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Rabbi Avi Shafran

The contrast hit like a deep whiff of freshly ground horseradish.

It was in fact mere days before the pungent condiment would be prepared in countless Jewish homes as part of the Passover Seder meal when the images of barbarism and brutality were beamed from Iraq to countless breakfast tables. And they comprised a stunningly stark opposition to a conspicuous aspect of the Jewish holiday about to arrive.

The first photographs, from Falluja, were of the burned, beaten and dismembered remains of four American contractors hung by Iraqis from a bridge over the Euphrates River so that the body parts could be further abused by passers-by. The visages of Iraqi adults and children alike were immortalized in exultation over the carnage. Tender and wizened faces alike smiled broadly for the cameras, their owners ecstatic with the sating of some unimaginable lust that must reside in some souls.

Other photos of reveling in revenge followed on the days of Passover itself. One showed a cheerful Iraqi holding aloft the boots of a dead marine; several more, Iraqis laughing as they danced around burning American vehicles or dead Americans.

It's not impossible to imagine how some Iraqis might resent American troops in their land, despite our country's decisive role in removing Iraq's malevolent dictator, and our goal of fostering freedom, democracy and broad prosperity where they have never existed. Such resentment is tragically misguided, to be sure, but it takes a certain degree of wisdom to recognize a benevolent and temporary occupation for what it is.

What is beyond any civilized comprehension, though, is the gleeful savagery. To be sure, it is nothing new. We have seen much of the same from, for instance, Palestinians, they of the dancing and candy-throwing after mass-murders of Jews on buses or in restaurants, they of the bloody hands proudly held up to the window in Ramalla after the lynching of captured and disarmed Israeli soldiers.

But such inhuman behavior does not - and should not -lose its ability to shock.

And coming, as it recently did, at Passover time, the ugliness could not but particularly command the attention of those familiar with the essence of the holiday.

Passover, of course, commemorates the liberation of our people from their enslavement in ancient Egypt. And part of that story, undeniably, is the divine vengeance visited upon the taskmasters, from the first of the ten plagues until the destruction of the Egyptian army in the Red Sea.

What is remarkable, though, and trenchant, is that, despite our ancestors' endurance of hundreds of years of slavery and cruelty - including institutionalized infanticide - at the hands of their oppressors, Passover's focus is pointedly not on revenge but on freedom.

In fact, at the Seder itself, even as the story of the exodus is recounted, wine is spilled from the participants' cups in recognition, the sources explain, of the tragedy inherent in the loss of Egyptian life. The Midrash has G-d silencing the singing angels at the Red Sea with the words "My creations are drowning in the sea and you sing?"

There is a point, to be sure, during the Seder when the celebratory mood is momentarily interrupted and attention paid to the never-ending hatred that some "in every generation" have for Jews; a short prayer beseeching G-d to pour His wrath on His enemies is recited. But it is no call to jihad, but rather a firm declaration of faith in divine justice. When evil will fall once and for all, it will be at G-d's hands, and the avenged will watch in awe, not rejoice in devastation.

Rabbi Meir Simcha of Dvinsk, a Jewish religious luminary who died in 1926, remarked on the fact that, even though the first Passover lasted but one day, Moses informed the ancient Jews about the Passover week, bounded on each end by a festival day, even before the exodus transpired. Although the final day of the holiday would be celebrated only by future generations, the great rabbi noted, it had to be "pre-announced" to avoid it being regarded as a celebration of the Egyptian army's destruction, which took place on the seventh day after the Jews left Egypt. It in fact, like the rest of the holiday, celebrates only freedom and Jewish nationhood, not the deaths of enemies.

Preserving humanity amid enmity, it would seem, occupies a prominent place in the Passover universe.

Many Jewish concepts - monotheism, charity, the value of learning, of justice, of law -have come to spread through the world. True respect for humanity, though, seems a particular challenge for some. Its time, though, will come.

May it be soon, in fulfillment of the hope we express in song at the Seder's end, that next year will find us in a rebuilt, vibrant and peaceful Jerusalem.

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

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Rabbi Avi Shafran

The Talmudic rabbis characterized the time before the messianic era as one when "truth will be absent."

The absence, in fact, is everywhere apparent today. Even the contemporary world's ostensible grand guardians of facts - the news media - lay revealed these days as parties to deception.

It's not only the tweakings of truth involved in sly choices of photographs or headlines, or even the more substantial but still subtle biases evident in so much of the reportage about politically charged issues like the reconstruction of Iraq or Israel's efforts to combat terrorism.

No, what has become evident of late is falsehood of the first degree, and in some of the most rarified realms of mass-media.

As erstwhile New York Times reporter Jayson Blair, who erred or fabricated facts in no less than three dozen reports, synopsized his career at that venerable organ: "I lied and I lied, and then I lied some more."

Then we have the British Broadcasting Corporation, which was compelled to apologize to the government of Prime Minister Tony Blair for a highly critical report that a British judge concluded was "unfounded."

More recently, USA Today's Jack Kelley was uncovered as a serial fabricator of facts, including his false claim to have witnessed the terrorist bombing of a Jerusalem pizzeria, and his assertion that "vigilante Jewish settlers" in Hebron were "shooting and beating Palestinians."

Public deception of late, however, has not been limited to media. Unfortunately, the Jewish clerical world has evidenced some prevarication of its own of late, treating important subjects as if truth doesn't matter.

Take the comments of Rabbi Ayelet S. Cohen, in an adoring article that appeared not long ago in The New York Times. In the piece, the Conservative-ordained rabbi expressed her chagrin at the charges brought by an upstate New York district attorney against two Unitarian ministers for performing same-sex marriage ceremonies. She argued "that declaring a church rite effectively illegal breaches the separation of church and state." (As to the religious reasons for not solemnizing same-gender marriages, she dismissed them as "the most annoying.")

Reform Rabbi David Ellenson, president of Hebrew Union College-Jewish Institute of Religion, went further, and contended, in The New York Jewish Week, that embracing the propriety of homosexual activity is in fact a Jewish religious imperative.

"A tradition that demands 'You shall do that which is upright and good'," he explained, "can surely be construed in such a way that the ethos of Jewish tradition can be said to trump a single statement in Leviticus..."

The misrepresentation here is considerable. Rabbi Ellenson's movement does not subscribe to the essential Jewish belief that the laws of the Torah are the will of the Creator. Thus his weighing of Jewish obligations cannot possibly be anything more than an exercise in self-amusement. He thus misleads his readers by implying that a serious, scholarly judgment is being made, when all that has in fact occurred is the jettisoning of an inconvenient verse to accommodate contemporary cultural correctness. The rabbi, of course, cannot be compelled to accept Jewish religious tradition. But neither should he be permitted to misrepresent it. Because truth matters.

Rabbi Cohen also deceives. Her claim that the prosecution of the New York ministers is a violation of their religious liberty utterly ignores a most trenchant fact: The clergy at issue pointedly indicated that they intended their ceremonies not merely as religious happenings but as effecting civil changes of personal status. That, of course, is why the ceremonies, like some subsequently performed by Rabbi Cohen herself, were publicly announced beforehand, and why the media were invited to attend.

So what we have here is not a governmental assault on religious rights but rather a disingenuous attempt to force the state to hew to some clerics' notions of societal evolution.

The larger misrepresentation, though, lies not in the legal realm but in the Jewish one.

Rabbis Cohen and Ellenson may wish it were otherwise, but there is no ambiguity in either the Torah's text or in 3000 years of Jewish religious tradition about the fact that homosexual relationships are wrong.

Any Jew is welcome to contend that the American society should redefine marriage according to contemporary mores, not Jewish ones, not even those that Judaism considers binding on all humankind. Many of us don't take that position; in fact we consider it dangerous. But it is not dishonest.

What is dishonest, though, is to contend that Judaism embraces what it, in no uncertain terms, does not.

Favoring same-sex marriage, in other words, is one thing; misrepresenting the Torah, quite another. And all Jews, whatever their personal feelings about contemporary social issues, should reject such distortion.

If, that is, they believe that truth matters.

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

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Rabbi Avi Shafran

Contrary to what some assume, no sexual orientation is condemned by the Torah. It is Jewishly axiomatic that only acts and willful attitudes (like nurturing improper desires) can be prohibited, never innate proclivities. Among the acts, however, that the Torah clearly regards as immoral - regardless of the actors' sexual inclinations or self-definition - is sexual congress between men (and, to a lesser degree, between women).

In the context of contemporary popular culture, that might seem unfair, if not downright cruel. Why interfere with love? Why limit the expression of deep and sincere feelings? But human beings are subject to many unsummoned loves and desires, and can experience deep urges for an assortment of illicit acts, both common ones like adultery or slander and more rare ones like murder or incest.

The Torah is not a template onto which we lay what we wish to do. It is a code of behavior for those who (apologies to JFK's speechwriter) seek not to tell God what He must do for us but rather what we must do for Him. The premise of the Torah's moral code (much of it, as per the Noahide Laws, intended for all of humankind) is that living a God-directed life means controlling, not venting, urges that run contrary to its mandates.

The Talmud even asserts that people with greater spiritual potential have concomitantly stronger proclivities to sin. By choosing not to succumb to, but rather to fight, those urges - to channel their energies instead to doing G-d's will - they realize their deepest potentials.

Jewish tradition is replete with narratives that make that point. One of the most famous is the story of Joseph, who merited the epithet "tzaddik", or "righteous one," precisely because he withstood a sexual temptation, that of Potiphar's wife, although his "orientation" - not to mention Mrs. Potiphar's insistence and a misleading prophetic vision - argued powerfully for his submission to his natural desire.

Part of being human is being subject to desires, and that includes desires for behaviors deemed improper by the Torah. One example that has always existed is the desire, at least for some people, to engage in homosexual behavior. But no predisposition or desire, no matter how strong, is beyond the most powerful and most meaningful force in the universe: human free will. We are not mere animals, responding to whatever urges overtake us. We are choosers. And at every moment of our lives, can choose right or choose wrong. If we subscribe to the belief that we are here not to "be what we are" but rather to "be what we can," we must endeavor to choose right.

One of humanity's saving graces over history, the Talmud teaches, has been its refusal to legitimate male homosexual relationships. It is distressing that much of American society and popular culture seems to be abandoning respect for fundamental aspects of the Torah's sexual behavior code intended for all of mankind. We Jews, though, must not allow ourselves to be pulled aboard the cultural bandwagon.

We must instead remind ourselves that, no matter how the society around us may devolve, we remain answerable to a truly higher, and unchanging, Authority.

The current American cultural milieu will redefine morality as it sees fit. So, for better or worse, will religious organizations and movements. But truly Judaism-conscious Jews, whatever their affiliation or lack of one, whatever they are told by the media or politicians or even clergy, know that we are a people chosen to show the world what it means to bend human wills to that of the Creator.

Our father Abraham, our tradition teaches us, was called the "Ivri" - the "other sider" - because "the entire world was on one side" of a conceptual river, and he "on the other." Nothing is more fundamentally Jewish than to stand apart from the Zeitgeist and affirm timeless truths in the face of an unbridled society.

As heirs to a timeless and holy wisdom, and bearers of the responsibilities it entails, we Jews live up to our name and our mission when we resist society's shifting mores. Let us endeavor, here as everywhere, to be a light, even - no, especially - in an increasingly darkening world.


[Rabbi Avi Shafran is director of public affairs for Agudath Israel of America. This article appeared recently in the Baltimore Jewish Times]

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Rabbi David Zwiebel

Toward the very end of the Torah, G-d tells Moses that, in the future, when the Jewish people will sin, they will encounter "ra'ot rabot v'tzarot" - "many evils and distresses." (Devarim 31:17)

The Talmudic personage Rav, playing on the word "tzarot," which can mean both "distresses" and "competitors," suggests that what lie in wait for a sinful Jewish people are "bad things that become competitors with one another - like a bee and a scorpion." (Hagiga 5a)

In what way are bees and scorpions competitors? Rashi, citing another passage in the Talmud, explains: When one is stung by a bee, the appropriate remedy is cold water; by a scorpion, hot water. But, dear stingee, be careful, because if you reverse the remedies, treat the scorpion sting with cold water or the bee sting with hot, you're in danger!

So what to do, then, Rashi continues, if one is stung by both a bee and a scorpion? Turning the left nozzle on the sink may relieve the scorpion sting, but it will only worsen the bee sting. The right nozzle? Bee relief, scorpion danger. Yield: a competition among stings, and the loser is the poor fellow at the sink howling in double pain with nothing to do.

An interesting interpretation, but one searches our history books in vain for any reference to massive swarms of bees and scorpions stinging wayward Jews. Nor, to the best of my knowledge, do the medical books - not even those devoted to alternative healing - advise water temperature control in dealing with various insect incursions. What is the deeper meaning of Rav's observation?

The answer, offers a classic commentary, the Da'at Zekeinim Mi'Baalei Ha'Tosafot, is that the bee and the scorpion are themselves metaphors for the essential nature of Jewish suffering in our millennia-long Diaspora at the hands of the nations of the world.

When the anti-Semite starts up with us, the Da'at Zekeinim elaborates, what should be our reaction? Scream out against him? That may only escalate the tension. Remain silent? That may only encourage him to continue. "Such," the Da'at Zekeinim explains, offering a lesson for the generations, "are the problems the Jews face in the Galut," where any approach we may take when confronted by our enemies may yield some relief from one group of tormentors but only embolden another.

In our own day and age, it is not difficult to discern bees and scorpions swarming ominously all around us. Attacks against Jews, against yeshivot and shuls, against hallowed gravesites, are on the sharp rise all over the world, especially in France and other parts of Europe. Even here in the United States, reported incidents of anti-Semitism have increased considerably over the past several years.

And now there is "The Passion," the handiwork of someone who subscribes to an extreme form of Catholicism that rejects what is known within the Catholic Church as "Vatican II" - a papal pronouncement issued some 40 years ago that (among other things) absolves the Jews of any historic guilt in the crucifixion.

Those personal beliefs apparently come through in his film, loud and clear. Many who have seen the movie attest to its portrayal of Jews as the true villains of the crucifixion, with the Jewish priests depicted as greedy, cunning and evil, and the Jewish masses as hook-nosed loud-mouthed mobs screaming for blood.

"The Passion" has, at this writing, raked in over $264 million in ticket sales - and already become one of the most profitable movies ever. And those sales are for North American movie theaters alone, without even taking into account people who are seeing the film in foreign theaters, or who will watch it when it is eventually released on video and shown on television.

Little wonder that so many Jews are worried about a potential anti-Semitic backlash. There is a long and bloody history of violence against Jews inspired by the charge of Deicide generally, and by performances of Passion Plays specifically; and the stages on which those relatively small-scale dramatic portrayals played were miniscule in comparison with the new movie.

Which brings us back to the Da'at Zekeinim's conundrum: How should we react? With pained silence? Well, if the Jews aren't bothered by this film, it must be the truth - that proves it, they did kill our Deity! With loud protests? What, the Jews want to censor our religion - that proves it, they did kill our Deity! The bees and scorpions are out in full force, and we are in jeopardy no matter what course we choose.

And yet, faced with an irresolvable conundrum, a course must be chosen. For Agudath Israel, the Orthodox Jewish movement for which I have the privilege of working, such choices are made by our rabbinic leadership - Torah giants whose total immersion in Jewish learning and total involvement in Jewish living renders them uniquely qualified to provide Jewishly authentic guidance on the oh-so-difficult topic of how the Jew should conduct himself among the nations of the world. Our history and faith have much to say about the best way to regulate the water temperature when confronted by creatures that sting - and so, standing at the sink, we turn for direction to those best equipped to apply the lessons of that history and faith.

At the direction of Agudath Israel's Council of Torah Sages, we issued no public statement on "The Passion", organized no public protests, marched in no public demonstrations. Instead, we reached out behind the scenes to a number of Christian leaders with whom we have had contact through our advocacy efforts, and urged them (as have other Jewish groups) to find ways to convey the message to their followers that there must be no anti-Jewish backlash as a result of the film. And, in fact, such messages are being delivered.

A perfect solution to the conundrum? Of course not; as the Da'at Zekeinim points out, such dilemmas have long been inherent to the Jewish experience. There will never be a perfect solution so long as we are condemned to live in the state of imperfection known as Galut.

May G-d send the Messiah soon to deliver us from that state, and save us from the bees and the scorpions, speedily and in our days.

Rabbi David Zwiebel is executive vice president for government and public affairs for Agudath Israel of America.

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Rabbi Avi Shafran

Questions, questions everywhere. At the Seder, that is.

There are the proverbial Four, of course, but they lead to a torrent of new queries. Like why those questions are themselves never directly answered in the Haggadah. And why they (and so much else in the Haggadah) are "four"? And why they must be asked even of oneself, if no one else is present. Not to mention scores of others on the oddities of the Haggadah's text. As the old jokes have it, we Jews seem to respond to questions with only more.

Why the Haggadah is so question-saturated is an easy one. Because the Seder revolves around the next generation. It is the communication of the saga of the Jewish Exodus from Egypt to our children, and thus cannot be undertaken in a merely recitative manner. "Questions and Answers" is a most basic teaching tool, as are singing, number games, and alphabetical acrostics, all elements found in the ancient pedagogic perfection we call the Haggadah. So none of those educational aids should surprise us.

Karpas, though, should.

For karpas, the vegetable dipped in saltwater at the start of the Seder, is truly baffling. Although it is the subject of one of the Big Four questions, it not only does not have an answer; it seems that it cannot have one.

For the Talmud itself asks why we do it, and answers, "So that the children will notice and ask what it is for."

At which point, presumably, we are to respond, "So that you will ask, dear children!"

To which they many be expected to respond, "All right, now we're asking." And so forth.

Karpas seems to be the verbal equivalent of one of those Escher lithographs where figures march steadily but futilely up strange stairs only to again reach their starting point below. Why we do it is an inherently unanswerable question.

Some insight, though, may be available by considering yet another unanswerable question, perhaps the most fundamental one imaginable: Why we are here.

The Talmud recounts that the students of Shammai and of Hillel spent two and a half years arguing the question of whether "it would have been better for humankind not to have been created."

And, intriguingly, they came to conclude that man would have been better off uncreated, and added only that now that we humans find ourselves here, we must strive to examine and improve our actions.

The famed 19th century Torah-giant Rabbi Yisroel Salanter addressed the meaning of the argument and its result. Needless to say, he explained, the students of Shammai and Hillel were not sitting in judgment on their Creator. What they were in truth arguing about was whether mankind, with its limited purview, can possibly hope to comprehend the fact that G-d deemed it worthwhile for humankind to exist.

And they concluded that we cannot. We are unable to fathom what good the Creator saw in providing one of his creations free will. It is surely better that mankind is here, but why cannot be known.

After all (they likely noted), free will makes sin inevitable. And humans, in fact, seem entirely prone to bad behavior.

Past history and current events alike evidence man's choosing evil over good at almost every turn. We humans are eminently self-centered, and precious few of our thoughts concern how we might be better givers, not takers, better servants of the Divine.

What has this to do with karpas?

Perhaps nothing. But perhaps much.

Because disobedience of G-d, the very definition of sin, has its roots in the first man and woman's act of independence. And one of the results of their choice was a change in the fundamental relationship they (and we) had (and have) with the earth on which we depend.

"Thorns and thistles [the earth] shall bring forth for you," was the pronouncement, "and you shall eat the grasses of the field."

In, of all places, the sole Talmudic chapter that deals with the Seder, we find the following passage:

Said Rabbi Yehoshua ben Levi: "When G-d told Adam 'and thorns and thistles...and you shall eat the grasses of the field,' Adam's eyes welled up with tears and he said, 'Master of the Universe, am I and my donkey to eat from the same feed-bag?' When G-d continued and said, 'By the sweat of your brow shall you eat bread' [i.e. human food will be available for you, but only through hard work], Adam's anguish was quieted." (Pesachim 118a)

Could the meaning of Adam's lament be that since humanity's progenitor had proven through his insubordination the inevitability of humans choosing evil, man would seem to have been better off as merely another mindless, choiceless animal, a two-legged donkey?

Could that terrible thought be what brought tears to his eyes?

And, finally, could it be that the manifestation of the earth's response to his sin, the lowly vegetation it will now naturally bear for him and which he is sentenced to eat - could that be... the karpas? And the saltwater in which it is dipped, his tears and the sweat of the brow?

Could it be, in other words, that the question of why we dip karpas in saltwater is specifically constructed to be unanswerable precisely because it alludes to an unanswerable cosmic question?

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Rabbi Avi Shafran

The dipping of a vegetable into saltwater at the start of the Seder seems eerily reminiscent of a conversation recounted in the Talmud between G-d and the first man. When Adam hears G-d's pronouncement that his sin has relegated him to eating "the grasses of the field" like animals, he cries, only to be reassured that he will still be able to eat bread, human food, albeit "by the sweat of your brow" - with hard work and effort.

What pertinence, though, does the recalling of that account have to the Seder's karpas-ritual? What are vegetables and tears and sweat - not to mention the memory of history's first sin - doing at the very onset of a festive gathering?

The key to the mystery may lie in remembering that the Seder is not only the start of Passover but the beginning of a period that will culminate in the holiday of Shavuot. The seven weeks between the first day of Passover and Shavuot are in fact counted down (or, actually, up) with the "counting of the Omer" on each night of those forty-nine.

Noteworthy is that on both holidays bread plays a prominent role. On Passover, we eat unleavened bread; on Shavuot, the day's special Temple offering consists of two loaves of bread, which - in stark contrast to most flour-offerings - must be allowed to rise and become chametz.

Leaven is a symbol of the inclination to sin ("What keeps us [from You, G-d]?" goes the confession of one talmudic personage, "the leaven in the dough"). Perhaps, then, the period between Passover and Shavuot, between the holiday of leaven-less bread and that of leavened bread, reflects our acclimation to the human propensity to sin. It leads us to ponder that sin's inevitability should not render us hopeless, but rather that our selfish desires are - somehow - a force that can be channeled for good, for service to G-d.

Shavuot, then, would be the celebration of our having accepted - even if not fully comprehended - the goodness inherent in our existence despite our inherent shortcomings. It is the "answer" to the unanswerable question of why we are here. And so our bread on that day is purposefully leavened; it has absorbed and incorporated sin's symbol.

What allows for the "redemption" of our propensity to sin? The Torah, whose acceptance at Sinai is celebrated on Shavuot. For the Torah is that which "sweetens" the inclination to sin and makes it palatable. As a famous Midrash renders G-d's words: "I have created an inclination to sin, and I have created the Torah as its sweetening spice."

Our base desires, the source of our sinning, are not denied by the Torah, but rather guided by it. We are not barred from enjoying any area of life, but shown, rather, how to do so, how to utilize every human power and desire in a directed and holy way.

Passover, then, is the symbolic start of the process of growth. It is the time to eat only pristine, unleavened food, to deny ourselves every sign of the inclination to sin, the better to be able, over the ensuing forty-nine days, to slowly absorb the powerful sin-inclination, to work on ourselves (by the sweat of our brows), and acclimate ourselves to what it represents ... gradually, day by day, until Shavuot. Only then, having labored to attain that growth, may we - by the sweat of our brows - eat true, fully developed, leavened bread. For, if we have labored on ourselves honestly and hard, we have learned to temper and manage our inclinations to sin with the laws and guidance of the Torah.

Passover is thus a propitious time indeed for a hint to the great unanswerable question of how man's existence can be justified despite his sinful nature. For it is on Passover specifically that we begin to develop our ability to channel the human powers that, left unbridled, result in sin.

And so, at the Seder, as we dip the karpas in the saltwater, reenacting Adam's sentence by eating a lowly vegetable, animal food, dampened with a reminder of his tears, his question should come to mind: "Am I and my donkey to eat from the same feed-bag?"

But so should something else. Because the reminder of his tears - the saltwater - is a reminder no less of his hope, the sweat of his brow, the hard work that can lead us to become truly human, choosing, servants of G-d. That hard labor is what justifies our existence; it is our astonishing privilege in this wondrous world.

[Rabbi Avi Shafran is director of public affairs for Agudath Israel of America. The above is the second part of an essay that appeared in the March 1988 The Jewish Observer]

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Rabbi Avi Shafran

Recent days have evidenced a considerable amount of blood-fixation in the world of religion.

Mel Gibson's epic contribution to contemporary cinema, in the words of The New Republic's Leon Wieseltier, is "intoxicated by blood... the fluid is everywhere." And as these words are being written, nearly 300 Muslims are being buried in Iraq after explosions there on the holiest day of the Shiite calendar, Ashura (a day, as it happens, when Shiites slash and flagellate themselves in commemoration of the battlefield death of a venerated Muslim figure); close to 50 other Muslims were killed the same day in Pakistan by other Muslims' bullets and grenades.

Reasonable minds might well wonder if there is a major blood-focus in Judaism. In fact there is, and noting the fact is timely, for the bloodletting is on Passover, or Pesach, which begins this year on the night of April 5.

I don't mean the spilling this time of year of Jewish blood, of which there was indeed much over centuries in Christian Europe (another echo of Christian blood-fixation - Jews drinking Christian blood was a common slander in the Middle Ages, so much so that halachic sources actually suggest using white, not red, wine for the "four cups" in places where such libels are common). No, not human blood but rather animal.

Specifically, the blood of the Pesach-sacrifice, which, in the times of the Holy Temple in Jerusalem, was slaughtered on the afternoon before the onset of the holiday. The meat of the lamb or goat comprised the final course of the Seder (the original "afikoman"), and some of its blood was placed on the Temple altar.

We don't have a clear comprehension of the Jewish laws of sacrifices; somehow, the ritual dispatching of animals results in our own greater closeness to G-d ("korban," the Hebrew word for sacrifice, means "that which makes close"). But the spiritual mechanics, as is the case with so many of the Torah's commandments, are ultimately beyond mortal minds.

The Pesach sacrifice, though, seems clearly to hearken back to the first Pesach, when the blood of the sheep or goat our ancestors were commanded to slaughter in Egypt, in preparation for their exodus from that land, was placed on "the doorposts and lintel" of each Jewish home.

In rabbinic literature, houses are symbols of the feminine, and so it has been suggested that the blood on the doors of the Jewish homes in ancient Egypt may represent the blood of birth. From those homes in ancient Egypt, in other words, a new collective entity came forth into the world. A Jewish nation was born.

As the Shem MiShmuel, a classic Chassidic text, explains, before the exodus the Jews were all related to one another (as descendants of Jacob) but they were not a nation. Any individual was still able to reject his or her connection to the others and the rejection had an effect. Indeed, our tradition teaches that many in fact did so, and did not merit to leave Egypt at all, dying instead during the plague of darkness.

Once the people were forged into a nation-entity, though, on their very last night in Egypt, things changed radically. With blood on their doorways and satchels filled with matzoh, they readily followed Moses into the frightening desert on G-d's orders, knowing not what awaited them. As the prophet Jeremiah described it, in G-d's words: "I remember for you the kindness of your youth... your following Me in the desert, a land where nothing is planted." And thus the Jews became a living nation, an entity whose members, and descendants throughout history, are part of an organic whole, no matter what any of them may choose to do.

Which is why, in the words of the Talmud, "A Jew who sins is still a Jew," in every way. There is no longer any option of "opting out."

And so, blood in Judaism is a symbol not of suffering, not of torture, not even of death, but of its very opposites: birth, life, meaning.

The words of another Jewish prophet, Ezekiel - words recited in the Haggadah and traditionally understood as a reference to the Pesach sacrifice - well reflect that fact.

Referring to "the day you were born," G-d tells His people: "And I passed by you wallowing in your blood, and I said to you, 'in your blood, live.' And I said to you, 'in your blood, live'."

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

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Rabbi Avi Shafran

This time of Jewish year is a curious study in contrasts.

Mere weeks ago, the synagogue Torah readings were recounting the seminal events of Jewish peoplehood, the exodus from Egypt and the revelation at Sinai; then, abruptly, the subject matter turned to oxen goring one another and penalties for thieves; and, after that, the minutiae of constructing the Tabernacle and its vessels.

And then there are the two holidays of the season, Purim and Passover, a mere month apart but so very different in tone. The staple of the Passover Seder (besides, of course, the matzo and wine) is the grand narrative of the exodus from Egypt; the commemoration, all miracle and majesty. How different Purim, where so hidden is G-d's hand that no overt mention of Him is even made in the Megillah of Esther. In fact, the narrative of the deliverance of ancient Persian Jewry can easily (if wrongly) be read entirely as a sort of Shakespearean comedy, with fortuitous coincidences taking the place of divine intervention.

There is a lesson in the abrupt juxtapositions: We are always to remember that holiness can permeate not only the miraculous but the mundane. G-d, indeed, is "in the details."

The details of the Torah's laws and the details of history. The payment due the owner of a damaged ox no less than keeping the Sabbath day; the subtle miracle of Purim, no less than the splitting of the Red Sea.

In fact, Judaism teaches that G-d is in the details, even, of daily life. Ours is a religion where every area and moment of human endeavor is sublimated by the law - or, better "the proper way," a more precise translation of the word "halacha."

From the first words we speak upon arising in the morning until the final ones before retiring; from what we wear to what we eat; from how we pray to how we treat others, an observant Jew's every utterance and action is governed by the Torah's directives. Nothing is mundane.

And more: Not only are our words and actions to reflect G-d's immanence, so are our mindsets. When we ponder the world, we must try to discern G-d's hand, which is ubiquitous if not always obvious. As a keen rabbi once put it: "Seas split every day, but only sensitive eyes notice." That is true about history - the Jewish people's perseverance a case in point - but also with regard to our immediate physical surroundings, the constant miracles so easily taken for granted.

Perhaps that is why the same season of the year that presents such contrasts in its Torah-portions and its holidays, is also the season for a special blessing that can be made no other time of year.

It comes from a category of blessings pronounced upon witnessing certain natural phenomena (like a rainbow, or thunder and lightning), and is made only in the early spring, in the Jewish month of Nisan (and only once a year), upon seeing two or more fruit-bearing trees in bloom.

"Blessed are You, G-d, King of the universe," it begins, as all such blessings do, "Who has omitted nothing from His universe, and created within it lovely creatures and lovely trees, to bring pleasure to human beings."

The springtime tree-blessing, fittingly made as we experience a contrast in climate, winter's darkness and cold giving way to spring's light and life, helps us focus on what we might all too easily overlook, lost as we all too often are, in "more important" concerns.

It makes us stop and look at something commonplace - trees - and see within the beauty of their blossoms and potential fruit a gift from G-d.

It compels us, faced with the mundane, to perceive the magnificent.

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

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Rabbi Avi Shafran

A New York cabbie was shot the other day. Not, unfortunately, an uncommon occurrence.

Michael Goldberg, 44, was seriously wounded in the stomach around 2:30 in the morning of February 8, after picking up a fare in Queens. The cabbie and his customer had argued earlier on the phone over the price of the trip.

The urban street is a dangerous place in America. So is the cultural landscape. Violence, materialism and the debasement of sexuality are dominant elements of popular culture, mainstays of American entertainment and music, and proudly embraced by sizable subsets of our society.

Which is why to be a truly religious Jew in these United States, to seriously nurture Jewish values like G-d-centeredness, peace, morality and modesty, requires a measure (or several) of removal from our surroundings, which emphasize markedly different, indeed diametric, concerns.

For that matter, it's not only our spiritual security that is vulnerable. We are naïve if we take even our physical safety for granted.

At quiet times, some Jews like to pose a pensive question: whether "it" could happen here - "it" referring to what occurred to Jews in virtually every country where we have lived over the course of millennia. Since the Second Holy Temple was destroyed and Jerusalem sacked by the Romans, discrimination and persecution have been the sad rule of Jewish life. The long, dark shadow of the Holocaust, that most recent and monstrous stain on history, acutely evidences the rule in contemporary times.

Jewish religious tradition's take is clear: the Jewish people is in exile. "It" indeed could happen here; it can always happen, anywhere. The Torah speaks the unspeakable when it warns of what can befall us Jews when we are unfaithful to G-D's Torah and fail to "serve Him with happiness and joy of heart amid plenty." And Jews in countless places and times, from ancient Babylonia to medieval Spain to turn-of-the-previous-century North Africa (not to mention a place called Germany), discovered all too vividly how tolerant, even nurturing societies could suddenly turn grotesque and nasty. To imagine an unhappy amalgam of geopolitical and domestic events metamorphosing even our own country into a less Jewish-friendly nation is, unfortunately, not impossible.

And yet, all the same, it is hard. While the ultimate Jewish redemption and true Jewish security will only arrive with the messiah, there is ample reason why so many of us Jewish Americans regard our country as virtually synonymous with safety and security. The American Diaspora, after all, is a notable departure from the Jewish historical norm. Not only has the United States never persecuted Jews or enacted legislation to discriminate against them (a distinction not nearly as common as some might think), it has provided us with unprecedented opportunities and freedoms, accepted us as judges and leaders, as government officials and representatives; and it has protected us against those who would do us harm.

Radical Islamists' association of America with "the Jews" is not a meaningless malevolence. While it is surely nonsense to think that Jews "control" America, and greater nonsense still to think that either "the Jews" or America has any demonic plan for world domination, it is undeniable that ideas and ideals deeply rooted in Jewish tradition - like majority rule, education, respect for the individual, and justice - informed the Founding Fathers' philosophical mindset. And it is equally undeniable that Jews and Jewish accomplishments are deeply woven into the fabric of American history and society. The comfort we feel in this great country may not be assured, but it is, here and now, most real indeed.

And so even with our deep recognition that the Jewish people in exile is, as the rabbis of the Talmud put it, "a sheep among seventy wolves," we American Jews owe a profound hakarat hatov, "recognition of the good," to our country - a feeling of deep gratitude for our good fortune to live where we do.

The New York City cabbie currently recuperating from his wounds well evidences why.

Because half a century ago, many Jews who immigrated to these shores, their minds filled with memories of horrors left behind and understandably wary of what might lie ahead, often changed their names to conceal their ethnic roots. Cohens became Cowans; Obersteins, O'Brians; Levines, LeVines.

But Michael Goldberg is a Sikh, born and bred in India. He adopted his current name when he moved to this country.

He apparently felt the name change would help him become more easily accepted in his new land.

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

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Rabbi Avi Shafran

Anyone entertaining the notion that the advancement of "gay rights" needn't adversely affect those with moral objections to the normalization of homosexual unions should pay close attention to what happened to Christopher Kempling.

The British Columbia public school teacher was suspended for a month without pay and received a black spot on his professional record for writing letters critical of the practice of homosexuality to a local newspaper, the Quesnel Cariboo Observer.

The Canadian Charter of Rights protects citizens' freedom of expression and religion, but that was apparently no bar, in the eyes of the British Columbia Supreme Court, to a local teachers panel's punishment of Mr. Kempling.

As one of the justices wrote for the court in denying Mr. Kempling's appeal of the penalty: "Discriminatory speech is incompatible with the search for truth. In addition, [Mr. Kempling's] publicly discriminatory writings undermine the ability of members of the targeted group, homosexuals, to attain individual self-fulfillment..."

The lesson of the Kempling case transcends its Canadian context; it is of no less import to Americans or Europeans. The issue of "gay rights" is not benign; the struggle between those who wish to make homosexuality acceptable as a normative lifestyle and those who do not is, simply put, a zero-sum game. To the degree that the gay movement's program is advanced, those who adhere to a traditional moral system will be not merely ignored, but vilified, demonized and penalized.

That "gay rights" zero-sum truism is at the core of a legal brief recently submitted to the United States Supreme Court by the organization I am privileged to represent, Agudath Israel of America. We asked the Court to review and reverse a lower court's decision permitting the state of Connecticut to disqualify the Boy Scouts from inclusion on a list of charities to which state employees were encouraged to contribute. The reason the Boy Scouts were disqualified was the group's policy of not allowing homosexuals to serve as scoutmasters or in leadership positions

One of the brief's main points is that decisions like the lower court's patently malign traditional religious groups for their deeply-held beliefs. As The New York Sun noted in an editorial shortly after the Massachusetts Supreme Court's "same-sex marriage" ruling, "with a few exceptions, this cause [the acceptance of same-sex marriage] is being advanced through the denigration of Jews and Christians who adhere to the fundamentals of religious law."

The editorial went on to recount the reaction of "a friend" of the editorialist to the opposition to same-sex marriages asserted by "Agudath Israel and its Council of Torah Sages." Said the gentleman: "I see them as bigots..."

Similarly, an American Civil Liberties Union advertisement several years ago in The New York Times compared those who object on moral grounds to homosexuality as akin to vicious racists of yesteryear. Those who espouse a traditional view of acceptable sexual behavior, the ACLU asserted, seek "to hide behind morality." But, the ad continues, "we all know a bigot when we see one."

If disapproving of homosexual behavior is bigotry, then adherents of most religions - along with nonbelievers who nevertheless accept the validity of the traditional moral code - are, ipso facto, villains. What is more, there is no reason why the label is any less applicable to those who disapprove of other affronts to the moral ideal - like multi-partner or incestuous relationships. Either morality has true meaning and trumps what some people, even many people, wish to do, or it does not.

And if moral scruples are indeed conceptually devolved into bigotry, there will be not only denigration and derision of traditionalists, but discrimination and legal action against them too - as Mr. Kempling's treatment and Connecticut's action against the Boy Scouts well demonstrate.

The scenario of Catholic organizations, or Jewish religious schools, or devout Muslims being branded - and even prosecuted as - bigots, simply for operating or living according to deeply-held religious convictions is not unthinkable.

It is, on the contrary, but the logical outcome of a process that began as a plea for "rights," is continuing as a demand that marriage be redefined, and that - unless it is stopped soon - will end as a triumphant crushing of the ability of religious, or just morality-minded, citizens and communities to live their lives freely, in accordance with their consciences and beliefs.

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

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Rabbi Avi Shafran

[NOTE: The omission of the question mark in the title is, of course, intentional]

The story is told of a scientist studying a flea, one he had carefully trained to jump on command. In the interest of his lifelong research into insect hearing, he pulled off one of the flea's legs and ordered it to jump. The insect complied, despite its handicap. After a second amputation, its response to the command was somewhat less impressive; after a third, even less so. Finally, after being deprived of all of its legs, all the flea could do when ordered to jump was buzz about ineffectually on the table.

Solemnly, the scientist recorded his findings in his journal: "Fleas apparently hear with their legs."

One by necessity approaches the Torah - what Christians call the Old Testament and Jews consider the only one - with one of two assumptions: either the document is the word of G-D, or it is the product of men. These are two mutually exclusive, entirely diametric ways of regarding the Torah, and, contrary to popular misconception, there is no conceivable way of "proving" either approach correct or in error by examining the text itself. One simply brings one's prior assumptions to the analysis and proceeds from there.

Thus, oddities like the use of one name for G-D in some verses and another in others are, to the reader who accepts the divine origin of the book, indications of different "modes" (Hebrew: "middot") of G-D's interaction with mortals. To one who assumes the Torah to be the work of man, such things are as good an indication as any that more than one man's work is represented in the text. Similarly, peculiar or recurrent patterns of language, depending on one's pre-analysis point of view, are either sublime indications of wisdom to be mined or further "evidence" of the interjection of the words of this or that human author.

Or take textual predictions in the Torah of future events. To those who accept the divine origin of the Torah, they are prophecies. To those who consider the very idea of prophecy untenable, they are conclusive evidence that those passages were written after the events they describe. How else, after all, could the writer have known?

Both the "Higher Bible Criticism" invented at the turn of the previous century by theology professor Julius Wellhausen and the "Lower Criticism" of more recent decades, take as their alpha-point the implausibility of G-D's having ever communicated with mankind. Thus, the text of the Torah, to Wellhausen and those who followed him and expanded on his theories, is a ready target for "deconstruction" - for assigning parts of it to one "author" and others to others.

In his work Critique of Religion and Philosophy, philosopher Walter Kaufmann imagined such Bible critics analyzing Goethe's Faust, with its "inconsistencies in style and thought and plan," and easily concluding that it, too, must have had a multitude of authors.

Consider, for that matter, any human mind. What would an observer from Alpha Centauri make of a mind's seeming guises and even contradictions? After all, I relate to my children differently than I do to my peers, and my interaction with those I regard as my superiors reveals a "different" me entirely. Does that make me three people? G-D, to be sure, does not change in essence; He is perfection. But His interactions with humanity reveal - at least in the lens through which we mortals necessarily regard Him - "different" modalities of relationship. And those modalities are reflected in the Torah - a book of words, after all - by different modalities of language.

Archeology, too, is a woefully imperfect tool for "proving" or "disproving" the Torah's divine origin. It relies exclusively and inherently on speculative interpretations of evidence, on theoretical reconstructions whose veracity can never be conclusively confirmed. Shards, bones and papyri that are thousands of years old can certainly suggest things, at times even convincingly; but they can never prove anything - and their absence most certainly cannot constitute disproof.

What is more, much "harder" sciences than archeology have endured radical revisions of their once-declared "truths," even in modern times. Newtonian physics, after all, was overturned by relativity, and the early model of the subatomic world has been entirely upended by quantum theory. The biological sciences have seen new, once unimagined doors open onto surprising facts like the existence of DNA and once-discounted theories like "punctuated equilibrium." By contrast, archeology, its speculative nature entirely aside, is in its relative infancy as a science.

When I look at the Torah, I do so as a Jew whose parents entrusted him - as theirs did them, and theirs before them, back to the day when the Torah was entrusted to all Jews' ancestors on Mt. Sinai - with the solemn historical tradition of the Torah's divine nature. I approach it - both the text itself and its unwritten "key" (what Judaism calls the Oral Tradition) - as G-D's word.

I would approach it that way even if civilization as we know it did not owe so much of its progress to the Torah, and even if the claim of the revelation at Sinai did not involve hundreds of thousands of people (making its "invention" a virtual impossibility). I would approach it that way even if the Jewish people had not miraculously persevered over millennia against all odds (and violent, incessant hatred), even if the Torah's predictions of everything from the persistence of that mindless hatred to the Jewish return to Zion had not been proven accurate. All of those things, however, further empower my reasoned assumption of the Torah's divine nature, which is born of the tradition carefully preserved and handed down from Jewish generation to Jewish generation.

And so, when I see scholars and popular writers alike endeavor to "deconstruct" the Torah, I am less disturbed than I am amused. For their "discovery" of a multitude of "authors" is an entirely predictable result yielded by the assumptions they brought to their task. One can't blame them for not assuming the Torah's divine nature; they, for the most part, have no reason to do so. But neither can one take their conclusions in any way as conclusive.

Because, no less than the scientist with the trained flea, they have simply found what they set out at the start to find.

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

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Rabbi Avi Shafran

An Orthodox Jew's car hits a black child in a Brooklyn neighborhood; the Jew flees. A 19-year-old black man is told by an angry friend to hold on to a knife and, during an altercation with a group of Jewish men, two blacks are knocked down by the Jews. A yeshiva student lunges at the black teen who accidentally stabs and kills the Jew.

Sound familiar? Well it should and it shouldn't. The account is reminiscent of the murder of rabbinical student Yankel Rosenbaum by Lemrick Nelson Jr. during the Crown Heights riots of 1991. But Mr. Nelson's violent act was neither provoked by his victim nor an accident. The fun-house-mirror account above is the story line of a play that recently opened at a theater near Times Square. The production is entitled "Crown Heights."

In the play, the name of the murdered yeshiva boy is not Yankel but Yohuda, so - even aside from the production's mangled portrayal of the events themselves - the playwrights can, and do, claim to be presenting a fictionalized version of the 1991events. But in the prologue of the offering, its co-author, political activist Fred Newman (who, according to the ADL, lionizes Louis Farrakhan and has asserted that Jews, in response to the Holocaust, have become "stormtroopers of decadent capitalism"), informs the audience that what it depicts "is probably closer to the truth than what is sometimes labeled New York reality."

That the production falsely portrays Jews as the instigators of the 1991 violence is also weirdly familiar.

What it recalls are the words of The New York Times. In two separate items in May, 2002, referring to an appellate court reversal, on technical grounds, of Nelson Jr.'s federal civil rights conviction for the killing of Rosenbaum, the Times characterized the Crown Heights riots as "violence between blacks and Orthodox Jews" - conjuring the image of marauding gangs of Jews and blacks attacking one another. An article in that same paper less than a year later referred to the 1991 events as "unrest... that left dead one black child and one Jewish man," subtly implying some essential equivalence between a tragic automobile accident and a vicious murder.

Reality Check: The besieged Jewish residents of Crown Heights cowered and prayed for four days as the overwhelmingly one-sided violence raged. And Yankel Rosenbaum was attacked by a mob, stabbed, and died, because he was a Jew.

According to the United States Court of Appeals' "findings of fact" regarding the events that led to Mr. Rosenbaum's murder, the incitement that followed the tragic car accident was entirely the effort of blacks against Jews.

At the scene of the accident, the court found, while some members of an African American crowd attempted to aid the injured, others "began to attack the driver of the car."

"In the meantime," the court continues, "a crowd of several hundred people" gathered, some of whom "complained about Jews... At about eleven o'clock, a bald, African-American man" addressed the crowd; his "angry and aggressive" speech, on videotape, was reported to have included the exhortation "Let's get the Jews," a chant taken up by the crowd, which proceeded, at the bald man's urging, to move toward Kingston Avenue.

It was nearby where Mr. Rosenbaum was murdered. According to the court: "A group of ten and fifteen people, including Mr. Nelson, then began beating him, knocking him to the ground and striking him repeatedly."

As a police car approached the scene, "Nelson attempted to flee with the rest of the crowd, but... Rosenbaum grabbed hold of Nelson's T-shirt." That was the extent of the yeshiva student's provocation. Nelson tried unsuccessfully to shake himself loose from the beating victim, then stabbed him repeatedly and fled.

Thank G-d, there is no unrest in Crown Heights these days. The neighborhood's black and Jewish residents, while they largely live lives apart, get along with each other. To their great credit, Yankel Rosenbaum's brother Norman and Carmel Cato, the father of the boy who was killed in the accident that touched off the riots, have embraced and shown the world how personal tragedies need not bear bitter fruit. But neither tranquility nor good will justify revisionism.

The Times' subtle if ugly mistakes are likely no more than journalistic carelessness or a misguided determination to be what passes these days for "even-handed." Mr. Newman's play, however, is something else entirely.

Resentment of Jews is a truly fascinating thing, a force with the power to twist reality into weird fever-dreams. Thus, Jews have been believed to dine on children's blood, to poison wells, to instigate world wars, to plot the economic subjugation of the world. Millions today still believe that Jews are intent on enslaving humanity. Not only a majority in many Arab and Muslim countries, but 19% of Germans, according to a recent poll, believe that we engineered the September 11 attacks.

Yet, as intriguing as the delirium itself is the reaction it inspires in the delirious. Some, like Palestinian terrorists and their supporters, are not sated by the mere murder of Jews; they must rejoice in the bloodshed. Others, like hoodlums across Europe, aren't satisfied with mere Jewish graves; they must deface them.

That latter image, in fact, is as an appropriate a metaphor as can be imagined for Mr. Newman's play.

Yankel Rosenbaum's murder isn't enough for him. He must desecrate the very memory of the Jew.

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

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Rabbi Avi Shafran

There were Jews who seemed somehow gratified by the phenomenon it described. But the January 14 front-page Wall Street Journal article entitled "You Don't Have to Be Jewish to Want a Bar Mitzvah Party" made many others among us wince.

The article provided just what its headline threatened: an account of how non-Jewish children have begun pestering their parents for celebrations that resemble those held for their Jewish friends' bar- or bat-mitzvahs. Needless to say, it wasn't the spiritual aspect of the events for which the youngsters pined.

"The kids who had great bar mitzvah parties were elevated socially," one Catholic mother was quoted in explanation of why her daughter's coming of age was celebrated at a beachfront banquet hall - with a Hawaiian surfing theme.

Another faux-mitzvah bash, the paper reported, "cost $75,000 and included a tent with chandeliers, DJs and dancers."

The optimistic spin was spun by the executive vice president of the Board of Rabbis of Southern California, who contended that the proliferation of such astonishing excess shows "how much the Jewish people and Jewish customs have become mainstream."

To those of us, though, who perceive self-centered immoderation as diametric to the very meaning of the phrase bar-mitzvah ("subject to the Torah's mandates and ideals"), the emulation of some Jews' indulgences by broader society shows instead how the example we set can, sadly, sometimes be more of a blight than a light unto the nations.

Excess among Jews is not limited to particular parts of the American Jewish community. Neither the general Orthodox world nor even the haredi community are devoid of examples of self-focused intemperance. In fact, leading haredi rabbinical figures have long decried the materialism they have observed creeping into their community. Several even saw fit not long ago to issue guidelines for the size and elaborateness of weddings, which they regarded as having become more spectacle that spiritual.

Thankfully, though, there are young people across the breadth of the Jewish community whose awareness of what Judaism means leads them to make selfless rather than self-centered choices, who are quiet but profound examples of what others should emulate.

The development of Jews with altruistic Jewish sensibilities is empowered by conscientious, committed Jewish parents and responsible Jewish schools. Because permeating so much of Jewish living and learning is the idea that life is not about indulgence but dedication; not about getting but rather about sacrificing - for others, for ideals, for G-d.

A mere two days after the Wall Street Journal article appeared, readers - albeit of a less widely-read periodical -were shown a very different sort of example set by a young Jew on the cusp of Jewish adulthood.

Several English-language Jewish newspapers service the American haredi community. The two most popular, both based in Brooklyn but read nationally, are Yated Ne'eman and Hamodia; the latter recently went from a weekly to a daily.

Both papers provide national, international and local news (although they do not publish anything negative about private citizens, reports about crude happenings or stories about pop stars). Both feature biographical essays about Jewish religious figures, editorials and opinion (from a decidedly Orthodox perspective), advice columns, recipes, children's pages and guest essays. In its January 16 edition, Hamodia offered a guest column written by one Chavi Friedman, six months shy of her twelfth birthday.

It was a first-person account of Miss Friedman having been awoken in the wee hours of the morning by her crying baby sister, with whom she apparently shares a room. Should she bring the infant to her mother, the writer wonders. "No," she decides, "it wouldn't do to wake up the whole house."

Instead, despite the toll she knows it will take on her school day, she decides to try to lull her sister back to sleep. As she "grouchily stares" into the baby's eyes, she remembers what her great-grandmother and her great-great aunt, survivors of a Nazi concentration camp, recounted to her. Each day in the camps, her grandmother's sister, knowing that inmates who appeared more emaciated than others were candidates for execution, would surreptitiously share part of her own ration of moldy bread with her slimmer sister.

In the camps, Chavi reminds herself, "food was life." And so she chides herself that "if my aunt could give a away a piece of her life each day, how can I not give a few minutes of sleep to my sister each day?"

"I look at my tiny sister," her essay concludes. "Her eyes are closed, a content look is spread across her sweet little face. It's 5:40. Not bad. I lovingly hug my little sister and put her back into her crib. Then I go back to sleep."

Miss Friedman's essay is entitled "Sacrifices."

This one is, equally aptly, entitled "Examples."

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

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Rabbi Avi Shafran

In the Netherlands, a 15-year-old needs parental consent to enlist a doctor's help in killing herself. If she waits until she's 16, although she needs to "involve" her parents in her decision, she need not receive their approval. Nor need she be suffering any terminal medical condition; emotional pain is sufficient legal justification to assist in her suicide.

Legal euthanasia in the Netherlands is defined as the "active termination of life on request." It does not include what is known there as "terminal sedation" - the administering of morphine in quantities that relieve pain but also hasten death.

But if a Dutch doctor chooses to "terminally sedate" patients in pain without the consent of the patient or family members, "it doesn't need to be reported," according to Rob Jonquiere, a physician who heads a pro-euthanasia group, "Right to Die - Netherlands."

"We don't know," he admits, "how many doctors do that."

However many there may be, though, they are at least subtly encouraged in performing such "mercy killings" by the fact that the law in their country permits assisted suicide. "Terminal sedation" may not have similar legal sanction at present, but its goal, to be sure, is the same as the goal of assisted suicide: freeing people from pain, forever.

"Mak[ing] people happy" was how Canadian-born Dutch nurse, Lucy de Berk, referred in her diary to an unspecified secret she wrote she would take with her to the grave. She was convicted last March of murdering three terminally ill children and an elderly woman at two hospitals in The Hague.

We don't yet know what Charles Cullen's motivation may have been in having ended, as he has claimed, the lives of up to 40 patients in New Jersey and Pennsylvania hospitals over the course of his own career as a nurse. But it is certainly conceivable that he too felt he was doing a good deed in helping others in distress shuffle off this mortal coil.

Such sentiments, if not their promiscuous application, are easy to empathize with; most of us would readily act upon them ourselves for livestock or pets in terminus. At the same time, though, we maintain a deep commitment to something that Judaism has clearly and resolutely taught for thousands of years: human life is different.

Suicide is regarded by Jewish law as a sin, and "pulling the plug" of a patient on life-support machinery, even where natural death is imminent, is considered the taking of a life. All the Torah's laws, with the exception only of the three cardinal ones (idolatry, sexual immorality and murder), are put aside when life - even for a limited period - is in the balance.

Whence Judaism's exquisite valuation of even momentary human life? A likely reason lies in a recognition pondered by far too few, and far too infrequently.

It is not surprising that the terminally ill (or, as in Dutch law, even the gravely despondent) are seen in our times as prime beneficiaries of their own deaths. Ours is a culture, after all, where human worth is often measured by intellectual prowess or mercantile skills - even by things like youth or physical beauty, or the capacity to convincingly impersonate a real or fictional character, or to strongly and accurately hit, kick or throw a ball.

The too-little-pondered recognition is that the true value of men and women lies elsewhere entirely, in men and women's potential to do good things - to prepare, in fact, for an existence beyond the one we know. When that idea - self-evident to some, challenging to others - is internalized, a very different sensibility emerges.

And among the perceptions it affords is that there is immeasurable value in human life itself - even in its minutes and seconds, and even when it is fettered by infirmity, immobility or depression.

Basketball or dancing may no longer be options in the confines of a hospital bed, and even tending to one's most basic physical needs may be impossible without help. But are acts there of sheer will - like forgiveness, repentance, acceptance, commitment, love, or prayer - any harder to accomplish, or any less meaningful? Are they compromised in any way by tangles of tubes and monitors?

Not even consciousness, at least as medically defined, need hinder what humanly matters most. We choose to take electronic brain activity as evidence of being meaningfully conscious, of the ability to think and choose, and then proceed to conclude that in the absence of such evidence, those abilities must no longer exist - without a thought (at least a conscious one) of the immense tautology we have embraced.

We do not know, cannot know, when a human being is truly incapacitated - when his or her soul has been released. Only when a heart has stopped beating can we be certain that life in its truest sense has ended. And so hastening or abetting the death of even a physically or emotionally compromised human being is no less an abortion of meaningful life than gunning down a healthy, happy one.

The attitude regarding human life codified in the Netherlands today is one toward which much of contemporary Western culture, unfortunately, is slouching. It is spoken of by sophisticates as "progressive," and indeed represents a progression of sorts, away from the Jewish religious tradition that is the bedrock of we call morality and ethics. The degree to which we manage to check that progression will be the degree to which we demonstrate that we truly understand what it means to be human.

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

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Rabbi Avi Shafran

The puzzlement and surprise expressed by scientists attending the early January gathering of the American Astronomical Society in Atlanta came just as the Jewish religious world was poised to begin its communal reading of the Biblical book of Sh'mos, or Exodus. It was a timely confluence.

The astronomers' bewilderment was born of a report detailing how researchers, using data obtained from the Hubble Space Telescope, had spotted a gathering cloud of galaxies at a distance from our own (and from all others, for that matter, in keeping with the model of an expanding universe) where there should be no such things.

In the current scientific understanding of the cosmos, all that should be evident at a distance like 10.8 billion light-years are structures much less developed than the long string of clustered galaxies that were perceived. The data, according to Dr. Roberto Abraham of the University of Toronto and an investigator on the team that reported the observation, actually fits better with astronomical theories held before the rise of current models.

"If we [had] presented this to astronomers 25 years ago," he said, "they wouldn't have been surprised."

Cosmologists aren't shifting paradigms just yet, but the unexpected results serve to remind us of how much better science is at describing the present than at reconstructing the past.

Which brings us to Exodus, both the book and the event from which it takes its name: the Jewish people's liberation through the hand of G-d from enslavement in Egypt - which was followed by the receiving of the Torah at Mount Sinai.

Some might recall the Conservative rabbi in Los Angeles who, in a sermon in 2001, enthusiastically embraced what he characterized as the consensus of archeologists maintaining that a lack of physical evidence for the Exodus and subsequent events of Jewish history means they never happened. Contrary to the rabbi's claim, there is no consensus to that effect at all among historians and archeologists, notes New York University Professor Lawrence H. Schiffman. In fact, he stresses, there is "ample evidence that the Biblical account is entirely plausible." What is more, as David Hazony writes in the current issue of Azure, "The assault on the traditional biblical narrative does not bear the markings of good science."

Still and all, the Los Angeles rabbi chose to cast his lot with the nay-sayers, and to encourage his congregants to follow suit.

Whatever the reasons for his personal partiality for one set of archeologists over another, though, there is something he forgot - and it is hardly a minor concern when it comes to calling into question the veracity of the Jewish historical tradition: there is the science of what is, and the science of what was.

Disciplines like biology or chemistry or physics, in other words, where measurements can be made and suspicions tested, are one thing

But scientific pursuits that depend on speculation - where theories cannot ever be conclusively confirmed, and ideas can only be surmised, not known - are quite another.

A chemical compound can be placed under an electron microscope and its molecular structure perceived; its effects on an organism can be observed and measured, and the experiment can be repeated without limit.

But, no less than the shards of distant galaxies, those of distant times here on earth can never conclusively prove anything.

The Exodus and revelation at Sinai, the "ground zero" of the Jewish faith, were witnessed by over one million people, who solemnly entrusted their children with the account of their experience - and who swore them in turn to entrust it to their own children, and theirs to theirs, down to our own generation. That is precisely what continues to transpire every time the book of Exodus is publicly read, and at every Passover seder. And it is what undergirds the Jewish faith, Jewish law and the Jewish people.

Whether or not science can corroborate the claims of the Jewish religious tradition, Jews who trust their heritage know well the facts of their history, tragic, glorious and even miraculous.

And so, as Jews the world over prepare once again, as they have done for thousands of years, to publicly read the book of Exodus, they might well pause to recall a line from Shakespeare to any of their rabbis who might consider themselves too sophisticated to accept the Jewish historical tradition. The Bard has Hamlet tell Horatio:

"There are more things in heaven and earth... than are dreamt of in your philosophy."

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

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Rabbi Avi Shafran

Although the essay in the November 21 edition of the national Jewish weekly Forward concerned spousal abuse across the breadth of the Jewish community, the reader's first impression came from the caricature that accompanied the piece. It portrayed three obviously Orthodox men - complete with beards and hats - in the classic "see no evil, hear no evil, speak no evil" poses.

The cartoon was the paper's doing, not hers, but Carol Goodman Kaufman, the author of the essay and a visiting scholar at the Brudnick Center on Violence and Conflict at Northeastern University, did focus at some length on the Orthodox Jewish community and on what she perceives to be Jewish religious law's sanction for the mistreatment of women.

She cited the tragedy of Orthodox women whose estranged husbands refuse to provide them the divorce document they need to marry again. Such cases, though rare, are indeed tragedies; and the fact that Jewish religious law generally requires a willful granting of divorce can certainly be misused by an unscrupulous husband, no less than a jetliner can be hijacked by a terrorist.

Husbands who are violent toward their wives are terrorists in their own right, and without question there are some such people in the Jewish community also. But Dr. Kaufman seems to place the blame not on miscreants but on Judaism. She misreads the revered Jewish 12th century decisor/doctor/philosopher Maimonides as permitting men to strike their wives; she charges that many Orthodox rabbis are "unsympathetic" toward, and even "humiliating" of, women and that rabbis do not address spouse abuse from their pulpits; and she implies that domestic violence is particularly tolerated in the Orthodox community, where women have defined roles and, presumably, are put, by any means, in their place.

The citation of Maimonides is risible. What the sage wrote is that a woman (like a man) who is in contempt of court may be forced, even by threat of lashes, to comply with contractual obligations (other commentaries disagree that a woman is subject to such penalties). Dr. Kaufman misread the Hebrew word that means "they may force," clearly referring to a court's justices, as "he may force," referring, presumably, to a husband. (Although many might find corporal punishment less enlightened than the imprisonment most modern societies employ as deterrents, the contention is certainly arguable; Jewish law, in any event, favors the former.) Maimonides, needless to say, would be flabbergasted to hear his words so grievously misrepresented.

All the Orthodox rabbis I am privileged to know are exquisitely sensitive toward women, as they are toward men. They don't, in fact, perceive the two genders to be adversaries, and consider every case where there is marital conflict entirely on its own merits. And while they do not generally refer from the pulpit to physical abuse, they most certainly speak, and often, about the deep Jewish mandate to constantly love and respect one's spouse.

I remember vividly how, at an Agudath Israel of America national convention in 1995, before an audience of thousands, the late, revered Council of Torah Sages member Rabbi Avrohom Pam, of blessed memory, spoke of the atmosphere of "harmony and sweetness" that a Jewish home must have, that Jewish children must take in with every breath if they are to spiritually thrive.

To be sure, there are marriages that fail. With visible anguish, Rabbi Pam spoke of homes not infused with Jewish harmony, homes infected by the larger world's propensity for rudeness and outright malice. "Where," he asked, "is the feeling for the mother of one's own children, for the father of one's own children?" Even when there is no realistic hope that a marriage can be saved, he added, even when a husband and wife must go their separate ways, the two must part "without hatred, without warring."

Anyone who takes words like those - which are echoed by Orthodox rabbis constantly - with any degree of seriousness would be rendered virtually incapable of abusing his or her spouse, or of tolerating spousal abuse by others.

Dr. Kaufman has no studies or statistics to the contrary; none exist. What there are, though, are experts in the field.

While he notes that there surely are reprobates within any community as large as the Orthodox one, Dr. Meir Wikler, former professor at Yeshiva University's Wurzweiler School of Social Work and currently a psychotherapist in private practice, maintains that he and his colleagues who work in the Jewish community have found strikingly less spouse abuse among Orthodox Jews than in the broader Jewish community and non-Jewish society.

Which shouldn't surprise. Rabbi Pam, after all, was not introducing a concept but echoing one.

Orthodox Jews, by very definition, look to the Talmud and Jewish legal codes for guidance about how to live their lives. And on the issue of how men are to treat their wives, the Talmud is quite clear. There we find the revered Rav saying: "A man should always be careful not to use words in ways that hurt his wife, for... she is easily brought to feel pain" (Bava Metzia, 59a).

Contrary to Dr. Kaufman's assertion, the issue of physical abuse is not even addressed in the Talmud. It was simply unthinkable to the rabbis of that era - as it should be to any observant Jew today.

Another Talmudic exhortation: "Rabbi Avira proclaimed: A man should always eat and drink less than his means, dress in accordance with his means, and honor his wife and children beyond his means." (Chullin, 24b).

And yet another - duly codified, incidentally, by Maimonides: a man should "love his wife like himself, and honor her more than himself" (Yevamot, 62b).

That, in the eyes of Jewish tradition and in Orthodox Jewish life, is a woman's place.

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

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Rabbi Avi Shafran

In the wake of reports (later called into question by some Catholic leaders) that Pope John Paul II has given his approval to Mel Gibson's film, "The Passion," about the crucifixion of Jesus, Catholic League director William Donohue reacted with glee, and something else.

"The pope's on board," he exulted, according to The New York Sun, and then added that critics of the movie have "two choices: They can either find a spider hole and crawl in it, or they can just keep on talking."

Mr. Donohue's use of the phrase made famous of late as a reference to Saddam Hussein's underground hiding place is deeply, if unintentionally, ironic. For, by suggesting some equivalence between critics of Mr. Gibson's film and a sadistic mass torturer and murderer who struck terror into the hearts of hundreds of thousands of men, women and children, the Catholic league leader inadvertently illustrated precisely what motivates those very critics he disdains: concern for the demonization of Jews.

What Mr. Donohue seems not to fathom is that a film about the suffering and killing of the object of Christian veneration, ostensibly at the hands of Jews, a film that was reported to be "brutally graphic, dwelling at length on a scourging scene that renders Jesus a bloody piece of flesh before he is even nailed to the cross" (The New York Times), might make Jews anxious. He seems to regard those who reacted viscerally with concern about the less-than-tender feelings the film might engender in some people as enemies of his faith.

He would do well, though, to do some looking around. While canards about Jews as well-poisoners and blood-drinkers may have long been officially abandoned by most contemporary Christians, they are still all-too-readily resilient in darker quarters. And it is the very concern that such staples of anti-Semitic drivel might be embraced anew - and employed, as in the past, as justification to malign and attack Jews - that made the release of Mr. Gibson's film so alarming a prospect for many. Mr. Donohue is welcome to feel they are wrong, and welcome to reassure them that he feels they are wrong. But what he is not welcome to do is ridicule their fears.

To be sure, Christian-Jewish relations, including Catholic-Jewish relations, have in recent decades improved immeasurably. In the years since Vatican II, Jews and Catholics have enjoyed a relationship based on good will and tolerance, despite earlier centuries of widespread anti-Semitic attitudes within Christendom and resultant Jewish resentment of Christians. And their similar approaches to a number of important contemporary societal issues have even brought about ad hoc cooperation by representatives of the Catholic Church and Jewish groups like the organization I work for, Agudath Israel of America.

But while Jews of good will have no interest in opening up old, odoriferous closets, history, with its curious habit of repeating itself, can hardly be ignored.

It cannot be denied that the religious zeal of some Christians - often comprising sizable groups - all too often begat pogroms and blood libels. Nor can there be great doubt that such sentiments played at least a part in laying the psychological groundwork for the Holocaust.

We Jews have no interest in dwelling on that past, but neither can we be enjoined to ignore or forget it.

Because - as Mr. Donohue should know - there have been all too many times in history, both ancient and modern, that Jews have in fact had to conceal themselves in "spider holes" - hiding not from justice but from violent and hate-filled men, who were all too often impelled by incendiary ideas, words or images.

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

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#&!%#$% Jew!

Rabbi Avi Shafran

It was a case of life imitating media.

Mere days after New Republic writer Gregg Easterbrook apologized for appending, for no apparent reason, the word "Jewish" to the phrase "... executives [who] worship money above all else," in an otherwise laudable denunciation of Hollywood excess, I experienced my own "anti-Semitic-slur-out-of-the-blue" moment.

The New Republic's editors also apologized for what Mr. Easterbrook (an insightful and talented observer of, among much else, religious matters) wrote in his weblog, characterizing him as a "good individual" who "erred" in writing a "bad thing." He is not, they insist, "an anti-Semite."

Indeed he may well not be, at least not in the classical sense. But the lesson of l'affaire Easterbrook, to me, is that anti-Semitism (like, likely, racism too) can sleep quietly in many an otherwise sublime soul, only to awaken and growl in moments of carelessness or anger. To be sure, the term "anti-Semite" should be reserved for those troubled souls who are obsessed with Jewish people, but the "ism" itself is nevertheless more common, if quiescent, than we might think.

My personal experience involved my Staten Island neighbor Fred, as I shall call him. My wife and I don't have much to do with Fred and Agnes, as I shall call her; they are at least a decade older than we, and if they have children, they are grown and living elsewhere. We, who are clearly identifiable as Orthodox Jews, have several children still living with us. And, in any event, I just sleep at home; like many New Yorkers, I basically live at work. But Fred and I have exchanged pleasantries, and my 13-year old son helped Fred, who isn't in great shape, shovel out from under last winter's blizzard.

What happened recently was that my 19-year-old daughter, a new driver, scratched Agnes' car's bumper while parking. Though neither Fred nor Agnes witnessed the crime (nor, likely, would have even noticed the scratch), my daughter, true to how she was raised, took pains to notify the victims. Fred seemed thankful and promised to have "his man" give her an estimate for painting over the scratch. We preferred to not file a claim and thereby court the insurance gods' wrath. When the estimate came in at over $300, I suggested to my daughter, who is without great financial resources, that she ask Fred and Agnes to please secure another estimate. They balked, to put it mildly; Agnes raved and ranted so vociferously she drove my daughter to tears. I took the phone and wasn't able to get a word in edgewise.

A bit later, Fred came to the door and demanded the name of our insurer, a request I chose not to honor. We were prepared to pay for the damage without filing a claim, but $300 just seemed a bit exorbitant for a small touch-up job; I didn't feel it was inappropriate to request a second estimate.

Fred, though, disagreed, to put it delicately. He huffed and puffed and threatened to go to the police, which I acknowledged was his prerogative, although I wasn't quite sure what the charge might be. And then, just before he stormed away, he remarked, "gahdam #&!%#$% Jew!"

As I considered if it wouldn't have been wise to just have handed him the money he had demanded, I also pondered his parting words.

Do Fred and Agnes sit around planning cemetery stone swastika-painting? I don't think so. Do they deliver Mahatir Mohammed-style speeches to each other bemoaning the Grand Jewish Conspiracy? Nah.

But deep within them (or at least Fred; I'll give Agnes the benefit of the doubt), apparently, there festers an at least latent Jew-hatred. Is it of a kind with the animus that Hitler so effectively tapped in the German people in the 1930s? I don't know, and hope never to find out. But it's not inconceivable.

Assuming that he hadn't found any relief at the police station, I left a note in Fred's mailbox the next day. I made no mention of his colorful comment and just reiterated that I was asking only for one other estimate for the job, and assured him that he would have a check in hand as soon as I could compare the two work orders.

He responded several days later by dropping off a claim estimate from own his insurance company, assigning considerably less money for the paint job but adding an additional several hundred dollars for body damage he was now claiming. It was odd that he was apparently filing an insurance claim himself but he nevertheless reiterated his demand for my daughter's $300. She, as an observant #&!%#$% Jew, paid him promptly so that the scratched area could be repainted without delay.

Unfortunately, there's another bit of damage, hidden deep within Fred, that isn't so easily repaired.


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

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Rabbi Avi Shafran

The recent conviction in an international court of three Rwandans of genocide for their media activity in inciting the murder of hundreds of thousands of Tutsis in 1994 should serve to remind us of what Jewish religious tradition has to say about words: they can be powerful and dangerous things.

That's true, though, not only when they are used to directly call for murder. Even subtleties - a unusual turn of phrase, a well-placed emphasis, a choice of adjective, a pointed omission - can turn an otherwise innocent sentence into a verbal dagger. And, in the hands of the media, into a weapon of mass destruction.

It might seem something of an overreach to proceed from that observation to what might have been an entirely innocent error on the part of The New York Times on December 2. But, innocent or not, the paper's misstatement in an important story that day belies its at-first-glance insignificance. In fact, it turns history on its head, never a harmless thing to do.

The article concerned the so-called "Geneva Accord," the independent effort of a group of Israelis and Palestinians to frame a peace agreement, despite the lack of their respective compatriots' - or governments' - sanction.

A box labeled "highlights" accompanied the article, and encased within it were the unofficial proposal's main points. Among them, that the plan would split Jerusalem into two capitals, one of Israel, the other of a Palestinian state. And that Israel would withdraw to its 1967 borders and dismantle some major settlements (allowing others to stay in Palestinian territories under Israeli protection). The proposal included, too, a Palestinian recognition of Israel as a Jewish state and (at least in theory) an end of violence and incitement against Israel. Also included among the highlights of the plan was the following paragraph:

"Israel would cede sovereignty over a flash point shrine in Jerusalem's old city known to Jews as the Temple Mount and to Muslims as the Noble Sanctuary. The site would get international monitors. Israel would retain control of the Western Wall, Judaism's holiest site."

Did you miss it? Read it again.

For starters, ever so subtly, the quote implies a nonexistent balance: the Temple Mount, of disputed status (with, presumably, equally valid claims on both sides), will be ceded to a Palestinian state, but "Judaism's holiest site" (in a clear tilt to the Jewish State) will be retained by Israel.

News flash: The Temple Mount was where King Solomon built the first of two Holy Jewish Temples nearly 1500 years before Mohammed was born. That is why the site has been called the Temple Mount for the past several millennia. To imply equal Jewish and Islamic claims to the "flash point shrine" is to distort reality itself.

And news flash II: It is that site, not the Western Wall adjacent to and below it, that has the distinction of being Judaism's holiest place. The Temple Mount, according to the Jewish religious tradition, is the very source of the holiness that imbues Jerusalem and from there emanates throughout the rest of what the Bible calls the land of the Jewish people.

To be sure, when Israel reunified Jerusalem in 1967, it declared that it had no intention of interfering with the operation of the mosques that had established themselves on the quintessentially Jewish site. (Quite a contrast, that, with Islamic treatment of suspected once-Islamic shrines now turned Hindu holy places.) And in fact, although Israeli police have occasionally had to empty the mosques when Muslim worshippers saw fit to stone Jewish worshippers at the Wall below, those Islamic places of worship have operated unmolested ever since.

As it happens, in fact, Jewish religious law doesn't even allow Jews to gratuitously ascend the Temple Mount today.

But the reason for that prohibition is instructive. So holy is the spot to Judaism, that only when the Jewish Messiah arrives will Jews be permitted to once again step on the hallowed ground where their distant forbears worshipped.

And so, whatever agreements might one day be reached between governments regarding the status of the Temple Mount, or Jerusalem, whatever political compromise might come to be embraced, one fact must never be obscured or forgotten: The Jewish people do not, indeed cannot, relinquish their soul-bond with the land, the city and the site that the Jewish religion considers deeded them by G-d Himself.

After the destruction of the second Holy Temple, the Talmud relates, Rabbi Akiva saw a fox emerge from where the Holy of Holies had stood. He responded by laughing. Challenged, he explained that the prophets had foretold both the Temple's destruction, complete with foxes trampling the holy ground, and the Jewish people's exile, as well as the eventual return of the Jews to their land through the messianic redemption. Witnessing the extent of the former's fulfillment, he explained, reassured him that the latter would no less fully come to pass.

That day, we Jews of faith believe, will indeed arrive. We do not seek to hasten it by force, but rather by virtue and merits. But it will come.

Until it does, though, whatever political concessions might be deemed necessary to protect lives, no one should be permitted to deny what is perhaps the most ancient and legitimate claim of any people on any piece of land.

Not even The New York Times.

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

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Rabbi Avi Shafran

In the wake of an investigation that revealed virulent anti-Semitism in groups it had funded for years, the Ford Foundation has expressed its regret and vowed to establish guidelines to prevent its funds from being similarly used in the future.

Unwittingly, though, the charity has set the stage for precisely more of the same, by providing $20 million dollars to the New Israel Fund.

In October, Ford Foundation officials announced that the Washington-based left-wing NIF will be empowered to choose the recipients of all Ford's funding in Israel. Ford executives pledged to direct $1 million into a New Israel Fund endowment fund, with another $19 million earmarked for expenditure over five years - with interest accruing to the NIF.

The investigation into the activities of Ford Foundation grantees, by award-winning author Edwin Black for the Jewish Telegraphic Agency, turned up blatant incitement of hatred against Jews and Israel in a number of its beneficiary groups, like the "Palestinian Committee for the Protection of Human Rights and the Environment," which played a major role in the anti-Israeli and anti-Semitic agitation in Durban in 2001.

The New Israel Fund, however, has itself long promoted a radical pro-Palestinian agenda, and has repeatedly sought to vilify Orthodox Jews - all under the guise of "human rights," "social change" and "justice." Daniel Doron, the president of an Israeli think tank, has charged that the NIF employed "vague generalities, half-truths and obfuscation to hide its [pro-Palestinian] political agenda."

Among NIF-funded groups is one called "Adalah," which sought to defend accused terrorist Marwan Barghouti after he violated Prison Authority rules by granting a media interview in which he reasserted his support for violent Palestinian "resistance" to Israeli "occupation."

Another entity that has been funded by the NIF is the "Israel-Palestine Friendship Center," which has relentlessly advocated the Palestinian "right of return" - a position that even dovish Israelis recognize would mean the end of Israel. One speaker at the Center told his listeners that "Jews exist only to drip the blood of Palestinian children into their matzas."

Yet another NIF beneficiary has been "Bat Shalom," a group that campaigned for the release of a female leader of a terrorist cell that murdered an Israeli civilian. The terrorist was lauded by Yasser Arafat as the model Palestinian woman, and refused to express any regret for the murder.

An ad in The New York Times asking readers to lobby their congressmen to protest a Knesset bill featured a smiling wounded Palestinian child with a Palestinian flag as backdrop - and, at the bottom, the words "Tax exempt-contributions... may be made through the New Israel Fund."

The NIF's essence might best be divined by the testimony of a letter-writer to the Jerusalem Post, who described how she was a "devout Zionist" until making the "haj" to Israel on a 1989 NIF study tour and had her eyes opened to the "racist contempt of the Israel government... toward Palestinians" and to how Zionism's founders wished to "cleanse [the area] of Palestinians."

The NIF has also solicited funds from American Jews to fight "the ultra-Orthodox minority" in Israel, which it characterizes as a "powerful force" with a "repugnant face" that seeks to establish a "theocratic state" in Israel. While Israel's democratically elected Orthodox political parties seek to preserve the existent standards of Jewish tradition in the Jewish State - part of the "religious status quo" in place since Israel's inception - the NIF's coloring of those parties and their constituents as aspiring ayatollahs is pure bigotry, and odiously parallels the group's portrayal of the Israeli government as a violator of human rights and worse.

Asked if the NIF would be a conduit for previous Ford Foundation's recipients that have engaged in anti-Israel activity, NIF board president Peter Edelman said no. He added that the $20 million Ford grant "comes to us in a chunk; they can't take it back." Mr. Edelman conceded that "there is a Ford Foundation representative on the advisory group," but insists that it "has no legal power. They can't make a grant, only our board can."

Some of us, though, are less than reassured. But it's not interference by the Ford Foundation that concerns us. Ford has, after all, publicly admitted its errors.

What is distressing instead is the New Israel Fund itself - and the tragic mistake the Ford Foundation has made by entrusting its grant-funding decision-making for Israel, and a huge sum of money, to an organization that knowingly and intentionally vilifies and undermines both Israel and Judaism.

A mikva, or Jewish ritual bath, effects a spiritual cleansing from the ritual impurity known as tum'ah. One way of bringing tum'ah upon oneself and thereby requiring immersion in a mikvah is physical contact with a dead rodent of certain species. The Talmud explains that before the purification can take place, the contact with the source of the impurity must end. The "purification," in other words, is a pointless process, if one "immerses with a rodent in his hand."

One can't expect Ford Foundation officials to be familiar with that Talmudic observation. But they might, all the same, still be led to realize that regretting past empowerment of hatred rings remarkably hollow if it comes hand in hand with empowering hatred anew.

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

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Rabbi Avi Shafran

Jim and Jeff's relationship is unrecognized by the law, something that deeply hurts them. Upstanding and responsible citizens, they do not seek to impose their lifestyle on anyone else, and they love and care for the children they are raising. They are, moreover, entirely heterosexual. There is a third partner in their endeavor: Jill, the common spouse they share.

Jennifer and Jack's living arrangement has also yet to receive societal sanction. They have been living together as man and wife for several years, but have, in fact, been in a different sort of loving relationship for much longer; they are mother and son.

Then there's Jerome, whose love interest is Jo-Jo. Their relationship is not only unrecognized by the state but reviled by most of their neighbors. Still, Jerome has hope for a more enlightened future, and for now suffices to profess his convictions through membership in PETA and a bumper sticker that reads "Dogs are People Too."

Had enough? It's understandable. But, unfortunately, thoughts of Jim, Jeff, Jill, Jennifer, Jack, Jerome and Jo-Jo are important to think these days, particularly in light of the Massachusetts Supreme Judicial Court's recent decision that same-sex couples in that state are, under Massachusetts' constitution, entitled to wed.

"Same-sex marriage" has become a burning continental issue. Opposition to the radical redefinition of marriage has dropped significantly among Americans in recent years, according to a Pew Research Center poll released in July. In June, the United States Supreme Court struck down a Texas sodomy law. And, that same month, the top Ontario appeals court ruled that same-gender couples have the right to "marry" in that Canadian province, and ordered the federal Canadian government to change its own definition of marriage. A British Columbia appeals court soon followed with a similar ruling, and Canadian Prime Minister Jean Chretien has submitted a proposal to legislatively redefine the meaning of marriage.

Last year, The New York Times proudly changed its "Weddings" page to a "Weddings/Celebrations" page - so that it could include same-sex couples. Though the word "marriage" was not used by the paper at first, same-sex couples who went to Canada for ceremonies are now, of course, reported by The Times as "married."

Jewish tradition's attitude toward homosexual activity is entirely clear. In the case of males, it is explicitly forbidden as "an abomination" by the Torah. The rabbis of the Talmud, moreover, taught that the formal sanctioning of homosexual unions between men was one of the causes of the biblical flood. A statement in the Talmud asserts that one of human society's redeeming qualities that has protected it from destruction has been its refusal to "write marriage documents for males [living together in homosexual relationships]."

That moral sensibility, the Talmud seems to be saying, underlies civilization itself. And while there have been exceptions - from the Canaanites of the Bible, who were banished from the Holy Land for their proclivities, to ancient Greece - most developed societies, at least until these increasingly amoral times, have considered the embrace of homosexuality to be offensive to an innate sense of what is proper and decent.

Alas, in our day, much that was once viewed with repugnance no longer is; it is in fact oddly characterized, despite all the ancient precedent, as progressive, and duly embraced and celebrated by the news media and the worlds of entertainment and fashion.

But what should give pause to even the most libertarian among us is the all-too-pertinent image of the slippery slope here. It is in fact more akin to a cliff.

The amicus curiae ("friend of the court") brief Agudath Israel of America submitted in the Texas case expressed deep concern "about the potential far-reaching consequences" of legitimizing homosexual relations. "This genie," the brief warned, "once let out of the bottle, will not easily be restrained."

Truer words were never written. While the Texas decision did not concern the redefinition of marriage, its insistence on "respect for [the] private lives" of people engaged in activities that most Americans consider immoral clearly, in the words of The New York Times' legal expert Linda Greenhouse, "anchored the gay-rights claim at issue in the case firmly in the tradition of human rights at the broadest level." It was that "background music," in Ms. Greenhouse's judgment, "that suffused the decision" of the Massachusetts Supreme Judicial Court.

And therein lies the inescapable problem. Whatever one may think about same-sex relationships, if those who choose them can demand that the law respect their "private lives," and that they receive full societal sanction, there is no logical way to avoid similar demands from others who choose to express their sexuality and formalize their relationships in even more non-traditional ways.

And, while we may not wish to think too long or hard about it, that group includes Jim, Jeff, Jill, Jennifer, Jack, Jerome and Jo-Jo.

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

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Rabbi Avi Shafran

I used to pass the fellow each morning as I walked up Broadway in lower Manhattan on my way to work. He would stand at the same spot and hold aloft, for the benefit of all passers-by, one of several poster-board and marker signs he had made. One read "I love you!" Another: "You are wonderful!" The words of the others escape me, but the sentiments were similar.

He seemed fairly normal, well-groomed and decently dressed, and he smiled broadly as he offered his written expressions of ardor to all of us rushing to our offices. I never knew what had inspired his mission, but I know that something about it bothered me.

Then one day I put my finger on it. It is ridiculously easy to profess true love for all the world, but it is simply not possible. If one gushes good will at everyone, one offers it in fact to no one at all.

By definition, love must exist within boundaries, and our love for those close to us is of a different nature than our empathy for others with whom we don't share our personal lives. And what is more, only those who make the effort to love their immediate families and friends have any chance of truly caring, on any level, about all of mankind.

Likewise, those with the most well-honed sense of concern for their own particular communities are the ones best suited to experience true empathy for people who do not share their own national, ethnic or religious identity.

The thought, it happens, is most appropriate for this time of Jewish year, as the festival of Sukkot gives way, without so much as a second's pause, to that of Shemini Atzeret. (In fact, Shemini Atzeret is often spoken of, inaccurately, as the "end" of Sukkot; in the Talmud's words, it is "a holiday unto itself.")

While most Jewish festivals tend to focus on the Jewish people and its particular historical narrative, Sukkot, interestingly, also includes something of a "universalist" element. In ancient times, the seven days of the holiday saw a total of seventy bull-sacrifices offered by the Jewish priests at Jerusalem's Holy Jewish Temple, corresponding, says the Talmud, to "the seventy nations of the world."

Those nations - the various families of the people on earth - are not written off by Jewish tradition. A mere four days before Sukkot's arrival, on Yom Kippur, Jews in synagogues around the world heard public readings of the book of Jonah, the Jewish prophet sent to preach repentance to a distant people, who, in the end, saved them from destruction. Similarly, the services and sacrifices in the central Temple in Jerusalem, the Talmud contends, brought divine blessings down upon all the world's peoples. Had the ancient Romans known just how greatly they benefited from the merit of the Temple service, the Rabbis of the Talmud remarked, instead of destroying the structure, they would have placed protective guards around it.

And yet, curiously but pointedly, Sukkot's recognition of the worth of all humanity is made real by the holiday that directly follows it, Shemini Atzeret.

The Hebrew word atzeret can mean "refraining" or "detaining," and the Talmud (Sukkah, 55b) teaches that Shemini Atzeret (literally: "the eighth day [after the start of Sukkot], a detaining") gives expression to G-d's special relationship with the Jewish people.

A parable is offered:

A king invited his servants to a large feast that lasted a number of days. On the final day of the festivities, the king told the one most beloved to him, "Prepare a small repast for me so that I can enjoy your exclusive company."

That is Shemini Atzeret, when G-d "detains" the people He chose to be an example to the rest of mankind, when, after the seventy sacrifices of the preceding seven days, a single bull, corresponding to the Jewish people, is brought on the altar.

We Jews are often assailed for our belief that G-d chose us from among the nations to proclaim His existence and to call on all humankind to recognize our collective immeasurable debt to Him.

And those who are irritated by that message like to characterize the special bond Jews feel for one another as hubris, even as contempt for others.

The very contrary, however, is the truth. The special relationship we Jews have with each other and with G-d, the relationships we acknowledge in particular on Shemini Atzeret, are what provide us the ability to truly care - with our hearts, not our mere lips or poster boards - about the rest of the world. They are what allow us to hope - as we declare in the Aleinu prayer thrice daily - that, even as we reject the idolatries that have infected the human race over history, "all the peoples of the world" will one day come to join together with us and "pay homage to the glory of Your name."

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

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Rabbi Avi Shafran

The defining element of the sukkah - the temporary dwelling in which Jews are commanded to spend a week each autumn, beginning five days after Yom Kippur - is the once-growing but now detached material that must comprise the structure's roof.

Some use untreated bamboo canes; others, mats woven for the purpose from slivers of the same material; others still, branches or leaves or thin, unfinished wooden slats. Whatever its particular identity, the stuff is called s'chach, from a Hebrew word meaning to "cover" or "hover"; the word sukkah itself refers to the same.

But there is another Hebrew word that Jewish tradition associates with the word sukkah - "socheh" - and its meaning is "to see" or "to perceive." That association would seem to imply that a sukkah somehow provides some perspective. Which, in fact, it does.

That is surely true on a mystical plane, but there is prosaic vision to be gained no less. It doesn't take inordinate sensitivity to see things a bit differently while spending a week in a small rudimentary hut, within sight of, yet apart from, one's more comfortable, more spacious home.

One realizes quickly, for example, how dependent one is on "the elements" - which, in Judaism's teaching, means how dependent on G-d's mercy. The house is nearby, and if it rains hard enough one can - indeed should - return to surer shelter. But the lesson remains, because homes aren't impervious to disruptions either, as we have witnessed all too often of late. Nature is a humbling force, or should be; that is certainly part of the perspective granted the sukkah-dweller.

But there is more. What the sukkah allows those within it to perceive, if they try, is that our homes and possessions are not what really matter. That ultimately, it is not, as the crass bumper sticker has it, "the one who dies with the most toys" who "wins." When we sit in our primitive week-house, we come to know that the accumulation of stuff we consider important is not essential. We can exist without it. It does not define us. We will not take it with us.

It may seem paradoxical, but that thought is a joyous one.

The holiday of Sukkot has happiness as its theme. In the holiday addition to the week's "silent prayer," we reference not "freedom" as on Passover, nor "the giving of our Torah" as on Shavuot, but, simply, "happiness." One might assume at first thought that depriving oneself of the comforts of home is anything but a road to joy. But one would be wrong.

For true happiness begins with the realization of what doesn't really make us happy. Possessions may provide a rush of sorts when first acquired, but that soon enough wears off, like any drug. The soul is not satiated, which is why - again, like a drug - possessions beget the desire, even the need, for yet more of the same. In the words of the Talmudic rabbis, "he who has a hundred wants two hundred." And, in another place but the same vein, "No man dies with half his desires in hand."

Need we look further than the possession-endowed of whom we all know - the movie stars, sports figures, best-selling authors, the old-moneyed and lottery-winners alike? They may zip around in Lamborghinis but their happiness quotient is no greater than that of those who take the bus. Their grand estates are no more of a home (and all too often considerably less than one) than the simplest, cozy cottage.

In the end, dependency on having as the means to fulfillment dashes all hope of truly attaining the goal.

Because true joy comes from things more rarified than what we can buy. It comes from our relationships not with things, but with other people - parents, spouses, children, friends, neighbors - our relationships with our community, and with our Creator.

And so, a deeper perspective afforded us by the sukkah may lie in the realization that, ultimately, what we really have is not what we own, but what we are - to other people and to G-d.

Which is why countless Jewish eyes will soon gaze up at bamboo slats, leaves and branches, but they will be seeing far beyond.

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

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By Rabbi Avi Shafran
As Published In Moment Magazine, February 2001

Sincere and dedicated Conservative Jews need to face an uncomfortable fact: Their movement is a failure.

To make so sweeping a statement is painful to me. I have met and been impressed with too many non-Orthodox Jews to be able to cavalierly attack the philosophy of the movement with which they affiliate. Nor do I harbor the illusion that all is well and perfect in my own Orthodox camp. Every Jew, moreover, is equally precious to me. But despite that—indeed, because of it—I feel a responsibility to be blunt, despite my pain. I hope I will be forgiven by Conservative readers for my forthrightness, but their movement is effectively defunct.

To be sure, the endowments and dedications continue unabated. Construction projects, rabbinic programs, and Jewish Theological Seminary (JTS) chairs are still well funded. But the essential goal of the entire Conservative experiment—to inspire Jews to Jewish observance—not only remains unrealized, but recedes with each passing year.

That failure has not resulted from any lack of effort. The Conservative rabbinic leadership has done all it could to set less demanding standards for Jewish religious observance, and has produced reams of paper purporting to justify them. It has established pulpits, produced rabbis, and attracted members.

But even the movement’s radically relaxed standards remain virtually ignored by the vast majority of Jews who identify as Conservative. According to the 1990 National Jewish Population Survey, a mere 29 percent of Conservative congregants buy only kosher meat. A mere 15 percent consider themselves Sabbath observant (even by Conservative standards).

A study of Conservative congregants conducted by the Jewish Theological Seminary’s Jack Wertheimer in 1996 confirmed that the movement was utterly failing to meet its most minimal goals. A majority of young Conservative-affiliated Jews polled said that it was “all right for Jews to marry people of other faiths.” And nearly three-quarters of Conservative Jews said that they consider a Jew to be anyone raised Jewish, even if his or her mother was a gentile—the official Reform position, rejected by Conservative leaders as nonhalachic. Tellingly, only about half of Conservative bar and bat mitzvah receptions were kosher, by any standard.

There are two explanations for Conservatism’s striking failure: (1) The movement is not honest, and (2) it is superfluous.

Conservative leaders are dishonest because they purport to accept and respect halachah (Jewish religious law). United Synagogue of Conservative Judaism executive vice president Rabbi Jerome Epstein, for example, proclaims, “We regard halachah as binding,” adding, admirably, that “to be committed to halachah means to live by its values and details even when we don’t like the rules or find the regulations inconvenient.”

Admirable but outrageous. The facts tell a very different story.

Take the ordination of women. The decision to ordain women was made not by halachic scholars but by a commission composed largely of laypeople. Realizing that the Talmud faculty of JTS—those most knowledgeable about the pertinent halachic sources—opposed ordaining women, the then head of the seminary, Gerson Cohen, opted to let a commission make the decision. Only one of the commission’s 14 seats was assigned to a Talmud faculty member. In a work published by JTS, Dr. Cohen is quoted as having confided to friends his intent “to ram the commission’s report down the faculty’s throats.”

More recently, Rabbi Daniel H. Gordis, acting dean of the University of Judaism’s Ziegler School of Rabbinic Studies, admitted that “the Conservative Movement allows its laity to set its religious agenda.” That approach may be pragmatic, even democratic, but it is not even arguably halachic.

Only half of JTS rabbinical students polled in the 1980s, moreover, said they consider “living as a halachic Jew” to be an “extremely important” aspect of their lives as Conservative rabbis.

Halachah receives lip service, at best, from the Conservative leadership. In late 1997, for instance, the dean of JTS’s rabbinical school, facing the wrath of outraged students, reassessed a letter he had written proscribing premarital and homosexual sex. It had been, Rabbi William H. Lebeau insisted after the uproar, only a “personal statement, not a matter of policy.”

Conservative leaders’ attitudes toward same-sex relationships are a particularly timely and telling window into the movement’s true feelings about halachah. There is an undeniable halachic prohibition—in the case of men, an explicit verse in the Torah—against homosexual activity. Officially, the movement is still on record as prohibiting it; however, Rabbi Joel Meyers, executive vice president of the Conservative Rabbinical Assembly, has admitted that “there has always been a group within the RA that haq been consistently agitating for a change in halachah” concerning how practicing homosexuals should be regarded.“Changing” a verse in the Torah is about as blatant an abandonment of halachah as can be imagined.

Indeed, the process of changing halachah on this issue has already begun. For starters, the movement’s 1996 decision affirming the Torah’s prohibition of male homosexual activity contained a striking dissent rejecting the Torah’s characterization of such male activity as an abomination. The movement considers such dissenting opinions to be legitimate options for Conservative Jews.

Some Conservative rabbis already are officiating at same-sex ceremonies without jeopardizing their standing in the Rabbinical Assembly, according to Rabbi Meyers. Conservative Rabbi Phil Graubart has even insisted that he is “committed to halachic creativity regarding homosexuality precisely because I’m in the Conservative movement.” The former rector of the movement’s University of Judaism in Los Angeles, Rabbi Elliot Dorf, has openly endorsed the blessing of “gay unions.” He predicts that as time goes on, “there will be an increasing number of Conservative rabbis who will look forward to affirming same-sex unions.” All evidence considered, this does not seem an unreasonable expectation.

The bottom line is clear: At the same time that Conservative leaders are waving the banner of halachah, they are effectively ignoring it. Whether the issue is sexuality or Shabbat, the Conservative claim of fealty to traditional Jewish religious law seems little more than a figurative fig leaf, strategically positioned to prevent the exposure of the Conservative movement as nothing more than a timid version of Reform.

Halachah evolves, Conservative spokesmen protest; and in a certain sense it does. There is often a plurality of halachic opinions in a given case, they insist; and indeed there is. But for those who accept Judaism’s millennia-old conviction that the Torah and the key to its understanding, the Oral Law, are of divine origin, there are clear rules (part of the Oral Law itself) for applying halachic principles to new situations, and ample precedents delineating when legitimate halachic latitude crosses the line into dissembling. And objectivity is the engine of the halachic process.

The law of probability leads us to expect that there will be times when the halachic result will be more lenient than one might expect, and other times when it will be more demanding. Tellingly, though, and practically without exception, Conservative “reinterpretations” of Jewish law have entailed permitting something previously forbidden. Whether the subject was driving a car on the Sabbath, the introduction of “egalitarian” services, or the Biblical prohibition of certain marriages, the “reevaluations” have virtually all, amazingly, resulted in new permissions. That is a clear sign not of objectivity but of agenda, of a drastically limited interest in what the Torah wants from us and a strong resolve to use it as a mere tool to promote personal beliefs. Whatever merit such an approach might have to some, it is diametric to what Jewish tradition considers the true Jewish response: As our ancestors declared at Sinai, “ Na’aseh v’nishma, We will do and (then endeavor to) hear.”

Honest Conservative intellectuals admit the movement’s disconnect from halachah. Conservative rabbi and respected scholar David Feldman put it succinctly: “Knowing how valiantly the Jewish Theological Seminary and the Conservative Movement have striven to hold halachah as our guide, we mourn all the more the surrender of that effort.” Rabbi J. Simcha Roth, a current member of the Halachah Committee of the Conservative movement’s Israeli affiliate, Masorti, has referred to its American counterpart’s acceptance of Jews driving vehicles on the Sabbath as “untenable sub specie halachah.” At the 1980 convention of the Rabbinical Assembly, influential Conservative rabbi Harold Kushner put it even more bluntly: “Is the Conservative movement halachic?” he asked. “ It obviously is not.”

As early as 1955, historian Marshall Sklare declared that Conservative “rabbis now recognize that they are not making [halachic] decisions or writing responsa but merely taking a poll of their membership.”

In short, while proclaiming fealty to halachah, the movement’s leaders have brazenly trampled the very concept.

To explain why the movement is not only dishonest but superfluous requires some historical perspective. The Conservative movement was created not, as many assume, as a liberal alternative to Orthodoxy but as a conservative (its name, after all) reaction to Reform. In the 1800s leaders of the Historical School—the forerunner of what became the Conservative movement—minced no words in protesting the radical attitudes of some elements in the Reform movement. When the latter declared the laws of kashrut (which they derided as “kitchen Judaism”) obsolete, and when special services were held on Sunday, leading Historical School rabbis vehemently objected. The adoption in 1885 of the Reform movement’s first official manifesto, the Pittsburgh Platform, was the real impetus behind the birth of the Conservative movement.

Why did the founders of the Conservative movement discount Orthodoxy as an effective means of countering the innovations of Reform? Why did they feel the need to create what they hoped would be, in effect, a new Orthodoxy?

The answer is simple: They expected the “old” Orthodoxy—European-style Orthodox Judaism—to vanish. As a result of its stubborn refusal to tailor Jewish practice to the mores of the surrounding culture, Orthodoxy would simply boil away like so much overheated chicken soup in the American melting pot. Orthodoxy simply lacked the stamina, the assumption went, to confront the scientific, social, and technological challenges looming on the horizon of the 20th century.

The Conservative movement thus envisioned itself as a safety net—designed to break the fall of Jews committed to Jewish tradition when Orthodoxy inevitably vanished—and as a means of conserving Jewish religious practice in the face of the threat posed by the Reform movement.

This is not the place to detail the strengths of contemporary Orthodoxy. Obviously it has not vanished. Despite the many challenges and problems it faces, Orthodoxy is strong and growing, both in numbers and in intensity of observance. While no more than ten percent of the American Jewish population is Orthodox, eighty percent of Jewish day-school students are Orthodox. And considerable numbers of Jews who were not raised Orthodox have become part of the Orthodox community, including scientists, academics, and other highly accomplished intelligentsia. Halachic observance in the Orthodox community is stronger than at any time in American history.

Those Jews in the Conservative movement who, regrettably, have no interest in halachah will increasingly come to see the Reform movement as an attractive and logical option. Those Jews are, in effect, already Reform Jews. The Reform movement provides the license they seek, without any discomfiting talk of religious law. And in light of the Reform movement’s recent reconsideration of its historical rejection of traditional Jewish praxis, a Reform synagogue will become an even more comfortable place for Conservative Jews unconcerned with halachah to hang their kippot.

That is only half the reason Conservative Judaism is superfluous. The other half relates to Conservative Jews who do have regard for Jewish law. For those—and I believe there are many—who are honestly dedicated to halachah and Jewish religious tradition, the challenge will be to face the manifest fact that their affiliation is at undeniable and hopeless odds with their ideals. They may well decide to become part of the only Jewish community that actually does espouse their ideals: the Orthodox.

To be sure, the challenge will be a formidable one. After years, in many cases lifetimes, of sitting with their spouses and children during services, of hearing women leading prayers and chanting from the Torah, of driving to shul on Shabbat, halachicaly committed Conservative Jews will not find it easy to enter what will surely seem a somewhat alien world. Its unfamiliarity, however, is only a reflection of just how far the Conservative movement has drifted from genuine halachic observance over the decades.

The open-minded and determined, however, will soon come to understand that the truly Jewish time for sitting with one’s family is—as it has been among Jews for millennia—Friday nights at the Shabbat table, and that the Jewish time for driving and other acts prohibited on the Sabbath is from Saturday night until Friday afternoon.

Having the courage to recognize misjudgements is a laudable and inherently Jewish trait; the Talmud sees it in the very root of the name Judah from which the word Jew derives. Thus, many are the once-Conservative Jews who have blazed a trail of return to a halachic lifestyle. Others will surely follow.

I pray that my own world will, in turn, meet its own challenge: to be ready to warmly welcome all Jews into our shuls and into our lives. Here, too, there is a well-blazed trail—and much cause for optimism.

Because Ahavat Yisrael, love for fellow Jews, is not only a sublime concept and an underpinning of the Jewish people, it is part of the halachah—something Jews committed to their religious tradition know is God’s desire.

1. Jerome Epstein, “To Be Committed to Halacha,” Rochester Jewish Ledger (Sept. 17, 1998).

2. Tradition Renewed—A History of the Jewish Theological Seminary of America (Jewish Theological Seminary, 1997), vol. 2, p. 502.

3. Review of The Seminary at 100, in Conservative Judaism (summer 1998) p. 82.

4. “Battle Over Sex Sizzling at JTS,” Forward, (Nov. 7, 1997).

5. Eric J. Greenberg, “Activists Renew Fight for Gay Ordination,” New York Jewish Week (Apr. 9, 1999).

6. “Schorsch Faces Down Students in Stormy Session on Gay Rabbis,” Forward (April 2, 1999).

7. Julie Wiener, “Patrilineal Descent More Divisive than Reform’s Vote on Gay Unions,” Jewish Telegraphic Agency (April 2, 2000).

8. The back page, Jerusalem Report, (June 7, 1999), p. 56.

9. E.J. Kessler, “California Rabbis Back Gay Vows,” Forward, (June 12, 1998).

10. “Rabbis Sign Declaration on Sexual Morès,” Forward (Feb. 4, 2000).

11. David Feldman, “Her Majesty’s Loyal Opposition,” Conservative Judaism (fall 1995), p. 39.

12. Marshall Sklare, Conservative Judaism—An American Religious Movement, (n.p., 1955). p. 237.

© MOMENT 2001

Rabbi Shafran responds to the critism of his controversial article:

I am sorry for any unnecessary pain my article in the February issue of Moment may have caused. Some of the pain, to be sure, was inevitable in an essay whose very thesis-that the Conservative movement claims but does not demonstrate fealty to halachah-would surely distress the movement's faithful. But I intended only to provoke thought, not to insult, and if any phrases I used were unnecessarily sharp, I regret them. I likewise regret not having objected even more vociferously than I did when Moment's editors insisted on calling my piece "The Conservative Lie."

And I concede Rabbi Samuel Fraint's point ("The Truth about Conservative Judaism," p. 55) that most of my observations have already been made, with more devastating force and painful insight than I could ever muster, by respected critics within the Conservative movement itself. The fact that I merely catalogued and elaborated on existent criticisms, though, hardly undermines my article's thesis.

But I must take strong objection to the claim, by both Rabbi Jerome Epstein ("Authentic Judaism," April 2001) and Rabbi Fraint, that I attacked Conservative Jews. God forbid! My criticisms were directed at the "Conservative movement"-at an ideology, not people. Like those who have critiqued the movement from within, I too offered my analysis "in pain and with a view to correct and improve"-not, as Rabbi Fraint charges, "to tear down and destroy." Because Jews are Jews, all of us are brothers and sisters, children of One Father, bound by the very same historical covenant and responsible for one another's welfare. But true responsibility and ahavat Yisrael (love for fellow Jews) do not preclude the articulation of painful truths; they demand it. To the substance of my article. Rabbis Epstein and Fraint make a number of points and claims: that the Conservative movement is not failing, that there are different approaches to many issues of halachah, that we cannot feel privy to God's will, that the modern social sciences deserve a role in the evaluation of contemporary halachah, that Conservative law does not exclusively yield leniencies, that I cited quotations out of context, and that my article will never achieve "the wholesale defection of Conservative Jews" to Orthodoxy. I thank them-and Moment-for the opportunity to clarify and elaborate my original points.

The Conservative "failure" to which I referred was quite explicit in my article-not, as Rabbi Epstein would have it, a failure to amass members, fill camps, or even attend synagogues, but to inspire Jewish observance. While attending Sabbath and holiday services is praiseworthy without question, so is (for one of many examples) observance of the Torah's family purity laws.

Does the Conservative clergy regularly address those laws? Or apprise their congregants about the intricacies of the acts forbidden on the Sabbath? Or about the biblical commandment to read the Shema twice a day? Or about the proper blessings to make on the variety of available foods? Myriad halachic responsibilities (and not only those that Conservative scholars have declared "no longer applicable") are ignored entirely by not only much of the movement's laity, who can hardly be blamed, but by most of their rabbis. That observation is rendered not as an insult but as a straightforward illustration of the Conservative movement's failure to promote halachic observance.

And failure is hardly an inappropriate word for a Jewish movement when a majority of its young adults, despite the efforts of their synagogues, schools, and camps, say it is "all right for Jews to marry people of other faiths." My article explicitly acknowledged that there is often a plurality of halachic opinions in a situation, today as in talmudic times. There are also variant minhagim, or customs, like most of the examples Rabbi Epstein cites (how long to space milk meals from meat meals, whether rice may be consumed on Passover, etc.), as well as a variety of standards, as in the case of kashrut certifications. But, as I also noted, there are clear limitations, too. Consider, hypothetically, a decision permitting leavened bread on Passover or a kashrut agency providing an imprimatur to honeyed ham. Clearly, such decisions would not be alternate "interpretations" of halachah but rather evidence of its abandonment.

Consider now the hardly hypothetical case of driving to shul on Shabbat. Anyone familiar with the Talmud and the copiously codified laws of the Sabbath knows that only danger to human life can permit violation of the Sabbath. To invoke a perceived need to attend services as sufficient reason to commit one of the day's forbidden labors (combustion, which propels a motor vehicle) is an "interpretation" of halachah on the order of the leavened bread or honeyed ham examples above-as are other Conservative innovations like permitting biblically proscribed marriages or jettisoning entire portions of the Jewish prayer service.

In other words, the Conservative movement's leaders, despite their pledge of allegiance to halachah, have ventured far from the world of Hillel and Shammai's disagreements, which were based on objective, if different, readings of the Written and Oral Torah traditions. They are instead in the realm of Reform, which openly admits that it decides which laws it wishes to retain and which it chooses to discard. The Conservative movement wants to have its "halachah" and beat it, too.

This, I reiterate, is dishonest. A telling phrase is buried in a statement deriding my article that was signed by no fewer than 10 Conservative organizations (Forum Extra, April 2001). It characterized the "ancient precepts of Oral and Written [Torah] law" as "divinely inspired human creations." This is not an evolution of Jewish faith but a revolution. For while the Jewish people are charged with producing objective scholars to interpret and apply Jewish religious law, the basics of that law-the essence of the Jewish religious tradition-are from God Himself. That is the conviction that our collective ancestors since Sinai stood ready to defend with their lives. Once that conviction-and even the text of the Torah itself-is downgraded to mere "inspiration," a "human creation," our religious heritage has been audaciously betrayed. Why should we feel any less "inspired" to rewrite the law according to our own creative inclinations?

To be sure, Jewish scholars have always applied the Torah's teachings to contemporary issues. But the sine qua non of that process has been to approach halachah objectively, not to try to make it yield predetermined results. Hillel most certainly did not respect every opinion as legitimate. He accepted Shammai's opinions as legitimate, and Shammai accepted Hillel's, because each knew that the other, even if he disagreed with him, was motivated by the objective quest to discern God's will, not to impose his own. By the evidence and admission of Conservative leaders, that is simply not the case regarding Conservative decisions.

Tellingly, Rabbi Fraint's examples of Conservative "halachic stringencies," like banning smoking, abandoning mechitza, and embracing "political Zionism," coincide with contemporary sensibilities. What one does not find are any Conservative rulings that assert the timeless authority of Jewish law over popular notions of social propriety or personal convenience. Halachah does indeed allow in many cases for the factoring in of scientific information to help determine the law. A doctor, for instance, determines whether a medical condition is life-threatening, in order to permit Sabbath desecration or eating on Yom Kippur, as the Talmud states clearly. And when halachic experts evaluate new technologies, they routinely consult with those most knowledgeable in the field.

But all that is a far cry from contending that whatever a contemporary discipline holds true can affect the legitimacy of any given halachah. Historians may assert that halachic practices (like mechitza) are recent inventions. Psychologists may say that homosexual relations are proper, or contend that pre- or extra-marital relations are normal parts of the human condition. Sociologists may well feel that intermarriage between Jews and non-Jews is a sociologically healthy practice. Nutritionists may declare the strictures of kashrut inconsistent with healthy dietary practices. And pediatricians may one day decide that circumcision is not healthy. None of those judgments, however, render the Torah's laws in any way amended.

And just as science is not halachah, scientists are not halachists. Rabbi Fraint calls me to task for calling members of a Conservative commission charged with exploring a halachic issue "laymen" when, he insists, they included doctors and lawyers. I used "lay," though, to mean "lacking expertise in halachah." Few of us would employ an otolaryngologist to assist in foot surgery, much less in preparing a legal brief. And the commission's decision-making body included people lacking any expertise in halachic methodology or precedent-literature.1 The charge that I quoted Conservative leaders misleadingly or out of context is simply false. Every quotation I cited reflected precisely what its pronouncer intended. That one of them regards himself as "left wing," as Rabbi Fraint contends, is of no import at all; the rabbi was assessing not himself but his movement. Whether he was applauding or bemoaning is irrelevant; he was clearly describing.

In Conservative Judaism, Conservative Rabbi Daniel H. Gordis, eloquently bemoans the fact that "the Conservative movement allows its laity to set its religious agenda" and asserts that Conservative leaders like Rabbi Ismar Schorsch seem "to pay an inordinate amount of attention to their perceived sense of what the laity wants." He wrote that in 1994 as part of a preface for an ambitious program aimed at changing the situation. But seven years later, no one can plausibly claim that the scenario has improved. Rabbi Epstein accuses me of having "written off" 95 percent of contemporary Jews. Were that the case, God forbid, I would not have written my article. Quite the contrary, I have great trust in the Jewish spirit-and much experience with Jews who have come from places far from Orthodoxy to full halachic observance. Defining Judaism down is not only dishonest; it is unnecessary.

Orthodox Jews-including we haredim, whom Rabbi Epstein seems particularly to disdain-do indeed "welcome the individual Jew at whatever level of observance we find him or her." Let any Jew try the "Sabbath meal test"-enter any Orthodox shul on Friday night or Saturday morning and approach anyone present, introduce himself or herself as a Conservative, Reform, or secular Jew (or the head of a non-Orthodox movement), and ask to join the Orthodox Jew's family for the Sabbath meal. The response will say it all.

And ask Orthodox women about the accusation that halachic practice relegates them to "secondary status." The overwhelming response will be that halachah invests women with unparallelled dignity and entrusts them with nothing less than the Jewish future. As to what, as Rabbi Epstein wonders, I "was hoping to achieve" with my article, my hopes were openly declared in the piece itself. Not the "wholesale defection of Conservative Jews" to Orthodoxy, but something more modest: to help Conservative Jews already committed to halachah see that "their affiliation is at undeniable and hopeless odds with their ideals," and to invite them to explore the broad and variegated but halachah-committed Orthodox world.

And as it happens, I have heard from many such Jews. One, "struggling for years" in the Conservative movement, wrote of his deep appreciation of what he characterized as a "thoughtful article" and confided that he had "shared it with several of my Conservative friends who are intelligent and open-minded." The piece, he wrote, "opened their eyes."

Another Conservative correspondent characterized his leaders' intemperate responses to my article as only "highlight[ing] your message that the movement is failing."

"If we were strong," he continued, "we would not be threatened by your article or anyone who believes Conservative theology is flawed. It is because we know that you are right and that our leaders are lying to themselves."

A cantor in a Conservative congregation wrote to encourage me to write further on the subject. "The [leaders of the] Conservative movement," he averred, "have sold themselves down the road to political correctness and expediency."

A group of ninth-graders in a nondenominational Jewish school in Pennsylvania who had originally (as part of a class project) written me angry letters about my article, eagerly accepted my offer to visit their school to talk with them and their teachers. The school's administration, though, vetoed my visit.

It struck me that they were simply afraid-afraid that their students might be receptive to my critique of Conservatism; that they might actually be influenced toward Orthodoxy. And I wonder whether a similar fear might explain the hysterical hyperbole with which some Conservative leaders greeted my article-fear and frustration over what Rabbi Epstein himself once publicly admitted: that "many of the most committed products of our movement end up joining Orthodox synagogues."

Many Conservative Jews are ripe for a serious examination of their movement's commitment to halachah. I simply hope to provide them with some facts. And to have the open-minded and determined among them realize that-as my chosen title for my original article declared-it's time to come home.

Footnote 1

I was, I admit, unaware that the Conservative rule allowing a dissenting opinion requires the opinion to have garnered a certain minimum of votes. My assumption otherwise, however, was hardly essential to my argument that the ground is clearly being prepared for an acceptance of homosexual lifestyles.

And why Rabbi Fraint sees an Orthodox rabbi claiming to be homosexual as pertinent to the question of whether halachah permits homosexual acts is unclear to me. Any "Orthodox rabbi" claiming that halachah sanctions such acts is, ipso facto, not Orthodox in belief.

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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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