Tuesday, July 17, 2012

Misery Loves Company

   In Hebrew, there is a saying: Tzarat rabim hatzi nehama, literally “The suffering of many is half a comfort.”  A rough English equivalent would be, “Misery loves company.”  I received two reminders that many of the troubles in the Orthodox Jewish community featured on my blog reflect deep rooted problems in the general society. 

   A month and a half ago, the New York Times Magazine published a story about a simmering sex abuse scandal at Horace Mann School in The Bronx, one of the country’s most exclusive and prestigious private schools.  As usual in such cases, once one victim found the courage to come forward, a veritable flood of similar stories surfaced, some recent enough to make criminal prosecution possible.  Before the dust settled, at least one student and one faculty member committed suicide.  One of the culprits was none other than Johannes Somary, a music teacher at the school and a maestro in the grand European tradition on the outside.  I own at least one disc of a classical concert he conducted.  Learning of his crimes was, l’havdil, like learning about Rav Moshe Feinstein advising teachers to tear pages out of biology books (Igrot Moshe Yoreh De’ah 3:73).  He was allowed to continue teaching at the school until he retired at the age of 67.  He subsequently died of natural causes, never having had to answer to the law.

                                                              Horace Mann School

   An even more publicized scandal took place at Penn State University, home of the Nittany Lions football team and their legendary coach Joe Paterno.   A low-level employee of the football program observed inappropriate conduct between an assistant coach and a ten-year-old boy and, at the risk of his job, came forward.  Things moved rather quickly.  After some initial stonewalling, the assistant coach was fired, and then convicted of multiple crimes involving children.  Joe Paterno, who died of lung cancer soon after the story broke, had his name tarnished forever for his lack of leadership. 

   What do we learn from this?  First, not to be incredulous that such things can happen, in the best schools with the best and brightest teachers, coaches and students.  The yetzer hara [evil impulse] doesn’t discriminate, and pedophiles gravitate to occupations where they have access to victims.  One obvious such occupation is teaching, and good teachers suffer from the actions of the perverts in whose shadow they work.  No more being alone in a room with a student (of either sex) for after-school tutoring.  Second, for all that hazal did not know much about modern science, they were more insightful into human nature than most of us are.  They did not pretend there was no such thing as a yetzer hara, and prescribed modest dress for females, no casual touching of other men’s wives and so forth.  Third, incidents of sexual abuse cannot be handled internally within the institution.  The instinct of an institution, secular or religious, is to circle the wagons and protect the brand.  Only the authorities (police and prosecutors) have the legal authority and the technical know-how to conduct a proper forensic investigation and collect evidence that will stand up in court.  Since time is of the essence, don’t even ask a rabbi for permission (the Aguda got it wrong as usual).  Go to the police, go directly to the police, do not pass Go, do not collect two hundred dollars.

   The second reminder I received concerns the anti-intellectual, and in particular the anti-science mindset that infects the Orthodox community.  The same mindset. less pronounced, infects American society in general and prevents many public school teachers from teaching evolution and climate change as they should be taught.  Newsflash: Evolution is the sun around which all of biology revolves.  There is no controversy about this in the scientific community.  Likewise, there is a broad consensus in the scientific community that climate change is both real and anthropogenic, i.e. we are causing most of it.  But you’d never know it from following much of the popular press, conservative websites such as Townhall and, incredibly, many candidates for President of the United States.  The National Center for Science Education, a group that monitors the teaching of evolution and climate change throughout the country, pointed me in its weekly newsletter to a book, “Fool Me Twice: Fighting the Assault on Science in America,” by Shawn Lawrence Otto, Rodale Press, 2011.  It is at the same time enlightening and depressing.  The author indicts scientists for taking public money but communicating only among themselves, not bothering to explain to the public what they do and why they do it.  The result is that communicating science is left to science writers who often are not trained scientists themselves.  I might add that too many science teachers majored in education where, from personal experience, I know that they learned next to nothing, and do not hold an undergraduate, let alone an advanced degree, in the subject they teach.  Our children, whose world will be increasingly dominated by science and technology, thus grow up scientifically illiterate and unable to compete with students from other countries.  Then, when scientific theories seemingly contradict their comforting religious belief systems, rational discussion is foreclosed (you can’t argue with God) and we must rely on the courts to keep science in science class and religion out (see also Berkman, Michael and Eric Plutzer; “Evolution, Creationism and the Battle to Control America’s Classrooms,” Cambridge University Press, 2010).  Relying on the courts leaves us complacent, but the other side does not take defeat lightly.  They keep introducing bills that they hope will pass muster, and eventually they will attempt to amend the Constitution to enshrine their own backwardness.   This cannot end well unless trained scientists engage the public and get involved in politics at all levels.  And it shows us Orthodox Jews that no matter how hard we try to wall ourselves off, we are part of the general society and we fail to engage with it at our peril.

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Blogger Jeff Eyges said...

Incidental, but R. Moshe Feinstein advocated tearing pages out of biology textbooks?

Evolution is the sun around which all of biology revolves.

Well you know the problem with that - it's the sun that actually does the revolving! ;-)

Wed Jul 18, 06:49:00 AM EDT  
Blogger Jeff Eyges said...

BTW, I'd also recommend Chris Mooney's The Republican War on Science.

Wed Jul 18, 07:00:00 AM EDT  

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