Tuesday, August 30, 2005

Wah, Wah, Wah

One of the greatest mussar sefarim one can study, Rav Mendel Kaplan, zt”l, was purported to have said, is the daily newspaper. While I don’t usually consider The Wall Street Journal to be part of my daily learning experience, I do find that every once in awhile a story strikes me, leaving Rav Mendel’s words ringing in my ears.

And so it came to pass the other day that pharmaceutical giant Merck was found liable, by a Texas jury, for the death of Robert Ernst.

The trouble began with a relatively new drug produced by Merck, called Vioxx, whose function is to kill pain. But in doing so, it has been accused of killing patients, including Mr. Ernst. The reasoning behind the allegation is that Vioxx causes blood clots, which can lead to heart attacks. Mark Lanier, the family’s attorney, argued that just such a scenario killed Mr. Ernst.

Yet Mr. Ernst’s autopsy says he died of an irregular heartbeat, called arrhythmia, not a heart attack. No problem, countered Mr. Lanier: The arrhythmia had been triggered by the heart attack, which had been triggered by the blood clot, which had been triggered by the Vioxx.

Okay.

According to that line of reasoning, however, Mr. Ernst must have had a heart attack prior to contracting the arrhythmia, which killed him. But that never happened. Mr. Ernst had no record of ever having had a heart attack. And lest one argue that this theoretical heart attack had gone undetected during his lifetime, the autopsy—the very autopsy that blamed the arrhythmia—would have revealed the telltale damage to the heart muscle that a heart attack always leaves in its wake.

Except it didn’t. The heart muscle was sound.

Nevertheless, this simple syllogism—no heart damage means no heart attack; no heart attack means no evidence of clotting; no evidence of clotting means no liability for Vioxx and Merck—was lost on the jury, which awarded the Ernst family $253 million in damages. Ouch.

What astonished me most, however, was not so much the conclusion of the jury, but the fact that one of the largest corporations in the world, with far-reaching financial resources, with sound science on its side, and with hundreds of millions of dollars on the line, could have blown what should have been an open-and-shut case.

Then I read the newspaper, and it quickly became clear to me how one simple mistake is now threatening to bring down a great American corporation.

Speaking to reporters, juror John Ostrom explained the judgment of the jury. The problem was that, despite a highly paid legal team, Merck never made its argument. Mr. Ostrom compared Merck’s lawyers to the adults in the Charlie Brown cartoons, whose voices are unintelligible. "Whenever Merck was up there,” he said, “it was like ‘wah, wah, wah.’ We didn't know what the heck they were talking about."

Merck’s mistake was its inability to break down complex scientific analysis and legal language into layman’s terms. Reading Mr. Ostrom’s comments in the Journal the next morning, brought to mind Paul Newman’s line in Cool Hand Luke: “What we have here is a failure to communicate.”

Communication failures happen all the time. In the corporate world, we now see that they can cost a quarter of a billion dollars.

But in the world of Jewish education the loss is no less steep. I once had a rebbe who said the laws of Shabbos could be listed on one side of an index card. Today’s teachers would howl—in protest or in laughter—at such a suggestion. But in teaching the minutia of the 39 melachos, are they forgetting to convey the radiance of Shabbos? In teaching the dos and don’ts of halachah, are they neglecting to transmit the majesty of Torah and the privilege of mitzvah observance? Are students simply hearing wah, wah, wah?

One wrong word, one misspoken phrase and children can become discouraged to the point that they abandon observance entirely. The blogosphere carries the testimonies of many such people.

The other great tragedy is that we are barely communicating outside of our own community, standing by while millions of Jews remain unlettered, oblivious to their golden heritage. Those who practice Torah observance are keenly aware of the misconceptions non-observant Jews have. It is heartbreaking that we have not been able to convey the beauty, breadth and brilliance of Torah to a wider audience.

Even among those who show an interest, few commit themselves. Why is that? Why doesn’t the message of Torah inspire them to declare, as King David did, “I rejoice in your words, as one who finds a great treasure”?

What we have here, I believe, is a failure to communicate.

More than once, I’ve sat in on classes geared for the non- or newly-observant and had a hard time staying awake. People visit a class, for possibly the first and only time, to gain some insight into Judaism, and often all they get in return is wah, wah, wah. Speakers carry on about mysticism, hidden codes, halachic extremities—and don’t focus on the simple, salient issues of Judaism.

Communication need not be complex to be deep. It can be simple without being simplistic. “In the beginning, G-d created Heaven and Earth.” Stop there and you could spend a lifetime delving into those Divine words. But at its surface, it still makes sense. The story is understandable to a child.

The beauty of Torah is that it can be studied by five-year-olds and ninety-five-year-olds. The stories of the Chumash can be understood simultaneously on the simplest and deepest levels. The Mishnah, too, with its simple structure and clipped clauses, is easily memorized and triggers deeper understandings. The Torah is designed to grow on its students and with its students.

The state of Jewish education today leaves plenty of room for speakers, writers and, yes, even bloggers to make an impact. But in order to do so they must, in the words of many a communications coach, “keep it simple, stupid.” There is a way to transmit Torah to a generation thirsting for guidance. There are many ways not to. Let us choose wisely.

27 Comments:

Blogger callieischatty said...

How cool, yum spam!

Tue Aug 30, 11:35:00 PM  
Blogger callieischatty said...

ok you say this:
The state of Jewish education today leaves plenty of room for speakers, writers and, yes, even bloggers to make an impact. But in order to do so they must, in the words of many a communications coach, “keep it simple, stupid.” There is a way to transmit Torah to a generation thirsting for guidance. There are many ways not to. Let us choose wisely.


Ok let me tell you this, I teach Hebrew school at a big conservative congragation and its a really fun job.

What so many people miss and this includes alot of day schools like Hillel is that school should be fun. Learning should be a place to enjoy the 'sweetness' of both learning and making personal connections.

This is one place the Ganon Gil camps that Chabad does is right on.

They make it fun and social and that makes the kids like it.

Tue Aug 30, 11:37:00 PM  
Blogger Semgirl said...

Mostly Spam in your comments. You need to set up word verification..

Tue Aug 30, 11:43:00 PM  
Blogger MC Aryeh said...

It is often not just a matter of simplification where corporations get it wrong in the courtroom - it is also a lack of warm/genuine/empathic/sympathetic figures (which is another kind of failure to communicate).

The same holds true in the Torah world. The day schools are filled with rebbeim who do not want to be there. That comes across to children.

The kiruv world is filled with dynamic speakers who do not follow up with the people they turn on, instead moving on to the next "conquest." people pick up on that.

And many of the rabbinic leaders come across as harsh men who take the fire and brimstone approach, ban things left and right and are fond of putting people in cherem.

Transmitting Torah in a simple fashion is important, but transmitting it with warmth, sincerity, sweetness and genuineness is vital.

And we wonder why more people aren't attracted to the Torah way of life?

On a side note, a friend of mine recently remarked how chaval it was that smicha programs do not require students to take counseling and acting (yes acting!) courses in order to better communicate with the people they are to serve. Not a bad idea...

Wed Aug 31, 03:50:00 AM  
Blogger Elster said...

CJ:

I agree the wah wah wah issue. It starts at an early age. Is a high school age boy really learning in shiur or is his head 1,000 miles away? If he focused n the machlokes beis Shammai and Beis Hillel or is he worried about Chad Pennington's arm strength?

Part of the problem is that some of our educators are so far out of touch, they have no idea (or interest) in reaching these kids in ways that they can understand. As a result, the kid who hears blah blah blah, becomes the adult that does.

On a side note, Paul Newman DID NOT utter that famous line in Cool Hand Luke. It was said ABOUT him.

Anyway, good, salient post.

Wed Aug 31, 09:28:00 AM  
Blogger Mata Hari said...

just out of curiosity - are you involved in kiruv or teaching?

Wed Aug 31, 09:47:00 AM  
Blogger Pragmatician said...

Well written article.
Your analogy was clear and you definitely make a good point.
I find it very harsh to say that one wrong word can incite someone to quit religious life.
The lack of communication maybe one of the problems but I believe the avoidance of the hard questions to be a much bigger problem.

Wed Aug 31, 09:56:00 AM  
Blogger Jameel @ The Muqata said...

CJ: Reminds me of how grownups used to speak on the Charlie Brown cartoon specials in the 70's. Whenever a parent/teacher/grownup would speak it would sound like wah, wah, wah. I think Charles Shultz was trying to convey the same message about communication that you wrote about.

Wed Aug 31, 11:31:00 AM  
Blogger Mata Hari said...

fyi - i think anonymous may be closer to you than you think

Wed Aug 31, 12:39:00 PM  
Blogger ClooJew said...

It seems that the spam attack happened last night between 10 and midnight, on this and my previous post.

Hopefully that's the end of it. I'm loathe to set up word verification, but I'm monitoring the situation.

Wed Aug 31, 01:24:00 PM  
Blogger Also A Chussid said...

ClooJ,

Great posts it keeps on getting better.

While it is true that the problem is, that teachers and rabbis don’t communicate affectively, the root of the problem is, they don’t know the substance about what to communicate. Let me explain. They lack the knowledge what to convey to their students, let alone how. Kids are being taught utter nonsense what Emuneh (faith) is or what is the make up of a true Godel (great pious person). While the attorneys for Merck knew exactly what they need to explain to the juries, our educators don’t have a cloo ;o)

Wed Aug 31, 02:16:00 PM  
Blogger Mata Hari said...

or you can unplug his keyboard :)

Wed Aug 31, 02:21:00 PM  
Blogger ClooJew said...

"And many of the rabbinic leaders come across as harsh men who take the fire and brimstone approach, ban things left and right and are fond of putting people in cherem.--McAryeh

While I agree that your comments reflect the conventional wisdom of rabbinic leaders, the truth, for anyone who has personal contact with Gedolim (capital G), is just the opposite. They are warm, sensitive people with a great love and empathy for all Jews.

Elster, I'm going to have to watch the movie again. But my source is Ask Yahoo!: "The quote is attributed to 'Captain, Road Prison 36,' who was played by Strother Martin....The captain isn't the only one who utters the words. Later in the movie, the main character, Luke (Paul Newman), still cocky despite being cornered by prison guards, openly mocks the Captain with the famous line."

Wed Aug 31, 03:40:00 PM  
Blogger Elster said...

Ah - Could be. Either way, I agree with your post and I loved that movie. Huge fan of the Paul Newman Experience.

Wed Aug 31, 03:50:00 PM  
Blogger MC Aryeh said...

Most of the Gedolim (though there no longer seems to be a consensus on who these are anymore) I have met in person have been kind, and warm, as you say. However, many of those I have heard in public or whose decrees have been disseminated have often _come across_ as harsh. Again, it is a faliure of communication if how they come across in public does not reflect their etzem of sweetness. And some Gedolim (even those with a cpaital G) have a reputation for being charif even in private. I know many are said to be "warm, sensitive people with a great love and empathy for all Jews" but to claim that as a truism for all Gedolim? Ideally, yes, but let's not Artscroll their biographies just because we have assigned them a capital letter.

Wed Aug 31, 10:53:00 PM  
Blogger turquoiseblue said...

Every time I read a new post of yours, I become impressed all over again how someone so young, can be so wise. And articulate.

I am jealous.

You should seriously consider involving yourself, in some capacity, with kiruv or education. Or kiruv education for the frum community. I think that is a subject that is sorely lacking in schools/yeshivas "the system"... you know - getting down to the basics for all of us FFB's.

How about writing? A book... or perhaps a series of articles... oh but duh, you are doing just that already :)

Looking forward to your next post...
TB

Thu Sep 01, 02:59:00 AM  
Blogger brianna said...

There are a couple of rabbis whom people can actually relate to, but the fact is that it takes talent. Not everyone can portray complex ideas in a way large audiances can identify with. Some people can do it, others can't.

Thu Sep 01, 08:25:00 AM  
Blogger Elster said...

Brianna, it's more than that. There is much more to being a "great rabbi" than being a great speaker. The key ideas for this are (besides great knowledge, of course) are caring and compassion. Being a Rabbi cannot be a job, it has to be a calling. Many people go into chinuch/rabbonus for all the wrong reasons. It's great that people want to learn full time, but that doesnt necessarily mean that they can be teachers and leaders. Alas...

Thu Sep 01, 09:54:00 AM  
Blogger ClooJew said...

"let's not Artscroll their biographies just because we have assigned them a capital letter.--McAryeh

My position is that rabbis--whatever their level of scholarship--who are not "warm, sensitive people with a great love and empathy for all Jews" are by definition not Gedolim.

Thu Sep 01, 12:24:00 PM  
Blogger Mata Hari said...

I disagree with you on one point - I've found that kiruv programs/classes for the newly observant tend to be very inspirational. However, students going through the yeshiva system are often taught what to do (or not do) but not given the motivation for why, other than guilt and punishment. Deep thinking and questioning is not really encouraged.

Thu Sep 01, 02:40:00 PM  
Blogger ClooJew said...

"Students going through the yeshiva system are often taught what to do (or not do) but not given the motivation for why, other than guilt and punishment. Deep thinking and questioning is not really encouraged.--mata hari

I don't quite agree--particularly when it comes to the boys' education. Gemara absolutely encourages deep thinking and questioning.

I don't think that my point in this post is absolute. There are certainly inspirational kiruv programs, as well as yeshivos that educate properly--and I believe the trend is getting better. I, for one, went to great yeshivos that always informed, inspired and directed me. Guilt and punishment was barely mentioned if at all.

My complaint is that these communication problems exist at all. Failing to convey the glory of Torah is, to my mind, simply not an option. As a perfectionist, I'm just not satisfied with less than 100%.

Thu Sep 01, 05:08:00 PM  
Blogger Elster said...

CJ:

Questions for you - I dunno if you are comfortable answering or not - How old are you and are you married?

Fri Sep 02, 12:35:00 PM  
Blogger Elisheva said...

So look who is talking about writing a book! CJ, you definitely must write one! Wow!

There was so much to think about here, and so well written. If I may throw in my own opinion, I think also part of why the messages aren't getting across is because it is what the speakers/teachers/writers want to discuss, and not what the students are interseted in learning about. What I mean is that sometimes the listeners simply have a hard time like relating it to their real life.

Shalom

Mon Sep 05, 12:31:00 AM  
Blogger shira22 said...

OMG! Are there 2 different cloojews? This is an amazingly astute post. I hope you are in the education field.

Wed Sep 07, 06:03:00 PM  
Blogger TRW said...

"Most of the Gedolim (though there no longer seems to be a consensus on who these are anymore) I have met in person have been kind, and warm, as you say. However, many of those I have heard in public or whose decrees have been disseminated have often _come across_ as harsh."

McAryeh: I think that the point lies in what you said-the one's you've actually met, had a first person encounter with, those are the "kind and warm" ones.

The problems come when we hear about them secondhand...I think L"H is a big part in the whole negative view of Gedolim. No, not L"H, Motzi Shem Ra.

Sun Sep 11, 12:30:00 AM  
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