The Eulogizer: Juilliard Quartet founder, Slifka Center head, ‘halachic death’ debate


JERUSALEM (JTA) — The Eulogizer is a new column (soon-to-be blog) that highlights the life accomplishments of famous and not-so-famous Jews who have passed away recently. Learn about their achievements, honor their memories, and celebrate Jewish lives well lived with The Eulogizer. Write to the Eulogizer at Read previous columns here.

Founding member of Juilliard Quartet

Raphael Hillyer, founding violist of the Juilliard String Quartet, one of the world’s premier chamber music ensembles, died Dec. 27 in Boston at 96. Hillyer also was a soloist and teacher known for the warmth and expressivity of his tone.

A 2006 article for the Juilliard School on the quartet’s 60th anniversary recalled its beginnings and long career (see multimedia presentation here), and cited its more than 4,000 performances and 100 recordings. The article quoted a 1958 review of the quartet’s performance at the Edinburgh Festival: "In unanimity, in control of tone, in rhythmic vitality, and in intonation, the quartet appeared unsurpassable."

The quartet, whose founding members have either retired or died, has received four Grammy Awards for its recordings, and will receive a lifetime achievement award at the 2011 Grammy Awards. Listen to the quartet playing Alban Berg and Schubert.

Hillyer was born Raphael Silverman in Ithaca, N.Y., to musician parents. His father, Louis Lazare Silverman, helped found Tel Aviv University and taught mathematics there. Hillyer began violin studies at the age of 7, and studied with Dmitri Shostakovich in Leningrad at 10. He studied music at Harvard with Leonard Bernstein, a friend and classmate who wrote a violin sonata for him. Hillyer recalled his friendship with Bernstein in a 2006 interview at Harvard.

Before joining the Juilliard Quartet, Hillyer was a member of the Boston Symphony Orchestra and had played with the Stradivari Quartet. The quartet gained renown quickly, performing and recording both classical and modern pieces, including the first presentation of the six Bartok quartets as a cycle in 1949.

Hillyer left the quartet in 1969 to teach at American University, as well as at Juilliard, the Curtis Institute, Yale School of Music, Harvard University and Boston University. At a gala in honor of his 90th birthday at Boston University, in which Hillyer played Mozart and Dvorak, Hillyer told the audience that the secret of the Juilliard Quartet was "that we played as if our lives depended on it." He taught his last class at BU on Dec. 6, three weeks before his death.

Hillyer’s passing, along with that of David Soyer, founding cellist of the Guarnieri String Quartet in February 2010, are evidence of the passing of the baton, as it were, from the Jewish classical musicians of the 20th century to a new generation of immigrants and first-generation Americans.

Former Yale Slifka Center director

Amy Aaland, who ran Yale’s Joseph Slifka Center for Jewish Life from 1996 to 2008, and was active in Jewish religious life at the university, died Jan. 3 at 47.

She was eulogized at her funeral in New Haven, Conn., as a true "aishet chayil," or woman of valor.

Aaland, who trained as an actor, taught acting at the University of Minnesota and worked at the Guthrie Theatre in Minneapolis, and was a longtime volunteer at New Haven’s Downtown Evening Soup Kitchen.

Aaland, who fought breast cancer for five years, posted this message on her Facebook page the week before her death, according to the New Haven Independent: “Well it seems that this is the moment to reach out to all my friends and ask for whatever blessings, prayers, good wishes etc. that you can spare be sent my way as this monster beast of breast cancer thinks it has won but I’ve not given in. Life is too beautiful and good. I want more.”

Friends and colleagues in a  memorial article by the Yale Daily News described Aaland as a gourmet cook, "a ferociously hard worker” and one who gave "tremendous energy and love to her work with students and community members.”

New debate on halachic death

The question of whether brain-stem death does, in fact, mean death in a halachic sense again is in the news.

A recent position paper issued by the Orthodox Rabbinical Council of America backed away from the organization’s own 1990 ruling that brain-stem death did, indeed, constitute halachic death. The move is significant because vital organs can be transplanted from people declared brain dead, but they are not viable if doctors have to wait for the heart and breathing to stop, The New York Jewish Week’s Stewart Ain wrote recently.

A Jan. 4 conference at Israel’s Bar-Ilan University addressing the issue featured Yeshiva University ethics expert Rabbi Dr. Moshe Tendler, who crafted the RCA’s original position on halachic brain death, critiquing the new RCA paper.

“We underestimate the effort needed to understand the advances in biomedicine, people who are trained — doctors, etc. — have trouble keeping up with the field,” Tendler told The Jerusalem Post. “Our rabbis enter the field at its most advanced stage, without the background necessary to understand it."

Rabbi Marc Angel, who commissioned Tendler’s report for the RCA, addressed the issue recently in his blog: "By not upholding the earlier position of the RCA, the current RCA leadership has decided it was most prudent for the RCA not to make such important decisions for the public, but to back away from taking a formal stand. The modern Orthodox rabbinate has again shown itself unable or unwilling to assume halachic leadership and responsibility. It would prefer to straddle the fence, and let others make the important and controversial decisions."

Angel wrote that his optimism about Orthodox rabbinic decision-making "has been much dampened in recent years."

He also recommended the reading of a (lengthy and technical but fascinating) article, "Death by Neurological Criteria," by Dr. Noam Stadlan, a neurosurgeon who has declared patients dead based on neurological criteria and who is a member of the board of the Halachic Organ Donation Society.

Jewish Ideas Daily offered a good summary of the issue last year, as well as links to relevant articles on the issue.

The issue has been in the news in Israel since the December motorcycle accident of Israeli soccer legend Avi Cohen, which left him brain dead for eight days before his bodily functions ceased. Cohen’s family backed away from a previous commitment to donate his organs, despite being given approval to do so by Israel’s chief Sephardic rabbi.

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