Friday, March 30, 2007

Chaya Mitchell

God, haven't you had your share? You took Aviva Miretzky. You took Tanielle Miller. Now you want her, too? Leave her be!

Have done with death and sickness and leave her be.

    Chaya Mitchell- Chaya Rivka bas Sheindel Sarah.

    Chaya has had her fifth relapse after four unsuccessful trials of chemotherapy plus other standard treatments. The tumor has progressed, and she has lost mobility on one side of her body. She needs our tefilos, especially the power and zechuyos they create when we unite together as one klal.

I wrote this once for Tanielle:

    But I knew her. We all knew her, we saw her, and unfortunately, as is often the way with people, we did not appreciate her until she was called away from us. We did not realize the power of the quiet glow she shed, or perhaps simply the power of mortality. The fact that one human life can mean so much, even when we did not truly know her.

I don't want to have to write this for Chaya.

So damn it, God, leave her alone.

I know her...we took the bus home together in elementary school- I wasn't in her grade, but I still know her, talked to her a bit, and when I read these words about her, I don't even accept them because it doesn't even make sense. Chaya Mitchell, paralyzed? Chaya Mitchell, suffering from cancer? Who the hell are you talking about? This isn't anybody I know. I don't even feel any emotion as I write this, because I still don't think it's true.

I won't think it's true. Damn it, damn it, damn it, how many lives do you mean to steal away, God? This is Pesach! This is the holiday of spring, of joy, of redemption, so go and redeem her and cure her and help her to be well.

But I still don't think it's true...I won't know it's true until I see her, and as I won't see her, I'll think this is all an abstraction. I won't feel anything; I can't feel anything until I see her, and if I would see her it would hurt me, so I can't- she probably doesn't even remember me; it's not like we were friends or close, but still, but still! God, please, not another terrible debilitating illness, not another death. She's too young; she hasn't lived yet, and what kind of life are you giving her by hurting her like this? We've had enough, enough; it is enough, dayenu!

Wednesday, March 28, 2007

YU Medical Ethics: Nose Job or No Job? Plastic and Cosmetic Surgery in Halacha


Tonight, March 28, 2007, the YU Medical Ethics Society hosted a lecture on plastic and reconstructive surgery.


Hi everyone- welcome to the event on Plastic and Reconstructive Surgery. Tonight we have Dr. Gary Berger and Rabbi Dr. Richard Weiss [they then proceed to give us a lengthy list of all their qualifications and credentials, which can be seen here. Suffice it to say that they're wonderful people and very-well qualified.]

Our first speaker is Dr. Gary Berger.

Dr. Gary Berger:

Good evening.

First I want to thank Yonah Bardos, Chani Schonbrun, etc. This is a bit of a milestone for me as I'm a former YU guy. When I was at Stern before, there were only two buildings, and I wasn't allowed in either of them. [Laughter] Actually, the truth is that the last time I spoke publicly at YU was in Lamport auditorium on the Main Campus nineteen years ago at a Yom Haatzmaut celebration. I introduced the performance of a relatively unknown comedian named Jerry Seinfeld [Laughter] Now, we all know what Jerry’s been up to over the last two decades, but I’m going to tell you a little about how I ended up here.

First let me tell you a little bit about who I am. I come from a very YU family. My father, from the Bronx, went to MTA and Yeshiva College and married my mother from Brooklyn, who went to Central and TI. They compromised and moved to Queens, where I grew up going to shul, one Young Israel over from the one where Rabbi Weiss is now the Morah D’Asrah. At shul, I sat across from Kenny Brander; I grew up at MTA and one of my classmates at YU was Eddie Reichman, so I have a YU background. I met my wife at YU (a Stern ski trip as sophomores.)

I trained at Montefiore and Beth Israel- did general surgery. General surgery is a specialty of medicine where you take care of colon cancer, appendicitis, breast cancer-modified radical mastectomy- all best tissue and skin from one side of a woman's body (if it is only one side) and the woman was left rather deformed, with her front as flat as her back, and a scar- so I did this all the time- it wasn't pleasant for the patient.

15 years ago I was performing one of these, except in this case the woman had a reconstructive plastic surgeon who would reconstruct a breast for her after the mastectomy. His aides/ assistants were not there, so he asked me to stick around to help him and I agreed. He took an ellipse of skin, the skin and fat off of her, but he left attached to the rectus muscle (this is the muscle you would see if anyone here has a six-pack), so he took it up to where the breast had been and reconstructed it. The woman woke up with a brand-new breast and a tummy tuck.

I've always been a creative/ artistic person (involved in building set for YU plays, etc) so this appealed to me as a surgical specialty- I returned to Einstein; I have a private practice and I've been there all day today performing surgeries.

So that leaves us with a question- what is plastic surgery?

Now, those of you here who have seen "Extreme Makeover," so plastic surgery is like that, except perhaps not so extreme. "Nip/Tuck" and "Dr. 91210" are not plastic surgery.

Now, in every lecture I've ever attended on plastic surgery, the professor begins the same way, and so that is the way that I am going to begin. Plastic surgery is named from the Greek word plasticos meaning "to form" or "to create." It has absolutely nothing to do with the material used- it is not plastic.

Now, the first plastic surgeon was a man named Gaston Tagliacozzi. Tagliacozzi lived in the 1500s; he was a surgeon who reconstructed the noses of people whose noses were cut off by the Church as punishment for adultery. So what did he do? He attached their arms to their faces. And it worked! But the Church considered this blasphemous, so his body was exhumed after death.

Now, the tagline of this lecture is "plastic and cosmetic surgery in halacha." With all due respect, that really doesn't make any sense. Really, it's plastic and reconstructive surgery.

Cosmetic means something normal and you want to improve upon it, while reconstructive is where something is abnormal and you want to reconstruct it. The line between plastic and reconstructive surgery is often blurred.


Burn Surgery: Major burns, reconstructive aspect

Cranial-Facial Surgeons: Cleft lip/ Cleft pallate, misshapen skulls- babies have 5-10 plastic surgeries. Actually, my friend, _____, recently when he helped detach those babies who were born attached at the head (New Yorkers know what I'm talking about.) Not a week goes by when I'm not called by the Emergency Room or nervous parents who want a plastic surgeon to sew up their kid (who hurt himself in his chin or face, etc.)

Microsurgeons: They take care of tiny little arteries or veins, use stitches that are finer than your hair. Someone's finger is cut off in an accident? They put it back together. So also hand surgeons. Reconstructive surgery: If someone is in a car accident or has flesh missing, we can take a muscle right off someone's back and then reattach it. Literally remove the skin and fat from the body, leave the rectus muscle alone, leave the six-pack alone, bring the breast up- the advantage to this is a faster recovery and _____.

Now, cosmetic surgery is to enhance, improve, fix, regenerate..

Are Orthodox Jews allowed to do this? I hope so, considering the number of noses I've done...and other things that people probably don't want you to know about.

Plastic surgery is considered "head to toe" surgery- no other surgery sub-specialty does that- liposuction, stretch marks or hanging flesh after pregnancy- we can flatten their stomachs for them. Or then there is the field of bariatric surgery, lapbands, bypass- all that skin is now hanging down to their knees; at first they weighed 400 pounds, now they weigh 170 pounds so they come in with this skin hanging down. So then there is a question- is that cosmetic or reconstructive, removing that hanging skin?

Or there's the chest- a lot of guys come in with a symptom called Gynecomastia- feminizing breasts, a chest that might look like a woman's. Now, it used to be that insurance would cover that, but now it's hard to get that covered because insurance companies consider that to be cosmetic...but is it? There's a couple different ways to go about surgery for this- either a small incision and liposuction or _____.

Now, you're all women, so I'm sure you know that breasts can be made larger. But what about the girl who is an A-cup on one side and a C-cup on the other? Is that cosmetic or reconstructive surgery? She's really suffering, has social and emotional problems because of how she looks.

Or the woman who is 42 triple H- she wants a breast reduction to alleviate the pain in her neck/ back; she walks in stooped over/ down. Those are the happiest patients, by the way, breast reduction patients, because they wake up the next morning and the problem is gone; we've alleviated the problem right away.

Now there's a question by breast cancer- there can be multiple surgeries involved. So say one has a partial/ complete mastectomy. Then the patient might need chemotherapy or radiation (which is where they go after the cancer that might be left over in the chest). So the question is if chemo/ radiation are needed, can breast reconstructions be done? Sometimes surgeries are more complicated, and if it could possibly delay the chemo/radiation, then is that okay?

In terms of reconstruction, you can put in a tissue expander, which is like a balloon, and inflate that balloon through the skin, then take the expander out and put in permanent breast implants- you use someone's own tissues- take someone's skin from the back/ fat and move it to the front. This gets more and more complicated- adding 5-6 hours of extra surgery.

So even forgetting about halakha, is this someone who needs chemo right away or if there is a problem can they have chemotherapy in a month? I have that conversation all the time with their doctors/ oncologists before proceeding.

Now, the problem applies by microsurgery as well. 6-12 hour operation to do this, to completely remove something and then fit it back with manmade connections- but then, what if the manmade connections fail? Then go back to the beginning, and it can turn into a 24 hour surgery.

Now, none of these surgeries need to be done at the time of the mastectomy. That breast which we're creating has no function- it is purely aesthetic, made of stomach fat. What I will tell you is that the federal government said that no matter what you need to do with the healthy breast of the patient who has breast cancer- you can do whatever you want to the non-cancerous side to make the person as symmetric as possible.

Now let's get to HEAD AND NECK.

[He lists a whole lot of types of surgeries] eye-lifts, brow-lifts, hair-transplants, face-lifts, etc.

But what happens with the patient whose eyelids droop so much that she literally cannot see out of one eye? Is that cosmetic or reconstructive surgery? I just had a patient like that today.

What about the five-year-old whose ears are so misshapen that kids call her Dumbo? And that's the right age for that surgery; it's best if the child has it before starting first grade. Is that cosmetic or reconstructive surgery?

What about the person who is paralyzed on one side of the face- we'd like to give them half a face-lift to make them more symmetric.

If someone has a problem with a deviated septum and hence has a problem breathing when it comes to the nose, then I don't think anyone has a problem fixing it. But what if someone broke their nose, it healed, and it healed awkwardly. So then they go to fix it up at a later date, and then people say, "While you're there anyway, I never liked that bump on my nose, and I hate how it looks in profile, could you just shave that off, etc"- so that begs the question- Nose Job or No Job?

And now we have Dr. Richard Weiss.

Rabbi Dr. Richard Weiss:

Thank you Dr. Berger; that's really an excellent review of cosmetic/ reconstructive surgery- that lightens my task.

Incidentally, Kenny Brander and I were actually classmates in elementary school in Detroit- this goes back farther back than I want to go back right now, etc. [Then he mentioned something in connection to a show he used to watch called the "Six Million Dollar Mine" ; I didn't catch it.]

I want to thank the CJF, TAC, Yonah Bardos, Chani Schonbrun, Elisheva Levine- thank you for inviting me, thank you to my good friend Rabbi Dr. Reichman- I enjoy teaching at Stern College; I have a full time job as a Rabbi, but this is very important to me.

So I wanted to begin with an anecdote to ease things from your [Dr. Gary Berger's] presentation to mine:

    A surgeon goes up to heaven, he has a stethoscope wrapped around his neck (of course the internists would ask, "What does he need a stethoscope for?" When I was in Medical School, the surgeons made fun of the interns, the interns made fun of the surgeons, and they all made fun of the psychiatrists. [Laughter])

    So this surgeon is in heaven, and he's standing in line to get to the Caf, and he cuts to the front of the line and speaks to the angel in charge, saying, "I was a very prominent cardiothoracic surgeon; I think I should get in first." But the angel says that they are all equal in heaven and he has to wait his turn in line.

    So he goes back toward the end of the line, and then he notices another surgeon. This surgeon also moves to the front of the line, but everyone steps back and lets him through. The cardiothoracic surgeon goes back to the angel and complains, saying, "I thought you said we were all equal; why'd you let him in first?" And the angel replies, "Him? That's no doctor; that's God. He just likes to play doctor."

So we like to play God- I want to give an overview here-

In Jewish medical halakha and in general, one always starts by talking about clinical facts- in addition, then has to in any situation, particularly end of life but also cosmetic/ reconstruction surgery, must be sensitive to the wishes of the patient.

In General Bioethics, the patient is the focal point, but in halakha, one has responsibilities to the patient but also has responsibilities to halakha/ God.

Some issues overlap- we're going to focus on the patient, but some are relevant to the physician as well- what is permitted for the patient certainly reflects on what is permitted for the patient.

Introducing a book you may be familiar with- it is the basis of Jewish Bioethics. It is called Jewish Medical Ethics by Immanuel Jakobovitz. Lord Rabbi Dr. Immanuel Jakobovitz was born in Ireland, served in New York, at the Fifth Avenue Synagogue (where incidentally I served as Assistant Rabbi many years later), was the Chief Rabbi of the British Commonwealth, was knighted by the Queen- hence the Lord. I had the privilege of hearing him in person and meeting with him one time- one time he wasn't feeling so well, so they asked whether there were any doctors present, so we went up to him. He and his wife- very lovely couple.

You must own this if you are interested in Jewish Bioethics, not just historical text- it is not outdated; first of all he updated some sections in the 1970s, but even those that he did not update are relevant, still well-written; this is a fundamental book. I want to read to you one page with regard to this:

    [my paraphrase] Moral questioning aroused by popular ideas of cosmetic/ plastic alteration/surgery has found some rabbinical echoes. [He then talks about various ideas/ problems with regard to plastic surgery. ]

    1. Theological implication of "improving God's wishes" or "flying in the face of providence" (Rabbi Weiss smiles, says, "That's a nice phrase, flying in the face of providence")

    2. The possible risks to life (endangering oneself by opting for these surgeries)

    3. Mutilation of someone else/ Mutilation of self, which is an issurei d'oraisa (biblical prohibition)

    4. Ethical center of human vanity, especially among males

It's the first three that are most important for our discussion tonight.

I'd like to read to you some discussions- there's a very fine journal the college owns called No'am. It's a very sophisticated journal put out in Israel- I want to read two short sections. It's compiled by Rabbi Yitzchak Yehuda Hershkowitz.

[It's in Hebrew, but he translates]

    QUESTION: A woman who has some kind of external blemish; is it permissible for her to perform

    (Rabbi Weiss interjects: It's an interesting formulation of the question- she isn't going to perform anything, after all she's not going to perform surgery on herself; that would be a very gifted student. It's implicit in the formulation of the question that the patient/doctor are seen as the same, that is, that whether she herself performs the surgery or is having it performed is irrelevant, either way)

    a surgery for the sake of beauty

    (Rabbi Weiss: And maybe we don't say she's endangering herself- there are issues related to anesthesia, for example. There are two types, general and local. General carries a higher risk of morbidity and mortality-so there's a question of whether she's permitted to engage in something that endangers herself- hopefully Dr. Berger can come back and discuss anesthesia risks. Today in 2007 they are relatively low- general anesthesia has risks of less than 1% for risks of serious complications, but it is still a risk.)

    -so is she permitted to do this for her own appearance and not out of necessity/ tzorech?

    (Rabbi Weiss: The idea is that you can enter danger if there's a tzorech or necessity. To remove a gallbladder, to alleviate pain and discomfort- those are absolute benefits. Now, is this surgery considered a definitive benefit?)

    Then this talks about men- men focused on appearance might be a violation of men wearing women's clothing- but let's leave men aside.

So he says that "yeish l'hatir"- "I think it's permissible" (Rabbi Weiss to Dr. Berger: See, I just saved your practice) because this is an everyday occurrence (hence it is not risks that are a problem halakhically- that's the idea presented) and people don't end up with serious complications (I think he means that the risks are relatively low) and this is something people commonly do and they accept that risk- important to clarify that.

With regard to men, he says minhag ha'medinah- the norm of the society.

Now I want to look at a little bit more of the expanded discussion- also in No'am, Rabbi ________.

So if someone wants a plastic surgery because of disfigurement that was caused by disease but that is not necessary for recovery from the illness, which means it is not cosmetic, but reconstructive surgery- is that okay? But then again, maybe it's still self-mutilation or the physician is not allowed to mutilate?

There's an important difference between general bioethics and Jewish bioethics, and this is AUTONOMY. General bioethics- allows for self-determination, the person is the center of healthcare decisions. In halakha, we believe in autonomy but also obligations to halakha, a person can't just wantonly do or decide things.

This surgery isn't done for cosmetics but to remove a psychosocial discomfort (busha- embarrassment). Now, that's not needless, not just for the purposes of enhancement; this is for the purposes of removing serious discomfort- also not considered mutilation. Mutilation is when one hurts oneself, but here you are not hurting but helping.

More elaborate discussion by Lord Jakobovits-

    Is it permissable for the person to create a situation of potential hazard/ mutilate himself/ is it appropriate to improve the creation, the form- concept suggesting is that God is the Tzayar, the ultimate plastic surgeon- so if I try to improve upon my face/ body am I not objecting/ contravening- is it permissable to do so? In a sense, is it not blasphemous, contradicting the decree of a king?

He makes a number of very fascinating points- he was truly ahead of his time; the father of Jewish medical ethics. Following him, Dr. Rosner, Dr. St___, Dr. Abraham, ______, young people as well, _____.

So he quotes the Ramah in Yoreh De'ah:

    It is prohibited for a person to endanger himself, but there are circumstances where a person can endanger himself. Birkhat Ha'Gomel is proof of that- gratitude to God for surviving dangerous situations- not accidental, necessarily- but traveling seas, deserts, for parnassah (making a living), for purposes of making a living one can enter into these dangerous situations. It is not imperative to find work locally rather than travel- you travel, and then you say Gomel afterwards.

So maybe you can make some argument again- by anesthesia- percentages being less than 1% for anesthesia, small but real percentages; they used to tell us in medical schol that 1 person in 50, 000 who has that complication has it 100%; it's not bashel b'shishim, you can't kasher it away.

So try to remove psychosocial discomfort the woman/ man feels, may be enough.

One may suggest (I don't know if there have been studies done on this/ whether they support this) that the woman may be better able to fight the cancer, in a better modd, less depressed if she has reconstructive surgery done.

Issue of chavalah-mutilation. He is less comfortable about this. He talks about various/ multiple issues, now says that it is permissable based on an idea of the Rambam.

Now Rabbi Moshe Feinstein (I'm shifting from reconstructive to purely cosmetic right now) - is a young woman allowed to improve his appearance through surgery that mutilates her body?

The questions seems generic; it doesn't seem to be specifically targeted- just in general. This is referring to a woman who was not comfortable with her appearance to the point where she felt it was impeding her socially, and perhaps by shidduchim.

I want to read you something important from a medical textbook on this issue:

    [me paraphrasing] Cosmetic changes in appearance will not help to save a failing marriage, help someone get a new job or open up other large opportunities. Someone who believes that the surgery will offer them unrealistic opportunities should not be allowed to go forward with it.

    The ideal candidate is the adult or mature teenager who has realistic ideas of what the change will afford him/ her, is not being pressured by others, doesn't expect major changes in career opportunities, etc.

[Now goes back to R' Moshe- Rabbi Weiss offers an anecdote of how he was in Rabbi Schachter's shiur for many years and sometimes R' Shachter would look at the questions/ answers and try to come up with the answers/ see how they were derived and would come up with alternative approaches- he was trying to expres the greatness of R' Moshe Feinstein, whose answers you can't necessarily anticipate.]

Most important point based on the Rambam who writes that the "prohibition to mutilate oneself/ others is only when someone insults/ assaults someone else in derek nitzayon, a malicious, assaulting way."

So R' Moshe writes: Is this derek nitzayon? Doing it maliciously or in aggravated, insulting way? No! Here the surgeon is doing it to help her; therefore it is not forbidden based on that.

R' Moshe's conclusion- says that it's permissable for young women to have this mutilation as it is for her good and not mutilation as the Rambam saw it.

He also quotes the idea of 'v'ahavta l'reacha kamocha' (love your fellow as yourself)- according to Rashi/ Ramban- that this is out of l'tovaso (for his good)- out of love for myself, I would want my nose to be improved, so out of my love for someone else, I can improve someone's nose- out of concept that I would do it for myself- regarding cosmetic surgery-

Lord Jakobovitz quotes it with regard to reconstructive surgery, and certainly if it works for cosmetic surgery, then it works for reconstructive surgery.

Now, there are two teshuvos from the Tzitz Eliezer- R' Waldenberg- I had the privilege of meeting him nay years ago; I went to see him when my parents and I were in Israel for Pesach. He lived in a very, very modest apartment. So he set me down, offered me grapejuice, asked me if I own his sefarim (which I do not- though I use them all the time, here at Stern, for instance, there's about 20 of them, that's why I don't own them) so I wanted to leave him some money, some American dollars because he lived so modestly- and he didn't seem to understand what I wanted to do. So he said, there was a woman helping them to make the Pesach, give it to her-

So back to these teshuvos.

1. Reattachment Procedure- there was a kohen who had one finger severed. The question was, is it permissable to reattach the finger- until reattachment occurs, the kohen will be in a room with a limb that is m'tamei (impurifies him). The Tzitz Eliezer concludes that it is permissable- that is a form of reconstructive surgery.

2. In contrast to that, he has another teshuva (response) where he's particularly stringent and not so open about cosmetic surgery. He says that the idea that God imprinted upon each individual the form that is appropriate for him, person has no right to augment/ change his form.

There's a whole discussion in the Gemar about the license to heal of a rofei (physician)- what about God's will? Well, so the Gemara answers, I'm obligated to do what I can in order to be healed; this includes going to/ seeing a doctor.

Says R' Waldenberg, license to heal only applies in situations of illness. There is a pasuk (verse) of V'hasheivosa lo (and you shall return it to him) when a person has lost something, lost his health, then I am obligated to restore it. If person didn't lose something, didn't suffer from debilitating illness or car-accident, simply born a certain way and didn't lose something, then consider it to be prohibited- person shouldn't try to outsmart halakha- prohibited for patient and doctor to perform surgery (if wholly cosmetic.)

Lord Jakobovitz:

You find that there is a mandate in the Torah "v'kivshuha"- to conquer/ improve/ master the world (this is reminiscent of Rabbi Joseph B. Soloveitchik's idea). Use what God gave us- maybe also includes figure of human being- to enhance (but for psychosocial ideas, person must have a realistic idea of what will occur.)

I am hear to answer basic questions, not as a posek, but to present the basic issues.

So, to review:

1. RECONSTRUCTIVE SURGERY- Overwhelming support

Not considered endangerment

A. Risks low
B. Person allowed to engage in risks like these anyway (birchat ha'gomel)


A. For the Rambam's reason- that it's not mutilation unless you've actually attacked the person in an assault kind of way

B. Idea of improving God's world- we were commanded by God to conquer/ master the world

3. There's a machlokes between the Tzitz Eliezer and Rabbi Moshe Feinstein with regard to whether one is allowed to engage in surgery for purely cosmetic purposes (when one has not suffered a debilitating illness/ been in a car accident/ etc)

In terms of the issue of delaying chemotherapy- wanted to ask you differences, constructive surgery- clinically significant, etc? Question of risks- again, how many risks can a person take?

If I can ask you to discuss a little bit now- risks of surgery itself- hopefully there'll be time for questions at the end as well, otherwise Chag Kosher v'Sameach.

Dr. Gary Berger:

Glad most of this is good for me- keep me in business, aside from R' Waldenberg's opinion.

Delaying chemotherapy- absolutely a medical decision- sometimes meetings with twenty people trying to figure out what to do with the patient- usually a decision of the oncologist, not the plastic surgeon or the general surgeon.

And sometimes you're wrong!

Anesthethiologists gently talk to the patient- the statistics are good- there are actually three types of anesthesia:

1. Local
2. Sedation- falls alseep, then gives local
3. General

Always quote what we bench gomel about for years- times go on, risks become less and we stop benching gomel- going to Florida for vacation, going in metal flying machines over the seas, only going to get a suntan (which you shouldn't) but you do it, you're still allowed.

Now, statistically, general anesthesia is safer than going on an airplane.

Interestingly, general anesthesia is better than sedation; during general the machine literally breathes for you, they're in charge, have all the machines and pills and medicines and IV set up- so consider general anesthesia safer. Then again, every doctor I've operate on still wants sedation- it's a hard thing to give control of yourself and your breathing to another person.

As far as men go, statistically the norm for a lot of men to do this [have plastic surgery.]

Now, sometimes you read all these horror stories in the newspapers- people dying from plastic surgery- almost never a board-certified plastic surgeon with a board-certified anasthesiologist. There was a story a year ago about a doctor who had an operation at 11:00 at night, finished at 2 AM, then the patient wakes up, felt dizzy and died, so some people said, "Oh my god, plastic surgery is not safe," and I said, "Oh my god, why is he starting at 11:00 at night? Not good."

[looks at his jotted notes] I'd tell you more if I could read my handwriting. [laughter] Well, I graduated medical school. [laughter]

With me, I talk to the person, sit down with them for at least an hour- tell them everything that can go wrong- also, I ask the person why they want the surgery and if they "This is for my husband" then alarm bells go off in my head. I have turned people away- someone else can take them and their money, but there is a right way to do things and a wrong way to do things, so I do it the correct way. Most people, honestly 90% of the people looking for plastic surgery, they want to do it for themselves, not for other people.

Also, as a sidenote- I don't think v'ahavta l'raecha kamocha always works in medicine.


I'm skipping the first question.

QUESTION 2: The kohen whose finger was reattached- was he considered a ba'al mum once his finger was fixed?

ANSWER: I don't believe so- example of microsurgical procedure. Reattachment of single digits- what if doesn't function as well- doesn't invalidate kohen for functional defects, usually, not necessarily- usually for anatomical defects.



Thanks TAC/ CJF/ MedEthics Board.

Chicago's Matzah Crisis: One Person's Response

This is a story.

This is a story about the incredible sweetness of my friend.

Yesterday, my father sent me an email saying:


    Any chance you can bring hand made shmura matza with you on Thursday. Chicago is completely sold out of it, and we haven't yet bought. Seems the Chicago Matza Factory decided not to bake matza this year.

    - Daddy
So what's going on?

For some reason, at this point in time unknown, Chicago's Shmura Matza Factory decided not to bake matzah this year.

I mean, this is my matzah. This is the matzah. This is the matza that all of us Chicagoans eat.

What are we going to do without it?

I frantically send out an email to various and sundry friends:
    All right, folks, help me out here.

    Where in New York can I find handmade shmura matza? I just need to buy a box or so. And I need to buy this BEFORE I leave on Thursday, so basically today or tomorrow. Preferably today.


I receive lots of responses about locations and suggestions and maybe I should go into Brooklyn, but the fact is that I have class, I have no time, and there will be no shmura-matza hunting from my end.

That is, until my friend proposes a solution.

This is my incredible friend. This friend is responsible for lots of sources on lots of my blogposts; this is my friend who hunts down aggadot for me and somehow knows sources off the top of his head, my friend who is brilliant at Hebrew and dikduk, who is impassioned by music, basically, one of the smartest, brightest, kindest people I know. And acting in his kind, bright, concerned way, he decides that it is imperative that we have shmura matzah for the seder.

So he tells me his plan, which is basically this:

1. He, stationed in Washington Heights, will wander around Washington Heights/ Brooklyn/ someplace and find me some matzah

2. He will buy said matzah

3. He will take a forty-five minute shuttle (or subway) to Midtown

4. He will give me said matzah at a time that is convenient for me (that is, the one break I have during the day)

5. He will then return to Washington Heights

So of course I determined that this plan was ridiculous, though in the end, frantic, I acquiesced, somehow thinking that I wouldn't actually let him go through with it. I even called to tell him not to come as I realized how much effort this would involve.

But he came. He came, and he was just here, and he brought me matzah, so my problem is solved.

How incredibly sweet, wonderful and amazing is this person? Forty-five minutes each way for no other reason than to make sure my family can fulfill the mitzvah in the way we are accustomed to fulfilling it this Pesach.

Utterly, utterly amazing.

Oh! And I forgot! After he gives me the matzah, he warns me that I should check to make sure the matzos are whole, and if they're not I should tell him...implying that he'll go and get me another box with whole matzos.

How incredible!

(Incidentally, Jewel Osco in Skokie just got in a recent shipment of shmura matzah, and apparently Hungarian will be getting some, too. But there are loads of people in Chicago who still don't have any, so if you have connections/ any way to get them matzah, I'm sure that would be much appreciated.)

    Tuesday, March 27, 2007

    Sight and Insight

    Professor Weidhorn afforded me an interesting insight today. We're learning Milton's Paradise Lost, and we just started Book 3. Professor Weidhorn explained how Milton began the book somewhat egotistically by including autobiographical references to himself, more specifically to his blindness.

      Seasons return, but not to me returns
      Day, or the sweet approach of Ev'n or Morn,
      Or sight of vernal bloom, or Summers Rose,
      Or flocks, or herds, or human face divine;
      (Book 3, lines 41-44)

    I've always thought that one of the most horrible things that could happen to someone who loves to read and write would be to become blind. I've always thought about the fact that I could no longer read my favorite books, or write my ideas down in Microsoft Word, or intake knowledge in the form to which I am accustomed. For some reason I avoided the obvious and what is most tragic about blindness- not the inability to read, write and learn, but the inability to see this beautiful world that I take for granted.

    Milton wrote the line "human face divine," and that caused me to think about people- all of us- in a completely different light. What would life be like if I couldn't see you, only put my hands to your face, and groping, try to identify your features? What would life be like if I could no longer look at my brothers, watch them grow up into strong, healthy young men? What would life be like if I were forever in a world of darkness after having lived so long in a world of light; if the hustle and bustle of New York meant nothing to me, if I couldn't revel in the glorious costumes of a Broadway show, if movies held no joy for me, if I couldn't try to read people's faces or gain any insight from their body language, but had to rely only upon their cool, modulated tone?

    This of course led me to Isaac, our forefather. Either he was blind from the time the angels dripped tears into his eyes, or he became blind in his old age (perhaps from the smoke from the idolatrous offerings his daughters-in-law raised to the heavens). While we often think about his predicament only in light of the fact that it allowed Jacob to successfully engage in subterfuge, I wonder now about Isaac the man, Isaac the blind. What must that have been like? Those eyes, that had drunk in the nectar and honey of the Land of Israel, that had bathed in the affectionate glow of his mother, beheld his father and their likeness- now dimmed? Now no longer to look upon his children, his wife? Blind Isaac, aged and venerable, blessed with a keen sense of smell, able to discern the fragrance of the Garden of Eden, a keen sense of taste, reveling in the delightful food his son Esau brought him, yes, these were his, but his eyes, those were dimmed forevermore.

    Blindness on a whole is a compelling idea in literature; Milton takes comfort in the fact that Tiresias and Homer were blind. Samson was blind, his eyes plucked out by his enemies; Oedipus blinded himself with the buckles of his wife and mother's gown. Gloucester's eyes are plucked out as well, and the eyes of various evil people in fairytales are plucked out by ravens. The blind are traditionally seen as having other qualities that compensate for their lack of physical sight; their other senses are more attuned or keen, or, as Milton explains, rather than having sight, the blind retain insight.

      So much the rather thou Celestial light
      Shine inward, and the mind through all her powers
      Irradiate, there plant eyes, all mist from thence
      Purge and disperse, that I may see and tell
      Of things invisible to mortal sight. [ 55 ] (Book 3, lines 51-55)

    I find that idea really interesting- that the blind are more attuned to God. That works by Samson, for instance- his last plea is to regain his former strength in order to crush his enemies when he himself falls, and that is granted him. However, God did not inform Isaac of the deception that was being practiced upon him, although he allowed it to occur, which suggests differently.

    Anyway, it's an interesting topic, but most amazing is that my concern was for my books when it ought to have been for this very world...for the "human face divine."

    Monday, March 26, 2007

    The Lazy "Commentator"

    Oh! I don't even have the words.

    Let's start with Eitan Kastner's article, "How Torah u'Madda Can Work."

    It's a very nice article overall, except for the claim that Torah u'Madda is impossible to define and moreover, is an utterly subjective approach, different for each individual.

      These two lessons in particular struck me as exemplifying Torah u-Madda, but that does not mean I expect they would have the same affect on others. The onus is on each and every student striving for a more meaningful Jewish existence to try to find a way to synthesize, harmonize, and rationalize Torah and Madda in their lives. There is no one right way of achieving this, and methods and ideas will often differ from person to person. [emph. mine] The best way to teach Torah u-Madda is by offering traditional shiur and genuine liberal arts courses uncompromised by religious apprehensions while fostering an environment that encourages the fusion of these ideas.

      Many who try to define Torah u-Madda often do so by saying what it is not. [emph. mine] It is not Haredi. It is not Conservative. It is not Torah u-Parnassah. But we do know that it is something different. And we do know that it makes Yeshiva unique. But because it is up to the individual to find meaning from its methods, it can be hard to peg down. I, for one, cannot define Torah u-Madda, [emph. mine] but I know it when I see it.

    This is simply not so! See Rabbi Joseph B. Soloveitchik's very clear speech/ essay on the subject in The World of Rabbi Joseph B. Soloveitchik, Volume 2, page 229. To wit:

      I have heard criticisms against the Yeshiva that we have not yet achieved the proper synthesis between Torah study and secular endeavor; between fear of God and worldliness. We have not achieved what the German Orthodox Jews called "Torah with derekh eretz [worldly occupation"] [Avot 2:2]. I claim that the true greatness of the Yeshiva is that it does not have this synthesis. The truth is that there is no real synthesis in the world. If there is a contradiction between Torah and secular endeavor, then synthesis is not possible. If there is a thesis and an anti-thesis, then no synthesis is possible. In general, a synthesis is very superficial. It is apologetic, it imitates others and the individual loses his uniqueness. In synthesis, no one succeeds. Even our great teacher Rabbi Moses ben Maimon [Maimonides] did not succeed in his attempts at synthesis. The greatness of the Yeshiva is that it is a real Yeshiva and on the second level a proper academic institution. Both divisions function without synthesis and compromise.

      My students go from my shiur on the first floor of the Yeshiva building to their college classes on the third floor. In my class, they study in depth such talmudic topics as whether the signatures of the witnesses or the witnessing of the actual delivery make the get [divorce document] effective [Gittin 23a], or whether going over the writing on a get document can validate the get [Gittin 20a]. Then they go upstairs to their college classes, where they study theories in mathematics and physics. I am proud when my student is both a Torah scholar and a good college student. If there were a synthesis, both achievements would be weakened!

      In this concept, our Yeshiva is unique. It is not like other yeshivot. [...] The Catholics also have religious universities. I do not like to imitate others! We have a Yeshiva, and because the times demand it, we also have a university. These two divisions will not be synthesized. They will remain two institutions. It may be like a man with two heads, but it is better to have two heads than not to have one. [Laughter]

      The uniqueness of the Yeshiva is another reason why I am loyal to this institution. It is a reflection of my own thinking and commitment. (pages 229-231)

    There! Torah u'Madda is a philosophy that advocates for the knowledge in both the secular and the Judaic in addition to an admission that there still remains a tension between the two, and an attempt to use the secular, wherever possible, to enhance and develop one's appreciation of the Judaic. It is not a synthesis or an amalgam.

    Eitan's use of the words "synthesize, harmonize and rationalize" is incorrect, at least according to the Rav (who is perhaps the most significant figure when it comes to Modern Orthodoxy.) The statement that "there is no one right way to achieving this" also seems incorrect. It would have been better had Eitan taken established approaches and explained how he either agrees/ disagrees with them than advocate for these vainglorious, tolerant approaches towards all.

    Secondly, let's deal with the very poorly-written "Made-Up" Goes Nowhere.

    It's taking all my strength to refrain from writing a scathing critique of the author's English, so I'll suffice by pointing out one sentence:

      "Garrulous and directionless are the two verbs that occupied the stage opening night."

    My dear, dear man. Occupied the stage that night? Yes, there were certainly two verbs (read: adjectives, you dolt) strolling around, taking a midnight lover's walk about the meadows and glades, the beautifully scenic stage of the Schottenstein Cultural Center. Certainly, most certainly.

    But let's leave the wordy, contorted, ugly, highly-unintelligible writing aside and move on to the review itself.

    The man has no specifics! He speaks completely in generalizations. The ridiculous thing is, some of his points are actually valid! However, I would have written my review in a significantly different manner. One can slam a production, critique it, and so on and so forth, but for God's sake have the decency to do so by pointing out particular flaws as opposed to obsessively painting all with the same brush. He also does not put forward any kind of plot summary, so those who did not attend have absolutely no idea what the play was about.

    As an aside, I also resent his depiction of the typical Stern student.

    Here's how I would rewrite his review (using his own points):

      "Made-Up" Goes Nowhere

      "Made-Up," an original play written by YCDS senior Chai Hecht and directed by former _____, Reuven Russell, premiered on March 18-20 at the Geraldine Schottenstein Cultural Center. This is the first play Stern students have performed since _____, when they starred in an adaptation of Little Women by Louisa May Alcott. In a Cinderella-esque twist, the play stars a passive, meek make-up-artist-turned-Messiah (Nattie, played by Stern junior Sarah Medved) in her journey towards confidence, self-respect and decisive action in a moment of crisis. The cast also includes her compelling aide and sidekick, Melanie (Gila Kanal), two saccharinely sweet talk-show hosts, Nattie's former employers (Adina Schwartz and Aviva Ginsburg), the previous Messiah (Michal Simpser), a pompous newscaster (Olivia Wiznitzer), an unhappy drug addict (Michal Schick) and a booking agent-turned-killer (Deanna Frazin).

      Unfortunately, the play falls far short of its grand scheme. Seemingly unconnected voiceovers, guns appearing at every moment and a directionless cast who could not seem to face the audience and were at times inaudible served to detract from the play's overall meaning. However, that meaning was itself unclear. What does "Made-Up" imply? Was Hecht attempting to make a particularly savage jab at society's use of cosmetics to make people appear beautiful rather than facing reality? Or was he attempting to vividly demonstrate in the denouement of the play that violence is never the answer? The confusing interplay of various themes allowed the viewer no clear message; the play was in and of itself incomprehensible.

      More frustrating for audience-members was a technique Hecht employed where characters did not finish their sentences but left them hanging, dangling participles that were particularly annoying. This would have been excusable had Hecht characterized a particular character in this way, but when almost everyone in the cast resorts to stuttering, the audience is left in chaos. This reviewer believes that an editor or director ought to have guided Hecht rather than allowing him free-reign with this particular stylistic choice.

      The script on a whole seems to be a satirical take on Chabad Lubavitch's Messianist sect. In the play, the seventh leader of Desperate Children, a peaceful cult, comes to power, and tradition has it that she will be the real messiah. The Messiah must be a woman because the cult believes that the redeemer must be someone who can experience the power of creation. Although Nattie denies her divinity, a fringe group breaks off insisting that she is indeed the messiah. Sound familiar? I thought so, too.

      Perhaps the most successful part of the production was its set-design. The first set featured a wall of mirrors and decadent furniture, quite in keeping with the idea of its being a beautiful dressing room. The second set, a hotel room, featured white wall molding on a chocolate brown background, a successful attempt at a "modern" look. A lovely rug, tall vases and a beautiful sofa completed the effect.

      Sadly, the same cannot be said for sound and lighting. The poorly chosen and irrelevant sound track seemed to have been taken from Pirates of the Caribbean, and the lighting/sound effects were off and ill-timed. This was more problematic with sound, as the gunshot sounded a full five seconds after the on-stage character had pulled the trigger. These technical travesties might have been excusable if something more interesting was occurring on stage. Instead, I watched as the backstage cast vainly tried to close the curtain in order to divert attention back to the show.

      Stern College should be congratulated for putting on a complete if not successful show, a feat not attempted since their production of Little Women little over a year ago. It was obvious that the cast had raw talent that could have been better utilized with a no-nonsense stage manager and director. As it was, the director's biography was sparse, which suggests that some of the flaws in the production stemmed from his inexperience. While it is thrilling to witness the resurrection of the Stern College Dramatics Society, I hope that in the future the society is more selective in its choice of material and more demanding of its cast and crew.

      I don't agree with all of this, but I do think it's a) more fair and b) much clearer! Although if I had really been writing this, I would have included references to the individual's performances as well...

      I expect much better from "The Commentator." I think that the poorly-written nature of this review and Kastner's neglect to cite actual definitions from other sources are simply a function of laziness and an attempt to churn out ideas without properly researching them first. There are more articles of this nature, of course, but these were the two that were particularly frustrating. Come on, "Commentator," you're better than this!

        Sunday, March 25, 2007

        The Elite and the Masses

        For a very long time, the concept of the elite and the masses has existed in Judaism.

        Why did this concept come into being? At first, because of social/ political/ economical realities. Within a certain social structure, only certain people were literate and possessed the time and/or means in order to engage in serious study of the Written and Oral Law. Other people were involved in earning a living and worked very hard, or perhaps simply were not in contact with those who would have been able to teach them. There is much beauty in these simple people. In all the 'Tales of the Ba'al Shem Tov,' these countrypeople's innocence and sweetness leads to heartbreakingly beautiful stories of the truth with which they serve God. There is the powerful story of The Shepherd and the Silver Coin, for instance.

        The shepherd does everything in his power to serve God. He plays his pipe before Him, sings for Him, dances for Him, and finally

          When at last he came back to himself, he got up and said: "Master of the World: I have blown my horn for You; I have sung You songs; I have done handstands in Your honor. But what is any of this worth compared to Your greatness, awesome Father in Heaven? What more can I do to serve You?

          "Last night the squire who owns the flock made a party for all his attendants. At the end he gave everyone a silver coin as a gift. He also gave me one. And this coin I am giving You as a gift -- to You, God, Creator of the World who created the Heavens and the Earth and the mountain and the water and the flock and me, the little shepherd..."

          As he said this, he threw the coin upwards... and at that moment the Baal Shem Tov saw a hand stretched out from the Heaven to accept the coin.

          The Baal Shem Tov said to his students: "This young shepherd has fulfilled the commandment to "love God with all your heart, all your soul and all your might" (Deuteronomy 6:5).

        There is something infinitely beautiful about this shepherd's relationship with God. He did not have the talent and skill or time to devote his mind to the house of learning, he was not a member of the elite, but in his own simple and pure way, as one of the masses, he served God.

        This relationship is true. It is pure. It is based on the shepherd's knowledge of and love for God.

        Another proponent of the divide between the elite and the masses, and perhaps the most famous one, was Maimonides. Indeed, his Codex of Jewish Law as opposed to his Guide for the Perplexed illustrates many times over that there is a necessity for the masses to believe in a certain guiding philosophy, statement or dogma (ostensibly in order to maintain their faith in God) while the members of the elite do not need to ascribe to such a philosophy.

        But today? How are such ideas to be implemented today?

        Today, we (assuming we live in civilized countries) are all given an education. We are all literate, educated, able to read and write and ostensibly think. We all have that power. So what applies to us- the law of the masses or the law of the elite?

        But this question is very intertwined with another question-

        What is the purpose of Judaism, and more particularly religious observance? Is it:

          1. To keep the greatest quantity of people frum/ observant/ religious (Service of God and keeping the mitzvos in the Torah are of primary importance; the means to those ends are negligible.)

          2. To allow people to know God, that is, to have people engage in a quest for God in an attempt to know, love and fear Him, and engage in a committed relationship with him?

        What is the difference between these two ideas, you may ask? Well, the difference stems from two different viewpoints.

          1. The Chareidi/ Agudah viewpoint which champions the idea of the elite and the masses, most particularly expressed in the form of the elite withholding information from their masses in order to keep the greatest number of Jews ostensibly "religious"

          2. The Modern Orthodox viewpoint which argues the idea that nowadays, the masses have the status of an elite and that we must be upfront, deal with information as it exists, and not dismiss/ hide ideas

        To give you practical examples of the ways in which this would be expressed, I offer some potential examples:

        In most Chareidi/ Agudah schools, the idea of evolution will not be taught or discussed. This idea will be considered one that could only cause people to have doubts or to leave Judaism, hence not reasonable for the goal of "keeping the most people frum or observant." In a Modern Orthodox school, evolution is considered a legitimate problem/theory, and it probably will be taught (perhaps tempered by Rabbi Slifkin's view or books on the matter.)

        In most Chareidi/ Agudah schools, the idea of living a life where one interacts with gentiles and non-Jews is not considered optimal for maintaining one's Judaism, and hence gentiles are derided, or at the very least, relationships with them are not encouraged. In a Modern Orthodox school, while perhaps they do not encourage actively recruiting gentiles as friends, they are seen as people who are muddling their way through life just as we are, not as potential traps of promiscuity, lust and other sorts of sinfulness.

        In most Chareidi/ Agudah schools, the idea of biblical criticism and/or the Documentary Hypothesis will not be broached, or if it is discussed, will only be dismissed as utterly laughable. In a Modern Orthodox school, even if the entire idea is not necessarily taught, it is given validity in that it is a logical approach and the people who utilize it are not utter fools. In some schools, it even enhances one's approach to the Torah.

        In other words, much of the time the Chareidi/ Agudah approach is to engage in ad hominem attacks or polemics against people, ideas or institutions that don't seem to work with keeping people frum and their Judaism intact. An insular approach is favored. After all, most people will remain frum if they are never exposed to anything outside frumkeit, right? And if they are taught that everything outside of frumkeit are simply the ravings of deluded mad people, right?

        The problem with this religiosity is that it is an ignorant religiosity. It is religiosity practiced in a vacuum, religiosity afraid of the world in which we live. It is a religiosity of the masses, even though these masses now have an education that would befit an elite. What good is this religiosity, I would question, when it cannot exist outside of this insular little community? It cannot stand on its own two feet. It is not an understood commitment to God. It is simply the way things are. This is the way I was taught and what I accepted; I am an Orthodox Jew and that is all.

        So then, you'll argue, why do I see beauty in the shepherd's approach? Why do I not mind the seemingly ignorant religiosity he practiced?

        Because he didn't have the opportunity for more!

        Those shepherds, those laypeople, those tavernkeepers- they did not have the time or money to become scholars or to find out the whys and wherefores of their Judaism. They were simple people, but it was not a simplicity caused by deliberate ignorance, a deliberate blinding or refusal to understand certain facts; it was an ignorance caused by their tasks and life-roles. They were the masses simply because they did not have the political/ economic/ social ability or security to become the elite.

        But nowadays?

        Nowadays, how can anyone dare avow that a religion based wholly on blindness and ignorance is a committed relationship to God? What good is this frumkeit that is cultivated simply by wearing blinders? It falls away at the merest touch of the outside world!

        This is why the Modern Orthodox approach- correctly applied, mind you, the philosophical versus the cultural approach- seems to be much healthier, and in the long term, will accomplish the goal that the Chareidi/ Agudah schools seem to be striving for. The Modern Orthodox approach is not to dismiss problems or flaws or contradictions but to embrace them. Ah! There are dilemmas and ethical issues and confusing statements and perhaps a Redactor, and out of all this confusion comes glorious reality. We are dealing with reality, not attempting to delude ourselves into a world that does not exist. The Modern Orthodox approach, which allows and forces the individual to truly explore his commitment to Judaism, should, ideally (and does, in my experience) create very committed Jews.

        Personally, I think that the person who has quested and tried and dealt with various issues in an attempt to act as a committed Jew but who ends up non-observant is more authentically religious than the one who maintains his religiosity by avoiding everything that could potentially undermine it.

        More simply, in the words of a very wise person I once knew, "There is a heresy that is holier than observance."

        I might qualify that statement by stating, "than some types of observance."

        How can one commit to knowing God and loving God if he only knows him in a vacuum? The very suggestion adds an element of shakiness to the relationship. The observant person is afraid, because if his ghetto walls fall down, his religiosity falls with it. What a strange relationship! What a shaky relationship!

        Is not the relationship cultivated by Modern Orthodoxy, the relationship in which we need be scared by no problem, no contradiction, no irreverency, no scientific revelation- stronger? Will it not persist? For this is the relationship that does not fear! This is the approach where questions are allowed and everything can be discussed! There may not be answers, but the questions are very valid!

        If I serve God simply because my parents served Him, what does that make me? A blind follower! Had I been born Christian, I would have served Jesus; had I been born Muslim, I would have served Allah! Is this the kind of observance I want to offer to God?

        And if I serve God out of avoidance, what does that make me? Why, a non-believer, someone who thinks that at the merest touch God can be undone! If I believe that I must avoid literature, science and every form of secular studies that ennobles man in order to serve God, then in truth my faith is born of weakness and it rests on nothing; it is fallible!

        You want to know what the non-observant Jew had done, the non-observant intellectualite, not the "tinok she-nishba?" He has tried! He has quested! Perhaps he started off observant, but in his desire to know God and to serve him in a holy, committed relationship, he realized it would not be truthful or authentic to do these things, and so he did not, could not. He preferred not to lie, preferred not to engage in rituals and ceremonies that were for him repugnant or held no meaning. He did something authentic and frightening- he was truthful in his commitment by saying, "I cannot."

        Is this a bad thing? Does God prefer that man fake religiosity? Would God be happier if man offered up prayers that weren't meant, kept a holiday he didn't believe in, as it were, consummated a marriage to a woman he didn't love? Is this what God wants of man?

        From the episode with Saul, we know that God wants obedience.

        But what if one cannot obey?

        What is better, to be truthful or to be ostensibly "religious?" For what is held against Modern Orthodoxy is the fact that theoretically more people depart from Judaism when they are Modern Orthodox than when they follow the Agudah/ Chareidi path.

        Does God want a false religiosity? Does he prefer this to an authentic denial? Does God want man to pretend to believe or to follow when he does not, cannot? Does God want a religiosity borne of lies, or a religiosity borne of avoidance and self-imposed ignorance?

        I cannot answer for God. I do not know His answer.

        For me, personally, based on my own inner sense of justness and truth, I cannot see God as desiring a false religiosity. God knows it is false, remember, as does the person practicing it. Is it not more authentic to face God, as Job did, and tell the truth? I think that man must be willing to accept the consequences when or if he denies God; he must be willing to accept responsibility for his actions. But I personally find it infinitely preferable to do what is truthful rather than what is false, to deny God if you cannot accept Him rather than engaging in a false and meaningless observance.

        Would you wed a woman you did not love and could not treat respectfully simply because your parents had betrothed you to her, perhaps even because you had committed to her? Would you engage in this sham of a relationship?

        Not if you had any true respect for the woman and her feelings.

        So perhaps I may argue, even though it may seem revolutionary, that the very person who denies God or who becomes non-observant in his own way is actually the person with the deepest, most committed, most authentic relationship to Him.

        That is not to say that religious individuals are not committed. No! The religious individual who serves God out of love and truth and whose service is not a falsification is also a deeply committed person living authentically.

        Let me also not hesitate to say that some laws are always difficult, and it is not good to simply do away with them. There is a concept, after all, that "from fulfilling the action [for the wrong reasons] one comes to do it [for the right reasons]" or mitoch l'shma ba l'shma. So if one truly believes there is a God but finds some mitzvot difficult, I absolutely do not advocate doing away with those mitzvot or picking and choosing the ones that are meaningful. At this point, as with any task in life, one must simply work on things one finds difficult.

        But this is different from someone whose entire observance is a sham or a falsehood.

        Hence I would argue that if the goal of Judaism is to form a committed, authentic relationship with the Creator, and having formed that relationship, act on His Will, following the commands of His Torah, this is an approach that can only work if we see people as having more of the elite status than the masses status (although there are always those who are specialists in a particular area and to whom we must turn for guidance) and if we do not see (intellectually caused) non-observance as the ultimate evil, but rather as yet another form of an authentic response to God. If people are seen to have the elite status, then their religion is one that can work beautifully with everything in the world, not with a mere part of it, that can benefit from a free-flow and intake of ideas and concepts, and that results in man's deepest desire, passion and love for his Creator, God.

        Thursday, March 22, 2007

        History, Truth and Religious Commitment by Rabbi Jacob J. Schacter

        Rabbi Jacob J. Schacter very graciously acquiesced to my request to post his lecture in an online forum, and took the time to look over my notes and make corrections (which are all incorporated here.) HOWEVER, in the event that there are any remaining misquotations/ mistakes, please consider them to be my fault.

        Yesterday, March 21, 2007, Rabbi Dr. Jacob J. Schacter gave a speech entitled ‘History, Truth and Religious Commitment’ on behalf of the Honors Program.


        Hi, I’m Will Lee, Director of the Jay and Jeanie Schottenstein Honors Program uptown. It is nice to see women as a dominant force on the Wilf Campus [much of the audience was female.] I am going to give you an impressive introduction and couple stories. Rabbi Dr. Jacob J. Schacter is the University Professor of Jewish History at YU. He attended Brooklyn Collge and then Harvard University, where he earned his phD and graduated phi beta kappa and summa cum laude. He received the Award of Excellence in Jewish Studies, served as the adjunct assistant professor at Stern College, holds the Near Eastern Languages Fellowship from Harvard, coauthored a book that won an award, published more than fifty articles in Hebrew/ English, various books about Judaism, and is working on the Hebrew edition of the biography on Rabbi Jacob Emden.

        I also want to tell you a few stories: I remember Rabbi Schacter as the director of the Torah u’Madda project; Rabbi Dr. Lamm thought that it was extremely important to concentrate upon this- it was his guiding vision. Rabbi Schacter guided it extremely effectively; there were lectures on Torah u’Madda, journals, etc.

        A story- I remember Rabbi Schacter when he first arrived at the University, so I talked to him about teaching in the Honors Program and really enjoyed those discussions. Rabbi Shachter was the head of Maimonides Institute in Boston, and he wanted to learn the ins and outs and complexities of the institution [Yeshiva University]. He took this in, and his good humor/ great humility, he taught very successful, great Honors courses and mentors Honors Theses. He is a central part of that effort.

        Rabbi Dr. Jacob J. Schacter:

        Thank you to Dr. Lee for the introduction and to him and Dr. Wachtell for the invitation. I remember the stories that Dr. Lee mentioned, and there’s much more, and he gave a truly thoughtful introduction.

        It really is a great honor to be asked to speak to Honors students. I have firsthand experience with the Honors program, mentoring an Honors Thesis at the moment; the author, Yosef Lindell, is here, and I just want to acknowledge that. I am honored to speak in person to an audience of students I consider to be engaged, thoughtful, serious- this poses an extraordinary challenge, as this is not the kind of talk I have ever given before. I have given many kinds of talks before, and some I have given many times, but tonight is not a class, a shiur, an academic lecture, a sermon, a devar Torah, or a form of self-reflection. I have done all of these many times, but tonight’s talk is really none of them. I have been struggling to come up with something meaningful because this talk is supposed to include all of the above. What I am and who I am in my field- I am in the field of Jewish History, and in this talk I want to combine the personal and the scholarly, the subjective and the objective.

        I will begin with a series of juxtapositions- does everyone here have a copy of the sheet? [He handed out a source packet at the beginning of the lecture.] I want to frame two things in the context of one another, objects or states of being or intellectual disciplines.


        This is a Yehudah Amichai poem. Amichai was a very prominent contemporary Israeli poet, wrote hundreds to thousands of poems, has been translated into English; this excerpt is from a poem entitled “Tourists.”

          Once I sat on the stairs at the gate of David’s Tower and put two heavy baskets next to me. A group of tourists stood there around their guide and I served as their orientation point. “You see the man with the baskets? A bit to the right of his head, there’s an arch from the Roman period. A bit to the right of his head.” But he moves, he moves!! I said to myself: redemption will come only when they are told: You see over there the arch from the Roman period? Never mind: but next to it, a bit to the left and lower, sits a man who bought fruit and vegetables for his home. (Yehuda Amichai, A Life of Poetry, 1948-1994, page 333)

        Amichai in the poem juxtaposes the frozen arch with the fluidity of man to the detriment of the arch. There is an implicit critique of the arch in favor of what man represents. Man matters; he is engaged in life, he lives, breathes, eats and thinks. The arch doesn’t really matter- it is old, a fossil, frozen and irrelevant.

        I reject the implicit critique of the arch, which is connected to the past in this excerpt, in favor of the man, who is connected to the present, as I believe that both the arch and the person are important.

        The arch stands for something. We must incorporate the values of the arch into living, the existence of the human being at the present.

        So this juxtaposes the place and the person.

        The place is a city, a square, a plaza, a cemetery- physical spot- the person is a historical personality, the object of scholarly analysis, the person being me, ourselves. We engage with places and people, and this is the stuff of Jewish History.


        I wish to juxtapose something else as well.

        Contemporary culture places a premium on the importance of human relationships. We develop ourselves as human beings through our relationships with others. The field of psychoanalysis focuses on the stuff of the personal/ private/ individual.

        Most of the time the analyst is absent/ not proactive part of the conversation.

        Psychoanalysis classically focuses on one’s wholesomeness or healthiness through regarding the relationships one forms with the others.

        Anthony Storr wrote a very important book called Solitude: A Return to the Self in which he argues that we need to return to the individual as an individual, in a state of solitude.

        From page 35, he quotes the diaries of Admiral Byrd who went to the Antarctic in 1934; now, there’s not a big chaburah in the Antarctic.

          [paraphrased] Aside from the meteorological ___ and our work, no important purpose, not that kind of work, nothing but man’s desire to experience this, to taste peace and solitude and find out how good they really are.
        Solitude as juxtaposed to the value of the community.

        Abraham had a powerful encounter with God by himself- or alongside one other person, Isaac, at akedas Yitzchak. Moses by the burning bush- our tradition is fraught with places where this takes place when one is alone.

        At the same time, we live in the community/ tzibur/ marry/ get together/ form a minyan- so we juxtapose the individual with the larger group.


        I was introduced to Torah u’Maddah in the 1980s- Dr. Lamm felt that it was important for the University to have a more proactive engagement with Torah u’Maddah. Really interesting experiences- we had over a thousand students attending public lectures at the Lamport Auditorium, twenty Torah u’Maddah fellows, one of the books that I edited came out of that- Judaism’s Encounter with Other Cultures: Rejection or Integration?

        Now I sense some cynicism, sense that this subject is passé, not cool to talk about Torah u’Madda and I would recommend that the effort should be refocused. I want to go back to Torah u’Madda because I believe in Torah u’Madda.

        I have two more texts here- both from R’ Aharon Lichtenstein, who used to teach English Literature at Stern and is now the Rosh Yeshiva of Yeshiva Har Etzion.

        The first excerpt is from Gesher, a journal at YU. The article was published under the title “A Consideration of Synthesis from a Torah Point of View,” but that was not really the title and R’ Lichtenstein was upset that the word “synthesis” was used. He did not use that word in his title, and there is a whole discussion about the proper way of understanding Torah u’Madda and whether it is a synthesis at all.

        Here are excerpts from the article quoted:

          Nor should we be deterred by the illusion that we can find all we need within our own tradition. […] if, in many areas, much of that best is of foreign origin, we shall expand our horizons rather than exclude it. […] Who can fail to be inspired by the ethical idealism of Plato, the passionate fervor of Augustine, or the visionary grandeur of Milton? Who can remain unenlightened by the lucidity of Aristotle, the profundity of Shakespeare, or the incisiveness of Newman? There is chochma bagoyim, and we ignore it at our loss. […] To deny that many fields have been better cultivated by non-Jewish rather than Jewish writers, is to be stubbornly—and unnecessarily—chauvinistic. There is nothing in our medieval poetry to rival Dante and nothing in our modern literature to compare with Kant, and we would do well to admit it. [Rabbi Schacter intersperses: This is a very strong statement.] We have our own genius, and we have bent it to the noblest of pursuits, the development of the Torah. But we cannot be expected to do everything. (Rabbi Aharon Lichtenstein, “A Consideration of Synthesis from a Torah Point of View,” Gesher I (1963): 10-11)
        The second article is from Judaism’s Encounter with other Cultures: Rejection or Integration? Again, here are some excerpts:

          If I may cite a personal example, I recall vividly when my father zz”l was suddenly blinded at the age of eighty-one, I felt, on the one hand, that I could better appreciate and commiserate with his suffering because the cadences of the great relevant Miltonic passages still reverberated in my mind. I recalled the searing power of Samsons’ opening speech:

          O dark, dark, dark , amid the blaze of noon,
          Irrecoverably dark, total Eclipse
          Without all hope of day!
          O first created Beam, and thou great Word,
          Let there be light, and light was over all:
          Why am I thus bereav’d thy prime decree?
          The Sun to me is dark
          And silent as the Moon,
          When she deserts the night,
          Hid in her vacant interlunar cave.


          I suppose some will regard these ruminations as a symptom of spiritual weakness. Why hadn’t I thought of our own spiritual giants who had suffered a similar fate—of patriarchal avot ha-‘olam, blind Yizhak and dim-sighted Yaakov? Or, among amoraim, why hadn’t Rav Yosef and Rav Sheshet come to mind? The answer is that of course they had. […] The point is, however, that the respective recollections were not mutually exclusive but, rather, reciprocally resonant. (Rabbi Aharon Lichtenstein, “Torah and General Culture: Confluence and Conflict,” in Jacob J. Schacter, ed, Judaism, Encounter with other Cultures: Rejection or Integration? Page 253)
        History as a discipline has not fared well in Judaism. Rambam quotes Rabbinic phrase, “Whatever happened, happened.” History is fleeting, ephemeral, etc. There is a Mishna, “All Jews have a share in olam ha’ba, the World to Come,” and we like to forget the sentence that comes next, “but then there are Jews who don’t have a share in olam ha’ba- an apikores, for instance. R’ Akiva also says, “Those who read sefarim hizonim.”

        Rav- R’ Ovadiah Bartenura, includes someone who reads divrei hayamim shel malachei avodah zarah, so history books. Avodah zarah in this context, I think, refers to secular history on a whole rather than idol-worship.

        There is an attitude of “Who cares? There is no wisdom to it, etc.”

        R’ Jacob Emden writes on this, and takes issue with this and says there IS a value to the study of history and someone engaged in Torah should have an understanding of history, even secular history. There is an obligation to know history. You have to know at least Jewish history. In order to understand Chazal, halakha, etc, you need to understand history.

        R’ Jacob Emden (in the 18th century) takes issue with this negative attitude. Dean Schnall, the dean of the Azrieli Graduate School, asked me to prepare a study/ course on why Jewish History is important. Why is Jewish History fundamentally important? I am considering doing it.

        R’ Emden writes about the kind of books one can read on the Sabbath and again speaks significantly about the importance of studying history.

          the rabbinic scholar should not be devoid of (any) knowledge of history and the changing times. (He must possess this information) in order to know how to provide his questioner with an answer and not be considered a fool and simpleton in worldly matters.
        I go further than R’ Emden.

        History is a source of pleasure; it is geshmack, I love it, love the work that I do; it is sheer pleasure emotionally and mentally.

        I was born into a prominent Modern Orthodox family. My father was the first student to get semikha from Rabbi Joseph B. Soloveitchik when he became the rosh yeshiva at YU, and my father also had a great personal relationship with him. Rabbi Soloveitchik was actually mesader kiddushin at my wedding, although I did not go to YU, as you’ll see.

        I ended up in Torah-only institutions; I went to the Yeshiva of Philadelphia, then to Mir in Yerushalayim, and didn’t want to go to YU. I went to Yeshiva Torah v’Da’as and then I went to Brooklyn College and became slowly reanchored. I was going there two nights a week and was mesmerized by the grandeur of the world around me- ventured out of the study hall and was overwhelmed by the extraordinary greatness/ grandeur of the world, and I had the unbelievable good fortune to fall into the classroom of Dr. David Berger.

        It is an interesting fact that the trajectories of life hinge on an encounter with an individual. My life was changed/ altered/ enhanced immeasurably- even if you’re NOT interested in Jewish History, you should study with Dr. Berger! This is 1968, that I was his student, and until this day, I feel unbelievable gratitude towards him. I saw in him the possibility to bring two worlds together- it was the first time I heard of Nachmanides or R’ Falk as communal leaders, or of R’ Samson Raphael Hirsch of writing more than his commentary on the Chumash. I went to Harvard, studied with Dr. Isadore Twersky, the older son-in-law of R. Soloveitchik. I, took a seminar in the Ramban, then on the Rashba- I go to Harvard, got a fellowship, then this whole seminar on Ramban/ Rashba- steeped in Torah study. For me, Torah study is central and as my identity it is central- that is my identity. What better way to appreciate the greatness/ rigor than to study the history of Christendom from Christians- I didn’t want to know what the Jews had to say about Christianity; I wanted to know what the Christians had to say about Christianity! Or to study from the Muslims about Islam- I don’t want to study what the Jews said, but what they say!

        I took Polish history from a Ukrainian nationalist. He taught five sessions on Chmelnitzky. Do you know who Chmelnitzky was? He was the pre-Hitler “Hitler.” The professor’s name was Frank Sysin; he’s a distinguished professor at Harvard. I was the only person with a yarmulke in the class. So he teaches fives sessions on Chmelnitzky and finally, at the last session, when we’re about ready to move on, he looks at me and says “and he’s also responsible for the killing of many Jews.” So he threw me a bone- threw a bone to the yarmulke.

        So this is the real world- we have to study Jewish History also from the perspective of not-Jewish History. To be able to be an ehrliche yid, use intellectual creative energies in tandem with religion commitments- it doesn’t get better than this. I don’t compromise one iota with regard to my religious commitment. We don’t revise/ close our eyes; we are honest, engaged in the enterprise of Judaism without compromise.

        Now, back to our three juxtapositions.

        1. People and Places
        2. Individuals and Groups
        3. Torah and Maddah

        Let us discuss the first one, People and Places.

        [He refers to the packet] I Xeroxed postcards/ pictures of three different cities in Europe. I love to travel and take groups of American Jews to Europe in the summer and teach them Jewish history. This summer it’s going to be Kiev/ Moscow/ St. Petersburg- in Kiev there’s a huge statue of Chmelnitzky. So we’re going to read the chronicles of what happened during the Chmelnitzky massacres while standing underneath the statues- two completely different, opposing views of the man.

        The Roman Forum- the cradle of western civilization. But you have to appreciate what you’re looking at; otherwise it’s merely stones. So you stand at the base of the stones and you’re listening to your audioset because otherwise you don’t know what you’re looking at, and all you hear about is the incredible, powerful march, oh, and the Romans come to Judea, destroy some Jews, and destroy the Temple. But from our perspective, this was the most devastating event. Tisha B’av commemorates this, even more than that. We are seared by the destruction of the Bais Hamikdash.

        Now, there is a custom of the Jews never to go under the Arch of Titus because the Popes used to force the Jews to pay their respects by bowing under that arch. When we were there, we couldn’t go under the arch anyway, because of the scaffolding, but even so…There’s also a famous menorah there.


        Anyway, let’s start in Madrid. Now, Madrid does not have a significant Jewish history- Toledo was important in Spain from/ in medieval times, to the north, Barcelona and Gerona, to the South, Cordova and Granada. Madrid was not so important- now there’s a little archway and you walk into the Plaza Major. This is grand/ magnificent/ stunning. Then you realize that as a Jew you are standing in the spot where a very prominent auto da fe took place. So I pull out Cecil Roth’s historical book, and I read to my assembled Jews about the auto da fe that took place there, where

          no less than fity-one persons (most of them Judaizers) were “relaxed” [this means killed] either in person or in effigy; while sixty-seven penitents were reconciled. It is said that one strikingly beautiful girl of about seventeen called out, as she passed the royal stand: “Noble Queen, cannot your royal presence save me from this? I sucked in my religion with my mother’s milk; must I now die for it?” In spite of this, the king himself set light to the brand which kindled the quemadoro. (Cecil Roth, History of the Marranos, page 136)
        This enhances your understanding of the Jewish experience- for me the combination is unbelievable.


        Venice does have a magnificent Jewish history- walking in Venice, you see from different neighborhoods these little yellow signs in Hebrew reading ”kuf kuf Venetzia”- I’m like, in heaven when I see that. Venice is magnificent—I love water. So now let’s focus on what Venice is for the world versus what Venice is for us. I want to talk about the Piazza San Marco.

        So I urge you to go to the top/ upper platform to enjoy the arial view. There is a huge square; it is gorgeous. I was there in the evening; there was this colonnaded building, ten thousand pigeons hanging out there with you. There are string quartets- music from both sides played by women in elegant black dresses and men in black-tie; you can stand there, though if you want to sit, you have to pay. If you’re particularly romantic, you’ll buy a Coke. This expands your world- and then you realize in the 1550s, during the Counter-Reformation, the Talmud was burnt in Venice in St Marco Square. The Talmud gets burnt- the Pope goes on a Crusade to burn the Talmud.

        Wow, it’s gorgeous- and then you remember, right here is where the Talmud was burnt- you see it through different eyes. You see this gorgeous plaza through your Western eyes and appreciate it, and then you see it through your Jewish eyes and it takes on a whole different meaning.

        Also, the Chida traveled and wrote a travelogue- in 1776, he shows up in Venice and describes what he saw; he went to the Plaza San Marco and so we are standing where the Chida stood; he talks about a library, statues of four horses in bronze and we can still see them. We went at six-seven o’ clock at night; it was utterly romantic, unbelievable- the height of elegance together with medieval architecture, and I take out the Chida and read it and tell them what happened during the counter-Reformation.


        Paris is magnificent.

        I have a visceral negative feeling toward France in recent years, but I also feel torn because I want to strengthen the local Jewish community.

        Paris is on the river Senne- and there is the Notre Dame, and it is unbelievable. On the opposite side is City Hall- Paris City Hall. It is gorgeous, huge- you can see the Eiffel Tower- it’s beautiful. There’s a plaza in front of City Hall in Paris. And that is where the Talmud was burnt in 1242. So you look at this Plaza- this gorgeous place- and realize that that is where the Talmud was burnt.

        In 1240, there was anti-Jewish activity. Take Jews, go to the Hotel de Ville, we’re eating lunch, playing violin, there are minstrels, it can’t get more beautiful than that, and then I take out a kinah by R’ Meir of Rothenberg about this- having exposure/ understanding of Jewish history opens us up to the experience of Jews.

        So now we are back to Amichai and people as the objects of historical research [juxtaposition number two]. Our tradition as a mesorah consists of Torah she’bikhsav and ba’al peh- our tradition is what it is because of them. So we want to understand these people/ their world/ understand what influenced their world.

        Fifteen years of my life I spent on R’ Emden- time in graduate school to get my PhD- it took me six years to write the dissertation. I am in his skin and in his head- was really interested to get as close to him as possible.

        An example of that is this man called Gary Kamiya, who liked/ was enthralled by Nietzche. He wants to touch, viscerally and physically connect to Nietzche, so he goes to Nietzche’s house and feels close to Nietzche. He writes:

          We go to literary shrines to touch things. We run our fingers along the writing table, we furtively step over the red velvet rope and finger the water jug by the edge of the bed.
        My wife is a psychologist, she studied Freud, so when we go to London we visit Freud’s house in addition to the Big Ben, etc. It’s an amazing thing to see, but the idea is that you feel this connection to the person. When we went to Freud’s house, you know how there is this big red velvet rope blocking off the area where you cannot walk? So I stuck my foot under the rope, put it on the other side, to say I had done that.

        So for R’ Jacob Emden- I went to his cemetery/ his grave and wanted to “touch it”- I stood next to his grave, an amazing experience; I asked forgiveness by the grave in case I write something that’s not respectful, but I did not come as close to him as I did in Columbia University.

        R’ Jacob Emden tells a story- one night he was learning and he fell asleep. He had a shtender, and there is a hole there, a receptacle for a candle. He falls asleep with the candle it in and the candle starts to burn the shtender, his paper, ashes fly onto the Tur that he’s reading, burn a hole through the Tur until the berakhos you make when miracles happen. So he wakes up, puts out the fire.

        The Tur of R’ Jacob Emden ended up in the Rare Book Room of the Butler Library at Columbia. So I run there and asked the curator to bring me the Tur, and guess what, there’s a hole in the Tur, burnt through till siman R”IK (Reish Yud Ches) – that was the aha moment; I felt it- bringing together the juxtaposition of the person/ place, individual/ communal.

        Scholarly research is work, no cutting corners, go to the archive/ library/ by yourself/ developing yourself/ goal is to be a teacher, not to keep this information to yourself. It is good to be an inspirer/ educator/ juxtapose the depth of the individual-personal, trying to get other people engaged as well- juxtaposition of the Western cultural tradition- what are we afraid of? God created an unbelievably magnificent world- deepens us, makes us better human beings- better to be Torah u’Madda and academically engaged- it doesn’t get better than that.

        I owe a tremendous debt to Professor David Berger- he opened me up to that. My blessing to you is that you too have your eyes opened and live lives that are immeasurably enhanced by that experience.


        Question: I have a friend, and when I asked him why he doesn’t take Jewish History courses, he told me that they’re depressing. Could you talk about that juxtaposition, how do you come away with natural synthesis?

        Answer: [First explains that synthesis is not the word to use, then] Reality is that the Jewish historical experience from the perspective of joy and happiness has left a lot to be desired- there are all kinds of reasons, living under Christendom (where we were guilty of deicide until 1964), or Islam, where we were guilty of falsification of the scripture/ rejection of the Prophet. As Jews, it seems to me that it behooves us to understand the process of Jewish historical experience. If it is depressing, so be it. In touch with historical experience- Also note the tremendous capacity on part of Jews to create/ inspire in the culture- regenerate, to affirm life. Salo Baron of Columbia University talked about the lachrymose conception of Jewish history; that all of it has to do with suffering and tears, and that can’t be because if it were true, we wouldn’t be here today, so clearly there is something else as well.

        1. Face up to your world as a Jew- understand what that means, where we’re coming from, what are my roots? We don’t shy away from things that don’t make us feel good. If that’s the truth, we face up to it.

        2. It’s not all that- a lot of social/ economic/ political history that is inspiring- how much we managed to accomplish even though dealt a negative deck of cards.

        How can you NOT do something because it’s depressing?

        [boy interjects something]

        What I aspire to is a lack of schizophrenia [when it comes to seeing a place/ idea/ person through Western eyes and through Jewish eyes.] The worldly piece informs my Jewish piece- my engagement with Jewish History fills my life with meaning and endless fascination.


        Question: I’m wondering about l’khatkila the treatment of Torah u’Madda. I’m very into literature- I learn the abstract concept of bitachon from Jewish sources, but I experience it through literature…

        Answer: Or not…perhaps turn to R’ Dessler. Anyway, the idea is to handle something from a new angle.

        [girl continues] But what about the people who were closer to Har Sinai; they didn’t need Torah u’Madda?

        Rabbi Schacter: So you’re asking about yerida ha’doros and Torah u’Maddah. So I’ll give you the bibliography.

        There is a chapter in a book by Chancellor Dr. Norman Lamm- The Degeneration of the Generations- how do you juxtapose that with the notion of progress in Western culture? Are we not missing something in our tradition if fundamental tenet of Western culture is progress?

        [at the girl’s unhappy expression]

        This is too complicated for me to just blow off an answer for you; you should read the book.

        Also, see R’ Lichtenstein’s article in my book - central role of English literature- engage in it, grapple with it. There’s a Yiddish expression; if you go on the straight path, you meet people. So it pays to access the wisdom so read it and deal with it.


        Question: How do you personally deal with the tension between halakha and history? If you found out that a minhag developed in a certain way, would you change it/ your practice of it based on how it was developed?

        Answer: Never in a million years would I change it- I follow mesorah- bound to observe particular behavior- historic insight is fascinating but it will not affect my practice. I try not to let anything affect my practice. My core identity is as a talmid of the Mesorah. All kinds of issues- context of historical pursuits, but this does not affect my practice.


        Question: How do you allow the historical seeking to impact you/ how do you filter?

        Answer: Very rare that I come across a historical piece of knowledge that has led me to change my practice. There is something I recently discovered- this idea of 4 matzos at the Seder- it’s because there was a safek; they’re not sure if the other three will break. It’s fascinating, so I asked Professor Sperber what happened to the minhag? He said he didn’t even think of that question before. But so what? Because of this I’ll put 4 matzos on the seder table? No! I will do as my father did, put three matzos on the table. That is where my historical minhag comes from- so I find out that the minhag is based on something from outside of the religion- well, I don’t encounter that in my work a lot. There is a lot of history without having to go there!