Reading Rav Elyashiv
by Jonathan Rosenblum
August 18, 2004
Few statements are guaranteed to enrage the Israeli public more than those made from time to time by religious figures attempting to explain the Divine calculus behind a particular tragedy.
If secular Jews are outraged by such comments, religious Jews are dismayed by what they view as a distortion of basic Jewish teachings. One recoils from the vulgarity of those who would reduce G-d to their level and suggest that they have instant access to His mind. The entire book of Job stands as a warning against facile attempts to adduce another’s spiritual status from what happens to him.
True to form, last week’s headline in Maariv, "Rav Elyashiv proclaims: cancer is a punishment for leaving religion," triggered widespread anger in the non-religious world and confusion in the religious world. The author of the piece helpfully explained that in charedi society cancer is referred to as "the disease without a cure." He then quoted a purported responsum of Harav Hagaon Yosef Shalom in which Rabbi Elyashiv referred to a maamar Chazal that states, "one who humiliates a talmid chacham has no cure for his disease." Rav Elyashiv added that if that such punishments flow from treating a talmid chacham disdainfully, how much more so one who treats the entire Torah disdainfully.
Two days after the Maariv article, the Jerusalem Post ran the headline, "Rabbi slammed for saying cancer is punishment." The Post’s health reporter, Judy Siegel-Itzkovich’s lead paragraph reported the Israel Cancer Association’s "shock and dismay" over Rabbi Yosef Shalom Elyashiv’s statements that "cancer comes as a ‘punishment’ to people who ‘distance themselves from religion’ and that there is ‘no cure’ for the disease.
The Post article quoted at length Miri Ziv, the director-general of the ICA. Ms. Ziv said, "Cancer is not a punishment, and there is no reason to throw blame on and make it difficult for cancer patients. Struggling with cancer is difficult enough for them and their families." She added her advice that instead of causing distress to cancer patients, Rabbi Elyashiv should have encouraged "those who need help and prayers for recovery." Ms. Ziv further noted that cancer "does not skip over" the religious and chareidi populations.
Siegel-Itzkovitz also interviewed Professor Eliezer Robinson, an Orthodox oncologist and chairman of the ICA, who rightly expressed his doubts that Rabbi Elyashiv had made any such remarks. Robinson went on to detail how early diagnosis and treatment had increased the recovery rate from cancer to 50% for adults and 80% for children. Finally, Siegel-Itzkowitz spoke to the head of a well-known religious organization dealing with children with cancer, who described himself as "most upset by the statement that there is no cure for cancer." He added, "We have taken care of many children who have been cured of cancer and have married and had their own families." As soon as the Post article appeared, irate responses began to pour in from around the world from non religious Jews.
The obviousness of Ms. Ziv’s observations should, in fact, have alerted those who rushed to condemn Rav Elyashiv that he meant nothing remotely resembling what they thought he meant. Rav Elyashiv did not need Ms. Ziv to teach him that cancer does not skip chareidim. He is consulted regularly by individuals and chareidi medical referral organizations about cancer cases. It is safe to say that most of those cases involve chareidim, some of them renowned tzaddikim. Certainly the Rav did not attribute the deaths of those tzaddikim or the close members of his own family lost to cancer, to their lack of respect for talmidei chachamim.
Nor did it escape a genius of Rav Elyashiv’s stature that many cancers are cured. Contrary to what Maariv reported, "the disease that has no cure" is not a chareidi code for cancer. Rather it is invariably referred to simply by the Yiddish term "yenner machala" (the other disease). There may be types of cancer for which there is as of yet no cure, and others that are detected too late to be treated. But one, and certainly not someone such as Rav Elyashiv, who spends much time counseling cancer patients and davening for them, thinks that all cancers are untreatable.
It should be clear that the one causing distress to those suffering from cancer was not the greatest halachic authority of the generation, but rather the reporter from the Jerusalem Post, who, wittingly or unwittingly, distorted his words beyond recognition. Anyone with even the slightest familiarity with Rav Elyashiv’s manner of speaking knows that he would never profess to know the reasons for the afflictions of any particular individual.
Rav Elyashiv's so-called responsum was, in fact, nothing more than excerpts from an oral teshuva drasha delivered on a fast day to an audience composed exclusively of chareidim. His words of exhortation were directed to them.
The typical chareidi impulse is to train the judgmental impulse primarily at oneself. The Brisker Rav, one of the most revered figures of the previous generation, was fond of pointing out that prophet Yona admitted immediately that he was the cause of the huge waves engulfing the ship. Though he was on a ship filled with idol worshippers, at whom it would have been easy to point the finger of blame, Yona knew that G-d directs His messages primarily to those who have trained themselves to listen.
Every religious Jew believes that a spiritual calculus underlies the events of this world. That belief is restated twice each day in the recitation of the second paragraph of Shema. Rav Elyashiv did nothing more than point out one aspect of that spiritual calculus based on the words of the Gemara.
But as Rabbi Moshe Chaim Luzzato, one of the greatest Jewish thinkers of the last 400 years, writes in Daas Tevunos, we can at most know the general rules of that spiritual calculus, not how those rules apply in any specific case.
Related Topics: Chareidim and Their Critics
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