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ARSON'S VARIED USES
The recent attack on Conservative and Reform institutions in Israel were grievous violations of Jewish law and values. Period.
And yet, some of the comments that followed in their wake provide an object lesson in how the misdeeds of individuals are allowed, and sometimes used, to distort the debate over religious pluralism.
For one thing, the recent attacks are being taken by some as license to convey the message, subtly or otherwise, that many in the Orthodox community side, albeit quietly, with the arsonists. When Conservative leader Rabbi Ehud Bandel says he believes "that in the yeshiva grass roots there are people who are rethinking the situation and are embarrassed," behind the superficially conciliatory words lies the deft, and patently false, insinuation that significant numbers of yeshiva-oriented Orthodox have until now supported the use of violence against his movement - and that many who are not "rethinking the situation" still do.
Conservative Rabbi Reuven Hammer is far less subtle than his colleague. He asserts that there is "absolutely no question that these [attacks] have their roots in the inflammatory... rhetoric attacking the non-Orthodox movements..."
These spokesmen's statements are disturbing for their supreme certitude. No perpetrators in the recent cases have even been apprehended, and one would think that experiences like the string of black church burnings in the mid-'90s would have taught us that the "obvious" suspects are sometimes not the true culprits.
Equally disconcerting about these statements is how they seek to tar an entire community of hundreds of thousands of fellow Jews with a broad brush. For a more accurate picture of what the overwhelming majority of Orthodox Jews think about violence even in the face of incitement, Rabbis Bandel and Hammer might do well to consider an incident at last year's prayer gathering in Jerusalem, which drew between a quarter and one half million participants. A videotape of the event shows a secular couple, the woman dressed in a way that might have once made a sailor blush, holding hands as they work their way through the massive sea of praying Orthodox men (on a reporter's dare, the lady later explained.) They were entirely ignored by the huge throng.
But the most painful aspect of the official non-Orthodox reaction to the attack is the attempt to milk it for political mileage by portraying violence against fellow Jews as the unavoidable outgrowth of a sincerely-held rejection of pluralism. Thus, Conservative spokesman Rabbi Jerome Epstein believes that the attacks are "a result of a society that has permitted... an approach to pluralism that is so negative..." The Conservative and Reform mantra equating anti-pluralism and pro-violence has been embraced by the media to the point where even the Jerusalem Post's rather even-handed editorial on the topic included the claim that the "refusal to recognize other legitimate streams of Judaism creates an atmosphere that may have led to the attack."
Rabbi Hammer claims that "no fervently Orthodox leader has expressed outrage publicly at the vandalism." In fact, Orthodox representatives such as Chief Rabbi Lau, Shas chairman Yair Peretz and Am Echad's Jonathan Rosenblum, among others, have spoken up loudly and clearly to condemn the arson attack.
Those condemnations, no matter how emphatic, will not satisfy Rabbi Hammer. What he really wants is some concession by the Orthodox that it is the withholding of "legitimacy from non-Orthodox streams in Judaism that lays the foundation for such [attacks]." He insists that Orthodox leaders "set up an appointment to meet with non-Orthodox rabbis immediately" or "pay a visit to the Masorti synagogue."
Such steps, of course, can then be trumpeted as a quasi-acceptance of the legitimacy of the non-Orthodox movements. To use a tragic incident in this way should be unthinkable, but some apparently believe that even a temple torching must be spun in the service of a greater "pluralistic" goal.
And indeed, even after Rabbi Lau took pains to stress that his condemnation of the attack "has no connection to our opinions on the issue of the Judaic streams", the Jewish Telegraphic Agency's story reporting on his remarks was headlined "Faint readings of pluralism detected in reaction to Israel synagogue arson."
But linking the specter of intra-Jewish violence with the conceptually distinct issue of pluralism is simply unfair. It is neither logically nor religiously inconsistent to view the "multi-Judaisms" model as fallacious while, at the same time, unequivocally vilifying those who would use violence against advocates of pluralism.
Supporters and opponents of pluralism in Israel desperately need to find things they can agree upon. Let a resolve to keep the utter rejection of violence against other Jews above the ideological fray be one of them.
[Eytan Kobre is a lawyer residing in Queens and part of Am Echad's pool of writers]
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DECLARATION OF INDEPENDENCE
The U.S. Department of Education recently sponsored a conference in Washington, at which I was privileged to speak, commemorating the 75th anniversary of a Supreme Court ruling that (in my admittedly narrow view) may well be the most important judicial decision in the history of the United States. And, legal significance aside, looking back at the case of Pierce v. Society of Sisters three-quarters-of-a-century later offers some important insights into a subject of critical contemporary relevance.
At issue in Pierce was a 1922 Oregon law that required all elementary school children within the state to attend public school. The good people of Oregon, it appears, were concerned about the influx of immigrants into their fair state - many of whom were of the Catholic faith and sent their children to Catholic parochial schools. The anti-Catholic Protestant majority did not take well to the prospect that significant numbers of future Oregonians would be committed Catholics, and they recognized that the best way to ensure that immigrant children would be weaned away from their parents' despised religious lifestyle would be to insist that all children across the state be educated exclusively in a public school setting.
The Supreme Court rejected this effort at what Yale Law School's Stephen Carter has termed "Protestantism masquerading as patriotism." Citing "the liberty of parents and guardians to direct the upbringing and education of children under their control," the Court struck down the Oregon statute as unconstitutional. In so doing, the Justices rebuked Oregon's heavy-handed attempt to force all children into one cookie-cutter mold:
"The fundamental theory of liberty upon which all governments in this Union repose excludes any general power of the State to standardize its children, forcing them to accept instruction from public teachers only. A child is not the mere creature of the State; those who nurture him and direct his destiny have the right, coupled with the high duty, to recognize and prepare him for additional obligations."
The Supreme Court's ruling in Pierce established the absolute right of parents to educate their children in independent non-public schools. It is unlikely that the Justices were animated by the vision of the cheder child reciting his first Torah verses - but 75 years later, if Dr. Marvin Schick's recent "Census of Jewish Day Schools in the United States" for the AVI CHAI Foundation speaks of approximately 700 Jewish elementary and secondary schools across America, with enrollments of some 200,000 students - may there be many more - we can directly attribute this tremendous growth of Jewish education in the United States to the equal rights we as Americans enjoy to educate our children in settings other than the local public school.
What is especially noteworthy about the Pierce case is the recognition, both by the Oregon law's proponents and by the Supreme Court, that public schools are the most powerful agent of assimilation a society has to offer. Such assimilation, the Court ruled, may not be compelled. But it is still available to parents who choose it. And therein lies the lesson for our time.
Historically, Jews have always been outsiders, never fully integrated in any society in which they have lived. Jewish Sages over the ages have taught us that this is as it should and must be, that remaining separate from the surrounding society is ultimately the key to our survival within that society.
But this lesson has not been easily absorbed. On the surface, it is counterintuitive. After all, if Jews are the targets of persecution, and even of holocaust, would not logic seem to compel a strategy of shedding the identity of outsider, of assimilating into the broader majority culture?
Little wonder that so many Jewish immigrants to the United States, escaping the ghettos and pogroms and concentration camps of Europe, and encountering barriers to Jewish advancement in this country, were so anxious to ensure that their children would be part of the great American mainstream. Little wonder that they rushed to enroll their children in the very finest public schools, where they would mingle with other children, be accepted by other children, and ultimately become largely indistinguishable from other children. Little wonder that the mainstream secular Jewish establishment emerged as perhaps the most articulate champion of public education, the most vociferous opponent of support for religious education.
The strategy of embracing public education as the assimilationist savior of future generations of American Jews has worked all too well. Jews in the United States, by and large, have overcome barriers of all types, to the point where they have become accepted in virtually every nook and cranny of American society. Anti-Semitism has not gone away, but on balance one would conclude that American Jews are now insiders, no longer outsiders.
And, G-d forbid, they are at risk of disappearing. The American melting pot, whose fires were stoked at the doors of the public schools, has robbed the large bulk of American Jewry of the religious identity and heritage that is our most precious possession.
The seventy-fifth anniversary of Pierce should serve as a reminder to the larger American Jewish community that public schooling, whatever its academic or other merits, is a tool of assimilationist destruction. To opt for public education as opposed to religious education is, as the Supreme Court wrote, to opt for "standardize[d] children."
All thoughtful Jews today must ask themselves: At this precarious point in our people's history, are those the types of children American Jewry should be producing?
[David Zwiebel is Agudath Israel of America's Executive Vice President for Government and Public Affairs]
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A TISHA B'AV MEMORY
Rabbi Avi Shafran
Every year, Tisha B'Av brings back a personal memory, of a conversation that took place more than two decades ago on the outskirts of a non-religious kibbutz in the Galil, on a hill overlooking a lush valley.
The teen-aged cousins, one born and bred on the kibbutz, the other an American newcomer to the Holy Land on a short visit before the start of his yeshiva's academic term, had first met only days earlier.
They had been speaking about family, personal experiences, and sundry things their very different lives nevertheless had in common. And then, the observant boy mentioned, entirely en passant, the imminence of the Jewish fast day known as Tish'a B'Av.
"We don't observe that holiday on the kibbutz," his cousin pointed out. "The Temple's destruction just isn't relevant to our lives here."
The American boy hesitated for a long moment before asking, "Do you observe any Jewish day of mourning?"
"Sure," came the reply. "Yom HaShoah."
Another pause, this one longer. The yeshiva student knew that the national day of Jewish mourning, Tish'a B'Av, on one level encompassed every tragedy in Jewish history, that not only was the first Jewish Holy Temple destroyed on that day (2420 years ago), and the second one, (1930 years ago), on the very same day, but that the rebel Jewish forces at Betar were annihilated by the Romans on it as well.
He knew, too, that the expulsion of Jews from England in 1290, and from France in 1306 and from Spain in 1492 all happened on Tish'a B'Av as well. He also knew that what was quite arguably the true genesis of what would culminate in Germany's "Final Solution" - the First World War - began on Tish'a B'Av. But somehow it didn't seem the right time for a history lesson.
So, instead, he asked his cousin, "Is your commemoration of the Holocaust really important to you?"
"Absolutely," came the reply. "The Holocaust underlies our very identity as Israelis and as Jews."
The American weighed the wisdom of actually saying what he wanted so to say. He decided the blood-bond was strong enough to handle it.
"Will you expect your children to pay its memory the same respect that you do?"
"To feel the same sorrow, to have the same determination that you do?"
"Of course," the Israeli replied. "My generation will see to it that our children recognize the importance of the Holocaust, how it defines their identity, how important it must continue to be to all Jews."
"And will you expect them, in turn, to transmit the same conviction to their own children -- and theirs to theirs?"
"Absolutely. Forever. To us it is that important."
The American swallowed hard, then spoke.
"Like the first attempts to destroy our people and its faith were to our own ancestors."
Nothing else was said for the moment. The two young men walked back to the kibbutz in silence.
It could well be argued that a large part of what characterizes "Orthodox" Jews is a heightened sense of history. Not only of its vicissitudes and tragedies for our people, but, most importantly, of its seminal Jewish moment, the unequalled event that bequeathed us our mandate to cherish, study and observe the Torah - the revelation of G-d to His people.
Whether a Jew, G-d forbid, willfully rejects the divine origin of the Torah or simply lacks the background to have given the issue much thought, what he denies, or is oblivious to, is an historical fact - the mass-witnessed and painstakingly transmitted event at Sinai that lies at ground-zero of the Jewish people and the Jewish faith.
All who aspire to the appellation "observant" are, in essence, the keepers of Jewish history, recent and ancient, and are entrusted with the mission of sharing the memory of the Jewish past - both its nadirs and its apogee - with all their fellow Jews.
Should the Messiah tarry further, G-d forbid, a day may well come when all testimony of the events of a half-century ago will be indirect, arriving only through books and films, or third-hand accounts.
The facts, though, of what happened during those years, the horrible details of Jewish Europe'sdestruction, will endure, because there will always be Jews determined to hold fast to the entirety of our history, to maintain the memory of what happened a half-century ago.
And 1930 years ago, and 2420 years ago.
And 3312 years ago, in the Sinai desert.
[Rabbi Avi Shafran serves as director of public affairs for Agudath Israel of America and as American Director of Am Echad.]
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WHY ARAFAT WON'T COMPROMISE
We are currently witnessing the reprise of an ancient midrash. The midrash relates an argument between Ishmael and Isaac. Both claimed to be the true heirs of the Divine promise of the Land to their father, Abraham. And both understood that the issue revolved around who was willing to sacrifice more for the Covenant.
Ishmael boasted that he had submitted to circumcision when he was 13 years old, not a mere eight days. Isaac replied that he would be prepared to offer himself on an altar. That, says the midrash, was the prelude to the Binding of Isaac.
For the moment, it is the Arabs who have accepted the role of Isaac.
At Camp David, Prime Minister Ehud Barak asked Palestinian Authority Chairman Yasser Arafat what he really wanted in Jerusalem. Arafat replied by describing his vision of traveling unimpeded to Jerusalem, the capital of the Palestinian state. Barak told him to skip the vision thing and get down to practicalities.
Arafat, however, had the last word: 'Anyone who does not understand what Jerusalem means to me is an impractical man.'
Thus did a Moslem leader lecture a Jewish prime minister - descendant of unbroken generations who directed their every prayer to Jerusalem - on the preciousness of Jerusalem.
One could take a cynical view of the importance of Jerusalem in Arafat's eyes. After all, as Daniel Pipes has conclusively shown, Jerusalem occupies a very minor status, at most, in Islam, and is not even mentioned in the Koran.
But there is something much deeper going on here. The Arabs have contempt for those who have lost all connection to their past, and to the historical sense of their peoplehood.
Salah Tamari, a former Palestinian terrorist told Israeli journalist Aharon Barnea of the complete transformation he underwent in an Israeli prison. While in prison, he had completely despaired of any hope that the Palestinians would one day realize any of their territorial dreams, and so he was ready to renounce the struggle.
Then, one Passover, he witnessed his Jewish warder eating a pita sandwich. Tamari was shocked, and asked his jailer how he could so unashamedly eat bread on Pesach.
The Jew replied: 'I feel no obligation to events that took place over 2,000 years ago. I have no connection to that.'
That entire night Tamari could not sleep. He thought to himself: 'A nation whose members have no connection to their past, and are capable of so openly transgressing their most important laws - that nation has cut off all its roots to the Land.'
He concluded that the Palestinians could, in fact, achieve all their goals. >From that moment, he determined 'to fight for everything - not a percentage, not such crumbs as the Israelis might throw us - but for everything. Because opposing us is a nation that has no connection to its roots, which are no longer of interest to it.'
Tamari goes on to relate how he shared this insight with 'tens of thousands of his colleagues, and all were convinced.'
The severance of connection to a Jewish past is one of the chief goals of the branja (clique), which, as alarmingly described by Yoram Hazony in his book, The Jewish State: The Struggle for Israel's Soul, dominates Israeli intellectual life, and whose influence is felt in every sphere - education, the military, and the judiciary.
In the eyes of our intellectual elites, Judaism itself has become an enemy, because Jewish history and the age-old Jewish sense of ourselves as one people gave legitimacy to the idea of a Jewish state. And that state, a colonial enterprise, conceived in sin, founded upon outdated concepts of national character and mission, is a militaristic oppressor of indigenous peoples.
For members of the branja, giving back Judea and Samaria is not a painful step necessitated by the desire for peace, but a welcome thing in its own right, for it destroys our link to some distant tribal past. Whether consciously or unconsciously, they recognize the connection between the Land of the ancient kingdom of Judea, and Judaism and our identity as Jews.
Everything that binds us to our past must be destroyed. Thus Shulamit Aloni, as education minister, vehemently opposed trips to Auschwitz for Israeli high- school students, lest they foster feelings of national identity.
One of the chief architects of the Oslo process told US Senator Daniel Moynihan six years ago that Israel would have to prepare its people over the coming years painful concessions - the abandonment of settlements, Palestinian statehood and control over areas of Jerusalem. That, our leaders have done brilliantly.
Over the past six years, there has been a massive shift in public opinion: the Likud position of today is the Peace Now position of six years ago. Had Ehud Barak spoken openly a year ago of making the kind of concessions he was apparently prepared to make at Camp David, there is no question he would have been defeated overwhelmingly.
But, said the Oslo architect, the other side also needs to prepare its people. They must know that there will be no recognition of a right of return, no Palestinian sovereignty over the Old City, and they must recognize Israel's right to exist.
The danger, he said, is that only one side will undertake its responsibilities while the other will continue to educate its people that all its maximal demands are within reach, while preparing them for war.
And if that happens, the side that failed to educate its people in the necessity of compromise will view its adversary as having surrendered, and will thus be emboldened by the prospect of eventual victory.
That is precisely what has happened. Barak went to Camp David with compromise offers that would have been unthinkable mere months ago.
But Arafat held fast. And then came the American bridging proposals, which started from the point of Barak's offers and required Barak to offer yet more. Yet Arafat stood firm. He has reached the same conclusion as Tamari: the Jews are surrendering.
[Jonathan Rosenblum is Am Echad's Israeli director and a columnist for the Jerusalem
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LESSONS FROM LIEBERMAN
Beyond the broader political implications of Al Gore's choice of Senator Joseph Lieberman as his running mate, for Jews in particular the Lieberman story holds some important lessons. Long before he stepped into the bright national limelight, Joe Lieberman's distinguished career in public life had already done its part to shatter some widely-held preconceptions about the nature of halachic living.
First, he has successfully pursued his political ambitions while remaining faithful to the tenets of Jewish tradition. This demonstrates more powerfully than any rabbinical sermon could that the oft-repeated characterizations of halacha as somehow at odds with contemporary life are rooted in ignorance of both the halachic process and the reality of observant Jewish life.
We are not privy to Senator Lieberman's sources of halachic counsel or to the full extent to which his personal life measures up to the standards of halacha, nor should we have the interest or right to be. Each of us, after all, has more than enough to occupy us in seeing to his or her own spiritual growth.
But one thing is certain----for decades, Joe Lieberman has earnestly striven to incorporate halacha into the warp and woof of his fast-paced, high-profile life, both privately and publicly.
By the same token, for all that Senator Lieberman has endeavored to live a public life informed by halachic teachings, he has had many occasions---on a weekly, even daily, basis, in fact---to draw a line at certain conduct that says to others, and more importantly, to himself, "this far and no further."
From his high school days, when he was voted king of the senior prom but chose to stay home and observe Shabbat, to his first run for the United States Senate, when he passed up participating in his own nominating convention because it was held on a Saturday, and continuing with his steadfast commitment to halacha as he has ascended through the political establishment, Lieberman has consistently exalted principle over so-called pragmatism.
In so doing, the senator embodies a powerful rejoinder to the mistaken, indeed ahistorical, notion that, as a former dean of the Conservative movement's rabbinical school put it, "in classical rabbinic Judaism generally we have never taken 'the Torah says so clearly' as a final, decisive and unchallengeable argument." Joe Lieberman, like countless generations of his and all Jews' ancestors before him, most certainly does take the Torah's unequivocal dictates as the baseline for life decisions.
Lieberman's principled lifestyle evokes the example set not long ago by a Shabbat observer who excels in a very different sort of arena. Tamir Goodman, a Baltimore yeshiva high school student-cum-basketball "phenom", made national headlines last year when he turned down a full athletic scholarship to join the powerhouse basketball team at the University of Maryland.
Commenting on the teenager's decision, his coach wrote: "So Tamir gave the [university] its scholarship back. They told him that Shabbos was a problem. He told them Shabbos was a blessing. They told him if he didn't play it would affect his 'career'. He told them if he did play it would affect his 'life'. They drew a line in the sand. He planted his feet firmly and told them who he was and what he believed in."
One further aspect of Senator Lieberman's fascinating life story merits the attention of the Jewish community and of political strategists as well. By his own account, the senator's religious commitment has not hurt, and has possibly even aided, his career aspirations.
In a public address before a Jewish group some years ago, Lieberman recalled his first senatorial campaign in 1988. After the media reported that he was absent from his own Saturday-scheduled nominating convention, he kept meeting non-Jews throughout Connecticut who would say to him "I respect you for putting something above political success". Often, they would add: "[T]he fact that you put something ahead of your political success, more than any particular position that you took on an issue in the campaign, is why I'm going to vote for you." Senator Lieberman concluded by noting that "we only won by 10,000 votes that year, that was less than 1% . . . . [A]nd who's to say whether it wasn't the fact that I didn't go to my convention on Shabbos that gave me the margin of victory . . . ?"
This episode is representative of something which observant Jews in many different walks of life have experienced first-hand. By adhering to principle, rather than making accommodations born of discomfort with our beliefs and visibility, Jews often engender a profound respect from non-Jews who find such principled positions refreshing amidst the prevailing "everyone has their price" mentality. And that Lieberman position, no less than his positions on matters political, is one Jews would do well to ponder.
[Eytan Kobre is a lawyer residing in Queens and part of Am Echad's pool of writers]
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WHY ARE ISRAELI TEENS SO UNHAPPY?
By Jonathan Rosenblum
Israeli teens are the unhappiest in the developed world. At least that's the conclusion of the World Health Organization's most recent cross-national survey.
The 5,000 Israeli 11, 13, and 15-year olds interviewed (haredi youth were not included) reported the highest rates of "feeling low'' and complained of loneliness at a much higher rate than kids from any of the other 27 countries surveyed, except for Portugal.
Nor is the WHO study the only evidence. Israel has become the world center of trance music. Rave parties, combining the loud, pounding trance music with widespread Ecstasy use, writes Assaf Sagiv in the spring issue of Azure, are modern Bacchanalia.
Participants in the ancient Dionysian rites entered into a frenzy, in which they lost all inhibitions, all sense of self. Trance music reflects the same desire for the annihilation of self. In the words of one enthusiast, "Trance helps people erase their brains, to lose their ability to think - that's its purpose.''
Only those who feel that their brains are of little use seek to lose them. In Sagiv's view, the primary characteristics of Israeli youth are pessimism, passivity, and disengagement, and their music reflects that.
Why should our young people feel this way? They enjoy material wealth beyond the wildest dreams of their parents' generation. Their leaders hold out to them for the first time the promise of peace with our Arab neighbors. Why, then, did earlier generations confront life with so much more self-confidence?
Much has to do with lost idealism. Our youth lack anything in which to believe beyond their own pleasure and no cause to which they feel capable of dedicating themselves. After two 15-year-olds from affluent neighborhoods killed taxi driver Derek Roth for the thrill of it five years ago, one policeman specializing in youth work commented, "I envy the Arab kids. They still have something to believe in.''
Still, idealism is not found in large measure in any modern Western society. Why should its absence affect Jewish youth more? Here classical Jewish thought can offer some insight. Jewish chosenness refers, in part, to our uniquely powerful yearning for connection with God and capacity for holiness. When the vessel for receiving God's holiness remains empty, the result is spiritual pain. The greater the vessel, the greater the pain when it goes unused.
That pain can be ignored, at least for a period of time, so long as one maintains a sense of purpose in life. In times past, even when Jews left religion, they retained the thirst for connection to a source of meaning. Secular Jewish messianism, the attraction of Jews to so many of the "isms'' of the 20th century, is an expression of the soul seeking something beyond itself.
The idealism of the past, which at least served as a salve for the lack of connection to God, has been lost. Hints of the natural Jewish longing for something beyond the material, however, remain: The disproportionate involvement of Jews in virtually every cult is one such hint; the fascination of post-army Israeli youth with India and the Far East and their mystery religions is another.
IT is not only secular youth, but their religious counterparts as well, who suffer from a loss of the idealism of earlier generations. During the Holocaust, the Agudath Israel Youth Council was perhaps the most active organization in America working to obtain visas for Jews in Europe. That laborious work, including typing out four-foot long forms in sextuplicate was almost all done by teenage volunteers. After the war, young volunteers packed packages for the displaced persons camps, which were then sent to survivors. Most of that work was done late at night after the day's studies.
A veteran of that period, asked to compare those days to the present, when the American Orthodox community is by all statistical measures so much stronger, replied unhesitatingly, "Then we really lived.''
In Israel, a small group of yeshiva students in their late teens and early twenties, known as Pe'eylim, played a crucial role in preserving the religious identity of immigrants from Arab lands in the late '40s and early '50s. A 1950 government-appointed commission found that the cutting sidelocks of Yemenite children and bans or interference with Torah learning were systematic practices in the absorption camps. Religious teachers were barred from entering the camps.
These practices, designed to destroy the traditional religious identity of the youth, were justified euphemistically as helping the children "adapt to the mode of living of the larger community.'' But for the members of Pe'eylim, who would dig under the barbed wire fences to enter the camps, those efforts might have been totally successful. The late Rabbi Shlomo Noach Kroll, one of the leaders of Pe'eylim, related how he once heard a young teacher telling her students that Shabbat and all the all other mitzvot were designed to distinguish Jews from their gentile neighbors, and therefore no longer applicable in Israel.
Kroll interrupted the class and told the children not to pay any attention to the teacher's lies. The young woman began to cry. "You've destroyed weeks of work,'' she screamed at him.
Those tears, a measure of her commitment to the cause of destroying religious identity, ironically revealed that young teacher to have been closer to something authentically Jewish and, for that matter, to her opponents in Pe'eylim, than are the cynical, world-weary youth of today.
Isaiah prophesies the return of "all the lost ones from Assyria and those who have been pushed away from Egypt.'' "The lost ones'' are those who have actively rebelled against God, while "those who have been pushed away'' are those who have simply lost all concern with God. If so, asked the Ishbitzer Rebbe, why do the lost ones, who are the worse sinners, return first? He answered that those who rebel nevertheless remain spiritual beings. Today they are lost, but like anyone who has lost an object, when they find it they will be whole.
Those who are apathetic, however, have lost the spark of spirituality. Redeeming them will be much more difficult.
[Jonathan Rosenblum is a Jerusalem Post columnist and Israeli director of Am Echad]
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THE APOLOGIES ARE DEAFENING
Israeli police recently arrested three youths for the arson attack on Ya'ar Ramot, a Conservative congregation in Jerusalem. If you weren't reading carefully, you may have missed the news - it brought a surprisingly muted reaction.
The arson itself, of course, dominated Jewish media for weeks, and as much print was spent directing the finger of blame as describing the events. Though two of Jerusalem's many Orthodox synagogues were vandalized just weeks earlier, and an Orthodox synagogue in Israel is attacked more than once monthly on average, the police, media and liberal clergy all voiced their suspicion that charedim, "ultra-Orthodox" Jews, were responsible.
That being the case, the arrests surely came as a noteworthy surprise, especially considering the photographs of the confessed arsonist (he implicated two others). No black hat was evident, no beard or dark suit - just stubble and a Nike T-shirt. The fellow had indeed recently turned towards Jewish observance, but police indicated that his rap sheet was considerably longer than his religious pedigree. No yeshiva trained him for this, no rabbi was responsible for his repugnant behavior. He had learned how to express himself from the same mean streets that educate petty criminals worldwide.
In short, what we were told to expect was wrong. A laudable exception was Ya'ar Ramot's Rabbi, David Bateman, who immediately dismissed the idea that those who vandalized his synagogue represented any valid Orthodox group. Synagogue president Hilary Herzberger, on the other hand, speculated that "if the Chief Rabbi had come out against such behavior, maybe it could have been prevented." It is unfortunate that many other liberal leaders took their cues from the congregant, not the rabbi.
Rabbi Ehud Bandel, president of the Masorti (Conservative) movement in Israel, claimed "that in the yeshiva grass roots there are people who are rethinking the situation and are embarrassed - but they are waiting for their leaders and rabbis to speak out." Rabbi Richard Block, President of The World Union for Progressive Judaism, similarly opined that "such attacks do not occur in a vacuum." Less subtle was Rabbi Reuven Hammer, who insisted that there was "absolutely no question that these physical acts have their roots in the inflammatory... [Orthodox] rhetoric attacking the non-Orthodox movements."
In a United Synagogue of Conservative Judaism press release, Executive Vice-President Rabbi Jerome Epstein responded to "evidence" that "ultra-Orthodox" Jews were responsible by fanning the flames even more. "What is most disheartening," he proclaimed, "is the fact that the... religious leaders in the State of Israel have permitted a climate to exist in which such events can take place," and accused Orthodox authorities of, in effect, "allow[ing] such heinous acts to occur."
Now we know that this "evidence" never existed. We now know that the vandal was not responding to a yeshiva or "ultra-Orthodox" teaching, after all. In all fairness, Orthodox Rabbis are no more to blame for this vandalism than those of us who condemn prostitution are to blame for the recent, tragic arson of a Tel-Aviv brothel.
If the media buried this discovery on page six, even more surprising is the silence of those who so quickly pointed fingers before. Religious leaders in particular are expected to pursue both truth and peace, and therefore should come forward to set the record straight - something that would certainly go a long way toward smoothing relations among Jews.
Instead, they simply turn to new issues, and continue to make unrealistic demands on the Orthodox. The non-Orthodox movements were, after all, those that consciously departed from what was universally-accepted Jewish tradition, and who applied the label "Orthodox" to the Jews they left behind. Considered rationally, it is clearly impossible for Jews committed to tradition and Halacha to consider new "Judaisms" the equivalent of its ancient and Biblically-mandated form.
Yet rather than cede to the Orthodox the freedom to adhere to their deeply-held beliefs, those leading the fight couch the debate in terms of "equality," "diversity" and "religious pluralism," as if the Orthodox religious credo violates their civil rights or inherently leads to violence. They teach their followers that the Orthodox hate them, even believe them not to be Jews. They stage elaborate provocations at Judaism's holiest site, in the hope that a few Orthodox hooligans will provide them with "proof" - and useful media coverage.
Rabbis truly committed to Jewish ethics and ahavas Yisrael, love of other Jews, will apologize for unfair finger-pointing and set the record straight. Those who only want to wage war will simply look for a new weapon.
So far, the silence bodes ill for Jewish unity.
[Michael Berman is a Baltimore-based dot-com CEO]
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WHAT'S A NICE COSMO GIRL LIKE YOU... DOING WITH AN ORTHODOX HUSBAND?
Seven years ago, had I encountered the woman I am today, I would have pitied her: long sleeves and an ankle-length skirt in the middle of summer; no driving, writing, talking on the phone or cooking from sundown Friday until sundown Saturday; recently married to a man she'd never touched--not so much as a peck on the cheek--until after the wedding. I'd have cringed and dismissed this woman as a Repressed Religious Nut. Now my pity--or at least a patient smile--is for that self-certain Southern California girl I was at 25.
I grew up in Tucson, the older of two daughters, in a typically upper-middle-class, well-educated, liberal Jewish family. My dad is a physician, my mother active in the local Jewish community. My religious and ethnic identification consisted of fund-raising for Jewish causes, Israeli dancing and Sunday brunch: bagels and lox.
As a gawky 13-year-old, I had a bat mitzvah, along with the obligatory party at a posh country club. If God was there, I didn't notice. The most religious person I knew was my high school English teacher, a Southern Baptist for whom I wrote polemical essays questioning all religious beliefs. Through my research and experience (which consisted mostly of listening to Bob Dylan and Pink Floyd, skimming the "Marx-Engels Reader" and having deep, earnest discussions with friends), I concluded that religion was, at best, irrelevant in an enlightened, late 20th century world. At 16, I joined the group American Atheists.
But, generally, I did what teenagers do. I spent the scorching Arizona summers watching soap operas and lying by the pool at my friend Annie's house, comparing tan lines. We crossed the border into Mexico to buy tequila, sneaked into dance clubs with fake IDs, philosophized about life and boys, felt immortal.
I continued my liberal pursuits in college in Philadelphia, and after graduation, I drove my Honda with its "I'm Pro-Choice--And I Vote!" bumper sticker to California. I took advantage of all Los Angeles had to offer; I ate sushi and gelati, played beach volleyball, studied kabala and once went to a "Nam-myoho-renge-kyo" chanting session, where a skinny woman with bleached blond hair swore that the incantation had secured her her latest role, as Victim in a new slasher film.
I was living in a Beverly Hills basement with a gay friend at the time, working for the National Organization for Women, helping organize pro-choice rallies. I also did stints as aerobics instructor, waitress, cashier, SAT tutor. Finally, I entered USC as a graduate student in journalism. In the next few years I wrote for the Los Angeles Times about miniskirts, paisley and the plight of L.A.'s lovelorn. Then I worked for Teen magazine, penning endless variations of "how to get/dump your guy" stories and answering hapless teenage girls' letters in Teen's "Dear Juli" column. While I loved my spacious office with its view of the city, I also found the job mind-numbing and depressing. How many ways, I wondered, could I teach a girl to flirt?
I moved to a Beverly Hills "adjacent" apartment, complete with ceiling fans and high arches. There I was--25 years old, finally having achieved what should "do it": a promising career, friends, things. Yet I felt as though something was profoundly lacking--as if I were a Ferrari engine stuffed into a VW Bug.
Though I was at times excited, even ecstatic, I rarely remember being content or truly joyful. Though I believed in spirituality, religion was the "opiate of the masses," a crutch for emotional and intellectual weaklings and conservative Republicans. I favored Tarot card and palm readers and a particular psychic who told me I was Napoleon in a past life.
Then one night, a friend and I dropped in on an Orthodox Jewish gathering near my apartment--not so much to find enlightenment as to meet guys. I don't recall what, exactly, but something the rabbi said resonated. I decided to take a class. I certainly had no intention of becoming--ick!--religious. I just wanted to learn more about Judaism's philosophy and mysticism. As for those archaic laws? How dare anyone tell me I'm restricted from certain activities because I'm a woman or that I have to dress a certain way to protect my dignity.
I'm a passionate person. During the past seven years, however, I've decided that it may be easier to be passionate about the wrong things than the right ones. I thought I was open-minded, thoughtful, yet I really just believed what every other liberal, educated, cultured person I knew believed. I was tolerant of everything except "intolerance." My only absolute was that there are no absolutes.
Yet, as much as I fought and rebelled, I was drawn to the Orthodox world. I recognized something profound there--the values, the consciousness, the sensitivity to others. I examined my world view and myself in a different way. I began to see that in a society in which individuality, self-determination and freedom of choice are the highest values, I had, in fact, been limited by pressures I didn't even recognize. I had been conforming to what's considered "normal," its definition changing every few years. Now, for the first time, I understood what I had always felt, that I had an essence, a soul. I glimpsed a higher meaning to life and the infinitely deep layers of existence leading to the Ultimate Existence: insight into which a 25-year-old--even one with a personal trainer and her own advice column--might not be privy.
To the shock of my family, which was half-sure I'd been sucked in by a cult, I quit my job, sublet my beautiful apartment and traveled to Israel to continue my studies. The Torah (Judaism's Bible) and its volumes of commentary address every aspect of the human condition. It proscribes, prescribes and describes in amazing depth and detail. And it infuses people with the bigness of character and soul I had always admired but rarely experienced.
I spent many months grappling with the "female" question. So much of what I saw in the religious way of life seemed at odds with what I thought I knew. But at one point I had to ask myself: What have I been told by my schooling and my society, and what do I really see in the world? What is my experience? My answer: Men and women are significantly, dramatically different, emotionally and physically (and now, I realize, spiritually). Judaism addresses these differences. I looked--really looked--at the religious women around me. I had never met stronger, more emotionally and spiritually refined, capable, loving, non-neurotic women. Or more sensitive, respectful, devoted men. More happy, psychically intact, cared-for children. I wanted that.
Everywhere, I see people driven by external achievement; I see the pain, the struggles, the Prozac nation. Becoming observant does not make a weak person strong. It is not a quick fix for a lifetime of emotional damage. But the Torah's guidelines provide the boundaries and tools for inner healing and transformation. Now, being "religious" frames everything I do, say and strive for. I knew that the man I would marry and I must share the same priorities and values.
My husband - a successful businessman -- and I met in New York, through a mutual teacher who knew us well. I'd spent plenty of time engaged in the rites of Los Angeles-style dating. This was a whole different ritual. In venturing into this shiduch--which, loosely translated, means "date"--we had agreed to an express purpose. We were to decide if we were a match--and with far less dillydallying than in most modern courtships.
Aaron and I spent hours together eating Chinese food, playing miniature golf and pinball, ice-skating, boating in Central Park. I came to respect his integrity, his strength and his constant striving to do and be better. (And he's cute!) Four months after we met, we began a 10-week engagement. (My mother, who had spent a year planning my sister's nuptials, was aghast.) We never touched, but got to know each other, unclouded by the bond of physical intimacy, which so often super-glues the wrong people together.
People look at Orthodox women as repressed. But I often think about a truer definition of repression. When I see women in skimpy clothing, intimately involved with men they barely know, I think: "Wake up, girlfriend! You think men are seeing your soul? Thinking about your needs? About who you are? Your body has become your self." The real feminine mystique consists of a woman's private side, the richness of her inner world.
I had been living the Cosmo fantasy. Now I feel as if I've awakened from a long, sweaty dream. Once I aspired to make it as a writer, and perhaps get married and have a kid or two along the way. Today, although I still work as a freelance writer, it is not my identity. I live in a religious community outside Manhattan, full of the type of people I used to look at with pity, even contempt. My goal is to become like these women: sensitive, strong, fantastic wives and mothers--not, as I once thought, because they had been subjugated for centuries and didn't know better or because they were lacking self-esteem, but because they recognize that the most important thing a person can do is to develop character by giving, building and supporting another.
A Jewish wedding revolves around making the bride and groom happy. After the ceremony, but before the dancing--what exuberant, unabashed dancing!--Aaron and I went to a separate room to spend a few private moments. There, he held my hand for the first time. That small gesture had a richness and intimacy I could never have imagined.
[Andrea Kahn is a former reporter for the Los Angeles Times and editor for TEEN Magazine. She currently lives in New York with her husband and freelances for a variety of publications.]
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BOOK REVIEW: The Ethical Imperative: Torah Perspectives on Ethics and Values
As an experienced attorney, I am quite aware of the meaning of "appearance of impropriety" and of the need for full disclosure.
Hence, two revelations:
First, I have had a hand in the publication of "The Ethical Imperative", though I have no financial stake in its success or failure. Second, I am the author or co-author of two of its (more than 60) essays.
With those admissions out of the way, let me tell you, in a nutshell, why you should buy and read this book: It is a significant and long overdue, plain English volume addressing exceedingly "timely" topics - in the words of the late Rabbi Moshe Sherer, quoted in the volume's introduction - "from the perspective of timeless values."
The serious, contemporary issues that this volume encompasses are well-summarized by the titles of its eight sections: "Business Ethics/Workplace Issues"; "Combating Societal Influences"; "The Beis Din (Jewish court) Process"; "Legislative Concerns"; "Public Postures and Policies"; "Introspection and Self-Improvement"; "Outreach on the Job" and "Of Role Models and Giants of Impeccable Integrity."
Within those chapters, the broad and diverse range of matters discussed from the perspectives of Jewish religious law and Jewish philosopy include, but by no means are limited to: Sanctification (and the opposite) of God's Name, teaching Torah ethics and truth, employer-employee relationships, tax fraud, the risks and rewards of insularity, career choices for Yeshiva students, the enforcement of Jewish religious court judgments, the Halachic living will and brain death and organ transplantation.
The book's essays are taken primarily, albeit not exclusively, from the pages of The Jewish Observer, the periodical edited by the book's editor, Rabbi Nisson Wolpin, over the course of the past thirty-five years. They were penned by respected Torah leaders, rabbinic scholars, distinguished educators and writers, current and former lay Jewish leaders, and finally (but by no means less importantly given their messages) "unknown" professionals and businessmen.
Too often, we lose sight of the role that Jewish religious law plays in matters like how we go about earning a living and spending our money. We are in some respects uneducated about, and in others neglectful of, Judaism's dictates in the realm of financial affairs. And there is always the often negative influence, directly or indirectly, of the larger society in which we reside and work. Consequently, we forget that, as Jews, our focus throughout life, even with regard to the material, should be on the spiritual - on what our religious heritage considers right and wrong.
Indeed, the unifying message of all the contributors to The Ethical Imperative is a call for the study and application of such Torah values in our everyday, business and personal lives. The essays' authors delineate how to serve God through fulfillment of eternal Jewish laws and ethics, not society's ever-shifting concepts of morality and mores. And, to their and the editor's credit, they do so in highly readable prose, inspiring parables and true stories.
In short, their goal - and that of the book itself - is to help the reader take a step back, view his or her life from the Torah's perspective and assess where reorientation might be called for.
And that's something all of us, wherever we may be on the spectrum of ritual Jewish observance, can greatly benefit from.
[Yitzchak Kasdan, who resides with his family in Silver Spring, Maryland, serves as the editor of the "Jewish Law" web site (http://www.jlaw.com.)]
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A MODEST PROPOSAL
It was an inevitable question for a discussion of this sort in my Orthodox high school classroom: "If we, as Jewish girls, are supposed to dress modestly, isn't it missing the point if our long skirts and high necklines cause us to attract more attention in a crowd?"
Two types of students present such queries. The first is the disingenuous type, delighted at her clever attempt at ritualistic one-upsmanship. Watch me deconstruct tzniut, the imperative of modesty in Jewish religious law, or halacha - and be even more religious than my religion as I do it!
The other category is the genuinely sincere student, who displays in her inquiry a very real desire to understand the roots of this commandment that confronts her at every turn, at school or on the street, and especially during that Rorschach test of American womanhood, clothes shopping.
Whatever the origins of the challenge, it is a gauntlet I pick up with relish. For it reveals a fundamental misconception in the understanding of Jewish modesty, a misconception I value the opportunity to clarify, as it so often serves as a springboard for a discussion of issues of identity and femininity with girls on the cusp of adulthood.
Like a stereotypical Jew, I answer the question with one of my own.
If modesty is such a high priority for women in a Torah society, I ask, why don't we go all the way? Why don't we wear thick veils over our faces, and gloves to cover our hands? Would that not be the ultimate expression of tzniut?
They all know that the answer is no; if it were otherwise, we'd be doing all that. But they don't immediately understand why.
My next question: Even the strictest of halachic opinions agrees that a woman's hands and face do not require a covering. What might those body parts alone have in common?
They mull this one over, until suddenly, the light dawns, and arms wave eagerly in the air. The face is unique, they tell me. And science has yet to discover two people with identical fingerprints. It isn't easy to identify people by their arms or legs, but our hands and our faces are in a class by themselves, impossible to confuse with those of any other human being.
The conclusion is inescapable. What Jewish law permits a woman to display are precisely those parts of her that convey her essence - her intellect, her emotions, her individuality. She is forbidden to show that which would present her as anything less.
Tzniut, modesty, is literally G-d's gift to womanhood. It tells us, don't sell yourself short. You are more than the body that houses you. Your uniqueness shines forth from a physical presence that radiates from beyond physicality.
And so, if a Jewish woman happens to attract attention for the length of her skirt or her sleeves, she is conveying the ultimate message of tzniut. For she is presenting a sharp contrast to baser standards that cheapen and use women, insisting on showing herself to the world as a model of womanly pride and self- respect.
As it happened, this particular discussion had a sequel, on the very same day. Many of my students attend college at night, to get a jump-start on their careers. That night, in a sociology class, it seems that a discussion arose regarding the implications of female dress in American culture. After several preliminary sallies, one boy seized the floor, and proceeded to hold forth on the self- evident (to him) degraded state of American womanhood, as proven by current clothing styles.
So contemptuous was he that more than one aspiring feminist stalked out of the class in indignant protest. As he slowly wound down, he ended his tirade with a question. "I mean, what do you expect? Why shouldn't we guys relate to you like animals when you dress the way you do?" To emphasize his point, he swiveled around from his front row seat to present some evidence for his assertion. - only to be stopped dead in his tracks by fifteen yeshiva girls in long skirts and high necklines, smiling delightedly from ear to ear.
"I never thought about in precisely this way," one student confided the next day. "But sometimes it takes an outsider to drive an idea home. It was uncanny how he made the same point as you did, that very same day!" Yes, the rules are sometimes difficult. Certainly, we chafe occasionally at the restrictions they impose. Of course we don't always feel dignified and queenly; sometimes we want to let down our hair, and express other sides of ourselves. The beauty of dedication above all to Jewish religious observance is that one learns to subjugate one's own inclinations to the Torah - and here, to convey only what you truly are - human, rational, spiritual.
And so, I tell my students, hold your heads high as you wear your skirts long. For you are the truly liberated women.
AM ECHAD RESOURCES
[Sarah Cohen, part of Am Echad Resources' writing pool, is a teacher and writer in New York.]
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THE SHOFAR SHOES
Rabbi Avi Shafran
When my dear father, may he live and be well, showed me his new "shofar shoes", I was reminded of how uniquely Jews steeped in Jewish tradition look at the world.
It was just about a year ago, several hours before the arrival of Yom Kippur. My family and I had the wonderful privilege of spending the High Holidays in Baltimore with my father and his wife (my wonderful "second mother", as I refer to her; I lost my own beloved mother a decade ago). Father is the rabbi of a small congregation and serves as the recording secretary of Baltimore's widely respected Orthodox rabbinic court.
Before he showed me the shoes, he recounted how his old cloth "Yom Kippur shoes" - leather footwear is forbidden on the Jewish Day of Atonement - had grown uncomfortable. These new "shofar shoes," however, he explained, were much better.
He is someone, without question, who can appreciate a good shoe. As a child in a Polish shtetl, the only shoes he ever had were those first worn and outgrown by older siblings. To this day he attributes his size 6EEE feet to the confining, ill-fitting footwear of his youth. And during the years of World War II, when he and his yeshiva-colleagues found themselves unwilling guests of Josef Stalin in a Siberian labor camp, the frigid temperatures made foot-covering a matter not of comfort but of life or death. He recalls how he and his friends would wrap long pieces of cloth in layers around their feet for insulation. When he says the morning blessing "Who has provided me all my needs," which Jewish tradition teaches refers to shoes, he surely relates to it better than most of us.
My father richly appreciates so many other things too. He takes powerful pride in his children and grandchildren. None of them is particularly "successful" in the world's gauge of the word, in the acquisition of wealth or property. No dot-com millionaires among his progeny to date. But they are all, to a person, observant Jews, immersed in the life, texts and traditions of the Jewish religious heritage. And my father knows that the great-grandchildren with which he has been blessed - and, with G-d's help, those yet to come - will grow up in dedicatedly Jewish homes. That, he insists - not what the world thinks - is true success, Jewish success.
So many things, I pondered, are so different when regarded through deeply Jewish eyes. Even what a New Year's day means. To the wider world, January 1 is a day of partying and revelry, an opportunity to get drunk and have a good time. Rosh Hashana, by contrast, is a time of judgment - a time of happiness, to be sure, but of trepidation as well, of regret, of apologies, of repentance.
My father blows the shofar at his shul on Rosh Hashana. The blasts of the ram's horn call all who hear them, in Maimonides' words, to "awaken, sleepers, from your slumber," to reject the "silly distractions of the temporal world" we occupy; to focus on what alone is real: serving our Creator and being good to one another. To see the world, in other words, through Jewish eyes. No wonder my father was so happy to discover that the comfortable Yom Kippur shoes he had found were "shofar shoes."
I didn't understand at first what a "shofar shoe" was, though, and told him. He smiled and responded patiently, "Why, each one has a shofar on it."
When I expressed skepticism, he went to his bedroom and emerged triumphantly with the footwear.
And when he held them up for me to see, his Jewish eyes taught mine a lesson.
I don't think I'll ever look at the Nike "swoosh" quite the same way again.
[Rabbi Avi Shafran is director of public affairs for Agudath Israel of America and serves as American director of Am Echad]
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JEW ON A TIGHTROPE
Rabbi Avi Shafran
Orthodox Jews have been rooting heartily for Senator Joseph Lieberman. No, not necessarily in his quest for the vice-presidency. As far as that is concerned, some in my famously issues-oriented community will support him; others decidedly will not.
What we have all been rooting for, though, is that the Senator will prove a worthy example of classical Jewish belief and practice, and thus serve as an impetus for Jews alienated from (or unaware of) their religious heritage to reconsider (or to finally consider) its pertinence to them.
On his shoulders, in other words, lies a burden much weightier, in our perspective, than the mere possibility of becoming vice president. Because he is a self-described observant Jew, his prominence carries the potential to influence countless Jews to take the Torah seriously. Potential, though, is pareve (or neutral, in kashrut-language: neither meat nor milk); just as he can influence Jews in a positive manner, he can, intentionally or not, do just the opposite.
There can be no doubting that the Senator's commitment to basic Jewish religious laws like guarding the Sabbath or keeping kosher has drawn interest and respect from both Jews and non-Jews alike. A good amount of what Orthodox schools, adult education programs and "outreach" groups labor daily and mightily to achieve materialized from thin airwaves within hours after Vice President Gore chose his running mate, as the media provided details about Senator Lieberman's religious commitments.
And aside from his unabashed observance, the Senator has sent a powerful, if unspoken, message to the Jewish community. For, instead of opting to call himself a "(your adjective of choice here) Jew", he opts to call himself simply "observant." By pointedly choosing not to redefine observance, as so many American Jews so nonchalantly do, he demonstrates a respect for the integrity of the Jewish religion.
Recently, though, the Senator gravely disappointed all who are rooting for his Jewish example. By disparaging a Jewish blessing he does not personally accept or understand, as he did on a recent radio program, and proclaiming "a certain amount of latitude" in rejecting part of the traditional Jewish liturgy, he in effect taught an audience of millions that the Jewish religious heritage is a "pick and choose" proposition. And by denying, a moment later, that Jewish religious law bans marriages between Jews and non-Jews - suggesting instead that marriage within the faith is merely a social or ethnic "natural tendency" - he astoundingly misrepresented a Jewish religious law in an area of fundamental importance to the future of the Jewish community.
Some interpret the morning blessing "Blessed are You, G-d, for not having made me a woman" (women recite "for having made me according to Your will") as an acknowledgment of the fact that men are bound by more Torah commandments than are women. Others see it as reflecting the fact that women endure more discomfort and disadvantage, both physical and sociological, than men, a fact that remains true even in our liberated times. One thing, however, is certain: Not comprehending a blessing that has been part of the Jewish liturgy for thousands of years is not - at least for an observant Jew - license to reject it.
And, regarding his comments on intermarriage, there is a clear, immutable and grave prohibition in Jewish religious law, or halacha, against a Jew marrying anyone but another Jew. To intimate otherwise is simply to mislead. And the prohibition against intermarriage is a particularly severe and ominous one in our times, when the Jewish demographic picture in the United States is considerably darkened by a high and rising intermarriage rate that threatens to undermine the American Jewish future.
Senator Lieberman's recent comments echo disturbing ones he made when he was interviewed by Larry King in August. In the context of a discussion of abortion, he pointed out that there are different opinions within Jewish religious literature regarding certain aspects of the issue. He did not, however, make clear that no normative Jewish religious source permits abortion in cases like the overwhelming majority of those that take place daily in America, and compounded the misleading statement by contending, astoundingly, that "like everything else in Judaism, ultimately, it's up to each of us to decide what we think is right."
Judaism, however, is not about deciding what we think is right. It is about doing what G-d says is right.
The issue is not Senator Lieberman's personal observance. No Jew should arrogate to judge another's success in aiming at the ideal of perfect observance. What is of concern is that the Senator has spoken, in effect, on behalf of Judaism. Whether or not he has usurped rabbinical territory, he has certainly touched upon it. That is fine, if one speaks from deep knowledge of and deep sensitivity toward the Jewish religious tradition. But only then.
Any observant Jew who heard or read Senator Lieberman's recent comments could not but feel deep anguish. As the public affairs director of a national Orthodox Jewish organization, I certainly did.
In recent months, even as I have worried over the possibility that the vice presidential-hopeful might intentionally or otherwise mislead anyone about Jewish belief or practice, I have publicly and consistently maintained that he should not be held responsible to present the image of perfect Jewish observance. He is running, I was quoted in the press as saying, for vice president and not chief rabbi.
Knowing those facts, a number of Agudath Israel's constituents contacted me in the wake of the Senator's recent comments. One e-mailed the following message: "Gosh: I don't envy the tightrope that you have to walk every day!"
My response was immediate: It isn't I who is walking any perilous tightrope here.
It's Senator Lieberman.
[Rabbi Avi Shafran serves as director of public affairs for Agudath Israel of America and as American director of Am Echad]
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YOUR CHARITY AT WORK
When Rabbi Zvi Schwartz began to build a new home for his institution of outreach and charity, he knew that he would face bureaucracies, architects, and contractors. He never imagined that the Reform movement would bring his dreams to a halt.
Lev L'Achim ("Heart to our Brothers") of Rechovot is an institution as great as it is diverse. Children from troubled homes find good meals and warm beds; their parents find counseling. The poor receive food, while IDF pilots get coffee and a friendly environment. All find a volunteer willing to study Torah with them, at any hour of the day.
"There is a myth of the charedi-chiloni [fervently Orthodox vs. secular] divide," says Rabbi Yosef Karmel, executive director of Lev L'Achim in America. "Lev L'Achim is disproving that divide." Rabbi Schwartz, director of the Rechovot branch, has worked in Jewish outreach in the city for 30 years. Today, his organization attracts thousands weekly.
In 1996, Rabbi Schwartz applied for a land grant from the city, which the city council approved by a strong majority. "We did not ask for land in this place," said Rabbi Schwartz, referring to the neighborhood of Ramat Yigal. "The city told us where to locate."
A small group of activists, though, claimed - falsely - that the center would shelter women involved with Arabs, and bring drugs to the neighborhood. Based upon this story, 18 residents filed suit against Lev L' Achim to stop the building. They needed a lawyer - and the same activists led them to Sharon Tal of the Israel Religious Action Center, the public and legal advocacy arm of the Israel Movement for Progressive (Reform) Judaism. IRAC took the case.
"Why does it bother them?" asks Schwartz. "This is against their mission [of advancing pluralism], isn't it?"
Rabbi Uri Regev, Director of IRAC, disagrees. He says the IRAC agenda is "very wide," and often focuses upon "ultra-Orthodox" institutions.
In this instance, he called the council's land grant an "abuse of authority and public funds." He conceded, however, that there exist no specific criteria for land grants, meaning that he could not specify the abuse. Furthermore, IRAC, according to Regev, "did not do a thorough investigation of the procedure followed in most cases" - and there are hundreds of such allocations every year.
What, then, was unique about this case? In Regev's opinion, "it was not wise discretion" to place a charedi institution in a secular neighborhood. In actuality, though, Ramat Yigal is a diverse and open neighborhood. Indeed, 200 residents petitioned for approval of the grant - many more than those who opposed it, even on the false information.
Moreover, Regev's perspective may be significantly at odds with those of IRAC's American supporters. In the United States, similar views were denounced by Jews of widely varying stripes as unseemly religious bias in cases from upstate NY (involving Orthodox synagogues) to northern Virginia (involving a Muslim school).
What happened next did not surprise those who have long perceived anti- religious bias in Israel's Supreme Court. Responding to the IRAC suit, that Court ordered the State's Attorney to issue unprecedented guidelines for land allocations. The city then moved to comply with those guidelines, although the State's Attorney said there was no cause for their retroactive application. Even so, the Court rejected the application for exactly that reason, for not following guidelines which didn't exist at the time.
Regev, for his part, said that "there isn't a shred of truth" to claims that the Court forced the city to take new action. He said that the defendants acted on their own initiative.
"I don't know what to say," answered Rabbi Schwartz. "We have the letters. The Court demanded this." And then he faxed documents from the State's Attorney's office, describing the guidelines and the Court order that created them.
The end result of IRAC's efforts to "defend" Ramat Yigal is an unsightly, abandoned building skeleton on which Lev L'Achim spent over $500,000. "Not a penny of it was sent from America," sighs Rabbi Karmel. "It was all from Rabbi Schwartz's students in Rechovot. These are not rich people."
Today, Sharon Tal has found a new battleground: Lod airport, where IRAC aims to close Chabad booths. According to the newspaper Ha'aretz, Tal's filing demands that Chabad either close down or change its philosophy, and "consent... to the establishment of other stalls from the various streams of Judaism." The local Chabad emissary, Rabbi Nachman Maidantzik, cannot understand being sued for a position Chabad never took: "If they want to come, we won't oppose them," he said. "We don't work against them."
IRAC, on the other hand, now has a lawyer focusing upon opposition to Orthodox outreach - supported by the American Reform community. "I can tell you what we're doing with a dollar," Karmel says. "What is being done with the Reform charitable dollar?"
[Michael Berman is a Baltimore-based dot-com CIO]
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