Sunday, December 31, 2006

Guest book and introduction

Shalom and greetings. This page contains this blog's (draft) policies. It also serves as a guest book: If you are not inclined to comment elsewhere, would you please be so kind as to "sign in" as a visitor with a brief comment to this post.

Orthodoxy: Click here for the main Quicksilver blog. This version of Quicksilver is designed for those Orthodox readers who would like to avoid references and external links to non-Orthodox sources. The rabbinic sources here are Orthodox, with rare exceptions for information or critique purposes. At the suggestion of an Orthodox group, I have set up this more Orthodox version of my main site as an experiment. It is incomplete and it might not be sustainable. In any event, I welcome comments about the wisdom and/or design of this more Orthodox version of the Quicksilver blog.

Comments: Your comments add greatly to the quality and character of this Quicksilver: blog. Like the posts, your comments will hopefully further the study and discussion of topics congruent with this blog’s emerging character. These topics include: Jewish law and ethics, Torah, environmental and health policy, business ethics, bioethics, social justice, political economy and technology. Comments in the spirit of free-ranging debate, creative personal expression, and frank critique are most welcome! However, comments will be deleted (or edited) if they denigrate individual character. So please let me know if you have any concerns about specific posts or comments.

Confidentiality: The anonymity of sources will be respected in the Quicksilver blog. Accordingly, I will edit/omit comments that may divulge an anonymous source (including yours truly). However, unless you are Karl Rove, I am not confident that I would go to jail to protect a confidential source!

Halakhah (Jewish law): the posts and comments here are not intended to serve as advice on halakhah and not for practical observance. This is true, especially since I am often posting about the daf yomi whereas halakhah is not based simply on the Talmud. This disclaimer goes without saying, but let it be said.

Again, welcome!

Kaspit כספית

Thursday, July 07, 2005

Jewish blogs: Protests against ourselves, our communities or our world?

How do we find a balance in pushing for integrity in our own lives/families, our various communities, and the larger society? In a recent daf, a tradition is brought down in the names of four rabbis:

Whoever has the ability to protest against their household – but does not protest – is punished for the sins of the household.

Whoever has the ability to protest against their community [1] – but does not protest – is punished for the sins of the community.

Whoever has the ability to protest against the entire world – but does not protest – is punished for the sins of the entire world.” [2]

Among Orthodox Jewish bloggers, I have found relatively few who protest consistently as Jews with politics beyond the Jewish world. I’d like to learn about those who deal with the concerns of "the entire world" [2].

A special thanks goes to long-time Jewish activist, and recently author of a Jewish blog, Richard Schwartz Ph.D. who mentioned this Quicksilver blog in a message to COEJL’s Kol-Chai listserv. He has been active on Jewish and Israeli environmental issues for a long time. He is now blogging on Jewish vegetarianism, an interest that he forcefully links to environmentalism. Never stop protesting RS!

Knee deep in the deep muddy.… Push on!

Kaspit כספית

[1] Lit. "city"
[2] Rabbis Rav, Chanina, Chaviva, and Yochanan/Yonatan. Source: bShab 54b, translation based on Artscroll. In the Talmud, "the entire world" presumably means the Jewish world so I have taken liberties to broaden the implication.

Wednesday, July 06, 2005

Stem cell research and cloning: Jewish law and Judeo-Christian bioethics?

In what ways, if any, ought halakhah (Jewish law) and ethics take into account Christian ethics in responding to secular demands for new technologies?

In the latest issue of First Things, Eric Cohen argues that Jewish ethicists should not merely consider Christian ethics, Jews should actively adopt and pursue a Catholic agenda on bioethics. Cohen comments on three bioethics debates. On cloning, which Catholics oppose, Cohen criticizes halakhic views: “The Jewish defense of cloning strikes me as woefully misguided—a deep misunderstanding of what it means to participate as husband and wife in the creation of new life.” He argues that “the Jewish defense of cloning is a perversion of something more genuine: the special meaning of procreation within Judaism, and what it means not only for the human family in general but for this particular human family.” On in vitro fertilization, Cohen allows that halakhic concern for procreation and Jewish survival does justify IVF, which Catholics oppose. Still, Cohen appreciates the Catholics’ consistency and “their more universalistic wisdom.”

On embryonic stem cell research, Cohen criticizes the Orthodox Union (OU) and other experts in halakhah (Jewish law) who support stem cell research. He praises the opposing opinion of J. David Bleich (whose position is published on-line). Cohen argues that more Jews, like Bleich, should join Catholics in opposing embryonic stem cell research. He concludes that: “… on most things that count—including embryo research—faithful Jews should stand alongside their Catholic friends as Judeo-Christians, opposing together the imageless image of man that secularism offers. I only hope that my Jewish friends, for Jewish reasons, will become more reasonable than they sometimes are.”

Note that Cohen thinks that the halakhah ought to strategically adopt “Judeo-Christian” positions in common cause against secular values. [1] In the halakhic controversy over artificial insemination, R. Jacob Breisch pursued a similar strategy, insofar as he opposed AI partly on the grounds that (even) the Catholics viewed AI techniques as abominable and disgusting.

Using a typology I found in our daf yomi Talmudic readings, I would characterize Cohen as espousing a “Judeo-Christian” strategy of resistance to modernity and technology. (Cp. Peter Berger, The Heretical Imperative, on Karl Barth’s neo-orthodoxy.)

Alternatively, by accepting stem cell research, the OU and other Jewish leaders are adopting – at least in this case – a strategy of accommodation to modernity and technology.

A third alternative would be a strategy of retreat. (Retreat not as surrender but as withdrawal.) This strategy may be exemplified by R. Moses Feinstein. In Dibros Moshe, R. Feinstein argued against R. Breisch (above) on artificial insemination. R. Feinstein replied that halakhah shouldn't be shaped by Catholic views because then halakhah would have to check Catholic positions in many areas, change as they change, always adjust to non-Jewish opinion. This slippery slope argument makes sense. Instead, R. Feinstein implies that Jews ought to look inwardly at halakhah without reference to either secular or Christian viewpoints. This approach to halakhic reasoning also seems to be shared by R. Gil Student. In Hirhurim, he roundly rejects Eric Cohen, saying: “In other words, in order to oppose the secularists, we need to take a religious stance. So let's take the Catholic position. Huh? Let's take the Jewish position, wherever that leads us! Being "Judeo-Christian" is not an end in itself. When it happens that there is a mutual position, we can join forces with our Catholic friends. When not, we respectfully part ways and follow our religion.” In other words, ignore the Others and first find our authentic voice.

Personally, I feel much kinship with a strategic retreat from both secular and Christian discourses. But is retreat and neutrality possible? Is it feasible to publicly articulate a Jewish position that ignores the Christian and secular views? After all, these are the dominant discourses that frame the key questions and set the terms of public debate. Perhaps one could retreat into an isolated, purely Jewish world. At least in the U.S., though, once one engages with public opinion on this topic, isn't one infiltrated and affected by Christian language and its normative meanings? It’s likely that no Jewish position can exist outside of the broader normative context. Can rabbis (even the most charedi) avoid positioning themselves in relation to the dominant voices of Catholics etc? I suspect that there is no neutral ground. In a world of inter-penetrating boundaries of communication and language, retreat cannot be predicated on isolation. Therefore, each halakhist may need to be acquainted with secular and Christian viewpoints and, for their public halakhic reasoning, to judge who to accommodate and who to resist.

Well, these are my tentative thoughts. To sustain this analysis, I suppose, would require a fuller account of halakhic reasoning. To what degree is halakhah derived mechanically from rules, precedents and codes? What is the scope of judicial discretion in Jewish law, and how might such discretion account for the opinions of others? But I will retreat from such demands, at least until the next post from,

Yours truly,

Kaspit כספית

[1] Cohen says: “The term ‘Judeo-Christian’ has entered our civic vocabulary for good reason. On many of the deepest issues of human life—the meaning of sex, the dignity of the family, the creation of human beings—Jews and Christians stand together against the secular image of man.”

Thursday, June 30, 2005

Spurious correlations re: thimerosal vaccines and Sabbath law

With articles by the New York Times, CNN, and RF Kennedy Jr. [1], people keep asking whether autism is triggered by vaccines with mercury-based thimerosal. Here's a partial reading of the debate from a Jewish standpoint.

The debate about vaccines and autism requires us to judge correlations. For instance, does the onset of autism correlate to thimerosal vaccinations? More importantly, does the incidence of autism rise and fall with the level of mercury-based vaccinations in a population? Maybe there's data to support these correlations.

But are these spurious correlations between thimerosal and autism? Unfortunately, the question of spurious correlation is tough to answer. We lack adequate biochemical (etc.) knowledge of how mercury effects the spectrum of autism(s). [2] It’s also difficult to identify and eliminate other triggers (besides vaccines) of autism(s). Furthermore, epidemiological correlations are hard to substantiate because we are not running a controlled experiment on human children.

Instead, critics might say we are running a massive uncontrolled experiment with thimerosal. Keep in mind, though, that there is an enormous health benefit associated with vaccines. Fortunately, thimerosal has been eliminated from some vaccines. Yet, policymakers are continuing with the virtual experiment with mercury-tinged vaccines because these are still the best vaccines for the flu. (And influenza is a serious health threat, as you can see by checking the spanking new wiki flu website set up by Effect Measure and friends.)

Turning now to my Talmudic daf yomi readings. To a modern reader, the rabbis are dealing with a problem of correlation: do amulets protect the health of animals? (bShab 53b) If amulets truly correlate with health, then they may be carried on Shabbat. If amulets do not work (= if amulets and health are a spurious correlation), then carrying them is a form of prohibited sabbatical work.

Lacking biochemical (etc.) knowledge of sickness, the rabbis judged the efficacy of amulets by two critera (bShab 61): medical efficacy and expertise. First, amulets are deemed effective if they cure or prevent sickness three times (3x); Second, healers are deemed experts if their amulets cure three times (3x). Wisely, the rabbis did not assume that amulets that cured humans would necessarily work with animals. [3]

By these Talmudic criteria, one might be inclined to approve thimerosal vaccines. Vaccines prevent diseases at a high rate. Conversely, there are scanty correlations to argue that thimerosal vaccines cause autism. Furthermore, the scientists who proclaim that thimerosal is linked to autism are vastly outweighed (in number and reputation) those scientists who question the alleged link to autism. (see, e.g., Autism Diva on Geiers, Orac on Kirby) Looking at the quality of experts and the data, one might expect Jewish law (halakhah) to favor the use of thimerosal vaccines.

However, these Talmudic criteria may not be sufficient. After all, Jewish law here judges amulets only in terms of Shabbat. The downside to poor judgment on an amulet was small. With a mercury-based vaccine, the downside to poor judgment might be an increased incidence (but not an epidemic) of autism. Or unvaccinated exposure to disease. Furthermore, there is the hermercurial factor: Kennedy is right that the pharmaceutical industry is investing well in Bill Frist and other politicians. It would be best if we could avoid the thimerosal choice altogether.

Therefore, with so much at stake, there are forceful reasons to find/fund alternative vaccines and public health measures to tackle flu and the remaining diseases now fought with mercury-derived vaccines. Plus, the precautionary reduction in U.S. and Eurpoean thimerosal use should be applied to Third World countries, too. Meanwhile, in Jewish communities, let's think about vaccination decisions by parents and the needs of autistic children (cp. programs in Balitmore MD and Newton, Mass.). Kol tuv,

Kaspit כספית

[1] But see the corrections to the Kennedy article, and other useful links, by a fan of the Yankees (ugh!). See also: Skeptico incl comments on his various posts.

[2] Excepting, e.g., Deth study cited by Dwight Meredith

[3] Starting with the gemara at bShab 61a-b, Talmudists apply the 3x criteria with permutations involving 3 different amulets, diseases, patients, or healers. Unwisely, some drugs have been marketed to humans based merely on animal testing results. Prime example: thalidomide.

Wednesday, June 22, 2005

Will Jewish groups tacitly accept or join opposition to EPA’s mercury coal plant rule?

Given this blog’s nom de clavier, I must weigh in on another Mercury issue. As you may know, Jewish organizations and Jewish environmentalists, prodded by COEJL, had opposed the EPA’s proposed new rule on coal-fired utility emissions of mercury. [1] Now that EPA has ruled in line with industry interests, will Jewish organizations use their limited resources to support or encourage the legal battle against EPA’s travesty of a mercury pollution rule?

On June 15th, four medical groups joined the legal challengers to the Bush Administrations new rule on coal-fired utility emissions of mercury. The four groups (Physicians for Social Responsibility, the American Academy of Pediatrics, the American Nurses Association and the American Public Health Association) filed a motion to take part in a lawsuit against EPA already underway by environmental groups and 13 states. James Tierney (Columbia Law School) reported on the lawsuit by state AGs (Attorneys General) with one editorial comment: “There was a time in our country's history when the Environmental Protection Agency protected the environment.

Business interests played a heavy hand in shaping the rule. The Environmental New Service reported that “the influence of the Bush administration and the industry in shaping the [mercury] regulation, has been charged with controversy. A report by the EPA Inspector General Nikki Tinsley found that senior agency officials manipulated the development of the mercury rule in order to favor the emissions trading plan. In addition, the Government Accountability Office… determined the agency’s economic analysis of the mercury rule was seriously flawed." One blogger sees Tinsley’s studyEPA “with setting unrealistically low limits on mercury pollution and then working backwards to justify its upcoming rule.” EPA officials also deliberately ignored a Harvard study t as evidence of “Government by the Corporations, for the Corporations”. Another blog notes that Tinsley charged hat, by documenting health benefits of pollution controls, would have required a stricter EPA rule. Instead, as first reported by AP wire: “Nikki Tinsley’s report said the EPA based its mercury pollution limits on an analysis submitted by Western Energy Supply and Transmission Associates, a research and advocacy group representing 17 coal-fired utilities in eight Western states.” Analysis of health was upstaged unduly by corporate interests.

Jewish leaders continually weigh 3 strategies for confronting economic interests with Jewish moral concerns. Praise, silence, critique. These strategies were exemplified in the daf yomi a few weeks ago (bShab 33). Rabbi Yehudah praises the Romans for developing markets, bathhouses and bridges. He is honored by the Romans. Rabbi Yose keeps a measured silence, perhaps because dissent was persecuted. He is exiled (well, maybe put under house arrest). But R. Shimon bar Yohai harshly criticizes the Romans and the immorality behind Roman economic developments. He is hunted as a rebel. Besides a rebel, Shimon b. Yohai is also a mercurial critic of business. (He may be a deep ecology prototype. Later in the Talmudic story, he and his son attack Jewish agricultural businesses, too.) He opposes not only business as a means, but apparently business per se as a distraction from Torah study.

In charting out next steps on the EPA’s mercury rule, Jewish organizations and activists can keep in mind that the Roman God of Commerce is Mercurius. [2] What tack is to be taken? No need for the line of Rabbi Yehudah, who is hermercurious in approvingly interpreting Rome’s works. Some, lead by COEJL, have tended to be hermercurial -- though thankfully not as excessively as R. Shimon b. Yohai – in criticizing the Bush Administration on mercury. [3] Now that EPA has adopted a harmful rule, the strategy of silence could be interpreted as tacit approval. What is to be done now?

Kaspit כספית

[1] COEJL activists wrote in a letter that “The Environmental Protection Agency's (EPA) current proposals on mercury fall far short of what the law requires, and they fail to protect the health of our children and our environment. We ask you to carry out the requirements of the Clean Air Act to protect our nation from toxic mercury contamination.”

[2] In Talmudic hermeneutics, Mercurius is nearly equivalent to idolatry.

[3] Hermercurial: a critique of the material and commercial world through the interpretation of significant texts, such as rabbinic texts. [a definition-in-progress]

Sunday, June 19, 2005

What causes (cont.)… autism? Makhloqet on mercury-based vaccines.

Autism in children can be difficult and bewildering for parents. Besides the pain, questions linger about how it happened. Is autism a genetic accident? To what extent is it shaped by environmental factors and parental decisions?

Even more so than cancer (mentioned below), autism eludes unambiguous scientific explanation. (“Where is your wisdom? Where is your understanding?” a rabbi challenges the famous King Solomon. [bShab 30a] The wise may not always have the answers.) With its complex delayed etiology and dispersion in the population, it’s hard to identify any causal agents for the spectrum of autism diagnoses. One hypothesis is that vaccines that contain mercury (thimerosal) may trigger autism.

An article in Salon and Rolling Stone by Robert F. Kennedy is stoking the makhloqet – i.e., controversy – over vaccines and autism. Kennedy makes two overarching claims: (1) researchers found that “mercury in childhood vaccines may have caused autism in thousands” of children; and (2) top U.S. government officials and politicians worked with the pharmaceutical/vaccine industry to cover-up the link between autism and mercury in vaccines.

For criticism of the claimed link between autism and mercury (thimerosal) in vaccines, you might read a skeptical medical blogger (Respectful Insolence) and an analytical and savvy liberal (Majikthise). For intellectual reinforcement to the Salon article, start with Dwight Meredith, a parent who blogs on autism. While the scientific debate continues, note that thimerosal has been phased out of vaccines in the U.S. (But thimerosal reportedly remains in overseas vaccines by the same manufacturers! [1] The vaccine industry includes Eli Lilly, GlaxoSmithKline, Merck, Wyeth and Aventis Pasteur.)

Since our reading of the Talmud here is hermercurial (see glossary), not oracular, we won't be combing the daf yomi text for an answer to Kennedy’s first claim. Yet, at times, the Talmud does offer parallels to Kennedy's second critique, the corruption of political leadership and economic interests. For instance, R. Shimon b. Yohai denounces Roman commerce (bShab 33b) and the Sages view "wealth" as simple material contentment (bShab 25b). [Let's post on these themes later...]

Kennedy alleges that politicians and drug companies were secretive and corrupt in dealing with the mercury (thimerosal) vaccine studies. He need not frame this as conspiracy, since he is describing Washington’s toxicality business as usual. Corporate influence is not unique to the Bush administration, though it may be inordinately heavy now. Bill Frist exemplifies the susceptibility of politicians to corporate influence-peddling. Kennedy writes:

The drug companies are also getting help from powerful lawmakers in Washington. Senate Majority Leader Bill Frist, who has received $873,000 in contributions from the pharmaceutical industry, has been working to immunize vaccine makers from liability in 4,200 lawsuits that have been filed by the parents of injured children. On five separate occasions, Frist has tried to seal all of the government's vaccine-related documents -- including the Simpsonwood transcripts -- and shield Eli Lilly, the developer of thimerosal, from subpoenas. In 2002, the day after Frist quietly slipped a rider known as the "Eli Lilly Protection Act" into a homeland security bill, the company contributed $10,000 to his campaign and bought 5,000 copies of his book on bioterrorism. Congress repealed the measure in 2003 -- but earlier this year, Frist slipped another provision into an anti-terrorism bill that would deny compensation to children suffering from vaccine-related brain disorders. "The lawsuits are of such magnitude that they could put vaccine producers out of business and limit our capacity to deal with a biological attack by terrorists," says Andy Olsen, a legislative assistant to Frist. (Salon and Rolling Stone, June 16, 2005)

Where Kennedy sees collusion to conceal and mislead, another blogger describes a less deliberate convergence of interests:

“there is a strong desire to deny the link [between thimerosal and autism], let the current moratorium take effect, and hope that treatments are developed that minimize the economic impact of those children who are affected. If the problem somehow will work itself out anyway, why make a spectacle? This would not be the type of conspiracy crafted behind closed doors in smoke-filled rooms but rather a tacit bias among a number of people smart enough to see that they're facing a cataclysm.” (Heretics almanac)

In the next post, hopefully, this Quicksilver blog will turn to another health problem with mercury: coal burning utilities. Again, we will see political judgments distorted by mercurial, commercial interests. While the Jewish community is making significant headway in supporting autistic children, I sense it could act more vigorously to delink commercial interests and science-based policymaking.

Kaspit כספית

[1] Kennedy writes: "Even more alarming, the government continues to ship vaccines preserved with thimerosal to developing countries -- some of which are now experiencing a sudden explosion in autism rates. In China, where the disease was virtually unknown prior to the introduction of thimerosal by U.S. drug manufacturers in 1999, news reports indicate that there are now more than 1.8 million autistics. Although reliable numbers are hard to come by, autistic disorders also appear to be soaring in India, Argentina, Nicaragua and other developing countries that are now using thimerosal-laced vaccines. The World Health Organization continues to insist thimerosal is safe, but it promises to keep the possibility that it is linked to neurological disorders 'under review.'"

Cannot vouch for this book: Evidence of Harm: Mercury in Vaccines and the Autism Epidemic: A Medical Controversy by David Kirby (ISBN: 0312326440)

Friday, June 17, 2005

The Ten Commandments, religious freedom and (!) hazardous materials transportation

With Shavuos behind us, we’ve finished celebrating the Ten Commandments. This section of Torah is moving and its importance cannot be exaggerated, almost. Still, we move on. For most of us, the whole of Torah cannot be reduced either to 10 Utterances nor to a single précis (e.g., Hillel’s version of a Golden Rule, bShab 31a).

Unfortunately, some Other People have managed to exaggerate even the importance of the Ten Commandments. Who? Consider those who would deploy The Ten Commandments in a monumental effort to etch a particularist reading of “Judeo-Christian” values into the base of the U.S. legal system. And I don’t mean a Mishpat ‘Ivri, American style. Instead, I refer to Christian theocratic efforts to throw American jurisprudence back to the nineteenth century, when states had established churches and “religious freedom” meant, in its crudest form, the freedom to be Protestant.

Today, religious freedom in the USA is “Good for the Jews” whether we be Black Hats or baseball hats. Not that every judicial decision has favored or recognized Jewish needs. Indeed, practice-oriented religions like Judaism(s) are far less protected than belief-based religions (e.g., Protestantism).[1] Arguably, the freedom of religion is not a necessary condition for our flourishing; as W. F. Sullivan explains in a "timely and iconoclastic" new book, it may be impossible to define religious freedom: the federal government could just as well protect Jewish et alia practices through other constitutional freedoms.

How might U.S. law better accommodate communal religious practices? I’ve got various ideas and would welcome yours, too. Meanwhile, it occurs to me that a recent daf yomi passage might jog our thinking on the subject:

If a spark flies out from under a blacksmith's hammer and went and damaged another's property, the blacksmith is liable. If a camel laden with flax was passing through the public domain and its flax protruded into a shop [a private domain] and was ignited by the shopkeeper's light and the burning flax set a mansion outside ablaze, the camel's owner is liable for all damage to the building. If, however, the shopkeeper placed his light outside the shop in a public domain, the shopkeeper is liable. R'Yehudah says: in the case of a Chanukah light, the shopkeeper is not liable. . . . (bShab 21b).

Here, flax is a flammable, almost hazardous material. Ordinarily, when judging a hazardous material fire, the sages hold liable the owner (e.g., shopkeeper) of a flame that had been unwisely placed in a public thoroughfare. So don’t light a torch as the gasoline trucks roll by. However, according to Rabbi Yehudah, Jewish law should make an exception for Chanukah lamps.

Can we say that here that rabbinic “civil law” should accommodate the exercise of the Jewish "religion"? By assuming that adults take reasonable precautions, Rabbi Yehudah expects camel drivers – and the rest of us – to adjust to the practice of Chanukah lighting.

Now, would we agree that Jewish law (halakhah) should adjust to the Chanukah lights as a mitzvah, a special religious duty? Or, further, is halakhah to be shaped by any analogous cultural practices? For instance, consider other social practices that require caution. Suppose a shopkeeper places in the public domain not Chanukah lights, but another predictable hazard, like Xmas lights. Would the shopkeeper still not be liable?

(Haven’t looked into post-Talmudic Jewish law yet, which does not accept R. Yehudah's minority opinion [Shulkhan Arukh, Rambam]. Nonetheless, it is safe to say that such questions about the exercise of religious practices cannot be resolved by the rabbis – or by U.S. judges – simply by resorting to the Ten Commandments.)

Good shabbos,

Kaspit כספית

P.S. Yes, nowadays hazardous materials transport is more complex. For instance, to what extent should the camel-driver/owner be held liable for their ruptured tanks in the recent chlorine-laden railroad accident? Or are the workers to blame, as the Secretary of Transportation Norman Mineta claims?

P.S.S. Thanks to Daf Am Haaretz for the Artscrollian translation and the topic.

[1] Hence, wearing a kippah is not constitutionally protected.

Friday, June 10, 2005

What causes cancer? Why dropsy, diphtheria and death? (oy vey)

She took me in after college, until I moved in with the earnest LawProf
(to be) and The Organizer. My Dad’s Cousin. Very much his kindred
spirit, always on the go: the Peace Corps, public health advocacy,
state legislature. Diagnosed with a rare spinal cancer, she dutifully
enlisted for numerous medical tests and quasi-experimental intrusions.
Painful, debilitating seven months. At the funeral last month, her
daughter expressed what many around her felt: Why did such a good woman
have to suffer so?
(Today’s posting is dedicated to her wit, beauty, strength and good will.)

What causes cancer? Why do these people get those cancers? For half a century, such questions have nagged us. The search for explanation. In the 1950s, we asked, does smoking cause cancer? Later: are there synergistic factors? (E.g., tobacco and asbestos combined.) What about pesticides? Are there cancer “hotspots” caused by hazardous waste sites? We seem to be straddling scientific research and a political /culture war. I suspect many of us gravitate to one pole, e.g. cancer is caused or facilitated by diet and lifestyle, or by toxic pollution, or by our genetic inheritance. But we are all far from able to explain the decline or rise of particular types of cancer.

“What causes disease?” also troubles the Talmud. The chapter shifts to
a mishna (bShab 31a) that posits 3 explanations for death during
childbirth. The answer: Sin. Or, perhaps more precisely, violations of halakha
(Jewish law) that are victimless misdeeds (i.e., neglecting to light
the candles, separate the challah offering, or follow purity
regulations). Divine punishment is meted during childbirth, say later
rabbis, because she is vulnerable at that time, like one crossing a
bridge (32a). Inspired by the mishna, the gemara looks at an array of
diseases, deaths and disasters (32-33). Sins that cause or explain
welts and wounds, jaundice, dropsy (hydroqan) and diphtheria (askarah 33a).

The Talmud does not provide scientific answers and the back-and-forth argument piles up doubts about its own theological doctrines. Eventually, some individual deaths cannot be explained away except by the sins of the generation (33b).

Inevitably, the Talmud also tries to explain deaths caused by other
people, not only disease. For instance, what happens when somebody
falls from a rooftop? In the Torah (Dt. 22:8), the guilt is placed upon
whomever failed to build a safety railing. But this would at best
identify a negligent party, not the specific lot of the victim. Hence,
the academy of Rabbi Ishmael reasons that such victims must have
deserved to die due to their sins. If they were already slated to die,
however, why does the Torah state the failure to build a railing bring
bloodguilt upon your house? The text comes to teach us that the wheel
of fate/providence ensures that accidental deaths are accounted those
guilty of sin (bShab 32a). …. Incidentally, the Deuteronomic railing
law serves as a grounding for later rabbinic rulings on occupational
safety and health duties.

At the personal level, I sense that we are comforted by neither contemporary scientific explanations nor rabbinic theology. After a few long eulogies for my Dad's cousin, her daughter-in-law spoke. She said that the woman who suffered those many months would not dwell on the question of Why. She would merely insist, What should we do next?

May a few modest answers be revealed to us during the coming Shavuos holiday.

Good shabbos,

Kaspit כספית

Friday, June 03, 2005

Rabbinic rules for the working stiff

Smack in the middle of chapter 2, and masechet shabbat turns from spatiality to work, or may I even suggest: The Worker.

Looking first at daf 9b, the mishnah sets out several gezerot – precautionary rules – to ensure that the people have time for the afternoon prayers (minchah). If it’s nearly time to pray, don’t even start – not with the barber, the bathhouse, or the tannery. Don’t put the court in session, if you’re the judge.

For everyone who runs late or cuts it close, this gemara’s for you. It’s Murphy’s Halakhah, antiquity style. Don’t wait for the last minute, else: if you’re a barber, the scissors might break; if you’re in a bathhouse, you might feel faint; if you’re dealing with the tanner, your leather might be messed up. Granted, the mishnah insists that that customers refrain from doing business. Nevertheless, what would be the outcome from observing these precautions? The workers would not be rushed themselves and they would have time for a coffee, unh prayer, break. Well before MOT Marx railed against endless working hours, and long before those L.A. Jews published “No Shvitz: Your One-Stop Guide to Fighting Sweatshops", the Talmud was surreptitiously cutting down on working hours. (Well, maybe.)

A couple of daf later, the talmud gives a little subversive guide to The Boss:

Work under an Ishmaelite and not under an [Edomite = Roman], under an Edomite and not under a [Persian], under a Persian and not under a Torah scholar, under a Torah scholar and not under an orphan or a widow. (Artscroll Shab 11a)
In other words, it’s difficult to work for a boss who you need to treat with utmost respect and sensitivity. But it’s clear who are real taskmasters.

For future reference, let’s keep a list of some other types of work mentioned: delousing, tailor (11a), teaching, winepress, scribe, fuller, weaver, dyer, money changer, and the catch-all craftsman (אומן). (bShab 11b) (Read what a business prof thinks the Talmud says about ideal, honorable and dishonest occupations.)
Color this post a “work in progress” and let’s take a break for a...
Good shabbos,

Kaspit כספית