Navonim - The Ramblings of Garnel Ironheart

Navonim - The Ramblings of Garnel Ironheart

Monday, 31 January 2011

More Things That Make You Say "Huh?"

So I was working overnight Saturday to Sunday and around 1 am the ambulance and police (never a good sign when they're together) come with with a guy and his heavily bandaged head.  There were a few different versions of the story depending on who you asked but the final synthesis seems to be this.
He was in a bar drinking heavily when he decided to sweet talk a girl next to him.  In response the girl pulled out some pepper spray and let fly in his face.  Then her boyfriend, to add injury to insult, pulled out some kind of axe and whacked him across the forehead leaving him with as deep a gash as one can without actually penetrating the skull.  Naturally arteries were involved so there was blood spritzing everywhere while I was suturing him up but I just couldn't get it out of mind afterwards.
I mean, I can understand the pepper spray.  A girl has to watch out for herself, after all.  I can understand the boyfriend who feels the need to be violent in order to protect a threat to his relationship.  After all, this was probably one of the seedier bars in town and lots of alcohol had been consumed by all involved.  I can even understand the guy's wife who told him "Oh just stay at your friend's place andcome home in the morning when you're sobre."
But an axe?!
Who takes an axe to a night out on the town?  Even a knife I could understand. One reads about knife fights all the time, never mind guns.  But an axe?  For what?  In case the bar's cold and you need to chop wood to make a fire to heat it up?  What on earth was that doing there?

Sunday, 30 January 2011

On Death and Respecting Chazal

Over the last little bit, conversation has been flying fast and furious between Rav Natan Slifkin, Rav Yosef Gavriel Bechhofer, and Thanbo's blog on the definition of death and the science Chazal used to make that determination.  A lot of space has been used to discuss whether or not Chazal understood science as we do today and if their presumptions about how the human body works are still relevant in light of the development of anatomical and physiological knowledge in the last couple of centuries along with the development of cardiopulmonary resuscitation.
With all that's been said, and begging the forgiveness of these folks for my presumptious sticking of my nose into their discussion, I think an important point has been missed that must be mentioned.
The root gemara for discussing the definition of life is found in Yoma.  As Rav Slifkin notes in his post (linked above), the case involved a person inside a building which then collapses on him.  Even if it's on Shabbos we are obliged to go to his aid and begin removing the rubble to save his life.  Should we find his head and discover  that he is not breathing, we are to cease all rescue efforts immediately.  He's dead and the permission we had to push aside Shabbos restrictions now ceases since there's no longer a life to be saved.  Chazal's conclusion is that spontaneous respiration is the litmus test of life.
The problem with using this Gemara in a carte blanche fashion to prove either that Chazal did not know about modern science or that they might have changed their mind had they known about CPR is that it looks at the scenario much too superficially.  It assumes, amongst other things, that respiratory failure is a monolithic condition that always occurs the same way and with the same consequences.
However, this is patently false and to understand the Gemara does not require one to pass judgement on the state of Chazal's medical and scientific knowledge.  In fact, I'm surprised that people approach this gemara from such a position in the first place.  Given that almost every rule Chazal bring comes with caveats and explanations, how can one think that this definition of respiratory cessation as death applies in all cases?
Let me start by giving some examples. 
- A 15 year old healthy male drowns in a very cold river or lake.  He is rescued almost immediately after going down and when pulled to shore is found not to be breathing.
- A 46 year old obese male with a history of high blood pressure and diabetes is walking down the street when he suddenly clutches his heart and drops to the ground unresponsive and not breath
- A 73 year old female with terminal cancer and six prior heart attacks suddenly flatlines after spending the last three hours in slowly worsening heart failure.
- A 52 year old driving a car is struck head-on by a Mac truck and is crushed to death. 
In all four cases, the victim will have stopped breathing.  However, the first patient will, with prompt assisted breathing and CPR along with rewarming, make a good recovery.  The second patient will only have a shot at life if someone begins chest compressions and gets a defibrillator to him within a couple of minutes.  The third is going to die no matter what is done because her body is worn out and wouldn't respond to resuscitation.  The final case doesn't require any explanation.
In other words, cessation of respiration is usually attached to imminent death but not always.  The context of the respiratory failure is paramount.
(By the way, Rav Slifkin makes a mistake in his assessment of CPR that is common amongst non-medical folk:
Now, for a while it has been known that even if respiration has ceased, it is often possible to restart it via cardiopulmonary resuscitation - CPR. It is therefore commonly stated that the Gemara was not referring to a person whose breathing has merely stopped, but rather to a person whose breathing has irreversibly stopped. Of course, Chazal did not know about CPR, but, it is claimed, their words did not rule it out.
This is wrong.  CPR is not about restarting respiration.  It's not even about restarting the heart.  CPR is about transferring potential energy to the cardiac muscle so that when electricity is applied with the defibrillator there will be enough to provide kinetic energy to get the heart pumping again. That's all that CPR does.  Therefore Chazal not knowing about CPR is irrelevant to the scenario in Yoma.)
Now let's look once more at the gemara's case.  Imagine the time line - a person is in a building which then collapses.  The rescuers must be assembled, they must begin to dig and they must make enough progress to find the guy under all the rubble.  One thing I don't hear anyone commenting about is the time line.  This is not something that takes a few seconds.  How many minutes pass before the person's head is found - fifteen?  Thirty?  An hour?
We often think that the ancients didn't know about science but we are wrong to an extent.  While they did not know about mechanisms such as the germ theory of disease or the role of the heart and brainstem in maintaining life they were able to observe phenomena in a very meticulous fashion, just as accurately as us.  Their conclusions might have been different but if we concentrate on their observations we would soon see that they were sometimes quite right even if they didn't explain their findings the way modern scientists might.
Our case in Yoma is just such an instance.  This is cleearly a case of death by trauma and I believe Chazal chose it to make a specific point.  They could just have easily said "A person falls to the ground and stops responding" and used that as their case.  Sudden cardiac arrest is as old as the race, after all, but they didn't.  They chose death by trauma to tell us that when one finds a person buried in rubble for a while and he's not breathing, he's dead.  Period.  And in this case they were pretty much right.  Death by trauma is generally instantaneous (unless it's due to a slow bleed or something like that) and Chazal knew it.  Therefore they were confident in saying that if you find such a person not breathing they're dead and all you have to do is check their nose to confirm it.  This makes perfect sense even in modern times given that the brain stem is the source of independent respiration and with its dissolution so goes everything else.
As a result, one cannot simply say "Chazal said that if a person stops breathing he's dead and if they'd known about modern science they'd have said differently".  Chazal said, in this gemara, that if a building falls on your head and kills you, you're dead and we can't desecrate Shabbos to excavate you.  What would they have said about sudden cardiac arrest?  We don't know but surely given what we do know about those principles they would have encouraged us to use all available resources to determine if it is possible to save the person.
Therefore Chazal were not wrong in their description of death in Yoma but only through an understanding of the complexity of respiratory failure and the specific context of the case can we see that.

Sunday, 16 January 2011

The Detroit Syndrome

I'm afraid to visit Detroit and have been for years.  It seems like such a scary place.  I've seen lots of pictures in the newspaper showing how, other than that small cluster of futuristic skyscapers, the entire city is pretty much made up of decayed and abandoned buildings.  The stuff on television is even scarier.  I get the impression that the entire social order has broken down.  Criminals rule the streets, ordinary citizens live in fear and if it weren't for that one special police officer they've got the entire city would complete dissolve into unbearable chaos.
Hang on.  Robocop doesn't really exist?  Feh, next you'll tell me that my impression of Detroit isn't so much based on reality as selected press releases and popular media that love to emphasize the element of social decay afflicting the city. 
One of the benefits of the internet is the huge amount of information available at our fingertips.  One would think that this would lead to people becoming more educated about varying points of view on a subject but it seems the opposite is often the case.  Media bias is everywhere.  CNN on line is no more balanced in its Middle East reporting than CNN on television.  Add in personal bias and what occurs is that people do become more educated but only about their point of view.  Just as in the old days folks would buy those newspapers whose editorials they agreed it, nowadays people frequent those websites that they nod their heads to while reading their posts.  But because one might scan a dozen news sites or blogs that one agrees with, the impression quickly grows that the opinion being sought is that much more authoritative.
In addition, there is very little in the way of quality control or accesibility, especially when it comes to blogs.  Bloggers can be as selective as they want, as inflammatory as they want, and as irresponsible as they want when it comes to pushing a particular agenda.  Once again, because of the ease of access, people who might have thought themselves to be alone in their particular viewpoint can now find friends in far places that agree with them.  What might have been an odd or peculiar belief before is now legitimized because someone else hold the same way.
All this is very relevant when it comes to the perception of the Chareidi community by outsiders nowadays.  Off the top, I'm not going to justify the various negative aspects of their worldview or social structure.  Heaven knows there's a lot to criticize and that criticizing is getting done across the world by those in positions of responsibility and irresponsibility.
But then there is the other side to the story.  There is the average Chareidi man or woman who, on an average day, goes through the usual routine in an uneventful way.  He or she is probably a parent and loves his or her children.  He or she probably doesen't sit around plotting how to defraud someone or steal from someone else.  He or she has a simple faith that God is doing the best He can, doesn't kick up a fuss and figures that those other similar looking guys who always have time to riot are whackjobs.  This Chareidi never makes the news because he or she never does anything negative.  After all, when was the last time you saw a news story about Chareidi helping one another, behaving politely or being a benefit to society around them?  You don't because (a) the innate bias of the secular press is to highlight the negative and (b) it's simply not newsworthy.
So like Detroit, the Chareidi community is targetted by an unending stream of negative press.  We get article after article featuring Chareidi behaving badly and we begin to think they're all like that.
As thinking people we have an obligation to not just read the news and various screeds out there but to also use our minds, to remember that even the most "trustworthy" reports are biased by the people who bring them to us and want us to buy into their agenda.  The real life story behind the headlines is far more complicated, far more ordinary that we might want to believe.
The average Chareidi is no more a monster than the average {enter name of ethnic group here} is a {enter typical stereotype of that ethnic group here}.  It would do well for our sense of achdus to remember that.

Wednesday, 12 January 2011

Meaning What He Says

The subject of whether BH Obama is good for the Jews or bad for the Jews has been an ongoing topic of conversation since he first became a serious contender for the presidency of the United States and will continue long after he's turfed out of office in 2012.  Reecently the Cross Currents gang has gone at it with Rav Yonasan Rosenblum and Rav Avi Shafran trading gentle barbs on the subject.  Rav Rosenblum has been insistent that President Obama is bad for the Jews and has brought up copious examples to support his position.  Rav Shafran, a man who would promote the Toronto Maple Leafs as the next Stanley Cup champions if paid enough, has tried to counter with superficial examples
The purpose of this post isn't to try and justify either position.  My opinion is that BH Obama is bad for the Jews, except when he needs their votes.  Given the chance, he would quickly sell Israel up to the river to its enemies but the complexities of the US governmental system, an intrasigence on the part of Israel's enemies to accept anything other than a 110% surrender and that niggling need to get re-elected every so often has prevented him from living out his dream.  But I digress.
The point I wish to make is contained in Rav Shafran's latest post on the subject, one full of the usual double-speak and "aren't I wonderful" content he considers to be standard things to include.  The title, Getting A Second Opinion, is full of wonderful paeans to diverse ways of thinking and need to consult them:
What brings the thought to mind is the reaction some readers had to a column that appeared in this space several weeks ago. In it, I sought to stress the importance of having all the relevant information when taking political positions – using President Obama’s record as an example, pointing out a number of laudable, but largely unrecognized, decisions he has made regarding Israel and religious rights.
Among the large number of responses to the essay I received were some from people (admirers and detractors of Mr. Obama alike) who related that they had indeed been unaware of the information I had cited, and who thanked me for the essay’s message. Others seemed to miss the message but praised or berated me (depending on their personal feelings about the president) for “defending” Mr. Obama.
My intention, though, was not to judge the president one way or the other, only to point out that judgments require – and so often lack – all relevant information. The vehement negative responses, though, reminded me of a different, if related, imperative of reasoned discourse: the willingness to recognize that different people can have different perspectives.
The Gemara teaches that “just as people’s faces all differ, so do their attitudes.” The Kotzker is said to have commented on that truth with a question: “Can you imagine disdaining someone because his face doesn’t resemble yours?”
Sounds great until you scroll down a few lines to find:
Comments are closed.
Yes, Rav Shafran is all for diverse opinions.  He just doesn't want to actually hear about them from you.

Saturating the Market

(Hat Tip: FinkorSwim)
There are essentially three types of Jewish prayer books on the market.  The first kind are the good, ol' fashioned all-Hebrew ones that come in a variety of sizes, nusachs and commentaries.  Generally speaking there is a specific part of the Torah-observant community that prefers them.  The third kind are the non-religious ones that the Reformatives promote that have changed the traditional prayers beyond recognition and are useless for those who wish to daven according to strictly Orthodox standards.
The second kind, however, fit in the middle - the English-Hebrew Orthodox siddur.  For decades, the standard for Orthodox shuls that catered to a crowd that wanted English in its prayer books was the Birnbaum siddur.  It was revolutionary in a few ways.  First, it insisted on making all the prayer texts the same size font, as opposed to more traditional siddurs that seemed to randomnly change font size from paragraph to paragraph.  It also included a brief but decent commentary, including a good explanation of the 13 middos of Rabbi Yishmael at the end of the korbanos section.  It's the siddur I grew up with and still have a nostalgic preference for.
The siddur that replaced it in most places was the classic Artscroll.  It had a few advantages over the Birnbaum including more detailed instructions for the beginning or even moderately experienced davener.  In addition, it contained a decent section of halachic details on praying at the back.  Like the Stone Chumash would several years later, the siddur wiped out the old Birnbaums and quickly replaced them in many shuls.
After several years of being the uncontested siddur of choice for those wanting to daven with an English side to their shul, Koren recently entered the game with its siddur.  Like the Artscroll it contained a good English translation and copious instructions.  Koren went further and revolutionized things by putting the English on the right side of the double page, as opposed to the usual left page universally used in English-Hebrew books until now.  With their distinctive fonts and layout, it has been a beautiful addition to the English-Hebrew siddur selection.  It had such an obvious impact that it motivated Artscroll to update things for the first time in decades and introduce a more comprehensive siddur to maintain their edge in the market.
The question to be asked at this point is: is there room for another siddur?  Artscroll has made a mint selling its siddur for years.  Koren is working hard to catch up.  Apparently the Orthodox Union feels there's still room and has decided to introduce their own prayer book to the mix.  The advertisement is glossy and enthusaistic.  We are offered yet another great English translation (odd how no new English-Hebrew siddur ever wants to give us a "plain old" translation) and lots of new features including a commetary guaranteed to improved kavannah (!!), essays, a halacha section and parts for non-shul functions that often require a siddur.  There is also the promise of a women's section to facilitate those prayers specific to the gentler sex.
Leaving aside Matzav's predictable and historically revisionist condemnation of the project, one has to ask: how many Orthodox English-Hebrew prayer books can the market handle? 
This is not an idle question either.  One reason for Artscroll's success in the personal (as opposed to shul) siddur market is their connection to the kiruv industry.  Folks returning to our ancestral heritage through Aish HaTorah or Ohr Sameyach are likely to be guided to Artscroll, not Koren or others.  Certainly the OU siddur will not be listed as preferred over the Artscroll when released.  Koren has made its mark by aggressively courting the Modern Orthodox siddur, noting that its commentary includes Modern Orthodox authorities deliberately ignored by Artscroll.  It has tapped into the resentment that MO feels on its scholars and leaders being sidelined by the Agudah crowd and kol hakavod to them for doing that.  However, what niche does that leave for the OU to place its siddur in?
I am a fan of competition but there are limits on the number of products that make a healthy market.  Will all due respect to those who have clearly put a great deal of effort into this new prayer book, I wonder how successful their efforts to sell it will be.  I think that at this point, instead of a new siddur, the Orthodox Union and MO groups should concentrate their efforts on producing a new Chumash to rival Artscroll's.  That would have a far greater chance of making a meaningful impact in the MO community.

Monday, 10 January 2011

Bringing Politics Into It

One of the reasons I don't subscribe to Mishpacha magazine is because of the high level of annoyance I experience when reading many of their articles.  During a recent visit to the wife's parents during which I had some spare time I did pick up a copy and confirmed my opinion quite quickly.
On one page, for example, they reported on a recent incident somewhere in Europe where a Jewish doctor had refused to operate on a patient with a swastika tatoo.  The blurb concluded with the results of a survey showing that only 34% of Jewish doctors asked disagreed with this physician's stand.
I was quite bothered by this.  In my job one comes into contact with people from every ethnic group imaginable. Either you're working with them or you're treating them, it's unavoidable and given that the goal of working in medicine is to treat patients with illness, there is really no place for politics or personal views that interfere with the care of the patient.  We, physicians and nurses, are not judges, juries or executioners.  When the sick person presents, it's my job to fix him.  When another physician or nurse needs help, I don't care about their background or beliefs.  Our goal is to help the patient so I leave my politics at the door.
Except this morning I didn't.
Every so often I take a final year medical student on for their six week Family Medicine rotation.  I enjoy teaching and the challenge of making sure I know the latest information so I can effectively guide these young 'uns in their training.  One again, I've had students from various backgrounds and gotten along with all of them.  After all, politics has no place in the teaching of medicine and that's what I'm there to do.
But today I got an e-mail from the university that I'd been assigned a student starting next month.  The name was ethnic and suitably vague so my first question was: Boy or girl.  And even the person who e-mailed me wasn't sure.  So I did what any (ir)responsible person would do: I Bing'ed him.
I'm not sure if it was a mistake or a good idea.  The first couple of listings were pretty innocuous.  He's involved with the university medical journal, he's won some scholarships in the past, pretty standard stuff for a medical student.
And then this came up:

Print Out For Future Reference: Meet HAMAS’ Future American Doctors

By Debbie Schlussel
On this site, I’ve written in extensive detail about (and compiled a long list of) the various Muslim doctors who’ve headed terrorist groups, perpetrated terrorist plots, and, in at least one case, deliberately let his Jewish patient die by refusing to treat him(right here in America). And don’t forget Dr. Yazeed Essa, the Palestinian Muslim doctor, who drugged and murdered his pregnant wife in a car crash, then fled to the Mid-East. Today, he was held on $75 million bail (he was finally returned to Cleveland from Cyprus to face justice, after a year and a half of Muslim Cypriot pontificating).
Now, I want you to print out this list, below, of all of America’s (and some Canadian and foreign) medical students who are open supporters of HAMAS against Israel. They’ve all signed an anti-Israel (and let’s face it–Pro-HAMAS) petition that is circulating throughout the world’s medical schools and medical communities. (Since this list is constantly updating, I’ll try to update it, too.) If they have no problem with Islamic terrorists brutally murdering innocent civilians, imagine what they have no prob doing to your body.
Guess what?  His name was on the list.  And then this:

Did you know that one of the 39 Principles of Jihad is that "Every Moslem has to obey the call for the Jihad against the infidels out of sheer belief and intention"?
Another is that "Every Moslem has to take an active part in the holy war against the infidels, being ready to self-sacrifice for the sake of Allah."
Each and very Muslim is also supposed to praise, encourage, protect (and give good advice to) the fighters of Jihad, or  Mujahideen.
Another Principle -coming somewhere after "Aquiring Shooting Skills" and before "Expressing Hostility and Hatred Toward the Infidel" - is . . .  Learning First Aid Skills.
And what better way to learn first aid skills than to become a doctor?
And on and on it went.  
Now for those of you who have never seen my office (which is pretty much all of you), it's not very generic.  I have seforim lining my bookcase.  I have a large map of Israel on my wall and mezuzos on all the doorposts. I wear a knitted kippah at work.  The wallpaper on my computer screen is of the Kotel.  There's no mistaking who I am and what my probably beliefs are, religious and political.  Somehow, I figured that this guy would simply not be a good fit.  So I called the Family Medicine folks at the university and did something I'd never done before: I requested that they give me a different student.
As far as this guy goes, he'll never know about it.  He'll get his rotation duotang and be assigned another family doctor.  There will be no indication that he was ever supposed to be with me.  I haven't denied him any opportunities and probably avoided a very uncomfortable six weeks of his training.  (After all, I don't start each day with a loud singing of HaTikvah but I could).  All in all I think I did the right thing.
Except I brought politics into it.  For all I know he could be a nice guy with a good head on his shoulders, an excellent future physician.  Outside of the Israel thing we might have had a lot in common and enjoyed working together.  But supporting Israel is so much a part of my identity, I don't know if I could put it aside.  It's one thing during a 30 second (if they get that long) patient encounter or a shift here and there, quite another to be together daily for six weeks.  I let my nervousness win.  Did I do the right thing?

Wednesday, 5 January 2011

Taking A Firm Stand

Rav Moshe Dovid Tendler, shlit"a, is certainly a controversial figure within the frum world.  For many on the Chareidi side of the border he is public enemy no. 1.  For many on the Modern Orthodox side he is a beloved and respected maggid shiur and rav.
What makes him important, in my opinion, is his willingness to take a stand when it comes to halachic positions that might go against the current position of the "Gedolim" in Israel and America.  He did so in the 1990's when he came out against the practice of metzitzah b'peh using direct skin-to-skin contact by the mohel after one such individual came under strong suspicious of spreading herpes infections to infants in New York through the technique.  The response to his position, one based on a deep knowledge of halacha which showed that indirect metzitzah was permissible according to many authorities, was vitriolic.  If one went by the descriptions his enemies gave, one would think he was a composite of Hitler, Stalin and Chielmnicki, y"sh (all of 'em) come back to life.  Indeed, my first exposure to the idiocy that has replaced logical halachic thinking in some quarters came through that episode as I listened to some kollel types tell me about how herpes is and isn't transmitted (they were completely wrong, of course) and how, if I disagreed I was a heretic for going against the "Gedolim".
Another decade, another controversy.  This time it's something much more complex, the definition of death according to halacha.  If one thinks the various opinion on metzitzah b'peh are hard to keep track of, the definition of death makes that issue look simple and superficial.  Yet once again a handful of Gedolim have taken one of a dozen legitimate opinions and announced that this position, and this one alone, is the halacha and that going with any other approach is heresy and rebelling against God.
Now usually when a psak like this comes out of the Chareidi community most Modern Orthodox folks shrug their shoulders and go on with their lives.  For many there is no practical reason to get upset.  Did someone outlaw denim skirts?  We don't live in those neighbourhoods so who cares?  No crocs on Yom Kippur?  I don't daven with that crowd.
But this isn't the same thing.  What we are talking about impacts on a person's ability to choose for himself how his life will end al pi halacha as well as the weighty issue of availability of organs for transplanting.  This issue is not only about the end of life but the preserving of it as well.
Yes there have been Modern Orthodox responses to the dictatorial way this issue has been handled but all have been low key so as not to inflame the situation.  The problem with this approach, as has been Modern Orthodoxy's problem in every confrontation with the Chareidi leadership, is that civility puts MO at a disadvantage.  The Chareidim shove, the MO's step back, dust off their shoulders and say "Please don't do that again" without acknowledging that they've been moved away from their original position.
And then there's Rav Tendler who, in contrast to this opinion, has decided to shove back:
Scientific ignorance can be dangerous, especially when people with inadequate knowledge are faced with and decide upon questions that demand expertise.
So how is it that some rabbis, who are great Torah scholars but not necessarily medical experts, claim to overrule science in determining the moment of a person’s death, regarding questions of organ donation? A conference at the Bar-Ilan University on Tuesday, part of its Nitzozot study series, dealt with case studies in Jewish bioethical decision-making: brain-death and advanced genetic management.
In the early 1990, Rabbi Dr. Moshe D. Tendler – a biology professor and Jewish medical ethics expert at the Yeshiva University, and rosh yeshiva at the Rabbi Isaac Elchanan Theological Seminary – developed for the Rabbinical Council of America a health care proxy that determined that brain-stem death constituted halachic death. A few months ago, a special committee of the RCA, composed of members who do not have the scientific credentials of Tendler, backed away from its previous stance.
“We underestimate the effort needed to understand the advances in biomedicine, people who are trained – doctors, etc. – have trouble keeping up with the field,” Tendler toldThe Jerusalem Post at the end of the conference. “Our rabbis enter the field at its most advanced stage, without the background necessary to understand it.
“The idea that greatness in Torah is adequate to make up with this deficit in education, is erroneous. Lo bashamaim hi – the Torah is down on the earth. Therefore, Rabbi Moshe Feinstein waited two years before he could answer the question [on whether brain-stem death qualifies as death],” Tendler said of his late father-in-law, the supreme rabbinic authority for Orthodox Jewry of North America and one of the greatest halachic adjudicators of the generation.

It's tough talk like this, calling reality what it is and pushing back with halachic sources that will give Modern Orthodoxy a fighting chance in this struggle.  Perhaps Rav Tendler's approach is one that other MO authorities might consider the next time a part of the Torah-observant community decides to set universal standards for all of us.

Behaviour Unbecoming

Imagine you were at a medical conference and a speaker got up to present a controversial view of an important topic.  Perhaps it's on something most doctors only have a superficial understanding of the subject in question and have always assumed that the accepted treatment is a certain drug while this doctor feels that a different drug has enough evidence behind it to be included in the guidelines.
He spends the next hour or two painstakingly reviewing the literature up to now, the results of his own research and his conclusions based on both.  Then, at the end of the talk someone in the back of the audience stands up as if to ask a question.  He's quickly recognized as the dean of a prominent medical school who has been published more times than anyone can count and is regarded as a superior authority amongst doctors.
But instead of asking a question he says "Doctor, if I have to call you that, your presentation sucked eggs and you're a poopy head for even thinking that this treatment should be included in the guidelines."  Then, before he can be confronted on his statement, he walks out of the hall with a "I told 'im good!" look on his face.
Given who the antagonist is, it's doubtful anyone would call him on his behaviour.  After all, despite his rudeness he is still one of the most accomplished (if not the most) doctors in the room.  In addition, there are always political considerations.  You don't go calling the dean of a medical school out in public over perceived bad behaviour.  However, there is no question that his words would be seen as a diatribe, not a valid objection to the presentation.  Until someone gets up and addresses all of the first presentation's issues on an proper academic basis, the first presenter's position is effectively unchallenged.
In summary: you don't object to another person's learned position by heaving insults.  That's childish and unacceptable in such a forum.
Which makes me wonder: if in the secular halls of academia and science such behaviour is unacceptable, why is it consider de rigeur by some in the Torah world?
A year or two ago Rav Michael Broyde, the head of the Beis Din of America and an important Modern Orthodox posek and talmid chacham published a lengthy article on the issue of married women covering their hair.  His objective, for those who actually read the piece, was not to pasken a lenient position or to simply say "Hey, it's okay for married women not to cover their hair".  He noted that there have always been Jewish women who were yirei shamayim and scrupulous in their performance of the mitzvos, although they didn't cover their hair.  The purpose of the article was to explore those legal opinions that might have been the basis for their lack of observance of this important rule.
Was the article flawless?  Of course not, and while I would not dare to criticize Rav Broyde, others in the Modern Orthodox world did, writing rebuttals to point out what they thought were incorrect assertions or weak points in his article.  That's fine, of course.  The proper evolution of halacha is built around scholarly discourse between talmidei chachamim who are together interested in reaching God's truth.  I would even hazard a guess that Rav Broyde was happy that his article generated discussion.
And then there was a response from the Chareidi community of Toronto from Rav Shlomo Miller, the Gadol HaIr if that benighted city could claim to have one.  Rav Miller is well-reknowned for his greater in Torah and his high level of piety.  He commands the respect of much of the Torah-observant community of Toronto.  And he essentially called Rav Broyde a poopy head.
Look at the text of his position.  No "and here's where I disagree" or "clearly Rav Broyde is a learned individual".  Just insult after insult, followed by a "and you're too stupid I'm not going to even bother arguing with you about this" at the end.  This is an appropriate response to Rav Broyde's piece?  This is how a person soaked in piety and middos speaks about a fellow observant Jew?  This is how one responds to a person's attempt to melamed zechus on a portion of the population that might be missing out on an important mitzvah?
But just like the dean of the medical school in my fictional account, there will be no calling him out on this for a few reasons.  One is that Rav Miller is unlikely to spend time talking respectfully with those who are ideologically different that him.  The "yes men" that surround him will only work to reinforce the correctness of his action.  Further, when one's world opinion is based on the underlying assumption that "if you disagree with me you're wrong and I don't have to discuss why", there is little chance for a meeting of minds to occur.
All this has done for me is make me wonder, yet again, where it's written in the Shulchan Aruch (or maybe the Zohar) that wearing a black hat gives one a valid excuse for having no manners or civility.

Sunday, 2 January 2011

Some Thoughts About Moshe Katzav

When Moshe Katzav became the president of Israel, I was thrilled for a few reasons.  For one, he was a Sephardi and it was high time that someone from that community held a position of leadership within the State.  For another, he was a traditional Jew and it is quite fitting for the president of the State to reflect its Jewish nature in more than just simple ethnic background.  Finally, he got the job by beating Shimon Peres, proving again that the safest way to win an election is to run against Israel's "elder statesman".
And then came the news of his misdemeanours while residing in Beit HaNasi.  First they were rumours, then they became allegations and finally they evolved into charges of which he has been found guilty.  To the shame of Israel, the former president has been convicting of rape and sexual harrassment.  All that's left is the sentencing.
As a critic of Sholom Rubashkin, consistency demands that I say something to the effect of "Too bad, so sad" or the like.  After all, when Rubashkin was vociferously insisting on his innocence despite overwhelming evidence to the contrary, I had no sympathy.  Like others, I noted that the justice system had impartially done its work and that his conviction was the result of evidence of his crimes.  His ongoing arrogant dismissal of the American justice system's right to even try him only deepened the antipathy we felt towards him.  In theory, I should feel little different towards Katzav.  After all, like Rubashkin the evidence has steadfastly worked against him.  Like Rubashkin he continues to insist on his innocence even though such claims ring hollow.
Yet I can't completely get my head around that.  For some reason, I feel compelled to take the other side in this case.  Is it because I like Katzav whereas I didn't like Rubashkin?  Is it because I saw in Katzav a symbol of what Israel needed whereas Rubashkin struck me as yet another overbearing Orthodox Jew who doesn't think the law applies to him?
Is it just hypocrisy on my part?
Perhaps, but there are still some aspects of the Katzav case that niggle at the back of my brain.  The first is the timing of the surfacing of the allegations.  For those who do not recall, Katzav was accused shortly after he gave a public speech in which he condemned the Oslo Disocrd, observed that the Road Map was a map to nowhere and that the intellectual establishment that had created both was causing more damage than help to Israel.  Keep in mind this was several years ago when doubting the rightness of Oslo still carried a certain risk of being villified by the State itself.
Almost the next day the first allegations surfaced.  And when they were found to be based on nothing, more women suddenly came forward.  Yes, it could all be a coincidence.  It could also be that Katzav's enemies knew about these women and held them in reserve until an opportune time but I'm not sure either of those is a correct option.
Then there is the nature of the case.  With Rubashkin things were much simpler.  In addition to testimony from mistreated workers, there was also a matter of financial records, objective evidence showing his misdealings.  It wasn't simply a matter of "He said, she said" which the Katzav case has always been about.  Rubashkin was cut and dried, Katzav not so.
Was Moshe Katzav turned into a criminal because he dared question the intellectual orthodoxy of the State at a time when those running it still believed in a fictional peace with an implacable enemy?  Is he a criminal or a martyr?