The challenges of living and dying

In the latest New Yorker, a Dr. wrote an article called Letting Go: What should medicine do when it can’t save your life.  In this piece, the Dr. chronicles the terminal illness and death of a young woman from cancer, intermingling other stories of the terminally ill as well as anecdotes about modern medicine, hospice, and medicare.  The basic premise was that when it comes to death and dying, people tend to try to do everything possible, regardless of whether the experimental treatment will be beneficial, instead of being presented options and making choices that sometimes mean stopping curative treatment for palliative treatment/hospice.  The Dr. bemoans the fact that most doctors do not spend the time discussing with families the options about treatment with an eye toward what the patient and family really want.  Instead, doctors talk about treatment options and often avoid discussing the high likelihood that the treatment will be a failure and potentially just be harmful.  The message from the article is to know that everyone has the option of saying, ‘enough is enough,’ and opting for comfort instead of cure. 

I take issue with a few points in this article.  First, as often is the case with medically related articles, there was a lack of discussion regarding the role of psycho-social and spiritual support in talking with families.  Granted that most people would want to hear from the doctor, because doctors still have an air of authority around them.  Nevertheless, many of the challenges confronting people when they face life and death would well be served with people who would provide an ear to listen to the struggles, etc. 

Second, as a chaplain in healthcare, I hear many common refrains, which the article defends, such as; ‘I wouldn’t want to live like that, on tubes and things.  I don’t want to be a burden on others.’  I have often thought about end of life decision making on a personal scale.  While as I am healthy I can say I don’t want X,Y and Z, in considering what I would want if I were sick, I am not so sure I wouldn’t want life sustaining measures, even if the amount of time was negligible.  I believe that when we are faced with death at our doorsteps, many of us would sing a different tune.  I could be wrong, but often I wonder if our judgments about what is quality of life is skewed because of health.  This is also why many were claiming the new healtch care bill contained death panels.  The fear of end of life discussion making was that someone else, the government, would be dictating to me, the citizen, when I should die.  Now, the reality is that the conversation is important to have, and have and have and have.  People should occassionally rethink their advanced directives and living wills for perhaps the choices change as the circumstances change. 

I think articles like the one in the New Yorker are valuable.  Awareness of options is important.  Yet, I caution readers to consider what they would if in the same shoes as the article’s protagonist.  I think more would have opted for the course she took than would have said: ‘fine, I give up.  All I want is to be kept comfortable.’  This is especially the case when “young.”

Are the Gedolim misrepresented in literature?

A week ago, a story was reported by Ynet about a 14 year old in Israel who was going to be sitting the take the Rabbinate’s semicha exam (I first came across this at the Failedmessiah blog). In this past week’s HaModia, they reported on the same story.  One line stuck out at me.  HaModia reported that they had never encountered a 14 year old with such breadth and depth of knowledge to sit for semicha.  As I read those words, I turned to my wife and said, “Based on their statement, Artscroll biographies are all wrong.  Don’t they all begin by saying, ‘Rabbi X was an ilui and knew all of Shas by … age (under 10 usually).'”  I should also mention that HaModia publishes rabbi stories which also leave the same impression.  I find myself perplexed.  Of course, one could easily say that the editors of HaModia have never been exposed themselves to such a person but that many people were and are gifted like this person.

The travails of Jewish miseducation: Issues of belief 2

Marc Angel republished an article of his in the Winter Conversations journal, put out by his organization, the Institute for Jewish Ideas and Ideals.  In this piece, titled Reflections on Torah Education and Mis-Education, written in 2008 for Tradition, he decries the seeming miseducation of Jewish children because teachers are unaware of sophisticated, meaningful ways to answers challenging questions. 

He presents five case studies to prove his thesis.  In each of these stories, the common theme is that the Rabbis must be correct and any dissent is just completely wrong.  As with Rabbi Angel, those stories struck as me as sad but true.  I recall having heard some of the same responsed during my formative years growing up, attending a Chabad synagogue (though my high school education also was based on the ultra-rationalism of Mesora.org fame [which will require its own separate piece]).   Rabbi Angel then proceeds to explain how each of those cases can be handled in a competent, clear manner, with both respect to Hazal as well as the changes in understanding that have occured.  In each of these cases, he provides sources to rely on.  Of course, finding sources to back most opinions is not too difficult. 

In thinking about this article, I felt a sense of satisfaction in Rabbi Angel’s attempts to confront standard questions that repeat themselves in Jewish Education.  He doesn’t fault the teachers for teaching certain ideas, but he does fault them for not knowing how to respond to questions today.  Yet, something seems to be lacking from his perspective.  Going back to the previous piece on belief, answers are not always needed.  Sometimes questions will remain.  The reason answers are secondary is because the whole enterprise is secondary.  Belief takes a back seat to action for most people.  Sure, we pay lip service to the “tenets” of Judaism, regardless of whether we are talking about Maimonides’ 13 principles or some other system.  Yet, I would suggest most people who attend Orthodox synagogue tend to be more focused on checking off mitzvot than in contemplating theology or belief.  This is especially true when it comes to interpersonal relationships.  I happen to also believe that this is the correct approach.  Nefesh HaHayyim, the great Kabbalistic work of R. Chaim of Volozhin, the father of the Modern Yeshiva, discusses in his opening chapters about recognizing that all of our thoughts, actions and words, whether good or bad, have an effect on the divine realms (this is obviously not a unique theme to R. Chaim of Volozhin, but it is a source with which I am quite familiar).  However, he also cautions his reader that if we constantly dwell on the affects of our thought, speech and action, we will be immobilized and never accomplish anything.  I think the same can be said for belief.  Belief is important and can be a foundation for our actions.  Yet, when it comes to action, if we first were to consider our tenets, it would be detrimental and cause actions to be delayed or forgotten about. 

I should also state that I am not advocating for an Orthopraxy.  I advocate for the idea that beliefs, while important, are not primary.  If you look at my list from the previous discussion, you will see that the beliefs are general principles that are to guide the grand scheme of practice.  Specific aspects of belief on the other hand are important from an intellectual and philosophical stand point but should not be barriers to the true calling of following ritual and commandments, namely growing spiritually (we will discuss spiritual growth in a further piece). 

To conclude, let me return to the piece by Rabbi Angel.  I must commend him for writing such a thought provoking piece as well as for his other recent works, especially Maimonides, Spinoza and Us (of which I wrote a short review).  For many in our community, modern science and modern thought, whether popular or academic, offers challenges to “traditional” understandings of our texts.  As such, I do believe our educators need to be better prepared to handle these questions.  This is true whether the questions have answers or require a sincere response of “I don’t know, let us study this some more together.”  Of course, part of the problem is that “our” educators are often not “our” educators but come from communities that do not espouse a MO mindset (in whatever form that might be).  Just to add, all of the above about engaging questions and being up-to-date on contemporary challenges is a requirement for clergy regardless of career for people look to any Rabbi when contradictions arise.  It is not enough to be well-versed in Judaica. 

For the next installment, we will use another article from the same Conversations volume to discuss studying Bible today.  For those interested in looking ahead, see Torah min haShamayim: Conflicts Between Religious Belief and Scientific Thinking by Daniel Jackson. 

Arzei HaLevanon

The following was my presentation for Kinnah 21, Arzei HaLevanon. 

Tisha B’Av 5768 – August 10, 2008

 Arzei HaLevanon is the tragic poetic description of the 10 martyrs, the great Tannaitic rabbis executed by the Romans in the period following the destruction of the Second Temple.  In this anonymous qinah, we have the task of relating to brutal murder.  The great cedars of Lebanon, the strong in spirit, were cut down by the grand Roman Empire.  In general, the qinot we have recited year after year are not meant to be obscure, obtuse words we struggle to pronounce.  They are meant to elicit our emotions, to bring tears to our eyes and yet to leave us with a glimmer, not of hope, but of dignity.  Dignity is the ability, in the depths of despair, to find meaning and walk with our heads held high.  Most famously from the stories of the 10 martyrs is Rabbi Aqiba.  As he was standing, facing execution by iron combs, which would rip his flesh bottom to top, he kept a shred of his dignity, teaching his students: “All my life I was concerned with being able to fulfill the statement from qeriat shema, ‘And you should love your G-d with all your heart, all your soul and all your might.’  Specifically, how would I fulfill with all of my soul.  With all my soul I love G-d and feel unexplainable joy being able to truly show this love.”  Can we imagine what it means to laugh in the face of humiliating murder, whose goal was to destroy the soul as well as the body? 

            We have a history of martyrdom, of sacrificing our lives to avoid more devastating options.  This is Masada, this is the crusades, and this is the Holocaust.  We are challenged!  We are challenged to recognize that our leaders recognize that they are the exemplars.  The enemy could kill our bodies, but they couldn’t kill our souls.  As this is the day we remember all our myriads of tragedies, I want to illustrate and frame my words with two examples from 1800 years later, during the Holocaust.

            In July 1941, R. Elchanan Wasserman and other rabbis and students were taken from Kovno to the 9th fort, led to their execution.  It is told that R. Elchanan said that they must have proper intent.  “Let us walk with our heads held high.  Let no one think a thought that would disqualify his offering.  We are about to fulfill the greatest mitzvah, the mitzvah of sanctifying G-d’s name.”  R. Elchanan was stating that as sacrifices to G-d, wrong intent would negate the sacrifice.  In the face of certain death, he implored himself and others that our deaths should be mentally dignified if not phsycially.  R. Elchanan is following in the footsteps of Rabbi Aqiba.[1]  To best summarize the dignity of our martyrs, let me quote the words of the Piacezner Rebbe, R. Kalonymous Kalman Shapira, most well known for the derashot found of his in the Warsaw Ghetto, the Aish Qodesh.  In late 1941, in his derasha for Hanukah, he gave another of his many derashot about sanctifying ourselves for G-d.

            “This can perhaps be explained in a way that teaches us something of our own plight.  The terrible tortures Rabbi Aqiba endured cause such great suffering in his disciples that they were provoked to ask the same question that was asked by Moshe when he was shown the same event (menachot 29b): ‘Is this Torah and this its reward?’ The disciples were afraid that, G-d forbid, they might have doubts, however fleeting, as a result of their emotional and visceral response, and that their faith might be damaged.  They wanted their teacher, who was so powerful in his faith, to speak of his belief, so that his faith might inundate them.  When they asked, ‘Our Rabbi, how far,’ they were saying, ‘can you be our teacher thus far, even into the circumstances of this terrible death?’  Perhaps they did not articulate their question fully, or make it more specific, but merely hinted at it in order to avoid invoking the response that the Talmud (ibid.) says had already been given to Moses: ‘Be silent.’

            Rabbi Aqiba understood that the students were not questioning G-d but rather begging him to bestow upon them some of his faith, and so he told them something about himself and his own aspirations to faith: ‘All my life I was in pain over this verse…  Right now I have the opportunity to love G-d with all my soul.  Should I not grasp it?”

            The Piacezner continued later with words for those struggling to understand the world around them, giving a sense of dignity.

            “If only people would bear in mind that it is not because we robbed or we did anything wrong to anyone that we are being persecuted, but because we are Jews – children of Israel, bound to G-d and to his Holy Torah.  Firstly, it would explain why our enemies are not satisfied with just killing us or extinguishing the divine spark inside us but feel that have to annihilate simultaneously both body and soul of the Jew.  Then, if we could only bear it in mind, our faith and our cleaving to G-d and to the Torah would, on the contrary, burgeon and strengthen.  But because we tend to feel only our physical pain and not the spiritual pain, and because we fail to remind ourselves that what we are enduring is actually a war upon G-d and the Torah, therefore there are certain individuals who experience a weakening of their faith.”

            This qinah has the goal of invoking the cold blooded deaths of our people.  However, we must remember that while our bodies can be destroyed, we can’t.   


[1] Hidden in Thunder p. 451

Do you believe in G-d? Issues of belief in Judaism

Over Shabbat Chazon (July 16-17), I was reminded of a story that happened to me approximately 12 years ago.  While studying in Israel, the post-high school yeshiva I attended arranged for the students to attend a two day version of Aish HaTorah’s Discovery seminar, which is a week-long “Introduction to Judaism” kiruv program.  The seminar offers various arguments for the validity of Judaism, from Bible Codes to the compatibility of creation and evolution.  Its goal is to convince the unaffiliated or non-Orthodox that Torah Judaism is the only legitimate way to live. 

Being the skeptic that I am, during the two day seminar, I asked many questions of the presenters.  While some of the questions were simply out of frustration for the simplicity and superficiality of some of the “proofs,” all in all I thought that I was doing what was appropriate, namely getting my fellow students to think.  What ended up happening was a bit more fascinating from a sociological perspective.  When we returned to Yeshiva, I think about half a dozen of my friends had to make sure I was really a believer, so I kept being asked, “Do you believe in G-d?”  I recall that my answer was something to the effect that I believe in G-d not due to some philosophical proof, but rather because life did not seem coincidental.  Strange events have occurred that I believe just have to be guided by something higher.  In the years since, I have come to realize that the notion of proofs, something I was exposed to both in high school (see Mesora.org to get an idea of these “proofs” which I encountered during my teenage years) and subsequent, is for the most part silliness.  It is silliness because the argumentation becomes circular and the proof texts used are the ones that are being proven to be true. 

There is a quote by Rabbi Dr. Walter Wurzburger that has summed up my approach to the notion of philosophic analysis when it comes to G-d and religion:

To present history as objective evidence for the existence of G-d to a non-believer is an exercise in futility. Like most theological arguments, they are unnecessary for the believer, and useless for the non-believer. But, as we have already observed with respect to various other “proofs” of the existence of G-d, they are of great help to the believer in the quest to relate the insights of faith to the unfolding of the historic process (Rabbi Dr. Walter Wurzburger. G-d is Proof Enough (Devora: NY, 2000 66)).

It is unpopular to believe in something without empirical evidence.  This is perhaps part of the problem that OTD’s (Off the Derech people) face today.  They are correct that most answers provided to their philosophical and historical questions fall short.  Furthermore, the other side, the “heretical” side (or the “dark side” if you’re inclined in that direction) seems more intellectually appealing because if we discuss evidence, then that side has a stronger set of arguments.  Additionally, most rabbis, including the kiruv rabbis, don’t really know the latest findings or conversations in the academic world.  I grant that academia is biased as well, but for many, it is extremely compelling.  Instead, they give simple, silly answers that often backfire (for recent discussions of the issues of faith and the challenges of being Modern Orthodox see Torah min haShamayim: Conflicts Between Religious Belief and Scientific Thinking, by Dr. Daniel Jackson, and Reflections on Torah Education and Mis-Education, by Rabbi Marc Angel).

I think it is important, having said all the above, to also lay out how I view belief and dogma as it relates specifically to Judaism.  In short, I do believe there are basic tenets of Judaism, regardless of the various arguments on both sides.  These premises are not as comprehensive as Rambam.  They boil down to the following, as laid out by Tanach and Hazal (for Hazal do provide certain basic tenets):

1.  Exodus 20:2 – I am the Lord your G-d who took you out of Egypt… – This verse is the acceptance of a higher power in relation to our collective history.  Since G-d is the moving force of history, issues of what G-d is or isn’t become irrelevant.  In other words, questions like, Can G-d create a rock he can’t lift, become merely mind games.  These questions should have no effect on our day to day worship.   

2.  Pirqei Avot 1:1 – Moses received the Torah at Sinai – The Sinaitic experience was some sort of climactic moment in which the Judeo-legal and ethical system was revealed to the Earth.  The how and what of revelation become secondary to the concept of a revelatory experience.  This eliminates the questions about the historical event as well as removes the challenge of Documentary Hypothesis or Ancient Near Eastern influences.  It is not Hazal that dictate a pristine Torah from Sinai without a single mistake.  The exactness of the text might be assumed but then again, the way texts were read in the Talmudic and pre-Talmudic times, it is hard to fully engage such a notion.  Today, with the conclusiveness of the Torah containing linguistic layers, etc. it becomes challenging to concretely claim absolute single authorship at a single moment.  I remain non-committal on the exactitude of TMS (Torah M’Sinai). 

3.  Sanhedrin 11:1 – All Israel have a place in the world to come…those who don’t believe in the resurrection of the dead have no place in the world to come – There will be some form of utopian society, we hope and pray, and perhaps a means of regenerating life from after death (though whether that life form will be the exact us is part of the question – Genetic engineering could recreate the physical presence but not necessarily the non-physical which constitutes the rest of self).  This tenet is most difficult to fathom from a scientific perspective, but it is needed as part of the system. Having a picture of life after death and potential reward provides incentive for further growth and motivation.  Franz Rosensweig stated in the beginning of The Star of Redemption “From death, from the fear of death arises all knowledge of the All.”  I look at death and dying as a motivator to take advantage of doing valuable things for the world and for humanity, not as an opening for hedonism. 

These basic tenets provide a framework for which I practice Judaism, following halacha and the Jewish traditions.  Coming back to the beginning of my story, if I am committed to Jewish life and recognize a relationship between humanity and the divine, how important are the philosophical specifics or the exact number of dogmatic statements with which I agree or disagree?  Can anyone know what another truly believes, especially by assuming that questions asked must mean knowledge already accepted?  Belief tends to contain various ambiguities and little exactitude.  As such, to assume you can garner what is in a person’s heart because of questions asked is arrogance.  We are taught to question and investigate.  One doesn’t die from a question.  And yet, when we ask questions, we are either looked at as heretics or given some rehearsed or outdated response.  Walking away from the Discovery seminar after the second day, I was quite angry, feeling that I was misunderstood because I thought the goal was to challenge, not accept with blind faith.  I now feel sorrow.  I am sad that Judaism as I have come to engage it thinks it needs exact answers and if it can’t find the answers will attempt to deflect the questioners away instead of admitting “I don’t know.”

This is what being clergy is all about

I began reading Mitch Albom’s latest book, Have a Little Faith, yesterday.  In it, Mitch recollects two stories, one about his own journey together with his childhood rabbi just years before the rabbi died.  The second is about an African American from Brooklyn who also is searching for faith after running into trouble with the law.  In the vignettes describing his conversations with the Rabbi, Mitch quotes the following story, which I feel sums up the experience of being clergy.

Do you ever get a call from someone who isn’t a member of your congregation?

“Certainly. In fact, two weeks ago, I got a call from the hospital.  The person said, ‘A dying woman has requested a rabbi.’ So I went.”

“When I got there, I saw a man sitting in a chair beside a woman who was gasping for breath. ‘Who are you?’ he said. ‘Why are you here?'”

“‘I got a call,’ I said. ‘They told me someone is dying and wants to speak to me.'”

“He got angry. ‘Take a look at her,’ he said. ‘Can she talk? I didn’t call you. Who Called You?‘”

“I had no answer. So I let him rant.  After a while, when he cooled down, he asked, ‘Are you married?’ I said yes.  He said, ‘Do you love your wife?’ ‘Yes,’ I said.  ‘Would you want to see her die?’  ‘Not so long as there was hope for her to live,’ I said.”

“We spoke for about an hour.  At the end I said, ‘Do you mind if I recite a prayer for your wife?’ He said he would appreciate it. So I did.”

And then? I asked.

“And then I left.”

I shook my head.  He spent an hour talking to a stranger?  I tried to remember the last time I’d done that.  Or if I’d ever done that.

Did you ever find out who called you? I asked.

“Well, not officially.  But, on my way out, I saw a nurse who I remembered from other visits.  She was a devout Christian.  When I saw her, our eyes met, and even though she didn’t say anything, I knew it was her.”

Wait.  A Christian woman called for a Jewish rabbi?

“She saw a man suffering.  She didn’t want him to be alone.”

She had a lot of guts.

“Yes,” he said. “And a lot of love.” (p. 65-66)

I think I will let this vignette speak for itself. 

 

Avoid depression – Don’t be fooled

A statement of the Baal Shem Tov that is recorded in the Tzavaat HaRivash:

Sometimes the yetzer hara deceives you by telling you that you committed a grave sin when there was really no sin at all or [at worst you violated] a mere stringency. His intent is that you should feel depressed as a result thereof, and thus be kept from serving the Creator, blessed be He, because of your depression.

You must understand this trickery, and say to the yetzer hara: “I will not pay attention to the stringency you referred to. You speak falsely, for your intent is but to keep me from His service, may He be blessed. Even if there really was a degree of sin, 1 my Creator will be more gratified if I do not pay attention to the stringency that you pointed out [to me] to make me depressed in His worship.

“In fact, I will serve Him with joy! For it is a basic rule that I do not think the Divine service to be for my own sake but to bring gratification to God. 2 Though I ignore the stringency you mentioned, the Creator will not hold it against me, because I do not pay attention to it only so that I will not be kept from His service, blessed be He. For how can I negate His service, even for a moment!”

This is a major principle in the service of the Creator, blessed be He: avoid depression as much as possible. 3

In our lives, we often convince ourselves that something which happened is worse than it really is.  Once that occurs, the consequences are terrible.  It becomes easy to spiral further down once sadness enters our psyche. 

In looking at this piece of the Baal Shem Tov, its seems to be a primary text about Hasidic thinking.  Much of early hasidut revolves around Devequt, connecting to G-d.  While this is not the only element of hasidic thinking, it plays a major role.  With that said, one of the common challenges of Devequt is the warding off of depression.  Remedies include the famous words of Rebbe Nachman, that it is a mitzvah to always be happy.  One of the reasons for this constant need to be happy is that in order to connect with G-d, one must be in an ecstatic state, not a depressed, qatnut state.  Additionally, as has been documented in many studies, many Hasidic rebbes suffered from depression, often of the manic-depressive variety.  As an example see Zvi Mark’s “Madness, Melancholy and Suicide in early Hasidism,” Kabbalah 12 (2004) 27-44.  I specifically mention this piece by Mark, who has also worked specifically on psychological issues in Rebbe Nachman for it encapsulates the challenges of being Rebbe as well as issues of depression among Hasidic masters.