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December 11, 2009

Right and Wrong at the Western Wall

In her December 4 first-person article “The ‘Crime’ of Praying with a Tallit, and a Plea for Tolerance,” Nofrat Frenkel admits that she entered the area at the Western Wall reserved for traditional women’s prayer along with 41 other women, wearing tallitot “hidden under our coats” and with a Torah scroll in a bag. When they removed the Torah in preparation to read from it publicly in an area where they knew it was both illegal and would be offensive to others present, they were “abus[ed]” by other worshippers and “forcefully push[ed]” away by police.

The women should not have been abused in any way or treated roughly by police. But they also should not have chosen to do what they knew would cause pain to other Jews.

Frenkel, an activist in the cause of homosexuality-acceptance, in another essay wrote that “it is clear to me that my God-given uniqueness necessitates that I take action, that I perfect the universe through tikkun olam.” She is entitled to her opinions and her activism, but she should recognize that seeking to disrupt the prayers and injure the feelings of other Jews in the service of a social cause is not tikkun olam at all, but very much its opposite.

Rabbi Avi Shafran
Director of Public Affairs
Agudath Israel of America
New York, N.Y.

A Time for Counting, And a Count Is Coming

I concur with Uzi Rebhun’s conclusion that the American Jewish community needs data about itself in order to plan effectively (“A Time for Counting,” November 27).

With my colleagues Charles Kadushin and Benjamin Phillips, our research group has been working assiduously to collect useful and valid information that can be used to understand and assess contemporary Jewish life. By next year, we expect to provide the community with reliable estimates of its size and demographic characteristics, as well as population trends.

Our estimates won’t have the detail about the community that the National Jewish Population Survey promised but failed to deliver. We will, however, provide basic information that will enable researchers to make better use of data from a wide range of studies. Our approach will provide more valid and cost-effective data than previous efforts.

Leonard Saxe
Steinhardt Social Research Institute
Brandeis University
Waltham, Mass.

Sholom Rubashkin Is No Madoff

Your November 27 editorial “Rubashkin’s Crimes” states: “These crimes are so serious that, unless they are overturned on appeal, Rubashkin could be sentenced to a maximum total of 1,255 years in jail. By contrast, Bernard Madoff is serving a mere 150-year prison term.”

This seems to imply that Rubashkin committed crimes worse than those committed by Madoff. Such an absurdity not only shamelessly shows the Forward’s true colors, but also raises questions about whether such a newspaper can be considered remotely legitimate in any thinking person’s mind.

Menachem Mendel Shanowitz
Montreal, Quebec

Traces of Judaism in Durkheim’s Work

In an otherwise insightful review of the contributions of the late anthropologist Claude Lévi-Strauss, Melvin Konner states: “Like Emile Durkheim, the great sociologist whose mantle he picked up and wore very comfortably, Lévi-Strauss was a Jew. But in neither case, nor in those of many other Jewish social thinkers, is it easy to find explicit Jewish references in their lives or work” (“Lévi-Strauss: He Changed How We See Culture, but Ignored His Own,” November 13).

There are a number of references to Jews and Jewish tradition in the work of Emile Durkheim. His first major work, an outgrowth of his doctoral dissertation titled “The Division of Labor in Society,” is replete with references to the books of Exodus, Leviticus, Numbers and Deuteronomy. Durkheim’s “Elementary Forms of Religious Life” similarly contains references to Leviticus, Numbers and Deuteronomy.

In an effort to lend support to the notion of the egoistic form of suicide, Durkheim, in his work “Suicide,” cited mortality data from the second half of the 19th century in Europe. He noted that with the exception of Bavaria, the Jews experienced the lowest rates of suicide compared with Catholics and Protestants. He attributed these findings to the Jews’ minority status and suggested that one reason was their need to “exercise severe control over themselves and subject themselves to an especially rigorous discipline.”

Fascinating parallels can be found between Jewish thought and selected aspects of the sociologist’s work. Indeed, as one scholar noted many years ago, “he was fully conscious of his own predominantly ethical and religious preoccupations and frequently had occasion to recall to his colleagues of the Année Sociologique that he was, after all, the son of a Rabbi.”

Jacob Jay Lindenthal
Institute for the Public Understanding of Health and Medicine
UMDNJ–New Jersey Medical School
Newark, N.J.

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