The importance of Centrist Orthodoxy: a case study in genetic screening

I was surprised and then annoyed with myself for not adequately appreciating the differences between Charedi Orthodoxy and Centrist (or Modern) Orthodoxy, in practical terms. Often, we try to understand the difference between these groups through slogans: eg. תורה לשמה and תורה עם דרך ארץ and תורה ומדע. In particular, when one identifies with Centrist Orthodox, unless they also have a deeper understanding of its approach to Yahadus, it can easily become a club or vehicle for those who promote left-wing, more compromising, approaches to Halacha,  or regrettably, boundaries outside of accepted Halacha.

Sadly, first steps are often after the fact. Individuals first assume an approach to Jewish Life and then identify themselves as Centrist (or Modern) Orthodox because they perceive more opportunity to mould that philosophy to accommodate their behaviours. Subsequent attempts to study Hirschian תורה עם דרך ארץ (a virulently anti-Zionist approach) or תורה ומדע (as described by Rabbi Dr Norman Lamm) are forays seeking to ascribe post facto legitimacy to existing behaviours and beliefs, some of which may well fall outside the Orthodox boundaries. There is much more to Centrist Orthodoxy than that, however. A failure to respect the solid foundations upon which Centrist Orthodoxy stands, is also an unfortunate, regrettable, hallmark of those who are identified with the right-wing.

It’s often easy to lose track of the importance of Centrist Orthodoxy because of the complex Weltanschauung it weaves and the friction it must deal with due to Centrist Orthodoxy not being an isolationist approach. Indeed, as a result, many who were Centrist become more Charedi, because the latter is actually simpler on the surface and perceived to be ‘more religious’. A seriously grounded and informed Centrist Orthodox Jew, however, is just as likely to have more fidelity to Halacha than a Charedi Jew! I won’t expand on this point in general terms; it’s pointless. Instead, I will reflect on a  burning issue which is being actively discussed. Through this issue, it is possible to discern an important difference in approach of Centrist versus Charedi, and, in my view, the superiority of the Centrist view is clearly manifest.

The Charedi community, influenced by a פסק from Rav Moshe Feinstein ז׳ל about testing for genetic markers, gave birth to the laudable and groundbreaking organisation Dor Yeshorim. The premise of Dor Yeshorim is not medical. Its aim is to

  1. construct and maintain a panel of genetic tests such that, based on Rabbinical advice, if two people are recessive carriers of a gene on that panel, they would be advised not to court each other.
  2. test two people, each of whom is identified by a secret unique number, and give a binary answer of yes or no, in respect of whether they may court each other (as defined by the particular panel of tests).

There have been two great achievements by Dor Yeshorim.

  1. Dor Yeshorim have been almost singularly responsible for removing certain genetic diseases from Jewish people. An example that is cited is Tay Sachs disease. I do believe this is true of the USA, however, in Israel there were and perhaps still are people who are ready to “roll the dice” and go out without knowing if they carry a deadly disease (this could be described as a misdirected exercise in תמים תהיה עם ה׳ אלוקך. [In this vein, when Rav Gavriel Holtzberg הי׳׳ד confided that his first son had Tay Sachs, I asked him whether he and his wife had been tested prior to marriage. Unfortunately, they had not. Their two eldest boys passed away miserably רחמנא ליצלן in a home for terminally ill children in Israel. The third son, the highly celebrated miracle Moshe Holtzberg, is a story in of itself and this post isn’t the place to discuss it. The point being though that (in my estimation) the more Charedi a couple is (unless they are Chassidim and their Rebbe has made a גזירה) the more likely they are to be חסידים שוטים and rely on תמים תהיה עם ה׳ אלקיך and שומר פתאים ה׳ and take easily avoidable and unecessary mortal risks, as Dor Yeshorim has demonstrated to date.
  2. Dor Yeshorim has managed to protect the privacy of couples, one or both of whom are carriers, and in this way engineered a much safer Shidduch environment. Indeed, if one loses their identification number, they will need be re-tested all over again. Since the testing regime is entirely anonymous, Dor Yeshorim cannot connect a person with their test results, were they to misplace their identification number.

How does Dor Yeshorim decide what to test? Their website claims

Dor Yeshorim’s panel of tests therefore currently screens for debilitating and recessive genetic diseases most commonly occurring within the Jewish community. These specific tests have been painstakingly researched and chosen based on their frequency and severity of symptoms. The decision to add a disease to the Dor Yeshorim panel of tests is not a simple one. We are forever mindful of our mission to ensure healthy families. At the same time, we must employ a balanced approach to adding a test to the panel; just because a test exists for the disease, does not mean it warrants screening.

The issue of what can and should be tested has hotted up, of late. There are apparently some 39 life-threatening Ashkenazic diseases, (the number 39 and its connected to מלקות is chilling) made up of hundreds of mutations. Dor Yeshorim has chosen to focus on some 14 diseases. Since the diseases are life-threatening, one might assume that Dor Yeshorim has made the halachic call to screen for all 39. It should be noted, and this is important, that it is no more expensive for a testing laboratory to scan and report on 200 versus 39 versus 14. Therefore, there ought be no argument of cost vis-à-vis less prevalent carriers of disease. In the Dor Yeshorim system, nobody knows which of the two (or both) is positive for any particular marker. In addition, the set of tests is determined by Dor Yeshorim in consultation with its Poskim. The reality is that Dor Yeshorim has not extended to many more markers even though this ought be cost neutral. A result of Dor Yeshorim’s stance is that there is a new agency, known as JScreen.

JScreen looks at some 200+ diseases. The list is here.

The question now becomes, should one prefer JScreen as this is medically and scientifically a more expansive panel that will show up less prevalent diseases? Note, even if a disease is very rare, for example there is only a 1/10000 probability that a person is carrying the disease, then, for both the male and female to both be carriers, the chance of that occurring is, therefore, 1/100000000 (= 1/10000 squared=0.0001), nevertheless, it is a  25% chance! that the couple’s offspring will have the disease! This probability is constant and does not relate to the prevalence of the disease, and importantly does not impinge on the “Shidduch Crisis” because the chance of both people being carriers is 0.0001! I fear that some Poskim are simply not aware of the statistics and have an arcane notion that the more one tests the greater the effect on the Shidduch Crisis. This is not the case. Indeed, if a disease is incredibly remote (say one in a million probablity), but horribly destructive,  then

the chance of a prospective couple going on a Shidduch date both carrying this rare gene, is 0.000000000001 !!!

Should anyone be afraid that this will cut them out of Shidduchim? Not in my mind.

With the above in mind, I was listening to a fascinating podcast hosted by the impressive Rabbi Dovid Lichtenstein on this exact topic.

Rabbi Lichtenstein invited two world-famous Poskim to be live on his podcast. The first was מורי ורבי HaRav Hershel Schachter שליט׳׳א and the second was HaRav Binyamin Forst שליט׳׳א. Rav Schachter was gently firm and stated that there really ought to be no reason we aren’t finding out whatever we can to prevent a calumny. (It should be noted that it is estimated that couples who have a seriously ill child, have a 50% divorce rate, due to the incredible and inevitable pressure on a marriage).  In Rav Schachter’s eyes, it is the plain Halacha in Shulchan Aruch אבן העזר, סימן ב which determines practice:

לֹא יִשָּׂא אָדָם אִשָּׁה לֹא מִמִּשְׁפַּחַת מְצֹרָעִין וְלֹא מִמִּשְׁפַּחַת נִכְפִּין, וְהוּא שֶׁהֻחְזַק שָׁלֹשׁ פְּעָמִים שֶׁיָּבוֹאוּ בְּנֵיהֶם לִידֵי כָּךְ:

A man shouldn’t marry a women from a leprous family nor from a nekafim. If a family has three instances the next children will have the presumption of being this way.

Rav Hershel Schachter שליט׳׳א

Seemingly, the only counter-argument is that we should be careful not to ‘play God’ and if we use medical research to such an extent, it could be viewed as “interfering” with creation. (We do interfere with creation  though—we’ve basically eradicated Polio … is that a bad thing!?)

Rav Forst, who is a widely accepted Charedi Posek in the United States, was not happy about using JScreen over Dor Yeshorim, and advised that he cannot understand why one should look for such uncommon diseases, and that we should have more faith in Hashem. He goes as far as stating (I assume that he didn’t know Rav Schachter had been on before him) that no respectable Posek would suggest that couples undertake a larger panel of tests, per JScreen. Indeed, not only Rav Schachter but also Rav Dr. J. David Bleich are strongly in favour of wider testing. It could be argued that R’ Moshe Feinstein ז׳ל would also have agreed with that stance. Critically, I am not sure whether Rabbi Forst knew the מציאות that if the male and female carry the remote disease, that there is always a constant 25% chance (one in four!) that a child will inherit it.

This is a poignant example which amplifies a difference between Centrist Orthodoxy and Charedi Judaism. The Charedi approach appears to be reluctantly using Science as an ingredient in a kosher Jewish existence. When they do engage with Science, they are careful to limit this so that uncommon cases are not tested. There is a latent Charedi feeling (הרגש) that too much science implies that God is lessened in the equation of השגחה. Accordingly, they quote the verse of תמים תהיה עם ה׳ אלוקיך. It is important to be über pure in one’s relationship with God, and testing for “remote” diseases expresses a lack of faith in God’s choices and a lack of Bitachon!

Rav Binyamin Forst שליט׳׳א

Rav Schachter, however, uses the poignant example of a blind person who is playing near the seashore and is easily swept into the water. If we can see: that is, Science is able to help us, then there is no excuse to make oneself ‘blind’ and ignore what is easily found out. Rav Schachter is not challenged by Science. In his worldview, the Doctor has been given the Torah right to heal. Yes, they do interfere with the progression of illness! Furthermore, a Doctor who does not use the best medicine of his or her time is grossly negligent. Rav Schachter sees the advice of Tannaim in the Gemora in respect of Medicine, and the same applies to the Rambam, as being the best medicine of that time. We don’t follow that today! We also continue to follow the best medicine of our time. That is the Halachic imperative.

This chasm between the reality of medical-cum-scientific endeavour and the feeling that it is external to our Torah mandated Halacha (because its source is secular) is an important and critical distinction between Centrist (or Modern) Orthodoxy and Charedi versions of Orthodoxy.

Reb Moshe, himself, was never a predictable “all is forbidden” style Posek. This is one of the things that made him so very great. Reb Moshe would often rule in a lenient way and buttress his argument with prime sources, as opposed to later Acharonim. He is described as having ‘broad shoulders’. Consider this: even though Reb Moshe, for example, was stringent on himself not to use milk which was produced under the regulation of a Government, he had such milk at home, and his family partook of it. Indeed, his son Reb Dovid, who is a prominent Posek, still does. Reb Moshe was certainly not a ‘standard’ Charedi Posek. On this matter, Reb Moshe in a responsum on Tay Sachs balances these opposing concepts in his discussion about genetic testing before marriage (Igros Moshe EH 4:10). First, he writes, since the probability of both spouses being carriers is minute it may be included in the precept of “תמים תהיה according to Rashi, which instructs us not to delve into the future. However, he then writes, since the test is easily available and if an inflicted child is born it is devastating, the public should be educated about their options! Reb Moshe was the real deal, a truly great Posek, without fear or favour, and with a sensitive social understanding.

We close noting that Rabbi Forst advocates that women not test themselves for the BRCA gene, a gene associated  רחמנא ליצלן to breast and ovarian cancer, until they are 40+. The illness is not dependent on a husband. Rabbi Forst argues that the knowledge serves no real purpose since the women can have surgery at 40+ and remove the chances of cancer. I am not sure I understand. The surgery is radical and not at all easy for a woman. Rabbi Forst comes across as if it’s another (routine) surgery (Tonsilectomy?). Secondly, I would have thought that if we can aid medical and scientific research by attempting treatments on people before they are 40 (after finding out through a test) then we should do so! Imagine if they come up with a simpler treatment via some injection of specially designed stem cells. Would we not be involved in that from day 1? As I understand it, there is a higher incidence of problematic BRCA genes in Jewish people. Indeed, Rabbi Bleich suggests that we should, if possible, find out as much as we can by testing at birth. Of course, we do now test at birth, but only for those illnesses that can be treated.

In summary: one in four ought never be שומר פתאים ה׳ and the importance of Halacha engaging with the quality Science we have available, is critical!

The AJN attack on Orthodox opinion

The AJN is perfectly entitled to have views. These are widely considered anti–religious for many years by many. In fact, each year we ask ourselves why we buy it.

Whatever the case may be, the AJN needs to acknowledge that nobody contends that homosexuality is an illness. It is a preference, call it a predilection. I don’t have it, so I can’t claim any expertise nor am I a therapist of any sort. The preference itself, as is well-known by the AJN is not considered sinful according to Torah Judaism (I don’t conclude man-made reformations of Judaism here as they are of minor interest if any). People are born with predilections. There is the nature vs nurture conundrum which is far from settled. Acting on the preference and performing the homosexual act is described as sinful by the Torah and Codifiers. There can be no argument about that fact in any form of Orthodoxy. Reformers have their own religion.

Now, many if not the vast majority of those professionals who see homosexuals professionally claim that the predilection is life long and cannot be altered. That may well be. There isn’t Science here, and extrapolation into the future is tenuous at best. Maimonides knew about predilections long ago.

The best counter case to nature, as quoted by arguably the most respected psychiatrist in the USA, Professor Abraham Twersky, and many others is the identical twin conundrum which has been studied extensively. All known biological markers were exactly the same, and yet one twin had a predilection and the other did not. There is currently no theory able to explain that. There is a minority view, and yes it is a minority (Dr Elon Karten comes to mind) that claims they have techniques which allow predilection change to materialise. Like Climate Skeptics they are attacked regularly. I’m not an expert, but as a Scientist, one would be a fool to think that in ten years time, our knowledge of these things will still be static. Accordingly, if Rabbi Telsner or anyone else subscribes to the view that predilection modification could occur, they do not deserve to be pilloried in the disrespectful tone of the AJN.

Pedophillia is also at least a predilection. Perhaps we will discover it is more likely a disease that is incurable except by using drastic means to make sure that those who seem to “enjoy” such things are simply incapable of (re)offending. In the meanwhile, one witnesses judges themselves releasing pedophiles back into the public after serving sentences, as if law makers believe they will be “safe” to society once  so released. Is that true? Evidence would suggest that re-offending is (too) common and perhaps techniques for rehabilitation are simply inadequate and not practical at this time.

Now, if Rabbi Telsner were to subscribe to an opinion that people with predilections can have them modified (and this could extend to those with life long fetishes), one can disagree, but one should not excoriate him in the way of the AJN, as a matter arising out of the Royal Commission.

Rav Schachter of the Modern Orthodox Yeshiva University always said that a “stock” Rosh Yeshivah or Rosh Kollel in general should not be a Posek (decisor) of Halacha because they sit in a cloistered environment and are often/mostly oblivious to the nuances of science and other disciplines. This was certainly the case in Lithuania where most Rabbi’s were not Halachic Decisors. There were some exceptions such as the Vilna Gaon and the Chazon Ish, but the late and great Chacham Ovadya Yosef did not consider the Chazon Ish a Posek of repute, because he sat cloistered and didn’t face the people, so to speak.

Either Rabbi Telsner has read some minority opinions or has been informed of such by some of his constituents. This can mean that the AJN, seeing itself to present current knowledge on such topics can disagree with the minority opinion, but it does not give then a license to excoriate a Rabbi for agreeing to such a minority opinion.

The last time I looked there were no Nobel Prize winners writing for the AJN, and aside from the occasional community brouhaha most of the news is stale, and unenlightening. Indeed we may have also recently witnessed an alleged breach of journalistic ethics which has allegedly resulted in a staff member being suspended initially. The mere fact that we are exposed to the weekly whining letters of Messrs Burd and Herzog, and others is bad enough. One could almost write their letter before reading it. I think the AJN do good things but there is room for improvement in some of its approaches. Yes, I know it’s good for selling papers, but Oilom Goilom believes everything.

The “what do you think” section is statistically unsound, and really just a copy of journalistic practice in low-level papers, like the Herald Sun and others. Is it going to make one iota of a difference if I know what the local butcher thinks of Bibi’s chances?

I’m digressing.

Back to the issue at hand. The AJN may not have liked elements of evidence tendered. As such, it should carefully analyse such in a calm and sanguine way. The majority of Rabbis are traumatised by the Royal Commission, and my sense is that things will never return to the situation before in respect to how they react if they are God forbid confronted with such information. We aren’t Catholics, and don’t have a box where one admits their sins and the Priest, Lehavdil, absolves the sin, says a few hail mary’s sends the perpetrator on their way and will never breach confidence.

It’s also not about Chabad. Don’t people read the internet? Modern Orthodox Rabbi Barry Freundel has pleaded guilty to secretly videoing some 57 women at the Mikva with secret cameras. Is he sick? Undoubtedly. Can he be rehabilitated? I don’t know. He will serve jail time. Does this paint all Rabbis as fetish-laden? Of course not.

Contrast this issue to the one about the “interfaith dialogue” we graphically saw and where Rabbi Ralph Genende as usual gushed forward with platitudes about how useful they were. Let’s look at the evidence AJN. What has ever changed because of these meetings. They were forbidden according to the scion of Modern Orthodoxy, Rabbi Yosef Dov Halevi Soltoveitchik for reasons which were absolutely sound then, and even more sound now. If it was a meeting to bring religions together to have a joint charity drive for the homeless,  or similar that’s fine. If it was about showing our religion to them and theirs to ours, what’s the point? Tolerance can be achieved without any interfaith dialogue as long as nobody considers us as monkeys behind trees that have to be killed. Was I blind, or did the AJN not notice that there was no muslim representative in the picture at that “feel good” meeting, or did I miss something.

Anyway, to make it clear, I usually do not agree with Rabbi Telsner but on some matters I don’t think he deserves the anti-religious excoriation meted out to him.

AJN and especially Rabbi Ralph Genende of the moderate left wing: check this out for a reality check while you read the Chazal quoted by Rashi הלכה עשיו שונה ליעקב. (Whiteout anyone?)

I’d love to hear the AJN and/or Rabbi Ralph’s commentary on this, or better still have his interfaith group muslim representative condemn this presentation from February 13th in Copenhagen as abominable in the extreme in the Western and Muslim Press.

Where did the oceans come from

[Hat tip RB]

http://www.scmp.com/news/world/article/1533108/vast-ocean-trapped-under-core-earth-scientists-say

בראשית ז י וַיְהִי, לְשִׁבְעַת הַיָּמִים; וּמֵי הַמַּבּוּל, הָיוּ עַל-הָאָרֶץ.  יא בִּשְׁנַת שֵׁשׁ-מֵאוֹת שָׁנָה, לְחַיֵּי-נֹחַ, בַּחֹדֶשׁ הַשֵּׁנִי, בְּשִׁבְעָה-עָשָׂר יוֹם לַחֹדֶשׁ–בַּיּוֹם הַזֶּה, נִבְקְעוּ כָּל-מַעְיְנֹת תְּהוֹם רַבָּה, וַאֲרֻבֹּת הַשָּׁמַיִם, נִפְתָּחוּ.

 

Breishis 7:10 And it came to pass after the seven days, that the waters of the flood were upon the earth. 11 In the six hundredth year of Noah’s life, in the second month, on the seventeenth day of the month, on the same day were all the fountains of the great deep broken up, and the windows of heaven were opened.

 

Here is a case where it has taken Science eons to “confirm” something in the Torah.  Actually, this is not all that new and scientists have known that huge amounts of water are found in underground silicates, maybe the source of most of the waters of the oceans.

Are you going to be a criminal?

The following article about the research of Adam Raine  which looks at biological predisposition and responsibility is fascinating. Based on the Rambam, I think that Judaism has always recognised that people are born with tendencies. Depending on the spectrum, one either douses the tendency as a life long struggle, or, where it’s stronger, is meant to divert the latent urge to something that is permitted. Lurking in the background, though, is public safety. Where that is an issue, as we know, one must do everything to protect the innocent.

ADRIAN RAINE SAYS HE CAN PREDICT IF YOU’LL BE A CRIMINAL

The future that psychologist Dr Adrian Raine predicts—from a civil liberties perspective, at least—falls somewhere between Philip K. Dick’s most outlandish speculations and a genuinely serious cause for alarm. Here are the basics: come 2034, with the economic cost of crime spiraling and the public sick of murder headlines, the US government introduces a program of mandatory brain scanning for 18-year-old men and women.

The scan cross-references every young person against a database of criminal genetics. It looks out for matches in three areas: violent assault, sexual assault, and murder. A score above 79 percent in the first category, 82 percent in the second, and 51 percent in the third will, in Raine’s dystopia, see the so-far-innocent 18-year-olds locked up in luxurious preventative “prisons.” Indefinitely. Until some kind of therapy reduces their score or they’ve been subjected to a Ludovico technique so many times that they flick their own kill switch.

Perhaps the strangest thing about all this is that Raine isn’t an Infowars-addled conspiracy theorist, but a tenured professor, working at Pennsylvania State University with 35 years’ experience studying the biological roots of crime. I met Dr .Raine a few weeks after the publication of his new book The Anatomy of Violence: The Biological Roots of Crime, and not long after some important new research, to talk about his theory.

VICE: Hi, Adrian. What’s happening in your field at the moment?

Adrian Raine: These two studies have just come out. One, I’m a co-author on. Both of them are very similar. The first focuses on the anterior cingulate cortex, a part of the brain that’s involved in emotion and decision making. What the researchers were doing was brain scanning a group of offenders about to be released. They found that if offenders had lower functioning in the anterior cingulate, they were twice as likely to reoffend in the next three years.

What was the second study?

That study was done by my group. What we documented there was that males with a smaller volume of the amygdala—which is the emotion part of the brain and generates feelings like conscience, remorse, and guilt—those individuals are four times as likely to commit an offence in the next three years. That’s over and above social background and a past history of violence—which we controlled for. Both studies are showing us that brain imaging can give added value in the ability to predict future criminal offending. A word of caution, of course—these are just the first two. They need replication and extension.

Isn’t it a bit morally dubious to keep someone in jail just because of their brain chemistry?

Well, take a step back. Every single day in England and America—and all countries throughout the world—we make probation and parole decisions. Which prisoners do we let out early because we don’t think they’re at risk of future offending, and which ones do we keep in? Every day we make decisions on their future behavior.

In California, for example, they take 20 indicators to try to predict dangerousness. They’re social and behavioral things. They’ll look at questions like what’s your age? At age 20, you know, that’s the peak age for violence. Age 60? You’re far less likely to be an offender. What’s your gender? Males are far more likely to offend. Do you have a job?

Dr Raine conducting a lecture on the intersection of neuroscience and crime.

OK, I see.

Imagine 20 indicators like that. But none of them are genetic or biological. What these studies I’ve just mentioned are showing us is that we could be adding in biological factors to enhance the parole and probation decisions we have to make on a day-by-day basis right now. If that research can be proven to be useful, isn’t it wrong not to use that information?

It’s a controversial area, though.

I’ve always been on the fringe of things. Back in the 1970s, when I started my research, the whole perspective on crime was exclusively social—bad homes, bad neighborhoods, that’s the cause. At that time, there was a controversy on IQ: is it partly genetic? That was really heated. But I thought, Well, if intelligent behavior could be partly genetic, then what about anti-social behavior?’

And the controversy followed you around?

Yes. In 1994, I was showing that babies with birth complications, combined with a bad home environment, triples the rate of violent offending in those children 20 years later. I was publicly called a racist. The paradox is that I did that study in Denmark, where the population is largely white. I was at a panel discussion when one commentator called me racist. I objected, then they called my research racist. Five minutes after that, protesters broke into the conference claiming it was all racist. This conference was on genetic links to crime—the protesters thought it would target ethnic minorities unfairly.

There is a history of genetics being used for racist means.

Yeah, there’s a danger here. Biology has been misused in eugenics, by Nazi Germany and others. So the work I do isn’t popular with everyone. The right wing doesn’t like it because they think it’s going to let violent offenders off the hook: “They’re not responsible, it’s bad brains and bad biology that cause them to become violent.” The liberals don’t like it either, because they’re concerned we might use neuroscience to start brain-scanning people—and what about the civil liberties implications of this? So you can’t win, really.

Dr. Raine conducting a lecture about predicting antisocial behaviour.

Do you think the right wing have a point? If people’s brains make them likely to commit crime, are they still responsible?

I’m a Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde on this issue. The scientist in me says, for some kids, they’re cast a bad hand, even aside from genes—and I say 50 percent of violence is genetic. Moms who smoke during pregnancy, that raises the odds of violence; drink caffeine, that raises the odds of violence; bad nutrition, that raises the odds of violence. A baby who has fetal alcohol syndrome—that baby is 19 times more likely to be convicted in later life. Dr. Jekyll says we can’t ignore that. Dr. Jekyll says we can’t ignore poverty and social factors. And when we combine them with biological factors, it’s almost like some kids are walking time bombs waiting to explode.

What about Mr. Hyde?

The Mr. Hyde in me rants and rages. Where is the responsibility here? Isn’t this a slippery slope to Armageddon, where there’s no responsibility and everyone’s going to have some excuse? I had my throat cut in Turkey on holiday in 1989, after a burglar invaded my room. That changed me. That changed my perspective on retribution. And that’s nothing compared to what other victims go through—rapes, homicide, pedophilia—so that really made me think about the victims. I felt the instinctive desire for an eye for an eye. I began to really recognize that we want people to be protected.

Which side, Jekyll or Hyde, is more powerful in you?

On balance, after 35 years of research, I’m more the Dr. Jekyll.

You talk about free will in your book. Doesn’t a biological basis for crime undermine the very idea of free will?

I think our legal system, which makes this assumption of free will, has got it completely wrong. Because, as I said, for some people the dice are loaded in life, even if we buy into the assumption of free will. OK, there’s free will, but some people have more free will than others.

I think it’s a spectrum. There’s a spectrum of free will, a spectrum of responsibility. Some of us are more responsible than others. Others are less responsible for their actions because of a conspiracy between genes, biology, and the early environment, including child abuse and poverty. It doesn’t make them destined to become a criminal felon, but it sure as heck raises the odds.

So how would you recommend our justice system changes to adapt?

I don’t know. I’ve talked about indefinite detention before in my book. One of the problems I have is that I can give the science, but I can’t make a decision for society. This is a question of, do we want to protect society? Or do we want to protect civil liberties? And what’s the balance going to be? From all the research I’ve seen, the best investment society can make in stopping crime and violence is investing in the early years of the child. The problem is that we have to wait 20 years for the payoff. And, in the lifespan of politics, that’s too long.

Thanks Adrian.

Leave Haredi enlistees alone!

Picture the scene. Terrorists are at loose in an area of Israel. The Army is conducting searches, door-to-door. The door of an apartment opens and some of the soldiers have dangling payos and scraggly beards. They are frum; they are Haredim who chose to enlist. The owners of the apartment themselves are Haredim. Would they protest? Would they tell the soldiers to go to the Beis Hamedrash instead, and leave it to the “chiloni” or “druze” enlistees to conduct the search and/or protect the apartment block from an incursion? I’d hope not. Why must they conclude that anyone with Peyos is רך הלבב? I’d say the opposite, these are גיבורי חיל.

Ah, but that’s at a time when people are thinking clearly. They can feel the palpable danger around them. In fact, I’ll bet they actually feel proud that Frum soldiers are performing a Kiddush Hashem by acting to protect the lives of their fellow Yidden.

What happens before that? These soldiers can’t just jump out of a Ketzos HaShulchan, with little to no training and assume an important protective or attacking role. There is training. It takes years. The training has been catered to be sensitive towards Haredi requirements. Haredim want the outcome, the protection, but they don’t want the training? Who learns a Ketzos before knowing Shulchan Aruch and the Gemora behind it? Do you introduce R’ Chaim Naeh to year three students? No, of course not. There is a period of preparation. In Torah it does take longer, but in the military, you also need an acceptable period of training, unless Haredim want to see keystone cops, so to speak, acting on their behalf?

I see this current period as one of re-alignment. It is no different to the current phenomenon of frum kids who are doing University courses on-line. Yes, University was not allowed for various reasons, but you can now do a program on-line if you can’t or won’t go to University and are not going to be a business person (IDB=In Dad’s Business). Not everyone is cut out, let alone has the acumen to become a Dayan, or Magid Shiur, or Rav of a Kehilla, let alone a great Melamed. How many people have we seen cause a Chillul Hashem, despite their long years in Yeshivos, because innately, they are simply not leaders suited to their jobs, and should be pursuing a different style of work, albeit remaining an ehrliche yid.

The shoemaker, R’ Yochanan HaSandler, wasn’t considered any less a giant because he was engaged in Olom Hazeh in an honourable way. We are meant to follow such Tanoim. He was R’ Akiva’s student, no less, and a contemporary of Rashbi.

This is why I find reports such as this one, utterly repugnant. Will Haredi incitement and pressure  solve any problems? Will that create more Torah more love between Jew and Jew? Just leave these boys alone. חנוך על פי דרכו is ever so critical and perhaps our failure to do so is part of why some leave the fold? Respect them!

I don’t see an Israeli government specifying that students study Spinoza or Amos Oz. They are specifying  studying the basics, and the basics  constitute a study of the Borei Olom and his Beriah. That’s what Science and Math are.

As Rav Kook said: on its own the basic sciences etc are just that. However, when coupled with Kodesh, they transform Kodesh to Kodesh Kodoshim, because they complete and enhance our understanding of the world. You wouldn’t make a Birkas HaTorah on them alone, but when coupled with  Kodesh, they lift Kodesh to Kodesh Kodoshim. I believe this idea is expressed by many in different ways. Mekubalim would probably refer to it as breaking down klipos, but I’m an ignoramus in the field of Kabbalah and Chassidus.

In a State, yes, it is a State, despite the reticense of so many to utter such a word,  you need garbage collectors, and police officer and nurses, as well as accountants and doctors and social workers, journalists with ethics, and psychologists. Especially when you are surrounded on all four sides by people who are literally an embodiment of

עומדים עלינו לכלותינו

It is only the foolish person who doesn’t learn from history (wasn’t yesterday Chaf Sivan?) who thinks they can hide under a rock or in a cave like Rashbi and make Yahadus thrive.

I have every confidence that Torah learning will continue to grow in quality levels and in measure. Those who want to fund institutions that won’t enforce the three R’s, go right ahead. It’s your right. I inclined to help a place that actually realises that it “lives in this world” both BeGashmius and BeRuchnius.

Why pursue the why?

When it comes to God, any answer to ‘why?’ is limited, by definition. Answers may approach the truth but The truth, is God Himself and only He knows and chooses when, how and what to transmit. This is an axiom. סוד ה’ ליראיו-the secret of God is [transmitted] to those who [truly] fear him-does not contradict this axiom.

Yet, it is part of the human condition to seek God, ולדבקה בו, and to attempt to approach him. We were created בצלם אלקים in the ‘image‘ of God. A similar transcendental urge that drives man to seek a wife, עצם מעצמי, because she is ‘derived’ from the rib of man himself, drives man’s pursuit of God. This pursuit takes place in spite of the axiom. It is no less than an irresistible magnetism sourced from spiritual connectedness. The pursuit defies logic and is materially translated into an axiology through Torah and Mitzvos.

Imagine training to run 100 meters in X seconds, where X was physically impossible, and you knew this to be the case. Would you train and improve and further train and improve with the ultimate aim of running in X seconds? Many would not. They would consider this a pursuit of folly. Even though we know we cannot reach Him, as Shlomo Hamelech said in Koheles 7:

אמרתי אחכמה והיא רחוקה ממני,

“I said that I am wise(r) and it is still remains distant from me”,

many of us still try. Trying isn’t defined by learning Torah and keeping Mitzvos. Trying also includes attempting to make sense of (rationalise, understand) the world around us and the sublime Heavenly purpose, through the prism of events that form our lives. For many, merely running the race in a time of X+Y, with Y>0, is worthwhile even if Y is somewhat large, because the exhilaration of approaching the time (essence) can itself constitute immense gratification. Using a different parlance, involvement with Kedusha is meaningful even if one cannot become completely Kadosh at the exalted Godly level.

Hurricane Sandy was a tragedy for many and represents a continuing challenge for those affected and those who assist in their rehabilitation. The pursuit of ‘Why’ in the context of the Hurricane is perhaps another expression of man trying to run the race in N seconds. Man seeks to reach a level of Godly truth and understanding. Man wants to know what he has done (wrong) to witness and experience such awful and awe filled ‘natural’ phenomena.

Recent medical research claim that during a time of trauma, MRI scans of the brain indicate significant interference with those components of the brain responsible for the transmission of speech. In one sense, this is the וידום אהרן phenomenon. When Aharon faced the untimely traumatic death of his sons, Aharon was silent. Perhaps current medical research argues that it was not simply a case of Aharon choosing not to speak; rather, Aharon was so traumatised, he simply could not speak.

In our world, there are professedly many self-styled experts who know via ‘Godly’ imbuement or a ‘conclusive’ deduction from textual sources, why Hurricane Sandy, or indeed any tragedy, was meant to be. Yet, these experts don’t seem to agree!

  • Rav Amnon Yitzchak is reported to think it is God huffing and puffing at America
  • Rabbi Noson Leiter is reported to think it is because of gay marriage proposals.
  • Rav Shteinman is reported to have advised the strengthening of keeping shabbos in order to protect against the effects of the Hurricane.
  • Mrs Katz notes that the Hurricane happened on the Chazon Ish’s Yohr Tzeit and cut out electricity. The Chazon Ish was known to be stringent on the indirect use of electricity on Shabbos.
  • Some organisations are reported to have sent emails that suggest it was because of Lashon Hara.
  • Some have been suing the Government over the Metzitza B’Feh issue. “Bright” sparks have attempted to linguistically connect the two issues in a distasteful manner והמבין יבין.

No doubt there are even more reasons, and new ones will emerge. At a time when people are suffering, and literally מעשה ידי טובעים בים drowning, is there really a need to engage in this attempt to run in less than those elusive X seconds? Is this the time to be spouting (sic) across the ether one’s “sure-fire” theory of why Hashem allows things to happen (הסתר) and/or causes them to happen.

I don’t think the trauma has really affected those who provide us with ‘here’s the reason for the hurricane’. If they had truly experienced trauma, their mouths may have been rendered silent, or in the least, speechless until recovery and renewal was in place.

As a lad, I remember seeing the Rosh Yeshiva, Rav Goldvicht ז’ל attempting to say a few words during the Yamim Noraim. For 15 minutes, he couldn’t get a word out. He just cried. He was overcome with shock, awe, regret and repentance. I watched on with incredulity. My reaction was silence. I simply hadn’t seen anyone unable to speak because the days were איום ונורא.

So, you might be thinking, okay Mr Chacham, what’s your “answer” to the “why”. Well, I don’t have any answers. Instead, I’ll quote the Etz Yosef on Shemos Rabba 8:2 referring to the hurricane-like wind storm that carried Eliyahu HaNavi up to the heavens.

סוסו של הקדוש ברוך הוא סופה וסערה.  דבר זה הוא מסודות התורה.

The horse (chariot) of God is a whirlwind and storm. This is [one of] the secrets of the Torah.

Postscript: I, of course, recognise that victims of such trauma will need professional counselling and support and those conversations may touch on the “why”. I do not believe, however, that any of the reasons attributed to those mentioned above will offer the magical healing panacea.

Science only strengthens belief

The world is abuzz with the implications of supersymmetry and Physics. Scientists continually seek to model the observable so that they can predict the observed. The uneducated or challenged see Science and Physics as a big bad rodent that diminishes belief in God. It is to be avoided at all costs, and only Sifrei Kodesh are relevant to the Jew. If and when Science fails to predict or fails to model faithfully, then the triumphalists claim that this is proof that Hashem exists. I’ve never seen it this way. I’ve always viewed such proofs as dangerous because they raise the pedestal of man, by according man with an axiomatic ability to actually fathom such issues. Judaism teaches us that Man is limited. That is the axiom. Watching man struggle to understand Creation is not a cause célèbre.

Man has done a pretty good job to date. The world we live in has been advanced incredibly by the imperfect models put forward by Science. Religion has benefited, as has one’s ability to keep Torah and Mitzvos! Your roof didn’t fall on you last night, and the addition of a second to the time, only caused momentary chaos on the internet. Life goes on.

Those who were blessed with the type of mind that is suited to the Scientific pursuit, have been blessed by God himself. They should not abandon such a blessing anymore that R’ Chaim Brisker should have abandoned his delicious categorical modelling of Halachic concepts.

For the religious Jew, Science brings him or her closer to Hashem through a deeper understanding of His majesty and impenetrable divinity.

In January of 1936, a young girl named Phyllis wrote to Albert Einstein on behalf of her Sunday school class, and asked, “Do scientists pray?” Her letter, and Einstein’s reply, can be read below.  (Source: Dear Professor Einstein; via Letters of Note)

The Riverside Church
January 19, 1936

My Dear Dr. Einstein,
We have brought up the question: Do scientists pray? in our Sunday school class. It began by asking whether we could believe in both science and religion. We are writing to scientists and other important men, to try and have our own question answered. We will feel greatly honored if you will answer our question: Do scientists pray, and what do they pray for?
We are in the sixth grade, Miss Ellis’s class.
Respectfully yours, Phyllis

Einstein replied:

January 24, 1936
Dear Phyllis, I will attempt to reply to your question as simply as I can. Here is my answer: Scientists believe that every occurrence, including the affairs of human beings, is due to the laws of nature. Therefore a scientist cannot be inclined to believe that the course of events can be influenced by prayer, that is, by a supernaturally manifested wish.
However, we must concede that our actual knowledge of these forces is imperfect, so that in the end the belief in the existence of a final, ultimate spirit rests on a kind of faith. Such belief remains widespread even with the current achievements in science. But also, everyone who is seriously involved in the pursuit of science becomes convinced that some spirit is manifest in the laws of the universe, one that is vastly superior to that of man. In this way the pursuit of science leads to a religious feeling of a special sort, which is surely quite different from the religiosity of someone more naive.
With cordial greetings,
yours A. Einstein