Why Bother Debating?
Reflections on a Draining Session with Secular North Americans Jews
Two weeks ago, I was invited to participate in a panel discussion for a group of post-university students from the U.S. and Canada who are contemplating aliyah. The topic was "State and Religion in Israel," and the panel included an activist from the Reform movement and a Modern Orthodox educator.
I returned home after two and a half hours completely drenched, wondering why I had gone and whether anything positive could possibly come from such a debate.
I doubt most readers of Mishpacha can even imagine the chasm between us and secular North American Jews. We barely have a common language or any shared assumptions. For us, "who is a Jew" is determined by very specific halachic criteria, and the question of "What are the obligations of a Jew?" can only be answered by recourse to the Written and Oral Torah.
For them, a Jew is anyone with Jewish blood who "feels Jewish," and the concept of obligations is foreign. Instead they prefer such vagaries as "raising a Jewish family" or "living Jewishly," defined by each individual Jew for him or herself. For reasons that I will not detail, I have never felt so intensely the truth of the Chazon Ish's pithy line, "What they call a great love story is for us an issur kareis," as during that panel discussion.
I knew from ample past experience on such panels that I would be on the defensive from the very start. The main topics are almost guaranteed to be army service and the economic dependence of the chareidi community. And indeed, in the moderator's introduction, she mentioned that the participants had already heard a lot on these topics from previous speakers.
In any debate, the preferred strategy is to be able to answer your opponent according to his own premises -- l'taamo. That is very hard to do with respect to the question of army service. From the secular point of view, there clearly exists some form of inequity. And the fact that most of the chareidi community does not eschew receiving state benefits, while not participating in the most onerous form of national service, only sharpens the question.
To explain our position, then, requires an entire introduction to the chareidi worldview of how Hashem relates to the world and the effect of Torah learning on that relationship. It is an introduction for which most of that audience did not possess a frame of reference.
So if the chances of winning the debate or convincing any large number of participants are minimal, why would I put myself through the unpleasantness? The least important reason for participating is the chance to reframe some of the issues to which they have already been exposed, and thereby mitigate the animosity. Just putting a human face on the chareidi community may have some purpose, though for that I would have sent someone younger and better-looking.
More importantly, any such forum provides an opportunity to present ideas that most of these young Jews have never heard. Torah min HaShamayim, the view that the pipelines of Divine blessing to the world are either opened or closed according to our actions and Torah learning, the immutability of Torah and that rabbis are not free to do whatever they want -- these were new concepts to most participants. I wanted them to understand that Judaism is not whatever any Jew wants it to be, but based on the Torah, Hashem's Word.
To make the abstract real for them, I described why someone coming from a background not so different from theirs might leave that world, at the pinnacle of success, to join the chareidi world. What could possibly motivate a young Jew, like them, to make such a leap? Of course, this did not have much to do with our given topic, and my Reform opponent complained, justly: "We are supposed to be discussing 'state and religion' and he keeps talking about 'Hashem and Torah.'"
At any given point in time, most Jews are not prepared to consider changing their lives in a major way. But in any group of forty or fifty, there will always be one or two who are in a state of personal flux, and one hopes to find the right words to hit them between the eyes.
Many of those young Jews -- relatively committed by North American standards -- have never even been in synagogue on Shavuos, if they have ever heard of the holiday at all. If all I did was to give them some vision of Maamad Har Sinai as the central event in human history, it will have been worth it.
Did I succeed? It's always hard to know. But when I arrived home, there was a message from one of the participants asking whether he could come for a Shabbos. Hopefully, he'll bring others.
Finding a Mussar Mentor
Recently, I rejoined a morning shiur that I had attended for many years. The primary attraction was that the shiur had just started Mesillas Yesharim for the mussar segment. Though I have learned Mesillas Yesharim (or at least the opening chapters) many times, the chance to learn it with this particular maggid shiur was irresistible, for he is a walking Mesillas Yesharim.
I have not been disappointed. His inferences from a close reading of every word (after all, the Vilna Gaon famously said that there is not an extra word in the first eleven chapters), his palpable excitement in sharing the insights of the Ramchal, and the model that he provides of what a Torah Jew can aspire to be leave me feeling genuinely uplifted at the beginning of each day.
The shiur got me thinking. I am nearly sixty years old. I was privileged to spend many years in yeshivah and kollel, and through my biographies and other work I have spent much time with great Torah scholars, both living and no longer living. And yet this twenty minutes of mussar every morning with a rebbi who has perfected his middos to an astounding degree has had a profound effect on me.
How much more so, then, is it crucial that our sons have a similar experience during their years in yeshivah. As parents, one of our primary duties is to do everything possible to ensure that each of our sons not only hears shiur from great talmidei chachamim, but that they have a personal relationship with at least one figure who causes them to think to themselves, "He represents ha'adam (the human being) for whom Hashem created the world," and inspires them to be like him.
Who's Brain Dead?
Barbara Olevitch, Ph.D., has written a frightening article on the slippery slope of medical ethics relating to end-of-life issues titled "Is 'Brain Death' Brain Dead?" The concept of "brain death" was first developed by an ad hoc committee at Harvard Medical School in 1968. The immediate impetus for the discussion was the first human heart transplant the preceding year. Since hearts begin to deteriorate as soon as they stop beating, human heart transplants depend on the use of hearts that are still beating.
In short order, the criteria for "brain death" were written into statutes worldwide. A fierce halachic debate also developed, with some arguing that a fully brain-dead person is the functional equivalent of someone who has been decapitated.
Olevitch adduces a great deal of recent research demonstrating that supposedly "brain-dead" patients are not. Dr. Alan Shewmon, a neurologist, whose research has been relied upon by the President's Council on Bioethics, found that patients who met every criterion of brain death still showed evidence of the integration supposedly absent in brain death: their organs still functioned together; they were able to regulate their body temperature; and their bodies healed wounds, responded to infections, and grew proportionately.
Dr.Robert D. Truon and Dr. Franklin G. Miller, writing in the New England Journal of Medicine (August 2008), concluded that the concept of brain death had "never been fully convincing. The definition of brain death requires the complete absence of all functions of the entire brain, yet many of these patients retain essential neurologic function, such as regulated secretion of hypothalamic hormones.... They digest and metabolize food, secrete waste.... [T]hey can survive for many years."
But rather than abandon the brain death criteria, medical ethicists have argued instead that the requirement of death itself should be abandoned as a condition of organ donation, as long as there is consent by someone duly authorized. Familial consent has long been the determinative factor anyway, argues Dr. Truong. Between 60 and 90% of ICU deaths take place when doctors and relatives decide enough is enough and remove ventilation. The patient is given morphine to suppress breathing just in case he or she would continue spontaneously breathing after the removal of the ventilator.
And thus are living human beings turned into objects "to be harvested for the greater good."