Encyclopedia of Jewish Medical Ethics

People Of The Book: Classic Works Of The Jewish Tradition

By Dr. Henry Abramson

Few books demonstrate the enduring value of halachah as Dr. Avraham Steinberg’s monumental Encyclopedia of Jewish Medical Ethics. We live in an age when the most elemental aspects of the human condition are subject to unprecedented manipulation, with everything from the moment of conception to the last embers of consciousness open to revision and consideration. The headlong pace of scientific discovery threatens to overwhelm our basic humanity, radically redefining concepts like “alive,” “male and female,” and “parenthood.” Dr. Steinberg’s magnum opus, the first of its kind, restores a center of gravity to our medical universe and affords health practitioners firm ground for the innumerable moral calculations occasioned by modern medicine.

The six-volume Hebrew-language original was completed in 1989 with approbation from leading halachic authorities. Dr. Steinberg, a physician with extensive rabbinic training and military experience, surveyed the vast scope of medical challenges considered by Jewish law since ancient times and rendered them in alphabetical format, facilitating rapid consultation for doctors seeking immediate guidance on life-and-death issues. The Encyclopedia earned immediate acclaim for its erudition, comprehensive approach, and scholarly objectivity. The volumes were ably translated into a fluid English by Dr. Fred Rosner, a well-known and prolific author in the field, making Jewish thought accessible to a wider audience of non-Jewish bioethicists. This is especially significant, as Dr. Steinberg points out: “Judaism is unique among modern ethical systems in that it constitutes a continuum of recorded deliberations and decisions dating back several millennia. It combines deontological principals with casuistic analysis of an enormous variety of cases.” The Encyclopedia earned the author the prestigious Israel Prize for its contributions to scholarly literature.

The book is written for intelligent non-specialists. Each entry begins with relevant definitions, followed by a historical introduction to debate on the issue (often taking an impressively broad cross-cultural approach), and the scientific background. This is followed by a survey of the relevant Jewish texts, and a detailed analysis of specific applications, heavily reliant on modern responsa literature. Some entries include a discussion of the implications of secular law. The first entry of the Encyclopedia is “Abortion and Miscarriage,” for example, and over the course of 29 double-column pages Dr. Steinberg impressively relates the halachic material cataloging and documenting the approach of rabbis since the first appearance of the issue in the book of Exodus, the implications of the various abortifacient methods and situational variables, and also placing Jewish thought within the non-Jewish works, including modern American law. The reader is left with a concise, comprehensive yet comprehensible understanding of the major approaches of the Jewish legal tradition to this complex issue.

Understandably, a book of this nature is doomed to at least partial obsolescence almost as soon as it appears in print because medical technology evolves so rapidly. The book contains remarkably little discussion of pre-implantation genetic screening, for example, and elective gender reassignment deserves greater attention. Nevertheless, it remains a remarkable feat of scholarship, and may be considered cover-to-cover reading by anyone interested in Jewish medical ethics.

Henry Abramson is a specialist in Jewish history and thought, serving as dean at the Avenue J campus of Touro College. He may be reached at henry.abramson@touro.edu.

This article originally appeared in the Five Towns Jewish Times, February 4, 2016.

Sefer HaChinuch (People of the Book)

People Of The Book: Classic Works Of The Jewish Tradition

By Dr. Henry Abramson

Written with a deep humility that nevertheless could not disguise the author’s brilliance,Sefer HaChinuch remains one of the most thought-provoking halachic studies some 800 years after it first appeared in the Iberian Peninsula. The deceptively simple title, “The Book of Education,” alludes to the anonymous author’s intent: to provide his young son with a basic introduction to the Torah and its commandments. Sefer HaChinuch is therefore an example of the medieval genre of “counters of the commandments” (monei ha’mitzvot), books that list the precise number of positive and negative commandments to add up to the 613 as reported in the Talmud. Many rabbis participated in this scholarly quest, often differing with each other with regard to which act was actually a full commandment, which was only a corollary action, and so on.

Sefer HaChinuch, however, was distinguished by one highly unusual feature: unlike the other monei ha’mitzvot, the Book of Education attempted to answer why each commandment exists. Other scholars, Maimonides and Nachmanides among them, relegated this crucial question to more-sophisticated philosophical works. The Sefer HaChinuch, on the other hand, sought to satisfy the basic curiosity of an adolescent youth. In so doing, he left an intellectual legacy for generations.

The book is often attributed to a well-known 14th-century rabbi named Aharon of Barcelona, but most scholars estimate it was written over a century earlier by an unknown scholar, possibly with the same name and hailing from Barcelona. The author’s attempt to hide his identity is betrayed by a few details in the text, such as the emphasis he places on telling his son to pay special attention to commandments relevant to their family tribe of Levi. He was likely a student of Nachmanides, and possibly wrote the text before the great scholar was banished from Spain in the 1260s.

The book is organized according to the sequential appearance of the commandments in each Torah reading, making it ideal for weekly study. After describing the scriptural basis of each commandment, the text briefly describes how it is observed, who is responsible for performing the commandment (men, women, kohanim, etc.), and under which temporal and conditional circumstances it takes effect (while the Temple was standing, or levirate marriage when the widow is childless, etc.). Finally, each mitzvahconcludes with a remarkably concise and often boldly philosophical description of the “roots of the mitzvah,” meaning its purpose in the Divine Plan.

Some of my favorite sections include the author’s discussions of forbidden mixtures (wool and linen, meat and milk, etc.) that draw upon Kabbalistic ideas about the quality of energies that make up material entities and the spiritually deleterious effects of combining them improperly. The author was also sensitive to the psychological implications of the mitzvot, and is perhaps best known for a theme that runs throughout his work: a person is shaped by his or her actions, not vice versa. By training ourselves in the performance ofmitzvot, even in the absence of a clear awareness of their purpose, we purify ourselves and prepare for ultimate understanding. The Sefer HaChinuch’s purpose as a guide for young people thus retains its evergreen status even for adults living in spiritually and intellectually troubled times.

Henry Abramson is a specialist in Jewish history and thought, serving as dean at the mighty Avenue J campus of Touro College. He may be reached athenry.abramson@touro.edu.

This article originally appeared in the Five Towns Jewish Times on January 28, 2016.

People of the Book: The Ways of the Righteous

“When I speak, I regret what I say, but when I am silent, I do not regret. And if I may regret my silence once, I regret speaking many times over.”

—Gate 21: The Gate of Silence,
The Ways of the Righteous

Is it possible that The Ways of the Righteous, among the most influential works of Jewish ethics written over the past millennium, was secretly authored by a woman? Proponents of this controversial view advance three principal points to bolster their argument. First, the text was published anonymously. It was not unknown for authors in the mussar tradition to refrain from claiming authorship. It is also sadly true, even today, that women authors seeking publication are forced to hide their gender with a pseudonym, a single initial for their given name, or even pose behind a living male to have their work circulated. The 15th-century appearance of a deeply learned text like The Ways of the Righteous would certainly have aroused suspicion, even notoriety, with a woman’s name on the title page. Second, the text was first published in Yiddish, the vernacular of Eastern European Jewry, but Hebrew was common language of higher learning. Yiddish was known in some circles as der vayber sprach, the “women’s language,” because female literacy was usually limited to this Hebraized version of Middle High German. Third, and most tantalizingly, internal literary evidence reveals frequent use of domestic metaphors and similes. The author often makes reference to cooking, cleaning, and other home-based work that would have been readily grasped by homemakers. Thus if it were true that a woman authored Orchot Tzaddikim, then she would certainly represent the most learned woman since ancient times.

Tempting as this theory is, the arguments rest on relatively weak foundations. Much more likely is the probability that the author was a conventionally educated man with passing familiarity with domestic chores. Research into the several manuscript versions currently housed in the libraries of Oxford, Hamburg, and Budapest suggests strongly that the original version was written in Hebrew, and then translated into Yiddish for a broader, female audience of readers. The mystery surrounding the author, however, should not distract us from the fact that The Ways of the Righteous is a brilliant exposition of Jewish ethics, demonstrating a profound understanding of human psychology and infused with an abiding message of hope for self-improvement.

The book is divided into 28 “gates,” each of which is dedicated to a particular character trait. Versions of the text circulated in the fifteenth and sixteenth centuries under the title The Book of Character Traits (Sefer HaMiddot). For each character trait, the author describes both the positive and negative aspects of this particular moral quality, and suggests development of the beneficial and avoidance of the deleterious factors. The influence of Maimonides’ Hilchot Dei’ot is prominent, although an analysis of the author’s source base reveals an exceptionally broad familiarity with the scope of rabbinic writings through the medieval period.

The Ways of the Righteous insists repeatedly that there is no such thing as a bad character trait, only a misdirected character strength. Misunderstood attributes like hatred, cruelty, worry, anger, jealousy, falsehood, flattery, and gossip are treated extensively. Similarly, the text also discusses many positive traits that can be misused, including humility, mercy, alacrity, and repentance. My personal favorites include the remarkably original chapter on silence, and I often turn to the chapter deceptively named “The Gate of Joy” for its moving discussion of faith (bitachon).

The Ways of the Righteous retains evergreen popularity in mussar-oriented yeshivos, especially the Chofetz Chaim movement. It has been adapted into a three-volume children’s book, and a new four-volume translation with commentary was recently completed by my Miami-based colleague, Rabbi Avrohom Yachnes.

This column originally appeared in the Five Towns Jewish Times on Thursday, January 21, 2016.

Letter of Nachmanides

Please enjoy this week’s column in the Five Towns Jewish Times!

The Letter of Nachmanides

People Of The Book: Classic Works Of The Jewish Tradition

By Dr. Henry Abramson

“Accustom yourself to speak gently to all people at all times. This will protect you from anger—a most serious character flaw which causes one to sin.”

—Nachmanides’ Letter, translated
by Rabbi Avrohom Chaim Feuer

In the penitential month of Elul in the year 1267, the aged scholar Nachman ben Moshe penned a letter to his son in far-off Aragon. The venerable rabbi, exiled from his home in the Iberian Peninsula, had recently made the treacherous journey across the Mediterranean to Israel, a land which he found almost devoid of Jewish life: After nearly two centuries of war between European crusaders and the local Muslim rulers, even Jerusalem could not assemble a minyan without summoning Jewish farmers from the surrounding countryside.

Rabbi Nachman—known to historians as Nachmanides—would go on to a brilliant second career rebuilding Jewish life in the Holy Land, but that glorious future was unknown when he picked up quill and ink to record what he thought might be his last communication with his children. His classic letter has since been cherished by Jews over the centuries as a heartfelt, profound distillation of Jewish ethics and philosophy.

Nachmanides, a native son of Gerona, was nearly 70 years old when he was summoned by the king to participate in a “debate” on the merits of Judaism with Pablo Christiani, a recent convert to Catholicism who slandered his erstwhile faith and in particular the Talmud. The Disputation was held in Barcelona in 1263 with great pomp and circumstance. Prominent nobles and church officials attended, expecting a pageant that would culminate in the conclusive defeat of Judaism and a mass exodus of dispirited Jews into the welcoming arms of the church.

Christiani had, however, seriously underestimated the sheer intellectual power and erudition of his senior interlocutor, and the debate soon turned into an unexpected rout. Humiliated, Christiani claimed victory nevertheless, but even a cursory comparison of the multiple published accounts of the trial confirm Nachmanides’ decisive victory. The mass baptisms, forced or otherwise, were canceled, and the dignitaries returned to their homes confused and disappointed.

The king, who had no special love for the church, was thoroughly entertained and delighted with Nachmanides’ victory and personally awarded the rabbi 300 gold coins for his efforts. The church was not to be trifled with, however, and Nachmanides was forced to suffer the punishment of banishment for the temerity of ably defending Judaism. He was exiled from Aragon, forced to leave his family and followers. He chose to make aliyah to Israel, and wrote his famous letter upon arrival at the port of Acco.

The letter is some 500 words in the original Hebrew, roughly the length of this article. Despite its essential message of moral instruction, it is written with obvious warmth and affection for the son that he would never see again. The underlying mood of sadness at their forced separation, tempered by profound gratitude to Providence for safe passage across the Mediterranean, is palpable to readers centuries later. The principal theme of the letter is the interrelationship of anger, humility, and the fear of Heaven, with practical suggestions on how to develop self-control and spiritual sensitivity.

Nachmanides concludes with an exhortation that his son review the letter weekly, a custom that has gained such widespread prominence that many prayer books include it as an appendix to the daily Shacharit service. A readable English translation and extended commentary by Rabbi Avrohom Chaim Feuer was published some years ago by ArtScroll under the title A Letter for the Ages.

Dr. Henry Abramson is a specialist in Jewish history and thought. He serves as dean at the Avenue J Campus of Touro’s Lander Colleges and may be reached at abramson@touro.edu.

The Memoirs of Gluckel of Hameln

Please enjoy this week’s column in the Five Towns Jewish Times, a discussion of the memoirs of Gluckel of Hameln, a remarkable woman from 17th-century Germany.