In Judaism, Love Doesn’t Always Win

In their rejoicing over the recent Supreme Court same-sex marriage decision, various Jewish groups grievously misrepresented Judaism. An essay of mine about the Jewish religious tradition’s true take on homosexuality and the formalization of same-sex unions appears in Haaretz, at

http://www.haaretz.com/opinion/.premium-1.663962

You may have to register to access the piece (registration is free). But the paper does not permit me to post the piece here.

I have some further thoughts about the recent decision, and hope to share them here soon.


Agudath Israel Statement on Supreme Court marriage ruling

June 26, 2015

Agudath Israel of America issued the following statement in reaction to today’s 5-4 Supreme Court ruling that states are constitutionally required to permit and recognize marriages between members of the same gender:

“As we have repeatedly stated, including in the amicus curiae brief we submitted in today’s case, we oppose the redefinition of the bedrock relationship of the human family. The Torah, which forbids homosexual activity, sanctions only the union of a man and a woman in matrimony. While we do not seek to impose our religious principles on others, it is our sincere conviction that discarding the historical definition of marriage is not a positive step for civilized society.

“Moreover, we are deeply concerned that, as a result of today’s ruling, and as the dissenting Justices have pointed out, members and institutions of traditional communities like the Orthodox Jewish community we represent may incur moral opprobrium and risk tangible negative consequence if they refuse to transgress their beliefs, and even if they simply teach and express their religious views publicly. That prospect is chilling, and should be unacceptable to all people of good will on both sides of this debate.

“We reiterate that we remain … Read More >>

Agudath Israel Statement on Charleston Murders

June 17, 2015

STATEMENT FROM AGUDATH ISRAEL OF AMERICA ON THE MURDERS IN CHARLESTON

The deaths of nine people at the hand of a gunman at Charleston’s Emanuel African Methodist Episcopal Church is not only a personal tragedy for the relatives and friends of those who were killed, but yet another in the long list of murderous acts born of religious or racial hatred.

Agudath Israel of America extends its condolences to the families of the worshippers killed, and condemns all such evil acts and the attitudes that lead to them.

Ours is a community that has a long history of having suffered violence against worshippers, most recently in the case of the murderous terrorist attack on the Har Nof, Israel synagogue last November. That makes us all the more sensitive to the pain that was caused in Charleston today.

# # #

Who’s In Charge?

Some of us can remember when taking a plane was a pleasant experience, even exhilarating. Those days, of course, are long gone.

It used to be – if “good old days” syndrome hasn’t played with my memory – that only well-dressed and genteel folks flew, and that airport and airline personnel were uniformly polite and helpful. These days, air travel is a largely unpleasant affair. Airports are crowded; cabins, even more so. Seats are too close together, and fellow passengers, as a result, occasionally surly. Professional staffs can be less than congenial. Flight delays are frequent. And then there are the “security measures.”

After the September 11, 2001 attacks, the TSA, or Transportation Security Administration, was established, and eventually made part of the DHS, or Department of Homeland Security, also created at that time.

Among the TSA’s 60,000 employees are the people who make passengers take off their shoes (good thing the “shoe bomber” hadn’t swallowed the explosives instead), pass through metal detectors and, in some cases, “pat down” shoeless passengers. They’re the folks who confiscate your water bottles.

And who, it turns out, according to a secret DHS “Red Team” report, managed to miss a good number of … Read More >>

Appraising Children

The teaser headline on a Business Insider article — “The ultimate status symbol for millionaire moms on New York’s Upper East Side is not what you’d expect” — is explained by the piece in what seems a surprisingly positive way .

The status symbol isn’t “a ski home in Aspen” or a “private jet” or “a closet full of Birkin bags” (whatever they may be). It is children. Or in the piece’s rather gauche words, “a whole mess of kids.”

Unfortunately, the reason for the great valuing of children, the piece depressingly explains further, is that “it’s expensive to raise kids.” Thus, progeny are a way to “flaunt your wealth.”

How sad. Yes, children are expensive to raise and school and clothe and feed. And, yes, they are priceless.

But their immeasurable value doesn’t lie in what they cost.

Bias Ne’eman

By now, with a couple of decades of monitoring media on behalf of Agudath Israel behind me, I really shouldn’t be surprised by examples of journalistic bias. But there are times when I can still be impressed.

As I was by a recent news item from the Jewish Telegraphic Agency, the service used by Jewish media across the country and around the world. Its opening paragraphs read as follows:

This is how you launch a Hasidic shtetl in 21st-century America.

Step 1. Find a place within reasonable distance of Brooklyn where the land is cheap and underdeveloped.

Step 2. Buy as much property as you can in your target area – if possible, without tipping off locals that you plan to turn it into a Hasidic enclave.

Ensuing “steps,” according to the article, include building “densely clustered homes” and a religious “infrastructure.” And, finally: “Market to the Hasidic community and turn on the lights.”

The writer was referring to a Jewish developer’s purchase of land and construction of homes in the Sullivan County town of Bloomingburg. The article goes on to itemize some of the purchases – a “house with blue shutters,” a “hardware store,” a “pizza shop,” … Read More >>

Normal=Wonderful

It’s pretty much impossible to imagine the feelings of Funchu Tamang, a 101-year-old man who was pulled alive from under the rubble of his home a full week after the recent devastating earthquake that ravaged Nepal. But what went through his mind as light met his eyes for the first time in days and he realized that he was being rescued is ideally what should go through our own heads every morning, when we are pulled from the depths of sleep into a new day of life.

That’s what Modeh Ani is for, of course. That short statement of gratitude uttered by every observant Jew upon waking up is meant to focus our thoughts on the fact that, just as some earthquake victims are not rescued, so do some sleepers never awake. And on Chazal’s description of sleep as a taste of death. In a way, no matter how many times we may have arisen, we greet every morning as beneficiaries of techiyas hameisim.

And there are other resurrections, too, that we experience but don’t always fully appreciate. For several weeks this winter, I was homebound and in considerable discomfort with a, baruch Hashem, non-life-threatening but debilitating illness. As … Read More >>

Inform or Incite

Many who recognize the evil that permeates radical Islam likely felt a reflexive satisfaction at the recent ruling of U.S. District Judge John Koeltl that New York City’s Metropolitan Transit Authority cannot reject an anti-Islamist advertisement.

The ad, created by the “American Freedom Defense Initiative” (AFDI), presents a keffiyeh-wrapped head of a man, only his eyes showing, next to the words: “Killing Jews is Worship that draws us close to Allah,” a quote attributed to Hamas television. Below that is the legend: “That’s his Jihad. What’s yours?”

That final phrase is a pointed parody of a Muslim advocacy group’s ad campaign several years ago to try to detach the word “jihad” from its “holy war” connotation.

Telling quote, clever ad. And, according to Judge Koeltl, within AFDI’s rights to run.

The MTA had notified AFDI that it would not accept the ad (one of four that the group purchased space for on the sides of New York buses) because it could incite violence. A simpleminded Muslim, the MTA claimed, might misunderstand the ad’s true message and be inspired by its quote to kill Jews. Rejecting that argument, Judge Koeltl noted that the ad had had no such effect … Read More >>

Shooting From The Heart

Although blacks constitute approximately 13% of the American population, the FBI reported in 2013 that 38.5% of people arrested for violent crimes were African-Americans.

Statistics like that one, coupled with a largely unsavory urban black culture (not to mention what passes in some circles for black leadership), predisposes many of us to assume the worst about all blacks – or, at very least, to be sympathetic to law enforcement officers in their dealings with black suspects.

And, as a result, many white Americans tend to be wary of claims that black Americans are unfairly singled out by police for arrest, mistreated and even killed without justification.

So when, in 2013, George Zimmerman, a volunteer with a local “Neighborhood Watch” in Sanford, Florida, was acquitted by a jury of shooting to death Trayvon Martin, an unarmed black youth whom Mr. Zimmerman was following (against orders from a dispatcher to not do so) and with whom he got into an altercation, many of us felt that the volunteer’s claim that he killed the youth in self-defense was plausible, if not probable. The subsequent protests over the killing were regarded by many as an indefensible rush to judgment.

And last … Read More >>

Challenges to Tranquility

An article of mine about dealing with change appears in a new periodical, “InSight,” published by Rabbi Avraham Mifsud of Detroit. You can read the piece here.

The Differences We Make

In Baltimore’s Yeshivas Ner Yisroel, in whose yeshivah gedolah I was fortunate to study in the 1970s, the custom was that each beis medrash bachur would learn during night seder with a high school-age boy. I enjoyed the experience and it probably set me on a path to become a mechanech, in which role I was privileged to serve for nearly two decades.

At least one of my night-seder chavrusos, as it happened, followed me into the field of Jewish education, becoming, as I learned years later, the principal of a middle school in New England and then of a Bais Yaakov in Rockland County, the position he currently occupies.

I had only seen him once since our youths, when I was a rebbi and principal in Providence, Rhode Island, where he had brought a group of students from his school there for a Shabbos. That, though, was more than twenty-five years ago, and so it was a special pleasure to find myself at a meeting not long ago that, as it happened, took place in his home. It was an even greater pleasure to hear what he told me when he took me aside before the meeting began.

… Read More >>

Doubt Thyself

For years, national network news anchorman Brian Williams told various versions of a story about his experiences during the U.S. invasion of Iraq in 2003. His recent admission that he had gotten crucial facts wrong and his subsequent suspension don’t just comprise another case of the sudden fall of a mighty man (if one can define might as having earned widespread respect – and $10 million a year). The scandal may actually hold a niced-sized nugget of instructional hashkafah-gold.

It’s certainly possible, of course, that the broadcaster had been intentionally lying when he claimed to have been on a helicopter that came under fire (a rather foolish choice, since those present with him at the time could, as several eventually did, contradict his account). But it is also conceivable that Mr. Williams may have unconsciously conflated something he knew had happened to someone else with what actually happened to him, or confused a vivid fantasy with reality.

As Hillary Clinton may have when, in 2008, she claimed to have landed in Bosnia in 1996 amid sniper fire. She recanted her assertion when a video of the moment showed otherwise.

Many of us, understandably, might more readily attribute a … Read More >>

Wedded Bling

Do the price of an engagement ring and cost of wedding have anything to do with how strong a marriage will prove to be? Two Emory University economists recently studied that question. They noted that the multibillion-dollar wedding industry sends the subliminal message that large amounts of money spent on getting married can help assure successful marriages. However, the researchers found, the evidence suggested that, if anything, relatively inexpensive weddings are associated with lower likelihood of divorce.

Correlation, it is famously and accurately said, does not necessarily imply causation. It has been noted, for instance, that per capita consumption of cheese in the U.S. correlates closely with the number of people who died by becoming entangled in their bedsheets. And mathematical proficiency generally correlates with shoe size (children’s feet, after all, being smaller than those of adults).

So it’s wise not to put too much emphasis on the recent research, which was based on a survey of nearly 3,400 people who answered 40 questions, much less to extrapolate from it to the observant Jewish community.

But still.

The researchers’ conclusion – “We find that marriage duration is either not associated or inversely associated with spending on the … Read More >>

Leaf Bag Lesson

An aroma all but absent these days but deeply evocative of childhood to many of us who grew up before pollution laws is the bouquet of burning leaves. Back in the day, we would rake the dry debris of autumn into a pile or put it into a metal trash can (remember those?) and set the leaves aflame. The resultant smoke, at least at somewhat of a distance, was a seasonal perfume, an olfactory hint that the snow days weren’t far off.

Today we put what we’ve raked into very large double-reinforced paper “lawn bags” and leave them for the recycling pickup. (I don’t imagine they put the leaves back on trees, but surely something worthwhile is done with them.)

A few weeks ago, while I was doing the final leaf-raking of the year, the lawn bag I was filling provided me some timely spiritual direction.

I needed the chizuk, and for a reason not unrelated to how distant a memory the scent of burning leaves is, to how many years have elapsed since it would regularly waft through the autumn air.

Having several months ago passed the 60-year life-mark (the “new 40,” as I prefer to imagine … Read More >>

A Halachic Query of Jordanian King Abdulla II

Dear King Abdullah,

I’m quite sure you don’t remember me. I was part of a sizable group of Jewish leaders, clergy, politicians and organizational representatives whom you, along with the Center for World Religions, Diplomacy and Conflict Resolution, invited to a gala lunch in a posh Manhattan hotel nine years ago.

To jog your memory, though, I was the fellow with the beard and black hat, and whose lips you may have noticed quietly moving when you entered the room. I was reciting a Jewish blessing that is to be pronounced when one sees a king. It goes “Blessed are You, G-d, Who has given of His glory to flesh and blood.” It is, for obvious reasons, not a common blessing to make, and I was happy to have the occasion to invoke it.

I remember well your address to the crowd. Its essence was your hope that Jews and Muslims might be able, despite political differences, to attain respect for each other’s religious beliefs. Your message was a vision, of a human race unified by its members’ recognition of the worth and dignity of one another. We, you may remember, applauded loudly and enthusiastically.

We learned, too, … Read More >>

Moral Climate Change

My pre-Sukkos column about the furious, quasi-religious zeal of some environmental alarmists apparently generated some… well, furious, quasi-religious zeal.

In an editorial, the New Jersey Jewish Standard’s managing editor mocked my contention that the Creator is ultimately in charge of the universe He created; and the editor of the New Jersey Jewish News invoked the celebrated atheist Richard Dawkins to berate me for my skepticism about scientific predictions. (What’s with Jersey? Has climate change done a number on its journalists’ equanimity?)

In my column, just to recall, I described my unease with the rage I heard at a large climate change rally, noted that the climate has changed in the past and, yes, contended that, in the end, the Creator is in charge, and our own charge is, above all, to heed His Torah.

I did not, though, call into question the reality of climate change, or in any way disparage measures aimed at trying to curb it. I readily stated that “we do well to explore alternate energy sources and pollute less.” But my sin, alas, was too great to bear.

In addition to the two papers’ public proclamations of my heresy, several Jewish individuals wrote me privately. … Read More >>

Winter High

The wishes of “git vinter!” customary in some communities after Shemini Atzeres might put some people in mind of fall’s end weeks hence, and give them a chill. Not me.

I’m decidedly in the minority when it comes to the seasons of the year (as I am, as an aficionado of early morning, when it comes to the times of the day). While I’m thrilled with the onset of each new season, appreciating the changes that I didn’t fully experience during the several years I spent in California, winter is my favorite season.

Not that I like shoveling snow any more than anyone else. But there’s something about the rolling in of a massive cold front that – how can I say it? – warms my heart (if not my hands). To me, the frigid cold is exciting, inspiring. Besides, watching snow fall from a warm place through a window and running chilled hands under a warm stream of water are distinct pleasures of their own.

What’s more, winter is symbolic of childhood.

You didn’t know that? Neither did I, at least until I found the thought in the Maharal’s Gur Aryeh supercommentary on Rashi (Beraishis 26:34); it is … Read More >>

Misplaced Zeal

The powerful swell of voices on Broadway, thirteen stories below Agudath Israel’s offices, did more than disturb my concentration. A thousand people were blocking traffic and loudly chanting in unison, the roar less redolent of “Hashem hu ho’Elokim!” at Neila’s end than of what I imagine “Kill the Jews!” must have sounded like during pogroms. Which was ironic, considering that, in light of the cause and location, a large number of the shouters were likely Jewish.

The “Flood Wall Street” event was but a weak echo of what had taken place a day earlier, when an estimated 300,000 people (including members of close to 100 Jewish groups, parts of the “Jewish Climate Campaign”), participated in the “People’s Climate March” on the West Side of Manhattan. But the smaller demonstration was large enough and loud enough for me. I had to wonder what made the chanting seem so sinister.

It may have had to do with something the late writer Michael Crichton famously asserted, that people “have to believe in something that gives meaning” to their lives, and that “environmentalism seems to be the religion of choice for urban atheists.” (And, I’d add, even for some who may believe in … Read More >>

Letter in NYT

To the Editor:

Dr. Barron H. Lerner concedes that it was proper for medicine to abandon the medical paternalism that had doctors make “life-and-death decisions for patients by themselves,” but he asserts that doctors should be “bolder and more courageous,” seeing “their duty not simply as providing options” but as ensuring “the most appropriate care,” even if that means “saying no to specific demands.”

To be sure, patients and their families need to be well informed about treatments and prognoses. But it is not a doctor’s role to make ultimate decisions for his patients.

Dr. Lerner doesn’t like interventions that have “little or no chance of succeeding.” No one, though, has yet succeeded in surviving life indefinitely. And decisions about when, if ever, to give up on it are the province of patients and their religious advisers, not graduates of medical schools.

(Rabbi) AVI SHAFRAN Director of Public Affairs Agudath Israel of America New York, Sept. 19, 2014

Other letters on the topic can be read here.

Stubborn Spirit

The birthday cake was ablaze with 105 candles, and many among the scores of people present at the Czech embassy in London this past spring for the party would not have been there – or anywhere – had it not been for the man in whose honor they had gathered.

Nicholas Winton, who remains in full possession of his faculties, including his sense of humor, saved the lives of 669 children, mostly Jewish, during the months before the Second World War broke out in 1939. There are an estimated 6000 people, many of those children, now grown, along with their own descendants, who are alive today because of his efforts, which went unrecognized for decades.

Born in 1909 in West Hampstead, England, Mr. Winton was baptized as a member of the Anglican Church and became a successful stockbroker. He lived a carefree life until December 1938, when a friend, Martin Blake, asked him to forgo a ski vacation and visit him in Czechoslovakia, where Mr. Blake had traveled in his capacity as an associate of the British Committee for Refugees from Czechoslovakia, a group that was providing assistance to refugees created by the German annexation of the Sudetenland … Read More >>

Immoral “Morality”

In a good illustration of just how thick people who are intellectually gifted can be, the well-known biologist and militant atheist Richard Dawkins recently offered his opinion that Down syndrome children would best be prevented from being born. “It would be immoral,” he wrote, “to bring it into the world if you have the choice.”

“It”?

The dehumanization says it all.

Professor Dawkins’ judgment of birthing a developmentally disabled child as “immoral” stems from his belief (shared by another famously mindless professor, Peter Singer, who also advocates euthanasia for severely handicapped infants and elderly) that an act’s morality should be gauged entirely by whether or not it increases happiness or suffering.

Mr. Dawkins’ comment drew considerable fire, as well it should have. Some of those who assailed the professor for his – let’s here reclaim an important adjective – immoral stance focused on the factual error of his creepy calculus. Two psychology researchers wrote, for example, in something of an understatement, that “individuals with Down syndrome can experience more happiness and potential for success than Mr. Dawkins seems to appreciate.”

In fact, 99% of respondents to a survey of those with Down syndrome (yes, 99%) report that … Read More >>

Pain and Gain

Living lives of comfort and ease, it’s difficult for many of us to fulfill the direction of the first siman in the Shulchan Aruch to “be pained and distressed over the destruction of the Beis Hamikdosh.” Do we experience agony at the fact that the holiest spot in the universe lies in picturesque ruin, trampled daily by the feet of deluded masses? Do we feel sick over the reality that, no matter how nice the weather and the house and the bungalow and the cars, we are in golus?

It’s easier these days, unfortunately. We’re reminded.

It will be less of a challenge, too, to access the sadness of Eicha and our kinos this Tisha B’Av, when (unless we’re wonderfully surprised first by Moshiach’s arrival) we will focus entirely on the churban Beis Hamikdosh and its appalling offspring, the subsequent tragedies of Jewish history.

Because, no matter how one chooses to regard past weeks’ events in Eretz Yisrael, and no matter what may have been accomplished or might yet be, the situation is in fact dire and seemingly hopeless.

Some may take heart in the elimination of terrorists who, in their happiest dreams, and all too often in … Read More >>

Agudath Israel Statement on Today’s Tragic News from Israel

Agudath Israel of America joins Jews and civilized people the world over in anguish and agony over the news of the vicious murders of the three boys kidnapped on June 12, Naftali Fraenkel, Gil-ad Shaar and Eyal Yifrach, Hy”d.

This horrific act is, in the end, not a crime against Israel or Jews alone, but against humanity – in both senses of the word. It bespeaks the deepest and most revolting inhumanity imaginable, the seizing of innocent, idealistic young people and the casual snuffing out of their lives and futures.

Hamas and its allies, which now include the Palestinian Authority, are ultimately responsible for these premeditated, heinous murders. The hatred and incitement that have characterized so much of the campaign to establish a new Arab state alongside Israel are what have yielded these young lifeless bodies, and all the death and destruction born of Arab terrorism over the years.

There are those who believe that all people are, deep down, good. Hamas and its friends, along with other terrorist groups and rogue nations like Iran, give the lie to that lovely but naïve fantasy.

It is our hope that the nations of the free world and their leaders … Read More >>

Of Peoples… and People

Commuting to and from Manhattan daily on the Staten Island Ferry brings me into the vicinity of many a tourist. The boat sometimes resembles a United Nations General Assembly debate, without the translators.

When I hear German or a Slavic language spoken, I can’t help but recall the wry words of the late New York City mayor Ed Koch as he led the Ukrainian Day parade one year. He told the parade’s grand marshal: “You know, if this were the old country this wouldn’t be a parade, it would be a pogrom. I wouldn’t be walking down Fifth Avenue; I would be running… and you would be running after me.”

And I’m reminded, too, of the sentiment of my dear father, may he be well, who spent the war years first fleeing the Nazis and then in a Soviet Siberian labor camp. When I asked him many years ago how he feels when he meets a German non-Jew, he told me that any German “has to prove himself” to be free of the Jew-hatred that came to define his people. My father’s “default” view of a German (or, for that matter, Pole or Ukrainian or Romanian…) is “guilty,” or … Read More >>

Letter in June 5 Wall St. Journal

Shmuly Yanklowitz (“Why This Rabbi Is Swearing Off Kosher Meat,” Houses of Worship, May 30) is entitled to swear off meat if he chooses, but not to pass off his reasons for doing so as having anything to do with Orthodox Judaism.

Jewish religious law prohibits the infliction of avoidable pain on animals, and the vast majority of kosher slaughterhouses, overseen and inspected by both governmental agencies and rabbinic supervisors, are entirely sensitive to that law and its implications.

“Kosher,” however, has nothing to do with health or “ethics.” There are Jewish ethical laws and Jewish ritual laws. Kashrut is entirely in the latter category. And it is simply not “Orthodox” to contend otherwise.

Rabbi Avi Shafran Director of Public Affairs Agudath Israel of America