Thursday, December 20, 2007

The Stinka From Spinka

Yesterday afternoon the television news was abuzz with the arrest of the Rebbe of Spinka on a variety of white-collar charges, including income tax evasion and money laundering. According to the government (he has yet to be tried by a jury and is presumed innocent) he solicited large donations from wealthy people in our community, then kicked back as much as 95%, giving the donor a tax deduction 20 times what he was entitled to. I am no longer surprised by news of this sort, just thoroughly disgusted. It seems that ingratitude is the new Jewish virtue. We enjoy in this country the tranquility and freedom that eluded us throughout our long galut, and this is what we give in return. Earth to Harediland: Wake up. We’re not in Poland or Hungary any more. The American government does not persecute Jews. Whatever the gemara might say about the permissibility of defrauding Gentiles or a Gentile government (which ours is not, Jews having achieved high office up to and including running for Vice President) does not apply in our enlightened society. And the intrinsic evil of the rebbe’s alleged crimes is compounded by their inevitable consequence: massive hillul Hashem. It seems to have escaped the notice of the haredi world that such actions confirm all the tired old stereotypes that Gentiles have of us. Jews are dishonest connivers. Jews are greedy. Jews are grasping. Jews are money grubbers. Jews don’t uphold the law of the countries in which they live (hey man, remember that one?), ad infinitum. For those who think that skulduggery of this sort can be kept to ourselves, be assured that news of the rebbe's arrest was splashed all over the Internet (see link above) within hours of its occurrence.

The presumption of innocence may keep the Rebbe out of jail for the time being, but it does not entitle him or his hangers-on to our respect or trust. For that, those who presume to be our authority figures must be above suspicion. One who has such a cloud hanging over him (so much the more if the charges are substantiated) cannot be trusted in matters of kashrut or as a witness on a document of halakhic significance such as a ketuba or get. They should not be invited to our functions, nor should they be honored in our synagogues. In short, they should be ostracized from the society of honest men, a powerful sanction as long as man is a social animal (and a sanction which needs to be applied to men who unreasonably withhold gittin from their wives). And any parent with a child in Spinka’s yeshiva needs to ask himself or herself if (s)he wants his or her child taught by men of such dubious character.

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Evolution 101

This paragraph is taken from an article on sustainability that appeared in last Sunday’s New York Times magazine:

The first story is about MRSM [Methicillin resistant Staphylococcus aureus], the very scary antibiotic-resistant strain of Staphylococcus bacteria that is now killing more Americans each year than AIDS — 100,000 infections leading to 19,000 deaths in 2005, according to estimates in The Journal of the American Medical Association. For years now, drug-resistant staph infections have been a problem in hospitals, where the heavy use of antibiotics can create resistant strains of bacteria. It’s Evolution 101: the drugs kill off all but the tiny handful of microbes that, by dint of a chance mutation, possess genes allowing them to withstand the onslaught; these hardy survivors then get to work building a drug-resistant superrace.

It is indeed Evolution 101, and it has tremendous implications for how physicians, including Orthodox ones, practice medicine. Not too long ago you walked into a doctor’s office with the sniffles and walked out with a prescription for penicillin, never mind that the sniffles are usually caused by viruses, against which penicillin and other antibiotics do not work. Many pediatricians in particular still practice that way, prescribing drugs that they know will not help their patients but will act as a sedative for their mothers. One must wonder how intelligent physicians did not anticipate that prescribing powerful antibiotics with such wild abandon would cause problems. I would hazard a guess that most physicians trained before the 1960s did not study evolution, since most high schools steered clear of it for religious and political reasons. A practicing physician, as opposed to one engaged in research, is more of an engineer than a scientist. He is engaged not in the acquisition of new knowledge but in applying existing knowledge to solve human problems. He need not accept evolution to make use of knowledge developed by scientists using that theory. But when a physician, driven not by good science but by bad religion, denies the central unifying concept of the science that informs his practice, he is reinforced in his reluctance to modify his practice in light of knowledge consistent with that concept. This brings me to an advertisement in the Jewish Press many years ago, when my children still used a pediatrician. It was signed by several well-known pediatricians in my community, including the one who treated my children, who shall go nameless. The ad stated in essence that its signers studied the theory of evolution, found it to be nonsense, and therefore their patients, who presumably attended yeshivot, need not study it. A scientist invites others to replicate his work and improve upon it. He does not tell others, “I studied this so you shouldn’t.” I would not have used that pediatrician if I had not believed him to be technically competent, but seeing his name on that advertisement caused me to lose respect for him as a scientist. Would a physician so contemptuous of the science that enables his profession to advance be receptive to those advances? This soon became a moot point for me and my wife; we stopped using that pediatrician when he stopped accepting our insurance. But that ad stands as a warning for today’s Orthodox community with its increasingly anti-scientific mindset. Steer clear of physicians who are actively hostile to the science on which modern medicine depends. In today's sad times, that might mean, "Steer clear of most Orthodox physicians."

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Thursday, December 13, 2007

About the Neandertals

I just came across a very interesting article in the current issue of American Scientist about what might have caused the Neandertals (aka Neanderthals) to become extinct and modern men to take over. Click here. I know Megaupload is a pain but it's free and the article is too big to incorporate here. Note how the evolutionary time scale as well as evolution itself is treated matter-of-factly with no apologetics. There is no controversy in the scientific community about evolution having occurred. Yeshivot that don't teach it are leaving students unprepared for the introductory biology course in college, where the professors will also be very matter-of-fact.

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Monday, December 10, 2007

Fighting yesterday's battles today

Rabbi Naphtali Hoff published a front-page essay in last week's Jewish Press seizing on Hanukkah to knock the Maccabiah, the Olympic-style Jewish sports extravaganza held every four years (the year following the real Olympics) in Israel. I published a reply on the site that might appear as a letter to the editor in the next issue:

Fighting yesterday's battles today(12/9/2007)
Regarding Rabbi Naphtali Hoff's front page essay in last week's issue, the superficial irony of a Jewish Olympic-style athletic festival bearing the Maccabees' name did not escape my notice. However, closer examination shows that Rabbi Hoff is barking up the wrong tree. As a student of history, Rabbi Hoff certainly knows that we and the Greeks got along quite well under Alexander the Great (to this day we name baby boys for him), the Ptolemies and the early Seleucids. Only when Antiochus IV Epiphanes set out to obliterate Torah observance did the Maccabees rise in revolt. As Rabbi Hoff correctly states, the name Maccabee is made up of Hebrew initials for "Who is like You among the mighty, Hashem?" However, another meaning is "hammer of God." One does not become a hammer of God by cultivating physical weakness. Certainly in our time, when our way of life was nearly obliterated two generations ago because we were too weak to defend it, and we continue to be beset with enemies intent on our destruction, the Maccabiah's fostering of Jewish strength and pride is to be encouraged.Today's athletic contests are not those of Antiochus. There are no sacrifices to idols and athletes do not compete naked. No Jewish athletes today are having themselves decircumcised. The demise of Hellenistic paganism is so complete that a Greek-American Congressman (and decathlon champion) was named Bob Mathias, i.e. Matityahu. We gain nothing by fighting yesterday's battles today. The Maccabiah serves as a stepping stone for many Jewish athletes on the way to greater success; Mark Spitz swam in the Maccabiah and went on to win an unprecedented seven medals in the Munich Olympics in 1972. More to the point, for many Jewish athletes the Maccabiah is their first visit to Israel and their first connection with Judaism. We can extinguish the spark or we can fan it. I prefer to fan it.

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