Category Archives: Science

Plagues Past and Present

It’s been some 700 years since the bubonic plague ravaged central Asia, killing millions of people. A decade or two later, in October, 1347, a ship from the Crimea docked in Messina, Sicily. Rats in its hold were infested with fleas that harbored the bacterium that causes the sickness.

That marked the beginning of the era known as the Black Death. Over the next 50 years, it is estimated that at least 25 million people died, between 25% and 60% of the continent’s population.

Yes, that disaster is recalled here because of the coronavirus, or Covid-19, currently spreading around the world. Not, though, in order to raise great alarm, because, at least at this point, it is not warranted. Rather to note, firstly, the stark contrasts between the bubonic plague and the current viral outbreak; secondly, to remind readers of the Jewish angle of the Black Death years; and, thirdly, to convey a lesson from that plague to the current medical challenge.

The contrast lies in several things. For starters, no one at the time of the Black Plague had any idea of what was causing it. At a time of deep ignorance, fueled by Christian lore and superstition, all sorts of theories abounded, none of which did anything to slow the disease. Today, we know what is causing the current pandemic, and, hopefully, modern science can develop the means of protecting the vulnerable from the Covid19 virus’ worst effects.

And, unlike the bubonic plague, baruch Hashem, Covid-19 does not harm the vast majority of those who contract it. It is particularly dangerous to the elderly and infirm, and to smokers and others with less than optimum lung function. But to most people not in any of those categories, the infection results in either no symptoms at all or in flu-like experiences – fever, cough and headache.

Finally, as the eminent and wonderfully readable late historian Barbara Tuchman recounted in her book A Distant Mirror, the Middle Ages plague brought people to turn on one another rather than work together to deal with the challenge.

Christian religious leaders abandoned their flocks, parents deserted children; and children, their parents. “Charity,” she wrote, “was dead.”

Today, nations and scientists and health workers are working hard to educate people about the current virus, to create a vaccine against it and to find the most effective therapies for the stricken, if not an actual cure. People might be quarantined, for their or others’ benefit, but no one is being deserted.

The Jewish angle to the Black Death was the pointing (as usual) of fingers of blame at our forebears.

The plague, it was widely declared, was punishment for Christian society’s allowing Jews to live in their midst as Jews. Although Jews, too, perished in the plague, only in much smaller numbers, it was said. The resulting “logic” had it that ending the epidemic lay in converting, exiling or murdering Jews. Despite the declarations of several popes that the Jews were not at fault for the plague, people on the street were sure they knew better.

Then the populace came up with a better reason to blame Jews – the stubborn rejecters of Christianity were poisoning the drinking wells of communities, the better to harm Christians. Some Jews even confessed to such crimes – after being forced to do so in order to end their horrific torture.

On February 14, 1349, a day on which Christians venerate a third-century clergyman named Valentine, a contemporary observer of events recorded, some 2000 Jews were forced onto a wooden platform in the Holy Roman Empire city of Strasbourg’s Jewish cemetery and burned to death. Parents held tightly to their children when citizens tried to take them away for baptism.

The Jewish communities in Antwerp and Brussels were entirely exterminated in 1350. From 1349 until about 1390, the Jewish communities of France and Germany were decimated by angry mobs. In 1350, Frankfurt had over 19,000 Jews. By 1400, not a minyan was left.

Historians tend to take seriously the contention that Jewish communities were less affected by the plague itself, if not from the hatred it unleashed. And that brings us to the lesson to be learned from events seven centuries in the past.

The ostensible reason that the Black Death may have affected Jews to a lesser degree than Christians lies, the historical consensus has it, in the fact that Jews frequently wash their hands.

Upon arising in the morning, before tefillos, before saying Asher Yatzar, before bread meals (which were most, if not all, meals over most of history), Jews poured water over their hands. And, what’s more, they bathed – a luxury back in the Middle Ages – every week in honor of Shabbos.

We Jews still wash our hands a lot. But today most of us live in environments where every doorknob, subway pole and bus passenger is a vector for the transmission of germs.

Although it is likely that the spread of Covid-19 will intensify before it, b’ezras Hashem, soon, abates, we would do well, especially the elderly and health-compromised among us, to do the equivalent of netilas yadayim through the day, ideally, thoroughly and with soap.

That will not only help protect us from the current and other infections, but be a worthy reminder of the mesirus nefesh of, and kiddush Hashem created by, our ancestors in Europe.

© 2020 Hamodia

Pathologized Problems

It seems that a good part of my youth was spent in a mental asylum without walls.

At least that’s how some mental health professionals might characterize it.

Among the boys in my neighborhood more than a half century ago was one who would today be called obsessive-compulsive, and another was firmly on the autism spectrum. Yet another seemed chronically depressed, and anxiety plagued another. Yet another would have been diagnosed as ADHD (attention-deficit/hyperactivity disordered, for anyone unfamiliar with the acronym) – had the diagnosis existed at the time.

I’m not exaggerating. The boys displayed classic symptoms of their respective “disorders.” But the rest of us kids somehow didn’t see the actions or moods or attitudes as emotional disorders, certainly not as mental illnesses, but only as quirks.

And the quirky kids were not medicated; they were integrated.

In fact, appreciated.

Yes, we were kids, occasionally mocking one another, and the quirky ones were occasional targets for joking. But so were the math prodigies, clumsy kids, sloppy kids or sports-obsessed ones. We all had our idiosyncrasies. But no one was treated meanly and everyone was accepted by everyone.

The memory of the “different” boys – all of whom, I suspect (and in some cases know), went on to live productive lives – came back to me when I read of the recent death of Dr. Bonnie Burstow, a Jewish psychotherapist and University of Toronto professor who was known as a major proponent of “anti-psychiatry.”

Conventional psychiatry holds that things like chemical imbalances, sometimes paired with social factors or traumas, are what lead to mental illnesses. Professor Burstow was famous for her claim that “There is not a single proof of a single chemical imbalance of a single so-called mental illness.”

“Do I believe people have anxiety?” she once challenged listeners. “Do I believe that people feel compulsions? Of course. But I believe these feelings are a normal human way of experiencing reality.”

Now, she targeted not only minor emotional or behavioral peculiarities but things like schizophrenia as well. That would seem to be an overreach. Anyone walking on a Manhattan sidewalk knows that there are people who are well beyond quirky, who are seriously mentally impaired and in need of treatment or, at least, supervision.

That said, though, Dr. Burstow’s view on the over-medicalization of emotional illness is a worthy spur to further thought.

Not every oddity of behavior is a sickness. Should our first reaction to a child with a facial tic be to create a “persistent minor spasm malady” and seek drug treatment? Should a kid who is disobedient and rebellious be labeled with a diagnosis of – oh, I don’t know – “oppositional defiant disorder”?

Oh, scratch that. The disorder actually exists, at least in the view of the ever-changing and usually expanding “Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders,” or DSM.

That American Psychiatric Association publication is considered authoritative and is used by clinicians, researchers, psychiatric drug regulation agencies, health insurance companies, drug companies and lawyers. (And it’s not delusional to wonder whether those last two categories might have some less-than-humanistic stake in the over-medicalization of emotional challenges.)

Too often missing, as well, from our conception of mental or emotional illness, I think, is the fact that, when it comes to attitudes and behaviors, there are spectra.

There is, for instance, a paranoia spectrum, at one end of which sits a person who is convinced that the CIA has tapped his phones, bugged his home and implanted a computer chip in his brain. At the other, though, is a person with a nagging suspicion that a particular other person or people are ill-disposed toward him. The suspicion may be wrong and unreasonable, but that doesn’t render the uneasy fellow a mental invalid. What’s more, he may be right. As a character in a work of fiction once observed, “Just because you’re paranoid doesn’t mean they aren’t after you.”

And aren’t many, if not most, of us somewhat obsessive or compulsive, at least in certain areas? We may not wash our hands fifty times a day, but we might regularly, just as we’ve closed the door to our homes behind us, turn back and go in to make sure we hadn’t left the oven on. And even the regular hand-washer isn’t necessarily in need of treatment. (In fact, he likely doesn’t often catch colds.)

And between the poles on each spectrum are many gradations. As the Rambam at the beginning of Hilchos Dei’os explains, people are born with certain sets of “default” middos at or between two extremes: Constantly angry, or never moved to anger; excessively prideful or exceptionally humble; ruled by physical appetites or undesirous of even legitimate needs; very greedy or reluctant to pursue even what he lacks; miserly or very generous; jocular or depressed; cruel or softhearted, cowardly or rash… And there is an entire scale of notches between each set of extremes.

While the Rambam, famously, does employ a medical mashal to characterize “off-balance” middos, he considers them normative human states treatable by contemplation, consultation with wise people and willpower.

Again, to be sure, there are mental disorders that require intervention, perhaps even including the use of chemicals.

But we do no one a service by ignoring some realities: “Normal” encompasses much more than some may think; psychological states exist on spectra; and people’s natural middos can, sans drugs, be changed.

© 2020 Hamodia

Why Jews Worry

Some racial or national stereotypes are outright falsehoods. Mexicans may take siestas (as do many Israelis) during the hottest time of the day, but all the workers from south of the border whom I’ve observed have been exceedingly industrious and hard-working.

Other stereotypes are exaggerations, not fabrications. I think some stereotypes of Jews fall into that category. Some of the mockeries aimed at us may in fact have their origin in high ideals. Penny-pinching, for instance, is just a derisive way to refer to frugality; and frugality bespeaks an appreciation for the worth of every single resource with which Hashem has gifted us.

The Torah forbids the wasting of material or money. “Each and every penny,” Rabi Elazar is famously quoted as saying, “adds up to a fortune” (Bava Basra 9b). And fortunes, we all know, can be put to effective, ideally charitable, use. So, while “penny-pinching” can certainly refer to meaningless, selfish hoarding, it can also be the result of a wise recognition that wasting any resource debases it, and us.

Likewise the stereotype of Jews as worriers. Senior citizens reading this may have memories of telegrams (for you young’uns: they were messages sent instantaneously over distances, like e-mails, but for which one had to pay for each letter of each word). The old Jewish joke had it that a Jewish fellow’s telegram to his family far away read: “Start worrying. Details to follow.”

The Jewish worry-wart stereotype, though, may well have its roots in a deep Jewish truth: there is in fact much about which to worry.

That has always been the case, of course. Whether war or other violence, disease or accident, myriad threats have abounded, and continue to abound. Today, though, we are, or should be, particularly sensitive to all sorts of newer things that can harm us. Cars, guns, terrorists, serial killers and… invisible enemies.

Abba Binyamin (Berachos 6a) describes some such potential dangers as sheidim, demons, and informs us that “If the eye only had the ability to see them, no creature could endure” their sheer multitude.

Most of us aren’t sensitive to the presence of sheidim these days. But we certainly are to microbes – noxious bacteria, viruses and fungi – that are everywhere, and whose onslaughts we only survive because of the workings of our immune systems.

To which we generally give nary a thought. Only when our natural biological defenses malfunction do we – suddenly panic-stricken – recognize how fortunate we had been all that time when things went well.

Our mesorah admonishes us to give that thought constant attention. And no less attention to all the other myriad unseen dangers we face. In Modim, we acknowledge “all the wonders and favors that are with us daily, evening and morning and afternoon.”

From the first words a Jew recites upon arising, thanking our Creator for “returning my soul to me with kindness” – our breathing, after all, proceeded all night apace despite the oblivion of our sleep hours – to the brachah of Asher Yatzar, acknowledging the disasters that would follow were our digestive or circulatory systems hampered – we are guided to be keenly sensitive to the potential disasters that face us continuously.

Thus, the Jewish mandate to recognize always what could go wrong in our lives yields a meaningful disquietude. Which informs the worrier stereotype.

The same readers who remember telegrams might remember, too, the long-ago cartoon character “Mr. Magoo,” whose signature trait was sight-impairment (the caricature would never be acceptable these rightly disability-sensitive days).

Bald, big-nosed and behatted, Mr. Magoo’s comicality stemmed from his constant mistaking of objects for entirely other objects (and occasionally people), and from his encounters with an assortment of life-threatening circumstances, which always ended happily, without the protagonist’s awareness that he had ever been in danger in the first place.

He might be happily driving a car off a cliff overlooking a lake and land on a ship’s deck, only to just drive off the gangplank as the ship docked, to motor along on his merry way, never realizing he had ever left the road.

We’re not really so different. We, too, don’t fully appreciate how every day from which we emerge relatively unscathed was a day during which Hashem protected us from threats of which we weren’t even aware. So, worry away. It’s a very Jewish thing to do. It means we recognize what dangers are out there and, hopefully, to quote Modim again, the nissim shebchol yom imanu, the “miracles that are daily with us.”

The “velt” around us in the U.S. will soon be commemorating a secular holiday that really isn’t so secular at all. Thanksgiving’s religious roots really can’t be denied. Whom, after all, is being thanked?

President George Washington made it abundantly clear when, in 1789, proclaiming the first nationwide Thanksgiving celebration, he characterized it “as a day of public thanksgiving and prayer, to be observed by acknowledging with grateful hearts the many and signal favours of Almighty G-d.”

Klal Yisrael has in many ways positively influenced the larger world. The first American president’s words well reflect that fact.

But our recognition of the signal favors of Hashem is a daily, indeed constant, one.

© 2019 Rabbi Avi Shafran

Amino Acids and Us

Like many 60-somethings, I remember being informed in grade school of the imminent solution to the mystery of life.

Triumphantly, teachers described an experiment conducted by two researchers, Stanley Miller and Harold Urey, in which molecules believed to represent components of the early Earth’s atmosphere were induced by electricity to form some of the amino acids that are components of proteins necessary for life.

Soon enough, we were told, scientists would coax further artificial formation of primordial materials, proteins themselves and even, eventually, actual life – some single-celled organism like the one from which we ourselves (our teachers dutifully explained) were surely descended.

A half-century later, however, we are left with nothing – not even a pitiful protein – beyond Miller-Urey’s original results.  And even that experiment is now discredited by scientists as having gotten the original atmospheric soup all wrong. 

Whatever.

The Miller-Urey memory is an important reminder of how, with all of science’s unarguable accomplishments, every generation’s scientific establishment is convinced it has a handle as well on the Big Questions.  And of how much more common hubris is than wisdom.  It is a thought well worth thinking these days.

No one denies that species, over time, tend to retain traits that serve them well, and to lose others that don’t.

But the appearance of a new species from an existing one, or even of an entirely new trait within a species – things contemporary science insists have happened literally millions of times – have never been witnessed.  There isn’t necessarily anything in the Torah that precludes them from happening, or being made to happen artificially.  But the solemn conviction that they have occurred countless times and by chance remains a large leap of… well, faith.  Which is why “evolution” is rightly called a theory (and might better still be called a religion).  

Scientists, to be sure, protest that billions of years are necessary for chance mutations of DNA, the assumed engine of Neo-Darwinism, to work their accidental magic.  A lovely scenario, but one whose hallowing of chance as the engine of all is easily seen as a rejection of the concept of a Creator, Judaism’s central credo.

It also begs the question of how the first living organism might have emerged from inert matter.  Spontaneous generation is generally ridiculed by science, yet precisely that is presumed by the priests of Randomness to have occurred – by utter chance, yet – to jump-start the process of evolution.

What is more, the first creature’s ability to bring forth a next generation (and beyond), would have also had to have been among the first living thing’s talents.  Without that, the organism would have amounted to nothing more than a hopeless dead-end.  No DNA, after all, no future.  And so, a package of complex genetic material, too, would have had to have been part of the unbelievably lucky alpha-amoeba.

And yet to so much as express doubts about such a scenario is to be branded a heretic by the scientific establishment, the Church of Chance.

The issue is not “Biblical literalism,” a decidedly non-Jewish approach.  Many are the p’sukim that do not mean what a simple reading would yield; our mesorah is the key to the true meaning of the Torah’s words; and there are multiple levels of deeper meanings inaccessible to most of us.  The words of Braishis hide infinitely more than they reveal – which is only that the universe was created as the willful act of G-d, and that the biosphere unfolded in stages.  Details are not provided.

The issue is more stark: Are we products of chance, or of G-d?

Jewish belief, of course, is founded on the latter contention, and, as a result, on the conviction that there is a purpose to the universe we inhabit, and to the lives we live.  That what we do makes a difference, that there is right and there is wrong.

Is the very notion of good and evil an illusion, an adaptive evolutionary strategy that provides human beings some cold biological advantage – or does our innate conviction that some human actions are proper and others not reflect a deeper reality?  

If humanity’s roots lie in pure chance, there can be no more meaning to good and bad actions than to good or bad weather; no more import to right and wrong than to right and left.  The game is zero-sum. Either we are here by chance or by design.  Either there is no meaningful mandate for human beings; or there is.  And if there is, there must be a Mandator.

Opposing the promotion of a particular religion in American public schools is a worthy stance.  But, at the same time, there is simply no philosophically sound way of holding simultaneously in one’s head both the conviction that we are nothing more than evolved animals and the conviction that we are something qualitatively different. 

And no way to avoid the fact that when children are taught to embrace the one, they are being taught, ever so subtly, to shun the other.

© 2019 AM ECHAD RESOURCES

(First published in 2006, edited slightly here.)

No Escape

“We used to spend a good two hours here… chaos,” Palestinian construction worker Imad Khalil explained to National Public Radio’s Daniel Estrin. “Today we arrive and we immediately pass.”

The worker was marveling at the efficiency of “Speed Gate,” a facial recognition technology that has done away with crowds and individual inspections by Israeli soldiers at checkpoints through which Arab day laborers must pass from Yehudah and Shomron to work in Israel proper. Nearly 100,000 Palestinian laborers cross such checkpoints daily.

Where the technology is in place, the workers now need only place electronic ID cards on a sensor and stare at a camera. Panels then open to let them through.

Palestinians wishing to work in Israel have for many years been photographed and fingerprinted, in order to ascertain that they have nothing in their records to indicate they’re a threat to anyone.

Having soldiers ascertain identities of crossing workers created long lines and frustrated people. The new facial recognition software allows workers’ ID cards to immediately connect to a biometric database and confirm their identities in an instant.

Israel is also building a database of its own citizens, and already uses similar facial recognition technology for passport control at Ben Gurion airport.

As might be expected, human rights advocates are upset by the effort, seeing it as helping perpetuate the current political status quo and as a violation of individuals’ privacy.

Omer Laviv of Mer Security and Communications Systems, an Israeli company that markets the technology to law enforcement agencies internationally, had four words in response to such anxieties: “Security concerns override privacy.”

Several thousands of miles to the west, in New York City, the city’s police department use of identification technology is likewise being criticized by privacy advocates.

The department has not only built a giant facial recognition database and loaded thousands of arrest photographs, including of children and teenagers, into it, but was recently revealed to have accelerated the collection and storage of criminals’ and suspects’ DNA, obtained from cheek swabs or even from coffee cups, water bottles or cigarette butts harboring trace amounts of suspects’ saliva.

There are currently more than 80,000 genetic profiles in the city database, begun in 2009, an increase of 28 percent over the past two years. Scores of violent crimes have been successfully prosecuted based on collected DNA.

The criticism, from groups like the Legal Aid Society, has focused on the fact that some 30,000 of the profiles are of people, including minors, who were only suspected of crimes, but never convicted.

Some civil liberties lawyers contend that taking someone’s DNA without probable cause to suspect that they did something illegal violates the U.S. Constitution’s Fourth Amendment’s ban on “unreasonable searches and seizures.” The legitimacy of that assertion depends on the meaning of “searches and seizures.” DNA and facial recognition technology were things unimagined, likely unimaginable, to the Constitution’s crafters.

But is there anything qualitatively different between fingerprinting a suspect – or just photographing him – and recording the patterns of his DNA? While DNA identification is not, in many cases, at all as indisputable as most people assume – there are a number of issues that can render it less than conclusive – it is certainly a most useful tool in better focusing investigations that can lead to more decisive evidence.

And there can be little doubt that not only does “searches and seizures” in the Fourth Amendment need a modern definition; so does the word “unreasonable.

There may well be activists who maintain that street cameras should be considered unlawful, or who shun EZ-Pass or GPS technology because they consider such things, which identify users’ locations and movements, dangers to individual privacy. But, justified in their fears or not, they are blowing hard at a hurricane.

Because, like it or not, we no longer have private lives, at least not in the sense of being invisible to a plethora of commercial, governmental or law enforcement entities. Cameras on the sides of buildings, and inside them, abound. Anyone with a driver’s license or passport has surrendered information to authorities, and anyone who uses the internet is shedding dribs and drabs of facts about himself to untold numbers of commercial and other interests.

That might dismay some people, but it is, in the end, a simple fact of modern life. And leveraging technology to fight crime – as long as it is done responsibly and with recognition of new tools’ limits – doesn’t strike me as unreasonable. Even if a youngster’s DNA is on file in a police database, well, youngsters grow up, after all, some of them, sadly, into violent criminals. And a means of identifying a perpetrator of a crime is something beneficial to society.

For Jews who recognize the truth of the Jewish mesorah, the new technologies can serve to remind us that, as Rabi Yehudah Hanasi stresses in Avos (2:1): “An eye sees and an ear hears…”

And, particularly apt, with the Yamim Nora’im still fresh in our memories, “…all of your actions are in the record written.”

© 2019 Hamodia

Genetics and Mimetics

When my family lived in Providence, Rhode Island back in the 1980’s and early ‘90s, I heard rumors that some of the city’s residents of Cape Verdean ancestry had a strange custom. Friday afternoons, they would turn over the traditional Catholic religious paintings common to Cape Verdeans’ homes to face the wall, and then light candles.

Cape Verde is a group of islands off the west coast of Africa that were uninhabited until discovered by Portuguese explorers in the 15th century. Among the immigrants to the islands from Europe, historians contend, were Spanish and Portuguese Jews fleeing the Catholic Inquisitions in those lands. One of the islands’ towns is called Sinagoga, Portuguese for “synagogue,” and surnames of Jewish origin can still be found in the area.

In the early 19th century, many Cape Verdeans found their way to the New World, and Providence is home to one of the oldest and largest Cape Verdean communities in the U.S.

I was reminded of my former neighbors’ purported practice when reading of a recent study published in the scientific journal Nature, examining the DNA of thousands of members of another population with roots in the Iberian Peninsula: Latin Americans.

The researchers sampled the DNA of 6,500 people across Brazil, Chile, Colombia, Mexico, and Peru, which they compared to that of 2,300 people all over the world. Nearly a quarter of the Latin Americans shared 5 percent or more of their ancestry with people living in North Africa and the eastern Mediterranean, including self-identified Sephardi Jews.

That degree of Jewish ancestry is more pronounced than that of people in Spain and Portugal today, indicating that a significant segment of the immigrants who settled the New World were descended from Jews.

It is no great surprise that so large a portion of a population that emigrated from Spain centuries ago have Jewish ancestry. It is estimated that when the Spanish Inquisition began in 1478, approximately one-fifth of the Spanish population, between 300,000-800,000 people, were Jews. By 1492, when the Alhambra Decree gave the choice between expulsion and conversion, the number had dwindled to 80,000. Most of the “missing” Jews had undergone superficial conversions and retained their Jewish identity and practices in secret. They are called “crypto-Jews,” conversos or anusim. Many of them, though, along with many other Spanish and Portuguese Jews who refused conversion, sailed away from the Iberian Peninsula to seek refuge on new shores.

There is no way, of course, to prove that those emigrants were the source of the apparent Jewish ancestry of so many Latin Americans today, but the genetic test results dovetail neatly with the historical record, indicating that a new population began to appear in Latin America around the time of the Inquisitions.

Bolstering the genetic connection is a 2011 study that found that several rare genetic diseases (including a cancer associated with the BRCA1 gene and a form of dwarfism) that appear in Jews also show up among Latin Americans. Albert Einstein College of Medicine geneticist Harry Ostrer, one of the study’s researchers, said, “It’s not just one disease… this isn’t a coincidence.”

The newer study’s results indicate that there may currently be over 150 million Latin Americans with a degree of Jewish ancestry.

Some Latinos who believe they have Jewish roots seek to reclaim a Jewish identity, even undergoing conversion ceremonies; some have even undergone halachic geirus. Others just take note, and pride, in their ostensible Jewish genealogical heritage. New Congressperson Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, whose family comes from Puerto Rico, recently revealed that her family tradition includes some Sephardic Jewish ancestry.

Genetic studies, of course, have no halachic import. And not only because Jewishness depends on the maternal line. Even in analyses of mitochondrial DNA – which passes down only through females – genetic findings do not meet the halachic requirements for establishing Jewish identity.

Yet it’s intriguing to read stories of people across Latin America whose family tradition is to shun pork and light candles on Fridays and cover mirrors when mourning the deaths of relatives. And stories like the one I heard about some of Providence’s Cape Verdeans.

And depressing to think of all the Jewish families that were lost to Klal Yisrael over history to persecution and the resultant intermarriage and assimilation.

But the resurgence of interest – and pride – in even tenuous Jewish connections is heartening too.

For it recalls what the navi Zecharyah (8:23) predicts for the time of Moshiach: that “ten men from all the languages of the nations will take hold… of the tallis of a Jew, saying: ‘We will go with you, for we have heard that Hashem is with you’.”

© 2019 Hamodia

Body and Soul

It sounds like a story about the fictional Chelm. The town philosopher sagely informs his fellow citizens that he has no face. He can’t perceive it directly, he points out, and besides, as anyone can plainly see, what people claim is his face clearly resides in his mirror.

The silly scene is inspired by celebrated scientists. Like Yale psychology professor Paul Bloom, who has lamented human beings’ stubborn commitment to “dualism,” the idea that people possess both physical and spiritual components. He pities those who believe that there is an “I” somehow separate from one’s body and brain.

“The qualities of mental life that we associate with souls…,” he asserts confidently, “emerge from biochemical processes in the brain.”

Also enlightening the backward masses is Harvard psychology professor Steven Pinker, who condescendingly advises people to set aside “childlike intuitions and traditional dogmas” and recognize that what we conceive of as the soul is nothing more than “the activity of the brain.”

Or, as they might say at the University of Chelm, since the soul seems perceptible only through the brain, the brain, perforce, must be the soul.  And your stereo speakers are the music.

Sometimes, though, intuitions are right and scientific dogmas wrong. Scientists, the noted British psychologist H. J. Eysenck famously observed, can be “just as ordinary, pig-headed and unreasonable as anybody else, and their unusually high intelligence only makes their prejudices all the more dangerous.”  Some, in fact, are prone to a perilous folly: the confidence – despite the long and what-should-be chastening history of science, littered with the remains of once-coddled beliefs – that they have – eureka! – arrived at conclusive knowledge.

Were the contemporary “dualism” debate merely academic, we believing Jews might reasonably choose to ignore it. Unfortunately, though, the denial of humanity’s specialness and, perforce, of our responsibility for our choices – the unmistakable ghost in the Bloom/Pinker philosophy-machine – is of substantial import.

The idea of the  neshamah goes to the very heart of many a contemporary social issue. It influences society’s attitudes toward a host of moral concerns, from animal rights to the meaning of marriage to the treatment of the terminally ill.

In the absence of the concept of a human  neshamah, there is simply nothing to justify considering humans inherently more worthy than animals, nothing to prevent us from considering any “lifestyle” less proper than any other, nothing to prevent us from coldly ending the life of a patient in extremis. Put starkly, without affirmation of the  neshamah, society is, in the word’s deepest sense, soulless.

And the game is zero-sum: Either humans are something qualitatively different from the rest of the biosphere, or they are not. And a society that chooses to believe the latter is a society where no person has any reason to aspire to anything beyond self-gratification. A world in denial of the  neshamah might craft a utilitarian social contract. But right and wrong could be no more meaningful than right and left.

The notion is hardly novel, of course. Philosophical “Materialists,” believing only in the physical and bent on despiritualizing humanity’s essence were the high priests of the Age of Reason and the glory days of Communism.

And the footsteps in which they walked were those of Yavan. The ancient Greeks hallowed reason and inquiry, and celebrated the physical world. Eratosthenes calculated the earth’s circumference to within one percent; Euclid conceived and developed geometry; Aristarchus proposed a heliocentric model of the solar system. And the early Greeks exalted the human being – but as a physical specimen, not more.

Accordingly, the most worthwhile goal of man for the Greeks was the enjoyment of life. The words “cynic,” “epicurean,” and “hedonist” all stem from Greek philosophical schools.

Which may be why the culture that was Yavan was so enraged by Klal Yisrael’s focus on kedushah. Shabbos denied the unstopping nature of the physical world; milah implied that the body is imperfect; kiddush hachodesh saw holiness where the Greeks saw only mundane periodicity; modesty, moreover, was unnatural.

The Greeks had their “gods,” of course, but they were diametric to holiness, modeled entirely on the worst examples of human beings. And Hellenist philosophers who spoke of a “soul” were referring only to the personality or intellect. The idea of a tzelem Elokim, of a  neshamah that can make choices and merit eternity, indispensable to the Jew, was indigestible to the Greek.

Ner Hashem nishmas adam – “The soul of man is a Divine flame” (Mishlei 20:27). When we light our Chanukah lecht, we might keep in mind how, despite the declarations of some scientists and Chelmer holdouts, Klal Yisrael overcame Yavan not only on a physical battlefield but on a conceptual one no less.

© 2017 Hamodia

Subway Poles/Snakes on Poles

Subway riders in standing room-only cars try not to think too much about what organisms might be happily residing on the poles they grasp during the lurching trip.

To obtain some hard data, Harvard researchers conducted a study in which they swabbed seats, walls, poles, hand grips and ticket machines in the Boston transit system, and then did DNA analyses to find out what organisms they had collected.  They recently released their study’s results.

It’s still a good idea to wash your hands after a subway ride, but straphangers can feel somewhat relieved at the study’s finding that the surfaces were contaminated, but with generally innocuous bacteria.  If one is relatively healthy, the germs picked up from a subway grasp shouldn’t present any problem.

The reason for the inclusion of the word “generally,” though, in the previous paragraph is because even strains of common bacteria can cause terrible diseases under certain circumstances, like among the immunosuppressed.

Which thought should serve as a reminder that all that stands between each of us and myriad invisible agents of harm is the unbelievably complex biological network of tissues, cells, enzymes and antibodies that science calls the immune system.

Were the myriad mazikin that constantly surround us visible to us, says Abba Binyamin (Berachos 6a), we would be frozen in terror.  Whether he had in mind the fungi, protozoa, bacteria and viruses that regularly seek to invade our bodies must remain speculation.  But, regarding the countless organisms that would, were it not for our immune systems, do us great harm, the statement would have been entirely true.

This Shabbos, we will be reading about the nachash hanechoshes, the “copper snake” that Moshe Rabbeinu mounted on a staff during the plague of poisonous serpents that Hashem had brought after the people showed a lack of gratitude and complained about their sustenance. Those poisoned gazed at it and were cured.  Chazal teach us that, of course, it wasn’t the replica that cured them but that the gazers’ hearts were aimed Heavenward (brought by Rashi, Bamidbar, 21:8).

What, then, though, was the snake for?  Why the middleman (or middle-reptile)?  Why not tell the people to just gaze directly toward Heaven, where their hearts were to be?

Rabbeinu Bachya notes that the snakes plaguing our ancestors are referred to with the definite article, “hei” – the snakes.  And he sees in that seemingly superfluous Hebrew letter a reference to Devarim 8:15, where the midbar is characterized as a place of snakes and scorpions.  The snakes, explains Rabbeinu Bachya , refers to the ones that regularly filled the desert.

Rav Samson Raphael Hirsch expands on that thought, and sees the people’s gazing at the copper snake as focusing them on the fact that snakes in the desert were ubiquitous.  Looking at the metal serpent would bring them to appreciate how, every day without a snake bite was a day during which Hashem had protected them from a clear and present danger.  With that realization, born of meditation on the copper snake-replica, our ancestors’ hearts could truly, meaningfully aim Heavenward.

It’s more than interesting that the image of a serpent entwined around a staff has become a widely employed symbol of the medical profession.  Although the symbol is believed to have been borrowed from Greek avodah zarah, the ultimate origin of the image seems clearly to be the nachash hanechoshes.

More than interesting because a fundamental pillar of modern medicine is the understanding that much disease is caused not by “vapors” or internal imbalances, as was once assumed to be the sources of all illness, but rather by the failure of bodies to repel invaders – the bacteria, viruses, fungi, and parasites that surround us all the time.

That might seem obvious to us, but germ theory, the idea that microorganisms lie at the root of many diseases, only became accepted in the nineteenth century, less than two hundred years ago.

Now, though, it is a pillar of medical practice that sanitation is key to health.  Surgery requires great antiseptic measures, medical personnel wear sterilized disposable gloves, we all recognize that diseases can spread through the transfer of germs of various types.

So, however the medical world might conceive of the source of the “Rod of Asclepius,” if it is indeed a depiction of the nachash hanechoshes, it is, an unintentionally apt symbol of the lesson of that copper snake.  That is to say, the fairly recent realization that we are indeed surrounded by myriad mazikin, from which only miracles – the immune systems Hashem has made part of our bodies – protect us.

© 2016 Hamodia

Hubris Heights

Three years ago, geneticists Drs. Stephen Friend, Eric Schadt and Jason Bobe set out to search international databases for people who were over 30 and healthy but who carried mutations that typically cause childhood diseases like Tay-Sachs or muscular dystrophy.  In other words, people whose genetic makeups should have disabled or killed them years ago, but for some reason did not.

The scientists recently reported that they found 15,597 people who seemed to fit the bill, but they had doubts about some of the data about the patients and were unsure if their genetic mutations indeed coded for the diseases they were predicted to develop.

Thirteen people, though, turned out to have verifiable mutations that definitely cause one of eight serious diseases before age 18 in all who inherit them.  Or, at least, so it had been assumed.  In those thirteen cases, no disease had occurred.

The researchers surmise that there may be some other genetic mutations in those people, and likely in many others, that somehow counteract the natural effects of the disease-causing mutations.  Further research will focus on identifying any such “protective” genetic factors.

The large majority of people carrying genetic markers for serious diseases will in fact experience those diseases.  But the recent report reminds us that things aren’t always as clear as they may have once seemed.  Medical death sentences are sometimes unexpectedly commuted.  Widely accepted treatments are sometimes found to confer no benefit – even, in some cases, to be detrimental to health.  Medical truths sometimes turn out to be fictions.

In the late 1980s, the Cardiac Antiarrhythmic Suppression Trial found that widely trusted medications for patients with a particular heart arrhythmia conferred greater mortality than a placebo.  That is to say they were worse than useless.

In 2005, a procedure known as vertebroplasty, the injection of medical cement into fractured bone, was performed more than 27,000 times in the United States.  A study in 2009 conclusively showed that the procedure was no better than a sham procedure where nothing at all was done.

Routine PSA screening, once the gold standard for identifying prostate cancer, is no longer recommended, as it turned out to have caused many unnecessary biopsies and surgeries.  Likewise for routine mammography screening for women in their 40s.

Such “well, now we know better” changes of policy are known as “medical reversal” and are nothing new. Ancient Greek medical researchers like Hippocrates and Galen contributed much to the understanding of the human body.  But the treatments that resulted from their findings and theories soon enough (well, what’s a thousand years in the larger picture?) fell victim to the Dutch anatomist Vesalius’s discoveries.  In the 17th century, William Harvey further revolutionized medical treatment.

The next century saw Edward Jenner perfect the art of inoculation, and then the medical revolution born of germ theory.  Then, the discovery of DNA opened an entirely new vista: genetics.

It is, of course, not surprising that medicine has advanced with time, and that we know more about the body and disease than ever before.  Such progress is true about science in general.  Aristotle’s understanding of physics pales beside what Newton laid out; and Newtonian physics was upended in fundamental ways by Einstein and later physicists and cosmologists.

But what’s important to realize is that much of what we know about medicine or other sciences is not so much based on what we thought we knew but rather reversed  it.

And yet much of the scientific establishment, and laymen who trust them implicitly, persist in the illogical belief that what we think we know will prove impervious to being overturned by future discoveries.  Why, though, should we imagine that our generation possesses ultimate knowledge?  Has there ever been such an animal?  Is there really any reason to doubt that a century hence some of our most cherished scientific knowns will prove to have been unknowns?

To be sure, we must utilize the medical understandings and treatments of our day.  But our minds must hold the thought, too, that changes will likely come on a future day.

As Rav Samson Raphael Hirsch wrote, Hashem granted us two revelations: nature and Torah.  Immutable knowledge of only one of them, however, has been Divinely transmitted to human beings.  We can be mechadesh ideas in Torah, but only by building upon its unchanging truths. Nature, by contrast, remains an open question, and is thus subject to (and has long evidenced) conceptual revolutions.

Ignoring history, thinking that we have some ultimate understanding of the physical world, may provide solace to some.  But, in truth, it is the height of hubris.

© 2016 Hamodia