Can religion boost your immune system?

by Brian on January 13, 2017

in Food,Health,Science

Thomas B. EllisWhen I was young, I remember being taught that the laws of kashrut derived from a pre-modern understanding of hygiene. Pigs were “dirty” and you took the risk of contracting trichinosis if you ate raw or undercooked pork.

Keeping kosher, as a result, was a way of staying healthier. Indeed, today even non-Jews will buy food with kosher certification because of the perception that it’s more nutritious.

As I grew older, that simplistic explanation gave way to a more Talmudic approach: there were no medical or scientific reasons why we should eat cows and carp but not pigs or kangaroos. Rather, keeping kosher was a deliberately inscrutable sign of our faith and devotion to God.

But what if that first idea was actually right? What if kashrut does have its roots in helping us avoid illness?

To go one step further, is it possible that religion in general developed in part as a pre-conscious strategy to help humans steer clear of disease?

That’s the thesis of Thomas B. Ellis, a professor in the department of philosophy and religion at Appalachian State University in Boone, North Carolina. Ellis was in Jerusalem last week to present a talk on “The Immunology of Religion” at the third “Judaism and Evolution” conference, held at the Schechter Institute of Jewish Studies.

Populations living close to the equator or closer to sea level, he told the conference attendees, tend to suffer from greater numbers of infectious diseases. Spend any time in South and Southeast Asia, for example, and you know the risk of getting sick from all manner of parasites, mosquitos and food-borne maladies.

In order to strengthen their immunity, Ellis says, humans in these areas have historically formed tight knit “collectivist” groups which strictly prohibit eating or sleeping with members of another group. The Indian caste system as it was originally conceived is perhaps the epitome of keeping people of different groups apart.

These “breeding isolates,” as Ellis calls them, block disease transmission and help those in the group boost their immunity against outside illnesses, giving them an advantage over groups from another valley, for example, that might not have developed the same resistance to local diseases. Over many generations, it can even alter DNA, Ellis adds.

The Middle East, where Judaism first developed, was in the past warmer and wetter than it is today “and thus more conducive to an infectious disease ecology,” Ellis says. It’s not surprising that a collectivist approach took hold here too.

Religious practice, Ellis asserts, developed organically on the back of this immunologically-savvy group organization. Early religious leaders weren’t aware of the public health benefits on which they were building their new spiritual systems. They hadn’t developed a science of how germs work.

But like physical evolution, the evolution of ideas doesn’t require conscious thought. Dogs learn to stay away from parasite-infected meat through natural selection. The dog doesn’t “think” about what it’s doing.

Religious customs could have evolved similarly.

Jewish Law – which has much to say about what you can eat and with whom you can sleep – is in many ways the philosophical descendent of millennia of trial and error honed first while fighting disease.

In this respect, the halacha mandating abstention from pork is not because the pig itself is inherently unhealthy or “impure.” Rather, it’s a byproduct of a bigger system that aims to strengthen physical fitness by relying on boundaries between religious groups.

Ellis presented another example of how religious customs act to inadvertently promote immunological health: the blood sacrifice.

Like many ancient societies, the Jewish Temple was awash with animals being killed as part of religious ritual. Today most of us see that as barbaric. But Ellis argues that watching the blood and guts of animal sacrifice is intrinsically stressful – and that’s a good thing.

While chronic or long-term stress has been shown to depress the immune system, “acute or short-term stress…can enhance innate and adaptive immune responses,” according to Stanford researcher Firdaus Dhabhar. Seeing blood apparently tells the body to get prepared to fight off a trauma that could be coming its way.

“Does killing a chicken actually cure people?” Ellis asked. “No. But watching a blood sacrifice is a non-pharmacological way of upregulating your immune system and the immune systems of people around you.”

It helps explain why so many religions call for some sort of blood sacrifice when someone gets sick. Among the Torah’s prescriptions for curing leprosy, for example, is sacrifice.

Ellis’s hypotheses can help us understand our past, but what about the future? We don’t need to watch an animal being slaughtered to boost our immune systems today; we have drugs and vaccines for that. Ditto on not eating or sleeping with people outside our group – science and modern hygiene have that covered too.

Has religion reached the end of its usefulness, then? Hardly.

Ellis also spoke at the conference about the value of religious practice as a technique to mitigate another classic chronic stressor: uncertainty (something we have in abundance these days). And religion, of course, has evolved to be about far more than just health.

But if we take seriously the latest understandings into the possible immunological origins of religious law and ritual, it may very well change the modern Jew’s commitment to some of the stringencies of halacha or, on the opposite end of the spectrum, lead us to generate new reasons for why we continue to do what we do in the light of science.

I first wrote about Tom Ellis and the immunology of religion at The Jerusalem Post.


chuck-davidson-wedding-in-israelRabbi Chuck Davidson is on a holy mission to end the Israeli Rabbinate’s monopoly on marriage.

Nearly every night of the week, Davidson conducts wedding ceremonies that the rabbinate deems “illegal.” His goal: to get arrested.

That’s the only way, he says, to force the courts to rule on what he considers one of the greatest absurdities in the clash between religion and state – where if a couple marries in a Jewish ceremony that’s not registered through the rabbinate, both the couple and the rabbi that married them can face up to a two-year prison sentence.

“It simply can’t be that a Jewish act like getting married is criminal in the only Jewish state,” Davidson says.

I got to know the renegade Orthodox rabbi while writing about my own daughter’s wedding that bypassed the rabbinate. I wanted to know if she was in any danger of being arrested herself.

“Yes,” Davidson told me, “but the chances are miniscule. Imagine what would happen if the police arrested a young couple for getting married. The rabbinate is not that stupid.”

Davidson says that the current law – which came into effect only two and a half years ago – is really intended to scare off other Orthodox rabbis from going around the rabbinate.

It’s worked.

“There are only two Orthodox rabbis left that will conduct a wedding ceremony outside the rabbinate above the radar, and I’m one of them,” Davidson says. “There are a few others who will do it, but only rarely and very quietly.”

The U.S.-born Davidson, who moved to Israel in 1991 and lives today in Beit Shemesh, is anything but quiet.

He first broke into the news with the establishment of the Giyur Ke’Halacha alternative conversion court, an idea he says he pushed for five mostly fruitless years until finally Rabbis Shlomo Riskin, David Stav and Nachum Rabinovitch signed on.

Giyur Ke’Halacha adopts a friendlier, less rigid approach to conversion that is still compliant with Jewish Law.

Weddings were a logical next step.

“When they passed the change in the wedding law, that was a red line for me,” Davidson says. “I immediately started doing weddings.”

When Davidson officiates at a wedding, he doesn’t charge – after all, how would he give out formal receipts? “It’s kind of hard to open a ‘criminal business,’” he says, only somewhat jokingly.

Word is spreading – mainly through word of mouth and the Internet – so much so that Davidson says he now has another rabbi “who’s agreed to join me” to help handle the volume of requests.

While Davidson doesn’t expect my daughter or any of the other couples he’s married to ever get arrested, he is concerned “that the rabbinate could take revenge on a couple’s kids. The rabbinate could, for example, call into question the Jewishness of the children” of a couple marrying outside its auspices, “even though there is absolutely no basis in Jewish Law for this.”

This already is happening for couples who wish to marry through the rabbinate but whose parents were wed overseas.

In such cases, “it doesn’t matter if it was an Orthodox, Conservative or Reform ceremony,” Davidson says. “For the rabbinate to register you, they have to call a special investigative court.”

The court will ask to see your parent’s ketubah (marriage contract) and, if you were married by a non-Orthodox rabbi, you may be asked for more documentation – all the way up to pictures of family members’ tombstones to “prove” you’re Jewish, Davidson says. It can take months.

“The whole process is very degrading,” he adds.

Davidson became Orthodox in the 1980s, pointing out that, “if I were getting married today in Israel, I might be declared not Jewish myself because my parents were married by a Conservative rabbi.”

My daughter could very well have been put in the same position if she’d contacted the rabbinate.

My wife and I got hitched in a fully Orthodox ceremony in the U.S. There was nothing egalitarian in it, no women said sheva brachot and the dancing was strictly segregated. By the rabbi who married us, who 40 years ago adopted an Orthodox lifestyle, received his ordination from the Reform movement.

Despite avoiding the rabbinate, my daughter is registered with the Interior Ministry as “married” – she and her husband had a civil ceremony in Cyprus beforehand. Many couples don’t go that extra step, opting to live under the category of yeduah b’tzibur – Hebrew for a common law marriage.

Davidson is not a big fan.

“I personally think the institution of common law marriage is not healthy on a societal level,” Davidson says. “No one knows who’s married to whom. You could conceivably be married to three or four people. It can create polygamy. I’m in favor of chaos regarding religion and state, but not societal chaos.”

Davidson’s chaos is all about breaking the rabbinate’s monopoly. While Davidson is doing his best – including trying to get arrested – to force the issue, he concedes that ultimately it’s up to the Orthodox establishment to heal itself.

“What’s missing is the destruction from within,” he says. “There are Orthodox rabbis who despise the rabbinate but are afraid to do anything. That’s the piece I seek to fill.”

Read more about breaking the rabbinate’s monopoly at The Jerusalem Post.


The blessing of the broken toe

by Brian on December 8, 2016

in In the News,Mindfulness

donald-trump-close-upThree days before our daughter’s wedding, my wife Jody broke her toe. She dropped a large plata (a hot plate we use to warm food on Shabbat) on her foot. The toe turned purple and I rushed Jody to the nearest Terem emergency center for an X-ray and some advice on proper bandaging.

After the initial shock wore off (and the pain was dulled by some powerful painkillers), our next thought was: oh no, what terrible timing, right before the wedding! How will Jody dance with her daughter? How will she walk her down the aisle? Both had been looking forward to this day for so long.

But then we realized: what happened with Jody’s toe actually represents an important lesson for starting a marriage.

There’s a saying by the Thai meditation teacher Aachan Chaa that, “the glass is already broken.” It’s a metaphor for the understanding that nothing is perfect; that nothing in life goes exactly as you planned.

That glass you just bought will break someday. That new car will get dents. Your relationship will change and be tested in so many ways.

Sometimes it’s easier, sometimes it’s harder than you expected. But if you are mindful of the ups and downs, the proverbial sicknesses and in healths; if you’re not attached to any particular outcome and you don’t resist the unanticipated directions that life pulls you, then you can flow with whatever you’re dealt and build a strong and lasting marriage together.

I told this story under the chuppah at my daughter’s wedding just before her chatan stomped on a glass of his own.

Two weeks later, Donald Trump won the U.S. elections and I realized we were going to need that teaching more than ever.

Trump’s surprise bictory threw my Internet news feeds and liberal leaning friends into a state of profound mourning.

A client canceled a conference call we had scheduled the day the results were announced because he was too overwrought to think straight.

A Jewish learning institute in Jerusalem convened an emergency PTSD circle for traumatized overseas students to counter what might now be called “Pence-Trump Stress Disorder.”

A month later, as the president-elect’s controversial cabinet appointments, victory speeches and inflammatory early morning tweets do little to calm a worried world, that initial shock shows few signs of abating.

Mindfulness teachings like “the glass is already broken” should in principle help us to regain some perspective; to tamp down our attachments and resistance.

“But sometimes things really are scary,” my own mindfulness teacher, Rabbi James Jacobson-Maisels of Or HaLev told me. “And it doesn’t do any good to pretend that they aren’t.”

The key to coping with turbulent times like these is not to get lost in the fear, Jacobson-Maisels stressed.

“We must try to stop and, in that stopping, find our center, our place of stability and openness, which is still present – whatever the threats,” he explained. “And from that place, we can respond – being aware of the fear, but not out of the fear. Aware of the challenge, but not lost in the challenge.”

We’ll get lost again, Jacobson-Maisels warned. “It’s a never ending process, but one that provides additional healing and wisdom each time we do it.”

And ultimately we find our equilibrium. The human brain has the remarkable ability to return to the base level of happiness it had before a trauma. That’s how people can go on following a divorce, a death…or a Trump.

It even has a name: “set point theory.”

Set point theory was coined several decades ago by a team of psychologists at Northwestern University and the University of Massachusetts who found that people who win the lottery, after the initial euphoria has died down, are no happier than those with, say, spinal cord injuries.

For most people, the lows (as well as the highs) are transient; they even out and you find yourself right back where you were.

Set point theory has been applied to other areas, such as body mass, where it seems we each have a “natural” weight, including the level of fat we would normally carry, and we keep returning there no matter how much we diet.

Set point theory tells us that the trauma of Trump will pass.

“The sun will [still] rise in the morning,” Barack Obama tried to reassure an anxious nation on election night.

Americans will continue to work, play, make love, raise their families and innovate – just as Israelis have been doing over years of intifadas and missiles and existential angst, and as Jews have done for millennia when confronted by pogroms, explusions and genocide.

I’m not burying my head in the sand – the policy decisions of leaders make real differences. Just look at the Venezuelan economy before and after Hugo Chavez.

But if we can remember that “the glass is already broken” and move forward mindfully, we will get through this period too.

That’s the blessing Jody’s toe wants to give to this strange, unpredictable new world we find ourselves in.

Jody first broke her toe over at The Jerusalem Post.


wedding-in-cyprusWhen my daughter Merav married her high school sweetheart Gabe last month, the date they set for their wedding just happened to come out on the 22nd anniversary of our family’s aliyah.

When we made the decision to move to Israel, one of our greatest hopes was that our children would find nice Jewish Israelis to marry and get hitched in the one and only Jewish state.

But our daughter didn’t get married in Israel. In a modern Zionist irony that is in equal parts infuriating and tragic, Merav and Gabe flew to Cyprus where the mayor of Larnaca, the island nation’s third largest city, did the honors at the local city hall.

Merav and Gabe didn’t choose Cyprus because they weren’t allowed to marry in Israel. While Israel has no civil marriage system, meaning people of different religions cannot legally wed in the country, both my daughter and her new husband are Jewish according to halacha (Jewish Law).

They did it because, as Merav told me, they didn’t want to have anything to do with the Israeli Chief Rabbinate, which has exclusivity over Jewish marriage in Israel, and that refuses to allow people to marry in accordance with customs that are not fully Orthodox.

In Merav and Gabe’s case, that meant having a fully egalitarian ceremony, with a presiding rabbi not on the rabbinate’s officially approved list.

Our children are far from alone.

Every year, some 20,000 Israelis take advantage of a loophole in the law that states if a couple marries overseas and then presents the documentation to the Israeli Interior Ministry, they will be registered as married. But if they opt for a Jewish ceremony in Israel without going through the rabbinate (and they skip the Cyprus part), their status will remain single.

It’s become a full-fledged phenomenon.

One out of every five marriages in Israel today now bypasses the rabbinate, in what can only be described as a bottom up effort to topple the rabbinate’s monopoly on marriage by simply making the institution irrelevant.

“The only way to effectively address these problems is through grassroots efforts and mass civil disobedience,” Chuck Davidson, an Orthodox rabbi who regularly performs weddings outside the rabbinate in Israel, told me.

Getting married in Cyprus is not that difficult – although it doesn’t come cheap.

A couple thinking of getting married overseas can contact any one of several Israeli companies that offer full service wedding packages. (Prague is another popular destination.)

For around $2,500, they will book your flight and hotel, arrange your appointment time at City Hall in Larnaca, assemble and manage all the paperwork for you, and even hire a driver and car to get you from the airport to town and back.

Merav and Gabe decided to skip the markups and do it on their own. Not surprising in this social media age, there is an abundance of advice online – in Facebook groups dedicated to the subject or on websites like or

They started by going to the Interior Ministry to procure a document that testified they were both single. While the document itself is free, translating it into English and getting it notarized and stamped can run up to $250.

That’s more than the flight to Cyprus, which takes less than an hour and can be booked on the web for just $150 round trip.

Once in Larnaca, there are accommodations to fit every budget. You can fly in and out on the same day, though many couples add a night or two to create a mini-vacation.

The actual ceremony takes all of seven minutes and costs $350. Weddings are conducted in the mornings only. At that rate, if fully booked, Larnaca is making upwards of $10,000 a day just on weddings.

“No one is willing to admit this, but if Israel ever decides to allow civil marriages within its borders, the financial ramifications on the island will be disastrous,” journalist Sarah Stricker wrote several years ago while following a number of Israeli couples marrying in Cyprus.

Merav and Gabe’s appointment at City Hall was at 9:00 AM. Their official certificate of marriage was ready by 1:30 PM. The couple spent the afternoon on the beach, sipping cocktails and overlooking the blazingly white Cypriot sand.

Two weeks after returning from Cyprus, Merav and Gabe had the egalitarian wedding of their dreams in Israel.

Both Merav and Gabe signed the ketubah (marriage contract), witnessed by not just two men but two women, and which included language where they mutually committed to each other. They exchanged rings and circled each other under the chuppah. Both men and women recited the sheva brachot.

Three days later, they brought their paperwork from Cyprus to the Interior Ministry in Jerusalem and were officially registered as married.

Yes, it was a shame they had to leave Israel on the very day of our aliyah to get married abroad, but we are so proud of their pioneering spirit and their determination to play a part in a much needed movement for change and reform.

For all of that, let’s wish the happy couple mazel tov!

I was first proud of my pioneering kids in The Jerusalem Post.


When God offers you a raft, take it

by Brian on November 16, 2016

in Just For Fun,Travel

jordan-river-courtesy-tourism-ministryMy wife Jody and I recently spent a relaxing weekend at a small vacation bungalow in Poriah, a moshav overlooking the Sea of Galilee, with our friends David and Shelley.

On Friday afternoon we had a few hours to kill before we needed to get ready for Shabbat and we wanted to go on a hike.

The Israel National Trail runs along a hill above one of the tributaries of the Jordan River, starting at the Rob Roy canoe rental facility. It’s a lovely route with lots of shade, perfect on an unseasonably hot day. It sounded like a serene way to get out into nature.

It turned out to be anything but.

The weekend in question was during fall holiday season when everyone – and it really seemed like everyone – in the country packs up anything at home that’s not locked down to go camping, transforming peace into plenty…of noise.

Every few meters along the riverbank was another encampment, each more extravagant than the previous one: from simple barbecues with a few sleeping bags to full-on villages with table settings for dozens, kegs and coolers, and living accommodations that looked like an inside out version of Hermione’s beaded bag from the Harry Potter books.

And then there were the sound systems – speakers as big as those you see in a club, pounding out a soundtrack of epic outdoor proportions.

The recently released army youth groups favored trance; the pounding bass created little ripples of recognition in the water below. There were several Mizrachi music campsites and one playing Russian disco pop.

A large group of English speakers – maybe a post-Birthright gathering? – was blasting the Eagles and the Allman Brothers.

Talk about an ingathering of the exiles.

We walked for about half an hour along the Israel Trail until there was a land crossing where the Jordan went underneath us briefly.

We reversed course, now on the other side of the river, pleased that we wouldn’t have to double back on the same route and that we’d get a slightly different perspective on the musical merrymaking.

But when we got back to our starting point at the Rob Roy, we were confronted with what, in retrospect, should have been an entirely expected dilemma: we were separated from our car by the Jordan River and there was no bridge in sight.

Now, the river is not very wide and it wasn’t particularly deep either – you can cross it while still keeping your hair dry. But Jody and I were wearing our leather hiking boots and we all had our iPhones, wallets, and watches with us, none of which were waterproof. The canoes were already tied up for the night.

At that moment, a woman with a floating air mattress came by.

“Do you need a ride?” she asked.

We considered the makeshift raft, but we still had our boots and our electronics to worry about, and it was easy to imagine the raft flipping over mid-stream.

That didn’t stop Shelley, who jumped on and gently sailed to the other side. David skipped the raft entirely, sloshing through the water in equal time.

“Um, we’re going to see if we can walk to the road to the other side of the kibbutz,” I told our friends. “When we get there, it should only take a few minutes for you to drive and pick us up.”

We set off through a lovely green field until we got to a very high metal mesh fence which served to protect Kibbutz Degania not only from wandering animals but any riff raff thinking of expanding their camping radius.

We walked around the fence for a bit, until it was clear it was impenetrable. The sun was starting to set.

“We don’t have any choice,” Jody said ruefully. “We’re going to have to cross that river.”

We returned to where we started, but this time, the raft was no longer available. Our moment had passed.

And then, charging back through the water came David.

“Give me your bags,” he commanded. “I’ll carry them over my head with your shoes and phones in them.”

The water wasn’t that cold. It took us two minutes at most to cross. The sharp pebbles that dug into our feet were the worst of it.

As we dried off our feet at the Rob Roy, a cover band was playing rock and roll classics. There were hundreds of people grooving in the late afternoon breeze. I recognized the lead singer: Reuven Schmaltz, one of the original members of Red Meadow, which regularly plays at the nearby Jacob’s Ladder music festival.

As we drove back to our bungalow, I was reminded of the classic joke about a pious man who is caught in a flood. As he flounders in the water, a ship comes for him.

“No, no,” he tells his would be rescuers. “I trust that God will send a miracle to save me.”

A bit later, a helicopter arrives and drops a rope for him to climb to safety.

“No, no,” he says again, “God will provide.”

Eventually the man drowns.

When he arrives in Heaven, he has an audience with God.

“Why didn’t you save me?” he demands of the Almighty.

“I sent you a ship and I sent you a helicopter!” God responds.

The clear lesson: the next time we’re offered a raft on the Jordan River, we’ll take it!

I first turned down that raft at The Jerusalem Post.

Photo credit: Israel Tourism Ministry.


How are you still Jewish?

November 11, 2016

I didn’t go to synagogue this Yom Kippur. To be frank, I didn’t even fully fast. My ongoing rebellion against religion has turned into a full-fledged insurrection. As my wife Jody left the house without me for Kol Nidre, she turned and said, “I can understand that Jewish Law and prayer don’t speak to you […]

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Lowest common denominator

November 6, 2016

When Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu buckled under haredi pressure in September and canceled 20 long standing Israel Railways permits to do regularly scheduled repair work on Shabbat (leading to the cancelation of train service the following Sunday morning that inconvenienced tens of thousands of commuters and soldiers), he probably wasn’t thinking it would reignite Israel’s […]

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The epic fail of Rosh Hashanah

October 2, 2016

“Rosh Hashanah is an epic fail.” That was the gist of a provocative column by Jay Michaelson published earlier this month in the Forward. Michaelson, who writes on religion and progressive politics and is the author of a half dozen books, including “Everything is God,” wasn’t talking about whether Rosh Hashanah should or should not […]

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What if there were an “end date” to life?

October 2, 2016

It was my birthday last week. I turned 56. That means I have another 19 years left on this planet. No, I don’t have a crystal ball predicting when I’ll die. But I have been very much taken with the end-of-life prescription laid out by medical ethicist Dr. Ezekiel Emmanuel, who wrote in a much-cited […]

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The secret to making my mixed marriage work

September 16, 2016

“I know my husband uses the microwave on Shabbat,” a friend told me, after I shared my story of being in a mixed secular-religious marriage, “but he makes sure to do it while I’m out of the house at shul.” While this bifurcated approach may work in the short term, where the less observant partner […]

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