Author of "Embracing Auschwitz" and "Mensch•Marks: Life Lessons of a Human Rabbi - Wisdom for Untethered Times." Winner of the Rockower Award, the highest honor in Jewish journalism and 2019 Religion News Association Award for Excellence in Commentary. Musings of a rabbi, journalist, father, husband, poodle-owner, Red Sox fan and self-proclaimed mensch, taken from essays, columns, sermons and thin air. Writes regularly in the New York Jewish Week and Times of Israel.
Friday, October 1, 2021
In This Moment: Post Shabbat Special - The Survival of the UnFittest and Extinction of the Fittest. A Most Unusual Simhat Torah
In This Moment
Cantor Kaplan, Hazzan Rabinowitz and Judy Schneiderman share the special honor of Hatan / Kallat Torah at our Zoom Simhat Torah service on Wednesday. See more below.
Shavua Tov (A good week!)
I'm sending out this week's O-Gram after Shabbat in order to share important messages that I discussed over the weekend. On Friday night, in speaking of the Creation story, I spoke about the alarming, increasing rate of extinction, a reverse evolution being accelerated by climate change. Then, on Shabbat morning, I discussed why even traditional commentators like Rashi would have assented to Darwin's ideas (and science in general), even as they would have balked at the twisted philosophical distortions of those ideas as they evolved into what was called "social darwinism" which really was an alias for fascism. So see those commentaries below.
Meanwhile, I invite you to join me, beginning Tuesday at 7, for a year-long discussion of the great ideas of Judaism of the past half century, "The New Jewish Canon." We'll be dividing the book into small, manageable nuggets. If possible, please read the introduction for the book before the first session. Each session will be independent of the others, so join us even if you can't make it each time. For now, we'll be meeting on Zoom only.
Click hereto read the introduction to the book (assignment for the first week)
Click here to see the syllabus for the first 5-session mini course, plus links to some of the readings for those five weeks.
We had high hopes for our two-part Simhat Torah celebration. But the planned Covid-safe dancing in the parking lot part was weathered out, so we were left with the Zoom service on Simhat Torah morning. In its own way it was very special. We honored some wonderful people with the special aliyahs marking the ending and beginning of the Torah (that's Naomi Marks above, who was our Kallat Bereisheet - Bride of Genesis). I also showed everyone the very end of Deuteronomy, so that participants at home could see the final words of the Torah as it was being chanted in real time (see photo above).
The awkward part was when I - the designated Torah celebrant - danced alone up and down the aisle of the chapel. It was strange, but, knowing that I was dancing on behalf of everyone watching, and hearing everyone singing along, it was also strangely meaningful. We Jews have always evolved to take on the challenges of the moment, and that certainly happened here over the course of this year's holidays, from beginning to end. You can watch the video of Simhat Torah and see for yourself; or go back to the very beginning, to Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur (watch the videos here, and share the link!)
Dancing with the Torah on a most unusual Simhat Torah
I) Extinction of the Fittest
In the midst of all the climate craziness going on around us, the wildfires and storms, the droughts and the floods, this headline in the NYT from a couple of days ago might have been missed:
The ivory-billed woodpecker, which birders have been seeking in the bayous of Arkansas, is gone forever, according to federal officials. So is the Bachman’s warbler, a yellow-breasted songbird that once migrated between the Southeastern United States and Cuba. The song of the Kauai O’o, a Hawaiian forest bird, exists only on recordings. And there is no longer any hope for several types of freshwater mussels that once filtered streams and rivers from Georgia to Illinois. In all, 22 animals and one plant should be declared extinct and removed from the endangered species list, federal wildlife officials announced on Wednesday.
As we’ve seen with the just-concluded festival of Sukkot, The Jewish calendar sensitizes us to the eternal rhythms of nature.
The sukkah is supposed to inspire in us a sense of smallness in the face of nature’s grandeur. Everything plays its note in this remarkable chorus, everything and everyone. Species come and species go. Even viruses are wiped out – to so we hope – in herd immunity. But we are much sadder when we see a woodpecker go extinct than when smallpox does. And we feel somewhat responsible when so many species are no more.
According to National Geographic, more than 99 percent of all organisms that have ever lived on Earth are extinct. 99 percent of 4 billion species that have evolved.
About a third of about 6,300 species of amphibians face extinction due to their sensitivity to climate change, a rate that is 25,000 to more than 45,000 times greater than what would normally be expected.
It is estimated that about half of all mammal species-along with humans, they include gorillas, monkeys, and lemurs-are at risk of extinction from loss of habitat and climate change.
A World Wildlife Fund report, as analyzed by the Zoological Society of London, of more than 5,800 fish populations in the world's oceans concluded that the number of fish in the world's oceans has declined by nearly 50 percent since 1970, due to overfishing but also to rising ocean water temperatures due to global warming. In North America, the American Fisheries Society estimates that 700 species of fish are in danger of extinction, representing nearly 40 percent of all fish.
Trees are not exempt from climate change and the increasing extremes in weather. During the current four-year drought in California, about twelve million trees have died, largely from pests taking advantage of trees weakened from lack of water. Incredibly, even the massive, seemingly invulnerable Sequoia trees, some of which have lived for several millennia, are showing unprecedented stress, including shedding leaves much earlier than usual.
We have a young congregant, Chase Brownstein, who is a budding (and brilliant) paleontologist. Some recent research he is doing at Yale was just written up by Yale’s Peabody Museum of Natural History.
You might recall that it was just six years ago that Chase spoke about his hobby at his bar mitzvah. As we prepared for that speech, we were discussing Sukkot and he reminded me that not all transitions in nature are cyclical. Yes, leaves fall and then the trees re-bud, but they are still ever evolving. Each new season brings a new ring around the bark of the tree and a lighter shade of gray to my day-old stubble.
So rather than focusing on the 40-year march through the wilderness, Sukkot can also point to far more dramatic transitions, some of them being traced over many millions of years. So many years and billions of species, coming in and leaving the scene.
Just down the road, mammoth bones have been discovered on Cove Island. Connecticut, in fact, is a paleontological paradise. Dinosaur footprints, bones and teeth have been discovered throughout the Connecticut Valley. Where we are right now, right where our sukkah now stands, might have been part of the original Jurassic Park.
The dinosaurs roamed these parts 195 million years ago, literally fueling our own existence. We drive both on and powered by their pulverized remains. The transitions we celebrate are not simply seasonal and cyclical, they are evolutionary and epochal, from Jurassic to Jerusalem to us.
It’s all so wondrous; it makes me feel pity for those who force themselves to believe that this spectacular evolutionary journey was somehow compressed into six days. Which is the story we read in the Torah this week.
And each layer of life, each remarkable creature in God’s vast menagerie, each wandering resident of this earth, has built a home and ultimately seen that home dissolve into the dust, only to see another rise in its place. Another home, and another species to live in it.
Species come and species go, but if we don’t do more to prevent this hemorrhaging of life, the next endangered species may be our own.
Rabbi Shmuley Yankelovitz writes, "As Jews, it is a sacred duty to reverse these terrifying trends." Indeed, there is a unique mitzvah addressing this situation of human-caused animal extinction. The Torah teaches that one must shoo away a mother bird before approaching her young. Rabbeinu Bachya (commentary on Deuteronomy 22:7) explains that the reason for this mitzvah is to prevent actions or even the perception of actions that might lead to the extinction of a species. The mother bird is to be left alone so she can reproduce offspring. To destroy both the mother bird and her kin is to wipe out a section of creation and that is deemed too destructive. While Jewish law allowed for the killing of animals in prescribed situations, it also mandated the humility and the compassion to protect all creatures and honor all in living existence that we encounter.
This week’s holidays and tomorrow’s Torah reading affirm our connection to all creatures that have wandered this earth, some of them quite old and extremely enormous.
In Genesis 1 and 2, human beings are assigned the responsibility to tend to our planet and nurture these creatures –and maybe prevent some of the four billion species from becoming fossils so soon.
It’s already too late for the ivory-billed woodpecker. Let’s just hope it’s not too late for us.
Postscript: I finished this sermon on Friday at about noon and then took my dogs out for some exercise, when I noticed that Cassidy was sniffing around something on our front steps. It was a dead bird - not in the bushes somewhere, but right on our front steps. Not a usual occurrence (we have dogs, not cats). What does it mean? Whatever, whether it's just a coincidence, someone sending a message - sort of a take-off on "The Godfather," without horses, the importance of this message was driven home by the chorus of birds that accompanied us during our outdoor service.
See the service below - sermon is a half hour in.
II) Survival of the Un-Fittest
(This Shabbat morning d'var Torah is based on a sermon by the great Rabbi Harold Schulweis, a champion of the marriage of science and religion)
The great Scopes Trial in the 1920s, 100 years ago, highlighted what is a faulty argument for Judaism – that somehow Darwin’s theories and the Creation account in Genesis are in conflict. And yet here we are, a century later, still hearing those arguments.
Darwin argued that you and I were descended from a "hairy tailed quadruped, probably arboreal in nature." Darwin claimed that each and every one of us as individuals recapitulates the process of world evolution in our own person. You and I are microcosms of the evolution of life. So we read, in Darwin's works, that the fetus of a dog after a week looks virtually the same as the fetus of a human being. Several hours after conception, you and I had gills and a tail just like tadpoles and fish, the gills representing an ancient fish, the tail an ancestral reptile. The Origin of the Species is not Bereshit. These were different ways of understanding, of describing and thinking of the world.
The Church had to choose between the truth of Darwin or the truth of God's testament – either/or. For the synagogue this is a false choice. Why? Because there cannot be a conflict between scientific truth or biblical truth. Truth is one and God is one and the name of God is Truth. So we read in the Talmud (Sabbath 55a), "the seal of God is truth.”
The term "emet,” the rabbis in the Talmud point out, is formed by the aleph, mem, teth – first, middle and last letter of the Hebrew alphabet. Judaism is in love with God whose signature is truth. In Judaism truth has no race, no ethnicity, no religion, no geography. In Judaism there is no secular truth as opposed to religious truth. There is no Jewish astronomy or pagan astronomy, or Jewish biology or Gentile biology.
What about non-Jewish alien sources of knowledge? A fascinating discussion in Talmud Peshachim (94b) includes a rabbinic debate on some matter referring to the calendar and the movement of the moon and stars. Some of the rabbis cite "chochmay Israel" – "Jewish sages." But some Rabbis cite "chochmay umoth ha-olam" – "Gentile sages." The conclusion in the Talmud is "Nirim divreyhem midrabanam" – we follow the pagan sages because in matters of astronomy they are superior to us. Truth is truth whatever its origin.
Does a believing Jew assert that the world is 5,782 years old? Listen to Rashi, the 11th century great interpreter of the Bible who lived quite before the 19th century Darwinians. Asked about the date and the age of the world Rashi answers, "The Torah doesn't tell you the order of the ages." And he cites the rabbinic commentary that God had created many, many worlds before this one. Torah is not archeology or astronomy. If you look for science in the Bible or for religion in science, you will end up confused and dispirited.
In his brilliant sermon, Rabbi Schulweis goes on to discuss why social darwinism, which took the "survival of the fittest" among human population groups, runs entirely counter to Jewish values, which stress that we care most of all to the "unfittest," those in need of a social safety net. He writes:
It is precisely in such a case that Judaism dissents. Here Jewish faith clashes, not with science but with scientism; not with empirical facts, but the illicit of conversion of facts into value; not with the natural description of the survival of the fittest, but with the claim that only those who are physically fit deserve to survive.