An article of mine in the Forward about the role of Orthodox anti-vaxxers in the measles epidemic can be read here
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
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
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
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
But did you know that 10 million Americans suffer noise-induced hearing loss? Or that exposure to some common sounds, even for limited periods of time, can cause permanent hearing damage?
Loud sounds damage microscopic hair cells, known as stereocilia, that line the ear, leading, in time, to the need to use hearing aids.
Uninterested? Stay with me, please. This is going somewhere important.
According to the World Health Organization, 15 minutes of 100 decibel noise is considered unsafe.
The music of an average chasunah band registers at approximately 110 decibels – with many bands considerably, even greatly, exceeding that.
In fact, professional musicians are almost four times more likely to suffer noise-induced hearing loss than other people, according to researchers who analyzed health insurance records of 7 million people from 2004 to 2008.
The professionals were also about 57 percent more likely to suffer tinnitus – constant ringing in the ears.
Musicians have learned the hard way about the damage they cause to themselves, and that is why one sees many musicians wearing earplugs when they perform.
Baruch Hashem, multiple chasunos take place every night when halachah permits. The community has grown, and so has the number of simchos it celebrates. But there is a hidden cost to those celebrations: future hearing loss to the celebrants. Especially children who are present, as a child’s ears are more sensitive than those of adults to sound.
Published research yields the fact that about 12.5 percent of American children between the ages of 6 and 19 have measurable noise-induced hearing loss in one or both ears. And the average American child is probably not as often exposed to loud music as are siblings of chassanim and kallos.
There’s no escaping the fact: When we attend simchos that feature loud bands, we are injuring ourselves; and, if they are with us, our children.
Many people innately sense that fact, even if they are unaware of the science or statistics. They just feel discomfort or pain in their ears at celebrations. One increasingly sees chasunah attendees who had the prudence to bring earplugs, and who quickly put them in place as soon as the band strikes up. And others who, in pain, run out into the lobby to escape their audio-rodef.
Can anything be done about this hidden danger? Of course. We just need the will and foresight to do it.
My wife and I, baruch Hashem, have had the good fortune to walk most of our children to the chuppah. At every chasunah but one (where the mechutanim’s good friend, a band leader, supplied the music), there was a one-man band, in which circumstance the volume of the music is more easily controlled – and control it the band-man did, as per the instructions he received.
I have attended many chasunos with any number of band members, and can attest to the fact that the simchah felt and expressed by the guests at our chasunos was in no way less enthusiastic than at any multi-instrumented affair. Or any louder one.
Band leaders will tell you that their parnassah is dependent, indirectly, on the loud volume of their musical offerings. Friends of the chasson and kallah, they claim, insist on louder music, “to get them going.” And those friends will, b’ezras Hashem, be celebrating their own marriages one day, and will surely hire only the loudest bands.
If that is true, then the chasson and kallah in those cases are, sadly, bereft of true friends, who would not need their eardrums overstimulated to celebrate their friends’ marriages. Music should aid the simchah; it is not what creates it.
So, when you are next planning to walk your child to the chuppah, consider doing one of two things:
Distributing earplugs to all guests as they sit down to the seudah.
Or stipulating to the band person or leader, when he is hired, that he will only be compensated for his great and appreciated efforts and talent if the music is kept to whatever decibel level you decide is safe for your guests. (Someone with the ability to download a decibel-measuring app to a phone can aid you here.)
You’ll be doing your part not only to make the simchah more enjoyable to the majority of the guests, but to help ensure that when the chosson, kallah and their friends are walking their own children to the chuppah, they won’t be wearing hearing aids.
© 2016 Hamodia
I’ll get to the comment in time. First, though, some background:
The scientists used modern laboratory techniques to discover anti-parasitic drugs that, in the Nobel Committee’s words, “have revolutionized the treatment of some of the most devastating parasitic diseases” in the world.
Dr. Omura’s work was on the development of a medicine that has nearly eradicated the dreaded disease “river blindness” and radically reduced the incidence of the disfiguring disease known as elephantiasis. Dr. Omura’s work has already helped hundreds of millions of sufferers of these diseases, and has the potential of eradicating the ailments entirely.
Parasitic diseases are a threat to an estimated one-third of the world’s population, particularly among the poor in sub-Saharan Africa, South Asia and Latin America.
The work of Dr. Omura and the other scientists consisted of identifying and isolating a compound, which they called Avermectin, that occurs in nature – in this case soil collected by Dr. Omura from a golf course near Tokyo.
Anti-parasitic agents are not the only blessings concealed in plants and soil. Many anti-bacterial and anti-viral compounds have also been found hidden in plain (if microscopic) sight, and successfully treat dangerous infections common in the Western world.
The most famous one is penicillin, which was discovered in 1928 when an airborne mold infected a petri dish in the lab of Scottish scientist Alexander Fleming. But there are scores of substances in nature that have become effective treatments for myriad maladies.
The bacterium that causes clostridium difficile colitis, or “C-diff,” for instance, a serious intestinal ailment, is prevalent in hospitals and, in 2011 resulted in about half a million infections and 29,000 deaths in the United States alone.
One of the most effective treatments for C-diff is a drug called Vancomycin (which also is the treatment of choice for complicated skin and bloodstream infections and some forms of meningitis). The drug was first isolated in 1953 from a soil sample collected from the interior jungles of Borneo.
Many scientists, upon isolating such compounds and identifying their properties and uses, proudly accept credit for their accomplishments. How many, though, I wonder, stop to think about just what it is they did and didn’t do?
To be sure, much credit is due for the painstaking work of cultivating biological agents, experimenting with them, compiling data, and then collating and interpreting them. But such cures for diseases, in the end, are merely discovered by the men of science, not created by them.
Do the researchers give thought to the Creator of the cures, Who secured them in unexplored places, until the arrival of the right time for their discoveries? Have they considered how odd it is that there even are cures for dreaded diseases in soil and plants?
So much of what is heralded as astounding scientific achievement is simply accessing the miracle of nature, of Hashem’s gifts. When a sheep was first successfully cloned a number of years ago, what was essentially accomplished was the coaxing of genetic material to do precisely what it does naturally all the time: code for traits, replicate and direct protein synthesis. Those things, not the clonings, were, and are, the miracles.
And when they were first performed, heart transplants were amazing. But, at least to thoughtful people, never remotely as amazing as hearts.
Dr. Omura seems to have the requisite sensitivity to recognize, despite the great impact of his accomplishment, the limitation of the role he played.
We don’t understand why diseases are necessary (although they point, like nothing else could, to the fragility of our bodies, and the many miracles we are beneficiaries of when we are healthy). But it should astound us that Hashem has planted cures for ailments in the world He created for us.
Dr. Omura’s comment? After expressing his surprise at having won the Nobel Prize (“I never imagined I would win. If I had, I’d have worn a nicer necktie.”), he offered an assessment of what he had done.
“I merely borrowed,” he said, “the power of microbes.”
He didn’t cite the Creator of microbes (and everything else), and I have no idea of his religious beliefs. But his words, all the same, should serve to remind every maamin of the manifold miracles we routinely, if obliviously, experience, and of the fathomless debt we owe Hakadosh Baruch Hu.
© 2015 Hamodia
But awaken I did, and so I decided to go out on the deck to scan the sky for evidence of what is called the Perseid meteor shower. My wife had never seen a meteor, and so I woke her up, thinking she’d want to join me. (Thankfully, I was right.) And baruch Hashem, we spied a couple of the ephemeral streaks of light in the relatively dark Staten Island sky, and recited the brachah of oseh maaseh bereishis.
Not everyone finds such things exciting; many people find amusement parks, performances or miniature golf more to their liking.
That’s unfortunate, I think. Firstly, because nature is really so much more of a thrill. Watching a caterpillar weave a cocoon or the butterfly it turns into leave the structure; witnessing a spider spinning its web; planting a seed and observing it as it grows into a plant; staring at even a comet-less night sky and contemplating the unimaginable distances of the suns one is viewing – all such astounding realities are more viscerally compelling than anything man-made.
Secondly, though, and more ultimately important, the thrills that nature offers us pave a path from mindlessness toward a most important mitzvah: ahavas Hashem.
At least, that’s what the Rambam states in Hilchos Yesodei HaTorah (2:2):
“And what is the way toward love of Hashem and fear of Him? When a person contemplates [Hashem’s] great and wondrous acts and creations, and perceives in them His indescribable and infinite wisdom, he immediately loves and praises and extols and experiences a great desire to know Hashem…”
Yet, in the Sefer Hamitzvos (Mitzvas Aseh 3), the Rambam seems to take a different tack:
“…we should think about and contemplate His mitzvos and statements and actions, until we attain [an understanding of] Him, and experience an ultimate pleasure in that attainment…”
So, is “the way toward love of Hashem” to contemplate His universe, or His mitzvos?
The two seemingly different approaches to the mitzvah of ahavas Hashem may not be what they seem. As Rav Mordechai Gifter, zt”l, explained it, one might be describing the lens; the other, the view. Rav Mordechai Pogramansky, zt”l, invoked a mashal:
A visitor to a city is shown a series of beautiful works of art in a museum but reacts to each with disdain, claiming to see only messy canvases. Finally, a member of his entourage hits upon the idea of cleaning the fellow’s eyeglasses. The visitor is subsequently deeply impressed by the art.
Before one can perceive Hakadosh Baruch Hu’s grandeur in the astounding magnificence of His creation – which path leads to love of its Source – one must first approach Creation as something other than an accident, as something containing meaning. And the way to attain that foundational, vital recognition is to understand the concept of… mitzvos.
Because doing so impresses on us the idea of right and wrong, forces us to confront a choice: to view our lives as meaningless or as a mandate. And if they are a mandate, there must be a Mandator.
Then, through that clear lens, one can truly see, and appreciate, to the extent a mortal can, the unfathomable wisdom inherent in the wondrous world around us.
It’s unfortunate that “science,” as the word has come to be used, has become the perceived enemy of emunah. In truth, though, it is Scientism – the conviction that nature is all that there is, and that the wonder it engenders has no further point – that stands in opposition to the truism that Creation has a Creator.
Genuine science, though, the Divine implication-sensitive observation of the world around us, and of the worlds light-years (both literally and figuratively) beyond our ken, is a key to the deepest, most genuine feeling a human being can attain.
When, thrice daily, we declare that Hashem satisfies “all living things” with their needs, there is no comparison between just comprehending the simple meaning of the words and pronouncing them with keen awareness of the number of distinct species on earth (10 million on land, and another estimated 20 million marine microbial organisms) and the astounding intricacy of the way they all are provided their species-specific nourishment.
Reciting Ashrei can lead one to“…immediately love and praise and extol and experience a great desire to know Hashem…”
© 2015 Hamodia
The open letter that followed was signed by Russian-Jewish entrepreneur and venture capitalist Yuri Milner and more than a score of astronomers and other scientists. The gist of the missive was that humanity has an obligation to launch “a large-scale international effort to find life in the Universe” – presumably life other than the sort we know here on earth. “As a civilization,” it continued, “we owe it to ourselves to commit time, resources, and passion to this quest.”
Among the resources, as a news story in the same paper and many others that very day explained, will be $100 million dollars of Mr. Milner’s fortune over the next decade.
Parochial a person as I am, I couldn’t help but think about what greater good – at least in my scheme of things – so large a bag of dollars could do, how many yeshivos, Bais Yaakovs and kollelim it could pull back from fiscal cliffs, how many chessed groups it could fund, how many impoverished Jews it could rescue from hardship.
But even from the perspective of a less sectarian observer, wouldn’t a hundred million (yes, yes, I know, $100 million isn’t what it used to be, but still) be better put to terrestrial use?
After all, another Jewish boy who did well for himself, social network creator and billionaire Mark Zuckerberg, has bankrolled schools and hospitals in the U.S. and technological advances in the developing world. And Tesla founder and PayPal co-founder Elon Musk (whose maternal ancestry is not clear) created a foundation dedicated to providing solar-power energy systems in disaster areas.
And Bill Gates (Jewish only in the eyes of some anti-Semites, but he looks Jewish) has had astonishing success battling river blindness and other infectious diseases that afflict the world’s poor.
And George Soros… – well, okay, scratch that one.
One has to acknowledge the good in some billionaires’ dedication to the alleviation of poverty, illiteracy and disease. Seeking to decrease human suffering is a noble goal. Casting about in the cosmos in the hope of finding other species, though… not so much.
Don’t get me wrong. I have nothing against making the effort, as SETI (the Search for Extraterrestrial Intelligence) has been doing (fruitlessly, it must be added) for decades. But to the tune of $100 million dollars that could do so much actual good on this planet? Mr. Milner shouldn’t expect a check from me.
What interests me here, though, isn’t the quest itself to seek intelligent life out there but rather just what it is that motivates accomplished men and women like Mr. Milner and those who signed on to his letter to pursue that quest.
On one level, I suspect that they, or at least some of them, may be whistling intellectually past the beis olam, so to speak, seeking reassurance that we humans are really not so special, and thus that we have no higher purpose than to serve ourselves (and, of course, explore the cosmos).
As Professor Stephen Hawking – one of the letter’s signatories and who in a 2011 interview asserted that the idea of an afterlife is a “fairy story for people afraid of the dark” – confidently proclaimed: “We believe that life arose spontaneously on Earth, so in an infinite universe there must be other occurrences of life.”
(A number of which civilizations, it might be presumed, have developed technologically well beyond where we are today and have been searching for us too, although we haven’t gotten the call. Oh, never mind.)
But something else occurs, too, a more generous thought. Maybe the compulsion to find intelligence outside our world is an expression – well disguised but present all the same – of a desire to find ultimate meaning to life.
Maybe, in other words, some of the alien-searchers have done what they could to paint over the innate human sense of the Divine, but have found that even the several coats of paint haven’t entirely obscured the sense that there is something more than this world. So they pursue extraterrestrials they imagine to reside in some faraway galaxy.
If enough of the paint chips away, they may yet come to realize that they were wrong but they were right. Wrong about the little green men, but right that we are not alone.
We have a Creator and a purpose.
© 2015 Hamodia