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Orthodoxy Vs. the World
By Simon Jacobson

Undoubtedly, many have by now read Noah Feldman’s article in the July 22 issue of the New York Times Magazine, “Orthodox Paradox.” Feldman, a Harvard law professor, movingly describes how his marrying out of the Jewish faith caused him to lose recognition in the Orthodox Jewish school which shaped his life.

He elaborates about the rifts and tensions that exist between faith and secular life. The essential theme of Feldman’s article is the great struggle and difficulty inherent in reconciling the “vastly disparate values of tradition and modernity - of Slobodka and St. Paul’s.”

I read Noah Feldman’s article with special interest. After all, my life work is dedicated to bridging the two worlds of the spiritual and the secular. Wherever I turn I try to find ways to demonstrate how Torah is a blueprint for life. When deciphered properly and personalized, it offers us a sophisticated and comprehensive guide in every aspect of our lives – private and public, at home, work and play, addressing our emotional and psychological needs.

I therefore was looking to Feldman’s article for some fresh insight, perhaps a new way to speak to people who are struggling with the conflicts of faith and modernity.

But alas, this article simply repeats and confirms the same old stereotypes that have captured the minds of the last few generations. Orthodoxy is simply unable to contain and respect modernity, so vividly expressed in the modern equivalent of “excommunication” of their own alumni, Noah Feldman, due to his “intermarriage” with a Korean American woman.

But even more intriguing to me were the responses to Feldman’s article, or rather the lack of response.

From condemnations to commendations, from rebuttal to compassion, different writers, pundits and bloggers have been weighing in each with their passionate opinion. Not surprising: Jews are known to be fierce “opinionaters” – a tradition that goes back to Talmudic, and even Biblical times, and surely earlier. Especially a hot button item like intermarriage, and Orthodox standards in a modern world, is sure to evoke strong responses from all corners of the Jewish community and outside of it.

Glaringly missing, however, from all the discussions is the search for a solution of the problem: Can we actually integrate Torah into our modern lives? Or will the two remain forever at odds with each other? And what about intermarriage: Why are 50% of Jewish people marrying out of their faith? How do we solve the problem at its root? Some (not I) even ask: Is it a problem, or simply a modern reality that we must learn to accept?

Everyone has a position, from one extreme to the next, but no one has a solution.

Let’s begin with Feldman’s actual argument. Essentially, he contends that despite all the attempts of modern Orthodox Judaism to reconcile and negotiate the two worlds, there remains a fundamental dissonance and compartmentalization. No where is this more pronounced then when it comes to marriage – the defining factor in Jewish commitment, and for Feldman, his “most personal aspect of coming to terms with modern Orthodoxy.”

Feldman explains that the Orthodox must resist acceptance of intermarriage and ostracize those that transgress. The way he sees it, based on his “intimate understanding” gained in his yeshiva education, is because “a religious community that seeks to preserve its traditional structure must maintain its boundaries.” “Although Jews of many denominations are uncomfortable with marriage between Jews and people of other religions, modern Orthodox condemnation is especially definitive. The reason for the resistance to such marriages derives from Jewish law but also from the challenge of defining the borders of the modern Orthodox community in the liberal modern state… When combined with the traditional Jewish concern for continuity and self-preservation -- itself only intensified by the memory of the Holocaust --  marriage becomes the sine qua non of social membership in the modern Orthodox community… For those who choose to marry spouses of another faith, maintaining membership would become all but impossible.”   Clearly, Modern Orthodoxy (in the version of the Maimonides School of Brookline, Mass.), despite its progressive attempt “to try to be at once a Lithuanian yeshiva and a New England prep school,” following a “rigorous secular curriculum alongside traditional Talmud and Bible study,” ultimately fails in reconciling these two disparate worlds.

Reactions to Feldman’s position vary. On one hand Feldman’s article was, predictably, attacked by the religious Orthodox whom he takes on in his article. In their typical untrusting fashion, the religious critics, instead of addressing the issues at hand, dismiss his arguments as another attempt to break away from Torah tradition that has endured over the centuries. As is so often and so sad the case, many religious simply invalidate and ostracize an individual like Feldman, writing him off, without any interest in engaging him. And the more orthodox, the less tolerant.

Where will this approach lead? To completely and tragically cutting off the majority of the Jewish people… Is this what the Torah advocates? Is this consistent with the cardinal mitzvah love they fellow as thyself? Can any one person be complete if other “limbs” of the collective organism are ailing?

On the other extreme, we have the defenders of Feldman, and some who go even farther than him with their critique of Orthodoxy as archaic, close-minded, unwilling to embrace the modern age of free inquiry. Intermarriage, in particular, is seen by them as a throwback to primitive beliefs of exclusivity and self-protection, unnecessary in an evolved world like ours. Essentially, this extreme renders tradition obsolete, a position that Feldman would reject.   Finally, we have – in between the extremes – the reconciliators, who advocate acceptance of those that may have intermarried or otherwise wandered outside of the “traditional” Jewish fold. Author Shmuley Boteach, for instance, argues that the conventional method of rejecting those that married out of the faith, has not worked. Treating them as traitors to the Jewish cause as a deterrent has not prevented intermarriage reaching 50% of the Jewish population.

But let’s take this argument to its logical conclusion. What will result from accepting these Jews? Millions of non-ostracized intermarried Jews, who may or may not embrace Judaism. Will this stem the tide of assimilation and intermarriage?   Besides, how does one make a strong statement about a religious standard – as in intermarriage – if we embrace everyone equally? How do we show love and acceptance without compromising the integrity of our standards?   I’m not suggesting alienating anyone; but simply that a “loving” solution alone is quite lame. And above all, it only addresses the symptoms, not the roots.

Without addressing the education or re-education of Jews, nothing will really stem the tide of assimilation.

So we seem to be stuck. Without finding the core issue, we have either Feldman experiencing alienation from his own roots, others advocating total acceptance of Feldman and his choices, or one step further – Rabbis condoning and even performing intermarriages.

We have either the ultra-orthodox intolerance, astringent and unable to deal with a Jew that makes choices outside of the system. Or the other extreme – those calling for abolishing these “ancient laws” based on “primitive” notions of discrimination and exclusivity.

In between, we have those searching for reconciliation, and desperately trying to find a middle ground. Some argue that we can’t accept intermarriage, but once someone does marry outside of his or her faith, we must embrace them, and even try to convert the gentile party to Judaism. Has anyone considered that to be a form of elitism and exclusivity? Why are you imposing your religion (Judaism) on a gentile spouse? Would you like if someone imposed their religion (say Christianity) on you? Isn’t it fair to allow the gentile spouse to make that decision for themselves?

Others attempt reconciliation through interfaith dialogues, workshops and therapy. Yet another form of attempted reconciliation is ignoring the whole thing.

Even worse is the fact that each “philosophy” doesn’t stand on its own feet; it is responding to the other arguments – in one vicious, unending cycle: The ultra-orthodox become more inflexible in response to liberal permissiveness. The anti-religious become more radical, and even fanatic, in reaction to religious fanaticism. And the centrist reconciliators, many thinking people, are repulsed by the religious extremism of the mindless Orthodox, who ostracize those they don’t agree with, lacking the knowledge of how to love without compromising Torah. They oppose the Orthodox ”blind” rejection of Jews that are “not in your club.” But in turn, they go to the other extreme, some more than others, and confuse the standards and blur the boundaries between.   What is most disturbing is the polarization and that no one seems to notice that we need another option.

What is one to do? What does the Torah advocate?

The answer lies in a fascinating approach that introduces the soul of Judaism. As long as Judaism remains a body of law, a system of do’s and dont’s, divorced of its inner spirit, we will never be able to integrate it into modern life.


Often a problem seems impossible to solve because it is based on a false premise, which in turn has become a “given fact” defining, hijacking, the context of the discussion. Presumed solutions, then, are not true solutions; they are more like cosmetic band-aids, and band-aids upon band-aids, which not only don’t solve the problem; they become part – and an extension – of it. To solve a problem we have to get awat from false premises and look at the issue with a fresh eye.

Hardly will you find an issue where this distortion is more apparent than the challenge of balancing faith and modernity, especially when it touches intimate matters of love and marriage. The dissonance between these two worlds, so powerfully captured by Noah Feldman’s experience, is built on a false premise, which completely dominates and directs the discussion, obfuscating the heart of the issue.

The false premise is this: We live in a compartmentalized world in which faith and modernity can never be truly integrated. Out of this premise stem all the different positions in the debate around faith and tradition: Some feel that the only way to live in the modern world is to reject many elements of ancient tradition. Others, in fear and reaction to the former, go to the other rigid extreme, preaching dogma, protectionism and intolerance. And yet others react strongly to religious condescension and ostracism, and compromise the standard.

Noah Feldman’s experience is obviously not the root of this misconception. Neither is his education at the modern-Orthodox Maimonides School. Even the birth of modern Orthodox Judaism in 19th-century Germany is not the cause for the distortion.

The conflict can be traced back to the early stages of the Jewish emancipation in the 18th century. The primary challenge facing the Jewish people following the emancipation was how to benefit from their newfound freedoms while not compromising the integrity of millennia-old Jewish tradition. Indeed, modern assimilation was birthed as a result of a people unprepared for the challenges of accelerated emancipation. The challenge would take on different forms in the subsequent years – the battle between religion and science, between church and state and between faith and reason. Some chose insulation to protect themselves from these progressive forces; others compartmentalization, and yet others assimilation.

The problem with all these options is that they all are based on, what they saw as, a fundamental rift between the secular and the spiritual. Thus, the only choice is to either opt for one or the other, or to find partial solutions to balance the two.

As centuries passed, this compartmentalized flaw became ingrained in the consciousness, and has shaped the thinking and education systems of hundreds of schools (by the name Maimonides or by other names), affecting the minds of millions, and has by now, understandably, taken on many lives, which control and define the dialogue – with each position reacting to the other.

Once a fundamental misconception becomes a “fact,” it is extremely difficult to dislodge its power without radical rethinking of the initial premise. Often, we have to hit “rock bottom” to shake us out of our presumptions and recognize the logical missteps that led to the distortions.

Though Feldman’s article doesn’t offer any new thoughts, its mere content and the reactions to it – including that which is omitted from the dialogue – reflect the current mindset and sheds a powerful light on the present predicament. It gives us the opportunity to revisit the stereotype, about the unbridgeable gap between faith and modern life.

[It reminds me of the powerful words of Rabbi Levi Yitzchak of Berditchev to a self-proclaimed atheist: The G-d you don’t believe in, I also don’t believe in. Once the definition of G-d has been hijacked, we can never discover G-d’s true meaning until we revisit the initial premise].

The Philosophical Flaw

What is the philosophical flaw – exposed by the challenge of emancipation – in compartmentalization? Why is it problematic to say that faith and modernity cannot be bridged?

The problem is that compartmentalization implies a duality, which challenges the very notion of G-d Himself and His purpose in creating the universe. The root issue is not just how we cope with balancing both worlds or what attitude we should have to intermarriage (these are but symptoms); the question missing from the discussion is: What does G-d want of us? Is Torah actually inconsistent with modern, secular life?

Earlier in history people lived in secluded environments, insulated and protected from outside influences. The challenges were internal. The question of a pluralistic (or dualistic) universe was more philosophical than practical. As the world broadened due to emancipation, the issue of reconciling G-d with the modern world became very real, with far reaching consequences. The question of duality stormed to the fore with enormous force.

But “the cure precedes the illness”: When the duality challenge arose, the spiritual masters of the time, anticipating the great battles it would spawn, began emphasizing, like never before, the deeper spiritual nature of Torah and G-d’s plan with creating this seemingly dualistic universe.

And here lies the “new” option that upsets the very premise of the discussion on faith and modernity (not new at all, just going to back to the original Torah and recognizing its relevance today): The Torah approach is based on the cardinal principle of Divine unity. As we declare in the most famous of all liturgy – the Shema: Hashem Echod. G-d is One does not merely mean that there is one G-d and not many. In its fullest, richest sense, it means that there is only one reality; the Divine permeates all of existence. So though on the surface the universe seems fragmented and multi-faceted, in truth there is no duality or plurality. Underneath it, all everything is permeated with Divine Unity. It is our role and mission in life to expose and reveal the inherent unity in every fiber of creation

The Torah offers us a comprehensive system to bridge the schism between the material and the spiritual – presenting a dynamic blueprint for Jewish life today, one that makes the spiritual journey personally relevant to contemporary times.

Briefly, the Torah teaches that within all of matter lies potent spiritual energy. Each of us is charged with the mission of discovering the Divine “sparks” allocated to us in our respective corner of the world and sphere of influence.   We relieve the tension between matter and spirit by spiritualizing the material, releasing the Divine energy embedded in every person, object and experience. Redemption is the natural culmination of this process. Recognizing the Divine soul in each person naturally leads to a loving attitude toward every individual, regardless of background, persuasion or faith.

This seamless interface between the Divine and the human allows us to enter the emancipated world without compromising timeless values. On the contrary: it begets the opportunity to integrate both freedoms, material and spiritual, by refining and spiritualizing material secularism, turning the world into an intimate home for the Divine. The Torah offers man the tools to perceive and reveal the Divine in every aspect of life: to integrate personal independence with the highest moral standards of Torah, to blend fiery passion with profound intellect.

Two Conditions

There are, however, two conditions for effective integration: 1) A system of guidelines and boundaries how to achieve this fusion. Living in a complicated world of rich diversity, with each of us facing the battle between narcissism and soulfulness, affected, if not consumed, by our own individual subjective desires and needs – the right choice isn’t always clear. We therefore require a roadmap to navigate the complexities of life, directing us to make the right choices in allowing spirit to dominate over matter, while respecting the uniqueness of diverse aspects of existence.

The second requirement is 2) Spiritual maturity. We don’t throw a young child into the world to face its cruel challenges until s/he is fortified with the wisdom and resources to face life’s battles. The same is true collectively: Before the 18th Century, communities were insulated from many outside forces. But the challenge of a modern world requires a particular level of spiritual maturity, so as not to be overwhelmed by the newfound freedoms and the endless options that prosperity offers; a fortitude that allows one to generate spiritual passion that will parallel and surpass material passion; spiritual strength to counter ego-strength.

And this is where the Torah comes in: Torah is a roadmap that instructs us how best to fuse spirit into our material and modern lives, and to so at the right pace, with the appropriate boundaries honoring the diversity of our lives. 

The Torah in effect offers us a comprehensive spiritual vision of life that teaches us how to infuse soul into every aspect of our lives. It tells us that the way to look at life is not from the outside in: First there is a material universe and a modern world, then we try to find ways to fit spirituality and  G-d’s laws into the pre-existing framework of life. No. First there is G-d. He chose to create a universe, and our mission is to align the universe with His plan. A universe on G-d’s terms, not ours. The do’s and don’ts of Torah are not merely about commandments and prohibitions. They reflect a universal spiritual vision of life, while respecting the rich diversity of different souls in our universe.

This, of course, includes the issue of marriage: The Torah view on marriage is highly sophisticated – defining the dynamics of a true spiritual union. It is about the mysteries of every soul’s unique journey and destiny, It highlights the spiritual compatibilities necessary in marriage, even more than physical, emotional and intellectual commonalities.

When you appreciate the spirit of Torah you also come to understand that G-d created all humans, Jews and gentile, in the Divine Image. The Torah’s prohibition against intermarriage is not about petty discriminations and parochial concerns. It is not due to elitism, exclusivity, or plain, primitive superstition – all juvenile concepts that are as foreign to Torah as idolatry itself. It is also not merely about protecting Jews from gentile influences.   Without entering into an elaborate discussion on intermarriage (which deserves its own focus to do it true justice), suffice it to say that it has nothing to with the narrow interpretations heard from the reactionary right or the dismissive propositions heard from the progressive left. The tragedy is this: As long as we do not know the Torah’s spiritual approach to marriage, we in a way are all “intermarried,” in the sense of confusing spiritual roles and adventures in life.

The Feldman Story

Let us now return to Noah Feldman’s story, which vividly captures the approach of so many of us today desperately trying – without success – to make sense of and bridge a dualistic universe, in which G-d and existence are two distinct entities, rendering faith and modernity as two dissonant forces, unable to fully meet.

If we look upon the Torah only as a book of laws, as grand as this legal corpus may be, we will ultimately never be able to overcome the rifts, some more subtle than others, between the Torah view and the world view, as Feldman so accurately describes. And ultimately, a rift between our ideals of love and marriage and the Torah’s expectations.

A pluralistic or dualistic material world, and by extension modern life – poses a profound challenge: What to do when the world of spirit conflict with the world of matter? How much of modernity do we allow into our spiritual lives? Or how much spirituality do we allow into our material lives?

We are left with either those dismissing Torah’s relevance to our modern lives, or the opposite extreme – “ultra-orthodox” insulation and intolerance (reacting to ultra-liberalism), or some compromise in-between [1].

However, if we see Torah as a spiritual blueprint our entire attitude is different: In a unified world, with inherent Divine unity running through every fiber of existence, there is no such challenge, because everything – matter and spirit, faith and reason, the secular and the sacred – is driven by the Divine energy within. The only challenge is this, and it is a great challenge: Will we have the discipline and fortitude to overcome personal desires and be able to recognize and reveal the Divine purpose latent in all of existence, as outlined in the Torah and its guidelines?

In such a spiritually cohesive world the challenges of modernity actually do not even exist. We don’t need to be “modern” to engage in the world and its beauty. From the outset we should be engaging the world and its gifts in order to reveal the Divine sparks within.

For one who has lived in a “ghetto,” isolated from the larger world, emancipation becomes an “eye-opener,” offering many new seductive options (both positive and negative), leaving one to make personal decisions: “how much” to let in and at what point am I compromising my Judaism (or it may even come to a point where one doesn’t care). But one whose world outlook encompasses all of existence will not be seduced by modern options; on the contrary he sees the world as channel, a tool to express the Divine. His spiritual life is therefore not challenged by modernity – he does not see it as emancipation nor as compromise; simply as a development that needs its Divine sparks revealed and elevated. His only question is: How? What are the Torah guidelines that define the best way to align any new discovery with the Divine plan?

If, for instance, Torah’s prohibition of intermarriage is no more than another “legality” (which may be seen outgrown in modern times), then yes, “modernity” may include marrying anyone, even outside your own faith. Aren’t we all part of one human race? But if you study the universal and timeless spiritual nature of Torah’s guidelines, you come to appreciate the beautiful diversity of souls, and not every soul must unite with another to respect its majesty and reveal its Divinity.

Who is more hip and modern? The one who sees the modern world as a novelty, and is perpetually trying to juggle with the dissonance between faith and modernity; or one who initially sees the entire universe – with all its cutting edge developments – as a Divine “playground,” for us to tap and access its Divine energy?

To his credit Noah Feldman does sense the need for true unity. He was taught “to see the world and the Torah as profoundly interconnected.” But clearly, he does not have a method and strategy how to implement a workable integration. How else is it possible that someone so erudite in Torah, able to “recite the better part of the Hebrew Bible from memory,” should be able to disconnect to the extreme and not see how his marriage out of the faith is a major statement?  But ironically, Feldman does us a service by accurately observing that his own dissonance – which ultimately resulted in his ability to intermarry while not feeling that he rejected his Jewish upbringing – was a result from the ultimate duality of his Modern Orthodox education, an “attempt to bring the ideals of Orthodox Judaism into dialogue with a certain slice of late-20th-century American life,” whose goal it was, as Feldman sees it, to “strive to be, as a poet of the time put it, “a Jew in the home and a man in the street.” [Though this statement, I believe, was used by the original leader of Reform Judaism, its quite prescient of Feldman to describe Modern Orthodoxy in this way].

“Even as we students of the Maimonides School spent half of every school day immersed in what was unabashedly a medieval curriculum, our aim was to seem to outsiders -- and to ourselves -- like reasonable, mainstream people, not fanatics or cult members.”   But only to “seem” that way. Since faith and modernity ultimately are two different, conflicting worlds, any attempt to normalize Judaism (“to normalize the observance of traditional Jewish law -- to make it possible to follow all 613 biblical commandments assiduously while still participating in the reality of the modern world”) will ultimately fail. The only question is to what extent it will fail. For some the dissonance would be simple compartmentalization, driven by “the desire to inhabit multiple worlds simultaneously and to defy contradiction with coexistence.” For others it would widen into a deep rupture leading to marrying out of the faith and bearing non-Jewish children.

So though on one hand he was taught how “to see the world and the Torah as profoundly interconnected,” at the same time the two worlds ultimately remain apart. While he learned how “Maimonides taught that accurate knowledge of the world  -- physical and metaphysical -- was, alongside studying, obeying and understanding the commandments, the one route to the ultimate summum bonum of knowing God. A life lived by these precepts can be both noble and beautiful,” yet as Feldman concludes, as tantalizing a prospect the consilience of faith and modernity appears within the reach of modern Orthodoxy, “it can be undermined by the fragile fault lines between the moral substructures of the two worldviews, which can widen into deep ruptures on important matters of life and love.”

The only way to explain such dissonance is by realizing that with all his academic Torah study and all his brilliance, when the unified spiritual vision is missing, integration is impossible. It is therefore not surprising that in the entire article Feldman does not discuss souls and spirituality – which lies at the core of the entire Torah.

Missing the Soul

Truth be told, Feldman does make one meager reference to soul, but in doing so he demonstrates how little he knows about actualizing the soul. Quoting Maimonides, “who understood the soul pretty well,” “He once characterized the true love of God as all-consuming --  as though one had contracted the sickness of love.” But how do we integrate love of G-d into our personal love? 

How could someone so brilliant, so well educated in an excellent Jewish school, be unaware of Judaism’s spirituality? This should not surprise anyone. This major omission plagues almost every Jewish school today, even the best ones.

The sad fact remains that Mr. Feldman – and millions of others – never learned about the spiritual dimension of Judaism and Torah. Perhaps even sadder, is the fact that many of Feldman’s orthodox critics share this ignorance.

How about all those that didn’t receive any Jewish education? Some may say that they are better off, based on the maxim that “knowing half of something is worse than knowing nothing.”  But regardless, all of us are suffering.

I like to see every experience as positive: Seeing what is lacking ought to inspire us to do something about it.  Feldman’s story vividly captures the tragedy of our times, and teaches us what we need most: A true cohesive view of Torah that embraces all souls while appreciating their differences. An understanding of Torah that is neither dogmatic nor diluted, neither Orthodox nor Secular – it is about one G-d, and how the drama of life unfolds in expressing the Divine unity, in all its beautiful diverse manifestations, or sadly not.

Our challenge today – and a formidable challenge it is – is to teach people of the Torah personal relevance to our lives. From psychology to relationships, from pain to joy, from the moment we are born to the moment we die and beyond, every aspect of life, every nuance and dimension can be realized to its fullest through Torah.

Feldman’s article and its aftermath should serve as a wake up call. The best reaction to it is to create a true revolution in Jewish education – insisting on the infusion of soul and spirit in the Jewish dialogue and curriculum of our schools. Explaining to our children not just “juxtaposing traditional and secular curricula,” how “a rigorous secular curriculum” should follow “alongside traditional Talmud and Bible study… to try to be at once a Lithuanian yeshiva and a New England prep school,” not merely to find ways of “reconciling the vastly disparate values of tradition and modernity -- of Slobodka and St. Paul’s,” but for us to recognize that Hashem Echod – all of existence is one reality, not duality, both actually part of one seamless whole.

The ultimate way to preempt “intermarriage” is not only by invoking law or ostracizing transgressors, but to address the root of the issue: A lack of spiritual awareness as to the nature of marriage and the soul of intimacy; how to balance a universal vision with the unique spiritual journey of the individual. Without this awareness, there ultimately is no reason (besides for guilt or fear) not to marry outside of the faith. Or, even if a reason can be found, it may not be more powerful than the reason to marry.

So to answer Feldman’s concluding question: “Would we be the same people, in essence, had we remained completely within the bosom of modern Orthodoxy?” “Couldn’t the contradictory world from which we sprang be just as rich and productive as the contradictory life we actually live? Would it really, truly, have made all that much difference? Isn’t everyone’s life a mass of contradictions?”

In the final analysis, Judaism’s ultimate answer is: Yes, our lives are full of contradictions, because the universe is a diverse, multi-faceted fragmented world. But through our choices we can connect to Hashem Echod – the oneness and unity of G-d, and that can allow us to transcend the differences 

But to do so requires putting an end to our compartmentalized life choices.   G-d and Torah must permeate not just the food we eat, the holidays we keep, but our choices in love and marriage, in the “important matters of life and love.”


Posted on July 27, 2007
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