abortion demonstration

Abortion Distortion


With the Democratic and Republican platforms offering more polarized planks on abortion than ever, the issue of “reproductive rights” is, once again, well, birthed into the glare.

Also in the limelight of late are some misleading assertions about Judaism’s attitude toward fetal life.

An op-ed of mine on the topic in Haaretz is here.

Or, to receive a copy of the piece, just request one, from rabbiavishafran42@gmail.com .

Obama in Dallas

Shock Treatment


It’s a truth not universally acknowledged that good can come from bad.  As Iyov said, “Who can bring purity from impurity, not the One?” (14:4; see Targum Yonasan).

An untruth almost universally asserted is that race relations in the United States are in a hopeless state.  Although Jim Crow laws days lie more than a half-century in the past, Americans of all shades live and work side by side and “racist” is an insult, according to a recent New York Times/CBS News poll, fully 70% of Americans say race relations in the country are generally bad.

Recent events – more police killings of unarmed black men and the murder of five white policemen by a black militant – might seem to support that dire contention.  But, ironically, the shock of all the bloodshed has evoked something heartening.

The recent police killings of peddler Alton Sterling in Baton Rouge, Louisiana, and of Philando Castile during a traffic stop near St. Paul, Minnesota, angered many blacks (and whites).  They were only the latest in a list that includes Michael Brown, Eric Garner, Walter Scott, Freddie Gray… and others.

And yet, unlike in some times past, the many protests of the recent killings were free of violence – at least until the police keeping order at a Dallas protest came under a sniper’s fire.

(TRIGGER WARNING: If positive words about President Obama are disturbing to you, you might wish to stop reading here.)

At a July 12 memorial in Dallas for the murdered officers, Mr. Obama spoke eloquently and pointedly.

He first addressed those who “put on that uniform” and answer calls “that at any moment… may put your life in harm’s way,” and who “don’t expect to hear the words ‘thank you’ very often, especially from those who need them the most.”

“Despite the fact,” he continued, speaking now to the larger crowd, and the nation, “that police conduct was the subject of the protest… these men and this department did their jobs like the professionals that they were.”

And the “targeting of police by the shooter,” he said, was “an act not just of demented violence, but of racial hatred” against whites.

“When the bullets started flying,” he then recalled, “the men and women of the Dallas police… did not flinch… Helped in some cases by protesters, they evacuated the injured, isolated the shooter, saved more lives than we will ever know… it wasn’t about black or white. Everyone was picking each other up and moving them away.”

Mr. Obama decried those who “paint all police as biased or bigoted, undermin[ing] those officers that we depend on for our safety.”  And as to “those who use rhetoric suggesting harm to police, not only [do they] make the jobs of police officers even more dangerous, but… [they] do a disservice to the very cause of justice that they claim to promote.”

Tensions between police and minorities, Mr. Obama declared, come from the fact that “we ask the police to do too much and we ask too little of ourselves.”

And then he quoted the navi Yechezkel:  “And I will give you a new heart, and a new spirit will I put within you… I will take away the heart of stone… and I will give you a heart of flesh.” (36:26).

“That’s what we must pray for,” the president said. “A heart open to the fears and hopes and challenges of our fellow citizens.”

Hate hasn’t died, he admitted.  “We know there is evil in this world.”  And, in fact, it wasn’t long before three more police officers were killed and three others wounded by gunmen in Baton Rouge, an attack Obama called “cowardly and reprehensible.”

But Americans, he asserted, can decide that murderous racists “will ultimately fail” and “not drive us apart. We can decide to come together and make our country reflect the good inside us.”

Alton Sterling’s 15-year-old son gave a speech of his own, a week after his father’s needless death.  He begged the public to come together “as one united family.”

“You can protest,” he said, “but I want everyone to protest the right way. With peace. No violence – none whatsoever.”  His mother called the Baton Rouge attack “despicable.”  Protest groups felt compelled to distance themselves from the violence.

Only time will tell if recent days will prove to have been a watershed in the troubled history of race in America, or if even any lasting good at all will emerge from all the recent bad.  But the words of a president and a bereaved teen and his mother provide some reason for hope.

© 2016 Hamodia


snake on pole

Subway Poles/Snakes on Poles


Subway riders in standing room-only cars try not to think too much about what organisms might be happily residing on the poles they grasp during the lurching trip.

To obtain some hard data, Harvard researchers conducted a study in which they swabbed seats, walls, poles, hand grips and ticket machines in the Boston transit system, and then did DNA analyses to find out what organisms they had collected.  They recently released their study’s results.

It’s still a good idea to wash your hands after a subway ride, but straphangers can feel somewhat relieved at the study’s finding that the surfaces were contaminated, but with generally innocuous bacteria.  If one is relatively healthy, the germs picked up from a subway grasp shouldn’t present any problem.

The reason for the inclusion of the word “generally,” though, in the previous paragraph is because even strains of common bacteria can cause terrible diseases under certain circumstances, like among the immunosuppressed.

Which thought should serve as a reminder that all that stands between each of us and myriad invisible agents of harm is the unbelievably complex biological network of tissues, cells, enzymes and antibodies that science calls the immune system.

Were the myriad mazikin that constantly surround us visible to us, says Abba Binyamin (Berachos 6a), we would be frozen in terror.  Whether he had in mind the fungi, protozoa, bacteria and viruses that regularly seek to invade our bodies must remain speculation.  But, regarding the countless organisms that would, were it not for our immune systems, do us great harm, the statement would have been entirely true.

This Shabbos, we will be reading about the nachash hanechoshes, the “copper snake” that Moshe Rabbeinu mounted on a staff during the plague of poisonous serpents that Hashem had brought after the people showed a lack of gratitude and complained about their sustenance. Those poisoned gazed at it and were cured.  Chazal teach us that, of course, it wasn’t the replica that cured them but that the gazers’ hearts were aimed Heavenward (brought by Rashi, Bamidbar, 21:8).

What, then, though, was the snake for?  Why the middleman (or middle-reptile)?  Why not tell the people to just gaze directly toward Heaven, where their hearts were to be?

Rabbeinu Bachya notes that the snakes plaguing our ancestors are referred to with the definite article, “hei” – the snakes.  And he sees in that seemingly superfluous Hebrew letter a reference to Devarim 8:15, where the midbar is characterized as a place of snakes and scorpions.  The snakes, explains Rabbeinu Bachya , refers to the ones that regularly filled the desert.

Rav Samson Raphael Hirsch expands on that thought, and sees the people’s gazing at the copper snake as focusing them on the fact that snakes in the desert were ubiquitous.  Looking at the metal serpent would bring them to appreciate how, every day without a snake bite was a day during which Hashem had protected them from a clear and present danger.  With that realization, born of meditation on the copper snake-replica, our ancestors’ hearts could truly, meaningfully aim Heavenward.

It’s more than interesting that the image of a serpent entwined around a staff has become a widely employed symbol of the medical profession.  Although the symbol is believed to have been borrowed from Greek avodah zarah, the ultimate origin of the image seems clearly to be the nachash hanechoshes.

More than interesting because a fundamental pillar of modern medicine is the understanding that much disease is caused not by “vapors” or internal imbalances, as was once assumed to be the sources of all illness, but rather by the failure of bodies to repel invaders – the bacteria, viruses, fungi, and parasites that surround us all the time.

That might seem obvious to us, but germ theory, the idea that microorganisms lie at the root of many diseases, only became accepted in the nineteenth century, less than two hundred years ago.

Now, though, it is a pillar of medical practice that sanitation is key to health.  Surgery requires great antiseptic measures, medical personnel wear sterilized disposable gloves, we all recognize that diseases can spread through the transfer of germs of various types.

So, however the medical world might conceive of the source of the “Rod of Asclepius,” if it is indeed a depiction of the nachash hanechoshes, it is, an unintentionally apt symbol of the lesson of that copper snake.  That is to say, the fairly recent realization that we are indeed surrounded by myriad mazikin, from which only miracles – the immune systems Hashem has made part of our bodies – protect us.

© 2016 Hamodia

barbed wire wall

When Vulnerability Means Strength


So, where exactly was the lie?

The one, that is, to which the meraglim had to add some truth, in order for it to be swallowed.

In this past Shabbos’ parashah, the spies, returning from Kenaan, reported to Moshe Rabbeinu that they “came to the land to which you sent us, and indeed it is flowing with milk and honey”  (Bamidbar, 13:27).  Quoting the Gemara (Sotah, 35a), Rashi comments that “Any lie in which a little truth is not stated at the start cannot be maintained in the end.”

But not only was the report of the land’s bounty true.  So was, at least on the surface, everything else the meraglim reported.   Yes, they described the fearsome inhabitants of the land, the “men of stature,” and the burials of many of the land’s inhabitants.  That negativity constituted dibah, as the Torah itself says – as Chazal put it, lashon hara.  But where was the untruth, the lie?

Rav Yaakov Moshe Charlop, z”l, in his sefer Mei Marom on Chumash, suggests an answer.

The Midrash Tanchuma, brought by Rashi on the words “hechazak hu harafeh” (“Are they strong or weak?”) says that Moshe gave the meraglim a sign: “If they live in open cities [it is a sign that] they are strong, since they rely on their might. And if they live in fortified cities [it is a sign that] they are weak.” (ibid,13:18)

And yet, notes Rav Charlop, the spies reported that “the people who inhabit the land are mighty, and the cities are very greatly fortified” (3:28). A self-contradiction, since if the inhabitants were indeed mighty, as per Moshe’s sign, they would not have needed to fortify their cities.  And if their cities were fortified, that meant the people were feeble.  There, the Mei Marom suggests, lies the lie.

That walls are antithetical to strength is a thought worthy of consideration in contemporary times, here in the U.S.

Fortifying our country against infiltrators bent on harming us, or on changing the nature of the republic, has been a major topic of discussion in the presidential campaign over many months – indeed, in the national marketplace of ideas for much longer.

President Obama recently asserted that “America is a nation of immigrants. That’s our strength. Unless you are a Native American, somebody, somewhere in your past showed up from someplace else, and they didn’t always have papers.”  That’s a truth that we Jews know well.

But concern about how to deal with the estimated 3.6 million undocumented immigrants currently in the country is valid, too.  As is – even more so – concern about the possible leanings of some who wish to come to America.

Regarding the former, a deadlocked Supreme Court recently quashed any chance of resolving the issue before the presidential election, leaving in place an injunction blocking the president’s “Deferred Action for Parents of Americans” plan (DAPA), deferring deportations of undocumented immigrants who have American families and no criminal record, and allowing them to obtain work permits.

Hillary Clinton has pledged, if elected, to continue to push for DAPA, presumably after nominating a replacement to the late Antonin Scalia’s High Court seat.  Donald Trump has called DAPA “one of the most unconstitutional actions ever undertaken by a president” and has said he’d deport all undocumented immigrants.

He has also seized the issue of the threat posed by future immigration, promising to ban all Muslims from coming to the U.S.

Immigration is one of those issues (are there really any others these days?) about which many get hot and polarized, righteously glomming onto one extreme position – that we should open our borders to any and all, and relax quotas and scrutiny – or the other – that we should deport all undocumented immigrants and accept no Muslims.

The wisest approach, though, as so often it does, likely lies someplace in the middle here, with reasonable accommodation of, but clear demands on, foreigners already living in the U.S. for years; and intensified scrutiny of new immigrants – based on region of origin, not religion.

But whatever one’s position on immigration issues, the midrash’s words speak to us.  Should America in fact need to build physically high border walls and conceptually high barriers to immigration, what it will reveal, according to the formula conveyed by Moshe Rabbeinu to the meraglim, is not how strong our nation is, but the opposite.

Walling off America, in other words, is the converse of making it great.

© 2016 Hamodia

Feminist poster

Torah Vs. Egalitarianism


The “Kosel Controversy” – whether “nontraditional” prayer services should be accommodated at the Kosel Maaravi – blazes on, fanned by the winds of politics, courts and “activists.”

Respect for the Jewish mesorah at the site has characterized tefillah there since Yerushalayim’s liberation from Jordan in 1967.   What underlies the desire of some to diminish that respect?  I think it’s something that emerged from a conversation I recently had with a nine-year-old.

I had scheduled a lunch appointment with a Jewish journalist, and he e-mailed me the day before to ask me if his daughter, who was off from school the next day, could join us.  Of course she could.

“Sarah” seemed a precocious and intelligent young person, and listened intently as her father and I conversed.  At the end of the conversation, her father asked her if she had anything herself to ask me.  She did, and wasn’t shy.  “Why,” she inquired, “are you Orthodox?”

Not a question I’m often asked. I explained how I had been raised Orthodox but had also, after much reading, study and thinking, come to realize that Mattan Torah, as the singular claim in history to mass Divine revelation, is undeniable.  And that the beliefs, laws and practices of the Jewish mesorah are incumbent on Jews.

Sarah considered my words for a moment and then responded, “Well, I love Judaism, but I believe in equal rights for women.  So I don’t think I could be Orthodox.”

I admitted to Sarah that the Torah indeed assigns different roles and responsibilities to men and to women.  But, I added, life demands that each of us establish a hierarchy of values – and only one thing can be at the very top of any list.

Orthodox Jews’ first-place value, I explained, is the Jewish mesorah, as it has been carefully preserved and developed through the rules of the halachic system over the centuries.  As she gets older, I told my young interviewer, she will have to decide what to honor with first place status in her own life – Judaism, egalitarianism or any other ideal she may opt to value above all else. She should realize, though, that, as in any hierarchy, only one thing can be in first place.

That thought returned to me when I read of yet another in the series of media-directed protests-in-the-guise-of-prayer-services of the activist group agitating for the “right” to behave at the Kosel in a way that dishonors halachah and hurts those who regularly daven there. The activists takes pains to wave the flag of “religious freedom,” and there may well be individuals among them who are impelled, if misguidedly, by religious feelings.  But it doesn’t take a Ph.D in sociology to discern that the movement as a movement is motivated, above every other concern, by the desire to “empower” women – to erase gender distinctions.

There is, of course, much in the Torah that seeks to protect, and even “empower,” women – like  Chazal’s statement requiring men to honor their wives more than themselves (Yevamos, 62b), the kesuvah, women’s special mitzvos.  But the Torah also precludes women from certain roles (as it does most men from the roles of some – like Kohanim).  The Torah is not “egalitarian.”

“Egalitarianism,” however, and “religious pluralism” are the first priorities of the Kosel activists.  If Torah has a ranking at all on their roster, it’s, at best, in third place.

Those advocates for changing the status quo at the Kosel have clearly ordered their ideals; they should be honest enough to admit the fact.  To declare, in other words, without apology or dissembling, their conviction that the contemporary notion of egalitarianism trumps all else, and merits their quest to turn the remaining courtyard wall of the Makom Mikdash into a balkanized site of strife and disunity.  Then, at least, the issue will be clear: Judaism vs. Egalitarianism.

What is our role here?  There may come a time when Jews committed above all else to Torah will be directed by Gedolim to demonstrate that conviction in one or another way.

For now, though, perhaps we can help undermine the “egalitarianism first” push with a spiritual demonstration of our own dedication to the ultimate Jewish ideal.

Few if any of us are crass enough to embrace contemporary notions as more important than Torah.  But there are numerous blandishments – like material success, government influence or social status – that can subtly insinuate themselves into our lives’ “first place” without our even realizing it. Resisting such things with all our strength will not only make us better Jews, but might even cause reverberations at the Kosel plaza.

© 2016 Hamodia


Taking Aim At Massacres


What does the word “magazine” bring to mind?  A glossy periodical or, perhaps, a news program?  To many Americans, the word would more readily conjure a metal receptacle holding up to 30 or more bullets, inserted into a semi-automatic weapon.  The sort favored by soldiers on battlefields.  And people intent on killing as many civilians as possible at, say, a school, military base, office party, church or club.

The Second Amendment to the U.S. Constitution, which provides American citizens a right to own lethal weapons, was, in my opinion, a bad idea.  Had I been a Founding Father (instead of a Fumbling Grandfather – though I much prefer my current role), I would have opposed it.  And were there a current effort to repeal it, even though I own a gun, I’d readily support it.  Many civilized countries, including Israel, manage quite well without any such right.  The Constitution, after all, isn’t Torah MiSinai.

It is, however, for better or worse, the law of the land.  And so we must face the fact of repeated mass shootings in America squarely within the context of a right to bear arms.

But that right, like every Constitutional right, can be limited.

There are more types of guns than you can fire an automatic rifle at.  A short primer, for unarmed readers:  There are handguns, like pistols and revolvers, that are usually semi-automatic – meaning that they can fire rounds in close succession, one round with each pull of the trigger.  They are, however, limited in how many bullets they can hold.  Most hold only a few, although the handgun used by the Fort Hood shooter was equipped to shoot 20 rounds in 5.3 seconds.

Then there are semi-automatic rifles, like the one the Sandy Hook shooter used as his primary weapon. His Bushmaster M4 Type Carbine held magazines of 30 bullets each. Semi-automatic rifles were used as well in the Aurora, Colorado massacre, the Roseburg, Oregon community college massacre and the San Bernardino, California massacre.

And in the recent carnage in Orlando, Florida, where Omar Mateen, employing a Sig Sauer MCX rifle, murdered 49 people and wounded 53.

Then there are “fully automatic” weapons, often called “machine guns,” which have high-capacity magazines and fire bullets as long as the trigger is squeezed.

Fully automatic weapons have long been strictly regulated by the federal government.  Most semi-automatics were banned for sale in the U.S. for many years but Congress allowed the 1994 federal ban to expire in 2004.  Efforts to renew it have failed.

Semi-automatic weapons, which were developed for military use, are marketed as “sporting rifles.”  A popular one, the AR-15, is lauded as “America’s rifle” by the National Rifle Association (and who among us doesn’t aspire to being a patriot?).  But it’s an unusual deer that requires more than a shot or two to fell.  Maybe a crazed family of them headed straight at the hunter, but no such attacks are on record (and Jimmy Carter, facing a killer rabbit, did just fine with a paddle).

There are many ways that bad people can wreak havoc.  No amount of gun control can prevent a person intent on killing people from doing so with a knife or homemade bomb.

But there are also many tikkunim that could at least limit the likelihood that high-capacity weapons and people with evil intentions can be kept apart.  Like “no-buy” lists (with requisite due process protection) and universal background checks for gun purchases (currently not required for purchases from individuals at gun shows or over the internet). And like a new ban on high-capacity semi-automatic weapons.

And, yes, yes, of course, banning Muslims from entering the country.  The only problem is that Canada has a larger population percentage of Muslims than we do, and has admitted more than 10 times the number of Syrian refugees since November than we have; and while our country has experienced 136 mass shootings (defined as four or more casualties) thus far this year, Canada has had 8 – over the past two decades.  (Only one Canadian gun rampage took place this year, in Saskatchewan.  And the killer was a bullied teen, and not Muslim).

Those of us who learn Daf Yomi were recently reminded (Bava Kamma, 15b) of Rabi Nosson’s dictum that a home must be rid of a dangerous dog or wobbly ladder.  Is it too much of a stretch to see one’s country as, in a sense, one’s larger home?  And to see it as our responsibility – executed to the degree we can as voters – to rid it of lethal weapons?

© 2016 Hamodia


Letter in the New York Jewish Week


The letter below appears in the June 24, 2016 issue of the New York Jewish Week:


Gary Rosenblatt asserts that, as per the headline over his recent June 17 essay, “Ruth’s Conversion Would Be Rejected Today” by the Israeli rabbinate.

The Jewish religious tradition, however, sees precisely in the biblical Ruth’s conversion the sine qua non of conversion to Judaism.

Both Ruth and Orpah, her sister-in-law, loved and wanted to accompany their mother-in-law Naomi in her trek back to the Holy Land.  Both wanted to be part of her life and people.  But only Ruth refused to be dissuaded.  She insisted that, “thy G‑d [will be] my G‑d” – which, along with her other declarations, represent kabbalat hamitzvot, “acceptance of the commandments” of the Torah.  The Talmud explains that, while a convert need not be conversant with all areas of halacha, he or she must, in principle and with full sincerity, accept its authority.

What the Israeli rabbinate has attempted to do is ensure that conversions in the Jewish state comply with the timeless requirements for a non-Jew to miraculously become a Jew.  “Converting” people who do not meet those requirements misleads those well-intentioned people, casts doubt on the Jewishness of true converts and does Klal Yisrael a well-intentioned but lamentable disservice.

Rabbi Avi Shafran

Director of Public Affairs

Agudath Israel of America


The Power of a Place


Somewhere on earth there may be a more fractious, violent, convulsed and combative place than the Iraqi city of Fallujah, west of Baghdad.  But it’s not likely.

Currently, Fallujah is in the news because ISIS, which has controlled the town since 2014, is engaged there in a battle with Iraqi government forces, and has been shooting civilians who try to flee the conflict.

But carnage has long been the city’s calling-card.  Sectarian strife between Sunnis and Shiites has raged for centuries.  Fallujah was where, in 2004, Iraqi insurgents ambushed a convoy containing four American private military contractors, dragged them from their cars, beat them, set them on fire and dragged their charred bodies through the streets before hanging them from a bridge spanning the Euphrates River.

When U.S. troops left Iraq in December 2011, Fallujans celebrated and burned an American flag. In 2013, protests erupted again in Fallujah, this time against the Baghdad government.  ISIS urged Sunnis to take up arms to fight Shiites, and, soon enough, Fallujah fell into the Islamic State’s claws.

Iraq, of course, includes the region that we know as Bavel.  What many may not know, though, is that the name of the city called Fallujah, according to historians, comes from its Syriac name, Pallgutha, which (as in Gemara Aramaic) means “division” or “argument.”

And fascinatingly, the city is identified by a number of historians with Pumbedisa, one of the three Babylonian Torah-centers (the other being Neherda’a and Sura) where Amoraim recorded, examined and debated much of the Torah Sheb’al Peh that had been transmitted from generation to generation since Kabbalas HaTorah.

In his sefer Mei Marom on Chumash, Rav Yaakov Moshe Charlop, z”l, offers an astonishing thought.

He addresses the perplexing intention of the builders of the Tower of Bavel, who joined together to build a structure whose top would “reach to the heavens” in order to “make for ourselves a name” – to in some way challenge, k’vayachol, Hakadosh Baruch Hu Himself, as the meforshim explain. How, Rav Charlop asks, could human beings ever be so foolish as to even consider opposing their omnipotent Creator?

In some unconscious sense, however, the Mei Marom suggests, the builders sensed that the spiritual essence of the land on which they lived permitted human beings to somehow prevail “against” Hashem.  What they actually sensed, though, he explains, was the fact that the mesivta dirakia, the Heavenly beis medrash, would look to earth, especially to Bavel, for halachic decisions (Bava Metzia, 86a); that lo baShamayim hi, the “Torah is no longer in Heaven” (Bava Metziah, 59b).   That, in the end, the Tanna’im and Amora’im’s majority decisions would determine halachah.

The tower-builders, suggests the Mei Marom, detected but misunderstood the power of their place.  Yes, it held the seeds of the highest expression of human independence.  But that fact was not destined to manifest itself for many hundreds of years, when Bavel would become the seat of the interpretations of the Amora’im. The builders sensed something true, but were deluded in their comprehension of it.

It’s interesting to note, too, that, middah k’negged middah, the seeds of the most mundane, crass discord were Divinely sown among them, in the form of different languages and the diverse perceptions that came as a result. The people, until then unified in their undertaking, came to disagree with one another, to argue, to fight, and, eventually, to disperse to lands far and wide.

When Jews were exiled to Bavel, however, kedushah imbued the atmosphere of conflict that permeated the land.  Not only were halachos decided but even argument about them became sublime.  Chazal engaged in disputes – holy, transcendent ones, over the fine points of the mesorah .  Whereas, earlier, disagreement devolved into strife and violence, the chachamim of Bavel engaged in a different type of warfare: “milchamta shel Torah” – “the war of Torah.”

The war, in other words, that goes on in every beis medrash to this day.  Talmidim lock mental horns, “fighting to the finish” with their minds.  But the disputants, “waging war” as they do, are, in truth, amiable partners; their conflict is not personal but rather a joint venture in the cause of emes.  As the Gemara puts it: “[Those who are involved in Torah-study] become like enemies to one another [when they engage in dialectic], but then become beloved friends” (Kiddushin, 30b).

So, as we witness the barbarism in Fallujah today, we might pause to imagine how the city once was, at least for a time, a place where strife was sublimated, and conflict rendered holy.

© 2016 Hamodia

good and bad

When “Right” Is Wrong


There is a social media page titled “Justice for Harambe,” Harambe being the gorilla that was shot to death in the Cincinnati Zoo after dragging around a 3-year-old boy who had slipped into its enclosure.  The page’s description says it was created to “raise awareness of Harambe’s murder.” Within hours of its posting, the sentiment was endorsed by more than 41,000 people.

Over in the Netherlands, a woman in her 20s was recently cleared by the Dutch Euthanasia Commission for assisted suicide, because of “incurable post-traumatic-stress disorder” brought about by abuse she suffered as a child.  Although she had experienced improvements after intensive therapy, the doctors judged her to be “totally competent” to end her life.

And Shavuos is coming.

That was not a non sequitur.  Because the first day of Shavuos, zman mattan Torahseinu, falls on the first day of next week.  Had the Tzaddukim and Baitusim been successful in their quest to fix the date of Shavuos, however, it would always fall on that day.  Still confused about the connection?

It’s subtle but clear.  During the Bayis Sheini era, those groups asserted that it would best serve people’s needs to have two consecutive days of rest and feasting: Shabbos and, immediately thereafter, Shavuos.  (In Eretz Yisroel, of course, Shavuos is observed on a single day.)  And so they advocated amending the mesorah.

Although they provided a textual “basis” for their innovation, the Gemara (Menachos 65b) explains that their real motivation was their sense of propriety – two days in a row of rest just seemed “right.”

But the mesorah states otherwise, that the phrase “mimochoras haShabbos” in the passuk that tells us when to begin counting Sefiras HaOmer, does not mean “the day after Shabbos,” but rather the day following the first day of Pesach.  And so, Shavuos can fall on days other than Sunday.

The desire to supplant the mesorah with what “seems” to “enlightened minds” more appropriate appears to be a theme of Tzadduki-ism.  The group also advocated a change in the Yom Kippur avodah, advocating that the ketores brought in the Kodesh Kodashim be set alight before the kohen’s entry into the room, rather than afterward, as the mesorah teaches.

Although here, too, they mustered scriptural “support,” the Tzadukim were in fact motivated, the Gemara explains, by “what seemed right.”  To wit, they argued, “Does one bring raw food to a mortal king and then cook it before him?  One brings it in already hot and steaming!”

In both the date of Shavuos and the avodas Yom Kippur, the mesorah was defended assiduously by the Perushim, the champions of the Torah Sheb’al Peh. The Tzaduki mindset, however and unfortunately, lives on.

The perceiving of animals as equals to humans – based on the perception of humans as mere animals – seems “right” to many.  The celebrated philosopher Peter Singer famously contended that “The life of a newborn is of less value than the life of a pig, a dog or a chimpanzee.”

That same outlook sees the ending of an adult human life as a simple matter of “choice,” to be exercised by an individual as he or she sees fit.  Professor Singer has in fact advocated the killing of the severely disabled and unconscious elderly.

Such placing of mortal etiquette – “what seems right” – above the received truths of the Torah stands in precise opposition to the message of Shavuos, when our forebears declared “Naaseh v’nishma” – “We will do and we will hear.”

That is the quintessential Jewish credo, the acceptance of Hashem’s will even amid a lack of our own “hearing,” or understanding.  “We will do Your will,” our ancestors pledged, “even if it is not our own will, even if we feel we might have a ‘better idea’.”  Call it a declaration of dependence – of our trust in Hashem’s judgment over our own.

And so, as we approach Shavuos amid a marketplace-of-ideas maelstrom of “ethical” and “moral” opinions concerning myriad contemporary issues – not only in the larger world but even in the Jewish community, even in groups calling themselves “Orthodox” – we do well to pause and reflect on the fact that our mandate is not to “decide” what seems right to us, but to search, honestly and objectively, for the guidance of our mesorah.

When we choose to do that, with sincerity and determination, in our personal lives and our communal ones alike, we echo our ancestors’ words at Har Sinai, declaring, as did they, that man is not the arbiter of right and wrong; our Creator is. 

© 2016 Hamodia

swimming pool

Letter in the New York Times


Re “Everybody Into the Pool” (editorial, June 1):

Far from being “unmoored” from the Constitution, offering sex-segregated hours at public swimming pools that service traditional communities is well within the bounds of both the First Amendment and the “considerations of public policy” exemption provided for in New York City law.

Orthodox Jews, moreover, are not the only New Yorkers who hew to a different view of modesty than the contemporary one. Traditional Muslims, many Christians and women of no particular ethnicity or faith have similar convictions. Rescinding the special sex-segregated hours would be the equivalent of a sign saying “No people with traditional values allowed.”

The classical concept of modesty that is embraced by many citizens may have its roots in religious systems. But reasonable accommodation of the needs of such New Yorkers is not an endorsement of any religion. It is simply a laudable recognition of the multicultural nature of our city.

Concern for the needs of others unlike ourselves is another religion-based but universal ideal. It is one that your editorial board might consider embracing more consistently.


Director of Public Affairs

Agudath Israel of America

New York