Saturday, August 28, 2021

HE DECIDED TO GET A VACCINE BOOSTER, AND THEN HE DIED

Last week I attended a shiva house. My friend who passed away, an amazing person, was a very young seventy and in perfect health. He had decided to book himself in for a vaccine booster shot, and later that day he was playing tennis when he suddenly dropped dead. The cause of death is said to be unknown.

No doubt many people reading this would consider it certain, or very likely, that he died as a result of the shot. It would be taken as anecdotal evidence that the vaccine is dangerous.
 
However, in fact it had absolutely nothing to do with his death. I know this with absolute certainty. Because he missed his appointment that morning and never actually received the shot.
 
Can you imagine if he hadn't missed his appointment? The story would spread that a healthy person died after receiving the booster, and likely as a result of it. It would have led people to believe that the vaccine is dangerous, even though that would have been completely baseless.
 
The lesson to be internalized here is that sometimes people die for reasons that are unknown. And in a world with billions of people, this happens quite often. That is why anecdotal evidence doesn't mean very much. You have to understand the statistics of how many people die from various causes. 
 
Most of us don't know or properly understand these numbers, or the science of vaccines. That's why, if we are smart, we rely on specialists such as epidemiologists and immunologists. If you think that you know better than them, or that you can judge that a single maverick knows better than a hundred thousand other specialists, then you're the opposite of smart.
 
BE SMART. GET VACCINATED.

Thursday, August 26, 2021

"I'd Rather Die Horribly Than Get Vaccinated!"

The other day, someone asked online if anyone regrets getting the vaccine, and why. Most people answered that they didn't regret it at all; some said that they did regret it. But I didn't like the question, because it was skewing the picture with a selection bias. So I pointed out that there are around four million people who deeply regret not getting the vaccine, but since they died horribly from Covid, they are unable to voice their opinion.

I thought that this was pretty self-evident. But amazingly, some people disagreed! 

One person asked how I can possibly communicate with the dead. Well, obviously I can't, but it's also obvious to me that nobody wants to die horribly!

Then someone said that since the vaccination can have nasty side effects, maybe people who contracted Covid would indeed rather be dead than suffer those problems?

Er, no, that's also silly. The vast majority of people would certainly rather live with a minuscule chance of suffering in the long term than to actually die horribly! Furthermore, Covid itself most certainly has far, far greater long-term health problems than the vaccine! 

With regard to the latter point, a particularly interesting enormous study was just published. It shows that aside from the long-term harm of Covid such as lung damage, the particular adverse effects that some fear from the vaccine are actually much more likely to occur as a result of getting Covid and not having the vaccine!

Alas, the dead cannot speak. And most of those who die from Covid can't even speak in the days preceding their death, as it's too difficult for them to even breath. You would think that it's blindingly obvious that they wish more than anything that they would have been vaccinated. How can people not recognize that? The power of some people's minds to exercise suicidal stupidity is truly extraordinary.

You may well not catch Covid, though this is increasingly less likely. You may well not get very seriously sick even if you catch it, though this is also increasingly less likely. But if you do, you are very likely to wish that you had gotten vaccinated - and all the more so if you find yourself dying!


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Wednesday, August 25, 2021

What Do The Experts Say?

During the Great Science-Torah Controversy of 2004-5, I was having a conversation with a friend, of blessed memory, who was a prominent figure in the American yeshivish community. He was widely regarded in that community as a knowledgeable, worldly person. And he asked me why on earth I was putting myself through all that ordeal for the sake of reconciling Torah with evolution. After all, he said, even the scientists don't believe in evolution anymore!

Of course, this is sheer nonsense. With the exception of certain fundamentalist Christians, every zoologists and biologist in the world - including many Christians aligned with the so-called "Intelligent Design" movement - believes that whales and bats descended from terrestrial mammals over millions of years (which is why whales have the disadvantage of needing to come to the surface to breath air rather than breathing underwater like fish). None of them believe that whales and bats suddenly materialized into existence in their final form a few thousand years ago, as is the traditional understanding of Genesis. 

Yet misconceptions like this about the state of scientific knowledge seem to be widespread in the charedi community. How does this happen? It doubtless stems from various anti-evolution literature (written by both Jews and Christians) which spread many types of misinformation, including the following:

  • presenting questions as refutations;
  • presenting Christian or Jewish fundamentalist scientists as objective authorities utilizing the scientific method;
  • presenting non-specialists as authorities;
  • presenting maverick specialists as representing the mainstream;
  • quoting actual mainstream specialists out of context (e.g. misrepresenting comments about the theory of evolutionary mechanisms to be instead referring to the accepted fact of common ancestry).

For the average layman, such misunderstandings are understandable. When they see reference to a book called "Evolution: A Theory In Crisis," written by a PhD biochemist, naturally they form the impression that even scientists don't believe (or don't have good reason to believe) that the Biblical account has been challenged by science. Little do they realize that the author of this very book, aside from being a devout Christian on the fringe of the academic community, is absolutely convinced that the evidence clearly shows that the animal kingdom (including man) evolved over millions of years!

That's why in my book on this topic, The Challenge Of Creation, I sought primarily to clarify the state of scientific belief rather than to stake a personal position. With common ancestry, which is accepted as scientific fact by the entire body of relevant authorities, I pointed this out and also gave a taste of the factual basis. With the mechanisms of evolutionary change, I explained that there is something of a spectrum, with a majority opinion in one direction, and a minority opinion in another direction, and I did not take sides. As a non-biologist, I lack both expertise and authority, and I freely admit it. But what I did develop skills at is identifying who the authorities actually are and what they actually say, and also identifying how people misrepresent the views and status of others.

With Covid and the vaccine, it's a similar situation. We see countless people who falsely (and presumptuously) believe themselves far more competent at evaluating scientific data than they actually are. We see a widespread lack of understanding as to who is an actual authority on the topic. There is a pervasive belief that a significant number of qualified authorities are against the vaccine, whereas the fact is that the overwhelming majority of people who are actually qualified to have an opinion on the vaccine are in favor of it.

I'll conclude with a simple home test that you can do to see if you have weaknesses in this area. (Passing the test won't prove that you don't have any, but failing it will prove that you have fatal weaknesses!) Here's the question: How many authoritative scientists say that vaccinated people who get infected with Covid carry 251 times the viral load of non-vaccinated people who get infected with Covid? Here's a link to get you started. It's a multiple choice question, and here are the potential answers:

A) Zero

B) One

C) Two 

D) Between three and ten

E) Between ten and a hundred

F) More than a hundred.

Try to figure out the answer before seeing what other people write in the comments!


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Now This Is Where Medical Experts Are Probably Wrong

Having spent time arguing that one should accept the opinion of medical experts, I am now writing a post disputing medical experts.

The Jerusalem Post just published an article which states as follows:

The Pfizer coronavirus vaccine scored a point in the field of public opinion with an announcement by the American Food & Drug Administration on Monday that it is fully approved. Now, it is likely that many more people will sign up to get the jab, health experts say, in that they will have even more confidence in the safety of the vaccine.
 
I'm not a health expert, and I'm not qualified to dispute an expert opinion about health. But the health experts cited here are not giving an expert opinion about health. They are giving an opinion about how people in general react to information about science. And that's something which is the domain of psychology, not physical health.
 
Personally, I think that it is just not going to be true. Yes, a few more people will sign up to get vaccinated. But "many more"? I don't think that is likely at all, and I think that most psychologists and social scientists would probably agree.
 
The fact is that the vast majority of people rarely make rational decisions based on evidence. There have been countless studies which demonstrate this. Rather, most people primarily based their decisions on such things as emotion, bias, group affiliation and so on, and then use their intellect to rationalize these decisions by deciding which evidence they will consider acceptable.  
 
To make things much worse, we live in an unfortunate time in which conspiratorial thinking, reception and distribution of misinformation, and distrust of expertise have spread far beyond the fringe circles of conspiracy theorists who believe that lizard people are controlling world events. The majority of Republicans believe that Republican officials conspired to falsify the results of the presidential election! And the internet enables mavericks, including some with credentials, to spread their views widely; it's not easy for the average person to figure out who the real experts even are.

When it comes to Covid and vaccines in particular, the amount of misinformation that people absorb boggles the mind. As noted yesterday, many people have spent over a year believing things that are not only false, but very demonstrably false and even nonsensical. An official approval of the vaccine from the FDA, even with all the consideration that this entailed, isn't going to sway them - not even people who claimed that the reason they didn't take it until now is that it didn't have full FDA approval. They will latch on to the fact that a very very small number of medical experts say that the FDA is wrong or is rushing things. And they will claim that they are able to evaluate this view as being more correct than that of the overwhelming majority of medical experts who say that people should take the vaccine. In the last few days I've heard from MBAs, engineers and housewives who assure me that they are much more qualified to assess the pros and cons of the vaccine than hundreds of thousands of specialized trained medical scientists in this field.

Given all this, why do I spend so much time and energy trying to educate people to identify misinformation and accept the conclusions of mainstream science? I have several reasons for doing this:
  1. Not everyone is totally immune to using evidence and logic to make their decisions.
  2. Even if facts and logic don't convince them immediately, it may plant seeds which bear fruit later.
  3. It's important to strengthen those who draw correct conclusions and make sensible decisions.
  4. This is one of the ways in which I am stupid.
Hopefully the first three reasons have more validity than the last one.
 
I'd love to be proven wrong about people changing their minds. If you didn't take the vaccine yet, and the FDA approval has changed your mind, please let me know!

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Monday, August 23, 2021

It's Time To Understand That You Don't Understand

Social skills are really not my area of expertise, to put it mildly. I've committed faux pas like you wouldn't believe; I cringe just to even think about them. I accept my shortcomings in this area, which is why I accept guidance in it from people with greater social skills than I. I'm also very ignorant about archeology, among many other fields of knowledge, and I'm terrible at parallel parking. And I'm ready to admit all this both to myself and to others. Why are some other people so reluctant to accept their shortcomings in particular areas?

Over the last few days I have been involved in discussions and arguments with several people who are not all-out anti-vaxxer conspiracy theorists, but who are either opposed to taking the Covid vaccine or are very skeptical about it. All these people are intelligent (well, most of them) and they are certain that they are demonstrating informed skepticism. Yet with each of them, I have demonstrated to them that they have fallen for outright lies and/or have made ridiculous errors of understanding. The correct conclusion for them to draw is that while they may be accomplished and intelligent in many areas, they are not capable of drawing intelligent conclusions about Covid and the vaccine, and that they should defer to experts, and cease spreading information and opinions on this topic. 

Here's some examples from today. Someone insisted to me that six thousand people in the US were killed by the vaccine - and also insisted that this was attested to by none other than the CDC! Of course, this is not at all true. What the CDC actually said was that six thousand people were reported as having died after taking the vaccine, not from the vaccine. And since nearly two hundred million Americans have been vaccinated, it is inevitable that many thousands of people die in any given period. Any deaths can be reported to VAERS, even by family members with no medical expertise, and are duly logged and investigated. Only three of these 6000 deaths were found to be linked to the vaccine (and in a way that can be prevented in future). The rest were just the thousands of deaths that were absolutely due to occur anyway during that period, vaccine or no vaccine, and it would be inexplicable if they didn't happen!

The claim that the CDC reported six thousand dead from the vaccine was not only false; it was utterly ridiculous. Yet it took a while for me to finally convince the person of that.

Here's another. Someone else insisted to me that he is not a layman and that he analyzes and understands all the information that he reads. This was right after he forwarded a message urging everyone to listen to the testimony of a doctor about how the vaccine changes your DNA! But this "doctor" was a psychologist rather than a physician, and the vaccine most certainly has absolutely zero effect on DNA. I pointed this out, along with other blatant nonsense that this person had fallen for - such as regarding the statistic discussed yesterday that most people in Israel currently sick with Covid are vaccinated, and that Bill Gates paid trillions (!!!) of dollars to try to stop a stupid anti-vaccine video. Shouldn't this cause the person to re-evaluate their claim that they are not a layman and that they analyze and understand all the information that they read?

One more. A person told me that it's not unreasonable to be against the vaccine, since there are "many, many virologists, immunologists, and doctors" who are against it. I replied that this just isn't true, whereupon the person said that "huge numbers" do exist and I'm just not aware of them. So I said, Fine, what's the evidence that there are "huge numbers" and "many, many" such professionals against it? And they responded that they've seen lots of videos! I pointed out they certainly hadn't seen videos of thousands or even hundreds of virologists, immunologists, and doctors who are against the vaccine!

So the person added that "a team of over ten thousand (sic!) medical experts led by Dr. Reiner Fuellmich have begun legal proceedings against the CDC." It took me just a few seconds to discover and point out that Reiner Fuellmich is a lawyer rather than a doctor, and more significantly, there are not ten thousand medical experts saying that they are on his team; the claim of ten thousand medical experts is stated by nobody other than Fuellmich! 

If there were thousands of virologists, immunologists, and doctors who are against the vaccine, then there would be a list of their names. No such list exists, because there are no such thousands of experts who exist. A claim that there are thousands of experts in support of a position is not evidence that there are thousands of experts in support of a position! 

In fact, over 98% of physicians are in favor of the vaccine (the evidence for my claim is here). And the percentage of immunologists, virologists and other specialists who are much more qualified than random physicians is doubtless even higher. In other words, the number of relevant experts who are in favor of the vaccine is not "many" or "most" - it's close to one hundred per cent! The number of relevant experts who are against the vaccine is negligible, and it makes absolutely no sense to choose to side with them.

Every day, there are hundreds of people dying painful, tragic, senseless deaths, because they were influenced by misinformation spread by people who thought that they understood the topic of vaccinations and the existence of expert disagreement better than they actually do. Why can't people admit that they are just not very good at evaluating information regarding Covid and vaccines and doctors? There's no shame in that. It would be the appropriate, honest and humble conclusion to draw. And it would prevent them being complicit in loss of life. 

(I ran all this by a PhD immunologist with twenty years of experience and a PhD pharmacologist with 25 additional years of molecular biology research, and everything that I wrote can be easily corroborated. Unless you think that I'm lying, you can share this post with those who are subject to misinformation.)


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Sunday, August 22, 2021

Lies, Statistics, and Outrageous Lies

There's a famous saying that there are three kinds of lies: lies, damned lies, and statistics. The idea is that statistics can be even more pernicious than lies, since they use information which is true but present it in a way which is completely misleading. 

A disturbingly powerful example of that is making the rounds at the moment. People are spreading a chart showing the percentage of seriously ill Covid patients in Israel that are vaccinated. It's the majority! This is used to send a powerful message that the vaccine does not work, or is even harmful.

Of course, if you have a better understanding of the topic, you'll realize why this is backwards. It's like saying that since the majority of car crash victims are wearing seatbelts, this shows that wearing seatbelts is dangerous. Whereas the truth is that since 99% of people in cars wear seatbelts, then obviously most crash victims are wearing seatbelts, and it doesn't mean that they don't help.

The overwhelming majority of people in Israel are vaccinated. So of course, even when the vaccine greatly reduces your chances of getting seriously ill, there will still be more vaccinated  people who are seriously ill. The relevant statistic is not how many sick people there are in absolute terms, but rather how many sick people there are as a percentage of that sector of the population. And what we see is that being vaccinated drastically reduces your chances of getting seriously ill and dying.

But I wonder if there's another problem here. We've been taught that statistics can be so pernicious because they take technically true information and distort its significance. Yet there seems to be an assumption that in general, information which is presented - especially if it looks impressive - is true, or at least arguably true. But I've seen a few cases in which people happily spread absolutely outrageous flat-out lies.

This morning I saw a screenshot of an article from the British Medical Journal about the danger of vaccines. Being from England myself, I have benefited from how the word "British" lends anything an air of prestige, and when it's put together with "Medical Journal," the effect is particularly powerful. The reactions of numerous people showed that the article had made a big impact on them.

The only thing is, a simple Google search showed that it wasn't actually from the British Medical Journal at all. It was actually from "The Light Paper," a bonkers far-left British conspiracy theory rag associated with Piers Corbyn (a man who makes his brother Jeremy look sane). But how many people actually bother to do that Google search? Most people will just assume that the "British Medical Journal" has shown there to be serious concerns about the vaccine!

A few weeks ago, I came across an even more bare-faced example. A friend was given a recommendation for a highly accomplished doctor, a psychoneurologist who is very successful at helping people with various problems. They passed on the recommendation to me for my opinion, and I agreed to look into it. 

The first thing that I did was Google his name. There were about 900 results, which instantly set off alarm bells. After all, between all the cross-links and so on, most accomplished people have many, many thousands of Google hits.

I then went to his personal website, which had an impressive list of his accomplishments. He served as the U.S. Liaison for the Middle East Peace Process. He co-authored the Jerusalem Spiritual Peace Accord. He earned the coveted title of the UK’s Most Influential Speaker. He is the founder and dean of a university. He is the Chief Psychoneurologist for the American Board of Psychoneurology. And he also received rabbinic ordination and is a kabbalist! 

It sounded amazing. And once again, a few minutes of Googling revealed that it wasn't actually true! Not that it was entirely fabricated, but rather that meaningless things were being given grandiose titles. 

There is no record of any "U.S. Liaison for the Middle East Peace Process" online whatsoever. He awarded himself this title.

There is no record of any "Jerusalem Spiritual Peace Accord" online whatsoever. It was nothing more than his own ideas.

There is no "coveted title" of "the UK’s Most Influential Speaker." It's an award given by a Jewish students' group at a university.

The university of which this person is founder and dean has precisely one person on staff; himself.

The "American Board of Psychoneurology" does not have anyone at all listed as actually being on the board, and as far as I can make out, it is actually just one person - this person.

Then I suddenly realized that the word psychoneurology was different from neuropsychology and was an unfamiliar term to me. So I googled that too. Google was pretty sure that I actually meant neuropsychology, and kept giving me results for that word (which has 32 million results), but when I insisted that I really meant psychoneurology, I discovered that the term does not exist in either the dictionary or Wikipedia, and almost all of the paltry instances of it online are associated with this person.

But how did he get his Phd? Incredibly, in a YouTube video, he freely admits that he gave it to himself, because there was nobody else qualified to give it to him!

Now, it's entirely possible that this person is very good at improving people's lives, and I wish him success with that. Still, I would be wary about giving money to somebody who makes such utterly fraudulent claims about their accomplishments and qualifications. And how many people are actually going to research his claims to see if they are valid?

A friend of mine, who shares various articles which I consider to contain pseudo-science and other distortions, asked me if I'm against sharing articles and letting people draw their own conclusions. I answered yes, absolutely. The fact is that most people are not capable (or willing) of doing the necessary research required to evaluate the truth of what they read. And so all of us have a responsibility to only share information that is credible. These days, it's a matter of life and death.


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Wednesday, August 11, 2021

Does Rambam Support Kollel?


 The following mailing was sent out last week by the Bais HaVaad Halacha Center of Lakewood:

Taking Tzedakah Money To Sit & Learn

Question: We have stated that one should avoid taking tzedakah if he has the option of supporting himself. Today, there are thousands of people learning in Kollel. Many of them are supported by the public’s generosity. Since they technically could get a job and support themselves, is learning full-time a contradiction to the Gemara’s statement that one should avoid taking charity?
 
Answer:   It is true that Chazal say it is preferable to take any job than to live off of tzedakah; however, the Rambam says that anyone who accepts to spend his days learning Torah should be supported by the public.

In olden times, Shevet Levi sat and learned all day and they were taken care of by the rest of the nation. The Rambam says that anyone who so desires can emulate Shevet Levi and accept to learn full-time while the public supports him.

These people are needed to sustain the world through their Torah studies, and, therefore, are an exception to the above-stated rule that one should do any kind of labor in order to avoid accepting charity. All Poskim agree that this is true and maintain that supporting such men is an ideal form of tzedakah.

The Chofetz Chaim speaks about this in many places and says that the best use of tzedakah funds is to support poor Torah scholars who wouldn’t be able to learn otherwise without your help. These funds directly contribute to the dissemination of Torah through the generations and are necessary to sustain the world.  
 
Here is a letter that I sent to them:
 
To Bais HaVaad Halacha Center:

I was astounded to see you claim that “the Rambam says that anyone who accepts to spend his days learning Torah should be supported by the public.” Rambam, in discussing the laws of learning Torah, emphatically states the exact opposite:

“One who makes up his mind to involve himself with Torah and not to work, and to support himself from charity, has profaned God’s Name and brought the Torah into contempt, extinguished the light of religion, brought evil upon himself, and has taken away his life from the World-to-Come...” (Hilchos Talmud Torah 3:10)

I do not understand how you could discuss Rambam's view without quoting his explicit statement that such a lifestyle is utterly, utterly wrong. (This is even though the state of Torah study in his part of the world was generally rather poor, especially compared to today.)

Apparently, in presenting Rambam’s position as being the exact opposite of what he says in Hilchos Talmud Torah, you were misled by Rambam’s statement at the very end of Hilchos Shemittah Ve'Yovel. It follows a halachah where Rambam notes that the tribe of Levi did not receive a share of the Land of Israel to develop, nor serve in the army, but instead their role was to serve God and teach Torah to Israel. Rambam follows this by stating as follows:

"Not only the Tribe of Levi, but each and every individual human being, whose spirit moves him and whose knowledge gives him understanding to set himself apart in order to stand before the Lord, to serve Him, to worship Him, and to know Him, who walks upright as God created him to do, and releases himself from the yoke of the many foolish considerations which trouble people - such an individual is as consecrated as the Holy of Holies, and his portion and inheritance shall be in the Lord forever and ever. The Lord will grant him adequate sustenance in this world, just as He granted to the priests and to the Levites. Thus did David, peace upon him, say, O Lord, the portion of my inheritance and of my cup, You maintain my lot."

Presumably, it is based on this that you claimed that “In olden times, Shevet Levi sat and learned all day and they were taken care of by the rest of the nation. The Rambam says that anyone who so desires can emulate Shevet Levi and accept to learn full-time while the public supports him.”

However, Rambam does not, and could not, mean anything of the sort. Obviously he could not be completely contradicting what he said in the very laws that deal with Talmud Torah. What has happened is that you have not paid attention to two statements of Rambam which make clear that there are two crucial differences.

First of all, insofar as Rambam does equate Torah scholars with the tribe of Levi with regard to material sustenance, he makes the meaning of this clear elsewhere:

"Anyone who makes economic use of the honor of the Torah takes his life from this world... However, the Torah permits scholars to give their money to others to invest in profitable businesses (on their behalf)... and to receive priority in buying and selling merchandise in the marketplace. These are benefits that God granted them, just as He granted the offering to the Kohanim and the tithes to the Levite... for merchants occasionally do such things for each other as a courtesy, even if there is no Torah scholarship to warrant it. A Torah scholar should certainly be treated at least as well as a respectable ignoramus." (Commentary to the Mishnah, Avos 4:7)

In Rambam's view, Torah scholars, like Kohanim and Leviim, receive benefits, though the benefits are of a different nature. They involve the investment of funds, and assistance in business, rather than financial grants. This is similar to the Yissacher-Zevulun relationship, which, according to Chazal, was nothing at all like it is popularized today; rather, it involved Zevulun marketing the produce that Yissacher farmed.

The second crucial difference is that according to Rambam, the tribe of Levi did not “sit and learn all day,” as you write. The Levites' special mission was not learning Torah; it was teaching Torah:

"Why did the tribe of Levi not acquire a share in the Land of Israel and in its spoils together with their brothers? Because this tribe was set apart to serve God and to minister to Him, to teach His straight ways and righteous ordinances to the multitudes, as it is written: “They shall teach Jacob Your ordinances and Israel Your Law” (Deut. 33,10). (Mishneh Torah, Hilchos Shemittah VeYovel 13:12)

According to Rambam, someone learning in kollel is simply in no way doing what Levites did. The Levites were not sitting and learning all day; they were primarily teachers.

In conclusion: In Hilchos Shemittah VeYovel, Rambam is not remotely describing someone studying in kollel, being supported by charitable contributions. His view on this remains as he expresses it elsewhere: that such a person "has profaned God’s Name and brought the Torah into contempt." I look forward to your issuing a correction.

(Incidentally, it is true that Rambam was somewhat of an aberration from normative tradition in his views on these matters, but not as much as one might think. He does, reluctantly, permit teaching the Written Torah for money, where such is the norm, and although he opposes receiving money for teaching Oral Torah, he does not do so with the same vehemence that he opposes taking money for studying Torah – see Hilchos Talmud Torah 1:8-10. Other Rishonim often permitted taking money for teaching Torah, though almost never for studying Torah. 
 
The general attitude is perhaps best expressed by the Ramoh in Yoreh Deah, 246:21. He first states the primary view, that it is forbidden and wrong for Torah scholars to receive funding; he then notes a "yesh omrim," an alternate lenient view that it is permissible for rabbis to receive funding, and finally brings an even more lenient view that even students may receive funding. Along with the presentation of this as an extremely lenient “yesh omrim”, Ramoh notes that it is still preferable for Torah students to be self-supportive, if possible. Presumably this is because this was the clear value system of Chazal, and perhaps this is why the phenomenon of mass Kollel was unknown for most of our history. Along the same lines, Chazal were very clear that a person has to give his children the necessary education to be financially independent.)

Sincerely,
Natan Slifkin
 

Tuesday, August 3, 2021

From Bais Yaakov to MD, part III

From Bais Yaakov to MD: 

A Post-Charedi Bais Yaakov Graduate Speaks Out 

Guest post by Dr. Efrat Bruck

Part Three (read part one here and part two here)

 

5. Can you please stop ousting people like Rabbi Dr. Natan Slifkin?

When I was 15 years old, I started reading the books of Rabbi Avigdor Miller. I found them pretty interesting, as he would speak about topics my teachers refused to even acknowledge. The word “evolution” was not mentioned once in my four years of high school, except the story of R’ Yakov Kaminetzky sitting on an airplane next to a gentile and telling him that the reason your children don’t respect you is because you believe that you’re descended from apes so you are one step closer to apes than your descendants. We, Jews, on the other hand, believe in matan Torah and so the older generation deserves our respect because they are closer to that. 

Of course, this story is a complete fabrication, as was verified directly to me by a man married to Rav Yakov Kaminetzky’s granddaughter. He was appalled that people are even able to believe such a story; he knew R’ Yakov very well and said that Rav Yakov would never speak like that to someone. Anyway, Rav Miller’s book were enough for me until at some point, it dawned on me, that it was his life’s mission to make sure no frum Jew believed in evolution. We had just learned in Seminary Rav Dessler’s piece of “negios”, biases, and suddenly it struck me, “Can rabbonim have biases?” 

At some point, I came across Rabbi Nosson Slifkin’s books. This was already after I started taking some college science classes. But then I heard that they were banned. Now I was curious. Why were they banned? I started reading all about it. I wasn’t sure what to do. All the big rabbonim said he was an apikorus. Then again, we also learned about all the great people who, at some point in their lives, were labeled an apikorus. I decided I wouldn’t take a side. I would let the matter percolate.

Once my scientific knowledge solidified a bit (nothing too advanced or drastic, just some basic undergraduate classes), there was no longer a question in my mind about which side I would take. I was happy not to be thrown into some crisis forcing me to choose between the reality in front of me and my faith. While not every question had a perfectly neat answer, Rabbi Dr. Slifkin’s approach gave me permission to continue living a life where my personal observance and career aspirations were neatly synchronized. I didn’t have to think Chazal made ridiculous statements; I could allow them the grace of being limited by the scientific knowledge of their time. By extension, this gave me permission to think that Chazal were not overtly misogynistic; I could look at their statements within the cultural context surrounding them. But the ban. The rabbonim did not agree with all of this. Rabbi Slifkin’s approach was banned precisely for those reasons that were saving my observance and belief. I found myself on the other side of the line without even noticing that I stepped over it.

So here is my question to those of you in the charedi leadership. Did you ever consider this point before? Have you ever stopped to think about how Slifkin’s approach actually helped many people keep their religious observance? Have you ever considered the risk-benefit analysis? Because when you pushed Slifkin out, you pushed me out and countless others. Are you absolutely certain that Slifkin’s approach is so treif that it’s worth alienating all of these constituents?

By the way, a Jewish education that can be collapsed easily by some undergraduate science classes is one that needs a serious overhaul.

6. You need to weigh the risks and benefits of the I-factor.

I’m constantly being asked by colleagues, Jewish and non-Jewish, to explain the difference charedi Jews and other observant Jews. If time is short, I say one of the main characteristics that distinguish charedi Jews from other forms of observance is what I’ve dubbed the I-factor, which stands for Insularity. Much of charedi ideology revolves around the notion that the more isolated you are from society at large, and from Jews who are non-charedi, the better. Of course, there’s an entire spectrum of involvement with the world versus total isolation across charedi society. But it remains a central ideal – something to strive for.  The most revered rabbonim are the ones cloistered away. The ideal lifestyle to strive for is one where the husband is in Kollel and not exposed to anything secular. Business people and professionals are, of course, accepted, but with an undertone that having to work is b’dieved (less so in the US). 

There’s a heavy price paid for this insularity, and I urge you to reconsider if it should so revered. Firstly, there’s no way you can be a “light unto the nations” if you have nothing to do with the nations. Furthermore, when people do venture out into the world, sometimes tremendous damage is done, because they see that many of the things they are taught are not true (see #1 for example). I know – this is the reason you try to keep them in, so that they don’t get “corrupted”. But you have to wonder about a system that tries to keep you in so tightly because it’s so threatened by outside forces. 

I have three friends who applied to medical school around the same time as I did, all from charedi communities, and all religious at the time. Today, I am the only one among the four of us who is observant; I’m fairly certain none of them keep Shabbos. They are each brilliant, talented, and highly driven to help people. I’m friends with all of them and I don’t want anyone reading this to think there is any judgment on my part; that isn’t the point here. But for a community that likes to prevent shedding of its members, this can give you some clues. Isn’t it a shame to have lost all these doctors, soon-to-be leaders in their respective niches?  Among my non-charedi religious friends who went to medical school, every single one left medical school at the exact level of observance with which they entered. Something to think about.

 

To be continued. If you'd like to subscribe to this blog via email, use the form on the right of the page, or send me an email and I will add you. 

About the Author: Efrat Bruck, MD, graduated from the Icahn School of Medicine at Mount Sinai in New York City and is now an anesthesiology resident at the Mount Sinai Hospital. Before medical school, she taught Judaic studies, Hebrew, and Biology to 1000 now-alumni of Be’er Hagolah Institutes, in Brooklyn, NY. Dr. Bruck has worked as a content specialist for Khan Academy and created over 30 MCAT preparation videos on topics in molecular biology, DNA, and genetics that have also recently been translated into foreign languages.  Her videos have been published on the AAMC (American Association of Medical Colleges) website, Khan Academy, and YouTube, accruing millions of views on the latter. Dr. Bruck has published research in Nature, the Journal of the American Society of Nephrology, and Obstetrics and Gynecology.

Dr. Bruck founded and leads the JOWMA PreMed Society that aims to advance Jewish women, from all backgrounds, in medicine. Dr. Bruck is a fierce advocate for premed students from insular and underrepresented backgrounds and strives to provide them with the resources and tools necessary to compete. (www.jowma.org/pre-med). She was among two out of 200 graduating MDs, PhDs, and MD/PhDs at Sinai’s recent commencement to be awarded the Patricia Levinson Award for the Advancement and Inclusion of Women in Medicine. Dr. Bruck, along with her colleagues at JOWMA, is also currently in the process of constructing a cultural competency curriculum that will help healthcare professionals in New York City hospitals provide culturally sensitive medical care to Jewish populations across the entire spectrum of Orthodoxy.   

Dr. Bruck’s experiences in education, acceptance to nearly 10 US MD programs, and service on the admissions committee of the Icahn School of Medicine at Mount Sinai have led her to have a highly successful track record helping premeds navigate the medical school application process. She is the founder and CEO of MDInspire, a medical school admissions consultancy that provides professional consulting for fees that are reasonable and a fraction of the standard costs. Dr. Bruck specializes in helping people weave their stories seamlessly through their application, building stellar personal statements and activities sections, interview preparation, and coaching students on how to study smarter, not harder. For more information, please visit: www.MDInspire.com.

The views expressed in this article are those of the author alone and do not reflect the opinions or positions of JOWMA.

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