Thursday 23 October 2014

044) All I Want...Are My Two Front Teeth

I always believed that we humans have 32 teeth. I do understand that from time to time there may be variations in the number, and that there is a dental condition known as ‘hyperdontia’, but as a general rule we have 32 teeth.

I read with great interest a responsum from one of the most revered leaders of a significant segment of the contemporary Torah world (Rabbi Chaim Kanievsky), in which the following astounding statement is made:
“A non-Jew has 31 teeth while a Jew has 32…” 1
This, he says, is based on the Midrash Talpiyot2, from which he quotes. However, upon examination of this source, while it does say that Jews have 32 teeth, it mentions that non-Jews actually have 33 teeth (and not 31 as he quoted above3). Furthermore the Midrash Talpiyot says this is a tradition it received, but also mentions a different view that there is no physical difference between Jews and non-Jews (except of course for the Bris which is a man made distinction).

The actual question that spawned this responsum was whether Jews are more susceptible to healing than non-Jews4 - to which came the reply “Nachon” (correct). And then a further difference between Jews and non-Jews was pointed out – that concerning the number of teeth5.
Forgive my irreverence but the question begs; if someone converts to Judaism, do they or their children grow or lose a tooth?

It is well known that often our mystical tradition draws parallels between the human form and energies or channels these forms are said to represent. For example, the right hand represents Chessed or kindness, while the left represents Gevurah or restriction. Similarly in our case, the 32 teeth may represent the 32 roots of wisdom6. The problem with this responsum is that the author is not referring to an esoteric allusion or mystical parallel. He is stating a ‘physiological fact’.

This is strange because often our rabbis tell us to consult with experts in the various secular disciplines particularly when it concerns medical matters. What’s even more disturbing is that he chose this particular view from his source, as opposed to the other demonstrably verifiable view (from that very same source) that all people do have an equal number of teeth. He also seems to believe that Jews are, empirically, more prone to recovery from illness than non-Jews7.

The Kotzker Rebbe writes that indiscriminate quoting, without logical analysis, is tantamount to a ‘gift’ to those who are waiting to make fun us.
“[Yaakov] took whatever came into his hands as a gift to Esau…” – If a person takes ‘whatever comes into his hands’ and does not ascertain if it is good or bad, while he may think he is doing a mitzvah, he is simply feeding the ‘other side’. A pious person needs to constantly be aware of how he is going to be perceived.” 
(Emet VeEmunah p 28 par 2)
The point is this: For at least the last two thousand years we have known that Homo sapiens have 32 teeth.8  Every school child knows this. So how does a modern day Gadol and leader of multitudes stand up and tell us that Jews and non-Jews have a different number of teeth?

The answer is simple. We allow it to happen.

1. Derech Sicha, p 227. Bnei Brak 5764 (2004)
2. By R Eliyahu ben Shlomo Avraham, published around the 17th century
3. In another place (Asiach p 396), he ‘corrects’ this by saying that non-Jews do indeed have 33 teeth
4. Because of the expression in Shmonei Esrei: ‘Rofeh cholei Amo Yisrael - G-d heals the sick of His people’
5. Incidentally, there is also ‘anecdotal evidence’ allegedly attesting to a different number of teeth in the mouths of Jews and non-Jews, and it’s based on rather devious Gematriyos or numerology. One example gleaned from the verse; “They are a nation that shall dwell alone [LEVadad – LEV =32] and not be [LO=31] counted among the nations”. Another example from; “He did not [LO=31] do so for any nation, such judgements they know not [BAL=32]’
6. This kabbalistic concept is actually the catalyst for the discussion in the Midrash Talpiyot
7. I did, however, find it fascinating to discover that during the Black Death of the 14th C, which annihilated nearly half the population, Jews were indeed less affected than the rest of the population. This was possibly due to their laws of hygiene and their isolation in ghettos. Sadly the price they paid for surviving, was further persecution after being accused of poisoning the wells
8. See the writings of Galen 129-199CE

Thursday 2 October 2014

043) How I Remember Rabbi Bernhard

Rabbi Norman Bernhard passed away and was buried today.

Throughout most of the seventies, Rabbi Bernhard was the real life hero of my teenage years. This may sound strange, for what important rabbi in his early forties would spend time with an acne faced upstart who wasn't even a member of his congregation? Yet, at the time, the two of us developed a genuine friendship. He irreversibly impacted and influenced my life. He was the inspiration for me to want to be just like him and I decided to switch careers and become a rabbi.

Now, you have to remember, these were the seventies. It wasn't popular for a young man to want to be a rabbi. Most of the rabbis of that era were staid, old, incredibly boring and conservative. Not Rabbi Bernhard. He was different. He made the rabbinate exciting. His mind was so vast and open.
I recall how he told me that most people spend too much time sleeping their lives away, so he didn't sleep much. He and I spent many nights awake and learning for hours in chavrusa. I never knew anyone who could make chumash so exciting. We once stayed up an entire night at the Game Reserve, a place he loved dearly, learning, talking and taking close up photographs of hyenas.

He loved cars and so did I. He wanted an American muscle car and got close by driving a Hornet, which had expanded wheel arches and a fast back, and he was so proud of it. He had an interest in guns and so did I. We spent time shooting targets at a mine dump, cleaning our weapons and discussing the possibility making our own bullets.

Many rabbis advised against reading Buber. But he read Buber and lent these books to me (with the ‘veiled’ proviso that I only read the stories and not the philosophies. But I did and we did discuss them. He introduced me to Rebbe Nachman (his namesake) at a time when few knew about Breslov. He told me of Rabbi Shlomo Carlebach before he became a legend. He read Soloveitchik. He loved the Lubavitcher Rebbe and in the fullness of time, became more and more involved in the movement till he later became one of its cornerstones.

He had the most amazing library and loved spending time in it. When you sat there it felt as if you were in a holy place. He was the unofficial Chief Rabbi of South Africa. If anyone needed anything and provided your cause was just, Rabbi Bernhard could and did facilitate it. His mere presence commanded respect no matter where he went.

In keeping with the spirit of those times, I wanted to go to the then Soviet Union and help Jews. No one knew about it but he introduced me to a man who had secretly flown a planeload of Jews out of Russia and who knew how to get in and out of the Iron Curtain.  Rabbi Bernhard also introduced me to someone who worked for Simon Wiesenthal, and arranged for me to do surveillance on an old Nazi who was hiding in this part of the world. Rabbi Bernhard knew how to operate and was extremely effective as an activist for Jews. He was also a great campaigner for social justice.

I remember him telling me that a modern religious Jew has two options. Either he cloisters himself from the world or he embraces it. Both are legitimate pathways. But the latter involves more risk. He said he actively chose the latter, fully aware of the possible dangers for himself and his family. He also explained that his view of Judaism was that it was like playing sport. As long as you are ‘within the lines’ it doesn’t matter where the ball is. Even if close to the sides it is still in. One should never just remain standing on the centre line, but instead make use of the entire length of the field. This is a lesson of his I have never forgotten.

These are some of my recollections of the younger Rabbi Norman Bernhard, who was probably one of the most powerful influences of my young life. He got older, my acne disappeared and life got in the way. I never saw him as much as I wanted to. Sadly I couldn’t find the time for him when I got to my forties, as he had for me as a youngster. I wish I would have told him that I thought about him often and that he was so integral to my life. I wish I would have told him how much I value what he taught me and that our special relationship was one of the most precious I have even known.