One of Israel's two chief rabbis took a detour last night from his diplomatic mission to Washington to stand in the dining room of an Upper Park Heights home, fold his hands over the back of a chair and talk to about 150 people who crammed the living room to hear him.
Rabbi Avraham Hacohen Shapira said he had kept diplomats waiting in order to come to Baltimore.
He spoke in Hebrew. The English translation, provided by an interpreter from his entourage, was mixed thoroughly with common Hebrew terms.
His message was that Jews who observe all the religious laws must embrace a Zionistic zeal for Israel, regardless of whether the state of Israel is in full conformity with Jewish religious law.
He was arguing against the claim of some other Jews, who observe all the religious laws, that they must distinguish between the land of Israel, which is their heritage, and the modern state of Israel, which does not fulfill every aspect of Jewish law.
Rabbi Shapira, a short man with a commanding voice and a full gray beard, spoke last night in the home of Dr. Scott and Susan Eleff. He said he would return to Washington after his talk to resume his round of meetings. He is visiting this country for talks with State Department officials, members of Congress and President Bush.
The Eleffs are parents of children at Yeshivat Rambam, a new school in the Park Heights area that combines Orthodox religious observance with Zionistic support of the state of Israel. The chief rabbi's appearance was also an occasion to raise money for the school.
Rabbi Shapira came to Baltimore through a connection to Rabbi Eliahu Shloush, whose wife, Dr. Rita Shloush, is the principal at Rambam. Rabbi Shloush, who is from Jerusalem, said Rabbi Shapira was one of the rabbis who ordained him.
There are two chief rabbis in Israel -- one from the Ashkenazi, who are of Yiddish-speaking, Eastern European heritage; and one from the quite different culture of the Middle Eastern Sephardic Jews. Rabbi Shapira, who is Ashkenazi, presides over the religious court in Israel and over a Zionist university in Jerusalem.
His philosophy derives from the first Ashkenazic chief rabbi who articulated a theological grounding for the modern state of Israel after it achieved independence in 1948. The first chief rabbi emphasized the concept of the land Israel, the people of Israel and the Torah or Bible of Israel, Rabbi Shloush explained, and the belief that Judaism is incomplete without the presence of each of those three.
After brief remarks, Rabbi Shapira took questions from the audience -- on whether Israel should exchange land for peace, on whether the excessive rain and snowfall this year was meant by God as a blessing or not.
To the first question, Rabbi Shapira said prominent rabbis of Israel had concluded that Israel could never give away a piece of the land they believe has been willed to the Jews by God. He offered to send a copy of that recent declaration to anyone who asked for it.
As for the precipitation, he said, "all rain that comes down is always a sign of God's blessing." Of the snow, he wasn't sure.