Chopin and Shema Koleinu

A few years ago, reporters who were covering weddings of the rich and famous in four Monterrey, Mexico, churches were chagrined to find that they weren’t able to call or send messages to their editors. They routinely got a “no service” or “signal not available” message on their cell phones.

When one reporter asked the priest in one of the churches if he knew why, the answer he received, offered with a smile, was: “Israeli counterintelligence.”

He went on to explain that Israeli-made cell phone jammers the size of paperback books had been tucked unobtrusively among paintings that were hanging in the chapel. The jammers emit low-level radio frequencies that thwart cell phone signals within a 100-foot radius. Thus, technology developed to help security forces avert eavesdropping and phone-triggered bombings had been purchased for a more mundane (the priest would probably say holy) purpose.

Although cell phone jammers are employed in India’s parliament, Italian universities (to prevent cheating on exams), Mexican banks (to keep robbers from calling their accomplices) and Tokyo theaters and commuter trains, federal law prohibits their use in the U.S., and so shuls, alas, cannot legally utilize them to prevent davening from being punctuated by jazz, Beethoven or Hatikva (all of which have been heard by this writer during the silent Shemoneh Esrei).

Once, not too many years ago, the worst electronic interruption of tefillos in shul was the very occasional beeper; and the fact that it was usually summoning a doctor, presumably because of a medical crisis, mitigated the rudeness of the disturbance.

Today, though, as we all know, cell phones are ubiquitous, and so the satan has been able to add classical and pop riffs, and an assortment of utterly annoying chimes, tones and melodies, to his arsenal of davening disruptions, which once consisted only of mindless conversations among those who find silence a painful vacuum in need of filling.

What would the Tosfos Yomtov — who lamented talking in shul as courting tragedy, and composed the well-known, if too-often-ignored, Mi Sheberach for those who maintain shul decorum — say? Had cellphones existed in the 17th century, would he have showered special blessings on those who took three seconds to turn theirs off every time they entered a mikdash me’at?  I have little doubt that he would have.

It is often said, generously, that the laxity of decorum in some shuls results from the comfort that Jews feel in their place of prayer. We feel at home in shul, the diyun l’chaf zechus goes, and so we converse.  Indeed we do, but we shouldn’t.

Because it’s still a shul. Those are siddurim, not newspapers, and the people holding them and moving their lips quietly are talking to the Creator, not the bartender. And they want you to please hold your tongue, and your calls.

It is, to be honest, easy to forget to turn off our phones when we enter a shul. I once neglected to, although thankfully it didn’t ring (or ping or sing) during davening. But it could have, and I have been more careful ever since.

And I was witness, not long ago, to another man’s neglect to power down his phone before a tefillah, and his phone did ring. What happened afterward, though, was truly remarkable.

During the week I daven Minchah at the national headquarters of Agudath Israel of America, where I am privileged to work. Many men who work in lower Manhattan attend Minchah at our offices during their lunchtime. During the silent Shemoneh Esrei at Minchah one day, the man’s cellphone went off. (I don’t recall what the selection was; something Jewish, I think.) No, that wasn’t what was remarkable (unfortunately). What happened after Minchah was.

The man whose phone had serenaded us during davening looked embarrassed and I noticed that he left the beis medrash quickly after Aleinu. (Please don’t even get me started about Aleinu, which cannot be recited by a normal human being in less than 45 seconds but seems to benefit from some odd sort of kefitzas haderech in all too many shuls.)

As I left the room myself, I saw the gentleman whose phone had asserted itself standing near the elevator bank, where all the mispallelim would have to pass, both those headed down to the lobby and those of us who work in the Agudah offices.

The man stood there and politely accosted each and every one of us individually — to apologize for not having turned off his phone when Minchah began.

What mentchlichkeit, I told myself.  And what a poignant lesson about how we should feel if we have disturbed someone else’s davening.

And, of course, about how careful we should be to not do so.

© 2014 Hamodia

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Defining Orthodoxy Down

Had someone back, say, in the 1960s had both the foresight to trademark the word “Orthodox” and no compunctions about licensing it, he’d be a wealthy man today.

 Once upon a time, when Torah-observant Jewish life in America was expected to expire in short shrift, the “O” word was something of an albatross (though I don’t know if they’re kosher).  Anyone wanting to establish a new-and-improved Jewish movement would coin a new-and-improved adjective – “Reform,” “Conservative,” “Reconstructionist,” something novel and shiny.  But “Orthodox”?  It bespoke a tired, dusty past, one without a future.

Times have changed.  Today, Orthodoxy, boruch Hashem, is thriving, and “Orthodox” seems to be the adjective of the era.  So much so that when the latest carbon copy (remember carbon copies?) of the Conservative movement is conceived, the last thing its proponents wants to do is to associate it with its languishing, moribund theological predecessor.  It wants an “Orthodox” label, the better to lay claim to Jewish legitimacy.

And so we have seen “Orthodox Feminism,” which flouts established halacha and rejects “patriarchal” elements of Judaism.  And “Open Orthodoxy,” which not only derides by its very name those committed to the mesorah (we “closed” folks) but proudly advocates for things demonstrably antithetical to the Judaism of the ages.

And now, in the April issue of the monthly periodical Commentary, we have the latest addition to the “Orthodox” bestiary.

The new animal, “Social Orthodoxy,” is introduced by Jay P. Lefkowitz, a former adviser in the George W. Bush administration.  To be fair, he claims to not really be inventing anything new, only channeling what he considers to be the religion of many “Modern Orthodox” Jews (although he thereby insults all the upstanding, halacha-respecting Jews who choose to call themselves “modern”).

Mr. Lefkowitz’s creation is, in a sense, the polar opposite of what was once called “cardiac Judaism” – the once-popular “I’m a believing Jew in my heart, even if I’m not observant of any of the Torah’s commandments” approach.  “Social Orthodoxy” means doing Jewish without believing Jewish.

To wit, Mr. Lefkowitz explains that he dons tefillin daily and attends a synagogue weekly.  He eats kosher and, when eating in non-kosher restaurants, orders vegetarian dishes.  He “pick[s] and choose[s] from the menu of Jewish rituals,” but “without fear of divine retribution,” indeed without belief in a Creator.  (To Whom he prays in synagogue isn’t clarified.)

He claims, ludicrously, that “Modern Orthodoxy” of the sort he extolls has its roots in the teachings of Rav Shamson Raphael Hirsch; and, not ludicrously at all, sees its exemplification in the approaches of Rabbi Avi Weiss, the father of the aforementioned “Open Orthodoxy” and Mordecai Kaplan, Reconstructionism’s parent.

Indeed, that latter movement, although it hasn’t gained many adherents, is pretty much precisely what the Commentary commentator is championing, albeit with an attempt at some “Orthodox” redecoration.  Kaplan’s first and most recognized work was entitled “Judaism As A Civilization,” and its title says it all.  The Jewish faith, to him, is not a world-view, not a religion, not a revealed mission from the Creator to His chosen people, but a culture, and nothing more.

Mr. Lefkowitz recounts the astonishment of a Catholic friend who asked him, “How can you do everything you do… if you don’t even believe in G-d?”

The writer, he tells us, responded by citing to his friend his ancestors’ response at Sinai – “We will do and understand afterwards,” which he reads as “engaging first in religious practices” and only later, if then, dealing with “matters of faith.”

Of course, that is an utter misunderstanding of what Naaseh Vinishma really means, that it was Klal Yisroel’s acceptance of a Commander, regardless of whether or not we comprehend His commands. It does not bespeak, chalilah, any postponement of emunah but, quite the opposite, is predicated on it.  Mr. Lefkowitz might do better to ponder Shema instead.

One wishes that he would have been more honest and straightforward and just declared himself a Reconstructionist.  But rather than add a new member to that smallest of the mesorah-spurning Jewish groups, he insists on appropriating the “O”-word, with yet a new antithetical adjective in front of it.

Mr. Lefkowitz reports that his children attend a Modern Orthodox day school.  Here’s hoping they receive a good education in basic Jewish texts and beliefs there, including what Naaseh Vinishma really means and the significance of Shema.  May his choice of schooling for his progeny merit him the nachas of true Yiddisheh kinder and einiklach.

© 2014 Hamodia

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Pesach is Coming!

The two essays immediately below are several years old but I thought I’d post them here all the same, in honor of Pesach’s imminent arrival, and in the hope that readers might find them worthy of thought, or even of sharing at the Seder table.

Other Pesach pieces that might be of interest can be accessed by clicking on “PESACH” in the category list below to the right.

AS

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Deconstructing Dayeinu

Much of our Seder-night message to our children, mediated by the Haggadah, is forthright and clear.  Some of it, though, is subtle and stealthy.

Like Dayeinu.

On the surface, it is a simple song – a recitation of events of Divine kindness over the course of Jewish history, from the Egyptian exodus until the Jewish arrival in the Holy Land – with the refrain “Dayeinu”: “It would have been enough for us.”  It is a puzzling chorus, and everyone who has ever thought about Dayeinu has asked the obvious question.

Would it really have “been enough for us” had G-d not, say, split the Red Sea, trapping our ancestors between the water and the Egyptian army?  Some take the approach that another miracle could have taken place to save the Jews, but that seems to weaken the import of the refrain.  And then there are the other lines: “Had G-d not sustained us in the desert” – enough for us?  “Had He not given us the Torah.”  Enough?  What are we saying?

Contending that we don’t really mean “Dayeinu” when we say it, that we only intend to declare how undeserving of all G-d’s kindnesses we are, is the sort of answer children view with immediate suspicion and make faces at.

One path, though, toward understanding Dayeinu might lie in remembering that a proven method of engaging the attention of a child – or even an ex-child – is to hide one’s message, leaving hints for its discovery.  Could Dayeinu be hiding something significant –in fact, in plain sight?

Think of those images of objects or words that require time for the mind to comprehend, simply because the gestalt is not immediately absorbed; one aspect alone is perceived at first, although another element may be the key to the image’s meaning, and emerge only later.

Dayeinu may be precisely such a puzzle.  And its solution might lie in the realization that one of the song’s recountings is in fact not followed by the refrain at all.  Few people can immediately locate it, but it’s true: One of the events listed is pointedly not followed by the word “dayeinu.”

Can you find it?  Or have the years of singing Dayeinu after a cup of wine obscured the obvious?  You might want to ask a child, more able for the lack of experience.  I’ll wait…

…Welcome back.  You found it, of course: the very first phrase in the poem.

Dayeinu begins: “Had He taken us out of Egypt…”  That phrase – and it alone – is never qualified with a “dayeinu.”  It never says, “Had You not taken us out of Egypt it would have been enough for us.  For, simply put, there then wouldn’t have been an “us.”

The exodus is, so to speak, a “non-negotiable.”  It was the singular, crucial, transformative point in Jewish history, when we Jews became a people, with all the special interrelationship that peoplehood brings.  Had Jewish history ended with starvation in the desert, or even at battle at an undisturbed Red Sea, it would have been, without doubt, a terrible tragedy, the cutting down of a people just born – but still, the cutting down of a people, born. The Jewish nation, the very purpose of creation (“For the sake of Israel,” as the Midrash comments on the first word of the Torah, “did G-d create the heavens and the earth”), would still have existed, albeit briefly.

And our nationhood, of course, is precisely what we celebrate on Passover.  When the Torah recounts the wicked son’s question (Exodus12:26) it records that the Jews responded by bowing down in thanksgiving.  What were they thankful for?  The news that they would sire wicked descendants?

The Hassidic sage Rabbi Shmuel Bornstein (1856-1926), known as the “Shem MiShmuel,” explains that the very fact that the Torah considers the wicked son to be part of the Jewish People, someone who needs and merits a response, was the reason for the Jews’ joy.  When we were merely a family of individuals, each member stood or fell on his own merits.  Yishmael was Avraham’s son, and Esav was Yitzchak’s.  But neither they nor their descendents merited to become parts of the Jewish People.  That people was forged from Yaakov’s family, at the exodus from Egypt.

That now, after the exodus, even a “wicked son” would be considered a full member of the Jewish People indicated to our ancestors that something had radically changed since pre-Egyptian days.  The people had become a nation. And that well merited an expression of thanksgiving.

And so the subtle message of Dayeinu may be precisely that: The sheer indispensability of the Exodus – its importance beyond even the magnitude of all the miracles that came to follow.

If so, then for centuries upon centuries, that sublime thought might have subtly accompanied the strains of spirited “Da-Da-yeinu’s,” ever so delicately yet ever so ably entering new generations of Jewish minds and hearts, without their owners necessarily even realizing the message they absorbed.

© 2008 AM ECHAD RESOURCES

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The Man on the Bima

He ascended the steps to the bimah, the platform where the Torah is read, with the strangely hurried movements of someone who would rather be traveling the other way.

This middle-aged fellow, apparently something of a stranger to a shul, had just been “called up” from his seat in the back of the small shul to make the blessing on the Torah.

They get so nervous, I thought to my cynical, teen-age self that day several decades ago; they should really come more than just a few times a year, if only to get the feel of things.  The blessings, after all, are not very long, the Hebrew not particularly tongue-twisting.

“Asher Bochar Banu Mikol Ho’amim (who has chosen us from among all nations)” – I prompted him in my mind – “V’nosan lonu es Toraso (and has given us His Torah).”

C’mon, man, you can do it.

His life was passing before his very eyes; you could tell. The occasion, for the man on the bima, was both momentous and terrifying.

Then he did something totally unexpected, something that made me smirk at first, but then made me think, – and made me realize something profound about our precious people.

He made a mistake.

Not entirely unexpected.  Many a shul-goer, especially the occasional one, leaves out words here and there, reverses the order, or draws a traumatic blank when faced with the sudden holiness of the Torah.  That would have been unremarkable.  But this congregant was different.

His mistake was fascinating.  “Asher bochar bonu”  he intoned, a bit unsure of himself, “mikol,” slight hesitation, “…haleylos shebechol haleylos anu ochlim.”

The poor fellow had jumped the track of the Torah blessing and was barreling along with the Four Questions a Jewish child asks at the Passover seder!  “Who has chosen us from…all other nights, for on all other nights we eat…”!!

For the first second or two it was humorous.  But then it struck me.

The hastily corrected and embarrassed man had just laid bare the scope of his Jewishness.  He had revealed all the associations Judaism still held for him – all that was left of a long, illustrious rabbinic line, for all I knew.

My first thoughts were sad… I imagined a shtetl in Eastern Europe, an old observant Jew living in physical poverty but spiritual wealth.  I saw him studying through the night, working all day to support his wife and children, one of whom later managed to survive Hitler’s Final Solution to make it to America and gratefully sire a single heir, the man on the bimah.

We have so much to set right, I mused, so many souls to reach, just to get to where we were a mere 70 years ago.

But then it dawned on me.  Here stood a man sadly inexperienced in things Jewish, virtually oblivious to rich experiences of his ancestral faith.

And yet, he knows the Four Questions.

By heart.

When he tries to recite the blessing over the Torah, the distance between him and his heritage cannot keep those Four Questions from tiptoeing in, unsummoned but determined.  The seder is a part of his essence.

I recall a conversation I once had with a secular Jewish gentleman married to a non-Jewish woman and not affiliated with any Jewish institution.  His en passant mention of Passover prompted me to ask him if he had any plans for the holiday.

He looked at me as if I were mad.

“Why, we’re planning an elaborate seder, as always.”

Astonished at the sudden revelation of a vestige of religious custom in his life, I told him as much.  He replied, matter of factly, he would never think of abolishing his Passover seder.  I didn’t challenge him.

When living in Northern California, I became acquainted with other Jewish families seemingly devoid of religious practice.  I always made a point of asking whether a seder of any sort was celebrated on Passover.  Almost invariably, the answer was… yes, of course.

It is striking.  There are more types of haggadahs than other volume in the immense literary repertoire of the Jewish people.  The Sixties saw a “civil-rights haggadah” and a “Soviet Jewry haggadah.”  Nuclear disarmament, vegetarian and feminist versions followed.  At the core of each was the age-old recounting of the ancient story of the Jews leaving Egypt and receiving the Torah.  It is as if Jews, wherever the circumstances may leave them, feel a strange compulsion to preserve the Passover seder and its lessons whatever the costs, and whatever the form most palatable to their momentary persuasions.

Events that took place millennia ago – pivotal events in the history of the Jewish nation – are regularly and openly commemorated by millions of Jews the world over, many of whom do so out of an inner motivation they themselves cannot explain.

They may not even realize what they are saying when they read their haggadahs, beyond the simplest of its ideas:  a Force saved their forefathers from terrible enemies and entered into a covenant with them and their descendants.

But that is apparently enough.

A spiritual need that spawns an almost hypnotic observance of the seder by Jews the world over is satisfied.  And even if, after the seder, mothers and fathers go back to decidedly less than Jewishly observant lives, their daughters and sons have received the message.

As did their parents when they were young, and their parents before them.

The seed is planted.

The seder is indisputably child-oriented.  Recitations that can only be described as children’s songs are part of the haggadah’s text, and various doings at the seder are explained by the Talmud as intended for the sole purpose of stimulating the curiosity of the young ones.

For the children are the next generation of the Jewish nation; and the seder is the crucial act of entrusting the most important part of their history to them, for re-entrustment to their own young in due time.

And so, in the spring of each year, like the birds compelled to begin their own season of rebirth with song, Jews feel the urge to sing as well.  They sing to their young ones, as their ancestors did on the banks of the Red Sea, and the song is a story.  It tells of their people and how the Creator of all adopted them.  And if, far along the line, a few – even many – of us fall from the nest, all is not lost. For we remember the song.

Just like the man on the bimah.

© 2007 AM ECHAD RESOURCES

 

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Announcement

I’m happy to report that my regular weekly essay will now be appearing in Hamodia, a popular Orthodox daily newspaper.  The essays will appear in the Wednesday issue of the paper.  You can subscribe to Hamodia, which offers a wealth of worthy fare, by clicking here.

Hamodia is permitting me to post the essays shortly before each Shabbos following their print publication.  And so they will appear on this site then.

I will also be posting here other articles I have written, either for other periodicals or exclusively for the website.

Thanks for checking out this site, and please return often.

AS

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Ironies, Divine and Otherwise

Walking home from Megilla reading on Purim morning, even before engaging the mitzvos hayom, I had what I think was an insight.

There isn’t any word in loshon kodesh, I pondered, for “ironic,” the meaningfully coincidental that we see in the Megilla, and sometimes in our own lives.

Rav Shamshon Raphael Hirsch explains that there isn’t a Hebrew word for “religion” because, from a Jewish perspective, there is no such qualitatively limited “thing” – our beliefs and the Torah’s laws are life and the universe themselves; they are all that there is.

Maybe, I mused, “ironic” is similar; we use it to refer to the glimpses we occasionally have of Hashem’s hashgacha, the Divine providence that in fact permeates all.  But it’s omnipresent, whether we spy it or not.

It was spied recently, as it happens, in the shuttering of a butcher shop on Long Island.

The name “Commack Self-Service Kosher Meats” conjures memories in the mind of anyone who has followed the legal saga of “kosher laws” in the United States.  That shop’s owners, having been issued a fine by state kosher inspectors back in 1993 for harboring poultry that lacked proper tags, subsequently sued to have New York’s kosher law at the time declared unconstitutional.

That law, which was created in 1915 to stem rampant misrepresentation in the kosher meat market, required that food labeled kosher had to be “prepared in accordance with orthodox Hebrew religious requirements.”  And for many years it was enforced by a state agency empowered to force mislabeled products from shelves and levy fines on violators of the law.

In 1996, Commack Kosher’s proprietors claimed that the law’s language, by referencing “orthodox” standards, violated the U.S. Constitution’s Establishment Clause, illegitimately entangling government and religion.

The New York courts, like others in New Jersey and Maryland that scrutinized their own similar kosher laws, agreed.  And so a new law, the Kosher Law Protection Act of 2004, was written and enacted.  It requires only that products labeled kosher carry information about who stands behind the claim.  The original law empowered state inspectors to force the removal of, say, a product with a “Kosher Nostra” hechsher backed by a supervisor named Vito.  Under the current law, such a “hechsher” is just as “kosher” – at least as far as New York is concerned – as a Badatz certification.

Many Orthodox Jews weren’t particularly concerned about the fate of the original kosher law.  After all, it had little impact on them.  An observant Jew wouldn’t rely on a state inspector; he or she would look for the stamp or label of the rav or agency on a product to determine its acceptability.  That, in fact, remains the upshot of the current law – that the state can only ensure that duly authorized labels appear on products, but final determination of kashrus is the consumer’s responsibility.

Still and all, an assortment of Orthodox groups, including Agudath Israel, did their best to defend the original law.  Because there are many Jews whose commitment to kashrus might be less than robust but who would still prefer to buy a kosher product if it were available.  Ensuring that products claiming to be kosher were in fact halachically so would benefit such Jews.

But that was not to be; the courts spoke.  Still bent, though, on ridding New York of any kosher law, Commack Kosher sued the state again in 2008 to try to have the new law declared unconstitutional as well.  They failed in that bid.  They failed, too, despite their now-“kosher” Conservative movement certification, to garner sufficient sales to stay in business.

One of the owners, Brian Yarmeisch, reportedly told shoppers that he blamed “the community” for failing him.

What really failed him, though, was the Conservative movement.

The majority of Jewish houses of worship in central Long Island are Conservative, and that movement, despite its declared early aspirations to “conserve” Judaism by tailoring it to contemporary American Jews’ desires, has been rapidly declining in popularity.  More important, it failed miserably at its “conservation” goal.  The average Conservative Jew may retain some interest in Jewish “life cycle” rituals.  But Shabbos, taharas hamishpacha, kashrus… not so much.

Commack Kosher’s crusade, in fact, included its championing of a Conservative kashrus certification.  Their original lawsuit explicitly charged that New York’s kosher law discriminated against non-Orthodox Jews, and claimed that Conservative Jews were being denied the right to market and purchase and label as kosher foods that Orthodox Jews consider forbidden.

And so, there’s more than a plumba of irony in the fact that, by putting its eggs (and chicken and meat) squarely in a Conservative basket, Commack Kosher ended up alienating any Orthodox clientele it had and, in effect, committing commercial suicide.

Some ironies are sourced in the Divine; others are of people’s own making.

© 2014 Hamodia

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Our Soulless Society

Back in 2005, The New York Times asked a number of contemporary thinkers what idea that is taken for granted these days they think will disappear “in the next 35 years.”

Professor Peter Singer, the Professor of Bioethics at Princeton University’s Orwellian-named “Center for Human Values,” responded: “the traditional view of the sanctity of human life.”   That view, he explained, will “collapse under pressure from scientific, technological and demographic developments.”

It’s been less than ten years since that prediction but the professor is already being proven a prophet.

The Journal of Medical Ethics is a peer-reviewed academic journal in the field of bioethics, established in 1975.  A scholarly paper that appeared in its pages in 2012 has, for some reason, been receiving new attention.  It deserves it.

It was titled “After-birth abortion: why should the baby live?” and was written by two academics, members of the philosophy departments of, respectively, the University of Milan and the University of Melbourne.

Its authors’ summary reads, in its entirety, as follows:

“Abortion is largely accepted even for reasons that do not have anything to do with the fetus’ health. By showing that 1) both fetuses and newborns do not have the same moral status as actual persons, 2) the fact that both are potential persons is morally irrelevant and 3) adoption is not always in the best interest of actual people, the authors argue that what we call ‘after-birth abortion’ (killing a newborn) should be permissible in all the cases where abortion is, including cases where the newborn is not disabled.”

And the paper goes on to expand on each of those contentions.  In The Weekly Standard, where he serves as senior editor, Andrew Ferguson offered his synopsis of the paper:

“Neither fetus nor baby has developed a sufficient sense of his own life to know what it would be like to be deprived of it.  The kid will never know the difference, in other words.  A newborn baby is just a fetus who’s hung around a bit too long.”

By using the word “newborn,” Mr. Ferguson is too kind to the writers.  In their own words they make clear that they are not limiting their considered judgment to the moments, or even days, after birth.  “Hardly,” they write, “can a newborn be said to have aims, as the future we imagine for it is merely a projection of our minds on its potential lives. It might start having expectations and develop a minimum level of self-awareness at a very early stage, but not in the first days or few weeks after birth.”

While the writers concede that killing babies, or terminating pregnancies, does prevent a meaningful life from happening, they contend that “it makes no sense to say that someone is harmed by being prevented from becoming an actual person…. [I]n order for a harm to occur, it is necessary that someone is in the condition of experiencing that harm.”

Missing entirely, of course, in the authors’ calculus is the possibility that something other than “harm” to a human being, whether born or potential, may be in play here.  Any such concern, they would surely say, is for their universities’ religion departments to consider, not their own.

That is part of the toll taken by the compartmentalization of contemporary scholarship.  Once upon a time, no essential distinction was made between what was called “natural science” and “moral science.”

The latter, part and parcel of philosophy, concerned things like G-d, teleology, human purpose and the soul.

In the absence of the concept of a human soul, there is indeed nothing to prevent us from casually terminating a yet-unborn life or a life no longer “useful” or a life not yet cognizant of its potential. Neither, for that matter, would one be justified to consider humans of any stage or age inherently more worthy than animals.  Put succinctly, a society that denies the soul is not only soul-less but soulless.

There are many issues where contemporary mores stand in stark contrast with the Jewish values that have permeated the world since the time of Avraham.  The issue of dispatching babies, unborn or otherwise, is one.

To be sure, halacha makes clear that the life of a Jewish mother takes precedence over that of her unborn child when there is no way to preserve both lives. And, while the matter is hardly free from controversy, there are respected rabbinic opinions that extend that precedence as well to cases where there is serious jeopardizing of the mother’s health.   But those narrow exceptions certainly do not translate into some unlimited mother’s “right” to make whatever “choice” she may see fit about the child she carries.  And certainly not about a child already born.

Judaism has little to say about rights; it speaks instead of right, and of wrong; of duties and obligations.  And one obligation, although it is being degraded by the increasingly soul-less society in which we live, is to value human life, born or otherwise.

© 2014  Rabbi Avi Shafran

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Pondering the Prayer Gathering

The article below appeared last week, on March 11, in Haaretz.  It is republished here with that paper’s permission.

Pondering the Prayer Gathering

Ruminations of a participant in the Manhattan Atzeret Tefilla

The weather in Manhattan on Sunday – a few degrees above freezing – wasn’t as pleasant as Jerusalem’s a week earlier.  But that didn’t stop an estimated 60,000 Orthodox Jews from turning out to participate in an American counterpart to the mammoth prayer gathering that had filled the Holy City’s streets the week before.

Many American haredim live in communities far removed from New York, and thus couldn’t participate.  Still and all, an ocean of black hats stretched about a mile along, fittingly, Water Street, a major thoroughfare at Manhattan’s tip.  Traffic reporters were beside themselves, direly warning drivers to abandon all hope of entering lower Manhattan, and reporters in truck buckets high above the crowd shouted down to us earthlings that they couldn’t spy an end to the mass of humanity.

And, as was the case at the Israeli happening, a broad spectrum of haredim was represented.

There were Jewish businessmen and professionals from throughout New York and New Jersey, yeshiva and kollel students from places like Lakewood and Baltimore, chassidim of varied stripes, even including Satmar, a group that isn’t often comfortable with, and is seldom seen among, such broad efforts.

A large portion of the gathering site was set aside for women, of whom there were many, too, schoolgirls, seminarians and homemakers.

(Also represented, although in protest of the gathering, was the anti-Israel Neturei Karta.  A small contingent of its teenage boys, held back by police near the Staten Island Ferry, seemed to be enjoying themselves, waving placards, denouncing Israel and condemning those who walked by for not sharing their point of view.  The walkers-by just rolled their eyes and moved along to join the prayers.)

What united the supplicants was what united the participants in the Jerusalem gathering: the conviction that a dangerous line was about to be crossed.

That line, of course, is the modus vivendi in Israel since the state’s inception, which permits full-time Torah-students to defer the military service required of (most) other Israelis.  And the looming line-crosser is the Knesset legislation all but finally approved that would extend mandatory military or civil service to the haredi community and that allows, if mandated quotas are not met, for criminal prosecution of haredi conscientious objectors.

The law is generously sugar-coated, extolling Torah-study, phasing in its quotas over several years, insulating 1800 particularly promising haredi students annually from the draft and permitting others to defer service for several years.  But, to the haredi world, the sugar cannot mask what they see as its bottom line bitter taste: effectively making a student’s determination to study Torah full time a criminal offense, potentially punishable with imprisonment.

That fact is “deeply dismaying and profoundly shocking,” according to a statement issued by the American gathering’s organizers.  (Full disclosure: the organization I work for, Agudath Israel of America, was asked to provide its expertise in arranging the necessary permits, police presence and other logistical assistance.  But it was only part of the broader-based effort.)

And the purpose of the prayer gathering, the statement continued, was to let Israeli haredim know “that the Torah community in America stands with you…”  All that transpired, as in the Jerusalem gathering, was prayer and recitation of Tehillim.

Between the two events, though, something less rarified transpired, something in fact ugly.  Some enterprising fellow decided to produce his personal “official” video of the Jerusalem happening.  It was set to a pop-tune that hijacked the lyrics of the traditional “siyum,” or tractate-completion, prayer, contrasting the life of scholarly Jews with aimless souls who “sit around at street corners.”

“We arise and they arise,” the grateful prayer goes.  In the video, at the phrase “we arise to study words of Torah,” the image of a haredi studying appeared.  And at “they arise to pointless ventures,” politicians… and soldiers were depicted.  The insinuation (at least about soldiers) was deeply offensive to all feeling Jews, haredi ones included.  Normative haredim, even those who wish to be scholars and not soldiers, and even with their sincere belief that Torah-study protects soldiers and citizenry alike, don’t disparage soldiers.

And, as might have been expected, a “counter-video” subsequently appeared, using the same pop-tune and words, but with opposite depictions.

How often and how tragically are important issues hijacked by the small-minded, whether Neturei Karta or haredi-haters, would-be impresarios of this extreme or of that.  Having strong convictions doesn’t have to result in insensitivity, and certainly not insanity.

In a perfect world, every secular Israeli (even politicians) would respect those who sincerely embrace full-time Torah-study as a high ideal; and every haredi would not only respect the soldiers who put their lives on the line for the Jewish people but declare the fact at every opportunity. And Jews would seek, at most, to persuade, not ignore one another, and not try to legislate their lives.

But alas, our world is imperfect.

We can pray, though.

© 2014  Haaretz

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