Category Archives: Personalities

Letter in the Wall Street Journal

A letter I wrote to the Wall St. Journal was published today, and is here.

It reads as follows:

Mr. Peretz Takes a Swipe at Orthodox Jews
In reviewing a book about the ‘othering’ of Jews, no less.
Oct. 10, 2021 3:04 pm ET

Irony has seldom been more glaring than in Martin Peretz’s claim, in his review of Dara Horn’s “People Love Dead Jews” (Bookshelf, Oct. 5), that “many of the ultraorthodox, the very pious, the canonical don’t think of me and mine as brothers and certainly don’t think of Jewish women like Ms. Horn as sisters.”

How dolefully humorous that my brother, Mr. Peretz, in reviewing a book by my sister, Ms. Horn, about how much of the world treats Jews as “others,” not only misinforms readers but engages in a particularly ugly “othering” of fellow Jews, those of us who hew to our—his, Ms. Horn’s and my—mutual religious heritage.

Rabbi Avi Shafran
Agudath Israel of America
New York

Parshas Lech Lecha – The Meaning of Magein

“I am a shield for you,” is the common translation of what Hashem told Avram after the war of the kings (Beraishis 15:1). And Rashi, referencing the Midrash (Midrash Rabbah, 44:4), explains that the assurance was that Avram would not be punished for having killed people during the war in which he rescued his nephew Lot.

But the word magein, as that Midrash makes clear (paraphrasing it as “chinam”), does not mean “shield” at all, but rather “for free.” It is a cognate of the Aramaic word for “without cost,” as in assia dimagein bimagein magein shaveh — “A doctor who heals for nothing is worth nothing” (Bava Kamma, 85a). The intention being that Avram has received a “free pass,” so to speak, for his actions; he has incurred no “debt” for what he had to do during the war. Any deaths he caused will take no toll on his heavenly account.

Which might be understood as a middah kineged middah, a befitting Divine response of chessed (the suppression of din, strict justice, the offering of something unearned) to the chessed that is Avraham’s middah, his defining characteristic.

Avraham helps others “for free”; Hashem exempts him from punishment “for free.”

The first brachah of the Amidah, “Avos,” mentions the three Jewish forefathers, but concludes “Magein Avraham.” And, fittingly with the above, the brachah references zocher chasdei avos, “Who remembers the chessed-acts of the forefathers.”

Avos is the only one of the Amidah’s brachos where concentrated intent is technically required even post-facto. And so, the meaning of “magein” matters. The word can indeed, of course, mean “shield.” But, perhaps, in the context of how it relates to Avraham, conceiving of it as meaning “treating with chessed” might be more to the point.

And it would thus be an understandable introduction to tefillah. We ask for many things throughout the Amidah. But we have to realize that olam chessed yibaneh (Tehillim 89:3), that whatever we receive, in the end, if only because we were given life “for free” to begin with, comes from Divine suppression of din.

© 2021 Rabbi Avi Shafran

AOC’s Unconcern With Jewish Lives

Representative Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez offered an apology last Friday, but it was the wrong one.

She had decided at the last minute to vote “present” instead of “no” on a resolution to provide  $1 billion in new funding for Israel’s Iron Dome missile defense system. And then reportedly had a crying spell after which she expressed regret for not actively opposing the resolution.  

Her apology, instead, should have been for having even considered depriving Israel of the ability to protect innocent men, women and children from Hamas rockets.

The measure passed 420 to 9, but the handful of nay- or “present”- sayers showed some true and truly ugly colors. 

Back in 2018, I defended Representative Ocasio-Cortez when she was under fire for comments that were construed as insensitive to the memory of the Holocaust. And defended her again, when, with regard to Israel, she was lumped together on no evidence with Israel-hating, antisemitic trope-spewers Representatives Rashida Tlaib and Ilhan Omar.

I had hoped that Ms. Ocasio-Cortez wouldn’t slip into the Tlaib and Omar mud pit and buy into the anti-Israel propaganda that has crazily come to be part of some progressives’ agenda (though not of responsible ones like the impressive Ritchie Torres).

Alas, my hopes were dashed.  

She has repeatedly referred to Israeli security measures as “apartheid,” an accusation that distinguished South African Judge Richard Goldstone, who was charged by the U.N. Human Rights Council to lead an investigation of Israel/Hamas hostilities in 2008-2009, dismissed as defamatory. “In Israel,” he wrote in The New York Times, “there is no apartheid. Nothing there comes close to the definition of apartheid.”

And, after this past May’s Hamas attack on Israel, after which the Jewish state dared to retaliate by destroying terrorist bases and tunnels (and taking precautions to protect noncombatants that are unparalleled in any other military), Congresswoman Ocasio-Cortez blasted Israel for its “disproportionate” response, since there were more casualties, overwhelmingly terrorists, in Gaza than, thankfully, in Israel.

All that was emetic enough.  Now the congresswoman is weepily apologizing for not voting to deprive Israel of an entirely defensive weapon.  The Iron Dome system doesn’t threaten people; it destroys rockets aimed at people. And it has done so repeatedly, saving countless Israeli citizens’ lives. If ever there was a no-brainer when it comes to legitimate military assistance, this was it.

The problem is that Ms. Ocasio-Cortez has brains, plenty of them. Her opposition to a measure that can only save innocent lives must come from somewhere other than intelligence. Such irrationality is a regularly observed characteristic of antisemites.

I cannot know if the hearts of  Ms. Ocasio-Cortez or the others who didn’t vote to approve the funding in fact harbor visceral hatred for Jews. But what I can know, based on their votes, is that they have something less than concern for Jewish lives.

Parshas Haazinu — Not Bad but Best

A man once visited the saintly Chafetz Chaim and the sage asked him how things were going for him. The visitor responded, “Well, it wouldn’t hurt if they were a bit better.”

“How can you know it wouldn’t hurt?” was the Chafetz Chaim’s immediate response. “Hashem knows what is best for you better than you do. And whether or not you think he has given you the best for you, He has.” 

That idea is one of the explanations of “The Rock, perfect is His work; all His paths are justice” (Devarim 32:4).

There are things entirely unknown to us — “more things in heaven and Earth” as Shakespeare had Hamlet tell Horatio, “than are dreamt of in your philosophy.” Sometimes adversity is punishment in this world for our benefit in the next; sometimes it is a temporary pain that will lead to a greater gain; sometimes it is the yield of mystical calculi involving previous histories of our souls.

But it is always, whether we think it so or not, for our betterment.

The Chafetz Chaim was known to tell people not to employ the word “bad” about their travails, to opt instead for the word “bitter.”

Because, he explained, medicine is often bitter, but it’s not bad; it is best. 

© 2021 Rabbi Avi Shafran

A Welcome Win in a Political Proxy War

Should anyone still need convincing that “progressive” stances on Israel are at times tainted with… something less than enthusiasm for Jews… former Ohio state senator Nina Turner’s concession speech should do the trick.

The race that Ms. Turner lost on August 3 was in a special Democratic primary bid to fill an open House seat in Ohio’s 11th congressional district, which includes much of Cleveland.

The contrast between Ms. Turner and the come-from-behind winner, Shontel Brown, was stark.

And Israel was very much a point of contention between the two candidates.

To read my commentary on the election, which was my Ami column last week, click here.

The Non-Tragedy of Artem Dolgopyat

Israeli Artem Dolgopyat won a gold medal in the men’s floor exercise at the 2020 Tokyo Games, making him Israel’s second-ever Olympic gold medalist.

Amid the celebration, though, was some grumbling, over the fact that the medalist is not Jewish according to Jewish law.

That, of course, is of no consequence in the context of the games – or, for that matter, of Israeli society. Israel’s citizenry includes Jews, Muslims, Christians and Druze.

But Mr. Dolgopyat’s status according to halacha, or Jewish religious law, prevents the medalist, who immigrated to Israel from Ukraine in order to further his career, from marrying a Jewish woman in Israel.

Mr. Dolgopyat’s mother, Angela Bilan, who isn’t Jewish but clearly evidences a stereotypical Jewish mother’s sensitivity, told a local radio station interviewer that “For [me to have] grandchildren, he needs to get married. The country doesn’t let him get married.”

What she was referring to is the fact that, as is the case in Egypt, Jordan, Indonesia and several other countries, there is no option of civil marriage in Israel. As in those other nations, only religious unions sanctified by clergy — of one or another religion — are recognized in Israel. And Jewish marriages there can only be effected between two Jews, and overseen by rabbis recognized by the Israeli central Rabbinate, which hews to halacha.

Israeli Knesset member Gilad Kariv, a former director of the Israeli Reform Movement, which does not consider halacha the arbiter of Jewish practice, shared in Ms. Bilan’s chagrin, tweeting: “Artem, you, a champion, will continue to bring medals, and we will continue to fight strongly to bring you free choice in marriage and divorce.”

For a informed take on the issue, though, some historical background is necessary.

We Americans have an almost instinctive affinity for the concept of church-state separation. Religion in the U.S. is a private matter, and government institutions do not – may not – entangle themselves with religion. 

But many countries in fact have official religions. There are, of course, Muslim countries like Afghanistan, Algeria, Bahrain, Egypt, Iran, Jordan Kuwait, Malaysia, Morocco, Pakistan, Qatar, Saudi Arabia, Somalia, Tunisia and Yemen.

But also Christian ones. Like Costa Rica, Liechtenstein, Malta, Monaco, Italy, Argentina, Dominican Republic, El Salvador, Paraguay, Peru, Poland, Greece, England, Denmark, Greenland, Iceland, Norway, Finland and Sweden.

Even several Buddhist ones, like Bhutan, Cambodia and Sri Lanka.

Israel is, of course, a Jewish one, the only such country on the globe. And, like most of the above, it is not a theocracy but a democracy. Nevertheless, it respects its claim to Jewishness in certain limited ways.

On June 19, 1947, shortly before Israel declared its existence, Ben-Gurion and other officials of the Jewish Agency signed what came to be known as the “Religious Status Quo Agreement.”  In the words of the late University of Pennsylvania Professor of International Law Harry Reicher, the agreement was “for significant elements of the religious population… the inducement to their participation in that creation [of Israel], and… was quite fundamental to the character with which the State was stamped at its birth.”

That foundational document, which was addressed to representatives of the Agudath Israel movement (whose American arm I work for) declared the nascent state’s guarantee of religious freedom for all its inhabitants, but, in order to honor the word “Jewish” in the phrase “Jewish State,” pledged state observance of the Jewish Sabbath as the official day of rest, provision of only kosher food in government kitchens and the option for citizens to choose a system of traditional Jewish religious education for their young. 

It also addressed Jewish “personal status” issues like marriage, divorce and conversion, assuring the religious community that “everything possible will be done [to] avoid, Heaven forbid, the splitting of the House of Israel into two.”

What Israel’s first Prime Minister recognized was that multiple personal-status standards will inevitably result in multiple “Jewish peoples.” 

And if “Jewish State” was to be more than a slogan, Ben-Gurion understood, in matters like marriage, divorce and conversion, some standard must be established.  The logical standard to choose was the one that had maintained the Jewish people for centuries: halacha.

And so, it is that standard that currently prevents Mr. Dolgopyat from marrying a Jewish woman in Israel. It has not been reported whether his Belarusian girlfriend is Jewish. But for their marriage in Israel to be formally recognized by the state, they would have to be married in a religious ceremony of some sort.

In any event, there is another option for Mr. Dolgopyat and his intended. It is an option that is taken by some 9000 couples each year. Israeli civil law fully recognizes marriages of any sort that have been entered into in other countries.  And so, Israelis and citizens of other countries without civil marriage options can travel to places like Cyprus, a short flight (160 miles) from Israel to marry in a civil ceremony and, at least in the case of Israel, have their marriages entered into the state registry.

That back-door approach will not make Mr. Dolgopyat Jewish in the eyes of the Rabbinate or of anyone who considers halacha the arbiter of Jewish status. Only a sincere conversion to Judaism could do that.

But it should at least make his loving mother happy.

© 2021 Rabbi Avi Shafran

So Very Sorry, Mate!

It has always struck me as ironic that the largest Jewish community in America, that is to say, New York’s, lives in a city named after an English one infamous for the killing of all its Jews.

A historical overview of the York Massacre and a reflection of the Church of England’s planned apology for its predecessors’ treatment of Jews comprise the focus of my most recent Ami column, which you can read here.