Faith and the Flu Vaccine

Some trust in God, some trust in nature, others trust in nothing and no-one.

The roots of these feelings lie deep, too deep generally for the light to penetrate.

These feelings are almost religious: they express some faith or, occasionally, a fear of all faith.

If you try to debate feelings of this nature you’ll find them impervious to argument. They are held sacred and well away from the light of enquiry.

If you believed I held a particular faith you might consider my belief absurd. But because of your good manners you’d probably keep that view of my quaint beliefs private. You’d realise argument would not budge me and, out of kindness you’d refrain from locking horns with me.

Circumcision evokes a great example of quasi-religious positions. Whenever you hear the subject discussed you’ll recognise the intensity with which a person expresses a position. Here we find conviction, not opinion. Convictions are guarded fiercely, they are immune to fresh evidence: conviction is the opposite of scientific openness of mind. I have noticed how lay people, doctors and nurses alike defend their positions on the foreskin with religious intensity. I do not argue with the foreskin zealot.

Winter has come to Australia with promise of our regular influenza epidemic. With winter comes a rise in religious sentiment on the matter of immunisation against the flu. The government preaches immunisation, we doctors echo with our own hosannahs, the trusters in nature shriek back. We all talk at each other. We find it hard to listen when our faiths collide. Doctors trust in herd immunity. On Facebook my daughter tells ‘friends’ she trusts her doctor father. One respondent trusts in nature (“I‘ve been vegan for seven years, and I’ve never had the flu during all that time.”). Another respondent trusts no-one and nothing (“ It’s a conspiracy. Big pharma in cahoots with government.”)

I looked up some facts about influenza and vaccination. I found plenty of facts but these will change few minds. (Two thousand proven influenza deaths. Lots of people become unwell in the two weeks following vaccination. Not everyone who is vaccinated with be immunised. Not a single proven death from the vaccine.)

I had been doctor for two weeks when I saw my first influenza death. The patient caught the flu late in pregnancy. She deteriorated rapidly, developed pneumonia and was soon brain-dead. Her baby was delivered by emergency caesarean section and lived. That baby never knew her mother. Mother was twenty-four years of age. That was my own age at the time.

Last week I vaccinated my children and my grandchildren against the flu. I had the vaccine myself. I offer the same vaccines to all my patients. I answer their questions, I provide information, but I don’t enter into religious disputation.

I Feel Free

While my daughter is away I feel free…

My elder daughter and I share an understanding: I will write pieces for this blog and she alone will post them. The arrangement rests upon our secure shared knowledge of my technical incapacity to do the posting.  It rests too upon the lovingkindness of the daughter*.

That daughter is away. A small item has germinated in the deep soils of my being and it presses urgently to find the light. That trifle cannot possibly be a blog post, because, as I have mentioned, the daughter alone is blogenabled. What follows must be something different. It is the unripe fruit of my liberty.

I met a man the other day who was unwell. The man smiled a mouth of American teeth. He wore a white shirt, a dark tie with a tiepin and a name tag. The name on the tag read ELDER BLOGS**. The man was young, slim, erect in his bearing and he was bearing up despite being quite unwell. Elder Bloggs was accompanied by another young man, equally erect, endowed likewise with enviable teeth, a similar black tie, a very white shirt and a nametag of his own. This read: ELDER MAO**. Elder Mao spoke American but he was evidently Chinese.

We spoke of illness and of healing and we agreed I should try my hand at the latter. The Elders visited me again the following day. Healing was underway and we had leisure now to speak of other matters.

I asked Brother Mao: Is your family still in China?

Yes.

The American teeth appeared in affirmation.

Do they share your faith?

Yes.

Is it permitted in China?

Yes. In the family. I mean privately.

More teeth, to allay any misgiving.

Addressing both Elders I asked: Are you preaching the Gospel here in Australia?

Yes. Nodding of heads. Many teeth.

But – reverting here to Brother Mao – Is it permitted to preach the Gospel in China?

Oh no.

My eyebrow invited the Elder to elaborate.

It is against Government policy. China is atheistic.

No teeth. A worried look.

I resumed: I understand Falung Gong followers can be punished for teaching their practices. Do the same rules apply to you?

A nod. A serious look. No words: not apparently free to elaborate further.

I remembered Tiananmen Square.

I remember the times.

I remember the times of the Aboriginal man in the Channel Country who reminisced on his days as a cattleman. He looked back on those days with pride, long days that stretched into weeks on the track. Those periods of freedom punctuated the other days, days that were years on the station where he was bound, not at liberty to leave the boss’ employ. One man did and the cops hauled him back to the station where the whitefeller bosses whipped hi with iron chains. I calculated our age difference. When this man was eighteen I was ten, growing up in liberty. I learned at school of William Wilberforce and the ending of slavery. I lived in Australia. We didn’t have slavery in Australia. I remember the times.

I remember the times when we took away the children and gave them to whitefellers. I heard my parents’ friends say: They are going to good homes.

I remember when liked to wear Nike running shoes. But then I learned of child slavery in Asian factories.

I remember the times in Broken Hill when children as young as twelve were dying in the mines, of accidents, of lead poisoning.

I remember the times when my tribes lived in Judea under the Romans. They were times when great rabbis were burned alive for studying Torah.

I remember the times when we were enslaved in Egypt, times when they stole the children and drowned the baby boys.

I remember slavery in Auschwitz. If I went to the right I went into slavery. The slaves were the luckier ones.

Tonight, at home here in lucky Australia, I’ll lean back, a free man, and I’ll drink four glasses. I’ll tell my generations of the times when I was a slave.

And if they ask: were you a slave, Saba? – I’ll tell them I’ve never been to Egypt but I remember the times. I’ll tell the children I mustn’t forget the times.  If I ever forget I won’t deserve to be free.

* both daughters actually. The younger, removed geographically, is spared the call of this blog.

** I have changed the Elders’ names.

Going to the Wall

My family used to be employed in Jerusalem. Unfortunately our family business was disrupted for a time by conflict and conflagration. In what appeared to be arson, on the ninth day of the month of Av in the year 70 of the Current Era, our office was burned down. 
The office I refer to was the Holy Temple where my forebears would officiate in rituals of sacrifice, in mediating and arbitrating disputes, in quarantining suspected carriers of contagious disease and in blessing the people. As the reader will realise we worked as lawyers and doctors and priests. After the burning my family was unable to go to our office for nineteen centuries. Then in 1967 we returned. The other day I went back to the office where I resumed working in the family business. 
It happened like this.
My two eldest grandchildren, both aged thirteen, accompanied my wife and me on our current visit to Israel.
The boy, a pretty secular fellow whom we’ll call Jesse, walked down to the Wall with me. He understood the antiquity of the Wall and something of its sanctity. Praying is not his specialty. ‘What will I do, Saba?’
‘I pray there, Jesse. Some people write their prayer on a slip of paper and insert it into a crack between stones.‘
‘What should I pray for, Saba?’
‘Think of the thing that you most want in the world, Jesse. Ask for that. It could be some deep and secret thing, something you wish for yourself or for someone else.’
Jesse has seen suffering. Earlier he saw a man begging. Well made, about the age of Jesse’s father, the man requested small change, blessing anyone who donated. The man walked on a distance from Jesse, turned away and covered his face with his hands. His shoulders shook.
At the Wall, Jesse pressed his lips against the glowing stone. He leaned his forehead against the Wall for some time, his lips moving. Then he posted his slip of paper into a tiny eye socket in the stone.
As we walked away backwards, Jesse stopped me and threw his arms around me. He said, ‘That was a really important experience, Saba. Thank you for taking me here…I love you, Saba.’
We rejoined my wife and Jesse’s cousin, whom we’ll call Ellie. They too had prayed at the Wall. Ellie’s fair features glowed: ‘Saba and Savta, that was wonderful.’ My hands twitched, a spasm in unemployed muscles. I recalled I was a Cohen, a lineal priest: I was in the blessing trade. I rested my palms on Ellie’s head. My fingers splayed and I searched for some voice. The voice shook as I recited the ancient words: ‘May God bless you and keep you…’ Here I was back at the old workplace, here was Ellie, flesh of my flesh.
I had waited 2000 years to get back to work. I annointed her fair head with my salt tears. 

The Prayer of the Traveller

Many of us are on our travels as I write this. Today I will resume mine – one hundred and fifteen kilometers by road before a flight of forty minutes (in the air we register time not space), then a break before resuming for the next seventy minutes of flight. Finally thirty kilometers of suburban roads. Then home. Home – that word for an idea that houses our love; for the island we build to grow a couple into a family. After two stationery days I’ll skip from the continent of my birth to the land of the free – three flights, ten security checks (eight of these in the US) – eighteen hours in the air.

Long before the Malaysian airliner disappeared I had my misgivings. The loss of a civilian passenger aircraft over Donetsk did nothing to comfort me. And now the AirAsia tragedy. Travel is dangerous. Out here in the Outback, the roads are full of kangaroo, wandering stock, feral donkey and camel, species which share with the shahidi a zest for homicidal suicide. Air travel, far, far safer, remains hazardous.

Travel has always been thus.

If you are a wuss (I am) and if you have a prayerful bent (I am severely bent in that way) you might pray for a safe arrival – and if you are needy or greedy (I am both), you’d slip in a word for your safe return home.

The following comes from the ancient Traveller’s Prayer recited by Jews. The text catalogues a surprisingly contemporary list of hazards:

May it be Your will to direct our steps to peace, to allow us to reach our desired destination in life, in joy and in peace.

Rescue us from any enemy, ambush and danger on the way and from all afflictions that trouble the world.

Let us find grace, kindness and compassion from all who see us.

You can fill in your own particular concerns. (Afflictions that trouble the world are plentiful. I think of Ebola. I think too of violence of all kinds – both abroad and within our domestic walls.)

An anxious Jewish traveller (Jewish people are past masters at anxiety), having completed the lines above, might feel the need for elaboration or emphasis. Such persons follow on with Psalm 91. I do. I love this one: I loved this one and I quoted it to my shell-shocked teenage daughters after two hilarious hoons chucked rotten eggs through the girls’ car window, breaking on and altering the grooming of their lovely long locks.

Five years ago, grandson Toby, famous in these pages for his flirtations with danger, drew a picture in vivid primary colours. The picture, three inches by one and a half, was intricate, pulsing with the vibrancy of his four-year-old being. Toby presented it to me: ‘This is for you, Saba.’ Since that day it has sat between the leaves of my travel prayer book. It guards the place of Psalm 91.

One who lives in the shelter of the Most High abides in the shade of the Almighty. He will save you from the trap of the hunter and the deadly pestilence. You need not fear the terror by night, nor the arrow that flies by day; nor the pestilence that stalks in darkness, nor the plague that ravages at noon. Though a thousand may fall at your side, even ten thousand at your right hand, yet unto you it shall not come nigh.

I am not simple – or faithful – enough to believe that simply reciting these words will guarantee my safety. Saying the words is not the equivalent of completing the enrollment forms in supernatural travel insurance. I am not insured. But it is in the beauty of the poetics; in the relief of putting fears into words then filing them away; in the unspoken reminder that in matters in which I am powerless there is no point fretting – in these I find comfort, acceptance.

I am not insured, just assured.

I wish us all safe travels.

The Eve of the Eve of Yom Kippur

The house, emptied now of the insurrection that is a bunch of grandboys on school holidays, is quiet. These are the peaceful moments when the house exhales, the pulses slow and thought recovers.

Tonight is the night before the eve of Yom Kippur, the Jewish Day of Atonement, our Sorry Day. What am I sorry for? For what need I atone? Almost all my sins are those committed in words: I am sorry for the words shouted in anger at my grandrats, sorry for careless slights and unkind witticisms, sorry for speaking faster than my thinking.
And as this blog consists of words, I should search them.

I wrote (in How we Killed Leo) unkindly of Mister Scott Morrison. Elsewhere I have written uncharitably of Mr Shorten and Mr Abbott. All of these public people have private families who would feel wounded when writers such as I play the man instead of attacking the issue. I referred – wittily I felt – to our homegrown press baron as Murd. I should wash my mouth out. I am sorry for the hurt I have done those men and their families.

I remain sorry – and ashamed – that we Australians choose representatives who follow our baser instincts instead of those who might lead us and inspire our finer selves.

In the person of the successor in Sydney to Cardinal Pell, we might have found such a leader. On the morning after his accession the new archbishop spoke like one repentant for wrongs, transparent in confession, compassionate towards those hurt, and creative and courageous in his declared resolve to seek out his brother clerics in the Muslim community, ‘to find ways we can work together to heal our community’. This on the very morning we all read of the arrest of one Australian suspected of plotting to kidnap and behead another – any other – Australian.

A few weeks ago a Jewish democrat, tirelessly active in the struggle to improve our policies towards refugees, shared with me a bright new idea. “Howard,” he said, “Instead of attacking politicians I want to mobilise members and leaders of all of Australia’s faith communities to work together with government to create some softer policies that will be less cruel in their effects on those already here and kept in limbo.” Many, many are the Australians who wish our practices were not so harsh. Many are ashamed. Many have raised voices – as I have – in rancour. What I heard now was the echo of the quiet wisdom of Petro Georgiou, former Member for Kooyong, the man who spoke softly to a hard-faced Prime Minister and brought some humanity into policy.

As the prophet said, “Come, let us reason together.”

Aunty Pearly’s Sorry Business

I think many families have an aunty who is not really an aunt. That sort of aunt, usually a contemporary of a parent, is a person treasured across generations. You inherit that sort of aunty.

For many of my Jewish school friends in the fifties and sixties that was the only sort of aunt and uncle they knew: their parents’ blood siblings had perished in the gas chambers. Afterwards, close contemporaries were clutched and held closer, people who shared the stories and the memories.

The auntness of Pearly wasn’t woven of that tragic weft. Pearly was the sister of the wife of my father’s brother Abe. The earliest encounter I recall with Aunty Pearly occurred on a winter’s evening at the start of half a year of exile from my home and family. My older brother Dennis and I were to board with Aunty Clare and Uncle Abe in Melbourne, while Dad sold his medical practice in Leeton, our hometown. Transactions of that type take a long time.

The evening was erev shabbat, Sabbath eve, that fulcrum in the week that still finds me emotionally suggestible. The sun set and sank, and with it my mood.

While I enjoyed a period of self-pity – always the sincerest of emotions – our cousins Ruth and Carmel spoke elatedly: “Aunty Pearly’s coming for Shabbat. She always gives us a whole Vanilla Nougat or a Cherry Ripe. Each!

I didn’t know Aunty Pearly. She wouldn’t know me. Vanilla and Cherry and Pearly would be strangers to me. My sincerity deepened.

 

A knock at the door, a scamper of cousins, gleeful ‘thank you’s, and a deepish womanly voice called: “Where’s Dennis? Where’s Howard?”

Down the short hallway the voice approached, a bulky figure loomed, a smell of perfume, a slash of lipstick, and we were hoisted, one after the other, up into the soft valley between two mountainous breasts. Pearly handed me a Violet Crumble Bar. To Dennis she gave a Vanilla Nougat.

Somehow this stranger knew me, liked me, perhaps even loved me. In that instant I loved Aunty Pearly and the feeling never changed.

 

When Pearly’s real nephew – a blood nephew – called me early on a Sunday morning sixty years later, his slow agricultural voice had slowed further. “Aunty Pearly just passed away. The funeral will be tomorrow.” The day of Pearly’s passing was filled with celebrations at far ends of a widening clan: there was a Barmitzvah to attend of the grandson of my wife’s cousin and the wedding of the son of my first cousin. Such mixing of significant life moments!

 

Next day a wintry afternoon found us in a garden burial ground. In this light the grass took on a deeper shade. Black clothing against the green brought a sombre richness.

A crowd, many, many scores of people, gathered. Although some of the names eluded us we all knew each other’s faces from generations of family events. This was a gathering of the many from the fringes of a number of intermarrying clans. Pearlie was one of seven siblings. All of her siblings married and multiplied. Pearlie alone never married: she’d smile and call herself an unclaimed treasure. She treasured her siblings’ children and grandchildren, and their spouses, a growing multitude. But there were non-bloods there as well, numerous as her true kin. Pearlie gathered the young in her wake and we followed her, long after our own youth had gone, to her end. Everywhere eyes shone while mouths smiled, people cradled each other, faces looked serious but not in grief; for aunty Pearly died at the right time – before her dementia could ruin her, her slow cancer suddenly accelerated and she was gone.

 

Aunty Pearlie led a religious life. Her sacred places were the MCG and the Melbourne Synagogue. She never wavered from the worship of her idols at the Melbourne Football Club. But today it was the curate from her synagogue who led the ceremonies. It was a sweet moment when the young man – no relation to Pearlie or to anyone present – called her “Aunty Pearlie” as we all had. He was another honorary nephew, full of affectionate personal reminiscence. Pearlie’s life of faith ensured she would not be buried by a stranger.

 

In Aboriginal communities a burial takes place after indeterminate delay long enough for families to scrape the money together for a funeral. Then follows a further chapter of mourning where people gather from across a life history, from across a continent, for the Sorry Business.

Jews are buried with all decent haste. Then our own Sorry Business follows, the precisely calibrated period of shiva when first degree relatives sit low to the floor and receive condolence from their community. But Aunty Pearlie had neither spouse nor children to sit in her honour. Instead we gathered the next two evenings for successive memorial services at her synagogue. Same crowd as at the garden funeral, swollen now, and at a different venue. The Melbourne Synagogue is grand, cavernous, dripping with history, but too often attended by too few. A beautiful shell, the Shule waited for throngs that rarely came. But Aunty Pearlie came, Shabbat after Shabbat, at festival times, at all seasons. Over nearly seven decades she befriended each new rabbi, kept him company in his inevitable disillusion, saw him leave and welcomed and supported his highhoping successor. In this manner Aunty Pearlie outlasted seven Rabbis.

 

In the course of the Sorry Business I learned more of Pearlie’s growing up in Brisbane, of her service in WWII, of her friendships there with many women and men including a young Zelman Cowen. Pearlie seems to have won and kept many devoted friends.

 

Poignantly, one who resided so deeply in so many affectionate bosoms left no son to recite the mourning prayer Kaddish for her. Anxiously, I waited to see who might step forward and assume the mantle of the sons who never were. An aged brother in law, still erect, together with his not young son, and a couple of his not young cousins, all recited it together. One or two, more fluent in the Aramaic, led the others as they hobbled and stumbled in and out of time with each other. The four men freighted the feeling and the yearning of us hundreds, all of Aunty Pearly’s “young ones”, all of us wanting hard for her to be sung and storied, lamented and remembered, celebrated in this her holy place. Hundreds of us, all with our personal memories of some moment like mine with a Violet Crumble Bar when I was a child missing a mother’s love.

 

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Do You Believe?

Do you believe in the theory of evolution?

Do you believe in man-made climate change?

Do you believe in creation science?

Each of these claims the status of scientific respectability.

At the risk of hurting your feelings, I suggest that belief in the first is scientifically unsound. Likewise, if you believe in man-made climate change, your belief is unscientific. So too with creation science.

How can they all be wrong?

I didn’t suggest that any of them is “wrong”. What is wrong is believing in the truth of any scientific theory. A theory is never proved correct: we can never hold firm to scientific truth. We can demonstrate only that the data to hand are consistent with a given theory. Tomorrow’s datum can – and generally will – force us to modify our theory – or to ditch it. Kepler, my hero in science, loved his perfect model of a geometric planetary system, a truly beautiful, enormously intricate offering to his God. It was a Ptolemaic system in which everything orbited the earth. Kepler heard that Tycho de Brahe had a better telescope than his own, so he went off to Bohemia to check out his observations using Tycho’s ‘scope. He noted minor discrepancies. He checked and rechecked. And ditched his own observations, ditched his own theory, discarded his life’s work and started again.

I learned and embraced and soon loved Newtonian physics in high school. I still love it. But Einstein and Heisenberg damaged Newton at the edges, so, with an intellectual courage that I can only call Keplerian, I ditched Newton. As a belief.

I went to school with a remarkable classmate called Robert. It was in sixth grade that Robert wrote an essay on the nature of knowledge, the need for scepticism and the matter of knowing. Our teacher honoured the essay. He asked Robert to read it aloud. I remember still its final lines. Verbatim they ran: I suggest there is no such thing as ‘believe’; there is either proof or there is not; either you know or you do not. Robert was the Galileo of Sixth Grade.

Recently my younger brother, assuming that I claim to be both a practising Jew and a scientist, challenged me: Does God exist – yes or no?

I said I could not answer in those terms.

You’re an Agnostic then.

I said I would never claim such a lofty status.

So you’re a smart arse and an Agnostic. 

I suggested I could have constant faith with inconstant belief.

That sort of faith is just wishfulness. 

I told him science didn’t provide me with a reliable answer to his initial question. It couldn’t.

So, why worship when you can’t even say you believe?

I asked him to consider music: I could listen to music and experience a knowing that eluded proving, that rose above and beyond science, that transcended measurement and observation. In similar vein, moments of knowing come to me – sometimes in the depth of the poetry of prayer, at other times simply as a lone human in a vast landscape.

That’s not knowing. That’s just romantic love.

Precisely. And speaking of love – it is in some similar way I know I love my wife, and I know I love my kids (yes, all of them), and my grandchildren too… and the Collingwood Football Club…

I build my life upon some values – that kindness is better than cruelty, that justice must be pursued, that freedom and equality are human rights. I cannot prove these values to be valid – indeed, in some cases they show signs of Darwinian invalidity. The more valid my sort of moralism, the less firmly it can attach itself to scientific evidence. My moral life, with the lives of all non-machiavellians, is built upon those unshifting sands.

But all that knowing, that value system, all that is distinct from proof.

Do you believe in God?

Do you believe in fairies?

Do you believe in Santa?

Do you believe in naturopathy? 

Do you believe in scientology?

We are entitled to believe but science won’t take us there. In these matters our knowing must be made of different stuff. And our knowings will often attach themselves to strong feelings of identity, feelings that are passionate in intensity. That is part of the reason that you only raise climate science at a dinner party if you are prepared to wreck the evening. After I have done that my wife rises from the table, apologises for my rudeness and takes me home. Works every time.