A. Y. Karelitz M.D.


by Dovid Landesman

I have an acquaintance in Los Angeles, a urologist who is also a well-respected talmid chacham. To establish his credentials let me say that he has completed three cycles as the maggid shiur in a local daf yomi. He told me recently that he received a call from a young man in Bnei Brak who was writing a sefer on hilchos k’rus shafchah and wanted to come to Los Angeles to consult on the medical aspects of the condition. The doctor agreed and when the mechaber arrived, they spent a week reviewing the material. One of the sources which they went through together was the Chazon Ish on Yoreh Deah.

My medical friend told me that he was absolutely astounded by the Chazon Ish’s mastery of anatomy as evidenced in his sefer and speculated what was the source of the Chazon Ish’s knowledge. Clearly he did not have a copy of Gray‘s Anatomy under his pillow. I raised the question to another friend, one of the local rabbonim, who showed me a teshuvah from Rav Wozner shlitah maintaining that the Chazon Ish had ruach kodesh. One of my more skeptical friends conjectures that since the Chazon Ish grew up in close proximity to the medical library of the university in Vilna, it is not unlikely that he may have spent some time in the reading rooms learning anatomy. Whatever the case, and it doesn‘t really matter which is the truth, many people will agree that the Chazon Ish was one of the outstanding minds of the past century.
As a means of reinforcing this let me relate another story. I once took a class of Russian students for a day trip to Yerushalayim. I arranged a meeting with Professor Willy Low z’l, an Israel Prize recipient in Science, chairman of the Department of Physics at Hebrew University, and founder and director of the Institute of Science and Halachah as well as the Jerusalem College of Technology, better known as Machon Lev. I introduced him to my students by pointing out that Professor Lev had studied with Einstein at Princeton as well as with the Chazon Ish. Professor Lev spoke to the boys about Torah and science and when he finished, asked them if they had any questions. One boy raised his hand and asked: “In your opinion, who was more brilliant, Einstein or the Chazon Ish?”

Professor Lev reflected for a moment and then responded. “I would say that in terms of asking questions they were equal. But in terms of providing answers, the Chazon Ish was head and shoulders above Einstein. The Chazon Ish, by virtue of his Torah knowledge, had a more profound ability to discern truth.”

Let me explain what this has to do with the chapter heading. In the course of teaching Jewish philosophy to a class of seniors, 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?”

“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.”

“You often tell us, rebbi, that the primary mission that man has in this world is to be mikadesh shem shamayim – to sanctify God‘s name.”
“The exact formulation is she‘y‘heh shem shamayim misahev al yadecha which means pretty much the same.”
“Wouldn‘t you say that it would be a greater kiddush Hashem if the Chazon Ish had been awarded the Nobel Prize for Medicine than if he wrote a number of sefarim? How many people, Jewish and non-Jewish, have heard of the Chazon Ish or understand what his contribution was? But if he had discovered the cure for cancer …?”

I put my interlocutor off by telling him that I needed to think about his question and research my response. I did not want to say something that might not be true. What follows is the results of some preliminary research and the answer that I eventually presented.

The classic example of kiddush Hashem is mesirat nefesh; i.e., willingly sacrificing one‘s life instead of violating one of the three cardinal sins [gilui arayot – forbidden relationships – shefichat damim – murder – and avodah zarah – idol worship] under normal circumstances and any mitzvah b‘sha‘at ha-shmad – at times of religious persecution. This is the halachic ruling of the Rambam in both his Sefer ha-Mitzvot and in the Yad as well as that of the Sefer ha-Chinuch. There is an auxiliary mitzvah – mentioned in the Talmud – of shem shamayim mitahev al yadecha which is derived from a completely different source; the pasuk of ve-ahavta. This latter mitzvah – and it doesn‘t matter whether or not its one of the 613 – is more applicable to our times. Let‘s examine how one goes about fulfilling this mitzvah and whether there is any requirement to seek a venue to perform it or rather if the obligation is only when one has the opportunity.

Clearly, one is not bound to put oneself in danger so as to fulfill the mitzvah of kiddush Hashem in its classic form. Obviously, if there is a country where Jews are being persecuted, no-one would rule that I was obligated to move there so as to be killed al kiddush Hashem. Similarly, if I was being taken out to be killed and had an opportunity to escape, I would be wrong in allowing myself to be killed so that I could fulfill the mitzvah. It would thus seem that there is a strong element of passivity in this mitzvah; i.e., one is not actively required to fulfill it. If this is true of the essence of the mitzvah – mesirat nefesh – it is also probably true of the auxiliary part of the mitzvah – shem shamayim mitahev; i.e., I am obligated to act in a manner in which this will happen but I am not necessarily obligated to seek opportunities. According to this formulation, if I am at a baseball game and I act in a particularly decorous fashion and those sitting next to me comment favorably about my behavior, then I have made a kiddush Hashem. However, that clearly does not obligate me to go to every single baseball game.

Is there a co-relation between the number of people impacted by an act that we might label as kiddush Hashem and the mitzvah? We raised the possibility that since more people would be acquainted with the Chazon Ish if he had won the Nobel Prize for Medicine than know about him now, that might make the kiddush Hashem greater. Is this necessarily true? I could contend that if it is a question of pure numbers, then Sandy Koufax made an even greater kiddush Hashem by refusing to pitch in a 1962 World Series game on Yom Kippur! How many people today can identify either Jonas Salk or Edward Sabin, the two Jews responsible for developing the polio vaccine? Probably less than have heard of Koufax! Parenthetically, one could even contend that Don Drysdale, who pitched in Koufax‘s place, might have made a kiddush Hashem equal to that of his Jewish teammate. If my memory serves me right, Drysdale was knocked out of the game in the second inning and when Walter Alston, the Dodger manager, came to the mound, he flipped him the baseball and said: “Walt, bet you wish that I was also Jewish!”

Furthermore, was shem shamayim really miskadesh because Koufax refused to pitch? Did more people fast that Yom Kippur because he removed himself from the game? Did gentiles say: “I want to be like the Jews” as a result of what Koufax had done? Had these been the results, perhaps one could contend that refusing to pitch on Yom Kippur would be a true kiddush Hashem. In the absence of those results, I am not sure. Feeling good about being Jewish or even being proud that someone is not embarrassed to do something identifiably Jewish is not necessarily a kiddush Hashem.

Let me offer you another example to reinforce the point. A few years ago, Professor Auman of Hebrew University was awarded the Nobel Prize in Economics. Auman is easily identifiable as an observant Jew and when he went to Oslo for the award ceremony, it was widely reported in the press that he purchased a new set of robes because he discovered that the robes provided by the Royal Norwegian Nobel Committee had sha‘atnez in them. Many observant Jews kvelled because of his strictness in observing the mitzvah. But does kvelling or feeling good equal kiddush Hashem?

Let‘s return to our conjectures about the Chazon Ish a.k.a. A. Y. Karelitz M. D. Assuming that he had made a major medical discovery, would that constitute a real kiddush Hashem. It would seem that it would be contingent upon people ascribing his research abilities to the fact that he was mitzvah observant or that his incredible intelligence was a result of Torah study. Any other reaction, while making Jews feel good, simply might not make the grade for kiddush Hashem. Let‘s reduce it to the absurd. If Rav Soloveitchik zt”l had beaten Wilt Chamberlain in a one-on-one match, would you really consider that a kiddush Hashem?

Rav Hutner zt”l makes an interesting observation. If one saw Sir Isaac Newton or Copernicus or Stephen Hawkings on the street, one would be obligated to make the berachah of shenasan michachmaso l‘basar vedam – He gave of His wisdom to flesh and blood.. However, if one saw Einstein, one would not recite a berachah. Why? Was Einstein any less brilliant than the other three? The answer is that one only recites a berachah on a Jew when he is outstandingly learned in Torah. When he has devoted his efforts to another field, he has not reached the pinnacle that would obligate us to see him as being the recipient of God‘s wisdom, for he – unlike the non-Jew – could have made himself the receptacle for even greater wisdom, Torah. Rav Hutner zt”l illustrated this concept as follows. When you walk into your garden and smell the aroma of the flowers, you recite a berachah. But if you walk into the kitchen and smell chicken soup or if you drive past a bakery and the aromas of the freshly baked bread spread through your car, you recite no berachah. Why? Is the aroma any less pleasing? No, it‘s because we don‘t make chicken soup or bake bread for the smell!

Although some rabbeim might disagree, I can accept the argument that people have the right to choose the manner through which they earn their livelihood. Moreover, to a certain extent, I can also accept that each of us can determine the direction in which we see ourselves developing our potentials. The Chazon Ish himself writes that Torah is measured qualitatively and not quantitatively; i.e., it is not necessarily the amount of time that one devotes to Torah as much as it is the quality or intensity of one‘s Torah study. Zevulun was no less worthy of the praise of his father than was his brother Yissachar even though the latter learned far more Torah. That said, however, it is clear that just as it would have been wrong for Zevulun to have sat in the beit midrash all day instead of sailing the seas and bringing parnasah to both his and his brother‘s tribe, it would have been equally wrong for Yissachar to have left the study hall.

We will leave it for another occasion to try to determine if it is possible to create objective criteria for measuring potential. In the meantime, let‘s remove the suffix from the Chazon Ish‘s name and replace it with the prefix Rav.

[Rabbi Landesman is a veteran mechanech living in Israel. This essay is a selection from a forthcoming book, There Are No Basketabll Courts in Heaven.]

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61 Responses

  1. HF says:

    I wholeheartedly agree with 26, (someone else later may have written it as well)
    our tafkid in life is to be an eved HaShem and work on our Yiras Shamayim, that in itself is the ultimate kiddush HaShem
    ie, if someone gets dirt on his shabbos jacket, that can’t get ‘flicked’ off (as per halacha) and can’t change, that dirt is not a chilul HaShem, but the ultimate kiddush HaShem!

  2. Doron Beckerman says:

    See the commentary of the Vilna Gaon to Mishlei 10:9 –

    תחילת חכמה יראת ד’ כלומר התחלת החכמה הוא היראה, וכמו שאמרו אם אין יראה אין חכמה ואם אין חכמה אין יראה והקשו איזה מהם קודם? והענין כי במחשבה הוא התכלית תחילה ואחר כך החכמה היאך לעשות,
    והיראה הוא התכלית ולכן במחשבה הוא היראה תחילה ואם אין יראה אין חכמה, ובמעשה הוא חכמה תחילה, וזהו אם אין חכמה אין יראה

    וזהו שאמר כאן תכלית חכמה – פירוש, במחשבה התחלת ותכלית החכמה היא היראה

    Rav Wolbe (Alei Shur II, page 495) explains:

    נמצינו למדים בזה כי תכלית הכל היא היראה, ולמעשה צריכים להתחיל בחכמה. אולם יש להבין מזה גם כאשר ניגשים לעסק החכמה, צריכה המחשבה להיות להגיע על ידי זה ליראה

    אמנם התכלית היא – יראה.

  3. Doron Beckerman says:

    Upon further reflection regarding the Nefesh Hachaim, I see where the miscommunication is happening. I think we’ll agree that:
    a) Torah detached from Yiras Shamayim is worthless
    b) Yiras Shamayim is both a prerequisite and a result of learning,
    c) When studying Torah one’s cognitive thought should not be on Dveikus or acquiring Yirah, but on acquiring Torah. This is what he is talking about in the beginning of Shaar Dalet
    d) The ultimate purpose of this acquisition of Torah is part of the broader context of the purpose of Avodas Hashem (which is what I really meant to say, but used Yiras Shamayim broadly). That is what I meant by “G-d oriented”.

  4. Doron Beckerman says:

    “He says that one of the potential results of Torah study is increased yira’a”

    Thank you. I am glad to see that you retract your incorrect statement that “Awe is a prerequisite and not a result of learning.” It is both.

    Now, if you’ll pay attention to what I wrote, I said: “He disagrees with setting up one’s learning having in mind only to reach Yiras Shamayim. [READ – MOTIVATION] You have to fill yourself up with Torah in all of its facets, for its own sake, or the Yirah is nothing but a shell”

    You actually quote the section where he says exactly that.

    The debate on saving lives – let’s skip all the dancing around clear statements from Amudei Horaah, and make it simple. Forget about the Gemara in Megillah for now. Show me a source that says that the Halachah of מצוה שאפשר לעשות על ידי אחרים one does not interrupt learning for (which I assume you agree is normative – Shulchan Aruch Yoreh Deah 246:18 ) has exceptions of הצלת נפשות and all areas of חסד. And by your own rules, you’re limited to Rishonim quoting counter Gemaros that are clearly normative in rejecting the application to הצלת נפשות and גמילות חסדים. (Good luck – it is against the Yerushalmi Pesachim 3:7.)

    In terms of practical application – think blood drive, for example.

    We aren’t talking about losing sensitivities. Of course that’s wrong.

  5. dr. bill says:

    50.Dr. Bill, I didn’t understand your last post. Can you please clarify?

    Comment by Eliyahu — July 1, 2009 @ 5:50 am

    In short, the role, purpose, benefits, value etc. of learning as a part of or as the center of one’s religious experience and differences, if any, based on whom one is addressing is an important area hashkafically, halakhically, philosophically, historically, etc. where the spectrum of opinions and factual disagreements are broad.

  6. Chardal says:

    >This is a Halachic story. He was Mechuyav to calm the baby since the baby was his responsibility, and it became a Mitzvah that could not be done by others

    This is NOT how or why the story is ever told. It is told to instill a value (which is popular in chabbad and some other chassidic groups) that Talmud Torah that causes you to lose your sensitivity to the suffering and needs of others is pagum at its core. This is the clear message of the story as the chassidim who passed it down have always understood it. Al Achat Kama veKama, the message regarding a person who thinks that someone should ignore the needs of a person whose life is in danger for the sake of talmud Torah. Never mind that I can think of no real world scenario where this would be acceptable ethically.

    The normative approach is: if someone needs your help to save their life – you help and all the rest of the cheshbonos can wait. someone who loses such an instinct due to his Torah learning is doing something wrong. At least according to this story.

  7. Chardal says:

    >נפש החיים שם פרק ט

    כי התורה הקדושה מעצמה תלבישהו יראת ד’ על פניו, במעט זמן ויגיעה מועטת על זה, כי כך דרכה וסגולתה של התורה הקדושה, כמו שאמרו כל העוסק בתורה לשמה כו’ ומלבשתו ענוה ויראה

    I have never in my life seen such a misrepresentation of R’ Chaim Voloziner’s shita. Yes. He says that one of the potential results of Torah study is increased yira’a but to imply from this that he somehow holds the the motivation for learning Torah should be to increase our yiraa is absurd! R’ Chaim spends two chapters explaining how yira’a is a prerequisite to proper learning of Torah and should be achieved through hitbonenus PRIOR to the learning of Torah (Shaar 4:4-5)

    and he speaks directly against your shita in chapter 8: איך יעלה על לב איש לומר שזה תכלית האדם מישראל, שישים כל קביעת למודו בבנין האוצר של יראת שמים לבד, והוא אוצר ריק, ולא עלתה בידו מכל עמלו רק מצוה אחת של “ה’ אלהיך תירא” וגם אין עליה שם אוצר כלל

    Further, in the entire shaar R’ Chaim makes clear that he sees yira’a as something aquired PRIMARILY through introspection and the learning of ethical tracts. The proper MOTIVATION for mainstream learning (not of mussar books) according to R’ Chaim is as he says in several places (chapter 3 of shaar 4 for one):

    אבל האמת כי ענין לשמה פרוש, לשם התורה … כגון לידע ולהבין, ולהוסיף לקח ופלפול.

    As for the rest of your long comments. I still stand where I did before – a section of germara is aggada based on its style and substance and (maybe maybe) based on whether the major rishonim treated it as such in their HALACHIC codes – not based on whether or not it is invoked in an halachic manner 1000 years later. For example, the fact that R’ Moshe quotes the ibn Ezra in a teshuva does not make it the ibn Ezra an halachic work.

    The Ohr HaChaim that you quote above as treating the gemara in meggila as an halachic text is IMO doing nothing of the sort. In fact, it seems like his whole kashya on the taz is “even if your interpertation is right and the zechut of learning Torah is greater than hatzalat nefashot, how do you get from there to a normative chiuv of prefering learning Torah over hatzalat nefashot leMa’seh. He rejects that we learn chiuv from zechut. Although he does not say so explicitly, it seems that he is saying that an aggada that teaches you about zechut does not teach you about a normative chiuv.

  8. Chaim Wolfson says:

    As an aside, re: the Gra and his father, there is a letter printed in “Karyana D’Iggarta” in which the Steipler advises someone not to become a practicing doctor because it would take away too much time from his learning. The Steipler writes that he is certain that the person would be a highly succusful doctor because he is so intelligent, and he would be so besieged with patients that he would have no time to learn! [I’m pretty sure the letter was written to Dr. Abraham Twerski, who consulted with the Steipler regularly and probably has more letters printed in “Karyana” than anyone else.] I’m not saying that case is comparable to Rabbi Landesman’s theoretical case with the Chazon Ish, but it is interesting.

  9. Chaim Wolfson says:

    “I would also like to add that the normative halachic statement regarding hatzalat nefashot is NOT Megilla 16b but rather Ketubot 19a” (Comment by Chardal — June 29, 2009 @ 2:38 am).

    Chardal, it’s not quite as simple as that. That statement of the Gemara represents the halachic BASELINE, but the actual halachah can change based on various factors, as in, for example, Sanhedrin 74a-b (which is the source “sugya” of “yaavor v’al yehareg”). That’s why we don’t “pasken” on the basis of a single statement in the Gemara. There is no such thing as a “normative halachic statement” in the Gemara because often a Gemara elsewhere qualifies that statement, and unless we know every single Gemara that even indirectly bears on it, we can’t apply it to a given circumstance. Only after taking everything into account can we establish the halachah “l’maaseh”. That is why we have Rishonim and Acharonim.

    By the way, the Gemara you are looking for is not Kesubos 19a, but Yoma 82a and Pesachim 25a-b. Those Gemaras refer to someone who suffers from a life-threatening illness; the Gemara in Kesubos (and Sanhedrin) is referring to someone whom others threatened with death if he does not sin. Although the basic halachah in both cases is that we transgress anything but ג’ עבירות חמורות, the two cases are not always comparable: see, for example, the Minchas Chinuch to mitzvah 296 who distinguishes between them with regard to a non-Jew in a life-threatening situation, and compare the Rambam in Hil. Yesodei HaTorah 5:4 with what he writes in 5:6 regarding someone in such a situation who does transgress one of the ג’ עבירות).

  10. Doron Beckerman says:

    One more thing I neglected – regarding the Gemara being quoted in the codes, there’s no need for it to be quoted. We already know the rules regarding אפשר and אי אפשר לעשות על ידי אחרים. This is just another application.

  11. Doron Beckerman says:

    Let me try this one more time. If not for you, for others. If they haven’t lost interest yet.

    Asserting this does not make it so. You are adducing as “proof” than an aggada is halachic … part of the same aggada. This is not in the major codes – and it is a bit silly to adduce it as an halachic argument.

    You’re the one making completely unfounded assertions based on absolutely nothing. What you’re saying is that the Maharshal, the Taz, the Ben Ish Chai, the Sefer Chassidim, the Perishah, Shu”t Lev Chaim II: 248 , etc., etc. are all “a bit silly” adducing this Gemara as a Halachic argument.

    You NEED sources for ANY of these assertions of yours about the strength or weakness of this being normative Halachah. One more time – the Maharshal paskened against the Beis Yosef BASED SOLELY on this “Aggada”.

    The fact that occationally an achron (such as the taz) invokes an aggadic passage to make a normative point in halacha is not proof of anything.

    In your book. This is not the book used by Poskim.

    Especially when the answer to such an assertion by an achron is to simply point out that the aggada is missing from any normative halachic code in the rishonim

    So you’re saying that NONE of the Acharonim give this answer, but since Chardal “simply points it out”, then that’s the answer. But just for informative purposes, you should take a look at the Meiri who ferrets out the practical guidelines from the vast passages of Aggadeta at the end of the first perek in Megillah there – and quotes this Gemara.

    The point is that there is precious little such literature. And the presence of an achron here or there does not halachic literature make.

    In your book. This is not the book the Poskim use. There is no such thing as relegating the Maharshal, the Taz, the Rishon Letzion (by the Ohr Hachayim), etc. to “not Halachic literature make”.

    Should we really collect every passage of gemara that has EVER been quoted by an achron in an halachic argument and give it the status of normative halacha?

    This is completely disingenuous.

    Do we really want to break down the traditional scholarly approach to deviding the gemara to normative and not normative sections – that is a major break with our messorah!

    You’re painting the bullseye around the arrow. You’re assuming it isn’t normative and then saying that it is in the non-normative section.

    Such a statment is just a form of bullying. It is debate scare-tactics.

    Turning what the Poskim consider binding material into non-binding material very much runs the risk of Megaleh Panim BaTorah. This is a very real argument in the sense that it demands that you back up your assertions.

    I suggest you stick to real arguments if you want to have a shot of convincing anyone that normative halacha is to ignore sakanas nefashos for the sake of going back to the gemara.

    Based on your “mesorah” of relegating the Maharshal, the Taz, etc. to “an Acharon here or there” which “isn’t Halachic literature” and waving hands with “simple answers” like “this is just Agada” which NOBODY says, but you’re saying based on NOTHING, I don’t think I have to work very hard at convincing anyone with an open mind on this issue.

    I will conclude with another non-halachic story. It is said that one time the Alter Rebbe was learning with his son and a baby was crying in the other room. The son was so immeresed in his learning that he did not notice the crying. The Alter Rebbe got up, calmed the baby, and when returning to the learning told his son: ‘Torah study which makes one impervious to the anguished cries of a baby is not true Torah study. Torah study must increase our sensitivity to the suffering of others – not mute it’ – veIdach Zil Gemor.

    This is a Halachic story. He was Mechuyav to calm the baby since the baby was his responsibility, and it became a Mitzvah that could not be done by others.

    And speaking of debate tactics, what you’re doing here is saying that all the Acharonim who labor to reconcile the Gemara in Megillah with normative Halachah are mistaken. The real אידך זיל גמור is a story about the Alter Rebbe. This is an attempt at emotionalizing a debate on Halachic merits, which does not serve to clarify the truth.