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November 28, 2003

Revisit Religious Texts On Abortion Argument

Opinion writer Rabbi David Ellenson grievously misrepresents both how the Jewish religious tradition views partial-birth abortion as defined in the recently enacted federal law and what that law says (“Abortion Ban Degrades and Devalues Women,” November 21).

It is indeed true that Jewish tradition considers a Jewish mother’s life to take precedence over that of her unborn fetus when only one can survive — although, contrary to Ellenson’s thesis, there is no rabbinic consensus that abortion is “morally required” whenever a woman’s health is in jeopardy.

Once the child has emerged alive from the mother’s body, however, the very same source Ellenson cites makes clear that the mother’s life does not take precedence over the child’s. In the words of the Mishna (Oholot 7:6), in that case “we do not push one life away in favor of another.”

The partial-birth abortion law clearly specifies that the act prohibited refers to the puncturing of the brain of “a living fetus [when], in the case of a head-first presentation, the entire fetal head is outside the body of the mother, or, in the case of breech presentation, any part of the fetal trunk past the navel is outside the body of the mother.” Halachic tradition considers the emergence of the head or most of the body to constitute birth.

Moreover, Ellenson’s statement that the federal law does not “grant priority to the life of the mother over the… fetus even in instances where the life and health of the mother is at risk” is simply wrong. The law expressly states that the ban “does not apply to a partial-birth abortion that is necessary to save the life of a mother whose life is endangered by a physical disorder, physical illness or physical injury, including a life-endangering physical condition caused by or arising from the pregnancy itself.”

Finally, Ellenson’s attempt to portray the legislation as an attack “on the full personhood of women” makes sense only if one assumes that the status of full personhood carries with it the moral right to puncture certain others’ skulls even in non-life-threatening situations. Respectfully, while that proposition may be attractive to some diehard feminists, it is far from self-evident — and farther still from Judaism.

David Zwiebel

Executive Vice-President for Government and Public Affairs

Agudath Israel of America

New York, N.Y.

Kosher Food Arrives As Mature Cuisine

The Food Maven’s November 14 review of the recently held Kosherfest was an unfortunate and biased account that thankfully was the reaction of an extreme minority (“Tasty Treats Few and Far Between at Kosherfest”). While there is much to celebrate in an industry that has emerged from a rather small niche market to become a $7 billion industry with appeal to a cross section of Americans, one will obviously find varying degrees of quality. Even shows that carry the name “Fancy Foods” exhibit such a range and are not taken to task for not discriminating against exhibitors.

Calling Kosherfest “like a vast theme park of bad food” smacks in the face of food reviewers across the globe that heralded the strides made by the kosher industry. Even mainstream publications such as The New York Times and U.S. News & World Report found the array and quality fascinating. Food publications all over the world showered many accolades on the many new kosher products exhibited at Kosherfest.

Coming on the heels of an earlier assault on Manhattan’s kosher restaurants — against the judgements of The New York Times, Zagat’s and Crain’s New York Business — one gets the feeling that what the Food Maven really can’t stomach is the maturation and development of kosher into a respected cuisine, confirmed by such respected food authorities as Fritz Sonnenschmidt of the Culinary Institute of America.

Menachem Lubinsky


Kosher Today

Via e-mail

Fundraising Body’s Overhead in Line

The assumptions made in a graph accompanying an article on executive pay in the November 14 Giving section were based on information that was obtained from IRS form 990 and do not appropriately reflect an unusual circumstance that materially skewed those figures (“How the Numbers Add Up”). The independently audited financial statements of the American Committee for Shaare Zedek clearly explain the one-time adjustment that led to these figures.

In 1999, the committee filed an action against the estate of a donor who had made a pledge that, at the time, had a current value of approximately $9.5 million. In 2001, the committee decided that it was in the best interests of the organization and its donors to settle the matter. As a result, the current value of the pledge was reduced by approximately $6.3 million, thereby creating the appearance of a material inflation of the administrative expenses for that year. Without this unusual circumstance, our administrative expenses would have been approximately 17.1%, which more closely approximates our historical ratio.

Based on independently audited financial statements for the year ended December 31, 2002, the ratio of fundraising expenses to revenue is approximately 24% and the ratio of fundraising to total expenses is 22%. The ratio of administrative expenses to revenue is approximately 17% with a 15% ratio for total expenses.

Menno Ratzker


American Committee for Shaare Zedek Medical Center in Jerusalem

New York, N.Y.

Teen Donors Represent Future of Philanthropy

Considering that as much as $8 trillion will pass down from Americans over the age of 50 to their children and grandchildren in the coming two decades, successfully tracking and adapting to such changing trends will be the decisive factor in Jewish organizations’ continued viability (“Young Philanthropists Get Involved,” November 14).

While the Forward describes “younger” donors as people in their 20s, 30s or 40s, we at the Jewish Youth Philanthropy Institute have the pleasure of working with the youngest generation of donors — those who have just become bar or bat mitzvah through the end of high school. Our program prepares teenagers for the philanthropic challenges and responsibilities that their parents face today and they, too, will face in the coming decades. Teens are responsible for donating and then allocating some $50,000 per year through our programs as they explore the world of philanthropy, increase their awareness of diverse community needs and strengthen their individual commitment to giving and civic engagement. Shaping the Jewish identity of these teenagers today will ensure their continued commitment to the community built by their parents and grandparents before them.

Barbara Lubran


Eytan Hammerman

Associate Director

Jewish Youth Philanthropy Institute

Washington, D.C.

Talmud Clearly Rules Agains Spousal Abuse

Opinion writer Carol Goodman Kaufman asserts that Maimonides ruled a man may “beat his wife with a rod for failing to do the housework” (“Open Our Communal Eyes to Spousal Abuse,” November 21). Yet it is easy to discern why “the vast majority of the rabbis whom [she] interviewed had heard nothing on the topic” — because Maimonides never said such a thing, nor is there any doubt that it is anathema to Judaism.

I have seen this misquotation before — both times from self-proclaimed Orthodox feminists. I fail to understand why propagation of this myth might somehow benefit women.

What Maimonides actually says is that a court may force a woman to do her part, just as it may force a man to do his, including with corporal punishment. Maimonides continues that if the husband claims his wife is not working, but she says otherwise, then we appoint a woman as moderator.

There is hardly a learned yeshiva student unaware of Maimonides’s injunction, based entirely upon talmudic teaching, to love one’s wife as himself, and to honor her more than himself. In the multiple cases in which I have personally been involved in the counseling or exit from a dead relationship, I have seen rabbis who are indeed sometimes mistaken, but who are at least as likely to err on the woman’s behalf as the opposite. Maimonides was ahead of his time in the 13th century. And if one takes an honest look at society today, he still is.

Rabbi Yaakov Menken



Baltimore, Md.

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