Friday, July 27, 2012

Withholding Information in Shidduchim, Part 1

The Gemara (Yevamos 45) discusses whether the child of a non-Jewish man and a Jewish woman is a mamzer or is not a mamzer.  Rav Yehuda said he is not a mamzer, but he advised such a person to go to a different place where he was not known to marry a bas Yisrael.  The implication is that people would not want their daughter to marry him, even if he is not a mamzer.

This Gemara serves as a springboard, in recent Achronim, to a discussion of disclosing information for shidduchim, where people would not want to marry a person due to a defect - in yichus or medical - even if there is not a hlachik problem in marrying that person.

Shearim Hametzuyanim B'Halacha, Yevamos 45a s.v. A"L zil itmar...

Rashi explains 'go to a place where they don't know you and marry a bas yisrael, because if they know you they wouldn't let you marry [a bas yisrael].'  In Shearim Hametzuyanim B'Halacha, Hilchos Onaah 62:1 we discussed if one is selling [food] that is not kosher according to all opinions, there is a dispute if one may sell since the merchant follows the opinion of those who permit this food, or because a buyer is strict, if the merchant must inform him of the status of this food.  Even if the food is permitted in a case of great loss according to all authorities, if the merchant must inform him because in this case it is not a great loss for the prospective buyer [and hence he is strict and cannot use this food], and we discussed that in great detail.

We brought the opinion of Chasam Sofer (Responsa, O"C 65) that the merchant must inform the customer, and if he did not it may be a "mekach ta'us" (faulty sale).  Pri Megadim (O"C 467:25) says if there is a strict opinion but the halacha does not rule according to that opinion, the buyer cannot complain that his practice is personally strict, and the merchant is not required to refund the money.  Shach (YD 119:20) brings from Teshuvas Maharalbach where one person is a guest in another's home, and the guest acts strictly in certain matters, when the host must inform the guest of the lenient issues, and when he does not.  And see what we wrote on Sukkah 10b s.v. agninhu.

From our Gemara, we can point out that Rashi (Shabbos 49b s.v. lemitzvah) explains that  if someone buys something for a mitzvah, because he wants to do the mitzvah in the best possible manner.  Therefore, in shidduchim, no one would want to marry someone who has any question about their lineage (yuchsin).  If so, how could Rav Yehuda advise the man to go to a place where he [and his defect] were unknown to marry a woman from that place?  I saw Kunteros Kehillas Yaakov (38) asks from this Gemara.

Another issue requires clarification, for in Bava Metzia (68b) Rava says: Rav Ilish is a great man, and he would not  have allowed others to partaken in forbidden items [in that case, benefitting from interest/usury].  Why does the fact that Rav Ilish was a great man shows it could not have  been done, for every man is prohibited from presenting a stumbling block to another person (lifnei iver)?  Rashba (Responsa, 938) explains that this was not actually forbidden, but it was a matter about shich some people are strict.  Therefore the reason that "Rav Ilish was a great man" tells us he was strict not to give these types of things to others, [lest they treat it strictly].  [Shasdaf's note: it's not clear if another person would be allowed to give this type of merchandise without informing of the possibility that some are strict about it, or that one may if they infrom, but Rav Ilish was so strict he wouldn't even sell it or give it with a disclaimer.]

We can say that since for shidduchim both sides investigate about the prospective bride and groom, it is upon them to check and ask according to their custom.  And see Radvaz (Responsa, V:1587 leshonos HaRambam) who proves from our Gemara that only for Biblical prohibitions are we forbidden to place a stumbling block before another person, but for Rabbinic prohibitions we are not forbidden to place a stumbling block.  Only Rav Ilish who was a great man, was careful not to place a stumbling block even for a Rabbinic matter.  This opinion is questionable, because Tosfos (Avodah Zarah 22a s.v. Tepok) explicitly writes that the prohibition of lifnei iver applies to Rabbinic prohibitions.  However, Tosfos (Chagiga 18a s.v. cholo) implies to the contrary.  Then I saw Minchas Chinuch (232) has a long discussion about this.

Tuesday, July 10, 2012

Holocaust Symposium in Skokie

I attended the morning session for Educators of the Holocaust symposium at the Illinois Holocaust Museum under the aegis of the ATT.  I was disappointed because until the Panel discussion, the speakers failed to address their topics - how to teach the Holocaust.

(After I wrote this post, the ATT announced that the audio would be available here, but it's not up yet.)


Rabbi Mordechai Neugroschel:  "How do we answer the hard questions regarding emunah and bitachon as we teach the Holocaust?"

I heard Rabbi Neugroschel speak in Israel 3 summers ago (in Hebrew).  He appeared businesslike and spoke to the point; he is clean shaven and looked like a businessman with a black yarmulke.  He is a first-rate speaker and I would absolutely hear him again.  Even in English, clearly not his native tongue, he is an impressive speaker.  He seemed much more emotional and gesturing rather than the stoic and businesslike posture I previously saw.  Unfortunately, he mostly told inspiring stories.  He did cite a fascinating Zohar and made some really thought-provoking he'aros about Rabi Akiva saying Shma while dying al kiddush Hashem, and about Elisha Ben Avuyah's going off the derech.  Unfortunately what I took away from his talk were some really inspiring stories but not an answer of "how to answer the hard questions regarding emunah and bitachon as we teach the Holocaust?"  See more below, under "panel".

Rabbi Nosson Scherman:  "What do we emphasize as we teach the Holocaust to our children?"

After the crescendo of Rabbi Neugroschel's closing stories, it would be difficult for anyone to talk about anything.  Rabbi Sherman did a fine job transitioning beginning with some nice stories about loving Hashem.  He mentioned this cartoon .  Then he transitioned into his scheduled topic, basically saying we must know where we came from; our history, the history of anti-semitism and how the US with the first amendment is much freer to Holocaust denial than Eurpoean countries where it is a crime, though becoming not so serious a crime anymore, and finally that Jews don't give up.  He referenced Raul Hilberg.  He also referenced other popular (or not-so-popular) culture.  In other words, he came across very knowledgeable of the world, not at all the vision one would have of the creator, master and curator of ArtScroll.  So he did address his topic; unfortunately, I don't think people will remember his points about it, but it was not his fault.

*Book to use.  Rabbi Nosson Sherman recommended several books about the Holocaust: for the history, The War Against the Jews (interesting because earlier he praised Hilberg, but according to Wikipedia, Hilberg was highly critical of this book; About American apathy, While Six Million Died; and The Abandonment of the Jews;  for Emunah issues, a soon-to-be-published ArtScroll book Tragedy and Rebirth.  He also said it must be taught with emotion, not like other history.  Not sure I agree with that.
 Rabbi Reuven Brand mentioned several: The Jew in the Modern World for its primary sources; Eim Habanim Semeicha, The Holy Fire; Shu"t Mimaakim.  I'm surprised he didn't focus more on the last source, as we can see from the questions the issues and worries that the Kedoshim were concerned about.  I have seen an English translation which I think is only a selection of teshuvos and is not a translation of the entire sefer.

*How to teach it.  R' Neugroschel spoke about through unconditional love.  Dr. Jerry Lob pointed out that a parent might be able to do that but a teacher likely won't be able.

*What to do after learning about the Holocaust - This was a good question and while Rabbi Scherman addressed it, I have no substantila content I can report.  He did say that we have to be concerned about everyone, not just Jews, though we must take care of other Jews first, before worrying about Darfur.  Great story how Chafetz Chayim asked Ponovizher Rav after the latter returned form South Africa if it is true that the Blacks are very badly treated.  Ponovizher Rav asked why is it important?  Chafetz Chayim said if there is a famine in India or earthquake in Japan or Blacks suffering in South Africa, it is a message to us, the chosen nation, to improve our behavior. Interestingly, from something Dr. Lob said before, there could be this project: visit a children's hospital.  He said this regarding a question how to tell children about so many children being killed in the Holocaust  he mentioned this as an example of children suffering in our own time.

(Rabbi Scherman is to be commended for speaking about the concern Jews must have for non-Jews.  Unfortunately there are many instances of what appear to be racism, especially among certain Chareidi groups.  But Rabbi Scherman's stories from the Chafetz Chayim show that racism does not have a place in Judaism.)

Rabbi Neugroschel had another unbelievable story about a grandson of a survivor he heard speak named Nitai - turns out after Nitai Ha'Arbeli in Pirkei Avos.  Tremendous story behind that.

Unfortunately, the following (notable) points were omitted in the program.
* General Studies teachers can teach the history, and let limudei kodesh faculty - or better yet, designated experts (since our education system fails miserably at teaching emunah issues) - teach emunah issues.

* related - most schools don't teach the ani maamins stam, neutrally, so why for one of the most difficult to comprehend issue are they now interested?

*Limudei Kodesh faculty never teach any Jewish history anyway, so why should they think they could teach the Holocaust?

*The need to know the context of WWI and the Treaty of Versailles leading to German problems, leading to Hitler's ascent, then active measures against Jews, and how the methods of murder were adapted to become more efficient; and the actual fighting of WWII on the European continent.

* Sometimes we're looking at the forest of the 6,000,000 and we're missing the trees - not each individual, but different communities - Germany vs Lithuania vs Poland vs remnants of Austian-Hungarian empire, etc.  Each has a different story regarding their suffering.  In other words, one story - or even one survivor's story - is important, but we can focus on these stories and not see the entire picture of what the Nazis did, and when they did it, and how things changed and evolved during the war.

* What other Jewish calamities do these schools teach?  Churban bayis Sheni and Bar Kochba revolts led to hundreds of thousands of Jews killed.  The Crusades.  Expulsions from European lands.  Chelminitzky's pogroms in 1649 (Tach v'Tat) wiped out a third or half of European Jewry.  Why aren't we teaching the history of those events either?

* Another item omitted was any mention of Yom Hashoah.

The capture and trial of Eichmann was a national springboard to discussion of the Holocaust.  This was not mentioned.  Hausner's Justice in Jerusalem and Ben Hecht's Perfidy (why is it so expensive?  Must be small supply and larger demand) are the first two books that come to mind about that.  Chareidi schools will have the added bonus of Hecht's harsh criticism of the Zionist leadership during WWII (and beyond), not wanting to upset the British.

Personal note: I am very excited for the upcoming publication of The Chain of Miracles by Rabbi Meyer Juzint.  Disclaimer: I ran this project - getting the manuscript translated to English, editing, layout and publishing.

Monday, July 9, 2012

Jewish Genetic Disorders in the News

In Today's Wall Street Journal

A Community's Twist on Genetic Tests
Orthodox Jews Screen for Recessive Diseases Before Marrying, but Are Only Told So Much


NEW YORK—In Williamsburg, a bustling Brooklyn enclave across the East River from Manhattan, a sect of ultra-Orthodox Jews dresses in garb common to 18th- and 19th-century Europe and adheres to even more-ancient religious traditions. Yet they are wrestling with the most modern of questions: When it comes to genetic testing, how much does a person need to know?

The community has deployed a unique screening program that addresses a genetic issue arising from the fact that Jews in Central and Eastern Europe once lived and married within small, tightly bound communities. As a result, Jews who trace ancestry to this region have a higher risk of carrying gene mutations that could lead to bearing children with a number of devastating hereditary genetic conditions.

Many Jews who know their ancestry now get tested to see if they carry such mutations. But in many Orthodox communities, the kind of genetic screening typically used in the wider world is complicated by privacy needs, religious prohibitions, and clashes with some of their communal values.

So community members devised an approach to identify people carrying gene mutations for the same diseases who, if they were to marry one another, might bear children with lethal conditions (such offspring have a 1 in 4 chance of inheriting a so-called recessive condition.)

Rabbi Josef Ekstein, who had four children die of Tay-Sachs disease, a fatal neurodegenerative condition, founded a program called Dor Yeshorim to screen people and create a database with the test results while providing participants with anonymity. Young people—typically from age 17 to their early 20s—who get tested are assigned a personal identification number and birth date without the year. The program screens for nine conditions common among Ashkenazi Jews—those who can trace ancestry to Central and Eastern Europe—and the information is kept in a database by Dor Yeshorim, which means "upright generation" in Hebrew.

Before a couple is betrothed, or sometimes even meet, their families call Dor Yeshorim with the identification data and are told whether the prospective couple is "compatible" or—if both carry a gene mutation for the same disease—"not compatible." In the latter case, the relationship is typically abandoned.

The program is unusual not for what it tells people, but for what it doesn't.

Typically, a person who is sent for or requests genetic screening is told if he or she is a carrier for a wide variety of conditions.

Rabbi Ekstein, though, tells a recent visitor that he didn't envision Dor Yeshorim that way. "We are a prevention program," he says. The purpose isn't to expand an individual's personal medical knowledge, but to prevent the births of doomed children by alerting potential spouses to the risk.

How much to reveal to people remains a contentious issue in the gene-testing field. Some geneticists argue that scientists still have no grasp of most gene mutations' relevance, and that sharing information whose meaning is uncertain is potentially harmful. In some cases, people might endlessly worry or alter their lives because of a mutation for which there is no effective treatment or that turns out to be benign; others may ignore medical advice because genes show they aren't predisposed to a particular condition, even though screening can't rule out the possibility a disease will develop.

Many believe people have a right to know everything, and withholding any information amounts to a kind of genomic paternalism.

Rabbi Ekstein recognizes that, in some respects, withholding all information other than people's compatibility may seem old-fashioned in an age when technology can tell people about all kinds of genetic risks. He argues that too often, people don't consider the "negative part of knowing" one is at risk. Everyone talks about the right to know, the rabbi says, but there should be equal attention paid to "the right not to know."

Those who use Dor Yeshorim aren't told for which diseases they are carriers unless they insist. Among the concerns: If word were to get out in the tightknit Orthodox community, the stigma of carrying a faulty gene might make it hard to find a spouse not just for that person, but for his or her siblings as well. And screening is done only for recessive diseases, for which each parent must contribute a faulty gene in order for a child to be affected.

Yaniv Erlich, a geneticist at the Whitehead Institute in Cambridge, Mass., who works with Dor Yeshorim on research projects, says the group's decision to share only what it considers "actionable information" is a stance taken by many geneticists. What's unusual is that, in this case, "the marriage is the actionable information," he says.

Dor Yeshorim's story is really Rabbi Ekstein's story.

The rabbi's first child, a boy born in 1965, seemed to be developing normally. But at around 6 months old, he started losing muscle tone, had seizures and experienced trouble swallowing. Eventually, he went blind. The boy was diagnosed with Tay-Sachs at age 2, and died at age 4. Four more children were born; three also died of Tay-Sachs.

After burying his fourth child, Rabbi Ekstein says, "it came to my mind that maybe this has a purpose." Screening tests had been developed that could let people know if they were carriers of diseases and, while it was too late to help him and his wife—who have five healthy children—Rabbi Ekstein sought a way to help others in the community.

In Williamsburg, which boasts one of the largest populations of Satmar Hasidic Jews—a branch with roots in Hungary and Romania—couples tend to have many children, and find spouses who are usually chosen or approved by their families. In most cases, abortion is prohibited, sperm and egg donation isn't an option and in vitro fertilization is financially prohibitive. The only practical way to stop children from being born with these diseases is to prevent carriers from marrying.

Rabbis and other community leaders debated Dor Yeshorim's mission for some time before giving their approval. A paramount concern was the confidentiality aspect. There also was considerable debate about which diseases to test for: How severe does a disease have to be to justify providing information that could thwart marriage plans?

Today, the number of children born with Tay-Sachs in the Jewish community in the U.S. and Canada each year has dropped to between three and six from between 30 and 40. The Dor Yeshorim database now includes information from 330,000-340,000 people from Orthodox communities around the world. One in 100 prospective couples are found to be incompatible, the group estimates.

Still, researchers believe that while risk can be lowered, it can never be completely eliminated. In genetics and love, says Edwin Kolodny, professor emeritus in neurology at New York University Medical Center and chairman of Dor Yeshorim's medical advisory board, "Marriage in most situations remains a lottery where we just take our chances."

Write to Amy Dockser Marcus at

Within the past month, the same reporter reported how Irish may also be carriers of Tay-Sachs at an elevated rate.