Tuesday 29 July 2008

Principles and Tolerance - Part One

The first part of a two part presentaion on balancing principles and tolerance, by Nishma's Founding Director, Rabbi Benjamin Hecht, was recently published in the Jewish Tribune (Toronto).

To view the article on line, go to

Sunday 27 July 2008

Views on the News

Another obbservation by Rabbi Shamai Engelmayer - this time on the media itself.
(C) 2008 - All rights reserved by the Author.

NB: While there is great temptation for me to rant, the goal of this blog is more about insight, information, and education. We want readers to be both informed and stimulated and only occasionally alarmed.


Fluffery, puffery and sockpuppetry

by Shammai Engelmayer

How do we get “news” today? Newspapers deliver a great deal of it to us with each edition, but is what is being delivered properly to be called “news”?

If one is to judge by what passes for news in the Jewish media, the answer is a very loud no. Jewish newspapers today seem far more interested in “look who’s Jewish” stories (such as interviewing Angelina Jolie’s Jewish ob-gyn) than they are about, say, the ever-rising cost of Jewish living.

Jewish newspapers, however, merely reflect the trend in the mainstream media away from substance towards fluff. Articles on the dumbest things, especially when unhealthily sprinkled with heavy doses of lashon ha-ra (bad speech; telling us things about other people we have no business knowing about), get better play than “hard news” stories. Jewish newspapers are just following the big boys.

On the television front, things are even worse for people seeking information about the important issues.

A recent survey by the Project for Excellence in Journalism found, for example, that if you watched 300 consecutive minutes of cable news on any given day during 2007 (which actually translates to fewer than 200 minutes because of commercial interruptions, station breaks and the like), you would have seen one minute and 25 seconds about the environment; one minute and 22 seconds about education; one minute about science and technology; three minutes and 34 seconds about the economy; and three minutes and 46 seconds about health and health care. On the other hand, you would have seen 26 minutes or more of crime stories; 12 minutes of accidents and disasters; and at least 10 minutes of celebrity and entertainment news.

The broadcast networks are no better. For example, they devoted three percent of their airtime in the first 10 weeks of 2008 to the Iraq war.

And then there is the Blogosphere. There are bloggers who are well informed, maintain high standards, and sign their names to what they write. Then there are the bloggers who hide behind the anonymity of screen names to say anything they want in any way they want. No one is there to edit them or to check their excesses.

It would be easy to dismiss the rants, raves and rumors, but for three things: the speed at which they travel on the internet; the fact that net surfers believe what they read; and the fact that the mainstream media too often report blog entries as if they are holy writ. If an item is salacious enough or smells of scandal, wire services will carry it, newspapers will print it and broadcasters will air it. The routine professional checks—such as finding three independent sources of confirmation—do not exist when the item is from the Blogosphere.

Who are these people who wield such potential power to misinform? The disaffected, for the most part, often are the bloggers of record. They have axes to grind, or points to prove. Few consider themselves bound by normal principles of journalistic ethics.

Most have a cadre of hangers-on who add their comments to the bloggers’ own. Often, these hangers-on are actually shills, either for the official blogger or the blogger’s latest target. These people are called sockpuppets. A sockpuppet, as defined by the New York Times, is someone who assumes “a fake online identity to praise, defend or create the illusion of support for one’s self, allies or company.”

Sockpuppets not only help make a blog site look important (“look at all that chatter; this guy must be on to something”), they are also a tool of the trade for public relations firms, according to articles in Business Week and elsewhere, and my son, an executive at a Jewish owned and oriented P.R. firm that uses sockpuppetry with abandon. Even governments engage in sockpuppetry, including the State of Israel, as do political campaigns (the New York Times traced anti-Menendez postings to a senior official of Tom Kean Jr.’s Senate bid). These sockpuppets are unleashed to counter negative blogs and build positive buzz for a client by posting phony entries. Sockpuppetry is so standard that some PR firms openly advertise for such people. Nevertheless, it is a deceptive tactic and, at times, a mean-spirited one.

If you are Jewish, it is also involves several violations of Jewish law. For example, it is g’neivat da-at (theft of knowledge) to hide one’s affiliation if it is relative to an issue; doing so also violates the Torah prohibition of putting a stumbling block before the blind. Then there are such matters as lashon ha-ra and motzi shem ra (spreading untruths about someone else). God did not give us the knowledge to create the Internet in order for it to become a way to subvert His laws of proper conduct.

The Jewish media violate the same laws, albeit for somewhat different reasons. Not reporting on information that is vital to the community is itself a form of g’neivat da-at, as well as a stumbling block, because the less information we have, the less able are we to deal with the problems that need solving. And articles that focus on “look who’s Jewish” personalities almost always violate lashon ha-ra and often enough also violate motzi shem ra.

Jewish media must not operate this way; Jewish P.R. firms must not operate this way; Jewish bloggers must not operate this way. Halachah does not stop at the keyboard. Internet anonymity does not provide a heter (in essence, a free pass) for sinning.

A little less than a month from now, Jewish bloggers will gather in Jerusalem for their first ever convention. Not on the agenda—but what should top it—is a clear statement that Jewish law is sacrosanct even on the information superhighway.

As for the Jewish media. they need to re-examine their priorities and we, the readers, listeners and viewers, need to let them know that we have had it with “fluff and puff” journalism; we want them to focus on the issues that really matter.

Friday 25 July 2008

Say What? A Day in the life of a ....

A customer comes into the restaurant today.
Customer: When do the 9 days start?
Me: A week from tomorrow.
Customer: What's the date?
Me: August 2nd
Customer: And how long do the 9 days last?
Now try answering THAT question!
Kol Tuv / Best Regards,

Monday 21 July 2008

Ethical Dilemma - Gabbai Abuse

My friend Sammy G. told me this one after the fast was over. Sammy G. is a Gabbai par excellence in New England who has formally retired and is a "gabbai" shlishi....

It seems that the Rabbi was away and Gabbais 1 & 2 were late to Mincha during an unusually hot day for New England. So Sammy, seeing all the people gathering 'round to go to minyan, ran ahead [well he is a bit old to really run...] and opened up the shul

A chiyyuv [call him Gavriel] approached him to daven - so Sammy obliged. Then a Kohein asked to be called since he had "yahrtzeit" the next day. Here is the conversation [no good deed goes unpunished or no wisecrack goes unappreciated?]:

Sammy: So you want Kohein I guess?
Kohein: of course what else is there?
Sammy: Well there IS hagbah! [Sammy was being tongue in cheek!]
Kohein: Well of all the @#$%^&*&^% things I have ever heard!!
and then Kohein storms out of the shul.

Sammy is a bit bemused and confused because he was really just making a quip.
Then Gabbais 1 & 2 enter and Sammy says "You should have seen Kohein today - he really flipped out."
Out of nowhere the Chiyyuiv [Gavriel] goes ballistic and starts screaming at poor Sammy

Sammy: But I was just kidding...
Gavriel: But Kohein WASN'T
Sammy: But I meant no harm;
Gavriel: YOU should know better [and he proceeds to lace it in]
Sammy: Well if you feel that way, I guess you should ask Gabbai 1 or 2 to daven because you obviously cannot accept MY appointment to the Amud!

Sammy was shocked. He later shared the story with me and then asked:
Rabbi Rich:
  1. What did I do wrong?
  2. What should I do?
  3. Where is every one's sense of humor?
  4. How could Gavriel daven for the amud after being so nasty in public?
I had a hard time calming Sammy down. Here are a few points:
  1. Sammy, you really were not wrong.
  2. You might apologize or TRY to explain the mis-understanding, but don't excpect Kohein or Gavriel to back down. Both seem to me to be a bit "amud happy"
  3. Well they are fasting and it WAS a hot day, but granted, I think they way over-reacted. Perhaps an anger management course is in order!
  4. Good question! See #2. Apparently Gavriel felt he was right so he had no problem with losing his temper
Sammy came back with a couple of new points:
  1. Well If I were THAT angry I would not take the amud, I would walk away EVEN if I were a chiyyuv
  2. I don't disagree that they could have talked back to be about the mis-understanding. But what excuse is there for screaming in public? Isn't that wrong to embarrass someone in public?
I had to agree.
  1. Gavriel might have stepped away if he were really being a mensch about it and MERELY defending Kohein, but I guess he had another agenda, too
  2. I agree also, had Gavriel just quietly shushed you it would have been much better instead of going ballistic
I also mentioned that hagbah is after a big kibbud, EVEN though people don't consider it so. But I guess in a small town they are not so educated re: the Mishna Brurah and the idea that Hagbah is the culmination of the laining etc.

  • Anyway, was Sammy wrong to make light of Kohein's Yahrtzeit issue?
  • Did the fact that the Yahrzeit was the next today a factor - iow since Kohein was not a REAL chiyyuv that day, he could always get an aliya on Monday morning.
  • Did Kohein embarass Sammy by storming out?
  • Was Gavriel justified in stepping in or did he really add gasoline to the fire!
Kol Tuv / Best Regards,

Sunday 20 July 2008

"You've been Aish'd"

The Jerusalem Post recently published an article entitled "You've been Aish'd" whcih can be viewed on line at http://www.jpost.com/servlet/Satellite?cid=1215330995567&pagename=JPost/JPArticle/ShowFull. The article basically attacks Aish and other outreach organizations as misrepresenting Orthodoxy in an attempt to promote it to other Jews. This misrepresentatin can be defined in two ways. First it creates an environment that is beneficial for their purpose, in other words it brings people into a world that favours a transition to Orthodoxy by the targeted individuals. Second it presents Orthodoxy in a totally positive manner with a view that people who abide by this system are totally happy and fulfilled. The author of the article then goes on to show how transient this created environment is and how untrue this presentation of Orthodoxy is. She basically concludes her article witht the message that she was someone who was taken in for a while, she knows why she was taken in and there were some nice things about this fantasy that she lived but, in the end, she came back to reality and saw through this presentation -- and she imples this is what happens with most people who encounter this experience although there are a few that stay part of this illusion.

Much can be said about this presentation. I am sure that many would like to come to the defense of the various kiruv organizations that were invariably drawn into this critique. I am sure that there are also many who understand the stance that this woman is taking and agree with her presentation of kiruv as a slick marketing model which spruces up Orthodoxy in order to make the sale. There are arguments both ways and while the marketing inherent in kiruv can be critiqued, we also cannot deny the benefit that kiruv has brought to many people and to the community, in many ways, in general. Yet, it may be time to, at least, start looking at kiruv with a more critical eye. Is there a better way of presenting Orthodoxy? What are the negative consequences of reports of such people as this author who, in challenging kiruv are also challenging Orthodoxy in general.?

I wish, though, to raise another concern. My question is: what is the effect of kiruv back on the Orthodox community in general? There are two parts to this question. What is the effect back upon Orthodoxy of these individuals brought into Orthodoxy through these totally bright presentations - what is the effect they will have on future Torah education? More importantly, what is the effect of the very marketing of Torah upon Torah? To sell Torah means to convince someone that Torah is good for them based upon their yardstick, but the very essence of Torah is to affect our yardstick? There has to be a coercive aspect to Torah to really present the full lesson of Torah -- what is happening to this aspect in a world of sales through kiruv? I invite you to read an article I penned a few years ago on this subject and share your comments here. The article can be viewed at http://www.nishma.org/articles/update/update5754-1.htm

Rabbi Ben Hecht

Sunday 13 July 2008

But, is an edict really necessary?

The following article at


describes an edict, from many who would be described in the Charedi world as Gedolei Yisrael, that calls upon landlords in Lakewood to be careful to whom they rent apatments. The concern is the renting of premises in areas populated by frum Jews to "undesirables". The "undesirables" being referred to are actually individuals who would be looked upon as problematic in almost any neighbourhood -- i.e. people associated with crime, drugs, promiscuity; this does not seem to be a call to only rent to frum people. So the question is: why the need for such an edict? While I applaud these rabbis for their stance -- and clearly our sensitivity to others should demand of us to be careful about placing undesirables as neighbours to others, especially those we share commitment, values and community with -- I wonder what this need for an edict tells us about our Torah educational systems, our understandings of Torah and our practice of the mitzvot bein adam l'chaveiro, the commandments between people. Do we also now need an edict that pork is prohibited according to Torah law? This edict is specifically directed to people who would follow a directive of these rabbis -- so I wonder, how could such individuals, committed to Torah, not know that they should be careful to whom they rent apartments close to other Jews? I don't think this is a problem in only the Charedi world but is something of concern within all of Orthodoxy.

Wednesday 9 July 2008

Yerushalayim - Letter and Response

Below, in the post entitled Yerushalayim Must Maintain Jewish Sovereignty, we referred you to an article in the Jewish Tribune (Toronto), written by Nishma's Founding Director, Rabbi Benjamin Hecht, on the topic of the sovreignty of Yerushalayim.

The Tribune this week published a letter to the editor in response to Rabbi Hecht's column and a response to this letter by Rabbi Hecht. We invite you to now look at this correspondence at
http://www.jewishtribune.ca/tribune/PDF/jt100708.pdf (page 5).

Monday 7 July 2008

Why evolution is not our hot button issue

Another article from Rabbi Shammai Engelmayer. I have posted many times in the past that TRUE Science and TRUE Torah can never be in conflict because they all emanate from the same source. Perhaps we humans PERCEIVE a conflict, but this is probably an issue of semantics or communication.

BTW, the Rema reputedly said the sam things about Philosophy and Qabbalah, that the differences were merely a matter of semantics. Thus, different discipplines may speak in different metaphors, nevertheless, Provided that they are sincere, they are saying the same thing.

That said, I don't accept Evolution as dogma without first questioning it and using scientific inquiry, as well as good logical thinking.

Kol Tuv / Best Regards,

Why Evolution is NOT our "Hot-Button" Issue

by Shammai Engelmayer

(C) 2008 by Shammai Engelmayer - Re-Printed with the author's permission

The anti-evolutionists are at it again and this time, they think they have come up with a winning strategy. Rather than teach alternative theories (creationism or intelligent design, for example), they are now pushing for new laws that would force schools to teach "the scientific strengths and weaknesses of Darwinian theory."

Bills to do just that are in various stages of development—one may say they are evolving—in Alabama, Florida, Louisiana, Michigan, Missouri and South Carolina.

In Texas, the "strength and weaknesses" language actually has been on the books for more than 20 years, but only now may be put into force. The state board of education, seven of whose 15 members believe in intelligent design, is spending the next month trying to figure out how. If it succeeds in finding a way that will pass muster with the courts, it will be a victory for fundamentalist Christians who equate teaching the science of creation with promoting a godless society by undermining the Bible's authority.

One would think that Jewish schools would be the primary battleground for defending God's word against the "heresies" of godless science, since Genesis 1, the first chapter of Bereishit, was a Jewish text long before it was a Christian one. Yet this is not the case. In some yeshivot, the issue is simply irrelevant; in other yeshivot and in day schools, the attitude is that since God created science, there can be no conflict.

Behind this attitude exists another one that would drive fundamentalist Christians up a wall: Judaism has never been wedded to the literalness of every word in the Torah. "The Shechina [the Spirit of the Lord] never descended to earth, nor did Moses or Elijah ever ascend to heaven [even though it is so stated in the Bible]," declares Rabbi Yosi in the Babylonian Talmud tractate Sukkah 5a.

Do not misunderstand me: We do accept the literal truth of what the Torah says about creation and other matters; it is the words and images the Torah uses to express that truth that is in doubt. In other words, using creation as an example, while we accept that God created the world in six days, we also accept the fact that we do not understand what "day" means or what is actually meant by "created."

We also accept the fact that there are concepts that go beyond human understanding and that the Torah, which is meant to be a document for humans to understand, had to express those concepts in a way that we could understand.

The great commentator Maimonides, writing 1,000 years after Rabbi Yosi's declaration, considered belief in the literalness of the words to be a form of heresy.

Particularly irksome to the Rambam, as Maimonides is also known, was the insistence of some that God has a physical form merely because the Torah talks of His pointing fingers and outstretched arms and of His speaking, presumably through a mouth. To the Rambam, these are obvious metaphors. He codifies this in his Mishnah Torah: The Laws of the Fundamentals of the Torah 1:7, where he states as a positive commandment the requirement to know (not merely to believe) that God has no form of any kind.

As he explains in MT Fundamentals 1:9, the anthropomorphic terms used to describe God and His actions are expressions "adapted to the mental capacity of the majority of humankind..., [because] God's essence as it really is, the human mind does not understand and is incapable of grasping or investigating...."

The Rambam even made this the second and third of his 13 articles of faith: "To believe that God is one, the cause of all oneness. He is...not one in the sense that a simple body is—numerically one, but still infinitely divisible. God, rather, is uniquely one....To believe that He is incorporeal, that His unity is in no way physical, either potentially so or actually so. None of the attributes of matter—motion, say, or rest—can be ascribed to Him. They cannot refer to Him accidentally or essentially....Whenever Scripture describes Him in such corporeal terms as 'walking,' 'standing,' 'sitting,' 'speaking,' and the like, it speaks metaphorically." [See "Chelek," the Rambam's essay to Chapter 10 of BT Sanhedrin]

In The Laws of Repentance, 3:7, he goes so far as to state that anyone who does not accept this is a heretic.

Now, it could be argued that such other great commentators as Rashi and Nachmanides (a/k/a the Ramban) believed in the absolute literalness of every word, but that is wrong. They believed, rather, that often, what the text says and what it really says are two different things; that there is a "hidden text" lurking amid the words of the plain text.

Hidden texts aside, the plain text makes quite clear how God, the Creator, went about creating:

"And God said, 'Let the earth generate plants, vegetation that produces seed, fruit trees, each making fruit of its own kind, which has its seed in it, on the earth.' And it was so: The earth brought out plants, vegetation that produces seeds of its own kind, and trees that make fruit that each has seeds of its own kind in it." (See Genesis 1:11-12.)

Notice what God does here: nothing! God "says" (by whatever means God communicates His thoughts) and nature goes to work doing what comes naturally. There is not even a concept of instantaneous fulfillment here. Nature does what nature does in the time it takes nature to do it naturally.

Does the first chapter of Genesis tell us how creation happened? Yes, but not in terms that will satisfy a scientist. Then again, Genesis was not written to satisfy a scientist.

Does Genesis contradict science? No. Science tells us, as best it can, what the technical aspects were of creation, but not in ways that will satisfy the theologian. Then again, science does not exist to satisfy the theologian.

Put another way, we Jews are secure enough in our faith in God as the Creator of All Things to recognize that one of those things—science—is just another way God communicates with us.And that is why the kinds of continuing battles against evolution do not have counterparts in Jewish schools.

Sunday 6 July 2008

Thinking about Thinking

Originally published 7/6/08, 7:34 pm.
Did you know that:
  1. My rebbe is better than your rebbe?
  2. My Sevara [logic] is better than your Sevara?
  3. I am Holier than Thou?
  4. My community has it right, yours is wrong or at best mistaken?
  5. God thinks just like I do?
  6. Since I have always believed it to be this way it must be true?
  7. I know others cannot be infallible because I see the errors of their ways?
  8. etc.?
I made an "early" foray into the world of "egolessness" not by studying Zen or New Age spirituality, but by being introduced to a very insightful book by a very observant and sincere Convert to Judaism. This friend of mine helped mentor me into becoming a computer programmer and he highly recommended the following tome, The Pscyhology of Computer Programming. In it, the highly rational author, Gerald Weinberg, preached the "gospel" of ego-less programming. imagine if we had egoless debating on blogs and discussion lists when it comes to matters of Torah. I now this is possible because the B'nai B'seira set an amazing example of egolessness in deferring to Hillel the Elder. So this trait is in our genes and in our legacy.
I realize that I, myself, allow my ego to get in my own way, and I am astounded at the way some of my cyber-debaters are so wrapped up in their pet paradigms that they fail to see it. I guess I am only ahead of some others in that I can usually show how my own pet paradigms and prejudices lead me to think the way I do. Whereas my colleagues are often clueless as to how they are really seeing things through ego based distortions. In an effort to raise all of our consciousness, I will from time to time post some useful info on how we can see through the egocentric thinking and arrive at a more objective truth.
My late dear Student, Reb Tony Yeni, died tragically last year at a rather young age. He left me several pamphlets including one from this website:
Below is a blurb regarding Egocentric thinking. There is a more definitive blurb on page 6 of The Miniature Guide to Critical Thinking Concepts & Tools. For now this blurb will do.
For complete details on this, please see the
Critical Thinking Website

Strategy Six: Deal with Your Egocentrism. Egocentric thinking is found in the disposition in human nature to think with an automatic subconscious bias in favor of oneself. On a daily basis, you can begin to observe your egocentric thinking in action by contemplating questions like these: Under what circumstances do I think with a bias in favor of myself? Did I ever become irritable over small things? Did I do or say anything “irrational” to get my way? Did I try to impose my will upon others? Did I ever fail to speak my mind when I felt strongly about something, and then later feel resentment? Once you identify egocentric thinking in operation, you can then work to replace it with more rational thought through systematic self-reflection, thinking along the lines of: What would a rational person feel in this or that situation? What would a rational person do? How does that compare with what I want to do? (Hint: If you find that you continually conclude that a rational person would behave just as you behaved you are probably engaging in self-deception.)

For Canadians Only

Originally published 7/6/08, 2:27 am.
Yes, G-d can be found in Canada, too. And No, I did not forget July 1 [Un Juillet] I was just too busy celebrating to post!
The Maple Leaf, our emblem dear,
The Maple Leaf forever!
G-d save our King and Heaven bless,
The Maple Leaf forever!

I suggest consulting the following article for more details.

Or you can sing:
G-d keep our land glorious and free!
O Canada, we stand on guard for thee.

Stem cell research and Jewish law

Originally published 7/6/08, 1:40 am.
Enjoy this recent Article from the NJ Jewish Standard - reprinted with permission.

Stem cell research and Jewish law
By Shammai Engelmayer (c) 2008 all rights reserved

Science" is a campaign issue in 2008. That is because the presumptive Democratic nominee, Illinois Sen. Barack Obama, has made reversing what he calls the "anti-science" stance of the Bush administration a cornerstone of his campaign.
Inevitably, discussion of "science" and "anti-science" leads to whether federal funds should be used to encourage embryonic stem cell (ESC) research. The Bush administration opposes this, but Obama supports it. Ironically, so does his presumptive opponent, Sen. John McCain, who only eight years ago was firmly on the Bush side of the debate, but was helped to see the light by Nancy Reagan and some "very smart people," as he once told a television interviewer.
To be sure, the issues involved are complex. The two main questions are:
1. Is it moral and ethical to extract stem cells from unused human embryos in order to use them in research that could lead to the saving of lives in the future, particularly in cases of people suffering from Parkinson's Disease and diabetes?
2. Is it permissible to clone embryos in order to increase the availability of the stem cells needed to conduct such research?
Various Christian groups, from the Catholics to the evangelicals, say no to both questions.
Most Jewish legal authorities support embryonic stem cell research, including on the Orthodox right. The main dissenting voice, ironically, comes from the Reform movement. The only real debate is whether cloning embryos for ESC research is permissible.
First, a couple of halachic principles need to be explained. One is the concept of choleh l'faneinu (literally, the ill person is before us). Jewish law prohibits deriving any benefit from a corpse short of the immediate saving of another life. Obviously, this does not apply to ESC research. No one can seriously suggest that someone currently ill will derive any immediate life-saving benefit from research that remains in its infancy.
On the other hand, choleh l'faneinu has undergone considerable expansion since it was first conceived by Rabbi Yechezkel Landau nearly 230 years ago. Rather than an actual beneficiary, authorities today seek to create a statistical choleh l'faneinu in deciding on such matters as, say, organ transplantation. Thus, in an ESC context, the issue is whether any of the current victims of Parkinson's Disease or diabetes, say, will be alive when the research hopefully bears fruit. Since that is a virtual certainty, choleh l'faneinu, the ill person is before us.
The other issue is how we define piku'ach nefesh, regard for human life, the principle of Jewish law that overrides nearly all the other laws. Does the threat have to be both real and immediate? The sages of blessed memory offered a simple and direct answer: No. The potential for danger is sufficient for pikuach nefesh to kick in (see the Babylonian Talmud tractate Yoma 84b-85b).
The lives of victims of Parkinson's Disease or diabetes are at actual risk. If they are truly "the ill person before us," as many current interpretations of halachah would have it, then anything it takes to save their lives is halachically sound.
"In stem cell research and therapy, the moral obligation [is] to save human life, the paramount ethical principle in biblical law," according to Rabbi Moses Tendler in testimony he gave to a federal commission in 1999. Rabbi Tendler, very much to the right of the Orthodox center and also one of the nation's most respected biologists and bioethicists, added, "Mastery of nature for the benefit of those suffering from vital organ failure is an obligation [derived from Genesis 1:28]. Human embryonic stem cell research holds that promise."
Tendler would extend this to cloning, as well. It is here, however, where there exists serious debate among halachists.
Sephardic authorities in Israel agree that cloning embryos for research purposes is permissible. They see this as an extension of the permission they give to performing autopsies for research purposes. Most often cited regarding autopsies is the opinion of the late Sephardi Chief Rabbi Ben Zion Meir Chai Ouziel, who permitted them because "there is a possibility of thereby saving life." (See his responsa, Mishpetei Uziel, 1:28 and 29.)
Many, but not all, Ashkenazic Israeli authorities oppose cloning embryos (although many do support ESC research). This is in sharp contrast to the United States, where there appears to be majority support even for cloning among the Ashkenazic Orthodox rabbinate.
Ironically, as mentioned earlier, a Reform responsum on the subject agrees with the Israeli rabbis regarding cloning embryos for research. According to the responsum, issued by the Central Conference of American Rabbis in 2001 (5761.7), "It is not permissible to create embryonic human life for the purpose of destroying it in medical experimentation."
The CCAR responsum, however, goes much further. It disapproves of ESC research in general. "Let us not mince words," it states. "Although the fertilized egg may be called an 'embryo,' a 'zygote,' or a 'blastocyst,' these labels can mask the fact that we have here a human being, an organism that contains all the genetic material that would, under the proper conditions, develop into a full legal person….The embryo may not have attained the status of a nefesh, a legal person, a member of the human community, and its unwarranted killing may not be defined as 'murder.' It is, however, a human being, and by that token it partakes of the sanctity of all human life."
The responsum is also not impressed by the pikuach nefesh argument.
"This argument does have persuasive force, but that force lies in the sheer power of calculation," it says. "It depends upon the assignment of relative values to the human organism at different stages of its development: the nefesh receives a higher score than the not-yet-nefesh….This mathematical approach is elegant in its simplicity, but...it ignores some vital moral issues raised by the destruction of embryonic human life.…[E]ven there, in the microscopic fertilized egg, lies the supreme potential for humanity."
The Reform position aside, the majority still favor ESC research, including, when necessary, the cloning of embryos to harvest their stem cells. That may change, however, because of new research suggesting that adult stem cells scraped off of human skin can be "reprogrammed" to work just like the embryonic ones. To date, the new research remains highly speculative, but the halachic wheels are turning nonetheless.

Tuesday 1 July 2008

Yerushalayim Must Maintain Jewish Sovereignty

Originally published 7/1/08, 12:50 pm. Link no longer works.
An article in regard to the sovereignty of Yerushalayim -- with a bit of a twist -- by Nishma's Founding Director, Rabbi Benjamin Hecht, was recently published in the Jewish Tribune (Toronto).

To see the article on line, go to