Talking about the unmentionable

A recent Jerusalem conference saw a rare discussion of health issues affecting observant Israeli men.

orthodox 88 (photo credit: )
orthodox 88
(photo credit: )
What is unmentionable in the streets of Mea Shearim and Bnei Brak, or in haredi newspapers and magazines, can be discussed frankly and without blushing when leading rabbis and physicians talk about erectile dysfunction, homosexuality, fertility, contraception and other sensitive subjects. The only requirements are that men and women are separated by a barrier, that afternoon prayers be recited during the break, and that doctors use delicate terminology such as "male functioning." The event was the seventh annual Jerusalem conference of the Puah (Fertility and Medicine in Accordance with Halacha) Institute. The event is always held by the non-profit Orthodox organization a few days before the Torah portion of Exodus is read in synagogues, as the midwives Shifra and Puah who delivered Israelite babies in Egypt are mentioned. The institute (, (02) 651-5050) was established as a non-profit organization about 16 years ago to prevent errors of identity during the IVF process in Israeli fertility clinics, provide sex- and fertility-related information to modern Orthodox and haredi couples, update rabbis about fertility issues and build a library on halachic and scientific questions in these fields. It was founded and is headed by Rabbi Menahem Burstein, who says the IVF supervisors it trained have caught dozens of errors that would have led to women giving birth to babies produced from sperm and/or eggs from another couple. In one rare case, the full names of two women were the same. The demand for its services, among the non-Orthodox as well as the observant, has proved so great that is has arrangements not only with most Israeli hospitals, but branches in France, Australia and some other countries abroad. Although most of the previous conferences centered on women's health, the Puah Institute decided this year to focus on males from babies to adults. As a result, the audience on the men's side of the barrier was significantly larger than on the women's side this time - even though the subjects were of much interest to both sexes. RABBI DR. MORDECHAI HALPERIN, head of Schlesinger Institute at Shaare Zedek Medical Center, a physician and a world expert on Jewish medical ethics, issued one of the most powerful statements yet voiced by an Israeli rabbi on the subject of smoking. Numerous leading rabbis and rabbinical arbiters have smoked, and died from complications, but most have puffed only in private. Some have feared issuing strong prohibitions out of fear that nicotine addiction is so strong, many of their followers would ignore them. Rabbi Ovadia Yosef forbids all members of his family to smoke, but says officially it is forbidden to start; his Shas Party newspaper, Yom Le'Yom, was one of the first to refuse tobacco ads. Halperin said it is absolutely forbidden for Jews to smoke - either to start or to continue - and that the prohibition is from the Torah and not just from rabbinical sources. Research, said Halperin, has clearly shown that the chances of living to one's 80th birthday is reduced to half if one smokes. With dozens of toxic substances in cigarette smoke and all smokers suffering from bronchitis, with a high risk of lung cancer, heart disease, emphysema and other severe disorders, there is no excuse for smoking, he said. Every smoker suffers from chronic bronchitis, as the cilia in bronchi are destroyed very quickly by the smoke, eliminating protection from dust and other foreign substances. And, citing the rulings of other rabbis, Halperin said smoking is self-murder (suicide). One can even violate the Sabbath to get someone to stop smoking if you can't do it on a weekday, and if there is a good chance you will succeed, he said. A smoker cannot serve as a witness, he said, especially in a wedding - and knowing this will discourage many religious men from smoking. Halperin called for the end of the common practice among haredi Jews of giving a cigarette to a young man when he gets engaged. He noted that the prominent sage Hafetz Haim stated back in 1893 that smoking is harmful after receiving evidence from a Russian doctor. "Before that, it was believed smoking helped digestion and protected against diseases of old age. "This is true, because smokers usually don't reach old age," Halperin declared. "The Hafetz Haim wrote that if smoking causes harm, the smoker will be liable for it." Halperin said that a son cannot bring cigarettes to his father - despite the commandment of "honoring" one's parents - except in the rare possibility that doing so would bring down his smoking in future, and it is forbidden to light somebody else's cigarette, pipe or cigar. RABBI SHLOMO DAICHOVSKY, a member of the Supreme Rabbinical Court in Jerusalem, delved into a topic that made headlines months ago when United Torah Judaism MK Shmuel Halpert, who has numerous children, said he hit them for "educational reasons" from time to time and was not ashamed of it. Halpert was roundly criticized by MKs and by the Israel Council for the Child. In this generation, said Daichovsky, physical punishment of children should be discouraged unless there is no other way to get a child under control - and when it is done, it should be with a single light slap with the palm of the hand and be followed by a big hug so the child doesn't think the parent hates him or fears more punishment to come. "Not all children are equal; not all generations are equal. In the past, hitting a child for educational reasons was acceptable everywhere, including in Britain, and adults were flogged as well. In our time, things have changed. Corporal punishment for children creates anger, so I don't see it as an educational ideal. But in certain cases and at certain ages, there is no way to avoid a light slap, for example, if a child passes a toy store and goes wild because he wants you to buy a toy fire truck. One can give a light slap to restore him to balance," the rabbi advised. But one should never hit a child with an object that prevents the parent from feeling pain, and teachers may not hit their pupils or anyone pull a child's ear. If a parent gives a light slap, it must be clear to the child that there are no hard feelings, he added. To bar even an occasional light slap by parents is to create a law that they cannot live with, he concluded. HOMOSEXUAL SEX by males, which is described as an "abomination" in the Torah, was only hinted at (without using the word) by Ramat Gan's Chief Rabbi Ya'acov Ariel. "The home determines the morality of the individual. It must be a closed home with a wife there, and no woman outside involved. There is a place in Jerusalem called the 'Open House' [an organization that promotes the right of homosexuals, lesbians, bisexuals and transgenders and was behind the aborted Gay Parade in Jerusalem]. It is an error," insisted Ariel. "A house is a father, mother and children. It is natural. Different companionship is not natural, and it is bad to bring children up this way. If there are a man and woman who are infertile, it is a mishap that can often be overcome. It is a tragedy if the couple have no natural continuation of themselves." Ariel attacked sex education in the state schools in which "13-year-olds are taught about pregnancy and how to prevent it. The age of marriage in a secular family is constantly going up. It is a world problem. People don't want obligations; they want to be free as birds. The Education Ministry presses all the time to teach sex education and contraception in religious schools too. There is a higher rate of divorce among those who live together for years and then marry. Something here is rotten at the foundation." The Ramat Gan rabbi said he has never allowed young couples who ask for his opinion to use contraception so they can first study, launch a career or get used to each other. "I am for careers and study for women; they need help with day care to make it possible. I accuse the politicians, leaders, academia and industry of preventing young couples from having normal homes; they need places to help care for children. It's better to get married in your early 20s; later it's much harder to find someone and get used to marriage. In the Diaspora, it's even worse, as most Jews have fewer than two children and marry non-Jews. Western Jewry is collapsing." HAVING RESPECT for the disabled is a major issue in Judaism, even though there has not been much discussion in Jewish sources over the centuries, said former Ashkenazi chief rabbi and current Tel Aviv Chief Rabbi Yisrael Meir Lau. The Torah forbids cursing the deaf and prohibits placing a barrier in front of the blind - not only the physically blind but also those who don't know better and may be tricked. A member of the Priestly Tribe (kohen) who suffers from any of 90 different physical disabilities was not allowed to bring sacrifices in the Temple. This is not meant to denigrate the disabled, said Lau. "One's exterior presence has an influence on people, and a defect can harm one's mission." But while judges in ancient times had to be free of physical defects, in more recent years rabbinical court judges (dayanim) who became blind were allowed to continue working if colleagues read documents to them. In general, he concluded, if the rights of the individual who is disabled do not conflict with that of the general population, the individual should be helped as much as possible. "Just as a mother has to take care of a newborn baby who doesn't walk or talk, society must take care of disabled people and make all medical institutions and public facilities accessible. When I was chief rabbi of Tel Aviv 18 years ago, there wasn't one ritual bath for disabled women. Today there are two, and you can drive your car straight up to the door, with a mechanical device to help them in the water. A guide dog for the blind is permitted to come inside the synagogue, even though it is preferable that he be near the door so as not to scare anyone." Former Sephardi chief rabbi Eliahu Bakshi-Doron tackled the question of whether an HIV carrier or AIDS patient must divorce his spouse, as sexual relations without a (halachically forbidden) condom could lead to his or her death. Halacha requires that people with a "dangerous [seriously infectious] disease" not marry. "It's a difficult human question if a carrier is married and discovers HIV in a blood test," said Bakshi-Doron. HIV can be transmitted not only by sex, but in the past could have been from a blood transfusion or by hemophiliacs' clotting factor. "In these cases, it was not their fault. But years ago, a halachic ruling that divorce was required resulted from the fact that AIDS was always fatal. Today, it is considered a chronic disease that can be managed with the 'cocktail' of protease inhibitors." A happy household is foremost, but for that may you use a condom? Some rabbinical authorities have allowed it for such cases, while others have prohibited it because of the ban against "wasting" semen. Bakshi-Doron said the "cocktail" changes the status of HIV and AIDS, reducing the risk of infection by a spouse to less than 1% for men and 8% for women. So today, he said, even if a woman has AIDS, it is possibile to remain married. A blood test can determine the viral load in real time and how infectious it is. If a man is a carrier, he can even become a father if the semen is washed and the virus eliminated to make artificial insemination possible. While not everyone will approve of the rabbis' rulings, the fact that these sensitive subjects are being aired by the religious community is itself a welcome development.