Va'yerei 5771 -- Elisha's Wedding and the Future: Marc Hauser Exposed; Chiliean Miners
Elisha's Wedding -- Scientific Fraud -- Chilean Miners
by Jonathan Rosenblum
October 27, 2010
I'm writing less than 24 hours prior to my son Elisha's chasanah. (Deadlines wait for no man.) For the parents of the young couple, the simcha is an occasion to both look backwards and forward. But for the young couple, there is only the future.
Though the Jewish people have the richest past of any people, our focus is uniquely to the future. The Ramban famously asks at the beginning of parashas Lech Lecha why the story of Avraham effectively begins with the command to go to the "Land . . . that I will show you," with no mention of his prior path in finding his way to Hashem.
In other respects too, Avraham is presented as a human being without a past. The Gemara asks, "Where is Avraham hinted to in the Torah?" And the answer is found in the verse (Bereishis 2:4), "These are the generations of the heavens and the earth in their creation (b'hibaram). . . ." The letters b'hibaram are the same as Avraham. In other words, Avraham was, in some sense, a creation m'ayin (from nothing), just like the heavens and the earth.
At the end of parashas Noach, we read of Terach's death, prior to the command to Avraham to leave his father's house. Terach lived, in fact, for many years after the command to Avraham, but the Torah writes the sequence of events as it does to indicate that Avraham filial relationship to Terach was severed prior to embarking on his mission. Again, he was a man without a past.
Rabbi Aharon Lopiansky, Rosh Yeshivas of the Yeshiva Gedolah of Greater Washington links the omission of Avraham's past to the transition in world history that took place in the midst of Avraham's life – the end of the 2,000 years of tohu (formlessness) and the beginning of the 2,000 years of Torah. With Avraham, the world begins to move towards the fulfillment of its ultimate purpose.
In the natural world, the past determines the future. If we mix two chemicals, under certain conditions, we can be pretty certain as to the outcome. In the world of Torah, the world of purpose, it is the ultimate future that determines the present. Avraham and Sarah could not have given birth in the world of nature. But because of their role as the progenitors of the Jewish people, they were removed from the world of nature – i.e., lifted above the constellations -- and Sarah bore Yitzchak.
That realm in which the present derives from the future is hinted to in the very first word of the Torah. Bereishis, Rashi points out, can be understood as meaning "for the sake of those things that are called reishis" – i.e., the Jewish people and Torah. In other words, the entire world was created only because the Jewish people would one day accept the Torah.
Just as the history of the Jewish people begins with the command to Avraham to go to a Land that Hashem will show him – a Land of perfection always just before him, but never fully attained until the culmination of history – so may Elisha and Malky spend their life together striving towards that ideal "bayis ne'eman b'Yisroel," that the bas Kol declared forty days before they were born.
The name Marc Hauser had disappeared from my memory bank – something that takes ever shorter intervals to do – until an alert reader reminded me of a 2006 Jerusalem Post piece I wrote debunking his research. Hauser,a popular professor of psychology at Harvard, is one of a growing horde of academics seeking to prove that religious belief is a product of evolution, an argument developed in his Moral Minds:How Nature Designed Our Universal Sense of Right and Wrong (2006).
Hauser and Princeton University "ethicist" Peter Singer published an article in the Jerusalem Post in 2006 in which they tried to prove the evolutionary basis of religious intuitions from the fact that people across different cultures give the same answers to certain moral dilemmas. The argument made no sense on its face. Common moral intuitions and a nearly ubiquitious belief in a power beyond oneself are precisely what Torah Jews would predict. The seven Noachide laws binding on all mankind, even without Divine revelation, assume that knowledge of these laws is innate. And Genesis's account of how Hashem breathed into Adam HaRishon a Divine soul would certainly explain why awareness of Him is, at some level, almost universal. (Rabbi Yaakov Feitman recently made a similar point in these pages.)
Even on its own terms, the "experiment" devised by Hauser and Singer was absurd. The moral "dilemmas" they posed hardly tested the outer limits of moral reasoning: Must a person try to save a drowning infant, even if he will get his pants wet in the process? Is it permissible to kill a healthy person to harvest his organs to save five others?
Evolutionary biologists have created a wide array of "stories" to explain the evolutionary advantage of religious belief. Breaking the Spell: Religion as a Natural Phenomenon, by Tufts University philosopher Daniel Dennett, is a virtual compendium of such "just so" stories. Reviewing the book in The New York Times, Leon Wieseltier described Dennett's speculative account of the development of religion as "a fairy tale told by evolutionary biology," which for all Dennett's professed allegiance to experimentation and evidence, is merely a "pious account of his own atheistic longing."
A corollary of the claim that religious belief reflects mankind's evolutionary history is that there is no essential difference between men (now stripped of a Divine soul) and animals, except that the former are further advanced on the evolutionary scale. Thus Singer advocates a parental right to kill newborn infants if the parents are dissatisfied, and argues that a newborn infant has less moral claim to life than a contented house cat.
(The idea that human beings are merely more sophisticated animals is of ancient vintage – indeed it goes all the way back to Generation of the Flood. The permission to eat meat after the Flood was to uproot the view that men and animals are essentially indistinguishable.)
Hauser is now in hot soup over his efforts to prove that apes share linguistic ability with men. (If monkeys could speak, man would no longer defined as "the speaking being," as Onkelos does in his translation of Bereishis (2:7).) He has been suspended from teaching by Harvard University after being found guilty of serious scientific misconduct. All told, eight academic studies authored or co-authored by him, three of which were already published by leading academic journals, were found to be tainted by faked data.
In one of his experiments, Hauser attempted to show that monkeys recognize changes from an established pattern of sounds. That involved an evaluation of the monkey's reactions. When a research assistant's evaluations differed radically from Hauser's own, Hauser insisted that his be used and grew irritated when the assistant objected. Later two assistants reviewed tapes of the monkey experiment and concluded that Hauser's evaluations were unsupportable: In one case, for instance, he reported a reaction when the monkey just stared straight ahead. Overtime, a pattern emerged of similar confrontations with other lab workers and overriding their data.
Apparently Hauser was so confident of his theory that he could not be bothered to wait for confirmatory data, or even deterred by data refuting his thesis. Or maybe, the hoax was only the first level of an even more elaborate hoax, designed to provide data for a book on which he is working entitled Evilicious: Why We Evolved a Taste for Being Bad.
Chilean President Sebastian Pinera said something profound – whether wittingly or unwittingly I do not know – to the 33 rescued mine workers who were trapped underground for nearly ten weeks: "You will never be the same again." One of the purposes for which Hashem tests a person – as he tested Avraham Avinu ten times – is to actualize his latent potential. The miners discovered in the course of their ordeal the magnitude of their courage, the depth of their faith, their self-control. They were each limited to a few sips of milk and nibbles on a cracker every two days for the first 17 days before new food supplies reached them. Had they not acted with that discipline, had each individual sought to eat more than his share, they could not have survived. What a joy to go through the rest of one's life knowing that one possesses the capacity for greatness.
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