Sunday, October 29, 2006


For me it is a bitter month, containing the yahrzeits of four influential people in my life. The first is Fred Lebow (Efraim Fishl ben Zvi), organizer of the New York City Marathon, which I ran some 20 times, who passed away on 4 Heshvan 5755. By force of personality he made big-time urban marathoning what it is. He traveled the globe helping big cities the world over put on their marathons, and if places like Chicago or London would rival New York in prestige, number of runners and/or media attention, he bore them no grudge; the more the merrier. In his honor and that of the New York Marathon coming up next week, I post the hesped that appeared in the Jewish Press shortly after he passed away:

Fred Lebow: Survivor, Impresario, Image Wrecker
by Zev Stern [Jewish Press December 16, 1994]

Fred Lebow, guiding light of the running community of New York and long-time director of the New York Marathon, passed into eternity last fall, just before this year’s N.Y. Marathon. As I sat writing this on the fourth Yahrzeit of Rabbi Meir Kahane, z”l, I reflected on parallels in the lives of these great men. Both packed more than a normal lifetime of accomplishment into a span tragically cut short, one by as assassin’s bullet, the other by cancer.

Though the two, to the best of my knowledge, never met, Fred (as he was affectionately known to the runners of the city and the world), a Holocaust survivor, provided a forum for Jewish runners from all over the world to strive for “the Reb’s” goal of wrecking the image of the soft, weak ghetto Jew. In the late 1970’s, when the race first expanded from Central Park to the city streets and I was still watching from the sidelines, I saw several runners cross the finish line in shirts bearing the slogan “Never Again!”

With Fred’s cooperation an outdoor minyan was established each year at the staging area in Staten Island. In a beautiful display of kiddush Hashem, some 100 Jews, tefilin wound around sinewy arms, daven with the Israeli flag in front of us and with Arab and German athletes, among others, looking on.

Fred was no longer with us this year, but the Marathon continued without him. He never married, but all of us runners are his children. He will continue to be an inspiration to many Jewish men and women to “wreck our image.” May he be a melitz yosher for them and us, and may his merit hasten the day when we run tall and strong to greet Mashiach.

Wednesday, October 25, 2006

How dare they?

The following paragraphs are taken from the plaintiffs' closing argument in the Kitzmiller v. Dover case (400 F. Supp. 2nd 707 (M.D. Pa. 2005) ), where the plaintiffs successfully argued that the psudo-science of intelligent design is not science but religion, and as such may not be taught in public schools. Words in brackets are mine:

How dare they. How dare they stifle these children's education, how dare they restrict their opportunities, how dare they place a ceiling on their aspirations and on their dreams. Griffin Sneath [son of one of the plaintiffs] can become anything right now. He could become a science teacher like Bert Spahr or Jen Miller or Bryan Rehm or Steven Stough [science teachers in the Dover, PA schools] turning students on to the wonders of the natural world and the satisfaction of scientific discovery, perhaps in Dover or perhaps some other lucky community.
He could become a college professor and renowned scientist like Ken Miller or Kevin Padian [expert witnesses for the plaintiffs]. He might solve mysteries about the immune system because he refused to quit [alluding to intelligent design proponent Prof. Michael Behe's assertion that the immune system is too complex to have evolved naturally]. He might even figure out something that changes the whole world like Charles Darwin.

How dare they indeed? And I ask the same question of our Elyashivs, Feinsteins, Kotlers et al. How dare they close our children's minds instead of opening them, how dare they narrow their horizons instead of broadening them? Where I come from educators are supposed to show students how to think, not tell them what to think.

חכמים הזהרו בדבריכם. . . Sages, be careful of your words (Avot 1:11)

I was walking the other day and saw a poster for a fund-raising function of some kiruv organization, where Rav Elyashiv is supposedly quoted as saying that supporting that function is "poshut and borur pikuah nefesh." Am I to understand that it is okay to be mehallel Shabbat for the function, driving materials to the site and such? The poster reminded me of an announcement made by the rav of the shul where I was saying Kaddish for my father a"h, urging us to attend the levaya of a man he described as a met mitzva. I approached the rav and asked him if I should understand that a kohen could attend the levaya. He replied negatively; the man left no family (lo aleinu) but there were plenty of non-kohanim to see to his final needs.
The rav of the shul where I said Kaddish is a well-known talmid hakham in Brooklyn whose name I won't mention, and Rav Elyashiv's reputation as a posek speaks for itself. What am I supposed to make of their coming off sounding like used car salesmen? Halakhic language, like scientific language, must be clear and unambiguous. We will not, for instance, refer to an object as "boiling hot" during working hours unless its temperature is at least 100 degrees Celsius. And if we slip up in something submitted for publication, we can rely on our editors to not be sycophants and hold us to accuracy.
If we are to rely on the words of authority figures in our community, those words must be spoken and, all the more, written with deliberate care. There is no room for guzma (hyperbole).

Monday, October 09, 2006

Whither the Ass'n of Orthodox Jewish Scientists?

The next to last issue of Intercom (Winter 2006), flagship journal of the Association of Orthodox Jewish Scientists (AOJS), carried my answer to Rabbi Meyer Lubin's attack on evolutionary theory. It also carried Rabbi Lubin's reply and, most significantly, a question from one S.B. (pity that he would not use his full name - I wonder why) concerning the improbability of a world-wide flood. The editors of the journal asked for answers. I wrote in, answering Rabbi Lubin (again) and also answering S.B.
The next issue of Intercom just came out; it is not yet available online. My answer was not there. Well and good, but neither was any reply to S.B.'s very valid question. It is as if S.B. had been vaporized in some Orwellian nightmare. Instead, the editors trotted out a submission from 40 years ago by one Reuben E. Gross that adds virtually nothing to the discussion on evolution and does not begin to address the difficulties with the mabul. It is hard to escape the conclusion that the leadership of AOJS is afraid to tackle S.B.'s question. Again, I wonder why. YOOOOHOOOO. We are the AOJS. It is our stated mission to provide guidance to seekers like S.B., who might end up abandoning Jewish observance if their doubts are not addressed intelligently. If we ignore the S.B.'s among us, we will have lost our raison d'etre as an association of Orthodox Jewish scientists and we will soon lose the few academic scientists and science educators, myself included, that we still have. We might as well change our name to the Association of Orthodox Jewish Physicians and Health Care Professionals. Not that there is anything wrong with that, and AOJS is doing some very good work in the area of practical medical halakha, but we will no longer be the AOJS that I joined some thirty years ago.

Here is the unpubished letter I sent to Intercom in response to S.B.'s problem:

To the Editor:

Congratulations on the thought-provoking previous issue of Intercom. To answer Rabbi Lubin’s letter, the distinction between “Species A is descended from Species B” and “A and B share a common ancestor” is an important one. Humans and mice share a remote common ancestor with all mammals; humans and chimpanzees share a much more recent common ancestor. It is no more accurate to say that humans descended from mice than it is to say that mice descended from humans. The inferred common mammalian ancestor was certainly more rodent-like than human-like but was not a modern mouse – or rat or hamster. The cartoons to which Rabbi Lubin refers do, of course, show man evolving from nonhuman primates but, like all caricatures, they exaggerate and distort what actually happened. The fossil record does not support a gradual straightening of human posture; upright walking appears to be an all-or-none phenomenon. The “stooped” Neanderthal skeletons turned out to have suffered from arthritis (other finds suggest that Neanderthals cared for their sick and injured and buried their dead – how’s that for middot?). A closer approximation of reality would show successive human ancestors spending less time swinging from trees and knuckle-walking on the ground in the manner of chimpanzees and more time walking upright as the ratio of forearm length to height decreased. That the adaptation of the human skeleton to upright walking is not yet complete is evident in the spinal disc problems many of us experience as we grow older. That our very recent ancestors made a living pursuing big game with primitive weapons on the African savanna has tremendous implications for hinukh, as teenage yeshiva students increasingly present with obesity, high blood pressure, high cholesterol, impaired glucose tolerance and similar maladies previously seen only in middle age and later. Simply put, the human organism was not designed to be sedentary and we ignore the demands of our stone-age genes at our peril.
The book I cited at the end of my original letter, and that the Rabbinical Council of America cited in its recent statement, was an anthology containing the work of many different authors with different viewpoints. Most were accommodating of evolution, and some totally accepting of it. The Lubavitcher Rebbe’s letter offered a dissenting view, which seems to have become the party line in the haredi world. In 1976 there was greater tolerance in the Orthodox community than there is now; if such a book had appeared today doubtless it would be banned by Rabbi Elyashiv & Co. and burned in Lakewood.
The question posed by S.B. – actually a masterful exposition of the improbability of a worldwide flood as described in Parshat Noah - frames the issue in even starker terms. Ancient civilizations tend to be located in river valleys because, with apologies to Willie Sutton, that’s where the water is. Rivers flood from time to time, hence almost every culture has a flood story. There is evidence (Ryan, William and Walter Pitman, Noah’s Flood, Simon and Schuster, 2000) of a cataclysmic flood of the Mediterranean Sea northward as glaciers melted and sea levels rose 7500 years ago, creating the modern Black Sea and inundating nearby settled communities. Accounts of this catastrophe could have survived in the mythology of the peoples of the Tigris-Euphrates and been reduced to writing when writing was invented much later. The Torah has a higher purpose than to serve as a textbook of science and/or history. When it has a moral lesson to teach, it freely draws on the mythology current among the people to whom it was given, a people already rich in both oral and written tradition. When we read the accounts in the beginning of Sefer Bereshit, we should be asking ourselves what we can learn from them, and not bogging ourselves down in a futile quest to defend their historicity. This approach liberates Judaism from any particular picture of physical reality and allows us to accept the discoveries of modern science wherever they may lead. We thus have no religious differences with evolutionary theory; truth cannot contradict truth. We do have religious differences with the abuse of the theory for political and ideological purposes but that, says Chaucer, is another tale. Literalism in interpreting Torah is best left to the Karaites.
As an interesting aside, primates are unique among mammals in possessing the clavicle, or collar bone, one on each side of the body. These bones supported our arboreal ancestors, as they support modern chimpanzees, as they swung from one tree limb to the next. It recently came to light that a Polish peasant family had hidden some Jews in a barn during the Holocaust. The son strapped food to his back and swung from tree to tree to get from his house to the barn and bring the food to the Jews, so as not to leave tracks in the snow for the Germans to discover. I was teaching the skeleton to my classes when the story broke. As I remarked to my students, if we believe in God perhaps He made us primates so that those good people would be able to do what they did.


Zev Stern, Ph.D.