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Letter January 30, 2004

Standing By Critique of Grama Book Reportage

I stand by my claim that the Forward’s December 19, 2003 reportage of the main themes of Rabbi Saadya Grama’s book “Romemut Yisrael Ufarashat Hagalut” was “grossly inaccurate and misleading, perhaps libelously so,” but I am touched by Forward editor J.J. Goldberg’s description of our correspondence on the matter as a “difficult exchange” between friends. (“Ultra-Orthodox Officials Go To Bat for Anti-Gentile Book,” January 16). I am confident that our personal and professional relationship will survive our divergent views on this issue, as it has survived our disagreements on a variety of other issues over the years.

My correspondence with Goldberg was marked “not for publication,” (not, by the way, “confidential,” “personal” or “private” — the insinuation in your January 16 story that I violated some confidence in sharing copies with Agudath Israel officials and various other Orthodox leaders is unfounded) because I did not want my criticism of your December 19 reportage to appear in the paper as a letter to the editor. I felt that the pages of a popular newspaper were not the appropriate setting for a serious analysis of the many sensitive theological issues raised by Rabbi Grama’s book and the Forward’s subsequent reportage.

I still feel that way. For, whatever divergent streams of thought there might be among the classical sources regarding the precise nature of “romemut Yisrael” — the exaltation of the Jewish people — the actual fact of “romemut Yisroel” is accepted by all. We are indeed God’s chosen people — and the theology of chosenness, which made its first appearance not in the book of Grama but in the Books of Moses, has its implications. It is undeniable that Judaism’s holiest books include statements and mandates that are at irreconcilable odds with the principle of egalitarianism that stands at the core of modern-day democratic society. And they also include many statements that emphasize the special status of all human beings. Attempting to define the precise parameters of Jewish uniqueness is an important undertaking that needs to be worked through patiently, internally, reverentially, Jewishly — but not, in Agudath Israel’s view, in a popular public forum like the Forward.

Let me close by noting a striking irony: On the one hand, the Forward seems deeply concerned that some Jewish meshugeneh will read Rabbi Grama’s book, or the article by Rabbi Daniel Stein in the journal Beit Yitzchak (“Critics Slam Rabbi, Y.U. Over Article on Gentiles,” January 16), exclaim “Aha!”, and act violently toward gentiles. Yet there seems to be no corresponding concern that some antisemitic meshugeneh will read the Forward’s reports of those works, exclaim “Aha!”, and act violently toward Jews. Somehow, after contemplating the sad course of Jewish history, after reading the modern-day reports of antisemitism on the rise all across the globe, after making the sad but expected discovery that the Forward’s reportage on the Grama book has already found its way onto numerous hate Web sites, may God protect us, I wonder: Which meshugeneh is the more realistic concern?

Rabbi David Zwiebel

Executive Vice President for Government and Public Affairs

Agudath Israel of America

New York, N.Y.

An Unfair Stereotype

As a senior fellow at the Kollel Elyon post-rabbinical program at Yeshiva University’s Rabbi Isaac Elchanan Theological Seminary, I read with dismay Rabbi Irving “Yitz” Greenberg’s comments asserting that my colleagues and I are “living in a bubble” that promotes “excessive insularity and a lack of awareness of the fullness of humanity of gentiles” (“Critics Slam Rabbi, Y.U. Over Article on Gentiles,” January 16).

This gross generalization about the members of the Kollel Elyon is way off the mark. As a core part of our unique program, Kollel Elyon fellows participate in monthly meetings with leaders from different faiths and heads of other branches within Judaism. Moreover, the fellows themselves initiated a university-wide “lunch-and-learn” program for staff and faculty that welcomes and has received the participation of gentiles. Last year, two Kollel Elyon fellows escorted Cardinal Jean-Marie Lustiger and a delegation of leading French Catholic theologians on a tour of the seminary, a visit that so impressed the cardinal that he returned with several fellow cardinals this year. Indeed, the very raison d’etre of the Kollel Elyon program is to train and develop rabbinic leaders to serve the broader Jewish community and relate to all of mankind.

Sadly and ironically, Rabbi Greenberg’s stereotyping (and your paper’s printing of it unchallenged) demonstrates a lack of awareness of the fullness of the humanity of the members of the Kollel Elyon and of the mission we are dedicated to fulfilling.

Rabbi Shmuel Hain

Riverdale, N.Y.

Nimoy Book Exploits

I was disappointed that your review of Leonard Nimoy’s book-turned-ballet passed with no critique of his basic premise (“Connecting Spirit and Sex,” January 16).

His book sold because of its artistic shock value, rather than his supposed ideal of women taking a prominent role in the Jewish faith. Had he wished to make a serious attempt to expand the roles of women in Jewish religious life, his overly perfect models would have been told to keep their clothes on.

Using women’s bodies to sell is old hat and cheap. Despite being embraced by a high-end dance company, Nimoy ultimately is exploitative.

Bruce A. Birnberg

East Brunswick, N.J.

Survivor Group Strays

I am a Holocaust survivor and over the years have been active in local and national survivor groups, including the Holocaust Survivors Foundation-USA. I have been following the public debate between HSF and a few of its board members, and I fully support Israel Sachs, Leon Stabinsky and the others in their criticisms of the group (“Survivors’ Group Leaders Split Over Aid,” January 16).

I was on the founding board of HSF and was its first treasurer. But I resigned early on when the organization strayed from its original and singular focus, namely securing the creation of and seed funding for a national insurance-based home health care program for all survivors. If that singular goal had remained its focus, there is a good chance that such a program might exist today in some form.

The original strategy was to strongly encourage the Conference on Jewish Material Claims Against Germany to commit some share of the restitution funds under its control to the seeding of the home health care program. This was to be supplemented by funds from the Swiss bank and insurance restitution programs, as well as from insurance premiums and funds provided by some states and local agencies. There was a brief window of opportunity about 2 to 3 years ago when several state insurance commissioners were also actively pursuing such a strategy.

Instead of following this plan, which I understood to be the basis for forming the HSF in the first place, new people came into the HSF leadership about two years ago, taking it into an ongoing adversarial position vis-à-vis the Claims Conference and the federal court administering the Swiss bank fund, thus alienating the group from potential funding sources for the home health care program. I resigned from the organization having concluded that I had failed to get the new leadership back on course and with the realization that the window of opportunity would soon close for the health care plan.

This is a real shame. The survivors will get less than they deserve, and the world community is witnessing a squabble about funds intended for the victims of the worst human disaster in history.

Gunther Karger


Child Holocaust Survivors of South Florida

Palmetto Bay, Fla.

Saudis No Terror Foes

Edward S. Walker Jr. claims that the Saudis are fighting “terrorism” but neglects to tell his Jewish audience that the Saudis don’t consider murdering Israelis to be “terror” (“Time To Tone Down Criticism of Saudis,” January 16). Anyone who has any familiarity with the public and official Saudi position knows this to be true.

As the Saudi ambassador to the United Kingdom, Prince Turki Al-Faisal, told a London conference on fighting terrorism last October, that there is a “distinction between the concept of legitimate struggle for national goals and the concept of fighting the phenomenon of terrorism.” This position is held across the Arab world and was reiterated in the final statement of the 21st session of the council of Arab interior ministers: “The council renewed its strong condemnation of terrorism in all its forms and sources, affirming the necessity of differentiating between terrorism and the peoples’ rights to resisting occupation and foreign aggression.”

Aaron Lerner


Independent Media Review and Analysis

Ra’anana, Israel

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