Sunday, July 30, 2006

Pi in the sky

Remember pi, that Greek letter that represents the ratio of the circumference of a circle to its diameter? It's one of those "irrational numbers," a nonrepeating and nonterminating decimal. It can be computed to as many decimal places as our superfast computers will allow, but in geometry class we used 3.14, or perhaps 3.141.
Well, guess what? Cut to Melakhim Aleph (I Kings) 7:23. The pasuk describes a cylindrical column in the palace of Shlomo ha-melekh, "ten cubits across from brim to brim, completely round, . . . and it measured 30 cubits in circumference" [New JPS translation, 1985]! There it is, pi an even three! Certainly a man as wise as Shlomo ha-melekh would have been able to put a string around the circumference of the column, measure it and find that the ratio was three-plus-something, if it was. Tanakh cannot be mistaken. The Greeks mathematicians just didn't know what they were talking about. Quick! Have Artscroll write a kosher math text with pi an even three. In the meantime, tear out every reference in every math book to the decimal value of pi lest our precious kinderlach be exposed to apikorsus.
Cut to reality. Imagine standing under a dome or traveling on a bridge built by an engineer who used 3.00 as the value of pi. As my teacher at Yeshivah of Flatbush, Rav Amnon Haramati (who prepared students for the international Hidon ha-tanakh in Israel) told us long ago in Hebrew: מספרים בתנ''ך אינם מדוייקים. Tanakh is not concerned with mathematical accuracy. It is not an engineering manual. For its purposes, recounting the glories of our past whose loss we commemmorate this week, rounding off to the nearest integer is fine.
Just as Tanakh is not an engineering manual, it is not a textbook of geology, biology or anthropology. המבין יבין.

Tuesday, July 25, 2006

Oops, comments now enabled

Being new to blogging, I didn't know that "comment moderation" meant I had to look at the comments before they would appear. I changed the settings, and now comments will appear as they are written. Flame away.

Monday, July 24, 2006


The following video was sent to me earlier today:

What a difference between those fine, manly men and the parasites who sit in yeshiva all day and let others put their lives on the line defending their country. May Hashem protect all our modern Maccabees, those who pray and those who don't.

The following appeared on Aish's site:

I don't know about you, but I found the continuous voice-over from Eicha offensive. How can one lump the tribulations in Israel today in the same category as Auschwitz? Barukh Hashem, today we can do more than kvetch oy oy oy. We have an Army and we're giving back much more than we get. Our soldiers are winning this war and we will eliminate Hezbollah and drown Hamas in a flood of fire if the politicians don't manage to snatch defeat from the jaws of victory. Yes, our hearts break for every Jew killed and injured, but there is a difference. We have reason to say sheheheyanu. But as Rabbi Kahane would have said, first we have to say Havdala.

Thursday, July 20, 2006

We have liftoff!

I was privileged to be at Rabbi Slifkin's book launch Tuesday evening and it went off without a hitch. It was the first time I met Rabbi Slifkin face to face. A Hasidic master whose name I forgot once said that you could see a man's essence by looking into his face. I could see in the delicate boyish features and the slight build that he is not combative by nature, and was thrust against his will into the center of a storm. I feel so sad for what he's been through these last several years, and so utterly mystified that he can maintain a shred of respect for the people who are trying to destroy him. Rumor has it that he's been threatened with violence by some "religious" crazies in Israel. By golly I'd like to meet those who would do him harm and b'ezrat Hashem send them to the Land of Jumping Elephants .
Rabbi Weinreb from the Orthodox Union, who wrote a foreword to the book, spoke on the sometimes conflicting values of Emet and Shalom. Sometimes the former can be sacrificed for the latter, as when Hashem lied to Avraham about what Sarah said when she heard that she would be having a baby. But this is not such a time, not with so many bright young Jews being alienated from Torah over the issues on which Rabbi Slifkin writes. I myself could easily have been one of them 40 years ago. This is the time to stand up and proclaim loud and clear: Torah is true, science is true, and truth cannot contradict truth.
Rabbi Gil Student, Rabbi Slifkin's new publisher, spoke about "Who in the world do we think we are?" He masterfully demonstrated that we have whom to rely on when we defy those who are trying to suppress Rabbi Slifkin. But I would have answered differently: We are free men and Americans, with the God-given right to pursue knowledge wherever we wish. Give me liberty or give me death.
Tuesday evening's event should not have been necessary. In the usual course of events there's no such thing as a "book launch." A book is written, distributed to the bookstores and sinks or swims in the marketplace. But this book has a small niche market, and too many Jewish bookstores are cowed by the tyrants and won't touch it with a ten foot pole. If the people trying to suppress Rabbi Slifkin want peace they can do what I did with Not By Chance, an anti-evolution screed cited in Rabbi Slifkin's book. I panned the book in a review to be published in Reports of the National Center for Science Education. But I will defend to the death the author's right to write it, the publisher's right to publish it, a bookstore's right to stock and sell it, and anybody's right to read it. I am not an Arab. I know the difference between a "p" and a "b".

Monday, July 17, 2006

The open world or the closed world?

David Ben-Gurion, Israel's first Prime Minister, said that the choice between alignment with the United States or with the late unlamented Soviet Union was a simple choice between the open world and the closed world. Like any sane leader, he chose the open world. Such a choice confronts Jewry today.

This Tuesday evening there will be a meeting near my home in Brooklyn to raise money for Shuvu, a network of haredi religious schools in Israel. Rabbis Shmuel Berenbaum of Mir and Matisyahu Salomon of Lakewood are scheduled to speak. Those names should be familiar; they are on the rogues' gallery of signatories to the fatwa against Rabbi Natan Slifkin's books on Torah and science. At the same time, Rabbi Slifkin will be launching his new book in Queens. So, is the purpose of education to open minds or to close them, to broaden horizons or to narrow them, to show students how to think or to tell them what to think? The battle lines are drawn; let the games begin. It is tragic that we have reached this pass precisely when we are under attack from an outside enemy, but it's the same struggle. Are we to live in freedom, or under the dead hand of a medieval theocracy? The open world or the closed world? To this educator, the choice is clear.

Sunday, July 16, 2006

Amalek again

Once again we are caught up in the never (until Mashiach comes) ending war against Amalek. The enemy targets our civilians deliberately, as it always has, but when we attack the enemy and some civilians are inevitably harmed, since the enemy deliberately places its military assets in civilian areas in violation of all the rules of war, the world screams for us to "show restraint." Who do you think is giving the Hezbollah rabble advanced missiles, and who do you think is aiming them so accurately? Syria and Iran, of course. Then when we respond, Persia's newest Haman, aka Ahmadinejad, compares us to Hitler from one side of his mouth even as he denies the Holocaust from the other.
By now it is clear to all who have eyes to see (cf. Isaiah 6:10) that the enemy we fight in Lebanon and Gaza is the same Islamic Mafia that flies planes into buildings in New York and Washington, blows up trains in London, Madrid and Mumbai, murders tourists in Bali and innocent Muslims in Baghdad, ad infinitum ad nauseam. Unlike his predecessor who could not face an inconvenient truth that was staring him in the face, President Bush knows this and, aside from some lip service to the need to find a peaceful solution, does not seem to be keeping Israel from doing what needs to be done.
In the last century the forces of freedom faced and conquered the twin evils of fascism and Communism. Now we face the equally unmitigated evil of Islamic terrorism. As before, appeasement does not work. These people cannot be reasoned with or negotiated with. They, and all who give them succor, must be erased from the face of the earth. It will not be easy, and more sacrifice is in store. But failure is not an option. If we are to live in freedom, we must prevail. And with the help of God and the strength of our arms, we shall.

Saturday, July 15, 2006

And over in Kansas. . .

The Kansas State Board of Education rewrote its science standards, including a fanciful definition of science that allows for supernatural explanations. The Wichita Eagle (July 9, 2006) commented, "It's hard to know whether to laugh or cry about the doings of the Kansas State Board of Education. A faction of far-right conservatives has turned the state board into its own ideological hobbyhorse, drawing widespread condemnation from the academic community, not to mention international ridicule. ... The board's ideological and ill-informed approach to evolution and science standards has been nothing short of a fiasco." Sounds familiar?
Over in Missouri, the Kansas City Star (July 9, 2006) commented, "Kansans deserve a better state Board of Education."

Perhaps the "gedolim" deserve Kansas.

Friday, July 07, 2006

Kabdehu v'hashdehu

Emes ve'Emuna reports that Evangelical Christian Pastor Hagee is organizing a 2000-man lobbying effort in Washington on behalf of Israel. Israel needs all the friends it can get and I welcome support from wherever it comes, but now might be a good time to take a look at another letter I wrote in the Jewish Press (Nov. 25, 2005). This was written before I started the blog and before I became aware of Slifkingate.

Wary Of Christian "Allies"
Re Rabbi Daniel Lapin’s op-ed article in the November 11 issue, “My Way or Foxman’s Way”:
Our Christian friends’ motives should be questioned and their friendship not taken at face value. They do seek to convert us to Christianity, and their support of Israel is rooted in their belief that their savior will reappear only when Jewish sovereignty in Israel is restored and the Jews converted. They do have a domestic agenda that bodes ill for us, and Mr. Foxman’s assertion that they aim to Christianize America is not far off the mark.Rabbi Lapin’s analysis of the economic and social changes in this country over the last 40 years is astoundingly simplistic. To cite just one example, our women do not work outside of home because of high taxes, regulatory pressures or feminist propaganda, but to afford exorbitant yeshiva tuition, for which their children all too often receive an inferior education.
If present trends continue, even two incomes will not be sufficient. I give it one generation until Orthodox couples send their children to public school simply because they cannot afford yeshiva. I already hear Hebrew in the halls of the public high school in Brooklyn where I teach biology. (Rabbi Lapin might find the article by Rabbi Yakov Horowitz that appeared on the page facing his own an interesting read.)
Our conservative Christian friends must be given to understand that while we appreciate their support for Israel, there will be no domestic quid pro quo. We stand with them on issues of national security and a strong defense (corollary A: If the draft is reinstated our sons must serve along with everybody else’s — no hiding out in yeshiva), but we are firmly committed to keeping the wall between church and state strong. That means, inter alia, no prayer in the public schools; America is more diverse today than it was at its founding and, if we are to have any security as a religious minority, it must be home to those who believe in any god or no god, who practice any religion or none at all.
It also means that science will be taught in the science classroom and religion will not be, which brings me to my final point. Rabbi Lapin cannot seem to write a column without a gratuitous attack on the theory of evolution. I which that he and his ilk would, just once, leave us biologists alone and attack quantum theory or the theory of relativity. If Rabbi Lapin would examine the work of Rav Kook and others he might find that the theory of evolution is no more incompatible with our faith than are the theories of chemistry and physics, but of course Rav Kook is treif in certain circles that, 60 years after the Holocaust, are still ideologically mired in the ghettos of Europe to which Christian believers had consigned us for so long.
Zev Stern, Ph.D.
Brooklyn, NY

Tuesday, July 04, 2006

Consent of the governed vs Torah authority

"We hold these truths to be self-evident that. . . . Governments are instituted among Men, deriving their just powers from the consent of the governed. . . ." (American Declaration of Independence)

"You shall not depart from what they instruct you either to the left or to the right," - even if they tell you that left is right and right is left - Dvarim 17:11, Rashi, my translation

As a practicing Jew and a patriotic American, both statements resonate with me, and reconciling them seems to be a burning issue at a time when recognized Torah authority seems to be telling us that left is right and right is left, and to believe that left is left and right is right constitutes kfira (heresy). A little history might clear things up. When the second statement was given Moshe Rabbeinu was still with us and we had a Sanhedrin whose authority was unquestionable. The Sanhedrin would be in existence until the fifth century C.E. Since then, Torah authority did not derive from an unbroken chain from Moshe Rabbeinu, and there was room for acceptance or rejection. Throughout the galut, rabbanim were hired by their communities, who had the power to fire them and sometimes did. There was a check on the arbitrary authority of a rav. Only in 20th and 21st century America (of all places!) did the rosh yeshiva or admor morph into the posek, dayan and darshan rolled into one, and become invested with near infallibility. He got his position from his father or father-in-law, no one dared oppose him, and he was accountable to nobody. All we - educated, thinking, practicing Jews - need do is revert to the practice followed ever since the Sanhedrin became defunct. We have the right to choose our own Torah authority. If those on whose every word we used to hang prove to be fools who cannot accept objective reality and would drag us back to the Dark Ages, then "it is the Right of the People to . . . institute new Government," i.e. to choose other Torah scholars who are open to the world and who respect our right to think.

[Caveat: Praise to God, the Sanhedrin was recently re-established in Israel. Click here. To its credit, it is not issuing rulings that would divide the Jewish people more than it already is. I cannot for one minute imagine the nasi, R. Adin Steinzaltz, signing on to a book ban regardless of how vehemently he may disagree with what is in the book).

Happy Fourth!