Wednesday, October 23, 2013

What do you do about an impaired driver?

So here's a practical question I faced the other night:

I was driving home from a shiur on Sunday evening; it was about 10:15 PM, and I was five minutes from home after a very long day. I was on a long, relatively busy street (heading north on Bathurst, just south of Steeles, for those who know Toronto). Two cars in front of me, a Toyota, some sort of SUV, stopped significantly short of the light. I thought it odd, but not unprecedented.

The light changed, and the SUVish vehicle started moving - not only forward, but also veering a little into the lane to its right, then back into its lane, and over to the oncoming traffic on its left side. Then far into its left, so that it nearly hit someone who was coming the other way in a turning lane - they missed colliding by perhaps five feet. Then they veered back into their lane.

So it went for the next couple of blocks, before I turned off of that street, as they continued.

To me, this was pretty clear evidence of an impaired driver. The veering was so consistent that it seemed more likely to be intoxication than texting or poor vision.

I imagined calling the police to give them the plate number and approximate location, but knowing that plenty of people get on and off that street at every light, and that I rarely see patrol cars in that area without a specific cause, I didn't think that it would accomplish anything.

I imagined staying behind that car - but to do what?

And so I did nothing, which isn't my usual approach to problems in a public space. Maybe it was just because I was very tired, from giving 3 shiurim that day, and writing up another 2 shiurim. But it's been bothering me. So my question is: What would you have done? What should I have done?

Thursday, October 17, 2013

Reclaiming Israeli history, this Sunday

Every 7.5 years, this one-word question arises in Jewish communities all over the world: "Yerushalmi?!"

The worldwide Daf Yomi program studies a single page of the Babylonian Talmud each day - but after studying approximately 450 pages, the program veers into Talmud Yerushalmi, the Jerusalem Talmud, for a single volume: Masechet Shekalim. Students ask themselves: Why are we studying a volume from the Jerusalem Talmud?

The question is sharpened when students open the first page and realize they are not in Pumbeditha anymore. Basic vocabulary, sentence structure, even the format and flow of discussion change when you open the Jerusalem Talmud. We don't even have a commentary by Rashi to make everything clear! So why are we putting ourselves through this? Wasn't the Babylonian version hard enough?

Further: Mainstream Jewish practice follows the rulings of the Babylonian Talmud; only when the Babylonian Talmud is silent do we adopt the view of the Jerusalem Talmud. (Kesef Mishneh, Hilchot Terumot 8:15) So why are we learning the Jerusalem Talmud?

There is a technical reason for learning Yerushalmi Shekalim: Adding this volume of the Jerusalem Talmud completes the seder [order] of Moed. However, another possible benefit of studying the Jerusalem Talmud is that we reclaim a key piece of Israeli history.

The Jerusalem Talmud was written and canonized by Jews who lived under late Roman rule in the land of Israel, in the first centuries of the common era. Despite terrible persecution and the threat of painful execution for the crime of studying Torah, they maintained a powerful commitment to Torah and kept Jewish life in our land alive. Rabbi Yochanan. Rabbi Ami. Rabbi Zeira. And so on.

Their language, challenging as it is, is our language. Their voice is our voice. Their Torah is our Torah. These are heroes of Jewish history, and they are our ancestors, and in studying their words we connect to them.

This Sunday, the Daf Yomi program will begin its study of the Jerusalem Talmud, with the volume of Shekalim. Consider joining a Daf Yomi shiur, or pick it up yourself - you can find audio shiurim on-line at and on other sites. Alternatively, study another work from an Israeli sage - Rabbi Yosef Karo's Shulchan Aruch, the Alshich's biblical commentary, or the writings of Rav Kook, perhaps. Together, we, as a nation, can reclaim Israeli history.

Tuesday, October 15, 2013

Providing contraceptive information for unmarried patients

Next week, Gd-willing, I'll present a medical halachah shiur on "Enabling a Patient to Sin". I'm looking at dealing with three types of cases:

  • Indirect assistance, as in providing contraceptive information for unmarried patients;
  • Direct assistance, as in referring a patient for surgery (such as vasectomy or abortion) that is not halachically sanctioned;
  • Direct involvement in the sin, as in providing anesthesia during a surgery that is not halachically sanctioned.
After reviewing relevant halachic rulings, I think that the first tier of cases is permitted, provided that the information is available from other sources of equal quality and availability. The prohibition against causing others to stumble will not apply because other sources of quality information are readily available, and because one is not moving the actual transgression forward in any active way. Halachic sources include Rama Yoreh Deah 151:1, Ksav Sofer Yoreh Deah 83 and Tzitz Eliezer 19:33:1.

Nonetheless, I found the following position articulated at the website of the Association of Orthodox Jewish Scientists:

Question: Does halacha permit the orthodox Jewish physician to give contraceptive advice to and to prescribe contraceptive devices for unmarried girls?

Answer: Except under very exceptional circumstances, Judaism considers it immoral for the physician to give contraceptive advice to an unmarried girl.

Comment: The doctor must use judicious moral judgment in this sensitive area of human relations. Judaism deems it immoral to give contraceptive counsel to unmarried persons when such advice may serve to remove an important barrier to immoral conduct. When confronted with the mentally retarded patient or with people in whom self-discipline is lacking as determined by previous conduct, consultation with a religious guide should be undertaken to decide the proper course of action.
This Halacha Bulletin was written by Fred Rosner, MD, FACP and Rabbi Moshe D. Tendler, PhD and reviewed by HaRav Moshe Feinstein, zt"l.

I wonder what drives this position.

Monday, October 7, 2013

Rav Ovadia Yosef z"l

I am not sure what to write at the moment; having learned from the teshuvot (responsa) of Rav Ovadia for more than 20 years, though, I feel, at least, that I must say this: For all of the strife of the last several years, and the debates over major communal issues that stretch back longer than that, Rav Ovadia was a true giant in his Torah scholarship, his ability to present it clearly for his students, and his dedication in that task. יהי זכרו ברוך.

Jerusalem Post

Jewish Press

New York Times

Thursday, October 3, 2013

So what's wrong with Noach, and the US Government?

Anyone who went to Jewish day school or who has spent time in a synagogue at this time of year has heard the divrei torah about Noach: Sure, he was good, but he didn't think about the people around him. Noach was righteous, but unlike Avraham, he didn't try to help those around him to improve.

This weakness is visible in the Torah's description of Noach - after all, the Torah presents ample material about Avraham's interactions, and our spoken Torah expands upon it, while Noach's story offers nothing in this regard. Nonetheless, these divrei torah seem odd: How could someone be great enough that he would remain righteous and Gd-fearing despite living in a world rotten enough to be condemned, how could someone find such favor in Gd's eyes as to deserve a miracle [as well as Divine conversations], and yet be derelict in such a fundamental human obligation as looking after the people around him? Can this be a real human being?

Then again, I wonder if this isn't entirely consistent. Perhaps in order to be a Noach, one must be driven to stand apart from the world. Perhaps being dismissive of his neighbours is a logical byproduct of spending a lifetime rejecting their ways.

And an additional thought: Perhaps this is what makes compromise so difficult for lawmakers. The architects of the US Government shutdown, on both sides of the aisle, spend so much time and energy and emotion on distinguishing themselves from those on "the other side" that compromise becomes an impossible challenge. Further, what drives many of them into government in the first place is their passion for their partisan views, and that passionate personality has real difficulty opening up to another's viewpoint.

And perhaps this is exactly why Avraham is so great; Avraham is able to stand apart, and yet sympathize with his neighbours.

Just a thought. [This could become a derashah, I suppose; this would work well with Rav Zalman Sorotzkin's thought at the end of his Haggadah, on the Jews as rebels and the need for them to learn unity in their slavery and in the model of the matzah.]