Is it still Judaism?

I understand many Jewish institutions have little choice but to welcome interfaith families (“Keeping the Faith,” Summer 2022). However, this policy has unintended consequences for Jews who remain in the fold. My former Reform congregation had a 50% non-Jewish membership. It was welcoming, all right, but no longer really a Jewish organization. There was a chilling effect on the Jews, who were constrained from saying or doing things that might offend non-Jews and might result in reprimands (mostly from the Jewish spouses, strangely). One of the reasons I left Reform Judaism is that I’m way beyond worrying about what the goyim will think. At least, I hope I am.

I’m also not persuaded that children of intermarriage are “rethinking” Jewishness by envisioning it as “a choice freely made” rather than “obligation or blind duty.” This approach is hardly new; it’s been around for 100 years, maybe more. Whatever it is, it isn’t Judaism. I’m no fundamentalist, but if the Torah isn’t about obligation and duty, what’s it about? Certainly not individual self-expression.

Margery Williams ’75
Somerville, Massachusetts

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I am astounded the word “Torah” does not appear even once in “Keeping the Faith.”

In a famous passage in the September 1899 issue of Harper’s Magazine, Mark Twain made this observation: “All things are mortal but the Jew; all forces pass, but he remains. What is the secret of his immortality?” The answer is not intermarriage. The unequivocal answer is Torah observance and education. Without Torah, there is no Judaism and no Israel.

As Rabbi Jonathan Sacks wrote in “Covenant and Conversation,” “Many attempts have been made to create an egalitarian society. Some have focused on equality of income, others on equality of power. Judaism concentrated on something else altogether: equal access to education. […] The Mesopotamians built ziggurats, the Egyptians built pyramids, the Greeks built the Parthenon, and the Romans built the Coliseum. Jews built schools; that is why we are still here. That, in answer to Mark Twain’s question, is the secret to our immortality.”

William Sax, P’06, P’12

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“Keeping the Faith” states that intermarried Jews will work harder to ensure their children are aware of Judaism and that intermarriage isn’t a bad thing per se. What a flawed hypothesis. Children born of intermarriage may know what the Passover holiday is about, but are they willing to commit to doing two Seders for the rest of their lives, and ensuring their children and grandchildren do, too? Will children born to an intermarried couple prefer Christmas over Hanukkah? Where are the data that prove intermarriage keeps a family’s Jewish identity intact over generations?

There are about 15 million Jews in the world, and many of them have zero Jewish identity. Jews should work tirelessly to espouse the beauty of our religion and our ethnicity, and guarantee that Jews marry Jews — even if they’re atheist or irreligious — because, if we don’t, we are fulfilling our enemies’ wish: the end of the Jewish nation and bloodline.

Morris Didia ’14

Comfort in dying

It’s to be expected that Brandeis Magazine would report uncritically about a book by a Brandeis anthropologist on medically assisted death (“Walking Toward a Good Death,” Summer 2022), but it’s also to be expected that knowledgeable health professionals understand how outdated the arguments for legalizing assisted suicide really are. By the time I played a small role in defeating a 2012 referendum on physician-assisted suicide in Massachusetts, the arguments were already 15 years out of date.

The aim of physician-assisted suicide is to allow patients to be comfortable in dying, but even in the 1990s my colleagues and I were achieving that goal every day, including in critical-care settings, without the provision of medicines given with the unethical intent of ending lives. The integrity of the health-care professions depends upon keeping this terminal intent out of the field, and the ethical codes of both the American Medical Association and the American Nurses Association have historically opposed participation in intentionally ending patients’ lives.

Given this nation’s chronically limited health-care resources and the economic pressures health care still places on American families, a physician-assisted suicide system can be abused too easily, becoming not assisted suicide but murder.

During the COVID-19 pandemic, the public and politicians finally started calling nurses “heroes.” Heroes deserve to be listened to. From the trenches of the critical-care sector, I call for solid opposition to physician-assisted suicide at the bedside of patients, as well as in the voting booth.

David A. Sherman ’81
Needham, Massachusetts
(The writer is a critical-care nurse.)

An absorbing topic

During my 35 years in the Office of Admissions — 23 of them as director of admissions — I came to know Ann Olga Koloski-Ostrow as a brilliant, admired teacher and an outstanding scholar. But I hasten to defend Nature’s wonder, the Greek sea sponge, once communally used by ancient Romans in public latrines in lieu of toilet paper, and distressingly depicted in “Down and Dirty in Ancient Rome” (Summer 2022) as an unsanitary “sea-sponge-on-a-stick.” The problem was not the sponge but rather the Romans.

Let me offer the Romans ex post facto advice. If, next to public toilets, the Romans had kept vats of water at a low boil, any sponge-on-a-stick user could have dunked, swirled, and destroyed germs in one minute flat.

The Greeks were philosophers and scientists; the Romans, mere workaday engineers. In a lofty, noble tradition, physicians take an oath devised by (who else?) the Greek Hippocrates that reminds them to, first, do no harm. And where was Hippocrates from? The same Greek sponge-fishing islands as my family.

The Greeks cared. In their well-engineered public toilets, the Romans should have done the same.

Michael N. Kalafatas ’65
Wayland, Massachusetts