Navonim - The Ramblings of Garnel Ironheart

Navonim - The Ramblings of Garnel Ironheart

Thursday, 24 December 2009

In The Ivory Tower

A couple of years ago I called a former teacher of mine to ellicit her advice on a particular diabetes drug that I had always used with good success but which was now getting some bad press.  Her first question back to me was "Lord Ironheart, why are you even using that?  Why don't you just put your patients directly on insulin?"
My answer was "Well, when you have a patient in hospital, you can do that.  You have a team of nurses, insulin educators and assistants to ensure the patient is taught, monitoring and ensured success with the insulin regiment.  I generally have 1.4 minutes to explain to the patient that they have diabetes, what diabetes is, and how they now need pills because if there's one thing they know it's 'I don't want the needle!'"
My former teacher is an excellent clinician and educator whose opinion is still important to my practice.  However, there is one essential difference between her and me (other than all those based on chromosomes).  She works in a large, well-resourced teaching centre.  I work in a small, private clinic.  Thus when guidelines for a particular condition come out she is in a position to ensure that all the minutiae are attended to.  I have to scramble to do the best I can with the limited resoures I have.  I understand the guidelines represent the best care but I have to provde the patient with the best care available in the real world.  As a result, she has no clue about how
I sometimes wonder if that hasn't happened to some parts of the frum community.  The more one isolates oneself from "the trenches", the greater the chance of losing touch with those trenches and forgetting that in the real world not all can be done in an ideal fashion, that sometimes doing the best one can has to be enough.
Yes, it would be nice to hold by every chumrah in the Shulchan Aruch.  In theory.  But as Homer Simpson, shlit"a, has noted: Yes, but in theory, communism works!  In the real world, there must be accomodations to changing circumstances, leniencies to handle difficult issues when necessary.  That's why the Shulchan Aruch brings more than one opinion on many issues and why the Mishnah Berurah doesn't simply give point form comments in his book.
Another danger of losing contact with the real world is that the subject of study becomes more and more theoretical.  Academic medical clinicians might know all the latest papers and guideline releases but, having not actually seen a patient in years, wouldn't realize how to adjust the approach to real circumstances.
And the danger of that happening in a moral system like Judaism is quite common, at least that's what it seems from the news recently.  What could possibly have happened, for example, to cause a prominent Rav who is undoubtedly a talmid Chacham to conduct himself as he did?  It's not like he was just another black hat in the 'burbs, after all.  His self-appointed job was, in fact, to ensure Jewish purity by making converts go through the strictest process before being able to join "the tribe".  Yet he stumbled in precisely this matter, willingly as it seems.
But this exposes two weakness of the human being that Judaism relies on.  One is the idea that a person will, upon studying the specifics of halacha, come to realize that the point of performance isn't simply to go through rote actions without feeling a sense of meaning but to raise one's neshamah closer to God who created it.  It's not the action itself that has the real value but rather the effect on the soul which is why the chachamim could say that we have no idea about the reward for each mitzvah
The other weakness is the conscience.  Quite simply, a proper observance of Judaism assumes a person has one.  A few months ago the topic du jour in the blogosphere was how classic halacha could never be used to run a modern society.  To a large extent, this is true what with the lack of rules around new forms of evidence not available in the times of the Gemara (please don't tell me Chazal knew about electronic surveillance!) as well as the increased complexities in the worlds of finance and property, just to cite a couple of examples.  But the real main reason why halacha would not work nowadays to run a country, to be blunt, is because it relies on the person's conscience to keep the system going.  The idea that punishment at the hands of Heaven is just as damaging as punishment from a human court is essential for the system to work optimally but even 1900 years ago, Rabban Yochanan ben Zakkai said on his deathbed: "People look around before they sin to see if anyone is watching but they never realize God sees all".  How much more so in our day when the foundational principle of the Western legal system is "It's only illegal if you get caught"!
Did this prominent Rav not have a conscience?  Had he studied Torah so much that it became a system of procedures instead of moral rules?  Each of us must constantly make a cheshbon hanefesh to ensure that we ourselves remember that God sees all our acts, writes all of our deeds in His book and that we are here not just to go through motions but to return the precious soul within us as purely as possible to our Maker.


Mordechai Y. Scher said...

Hmm. What do you mean, that 'classic halacha, could never run a society? So what form of Torah can? Because if you are saying 'halacha is behind the times, and therefore inapplicable', we have a serious philosophical problem about Torah and Judaism, no?

Maybe you could clarify?

Have you noted the work done by people like Rav Herzog, Rav Goren, Rav Rakover, Rav Yisraeli? Machon Tzomet? Rav Rappaport's symposia at Bar Ilan?

Reality forces me to agree that we're behind the curve (Rav Rappaport tries to address that), and not adapting/applying halacha well. That doesn't mean the halacha can't do the job. It means we need the courage and determination to do it.

Mordechai Y. Scher said...

As for L. Tropper, I think he and his associates were bullies and doing a great deal of damage even before the sex scandal came out. I think the far greater flaw was how he and his cronies treated previous converts and rabbanim with whom they disagreed. I find their entire enterprise distasteful, even without the personal scandal.

Off the Derech said...

Hhahaha. Try sharia law. I hear it works like a charm...

Garnel Ironheart said...

I think the expression "we're behind the curve" is a good way of putting it.
In some areas I will agree that halacha is up to date. In medicine and some modern technologies for example. However, in areas of civil and criminal law, not much has changed since the time of the Gemara. Laws of evidence haven't looked at cameras, video, etc. The concept of collateral damage, as well. The classic example is the one a rosh kollel once told me: if I sneak onto your driveway tonight and pull the oil plug in your car, when you go and start your car in the morning and the enginge explodes, what do I owe you in damages? According to the gemara, the cost of a new jug of oil, but who would be satisfied with such a verdict?
What about the internet, electronic commerce, auction sites where the laws of ona'ah might cause difficulties in completing transactions?
Let me be clear - I'm not saying it's not possible but you would need an universally recognized central authority like a Sandedrin to bring those areas of the halacha forward in time.

Mordechai Y. Scher said...

Ah, your last line clarifies it. Actually,I think it is two fold. I think those who can address the issues hesitate to do so in many cases. And creating a consensus or societal agreement may be damn near impossible at this point in time. But, like Rav Ariel who is making utensils for the future Mikdash, we should have more rabbanim like those I mentioned earlier who address the issues. It is happening actually, but on a small scale and lacking application.

Garnel Ironheart said...

The problem is that there can be no application right now. Only a Dati Leumi government could even contemplate a state running according to halacha. The seculars will never consider it and the Chareidim wouldn't know what to do with power other than divert even more money to their yeshivos.
Thus the need for Moshiach I guess.

ChaimJ said...

It sounds like you are making excuses for inadequate conduct in Halacha and medicine... (not that every chumra is good or even necessary)

Why should a patient trust you with their health or life, if you can not follow the best current medical advice because you can only give him 1.4 minutes to educate him?

Maybe you are in the wrong profession?

Rabbi Ben Hecht said...

Garnel's comparison of Halacha to his medical case suffers from one problem. In the medical example, there was a problem because the real world offers situations where the theoretical best solution cannot be applied. Really the patient should take insulin but because the patient is unreliable in taking the insulin, another medicine needs to be prescribed. No doubt, similar situations may emerge in the world of Halacha as it applies in the real world. Really, a certain behaviour is best but given the limitations we find in the real world another behaviour has to be undertaken. This, however, is not the only reason why Halacha applied in the realm of practical reality may be different than Halacha as applied theoretically. The difference may demand a different conclusion for positive value reasons.

Halacha is a system, a process of thought. When it is considered and contemplated in specific situations as theorized in the Beit Medrash a certain practice is determined as being correct, reflecting variant values. When these theories hit the real world, what can be found, also, is that the conclusions reached in a presumed theoretical environment are inapplicable pratically. This is not like saying we don't give the better drug because of the incompetance of the patient but more like arguing that the highest value demands a different drug in these circumstances. In other words, it is like saying that insulin itself would not work as well in this real life situation.

When Halacha hits the real world, it is often the very values and understandings of life and Torah that go through a reconsideration. For example, when the Chofetz Chaim supported the advancement of Torah education for women, he was arguing that this was the necessary step that had to be undertaken. It was not just that in the practical real world its okay to teach women in Torah although in the theoretical world of the Beit Medrash it was inappropriate. He was saying that what was appropriate in the theoretical world of the Beit Medrash was absolutely inapplicable in the real world.

This is the issue we face when poskim do not have a feel for what is happening in the real world. It is not the theoretical medical practioner who does not know about the incompetencies of patients. This person's conclusion is still the best answer theoretically and should be what should be done. In the world of Halacha, though, what is lost is potentially much worse. The theoretical answer is potentially not just practially problematic but even theoretically problematic given the circumstances. It presents the wrong teachings. It yields the wrong conclusions.

Rabbi Ben Hecht

Rabbi Ben Hecht said...

Part 2

Let me conclude by presenting an example from a question that was posed to me yesterday. It seems that someone called this questioner at 2:00 pm Friday afternoon to invite himself and his wife over to the questioner's house for Friday night supper. The questioner responded by saying he just had to check with his wife and then would get back to him. Without getting into all the details, the questioner then had a 45 minute fight with his wife before yielding to his wife's wishes and phoning back that it would be just too difficult to have them over this Friday night but if they need food for Shabbat, he would gladly go out to get it. (The person responded that it was
no problem, he had others he could call, he just wanted to go there.) The questioner was asking me if he was right.

With his question, he quoted many sources about chesed and regarding Avraham Avinu, all with the intent to show that theoretically we should be such baalei chesed that it would be no question to invite such a person calling Friday afternoon. He gave into his wife but he had feelings of guilt. My response was that he was correct to listen to his wife -- and not just for practical reasons. It also reflected a value consideration given the circumstances, circumstances of the real world. What is an orach, a guest? Is every time you invite someone over for a social visit a fulfillment of a mitzvah of hachnachas orchim? What message are you conveying to someone that it is okay to invite yourself over for Shabbat on a Friday afternoon? Emergencies is one thing but just like that without a recognition that you may be putting undo pressure on another especially the woman of the house who usually has the task of preparing?

The real world is the forum that God has presented us to bring out the true genius of Torah. The theoretical learning of the Beit Medrash is obviously important but we cannot be mistaken -- the application of Torah to the real world is a new dimension of Torah analysis that demands new sets of skill. The posek, the one operating in this realm, must understand the new value constructs that emerge in this realm.

Rabbi Ben Hecht

David said...

Well, you've hit on one excellent reason for not idolizing rabbanim.

As to the rest of it, I'd skip the Torah analysis (although, in point of fact, the hyperlegalistic nature of Orthodoxy frequently encourages its adherents to lose sight of the forest for the trees). The bottom line with the rav in question is that a megalomaniac is a megalomaniac, regardless of his religion. This guy used the Torah the way Mussolini used Italy.