Posted by Roger Price
It is one of the most dramatic moments in the entire Torah. There is no lightening or thunder, no plagues or parting of the sea, just an elderly statesman appearing before his people one more time, to teach one more lesson before they part from each other, the people to cross the river and the old man to enter eternity. Having led for so many years with the assistance of signs and wonders, now he simply speaks words, hoping to refresh their recollection and inspire them. He reminds them of their history in order to set the stage for their future. He tells them again what they should and should not do, emphasizing that they will have to make choices, choices that will lead to prosperity or adversity, choices that will enhance life or bring death. This leader, this teacher, this Moshe urges them: “Choose life, that you and your children should live . . . .” (See Deut. 30:19; see also Lev. 18:5.) Not for nothing is the Torah known as Etz Chaim, a tree of life. (See Prov. 3:18; Ezek. 20:11.)
This reverence for life is more than some gauzy good feeling. Judaism at its best is grounded in experience, rooted in reality. Centuries after the biblical authors first put quill to scroll, the rabbis in the Talmudic period considered situations where observance of biblical ordinances on the sanctity of the Sabbath might adversely, perhaps fatally, affect real people – a wall that had collapsed on a child but could be removed, a fire that could be extinguished. (See Yoma 84b, see also, Yoma 83a.) Referring to an obscure statement in the Holiness Code which seems to prohibit standing by or upon the blood of your neighbor (Lev. 19:16), the rabbis formulated the doctrine of pikuach nefesh (the preservation of human life), the principle that all of the laws, all of the rules, and all of the regulations which are in Torah can be abrogated to save a life. There are three major exceptions, essentially related to idolatry, murder and adultery, but the bias is otherwise comprehensive in favor of saving the life of another: “Whoever saves a life is considered to have saved the entire world.” (See Sanhedrin 37a.)
And if someone should fall ill, Jewish tradition seeks healing. In the Torah, God was conceived as Rofeh Cholim, the Healer of the sick. (See, e.g., Gen. 20:17, Num. 12:13; see also, 2 Kings 20:1-5, Jer. 17:14.) Not surprisingly, the traditional prayer service contains a prayer for the sick, the Mi-Shebeirach. Even for those who cannot accept the notion of an intervening Divine Doctor, the expression of concern, of desire, of hope for a r’fua shleima, literally a complete cure, resonates with great power.
The biblical authors also knew that it was not enough just to revere life or treat illness. Prevention of harm was seen as crucial. So the Torah warns us not to place a stumbling block in the path of the blind (Lev. 19:14), and we understand that we are responsible for the welfare of others – especially those whose circumstances or condition place their health or safety at risk.
And what does all of this have to do with nuts, the delicious treat that can lower bad cholesterol and provide heart healthy nutrients? The short, if not simple, answer is that for many people, and an increasing number of them, nuts can be deadly. They can, for instance, as Tablet columnist Marjorie Ingall has written, turn charoset into the Mortar of Doom.
Researchers estimate that 15,000,000 Americans have food allergies. These allergies affect 1 in 13 children under the age of 18 (about two children in the average classroom). And the problem is getting worse. As the National Center for Health Statistics has reported, food allergies in general are increasing rapidly among children. Moreover, children in large urban centers have significantly greater incidences of food allergies than do children in rural communities. Summarizing the statistics, ScienceDaily reports that almost ten percent of urban children have food allergies.
Ninety percent of allergic reactions to food are caused by eight particular allergens. Two of the primary triggers are peanuts and tree nuts. Rates of peanut allergies specifically have tripled between 1997 and 2008. Today almost three percent of children in urban areas are allergic to peanuts.
Distinguishable from food intolerance, a food allergy involves the immune system. When an allergic person eats an offending food, that person’s immune system perceives the food as a foreign invader and attacks it, releasing a number of chemicals in the process. Dr. Sarah Boudreau-Romano concisely explains the science behind the storm of these adverse reactions in her blog “The Allergist Mom.”
Symptoms may be relatively moderate such as a tingling sensation in the mouth, hives or cramps, but also may include swollen lips, difficulty in breathing or swallowing, reduced blood pressure, and loss of consciousness. When a person’s blood pressure drops to a dangerously low level, anaphylactic shock occurs. Even a very small amount of allergen can result in life-threatening anaphylaxis.
Injection of epinephrine (adrenaline) is both the first line of defense and the only available treatment for anaphylaxis, but its use is not really a cure. Rather, if administered quickly enough, it merely buys a few minutes of time to get to a hospital emergency room for further treatment. To really avoid allergic reactions, a person with a food allergy must avoid the allergy causing food.
So, as important as it is to be able to recognize and treat an allergic reaction, prevention, in the form of avoidance, is truly the best medicine. The good news is that congregations, temples, synagogues and shuls, as well as Jewish federations, centers and other organizations, can respond to the growth of food allergies by adhering to the principle of pikuach nefesh.
One such policy is to become a nut-free facility, that is, prohibit any food containing peanuts or other nuts from being brought into or being cooked or served in the facility. This approach is especially helpful in protecting young children who cannot read food labels or otherwise guard against their own allergic mishap. Allergies aside, some organizations already ban any food that is not prepared in their own kitchens or under certain religious supervision. Groups that do allow food to be brought in, E.G., for pot-luck meals, need to recognize that for some people with food allergies luck is not a good policy.
A number of congregations across the country already strive to be nut aware and nut free, for example, Woodlands Community Temple in White Plains, New York (Reform) and Congregation Beth Shalom in Seattle, Washington (Conservative). Here is a protocol based on what some groups are doing now to implement the principle of pikuach nefesh.
Yes, yes, some will feel that such a policy inconveniences them. But L’Chaim is not just a toast with a click of the glass. It is a core value and a promise. And, so, Jewish tradition has not recognized an inconvenience exception to the principle of pikuach nefesh at any time or in any place. Rather, across time and space, Jews have consistently opted to protect those in need and preserve life. So, too, now. All together: L’CHAIM! TO LIFE!
Note: This post appeared previously at www.judaismandscience.com.
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November 1, 2012 | 9:01 am
Posted by Roger Price
It was in 1953, or so. The exact date is lost to memory. The pub was somewhere just north of Columbia University. Albert Einstein, perhaps the greatest physicist of the century, picked the place in part because he was visiting an old friend at Columbia, as he was traveling from Princeton to his summer home on Long Island. Not coincidentally, for he did not believe in coincidences, it was also not too far from the Jewish Theological Seminary.
Einstein wanted to meet JTS luminaries Mordecai Kaplan and Abraham Joshua Heschel, and had heard that the bar had a booth in the back that was conducive to conversation. He was interested in Kaplan because he had heard of Kaplan’s attempts to create a Jewish theology without supernaturalism. The idea of a naturalist philosophy, or trans-naturalist as Kaplan sometimes called it, appealed to Einstein. Anyone whose prayer book was radical enough to get burned, by Jews no less, was a bonus for the seventy plus year old, but ever rebellious, Einstein.
Heschel was a different matter. A dozen or so years earlier, Heschel had been severely critical of Einstein because he thought Einstein had dismissed the God from heaven. Einstein was aware of the criticism, but had also heard Heschel described by some as a pantheist and by others as a panentheist. Einstein’s theology, such as it was, fell in there someplace, too, usually. It made no real difference to Einstein. All agreed that Heschel had a mystical bent. That approach made no sense at all to Einstein, but to some degree that was one of the points of the whole pub exercise. He was there for a variation on one of his thought experiments. Except this time he was interested not so much in experimenting (though the idea of having a German Jew, a Polish Jew and a Litvak at the same table was intriguing). He was just enjoying thinking about thinking.
Einstein had requested the meeting. Kaplan and Heschel knew each other, indeed were colleagues after a fashion. And each of them knew who Einstein was, of course, but neither had met him despite the fact that each was prominent in the American Jewish community. Both accepted Einstein’s invitation to join him without hesitation. After all, who could turn down the man who just turned down Ben Gurion’s request to become president of the reconstituted State of Israel.
Einstein pre-ordered drinks for everyone – Atomics, they were called. Imp that he was, Einstein thought the selection was funny, but he really just wanted to save time.
Kaplan and Heschel came in together. Neither cared much for the other’s philosophy, but they cared for each other. Apparently, you could do that in those days.
Heschel saw Einstein first. Even in the darkness of the pub, the light seemed to shine off the waves and curls that appeared to sprout randomly from Einstein’s head. After some initial fumbling with Doctor, Herr Professor, Rabbi, they settled quickly into Al, Mordi and Abe.
“Nice space, yes?” Einstein said matter-of-factly. “Space,” said Heschel, “is full of wonder.” “You’re right, Abe,” Einstein replied, “but I was talking about the space immediately around us – this tavern, not the whole universe.”“Of course,” said Heschel, “but still . . . .”
“And thanks for coming on time,” added Einstein. "Man transcends space, and time transcends man," Heschel interjected.
“Does he always talk like this, Mordi?” “Always and always,” replied Kaplan, with a shrug.
“I ordered Atomics. I hope that is all right with you,” Einstein said. “I don’t know much about your science, Al” said Heschel. “I do know that under the running sea of our theories and scientific explanations lies the aboriginal abyss of radical amazement.”
With a wink to Kaplan, Einstein said “You have a gift, Abe.” “My gift,” replied Heschel “is my ability to be surprised.”
“I am not much interested in surprises,” Einstein offered. “I prefer mathematics and science. They disclose the order of the universe. I now realize that God Himself could not have arranged these connections any other way than that which does exist.”
Kaplan rose, glass in hand and announced: “The so-called laws of nature represent the manner of God’s immanent functioning. The element of creativity, which is not accounted for by the so-called laws of nature, and which points to the organic character of the universe or its life as a whole, gives us a clue to God’s transcendent functioning. God is not an identifiable being who stands outside the universe. God is the life of the universe, immanent insofar as each part acts upon every other, and transcendent insofar as the whole acts upon each part.” Kaplan then sat down. “So, Abe, does he always talks like this? “Always and always,” Heschel replied, wearily.
Then, without missing a beat, Heschel added, “Mystery remains. The root of religion is the question what to do with the feeling for the mystery of living, what to do with awe, wonder and amazement.” To which Kaplan responded: “Religion is as much a progressive unlearning of false ideas concerning God as it is the learning of the true ideas concerning God.”
“Fellas,” Einstein interjected, “Can we not agree on this: Try and penetrate with our limited means the secrets of nature and you will find, that, behind all the discernible laws and connections, there remains something subtle, intangible and inexplicable. It is a force worthy of veneration, yes?” “Yes,” said Kaplan, “This is the force, the process, I call God.”
“And Abe, you agree, too, do you not, that the most beautiful emotion we can experience is the mysterious? To sense that behind anything that can be experienced there is something that our minds cannot grasp, whose beauty and sublimity reaches us only indirectly: this is religiousness.” “Beyond the grandeur is God.” Heschel replied, adding, “God is a mystery, the mystery is not God.”
“Mordi, now I think that I am getting into the swing. Science without religion is lame, religion without science is blind. How’s that?” “That’s it, Al. Now you sound like Heschel.”
“You could learn from him, too, you know. After all, it does not mean a thing if it does not have that swing.” “I know, Al. If only I had been able to write like Abe, I could have been a contender.” “Say again,” asked a man in an Actors Studio tee-shirt. “I could have been a contender,” boomed Kaplan. “Thanks,” mumbled the young fellow.
“You have done all right,” said Einstein, “Clear and to the point. And your ideas will help our people evolve.” “It’s all relative, isn’t that right, Al ?” Kaplan asked with a twinkle. “Yes,” Einstein agreed, chuckling, “It’s all relative.”
A version of this post was published previously at www.judaismandscience.com.