Thursday, June 29, 2006

Gimmel Tammuz

Today is the twelfth yahrzeit of the Lubavitcher Rebbe zt"l. Because my mother's cousin a"h was close to the Rebbe, I and my parents had yihud with him shortly before my Bar Mitzvah in 1965. The Rebbe asked me what my speech was about. Sheepishly, I told him that I did not have a speech. The Rebbe told me that my haftara was my speech, and I felt comforted. My mother's cousin, a mehanekh in Pittsburgh, decried the practice of Bar Mitzvah boys reciting ghostwritten speeches, maintaining that unless the boy wrote it himself it wasn't worth anything. When I trained my cousin for his Bar Mitzvah, I guided him to some sources and he wrote and delivered his own speech, which came out very well. But back to the Rebbe. . .
No one was more active in bringing Jews back to Torah umitzvot than he, and no one is more aggressive in bringing Torah umitzvot to Jews. Whether it's Katmandu, high in the Peruvian Andes, wherever, if there are Jews you'll find Habad. All too often it's the only game in town. While nobody is infallible, and the Rebbe was flat-out wrong about evolution and Ethiopian Jews (whom he didn't consider Jews despite the Israeli Rabbanut's ruling to the contrary), we are immeasurably richer for his having been with us.
Toward the end of his life and even more so after his death, his good work has been shadowed by a Messianic current. It is not rare among Hasidim to tout their Rebbe as a potential Mashiach; until now the touting always ended when the Rebbe died. Perhaps because the Rebbe's work was so successful, the Messianic rumblings in Lubavitch got totally out of control. While he was alive and well, the Rebbe did not encourage this kind of thinking, telling his followers to just go out and do mitzvot and never mind who Mashiach is or might be. Toward the end of the Rebbe's life, when he was too weak to object, the rumbling got louder and louder. Children were taught to recite: Long live our master, teacher and Rebbe, King Mashiach, for ever and ever. After he died many hasidim seemingly did not accept the fact that he was dead. Children are still (after 12 years!) being taught to recite the mantra, and posters appear referring to the Rebbe shlita - an honorific applied only to living persons. These Messianists, centered in Crown Heights, where the movement's headquarters ("770") is located, think nothing of muddling the distinction between Judaism and Christianity by propagating the possibility that Mashiach could die with his mission unfulfilled, then come back to fulfill it.
Fortunately, the shluhim on college campuses, for the most part, are either not Messianists or keep their Messianism muted, knowing that that is not the way to attract students or raise funds. One can only hope that cooler heads withing Habad will regain control of the movement, possibly appointing a new Rebbe, so that Habad can continue its holy work without a dark cloud hanging over it.

Wednesday, June 21, 2006

Meshuga. . .

The following recently appeared in Hirhurim:

I received this via e-mail from R. Daniel Eidensohn, with permission to post:
This Shabbos (June 17, 2006) I had the opportunity to ask Rav Shmuel Kaminetsky about the issue of the age of the universe. As some of you are aware, the issue is heating up again. There are some who would claim that Rav Shmuel has changed his position on the matter or deny that he ever permitted belief in a greater than 6000 year old universe. I had only a short time to speak to him so I limited myself to this issue.I asked him, "Is it permitted to believe that the world is more than 6000 years?"He responded that it was permitted . . . .

This is so crazy I don't know whether to laugh or to cry. ASK R. Kaminetzky if you're allowed to believe that the earth is as old as it is? When your toilet doesn't flush do you go to a Rav or a plumber? When you're sick you go to a physician; when you want to build a bridge you go to an engineer. When you want to know how the physical universe works you go to scientists! What's next? Should be humbly ask R. Kaminetzky if we're allowed to believe that the earth is round, that it revolves around the sun, that two and two make four? The Kaminetzkys of the world are becoming more and more irrelevant every day, and more and more bright young Jews are being alienated from Torah. Keep it up, and don't forget the blue pills. Oh right, those were developed by scientists.

Sunday, June 18, 2006

Tehillim to prevent accidents?

Those ubiquitous wall posters are popping up on every lamppost in my area; never mind that they are illegal and uglify the neighborhood. They are hawking what they call an insurance policy, where we donate forty cents a day (that's $146 a year for the multiplication-challenged and, oh yes, the multiplication tables really do work) to some outfit in Ashdod. In return they will have children recite Tehillim and other tfillot and their purity and innocence will protect us from traffic accidents this coming summer. The money will be used to provide "the best possible Torah education" to a needy child in Ashdod. Now, I'm not questioning the value of prayer, especially that of children, but do we have to pay for it? Can our own children not recite Tehilim, safely belted into their seats on the car or plane? At best this "insurance policy" will provide funds to a worthy institution; I did not investigate the outfit and cannot vouch for its worthiness, but if it teaches children to rely solely on tfilla to protect them from harm, then it is not providing "the best possible Torah education." At worst, the policy will encourage people who have had too much to drink, who are fatigued or otherwise impaired, whose vehicle is in bad mechanical condition, who have more passengers than seat belts or do not have adequate child safety seats (all required by law here in New York - dina d'malkhuta dina) to get behind the wheel. After all, if those pure Yiddishe nesahamos are saying Tehilim for them, how can anything bad possibly happen? I submit that the money can better be spent supporting the efforts of MADD (Mothers Against Drunk Driving) to get the drunks off the road. Make sure that your car - and you - are in shape for that long trip. Do not cram seven children into space designed and equipped for five. And if you're going to a simha, have a designated driver who will not have alcohol in his or her system. Actions (and omissions) have consequences, causes have effects, עולם כמנהגו נוהג . The whole thing reminds me of a story I heard after the Six Day War; the Prime Minister came to the newly liberated kotel and a soldier rushed up to him and shouted, "We did our bit; now you do yours." Only when we have done our bit can we ask God to "do His."

Tuesday, June 13, 2006

Psssst, two plus two equals four. Spread the word.

Click here for a humorous piece from Stanford Medical School's journal on the need to convince people of the incontrovertible truth that all forms of life, including humans, are related by ancestry and descent. Then cut to the Orthodox community's ayatollahs, aka gedolim, who are stuck in a time warp and seek to drag us into it. Dare to oppose them and you get the BBC treatment - ban, burn and censor.

Friday, June 09, 2006

The World Rejoices

The world rejoices at the death of the master headchopper and baby killer Abu Mussab al-Zarqawi. May it presage more victories over the evil Amalekites who would return the world to the seventh century. Zarqawi today, bin Laden soon.

Letter in Jewish Press

The following was published in the Jewish Press not so long ago:

Censoring Evolution

I am the one who inadvertently ignited the firestorm in The Jewish Press about evolution; it was not even the main point of
my original letter but for some inexplicable reason that is what readers seized upon (Letters, Nov. 25).
At first I was flattered at all the attention and bemused that so many otherwise intelligent people could brush aside mountains
of evidence and deny one of the most robust and fructifying theories of science.
The theory of evolution needs no defense in The Jewish Press; it is the cornerstone of modern biology. As all roads lead to
Rome, all biological roads lead to evolution. The Jewish Press is not the proper venue to challenge scientific ideas; that is
done in the peer-reviewed scientific literature and before one’s colleagues at scientific meetings. None of the readers who’ve
assailed evolution in The Jewish Press have published or presented in this way.
The dates and locations of meetings of societies such as the Federation of American Societies for Experimental Biology, the
American Institute of Biological Sciences and the American Association for the Advancement of Science are a Google search
away for critics of evolution – if the Internet is not yet banned in their homes. And that is what should be aired in The Jewish
Bemusement soon gave way to sadness and anger when I did a Google search and quickly found that I was in very good
company. Rabbi Natan Slifkin in Israel had written several books showing with impeccable Torah sources that there is room
in Torah for acceptance of modern science, and he was hung out to dry by a Who’s Who of haredi Torah authority in both
America and Israel.
Apparently many (but by no means all) so-called gedolim are so small-minded and insecure that any idea that seems to pose
the slightest challenge to their view of the world is to be suppressed, and anybody holding such views, no matter how
learned, is to be branded an apikoros (heretic) and subjected to the most reprehensible vilification and character
assassination. Gentiles in the academic world behave better than that toward colleagues with whom they disagree.
Many of those who signed on to the ban never read the books – and could not because they do not understand English!
Nevertheless, they see fit to hold Torah up to the ridicule of the civilized world, which will now see us in the same vein as the
Flat Earth Society, and to alienate inquisitive bright young Jews from Torah.
These men have drawn a line in the sand and dared us to cross. For the sake of Torah, we must shed our inferiority complex
and cross it. Government in America derives its authority from the consent of the governed, and I for one do not consent to
be governed by the signatories to or endorsers of the Slifkin ban and their censoring, book-banning crew – at least one of
whom actually had the evolution chapters torn out of biology textbooks in his yeshiva in Brooklyn.
We have been too deferential to them for too long. We will not allow such people to enclose our minds in ghetto walls and
send us back to the Dark Ages. With the guidance of American-born, English-speaking, college-educated Torah scholars, we
will forge ahead, carrying Torah proudly into a world of intellectual freedom in which we participate fully.
Zev Stern, Ph.D.
Brooklyn NY

Wednesday, June 07, 2006

The disease that dares not speak its name

Some of you might have seen posters in Hebrew plastered all over my neighborhood authored by Rabbi Shmuel Halevi Wosner, calling for a day of prayer and self-examination (not a bad idea in and of itself) in light of the supposed devastation of young families and deaths of children from "the terrible illness" both here and in Israel. What this terrible illness is the Rabbi wouldn't say, but it is common knowledge that child mortality is at an all time low in the U.S.A., Israel and all developed societies. Rabbi Wosner can visit any number of old Jewish cemeteries on the border between Brooklyn and Queens, and see row upon row of tiny matzevot for tiny children who died of diphtheria, whooping cough, polio and a host of other maladies that are now distant memories thanks in large measure to Jews who went to college (gasp!) and studied science (chas veshalom!). Are we now seeing a spike in childhood deaths or simply lots of children, ken yirbu, some of whom in the natural order of things die before their parents? Nobody seems to be doing the epidemiology, just as nobody knows if our community has more than its share of Down's Syndrome, since many of our women give birth well into their forties.
Rabbi Wosner attributes this alleged outbreak of his unspecified "terrible illness" to vague and unspecified transgressions in behavior and dress. As a scientist I deal only in proximate causes; others may speculate on ultimate ones. But our community, along with the general society, is seeing an epidemic of obesity and its sequelae in children. Children as young as ten are showing up with high blood pressure, elevated blood cholesterol, impaired glucose tolerance and even Type 2 diabetes, ailments that until now were almost never seen in anybody under 40. This does not bother Rabbi Wosner, never mind that we know precisely which aveirot brought it about, namely insufficient physical activity and too much of the wrong kinds of food, in that order. And we know precisely the tikkun to correct it - get our yeshivot to serve nutritious food even though it's more expensive than junk, and get our kids (and grownups) playing, preferably out in the sunshine, for an hour a day. But that means less time indoors hunched over books. Bittul Torah! Perish the thought.
Besides a teacher, I am a long distance runner.
Here's me, at a race in Brooklyn's Prospect Park.
As Rabbi Meir Kahane hy"d would say, is this any way
for a nice Jewish boy to look?

Shalom - and welcome to Neandershort

Why Neandershort?

I picked the handle as a nod to those intriguing proto-humans, and maybe conspecifics (i.e. members of our own species, Homo sapiens), the Neanderthals, or Neandertals. Those fellas get a bum rap as dimwitted brutes, but they were actually hardy and stalwart men who not only lived but thrived in an ice age climate that would have killed many of us. Like me, they were short and muscular. Relative to body size, their brains were as big if not bigger than ours. They made a living hunting big game (big as in mammoth) with primitive weapons and without wheeled vehicles or even domestic animals such as dogs that could pull sleds. All that came later. As you might guess, Neanderthals had to be strong to survive - sounds like us Jews. We still do not know if they spoke, but they were the first humans to care for their sick and bury their dead; it might be said that they brought middot into the world. They disappeared some 40,000 years ago, replaced by or perhaps absorbed into our own species.
I teach biology at a public high school in Brooklyn, New York, and I have no problem with evolution, or with the idea that the earth is very, very old, but more about that later.

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