Why Genetic Counseling Is Important
I am writing in response to your article “Direct-to-Consumer DNA Testing: What Does Halachah Say?” (spring 2019). As a genetic counselor who has dedicated her career to helping the Jewish community navigate genetic health issues, I could not be more pleased with how supportive the authors are of genetic counselors.
As the article mentioned, whether one is screening for reproductive purposes or for personal health, results should be given by a genetics professional and should not be merely e-mailed to the client, as is done by direct-to-consumer DNA testing companies. Without proper genetic counseling, those with negative results are likely unaware that the test is inadequate, and I shudder to think how many cancer diagnoses were made on individuals who were misled to believe they were in the clear.
I would also like to point out that those with Ashkenazi Jewish ancestry are ten times more likely to have a mutation in a BRCA gene, regardless of their family history of cancer. I would suggest that anyone with Ashkenazi Jewish ancestry consider BRCA testing. People who learn they carry mutations have options for cancer screening and risk-reducing surgeries, and can share this information with relatives who might also be at risk. Many genetic counselors understand the potential implications such information might have on marriageability and medical halachah and will discuss options for testing in an empathic and respectful way.
When I was studying at Stern College for Women, I was one of a handful of students interested in the field of genetic counseling. Today, I am proud to say that I am part of a growing community of Orthodox genetic counselors. Thank you for making your readers aware that we can be informative and supportive to anyone in need.
North Woodmere, New York
Genetic Counselor, JScreen
Bringing Back Fond Memories
I read with particular interest David Olivestone’s article on Dr. Philip Birnbaum and the Hebrew Publishing Company (HPC) (“A Most Obscure Best-Selling Author: Dr. Philip Birnbaum” [winter 2018]).
My grandfather, Chaim Alter Segal, z”l, worked for the HPC for almost fifty years, beginning in the 1920s. He calculated and arranged a 150-year Hebrew/English calendar and worked on the Tikun Mayer and Tiferes Dovid siddurim. Dr. Birnbaum acknowledged my grandfather (among others) in the early edition of Ha-Siddur Ha-Shalem. As a child I visited the HPC many times and had the privilege of meeting Dr. Birnbaum on a few occasions.
In its day, the HPC certainly played an important role with its vast array of religious and educational books and materials, which assisted the American Jewish community for many years. Thank you, Mr. Olivestone, for bringing back fond memories.
Brooklyn, New York
A Bikur Cholim Room of Their Own
I’m writing with regard to R. Rosenfeld’s essay, “Our ‘You People’ Community” (winter 2018), which describes the tremendous advantages of Bikur Cholim rooms.
Rofeh International, based in Boston, has been working with hospitals in the area, trying to build relationships so that we can also benefit from Bikur Cholim rooms, found in many New York City hospitals. Our main goal is to set up such a room in Boston Children’s Hospital, which is visited by countless Jewish families, both from the local area and out of town. Rosenfeld’s article illustrated how beneficial Bikur Cholim rooms are to the families of patients, as well as the potential they have to make a kiddush Hashem.
We plan on using the article as part of our presentation to Boston Children’s Hospital. We hope to turn this dream into reality and thereby somewhat relieve the burden facing many families dealing with medical crises.
Program Director, Rofeh International
Disagreeing with Chazal
I was very impressed by the cover story “Mining Tanach” (winter 2018). Rabbi Eliyahu Krakowski’s thorough treatment of “Why Isn’t Tanach Studied More?” was most informative, and I enjoyed the articles by Rabbis Yaakov Ariel and Netanel Wiederblank dealing with how we are to view the interpretations of Chazal and the limits of Biblical interpretation.
The point was made that often, when a Rishon’s interpretation of a pasuk ostensibly differs from that of Chazal’s, it is not really a contradiction because the Rishon maintains that Chazal were working on a derash plane, whereas he is dealing on a peshat plane. I would like to point out that numerous times there really is another opinion within Chazal, with which the Rishon’s view is consistent. Thus, when a Rishon begins by saying “Chazal say ‘xyz,’” he means one of the Chazal says it, not that it is the consensus of Chazal.
On the other hand, this does not deny that Rishonim, such as Ramban and Rashi, sometimes do explain the peshat level of pesukim differently from all known shittot of Chazal. In footnote fifteen of Rabbi Wiederblank’s marvelous article, he lists for consideration examples of traditional commentators who explain Scripture in ways that deviate substantially from Chazal. One of those examples is Rambam’s understanding that angels did not visit Avraham when he was sick; rather, the episode took place in a dream.
The fact is that Rambam did not see himself as differing from Chazal. Rambam held that Chazal could not have thought that there can be an interaction involving seeing, talking and eating with angels, since angels are by definition incorporeal, so the only way a human can interact or even perceive the presence of an angel is through connecting to the Heavenly world of spiritual existence and developing receptors capable of beholding the spiritual realities happening in Heaven—i.e., prophecy or prophetic dream. Indeed, Rambam (Moreh Nevuchim 2:42) cites Rabbi Chiya HaGadol (see Abarbanel’s commentary), who also maintains that this episode of three angels visiting Avraham was a prophecy.
Passaic, New Jersey
A Royal Blessing
As a child growing up in England, the Prayer for the Government was perhaps the pinnacle of the Shabbat morning service. Once the haftarah was read, the rabbi and chazzan, dressed regally, stood on the bimah, while the wardens in their top hats and pressed three-piece suits (as well as the rest of the congregation) rose and recited:
He who gives salvation to kings and dominion to princes,
whose Kingdom is an everlasting kingdom—may He bless:
Our Sovereign Lady, Queen Elizabeth
Philip, Duke of Edinburgh . . .
These opening words to the prayer are known by heart by all who attended shul in the United Kingdom.
One of my great pleasures as a child was going to visit old family members to leaf through the Routledge machzorim on the bookshelves in their homes (in the United Kingdom, up until fairly recently, no one had a Birnbaum, Koren-Sacks or ArtScroll machzor). When my brother and I opened the dusty books, we turned the brittle yellow pages until we reached the “Prayer for the Royal Family,” and we looked to see who was on the throne when it was printed. Which member of the House of Windsor might it be? Elizabeth? Edward VIII? George VI? George V? Could it possibly be so old that Queen Victoria was the monarch? These machzorim, containing liturgy thousands of years old, were also veritable treasure troves of royal history.
For me, and I am sure many others, this short prayer for the monarch is something that will be remembered for the rest of my life.
Neve Tzuf, Israel
Taking the Plunge
I had been thinking about removing the Internet from my home for a long time. Having read Bayla Sheva Brenner’s inspiring article “Pulling the Plug: Life without the Internet” (summer 2018), I decided to take the plunge. I now use the Internet at an Internet office. And when I’m home, I focus! It is just so magical and freeing.
I had the article framed and placed over my desk in my home office.