Monday, September 25, 2006

Proof of Streimel Wearing Descendants of the Ten Tribes!

Those of you who have young school-age children will know what I mean...

Did you ever see those school-handouts that children receive depicting biblical scenes? Invariably, these handouts will show Moshe, Yosef, Avraham, etc. all wearing typical European garb, rather than what they actually wore in those days. I remember Eeees and I having quite a few laughs at the idea of Yosef wearing a streimel in Egypt.

I'm currently reading Jared Diamond's Collapse, a fascenating book on why some societies succeed and others fail. One of the failed societies that he discusses is the one that evolved on Rapa Nui (Easter Island). This was a society that, at one time, was flourishing. It was a society that had evolved to the point where they could afford to spend precious food resources to construct the impressive moai statues seen in the picture above. Some of the statues (as the four leftmost maoi in this pictures), have a pukau (the large circular stones weighing up to twelve tons) on top of them. But take a good look at the moai with pakau! Do they remind you of anything?

I think, ladies and gentlemen, the proof is irrefutable. It's obvious that (a) the inhabitants of Rapa Nui are the descendants of the Ten Lost Tribes and (b) they wore streimels and long peyos!

The Wolf

Wednesday, September 13, 2006

Oh, Those Wacky Folks at the Yated!

Oy, they're at it again. Take a gander at the new editorial - Why Study Half-True Science When You Can Learn True Torah?

The basic premise of the editorial is that science is wrong and constantly changing it's position, so why bother studying it? Better to study something that is eternally true, like Torah.

Well, I'm not going to state that learning Torah is bad - heck, I do it daily and encourage my children to learn as much as possible. However, launching a general anti-science screed is outright irresponsible.

The author (who does not have a byline) starts out by stating that most of science changes and therefore cannot be trusted. One way this can be shown is by the recent decision by the IAU that Pluto is no longer a planet. As the author puts it:

Perhaps the biggest news is that Pluto is no longer considered a planet. Whoever learned that there are nine planets in the Solar System should unlearn it. Now there are eight. The International Astronomical Union (IAU) made it official about a month ago. Suddenly, no one has to explain or excuse why Chazal never spoke about it, or show some obscure passage that might possibly be interpreted to show that Chazal really did know about Pluto. Poof! A democratic vote of the current membership of the IAU and there is nothing to explain or excuse.

Of course, the author fails to realize one very important fact - nothing in reality has changed. Pluto is still out there, still orbiting the sun every 248 years and still has its three moons. The only thing that changed was how we define a planet. Nothing in the phyisical reality (the metzius, if you will), however, has changed. And, while we're at it, I find it amusing how Chazal are "off the hook" because they didn't mention Pluto, but he conveniently forgets that they didn't mention Uranus or Neptune either.

He also brings two examples where things that were thought not to exist do, in fact, exist. (Sidenote: I'm taking the authors word, for the sake of argument, that these facts are correct.) He states that prior to January 1, 1995, waves over 50 feet tall were not thought to exist. In addition, he also states that it was recently discovered that there were many more poisionous fish than previously thought to exist. Well, of course, that answers everything! Since contemporary scientists were wrong about fish and waves, they must be wrong about everything else!

Of course, he fails to see the opposite side as well. Geocentrism, spontaneous generation and half-flesh/half-dirt creatures are also facts that are recorded by Chazal and are wrong. The windows that the sun goes through twice daily are also wrong facts. Would he say that because Chazal were wrong about that they were therefore wrong about everything else and that we should therefore throw out everything they say about Hilchos Gittin, for example? No, of course not - and I don't advocate that position either.

The author of the piece asks a fundamental question:

However if we are just private people for whom Torah is our trade, and our desire is to learn truth and only truth, why should we spend our time studying "facts" half of which will, in ten years, be shown to have been wrong? Must we resolve scientific challenges to Torah when science may discard the underlying material some time in the future?

The answer, of course, is, it depends. There are some scientific "facts" that are going to change. The number of poisionous fish in the world may change as we explore new parts of the ocean. The nature and maximum height of waves may change as we understand more about waves. Certain aspects of our history may become better understood through archaeological diggings. But certain aspects of science are NOT going to change. The age of the universe (in the sense that it is more than 6000 years old by scientific observation [discounting Gosse]) is NOT going to change. Evolution and common descent are NOT going to change. We're not going to someday discover a window that the sun goes through twice a day. We're not going to discover that the stars are attached to some "outer shell" that rotates around the earth. And on and on. So, yes, in certain aspects, you can say that the Torah shouldn't be re-interpreted to fit certain facts. On the other hand, there are some facts that are just plain undeniable and the statements of Chazal to the contrary must be either (a) re-interpreted to some non-literal meaning or (b) shown to be in error. To say otherwise is simply false.

Lastly, as an example of something that is eternally true, the author tells us:

This we know (for example): It is a permanent truth that there are four categories of damagers — arba ovos nezikin (Bava Kama 2a). This is true now, it has been true at least since Torah was created, and it will remain true. Let us stick to the truth, the whole truth, and nothing but the truth.

Of course, like the definition of a planet, there is nothing in reality that changes here. If someone falls into a pit that I open in the middle of the street, I may have to pay him for damages; but there is no change in reality - he's just as injured. What the author should do is compare apples to apples and defend a *scientific* statement of the Talmud. By comparing this to a "scientific fact," the author is simply showing how empty and hollow his arguments are.

The Wolf

Public School Education, Tuition and Taxes

Dag makes the valid point that complaints by yeshiva parents that they are being "double taxed" is erroneous. I, however, would like to expand on his comments.

The expense of running public schools is a "burden" that the entire community pays for - not just those with children. Those who have children, those who never had children and all those whose children have long since grown up pay "tuition" to the public school system.

There is a valid reason for this - it is in the public's best interest to have the populace educated. It's not just a benefit to the parent - it's a benefit to society at large, since an educated populace is able to produce a better society than an ignorant one.

To state that people are "double taxed" because they are paying tution to private school is akin to someone saying that they don't want to pay "police taxes" because they have a private security guard.

Lastly, for all those parents who want to allow for opting out of payment for public services because they aren't using them, I would like to ask this question: Would you allow for someone to opt-out of paying for services for fire and ambulance because they were fortunate enough to not need them during the past year? Because doing so would lead to a situation where you would have to pay on a case-by-case basis for payment of these services. Would you want firemen to show up to your burning house and present you with a bill? Or would you like for the public ambulance service to ask you for your credit card number while they're taking a loved one to the hospital?

The bottom line is that we all benefit from these services even if we don't actively use them. For example: you may not need to call the police this year, but because the police were there when someone else called, a mugger who may have mugged you is now in prison. Likewise, you may not actively send your kids to public school (heck, you may not even have kids), but you use products and services created by public-school educated people. Your boss, co-workers or employees will probably be public-school educated people. Without the public school system, our economy and society would be markedly different from the way it is now - for the worse. As a result, we all benefit from the public schools and cannot shirk our civic responsibility to pay for these services even if we don't actually send our kids there.

The Wolf

Tuesday, September 12, 2006

Off Topic: My Culturally Illiterate Son: A Comedy For Three Players

Billy Crystal has a joke about growing older. He says that he knew he was getting old when his daughter came to him and asked him "Is it true that Paul McCartney was in another group before Wings?" My son, who in many respects is culturally ignorant, provided just such a moment for me. He is the first player in this comedy.

The second player is the cartoon series Animaniacs. For those not in the know, Animaniacs was a cartoon series created by Warner Brothers that premiered about thirteen years ago. Animaniacs was one of those rare cartoons that appealed to adults and children. It relied on the rich history and tradition of the Warner Brothers cartoons, was smart and had jokes that crossed generational lines. I fell in love with it the first time I saw it back in 1993. Naturally, when the first 25 episodes became available on DVD this year, I bought the set.

One aspect of the show is that it is heavy on music and parody. One of the parodies that is done is of Gilbert & Sullivan's "Pirates of Penzance." The famous song "I Am The Model Of A Modern Major-General" is redone by Yakko Warner as "I Am The Very Model Of A Cartoon Individual."

The third player in our comedy of errors is Mr. Tom Lehrer. Tom Lehrer was a comedian-musician/mathematics professor (you don't see that combination very often!) who put out several comedy albums in the 1950s and 1960s. He's best known for his satire and wicked sense of humor. His most famous number is probably "Poisioning Pigeons In The Park." Another well-known number of his is "The Elements" where he sings the names of the chemical elements. He introduces the piece by saying that the song is sung to a "possibly recognizable tune." The tune that he uses is that of the Major-General song.

So, on Friday, I was listening to Tom Lehrer while cleaning up the house for Shabbos and my son hears him say that the next piece is set to a "possibly recognizable tune." After the song is finished my son turns to me and asks:

"Is the reason he said it's 'possibly recognizable' because he copied it from Animaniacs?"

Eeees and I couldn't stop laughing for at least ten minutes.

The Wolf

Monday, September 11, 2006

Five Years Ago Today

Five years ago today, I worked in lower Manhattan, about a block and a half from the Twin Towers.

It started out as a perfectly normal day. The weather was extraordinarily nice for a September morning - clear, warm and bright. It was also a primary election day.

I had moved from one house to another in Brooklyn about a year earlier. For whatever reason, I never bothered to change my voter registration from my old address to the new one. However, I wanted to vote in the primary and so I went to my old polling place and cast my vote. From there, I went off to the subway, getting on the F train and switching for the A at Jay Street.

My train pulled into the Fulton Street Station at about 9:04, right after the second tower was hit. Since the A train travels through a tunnel under the river, no one on the train had any idea that anything was wrong. I certainly had no idea as I got off the train at Fulton Street. At that station, there are three levels - a subway level, a mezzanine level and then the token booth level. I had just finished climbing the stairs from the subway level to the mezzanine when I saw a crowd of people running toward me. Not wanting to get trampled, I ran with the crowd for a bit until it passed by. My first thought was that there must have been a shooting near the token booth and that everyone was running from the scene. Once the crowd passed me, I turned back and headed toward the token booth level. Along the way, I met people who were crying and some with light injuries. I tried to ask several people what happened, but no one seemed interested in answering my question - everyone was too distraught, it seemed, to even process my question, let alone give me a straight answer.

I looked around the token booth area for the shooting victim (or stabbing victim, or whatever) but could not find one. Figuring that I was wrong about the shooting, I figured that I might as well go and get to work.

I climbed up the stairs to the street level and exited the station at Fulton Street right to the east of Broadway. The place looked like a war zone. There was broken glass everywhere. Papers were all around. People were crying, some bleeding. Everyone was distraught. I still hadn't looked toward the towers.

I started walking up Broadway toward my job. As I walked up Broadway, I saw a bunch of people standing at the south end of City Hall Park looking up at the towers. That's when I looked up and realized that the world had changed forever.

Both towers were on fire. From my vantage point, I could only really see the north tower clearly... most of the south tower was eclipsed by it's brother. I asked someone what had happened and was told that the buildings were struck by planes. It seemed as if my mind had refused to accept what my ears had heard and asked for a clarification. Again, I was told that the buildings had been struck by planes.

I used to be an EMT at one time, and actually considered going to the towers and offering my help. In the end, however, I didn't - for one, my certification had expired. For another, I didn't have my ID on me. And I didn't think that they were going to let me, without any proof to having been an EMT, into the area. To be honest, however, there probably was a measure of cowardice involved as well. I can sometimes be heedless of danger, but the area around the towers seemed like just too much for me.

I went to the building where I worked on Park Row. Once there, some co-worker and I simply waited and watched the news and listened dumbfounded at the things we were hearing (some of which turned out to be unfounded): two planes hit the World Trade Center, other explosions in lower Manhattan, a plane hitting the Pentagon, a bomb going off at the State Deptartment, reports of up to eight hijacked aircraft, and on and on.

I worked on the seventh floor of a building on Park Row that faced the towers at the time. From the window I couldn't see the top of the towers, nor could I see the bottom. I could, however, see most of the affected floors. I could see the facade burning and the people in the windows using towels and sheets to try to get the attention of rescue workers on the ground. I could actually see the facade getting worse and the steel (or whatever the outer surface was) beginning to buckle from the heat. And yet, stupidly, it still didn't occur to me that the building could actually fall.

A few co-workers from the eighth floor came downstairs to join us. One friend, in particular, was grief stricken. He told me, in a broken voice, that he had seen people jump or fall out of the towers. There was little I could do for him - I simply gave him a hug. What else could I do?

I remember at several times frantically trying to get a call out to my wife to let her know that I was OK, but phone service was very spotty. I kept trying to call someone, anyone to let them know that I was OK. I sent email to my father's wife (not even knowing if the email would go through). I phoned other relatives several times. Finally, I got through to my sister and let her know that I was fine. She begged for me to leave the area, but I knew better than to go down to the streets during the chaos that was going on out there.

Eventually, I heard and, more importantly, felt, a large, low rumble. The entire building shook as if there was a small earthquake. I quickly got up and went over to the window to see what was going on. While I couldn't see the south tower (which had just collapsed) from my window, I could see a cloud of dust and debris coming down the street toward us. With my brain finally working for once that morning, I quickly went to all the windows on that side of the building to make sure that they were shut. I'm still not sure how I managed to get to all the windows in time before the debris cloud got to us (except for one window at the end of the hall, but we did manage to shut the door to that room), but we did. As the cloud overtook the building, it got as black as night outside. We were seven stories up, and it seemed like someone had just blacked out the sun.

At that point, I was with my boss, a gentleman named Hugh, and two other co-workers, named Jim and Isaac. We were the only ones left on the seventh floor when the towers came down. We huddled in an inner room on the floor, watching the coverage on Channel 2 on a TV in the office (Channel 2 was the only one still broadcasting... they had a backup antenna on the Empire State building. All the other broadcast channels were out that day... and for quite a few days afterwards). We continued huddling there while the second tower came down as well and another loud, rumbling earthquake ensued. Despite all the dust in the air, we managed to stay fairly calm. We remained there until about noon when the police came and evactuated/evicted us from the building.

I was fortunate to have a Walkman on me that day, and I spent quite a bit of time listening to it as we left the building and headed toward the Brooklyn Bridge. As we were walking across the bridge, I had one earphone in one ear listening to the news and the other listening to some of the people in the crowd. Some were covered by soot and debris from head to toe. Some had some light injuries. One person was still unaware that the attacks involved hijacked planes until I informed him. As we walked across the bridge, we continued scanning the skies for planes, looking for futher incoming hijacked flights. Of course, if one had hit the bridge, there would have been little any of us could do about it -- it was just too croweded to consider running anywhere.

As we walked down Flatbush Avenue in Brooklyn, there were people on both sides of the sidewalk offering water, juice and other refreshments to those who were fleeing Manhattan. There were quite a few frum Jews among those doing the offering. If there was one bright spot that I saw on that day (since I didn't see the firemen and police rushing into the building), it was how people came together to help one another on that day - regardless of what race you were or what religion you practiced or what school of thought you belonged to.

The last encounter I had that day was in Prospect Park, which I cut through on my way home (there was no subway service anymore and the buses were just too jam-packed to even think of getting on them). As I was walking through the park, I saw a black man wandering around crying. He had a relative who worked in the towers and he didn't know what had happened to him. I tried to console him, but had no real information to give him. I simply told him that, it seemed to me, most of the people got out of the towers on time. What else could I tell him? He was near hysterical - hope, even if false hope, was the best that I could offer him at that moment.

I finally made it home at about 3:30pm, exhausted.

Later on that day, I realized that my life might well have been saved by the fact that I never changed my voter registration. If I had changed it, I would have voted in my neighborhood, not my old one. I would have then gotten on the D train (instead of the F) and switched to the N or R train (instead of the A). I would have gotten off the train at the Cortlandt Street Station, which is directly across the street from the towers. In addition, the combination of the D to the N/R ran faster than the F to the A by about two to three minutes. In other words, had I voted where I should have, I would have been exiting the subway across the street from the towers just about when the second plane hit. I could have had plane parts and jet fuel raining down on my head.

Do you want to hear something sick and funny? When I was younger, I owned a Commodore 64 computer (in fact, I still have it). One game in particular that I had was Flight Simulator. It was a cool game which gave you control of an aircraft and you could pilot it from any point in the U.S. to any other point. For some major cities, there were landmarks represted on the map. For New York, one of the landmarks in the game were the Twin Towers. And, God help me, every now and then I would purposely fly my plane into the towers - I guess as sort of a sick teenage joke with the game. I certainly didn't envision "killing" anyone in the towers... they just provided an interesting target. Funny how years later it no longer seems so funny.

For weeks after the events, I would be spooked whenever there was a loud noise... especially a loud rumbling noise. A truck going down the street to loudly would cause me to do a double take. During Succos that year, as we sat out in the Sukkah, very often trucks going down the street would cause me to jerk my head and assume a "ready to run" stance. Eventually those instincts subsided, but the emotional scars of the day still remain.

The Wolf

Thursday, September 07, 2006

Halachic Autopsies?

This week's US News & World Report has an interesting article about how autopsy methods are changing. New "virtual autopsies" (similar to a CT scan) are being performed increasingly and are sometimes able to better identify the cause of death than traditional autopsies.

The article describes some of the practical benefits of virtual autopsies:

Virtual autopsy exploits the ability of a modern CT scanner to create images of a body, intact or battered, without physically invading it. (Sometimes other forms of scanning, such as magnetic resonance imaging, are combined with CT.) In as little as 10 minutes, data representing thin X-ray slices of the body are reconstructed by a powerful computer into crisp, detailed images of bone and tissue. Pathologists and radiologists can zero in on a fractured skull like the one above, deciphering the pattern to determine how the blow arrived and exactly how death occurred. Images can be sized up and down and turned at various angles, providing instant flexibility not afforded by conventional autopsy. Nor can a physical autopsy show the path of a bullet at a glance, as virtual autopsy can.

Furthermore, as this technology gains wider acceptence, traditional autopsies may be dispensed with altogether, as noted in the article:

In a decade or two, hands-on autopsies will be gone-replaced by the virtual version, says CFIV Director Michael Thali. At least in Europe, it is beginning to be integrated into the teaching curriculum. Sweden's CMIV has a 15-meter, high-resolution screen for that purpose. "We have stopped using ordinary autopsy as a training tool," says Persson, because the clear, precise images on the huge screen are far more instructive.

Of course, as we all know, halacha frowns (or perhaps outright forbids) autopsies - especially where not required by the civil authorities. However, I'm wondering if non-invasive autopsies, if handled quickly would be permitted? I suppose it might depend on how you define the term Kavod HaMes. One could take the interpretation that since the body is no longer being cut up, dissected and having its organs removed, the halachic obstacles have been bypassed.

Of course, if the procedure will cause a delay in burial, then we will once again run afoul of halachic constraints - that of requiring a quick burial. Since it is considered dishonorable for the corpse to remain unburied, having a non-invasive procedure that takes days of waiting in a morgue for a scanner is probably just as bad as an immediate invasive autopsy. But if the procedure could be performed immediately or shortly after death...?

Of course, I am not a Rav - this is all just off "the top of my head." I'm sure that there may be other halachic and medical issues involved as well. But it certainly is possible that these new advances could change the way that Judaism views autopsies... much the way that medical advances have changed the way that Judaism viewed heart transplants in the last forty years.

The Wolf

Tuesday, September 05, 2006

Friday, September 01, 2006

Ad Me'ah V'Esrim (...until 120 years)

It is a common custom among Orthodox Jews to express hope that someone lives to 120 years. Personally, I've always found this to be a bit odd. Why only 120? Of course, a person living to 120 nowadays is exceedingly rare (only two examples, [one disputed] in the last hundred years) and anyone living to that age certainly has God's blessings. Personally, I plan on being around around beyond 120, but if I only make it to 120, I certainly won't complain.

In any event, I've always wondered why we only wish for a person to live to 120. Of course, the first thing that pops into mind is the fact that Moses lived to 120 years and it may seem presumptuous of us to want to live longer than Moses. Personally, I find that argument a bit week. After all, Shmuel HaNavi only lived into his 50s. Do we think that we are greater than Shmuel HaNavi? Of course not -- but just about everybody wants to live past their 50s! Personally, I just about never use the phrase Ad Me'ah V'Esrim. If I want to express a hope that someone will live a long life, I usually say so... they should have Arichas Yomim, be in good health, etc.

I remember having a discussion with someone about longevity when I brought up the case of Jeanne Calment, who died in France in 1997 at the age of 122 years. When I mentioned it, he flat out refused to believe that it was possible for her to have lived that long. He stated that it was impossible for a person to live beyond 120, as that was the age that Moses died at and, apparently, there is [according to him] some tradition that states that one cannot live longer than that. When I pressed him for the source of this "tradition," he couldn't come up with anything.

I then went over to the Tanach and advised him to check out the second-to-last verse of Iyov (Job) where it states that Iyov lived 140 years *after* all the event that occured in the book. His response to me was that (a) Iyov never happened (a legitimate position to take) and (b) Iyov is traditionally ascribed to Moses, hence, if factual, the events occured before Moses when people did live beyond 120 years.

I then took out a copy of Divrei HaYamim (Chronicles) and opened it up to Part II, 24:15 where it states that Yehoyada the Kohen lived to the age of 130. He similarly wasn't impressed by that (I think he muttered something about exceptional circumstances and whatnot).

In short, I'm certain that the idea that a person can't live beyond 120 years is hogwash. Jeanne Calment's life is pretty well documented, plus there are at least two biblical sources for someone living beyond 120 (there are opinions that Iyov happened after Moses, if it happened at all).

Besides, would you say Ad Me'ah V'Esrim to someone who is already 119 1/2?

The Wolf