I

t wasn’t the press release this week from the University of Cincinnati Health Center that caught my eye but the accompanying photo, with the caption reading “Jack Rubinstein, MD… is shown demonstrating a layman’s version of Tefillin” (with the pun, I assume, unintended).

According to the statement, a “pilot study led by researchers at the University of Cincinnati College of Medicine suggests Jewish men who practice wearing tefillin, which involves the tight wrapping of an arm with leather banding as part of daily prayer, may receive cardiovascular health benefits.”

Now, it’s clear from the tefillah in the siddur preceding the laying of tefillin that the tefillin shel yad has heart-related benefits. To wit, “He has commanded us to put tefillin upon the arm… that it be opposite the heart thereby to subjugate the desires and thoughts of our heart to His service, may His Name be blessed.”

This study, however, gives entirely new meaning to the tefillin-heart connection. Published in the American Journal of Physiology-Heart and Circulatory Physiology, it suggests that wearing the tefillin shel yad is a form of remote ischemic preconditioning (RIPC), meaning that the blood supply to an organ is impaired briefly and then resumed. In the event the blood supply is later cut off entirely elsewhere in the body, such as during a heart attack, RIPC helps protect against acute ischemic reperfusion injury, which occurs when body tissue is deprived of oxygen and then re-oxygenated.

In other words, being pro-phylactery can be downright prophylactic. Or as the above-cited tefillah goes on to beseech, “From the flow of the mitzvah of tefillin may there extend upon me long life and a flow of holiness….”

Dr. Rubinstein, a UC Health Center cardiologist, led a team of researchers in conducting the study with 20 Jewish Cincinnatians, nine of whom wear tefillin daily and eleven who don’t yet, all of whom wore tefillin for 30 minutes. This had a measureable positive effect on blood flow and reduced circulating cytokines — signaling molecules that can cause inflammation — both of which are associated with better outcomes in heart disease. He also noted that studies out of Israel have found that Orthodox men have a lower risk of dying of heart disease than non-Orthodox men.

Although blood flow was higher for the daily tefillin wearers, it improved even in participants who wore it just once as part of the study. Interestingly, for a Jew to wear tefillin even just once in his life is also associated with better outcomes in Olam Haba (see Rif to Rosh Hashanah 17a).

Researchers have previously found that inducing small heart attacks in animals as a form of preconditioning provided protection against more serious heart attacks. “The problem with translating this to people,” Dr. Rubenstein explained, “is we don’t know when someone will have the heart attack. It is almost impossible to precondition someone unless they are willing to do something daily to themselves. Tefillin use may, in fact, offer protection as it’s worn on an almost daily basis.”

My wife remembers her friend’s father, legendary mechanech Rabbi Josh Silbermintz a”h, saying that “It’s better to be a hearty Jew than a Jew at heart.” Perhaps taking these new findings to heart will help turn some of the latter into the former.

 

DOUBLE TROUBLE

The name Ammiel Hirsch may be familiar to some readers as the coauthor of a book some years ago featuring a Reform-Orthodox dialogue, with Hirsch arguing the former position. Today, Hirsch is the spiritual leader of a congregation on Manhattan’s Upper West Side called the Stephen Wise Free Synagogue, but a sermon that clergyman Hirsch gave this past Yom Kippur might make people assume there’s more than one Reform leader by that name.

Hirsch’s sermon made it into the news for its strong critique of prevailing liberal American Jewish attitudes. From an opening line of “Something is rotten in the state of liberalism that threatens the future of progressive Judaism,” Hirsch went on to detail how there are liberal Jews who “lead the attack against Israel with a kind of ferocity normally reserved for the world’s worst regimes” and “join groups that even have anti-Semitic tendencies.”

All of this, he asserted, stems from a rejection of the core value of Jewish particularism. Many modern Jews cannot abide the idea that Jews have as much right as any other group to their own distinctive, and thus necessarily exclusionary, values and practices and to seek to marry other Jews and raise Jewishly identifying children.

This delegitimizing of one’s own Jewish identity, Hirsch argued, represents the single greatest threat to the future of liberal Judaism and ultimately to its role in working for the welfare of society as a whole. He cited the fact that “liberal Jews are abandoning their Jewish identity in accelerating and unsustainable numbers,” while “nearly half of American Jews prefer not to identify with organized religion,” a trend that “will cause an implosion of the instrumentalities of Reform Judaism itself.”

I can only imagine the folks squirming in their seats and feeling suddenly hot in the Stephen Wise Free sanctuary on the afternoon of September 19, as Hirsch pleaded with his flock:

Under what theory of liberalism are we required to discard attachments and loyalties to Jews? What is this new Jewish progressivism that asserts that the acceptance of others requires the negation of self?

…Don’t liberals believe in diversity, in a pluralism of communities?... Or do we believe in diversity for everyone but Jews?

…We liberal Jews never seem to speak about Jewish solidarity anymore. We speak about our obligations to the world with profound conviction and eloquence, but never seem to speak about our obligations to Jews…. A Reform tikkun olam mission would more likely travel to a poor African village than a soup kitchen for Jews in Ukraine.

One can only applaud Hirsch’s words, so it was more than a bit surprising to read a quote from Hirsch in a New York Jewish Week article that appeared exactly one week after that sermon, about Yitzchak Herzog, former leader of Israel’s Labor Party and the new chairman of the Jewish Agency.

Most of the Jewish communal figures quoted were upbeat about Herzog’s efforts to learn about the American Jewish community as he prepares to wade into the very contentious issue of pluralism in Israel. Yet the article concludes on a pessimistic note, with the thoughts of Ammiel Hirsch. His words are what led me to surmise that there are either two of him — or perhaps just one, but with the ability to speak from two sides of the mouth. Hirsch told the reporter that no matter how good his intentions, Herzog

doesn’t have the power at this point in time to dismantle, weaken, or even affect the ultra-Orthodox monopoly on religious life in Israel. Until that happens, we will be able to do Band-Aid actions but will not be able to deal with the underlying source of the tension — the radical, extreme minority segment of the Jewish world that dominates religious life in Israel.

Hirsch believes that it’s deeply detrimental to Israel for a “radical, extreme minority segment of the Jewish world” to be involved in determining its religious character. But why, then, would he favor giving a major role in that determination to the liberal Jewish movements, from whose ranks have come the Jews who “lead the attack against Israel with a kind of ferocity normally reserved for the world’s worst regimes” and “join groups that even have anti-Semitic tendencies”?

Why give such a role to movements that, by emptying Judaism of G-d and Torah, have helped bring about a state of affairs in which “nearly half of American Jews prefer not to identify with organized religion,” and most of the other half does no more Jewishly than attend temple three times yearly and who “are uncomfortable with Jewish particularism, asserting that it is an illiberal idea whose time has passed”? Do those movements, then, not represent a small “minority segment” of America’s serious, proud, 365-day-a-year Jews?

If Hirsch is indeed concerned about giving the reins of Israel’s religious life to a “radical, extreme minority segment of the Jewish world,” the heterodox movements need not apply.

In other words, will the real Ammiel Hirsch please stand up? One at a time, please.

Originally featured in Mishpacha, Issue 731. Eytan Kobre may be contacted directly at kobre@mishpacha.com