A disease in search of a cure
by Jonathan Rosenblum
August 13, 2004
Last Monday a new volume of the teshuvos of HaRav HaGaon Rav Yosef Shalom Elyashiv went on sale. Already by Wednesday, Maariv had a headline on the new volume: "Rav Elyashiv proclaims: cancer is a punishment for leaving religion."
According to the author of the accompanying piece, the chareidi world refers to cancer as "the disease that has no cure." The article went on to quote an excerpt from a responsa printed in the sefer, in which Rav Elyashiv wrote that it is not surprising to witness the spread of "the disease that has no cure" in our generation in which so many have cast off the yoke of Torah. To support that point, Rav Elyashiv quoted a maamar Chazal that states: "one who humiliates a talmid chacham has no cure for his illness", and added, "how much more so when the Torah and those who learn it are degraded."
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 article quoted at length from 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 haredi 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, Mrs. Siegel-Itzkowitz interviewed 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."
It should be clear that the one causing distress to those suffering from cancer was not the posek hador, chas ve’shalom, but rather the reporters from Maariv and 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.
The responsa published in the recent sefer was nothing more than an excerpt from a teshuva drasha given on a fast day. As an exhortation to teshuva (repentance), the Rav cited examples from the Gemara of a spiritual calculus behind certain afflictions. But that is far from explaining the calculus with respect to any particular individual.
Contrary to what the Maariv reporter wrote, cancer is not referred to in our society as "the disease without a cure", but simply as "yenner machala" (the other disease). There are types of cancers that cannot be treated and others that are diagnosed too late. These may truly be a disease without cure, but Rabbi Elyashiv never suggested for a minute that all cancers fall into that category. Rabbi Elyashiv is consulted regularly by both individuals and chareidi medical referral organizations about cases of individuals suffering from cancer. Needless to say, he knows very well that not only do many in our community suffer from cancer, but also that many of those cancers are successfully treated.
In some ways the most troubling aspect of this entire incident is that it reached the popular press at all. We can be sure that Maariv does not have anyone on its staff to review new collections of responsa, even those of Rabbi Elyashiv. If Maariv had an article on a specific responsa two days after the sefer appeared, then someone within our world must have immediately directed the Maariv reporter to the responsa in question.
Whoever did so knew full well that the Maariv reporter would completely misunderstand and distort what he was reading. Without that distorted reading, the responsa would have held no great interest for the readers of Maariv. The distortions that appeared in Maariv and the Post were fully predictable, and in fact were predicted by the person who leaked the responsa. That means that whoever did so has no concern with either the honor of the greatest living Halachic authority, or, even more importantly, the image of Torah in the world. (The Jerusalem Post article provoked a flurry of outraged responses from non-Orthodox Jews around the world, and puzzled queries from religious Jews.) Finally, I suspect that the tipster acted either for money or out of a desire for the honor no doubt showered upon him by the recipients of his tips.
Those who make a business of providing the secular media with tips of piquant stories that place the chareidi world and its leaders in a bad light are a disease, but they are not a disease without a cure. Whether they operate from the courtyards of gedolim, or from the chareidi press, or independently, it is about time that we ferreted them out and exposed them to the public scorn they so richly deserve.
Related Topics: Chareidim and Their Critics
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