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Is Rabbi Aviner living in the past?

Should the parents of a baby born with Down Syndrome utter words that are linked with mourning?
Shehechayanu! (Photo credit: Michael Lipkin / by permission)
Shehechayanu! (Photo credit: Michael Lipkin / by permission)

Recently, here in Israel, there has been some tumult over a statement by a leading rabbi whose views hold great sway over many members of the Religious Zionist camp. Rabbi Shlomo Aviner answered a question submitted to him via SMS regarding the proper blessing to make when a parent finds out that his newborn baby has Down Syndrome. Rabbi Aviner stated that, in addition to the typical “happy” blessing of Shehecheyanu (thanking God for bringing one to this time) made for all newborn babies, the parent should also make the blessing Baruch Dayan Ha’emet (Blessed is the true Judge), which is generally made when a person learns of a death. Understandably, many parents of children with Down Syndrome (including myself) were aghast at the very idea of saying such a blessing over our children. In just a few short days there was an avalanche of news articles, Facebook comments and blog posts on the issue. Rabbi Aviner answered a follow up SMS question where he affirmed and even expanded his position somewhat.

With my newborn son.

With the passage of those few days I’ve had the opportunity to explore the issue more rationally and consult with some other rabbis. As with pretty much everything in Jewish law, nothing is black and white. In strictly legalistic terms the issue seems to hinge on whether this blessing is said upon merely hearing sad news or upon an actual loss. Rabbi Aviner clearly relies on the former idea while other Rabbis, including the author of the Mishna Brurah (a highly respected codification of Jewish law), seem to rely on the latter idea. In Rabbi Aviner’s follow up SMS he expanded the parameter of when to say this blessing to feeling “some sadness”. Clearly, that formulation is untenable as based on that criteria, the blessing would lose all significance with people saying it on hearing the news that their favorite sports team lost a playoff slot or that their desired politician lost an election.

Dry legality aside, the real issue, in my opinion, is the motivation for asserting that one should say this blessing and the psycho-social impact of doing so in this situation. I feel that anyone suggesting that one say the blessing Baruch Dayan Ha’emet upon hearing the news of a baby being born with Down Syndrome is mentally stuck in bygone era.

My wife had an aunt with Down Syndrome. Lenore was born in 1933 and lived for 77 years, something quite unusual for a person with Down Syndrome born in those days. Bucking the trend, and very much to her credit, my wife’s grandmother brought Lenore home from the hospital and attempted to care for her on her own for several years until she finally had to send her to the Willowbrook facility in Staten Island, NY. But this was far from the norm. Typically, a baby born with Down Syndrome in those days was immediately whisked away to an institution and the family literally acted as if the baby had died. In such a scenario it would be hard to imagine why one would not say this “blessing” as both ingredients, sadness and loss, were present.

Fast forward to 2007 when our son with Down Syndrome was born. Yisrael entered into a completely different world. It’s a world where babies with Down Syndrome, for the most part, are warmly welcomed into loving families and where a range of intensive therapies begin within weeks after birth. Instead of wallowing in institutions, children with Down Syndrome are often mainstreamed into schools with “typical” children and grow up with opportunities for “real” lives where they than can contribute to society and even possibly get married. Some young people with Down Syndrome go to college, while here in Israel some serve in the IDF and some study at post high school Yeshivas. There is even an actress with Down Syndrome cast in regular supporting role on one of today’s most popular TV programs!

Are parents still sad when they hear the news that their newborn is different than what they expected? Many can be. But it’s often a fleeting sadness born of, as one rabbi I know put it, “unfulfilled expectations, prejudices and fears,” However, it is no longer the overwhelming sadness and sense of loss that was pervasive when Lenore was born. Saying Baruch Dayan Ha’emet on the type of temporary sadness that is more typical today can only serve to perpetuate a mindset that existed 75 years ago and create, as William Kolbrener put it in his wonderful blog post on the subject, Baruch Dayan Emet babies who will be thought of and treated as if they were born in the early 1900’s.

I look forward to the day when we can all say Baruch Dayan Ha’emet on the mentality that allows Rabbi Aviner, living in the 21st century, to give such anachronistic advice.

About the Author
Michael Lipkin made Aliyah in 2004 from Edison, NJ to Beit Shemesh with his wife and four children. Since moving to Israel, Michael and his wife have been blessed with two new sons-in-law, one daughter-in-law, nine grandchildren and a sabra of their own! Michael currently works as a tech liaison for a financial web site.