How to Become a Rabbi Without Really Trying
Niles is the author or editor of nine books, including the award-winning Gonzo Judaism: A Bold Path for Renewing an Ancient Faith, and his writing has appeared in many publications, including Newsweek, the Los Angeles Times, Newsday, The Forward, and Moment. He has been featured and interviewed in Time, The New York Times, The Wall Street Journal, The Washington Post, The Christian Science Monitor, The Jerusalem Report, The New York Observer, New York Magazine, The Jewish Week, and Beliefnet, as well as on domestic and international television and radio.
Rabbi Niles Goldstein: I really did have a kind of ah-ha moment. In one million years I would've never, ever thought I would become a rabbi. I grew up in Chicago in a home they had a very strong sense of Jewish identity. It was a kosher home because both of my parents grew up that way. We always had Friday night dinner together but we were big synagogue goers, we belong to a Reconstructionist Indian reformed synagogue so we would never Orthodox, we were always liberal in our approach. So while being proud as a Jew I never really thought in a million years I would become a rabbi.
And senior year in college I had three applications on my desk, one was to go to on for an MFA at the Iowa’s Writers Workshop, the other was for the Peace Corps, and the third was to go on to do a PhD in philosophy, which was my undergraduate degree. So of course I did none of the three, I moved to Cambridge and wrote the Great American novel, which thank God never got published because it was so awful. And it was really during that year when I was living in Cambridge that I read the Bible for the first time in its entirety; I experimented with different kinds of congregations in the Boston area from orthodoxy to secular humanist to try to figure out which was the best fit. I met with rabbis but probably more important than all of that was that two very close friends of mine were living in Cambridge at the same time. One who was in do and had just begun his PhD program in Harvard and the other who was a Jesuit priests, or was training to become a Jesuit priest. He is in Rome now who is studying at the Westin School of theology. So it sounds like a joke, but at night the three of us would get together; a Hindu, a Catholic, and a Jew, you know with a single malt scotch and talk about theology and metaphysics until three in the morning. And it was really during those conversations, forget about the Jewish stuff, and I really realize how much I enjoyed doing this on a very deep level more than anything else. And I didn't really think about the real world life of a congregational rabbi, I didn't really think about the practical ramifications of the decision, but it was really when my priest friend said to me, "Niles, have you ever considered being a rabbi?" But I said, “Well no." And I'd say two weeks later I was already looking at applications for rabbinical schools. So it kind of came out of nowhere and bit me on the butt, but I never really expected it or wanted it because I didn't think I was worthy of it.
Of course now, all of these years later, I realize it's not about worth. We're all flawed and imperfect. It's about commitment and devotion and that's what I needed to have someone help me reveal. Something that was within myself that I wasn't aware of.
Question: What’s the most difficult part of being a rabbi?
Rabbi Niles Goldstein: The hardest part about being rabbi is dealing with Jews all the time. But I had a professor -- the Bible calls us the stiff-necked people. Jewish Americans are very smart, very talented, very successful in the main, we have a lot of impact disproportionate to our size and that's a good thing. I'm proud of that. But we can also be a little pushy; they can also be very demanding especially here in New York. I'm a Midwesterner after all. Some of the stereotypes do have some truth to them. But as a professor said to me, "Niles," because I was having some of these issues even in graduate school, he said to me, “Becoming a rabbi doesn't mean you have to like the Jewish people, it just means you have to love them." And I've never forgotten that teaching either. It's like family. Do I like my brother or sister every day of the week? No. But do I love them in a fundamental way all the time? Well, I guess I do. And so I would say that's one of the challenges. The Jewish people are a very tough people, sometimes it feels like herding cats trying to be a rabbi and get my people as excited about their tradition as I am excited about it and inspired by and transformed by it, but when I returned that teaching and I say, you know what? It's not always about liking them but it's about loving them it helps me get through this tough moments. Of course, I have many other moments where I'm filled with warmth and love the people I serve. Sometimes that can be a challenge.
The most difficult aspect of being a rabbi? Dealing with Jewish people.
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Researchers hope the technology will further our understanding of the brain, but lawmakers may not be ready for the ethical challenges.
- Researchers at the Yale School of Medicine successfully restored some functions to pig brains that had been dead for hours.
- They hope the technology will advance our understanding of the brain, potentially developing new treatments for debilitating diseases and disorders.
- The research raises many ethical questions and puts to the test our current understanding of death.
The image of an undead brain coming back to live again is the stuff of science fiction. Not just any science fiction, specifically B-grade sci fi. What instantly springs to mind is the black-and-white horrors of films like Fiend Without a Face. Bad acting. Plastic monstrosities. Visible strings. And a spinal cord that, for some reason, is also a tentacle?
But like any good science fiction, it's only a matter of time before some manner of it seeps into our reality. This week's Nature published the findings of researchers who managed to restore function to pigs' brains that were clinically dead. At least, what we once thought of as dead.
What's dead may never die, it seems
The researchers did not hail from House Greyjoy — "What is dead may never die" — but came largely from the Yale School of Medicine. They connected 32 pig brains to a system called BrainEx. BrainEx is an artificial perfusion system — that is, a system that takes over the functions normally regulated by the organ. The pigs had been killed four hours earlier at a U.S. Department of Agriculture slaughterhouse; their brains completely removed from the skulls.
BrainEx pumped an experiment solution into the brain that essentially mimic blood flow. It brought oxygen and nutrients to the tissues, giving brain cells the resources to begin many normal functions. The cells began consuming and metabolizing sugars. The brains' immune systems kicked in. Neuron samples could carry an electrical signal. Some brain cells even responded to drugs.
The researchers have managed to keep some brains alive for up to 36 hours, and currently do not know if BrainEx can have sustained the brains longer. "It is conceivable we are just preventing the inevitable, and the brain won't be able to recover," said Nenad Sestan, Yale neuroscientist and the lead researcher.
As a control, other brains received either a fake solution or no solution at all. None revived brain activity and deteriorated as normal.
The researchers hope the technology can enhance our ability to study the brain and its cellular functions. One of the main avenues of such studies would be brain disorders and diseases. This could point the way to developing new of treatments for the likes of brain injuries, Alzheimer's, Huntington's, and neurodegenerative conditions.
"This is an extraordinary and very promising breakthrough for neuroscience. It immediately offers a much better model for studying the human brain, which is extraordinarily important, given the vast amount of human suffering from diseases of the mind [and] brain," Nita Farahany, the bioethicists at the Duke University School of Law who wrote the study's commentary, told National Geographic.
An ethical gray matter
Before anyone gets an Island of Dr. Moreau vibe, it's worth noting that the brains did not approach neural activity anywhere near consciousness.
The BrainEx solution contained chemicals that prevented neurons from firing. To be extra cautious, the researchers also monitored the brains for any such activity and were prepared to administer an anesthetic should they have seen signs of consciousness.
Even so, the research signals a massive debate to come regarding medical ethics and our definition of death.
Most countries define death, clinically speaking, as the irreversible loss of brain or circulatory function. This definition was already at odds with some folk- and value-centric understandings, but where do we go if it becomes possible to reverse clinical death with artificial perfusion?
"This is wild," Jonathan Moreno, a bioethicist at the University of Pennsylvania, told the New York Times. "If ever there was an issue that merited big public deliberation on the ethics of science and medicine, this is one."
One possible consequence involves organ donations. Some European countries require emergency responders to use a process that preserves organs when they cannot resuscitate a person. They continue to pump blood throughout the body, but use a "thoracic aortic occlusion balloon" to prevent that blood from reaching the brain.
The system is already controversial because it raises concerns about what caused the patient's death. But what happens when brain death becomes readily reversible? Stuart Younger, a bioethicist at Case Western Reserve University, told Nature that if BrainEx were to become widely available, it could shrink the pool of eligible donors.
"There's a potential conflict here between the interests of potential donors — who might not even be donors — and people who are waiting for organs," he said.
It will be a while before such experiments go anywhere near human subjects. A more immediate ethical question relates to how such experiments harm animal subjects.
Ethical review boards evaluate research protocols and can reject any that causes undue pain, suffering, or distress. Since dead animals feel no pain, suffer no trauma, they are typically approved as subjects. But how do such boards make a judgement regarding the suffering of a "cellularly active" brain? The distress of a partially alive brain?
The dilemma is unprecedented.
Setting new boundaries
Another science fiction story that comes to mind when discussing this story is, of course, Frankenstein. As Farahany told National Geographic: "It is definitely has [sic] a good science-fiction element to it, and it is restoring cellular function where we previously thought impossible. But to have Frankenstein, you need some degree of consciousness, some 'there' there. [The researchers] did not recover any form of consciousness in this study, and it is still unclear if we ever could. But we are one step closer to that possibility."
She's right. The researchers undertook their research for the betterment of humanity, and we may one day reap some unimaginable medical benefits from it. The ethical questions, however, remain as unsettling as the stories they remind us of.
The team caught a glimpse of a process that takes 18,000,000,000,000,000,000,000 years.
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- The team observed an ultra-rare particle interaction that reveals the half-life of a xenon-124 atom to be 18 sextillion years.
- The half-life of a process is how long it takes for half of the radioactive nuclei present in a sample to decay.
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