounts, circumcision, with its none-too-subtle message of man's imperfection, and the Sabbath, whose rest from work flew in the face of nature's ceaseless toil, were specific targets; as was the Jewish ideal of modesty, which the Greeks saw as the expression of unnatural shame over the human body.

Some Jews willingly accepted the new culture, and eventually became absorbed into it. Others, though, through whom Judaism persevered, resisted and eventually rebelled, establishing their independence from the Seleucids. Chanukah celebrates their refusal to abandon the Jewish ancestral faith.

In Jewish tradition, the Greek era is called a time of "darkness," a reference to its unenlightened worldview. The candles lit on Chanukah are meant to symbolize how, in the words of the Talmudic rabbis, "a small bit of light can push away a large amount of darkness." And indeed, over the millennia that ensued after the first Chanukah, the Jewish vision of right, wrong and human responsibility has persevered over the once-ubiquitous Greek culture, which, at least in its original form, today resides only in museums and college courses.

The darkness that has yet to be banished, though, is the hatred for Jews that accompanied contempt for Jewish ideals. May that animus too, despite its current popularity, soon go the way of the pankration and Greek gods, forever exorcized by the small but powerful lights of Chanukah menorahs everywhere.

[Rabbi Avi Shafran is director of public affairs for Agudath Israel of America]

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ANTI-SEMITISM IN MANY DISGUISES

Rabbi Abba Cohen

Anti-Semitism is becoming de rigueur these days.

"Civilized" European nations are showing signs of the plague. Foreign national "leaders" - including the former Malaysian Prime Minister Mahathir Mohamed - speak of Jews as being "arrogant" and of "controlling the world." Jews are castigated in Nazi imagery at "respectable" international fora. Jewish religious practices and beliefs, like ritual slaughter of animals and circumcision, are under attack as barbaric even in the West - in some countries, with results.

Hatred of Jews has become a focal point of the post 9/11 world. One need only regard Osama bin Laden's singling out of Jews and their institutions. Seeds of anti-Semitism have even been planted in the guise of cinematic "art."

Of course, none of this is really new. Anti-Semitism has infected the earth since Esau walked it.

But anti- anti-Semitism? Yes, that's happening too. In recent times, as open hatred of Jews seems to grow, so does the response.

The White House sent the American delegation to the recent Helsinki Commission's International Conference on Anti-Semitism with a strong mandate and clear instructions. This was not to be a summit on anti-Semitism that turns into a summit of anti-Semitism. The White House's firm position was reminiscent of what occurred several years ago in Durban, South Africa, when President Bush - amid much national and international criticism -- courageously withdrew the American delegation from the U.N. Conference on Racism.

Noteworthy, too, is a project undertaken by members of the U.S. Senate to track anti-Semitism around the world. This is not a partisan ploy, nor an election year antic. It is not an "official" responsibility, but a matter of conscience. Each senator involved has taken responsibility for a specific country. At a meeting this past summer with Rabbi Yaakov Perlow, the Novominsker Rebbe and rabbinic head of Agudath Israel of America, Senator Rick Santorum indicated that he had assumed the considerable role of tracking anti-Semitism in France.

There are interesting developments at home as well. Several weeks ago, the U.S.Department of Education announced a policy, formalized in a communiqué to colleges and universities, that, for the first time, the federal agency's Office for Civil Rights will assert jurisdiction in matters involving anti-Semitic harassment. The Department of Justice's Civil Rights Office has also been busy, charging over 120 defendants in over 80 cases of anti-Semitic bias crimes, including synagogue and cemetery desecrations.

The most recent expression in the fight against anti-Semitism is the legislation known as the " Global Anti-Semitism Review Act of 2004." The bill, introduced by Senator George Voinovich (R-OH) and Representative Tom Lantos (D-CA), passed with bipartisan support and was quickly signed into law by the President.

The new enactment, among other things, obligates the Administration to monitor anti-Semitism throughout the world and record governmental response to those occurrences. The State Department will be required to establish a special office to document acts of violence against Jews or their property, to design strategies to combat such acts and to document it all annually.

This is good and welcome news, another manifestation of the remarkable country in which we are privileged to live.

But the sunshine is not unmarred by clouds.

A disturbing response has already come from the State Department itself, which has opposed the legislation. I will not rush and call the agency's opposition an example itself of bias. No agency, after all, is looking for difficult mandates and resource-intensive responsibilities.

What is troubling, though, is that among the Department's reported objections was the claim that this new office would show "favoritism" to Jews and confer upon them an "exclusive status." These words are astounding. Do our bureaucrats in Washington not realize that throughout the millennia, Jews have been deemed "favorites" for decidedly unpleasant fates? Do they not know that Jews have always had "exclusive status" when it came to persecution, discrimination and exile? No, not all peoples have been the subject of genocides, inquisitions and holocausts. The need for a unique focus on anti-Semitism is a function of the unique focus of anti-Semitism itself.

Another cloud consists of the slippery nature of Jew-hatred. Often heard are superficially plausible but often mendacious assertions like "It's not anti-Semitism; it's politics" or "Criticism isn't bias." The speakers would have us believe that negative attitudes toward Jews or things Jewish - whether certain Jews' political views or Israel's security decisions - are based on merits, not meretriciousness.

But comments like that of a French premier a few years back who condemned a terrorist attack at a French restaurant by noting that, besides Jews, innocent Frenchmen were also among the victims, present a more revealing picture.

Can there be honest, legitimate disagreements that do not reflect anti-Semitism? Absolutely. But that is the point. It takes an ear extraordinarily sensitive to nuance, attuned to the message behind the message, to decipher when it is one and when the other.

What is more, anti-Semitism can even hide itself under the cloak of "secularism." In France today, no one thinks of the republic as "anti-religious" - and acts of anti-Semitism are duly condemned. But the virtues of secularism are extolled, to the point of ridding the public square of any traces of religion or religious expression. And the secularist crusade can devolve into negative attitudes toward religion and religious communities. That France, like much of larger Europe, is both determinedly secularist and experiencing a wave of anti-Semitism may not be coincidence.

We must always remember that anti-Semitism, in the end, is not limited to physical acts; it encompasses attitudes and outlooks as well. And we must insist that the State Department remember it too.

[Rabbi Abba Cohen is director and counsel of Agudath Israel of America's Washington office. This essay appears in the current issue of Coalition, and is reprinted with permission.]

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SPITTING IMAGE

Rabbi David Zwiebel

The breathless lead of a recent news item in the Anglo-Jewish weekly Forward spoke of "Jerusalem's dirty little secret for decades: Orthodox yeshiva students and other Jewish residents vandalizing churches and spitting on Christian clergymen as they walk along the narrow, ancient stone streets of the Old City."

Now, though, the dirty little secret is out, thanks to a broadly publicized incident that took place shortly after Sukkot, when a 21-year-old student in a religious Zionist yeshiva in the Old City allegedly spat at the Armenian Archbishop of Jerusalem, thereby precipitating a scuffle that culminated in the Archbishop's medallion cross being damaged. The police were summoned, the Jerusalem District Court meted out punishment, the yeshiva student apologized, the priest accepted the apology ("in the Christian spirit," he explained) - and the press and the pundits had abundant fodder for their crafts, with reports and analyses in the Israeli and international media concluding that this was no mere isolated incident, but rather that spitting on priests was a widespread practice among the ultra-Orthodox.

Wouldn't you know it, the ultra-Orthodox are at it again. True, the young man whose idiotic provocation led to the melee with the Armenian Archbishop may himself have been affiliated with the religious Zionist camp - but don't be misled, for "these ultra-Orthodox Jews are the ones causing this scandal," according to an Armenian church official quoted in Forward.

Jewish experts concur. Rabbi David Rosen, the Jerusalem-based head of inter-religious affairs for the American Jewish Committee, told The New York Times that "the matter has to be understood in an ultra-Orthodox context," since the ultras "don't by definition live in the modern world." Laura Kam Issacharoff, director of the Anti-Defamation League's Jerusalem office, used the pages of the Times to offer yeshiva deans a helpful suggestion: "There is no education for tolerance in the yeshiva. It has to come from the top, to pound into the heads of these kids that this sort of behavior is offensive and un-Jewish."

I do not pretend any expertise on the expectoration habits of haredi Jews in the Holy City. Nonetheless, and with all due respect to the pontificating pundits, I do not believe that spitting at priests or otherwise harassing Christians in Jerusalem is a common practice. Nor do I accept that "the ultra-Orthodox" are the ones to be blamed for whatever such activity does take place. On the contrary, my sense is that the most acutely developed Jewish sensitivity to any manifestation of provoking the non-Jewish world resides in the haredi community.

To be sure, we live by the credo that, as the Torah clearly states, the Jewish people are chosen, that we are, as our liturgy puts it, sanctified by G-d's commandments.

We recognize and rejoice in our status as a people chosen to serve G-d in a special way. We reject out of hand the theological validity of any of the non-Jewish faiths. But we also recognize the inherent holiness in every human being. And we are enjoined to display respect and courtesy to people from all backgrounds, and never to provoke their resentment and anger.

This is Ultra-Orthodoxy 101 (and also Modern Orthodoxy 101), basic components of every believing Jew's worldview. There may be individuals who do not comport themselves in conformance with these principles, and they deserve rebuke. But their conduct does not in any way reflect a flaw in their yeshiva education, as Ms. Issacharoff would have it, or the refusal of haredim to embrace the corrosive influences of modernity, as Rabbi Rosen postulates, but rather the type of idiocy to which imperfect humans occasionally fall prey.

To those modernists who point an accusing finger at our insularity and our educational system as the culprits in the spitting scandal, I would respectfully suggest that they give careful consideration to yet another recent incident of Jewish incitement directed against Christians - one that involved not the spontaneous act of a specific individual, but the carefully planned act of a prominent Jewish group seeking to disseminate its anti-Christian spittle as broadly as it possibly could.

I refer to "Bubbie vs. the GOP", the animated cartoon that appeared on the National Jewish Democratic Council's website. The cartoon features an elderly Jewish woman, with requisite Lower East Side accent, doing battle against President Bush and a coterie of sinister Republican officials dressed up in menacing Christian clerical garb. Ira Forman, Director of the NJDC, dismissed criticism (including from the ADL's own Abe Foxman) of the video's anti-Christian imagery, and defended "Bubbie" as the type of political message necessary to reach out to young voters who would be attracted to "satire" and "humor".

One suspects that Mr. Forman and his NJDC colleagues are not products of the insular anti-modern yeshiva world of the haredim. Yet they have no compunction publicly trampling on Christian sensitivities in order to score political points. Provocation of the non-Jewish world, it would appear, is a dangerous phenomenon whose reach extends far beyond the holy streets of Jerusalem and far beyond the insular enclaves of ultra-Orthodoxy.

[Rabbi David Zwiebel is Agudath Israel of America's executive vice president for government and public affairs. This essay appears in the current issue of Coalition.]

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DAN RATHER AND THE JEWS

Rabbi Avi Shafran

Dan Rather's recent journalistic near-death experience was deeply revealing of a fact we like to think isn't one. The seasoned newsman's eager acceptance of questionable documents and his subsequent spirited defense of their veracity should serve to remind us that even when reporters think they are being objective, they sometimes are not.

In other words, journalists are human. Like all of us, they harbor preconceptions and biases, which can unconsciously come to inform their judgment - and even their reportage.

And it's no less so in the world of Jewish media, perhaps most evident in the treatment of haredi, or, as commonly rendered, "ultra- Orthodox," Jews.

The phrase itself is a good place to start. "Ultra" essentially means "excessively" - think "ultra-conservative" or "ultra-liberal." Now, a Jew is entitled, one supposes, to believe that haredim are "too" Orthodox, but we haredim don't see ourselves that way, and the press should certainly not be making such judgments. While some Jewish media have laudably moved away from the prejudicial term, the fact that it thrived for so long (and continues to in many media) is disturbing - and a good indication of what subconscious assumptions are more broadly at play.

Subtle anti-haredi sentiment is no less evident in news coverage. Not only do haredim appear in most Jewish newspapers for the most part only when they misbehave, but sometimes they are even accused of entirely imaginary sins.

Take the often-resurrected assertion that, several years ago, Orthodox Jews threw feces at a provocative mixed-sex prayer group at the Western Wall. It never happened. To be sure, there has been ugliness at such "showdowns." But even wrongdoing should be reported accurately, not enhanced for shock value. And for some reason, haredi religious leaders' warnings to their followers to ignore the provocateurs somehow remain unmentioned in most of the reportage. The omission may not be intentional, but it is surely detrimental to the cause of truth.

Remember the reported rash of marriages of minor girls in the Orthodox community? It, too, turned out to be imaginary. A reporter was all too readily willing to believe a shadowy, anonymous "source." Recall the women forced to sit in the back of Israeli buses? There was a smidgen of truth to that one, but the separation of the sexes was entirely voluntary, and on a Bnai Brak bus line used overwhelmingly by haredim.

More recently, an article in the New York Jewish Week reported fears that political extremists in Israel might resort to violence. The piece featured a photograph of the dome of the mosque on the Temple Mount, with, in the foreground, looming and ominous, the silhouette of a man's head and, atop it, a black hat. There, unconscious bias was compounded by ignorance. If there are any Jews who are pushed by Palestinian intransigence, hatemongering and terrorism to contemplate violence, they are a tiny breakaway from the mainstream nationalist camp, but most certainly not haredim - whose response to terrorism is repentance and prayer.

Sometimes, sadly, the unfairness seems intentional. A recent "expose" earlier this year in the national Jewish weekly Forward concerned a yeshiva alumnus' self-published scholarly work on Jewish thinkers' conceptions of the special nature of the Jew.

Among the accusations leveled at the book was that it suggested that Jews employ "deception" and "duplicity" in dealing with gentiles, a suggestion that is nowhere to be found in the book. The article, moreover, claimed that the author resorted to "racist sources," including "the works of Nazi figures" to "back up his arguments" - when in fact those works were referenced entirely and only as examples of anti-Semitic resentment of Jews.

The reporter who "broke" that "story" may just have been a careless reader. But his later admission that he considers the yeshiva world to be "the equivalent of the Taliban," hardly inspires confidence in his objectivity.

More disturbing still, the disingenuous "news" article was awarded a prize from the American Jewish Press Association.

What's also odd is how infrequently haredim are represented on Jewish papers' opinion pages. Although the Jewish media prides itself on providing a broad diversity of viewpoints, it is a fairly rare occurrence for haredi writers - and there are more than a few of us - to be featured in many Jewish papers (that you're reading this here speaks well of your own). Only the Jerusalem Post and two or three of the scores of American Jewish weeklies feature a regular column by a haredi writer.

Most Jewish papers, to be sure, do offer Orthodox representation, but, curiously, it is weighed almost entirely toward the far left end of the Orthodox spectrum, and often focused on criticizing the haredi world. Were the haredi world anemic and dwindling, the situation might be understandable. But the phenomenal successes of haredi educational institutions and outreach groups - not to mention efforts like the celebration of the completion of the Daf Yomi Talmud-study program, in which 100,000 Jews (yes, five zeros) are expected to participate this March - would seem to indicate that the haredi world is, to put it mildly, a vibrant part of the Jewish scene.

The favored status of "progressive," nominally Orthodox representatives in the Jewish media is evident, too, in skewed reportage. Small fringe "movements" are accorded major status, and (wishfully, one suspects) heralded as the wave of the Orthodox future - against all evidence and reasonable likelihood. Agenda-driven Jewish journalism is particularly evident when feminism or homosexuality are at issue.

Take an article in the New York Jewish Week, about two years ago, whose headline proclaimed "Orthodox Shul May Break Taboo." The piece all but predicted that women chanting the Torah portion during services was set to be the next big Orthodox thing. Not only does it not appear to be turning out that way, but the congregation in question wasn't even Orthodox (it was in fact named in memory of a late leader of the Conservative movement).

And how many times do we have to read breathless accounts of the "first gay Orthodox rabbi" before some reporter is responsible enough to observe that anyone who redefines established Jewish law (not to mention explicit Torah verses) is by definition something other than Orthodox?

There's nothing inherently wrong, of course, with a medium being parochial or partisan; the haredi press is unabashedly precisely that. The general Jewish media, however, doesn't perceive itself as rejecting haredim and their ideas; it holds high the banner of objective, nonjudgmental reportage.

And so, it needs, no less than CBS, to do some soul-searching.

Dan Rather can't allow whatever preconceptions he may harbor to cloud his judgment or bias his reportage. And Jewish media shouldn't permit its own even unconscious prejudices to skew how it views fellow Jews who are uncompromisingly committed to all Jews' religious tradition.

[Rabbi Avi Shafran is director of public affairs for Agudath Israel of America. An edited version of this column, under a different title, appeared in The New York Jewish Week. Reprinted with permission.]

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TRAINS

By Rabbi Avi Shafran

Typical protective parents that we are, my wife and I were apprehensive about putting our 14-year-old son by himself on a train from New York to Baltimore, where he attends the high school division of a respected yeshiva. His planned ride back to school after Sukkot with one of the postgraduate students had evaporated, though, and so we had no choice.

We asked my father, who is a beloved congregational rabbi in suburban Baltimore, if he might be able to pick Dovie up at the train station downtown and take him to the yeshiva, he assured us, as we knew he would, that it would be no problem. He and my stepmother would do anything for any of their grandchildren.

My wife took Dovie to the train station on our end, and I called her on her cellphone from my office to make sure they had arrived safely and on time. As she described seeing our son off, I couldn't help but recall the story of another Jewish 14-year-old's first solo rail ride.

It was just about the same time of year, around Simchat Torah, but the year was 1939, and the Nazis had just begun their invasion of Poland. The boy's family, along with all the townsfolk, had fled their tiny village in central Poland by foot. Doing their best to stay ahead of the advancing German army, they reached a city called Zembrov, where there was a synagogue and Jewish infrastructure. The family found a temporary place to stay, but the boy had made up his mind, despite the family's dislocation, that he was going to the yeshiva in Bialystok, where, before the outbreak of the war, it had been arranged for him to study.

The parents balked - who could know, they argued entirely reasonably, what lay ahead? - but the boy insisted. Years later, his persistence at the time would make him wonder. Why indeed had he insisted on leaving his family at a time of war? But in the end his parents relented, surely unaware that their son's decision would save his life. With the clothes on his back, a spare shirt, his tefillin, a siddur, and a few apples from his mother, the boy boarded the train to Bialystok. He would never see his mother or father again.

On the train, two elderly Jews approached him and asked: "Little boy, where are you going?" He responded, "To the Bialystok yeshiva."

"The Bialystok yeshiva?" they exclaimed. "The Bialystok yeshiva has moved to Vilna!"

The boy hadn't realized - how could he have? - that all the Polish yeshivot had relocated at war's start to the famed Lithuanian city. Having no idea where to go or what to do, he began to panic but then calmed himself with the thought: "Well, I was going to go to Bialystok to study, and so now I'm just going to Vilna instead."

When the train arrived in Bialystok, the boy, although he had no ticket, asked someone in the station which train was going to Vilna. When he finally located the track, he saw a train filled to capacity with people - some were hanging from its sides. The boy began to cry but was impelled by something nebulous but powerful to somehow get on the train. It had begun to leave the station but was still moving slowly and so he ran after it along the tracks and grabbed the handrail of the steps to one of its doors. Grasping his handhold tightly, he managed to get one of his feet on the step. As the train picked up speed, people moved in, and, with some settling on the platforms between cars, the boy managed to find a place to sit. He fell asleep, and morning found him in Vilna.

The rest of the boy's story is equally compelling. He studied, as he had wished, in the yeshiva, but it wasn't long before he and his fellow students were uprooted again. Eventually they and their teachers were sent by the Russians to a work camp in Siberia, a saga unto itself. Although there were many harrowing moments over those months and years, he survived the war, immigrated to the United States and raised a family.

We American-born Jews would do well to more often and more deeply dwell on what previous Jewish generations had to endure. What we call problems wouldn't even register on their radar screens, and realities they faced daily we see only in our nightmares. Reminding ourselves of those facts not only charges us to more deeply respect and appreciate those who came before us, it provides us perspective in our own lives and impels us to be deeply thankful for all the great blessings we have, and all the great adversities we don't.

Dovie's trip was uneventful. His train arrived a bit later than expected but my father was there to shuttle him to yeshiva. When I called my father later that evening to thank him again, he assured me that he was happy to have been of help.

He also mentioned that he had asked Dovie if the train ride had been his first. When Dovie answered in the affirmative, my father told his grandson: "There isn't time now, but one day, you should remind me to tell you about my own first train trip. I was just about your age."

[Rabbi Avi Shafran is director of public affairs for Agudath Israel of America]

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SUPER POWERS

Rabbi Avi Shafran

There was always a poignant irony in the fact that someone famed for portraying a man with superhuman strength became, in a tragic instant, utterly dependent on others for his every need. But it's even more strikingly ironic that Christopher Reeve's most formidable accomplishments, what he will undoubtedly be remembered for above all else, came after he became a quadriplegic. An important and timely message, that, for a world that seems, increasingly, crazily, to define life in terms of agility.

Mr. Reeve, the actor who played Superman in a movie twenty-five years ago, worked tirelessly for nearly a decade on behalf of the disabled before he died on October 10. He educated the public, raised tens of millions of dollars for medical research, wrote two books and inspired millions - including disabled Israeli children on a trip he made last year - with his example.

It's hard to imagine that his life would have been fuller had he remained the avid skier, sailor, pilot, scuba diver and equestrian he was before he was thrown from a horse in 1995 and broke two vertebrae in his neck. More active, yes; but fuller, no.

To be sure, Mr. Reeve's accident left him setting radically different goals for physical accomplishment, like learning to operate his wheelchair by puffing into a tube. But that's precisely the point: physical movement was no longer how he assessed achievement. His accident had forced him to realize that life's meaning isn't measured in miles, nautical, air or otherwise.

While he always maintained hope that physical rehabilitation and scientific advances might one day allow him to again move his limbs, he did not consider even that modest desideratum to define his worth. Asked in an interview mere weeks before his death what would happen if in fact he never walked again, he responded straightforwardly "Then I won't walk again." Walking, he was clearly saying, would be wonderful, but it isn't life.

And yet, in the immediate wake of his accident, he had felt so hopeless that he had seriously contemplated suicide. There seemed so little possibility that he might live a meaningful life that even his own mother, as Mr. Reeve recounted in his 1998 memoir, urged doctors to remove him from equipment keeping him alive.

Such a reaction, in the throes of shock and fear, is not beyond comprehension. But it is deeply misguided all the same. Like many an emotional reflex, it came with time to yield to something more reasoned and sublime. Confronted with what he chose to perceive as a new reality and new challenges, Mr. Reeve decided that a broken neck needn't yield a broken will.

The thought is an urgent one these days, when the willingness to consider lives unworthy because they lack the "quality" that comes with physical dexterity (or mental acuity, or natural freedom from pain) is unfortunately on the upswing.

There are, unfortunately, many suffering people in the world, and they - or others - may feel that life in a state of illness, dejection or despair is simply not worth the trouble. But when Christopher Reeve found himself in a hospital bed, paralyzed and despairing, he chose to live, and to accomplish.

And even if as public and active a life as Mr. Reeve's after his accident seems, well, superhuman, we would all do well to recognize that meaning resides in many different places, and - more important still - that every one of us, in the end, has super powers.

What else to call the ability to think, to pray, to resolve, to regret, to love, to forgive? Not one of which aptitudes requires good health or physical movement.

No one likes to contemplate his or her final moments in this world. But the rabbis of the Talmud taught that, especially faced with the temptation to do something wrong, it is a most important thing to do. And it's unlikely that any of us who take that wise advice would picture ourselves focused in extremis on ski slopes or regattas. What will matter as we prepare to take our leave will be things considerably less physical.

Which is why Judaism teaches that every moment of life, no matter its "quality," is infinitely precious. Would that more of us recognized, and internalized, that truth.

[Rabbi Avi Shafran is director of public affairs for Agudath Israel of America]

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In Loving Memory Of Our Father, Mr. Joseph Black (Yosef Ben Zelig) O"H
In Loving Memory Of Our Mother, Mrs. Norma Black (Nechama Bas Tzvi Hirsh) O"H
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