Tuesday, December 29, 2009

Who is called a Jew?

Received from a friend:


But first . . .

When Paul Newman died, they said how great he was but they failed to
mention he considered himself Jewish (born half-Jewish).

When the woman (Helen Suzman) who helped Nelson Mandela ,died recently,
they said how great she was, but they failed to mention she was Jewish.

On the other side of the equation, when Ivan Boesky or Andrew Fastow or
Bernie Madoff committed fraud, almost every article mentioned they were

However, when Ken Lay, Jeff Skilling, Martha Stewart, Randy Cunningham,
Gov. Edwards, Conrad Black, Senator Keating, Gov Ryan, and Gov
Blagojevich messed up; no one reported what religion or denomination
they were, because they were not Jewish.

This is a reminder of a famous Einstein quote:

In 1921, Albert Einstein presented a paper on his then-infant Theory of
Relativity at the Sorbonne, the prestigious French university.

"If I am proved correct," he said, "the Germans will call me a German,
the Swiss will call me a Swiss citizen, and the French will call me a
great scientist.

"If relativity is proved wrong, the French will call me a Swiss, the
Swiss will call me a German, And the Germans will call me a Jew".

Wednesday, December 16, 2009

Coriolis effect

A few weeks ago a chassid from Boro Park visited the yeshiva and told me that a student disagreed with a statement in my series on science. I said that water will evacuate from a container in a spiral motion and that motion in the Northern Hemisphere is opposite to the motion in the Southern Hemisphere. The student apparently said that there is no such effect. Now the truth is that I said that the effect is only visible in water that is still [which may take some time without disturbance to create] and in a very symmetrical containter. And the effect is real - see http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Coriolis_effect. The reason I am posting this here is that I do not have the name or address of the chassid in Boro Park. Perhaps he will see this and pass it on to the student.

Monday, December 14, 2009

The Real Message of Chanukah

Received from a friend - very very good:

[I do not know the author of this essay - it seems from the last line that it was a newspaper article in 1962 or 1972. If anyone can discover the author I will be happy to post his name. - My thanks to a friend for pointing out that the author is Rabbi Meir Kahane; see http://books.google.com/books?id=tjAOAQAAIAAJ.]


If I were a Reform rabbi; if I were a leader of the Establishment whose money and prestige have succeeded in capturing for himself the leadership and voice of American Jewry; if I were one of the members of the Israeli Government's ruling group; if I were an enlightened sophisticated, modern Jewish intellectual, I would climb the barricades and join in battle against that most dangerous of all Jewish holidays - Chanukah.

It is a measure of the total ignorance of the world Jewish community that there is no holiday that is more universally celebrated than the "Feast of Lights," and it is an equal measure of the intellectual dishonesty and hypocricy of Jewish leadership that it plays along with the lie. For if ever there was a holiday that stands for everything that the mass of world Jewry and their leadership has rejected - it is this one. If one would find an event that is truly rooted in everything that Jews of our times and their leaders have rejected - it is this one. If there is any holiday that is more "unJewish" in the sense of our modern beliefs and practices - I do not know of it.

The Chanukah that has erupted onto the world Jewish scene in all its childishness, asininity, shallowness, ignorance and fraud - is not the Chanukah of reality. The Chanukah that came into vogue because Jewish parents - in their vapidness - needed something to counteract Christmas; that exploded in a show of "we-can-have-lights?just-as-our-goyisha-neighbors" and in an effort to reward our spoiled children with eight gifts instead of the poor Christian one; the Chanukah that the Temple, under its captive rabbi, turned into a school pageant so that the beaming parents might think that the Religious School is really successful instead of the tragic joke and waste that it really is; the Chanukah that speaks of Jewish Patrick Henrys giving-me-liberty-or-death and that pictures the Maccabees as great liberal saviors who fought so that the kibbutzim might continue to be free to preach their Marx and eat their ham, that the split?level dwellers of suburbia might be allowed to violate their Sabbath in perfect freedom and the Reform and Conservative Temples continue the fight for civil rights for Blacks, Puerto Ricans and Jane Fonda, is not remotely connected with reality.

This is NOT the Chanukah of our ancestors, of the generations of Jews of Eastern Europe and Yemen and Morocco and the Crusades and Spain and Babylon. It is surely not the Chanukah for which the Macabees themselves died. Truly, could those whom we honor so munificently, return and see what Chanukah has become, they might very well begin a second Maccabean revolt. For the life that we Jews lead today was the very cause, the REAL reason for the revolt of the Jews "in those days in our time."

What happened in that era more than 2,000 years ago? What led a handful of Jews to rise up in violence against the enemy? And precisely who WAS the enemy? What were they fighting FOR and who were they fighting AGAINST?

For years, the people of Judea had been the vassals of Greece. True independence as a state had been unknown for all those decades and, yet, the Jews did not rise up in revolt. It was only when the Greek policy shifted from mere political control to one that attempted to suppress the Jewish religion that the revolt erupted in all its bloodiness. It was not mere liberty that led to the Maccabean uprising that we so passionately applaud. What we are really cheering is a brave group of Jews who fought and plunged Judea into a bloodbath for the right to observe the Sabbath, to follow the laws of kashruth, to obey the laws of the Torah. IN A WORD EVERYTHING ABOUT CHANUKAH THAT WE COMMEMORATE AND TEACH OUR CHILDREN TO COMMEMORATE ARE THINGS WE CONSIDER TO BE OUTMODED, MEDIEVAL AND CHILDISH!

At best, then, those who fought and died for Chanukah were naive and obscurantist. Had we lived in those days we would certainly not have done what they did for everyone knows that the laws of the Torah are not realy Divine but only the products of evolution and men (do not the Reform, Reconstructionist and large parts of the Conservative movements write this daily?). Surely we would not have fought for that which we violate every day of our lives! No, at best Chanukah emerges as a needless holiday if not a foolish one. Poor Hannah and her seven children; poor Mattathias and Judah; poor well-meaning chaps all but hopelessly backward and utterly unnecessary sacrificers.

But there is more. Not only is Chanukah really a foolish and unnecessary holiday, it is also one that is dangerously fanatical and illiberal. The first act of rebellion, the first enemy who fell at the hands of the brave Jewish heroes whom our delightful children portray so cleverly in their Sunday and religious school pageants, was NOT a Greek. He was a Jew.

When the enemy sent its troops into the town of Modin to set up an idol and demand its worship, it was a Jew who decided to exercise his freedom of pagan worship and who approached the altar to worship Zeus (after all, what business was it of anyone what this fellow worshipped?). And it was this Jew, this apostate, this religious traitor who was struck down by the brave, glorious, courageous (are these not words all our Sunday schools use to describe him?) Mattathias, as he shouted: "Whoever is for G-d, follow me!"

What have we here? What kind of religious intolerance and bigotry? What kind of a man is this for the anti-religious of Hashomer Hatzair, the graceful temples of suburbia, the sophisticated intellectuals, the liberal, open-minded Jews and all the drones who have wearied us unto death with the concept of Judaism as a humanistic, open-minded, undogmatic, liberal, universalistic (if not Marxist) religion, to honor? What kind of nationalism is this for David Ben Gurion (he who rejects the Galut and speaks of the proud, free Jew of ancient Judea and Israel)?

And to crush us even more (we who know that Judaism is a faith of peace which deplores violence), what kind of Jews were these who reacted to oppression with FORCE? Surely we who so properly have deplored Jewish violence as fascistic, immoral and (above all!) UN?JEWISH, stand in horror as we contemplate Jews who declined to picket the Syrian Greeks to death and who rejected quiet diplomacy for the sword, spear and arrow (had there been bombs in those days, who can tell what they might have done?) and "descended to the level of evil," thus rejecting the ethical and moral concepts of Judaism.

Is this the kind of a holiday we wish to propagate? Are these the kinds of men we want our moral and humanistic children to honor? Is this the kind of Judaism that we wish to observe and pass on to our children?

Where shall we find the man of courage, the lone voice, in the wilderness to cry out against Chanukah and the Judaism that it represents - the Judaism of our grandparents and ancestors? Where shall we find the man of honesty and integrity to attack the Judaism of medievalism and outdated foolishness; the Judaism of bigotry that strikes down Jews who refuse to observe the Law; the Judaism of violence that calls for Jewish force and might against the enemy? When shall we find the courage to proudly eat our Chinese food and violate our Sabbaths and reject all the separateness, nationalism and religious maximalism that Chanukah so ignobly represents? . . . Down with Chanukah! It is a regressive holiday that merely symbolizes the Judaism that always was; the Judaism that was handed down to us from Sinai; the Judaism that made our ancestors ready to give their lives for the L-rd; the Judaism that young people instinctively know is true and great and real. Such a Judaism is dangerous for us and our leaders. We must do all in our power to bury it.

December 15, 1972, p. 30, 37. Titled Mai Chanukah Dec. 28, 1962 same text [in writings]

Wednesday, December 9, 2009

Nagel on Dawkins

I feel I must post the beautiful article below. Thomas Nagel is of the best contemporary philosophers and, while an atheist, is unafraid to take independent positions on sensitive subjects. His words below deserve to be read carefully for he chooses his words carefully, and they have implications beyond the immediate subject under discussion.

Published on The New Republic (http://www.tnr.com)

The Fear of Religion

* October 23, 2006 | 12:00 am

Thomas Nagel teaches philosophy at New York University. His books include The
View from Nowhere and The Last Word (Oxford University Press).

The God Delusion

By Richard Dawkins

(Houghton Mifflin, 352 pp.,$26)

Richard Dawkins, the most prominent and accomplished scientific
writer of our time, is convinced that religion is the enemy of
science. Not just fundamentalist or fanatical or extremist
religion, but all religion that admits faith as a ground of belief
and asserts the existence of God. In his new book, he attacks
religion with all the weapons at his disposal, and as a result the
book is a very uneven collection of scriptural ridicule, amateur
philosophy, historical and contemporary horror stories,
anthropological speculations, and cosmological scientific argument.
Dawkins wants both to dissuade believers and to embolden atheists.

Since Dawkins is operating mostly outside the range of his
scientific expertise, it is not surprising that The God Delusion
lacks the superb instructive lucidity of his books on evolutionary
theory, such as The Selfish Gene, The Blind Watchmaker, and
Climbing Mount Improbable. In this new book I found that kind of
pleasure only in the brief explanation of why the moth flies into
the candle flame--an example introduced to illustrate how a useful
trait can have disastrous side effects. (Dawkins believes the
prevalence of religion among human beings is a side effect of the
useful trust of childhood.)

One of Dawkins's aims is to overturn the convention of respect
toward religion that belongs to the etiquette of modern
civilization. He does this by persistently violating the
convention, and being as offensive as possible, and pointing with
gleeful outrage at absurd or destructive religious beliefs and
practices. This kind of thing was done more entertainingly by H.L.
Mencken (whom Dawkins quotes with admiration), but the taboo
against open atheistic scorn seems to have become even more
powerful since Mencken's day. Dawkins's unmitigated hostility and
quotable insults--"The God of the Old Testament is arguably the
most unpleasant character in all fiction"--will certainly serve to
attract attention, but they are not what make the book interesting.

The important message is a theoretical one, about the reach of a
certain kind of scientific explanation. At the core of the book, in
a chapter titled "Why There Almost Certainly Is No God," Dawkins
sets out with care his position on a question of which the
importance cannot be exaggerated: the question of what explains the
existence and character of the astounding natural order we can
observe in the universe we inhabit. On one side is what he calls
"the God Hypothesis," namely that "there exists a superhuman,
supernatural intelligence who deliberately designed and created the
universe and everything in it, including us." On the other side is
Dawkins's alternative view: "any creative intelligence, of
sufficient complexity to design anything, comes into existence only
as the end product of an extended process of gradual evolution.
Creative intelligences, being evolved, necessarily arrive late in
the universe, and therefore cannot be responsible for designing
it." In Dawkins's view, the ultimate explanation of everything,
including evolution, may be found in the laws of physics, which
explain the laws of chemistry, which explain the existence and the
functioning of the self-replicating molecules that underlie the
biological process of genetic mutation and natural selection.

This pair of stark alternatives may not exhaust the possibilities,
but it poses the fundamental question clearly. In this central
argument of Dawkins's book, the topic is not institutional religion
or revealed religion, based on scripture, miracles, or the personal
experience of God's presence. It is what used to be called "natural
religion," or reflection on the question of the existence and
nature of God using only the resources of ordinary human reasoning.
This is not the source of most religious belief, but it is
important nonetheless.

In a previous chapter, Dawkins dismisses, with contemptuous
flippancy the traditional a priori arguments for the existence of
God offered by Aquinas and Anselm. I found these attempts at
philosophy, along with those in a later chapter on religion and
ethics, particularly weak; Dawkins seems to have felt obliged to
include them for the sake of completeness. But his real concern is
with the argument from design, because there the conflict between
religious belief and atheism takes the form of a scientific
disagreement--a disagreement over the most plausible explanation of
the observable evidence. He argues that contemporary science gives
us decisive reason to reject the argument from design, and to
regard the existence of God as overwhelmingly improbable.

The argument from design is deceptively simple. If we found a watch
lying on a deserted heath (William Paley's famous example from the
eighteenth century), we would conclude that such an intricate
mechanism, whose parts fit together to carry out a specific
function, did not come into existence by chance, but that it was
created by a designer with that function in mind. Similarly, if we
observe any living organism, or one of its parts, such as the eye or
the wing or the red blood cell, we have reason to conclude that its
much greater physical complexity, precisely suited to carry out
specific functions, could not have come into existence by chance,
but must have been created by a designer.

The two inferences seem analogous, but they are very different.
First, we know how watches are manufactured, and we can go to a
watch factory and see it done. But the inference to creation by God
is an inference to something that we have not observed and
presumably never could observe. Second, the designer and the
manufacturer of a watch are human beings with bodies, using physical
tools to mold and put together its parts. The supernatural being
whose work is inferred by the argument from design for the
existence of God is not supposed to be a physical organism inside
the world, but someone who creates or acts on the natural world
while not being a part of it.

The first difference is not an objection to the argument. Scientific
inference to the best explanation of what we can observe often leads
to the discovery of things that are themselves unobservable by
perception and detectable only by their effects. In this sense, God
might be no more and no less observable than an electron or the Big
Bang. But the second difference is more troubling, since it is not
clear that we can understand the idea of purposive causation--of
design--by a non-physical being on analogy with our understanding
of purposive causation by a physical being such as a watchmaker.
Somehow the observation of the remarkable structure and function of
organisms is supposed to lead us to infer as their cause a
disembodied intentional agency of a kind totally unlike any that we
have ever seen in operation.

Still, even this difference need not be fatal to the theistic
argument, since science often concludes that what we observe is to
be explained by causes that are not only unobservable, but totally
different from anything that has ever been observed, and very
difficult to grasp intuitively. To be sure, the hypothesis of a
divine creator is not yet a scientific theory with testable
consequences independent of the observations on which it is based.
And the purposes of such a creator remain obscure, given what we
know about the world. But a defender of the argument from design
could say that the evidence supports an intentional cause, and that
it is hardly surprising that God, the bodiless designer, while to
some extent describable theoretically and detectable by his
effects, is resistant to full intuitive understanding.

Dawkins's reply to the argument has two parts, one positive and one
negative. The positive part consists in describing a third
alternative, different from both chance and design, as the
explanation of biological complexity. He agrees that the eye, for
example, could not have come into existence by chance, but the
theory of evolution by natural selection is capable of explaining
its existence as due neither to chance nor to design. The negative
part of the argument asserts that the hypothesis of design by God
is useless as an alternative to the hypothesis of chance, because
it just pushes the problem back one step. In other words: who made
God? "A designer God cannot be used to explain organized complexity
because any God capable of designing anything would have to be
complex enough to demand the same kind of explanation in his own

Let me first say something about this negative argument. It depends,
I believe, on a misunderstanding of the conclusion of the argument
from design, in its traditional sense as an argument for the
existence of God. If the argument is supposed to show that a
supremely adept and intelligent natural being, with a super-body
and a super-brain, is responsible for the design and the creation
of life on earth, then of course this "explanation" is no advance
on the phenomenon to be explained: if the existence of plants,
animals, and people requires explanation, then the existence of
such a super-being would require explanation for exactly the same
reason. But if we consider what that reason is, we will see that it
does not apply to the God hypothesis.

The reason that we are led to the hypothesis of a designer by
considering both the watch and the eye is that these are complex
physical structures that carry out a complex function, and we
cannot see how they could have come into existence out of
unorganized matter purely on the basis of the purposeless laws of
physics. For the elements of which they are composed to have come
together in just this finely tuned way purely as a result of
physical and chemical laws would have been such an improbable fluke
that we can regard it in effect as impossible: the hypothesis of
chance can be ruled out. But God, whatever he may be, is not a
complex physical inhabitant of the natural world. The explanation
of his existence as a chance concatenation of atoms is not a
possibility for which we must find an alternative, because that is
not what anybody means by God. If the God hypothesis makes sense at
all, it offers a different kind of explanation from those of
physical science: purpose or intention of a mind without a body,
capable nevertheless of creating and forming the entire physical
world. The point of the hypothesis is to claim that not all
explanation is physical, and that there is a mental, purposive, or
intentional explanation more fundamental than the basic laws of
physics, because it explains even them.

All explanations come to an end somewhere. The real opposition
between Dawkins's physicalist naturalism and the God hypothesis is
a disagreement over whether this end point is physical,
extensional, and purposeless, or mental, intentional, and
purposive. On either view, the ultimate explanation is not itself
explained. The God hypothesis does not explain the existence of God,
and naturalistic physicalism does not explain the laws of physics.

This entire dialectic leaves out another possibility, namely that
there are teleological principles in nature that are explained
neither by intentional design nor by purposeless physical
causation--principles that therefore provide an independent end
point of explanation for the existence and form of living things.
That, more or less, is the Aristotelian view that was displaced by
the scientific revolution. Law-governed causation by antecedent
conditions became the only acceptable form of scientific
explanation, and natural tendencies toward certain ends were
discredited. The question then became whether non- teleological
physical law can explain everything, including the biological

Darwin's theory of natural selection offered a way of accounting for
the exquisite functional organization of organisms through physical
causation, an explanation that revealed it to be the product
neither of design nor of hopelessly improbable chance. This is the
positive part of Dawkins's argument. The physical improbability of
such complexity's arising can be radically reduced if it is seen as
the result of an enormous number of very small developmental steps,
in each of which chance plays a part, together with a selective
force that favors the survival of some of those forms over others.
This is accomplished by the theory of heritable variation, due to
repeated small mutations in the genetic material, together with
natural selection, due to the differential adaptation of these
biological variations to the environments in which they emerge. The
result is the appearance of design without design, purely on the
basis of a combination of physical causes operating over billions
of years.

To be sure, this is only the schema for an explanation. Most of the
details of the story can never be recovered, and there are many
issues among evolutionary biologists over how the process works.
There are also skeptics about whether such a process is capable,
even over billions of years, of generating the complexity of life
as it is. But I will leave those topics aside, because the biggest
question about this alternative to design takes us outside the
theory of evolution.

It is a question that Dawkins recognizes and tries to address, and
it is directly analogous to his question for the God hypothesis:
who made God? The problem is this. The theory of evolution through
heritable variation and natural selection reduces the improbability
of organizational complexity by breaking the process down into a
very long series of small steps, each of which is not all that
improbable. But each of the steps involves a mutation in a carrier
of genetic information--an enormously complex molecule capable both
of self-replication and of generating out of surrounding matter a
functioning organism that can house it. The molecule is moreover
capable sometimes of surviving a slight mutation in its structure
to generate a slightly different organism that can also survive.
Without such a replicating system there could not be heritable
variation, and without heritable variation there could not be
natural selection favoring those organisms, and their underlying
genes, that are best adapted to the environment.

The entire apparatus of evolutionary explanation therefore depends
on the prior existence of genetic material with these remarkable
properties. Since 1953 we have known what that material is, and
scientists are continually learning more about how DNA does what it
does. But since the existence of this material or something like it
is a precondition of the possibility of evolution, evolutionary
theory cannot explain its existence. We are therefore faced with a
problem analogous to that which Dawkins thinks faces the argument
from design: we have explained the complexity of organic life in
terms of something that is itself just as functionally complex as
what we originally set out to explain. So the problem is just
pushed back one step: how did such a thing come into existence?

Of course there is a huge difference between this explanation and
the God hypothesis. We can observe DNA and see how it works. But
the problem that originally prompted the argument from design--the
overwhelming improbability of such a thing coming into existence by
chance, simply through the purposeless laws of physics-- remains
just as real for this case. Yet this time we cannot replace chance
with natural selection.

Dawkins recognizes the problem, but his response to it is pure
hand-waving. First, he says it only had to happen once. Next, he
says that there are, at a conservative estimate, a billion billion
planets in the universe with life- friendly physical and chemical
environments like ours. So all we have to suppose is that the
probability of something like DNA forming under such conditions,
given the laws of physics, is not much less than one in a billion
billion. And he points out, invoking the so-called anthropic
principle, that even if it happened on only one planet, it is no
accident that we are able to observe it, since the appearance of
life is a condition of our existence.

Dawkins is not a chemist or a physicist. Neither am I, but general
expositions of research on the origin of life indicate that no one
has a theory that would support anything remotely near such a high
probability as one in a billion billion. Naturally there is
speculation about possible non-biological chemical precursors of
DNA or RNA. But at this point the origin of life remains, in light
of what is known about the huge size, the extreme specificity, and
the exquisite functional precision of the genetic material, a
mystery--an event that could not have occurred by chance and to
which no significant probability can be assigned on the basis of
what we know of the laws of physics and chemistry.

Yet we know that it happened. That is why the argument from design
is still alive, and why scientists who find the conclusion of that
argument unacceptable feel there must be a purely physical
explanation of why the origin of life is not as physically
improbable as it seems. Dawkins invokes the possibility that there
are vastly many universes besides this one, thus giving chance many
more opportunities to create life; but this is just a desperate
device to avoid the demand for a real explanation.

I agree with Dawkins that the issue of design versus purely physical
causation is a scientific question. He is correct to dismiss Stephen
Jay Gould's position that science and religion are "non-overlapping
magisteria." The conflict is real. But although I am as much of an
outsider to religion as he is, I believe it is much more difficult
to settle the question than he thinks. I also suspect there are
other possibilities besides these two that have not even been
thought of yet. The fear of religion leads too many scientifically
minded atheists to cling to a defensive, world-flattening
reductionism. Dawkins, like many of his contemporaries, is hobbled
by the assumption that the only alternative to religion is to
insist that the ultimate explanation of everything must lie in
particle physics, string theory, or whatever purely extensional
laws govern the elements of which the material world is composed.

This reductionist dream is nourished by the extraordinary success of
the physical sciences in our time, not least in their recent
application to the understanding of life through molecular biology.
It is natural to try to take any successful intellectual method as
far as it will go. Yet the impulse to find an explanation of
everything in physics has over the last fifty years gotten out of
control. The concepts of physical science provide a very special,
and partial, description of the world that experience reveals to us.
It is the world with all subjective consciousness, sensory
appearances, thought, value, purpose, and will left out. What
remains is the mathematically describable order of things and
events in space and time.

That conceptual purification launched the extraordinary development
of physics and chemistry that has taken place since the seventeenth
century. But reductive physicalism turns this description into an
exclusive ontology. The reductionist project usually tries to
reclaim some of the originally excluded aspects of the world, by
analyzing them in physical--that is, behavioral or
neurophysiological--terms; but it denies reality to what cannot be
so reduced. I believe the project is doomed--that conscious
experience, thought, value, and so forth are not illusions, even
though they cannot be identified with physical facts.

I also think that there is no reason to undertake the project in the
first place. We have more than one form of understanding. Different
forms of understanding are needed for different kinds of subject
matter. The great achievements of physical science do not make it
capable of encompassing everything, from mathematics to ethics to
the experiences of a living animal. We have no reason to dismiss
moral reasoning, introspection, or conceptual analysis as ways of
discovering the truth just because they are not physics.

Any anti-reductionist view leaves us with very serious problems
about how the mutually irreducible types of truths about the world
are related. At least part of the truth about us is that we are
physical organisms composed of ordinary chemical elements. If
thinking, feeling, and valuing aren't merely complicated physical
states of the organism, what are they? What is their relation to
the brain processes on which they seem to depend? More: if
evolution is a purely physical causal process, how can it have
brought into existence conscious beings?

A religious worldview is only one response to the conviction that
the physical description of the world is incomplete. Dawkins says
with some justice that the will of God provides a too easy
explanation of anything we cannot otherwise understand, and
therefore brings inquiry to a stop. Religion need not have this
effect, but it can. It would be more reasonable, in my estimation,
to admit that we do not now have the understanding or the knowledge
on which to base a comprehensive theory of reality.

Dawkins seems to believe that if people could be persuaded to give
up the God Hypothesis on scientific grounds, the world would be a
better place-- not just intellectually, but also morally and
politically. He is horrified--as who cannot be?--by the dreadful
things that continue to be done in the name of religion, and he
argues that the sort of religious conviction that includes a
built-in resistance to reason is the true motive behind many of
them. But there is no connection between the fascinating
philosophical and scientific questions posed by the argument from
design and the attacks of September 11. Blind faith and the
authority of dogma are dangerous; the view that we can make
ultimate sense of the world only by understanding it as the
expression of mind or purpose is not. It is unreasonable to think
that one must refute the second in order to resist the first.

By Thomas Nagel
Source URL: http://www.tnr.com/article/the-fear-religion

Tuesday, December 8, 2009


In the interest of fairness, here is a letter from a friend:

Hi Rabbi Gottlieb,

After reading your "Climate Science" post on your blog, I thought I'd share the following.

Although I found myself not wanting to see a video that took the climate scientists viewpoint of the hacked emails story, I finally couldn't resist. I must say that it shook my resolve a bit:

The fellow in the video makes the best case so far I've seen (although not without a couple of problems) that the CRU emails scandal isn't really as scandalous as many so-called deniers make it out to be. Be that as it may, I do NOT believe that the "science has been settled."

If I may, I'd like to share a quote that I really think you'll like. It's from Eisenhower:


Today, the solitary inventor, tinkering in his shop, has been overshadowed by task forces of scientists in laboratories and testing fields. In the same fashion, the free university, historically the fountainhead of free ideas and scientific discovery, has experienced a revolution in the conduct of research. Partly because of the huge costs involved, a government contract becomes virtually a substitute for intellectual curiosity. For every old blackboard there are now hundreds of new electronic computers. The prospect of domination of the nation's scholars by Federal employment, project allocations, and the power of money is ever present -- and is gravely to be regarded.

Yet, in holding scientific research and discovery in respect, as we should, we must also be alert to the equal and opposite danger that public policy could itself become the captive of a scientific-technological elite.

Sunday, December 6, 2009

Climate "science"

This was sent to me by a member of the APS:

Dear fellow member of the American Physical Society:

This is a matter of great importance to the integrity of the Society. It is being sent
to a random fraction of the membership, so we hope you will pass it on.

By now everyone has heard of what has come to be known as ClimateGate,
which was and is an international scientific fraud, the worst any of us have seen
in our cumulative 223 years of APS membership. For those who have missed
the news we recommend the excellent summary article by Richard Lindzen in
the November 30 edition of the Wall Street journal, entitled "The Climate Science
isn't Settled," for a balanced account of the situation. It was written by a scientist
of unquestioned authority and integrity. A copy can be found among the items at
http://tinyurl.com/lg266u, and a visit to http://www.ClimateDepot.com can fill in
the details of the scandal, while adding spice.

What has this to do with APS? In 2007 the APS Council adopted a Statement on
global warming (also reproduced at the tinyurl site mentioned above) that was
based largely on the scientific work that is now revealed to have been corrupted.
(The principals in this escapade have not denied what they did, but have sought
to dismiss it by saying that it is normal practice among scientists. You know and we
know that that is simply untrue. Physicists are not expected to cheat.)

We have asked the APS management to put the 2007 Statement on ice until the
extent to which it is tainted can be determined, but that has not been done. We
have also asked that the membership be consulted on this point, but that too has
not been done.

None of us would use corrupted science in our own work, nor would we sign off
on a thesis by a student who did so. This is not only a matter of science, it is a matter
of integrity, and the integrity of the APS is now at stake. That is why we are taking
the unusual step of communicating directly with at least a fraction of the membership.

If you believe that the APS should withdraw a Policy Statement that is based on
admittedly corrupted science, and should then undertake to clarify the real state of
the art in the best tradition of a learned society, please send a note to the incoming
President of the APS ccallan@princeton.edu, with the single word YES in the subject
line. That will make it easier for him to count.

Bob Austin, Professor of Physics, Princeton
Hal Lewis, emeritus Professor of Physics, University of California, Santa Barbara
Will Happer, Professor of Physics, Princeton
Larry Gould, Professor of Physics, Hartford
Roger Cohen, former Manager, Strategic Planning, ExxonMobil

Wednesday, November 11, 2009

scientific predictions

Worthwhile article:

The Scientist
Volume 23 | Issue 11 | Page 28

By Stuart Blackman
Promises, Promises
Ill-judged predictions and projections can be embarrassing at best and, at worst, damaging to the authority of science and science policy.

A South Korean postage stamp issued in 2005 depicts a scene that is reminiscent of the iconic human evolution cartoon in which a stooping ape evolves, in six or so steps, into an upright, bipedal Homo sapiens. It shows a paraplegic man climbing slowly out of his wheelchair, standing up straight, and then performing a giant leap of celebration. Placed next to an image of an ovum undergoing the technique of nuclear transfer, the message was clear: Thanks to the groundbreaking publications of Hwang Woo-Suk, therapeutic cloning was a medical miracle that had as good as happened. The trouble is, it hadn’t happened. And nearly 4 years on, it still hasn’t.

South Korea was understandably proud of Hwang’s achievements and, like the rest of the world, excited by his claims and those of researchers worldwide that his human embryonic stem cell (hESC) techniques were set to provide therapies for not only spinal injuries, but Alzheimer’s, Parkinson’s, and a host of other degenerative diseases. The rest is history. By January 2006, it was clear that Hwang’s pioneering papers had been fabricated and that the eleven individualized human stem cell lines he claimed to have established did not exist. Hwang left Seoul National University and was subject to criminal investigation, the stamp was withdrawn from circulation, and the world still awaits approval for the first hESC therapeutic application.
It can sometimes feel as if cures for diseases are forever 10 years off, while nuclear fusion seems to have been 50 years away from practical reality for about half a century now.

It doesn’t take anything so extreme as scientific fraud to scupper what may have seemed, at the time, to be a well-grounded scientific prediction. At its most enthusiastic, science has always been prone to promise rather more, and sooner, than it has managed to deliver. It can sometimes feel as if cures for diseases are forever 10 years off, while nuclear fusion seems to have been 50 years away from practical reality for about half a century now. It might be easy to look back and laugh at claims that eugenics would spell the end for not only heritable diseases, but also of social problems such as vagrancy and crime, but a 1989 Science editorial’s claim during the run-up to the human genome project that the new genetics could help reduce homelessness by tackling mental illness1 is perhaps fresh enough to make biologists’ toes curl with embarrassment.

Meanwhile, in bleaker moments, scientific authorities have predicted the end of the world and civilization as we know them at the hand of pandemics or environmental catastrophe. And yet we are still here, in defiance of Thomas Malthus’s eighteenth-century warnings about overpopulation and ecologist Paul Ehrlich’s prophesy in his 1968 book The Population Bomb that “In the 1970s and 1980s hundreds of millions of people will starve to death in spite of any crash programs embarked upon now.”
Related Articles

Authors of Our Own Misfortune

The Future of Public Engagement

The Scientist as Politician

Of course, scientists have a strong incentive to make bold predictions—namely, to obtain funding, influence, and high-profile publications. But while few will be disappointed when worst-case forecasts fail to materialize, unfulfilled predictions—of which we’re seeing more and more—can be a blow for patients, policy makers, and for the reputation of science itself.

In 1995, for example, an expert panel on gene therapy convened by the U.S. National Institutes of Health’s then-director Harold Varmus2 concluded: “Expectations of current gene therapy protocols have been oversold. Overzealous representation of clinical gene therapy has obscured the exploratory nature of the initial studies, colored the manner in which findings are portrayed to the scientific press and public, and led to the widely held, but mistaken, perception that clinical gene therapy is already highly successful. Such misrepresentation threatens confidence in the field and will inevitably lead to disappointment in both medical and lay communities.”

cientists have been making predictions for as long as there have been scientists. Indeed, without speculating about the future, it would be impossible to make decisions about how best to proceed. But there is reason to believe that promises are becoming more central to the scientific process.

Sir Ian Wilmut, leader of the Roslin Institute team that cloned Dolly the sheep, says that a “soundbite” media culture that demands uncomplicated, definitive, and sensational statements plays a significant role. “It’s [the media] who put the most pressure on scientists to make predictions,” he says. And in a radio or TV interview that allows perhaps only 10 or 20 seconds for an answer, “it’s very easy then to inadvertently mislead.”

But it might also pay scientists—financially and politically—to go along with such demands, and to indulge in what Joan Haran, Cesagen Research Fellow at Cardiff University, UK, diplomatically calls “discursive overbidding,” whereby they talk up the potential value of work for which they seek the support of funds, changes in legislation or public approval.

“Since the late 20th century, scientists no longer quite have that quality that we used to speak of as scientists being disinterested. They are now very interested,” says Hilary Rose, professor emerita of the sociology of science at the University of Bradford, UK and Gresham College London. “Many clearly manage to rise above this, but the basic culture of science has changed.”

Various developments such as the 1980 Bayh-Dole Act in the United States, and the rise of the spin-out companies from universities, mean that research has become more intrinsically bound up with the commercial world. Many biotech companies are now led by financial directors rather than scientific directors, says Nik Brown, co-director of the Science and Technology Studies Unit, University of York, UK. The past decade has seen a rise in the number of financial experts appointed to influential positions in biotech companies, for instance. And since the end of the Cold War, he says, the central role of science has become less about security and more about economy, with science and technology becoming central to many nations’ economic strategy.
Some famous (and infamous) predictions
1869 Dmitri Mendeleev’s periodic table left spaces for elements that he predicted would be discovered. Three of these (gallium, scandium, and germanium) were subsequently discovered within his lifetime. RIGHT
1964 Physicists predict the existence of the Higgs Boson. If CERN’s Large Hadron Collider finds no evidence for the existence of this massive fundamental particle, working models of the material universe might require a fundamental rethink. PENDING
1965 Intel cofounder Gordon E. Moore predicts that the number of transistors on a computer chip would double every two years. The industry has so far managed to keep up (despite many predictions over the years about the law’s imminent demise). RIGHT
1968 Entomologist Paul Ehrlich predicts that hundreds of millions of people will starve to death in the next two decades. WRONG
2002 At the website longbets.org, astronomer Sir Martin Rees, president of the Royal Society, predicts that “By 2020, bioterror or bioerror will lead to one million casualties in a single event.” Also at Long Bets, entrepreneurial engineer Ray Kurzweil bets $10,000 that by 2029 a computer will have passed the Turing Test for machine intelligence. PENDING
2003 Cold Spring Harbor Laboratory sponsored GeneSweep, a sweepstakes on the number of human genes. While bids averaged around 60,000 genes, it was eventually won by a bid of 25,947—the lowest of the hundreds received. WRONG
2007 The Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change’s 4th Assessment Report projects that global surface air temperatures will increase by between 1.1 and 6.4°C over preindustrial levels by the end of the century. PENDING

It’s a changing role for science that finds formal expression in the scientific funding process, says Brian Wynne, professor of science studies at Lancaster University, UK. “Every research proposal these days, whichever field you’re in, has got to include a statement on the impact your research is going to have. And that isn’t just intellectual impact; it’s also economic impact. And that is basically requiring scientists to make promises, and to exaggerate those promises.”

Central too is the desperate competition to get funded and published, which forces scientists to emphasize the potential impact of their work, introducing further temptation to exaggerate. Last year, 8% of papers submitted to Nature were accepted for publication (down from nearly 11% in 1997). In recent years, fewer than 1 in 10 applications for new R01s from the US National Institutes of Health have been successful.

Moreover, at a time when the pressures on scientists to “rhetorically overbid” is increasing, politics is becoming more reliant on science to provide predictions to guide policy.

“There are probably more issues than there were where there is political concern about issues—often global issues—which have a scientific content,” says Sir Martin Rees, astronomer and president of the United Kingdom’s Royal Society. “Climate change is one. Pandemics are another. These are both issues where the science is uncertain, but it’s better to listen to the best scientists than to the man in the street.”

But according to Dan Sarewitz, director of the Consortium for Science, Policy, and Outcomes at Arizona State University, a consequence of this reliance on science is that politicians are able to “fob off responsibility to scientists” when making difficult policy decisions. That politicians are looking to science for certainty regarding complex political issues is illustrated by an address to the Copenhagen Climate Conference earlier this year by the then Danish Prime Minister Anders Fogh Rasmussen, who appealed to scientific delegates for simple, unambiguous accounts of the science. “[Don’t] provide us with too many moving targets, because it is already a very, very complicated process,” he said. “I need fixed targets and certain figures, and not too many considerations on uncertainty and risk and things like that.” Such demands, says Sarewitz, can tempt scientists into providing simplistic and unqualified extrapolations from the current state of knowledge to possible future scenarios.

Another development is that scientists, still reeling from public opposition—at least in Europe—to genetically modified crops and food, increasingly need the public on their side to secure funds and make progress. As British fertility expert Robert Winston told the BBC in 2005: “We tend often to really have rather too much overconfidence. We may exaggerate, simply because [stem cell research, for example] is an area where we need support, where we need the support of the public, and we need to persuade them. And I think we can go about persuading people a bit too vigorously sometimes.”

f course, cloning technologies might yet help people walk again. But the fact remains that the South Korean stamp was celebrating something that had not yet actually happened. And as the Hwang case testifies, the future has an annoying habit of taking unexpected turns.

As physicist Niels Bohr once jokingly put it, “predictions can be very difficult—especially about the future.” Or as Joan Haran says, when scientists make predictions and promises they are entering “a realm of the imaginary.” So even if those predictions are based on science’s conventional territory of facts and data, they have as much to do with wishful thinking and social and political possibilities.
While few will be disappointed when worst-case forecasts fail to materialize, unfulfilled predictions—of which we're seeing more and more—can be a blow for patients, policy makers, and for the reputation of science itself.

A single unexpected scientific discovery is all it can take to confound the most carefully considered of predictions by throwing open new worlds of possibilities or shutting down others. Wilmut knows this only too well. In 2006, at a public lecture at the Edinburgh International Book Festival, Wilmut predicted that within 5 years scientists will have determined whether they can use cloning to cure motor neuron disease, the subject of his research since moving to the University of Edinburgh. But within only a couple of years, Wilmut had, like many other researchers, switched from using cloning techniques in favor of induced pluripotent stem cells (iPS), whereby somatic cells are reprogrammed, either genetically or biochemically, to become pluripotent. Other scientists continue to pursue cloning techniques, but the shift towards iPS means that 3 years since Wilmut made his prediction, it is looking less likely that it will even be proven right or wrong. Wilmut holds his hands up. “Sometimes you’re right, and sometimes you’re wrong,” he says. “You give the best prediction you can at the time.”
How to predict responsibly
Advice from the experts on how to avoid making promises that owe more to Nostradamus than natural science

When asked how long it might take for your research to translate into therapies, try to communicate the complexities of the process rather than make a specific prediction. “I’ve come to recognize that these things take even longer than you hope,” says Ian Wilmut. So what would he say if asked about the prospects of tackling motor neuron disease with the iPS system? “I would say, one or two labs have now got nerve cells which are the genuine equivalent of those in a person who inherited the disease; it will perhaps take a couple of years before they have identified the molecular differences between them and healthy cells; it might take a couple of years after that to set up a high-throughput assay; a couple more years after that to run that and identify the first compounds. Which of course then simply gets you to the point where you have to put drugs through animal tests before you can get to patients. So, it’s likely to be at least ten years before there is the possibility of a new drug being used on any scale to treat human patients.”

According to Nik Brown, just heeding the lessons of past predictions and promises—both the successes and the failures—can help scientists avoid what he calls “institutional amnesia,” in which they deliver serial disappointments.

Harold Varmus’s gene therapy report concluded that scientists need to “inform the public about not only the extraordinary promise of gene therapy, but also its current limitations.” It might not be easy when the scientific culture encourages promise-making and hyperbole, but for Brian Wynne, science and scientists need to be more modest about their claims. “If modesty were institutional, politics and science would be completely transformed.” Adds Brown: “A more modest science would probably also be a more reliable science.”

“Scientists know about science, at least their own subdisciplines,” says Dan Sarewitz, “but they often know a lot less about technology and innovation and political context, so it’s not very surprising that they’re often wrong in their predictions.” Hilary Rose says that natural scientists are sometimes inclined to think of complex human social and political behavior in biological terms, which can introduce further error. A problem for ecologist Paul Ehrlich’s predictions in The Population Bomb, for example, was that “he did not know enough about demography,” she says.

By the time a prediction has been proved right or wrong, however, it is already out there influencing the worlds of research and policy, for better or for worse. And it’s a two-way street: Add to the mix the influence of legislative changes on research trajectories, and things get even less predictable. It’s natural to assume, for example, that countries with less restrictive policies for human embryonic stem cell research would show more progress in this area. But that optimism has not been rewarded. While hESC therapies have so far proved elusive, and even clinical trials are rare and newsworthy events, adult SC research has at least kept pace with treatments—notably for heart disease and the regeneration of a patient’s collapsed trachea—already emerging from the pipeline.

Hilary Rose says that while there are plenty of reasons to be critical of the former U.S. President George W. Bush’s hostility to hESC research, the restrictions forced scientists to think harder about how to make the most of alternatives. “It almost feels like hurray for George Bush,” she says. Sociologist Christine Hauskeller, Senior Research Fellow at the ESRC Centre for Genomics in Society, University of Exeter, UK, points out that many countries other than the United States sought alternatives to hESCs in the light of ethical objections. (Indeed, iPS was initially developed in Japan.)

It is a research landscape that continues to change in unforeseen ways as UK scientists drop hESC research in favor of the new promise offered by iPS. “In fieldwork in 2007 and 2008, we did not find a single embryonic stem cell laboratory that is not also working on iPS,” says Hauskeller.

Cloning isn’t the only area where scientists make wild predictions, of course. In his book Our Final Hour: A Scientist’s Warning, Sir Martin Rees predicts that “the odds are no better than fifty-fifty that our present civilisation on Earth will survive to the end of the present century.” Plainly, much more than science goes into an assessment of the risks posed by nuclear warfare, bio-terror, bio-error and environmental disaster.

“Of course,” agrees Rees. “I’m writing this book as a member of the human race,” not a representative of the Royal Society. But while his prediction involves judgments outside his area of expertise, it still carries the authority of science, as witnessed by the book’s subtitle. And it’s that very authority that could be undermined should these predictions fall flat.

Haran’s research shows that people are rather trusting of scientists’ visions of the future, while taking the predictions of journalists or of movies and other fictional media with a big pinch of salt. “Because of the high esteem in which scientists are held, it becomes very hard to mount a critique of their promises,” says Haran. And scientists want to keep it that way, it would seem. As an example, scientists complained after a New York Times article in 1980 warned readers not to hope for immediate miracles from research on interferons, arguing that such expressions of doubt by the press would affect their research funding, erode public trust in science, and make further progress impossible. Scientists defending their corner is understandable, says Haran, but it should be recognized that it can be at the expense of healthy skepticism.

he consequences of inflated expectations about what, and when, science can deliver may be felt by individuals, society, and by science itself. Harold Varmus’s expert panel on gene therapy reported that overselling of the science by scientists and their sponsors “threatened confidence in the integrity of the field and may ultimately hinder progress toward successful application of gene therapy to human disease.” During the ensuing debate, David Valle, a pediatrician at Johns Hopkins Medical Institutions in Baltimore, was quoted as saying that one of his patients had stopped a restricted diet that could save his eyesight on the basis that “gene therapy is right around the corner.”
David Valle, a pediatrician at Johns Hopkins Medical Institutions in Baltimore, was quoted as saying that one of his patients had stopped a restricted diet that could save his eyesight on the basis that "gene therapy is right around the corner."

Predictions can also create a sense of haste and urgency that can impede cool, calm reflection on how to proceed at the policy level. Brown says it can create a pressure to legislate before experts properly understand a new research path and its potential. “You’ve got to legislate before your international competitors do,” he says.

Christine Hauskeller cites recent amendments made to the United Kingdom’s Human Fertilisation and Embryology Act, which make it legal to create human-animal hybrid embryos for use in stem cell research following intense lobbying by scientists who argued that egg donations were insufficient to supply research needs. However, now that the law is in place, she says, the development of iPS, combined with unforeseen serious technical problems in making hybrid embryos and a lack of funding for the research, means that no scientists in the UK are actually working on them. “We now have a policy without a product,” she says.

This is not only a waste of financial and legal resources, she says, but it serves to narrow social and scientific possibilities. Indeed, she says, a promissory culture of science and technology can detract from the essence of scientific investigation: “If we already know what scientists must produce, then it’s not science—it’s called engineering.”

According to Brown, entire regulatory bodies have been established in anticipation of promising new research paths, which subsequently fail to deliver. The UK Xenotransplantation Interim Regulatory Authority (UKXIRA), for example, was set up in 1997 to oversee the development of animal-human organ and tissue transplantation. “Meanwhile, the science itself has been collapsing,” he says. “It’s proving to be unstable and unsound, and certainly not delivering what was expected.” UKXIRA was disbanded in 2006, without having granted a single license to conduct transplantation. “It met regularly to talk about…well…to kind of speculate really, but did little more than that,” says Brown.

Hilary Rose believes that an overemphasis on certain research trajectories, and overoptimistic expectations of what they can deliver, can obscure political and social solutions to problems. She cites the Science editorial that looked to the Human Genome Project as a solution to homelessness, which might skew spending towards genetics and away from other, proven social services. “Which is going to create more public health—more health for more people—improvements in, for example, housing and nutritional status for people, or genetics? I think genetics might do some wonderful things for a tiny number of extremely sick people, but I don’t think it’s likely to do much good for the public health of the entire population.”

Perhaps the most worrying aspect for scientists of a promissory culture of the discipline is that unmet promises, as the NIH gene therapy report suggested, might ultimately undermine public confidence. Presently, says Sarewitz, science seems “incredibly robust” to public skepticism. “Science budgets continue to grow, and science in the US is riding a crest of political legitimacy, of popularity, and I think that’s what’s encouraged this continual promise-making,” he says.

However, public opposition to GM in Europe is perhaps an indication that trust in science is not bulletproof. How many expert assurances or warnings must turn out to be conspicuously wrong for the authority of science and scientists to be diminished? “I do very much worry for the soul of science should there be a backlash,” says Sarewitz. “And I can’t see any feedbacks into the system right now that would encourage communities of scientists to be more circumspect in their claims about what the future will look like.”
Have a comment? E-mail us at mail@the-scientist.com

1. D.E. Koshland, Jr., “Sequences and Consequences of the Human Genome,” Science, 246(4927), 1989.
2. S.H. Orkin, A.G. Motulsky, Report and Recommendations of the Panel to Assess the NIH Investment in Research on Gene Therapy, December 7, 1995; available online at http://www.nih.gov/news/panelrep.html

attack on Darwin

Look for this when it comes out [Jerry Fodor is a first-class philosopher]:

What Darwin Got Wrong: A Groundbreaking Attack on the Reigning Scientific Orthodoxy of the Last 150 Years (Hardcover)
by Jerry Fodor (Author), Massimo Piatelli-Palmarini (Author)

Sunday, November 1, 2009

Jerusalem Day

What the SAGES Say

This is a true story. I am the narrator. It was the custom

of our Gemara shiur at Ohr Somayach in Jerusalem to

take the train up north to the sleepy seaside town of

Zichron Yaakov every couple of months for a long weekend


This was the old Jerusalem-Tel Aviv line, now abandoned.

Twice a day, the train chugged indolently through the Judean

mountains, winding its way along wadis filled with wildflowers

overseen by hawks circling far above. The Jerusalem

train station was an ornate arcade designed by the Turks in

their waning years of empire.

The ride to Tel Aviv took about and hour and a half. By

bus the ride was 45 minutes, by car, half an hour. An old joke

said you could step off the first carriage, pick a bouquet of

flowers, and step back on the train with time to spare.

Although preposterously cheap, the timeworn train always

made its leisurely run near-empty.

Almost always, that is.

The Thursday we had scheduled for our Zikaron

Yaakov excursion turned out to be Jerusalem Day, when

the country celebrates the capture and reunification of

Jerusalem during the Six-Day War.

The normally tranquil and placid train was filled to overflowing

with raucous Israeli teenagers enjoying the day off

from high school. Each three-seater couch was occupied

by one prone teenager. Cigarette haze filled the cars.

Transistor radios cackled and screeched. The chatter was

like an awesome aviary. Bubble gum popped and snapped.

After some informal negotiation, the guys in our shiur

managed to carve out a niche in the corner of the last car.

We said the brief travel-prayer, cracked open our Gemaras,

and settled down to learn.

Suddenly we looked up to see a disheveled teenage kid

standing over us. Do you guys learn in Yeshivah? he

inquired. Yes, we nodded. Do you put on Tefillin? he

continued. Yes, we put on Tefillin, we replied. Do you

have Tefillin here with you? he pressed on. Wondering

where this was leading, we said yes, we did we put them

on once a day and needed them for tomorrow. Id like to

put on Tefillin. Would you lend me a pair? he concluded.

This unusual request provoked a heated argument among

us. Their high degree of sanctity requires Tefillin to be treated

with extreme respect. They cannot be worn when ones

body is soiled or even while thinking unclean thoughts. Most

of the shiur thought that lending Tefillin to this secular high

school kid risked debasing them and making a laughing-stock

of this precious Mitzvah.

Rachamim, an Iranian immigrant who lived in New York

and joined the Yeshiva for the summers, thought differently.

Ill lend you my Tefillin, he told the kid, on condition that

you respect their sanctity and follow all the Halachic guidelines.

The kid agreed. The Halachic guidelines meant he had

to wash his hands in running water, wear a kippa, say the

beracha, lay both the head and hand Tefillin properly, and

recite divrei keddusha while wearing them. The kid disappeared,

and returned in a flash holding his hands aloft, dripping

with water. (The facilities in the train did not include

hand towels!) Rachamim lent him a kippa, showed him how

to put on the Tefillin, and taught him the beracha.

From the moment the kid returned with his dripping

hands in the air, the party-atmosphere in the train transmuted

into total silence. Dozens of pairs of teenage eyes followed

his every move. The word went out and the entire

trainload of kids migrated to our car. All you could hear over

the clickety-click of the rails was our kids soft sobs as he

recited the Shema.

Then an even more remarkable thing happened. All of

the boys in the train formed a line behind our kid. Each

asked to put on Tefillin! Rachamim had his hands full. For the

next two hours the cacophony of music, chatter and bubblegum

ceased. One after another the boys washed their

hands, put on the kippa, said the beracha, put on the Tefillin,

and recited the Shema.

Afterwards the kids asked us to explain the meaning of

the Mitzvah of Tefillin. I volunteered and gave them a brief

lesson. I explained that Tefillin contain the four sacred

parchments from the Torah in which the Mitzvah of Tefillin is

mentioned. We wear them on our weaker arm to show that

His is the power. They are jewelry given to us by HaKadosh

Baruch Hu to show His love for us.

Rav Nachman bar Yitshak said to Rav Hiya bar Avin, What

is written in the Tefillin of the Master of the World? He replied

(Shmuel 1, 7:23) And who is like unto your People Israel, one

nation on earth. (Berachot 6a).

David Siegel is an alumnus of Ohr Somayach Yeshiva in Jerusalem, 1985.

He is currently attached to a Kollel in Jerusalems Old City. He has edited

and published from manuscripts original works by Rabbi Elazar ben Yehuda

of Worms, known as the Rokeah after his Halachic classic of that title.

Special OHRNET Feature




Who is Like Unto Your People Israel,

One Nation on Earth


wwwo.hr.edu 6

You can make a difference in a young mans life.

Sunday, October 25, 2009

I highly recommend this:

Dear Friends,

Attached is a comprehensive book review of Genesis and the Big Bang, by Dr. Gerald Schroeder. This book review is also a useful introduction to the Torah and science interface. I hope you will find it illuminating. Please feel free to distribute it to interested parties. It is also posted at www.TorahExplorer.com.


Yoram Bogacz