Can Science Illuminate Torah?

Image: Planet earth cradled in leaves. Art by geralt/pixabay.

With the coming of Emancipation in the 18th and 19th centuries in the West, Jews could go to university and study the sciences, and it is small surprise that some of what they learned there seemed to be in conflict with the stories in Torah. Over time, we came to understand that science offered one kind of understanding about the world: the answers to the questions “what?” and “how?” Religion offered a different kind of understanding, an exploration of meaning.

The Reform Movement altered the liturgy to eliminate some of the things that the early Reformers saw as superstition. One of the most striking changes in the siddur, the prayer book, was the elimination of a section of the Shema, a section from this week’s Torah portion:

13 So if you faithfully obey the commands I am giving you today—to love the Lord your God and to serve him with all your heart and with all your soul— 14 then I will send rain on your land in its season, both autumn and spring rains, so that you may gather in your grain, new wine and olive oil. 15 I will provide grass in the fields for your cattle, and you will eat and be satisfied.

16 Be careful, or you will be enticed to turn away and worship other gods and bow down to them. 17 Then the Lord’s anger will burn against you, and he will shut up the heavens so that it will not rain and the ground will yield no produce, and you will soon perish from the good land the Lord is giving you. – Deuteronomy 11:13-17

The thinking at the time was that the weather is predictable by scientific means. Therefore it did not seem true to say that God would to use the weather to reward good behavior and punish bad behavior. Thus this part of the Shema was dropped from the Reform prayer book.

History moves on, and over time we’ve learned more science.  Nowadays most scientists agree that human actions have affected the earth’s ecology in ways that threaten human survival. Lo and behold, many of the actions in question might be forbidden by the mitzvah of bal tashchit (ball tahsh-KHEET.)

Bal tashchit means “do not destroy” and it comes from Deuteronomy:

When you lay siege to a city for a long time, fighting against it to capture it, do not destroy its trees by putting an ax to them, because you can eat their fruit. Do not cut them down. Are the trees people, that you should besiege them? However, you may cut down trees that you know are not fruit trees and use them to build siege works until the city at war with you falls. – Deuteronomy 20:19-20

Over the centuries the sages expanded the original prohibition against destroying fruit trees in wartime to include the tearing of garments and waste of any kind. This expansion is neatly summed up by the Alter Rebbe in the 18th century:

Just as one must be careful with his body so as not to destroy it or ruin it or harm it, so too one needs to be careful with his property so as not to destroy or ruin or harm it. Anyone who smashes utensils or tears clothing or breaks down a building or clogs a well or destroys food or drinks, or spoils them or throws out money – and likewise one who ruins any other thing which his fit for human beings to make use of – he transgresses against a Torah prohibition, as it is stated, “Do not destroy its trees” – Shulchan Aruch haRav, by Shneur Zalman of Liadi, also known as the Alter Rebbe.

The behaviors that science tells us are at the root of climate change are behaviors forbidden by bal tashkeit: the waste of the environment, especially trees, the “lungs of the earth.” Carbon dioxide and other waste from industrial processes poison our air, our water, and our food chain. While politicians argue about who’s to blame and who should pay for change, the clock is ticking. The melting of the ice cap means that the atoll islands of the Pacific such as Kiribati and the Maldives face inundation and the relocation of entire populations. Business Insider published a group of videos asking the question, “What would Earth look like if all the ice melted?”

So while science and liberal Judaism agree that there is no “old man in the sky” doling out rewards and punishments for sin via the weather, Deuteronomy 11 has taken on new significance. A new reading of the passage might run something like:

“If you faithfully observe the commandments, you will prosper in a world in which weather is predictable and stable. But if you disobey the commandments and lay waste to the planet, don’t be surprised when the earth and its systems turn upon you. They will rain destruction on your cities. You will choke on unclean air, and you will suffer from hunger and thirst that cannot be satisfied.”

Whatever our theology, whether God is a Being who orchestrates all of this or a Unity underlying all Creation, it doesn’t really matter. If we do not learn the lessons of bal tashchit, we’re going to be very sorry indeed.


Your Money or Your Life – Why the AHCA is Contrary to Torah

Image: President Trump meets with lawmakers at the White House in March, 2017, to discuss replacement for the Affordable Care Act. Public Domain.

I was in a hospital bed when I heard the news that the so-called American Health Care Act had passed in the House of Representatives.  I had nothing to do but read, so I read everything I could about it.  Here’s what I know for sure:

  1. We don’t know exactly how many people will be affected, and neither do the people who voted for the bill. Speaker Ryan saw fit to push the bill through before it could be scored by the Congressional Budget Office.  What we do know is that an earlier version of the bill would have reduced the number of people with health coverage by 14 million in 2018, 21 million in 2020, and 24 million in 2026. That version of the bill was rejected by the super-conservative Freedom Caucus representatives as being “too liberal.” It seems fair to expect that this bill will negatively affect at least as many people.
  2. If a person doesn’t have health insurance, their ability to get medical care except for emergency room care is practically nil.  I have done the research on this myself. Back in the bad old days before I could marry Linda, back when I was on my own for health insurance, I often couldn’t get health insurance because I had pre-existing conditions. When I called a doctor’s office and said I would pay cash, that didn’t matter – they wouldn’t take me unless I had health insurance. I can understand that – what is the doctor supposed to do if I turn out to have something serious, something I can’t pay for out of pocket?
  3. It is true that if a person doesn’t have health insurance, they will be seen in the emergency room. However, all the hospital is responsible to do is to stabilize the person who lacks health insurance. ER care is the most expensive care there is, so ER’s can’t absorb the cost of non-life-threatening illness. Which brings me to the last thing:
  4. Bad health insurance coverage affects everyone, not just the person stuck with the lousy policy. In 2013, before “Obamacare,” medical bills were the biggest cause of bankruptcies in the United States. The most affordable health insurance policies had such high deductibles and covered so few things that even people with policies wound up in bankruptcy. Bankruptcy means that someone is broke, but it also means that many of the people they owe money to will never be paid. Also, who pays for people to go to the ER if they don’t have health insurance? Those expenses wind up driving up health care costs for everyone.

Was Obamacare, more properly called the Affordable Care Act, the answer? The ACA had a lot of problems, just as Medicare had a lot of problems when it first passed in the 1960’s. It needed improvements. But simply taking care away from people isn’t the answer.

However, none of this is the WORST thing about the American Health Care Act. Obamacare raised taxes on the wealthiest Americans in order to provide healthcare for millions of Americans; the AHCA reverses that. It provides a huge tax cut to high-income Americans by providing less health care to people with pre-existing conditions. It penalizes sick people to put money in other people’s pockets. (Full disclosure: I’m probably one of the people would will get a tax cut under this bill.)

There are those who say that this is “being realistic.” I say it is a sin, the worst sort of sin. It says that some lives simply aren’t worth the bucks, specifically aren’t worth an extra couple of thousand in the pocket of a person who already has a lot. It says that other lives are worth the bucks because their family has disposable income. It values lives according to their bank accounts.

Jewish tradition teaches us that almost nothing is more important than saving a life. Specifically, the only higher commandments than saving a life are the commandments against murder, incest, or idolatry. 

I say it is idolatry when we take away health care to line the pockets of the wealthy. I don’t like paying taxes any more than the next person, but Judaism teaches me that I may not make an idol of anything, including money. I may not value it over human life, even the life of a person I don’t like, or disapprove of, or even someone who has hurt me.

This evil bill, the American Health Care Act, is not yet law. It still has to go through the Senate, where God willing it will be stopped. I believe I have a moral obligation to fight it with every power at my disposal: to write letters, to make phone calls, to make it clear to the senators that I do not want a tax cut that will kill people.

Despite the popular fantasy that all illness is avoidable, much illness is NOT avoidable. Bad things happen to good people. The AHCA is murder for hire: in its present form, people will die from it so that others can have a tax cut. Jewishly speaking, that is evil.

The Mitzvah We Don’t Do Often Enough

Image: President Obama visits a shooting victim in 2012. Photo by Pete Souza via Wikimedia.

Visiting the sick [bikur cholim] is the mitzvah that everyone knows about and too few of us actually observe. We learn about this commandment by example: when Abraham was recovering from his DIY bris, God went to visit him (Genesis 18.) Later in the Torah, we are commanded:

And you shall walk in [God’s] ways – Deuteronomy 28:6.

Maimonides, a physician, saw the mitzvah of visiting the sick in the commandment:

You shall love your fellow as yourself. – Leviticus 19:18.

As with any challenging mitzvah, the tradition gives us many guidelines about it. Some advice from the tradition:

  • The patient who gets few visitors should be our first priority. Someone who gets lots of visitors is not in as great a need.
  • Check ahead of time to see if a visit is welcome at this time. Not every sick person wants or needs visitors.
  • Do not bring bad news to a sick person. We should leave our own sorrows or misgivings at the door.
  • We should listen more that we talk, because we may get clues to other needs.
  • Unless we have a medical degree (I don’t – do you?) we should not second guess the physicians or make medical suggestions. Undermining a patient’s faith in their physician can be extremely harmful.
  • Be aware of the needs and wishes of the sick person. Better to leave a little too soon than to overstay your welcome.
  • When a visit in person isn’t possible a phone call or similar contact may still be possible.

Some may ask, what DO I talk about on a visit to a sick person? Here are some ideas:

  • Ask, “How’s it going?” and then sit quietly and let them talk.
  • Ask, “Is there anything you wish you had here?” and listen to the answer.
  • Ask, “Are there messages you’d like me to give anyone?” and listen.
  • Ask, “Can I do anything for you / get something for you right this minute?”
  • Bring good wishes from another person who is unable to visit.

The goal is to lighten the isolation that often comes with sickness. Especially in a hospital setting, the sick person often is subjected to tests and poking on the hospital’s schedule. Letting them boss you around (“fluff my pillow?” “get me a glass of water?”) can be a tremendous gift.

One other thing: In all sickroom settings but especially in the hospital, germs lurk that can be terribly harmful to the sick person and to others. WASH YOUR HANDS – before a visit, after a visit, after touching elevator buttons, after the bathroom, after touching anything in the sickroom. Hand sanitizer is better than nothing, but there’s no substitute for a 20 second scrub with soap and water!

While there is no blessing to say when visiting the sick, there is a blessing for the washing of hands:

Baruch Atah Adonai, Eloheinu melech ha-olam, asher kideshanu b’mitzvotav, vitzivanu al netilat yadaim.

Blessed are You, Eternal, Ruler of Time-and-Space, who sanctifies us with mitzvot and commands us to wash our hands.

While this blessing originally was for the ritual washing of hands connected with sacrifices and meals, I like to use it to sanctify the act of preserving life via handwashing. Some other authorities may differ with me on this, but I believe it is so important to wash my hands carefully in a sickroom setting that it merits the blessing. (For more about the mitzvah of hand washing, read the article about it in My Jewish Learning.)



Don’t be a Mono!

Image: Black Iguana (Ctenosaura similis) – or “garrobo,” Costa Rica, Prov. Puntarenas, Parque Nacional Manuel Antonio (Photo: some rights reserved.)

My son spent his college summers working in an orphanage in Costa Rica. One year I traveled down there to meet him on his break. He and some friends and I went to Manuel Antonio National Park to hike and see the wildlife.

Monkeys chattered in the trees above us. They were fuzzy and cute and definitely crowd-pleasers. We tourists kept taking their pictures and they ate it up. We saw wonders everywhere: sloths, lizards, insects, all kinds of creatures I had never seen before. The greenery was filled with beautiful animals. We stopped for a bit and a guide showed us a sloth up close through his telescope. I saw the soft fur, the long claws, and its soft snoring.

WHAP! Something landed hard on my head, jamming my sun hat down over my eyes. I felt dazed. The guide grabbed my arm, and my son hollered, “Mom!” The green world circled around me; I focussed on my feet.

There at my feet lay an equally dazed garrobo, the local name for a black spiny-tailed iguana or Ctenosaura similis. She was big, almost 2 feet long. I couldn’t figure out what she (?) was doing there, or why my head hurt so much. She was ugly and beat-up looking. She had lost part of her tail.

It turned out that one way the monkeys, or monos, amuse themselves is by catching the garrobos by the tail and hurling them. They think this is hysterically funny. Some mono had outdone himself with a Daily Double: he smacked the gringa (white lady) in the pink sun hat with the lizard.  The monos celebrated in the tree tops above us, giving the monkey equivalent of high-fives.

The guide and my son wouldn’t let me touch the garrobo, towards whom I felt a great kinship. They were worried that it might bite me, in its confused state, and apparently garrobo bites are serious business. They scavenge for trash, so their mouths are dirty.

I gathered very quickly that no one likes garrobosGarrobos are not cute. They have no soft fur. They are known to bite children and unwary fools visiting from California. The wild ones are not pretty like the iguanas some people keep for pets. They are grey and black and battered-looking.

We walked up the trail, leaving both the monkeys and the garrobo behind. It bothered me.

Later, I realized what bugged me so much.  The monkeys are cute and furry. The locals know they are not nice creatures, but they entertain tourists who bring money to town. Tourists think they are adorable: they have faces almost like human faces, and they hang from tails and long toes in trees, tiny acrobats.  As the guide said to me, “Everyone likes the monos.”

Except me. The mono banged me on the head. Worse, he used a garrobo to do it. The garrobos are as unpopular as the monos are popular. The difference between them is that garrobos are perceived to be ugly and dirty and the monos are perceived to be cute.

How often in this world do we decide who is “good” and who is “bad” by how people look? How often do we attack someone we don’t like by making fun of their appearance? What happens to the ugly, well-qualified woman who applies for a job? What about the ugly or awkward man – how often do we assume that he is also dangerous?

And what about the handsome people who behave badly – are we not inclined to give them a few more chances? The movie star accused of domestic violence? The good looking young athlete who “doesn’t need to rape anyone” so he couldn’t possibly have done it?

We must not judge people by their looks, even though the ancient wiring in our brains urges us to do so.  As Jews, we are given mitzvot (commandments) about how to treat people precisely because our instincts can deceive us.

  • Love the stranger.
  • Do not cause the blind to stumble.
  • Do not defraud your fellow.
  • Do not tease the deaf.
  • Do not favor the poor or show deference to the rich.

Those are just a few mitzvot from Leviticus 19, with rules for interacting with other people. They don’t differentiate between the people we are inclined to like and those we are inclined to dislike. Nowhere in Torah does it say, “The pretty ones are good” or “the ugly ones are bad.”

In fact, our tradition directs us to judge others on their behavior. It urges us to go past our instincts, past our conditioning, past the easy answers to look at what a person does to determine their worth. In the Book of Ruth, a Moabite woman treats those around her with kindness and care. The fact that she is a member of a race much hated by the Jews of the time is neither here nor there: in fact, she merits becoming an ancestor of King David.

King David was beautiful; men and women fell in love with him. However, the prophet Nathan rebuked him, and God punished him, because he had one of his soldiers put in the front lines to be killed, so that David could enjoy the widow. David was physically beautiful, but he did an evil thing, and the Torah is clear that there are no excuses, even for beautiful princes.

The line I took away from my adventure in the rainforest was, “Don’t be a Mono! Mind the Garrobo!” Don’t be a pretty, privileged person who takes advantage of the weak, ugly person. Never forget that at the end of Creation, God said, “It is very good.” – even the garrobo.

What, Me Worry? (I worry.)

Image: Gabi, who just finished digging up the garden in search of “snakes.” Photo by me, all rights reserved.


It’s been a very odd year for some of us. The weather has been weird and the news has been exhausting. It seems like every day something new comes crawling out of my radio, and I find myself regarding the news like a mysterious bug in my kitchen. Do I need to worry about this thing? Where did it come from? What should I do about it? What will happen if I don’t do anything about it?

My dog knows what to do with mysterious bugs: Gabi eats them. She lived on the street for a while, and I imagine bugs were cheap unthreatening protein for her. When she first came to live with us, she was a scourge on spiders. Now she is downright nonchalant: she only eats them if she’s missed a meal.

Her hunter reflexes are never far from the surface, even though she’s a cute little toy poodle. When we used to go walking by Lake Chabot, she would size up the ducks and then dance by my side as if to say, “You want one? I’ll get you one! Just say the word!” I never said, “Go git ’em!” because I was pretty sure we’d get in trouble if she began retrieving ducks from the park. She had no doubts, though: those ducks were TOAST.

The photo above is from the day she dug up the drip watering system in the garden. I suspect that she thought the periodic hissing from the water flow was snakes, and she was going to get her some snakes, yes ma’am! She was puzzled when I wasn’t happy about the giant holes she dug trying to get at them. You can see her puzzlement in the picture, along with her muddy paws and snout.

Gabi is not given to worry. If it’s a bug, she eats it. If it’s a duck, she offers to go get it. If it’s a snake in the back yard, she stares at me reproachfully, knowing that she isn’t allowed to dig it up.

I am more of a worrier. I want to do the right thing, and in uncertain times and situations, I spend a lot of energy just figuring out what to do. I keep my earthquake kit stocked, and I wrote letters to my elected officials. Still, most of it feels like doing not much.

That is why prayer and study are essential in my life. Sometimes I have to remind myself to sit down and say the holy words and let them speak to me. Sometimes I have to remind myself to just quiet down and listen for God. Sometimes I study to find the answer to a question, and sometimes I study because it IS a Jewish form of prayer, and when I study, my mind quiets and I can hear the voice of the Holy One speaking to me through the texts.

Some might say, “Ha! Religion is the opiate of the people! I knew it!” but that’s not how I see it. Prayer and study help me see exactly who I am and who I strive to be. When I pray and study regularly, I sober up and quit worrying so much. I let go of the things I cannot control and do something about the things I can. I let go of fantasy concerns and simply move from mitzvah to mitzvah.

I cannot make peace in the Middle East. I cannot make Washington do what I think is best. In truth, I have no idea what would settle everything in either place. But it is in moving from mitzvah to mitzvah, climbing steadily through life, that I may reach the calm that sometimes eludes me, even in a difficult season.


Multiplying Goodness

Image: Hands touching. Photo by Andreas/Pixabay.

.מצווה גוררת מצווה; עברה גוררת עברה

A sacred duty leads to another sacred duty; a sin leads to another sin. – Avot 4:2

I had a great workout this morning; I felt good. I called my friend Jake, who is laid up, and asked him if he needed anything. He said he needed some fruit, but he didn’t want to be any trouble. “No trouble!” I said, and got some apples and oranges. When I got to his house, his wife Susan was out front. They know my knees are creaky, too, and she didn’t want me to have to climb the stairs. I gave her the fruit, gave her a hug, sent my love to Jake, and came home happy, all fired up for work.

I tell you this little story because it’s a very important one right now. As the sages tell us, “Mitzvah goreret mitzvah” – a good deed leads to another good deed. When we do a mitzvah (care for our bodies) we are energized to do another mitzvah (visit the sick). The second mitzvah leads to another (I’m now energized for work, which is teaching, another mitzvah.) So goodness multiplies in the world, all beginning with one mitzvah.

Does it always work? Yes, although we have to be open to the possibilities. Let’s say I woke up this morning feeling so bad that a workout wasn’t possible (it happens.) So then I should ask myself, OK, what mitzvah am I up for? Let’s say I feel really bad that day; super creaky with arthritis and pain. I can still pray, and that’s a mitzvah. When I pray, maybe it opens my heart. I have a beautiful idea for a blog post, or a lesson, or I remember I need to call Jake to ask how he’s doing. One mitzvah leads to another, and they carry me out of myself, out of the body that is too creaky to feel anything but pain.

I call this way of living, “Living on the Mitzvah Plan,” and I’ve written about it before. I’m writing about it today because the secret power of many mitzvot is that they carry us out of ourselves, either by connecting us to the Divine or by connecting us to another human being (who is made in the image of the Divine!)

Now we are living in a difficult time. Things on the news are deeply upsetting to some of us. It would be easy to fall into averot [sins]: calling people names, living without care for our bodies, neglecting people who need us, being mean to people and animals. The more averot we do, the worse we feel, and we do more and more of them! The whole world will fill with pain and sadness.

Want to feel better? Do a mitzvah!

If you are having trouble thinking of a mitzvah to do, try this one:

I wrote before about the women of Steps to Success. Their fundraiser only runs to the 31st of January. If you use this link to make even a small donation, it will be a great mitzvah (even according to Maimonides!) and it will make life much better for a person who is currently living a very hard life. It will help her lift herself and her children to independence. You will help to transform life for not only a woman in need, but for the generations after her!

And there will be another, more immediate mitzvah: I would like to give all donors an hour of study via Skype or in person. Mitzvah goreret mitzvah: one sacred duty leads to another.

Who knows where the goodness will lead?

My thanks to Paul and Serach, to Linda, and to Helen, all of whom have contributed to Steps to Success!  Paul and Serach, I do not have your contact information. Please use the contact form on the right hand part of your screen to get in touch with me – I want to thank you!


Lyrics & translation.


Do Torah Scrolls Die?

Image: 13th century manuscript from the Cairo Genizah, a letter by Abraham, son of Maimonides. Photo via wikimedia, public domain.

A regular reader asked, “Rabbi Adar, what becomes of the aged Torah scrolls?”

Torah scrolls, or Sifrei Torah, are the great treasures of the Jewish People.

It’s true: some Torah scrolls are very, very old but it is unusual to see one that is more than 100 years old because they are fragile, very much like human bodies.

Over the lifetime of a Torah scroll, a responsible custodian of the scroll (usually a congregation) will seek out a skilled sofer [scribe] from time to time who will repair damaged letters, re-sew weak seams, and even attach the old scroll to new etzim [rollers] if need be. Just as human beings may need repairs as we age, Torah scrolls need periodic repair.

But the time comes when a Torah scroll is past repair and past respectful use. At that time we consign the scroll to a genizah, a safe resting space for sacred books, or we bury it in consecrated ground. The most famous genizah is the Cairo Genizah, from the ancient synagogue in a suburb of Cairo. There, sacred writings were collected in a wall of the synagogue for over 1,000 years and include handwritten pages from Maimonides himself. In 1896-7 the members of that synagogue permitted the Jewish scholar Solomon Schechter to remove the materials for study after he reassured them that the writings would be handled with reverence and preserved.

I have officiated at the burial of sacred writings; it is a solemn event. Some congregations designate a grave at a Jewish cemetery for that purpose. Others include sacred books in the casket when learned members of the congregation die and are buried.

Great question!