J effrey Weiss, a longtime religion reporter in Texas, is also a fellow Jew in desperate need of a refuah sheleimah. He has a form of a cancer called glioblastoma (GBM), which has a median survival rate of about 15 months.

After being diagnosed last December, he began writing a series of short monthly essays for the Religion News Service, entitled “My Way to the Egress.” Egress means exit, and I assume his title is meant to evoke the joke about the sign in the zoo that read “This way to the egress,” which got throngs of visitors looking for what they assumed was an exotic creature called an “egress.” But the path on which Jeffrey Weiss has embarked is no joke.

His essays are quite poignant, and in several of them, he touches upon his Jewishness. In one, for example, he writes that he is “wearing hats most of the time these days. Some cap wearers link their choices to faith or fashion. For me, it’s mostly about my brain cancer.” Every two days he has to shave his head in order to place on it a set of electrodes that produce an electric field in his brain that some researchers say will make it hard for cancer cells to divide, and the hats cover up these odd-looking electrodes from view.

He notes the irony: 

The Jewish tradition of keeping heads covered goes back a couple of thousand years…. Orthodox Jews wear some kind of cap pretty much any time they’re not in the shower….

So where am I? My agnostic interest in Jewish tradition goes back to my childhood. I wore yarmulkes to temple services, Passover seders and a few special events. But I never felt pressure to keep the cover on at other times…. And yet now — and for just about the rest of my life — I’m likely to never have a bare head in public. I’m not assuming G-d will give me credit for my own caps atop the electrodes that cover only a bit more than a standard yarmulke. But if there’s a plus beyond the technology, I won’t turn it down. I hope He gets a charge out of it.

In his most recent column, he reported the depressing news that his “eight-month MRI came back with bad news: Looks like a recurrence, with a tumor the size of a big grape.” Apart from some fatigue, he feels okay and says many patients with GBM maintain a relatively high quality of life until they “come close to their Egresses.”

He’s planning to explore the possibility of lengthening his life with some experimental treatments aimed at GBM, but wonders whether they will be worth the possible negative effect on quality of life. The “newest news,” he admits, “has me tangled up and challenged.”

And then he asks: “What should I do when the odds jump for a more rapid Egress? Does a quicker likelihood of my death push me emotionally or even spiritually where I have not been? So no kidding: It could be worse. It can get worse. What should I do now?”

As I read his latest column, I wondered what I would say to him had he asked me those questions. Then, I thought, And what do I say to myself? Aren’t there very similar questions about what to do with the remainder of our lives, which speed along unstoppably to some future, yet unknown, point of conclusion, that we all ought to be asking ourselves?



MEET OUR LEADER Let me be the first in these pages to introduce Esther Hayut, the newly appointed president of the Israeli High Court, to our readers. In its report on the appointment, Tablet magazine’s Liel Leibovitz couldn’t say enough in praise of Ms. Hayut. She’s “both tough and particularly sensitive to the plight of the less fortunate,” during her years practicing law she “she proved herself to be a brilliant and diligent attorney,” and after being elevated to the High Court in 2003, “soon became one of the Court’s most admired justices, writing long and erudite decisions that often quoted her favorite Israeli poets.”

So much for Tablet’s hard-charging journalism. Here, however, are some other highlights from her judicial career, which frum Jews might want to know about as the Court gets ready to hold forth on many issues of conflict between religion and state, such as the status of heterodox prayer at the Kosel and massive, state-sanctioned chillul Shabbos.

In 2007, she was part of the three-judge High Court panel that ordered the Chief Rabbinate to authorize rabbis to sign kashrus certificates for businesses that sell produce during shemittah relying on the heter mechirah. The Chief Rabbinate’s general policy is to accept such reliance, but it had decided to permit local rabbanim to decide for themselves not to issue kashrus certificates to vendors in their individual municipalities who relied on the heter.

One might have thought the Chief Rabbinate’s initial decision before the court’s intervention would have been applauded by the religious and political left. It has all the markings, after all, of an enlightened religious and social policy: It gives local rabbis religious autonomy, something the heterodox and the Open Orthodox crowd both in America and Israel demand when it comes to conversions; it means giving business to the beleaguered Arabs of the occupied West Bank, from whom those who don’t rely on the heter buy some of their produce; and it strikes a blow against Jewish “legal fictions,” which the heterodox love to ridicule when it comes to things like mechiras chometz and eiruvin.

But somehow, none of that mattered when it came to this issue, and liberal Orthodox rabbis who are the Israeli analog to OO lined up to oppose the Chief Rabbinate. Indeed, wrote Ha’aretz in an editorial, “these rabbis’ stance grants the High Court ruling important public support and rules out the claim that this is just another ‘antireligious ruling.’ ”

The editorial was open about the upshot of the decision: 

This is an excellent example of the High Court of Justice’s contribution to allowing normal life in Israel…. Every attempt to prevent the Supreme Court from handling matters of kashrut, Shabbat, marriages, personal matters, citizenship and the authority of religious courts — and to declare in a future constitution that they are matters outside the court’s purview — will interfere with the possibility to live modern, secular lives here in Israel…. The Chief Rabbinate may have thought that the justices would be reluctant to rule against them on a matter of religious law…. It is good that the High Court was not reluctant to act.


And now Esther Hayut brings to her leadership of the High Court that same non-reluctance to intervene in and overrule the internal religious decisions of the country’s highest rabbinic body — something unheard of in any Western democracy.

In 2012, Hayut was among the majority on the Court that sided with the petition submitted by the far-left Meretz party, calling for allowing the Tal Law exempting yeshivah students from military service to expire. Now Hayut will bring to her new position her views on the drafting of bnei Torah and of religious girls — which is taking place in the thousands in the national-religious sector, against the strenuous objections of its rabbanim.

But at least she has the military experience that gives her the qualifications to rule on these matters. In the army, she served as a musician, playing in the prestigious band of the Central Command. In fact, the Tablet report gushes, her band “was particularly popular, launching the careers of such superstars as Uzi Hitman and Dorit Reuveni, but even among such charismatic peers, Hayut stood out.”

Perhaps as the Court’s future ruling ordering all yeshivah men and religious women into the army (or opening up the Kosel to mixed gender services and same-gender coupling ceremonies) is announced, President Hayut can play a nice classical piece for the audience as musical accompaniment. 

Originally featured in Mishpacha, Issue 677. Eytan Kobre may be contacted directly at kobre@mishpacha.com