Tuesday, September 25, 2007

Are Children Conceived Through IVF Spiritually Defective? -- Part II

Back in June, I commented on a column on Chabad.org by Rabbi Manis Friedman regarding couples who use IVF (and other assistive methods)* to have children. In his original article (no longer available at Chabad.org, but available here), he argues that children born through IVF are somehow spiritually deficient. He brings two examples of people whose conception was not 100% natural and how they required "correction" (his term) later in life.

This article generated a lot of debate and discussion at the time it was published and in the following months. Apparently, someone on the Imamother message board knows Rabbi Friedman and asked him for clarification of his statements. His response is below:

I am writing in response to questions received about an article of mine that appeared on Chabad.org about assisted reproduction.

Firstly let me note that the article was written as part of a symposium on the subject and was meant to present only one aspect of the discussion – namely the importance and significance of intimacy, and was not in any way intended to be a Halachic
ruling or direct instruction to individuals who required the blessing of assisted reproduction.

created an incredibly intricate world with countless details. As students of Torah, we believe that no detail, large or small, is insignificant. Each creation is made a certain way for certain reasons.

If this is true of the growth of a single blade of grass, as the Baal Shem Tov teaches, then surely it is true of the birth of a child. If a child is born a certain way it is for a specific reason, and that reason is not trivial or dispensable.

The fact that a child is created from man and woman; the fact that the gestation period is nine months; the fact that birth involves contractions and labor; these are all necessary for the child’s future, as are all the other attending details. Should anything be changed or different, that would effect some quality or aspect of the baby’s health that would need to be compensated for.

Even conventional health professionals are coming to recognize that certain problems in adulthood can be traced to unusually difficult labor, premature birth, cesarean section, and other birth irregularities.

As the circumstances of birth do so effect the development of the child, it is important and helpful to know what those effects are and what particular circumstances may have contributed to their presence. For example, what are the special needs of a child born prematurely? Another example would be the lasting effect of separation from the mother too soon after birth. These effects can be physical or emotional and are not limited to childhood but last into adulthood.

To dismiss this would be irresponsible and detrimental to the child.

The same must be said of the importance and significance of the physical contact and relationship that leads to conception. It is simply irresponsible to take comfort in the mistaken belief that the absence of that intimacy will have no effect.

Like in a case where one must violate Shabbos to save a life – no one would ever argue that saving this life wasn’t an incredible mitzvah. And yet, there’s Teshuva
that needs to be done to rectify the “overridden” Shabbos. Or if a Rov instructs someone to break their fast on Yom Kippur, they should make up for the “lost” fast on another day – even though absolutely no sin or transgression was committed. Similarly, we need to pay attention to the assisted reproduction child’s “loss” while that does not in any way – whatsoever – imply guilt or wrongdoing on the part of the parents. It is a responsible recognition of the child’s unique condition, and, in fact, would be a natural extension of the selflessness that the parents have already clearly demonstrated!

There is no question that those who use assisted reproduction, when all else has failed, certainly love their child and very likely give them more affection than the regular birth child. There’s also no question that, having checked with a rov and following his instructions, that child will then be born completely in accordance with HaShem’s will.

But even a miracle baby may need some special attention to compensate for the lack of the physical, natural process – however miraculous. Like the Torah tells us of the Monn
food from heaven couldn’t satisfy like food from earth.

Therefore, my point about this process is that people should be aware. Parents should know that the physical intimacy of mother and father is necessary not only for them but for the child as well.

Practically, a child born through assisted reproduction might at some point in life, for example, need help with their own capacity for intimacy or closeness in interpersonal relationships. Should such a problem develop, parents should know where to look for the cause.

If, for example, a child shows signs of alienation or distance and cant seem to warm up to a relationship, the first thing to consider is to remedy the absence of intimacy in his or her own birth process. (And I would strongly encourage to seek out a good homeopathic doctor who will find the right remedy for the individual child.)

As I mentioned, this is the case with many birth irregularities. We know this is true of children who are weaned prematurely. The same would be true of a child who, because of an emergency, is whisked away from the mother before she could hold the child. There’s no question that in an emergency, the child should be whisked away and – in spite of the possibility for undesirable consequences – rushing the child away immediately is the right thing to do. But at the same time, we must not dismiss the trauma that that causes.

So when assisted reproduction is a necessary alternative and the circumstances are such that halacha allows it, then it is not only allowed but necessary and it facilitates the performance of this awesome mitzvah. But the original and natural method of conception holds benefit that this child will not be receiving, far more significant than the difference between, for example, mother’s milk or formula.

It is true, as many have pointed out, that the Messiras Nefesh
and emotional involvement of the parents in the assisted reproduction process, and the and deep bond it can create, may in fact compensate to a greater or lesser degree. But it is not a certainty that would render this conversation moot.

So, I am not disagreeing with Halacha and I am not dismissing, G-d forbid, the virtues and miracles of assisted reproduction. I’m only urging that in using these methods, we not pretend that nothing is missing.

In conclusion, this subject demands a lot of study and a lot of thought. The purpose of the original article was not to discuss the virtues of alternative birth processes, but to talk about the significance and importance of real, holy, sacred intimacy – something sorely lacking in modern society as a whole.

Those couples who have babies through assisted reproduction should be rewarded for their efforts and be blessed with only Nachas form their children and children’s children in the merit of their Mesiras Nefesh and may they never need any remedy or any compensating. But just in case… it’s good to know.

Wishing you and all of Klal Yisroel
a Gmar Chassima Tova.

Rabbi Manis Friedman

I find this response just as troubling as the original article.

In this response, Rabbi Friedman brings examples of birth trauma and other traumas that happen in the womb affecting a child later in life. I'm not qualified to state whether or not people have memories going as far back as in the womb, so I won't comment on that aspect of the article. Yet, even if I grant that he is correct on this, that's a far cry from saying that a person can remember something from before their very conception. It's one thing to say that a baby "remembers" a c-section, a premature birth or a difficult labor. It's another thing entirely to say that it remembers something that happened prior to its own conception.

Furthermore, when he says:

It is simply irresponsible to take comfort in the mistaken belief that the absence of that intimacy will have no effect.

I'm curious as to why he thinks this? Does he have some scientific data to show that the lack of intimacy in the conception of a child is detrimental to the child? Has he done a study on this? Perhaps we should also account for the type of bra that the mother wore right before conception or the brand of mattress that was used. Is it "simply irresponsible" to dismiss these possible factors? No, it's not... simply because there is no data to show that they have any effect on the child. The same could be said for the lack of intimacy itself.

Now, if Rabbi Friedman were simply leaving matters in the spiritual realm (i.e. that such a child has spiritual difficulties), I could disagree with him, but not really disprove his point. However, he goes on further to state:

Practically, a child born through assisted reproduction might at some point in life, for example, need help with their own capacity for intimacy or closeness in interpersonal relationships. Should such a problem develop, parents should know where to look for the cause.

In other words, the problems that such children face are not only spiritual, but also emotional and social. Well, now, we have something that we can test for. Does he know of a study that shows that IVF children have these emotional and social problems? Does he have some data (even anecdotal) that we are not privy too? My guess would be no.

To be fair, he uses the weasel-word "might." But since he doesn't *know* what the effects are, he could just as easily have said any of the following:

  • Practically, a child born through assisted reproduction might, at some point in life, for example, be strangely drawn to fertility clinics.
  • Practically, a child born through assisted reproduction might, at some point in life, for example, show an unusual fondness for turkey basters.
  • Practically, a child born through assisted reproduction might, at some point in life, for example, have a desire to marry a lab technician.

All of the above have just as much scientific validity as his statement.

He tries to soften his criticism by stating that the parents of IVF children did nothing wrong, but even so, the kids need a fix. As he states:

Like in a case where one must violate Shabbos to save a life – no one would ever argue that saving this life wasn’t an incredible mitzvah. And yet, there’s Teshuva that needs to be done to rectify the “overridden” Shabbos. Or if a Rov instructs someone to break their fast on Yom Kippur, they should make up for the “lost” fast on another day – even though absolutely no sin or transgression was committed.

Now, I will grant that Rabbi Friedman knows far more about halacha than I do. But the above paragraph is downright puzzling. If one is required to override Shabbos to save a life, then it is a mitzvah to do so... and you should *never* need to do teshuva for doing a mitzvah. Part of teshuva is vowing not to do the same thing again in similar circumstances. How could a person do that... in the same circumstance, they are *required* to do the same thing. If one has to pick up the phone to call an ambulance on Shabbos, then I can't see how teshuva is required... if the same circumstance came up again, you'd do the same thing! I can't fathom the idea that Hatzoloh members, who respond to calls on Shabbos and Yom Tov have to do teshuva for their actions.

(That being said, I do recognize that it is possible to have to override Shabbos and still be at fault. One who leaves work late on Friday and now finds himself driving through a dangerous situation when Shabbos starts has to keep driving... but there is some negligence on his part and some teshuva is required there... but unless he is calling infertile parents negligent, then the two cases are not analogous.)

He goes on to state:

Similarly, we need to pay attention to the assisted reproduction child’s “loss” while that does not in any way – whatsoever – imply guilt or wrongdoing on the part of the parents.

That's fine, I suppose. The same logic applies to crack babies too -- it's not their fault, but there is, nonetheless, a serious problem. However, at least with crack babies, there is a measurable, observable deficiency that we can then use to go back to pregnant women and say "Don't smoke crack! If you do, your baby will have problems X, Y and Z." But in this case, we don't have any data as to what the problems will be... indeed, Rabbi Friedman didn't even come up with any conclusive problems at all!

Lastly, I found it interesting that while in this response he recommends searching for a homeopathic doctor to address problems that arise in such children, he did not do so in the original article. In the original article, the recommended method of overcoming problems with such children was the saying of Chitas (a Hebrew acronym for Chumash, Tehillim and Tanya).

In short, I'm not sure what Rabbi Friedman was hoping to gain with this response. He is making the mistake of comparing post-conception traumas to things that happen before conception (where no trauma is possible -- how can you traumatize that which does not yet exist?) and using faulty logic to show that some sort of "fix" is necessary to a problem that he himself is not sure exists.

The Wolf

Hat tip: OnionSoupMix
*(As in my last post, I'm using IVF as short-hand for all types of artificial reproductive assistance)

Sunday, September 23, 2007

300 Seconds

The shul was running early by Neilah. Shofar blowing was scheduled for 7:37, but it was 7:10 and we were closing in on the end of Chazaras HaShatz. The Shliach Tzibur slowed down his recitation. We recited the entire Avinu Malkeinu responsively (instead of just the customary nine lines). As it turned out, that was quite a moving experience. We were on an emotional high at the close of the holiest day of the year. We all sang the last Avinu Malkenu together, beseeching God to grant us favor despite our lack of merits and asking Him for His charity and kindness.

And yet, when we finished, we were still five minutes too early. So the Rav told the Shliach Tzibur to wait five minutes before we started Sh'ma Yisroel.

We all had five minutes at this emotional and spiritual high point. 300 seconds. Some patiently waited. Some read or learned. Some took the opportunity to pray. I was one of the latter group.

I had 300 seconds of unscripted, improvisitional prayer time at this most unique part of the year. I had 300 more seconds to pray for whatever I wanted, not just what was printed in the machzor. 300 final seconds to pour out my heart to God above.

Some of the things I prayed for were selfish. I prayed that my family and I enjoy good health and happiness during the coming year. I prayed that we have good parnassah. I prayed that Walter do well in his new school and continue to grow in Torah. I prayed that George overcome his social issues and find happiness and friends. I prayed that Wilma continue to be the sweet, loveable girl that she is becoming. I prayed that Fred (the collective name for our kids) grow up to be people who are involved in Torah and Mitzvos their entire lives and be people that everyone in K'lal Yisroel can be proud of. I prayed that Eeees and I both have success in graduate school.

I also prayed that a wonderful single girl whom Eeees and I know finally finds her chosson. I also prayed that those who are waiting for children finally be granted them. I prayed that specific people who suffer from various physical ailments be granted a complete recovery; along with all the other people who need a complete recovery.

At some point, I moved on to things that were beyond the realm of my own circle. I prayed that this year there should be peace in K'lal Yisroel; that the various factions should stop fighting with one another. I prayed that it should be a year of greater understanding between the members of our seemingly hopelessly fractured nation. I prayed that this should be a year in which poverty and crime should be unknown among our people. I prayed that it should be a year in which everyone's prayers should be answered in the best way possible.

And I finished by praying that it should be a year in which we finally see the coming of Moshiach.

And just as I finished, the chazzan called out "Sh'ma Yisroel..." My 300 special seconds were up.

The Wolf

Thursday, September 20, 2007

Quick Question About Shabbos, Yom Kippur and Avinu Malkeinu

Normally, on Yom Kippur, we say Avinu Malkeinu (Our Father, Our King) after each of the services. This year, however, because Yom Kippur comes out on Shabbos, it will be omitted (as the prayer is always omitted on Shabbos). Nonetheless, it *will* be recited following the last service, Neilah, at the close of the day.

My question, very simply, is why?

I came up with two hypotheses:

1. Since it is after shkiah (sunset) and it is only a safek (doubt) as to whether it is really Shabbos or not (depending on whether the day begins at shkiah or tzais hakochavim [when the stars appear]), we say it.

2. Neilah, being the last prayer of the day, is meant to end on a spiritual and emotional high note, and so the prayer is recited anyway, *despite* the fact that it is Shabbos.

Of course, the real answer could be a combination of these, or neither of the above.

Anyone have any thoughts?

The Wolf

Wednesday, September 19, 2007

Menachem Boas -- Is He Still Working?

There is an artist named Menachem Boas, who specializes in the art of micography (also called microcalligraphy). This is an art form where words are used to form pictures.

There are many micographists in the Jewish community. Menachem Boas, however, is generally regarded as the best of the bunch. While most micographists work in black and white, he works in color.

I first came across his works about twenty years ago, when I visited my aunt and uncle in Baltimore. On their wall, they had a Boas print. It was a picture of Mordechai leading Haman around on a horse in Shushan. The text consisted of the entire book of Esther.

When I saw it, I fell in love with the art form. I thought it was both beautiful and clever, both stunning and ingenious (maybe that's why I like Escher as well). While I wouldn't say that I obsessed over it, I always looked forward to the day when I'd be able to get a copy of that print for myself.

That day eventually came when Eeees bought it for me early in our marriage. It now proudly hangs on our wall.

Over the years, I found other prints of his as well, including one of the Splitting of the Sea (the text of Sh'mos), the seige of Jericho (text of Joshua) and the skyline of Jerusalem (text of T'hillim/Psalms).

However, I've noticed that at least some of his stuff is becoming harder to find. Yesterday, a reader wrote to me asking me about my Joshua print, stating that she couldn't find it anywhere on the web and asking if mine was for sale. I told her that mine wasn't for sale (I love it too much) but I did spend some time looking for it online. Oddly enough, the only picture I found of it online was the one that was on my blog about two years ago. I could not find a copy of the Esther print at all either.

Which leads me to wonder if he is still active in the field, and if he is, why doesn't he set up a website? I'm willing to bet that there is enough of a demand for his work to warrant putting one up. I know that I would probably buy more works from him. I'd love to find out for sure if he's still working in this field and what new works he has.

While we're at it, there is another artist that I happen to like in this field as well. Ellen Miller Braun works in Israel and makes some very nice micographic works (she'll also customize one for you for a bar mitzvah or the like). When Eeees and I were in Eretz Yisroel, we discovered her works and bought her Shir HaShirim. You can order them over the web (at the link above) and she'll even ship to the US.

Any other micography fans out there? Let me hear from you.

The Wolf

Monday, September 10, 2007


Yesterday was a busy day for Eeees and myself. In the morning, we had an opportunity to sit in our Walter's shiur (Gemara class). We got to meet the Rebbe and I got to see some of the kids who are in his Masmidim (Honors) class.

Firstly, I like the rebbe very much. He's a young clean-shaven guy (can't be much older than I am) who really connects with the kids and makes the learning enjoyable for them. He involves them in the class and, instead of just teaching them the Gemara, is instead teaching them *how* to learn the Gemara on their own. Of course, at the ninth grade level, they're not ready to sit and make a laining (preparation of the text of the Gemara) just yet, but he has clearly got them started on the right path. He talks to the kids, instead of talking down at them and involves them in the discussion at all times. Of course, the fact that Walter likes him as a rebbe is also very encouraging. (He even makes reference to topics the kids can relate to -- at one point, he mentioned the Riddler and the fact that he is OCD.)

However, what also impressed me was the diversity in the student body and in the class. Here was a class of boys that didn't all look like clones of each other. The boys all wore button-down shirts (as required by the dress code), but of all different colors. The yarmulkes ranged from knitted, to leather, to suede to velvet and in different sizes. Some were all black, others had designs and logos. There were kids from all different extractions -- Ashkenazim, Sefardim, (some who looked) Yemenite and probably from different levels of observance as well. It was quite a difference from the school where he came from, where all the kids were Ashkenazim (there may have been the occassional Sefardi in the school, but they were few and far between -- I think there was one in Walter's class), all wore white shirts/dark slacks, all wore the same yarmulkes and all, for the most part, had the same backgrounds and behaviors (or so we thought, anyway). This, I feel is a good thing. I would like Walter to understand that there are different types of people in the world and that not everyone has to be "just like him" to be a good person and that he shouldn't turn up his nose at someone just because they dress differently, have a different hashkafah or different ethnic background. I'm hoping that over the next four years, he learns the valuable lesson of accepting people despite their differences, rather than attacking them for being different from yourself (as we've seen in the news lately).

Later on in the day, Eeees and I went to a reunion. When we were both in college, we both served on the Emergency Medical Squad in the college. Yesterday, there was a reunion of the members of the squad, going back to its founding 30 years ago. We got to meet with old friends, reminisce and swap stories with the old members, catch up on what was happening with their lives (Mike married Mary Kay??!!) and have a wonderful time. Since many members of the squad over the years were Orthodox, all the food was kosher.

In many ways, I consider the time I spent in the squad the most valuable time that I spent in college -- in many cases, even more valuable than my class time. Having come from a high school much like Walter's elementary school (only much more so, if you can truly believe it), I never had much exposure to non-Orthodox Jews (except for family members) and non-Jews. As such, while I certainly a lot more tolerant of other people than my classmates in high school, it was here, in the squad, that I learned to form friendships with people from other backgrounds. It was here that I had the first opportunity to socialize with people who weren't strictly from "my own type." And it was here that I learned, for the first time, to accept people for who they are -- not for what minhagim they observe, or which religion they practice, how they dress or what they think about evolution or the origin of the world. When you're working with a team to save lives, you don't really care what religion the EMT next to you is. When you ask the dispatcher for the status of local hospitals, you don't really care whether or not she's dressed in a completely tznius fashion. You focus on one goal -- saving lives. And even when you're not actively involved in the saving of lives -- even if you're just hanging around in the office waiting for a call to come in -- you realize that you can work together and get along with and even be friends with people with whom you have no religious connection -- people who may be Jewish and non-Orthodox, people who may be devout Christians, Muslims or Hindus, or even those that are completely non-religious. *This* was what I learned in my time in the Emergency Medical Squad (along with lifesaving skills, teamwork skills, etc.) and, in many respects, that was far more valuable than the coursework that I took.

The Wolf

Wednesday, September 05, 2007

Rabbi Eli Teitelbaum: Kids Need To Have Fun

Rabbi Eli Teitelbaum wrote an article which appeared in The Yeshiva World today. In it, he decries how it has become standard operating procedure to ban anything that is remotely fun. Concerts, trips, sports and other youth activities which are, in varying degrees, banned in our communities, should be allowed and encouraged in a kosher environment. He correctly points out that kids need an outlet for their energies (aside from learning) and that if one removes all such outlets, kids will find other outlets... and they will be far worse. If you don't allow kids to participate in sports or cultural activities and the like, then they will be gathering in pool halls in the Catskills. Or, as he succinctly puts it:

When sports and concerts are forbidden, and all forms of kosher entertainment are off limits, we are asking for trouble. If our kids can’t find a place to vent their energy within a kosher environment, then they will find it elsewhere.


In his article, he gives examples of times that he organized youth activities and met with resistance. In one case, he tried to have the boys in his Pirchei organization put on a play based on the book Family Aguilar. When people tried to have the play banned, the matter ended up being escalated to R. Moshe Feinstein. Instead of issuing a ban, R. Moshe gave it his blessing.

In another example, he arranged for a two-day trip to Washington at low cost for boys. The trip was going to be taken on the two days that the yeshivos gave off for Channukah. One Rosh Yeshiva wrote R. Teitelbaum a nasty letter accusing him of encouraging bittul Torah. Fortunately, R. Teitelbaum was able to fend him off.

It's very interesting that the difference between R. Teitelbaum's point of view and the point of view of others in our community is brought to my attention right now. Walter just began high school this week and it looks like he's going to have a great time there. He's encouraged about the learning programs, the secular education and the extracurricular activities. Indeed, when we went looking for a school, we purposely went looking for a place that had all three of these elements -- we wanted a school that had a great learning program that would keep him challenged and interested; we wanted a school with a quality secular studies department that would show him the possibilities that exist in our world, and a school that had supervised extracurricular activities for him to be able to channel his creative energies. I purposely didn't want to send him to a high school such as that I went to: where the learning was boring and uninteresting, where the secular studies were a joke, and the word "extracurricular" didn't exist because the school day went from 7:30 in the morning to 9:30 at night every day without variation; where the word "trip" didn't exist and the word "activity" might as well have been in Mongolian. In my old school, if it didn't involve learning, it shouldn't be done (although I suppose they did allow for some recreation -- boys were allowed to play basketball during recess). In looking for the type of school for Walter that recognizes that kids are kids and need kosher extracurricular activities, I find that I have explicitly rejected the opinions of the "banners" and embraced the opinion of R. Teitelbaum.

I can only be thankful that there are rabbis out there, like Rabbi Teitelbaum, who have not forgotten what it is to be a kid and to need an outlet for youthful energies.

The Wolf