Recent Articles on Two Different Kinds of Evolution

A piece I wrote in response to a a review of Marc Shapiro’s most recent book (and, to an extent, to the book itself) can be read here.

And one about my personal reluctance to accept speciation is here.

Yale Scientists’ Interesting Conclusion

Interesting news reported this morning about a team of Yale paleontologists who applied a set of algorithms to genetic and morphological data and concluded that the ancestor of living snakes had hind legs, complete with toes and ankles.

See here to read about a related observation.

Anybody Out There?

A mere week after NASA scientists announced their certainty of finding life on other planets within the next 20 years, a team of other scientists announced that, after searching 100,000 galaxies, they have found no signs of at least intelligent extraterrestrial life.

The researchers used information from NASA’s Wide-field Infrared Survey Explorer orbiting observatory (WISE) to look for energy radiating away as heat. “The idea behind our research is that if an entire galaxy had been colonized by an advanced… civilization, the energy produced… would be detectable in mid-infrared wavelengths,” explained Jason T. Wright, a Penn State University professor who initiated the survey. “These galaxies are billions of years old,” he continued, “which should have been plenty of time for them to have been filled with alien civilizations.”

This search is nothing new. Over the 1960s and 1970s, there was SETI, or the “Search for Extra-Terrestrial Intelligence”; META, the “Megachannel Extra-Terrestrial Assay”; and META II. In 1972 and 1973, plaques depicting information about Earth were launched aboard the Pioneer and Voyager probes. In 1974, the “Arecibo message,” which carried coded information about chemistry and terrestrial life, was beamed into space. And in the 1990s, the “Billion-channel ExtraTerrestrial Assay” … Read More >>

When I Drifted Off the Path

A piece I wrote for the Forward about my short-lived disillusionment with Judaism when I was 12 years old can be read here.

The Big Bang Contradicts Physics, not Religion

Pope Francis is in the news today, for having “sided with science” and against creationists — by endorsing the Big Bang Theory. According to these articles, his statement was “revolutionary” and “embraces modern science.”

As far as saying that the universe is billions of years old, or that creatures evolved, this could be true — though even there, he said that it could not have happened without Divine Intervention. When it comes to the Big Bang, however, these articles neatly turn the truth on its head.

Put simply, the Big Bang Theory violates the known laws of physics. This “Big Bang,” a point of energy that formed the universe — from where did it come? How was it formed? How did this energy and matter form, to then explode outwards? There are various conjectures and speculations to explain what might have happened, but what we know about astrophysics and thermodynamics doesn’t involve nothingness exploding into energy and matter.

In fact, the term “Big Bang” was placed upon the theory by a prominent astronomer who, like most of his colleagues, believed in a “steady state” universe with no known beginning. The majority belief in steady state … Read More >>

Elon Musk Can Sleep Easier

Elon Musk, CEO of SpaceX and Tesla Motors, was quoted yesterday comparing artificial intelligence (AI) to “summoning the demon.” “I think we should be very careful about artificial intelligence. If I would guess at what our biggest existential threat is, it’s probably that… With artificial intelligence we are summoning the demon. You know all those stories where there’s the guy with the pentagram and the holy water and… he’s sure he can control the demon? Didn’t work out.” This is not a new sentiment for Musk, who called AI “more dangerous than nukes” earlier this summer.

Could AI truly be an “existential threat” – could computers, intended to help us, instead make us extinct? In theory, yes. Musk referred to HAL 9000, the sentient computer that murdered the crew in 2001: A Space Odyssey, as “a puppy dog” compared to what AI could produce. Colossus: The Forbin Project, the 1970 movie about two supercomputers that took over the world (and nuked a city when not obeyed), enslaving mankind for the “good” of mankind, seems more in line with his concerns.

If Musk has erred, it’s not because he has overestimated the power of consciousness. On … Read More >>

Misplaced Zeal

The powerful swell of voices on Broadway, thirteen stories below Agudath Israel’s offices, did more than disturb my concentration. A thousand people were blocking traffic and loudly chanting in unison, the roar less redolent of “Hashem hu ho’Elokim!” at Neila’s end than of what I imagine “Kill the Jews!” must have sounded like during pogroms. Which was ironic, considering that, in light of the cause and location, a large number of the shouters were likely Jewish.

The “Flood Wall Street” event was but a weak echo of what had taken place a day earlier, when an estimated 300,000 people (including members of close to 100 Jewish groups, parts of the “Jewish Climate Campaign”), participated in the “People’s Climate March” on the West Side of Manhattan. But the smaller demonstration was large enough and loud enough for me. I had to wonder what made the chanting seem so sinister.

It may have had to do with something the late writer Michael Crichton famously asserted, that people “have to believe in something that gives meaning” to their lives, and that “environmentalism seems to be the religion of choice for urban atheists.” (And, I’d add, even for some who may believe in … Read More >>

Immoral “Morality”

In a good illustration of just how thick people who are intellectually gifted can be, the well-known biologist and militant atheist Richard Dawkins recently offered his opinion that Down syndrome children would best be prevented from being born. “It would be immoral,” he wrote, “to bring it into the world if you have the choice.”


The dehumanization says it all.

Professor Dawkins’ judgment of birthing a developmentally disabled child as “immoral” stems from his belief (shared by another famously mindless professor, Peter Singer, who also advocates euthanasia for severely handicapped infants and elderly) that an act’s morality should be gauged entirely by whether or not it increases happiness or suffering.

Mr. Dawkins’ comment drew considerable fire, as well it should have. Some of those who assailed the professor for his – let’s here reclaim an important adjective – immoral stance focused on the factual error of his creepy calculus. Two psychology researchers wrote, for example, in something of an understatement, that “individuals with Down syndrome can experience more happiness and potential for success than Mr. Dawkins seems to appreciate.”

In fact, 99% of respondents to a survey of those with Down syndrome (yes, 99%) report that … Read More >>

Andrew Dice Clay on Josh Orlian

If there’s ever someone you wouldn’t expect to be praised on Cross-Currents, it would have to be Andrew Dice Clay. He was banned for life by MTV and from many radio and television programs for his use of foul language and “politically incorrect humor” — one of the cast members of Saturday Night Live refused to appear during the episode in which he made a guest appearance. In terms of “defining deviancy down” when it comes to language and references in the media, he exceeded even Howard Stern.

But he provides an interesting footnote to the appearance of Josh Orlian on America’s Got Talent, as previously discussed by both Rabbi Adlerstein and myself. In contrast to Howard Stern, who I have since been told has a non-Jewish mother, Andrew Clay Silverstein grew up in a Jewish family in the Sheepshead Bay section of Brooklyn.

On Shabbos I mentioned Josh Orlian’s AGT appearance, and my reaction to it, while speaking at a Kiddush. I was seated across from a corporate entertainer and comedy magician named Avi Frier, who is also the former publisher of the Florida Jewish News. Honestly, I didn’t know the “corporate” part or what … Read More >>

More on the Charedi Draft

I had this as a comment to Rabbi Landesman’s post, but Rabbi Adlerstein encouraged me to elevate it to a post unto itself. He did say that Rabbi Landesman may go “a second round” as well — so let me say now that much as I might wish to continue, it is already known in the Menken house that my study, which is the one room that is my sole responsibility to clean, is also the last to be ready for bedikas chametz. Should Rabbi Landesman wish to have it, I’ll have to surrender the last word.

Nonetheless, what Rabbi Landesman appears to have overlooked is that the problem of the day is neither motzi dibat ha’Aretz nor motzi dibat ha-medinah, but rather, motzi dibat ha-haredim l’dvar HaShem, the bad-mouthing of the Charedim who, on advice of their Gedolim, continue not to go into the Army. Rabbi Landesman seems to level no criticism against those who reside outside our world yet critique it (often in the most bizarre fashion) at every occasion, including the present one — on the contrary, he only seems to find fault with those of us in Chutz L’Aretz who presume to defend the … Read More >>

Reb Meir Schuster zt”l

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 >>

What’s New

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 >>

In Our Bones

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 >>

A Fourth of July Thought

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.

Infestation Inspiration

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 >>

On The Front Line

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 >>

Think the Internet isn’t all that Dangerous? Think Again.

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 >>

Global Worrying

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 >>

Unplug Yourself

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 >>

Blind Faith and Physics

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 Sound of Silence

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 >>

Annoyance and Opportunity

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 >>

Is Anybody There?

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 >>

Beware of Orthodoxy!

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 >>