Monday, January 29, 2007

YU Medical Ethics: Genetic Screening (Rabbi Mordechai Willig)


Michaella Goldberg introduced R’ Mordechai Willig, explaining that the CJF (Center for the Jewish Future), Torah Activities Council, YU Medical Ethics Committee and student volunteers all helped make the evening possible.

This is R’ Willig on the Halakhic Importance of Genetic Screening-he hardly needs an introduction, he is a respected posek, etc.


Tonight’s topic is a very important one and I’m aware by embarking upon it that there are differences of opinions in the rabbinic community, general world community and Jewish community. I am telling you MY take on it, feel free to have different opinions and/ or consult other Rabbis.

Genetics is a field that is constantly _____- more and more diseases, conditions which can now be tested for. I’m going to start at a particular starting point, going back a number of decades, more than 3 decades ago, Ashkenazi community was devastated by Tay-Sachs disease. The distinguished genetic counselor here should correct me if I am wrong; I am not an expert on Tay- Sachs, but it is a disease which exists only in a situation where both parents are carriers of a particular gene. The statistical probability is 1 in 4 per pregnancy that a child of two carriers will have Tay-Sachs. Now, it’s possible for people to get married, to live a charmed life, be carriers and be none the wiser, but it can also lead to very difficult if people become parents of numerous diseased children. The fate of a wonderful gentleman named R’ Eckstein, who lost numerous children to this, decided to do something about it. It is a rare individual who rises above his own personal suffering to do something for the benefit of the community, and I think we must regard this man as a real hero. Coming from the community of Williamsburg, not our Torah u’Madda community, with a population where people are not educated beyond high school, if that, and he found a beautiful solution to this genetic problem-

[interrupts himself]

When my children were young, I went to Dr. Gribitz, a pediatrician in Riverdale, and he complained that it’s terrible, the Ashkenazi community is being devastated by Tay-Sachs, and can you help me out and let me abort a child with Tay-Sachs; amniocentesis can see if they have it or not. So certain Rabbis might allow it- R’ Eliezer Yehuda Waldenberg who permitted abortions in these cases- now is NOT the time to talk about this; to make it short, the question is whether abortion is an act of murder or an act of wounding- if it is murder, it is definitely NOT allowed. R’ Waldenberg sees it as wounding. I happen to have a particularly sympathetic attitude toward that view.


R’ Eckstein founded a movement called Dor Yesharim. Every youngster, male or female, is tested at a young age- the average young girl finishes high school before she gets married after all, right? So 17 or 18 is when they are tested- and each party is given a number, and not informed of their results. Originally Dor Yesharim was only for Tay-Sachs, I believe, now they’re testing for many other diseases.

So they give you a number. Young men of marriageable age are also supposed to get tested- Williamsburg where a young man doesn’t meet a young woman in the library- the marriages there are prearranged, they brought over the European model to Williamsburg, and some of you who have had frustrating experiences [with dating] might not think that’s so bad!

Dor Yesharim’s central office is in Williamsberg- so each party is tested, the boy and the girl, and each is given numbers. So now there are three possibilities- neither party has Tay-Sachs, one is a carrier, or BOTH are carriers. So everyone can continue to live in ignorance; ignorance is shattered only in the relatively rare event that both parties have Tay-Sachs (they’ll tell you the marriage is a no-go.) Better that than the birth of Tay-Sachs children.

How do I know all this? When I was married, I didn’t know about these things, when my children started getting married, it was a known problem- so my wife and I decided to do the test ourselves- we both were negative, guaranteed, there are mutations, but statistically our children are not carriers. So we then tested for an additional six diseases, thank God, we were negative for these, too. My bias has always been to try to KNOW what’s happening- not to say anything bad about Dor Yesharim- I’m a tremendous fan of Dor Yesharim- in those communities, it is wonderful.

In our community this approach is not as popular- we can meet in a library, at summer camp, become romantically involved, etc. This couldn’t happen in Satmar- there it’s prearranged!

Also, people like to be a ware in our community.

For this reason, though I endorse Dor Yesharim, the other alternative is that you and the young man be tested and get your sheet- the parties know what they have, what they don’t have. There are about 7-11 (later corrected to 13) diseases one can be tested for through this open testing. Now, if a young man comes to me to ask me (he is a carrier for Tay-Sachs and his prospective bride is a carrier for Tay-Sachs) whether he should get married, I say, “DON’T GET MARRIED.” “But Rebbe,” he’ll say, “we’re so attached, we’re about to get engaged, we’ve been going out for three months…”

Thirty years ago, this boy and the girl he liked came to me- they were both carriers of Tay-Sachs- and I said DON’T GET MARRIED. He went to the “more liberal,” and I say this with the utmost respect, R’ Shlomo Riskin, who also told them not to get married!

I know heartstrings are taut and the Rebbe is seen as a bad guy. I’ll tell you a real story that happened last year. A talmid comes to me and says, he’s about to get engaged- and they are both carriers for Tay-Sachs. I say, “Don’t get married!” He says, “Rebbe, no problem, I have a 6-letter answer for that, IVFPGD.”

IVF stands for In-Vitro Fertilization (artificially mixed together egg and sperm in the lab) and then it is introduced to woman’s body, it’s an absolute miracle, the child is born (we’re discussing between husband and wife, NOT with donors, etc- this is not the time for that discussion-) there are times where this is necessary between husband and wife, blockage of some kind, etc.

PGD- Pre-Implantation Genetic Diagnosis. Amazing scientific fact. 8-cell unit, you can remove a cell, test in the laboratory, can see if it is carrying Tay-Sachs or not.

“So, Rebbe,” the student says, “let me get married: IVFPGD.” I told him, “Don’t get married.” Why am I being so cruel, so harsh?

My view- this solution seems so easy and simple, but in truth it is not. It involves significant emotional cost. The ideal way for a couple to have children is in the natural form. This way they’d have to constantly be on some kind of contraception except for when they want to have children through IVFPGD. Also, there is a huge difference when one cannot have the procreative/ intimate part of the relationship between husband and wife. I believe this couple should break up, pursue other relationships, etc- I met a lot of resistance, other Rabbis were brought in, they said the same thing, finally the people acceded to the Rabbis- it became tough, the parents got involved, I was the recipient of a few choice words, but fine.

Now, I DO make an exception- some cases where I give them my blessing. For example, the following case: Some genetic diseases are dominant; some are recessive. Tay-Sachs cannot exist in a child unless the two parents are carriers. So it’s something like 1 in 30 in the Ashkenazi community; you still have 29 other people you can marry! But what if s/he has a different kind of gene- no matter who s/he marries there will be a major genetic risk? Here, for this particular carrier, there are no alternatives. The only responsible way to have children then is through IVFPGB. Yesterday, I received this question. In this case, is it permissible- the young lady has to get married! Someone has to be willing to take that risk- part of the reason for doing it is because this lady has to enter into this relationship (the marital relationship) with somebody, So if this young man is willing to marry her even with this knowledge, I give my blessing. I told another couple this years ago- woman had difficult genetic situation- now they are pursuing this IVFPGB possibility.

I know that what I’m saying will sound inconsistent to some of you- I am giving you my personal view on this matter.

I’d like to open a sefer now and read you highlights from the sefer I brought with me- it is the Nishmas Avraham- there are English and Hebrew editions- on the opening page of the Even Ha’Ezra, quotes R’ Shlomo Auerbach- someone who has genetic problem and will live lives with great pain- can this person not fulfill the mitzvah of peru u’rvu? So I’ll find a woman who can’t have children and marry her! R’ Shlomo Zalman is not sure on this; R’ Moshe goes back and forth- these are serious questions. Truly serious questions.

Go further- the Shulchan Aruch tells us that a person should not marry into a family of lepers or those who suffer from epilepsy if there are 3 instances in the family- documents a case trying to avoid the case of genetic disease.

There’s a response of R’ Moshe- boy of 25 has disease called Marfans- they say that Lincoln had it-so there’s a chance the child will have it. May he marry a woman who can have children? Says R’ Moshe, if the woman is willing to marry him and HE HAS TO INFORM HER, HE HAS TO INFORM HER, otherwise marrying under false pretenses which is not allowed, then he can. (Also, an aside, by Marfan’s there is a life-expectation; not like Tay-Sachs.)

R’ Moshe says Tay-Sachs- quotes R’ Moshe’s son-in-law- tells couple NOT to get married if they carry these genes and if they ARE married they should get DIVORCED. That’s where we part company. I don’t tell them to get divorced but I do recommend IVFPGB and by abortions- well, I myself wouldn’t stand in the way of an abortion.

Now, there was a young man with Morfan’s who said he got a p’sak from R’ Soloveitchik tz’l that he didn’t have to reveal Marfan’s- how can that be? We see that if you sell a car, and there’s a scratch on the fender, you have to reveal it! So the Steipler says that by the problem of a car, we can give you another car, by Shidduchim no 2 people are the same. You are a special person and that’s why people overlook minor problems, even significant problems shouldn’t be revealed unless it is so significant that after you’re already married, it would be cause for the woman to walk out of the marriage.

There’s a Gemara in Yevamos- the father wasn’t Jewish, so no one wanted to marry his son, so the son was counseled to go somewhere else and get married- so he was supposed to withhold information! But there is another approach, and the more proper pesak in my view, that you REVEAL it, but not necessarily up front; you reveal the information at the halfway point. What’s the halfway point? Well, most people won’t get engaged in less than three months of dating, some people go on longer, I don’t like that too much, but- point is that at 6 weeks into the relationship you have to reveal it.

Situations where people I know have diabetes- they both told the partener halfway through, both got married, etc, and they can live with it. Someone will come yell at me- they wasted two months of their life dating this person, and I permitted this man/ woman not to tell about himself/ herself until two months into the relationship- and I say I am very sorry, but Rabbanim have to balance both people and s/he’s a person, too.

Now, in the same sefer, the Nishmas Avraham, it is clear that the couple have to reveal one to the other- they MUST reveal it. That’s his pesak; there’s no distinction made.

Case: Boy had cancer. Must you tell the bride? YES, absolutely must. Cases by the Tzitz Eliezer- the woman was unable to have children in a normal fashion- you must tell the boy.

There are other genetic issues which we force- different issues- my own particular way of looking at a thing, is I feel one should know one’s own situation- some genes can be addressed medically- the BRACA gene (breast-cancer gene) and colon cancer gene- prevalent in the Ashkenazi community. Particularly in families where other members of the family had this disease- the genetic component is STRONG; I think everyone would be well-advised to be tested, especially since sometimes you can DO something about it.

I know someone where the parent and the child (who was in his thirties) died one after the other of colon cancer- “Colon cancer is a preventable disease” the doctor was crying to me- you can detect it early, etc. Breast cancer is more complicated- there are radical potential medical solutions- very problematic- still, believe that knowledge is important. Health is something you should know as well. I see the tagline on this lecture was “Take responsibility for your future,” well only God in heaven is in charge of our future, but we should be God’s partner. MY view is that we should take an active role.

By recessive-genes, Dor Yeshorim or an open independent facility will test for it. But by dominant-genes (later represented as x-linked traits) Dor Yeshorim won’t touch it- you need to know. Some people want to hid their heads in the sand and not know, but…

Question- sister of prospective girl died from a certain genetic disease; the boy asked whether the girl had that gene. This is a legitimate question.

Now I will take questions- please raise your hand and speak loudly.

QUESTION: If Dor Yesharim numbers weren’t exchanged before the couple started going out, when should we swap numbers?

As SOON as possible. Someone asks me to be mesader kiddushin at the wedding; I have on my sheet the question, “MAY THEY MARRY?” and I do all the halakhic research, but I also tell them to be tested- Dor Yesharim or an open information place- I will not perform the ceremony without it.


QUESTION: Once a couple is already married, should they get tested?

Personally I would say yes, but if they refuse, I see why that would be. I can’t say they should get divorced.


QUESTION: What do you recommend- Dor Yesharim or open testing?

I am an equally major supporter of Dor Yeshorim or open testing. I am a FIERCE opponent of those who do neither. The average haredi couple is protected from genetic diseases and you of Yeshiva University with all your supposed advancement are not! That pains me to no end.



R’ Zilbershtein- His heart bleeds for couples needing to get divorced because they are both carriers and are married. He also opposes abortion with regard to these matters. It may also be possible that when he wrote this response, it was before the advent of IVFPGB- you can call him; he is in Bnei Brak in Israel.

QUESTION: Problem when you go out with someone who did Dor Yesharim, but you did open testing- you can’t compare. What happens?

Dor Yesharim has a policy that they are opposed to testing you after you’ve done open testing- you can’t opt for Dor Yeshorim then. Honest alternative is to have party spend more money and be tested through open testing. Of course if you already tested, and you only are a carrier for 1 disease, say, then the party can test specifically to see if he is a carrier for that disease as well, which may cost less.

QUESTION: Would you recommend testing for Dor Yeshorim first, then, and afterwards open testing?

To my knowledge, if you do that first, it should be fine. (But he can’t promise this.)

Dor Yesharim is probably cheaper- it is strongly subsidized. There is a very wonderful doctor- Dr. Susan Gross who is at Albert Einstein, neighbor of mine in Riverdale- she wants to establish a center at YU to be the so-called alternative to Dor Yesharim- and for that to also be subsidized, if not free. Remains a dream for the moment. Right now to get tested, it will cost you money.

I personally believe that all 7 diseases Dor Yesharim tests for are serious enough that they warrant this kind of testing. All diseases should be tested for- even advocate for things that are not linked to the recessive trait- like BRACA (for breast cancer.) I think this community can handle it. I’m sure I’m not always right, but…

Being Sefardi protects you from many diseases, but not all of them, and you should be tested anyway.

QUESTION: Pregnant woman allowed to be tested for Down’s Syndrome (in the baby?)

So now you’ve really opened up the Pandora’s Box. According to me, the answer is yes. Why?

1) Some Rabbis permit abortions in this case
2) If you know ahead of time, the child can be born at an advanced hospital that specializes in care for babies with Down’s Syndrome, etc
3) The knowledge that the child has Down’s Syndrome will grow on them gradually so it’s not out-of-nowhere that they find out that the baby has Down Syndrome.

I now give over the floor to Mrs. Goldenberg.


MICHAELLA: Thanks for sharing that perspective, Rabbi Willig. Mrs. Goldenberg graduated from Stern, went to Mount Sinai….she is now teaching high school science and lecturing about genetic counseling at various places.


I apologize- the panel’s up to 13 at NYU for the open-testing (she’s explaining that there are 13 genetic tests NYU tests for.) Thanks for having me here- lots of information on those orange sheets you have, but even so

(opens a Powerpoint presentation)

Jewish Genetic Disease Screening- I want to give you the basic facts, help you identify differences between programs, understand Dor Yesharim versus other programs and the different testing styles- review basic genetics, inheritance of autosomal-recessive diseases/ individual at risk/ facts about diseases.

Genes come in pairs. They are the basic unit of heredity; you receive chromosomes from each parent, so genes come in pairs. Mutations may be found. Mutations may, but do not always, cause diseases.

Inheritance of two non-working genes for the same trait may lead to a disease. Such a disease is now as “autosomal recessive.”


Person with one working and one non-working gene for the same trait. Carriers are healthy individuals without symptoms of disease. They have a 50% chance of passion on the disease, however.

75% of the time the child will be healthy, 2 out of 3 chances children will be carriers, 1 in 4 chance for each pregnancy that the child born will get the disease.

Ashkenazi- increased risk for certain autosomal recessive diseases. Ashkenazi referring to those from Central and Eastern European descent. We can study more genetic diseases within this population because it is a closely-knit group where people intermarry, more than other ethnic groups.

However, being of Sephardi descent doesn’t mean you’re safe.


This involves a simple blood test measuring the actual defect in DNA- the genetic alteration; it also tests enzyme levels. Lots of autosomal diseases are those where the enzyme is not working properly.

Tests can determine if both members of a couple are carriers.

Can offer parental screening.

Amniocentisis, which can be done from 15-18 weeks of pregnancy, can see whether or not the fetus is affected. CVS, which is done from 10-12 weeks of pregnancy, is a test on the tissue of the fetus.


Range is a very important idea here. There is a:

Range of Severity
Range of Life-Expectancy
Difference in Carrier Frequency

And here is how common this diseases are in the Jewish community.

Tay-Sachs 1/ 25
Canavan 1/40
Niemenn-Pick 1/80
Gaucher 1/ 18
Cystic Fibrosis 1/ 25
Familial Dysautnomia 1/ 30
Fanconi Anemia (type C) 1/ 89
Maple Syrup Urine Disease 1/ 81
Bloom Syndrome 1/ 110
Mucolipidosis (type N) 1/ 122
Glycogen Storage Disease 1A 1/122
Familial hyperinsulirism 1/ 100
Fragile X syndrome 1/ 200

(these are the percentages within the Jewish community)

Now, some of these diseases (like Maple-Syrup Urine Disease and Glycogen Storage-Disease) can be treated if caught early enough- the child can be raised on a diet so as to avoid the problems that could arise.

Now, the Fragile-X Syndrome test is not offered at Dor Yesharim. There is an idea of an X-linked disease. Women carry two X-chromosomes; males carry X and Y. Fragile X-Syndrome is where there is a 50% chance that women can pass this down to their children.


Results can be obtained within 2-3 weeks.
If one is not a carrier, results are sent directly to one’s physician.
If both members of a couple are carriers, genetic counseling is provided.
Counseling included thorough family history, additional people at risk, etc.


Full disclosure to you as to whether you are a carrier.
Many insurance plans are accepted.
The amount of coverage varies.
Stern College screening will be on February 21, 2007.
You can contact the NYU Medical Center for/ of Human Genetic Problems at 212-263- 5746


Was founded by Rabbi Josef Eckstein in the early 1980s.
You are identified by a code.
You DO have the right to ask Dor Yeshorim for which disease you (and another person) are incompatible.
Carrier status is NOT divulged to avoid stigma.
February 7, 2007 at Stern.

If you lose your ID #, you need to be retested.
The cost is $150 through Stern. On your own, it is about $200.
You can check the compatability of you and another person at any time- you just leave a message with both ID numbers on an automated voice system, and you are answered within one day.

They test for:

Cystic Fibrosis
Fanconi Anemia
Familial hyperinsulinism
Glycogen-Storage Disease
Bloom Syndrome


A major medical center (such as NYU)
Dor Yesharim


Terminate relationship.
IVF and PGD- IVF means to put eggs and sperm together in a test-tube outside of the body, PGD is test to see whether this child is positive for a disease before returning him/her to the uterus


Be aware of your medical status.
Sharing information with at-risk family members.
Encourage partner to go for testing.


Belief that knowing-pyschological burden feeling tainted/ bad gene.
Stigma of being a carrier (in the eyes of others.)
Obligation to release results to family members/ potential partners.

Jewish Genetic Disease Screening is crucial. The earlier in the relationship, the better- the choice of screening is a personal decision. Consult your parents/ Rav/ Doctor and the sooner the better. Feel free to call or contact me, Daniera Goldenberg, as well.


Michaella says thanks to everybody.

Saturday, January 27, 2007

Mockery and Reverence

Mockery is destructive.

It does not befit us to mock others. Mockery is the refuge of the weak, the refuge of cowards, those who don't understand the substance of what they denigrate.

Mockery is the way an idiot lashes out at another person. It is a learned attitude. The child does not mock. The child approaches everything with wonder, with curiousity, with the desire to learn, approaches life through the imagination.

Mockery is an illogical, cruel answer to curiousity. It is irreverent, it mocks you for asking the question.

Everything can be learned or taught in a respectful way. Sacred texts especially- whether it be the Torah, the Qu'ran/ Koran or the New Testament, there is value and benefit to be found in it. And it can be learned respectfully.

There is nothing that infuriates me more than when bright young students are taught to mock in answer to ideas or texts they don't understand. This applies to Orthodox Jews being taught to mock other religions; it also applies to college students who are taught biblical criticism in an irreverant manner. I sat in on a brilliant class at the University of Chicago taught by a renowned professor and I was disappointed- not by the material, which focused on source criticism, but by the fact that he was teaching his students to mock sacred texts when the betting is that the majority of them had never even read through the full Bible. But they were misled by their intellectualism into assuming that since this man believed in mockery and laughing, they too ought to act this way.

There is nothing sadder than the death of the mind. This can occur in many different ways and different forums. I hate brainwashing; I hate someone imposing their own ideas upon the fresh young minds of others. But I think I hate mockery more. Mockery kills ideas. It laughs at ideas, traditions, questions- it is not kind to anyone. It is antithetical to curiousity. The curious person who is mocked for asking questions grows red in the face and will perhaps learn not to question aloud again.

Reverence and respect only leads to further learning, alternatively. One can respectfully understand that different sources in the Bible don't match up, that source criticism makes valid points; one may respectfully learn about ideas and opinions different from theirs. I can learn anything so long as it is given over with a clear respect and/ or reverence for the material. If the teacher mocks the ideas of others, it is clear the teacher is not secure in his/her own knowledge.

Kiruv organizations that mock the beliefs of others are destined to failure. Students and scholars who only know how to mock and tear down others rather than build up and create are, as well. The only way to truly learn anything is to understand it, and in order to understand anything, one must be willing to accept the viewpoint and mindset of the other. One must be willing to treat the subject with respect. And after one understands it, then one may hate it or disagree with it or differ from it, but one may not mock.

I cannot respect people who mock others. It disturbs me when I encounter people who know nothing but how to mock. I can't imagine them being intellectually happy and fulfilled. It is one of the things that truly depresses me. Because we could be great- but we won't allow it.

Idiots and fools, this is who we become. The mockers. Leitzanim.

It disgusts me.

Friday, January 26, 2007

A Comedy of Errors

I woke up this morning, groggily hearing the dim beep of my alarm. I muttered under my breath, "Oh, great," then proceeded to roll out of bed, grab my comforter and wrap it around the offending object to muffle the incessant noise. Looking warily over my shoulder at my roommate, I pushed my alarm clock to the floor and swathed it in the entire blanket, then added my down coat for good measure.

After a moment, I blinked and thought, "Today is not Saturday."

Sheepishly, I unwrapped my clock, put my comforter back on my bed, and pressed the OFF button.

And then I wrote this post.

Wednesday, January 24, 2007

YU Medical Ethics: Creating in God’s Image? Cloning in Jewish Law


Full recordings of the speeches available here.


Good evening and welcome to the YU Medical Ethics Society’s spring event. There is a paper being passed around, please sign your name and place your email address on this list if you want to be contacted about future events.

The YU Student Medical Ethics Society is a student-run society- especially focused on issues of medical ethics related to Torah and Judaism- it is meant to be a medical resource for patients, doctors, laymen, etc.

The issue of cloning is introduced by Dr. John Loike of the Center for Bioethics at Columbia University, followed by Rabbi Moshe Tendler. Cell phones should please be turned off.

Dr. John Loike:

I first have to apologize for what I’m going to say now- it’s my first time speaking at YU; it was four years ago (misheard?) almost that I had R’ Tendler as my Physiology professor; it’s a privilege to speak with him and write articles with him- the strengths of R’ Tendler is that he is not only a posekwho gives you the halakha and reason behind the halakha but also hashkafic process- and this applies to science as well.

The way the program will work in the present case is we’ll discuss the science behind the case, the hashkafic lessons if appropriate- then I’ll ask you to identify some of the halakhic issues, and R’ Tendler will discuss the halakhic implications.

Case: Using embryonic stem cells (from a human) to constitute a human brain in a mouse or monkey- in which case, is this a human, or a monkey?

It all began with the cloning of Dolly in 1997. Ian Wilmut did this remarkable experiment, took memory epithelial cell- He wrote a paper that should have gotten the Nobel Prize but probably won’t- he is the catalyst for today- the issues being raised are sometimes irresolvable from ethical/ philosophical perspective.

If religious belief is that a fertilized egg is the beginning of human life, then no matter how hard the scientist tries, I can’t convince you.

Scientists engage in scientific ways to circumvent the issue- early zygote, very new- the transformation in bioethics has been taking place in the last seven years.

Why use this technology specifically to clone Dolly? Understand- synthetically to clone cells it would be about 1000 (dollars?) a pound- if could genetically ____ a milk reduce cost. Factor to ____ a pound. (Point is, it’s cheaper to use the human cells than synthetic ones) Took epithelial tissue, genetically altered it, compounds, nuclear transport tissue- able to clone sheep or cow to make these proteins on their own.

Why are you doing this? As it applies for commercialization of drugs, is what the cloner of Dolly (Ian Wilmut) first said, claiming that he’d never use this for humans, it was too risky, too unethical. But now he heads the Scottish Institute in Europe, has a large government budget, doing human stem cells. Now, I know him personally and know he is a very honest man and believe he has high motives but you see that he has changed. Now, you have someone like him, but then you have someone like Dr. Webber (misheard?) in South Korea- who published in 2005 cloning of human embryonic stem cells, claiming he’d cloned a human- worldwide attention, everyone excited about it for thereapeutic cloning. Then, December of 2006 revealed that all of his research was fraudulent. What motivates him to do something like this? My thought, my opinion is that he thought he would be the first to publish his paper, and then another person would come along and prove/ discover the same thing, but everyone would look back to his paper, forget his was fake, and give him the credit.

A few months after reading the papers, I spoke to ______. I said great job, Dolly’s a clone, but you forgot to _______ so could you give us some samples of DNA and we could identify/ locate it for you. So he said that sure, he’d be willing to give us the samples. As soon as he said that, I knew his research was true- once he said I’m going to share the samples, it must be true, while Dr. Webber, never to my knowledge gave samples to his colleagues.

There’s a concept of Cheimera Technology- using stem cells to create human organs- discovered in 1980s, Michael Kewler (spelling?), graduate of Harvard, Irving Weissman Lab at Stanford- had loads of mice, mutant mice, and did an assessment of the mutant mice, then found a mouse without an immune system and said, “THIS is an answer to AIDS.” Now, we all know the HIV virus doesn’t affect mouse cells- so what he did was reconstitute a human immune system in the mouse and inject it with AIDS. He used stem cells to do it (through putting human bone marrow in the mouse.) Now wants to reconstitute other organs. Now, Irving Weissman put human stem cells into the mouse- put 1% human cells in mouse, now I think they’ve got it to 2%- now, any experiment using mice and human genes has to go up for review, so they took it to the Stanford Review Board, who said it was too complicated an issue for them. So they went to the National Academy (association?) of _____ who deliberated for over a year, and today there is still a debate going on, but they decided to go ahead with it.

Other people have used stem cells to reconstitute lungs/ liver in a sheep- no ethical problem with that, because then you can serve people who need a liver transplant- inject into fetus of a sheep, the sheep will have a liver that is 99% human, and therefore the human’s body won’t reject it. Why does the fetus not reject the cells? Immunological tzimtzum; in order for a pregnant woman to carry a fetus, which is a foreign body, it has to be that this happens, where the woman/ fetus does not reject the foreign bodies. You can even inject her husband’s skin and the woman won’t reject it till 4-5 weeks after delivery. Question as follows- examples of using for organ transplants/ why would you want to do this?

Where will you get the embryonic stem cells? Unlike the Christian Church, halakha states that:

1. Human life begins 40 days after conception
2. You need implantation

These are the two major criteria. Now really look at the halakhic development of a fetus- at 40 days it is not completely human; there are different gradations.

To take a liberty, take the Gemara Menachos which has something interesting to say about this- the Torah was given over in 40 days, the soul is formed within/ during 40 days as well- the transmission of Torah requires 40 days to Moshe- not a one-step process when dealing with this technology.

Why would you want to use this technology to study the human brain/ neuroscience- why reconstitute the human brain in a mouse or monkey?

(Answers from the audience made into this list)

1. Alzheimer’s Disease- We could reengineer certain human cells which we know are very important to this process and see if we could make them more able to remove the Alzheimer’s plax (misheard? He seemed to suggest there’s some kind of buildup, and that maybe the cells could remove it)

2. Study the development of the brain- early circuitry formation- can only do that within an animal model

3. What determines brain cells? Why are mouser brain cells small, large in human brains?

This is very powerful technology we are dealing with…

4. Can understand stem cell development- precursors for neurons/ different parts of the brain, all have different functions- see how they develop, how we can develop different stem cells- very important because many diseases like Parkinson’s are found in ___ neurons. Stem cell ___nicity.
5. Cancer- cancer of the brain. If you transplant mouse stem cells into a rat brain, this only generates benign tumors, but if you transfer very early mouse stem cells to mouse brains, this generates malignant tumors. Very hot area of research today.

Irving Weiss not interested in trying to look at the behavioral effects—main interests are these reasons. Believes this technology is the best way- will it confer human characteristics on monkey/ cow?

What are some of the halakhic issues that will arise here? Or do you think it’s all fine and we can just go home now?

1. Are they considered human or monkey? (Criteria of defining the species)
2. Engaging in experimentation beyond our domain/ permission- do we have carte blanche to do this?
3. Dignity of the human being
4. Tza’ar Ba’alei Chayim - Causing pain to animals

And there’s other criteria you can think of.

[He now asks us in the audience whether we’d be comfortable going ahead with this technology. Hands-down the audience is in favor of approving the technology. He finds this interesting.]

We can transplant germinal cells to mice- can make mice produce sperm/ ova- could theoretically have cows give birth to humans- certainly doable to have a factory of artificial incubators. Now, do you find this disgusting? And yet, is putting a premature baby in an artificial incubator any worse? Any less disgusting?

[Introduces R’ Tendler]

R’ Tendler:

Stem cells and cloning are the same issue. Closing somehow captured the imagination when they produced Dolly- people beginning to make movies of making copies of Batman and Einstein- human cloning was once a hot topic, but now it has paled in significance because nobody wants to do it. But why should we not do it? You could so quickly.

I know of cases where the only way to produce a child with the genetic makeup of the father is through cloning. The last survivor of a family which was utterly destroyed during the Holocaust is a man and he has proved to be infertile. To save a Jewish family’s genome by reproducing the cell- I would not hesitate to do it.


Reproductive cloning- so what. Nobody wants to do it because there’s no money in it- you know, unless someone wants to see himself walking down the street- but there are certain circumstances where it could prove very useful- I have to move quickly, there’s a time limit here- the time limit goes until you begin to yawn.

If indeed there is a medical potential to be achieved, we have a Biblical Command to do so.

יט אִם-יָקוּם וְהִתְהַלֵּךְ בַּחוּץ, עַל-מִשְׁעַנְתּוֹ--וְנִקָּה הַמַּכֶּה: רַק שִׁבְתּוֹ יִתֵּן, וְרַפֹּא יְרַפֵּא. {ס} 19 if he rise again, and walk abroad upon his staff, then shall he that smote him be quit; only he shall pay for the loss of his time, and shall cause him to be thoroughly healed. {S}

~Exodus 21: 19

This negates faith healing- it is our obligation to go to the doctor.

ב וְאִם-לֹא קָרוֹב אָחִיךָ אֵלֶיךָ, וְלֹא יְדַעְתּוֹ--וַאֲסַפְתּוֹ, אֶל-תּוֹךְ בֵּיתֶךָ, וְהָיָה עִמְּךָ עַד דְּרֹשׁ אָחִיךָ אֹתוֹ, וַהֲשֵׁבֹתוֹ לוֹ. 2 And if thy brother be not nigh unto thee, and thou know him not, then thou shalt bring it home to thy house, and it shall be with thee until thy brother require it, and thou shalt restore it to him.

Deuteronomy 22: 2

Personal obligation for everyone who observes biblical law is required to do it. If you have the ability to restore someone’s health, you must do this.

טז לֹא-תֵלֵךְ רָכִיל בְּעַמֶּיךָ, לֹא תַעֲמֹד עַל-דַּם רֵעֶךָ: אֲנִי, יְהוָה. 16 Thou shalt not go up and down as a talebearer among thy people; neither shalt thou stand idly by the blood of thy neighbour: I am the LORD.

Leviticus 19: 16

If you can’t heal him, pay for someone else to heal him- and this is the source of the idea of modicum of personal risk- healthcare for all. This pasuk supports the fact that there must be universal healthcare.

You don’t have to drive the same car as I do, but you need to have the same medical insurance as I do- the same capacity and ability to have and use that medical insurance.


We’re not afraid of playing God. We play man

    כח וַיְבָרֶךְ אֹתָם, אֱלֹהִים, וַיֹּאמֶר לָהֶם אֱלֹהִים פְּרוּ וּרְבוּ וּמִלְאוּ אֶת-הָאָרֶץ, וְכִבְשֻׁהָ; וּרְדוּ בִּדְגַת הַיָּם, וּבְעוֹף הַשָּׁמַיִם, וּבְכָל-חַיָּה, הָרֹמֶשֶׂת עַל-הָאָרֶץ. 28
    And God blessed them; and God said unto them: 'Be fruitful, and multiply, and replenish the earth, and subdue it; and have dominion over the fish of the sea, and over the fowl of the air, and over every living thing that creepeth upon the earth.'

    ~Genesis 1: 28

“Be fruitful and multiply and master my world.”

God gave us an unfinished world and said we are to master it- research and science are the areas in which we are to continue to finish the world, [looks at his powerpoint screen, where the verse appears very blurrily], despite the money we spend at Yeshiva, good technology we haven’t seen- we need a better screen than that. (laughter)

Now, look at the Gemara in Shabbos daf Ayin-Hei (75)

This is your wisdom in the eyes of the nations- NOT teaching Talmud, but the obligation to study nature and master nature- here it talks about astronomy, the science of the time, have to study God, not only through Torah but also how He reveals himself in nature.

[next slide]

Now, there are 10 reasons the scientific literature contains not to do cloning. Some of these reasons are good reasons; some are just strawmen.

1) Playing God
2) Abortion
3) Report for the Procreative ___ of the Zygote
4) Self-Injury: Risk without Benefit for the Ovum Donor
5) Commodificationa nd Exploitation of Ovum and Donor
6) Macro-Triage: Allocation of Source Resources Available for Biomedical Research
7) Justice: Sharing benefits from ESC Therapy with all members of society

(These were the only ones he had time to address)

[He had already addressed playing God, but went on to tell a very moving personal story about his wife, who had cancer, and the cure for her cancer was discovered through the use of experiments made on mice and cloning- as he put it, “God made man, man came and made a mouse-man.” The name of the medicine is Ritoxin and apparently she just took her last dose last Thursday.]

The issue in halakha is the 4th point- Self Injury: Risk without Benefit to Ovum Donor- the egg is provided by healthy women, and it is not provided for herself but for the sake of research- this is the point we still have to try to get around.

Now, 2220 human eggs were used by this Dr. Webber to produced a false report. The truth is, this man was actually cloning 40-60 animals a week at Wonks Lab (misheard?) So he figured, how hard can it be to actually clone a human; he sat down and wrote about how he would clone a human.

We will clone a human when God lets us take one more peek under the veil of ignorance.

Now, #5- Commodification and Exploitation- this is a big deal but saving human lives takes precedence. We don’t like buying organs for people; we feel that it is demeaning and exploits the person, but most halakhic authorities allow for it for the sake of saving a life.

6) Justice- (made a quip about how the scientist wakes up in the morning and tries to practice various traits, and the last one he says and that sticks in his mind is justice, which is why he makes a big deal about it) So one might say that more people are served giving money to baby clinics rather than spending money on this high science which will only benefit a few. But there’s nothing happening because you shut the purse-strings, so people run to other countries where cloning is available.

Okay, we’re going to skip some of these points for time reasons.

[He’s going through the slide show now]

“The Birth of Cloning” (headline of an article) is from the 90s- began a long time ago but never made the papers- they took an adult cell from the webbed foot of a frog and put into the frog the egg without a nucleus and tadpoles were born- maturation can be reversed, you know that. How do you deprogram, that is the question, how do you make a cell go backwards, how do you take a diploid adult cell- if I can get it to start behaving like a newly-fertilized cell, I can make a new human being.

The Pope should know that every cell has the ability/ capacity for life. That makes you think twice before cutting your nails too short. (laughter)

[next slide]

“Dairy Gene”- Dr. Loike mentioned this- Fusing human cells with goat cells to produce human byproduct of cell- of human significance

[next slide]

“Whose Self is it Anyway?” Issue of individuality- can you clone a human being reproductively? Why not? Answers given to that question are unacceptable. The answer given is that there will be no individuality.

Now, we have clones all the time- identical twins who are raised in the same environment, they are clones, but still they are clearly not the same and have different interests- even Siamese Twins who are always together, yet developed their own personalities- this is a false statement, claiming this is destroying individuality.

Question whether human beings would ever be acceptable- identified with time and place- there’s a time and place where human cloning would be recommended and desirable. Firstly, it would have to be SAFE- we hear about Dolly (the success story)- what about those times they failed? They had a lamb with 7 legs and 4 heads, or half a lamb- when you can clone 100 lambs in 100 tries, then we can discuss it [human cloning.]

[next slide]

Now the problem of the unavailability of human eggs. In England, they are using rabbit eggs- stick human nucleus in egg shell of rabbit eggs after having pulled out the rabbit nucleus- it’s the shell that makes it go back to its growing days (that makes the cell behave as a new cell, deprogramming). So if I can start off a human cell and get stem cells- I an use stem cells to make a heart stronger, a liver more functional, can use for a cure…

The date on this is December 28, 2006, and the headlines is “Cow-Human Chimera for Stem Cells Faces UK Ban.”

Female human, bovine, same thing- but there’s been a tremendous objection/ emotional reaction to the thought of producing a human cell in a nonhuman organism- looks like they’ll forbid it in England.

I don’t know why.


Now I hear Dr. Loike mutter under his breath “Kilayim” (Mixtures.) So maybe there’s a halakhic issue of Kilayim. God gave species an identity. Now, Kilayim is no issue unless it’s reproductive mixing cells of species- has no halakhic significance unless organism reproduced (and even asexual reproduction counts.)

[next slide]

Here’s a wonderful teshuva from Rav Elchanan Wasserman- pollinate plant/ tree using pollen- now, the Talmud didn’t know about pollen- they talk about grafting. So the question is with regard to kilayim, nowadays would pollen be a problem for kilayim? He says yes, nowadays pollination WOULD be a problem for kilayim.

So it depends on the normal way- k’darko vs. shelo k’darko (what is natural vs what is not natural.) If the normal thing to do is grafting, then pollination would not be kilayim, it’s “lo k’darko” and vie versa.

[next slide]

Now, we have to circumvent the Bush blockade by President Bush- the only Bush you listen to is the burning one (tremendous laughter)- This blockade by President Bush had broken down the divide between Church and State- he’s introducing a theological outlook into this technology, forcing the scientific community to circumvent his objections.

[next slide]

Using amniotic fluid cells to duplicate stem cells- “Versatile Stem Cells without the Ethical Baggage” refers to special ones- behave right away- stem cells themselves can produce stem cells, can be modified to produce muscle cells, etc.

[next slide]

Unbelievable success story- “Stem Cell Experiment Yields Heart Valves”- produced heart valve of human cells- doesn’t have all the advantages yet- would be perfectly compatible with pregnant woman and fetus- one thing to note is that the patient who needs help must provide the DNA in order to produce these cells.

[next slide]

Unbelievable study- Japanese scientist has shown he can isolate four genes from a mouse, can be put into any cell of a mouse and produce stem cells- hope is then there is no need for an egg.

[next slide]

June 29, 2006 in “Nature”

A philosophical solution to the problem by Pope/ Bush- they are bothered by the idea that there is potential for a human to develop from these cells- so what about finding/ creating cells where they CANNOT develop into humans but CAN develop into stem cells- they’re trying to develop that.

But why do that? The halakhic approach doesn’t need to circumvent the edict of the pope.

[next slide]

Stem cells for males- “Pluripotency of Spermatagonial cells…”

[next slide]

And this is where we are up to today:

Australia lifts the ban on cloning about last month.

In Germany, stem-cell technique is “contrary to public order,” making it a felony to do it.

So all the brains are running to Australia, and Germany, where the question is if they ever had any to begin with…

[next slide]

JC- Jewish Chronicle article saying that Cloning is allowed under Halakha- this is referring to therapeutic cloning specifically, however.


Now, cloning can be misapplied. An ego trip is not right and just cause, just because someone wants to see what he looked like when he was young- this is wrong and no scientist would agree to help this man. But to help the infertile survivor of a family destroyed by the Holocaust- anyone with decency and empathy would do it.

There is a wonderful statement in Midrash Rabbah on Devarim [last slide]:

“The Book and the Sword came down from Heaven intertwined. Do what it says in the Book, and the Sword won’t hurt you- do contrary to this and the Sword will kill you.”

God made the scalpel, but He didn’t make you into a murderer or a great surgeon. You can be Jack the Ripper or a great surgeon saving many lives with the same scalpel. The same technology can be used for good or bad. This is not what God ordains, but what man ordains- all things can be used for good or evil.

(This last statement was extremely powerful, and I unfortunately have gotten it out of order. It was poetic, beautiful and very strong.)


(One I couldn’t completely catch having to do with giving money to different resources and what R’ Tendler suggested should be done)

ANSWER: By posing that as a conflict of 2 goods, solution is not to choose BETWEEN them but to make them both possible- no excuse for America to have 25 million people uninsured or to have a lack of well-baby clinics in certain places. But one cannot give money to support these goods at the expense of research- they don’t have to give money to the Museum of Modern Art- they don’t have to buy new pictures; they can just turn the pictures upside down! (laughter)

Not doing stem cell research because the money is supposed to go to well-baby clinics, well this year they’re also not giving to that so (insinuation is they might as well give to us!)


QUESTION: The sin of Dor Ha’Haflaga (the Generation of the Dispersion) was technological advancement. So does God want this?

ANSWER: The problem is that man did NOT want to conquer the land- Nimrod build cities to contain man and keep him underneath him- the sin of Dor HaHaflaga was rejection of technological advancement. Man is supposed to go out into the jungles and see what he must do for the sake of mankind.


QUESTION: Issues of clone having a neshama (soul) ?

ANSWER: R’ Tendler gives a deep, emphatic sigh. Then-

Husband, wife and God. The husband and wife take care of the body parts when it comes to the creation of a child- the reason the husband and wife don’t deal with the neshama is because God handles the neshama- this is not your business, and we are not to worry about it. Except for Crick- he is attempting to discover the chemical basis of the soul, and most think he has a serious mental illness.

Member of Medical Ethics Comitte: Thanks to the speakers, thanks to Dr. John Loike. R’ Moshe Tendler, Dr. Ash director of Center for Ethics at YU for attending, the Student Medical Ethics Board Members

Monday, January 22, 2007

Isaac Died: The Alternative Version of Akedas Yitzchak

The Last Trial is a fantastic book. (And it's available at YU)

It is the English translation of a work (actually, a sixty-seven page introduction to a poem titled 'The Akedah,' written by Rabbi Ephraim ben Jacob of Bonn) by Shalom Spiegel titled Me-Aggadot ha-Akedah, literally, "From the Aggadot on the Binding of Isaac." Anyone able to read beautiful, rich Hebrew ought to read it in its original form. With that in mind, I still owe the translator, Judah Goldin, a debt of gratitude- I would never have been able to read this book otherwise.

Spiegel traces the various ideas, legends and lore that grew up around the Akedah, the Binding of Isaac, and notes their sources and interpretations, including an approach that I very briefly touched upon in 11th grade and always wanted to know more about- that Isaac died.


The question begins with the famous verse, Genesis 22: 19.

    יט וַיָּשָׁב אַבְרָהָם אֶל-נְעָרָיו, וַיָּקֻמוּ וַיֵּלְכוּ יַחְדָּו אֶל-בְּאֵר שָׁבַע; וַיֵּשֶׁב אַבְרָהָם, בִּבְאֵר שָׁבַע. {פ}

    19 So Abraham returned unto his young men, and they rose up and went together to Beer-sheba; and Abraham dwelt at Beer-sheba. {P}

Avraham returned to the young men.
But where was Isaac?

One of the interpretations was that he was in Paradise. And why was he in Paradise? He was being healed. Why was he being healed? Because of his wound. What wound?

    after the incident on Mount Moriah: "And the angels bore him to Paradise, where he tarried three years, to be healed from the wound inflicted on him by Abraham on the occasion of the Akedah." [Yalkut Reubeni, Wa-Yera (Maggid, Toledot).]

Avraham hurt Yitzchak? Isaac was being healed "from the incision made in him by his father when he began to offer him up as a sacrifice?" [Hadar Zekenim 10b (=Bet ha-Midrash, ed Jellinek, V. p 157) and Minhat Yehudah, Toledot, Gen 25: 27; cf. Hizkuni ad Gen 22:19.]

Apparently the answer is yes.

But that is only a wound. I said that Isaac died. Well, then, how did he die? There are several different midrashim as to how this occurred.

    This is the version in Midrash Lekah Tob, and it is set down in connection with the verse (Gen 31: 42), "The God of Abraham and the Fear of Isaac"- "for Isaac was in the grip of fear as he lay bound on top of the altar, and his soul flew out of him, and the Holy One, blessed be He, restored it to him by means of the dewdrops for Resurrection of the dead." (32)

So here we see an approach that Isaac died of fright and was resurrected.

But then we find a:

    small Midrash on the Prayer in Shibbole ha-Leket. On the surface it seems that here have been assembled only the different haggadic strokes we have listed and outlined thus far; but its language clearly reveals that something new has been added, and now the profile of the whole midrash is suddenly transformed in a manner we could never have anticipated or dreamed of from our reading of Scripture: "When Father Isaac was bound on the altar and reduced to ashes and his sacrificial dust was cast on Mount Moriah, the Holy One, blessed be He, immediately brought upon him dew and revived him. (33)

The Midrash goes on to say that this is the reason that the "ministering angels began to recite, Blessed art Thou, O Lord, who quickens the dead."

In this case, it appears that Isaac was burnt- he was reduced to ashes.

Note that Avraham does not necessarily slay him here. As Spiegel takes care to point out, if one operates under the assumption that Avraham did everything in accord with the Torah, and later on the Torah gives very specific instructions as to the bringing of a korban or sacrifice, specifically in Leviticus 1: 7:

    וְנָתְנוּ בְּנֵי אַהֲרֹן הַכֹּהֵן, אֵשׁ--עַל-הַמִּזְבֵּחַ; וְעָרְכוּ עֵצִים, עַל-הָאֵשׁ.

    7 And the sons of Aaron the priest shall put fire upon the altar, and lay wood in order upon the fire.

Note the order: First one places fire on the altar, then wood.

Similarly, by Avraham- Avraham would have lit the fire, then placed wood, and then placed Isaac upon the wood. This idea is completely corroborated by Genesis 22: 9

    ט וַיָּבֹאוּ, אֶל-הַמָּקוֹם אֲשֶׁר אָמַר-לוֹ הָאֱלֹהִים, וַיִּבֶן שָׁם אַבְרָהָם אֶת-הַמִּזְבֵּחַ, וַיַּעֲרֹךְ אֶת-הָעֵצִים; וַיַּעֲקֹד, אֶת-יִצְחָק בְּנוֹ, וַיָּשֶׂם אֹתוֹ עַל-הַמִּזְבֵּחַ, מִמַּעַל לָעֵצִים.

    9 And they came to the place which God had told him of; and Abraham built the altar there, and laid the wood in order, and bound Isaac his son, and laid him on the altar, upon the wood.

In this case, then, Spiegel suggests,

    when Abraham offered up his sacrifice in accordance with the proper order for making a whole burnt offering, and he did with the wood what is done in the propr laying-out of the sacrificial woodpile, wood on top of the fire, and he put his son "on top of the wood." And if in fact he did not do anything to the lad and did not remove him speedily from the wood upon the fire that was burning, why, in a twinkling the whole pile went up in a blaze and the flames of fire had Isaac to themselves and "he was reduced to ashes" and dust. (36)

This is a completely plausible approach- in this case Abraham does not actively kill Isaac, he does not cut him or hurt him, but Isaac dies nonetheless because he is burned to death.

However, Spiegel now cites in a footnote the whole and correct version of this Midrash:

    And now, thanks to a Cambridge University Library manuscript (Or. 1080, Box I: 48), we learn that the Shibbole ha-Leket reading is indeed abridged. Perhaps either R. Zedekiah bar Abraham delli Mansi or some pious soul of an earlier generation was exercising restraint- for reasons similar to those which prompted R. Isaac Aboab to omit that haggadah entirely from beginning to end. For this MS reads: "When Abraham bound his son Isaac on the altar, and slew him and burned him, (the lad) was reduced to ashes, and his ashes were scattered on Mount Moriah; then the Holy One, blessed be He, brought down life-giving dew and revived him [...] See S. Spiegel in the Abraham Weiss Jubilee Volume (New York, 1964), pp. 553-566.]

In this case, Isaac was slaughtered, and Avraham slew him.

Now look to Ta'anis 16a:

    ולמה נותנין אפר בראש כל אחד ואחד פליגי בה ר' לוי בר חמא ור' חנינא חד אמר הרי אנו חשובין לפניך כאפר וחד אמר כדי שיזכור לנו אפרו של יצחק

    Why now are ashes placed on the head of each and every one (of the participants)? There is a difference of opinion in this matter on the part of R. Levi bar Hama and R. Hanina. One says (All the participants put ashes on their heads, to indicate thereby,) Before Thee we are all [like dust and] ashes; and the other says (That is done) so that He might call to mind for our sake Isaac's ashes.

Isaac's ashes, did you say! What ashes are these- are they metaphorical ashes, is Isaac likened to ash; what does this mean?

But no! For see, later in Zevachim 62a-

    אלא מזבח מנא ידעי אמר רבי אלעזר ראו מזבח בנוי ומיכאל השר הגדול עומד ומקריב עליו ור' יצחק נפחא אמר אפרו של יצחק ראו שמונח באותו מקום

    Come now, listen: When the generation that returned from the Babylonian Exile began to build the Second Temple, "How did they know what to do with the altar? Said R' Eleazar: They beheld the altar all built and Michael, the Great Prince, stood by it sacrificing on it. But R. Isaac Napha said: They beheld Isaac's ashes, that these lay on that spot." (44)

So these are real ashes, very real, the foundation of the altar. When God is angry, He looks upon Isaac's ashes as a reminder, and forbears from meting out just punishment.

But this is not all- because another interpretation states that Isaac left one quarter of his blood on top of the altar. (This is from the earliest selections of Mekilta de-R. Simeon ben Yohai)

To quote directly,

    This is the kind of midrashic exegesis that can blow the top off everything said in the Torah about the Akedah event: "A quarter of blood" did you say! So then, the father did indeed lay hand and knife to the lad, and did do what he did to extract from him a quarter of blood, which is the amount required to keep a man alive, "as that galilean taught in Rab Hisda's presence- The Holy One, blessed be He, said: Into you h ave I put a quarter of blood, on the subject of blood I have cautioned you, etc. If you obey them, fine; otherwise I'll have your lives." If, therefore, Isaac gave a quarter log of his blood on the altar, then evidently Abraham did not refrain from this mighty strange action, and wound he did, and possibly with his own hands did slaughter his son. Or in Abraham ibn Ezra's language, in his commentary (Gen 22:19) : The father acted "contrary to Scripture," "for he slaughtered and abandoned" Isaac on the altar. (47)

In fact, in a conversation with Avraham brought down in several places but perhaps most accesibly in Beraishis Rabbah p. 90, Isaac says, "Father, do not be distressed. Come now and carry out the will of your Father in heaven: may it be His will that a quarter of my blood serve as an atonement for Israel." (49)

The idea of Isaac's offering up his blood is incredibly symbolic, especially when one learns that an alternative interpretation to Exodus 12: 23, " For the LORD will pass through to smite the Egyptians; and when He seeth the blood upon the lintel, and on the two side-posts, the LORD will pass over the door, and will not suffer the destroyer to come in unto your houses to smite you," is referencing God's seeing Isaac's blood. In fact, in Genesis 22: 14, Avraham titles the place of the Akedah, 'The Lord Seeth,' again a reference to God's seeing Isaac's blood.

    like the haggadah on "the ashes of Isaac," "the blood of Isaac's Akedah" is carefully preserved, forever to serve as atonement and advocate of Israel in every generation. And whenever Isaac's descendants are in straits, He, as it were, beholds the blood of his Akedah, and pity fills Him so that He turns away the wrath of His anger from His city and His people. That is what we have read in the annals of David's reign, when plague and pestilence broke loose in the Land: "And as he was about to destroy, the Lord beheld, and He repented Him of the evil" (I Chron. 21: 15). What did he behold? He beheld the blood of Isaac's Akedah"- and immediately His compassion conquers His anger and He redeems and delivers. (58)

So now you want to question- but what about the ram? Wasn't the ram brought in place of Isaac? Not necessarily. The word used in the pasuk is "tachat" meaning under or "in place of," but it can also mean after. Those who hold that Isaac was sacrificed and then resurrected believe that the ram was sacrificed afterwards.

The firm idea, belief and midrash that Isaac died and was resurrected has been watered-down, with the inclusion of tentative "as thoughs." It is as though Isaac's ashes are piled on the altar, but they are not actual. Of course, there are commentaries who completely hold by the literal interpretation of Scripture, in which case this makes sense. But there is also a sense of though people would become confused if they knew the truth, and that is why only the finalities have been given- that Isaac did survive, and that Avraham passed the test. What happened before then is not mentioned or often taught, I think- there may be good reason as to why.


I have given you only the very tip of the iceberg when it comes to this idea, and The Last Trial is so beautiful, scholarly, logical and clever that it would be very sad if you took this post as a replacement for reading the work itself. So please, please read the book, whether in the original Hebrew or the translated English- it's fascinating and covers far more than this particular idea, referencing all kinds of thought with regard to the Akedah.

An Aside: You will note that Isaac was "like one going out to be burned and carrying on his own shoulders the wood for his pyre" (Tanhuma, ed Buber, Wa-Yera, 46, p. 114). You will also note that he left a quarter of his blood upon the altar, he was resurrected, and either his blood or his ashes act as redemption for the Jews, for God looks at them and refrains from carrying out punishment. Those who mock Christianity and consider it ridiculous or implausible because of the idea that Jesus died on the cross and was resurrected are incorrect. The religion may be flawed, but it is not wrong because of this idea, for as you see, we too believe in it, before they ever did.

Saturday, January 20, 2007

Joy: On Ice Skating, Dana and Barbecued Ribs

So I had an awesome Shabbos.

My roommate and I were going to be the only two people to stay in, and as I had to go off to the Barnes and Noble on 18th Street to purchase textbooks, and she was willing to buy food, I said, "Sure, buy something and I'll split the cost."

So I walk over to Barnes and Noble and pick out the four Norton Anthology volumes that I need for class, inform my roommate that her art book is going to cost somewhere in the vicinity of $97, at which point she refuses to purchase it, and head over to cashier 8 in order to sell back a book.

Now, I bought this book for about $40. I still have the yellow 'USED' sticker displayed prettily around the binding, still have the orange sticker with the Barnes and Noble price. Thinking, naively, that I'll sell the book back for about $40, or a bit lower than that, I head over for the counter.

The man scans my book and says, "$5."

I reply indignantly, "After you sold it to me for $40?" My tone makes it clear what I think of that.

He takes umbrage at this. "I didn't sell it to you. The store did."

After gaping at him for about five more seconds, I take my book, shove it into my bag, and walk outside and back to the dorm.

My roommate has appeared, carrying various packages with exciting contents. She stopped by a Moroccan restaraunt named Dharna, or something like that. She purchased:

1. Salmon
2. Shnitzel
3. Yellow Rice with Peas
4. Barbecued Ribs
5. Moroccan Cigars
6. Burekas
7. A Proper Kiddush Beverage *wink*

Now, this ought to be some exorbitant price, as she's bought enough of all this for two, but because she conveniently is friends with the owner, it comes to about $50. So I pay $25 and set about setting the table for Shabbos.

The table is actually a fellow roommate's desk. We remove her labtop and strategically place it on her bed, then wipe down the desk. Out come my plates- nice orange-pink dinner plates with small white paper plates for the fish, napkins by the side, a mixture of my cutlery (red handles) and hers (silver plastic). We take out large cups and I find a little container of mints from a relative's party, and I place the mints in small tin containers on both sides of the table, so we have lovely purple and green and white mints displayed prettily.

Then I place a translucent plastic bowl on the table, place our challos inside, cover them with a napkin, and find another small container to fill with salt.

The finishing touch is to plug in the hot water kettle, so that we'll have water for tea.

I run downstairs to light candles, come back upstairs and sing Lecha Dodi very joyfully, then join my roommate for Shalom Alecheim and Ashes Chayil, am interrupted by a freshman who wants to know where Stern dinner is to be held, inform her, have my roommate make kiddush, and join her for our meal, all of which has been cleverly warmed up- we had the containers sit on the heater in our room, and found a toaster oven in which we warmed up the salmon and the barbecued ribs.

How joyful a meal, and how pretty! It is a proper Shabbos meal, quite different from the horrid sameness and regularity that is the Stern meal; every Friday night a grilled orangy piece of chicken of questionable authenticity, yellowish liquid composed wholly of oil, supposedly soup, in which floats white islands of matza-ball mix, knaidels apparently, potato kugel and broccoli kugel that have been doused in oil, and then, the high point, vanilla cupcakes with multicolored sprinkles as topping.

Anyway, I had a lovely Shabbos, and when it was concluded, I had an FTOC activity! (Now, I pronounce that F-T-O-C, but oddly some pronounce F-tock, as though F were a kind of clock that ticks and tocks.) Anyway, it stands for First Time on Campus. So us First Time on Campus-ers got to go ice-skating at Rockefeller Center.

My roommate would not let me leave without pressing this gorgeous shirt with beautiful white and blue rhinestones on me; it looks like a figure-skater's shirt, and my only regret was that no one would be able to see it! I donned my fur Russian hat and my green scarf, then the Abercrombie and Fitch sweater and I figured I was ready to go. (Yes, because only I decide that an Abercrombie and Fitch zip-up hoodie is proper apparel for sub-zero weather. It is cold here.)

Anyway, off we went to Rockefeller Center, where everyone exclaimed over the fact that I had my own ice-skates, and yes, they were far more comfortable than everyone else's, and then we were off! I was skating for a while and becoming increasingly cold, so Dana, who is awesome, lent me her gloves and her black jacket for a while. Then it thinned out and I gave her back her jacket and gloves, after which I was simply skating, and this time, as there were fewer people, I could actually skate...skate and glide quickly ands simply, warming up as I did so.

I never feel as beautiful as when I'm ice-skating...perhaps it's the wind stinging my cheeks as I rush past, the euphoria, the grandeur of the white slippery surface and its purity as it turns chalky and snowy when our blades bite into's wonderful.

Anyway, as I was skating this guy, probably my age, maybe a bit younger, in high school, clad in a white jacket and a nice white and red hat asked me if I wanted to be in his video- he was skating with his video camera. I said "Sure!" and smiled and he said that all I had to do was fall, at which point I refused. "Aw, come on, just fall, please?" he asked, but I said "No, thanks" because one thing I don't like to do is fall.

So I skated onward and he came back later and asked how I was, at which point I said very well, and I smiled at his video screen, and he said that I should skate fast, so I did, and it all worked out quite well. It will be quite amusing to think that somewhere this person is probably putting together a video for a highschool project, or maybe it's a Blooper reel, and there I will be, smiling and saying that yes, I'm quite well, my face rimmed with fur.

It was ridiculous how few people decided to come out for this; I think there were only seven to nine of us who actually went skating- silly, as they were paying for us, and even if it was sub-zero weather, how can you resist ice-skating?

We went till 9:45, then the head of the activity requested that we get off the ice and said she'd take us for pizza afterwards, so we all acquiesced, and as my hands were too numb to untie my laces, someone else had to do it for me, and I just admired them- red and cold from the ice but I was so happy, happy.

The bus came for us and dropped us off on 7th Avenue, at which point I froze on the brief walk to J2, where we all ordered pizza and inevitably people bumped into other people they knew. I had hot chocolate and pizza and was happy to warm up, and some woman I didn't know stopped me and told me my hat looked quite warm, at which point I smiled.

Later I mention to Dana that I was definitely a Russian princess in another life, pointing to my hat, and she laughs and says, "More like a Russian beggar," and I think she's referencing the fact that I borrowed her coat and gloves so I smile, but really she just means that Russian beggars also wear this type of hat, so it works out well.

So then we had to get back to the dorm, and how to accomplish this? First the head of the activity called Security, and requested a Shuttle, but inevitably security misunderstood her request and took offense. I only heard half of the conversation but it was pretty funny, "No, ma'am, I am not suggesting it was your fault; I'm only asking that you please send a shuttle for us" and "Yes, ma'am, I know there are shuttles available; there are the ones that go to Penn Station." Anyway, the lady wouldn't listen to reason so we decided to take cabs- went outside and danced up and down in the cold blowing on our fingers, at which point I went back in side and was about to get a cupcake when the cabs came.

So we squash into the cab, and Dana, doing something I would absolutely do, threw herself over the three of us in the back and just lay on top of us, which caused me gales of laughter because she was so funny and so cold and just wanted to get back to the dorm already. So I'm laughing and laughing at how we've fit six people into this one tiny cab, and Dana is talking to my friend's knees, or actually to the silver handle inside the door, and all I can do is tell her how much I love her and how this is exactly what I would do and laugh over her antics.

We get back to the dorm and dash across the street, where we ride the elevator back up and everyone smiles at everyone else and tells them how they had such a good night, and all I can think is that ice-skating and pizza make the perfect combination, and I couldn't be happier if I tried.

Wednesday, January 17, 2007

The Deadly Tea-Party

What do GRRM's Red Wedding, the Arabian Nights and Job all have in common?

Why, they have the motif of the Deadly Tea-Party, that is, a party where someone dies, is sentenced to death, or some terrible misfortune occurs. And what do you suppose? This is a tremendous motif throughout the Bible. It is beautiful to see how it is has persisted throughout the ages so that we encounter it once again in contemporary epic fantasy.

Let us begin with the literary example, and then I will demonstrate where we see this motif throughout the Torah.

    Aladdin comforted her, and left her for a while. He changed clothes with the first person he met in the town, and having bought a certain powder returned to the princess, who let him in by a little side door.

    "Put on your most beautiful dress," he said to her, "and receive the magician with smiles, leading him to believe that you have forgotten me. Invite him to sup with you, and say you wish to taste the wine of his country. He will go for some, and while he is gone I will tell you what to do."

    She listened carefully to Aladdin, and when he left her arrayed herself gaily for the first time since she left China. She put on a girdle and head-dress of diamonds, and seeing in a glass that she looked more beautiful than ever, received the magician, saying to his great amazement: "I have made up my mind that Aladdin is dead, and that all my tears will not bring him back to me, so I am resolved to mourn no more, and have therefore invited you to sup with me; but I am tired of the wines of China, and would fain taste those of Africa."

    The magician flew to his cellar, and the princess put the powder Aladdin had given her in her cup. When he returned she asked him to drink her health in the wine of Africa, handing him her cup in exchange for his as a sign she was reconciled to him.

    Before drinking the magician made her a speech in praise of her beauty, but the princess cut him short saying:

    "Let me drink first, and you shall say what you will afterwards." She set her cup to her lips and kept it there, while the magician drained his to the dregs and fell back lifeless.

    "Aladdin" from The Arabian Nights

(I have a much more beautiful rendering in the Arabian Nights I have at home; it is far more descriptive and the language is much lovelier. In effect, just in case the above version was unclear, the princess puts the poison in her own goblet, and the evil magician, lovestruck, begins to praise her beauty. In a seductive gesture she kisses the rim of her goblet and begs the magician to drink from her cup to show him how much he means to her-and to take the kiss she has lavished on its rim. He gladly acquiesces, they exchange cups; he dies, having imbibed the poison she placed in her cup, and she lives.)

Where do we have deadly tea-parties in the Torah?

1. Avraham's Weaning Feast for Isaac

    And it came to pass after these words, that God did tempt Abraham.14 What is meant by 'after'? — R. Johanan said on the authority of R. Jose b. Zimra: After 'the words of Satan, as it is written, And the child grew, and was weaned: [and Abraham made a great feast the same day that Isaac was weaned].15 Thereupon Satan said to the Almighty; 'Sovereign of the Universe! To this old man Thou didst graciously vouchsafe the fruit of the womb at the age of a hundred, yet of all that banquet which he prepared, he did not have one turtle-dove or pigeon to sacrifice before thee! Hath he done aught but in honour of his son!' Replied He, 'Yet were I to say to him, "Sacrifice thy son before Me", he would do so without hesitation.' Straightway, God did tempt Abraham … And he said, Take, I pray thee [na]16 thy son.17

    Sanhedrin 89b

Because Avraham made the terrible mistake of neglecting to offer sacrifices to God upon Isaac's weaning, the feast became the cause of the future necessity for the sacrifice of Isaac/ Abraham's being tested in this regard. (By the way, anyone notice the similarity to the idea of "Sleeping Beauty?" Because the parents neglect to invite the fairy to the feast, and they serve her on plates of china rather than plates of gold with her name engraved upon them, she grows angry and casts a terrible curse upon Aurora. Rather like the Satan, who is able to cause Avraham grief because of Avraham's neglect to "invite God" as it were, to the feast.)

While it is true that Isaac was saved, he was supposed to die, which is why I include this in my Deathly Tea-Party motif.

2. Absalom's Sheep-Shearing Celebration

    23 And it came to pass after two full years, that Absalom had sheep-shearers in Baal-hazor, which is beside Ephraim; and Absalom invited all the king's sons. 24 And Absalom came to the king, and said: 'Behold now, thy servant hath sheep-shearers; let the king, I pray thee, and his servants go with thy servant.' 25 And the king said to Absalom: 'Nay, my son, let us not all go, lest we be burdensome unto thee.' And he pressed him; howbeit he would not go, but blessed him. 26 Then said Absalom: 'If not, I pray thee, let my brother Amnon go with us.' And the king said unto him: 'Why should he go with thee?' 27 But Absalom pressed him, and he let Amnon and all the king's sons go with him. {S} 28 And Absalom commanded his servants, saying: 'Mark ye now, when Amnon's heart is merry with wine; and when I say unto you: Smite Amnon, then kill him, fear not; have not I commanded you? be courageous, and be valiant.' 29 And the servants of Absalom did unto Amnon as Absalom had commanded. Then all the king's sons arose, and every man got him up upon his mule, and fled. 30 And it came to pass, while they were in the way, that the tidings came to David, saying: 'Absalom hath slain all the king's sons, and there is not one of them left.' {P}

    31 Then the king arose, and rent his garments, and lay on the earth; and all his servants stood by with their clothes rent. {S} 32 And Jonadab, the son of Shimeah David's brother, answered and said: 'Let not my lord suppose that they have killed all the young men the king's sons; for Amnon only is dead; for by the appointment of Absalom this hath been determined from the day that he forced his sister Tamar. 33 Now therefore let not my lord the king take the thing to his heart, to think that all the king's sons are dead; for Amnon only is dead.' {P}

    Samuel II 13

Absalom invites Amnon to the sheep-shearing feast; Amnon attends in good faith, and Absalom kills him for raping his sister Tamar.

3. Job's Feasts

First we see:

    4 And his sons used to go and hold a feast in the house of each one upon his day; and they would send and invite their three sisters to eat and to drink with them.

and then

    18 While he was yet speaking, there came also another, and said: 'Thy sons and thy daughters were eating and drinking wine in their eldest brother's house; 19 And, behold, there came a great wind from across the wilderness, and smote the four corners of the house, and it fell upon the young people, and they are dead; and I only am escaped alone to tell thee.'

    Job 1

His sons and daughters are rejoicing, merry and happy, when a terrible wind comes upon them and they are buried underneath their destroyed house.

4. Esther

Esther is just as wily as Aladdin's princess.

It's the entire Chapter 7 in Esther.

In essence,

    So the king and Haman came to banquet with Esther the queen. 2 And the king said again unto Esther on the second day at the banquet of wine: 'Whatever thy petition, queen Esther, it shall be granted thee; and whatever thy request, even to the half of the kingdom, it shall be performed.' 3 Then Esther the queen answered and said: 'If I have found favour in thy sight, O king, and if it please the king, let my life be given me at my petition, and my people at my request

In effect, she asks him to kill Haman.

5. Belshazzar's Drinking Party

It's the entire Daniel 5.

In essence, Belshazzar makes a party using the sacred vessels of the destroyed Temple, at which point a ghostly hand writes upon the wall the dire words, 'MENE MENE TEKEL UPHARSIN,' which frightens the king and mandates that Daniel must be called upon to explain (similar to Pharoah's calling upon Joseph to interpret his dreams.)

I am unable to remember the original source, but "Punishment followed hard upon the heels of the atrocity. Cyrus and Darius served as door-keepers of the royal palace on the evening of the banquet. They had received orders from Belshazzar to admit none, though he should say he was the king himself. Belshazzar was forced to leave his apartments for a short time, and he went out unnoticed by the two door-keepers. On his return, when he asked to be admitted, they felled him dead, even while he was asseverating that he was the king." (4) (Source) As I recall, Belshazzar left the castle to use the privy.

And so, as the verse says,

    30 In that night Belshazzar the Chaldean king was slain. {P}

You may argue, if you like, for the inclusion of Samson's killing the Philistines during their sacrifice to Dagon/ feast/ party, but I think that's slightly different as, though it is ironic, it does not derive merely from the party motif, but from the fact that Samson was gifted with exceptional strength through God- it is more of an active measure as opposed to the plotting and/ or circumstances of the others.

There are probably more examples of deadly parties in the Torah; these are the ones I recall- if you have any others, do mention them.

I've never been able to think about Esther without relating her to Aladdin's princess, and the Red Wedding reminds me quite a lot of Shimon and Levi's betrayal of Shechem. Intriguingly, I only noticed the party of doom/ death motif after I'd read the stories and fairytales, not vice versa. This is one of the many reasons children should read (or be read) fairytales. A child's understanding of fairytales directly reflects on his understanding of Midrash, Aggadah, the Torah and the like. Please don't underestimate the power of magic- it is vital for the development of the imagination, the mind, and all creative faculties.

Monday, January 15, 2007

Literary Fun with the Apocrypha

In an attempt to find the source for Adam's third wife, in which endeavor Yair helped greatly, I stumbled upon a fascinating book called Rabbinic Fantasies which includes excerpts from a work titled The Alphabet of Ben-Sira.

Upon reading the book today, I came upon this delightful selection:

    A year later Leviathan gathered all the creatures in the sea, but the fox and the weasel were missing because they had not entered. When Leviathan sent for them, he was told what the fox and weasel had wisely done. He was also told that the fox was exceedingly clever. When Leviathan heard of the fox's wisdom, he grew envious and sent large fish with orders to trick the fox into coming. The efish went and found the fox strolling by the seashore. Seeing the fish amusing themselves along the shore, the fox became curious and waded in. They asked, 'Who are you?'

    " 'I am the fox,' he replied.

    " 'Then you surely must know that a great honor awaits you, and that we have come for you.'

    " 'What is it?' the fox asked.

    "The fish replied, 'Leviathan is sick and about to die, and he has decreed that no one should be king in his place except the fox, because he has heard that you are wiser and more knowledgeable than all other creatures. Come with us. We are his emissaries, and we have come in your honor.'

    "But how can I go below the sea without dying?" asked the fox.

    'To which they replied, 'Ride on top of one of us, and he will carry you above the sea. Not a drop of water from the sea will touch even the bottoms of your feet. When you arrive at the kingdom, we shall lower you- how, you cannot understand now- and you will reign over all. You shall be king, happy all your lifetime. You will no longer need to seek food or to fear that evil beasts larger than you will try to devour you.'

    "When the fox heard their words, he believed them and rode on top of the back of one of them over the sea. But as soon as the waves swept over him, he began to regret what he had done and realized that he had lost his wits. Woe is me! he thought. What have I done? The fish have played a trick on me equal to all the tricks I have played on other creatures. Now that I have fallen into their hands, how can I save myself? So he said to the fish, 'Now that I have come with you, and dthat I'm in your domain, tell me the truth. What do you want with me?"

    "They replied: 'We shall tell you the truth. Leviathan heard that you are famous for being exceedingly wise, and said, "Let me slit his belly and eat his heart so that I will become wise. '

    "Why did you not tell me the truth?" asked the fox. 'I would have brought my heart with me, and then I could have given it to King Leviathan, and he would have honored me. Now you will be in trouble.'

    "Is your heart not with you?" they asked.

    "No," the fox answered. "For our custom is to leave our heart in our residence when we travel. If we need it, then we fetch it. If not, it remains at home.

    "What shall we do now?" the fish asked.

    "I lodge near the seashore. If you wish, bring me back to the place you took me from, I will take my heart and come with you, and then I will give it to Leviathan. He will honor me and you. But if you bring me as I am, heartless, Leviathan will be angry, and he wuill devour you. As for me, I have no fears, for I will tell him, "My lord, they did not inform me in advance. When they told me about you, I asked them to bring me back so that I could take my heart, but they refused."

    "The fish immediately thought, 'That makes sense.' They returned to the place by the seashore from which they had taken the fox. He climbed off the fish and danced, rolling himself in the sand.

    "Take your heart quickly and let us go," they said.

    "Fools! Go away! Had I not my heart with me, I would not have entered the sea with you. Is there a creature that walks about without having his heart with him?"

    "You played a trick on us!"

    "Fools! I have already played a trick on the angel of death, and I can certainly play one on you.'

    "The fish returend in shame and told Leviathan. He said to them, "Verily, he is smart, and you are fools. About you speaks the proverb, 'The smugness of the thoughtless shall destroy them" (Proverbs 1:32).' Then Leviathan ate them. Andn since that time, every species, including man and his wife, are to be found in the sea- except for the fox and the weasel.

    Rabbinic Fantasies, 194

Now, when I read this, I knew that I had read the story before; I even knew that it had involved a monkey and a crocodile, where the crocodile wanted to eat the monkey's heart, and the monkey cleverly avoided this by claiming he had left his heart at home. At first I thought it was from the Just-So Stories, but upon some searching, discovered that what I remembered was from the Jataka Lore of Buddhists.

That story is called "The Monkey's Heart."

Now, the Jataka stories are dated from 300 BC- 400 AD, while The Alphabet of Ben-Sira is dated from AD 700-1000. My first thought was that The Alphabet of Ben-Sira must have incorporated this common folktale, but perhaps the author of The Alphabet of Ben-Sira took a common story that had been around for ages and incorporated it into his work (the same way that he does Talmudic stories and other midrashim.)

To support that point (namely, that Jataka Lore draws upon Judaic sources), I bring you the following parallel.

Look at this story from the Jataka Lore.

    The Future Buddha as Judge

    A woman, carrying her child, went to the future Buddha's tank to wash. And having first bathed the child, she put on her upper garment and descended into the water to bathe herself.

    Then a Yaksha, seeing the child, had a craving to eat it. And taking the form of a woman, she drew near, and asked the mother, "Friend, this is a very pretty child. Is it one of yours?" And when she was told it was, she asked if she might nurse it. And this being allowed, she nursed it a little, and then carried it off.

    But when the mother saw this, she ran after her, and cried out, "Where are you taking my child to?" and caught hold of her.

    The Yaksha boldly said, "Where did you get the child from? It is mine!" And so quarreling, they passed the door of the future Buddha's Judgment Hall.

    He heard the noise, sent for them, inquired into the matter, and asked them whether they would abide by his decision. And they agreed. Then he had a line drawn on the ground; and told the Yaksha to take hold of the child's arms, and the mother to take hold of its legs; and said, "The child shall be hers who drags him over the line."

    But as soon as they pulled at him, the mother, seeing how he suffered, grieved as if her heart would break. And letting him go, she stood there weeping.

    Then the future Buddha asked the bystanders, "Whose hearts are tender to babes? Those who have borne children, or those who have not?"

    And they answered, "Oh sire! The hearts of mothers are tender."

    Then he said, "Who, think you, is the mother? She who has the child in her arms, or she who has let go?"

    And they answered, "She who has let go is the mother."

    And he said, "Then do you all think that the other was the thief?"

    And they answered, "Sire! We cannot tell."

    And he said, "Verily, this is a Yaksha, who took the child to eat it."

    And he replied, "Because her eyes winked not, and were red, and she knew no fear, and had no pity, I knew it."

    And so saying, he demanded of the thief, "Who are you?"

    And she said, "Lord! I am a Yaksha."

    And he asked, "Why did you take away this child?"

    And she said, "I thought to eat him, Oh my Lord!"

    And he rebuked her, saying, "Oh foolish woman! For your former sins you have been born a Yaksha, and now do you still sin!" And he laid a vow upon her to keep the Five Commandments, and let her go.

    But the mother of the child exalted the future Buddha, and said, "Oh my Lord! Oh great physician! May your life be long!" And she went away, with her babe clasped to her bosom.

Sound familiar? Maybe like 3:16 onward in Kings I?

Fairytales and folktales are often extremely similar. It is very difficult to figure out which telling was the "original" telling. Common stories, like that of Cinderella, exist in all cultures. Obviously, 'Brothers Grimm' and 'Andersen' did not compose stories, rather they simply compiled popular folktales and fairytales of the time and incorporated them into a collection.

I find it intriguing that Jewish folktales/ ascribed history made it into the Buddhist collection of stories. Firstly, it is entertaining; secondly, I read the Jataka version first, which meant I initially thought the Ben-Sira version to be a retelling (and perhaps it was! But Solomon lived much earlier than when the second Jataka tale was written, so I think not. Then again, it could have been an oral tradition, and only written down in 300 BC-400 AD. So who knows?)

And, if anybody influential ever happens to read this, I would love to have a class at YU comparing the various examples/ places where folktales and fairytales crop up in Judaic tradition /aid in understanding the text. I think such a class would be fascinating.

Sunday, January 14, 2007

I Write Into Silence

My posts are my thoughts, not my actions. I am a religious, committed Orthodox Jew. And I love God. And yet I think about defying Him, as I expressed. Or I pray in English rather than Hebrew, and admit my pride as a failing. Some of you are quite anxious about this, and seem to believe that I am irreligious or will be shortly, and counsel me to seek help, advice and so on and so forth from various leaders. Some of you even intimate my parents are to blame for such thoughts.

This is not so.

We cannot learn without asking questions, and we cannot learn without admitting that sometimes we want to revolt, rebel, provoke God's wrath, defy Him, in short, act from our own position of authority.

Perhaps not everyone feels this way. Why then, do I write about it? Why do I confess this? Why expose such vulnerabilities?

This is why.

    "A sober friend once said to me, "When I was still drinking, I was a sedated monster. After I got sober, I was just a monster." He told me about his monster. His sounded just like mine without quite so much mascara. When people shine a little light on their monster, we find out how similar most of our monsters are. The secrecy, the obfuscation, the fact that these monsters can only be hinted at, gives us the sense that they must be very bad indeed. But when people let their monsters out for a little onstage interview, it turns out that we've all done or thought the same things, that this is our lot, our condition. We don't end up with a brand on our forehead. Instead, we compare notes.

    "We write to expose the unexposed. If there is one door in the castle you have been told not to go through, you must. Otherwise, you'll just be rearranging furniture in rooms you've already been in. Most human beings are dedicated to keeping that one door shut. But the writer's job is to see what's behind it, to see the bleak unspeakable stuff, and to turn the unspeakable into words- not just into any words, but if we can, into rhythm and blues."

    ~Bird by Bird by Anne Lamott, 198

I think that if we are truthful, we will be rewarded with truth.

There are some people who try to keep their doubts and confusion and their anger with God to themselves, because they have been taught to feel guilty about honestly expressing any of this. Perhaps they have been told it is a sin. They eat themselves up with guilt and pain and try to conform to the expectations others have of them. And I find that this often leads to resentment, and what is worse, self-loathing.

People often feel they are all alone. I must be the one who is messed up, crazy, because nobody else in my school/community/family sometimes wants to defy God, or thinks the way I do. That's the kind of thought that runs through our minds.

I think it's better if we own our thoughts. If there were an open forum for discussion. If someone would say, we find this idea difficult, or that idea problematic, or did you ever think about doing this? And to realize that other people did, or do, and that you're not alone, that you can be honest with one another without eliciting scorn or mockery or someone looking down at you and telling you that you're a sinner, would mean the world to you.

But we're not honest in that way. Especially not in school. Because we're all scared of what the other person will think. So we go on pretending that we're all secure, that none of us ever feel the desire to do something wrong, or if we do, it's because we're all sinners and bad people.

Lamott thinks differently. If we let out our monsters, she writes, we'll find that many of us share similar doubts, ideas, flaws or failings. And we'll take comfort in that, because we'll know that we're not alone, and we're not as bad as we thought we were.

And you know what happens when we explore our thoughts and feelings? When we dare to look places we hadn't looked before?

    "Truth, or reality, or whatever you want to call it is the bedrock of life. A black man at my church who is nearing one hundred thundered last Sunday, "God is your home," and I pass this on mostly because all of the interesting characters I've ever worked with-including myself- have had at their center a feeling of otherness, of homesickness. And it's wonderful to watch someone finally open that forbidden door that has kept him or her away. What gets exposed is not people's baseness but their humanity. It turns out that the truth, or reality, is our home.

    "Look at the two extremes. Maybe you find truth in Samuel Beckett-that we're very much alone and it's all scary and annoying and it smells like dirty feet and the most you can hope for is that periodically someone will offer a hand or a rag or a tiny word of encouragement just when you're going under. The redemption in Beckett is so small: in the second act of Waiting for Godot, the barren dying twig of a tree has put out a leaf. Just one leaf. It's not much; still Beckett didn't commit suicide. He wrote.

    "Or maybe truth as you understand it is 180 degrees away- that God is everywhere and we are all where we're supposed to be and more will be revealed one day. Maybe you feel that Wordsworth was right, maybe Rumi, maybe Stephen Mitchell writing on Job: "The physical body is acknowledged as dust, the personal drama of delusion. It is as if the world we perceive through our senses, that whole gorgeous and terrible pageant, were the breath-thin surface of a bubble, and everything else, inside and outside, is pure radiance. Both suffering and joy come then like a brief reflection, and death like a pin."

    "But you can't get to any of these truths by sitting in a field smiling beatifically, avoiding your anger and damage and grief. Your anger and damage and grief are the way to the truth. We don't have much truth to express unless we have gone into those rooms and closets and woods and abysses that we were told not to go in to. When we have gone in and looked around for a long while, just breathing and finally taking it in- then we will be able to speak in our own voice and to stay in the present moment. And that moment is home."

    ~Bird by Bird by Anne Lamott, 201

So I write into silence.

I write this for myself as I was, the person who forbade myself to acknowledge thoughts or feelings that went contrary to something I was supposed to think or feel.

I write for those of you who will perhaps read this with shining eyes, realizing that you are not alone. I write for those of you who question. I write this so that you won't have to question yourself and doubt yourself and even hate yourself for being, as you've been told, a bad person, trying to hide your monster and believing that nobody else has a monster quite as evil as yours.

Because I do. And there are others who do, too, even if they can't admit it, or won't. We are good people, you and I, despite our monsters, and being good doesn't mean that we have no desire for the forbidden. Of course we do. How could we not?

The question is what we do with this desire. How we channel it. Whether we are honest about it.

I believe in honesty; I believe in writing the truth. I believe in tackling and confronting my anger and damage and grief, as Lamott would say. I believe in dealing with it, not avoiding it. Working with my thoughts, not pretending they don't exist.

And I believe in truth-seeking.

Inquiry into the arguments made against a religion are necessary for an examined understanding of the religion. From the little I read tonight, this is the premise of The Kuzari, which I hope will be helpful. But it does not end there. The problem is that I do not feel myself to be able to refute arguments until I have a complete understanding of Judaism, which I cannot acquire unless I achieve a very high level of learning. The search for truth is important nonetheless, which leads me to think that I may have to allow for questions that I cannot answer, the most maddening type of question.

Ideally, what I strive for is a deep belief and love for Judaism, but an examined Judaism. I want to search for the truth, and I mean to end up where I began, but stronger and far more qualified, having looked at the other avenues. I want to understand my commitment to Judaism and to understand why I am committed. I want to do so honestly.

I want to understand not only my view, but the views of others.

This is my truth-seeking. Welcome to the monsters; let's look behind the doors. Let us face everything with courage, and God will guide us on the journey.