By: Hannah Pollak  | 

Thank You Dr. Bettigole For An Unintended Lesson

The Baal Shem Tov taught that everything that happens is orchestrated by divine providence. Therefore, there must be something to learn from everyone and everything someone encounters. More often than not, the lesson is not clear or explicit. Nevertheless, as possessors of critical minds and perhaps as “Bnei Neviim,” it is up to us to reflect upon and strive to find potential takeaways from our experiences. Speaking for myself, it is generally hard to be mindful of this all the time and find coherent and relevant lessons in the challenges I face every day. However, I would like to share three thoughts that came to mind when the head of the honors program, Dr. Cynthia Wachtell, sent an email announcing that Dr. Cheryl Bettigole, Philadelphia's Health Commissioner, would not be able to present at an honors event at Stern. 

Dr. Bettigole was supposed to come to Beren Campus to share about her career in public health with students. As many already know, Dr. Wachtell clarified that Dr. Bettigole would not be coming to the initially planned visit “out of a concern that her visit could be taken as an endorsement of the university's position on Pride Alliance.” Bettigole later told The Commentator, “I am very sorry to have to let down the students at Yeshiva University with whom I was scheduled to speak.” She continued to explain that despite this, “as the Health Commissioner for Philadelphia, [she is] responsible for protecting the health of all Philadelphians and would never want to do something that could undermine the confidence of a group in [her] commitment to their human rights.”

As a believer in the sacred integrity of Torah and a person who trusts YU’s leadership, I categorically disagree with the grounds of Bettigole’s decision not to speak at Stern. However, I respect Bettigole’s reluctance and validate her steadfastness. 

What first came to mind was that if Bettigole was so careful to be consistent with her values and to defend her “truth,” how consistent should we be with our own values? How careful should I be not to show or even imply approbation to institutions or ideas that degrade values that are dear to me and that I know to be true? Am I willing to bend my beliefs for the sake of convenience, popularity, or comfortability? The extent of loyalty in her belief against YU’s position on Pride Alliance should be a reference to how far we ought to go to defend our own Torah values. As the Gemara in Maseches Sotah says, “Midda tova meruba mi’midas poranus” [the measure of reward is greater than the measure of retribution]. In other words, the positivity always ought to be stronger than its destructive flip side. If her consistency is so firm, how strong should our own consistency be when defending the eternal values of Torah miSinai

Another thing I admired about Bettigole, or at least from Dr. Wachtell’s phrasing of Bettigole’s position, is how to disagree. The email was not personal, aggressive or dismissive. It was clear from the email that Bettigole does not subscribe to the university’s position. However, at the same time, she was not putting down a particular individual. She was saying that YU’s position is not acceptable to her. As someone standing on the university’s side, I did not feel personally undermined or questioned by her concern. Very simply, she was saying that the institution’s positions clashed with her values; she did not attack or accuse any person or group, nor did she deny the university’s right to exist. We can learn from Bettigole that when we disagree with others on fundamental issues like this one, composure and respect are critical. Moreover, it is always good to have in mind that the disagreement is not against the person, it’s about their ideas and ultimately a quest toward truth. 

A third takeaway, perhaps the broadest and most nuanced, is the fact that Bettigole canceled her visit not out of certainty but out of suspicion of how others would react to her attendance. She was not sure that her attendance would be taken as an endorsement of YU’s position on Pride Alliance, but she wanted to “err” on the side of caution. Orthodox Jews are acquainted with the notion of doing things that might be extra only because they might look questionable to others. Chashad and maris ha’ayin [staying away from suspicious and deceiving appearances] are significant components of our religious observance. For example, Halacha forbids hanging clean clothing on a drying rack on Shabbos so that no one thinks that it was washed on Shabbos. However, lately, I’ve been thinking of chashad and maris ha’ayin in a broader sense. Perhaps the awareness of someone’s perception of my behavior should affect my interpersonal relationships in general. Everyone has different sensitivities. Perhaps I’d be willing to say or do something because that would never hurt me. However, different people might be more sensitive in different areas, less secure of themselves or of the relationship that I have with them, and therefore be negatively affected by my innocuous intentions.  

I can’t learn from or validate Bettigole's actual ideas and principles. I know that Torah is everlasting and that only our Einei Haeida [greatest leaders] are able to define the genuine Torah outlook (i.e. emes) on any matter. At the same time, I can learn from the way others deal with their values. I should be strong and firm when sticking to my own ones, but at the same time not disagree in an offensive way. I also learned that I should always be cautious to show others through my behavior and interactions with them that I like them and respect them. I didn’t get a chance to learn from Bettigole’s presence, yet I appreciate what I learned from her absence.