Friday, August 29, 2008

More craziness about evolution

If your intellectual peregrinations are confined to the Orthodox community, you would think that evolution is somehow controversial, and doubt exists over whether it happened - and is happening! Here is something I posted to the Jewish Press last week (link):

Date 11:08, 08-24, 08

To the Editor:

I have little to add to the incisive responses of Yaakov Mayerhoff and Avi Goldstein in last week's issue to the attacks on evolutionary theory that appeared the week before. However, the headline makes it appear that evolutionary theory is somehow controversial. There is no controversy in the scientific community over evolution. It is supported by mountains of evidence and is as firmly established as electromagnetism, quantum mechanics or any other theory in science. Evolution is a fact. It occurred. All living species including our own are products of descent with modification. Rav Hirsch's hypothetical situation of evolution being ultimately vindicated is now reality, and the Orthodox establishment needs to deal with it.

It is telling that in the same issue, Chronicles of Crises informs us of an Orthodox man who left both his family and Jewish observance. I do not know why this particular man left the fold, but he is not the only one. Nobody appreciates being lied to or played for stupid. When products of our system go out into the world, acquire some knowledge and discover that their parents, yeshiva teachers and rabbis have been lying to him and playing him for stupid for twelve years, many are tempted to chuck the whole kit and caboodle. Unlike my generation that remembers a time when Orthodoxy was normal, young people today see only a disconnect between what they are given to believe is normative Orthodox hashkafa on the one hand and objective reality on the other. They would rather live in the real world than in an Orthodox Fantasyland. Who can blame them?

Zev Stern, Ph.D.

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Friday, August 15, 2008

You were shown to know

In last week's Parsha (Va'ethanan), in the part that is also read on Tish'a B'Av (the first paragraph of which I read in a low voice when I'm the ba'al korei), Moshe Rabbeinu is addressing the people for the last time, reviewing the events of the last 40 years. He utters a famous phrase that we read at the Hakafot on Simhat Torah, and that Sefaradim recite every Shabbat when the Sefer Torah is taken out of the Aron Kodesh: Ata horeita lada'at ki Hashem hu ha-Elokim ein od milvado. You were shown to know that Hashem is God and there is none beside Him. The Avot were told, and had to believe in Hashem's promises for their descendants, but those Moshe Rabbeinu was addressing were shown, and therefore knew. Some were children and teenagers in Egypt, and experienced God's intervention in human affairs first hand with Yetzi'at Mitzraim, at a very impressionable time of life (see also previous post). Even those born in the wilderness saw first hand the manna, the traveling well, the clothes that were neither outworn nor outgrown, the feet whose soles remained baby smooth despite constant walking.

Much ink is spilled over the need to believe in God and in His omnipotence, even when we are not given much reason to believe, and we have plenty of what appears to be evidence to the contrary. Throughout Inquisitions, pogroms and the Holocaust Jews have believed, even though it would have been so much easier, and seemingly more sensible, to give up on being Jewish. I am reminded of a story I heard about a religious Jew in a concentration camp. Hanukkah was approaching and he scrounged and saved bits of margarine day by day, so that when Hanukkah came he would have enough to light one Hanukkah light. Hanukkah - the holiday when we celebrate Jewish sovereignty and freedom to be Jews - in the pit of hell. And this Jew was concerned about lighting the candle. He believed - even though he had every reason in the world not to. (As an aside, had he asked a halakhic question of a poseq about whether to save the margarine, the answer would almost certainly have been no. When you're starving in a concentration camp and you can get a bit of something edible, you have to eat it and not burn it.) Three years later - the State of Israel was re-established and the significance of Hanukkah becomes crystal clear. No need to believe. Ata horeita lada'at. We were shown. We know.

In 1967 Israel was surrounded by enemies armed to the teeth, poised to drive it and its Jews into the sea. We were all afraid, and the religious were praying and fasting. Then came the smashing victory, the destruction of our enemies and the liberation of Yerushalayim. No need to believe that Hashem was with us. We were shown, and we knew. Hashem was in charge, and nothing in the world happened independently of Him. And what effect did all that have on us, after the initial euphoria abated? We still agonize over whether to wear our kippot to work or to job interviews, sometimes even whether to wear them on the street. People are incredulous when they hear that I wear my kippa in the public school classroom where I teach. Too many Orthodox colleagues do not wear it. Israel suffers a high profile terrorist attack, and Christian pilgrims still visit but Jewish tourists stay away. Israel's leaders fall all over themselves appeasing bloody terrorist murderers, as if God was not in the picture. A downturn in the business cycle (capitalism, to paraphrase Winston Churcill, being the worst economic system on earth except for all the others) and we all go into a panic, as if no one was in charge. Ata horeita lada'at. We were shown. So why the anxiety? Why the defeatism? Are we ever going to learn to take yes for an answer?

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Friday, August 08, 2008

Hurban in New York

We're now in the season for mourning. Our minds are on the destruction of the two Batei Mikdash, which followed on two military defeats. But we in New York are witness to another hurban, which peaked twenty to thirty years ago, and this time we don't have a foreign enemy to blame.

My running takes me to just about every neighborhood in Brooklyn, and sometimes beyond. Wherever I go, I see the wreckage of once beautiful Jewish neighborhoods. Brownsville, East New York, East Flatbush, it just goes on and on. I see churches, plenty of churches. Brooklyn was always known as the borough of churches, and I don't begrudge our Christian neighbors their worship, but too many of these churches were once shuls. You can see the markings. Sometimes the Christians who bought the premises are simply too poor to remove the Jewish markings; it isn't a priority for them. I suspect that sometimes Christian triumphalism is involved; for them it's a point of pride that the Jews left and Christians now own their buildings. Sometimes the Christian buyers do remove the markings, but one can guess from the architecture that the building was once a shul. I'd rather guess than know for certain.

Why did it happen? Simple. As soon as a few "others" move into a neighborhood, the Jews run away like rabbits. The sickness isn't confined to the Orthodox; plenty of Reform temples suffered the same fate. I wouldn't be complaining if the Jewish congregations had picked themselves up and moved en masse to Israel, but they moved out to the suburbs instead. As if when Jews move from one galut to another, the galut problems they run away from do not always catch up. And now we have a trail of hillul Hashem from the Grand Concourse in the north to Coney Island in the south.

Seventh-Day Adventist church in Remsen
Village. If you look closely, you can see
Maginei David on the fenicng.

Sha'arei Zedek of Crown Heights, north of
Eastern Parkway, now a church.

Sha'rei Torah, now the Salem Missionary
Baptist Church. It's about three miles from my
home, and I often pass it when I run.

For me the most painful sight. Grace Deliverane
Tabernacle, once Beth Israel of Remsen Avenue,
where my uncle a"h served as rabbi for over thirty
years. When I would visit my uncle, we would
walk to shul together, and I often got maftir and
read the haftara from the bima.

And to think that we have no one to blame but ourselves.
. . . . איכה ישבה בדד העיר רבתי עם

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