Wednesday, July 20, 2011

Murder Most Foul

I’m still having difficulty digesting it, let alone writing about it coherently. Who would murder a sweet little boy, then butcher his body like a side of beef, place the feet in a freezer and the other pieces in a suitcase and dump the suitcase in a Dumpster two miles away? Who? Why? Yet that is what happened to little Leiby Kletzky (Yehuda ben Itta Esther hy”d), a few days shy of his ninth birthday, last week. In the Boro Park section of Brooklyn, a neighborhood composed almost exclusively of ultra-Orthodox Jews. The child set out late in the afternoon of Monday July 11 from his day camp, walking alone for the first time, a few short blocks to meet his mother. Apparently he got lost and asked a stranger for directions. The stranger took him in his car to his (the stranger’s) home, where he was apparently suffocated with a bath towel, chopped up and dumped. A frantic search began within hours of the boy’s disappearance. Thousands from as far away as the Catskills and Lakewood, New Jersey participated, scouring Boro Park and beyond. Many went some 36 hours without sleep. Then the news broke Wednesday morning. Little Leiby was found dead, in pieces. The alleged killer, was in police custody. A lucky break and a lot of old fashioned police work led investigators to the scene of the crime, the Dumpster and the killer, before the remains would have ended up in a landfill somewhere, perhaps never to be found.

Was this the work of a politically motivated Arab or Muslim? The boy’s dress marked him as a member of a Hasidic sect not known for their ardent Zionism, but since when does that matter to an Arab? The boy was Jewish and that’s good enough. But no. It soon became apparent that the suspect was an Orthodox Jew named Levy Aron. The perp walk photo has him wearing a kippa. He worked as a clerk in a nearby hardware store, where co-workers described him as “a little slow” but a good worker. His only prior criminal record was a summons for public urination, though that might change as investigators comb through his past.

These things are not supposed to happen in Boro Park. Children do get lost, of course, but they were always found in short order and returned to their parents. People look out for one another there, the old fashioned way. Orthodox Jews don’t do such things to other Jews or anybody else. There were some attempted abductions, but screaming neighbors always scared the miscreants away. Leiby’s yeshiva teachers described him as obedient to a fault, the kind of kid that would go into somebody’s car if told to, especially if that somebody appeared to be one of us. The kind of kid that probably never struck a blow in anger in his whole short life. Yet marks on the alleged (I hate to use that word in this context but I don’t want to be sued) killer’s arms indicate that the boy struggled. I can only imagine what was going through his head in his final seconds on earth as he was compelled to lift his little hands against another Jew. May he be comforted in heaven by Rav Kook and his son.

As soon as the news broke, heartless ghouls started blaming the boy’s parents for allowing him to walk by himself at such a tender age. But there has to be a first time, and parents are in the best position to judge the maturity of their children and decide when they are ready. It is never easy. When I put my son on his first subway ride alone, to his high school, I was nervously reciting psalms until I called the school and verified that he got there safe. But being a parent is not supposed to be easy (thank God I had little from my children in the way of tza’ar gidul banim) and I knew it was in his best interest to take that step to independence. The object is to raise strong and confident young men – soldiers, not sissies. And who would think this could happen in a place like Boro Park? It was reported that even seasoned investigators, men who thought they had seen everything, threw up when they came upon that grisly scene. What comes to mind is the American GIs liberating Nazi concentration camps. They were no strangers to death, but nothing could have prepared them for what they saw.

As might be expected, people are asking where was God. God did not make automatons, but humans who are supposed to know right from wrong and act accordingly. This horrific murder, like the Holocaust, was a human failing, not a Divine one. We should be asking, “Where were we?” Would a smile and a “hello” or “good morning” to a neighbor who appeared to be troubled have made a difference? We can never know, but it costs nothing and certainly wouldn’t harm. And a misguided ethos of shielding our young from the filth and evil of the outside world – no TV, no radio, no secular newspapers - appears to have backfired. It is possible for a boy to be too sweet, too obedient, too trusting, too angelic for his own good. If this horror serves as a wake-up call to parents to teach children what can be lurking out there and how to protect themselves, little Leiby will not have died in vain.

Now the story is fading from the news, but the authorities continue to investigate. The process can be slow and, to us, frustrating. But the authorities need to build an airtight case; we cannot afford another Casey Anthony. The suspect’s lawyers are likely to mount an insanity defense, though the suspect’s confession will make that difficult. The lawyers are also likely to ask for a change of venue. With everybody screaming for Levy Aron’s head, it is unlikely that we can find twelve people in Brooklyn who can give him a fair shake. I know I can’t, and were I Levy Aron’s lawyer I would want him tried a good distance away, maybe Albany.

We now begin the three weeks of semi-mourning, culminating in Tisha B’Av, the anniversary of the destruction of both Temples in Jerusalem. We are told in the Talmud that the reason the Second Temple was destroyed was sinat hinam, gratuitous hatred among Jews. Rav Kook taught us that the tikkun (remedy) is ahavat hinam, gratuitous love. We have seen a beautiful (at least it would have been beautiful in a better context) display of ahavat hinam in the search for Leiby. Thousands of Jews from all walks of life cast aside their differences and, at considerable personal sacrifice, scoured the neighborhood. If we can hold on to this spirit we will be closer to the ge’ula sheleima, the ultimate redemption.

Friday, July 08, 2011

Darwin matters

Townhall, a conservative webzine, recently published an article by one Marvin Olasky in which he lambasts the theory of evolution, while revealing his utter ignorance of what evolution states, what it does not state, and what a scientific "theory" is and is not. Click here.

His first paragraph defines the issue as political, and important in view of the coming campaign season. His second paragraph raises theological objections that are "literally crucial because they tell us whether the Cross was necessary." The article was lifted from the Christian magazine that Mr. Olasky edits; he apparently did not bother to re-edit it for a secular audience. The crosses (there were many of them) were necessary for the Romans to get rid of people they considered troublemakers, but that's not the real point. The point, which Olasky completely misses, is that the cross (only one is important to him) is irrelevant to American politics and to science. He asserts that "if the Darwin was right the Bible was wrong," but our Constitution could not care less if the Bible was right or wrong. Nor is the word "God" mentioned in the entire document.

The rest of the article raises a grab-bag of social issues that evolution supposedly influenced in a negative way. There is nothing new here; it is difficult to find anything new in the arguments of Christian (or Jewish) fundamentalists. The obvious answer to all these issues is that they are irrelevant. Any scientific theory can be misused or abused; that does not affect the validity of the theory. Arsonists use matches to start fires, but we do not ban matches. Instead we make positive use of matches while we try to catch and punish arsonists. That Olasky and his Christian audience do not understand the function of a scientific theory points to the inadequacy of science education in this country, which those of Olasky's ilk would perpetuate and which bodes ill for our ability to compete in the global economy. China, India and Japan are not Judeo-Christian societies and their science is not stymied by religious nonsense. Their scientists come here to train in America's best graduate schools and then fill positions in our finest research universities while this country does not turn out enough people who are up to the task.

In brief, the function of a theory is to explain data. Data are the "facts" of science, the results of experiment and observation. The more data a theory explains, the wider the range of fields that produced the theory, the more successful the theory is. It follows that scientists do not use the word "theory" the way the general public does. A scientific theory is not somebody's guess, supported by tenuous evidence or no evidence. When scientists dignify a statement by calling it a theory, it is robust, supported by a large body of evidence from many different avenues of research. Accordingly, there are few theories in science. We have the atomic theory, the theory of universal gravitation, electromagnetic theory, quantum theory - and evolutionary theory. All but evolution do not generate political firestorms stoked by religious know-nothings. And evolution is supported by as vast a body of evidence as any of the other theories. As with all scientific theories, evolution has unanswered questions. That's what this business we call science is all about - investigating the unanswered, constantly broadening our understanding of how the world works.

It is worth noting the hypocrisy of politically conservative thinkers who want the government to have our children taught pseudoscience instead of real science. Conservatives say they believe in limited government, yet they don't hesitate to invoke the power of government to enforce the scientific or political positions which they favor, or to suppress those which they oppose. It all depends on whose ox is gored. And evolution helps us understand many of the social problems that fundamentalists blame it for creating. If we are descended from ape-lile primates (and share about 99% of our genes with modern chimpanzees), it follows that human behavior is related to the behaviour of other primates, chimpanzees in particular. Darwin showed that we are animals, but we always knew that we were much more. We, alone among the animals, are capable of conceiving a right and a wrong, and guiding our actions accordingly. I and other religious students of evolution - and there are many more of us than Olasky and his crew care to consider - don't read evolution as a license do do anything our animal nature dreams up. We read it as a signpost and a warning. It shows us how strong our animal nature (what Jews call the yetzer hara) is and how intense our efforts to overcome it with our higher mental faculties must be.

So yes, Darwin is important, but not the way Marvin Olasky thinks.

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