I have to add a few words of personal appreciation for Rabbi Schuster zt”l… just because I don’t know where I would be if not for his influence in my life. By the time I arrived in Israel between my sophomore and junior years of college, I had already considered becoming more observant, but had not stayed with it — and my trip to Israel wasn’t supposed to be about Jewish discovery.
If I was not what people called a “Wall bouncer,” someone whom Rav Schuster discovered at the Kotel, it was because I didn’t even make it to the Wall. By the time I descended from the bus to Jerusalem, Let’s Go guide in hand, I had plans to spend a few nights at a hostel on King George Street. But one of Reb Meir’s Heritage House employees was there, in t-shirt, jeans, ubiquitous sandalim, and Tzitzis. Once he knew I was looking for a place to stay and was, in fact, Jewish, he escorted me to Reb Meir’s free Jewish youth hostel, right there in the Old City.
Everything was set up to give student travelers the maximum opportunity to learn more about their Judaism while they … Read More >>
Odd that the Torah-portion about the death of Yaakov Avinu is called “Vayechi.” After all, the word means “And he lived.” And, differently voweled, the word can mean “And he will live.” And especially odd, because Yaakov didn’t die.
At least that’s what Rabbi Yochanan (Taanis, 5b) asserts, although his listeners asked sarcastically, “Was it then for naught that the eulogizers eulogized him, the embalmers embalmed him and the gravediggers buried him?”
Unperturbed, Rabbi Yochanan responded with the prophet Yirmiyahu’s assurance, “And you, fear not, my servant Yaakov, says Hashem, and tremble not, Yisrael. For behold I am your savior from afar and [that of] your descendants from their land of captivity.” That verse, explained Rabbi Yochanan, juxtaposes Yaakov with his descendants. And so, the sage concluded, “just as those descendants are alive, so, too, must he be.”
As abstruse Talmudic passages go, this one would seem a good example. Rabbi Yochanan’s proof is as unconvincing as his contention was bewildering. And yet, the traditional word for dying (vayomos) is strangely absent from the account of Yaakov’s… whatever. Instead, an unusual and somewhat vague word (vayigva) is employed. And there are Midrashic narratives, too, that imply Yaakov’s life after … Read More >>
As someone with a well-honed sense of wonder, who delights at the sight of a blue jay (even though several of them regularly greet my wife and me outside the window during autumn breakfasts) and who, walking to Maariv each night, surveys the constellations and planets with awe (and feels a frisson at the occasional shooting star), I might be expected to marvel as well at modern communications technology.
And I do, at least to an extent. The rapid advance from dedicated word-processing machines (How futuristic was that StarWriter I bought in the 1980s! It had a five-line screen!) to computers, and then to more powerful computers – and the invention of e-mail and the Internet (thank you, Mr. Gore!) and smartphones – has been nothing short of astounding.
And yet, unlike blue jays and shooting stars, the state of personal tech today often leaves me grumpy. E-mail, for instance, for all its convenience and efficiency, seems to have only increased workloads. The Internet, for all the good that it may have to offer, presents so much that is the opposite of good – not just fraud and panderings to the lowest human instincts but avalanches of ill will … Read More >>
We cannot see the tens of thousands of mazikin, or “harmers” (often translated as “demons”), that the Talmud teaches surround us always (Berachos 6a). Were they visible, says Abba Binyamin, they would utterly terrify us. The same, of course, is true about the tens of thousands of spores, bacteria and viruses that constantly seek to invade our bodies.
The latter are held off, if we are alive and healthy, by an unbelievably complex biological network we call the immune system.
Langerhans cells on our skin keep tiny potentially lethal invaders out.
The enzyme lysozyme in mucus breaks down the cell walls of malign bacteria, as do tears and saliva.
An astounding menagerie of protein molecules we call antibodies, moreover, is produced by the white blood cells born in the marrow of our bones, each product designed (yes designed; there’s a Designer here) to disable a specific bacteria, virus or toxin. Lymphocytes, one such product of our bone marrow, attack a broad array of the bacterial and viral agents that are capable of causing us great harm.
And the system contains a vital control subsystem governed by the Human Leukocyte Antigen (HLA), a molecule present on the surface of … Read More >>
The very same thought occurred to me and to one of my daughters the night of July 4. I was walking home from Maariv (evening services) in Staten Island; my daughter was looking out into her back yard in Rockland County.
The thought? That fireworks are amazing. But nowhere near as amazing as fireflies.
The thought, a staple in the writings of the celebrated Jewish thinker Rabbi E. E. Dessler (1892-1953), is best known to people unfamiliar with his thought and writings from a famous and evocative paragraph written by Ralph Waldo Emerson.
“If the stars should appear one night in a thousand years,” Emerson mused, “how would men believe and adore; and preserve for many generations the remembrance of the city of G-d which had been shown! But every night come out these envoys of beauty, and light the universe with their admonishing smile.”
Rav Dessler, who wrote poetry too but was above all a keenly incisive philosophical thinker, explains that there really is no inherent difference between nature and what we call the miraculous. We simply use the word “nature” for the miracles to which we are accustomed, and “miracles” for those we haven’t previously experienced. All there is, in the end, is G-d’s will.
That we are inured to the magnificence of the stars in the sky is unfortunate. We city dwellers can still capture some of the grandeur of Emerson’s “city of G-d” if we journey to less light-polluted places. I recall the shock I felt as a young … Read More >>
Like mosquitoes dive-bombing a rock, a swarm of writers are waging a spirited, ineffectual, attack on human free will.
One observer of the spate of recent books arguing that people are biological automatons, James Atlas, calls the genre a mirror image of the so-called “self-help” literature. These new offerings, he drolly notes, are “Can’t-Help-Yourself books.”
They follow, and complement, the malignant manna of atheist manifestos that dropped from the publishing sky just a few years back. (In fact, one of the new books is by Sam Harris, the author of one of the old ones.) Denying the Creator opens up new vistas of guiltless behavior. Denying our ability to control our actions erases any residual reservoirs of conscience.
Citing advances in neurobiology, the books make the case that our brain chemicals yield who we are and what we do. Choices we make, their authors argue, derive from our nervous systems, not the “I” that each of us feels is part of our soul. We are, in Mr. Harris’ words, “biomechanical puppets.”
It is true, of course, at least to a degree, that we are hampered by our biologies, conscribed by inherent limitations in how we act … Read More >>
In the lead-up to the Internet Asifa, Rav Aharon Feldman wrote that the problems associated with the Internet do not begin and end with inappropriate content, and thus filters alone are not a solution. Rather, he explained, the Internet affects the way we think, our ability to focus, and the way that we interact.
As far as I know, HaRav Feldman has not even used e-mail. So how does he know something that Newsweek has now documented after exhaustive studies? “New research says the Internet can make us lonely and depressed — and may even create more extreme forms of mental illness.”
The answer, truthfully, is that this isn’t even a revelation of Rav Feldman’s gifted mind. Only the blind could question Rav Feldman’s statement in this regard… but of course, even a cursory examination of “Orthodox” blogs will remind you that the world is filled with blind pundits. Gedolei Torah have warned us about the Internet for over a decade, and those who wish to mock the Gedolim have demonstrated their own foolishness (not to use any of a number of less charitable adjectives) in their haste to attack. As I put it in 2000, when … Read More >>
I think I’ve discovered what makes me so uncomfortable about the assertion that global warming is a real and urgent problem.
A front-page New York Times story on May 1 concerned (thanks, Mr. Rumsfeld, for the pithy phrase) a “known unknown”: the earth’s cloud cover. Specifically, the causes and effects of its extent, altitude, and qualities—which are only very imperfectly understood. MIT professor of meteorology Richard S. Lindzen, the article explains, considers clouds a sort of planetary self-corrective mechanism that can counter the effects of greenhouse gases, the global warming drama’s villains.
Predictably, despite his unassailable credentials and the scientific community’s ostensible commitment to objectively consider all hypotheses, Dr. Lindzen has been excoriated by many of his colleagues, who, while they concede the enormous effect of clouds on climate, say he lacks proof for his contention and that, by raising the cloud issue, he is acting, in the words of one, in a “deeply unprofessional and irresponsible” manner.
The Times reporter mirrors that negativity, beginning his piece by stating that “a small group of scientific dissenters,” having had “their arguments… knocked down by accumulating evidence,” have “seized on one last argument,” namely, “that clouds will save us.” … Read More >>
Could it be that the venerable New York Times actually imitates Mishpacha magazine? Could they possibly be taking their ideas from the Orthodox and using them as their own? Highly unlikely, but the facts are curious.
Exhibit A: My December 2011 Mishpacha column dealt with the stranglehold of modern technology on our modern necks. We have no time to be alone with ourselves, I wrote: iPads, iPhones, iTablets, and iApps leave us no time for the only “I” that really matters.
Exhibit B: Four weeks later, the Jan 1, 2012, New York Times featured a column by famous British travel writer Pico Iyer, entitled “The Joys of Quiet.” Iyer extols the virtues of letting go of our modern technological baggage and returning to the peace and quiet of being utterly alone with ourselves. Sound familiar?
Let’s give the Times the benefit of the doubt. Perhaps this was merely a coincidence. In any case, the Times column is fascinating, as Iyer describes a $2,285.00 per night hotel perched atop the Big Sur cliffs in California, overlooking the Pacific Ocean. Part of its amenities: there are no TVs in the rooms. People come there for the stillness and the quiet. The … Read More >>
A recent essay by an award-winning scientist presents a remarkable, and remarkably revealing, picture of current scientific thought about the nature of the universe.
The delightfully named Alan P. Lightman, an MIT professor a major contributor to the understanding of astrophysical processes, titled his piece in last month’s Harper’s Magazine “The Accidental Universe: Science’s crisis of faith.” Reviewing the history of theoretical physics, he notes how, “until the past few years, physicists agreed that the entire universe… is generated from a few mathematical truths and principles of symmetry… [W]e were closing in on a vision of our universe in which everything could be calculated, predicted, and understood.”
In the words of Professor Lightman’s MIT colleague Alan Guth: “Back in the 1970s and 1980s, the feeling was that we were so smart, we almost had everything figured out,” referring to the fundamental forces of nature. Professor Guth punctuated that recollection, Professor Lightman recounts, with “a bitter laugh.”
The laugh is bitter because of something that “has unsettled some scientists for years”— careful calculations showing that if the values of some of the fundamental parameters of our universe diverged even a smidgen from what they are, life could not exist. If … Read More >>
The latest hope for signs of possible life on other planets lies in the cargo bay of a spacecraft that blasted off from Cape Canaveral the morning of Shabbos parshas Toldos.
The Mars Science Laboratory will deliver a rover aptly named Curiosity to the surface of the Red Planet. Methane gas, which can be emitted by living organisms, has tentatively been detected in the Martian atmosphere, and instruments on Curiosity should be able to confirm the presence of the gas and of other carbon-based molecules likewise considered to be “building blocks of life.”
Many scientists assume that life must exist on other worlds. Although science doesn’t usually embrace beliefs that have not been supported by observations, the conviction that there is life elsewhere in the universe derives from the creed that chance pervades and governs the universe—that randomness lies at the root of reality.
If probability is the loom on which the universe’s fabric is stretched, the creed’s canon proclaims, what reason could there possibly be for only a single, unremarkable planet in a single, unremarkable solar system in a single, unremarkable galaxy to alone have spawned life?
This abiding scientific faith assumes something of a … Read More >>
The mosquitoes are gone, thank G-d.
Not only the determined one who pestered me one summer morning in shul during davening, but all of her friends and relatives too. Gone for the fall, winter and spring. And if they all decide to take a collective summer vacation somewhere far away next July, I’ll pay their airfare. Count me among cold-weather aficionados; I’m averse to heat, humidity, and—especially—mosquitoes. Not only are their bite-sites unsightly and itchy, but some of the species carry dangerous diseases. Okay, maybe not those in these parts, but still.
About that one in shul. I imagined her sent by the soton to prevent my concentration. She hovered before me and I shooed her away. She returned and I shooed some more. I would happily have dispatched her to the big standing water pool in the sky but it somehow felt wrong to deliver a fatal blow, even to a mere insect, in my tallis and tefillin.
I don’t claim to have the focus one is ideally supposed to have during prayer. My mind wanders and too much of what I recite evidences more rote than reflection. But I do try to concentrate, especially on the parts … Read More >>
Remember Terri Schiavo, the “vegetative” Florida woman who, as a result of her husband’s insistence and a court order (over her parents’ objections), was removed from life support and died in 2005?
“Vegetative” patients—people who, due to disease or accident, are unresponsive to stimuli—are considered by many to be less than truly alive.
Last year, though, a group of European scientists employed something called functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI), which shows cellular activity across brain regions, to demonstrate that four patients in a group of 54 diagnosed as vegetative were in fact hearing and thinking—and could actually communicate—answering yes-or-no questions about their lives—through mental effort.
And now, the prestigious medical journal The Lancet has published a study demonstrating that three severely brain-injured people thought to be in an irreversible “vegetative” state showed signs of full consciousness when tested with a relatively inexpensive, widely available method of measuring brain waves. The researchers used a portable electroencephalogram (EEG) machine, which picks up electrical brain activity in the brain’s cortex, or surface layer, through electrodes positioned on a person’s head.
The research team gave 16 “vegetative” people simple instructions, to squeeze their right hands into a fist or … Read More >>
The latest Nobel Prize for chemistry was awarded last month to Israeli scientist Daniel Shechtman for his discovery of “quasicrystals.”
In the 1980s, the Israeli chemist noticed something peculiar as he examined a glowing hot metal he had cooled. The diffraction pattern that formed in the metal, unexpectedly, indicated atomic order, as in a crystal. And yet the symmetry seemed different from that of any known crystal.
When Professor Shechtman brought his observation to the head of his research lab, he was directed to a basic textbook on crystallography and told to read up on the subject. When he insisted that he had seen something new, he was asked to leave his research group.
Undaunted, he submitted a paper on the topic to the Journal of Applied Physics. It was rejected. Celebrated chemist Linus Pauling said that Shechtman was “talking nonsense” and that “there is no such thing as quasicrystals, only quasi-scientists.”
What became apparent with time, though, was that the professor had indeed discovered a new type of crystal, one that forms regular patterns, but whose patterns, unlike in all other crystals then known, never repeat. Now the stubborn scientist has a Nobel to help assuage any … Read More >>
Those of us old enough to remember July 20, 1969—when human beings first walked on the moon—recall, too, our sense of amazement over the “one small step for man” that came to mark the day for posterity.
The technical accomplishment was formidable. The Apollo 11 spacecraft transported three men from the Kennedy Space Center in Florida to the moon, and two of them stepped out onto the Sea of Tranquility, a dry bed on the lunar surface.
For some, it was wholly the technological feat that yielded the awe. The “giant step for mankind,” to them, meant that now nothing could stand in the way of further space exploration, that further giant steps—which they assumed were inevitable—would soon enough include a permanent outpost on the moon, a human presence on Mars, even flesh and blood forays into realms beyond the solar system. Humans could, and would, conquer the heavens.
Today, more than forty years later, a considerably more modest mood has settled on would-be intergalactic conquistadores. No feet have disturbed lunar dust since 1972. Space travel disasters, dangers posed by radiation in space, and budgetary constraints born of wars and social needs have combined to effectively remove … Read More >>
As a boy growing up in the 1960s, I became intrigued with handwriting analysis. It’s an intriguing notion, an almost obvious one: our character traits are subtly expressed in our handwriting. Every person is unique, after all, and so is every person’s handwriting. Our brains are the physical organs that mediate our “selves” and ultimately produce our writing. It seems reasonable that our handwriting unconsciously reveals things about our personal characteristics. The revelations will be subtle, to be sure, but with enough research, studies, and testing, it should be possible, the reasoning goes, to establish rules to allow for the accurate analysis of personality from handwriting.
And, indeed, the claim that such rules are available and can be practically applied, at least by experienced initiates, is the fundamental principle underlying the discipline of graphology, or handwriting analysis.
I read whatever material on the topic I could find. In the end, though, I concluded that if graphology were in fact a science, it was too inexact and fuzzy to be of any use. And so I lost interest and moved on to model rocketry.
But graphology, to understate things, went on quite well without me. Today, there are scores of books on the topic; companies specialize in analyzing handwriting; individual graphologists offer their services for a fee; people use graphological analyses of their strengths and weaknesses to make life decisions; and employers routinely evaluate applicants at least partly on graphologists’ judgments of handwriting. (The use of graphological profiles as an employment tool is particularly popular, for reasons not clear, in Western Europe and Israel.)
Continue reading → Handwriting Analysis: Science or Snow Job?
Rabbi Natan Slifkin recently posted a response to Rabbi Shafran’s essay from yesterday. Unfortunately, he misrepresents what Rabbi Shafran had to say, which was entirely reasonable — and on target.
Rabbi Shafran said that many scientists are, like all people, subject to bias. He suggests that nowhere is this so evident as it is with evolution, which, to some, has been elevated to the status of an unquestionable article of faith. Try as Rabbi Slifkin might, it’s hard to dispute either of those relatively obvious contentions, forcing him to produce a number of convoluted arguments and even set up a few strawmen along the way.
Rabbi Slifkin takes an obvious indicator of bias and turns it on its head: “it should be pointed out that amongst the ranks of those who do believe in evolution, you will find both atheists and devoutly religious people… but amongst those who declare evolution to be false, you will only find religious people.” Bias is found in the beholder, not the concept, and thus the same facts should rightly be said as follows: “you can find devoutly religious people who do or do not believe in evolution, but to a one, … Read More >>
“Just as ordinary, pig-headed and unreasonable as anybody else” was the eminent twentieth century psychologist H.J. Eysenck’s judgment of scientists. “And their unusually high intelligence,” he added, “only makes their prejudices all the more dangerous.”
A recent example of scientific unreason stands out, both for the renown of the scientist involved and the irony of where his bias led him.
The evolutionary biologist Stephen Jay Gould, who died in 2002, was one of the most celebrated, influential and widely-read scientists of his time. In his 1981 book “The Mismeasure of Man,” about the measurement of intelligence, he presented the work of 19th-century physical anthropologist Samuel George Morton as Exhibit A for how racial preconceptions can prejudice scientific research.
Morton, seeking evidence that the Supreme Being had created human races separately, used mustard seeds (at first, then buckshot) to meticulously calibrate the volumes of hundreds of skulls of Caucasians, Asians, American Indians and Africans. He indeed found a pattern of size differentials in the brain cavities of the various groups. Reanalyzing the data anew, however, Gould concluded that the earlier scientist had misrepresented his findings, and accused Morton of believing that the groups with the smaller cranial cavities were intellectually … Read More >>
But we are neither wallabies nor Watsons. We don’t just feel; we emote. We don’t just compute; we conceive. We don’t just act; we choose. Our reflections in a mirror mimic us too. But they’re not us. … Read More >>
This is the headline on CBSNews.com, describing a study published in a new book “Academically Adrift: Limited Learning on College Campuses.” Given that students are going to courses and acquiring lots of new information, how can it be claimed that they are “not learning much?” Because, says the study, they are not learning to think.
A study of more than 2,300 undergraduates found 45 percent of students show no significant improvement in the key measures of critical thinking, complex reasoning and writing by the end of their sophomore years.
The study determined that the subject area is less important than methodology when it comes to learning to think critically. “Students who studied alone, read and wrote more, attended more selective schools and majored in traditional arts and sciences majors posted greater learning gains.”
I have pointed out a few times that while yeshiva studies are devoted to what might be called classic literature, without immediate relevance to the modern day workforce, they excel in teaching students to think. This has been borne out by various studies in Israel, and now a contrasting study emphasizes that this is an area where today’s colleges are finding limited success.
… Read More >>
Merely “brain-dead” human beings, in the judgment of major halachic decisors, are still alive. … Read More >>
forty-odd years ago, heart transplants, too, were flabbergasting. But, at least to thoughtful men and women, they were never remotely as amazing as hearts. … Read More >>
Is ending a life of pure contemplation less objectionable that ending one that includes physical activity? … Read More >>
The shortage of organs for transplantation – is pushing some physicians to call a life a life, even if it hasn’t yet been fully lived. … Read More >>