Joseph and his Multi-Coloured Genes

Last Wednesday I went to Lambeth Palace for a conference with the Chief Rabbi, and this Wednesday he came to Bowdon for a conference with my colleagues and I. The focus on the day was on the rapidly changing face of medical science and how that relates to the Rabbinate both as Halachic decisors and as pastoral caregivers.


During a break between the sessions I was reminded of Fran Lebowitz’s one-liner: ‘you are only as good as your last haircut’. For I was learning a verse from the Sedra, and I realised that I was reading it entirely through the eyes of our last presenter. The presenter, a professor in medical oncology and consultant at the Christie, had just spoken on (amongst other things) genetics and personalised medication in cancer care and research. We had learned of inherited genetic markers and the pros and cons of pre-emptive surgeries. How much are we a product of our parents? What is indelibly written in our genes? What responsibilities do we have in trying to circumnavigate the unknown future because of our ever growing knowledge of our past?


It was these questions that were top of mind when I read the above-mentioned verse: the second one of the Sedra; ‘Yosef was seventeen years old’. At first glance, this is just a simple statement of fact regarding Yosef’s age. But Rabbi Shimshon Raphael Hirsch notes that the literal Hebrew reads as; “Yosef was the son of seventeen years’. He writes that we are all banim, children of the last years of our lives. Whether we are conscious of it or not, they are our mothers, educating and shaping us.


That comment really struck a chord at that moment. We are the children of our lives. When we come to a crossroads in our life, when we are faced with a moral dilemma and have to make a decision; the choice will be based entirely on our experiences, education, environment etc until that point.


That thought was further compounded when our next speaker, a consultant clinical geneticist, mentioned inherited embedded memories. Whilst these will not change a person’s DNA, they can cause certain lines within it to be magnified. We can inherit character traits, higher sensitivities, dependencies etc based on experiences had by our predecessors. Our decision therefore at the above-mentioned crossroads will also be based on our ancestors’ experiences and education.


Yosef’s actions, his brothers’ reactions, and the entire subsequent story was thus a product not just of the current circumstances and their sibling rivalry, it was a story generations in the making. That does not mean that it had to happen that way, Yosef and his brothers still had absolute free choice in their actions, but they were definitely predisposed to a certain path. Their challenge was to decide whether they were going to be shackled by their history or were going to free themselves.


And thus I saw the ongoing similarities with that story and the lectures we were hearing that day. The professor from the Christie discussed the scenario whereby a person knows that he or she has a certain gene, or if multiple ancestors have suffered from a certain illness, then they have a choice to resign themselves to their fate or to take pre-emptive action (always with full professional advice). The geneticist posed the question of the Ashkenazi young man who has a moral responsibility to screen for genetic markers such as Tay-Sachs before going on a Shidduch.


In short, their message was that we do not always have to play with the cards we are dealt with, we can and should take responsibility where that possibility exists.


And what is true of medicine is true of morals and ethics. We are a product of our past, but we still have a responsibility to form our responses with an eye to our own lives and that of our children. Its why Yosef, once he had dragged himself out of prison and started on his own path to greatness, called his sons Ephraim and Menashe; two names that embodied the past but with a view to the future.


How glad I am that I just so happened to read that specific verse on that day. We are the products of three thousand years of Jewish history, but we are also the writers of generations still to come.


What are we embedding into our grandchildren’s DNA?

Atoms and Intergalactic Winds

Atoms and Intergalactic Winds

Devarim 5777


An article in Thursday’s Guardian newspaper, must be in contention for the most dramatic opening paragraph since Genesis 1:1; “Nearly half of the atoms that make up our bodies may have formed beyond the Milky Way and travelled to the solar system on intergalactic winds driven by giant exploding stars, astronomers claim.”


The article continues in much the same vein, with descriptions of the intergalactic winds, and how we are “in some sense extragalactic visitors or immigrants in what we think of as our galaxy.” Even when reading those sentences as an Orthodox Jew with an unwavering believe in Genesis and the story of our Creation, I still see them as inspiring and dramatic. How though to view them, when they are read in light of this week’s traumatic twist in the Charlie Gard story?


Let me begin by stating the obvious, which has unfortunately been totally ignored by a lot of the Press, in particular the Right-Wing Press in the States: I am not privy to the full medical details of the case!! Like most people with an interest in the story, I have googled encephalomyopathic mitochondrial DNA depletion syndrome (MDDS or RRM2B) and am now an ‘expert’ in the field! I also know about the NBT treatment offered by a ‘specialist’ in the States. However, even though I might like to think of myself as having an A.A.D. (almost a doctor) qualification, I don’t and neither do any of the journalists! So, I am not here to criticise the staff and caring doctors and professionals at GOSH or to question at all their incredibly difficult journey in what has become a very public and political campaign. My heart goes out to them as much as it does to Charlie and his parents, Connie and Chris.


What I do want to do is to look at it as a father, as a Rabbi and as a patient/parent within the medical system.


Not many people are blessed with a smooth sailing through this world, and like many others Nachi and I have had our fair share of medical ups and downs. We have been blessed with good friends, and more importantly we have been privileged to count amongst our friends, doctors whom we not only trusted but who also recognised and understood our religious values and the guidelines by which we live our lives. One time in particular we were being pressurised by an outside consultant who wanted to go down a certain path, one that was categorically against Halacha. He meant well within his world and was simply following his professional expertise. But Nachi and I were being guided by principles that went higher and beyond those, it also helped that we had the support of our doctor friends. The specific details are not for me to share, but the principle was; Belief versus Medicine. Yes, the Torah tells us to live, and we are commanded to break pretty much every law to preserve life, but even that rule comes with Halachic boundaries, and the doctor wanted to break them.


I didn’t and couldn’t just view our journey as a medical process, I had to view it as one that came from far far away. In the words of the Guardian quoted above, we were extragalactic visitors. Although rather than being particles blown here from intergalactic winds driven by giant exploding stars, we were in fact part of the Infinite Being, driven here by His breath. We were vindicated in the end, but I would like to believe that even if we hadn’t been that our belief would have survived.


I cannot and will not attempt to answer why Charlie, his parents and indeed the doctors and staff at GOSH have had to endure this terrible episode. I am not a prophet or even a medical scientist, I am but a father of two lovely daughters who wouldn’t be here without the love, care and expertise of the professional medical world, and I cannot begin to imagine what everyone involved in this story has been going through.


But I do look at that opening paragraph, the one in Genesis as opposed to the one in the Guardian and I take faith from the fact there is a Divine Creator and whilst I might at times be baffled, exasperated and even furious with how His plan plays out in this world, I do respect the fact that our origin is from beyond the here and now. Our future however, is created from the here and now. By our behaviour. By the way we treat our children and vulnerable ones. By the way we work within the Law and not beyond it. If we can squeeze one benefit, if we can seek out even the minutest silver lining from this very grey cloud, I would humbly suggest that we consider the epic journey that is our lives. We are not just atoms flung together from a far-away galaxy beyond our time, we are part of a story. A story that has a definite and thought out beginning, a middle that we write ourselves with our actions and behaviour, and an end that goes beyond the stars to a future that shines a light on what can at times be a difficult journey.


My heart cries for Charlie, and whilst I do not understand His plan I do respect it. May the Almighty watch over him, treasure him and protect him. More importantly, may he grant his parents the strength to continue and to bless them with the love that they will need to continue in life.