Saturday, June 27, 2009

Curing Cancer the Torah Way

A very thought provoking essay was posted on Cross-Currents on June 24 authored by Rabbi Dovid Landesman entitled A.Y. Karelitz, M.D.

Here is the part that interested me:

I brought an example once from the Iggerot Chazon Ish and was somewhat astounded to discover that none of my students had ever heard of the author. I digressed and told them the story of Professor Lev and what he had said. I then described the impact that the Chazon Ish had on halachah in our generation, especially in regard to mitzvos ha-tluyot ba-aretz. This led into a general discussion about great rabbis.

One hand in the back of the room shot up.

“Rebbi? Based on what you‘re saying about the Chazon Ish and the way you describe him, isn‘t it possible that if he had dedicated his time to medical research rather than full time Torah study, he might have discovered a cure for cancer?”

“That‘s a possibility although there is no guarantee that it would have happened,” I answered.

“Well, let‘s assume for a moment that he did discover the cure for cancer. Would that not have had a greater impact on the world than his contributions to learning?”

This is certainly a very legitimate question and one that is commonly asked in various forms (as I will illustrate shortly). I applaud Rabbi Landesman for providing a very fitting and poignant response:

“Quantitatively I think you might say that given that more people might have benefited. Qualitatively I‘m not sure, because none of us knows precisely how important Torah learning is to the preservation of natural order. When the Talmud tells us ein ha-olam mitkayem ella al hevel pihem shel tinokot shel beit rabban – the world only exists because of the study of the children – they were telling us that Torah study is the energy that fuels nature. Take it away and natural order collapses. Had the Chazon Ish gone into medical research – had he become A. Y. Karelitz M.D. – who knows how much quality Torah learning would be missing in this world.”

Although I thought that his response was a true answer and appropriate to a more secular mindset, I also thought that it slightly missed the mark.

He is saying that based on how we measure (qualitative vs. quantitative), the achievement in Torah can be considered no less far-reaching. With this response, Rabbi Landesman concedes that the Chazon Ish's great achievements in learning may have come at the expense of great achievements in medicine. Though Torah study supplies the energy that fuels nature, it does not directly alleviate the plight of cancer sufferers.

I am not so sure about that. And I think Rabbi Landesman missed out on an opportunity to deliver an hashkafic message that is simpler, less esoteric and more relevant to the petitioner's question about curing cancer. So I stepped in to fill the void. Here is the comment that I posted on Cross-Currents:

I have likewise dealt with the question of “If the Chazon Ish would have been able to cure cancer…” but in a slightly different guise. The way I am asked the question is: “If all of the Jews would sit and learn Torah 24/7 as advocated by Ravi Shimon Bar Yochai (Brachos 35b), who would be the doctors to heal those who get sick?” My response addresses both forms of the question and follows a more theological track.

For starters, we can always rely on the response presented by RaShb”Y himself in Brachos 35b which is that non-Jews would come voluntarily and fill that role. HKBH is the Chonen L’Adam Daas and He is quite capable of inspiring whoever He wants – Jewish or not – with the requisite wisdom to make the medical discoveries that would help mankind. If HKBH wants a cure for cancer to be found, He has no small pool of “servants” that He can choose Himself to lead to the right place.

Nevertheless, I might expect this response to fall short of satisfying the questioner because he would ask: “But the Chazon Ish was blessed with extraordinary brilliance and understanding, why not assume that he is the ‘chosen servant’?”

So here is where I take the theological track:

HKBH tells us Himself in no less than 3 places in the Torah (okay, once it’s through Moshe) that if we faithfully follow His dictates, we won’t get sick! What this says is that the only reason we have cancer is because we are not “mushlam” (complete) in our avodas Hashem. If we would be, there would be no cancer. This is G-d’s promise in no less than 3 places in the Torah (Shmos 16:26, 23:25 and Devarim 7:16).

What the Torah is telling us is that working toward “shleimus” in Avodas Hashem is the cure for cancer (or – the way to avoid getting it in the first place. ‘An ounce of prevention…’). As such, one who devotes his life to helping Jews fulfill their role as a Mamleches Kohanim and a Goy Kadosh - as the Chazon Ish did - is doing more to cure cancer than anybody in medical school.

Yes, I know we are far from mushlamim and in our day even Kedoshim are stricken with the dreaded disease R”L, but had the Chazon Ish been A.Y. Karelitz M.D., we would be that much further from true Avodas Hashem and the cancers that much worse.

Y. Hirshman - Achas L’Maala V’Sheva L’Matta (1a7b)

Incidentally, as I have written in the main theme of my book and in numerous posts, this concept applies to every malady that affects mankind, not just sickness. War, economic turmoil and poverty, infertility, Shalom bayis - all of it is here because we are not living up to our potential in Avodas Hashem.

So if anybody asks: If every Jewish male 18-26 is studying in Yeshiva, who would protect us and fight our enemies? Here is the answer:

Why is there war? And why do we need soldiers? Because we are not committed enough to Torah learning. If we were (Vayikra 26:3), there would not be any war (Vayikra 26:6) and we wouldn't need any soldiers.

Why is there poverty in the world? Because we are not careful in gezel (Targum YB"U Shmos 20:13).

And why are there droughts and water shortages? Because we bear false witness (Targum YB"U ibid.)

And why is there poor shalom bayis? Because we do not do G-d's will (Mishlei 16:7 and Yalkut Shimoni 954). If we did, we would not need marriage counselors and divorce courts.

And why are there infertile couples? Because we (i.e., collective society - not necessarily the individual couples) are not careful on the light mitzvos that people trample with the heels of their feet (Devarim 7:12). If we were, we would not need fertility clinics (Devarim 7:14).

And who tells us exactly how to perform these "light" mitzvos properly so we know all the Halachic nuances and can avoid "trampling them with the heels of our feet"? And how to do the ratzon Hashem so we can have Shalom Bayis? And how to deal in dinei mammonos so we can forstall poverty and avoid droughts?

The Chazon Ish, that's who. And other Gedolim like him.

So here they are (or were), doing the work of these cancer researchers and fertility experts and marriage counselors and of the entire IDF.

So what do we need them for?

Well, somebody has to win those Nobel prizes.


Ezra said...


My rabbi, Harav Yonitan Pesach, had discs in his back that the doctors said needed surgery. He decided the pain was because of a delinquency in his learning and took upon himself to make a siyum each Shabbat. He's still making siyumim and his back no longer pains him. He's not, Heaven forbid, healing himself through Torah, but rather understanding his personal yisurim to better himself.

Dov said...

The logic is not clear when you go from "if we were all shaleim we wouldn't need doctors" (which as you say is clear in the Torah) to "the way to achieve shleimus and the way to act in a world that's lacking shleimus is to not have Jews be doctors."

In the context of the world without shleimus, the Torah itself tells us that we need to have doctors and that we have a mitzva to go to them. "ha'refoh yerapeh." Rashi in Baba Kama says specifically that we should NOT relate to all illnesses in a purely spiritual fashion, but rather should see medical healing as what G-d wants from us.

Similar for the army. In a world of shleimus we would presumably not need an army, but in this current world we have a mitzva called "milchemes mitzva" in which Jews are OBLIGATED to defend Jews in Eretz Yisrael from attack.

In other words, there's a difference between the GOAL STATE of a world with shleimus, and the JOURNEY TO THE GOAL during which we have not achieved shleimus and have to (a) do what G-d tells us to do in the world without shleimus, and (b) do what we can do to bring it.

As an analogy, we all want our kids to be independent and self-sustaining. Those of us with married kids have the opportunity (iy'H) to see kids living independent lives. This is the goal. But noone would claim that the way to reach that goal is to simply treat a 6 month old or a 6 year old as if they were independent. "Sorry baby, the goal is for you to be independent, you can mash you own food today." Obviously we all know that in order to reach the goal of independent adulthoood for our kids, we need to take care of our kids appropriately when they're younger.

Likewise, our job now is to bring the world to a state of shleimus, and to carry out G-d's Will in the meantime. This means doing mitzvos as G-d commanded, not pretending that we have shleimus when we don't, and not ignoring the mitzvos that G-d's given us in the meantime.

Dov said...

By the way, all that said (my previous comment), I'm not arguing that the Chazon Ish should have been a doctor. I think the Chazon Ish's success (impact) is a "psak min ha'shamayim" that he was doing what he was meant to do here.

But that doesn't mean that others should all do the same. Not everyone has the impact of the Chazon Ish in learning, and those that don't might be missing their opportunity to do their absolute best to bring the world to shleimus.

Ari said...

The danger, of course, is that it's a very short leap from this cause-and-effect dynamic to one in which people "freelance." That is, they attribute various ailments and tragedies as the result of _____ (fill in the blank), whether warranted or not. And while it is admirable to improve one's behavior, it is impossible to say with certainty that, for example, that lack of tznius contributes directly to this malady or that tragedy. And that if we had only done X, we could have prevented Y.

Shmendrik said...

"As such, one who devotes his life to helping Jews fulfill their role as a Mamleches Kohanim and a Goy Kadosh - as the Chazon Ish did - is doing more to cure cancer than anybody in medical school."

Yet strangely, thanks to modern medicine, many diseases are curable or treatable nowadays which would have been fatal in the hundreds of years ago, when far more Jews were closer to being "mushlamim". Fascinating.

toby said...

I have only one question - so many halakhot that we learn are about "secular" life - if you're a merchant... if you're a farmer... if you're a shepherd... why would we need to learn these if we're not meant to implement them?

Yechezkel said...

>>I have only one question -.... why would we need to learn these if we're not meant to implement them?

Only one question?

Another inquiring mind who hasn't read my book!

toby said...

Okay, fair enough - one question for now :)

Yechezkel said...

>>I have only one question -.... why would we need to learn these if we're not meant to implement them?

The short answer - in line with what I have been preaching for almost 2 years - is that we have the option of living in one of 2 worlds: (1) "G-d's world" - Im bchukosai telechu - where, at least like RaShbY we would not need to look after our physical needs or (2) "Wayne's World" - V'im bchukosai timasu - where we will meet the school of hard knocks. In a collective sense we are very far from "G-d's world" and find ourselves in "Wayne's World" where "We are not worthy! We are not worthy!"

While I have the floor, I will offer some response to "Shmendrik's" comment which is indeed quite beguiling. Even though we say "niskatna hadoros" and the tzaddikim of previous generations were more mushlam than us, there is a balance that for the greater people of previous generations, because of their augmented greatness they are also held more accountable for minor transgressions than we are. We are a "dor yasom" but earlier genrations should "know better". Thus, in a sense, our lack of shleimus is also an asset as we are less culpable for our sins. Thus previous generations were more subject to "midas hadin"and we must have a higher level of "midas harachamim". Perhaps that is why in our generation we were granted a reprieve from the severity of sicknesses.

This is mere conjecture on my part but it does stress the point that there are 2 sides to every coin.

Billy Bob said...

You do know that the Rambam was a doctor. Did he live far from G-D's world? Also, I remember something about King Chizkiyahu hiding the book of medicines. Wouldn't that mean that back then they had all the different types of cures that we have now? Wouldn't that destroy your theory about nowadays we have less disease. Back then there must have been less disease, they had a book with all the cures.

William Dwek said...

The Swine Flu is common in PIGS.

This is a clear indication that it is the Dayanim – ‘Judges’ - and ‘Rabbis’ of today who are the PIGS and swines.

They twist and use the Torah for their own power and commercial benefit.

They are corrupt. And they are interested in only one thing:


Not the Torah.

William Dwek said...

When ‘dayanim’ and ‘rabbis’ use the Torah for their own power and commercial profit, this is the behaviour of a swine i.e. a Pig.

No other ‘rabbi’ will ever act against another ‘rabbi’ - even when he knows his colleague is clearly desecrating the Torah. Each rabbi is only worried about losing his own position.

Therefore, the ‘rabbi’ and ‘dayan’ will never effect justice. And he will never truly stand for the Torah or the Honour of Hashem. His pocket will always prevail.

The Torah must never be used for commercial gain and profit. Am Yisrael can only be lead by those who have the necessary love and respect of Hashem and the Torah.

William Dwek said...

1. The ‘dayan’ and ‘rabbi’ may use lies. They turn the innocent into the guilty, and the guilty, become the innocent. They will not hesitate to tell lies in the Synagogue.

2. The ‘dayan’ and ‘rabbi’ may steal. They steal and siphon off money for themselves, from the community and individuals.

3. The ‘dayan’ and ‘rabbi’ may commit murder. They may shame a Jew in public, even repeatedly. This is one of the most vile acts of murder in Jewish law – and they know this.

4. The ‘dayan’ and ‘rabbi’ will not hesitate to use Lashon Hara - the ‘Evil Tongue’ - to suit his own ends. Slander and gossip. This too, is one of the worst acts of murder in Jewish Law. Their slander is never challenged by the community, because they hold positions of power. And the slander may begin with the Rebbetzin herself.

5. The ‘dayanim’ and ‘rabbis’ worship idols and other gods. Their only god is Money. Especially the ‘Dayanim’ – the ‘Judges’ who sit on a Beit Din. They only care about their high incomes and retirement packages. They have little or no love for the Torah or Hashem.

In the case of Lubavitch/Chabad, all their rabbis are carrying out a form of Avodah Zarah – strange worship. They are using mediation and intercession. This is completely forbidden, and against the Torah. We are only allowed to pray to Hashem, directly ourselves.

6. When the NAME of Hashem has been taken in Vain – repeatedly - by reshaim, the ‘rabbi’ will turn a deaf ear and blind eye to the


This is the abhorrent behaviour of a Pig.

This is an extremely severe and dangerous situation.

There is NO forgiveness for this evil sin and aveirah.

7. The ‘dayan’ and ‘rabbi’ may also offer large bribes, tell lies and bring False Witnesses – when he in fact has committed the crime. These are heinous acts of the most despicable kind. This is especially vile when the ‘dayan’ is sitting on a ‘Beit Din.’

8. The ‘rabbi’ may commit adultery. And when he gets divorced, he may spread slander about his own ex-wife, blackening her name – when in fact he was at fault.

9. The ‘dayan’ and ‘rabbi’ may also desecrate Shabbat – if it suits him. He will use physical violence to assault another Jew or Jewess at any time. This evil and venomous behaviour is 100% against the Torah.