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Utilizing Halacha To Address Difficult Social And Medical Issues


Dr. Rivkah Blau

Dr. Rivkah Blau

A writer of non-fiction for the general community has to know the topic well; a writer for the observant Jewish community has an additional requirement – to understand that Jewish law, halacha, informs our decisions and actions.

To write about such a sensitive topic as talking about intimacy with one’s children, we need a psychologist who has experience teaching children. For Jewish perspectives on genetic diseases we require a doctor who is up on the latest research in genetics. For both topics, the authors should know the halacha, present primary Torah sources, and consult rabbis on difficult questions. Fortunately, Bernard Scharfstein at Ktav Publishing House found the appropriate authors at the moment we really need books on these two subjects.

Dr. Yocheved Debow is the perfect author for the first book, Talking About Intimacy and Sexuality: A Guide for Orthodox Jewish Parents. She has a BA in psychology and education and an MA in child clinical and school psychology from Hebrew University, and a Ph.D. from Bar Ilan, where her research was on sexuality and intimacy education in the Modern Orthodox community.

She worked with elementary school and high school students at yeshivot in the United States, and together with Dr. Anna Woloski-Wruble wrote a curriculum for Grades 3-8, “Life Values and Intimacy Education: Health Education for the Elementary School.” She enjoyed a thorough Torah education in her years at Michlalah, the Jerusalem Torah College for Women, and works with post-high school students as academic principal at Midreshet Emunah v’Omanut in Jerusalem.

Her awareness of what parents might find difficult points to a most important qualification: she and her husband are the parents of six children, several of them already teenagers. Her empathy for parents and children is remarkable.

Dr. Debow understands how uncomfortable it is to initiate a discussion about sexuality. She recognizes the impact of the majority culture and the need to “inoculate” our children. She anticipates what kids will ask and knows from teaching many classes “The Central Questions Our Children Are Asking.”

She provides sample conversations, not for parents to follow line by line but to serve as a template on which parents can build what they want to say. Between clear titles, a good index, and summaries at the end of each section, she makes it easy to find the information a reader wants. She thinks that educating about intimacy is the responsibility of both parents, and that it is necessary for sons as well as daughters.

The chapter on “Tzniut” is brilliant. Her chapters on “Body Image” and “Eating Disorders” should help prevent anorexia and bulimia. The chapter on “Sexual Harassment and Abuse” should be equally helpful in stopping this scourge in our community.

She is alive to the temptations one faces in a co-ed school, camp, or youth movement, and gives an honest, well-reasoned argument for being (in a term teenagers use for a boy not touching a girl and vice versa) shomer negi’ah.

Though she discusses difficult areas, the focus of her book is on enjoying a halachic life and a healthy Torah approach to pleasure. She ends her text on a high note with a memorable explanation of “kedoshim tehiyu,” you shall be holy (Vayikra 19.2).

Dr. Deena Zimmerman is an equally appropriate author for “Midor l’Dor – Genetics and Genetic Diseases: Jewish Legal and Ethical Perspectives.” The Hebrew words mean “from generation to generation.”

She earned her BA at Yale and MD at Albert Einstein College of Medicine. In the program of advanced Torah study for Women at Nishmat in Jerusalem, she earned the title yo’etzet halacha, female halachic advisor who answers women’s questions about the mitzvah of family purity. She wrote A Lifetime Companion to the Laws of Jewish Family Life (2005), a clear halachic and scientific presentation of the mitzvah. In Israel she works at TEREM Emergency Medical Services. She and her husband are the parents of three boys and two girls.

Dr. Zimmerman begins with an organized, cogent, short course in genetics so that a layperson can understand what the field is about. It’s helpful to study this opening section; when she notes in a later chapter that a disease is “inherited in an autosomal recessive manner,” you will understand. The mother and the father each carried a recessive gene for the illness and were unaware that there was a 25 percent chance that their baby would have the disease. It is understandable that they are shocked.

When you learn that many genetic problems are the result of carriers marrying each other, and see in which areas of Jewish settlement – Lithuania or Morocco, for example – there is a greater likelihood of being a carrier of a problematic gene (say 1:10 instead of 1:500), you have a good argument for marrying a spouse with an ancestry different from your own.

The section on “Genetic Diseases with a Jewish Association” is sobering. There are thirty-six titles here, and five more diseases that Jews may suffer from at the same rate as the rest of the population. For each one, Dr. Zimmerman gives a summary of the nature of the illness, the historical background, diagnosis of the condition, sources of information, suggested reading, and support organizations with addresses and phone numbers. She has done all the work.

She advises parents to consider that each child is unique. The information she gives “for general consumption may not include all the variations that can be found in individuals.”

She recommends asking questions and speaking up. “The health care professionals may have more experience with the condition, but you have more experience with your child.” She is frank about how knowledge of genetics keeps growing, and mentions that one chapter “will soon be out of date.”

There are fascinating facts throughout the book. For example, Jews of Lithuanian ancestry have a high carrier rate of a gene that leads to elevated cholesterol from birth. She adds the interesting observation that “a preponderance of the mutation” is found in South Africa, where many Litvaks emigrated.

I was surprised to learn that “screening tests are designed in such a way that a certain amount of false positives and false negatives are tolerated.” A test that has a 90 percent rate of actual cases and 5 percent rate of false positives is acceptable. I now understand why she writes that a screening test does not provide a diagnosis.

She explains that Dor Yesharim now tests for a number of diseases in addition to Tay-Sachs and reports on a study in the haredi community in Israel between 1986 and 1992 that found no children were born with Tay-Sachs after the testing started. (A young doctor told me that the approach of Dor Yesharim is now taught in medical schools across the country as the way to prevent a genetic disease within a certain population.)

Dr. Zimmerman’s footnotes juxtapose quotations from the Talmud and scientific reports. After discussing so many diseases and making us wonder whether our lives are predetermined by our genes, Dr. Zimmerman, like Dr. Debow, closes with an insightful Torah lesson that asserts the power of free will.

The authors share another quality: they both write well; there is a delightful flow to their books. Every facet of both books teaches us.

About the Author: Dr. Rivkah Teitz Blau is a professor of English, an author, and a lecturer. She edited the volume on "Gender Relationships in Marriage and Out" for the Orthodox Forum.


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