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Teaching the Teachers #2

This, the ability to use our minds creatively and to direct our thoughts to G-d, is the pinnacle of our human potential. - The Rebbe - Shabbos Ki Seitse, 5751

Readers Write
 
Hi Arnie -
 
I'm responding to your recent article with its call for help in developing a companion curriculum as a kind of running commentary to the standard science curriculum and textbooks taught in Jewish high schools:

Here are my thoughts:

I think the basic emphasis should be on driving home certain basic principles, such as:

(1) What is science and what is it not? People think that science is whatever a scientist says about nature and that's simply not correct, at least to my understanding. There are facts, theories, hypotheses, and just plain guesswork and students need to know the difference.
 
(2) What is the purpose of science? Is there more to it than inventing a cooler ipod or a better cure for disease? At a deeper level, science is inspiring when it is understood as the constant search of the fundamental rules and complexities of Hashem's beautifully designed world. None of this is currently taught in school.
 
(3) We need to emphasize that scientific conclusions are always conditional and tentative, a work in progress and not fixed dogma based on absolute fact. Today's knowledge is just a milestone to chart our progress and guide us to future investigations. Theories change and get replaced all the time. This fact alone will take the edge off of many conflicts.

The more we know, the more we know that we do not know.
(4) Science is the study of creation, and through it we better get to know the Creator. And that's a great way to fulfill Rambam's Mitzva No. 1 of Anochi Hashem. Hence, in this context, scientific investigation should never be rejected in and of itself. Indeed it can be a religious act! I recall the Rebbe once told a NASA employed chasid, Velvel Greene, that for him to cease investigating the possibility of extraterrestrial life would be to implicitly limit what Hashem could / could not do with his creation. I also recall reading how the Rebbe told someone that if he feels that Torah books don't belong on the same bookshelves as science books, then he understands neither what Torah is, not what science is. [This was said to a mathematician, Prof. Pesach (Paul) Rosenblum. The Rebbe also told him that keeping them on separate bookshelves is the beginning of idolatry - ed.]

Science can be a worthwhile subject. It should be given adequate attention and treated carefully, and not simply disregarded as "goyishe" mind-poison as some do. For one thing, handled properly, it is not. And more importantly, I think that such a hostile and categorical approach would simply backfire amongst our kids, as they grow older.
 
Therefore in addition to posing famous issues such as dinosaurs, fossils, age of the world, heliocentric theory, etc. and pointing out the discrepancies between what the science books say and what Torah says, there also needs to be adequate discussion of:

 
(1) Alternative scientific views amongst scientists themselves;

(2) Possible flaws in current views and / or how they may be (mis)represented in the general media and school textbooks;

(3) More general concepts such as why would Hashem make the world appear as if it is billions of years old, or as if we evolved from lower species, etc; 

(4) The social and historical reasons why science turned so materialistic and rationalistic. Basically, two and change centuries ago, the "Enlightenment" was a way to free the public of church domination of their public and private lives. Unfortunately, they threw out the baby with the bathwater, meaning they dropped G-d when they ousted the church.

(5) Different ways of interpreting Genesis on the spectrum between literal and literary.

 
(6) Apologetics tries to interpret or even adapt Torah according to science. Chabad rejects that approach and accepts Torah's statements in every case, even where they clash with prevailing scientific views.

 
(7) Science vs. scientism. Observations and causal reasoning are compelling. Subjective interpretations and personal opinions, even by scientists, are not. 

I hope this helps.
Chasiva v'chasima tova,

Benny T,
Toronto
 
*   *   *   *   *
 
Dear Benny -
 
We are definitely on the same page as to what to convey to high school students. Now the question is how.
 
Following is an extract from a sample lesson I have just prepared. It introduces issues in astronomy and cosmology in the context of Rosh HaShana themes, such as:
o    The creation of man - the crown of creation.
o    Kabbalas HaMalchus - accepting G-d's kingship.
o    Teshuvah - repentance
o    Shofar - blowing the ram's horn
o    Din v'Cheshbon - judgment and accounting
 
Here's one conceptual template one could use to devise such lessons:
1.      Set the tone with a short thought-provoking or entertaining piece.
2.      Summarize the science narrative that seems to conflict with faith.
3.      Explain a bit about why scientists hold this view.
4.      Present a critical review of that narrative.
5.      Provide positive information about the synergy of science and faith.
6.      Provide reference articles for deeper study.
7.      Conclude with a take-home message of what was learned.
 
Here's an abridged version of a timely sample lesson one can use in any Jewish high school class. (The full version is available on request)
 
*   *   *   *   *
 
Man in the Middle
or "The Cosmic Significance of an Insignificant Speck Like You."
 
 
The Lighter Side
 
There was a group of scientists and they were all sitting around discussing which one of them was going to go to G-d and tell Him that they didn't need him anymore.

One of the scientists volunteered and went to go tell G-d he was no longer needed.

The scientist says to G-d - "G-d, you know, a bunch of us have been thinking and I've come to tell you that we really don't need you anymore. I mean, we've been coming up with great theories and ideas, we've cloned sheep, and we're on the verge of cloning humans. So as you can see, we really don't need you."

G-d nods understandingly and says. "I see. Well, no hard feelings. But before you go let's have a contest. What do you think?"

The scientist says, "Sure. What kind of contest?"
"A man-making contest."
"Sure! No problem".
The scientist bends down and picks up a handful of dirt and says, "Okay, I'm ready!"

G-d replies, "No, no, no... Go get your own dirt."
 
 
Scientist Quotes
 
"The first gulp from the glass of natural sciences will turn you into an atheist, but at the bottom of the glass G-d is waiting for you." - Werner Heisenberg, Nobel Physicist (discovered the uncertainty principle)
 
"A life-giving factor lies at the centre of the whole machinery and design of the world." - Leading Physicist John Wheeler in The Anthropic Cosmological Principle, p. vii.
 
 
Torah Quotes
 
"Moses prostrated himself and kissed Yisro:" Moses embodied Divine wisdom, whereas Yisro embodied natural, worldly wisdom. By bowing down to Yisro, Moses elevated natural wisdom and accepted it into the sphere of Divine wisdom. This, as we have seen, was a prerequisite to the Giving of the Torah. -
Rabbi Akiva's Proof, like a good wine, only gets better with age.
The Alter Rebbe on Exodus 18:7
 
Atheist: "Who created the world?"
Rabbi Akiva: "G-d created the world."
Atheist: "Show me clear proof."
Rabbi Akiva: "Who wove the clothes you are wearing?"
Atheist: "A weaver of course."
Said Rabbi Akiva, "The same as cloth testifies to a weaver, a door to a carpenter and a house to a builder, so the world testifies to a Creator."
- Midrash Temurah 3.
 

Science Unit Preface - Astronomy and Cosmology
 
...Your text teaches that everything evolved from the Big Bang over billions of years. In the beginning, the story goes, a dense fireball expanded immensely and when it cooled, stars formed from swirling hot gases and when those cooled, some of them condensed into planets. Then in some original chemical soup on the surface of the pre-historic watery earth, some lightning struck chemicals and transformed them into the first living organisms that were only one cell in size. These evolved into multi-celled organisms and those eventually turned into all the living things in the world including people.
 
All of this is evolution is believed to have happened by chance, by which they mean random mutation (tiny glitches from one generation to the next) and natural selection. Natural selection means that creatures that are better adapted to their environment have more surviving kids who pass on their tiny glitches and over long enough periods, from the first ancestors all the diversity of life evolved.

This entire evolutionary picture from the big bang to the emergence of man, is supposed to have taken some 13.7 billion years. How, you may rightly ask, do they know all of this information about these pre-historic events? The answer is that they don't know. They guess. They make educated guesses but these are just guesses by educated people. Surely they have plenty of data that they call upon, but the bottom line with all that is that the observations can be interpreted in different ways, and theirs is just one interpretation and it is both unverified and unverifiable.
 
Another concept taught is how stars and planets move. We learn in the text how gravity pulls masses together and lighter objects orbit around heavier ones. Seeing how moons orbit planets we infer that we too are a light heavenly body that orbits around the heavy sun and that our whole solar system orbits around the center of mass of the Milky Way Galaxy, which in turn turns in the gravitational field of a cluster of galaxies. This too is just one interpretation of how things move and it too is both unverified and unverifiable.
 
If I were to uncritically accept this whole picture as presented by the secular scientists, I would see myself very differently than the Torah views me. I would say that there is no G-d, there is no soul, and there is no meaning to human life or to existence. We are an insignificant speck on an insignificant planet in an unimportant galaxy hurtling through space according to random forces.
 
If science is right on all that, then Sinai was a myth, Torah is just a cultural document, the mitzvos are irrelevant and my life has no meaning in the grand scheme of things.
 
The Torah, of course, provides a very different picture of all this. It tells of a universe that was planned, designed and created with man in mind. This is not just about mankind in general, but you in particular, as the Mishna says, every individual is obliged to say, "Bishvili Nivra Ha'Olam - For my sake was the world created."
 
Man was created not as a species but as a single individual and he is a partner in the Creation, a kind of co-creator. Sinai was a Divine revelation, the Torah is G-d's will and wisdom and the mitzvos bathe us in divine light and bring the Moshiach. Our lives touch everything everywhere and any one deed can tip the scales for good...
 
 
The Rebbe's Critique.
 
The Lubavitcher Rebbe, as master of both divine and human wisdom, has written literally hundreds of letters exposing the flaws of pseudo-science and explaining how science is in fact moving forward toward redemption. The book Mind over Matter: The Lubavitcher Rebbe on Science, Technology, and Medicine, available on line, has the largest collection of these to date. Here is an extract:
 
Conjectures and Refutations[1]
 
...When one wishes to discuss evolution from times gone by, one must rely on numerous assumptions, many of which have no practical experiential basis. All researchers readily admit that environmental and biological conditions then were completely different than they are now. These highly variable unknown quantities included temperature, atmospheric pressure, ambient levels of radioactivity, interactions between flora and fauna, etc. etc.
 
In fact, it is astounding how researchers use current evolutionary processes as the basis for retroactive conclusions about the distant past, as if nothing had changed. They set forth assumptions and they reach conclusions (without anyone even trying to test these theories under conditions that may have been around then), and these are accepted without any doubt, and announced as "laws."
 
In our era of dramatic scientific progress, any tenuous claims to validity previously held by evolutionary theory have since dissipated. For instance, it has now been proven that even the minutest amount of radioactive material completely changes the process and speed of events, sometimes to an amazing degree. This discovery completely negates any possibility of scientific proof or conclusions regarding the evolution of plant or animal species, etc., where environmental conditions include significantly greater amounts of radioactive material than are present today...
 
[1]      Igrot Kodesh, vol. 13, p. 143. From a letter to the Chief Rabbi of Israel, Rabbi Dr. Yitzchak Eizik HaLevi Herzog.
 
 
Science Story
 
The Cricket and the Shofar
 
The humble cricket's summer song would evaporate into the night breeze were it not for the acoustically impeccable earthen horn it fashions to optimally amplify its call. Is there a message here for us?
Why did we wake up this morning? Obviously so that today would be better than yesterday. To this end the Baal Shem Tov enjoined us all to take a lesson in our divine service from everything we see or hear. Since everything is according to specific divine providence, each event in our lives is significant as a message towards a more meaningful life.[1]
 
Take crickets for example. Chances are, that if you walk around your neighborhood tonight, you will probably hear the songs of crickets in some park or field. Of course that's going to get you thinking about Rosh HaShana. How? you may ask. We don't dip a cricket in honey, we use an apple. And we don't chirp or rub our wings together, we blow on a ram's horn to celebrate the New Year, marking the onset of the 10 days of teshuvah, repentance, between Rosh HaShana and Yom Kippur.
 
The sages say that if the Torah would not have been given, we could learn modesty from a cat, not to steal from an ant, and fidelity from a dove.[2] But what do we learn from a cricket? Let's follow that chirping to its source to find out. In the case of the Mole cricket for example, that source is a hole in the ground, the shape of a shofar! Rubbing its forewings together creates harp-like vibrations that make the familiar chirping sound. But those short wings would not be nearly as loud were it not for the amplification provided by those meticulously formed and utilized burrows that crickets use to amplify their songs as high as 90 decibels, the volume of a train whistle 500 feet away.
 

Min HaMeitsar Magnifies Marvelously



The sound of crickets can be so deafening that vacationers in the countryside often have trouble falling asleep. Similarly, the sound of the Shofar is designed to wake us up from our spiritual slumber so that we can refocus on what's really important in our lives.[3] When we realize how messed up our lives are, we call out to G-d because of our stress and pressures. The Shofar is emblematic of that call, since when you blow with compressed lips at the narrowest part of the horn, the sound becomes magnified as the horn expands upwards. This is why, before hearing the Shofar in synogogue, we recite the verse, "From out of narrowness, I called to G-d; with expansive relief, G-d answered me."[4]   The cricket actually makes a point of chirping specifically at the narrowest point in its burrow. From the bulb at the base of the burrow, to the smoothed walls, and to the exponentially curved flare at the top of the horn-shaped hole, the cricket's call center is magnificent structure, acoustically optimized in its every detail.
 
Our call to our Creator through the simple hollowed horn, is a mixture of pure and broken tones from the depths of the heart. Similarly, our humble cricket, calls out from a simple, hollowed horn with one pure tone, made up of continuous series of broken tones, emanating from deep in its burrow.
 
As the cricket digs its earthen Shofar over several days, its song gets progressively louder as the acoustics improve, until the burrow is complete and the sound is optimized. One of the many things the Shofar symbolizes is the coming of Moshiach and a world of good. As we hollow out our earthiness and shape our lives properly, our call to the Creator gets progressively better, too, until we've optimized ourselves and the world around us the best we can and then Moshiach arrives, quick as a cricket.
 
[1] Hayom Yom for the 7th of Tishrei, p.93.
[2] Babylonian Talmud, Tractate Eiruvin, p.100b
[3] Mainmonides, Laws of Repentance Ch.3, Par.4
[4] Psalms 118:5
 
Cricket facts and diagram from articles by H.C. Bennett-Clark in the Journal of Experimental Biology.
 
Dr. Aryeh (Arnie) Gotfryd, PhD is a chassid, environmental scientist, author and educator living near Toronto, Canada. To contact, read more or to book him for a talk, visit
www.arniegotfryd.com or call 416-858-9868

 

 


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