What should be translated?

The Yiddish Book Center (that Yiddish Book Center) has a blog post up by David Schlitt where he asks the question, "What Yiddish titles and/or authors would you most like to see translated?" An excellent question, that (and it's no surprise that I left a comment there). Follow the discussion, if you would.


I Have a Hat Today

Yesterday, I spent a fascinating 15 or 20 minutes looking at video of King's famous speech. ("Why is it in black and white?" asked my seven-year-old, and I resisted the temptation to give her the Calvin and Hobbes answer.) Two things I noticed:

1. The white folks were acting stereotypically white, sitting on their hands, pained smiles pasted on their faces, occcasionally nodding.

2. 1963 straddled an important boundary in history - in this case, between massive hat-wearing and widespread hatlessness. I didn't notice whether the white folks or black folks wore more hats, but it seemed to me like the split was about 50-50 total between hatteds and bareheads. 



I'm doing about as well as I'd expect.
I'd expect to turn half cartwheels.
I'd tear up the floorboards
to find more floorboards
printed by my pacing.
You expect a letter
but you'll get a palimpsest.


Setting Out

Setting Out
Bei Dao 

To TT, on his 24th birthday

In the watch store called The Stars
Twelve celestial hours chime
Along the clouds’ unending path
Twenty four mountains spin around

Migrating birds set out from you
The earth is covered with written signs
Waves turn the pages, wind reads aloud
Roots’ meaning is drawn out by trees

With song a music box protects
The juniormost of all the gods
Querulous teapot teaches how
To know the taste of wind and storm

Reality is another dream
The air is full of banknote kites
Fire’s ice and thunder’s shock
The chessboard kingdom sets its traps

The gravely ill disseminate
All the rumors of the age
But only those who guard the night
Will breach the lines of dawn’s defense

Shadows clear up, rainbows push
The swinging doors when seasons change
In the watch store called The Stars
Twelve celestial hours chime

Original here. Translation mine.

Not enough statistics?

Well, thanks for all the bioethics and Yiddish and poetry (the Yiddish bioethics poetry is yet to be written), say you, but what about statistics and mathematics blogs?

I didn't know Jordan Ellenberg (the novelist and mathematician of the Do the Math feature in Slate) has a blog. And he often links to the Three-toed Sloth. Andrew Gelman writes well about all sorts of statisticky stuff, though he's a touch more technical.

There you are. More such links please from you, if you know about them. (Or, heck, if you're an electrical engineer or astronomer or chemist and know about interesting blogs in those fields, the more the merrier.)


What does halachah say about how to improve American health care? Not much.

Someone skeptical about halachah might ask, "Does Jewish law have anything useful to say about a public policy debate as complicated and multifactorial as health care?" Unfortunately, after reading the chapter devoted to health care in Rabbi Jill Jacobs' There Shall Be No Needy, I have to say no.

I wanted Jacobs' book to provide halachic metaphors to help me understand better what it means to support health care reform - and, ideally, to help me judge the relative ethical benefits and risks of various alternatives, even in a general way. I don't need halachah to tell me about the necessity of health care, the critical role of the health care provider, or the community's role in providing such care: these are relatively uncontroversial, things that even opponents of health care reform support. Halachah should be a source of Jewish wisdom and  something more than the deployment of righteous cliches. It should provide a particular perspective, not a reinterpretation of universalist principles which can be found in any liberal ethos.

Rabbi Jacobs' chapter is a skillful summary of the general principles of Jewish law regarding the provision of health care to the individual and community. She discusses the well-known arguments about the healer's permission to "interfere" in Divine creation when healing the sick, the need for the physician to be remunerated for their services; and the requirement inumbent on the community to provide for medical care. In an esthetic and moral sense, the passages she cites are useful - as Jacobs herself points out, they serve as a troubling reminder of the inefficiencies of the American health care system. (1)

After these summaries, however, Jacobs seems to get lost. She acknowledges that "today's system presents us with many more players than the doctor, the patient, and the immediate community" and goes out to find what halachah will tell us about these multiple factors. Unfortunately, there isn't much there (when has there been a health care system on earth as fragmented, oversized, and inefficient as ours?), so she has to limit herself to an unsatisfying historical aside on the history of Jewish hospitals and an unsurprising teshuvah by Rabbi Shlomo Goren holding that the Israeli government is required to provide health care. (2)

Jacobs acknowledges in passing that most Americans today receive health care through their employers (though she neglects to mention that veterans and Native Americans also are cared for by a national system), a state of affairs which has no halachic precedent. What then is there to say?

This is where the rubber meets the road. If there are no exact parallels in halachah to the matter at hand, perhaps there are at least useful metaphors, engaging stories, gripping ultimatums, solid philosophies. Jacobs: "From a Jewish perspective...a major problem with the American health care system is the lack of community oversight over the distribution of funds." This is disappointingly tepid and unfocused.

"Community oversight," like Mom and apple kugel, sounds good on its face. (I supported a public option and I think that a single-payer system is the way to go - I assume this is what Jacob is reaching towards with her "community oversight.") But what we need is help with a hard question: what kind of community oversight is needed, and at what level of government? Do we need more state control of apportionment of Medicare and Medicaid, or less (both could be called "community oversight")? Do we need Congressional interference in decisions about comparative effectiveness research? Should the Federal government have a role in deciding what health care should be available to which doctors? Democracy is all about the conflict of different communities, and "the Jewish perspective," at least as Jacobs is presenting it, has nothing whatever to say about these conflicting priorities.

In a concluding chapter which is useful in understanding her overall approach, Jacobs lays out her vision for how Jewish law and tradition should inform public policy (or the "public sphere," as she vaguely calls it). Unfortunately, this vision is not convincing.

Why unconvincing? Her "essential principles" ("the dignity of human life," "the inherent disparity of power" between different classes, and the reciprocal responsibilities of individual and community) are not unique to Judaism. This would not be a problem if halachah provided a unique perspective on issues of public policy - but I don't see any evidence of that here either. How, according to Jacobs, should Jewish law inform our discussions? "Jewish sources should help us to see various sides of an issue,challenge our assumptions, and enable us to formulate a response that takes multiple factors into account." Again, this is nothing we need halachah for - only a liberal cast of mind and general civic virtues of tolerance and open inquiry. (3)

It is not inspiring to say that halachah offers us no guide in some areas of life, but I think that's the case. I will not ask a posek the next time I prescribe an antibiotic and I don't think I need one either when considering various aspects of health care reform. (4) General moral guidelines about the importance of health care are available in halachah, should one choose to seek them there (though they can be found nearly everywhere else in a liberal society). For practical approaches to systematic reform, we should look elsewhere.

Update: See Rabbi Josh Yuter's shiur on the topic here, which I haven't listened to all of yet.

1. Jacobs says that our country's systematic inefficiencies and profit-driven nature "prevents many patients from being able to afford needed medical care." This is undoubtedly true, but another issue - which Jacobs does not explicitly address - is that Americans want too much medical care: too many labs, tests, and procedures, which drive up costs without improving care. This, among many other complications of the health care system, is something which our halachic predecessors simply could not envision, although I am sure one could, by stretching some precedent to the breaking point, find a proof text of use.

2.  Jacobs calls this teshuvah influential, but I suspect she is mixing up the chicken and the egg. Surely more determinative in today's halachic world is the fact that Israel is a democracy. Democracies legislate and administer national health care. Were Israel not a democracy, or not able to administer health care, the Goren teshuvah would be forgotten.

3. In fact, one could argue that Jewish law - in many places - does not place a premium on tolerance or open inquiry. There is the apikores and the min, after all.

4. In this regard, Rabbi Jacobs' philosophy bears a surprising (and disquieting) resemblance to Charedi daas Torah: that rabbis have a variety of expertise which equips them to offer advice even in practical situations far afield from their formal erudition.