My new grandson recently had a brit milah (ritual circumcision). His parents, together with many of their friends and family members, celebrated his entry into the covenant of the Patriarch Abraham, as have so many generations of Jews before them — but I wasn’t there.
It’s certainly not that I didn’t want to be there. Few experiences in life can compare to seeing a grandchild brought into the ancient covenant of the Jewish people. When Yaakov, my first grandson, was born four years ago, I traveled to Baltimore — where my son and daughter-in-law were then living — to attend his brit.
Yaakov and his parents have since moved to Riverdale, where my son is in the semicha (ordination) program at Yeshivat Chovevei Torah (YCT), the rabbinical school founded by Rabbi Avi Weiss (Rav Avi in the local parlance). The brit milah of my second grandson was held at the Hebrew Institute of Riverdale (HIR), the synagogue in which YCT is located (and where Rav Avi, until recently, served as the senior rabbi), far closer to me than Baltimore.
But sometimes life takes an unexpected turn, and I’ve experienced my share of them. Seventeen years ago, at the age of 42, I was diagnosed with Parkinson’s disease. Since then I’ve been able to mitigate the symptoms of Parkinson’s through medication, but it’s gotten progressively more difficult, and after much hesitation, I finally decided to undergo what is today considered the surgical treatment of choice for Parkinson’s, the implantation of a deep brain stimulus (DBS), which is essentially a pacemaker of the brain.
If the DBS procedure works as hoped, it should help alleviate the symptoms of Parkinson’s for several years. Why then did I hesitate so long before agreeing to the procedure? In part my reluctance arose out of a generalized fear of surgery, an experience that I had thus far managed to avoid. There was also the pragmatic recognition that the more time that has passed since doctors began preforming the DBS surgery, the better they have become at performing it successfully while minimizing any adverse side effects.
But that was only part of the reason for my reluctance. Any surgery is scary, but brain surgery is especially so. No medical researcher claims to have located the human soul, which is not a scientific concept. Most of us non-science types — those who do not consider science as the only worthwhile branch of human knowledge — intuitively locate the soul, to the extent that it has a physical location, in the brain. We think of the brain as the locus of thoughts, memories, opinions and personality quirks that make each person the unique individual that he or she is. Thus, the thought of brain surgery involves the essence of who we are in a way that other types of surgery do not.
The DBS surgery, as performed at NYU/ Langone Medical Center, involves four separate surgical procedures, so the scheduling is somewhat complicated. As soon as my son called to tell me of the birth of my second grandson, I realized that the eighth day after his birth – the day prescribed by the Torah for the brit milah— was the same day for which my first DBS surgery was scheduled. According to Halakha, the brit must take place on the eighth day, even if it falls on Shabbat or Yom Kippur. It cannot be delayed unless the health of the child requires it. The DBS procedure could have been postponed but, because of scheduling complications, postponement would have entailed a lengthy delay, including the repeat of required pre-surgical tests. Such a delay seemed medically unwise.
Thus, while I was at NYU/ Langone, in Manhattan, undergoing one of the newest of surgical procedures, my second grandson was thirteen miles away, at HIR in Riverdale, undergoing what probably the world’s oldest surgical procedure.
We live in an increasingly complex world, a world created by God but continually transformed, for better or worse, by the actions of human beings. We all too often focus our attention on the harm that human activity can bring to the world, a preoccupation that the news media, in its eagerness to report the very latest developments in every crisis, unquestionably encourages. Our drive to acquire ever more up-to-date information often leads us to ignore — or at least to downplay — the benefits that technological progress has brought us. Those benefits have been enormous, especially in the field of medicine.
My grandparents were born into a world in which antibiotics had yet to be invented, yet I can benefit from a surgical procedure that can alleviate the symptoms of a complex neurological disorder like Parkinson’s through electrodes implanted in the brain, with so few side-effects that they can send me home the next morning.
The pace of technological progress over the last century has been so rapid that our political culture has had trouble keeping up. That is the most charitable explanation for the political right’s relentless opposition to even so moderate a universal health care measure as Obamacare. It’s true that the Framers of our Constitution did not include medical coverage among Congress’s enumerated powers, but in 1787, medical science had few expensive treatments to offer. Leaches, I assume, were relatively cheap.
Of course, modern technological progress has not been limited to the field of medicine. Communications technology, to take one obvious example, has progressed at a dizzying speed. In the case of my grandson’s brit milah, that progress stood me in good stead. Though I could not be physically present at that celebration, I have been able to experience it through that marvel of modern technology known as video. Through the video taken by one of my son’s friends, I have been able to see and hear the entire event (other than the milah itself). I can listen — and even join in — as the congregation welcomes my new grandson by singing the familiar melody to the blessing that the Patriarch Jacob gave to his grandsons:
The Angel who has redeemed me from all harm — Bless the lads. In them may my name be recalled, and the names of my fathers Abraham and Isaac, and may them be teeming multitudes upon the earth. (Gen. 48:15-16, JPS translation)
I can see the delight in my older grandson’s face as Rabbi Steven Exler (Rav Steven in local parlance), who recently succeeded Rav Avi as the shul’s senior rabbi, singles him out as the baby’s big brother. I can hear Rav Avi’s moving words about my son and daughter-in-law, and I can join those who were present in hearing the announcement of the baby’s name, Eliyahu Sasson. And while most of those physically present only experienced this event once, I have already watched it twice, and I am sure that I will manage to see it again in the future.
To me, the coincidental juxtaposition of the DBS surgery with the brit milah underscores the essential unity of the world God created. Science and religion are not mutually inconsistent ways of understanding the world around us. Each is essential if we are to enjoy the fullness of that world. Those who seek to persuade us that the scientific and religious perspectives on reality are unavoidably incompatible — regardless of which of those perspectives they embrace — would leave us with a worldview that is fundamentally incomplete and potentially dangerous. Scientists who become anti-religious zealots would leave humanity free to follow its baser instincts. Religious leaders who disdain secular knowledge would deprive us of the fruits of technological progress. It is no easy matter for a religious institution to avoid succumbing to both temptations, and very few do so as well as HIR, the synagogue in which my grandson’s brit was held.
God created man in His image, the Torah tells us (Gen. 1:27), and He conferred on humanity the blessing to “[b]e fertile and increase, fill the earth and master it, and rule the fish of the sea, the birds of the sky and all living things that creep on earth.” (1:28-29, JPS translation) When human beings use their creative talents to improve the world around them, they are fulfilling their intended role in God’s creation.
The many triumphs of modern science bring with them the risk of hubris. The successes of modern medicine sometimes create the unreasonable expectation that every medical condition can be cured, or at least substantially alleviated, if only the medical researchers try hard enough. Viewing the world from a religious perspective helps us to remember that human beings, for all their accomplishments, are fallible. Only God is omniscient. Those of us who struggle with chronic diseases like Parkinson’s cannot help but be acutely aware of the limits of medical progress, even as we are grateful for the relief we get from new medications and surgical procedures and for the hope that springs from the ongoing research into treatments yet unknown.
The first stage of the DBS surgery, the one that coincided with the day of my grandson’s brit, appears to have gone well, as have the second and the third stages of the procedure shortly thereafter. It is still too soon for me to know how much relief I may receive from the DBS surgery after the last procedure is complete. I remain hopeful, even as the juxtaposition of my surgery with my grandson’s brit milah is a pointed reminder that the world we inhabit is God’s creation, while human beings are at most His junior partner.
May the angel who protected our father Jacob from all harm bless these my grandchildren. May they grow up to enjoy and appreciate both the fruits of science and the guidance of Torah. And may they — and indeed all of us — soon see the fulfillment of that for which we pray three times each day: that “the world will be perfected under the sovereignty of the Almighty, when all humanity will call on Your name.”