Category Archives: Science

Musing: Ebola and Metzitza Bipeh

Part of a message from the Medical Society of the State of New York to local physicians reads as follows:

“Strategies to limit the potential for [Ebola] transmission… should be based on the best available medical, scientific and epidemiological evidence; be proportional to the risk; balance the rights of individuals and the community…”

One has to wonder whether strategies to limit the potential of the transmission of other viruses, like New York City’s strategy of regulating ritual circumcision, are  similarly “proportional to the risk.”

Or do religious practices for some reason enjoy less protection than secular ones?

Moral Climate Change

My pre-Sukkos column about the furious, quasi-religious zeal of some environmental alarmists apparently generated some… well, furious, quasi-religious zeal.

In an editorial, the New Jersey Jewish Standard’s managing editor mocked my contention that the Creator is ultimately in charge of the universe He created; and the editor of the New Jersey Jewish News invoked the celebrated atheist Richard Dawkins to berate me for my skepticism about scientific predictions.  (What’s with Jersey?  Has climate change done a number on its journalists’ equanimity?)

In my column, just to recall, I described my unease with the rage I heard at a large climate change rally, noted that the climate has changed in the past and, yes, contended that, in the end, the Creator is in charge, and our own charge is, above all, to heed His Torah.

I did not, though, call into question the reality of climate change, or in any way disparage measures aimed at trying to curb it. I readily stated that “we do well to explore alternate energy sources and pollute less.”  But my sin, alas, was too great to bear.

In addition to the two papers’ public proclamations of my heresy, several Jewish individuals wrote me privately.  One cited a  Midrash in Koheles Rabba (7:13), to buttress his faith in the threat global warming poses to the world and in our mandate to address it. The source, I discovered, is invoked by a host of Jewish environmentalist groups, and reads:

“When HaKodosh Boruch Hu created Adam Harishon, he took him and showed him all the trees of Gan Eden.  And He said to him ‘Look at My works, how beautiful and praiseworthy they are.  All that I created I created for you.  Be consciously careful not to act destructively and destroy My world.  Because if you do act destructively, there is no one to set things straight after you’.”

The  Midrash is held aloft by those groups as a paean to “Tikkun Olam,” as their members like to characterize social or environmental activism.  Hashem, in other words, is commanding Adam to do no harm to the earth – and his descendants, presumably, to oppose strip-mining, fracking and the Keystone XL pipeline.

One website trumpeting the  Midrash includes “Suggested Discussion Questions” like: “What does this text teach us about the earth?” “What is our responsibility to the environment?” “What is G-d’s responsibility to the environment?”

The  Midrash, however, is in reality not concerned with any such real or imagined insults to the earth.  The destruction of the world that Hashem is charging Adam to avoid is that which can result from his sins – the clear meaning of the phrase “act destructively,” as the  Midrash’s continuation makes clear.  It is famously invoked by the Ramchal to that precise effect in the first perek of Mesillas Yesharim.

Destroying resources for no good reason is forbidden by the Torah.  But there are elements of the ultra-environmentalist agenda that go far beyond avoiding unnecessary wastage.  And the attempt to put a “classical Jewish” veneer on the entire enterprise of “green politics” by misappropriating Torah texts to support the belief that human beings are physically destroying the world Hashem has created for us is deeply objectionable.

Judaism is a faith system.  To some, so is environmentalism.  But they are not the same faith.

Yes, I believe that the climate is changing.  I believe, too, that there will be negative effects of the same (although likely some positive ones too).  I believe that it’s plausible, if not certain, that human activity contributes to global warming, and plausible as well, though far from certain, that human beings can arrest or reverse the changing climate.

But I do believe – and this belief is b’emunah shleimah – that, pace Dawkins and company, Hashem is in charge. And that, in the end, humanity’s moral and ethical actions, not its climate conferences and multi-national treaties, fine efforts though they may be, will ultimately determine our fate.

That is, as it happens, a rather timely thought, considering that just this past Shabbos, Jews the world over heard a public reading about a cataclysmic climate change.  It happened in Noach’s time. And it was caused, of course, not by strip-mining but by sin, something no stranger to our own day.

How deeply ironic that a fundamental Jewish truth – that human beings affect the world most powerfully by their moral and ethical climates, their mitzvos and, challilah, their aveiros – is utter anathema to some periodicals that proudly include the word “Jewish” in their names.

© 2014 Hamodia

Immoral “Morality”

In a good illustration of just how thick people who are intellectually gifted can be, the well-known biologist and militant atheist Richard Dawkins recently offered his opinion that Down syndrome children would best be prevented from being born. “It would be immoral,” he wrote, “to bring it into the world if you have the choice.”

“It”?

The dehumanization says it all.

Professor Dawkins’ judgment of birthing a developmentally disabled child as “immoral” stems from his belief (shared by another famously mindless professor, Peter Singer, who also advocates euthanasia for severely handicapped infants and elderly) that an act’s morality should be gauged entirely by whether or not it increases happiness or suffering.

Mr. Dawkins’ comment drew considerable fire, as well it should have.  Some of those who assailed the professor for his – let’s here reclaim an important adjective – immoral stance focused on the factual error of his creepy calculus.  Two psychology researchers wrote, for example, in something of an understatement, that “individuals with Down syndrome can experience more happiness and potential for success than Mr. Dawkins seems to appreciate.”

In fact, 99% of respondents to a survey of those with Down syndrome (yes, 99%) report that they are happy with their lives.  Moreover, 88% of older siblings of people with Down syndrome reported feeling that they are better people for the fact.

Then there were those who addressed Mr. Dawkins not with statistics but with experience.  Like Sarah Palin, whose son has Down syndrome, and who generously offered to “let you meet my son if you promise to open your mind, your eyes, and your heart to a unique kind of absolute beauty.”

There is no question that families raising Down syndrome children face many challenges, medical, emotional, educational and societal.  But anyone who has embraced that privilege – and anyone, for that matter, who has experienced the delight of interacting with Down children or adults, whose guileless and endearing personalities can be overwhelming – understand how much more perceptive the much-maligned Mrs. Palin is than the much-celebrated Mr. Dawkins.

Truth be told, though, offering statistics or personal experience about the wonder and beauty of Down children is really beside the point – the most important point, that is, namely, the inherent folly of the Dawkinsian understanding of happiness.

Those of us who are naturally happy are very fortunate.  And all of us are indeed to aim at serving Hashem with happiness (Tehillim, 100:2).  But happiness is not tethered to tranquil or easy lives; many people who face adversities unimaginable to those of us who live relatively comfortable, untroubled lives are nevertheless happy.

Edifying is the famous story of Reb Zusha of Hanipoli, the impoverished, long-suffering but joyful Chassid who, according to the famous story, received two esteemed guests at his dilapidated home.  They told him that they had asked the Maggid of Mezeritch how one can bless Hashem as the Mishnah (Berachos 54a) directs, “for the bad just as for the good,” and that the Maggid had sent them to him.

Puzzled, he responded: “How would I know?  He should have sent you to someone who has experienced suffering.”

Happiness doesn’t happen; it is achieved.  And its achievement is not tied to ease or fun or lack of adversity.  It results from recognizing that life, ultimately, is about meaning.  True meaning, that is, not some imagined or invented meaning.  Life’s meaning that comes from serving the Divine.  That concept may be imponderable to atheists like Richard Dawkins or Peter Singer.  But it is the reason for human existence, for the bestowal of free will on the subset of creation we call men and women.

Down syndrome, as it happens and as we should always remember, is hardly the only condition “out there.”  There are other disabilities as well, some or all of whose sufferers Messrs. Dawkins and Singer may consider unworthy of the world as well.  Only they’re not.

Consider, for example, those who have “23 Chromosome Pair Syndrome,” which is invariably fatal.  Sufferers are susceptible to a host of maladies, including heart disease, high blood pressure, asthma and numerous forms of cancer, and are likely to suffer bouts of mild or more serious depression over the course of their lives.

They are also prone to headaches, nosebleeds, painful joints and broken bones.  And, at some point, they can become so disabled that they require others to care for them.

The syndrome happens to be quite common.

Indeed, it’s ubiquitous.

It’s what we call “normal” human life.

© 2014 Hamodia

Deathless

Odd that the Torah-portion about the death of Yaakov Avinu is called “Vayechi.”  After all, the word means “And he lived.”  And, differently voweled, the word can mean “And he will live.”  And especially odd, because Yaakov didn’t die.

At least that’s what Rabbi Yochanan (Taanis, 5b) asserts, although his listeners asked sarcastically, “Was it then for naught that the eulogizers eulogized him, the embalmers embalmed him and the gravediggers buried him?”

Unperturbed, Rabbi Yochanan responded with the prophet Yirmiyahu’s assurance, “And you, fear not, my servant Yaakov, says Hashem, and tremble not, Yisrael.  For behold I am your savior from afar and [that of] your descendants from their land of captivity.”  That verse, explained Rabbi Yochanan, juxtaposes Yaakov with his descendants.  And so, the sage concluded, “just as those descendants are alive, so, too, must he be.”

As abstruse Talmudic passages go, this one would seem a good example. Rabbi Yochanan’s proof is as unconvincing as his contention was bewildering.  And yet, the traditional word for dying (vayomos) is strangely absent from the account of Yaakov’s…  whatever.  Instead, an unusual and somewhat vague word (vayigva) is employed.  And there are Midrashic narratives, too, that imply Yaakov’s life after life.

What is more, the concept that Jewish tradition associates with the third of our forefathers is emes, or “truth.”  The Rambam (Hilchos Yesodei HaTorah 1:3-4), albeit in a different context, explains emes as meaning, essentially, “permanence”.   Another indication that Yaakov, in some way, has transcended demise.

And, even with his embalming and burial, he has.  For while his parents and their parents – Yitzchak and Rivka, and Avrohom and Sarah – bore children who proved unworthy of being progenitors of the Jewish people, only Yaakov and his wives merited seeing all of their offspring become forbears of the nation.

And so, in a very real way, Yaakov didn’t die; he metamorphosed into Yisrael, into the Jewish people.  Which, when one thinks about it, may be precisely what Rabbi Yochanan was saying.  His proof of Yaakov’s eternalness, after all, lies in a comparison between the man and his progeny.  Perhaps it is more than a comparison.  Yaakov becomes the Jewish people; he is Klal Yisrael, and that is why he is deathless.

That Yaakov would sire the first exclusively Jewish family was heralded in his famous dream, of which we read several weeks ago.  There too, as in Yirmiyahu, Yaakov is juxtaposed with his descendants.  “To you shall I give [the Holy Land], and to your children.”  And: “All the families of the earth will be blessed through you, and through your children.”

Sometimes a thought can only be thought, or an observation observed, after a certain point in history.  A possible example has to do with the realization of the import of Yaakov becoming Yisrael – and the dream he dreamt after he left Be’er Sheva and set out on his journey to Charan.

Because the dream-image that accompanied that Divine message about his future was a connection between heaven and earth in the form of a sulam, or “ladder.”

Sulam” occurs only this once in the Torah, and its etymology is unclear.  But an Arabic cognate of the word refers to steps ascending a mountain.  The easiest way to ascend a mountain is a spiral path.  That fact, and the possibly related Aramaic word “mesalsel” – to twist into curls – might lead one to imagine Yaakov’s “ladder” as something more akin to a spiral staircase.

It is a poignant image.

For, beginning with Yaakov, Jewishness is finally bestowed by genealogy.

And a spiral ladder is what one might more technically call a double helix, a fitting vision to presage the destiny of the man who dreamed it.

© 2013 Rabbi Avi Shafran

What’s New

As someone with a well-honed sense of wonder, who delights at the sight of a blue jay (even though several of them regularly greet my wife and me outside the window during autumn breakfasts) and who, walking to Maariv each night, surveys the constellations and planets with awe (and feels a frisson at the occasional shooting star), I might be expected to marvel as well at modern communications technology.

And I do, at least to an extent.  The rapid advance from dedicated word-processing machines (How futuristic was that StarWriter I bought in the 1980s!  It had a five-line screen!) to computers, and then to more powerful computers – and the invention of e-mail and the Internet (thank you, Mr. Gore!) and smartphones – has been nothing short of astounding.

And yet, unlike blue jays and shooting stars, the state of personal tech today often leaves me grumpy.  E-mail, for instance, for all its convenience and efficiency, seems to have only increased workloads.  The Internet, for all the good that it may have to offer, presents so much that is the opposite of good – not just fraud and panderings to the lowest human instincts but avalanches of ill will and cynical slander purveyed online by disturbed, malevolent individuals. And smartphones are too smart for their own good.

As I discovered a few months ago. As if I weren’t already sufficiently wary of communications technology’s larger challenges, I was accosted by something more subtly irksome, in the form of the message I received when I turned on a new phone.  The device introduced itself to me as my “Life Companion.”

Okay, now, I said to it, that’s quite enough. I appreciate (somewhat) the fast and efficient mail-on-the-go, the high voice quality of the phone calls, the reliable music player, the weather and travel apps.  But even if this new model could cook supper, wash clothes and proofread articles, it would not be my “life companion.”  I already have one of those.  And she doesn’t even need a battery.

The device’s presumptuous self-introduction got me thinking about how, really, all of technology is presumptuous.  The aforementioned StarWriter (like its great-grandfather before it, the IBM Selectric electric typewriter) was once “the future” of writing. “Super-8” film was supposed to be the ultimate in video recording, here to stay (until it went and left).  And, to roll the film (remember film?) ahead to more recent years, does anyone even use a Segway anymore?

Just as the sartorial styles of the 1960s and 1970s look so embarrassingly silly in photographs from those ancient times (yes, we had photographs then – taken by actual cameras!), so will the computers and smartphones of today one day strike our descendants as primitive.  “What?  You used to have to actually touch a screen or speak into a device?” many a child will ask a wizened grandparent, with a condescending snicker.  “Didn’t you have brainwaving?”

All of which points to one way of understanding Shlomo Hamelech’s eternally timely words in Koheles, “There is nothing new under the sun.”  Of course there are new things, all the time.  They just don’t stay new.

The Talmud teaches us that what isn’t “under the sun,” however, Torah, can yield newness, new insights, new ideas, new understandings. But perhaps the simplest understanding of the limitation “under the sun” is that, when it comes to what the Creator, who transcends the universe, has bequeathed to us in what we call “nature,” the shine, so to speak, never dulls.

Blue jays, comets and constellations may be old things, but somehow they remain fresh and awe-inspiring every morning and every night.  They will never go out of style, and won’t ever be improved upon.  Things in the natural world are, one might say, engineered to last.  In the world of technology, though, no matter what its engineers may imagine, what’s present will one day be past, in fact passé.

And yes, after enough poking around, I finally figured out how to change the greeting my phone offers when activated.  Now the screen declares: “This too shall pass.”

© 2013 Rabbi Avi Shafran

GRAPHOANALYSIS: SCIENCE OR SNOW JOB?

As a boy growing up in the 1960s, I became intrigued with handwriting analysis. It’s an intriguing notion, an almost obvious one: our character traits are subtly expressed in our handwriting. Every person is unique, after all, and so is every person’s handwriting. Our brains are the physical organs that mediate our “selves” and ultimately produce our writing. It seems reasonable that our handwriting unconsciously reveals things about our personal characteristics. The revelations will be subtle, to be sure, but with enough research, studies, and testing, it should be possible, the reasoning goes, to establish rules to allow for the accurate analysis of personality from handwriting.

And, indeed, the claim that such rules are available and can be practically applied, at least by experienced initiates, is the fundamental principle underlying the discipline of graphology, or handwriting analysis.

I read whatever material on the topic I could find. In the end, though, I concluded that if graphology were in fact a science, it was too inexact and fuzzy to be of any use. And so I lost interest and moved on to model rocketry.

But graphology, to understate things, went on quite well without me. Today, there are scores of books on the topic; companies specialize in analyzing handwriting; individual graphologists offer their services for a fee; people use graphological analyses of their strengths and weaknesses to make life decisions; and employers routinely evaluate applicants at least partly on graphologists’ judgments of handwriting. (The use of graphological profiles as an employment tool is particularly popular, for reasons not clear, in Western Europe and Israel.)

Some Clarifications Up Front

When approaching the subject of graphology, it’s important to realize that the phrase “handwriting analysis” is sometimes used to refer to an expert document examiner’s comparison of a person’s handwriting with writing introduced as evidence in a civil or criminal trial. In such cases, the analyst (often called a “questioned document examiner”) is simply comparing details in one sample of handwriting with those in another and rendering his or her judgment about whether both were produced by the same person. Such expertise has nothing to do with graphology, the assertion that people’s character traits are discernable in their handwriting.

A second important point to keep in mind when investigating graphology, at least as it is embraced by most people today, is that it is presented as a scientific discipline. There are those who claim a mystical ability to divine personality and facts about individuals from their handwriting, just as there are people who claim to be able to do the same from facial birthmarks or palm creases or tarot cards. Some of those methods, depending on how they are used, may be halachically forbidden, although there have been Jewish mystics who, it is claimed, could “read” a person from his face or his writing. Whatever the merits of such claims, though, graphology’s contemporary promoters do not claim any such supernatural divination. What they say they do, rather, is a form of scientific analysis, the interpretation of handwriting quirks and patterns, based on what they claim to be a cause-and-effect premise, to yield subjects’ psychological, occupational, and even medical attributes.

A Little History

The earliest use of handwriting as a window into the mind may go back to the Roman emperor Nero, who is said to have judged people by their writing. The first written treatise on graphology is generally considered to have been produced in 1625 by an Italian named Camillo Baldi. In the nineteenth century, members of the Catholic clergy in France founded “The Society of Graphology” and one of them, Abbot Jean-Hyppolyte Michon, wrote several books on the topic. Within a hundred years, German thinkers had embraced the idea that state of mind affects handwriting; and Americans soon followed, with the establishment by a Kansas shorthand teacher of the International Graphoanalysis Society in 1929. (“Graphoanalysis” refers to one of a number of different schools of graphological methodology, which all differ in their assignment of meanings to certain writing patterns.)

It wasn’t until the 1950s, though, that experimental claims of graphology’s validity as a psychological tool were put forth, and its popularity began to soar both in America and Europe.

Method in the Manuscript

Although, as noted earlier, there is no canonical school of graphology, but rather an assortment of schools that each claim a particular technique of ferreting details of a mind from the writing that it has produced, most graphologists pay particular attention to the size and slant of characters, their curvature, and things like the pressure of upward and downward strokes. A right slant generally correlates with extroversion, and a left slant with introversion. The shape of the letter ‘t’ and the way it is crossed are important markers in most systems, as are the size of the personal pronoun “I” and the way it is rendered. Anyone interested in the finer points of the methodology used by the various approaches within graphology can choose from dozens of books and papers outlining the details of all the various systems.

Sifting Through the Studies

The intricacy of the systems utilized by graphologists is clear, as is the popularity of graphology itself. But is it justified? Have the claims made on its behalf been borne out by facts? Has handwriting analysis been proven to be a useful tool? The answers are clearer than one might expect, and—at least to some—may be surprising.

There have been literally hundreds of studies aimed at finding evidence for graphologists’ claims. The ones that have demonstrated efficacy on any level for handwriting analysis have been those conducted by graphologists themselves, or have appeared in journals where payment is rendered for the inclusion of papers. Objective studies in recognized professional scientific periodicals have yielded no evidence that personality traits can be reliably divined from handwriting.

Anat Rafaeli and Richard J. Klimoski, for example, studied expert graphologists’ interpretation of the handwriting of 104 real estate agents in 1983 and compared the assessments with the agents’ performance. No relationship was found. In a 1992 survey of research on handwriting analysis for personnel selection, Mr. Klimoski concluded that the “credible, empirical evidence” does not support the claims of graphology as applied to personnel selection.

In 2009, Carla Dazzi and Luigi Pedrabissi published a paper in Psychological Reports on a study they conducted about graphology and summarized their findings thus: “No evidence was found to validate the graphological method as a measure of personality.”

Even one of the very few studies that yielded a slightly greater correct/incorrect ratio in the judgments of graphologists over a control group—a 1973 paper for the Netherlands Society of Industrial Psychology—provides little succor for proponents of handwriting analysis. The Dutch researchers concluded that for judging an individual, “…graphology is a diagnostic method of highly questionable and in all probability minimal, practical value.”

More enlightening are the results of “meta-analyses” of studies on the issue. A meta-analysis is essentially an evaluation of a group of studies, which—since the weaknesses of individual studies are diluted in the pool of others considered—yields a clearer and more accurate picture.

In one such meta-analysis of 17 graphology studies in 1988, Efrat Neter and Gershon Ben-Shakhar found that graphologists were no better than nongraphologists in predicting future performance by examining an applicant’s handwriting. The researchers concluded that in cases where “neutral scripts” (writing samples whose content did not reveal anything about the writers’ lives, attitudes or interests) were used “the validities of the graphologists were near zero.” Their results, they wrote, suggested that the source of whatever “limited validity” may have been demonstrated for graphologists’ appraisals “may be the script’s content”—in other words, the content of the writing sample, not the handwriting itself.

In 1992, Australian researcher Geoffrey Dean published, in the journal of the American Psychological Association, a review of 200 studies of graphology’s efficacy. He found that no graphologist of any of the schools of handwriting analysis fared better than untrained amateurs making guesses from the same materials presented to the graphologists. In the vast majority of the studies surveyed, neither group exceeded chance expectancy.

The late professor of psychology Barry L. Beyerstein was a particularly blunt critic of graphology, calling it “scandalous that a pseudoscientific ‘character reading’” like handwriting analysis “should be used to make decisions that can seriously affect people’s reputations and life prospects.”

“The scientific literature,” he said, “overwhelmingly supports the notion that handwriting analysis is pseudoscientific bunk.”

The Handwriting Analysts’ Response

What do graphologists say when confronted with such comments and the results of studies finding no validity to their claims?

To answer that question, I interacted with accomplished handwriting analysts. They don’t dispute the fact of the scientific findings but insist that the studies are flawed. Some will point in the direction of their own, or other graphologists’, studies. Others claim that if handwriting analysis were unreliable, courts would not employ it. But I could find no evidence that any court of law in the United States has ever relied in any way on graphology (although, again, comparisons of handwriting samples to identify writers is commonplace in courts).

And some say, in effect, leave the studies aside; look instead at the facts—namely the convictions of their clients, who claim that analyses of their handwriting (or that of others that they have submitted) have been accurate, even astoundingly perceptive.

When such claims are examined, though, they tend to lose some luster. In many cases, the accuracy of the readings can plausibly be tied to the content of the written questions or writing sample submitted. The graphologist need not have consciously intended to mine that content but may nevertheless have registered elements of it in his mind, which later emerge in his evaluation. In cases of public figures, the evidence of reputations often seems to inform (again, consciously or not) analyses of their handwriting.

An example would be one graphologist’s analysis of presidential candidates’ handwriting before the 2008 elections. He concluded that Senator John McCain has an “optimistic nature” and also “a restless inner temperament, with elements of impulsivity and impatience. He can blow up in an instant… prefers to defend the given order and is stubborn, determined and unyielding in his approach to life.”

And, the analyst added, the senator is a “maverick.” All of which is common knowledge.

As to then-Senator Barack Obama, an analyst said that he “needs to always be the center of attention,” has a “seemingly informal style” and “has overcompensated for an absent father and a overbearing mother and grandmother.” (The same handwriting expert also saw in Mr. Obama’s writing “a Christian cross and the alif, the first letter of the Arabic alphabet… hinting at the crescent, the symbol of Islam.”)

And, in consonance with popular opinion at the time, he added on a radio program that “Barack’s signature scared the daylights out of me.”

Or/But/While

In other cases, vagueness and what might be called “or/but/while” statements allow people to see perception where in fact there may be none.

Examples of vague, open-to-many-meanings, or universally applicable phrases include things like: “divided nature,” “compatible with most people,” “protects innermost feelings,” “strives for independence,” “always asking questions and seeking answers,” and “sense of pride and dignity”—all actual phrases culled from random published analyses of handwriting samples. At first glance each phrase might seem to communicate something clear and discrete; but a second look and bit of thought yields the realization that each phrase is sufficiently vague to apply to almost anyone. Or consider (also from an actual analysis) the following: “Had trouble with parents in teens.” The inherent vagueness of the word “trouble” and the essential psychology of adolescence combine to make such an assessment more of a truism than a revelation.

Someone, however, predisposed to seeing himself in a graphological analysis would readily feel, about any or all of the phrases above, that the graphologist has indeed divined elements of his personality.

“Or/but/while” statements also abound in most graphoanalyses. Those would be things like the following (also culled from random actual readings): “has an opinion… [either] because he has character, or because he is arrogant”; “can be compatible with most personalities but will not hesitate to argue her point of view”; “charming in social situations while remaining socially distant”; “take[s] great pains to be impartial… [but] can be contentious, argumentative”; “takes [money] seriously but doesn’t allow financial concerns to consume him.”

The upshot of “or/but/while ” statements is that the subject can choose to focus either on what precedes the “or,” “but” or “while,” or on what follows it. If he’s inclined to want to believe his character has been plumbed, he’ll likely zero in on the description he feels suits him best.

A Case Study

The more daring graphologists, however, do indeed include, at least inter alia, clear assessments in their analyses of handwriting samples, descriptions of character traits that are neither vague nor qualified. It would seem that evidence for graphology’s effectiveness would assert itself in such judgments.

“Moshe,” who is something of a public figure, challenged a respected graphologist to provide scientific evidence for the efficacy of handwriting analysis. The handwriting professional told him that the fact that people found analyses of their handwriting to be accurate descriptions of themselves is the only evidence needed. And he offered to analyze Moshe’s handwriting. Moshe confided to me that he took up the offer but, to make the experiment a truly “blind” (unbiased, scientific) one, he submitted instead the handwriting of someone else—“Tzipporah”—whose character traits are markedly different from his. He is analytical, philosophical, lawyerly, and gregarious; she is intelligent but emotive, quiet, and unpretentious. While he is systematic, very organized and calculated, she has more of a “go with the flow” personality. He is very self-assured; she is modest and reserved.

The following are Moshe’s words, after receiving the detailed analysis of “his” (actually, Tzipporah’s) handwriting:

Most of the analysis reflected things about me that are easily available on the web. And those things are simply not true about [Tzippora].

Other parts of the analysis are open to broad interpretation, and in some cases even contradictory. For example, it claims the writer is ‘not meticulous about details’ and ‘given to procrastination’ but in the very next paragraph says he is “organized, with good planning skills” and, earlier, that he ‘pushes himself’ and “rarely allow[s] obstacles to deter him.”

And where the analysis does state clear “facts,” they are generally without basis—either regarding me or “Tzippora.” Neither of our fathers were delinquent in establishing “clear direction” in life. Neither of us has “past experiences [that] have created aggressive feelings.” Neither of us had unusual “trouble with parents” in our youths, and certainly don’t “blame” ourselves for that nonexistent trouble. There is much more, too, that is wildly inaccurate about both “Tzipporah” and me.

The graphologist didn’t even indicate that the writing was that of a female, not a male like me.

Moshe does not believe that the handwriting analyst consciously sought to fool him. He thinks the graphologist actually believes in his ability to see character traits in handwriting. “But,” says Moshe, “he is wrong. He somewhat described things fairly well known about me—even though it wasn’t my handwriting he analyzed—and totally struck out when he tried to go further.”

Where There’s A Will…

There will always be people who want to believe that they can obtain insight into themselves through various means. Whether they pursue a psychotherapist or a soothsayer, their goal is the same: to better understand themselves and, hopefully, better utilize their strengths, address their weaknesses,  and live better lives. And so it might well be asked what gain is to be had by presenting handwriting analysis in its true colors—something bearing the patina of “science” but lacking any evidence for its validity. After all, even if it is just a parlor game, where’s the harm in playing it?

The answer lies in the stark fact that many who seek analyses of their (or others’) handwriting actually make life-altering decisions based on what they are told. A potential marriage partner may be nixed, or a job not offered. One graphologist told me that his skills resulted in a student being revealed as guilty of a crime committed in his yeshiva. He claimed that the student subsequently admitted his guilt. But there have been many cases of admissions of guilt under pressure that turned out—on the basis of hard evidence or eyewitnesses— that emerged only later to be false. A handwriting analysis can itself be a crime, and not a victimless one.

There are, however, effective ways to receive accurate and truthful information about one’s character, strengths, and weaknesses; and to obtain useful advice for how to make life-choices. For a believing Jew, the path to such good advice has been clearly pointed out by Chazal, in Avos (1:6): “Choose for yourself a rav,” the Sages advised, “and acquire for yourself a friend.”

And when you need personal guidance, turn to them.

© 2011 Ami Magazine

 

Call Me Informant

I snitched on some fellow Jews not long ago. To a government agency yet. It did leave a strange taste, but I think it was the right thing to do.

What prompted my unprecedented role as informant was the sight of an advertisement on the side of a New York City bus. It featured, if that’s the right word, the face of a wizened woman in a sickbed, oxygen tubes protruding from her nose, her eyes seeming to gaze at the angel of death himself. The caption read: “Dying from smoking is rarely quick… and never painless.”

The ad was strikingly diametric to the usual bus-ad fare, the touting of consumer goods, entertainment, diversions and worse. And its tag line appeared not only in English but in Spanish too. Which is what got me thinking about becoming a stool pigeon.

There was a time when smoking was regarded as a harmless pastime—even a healthy one. (“More doctors smoke Camels than any other cigarette!” boasted one 1940s ad.) And even in less distant times, the inhalation of burning tobacco smoke has been seen as an unhealthy habit but not a potentially suicidal one.

These days, though, no one denies that smoking is a major risk factor for an assortment of dire ailments, including heart disease and lung cancer. According to the Centers for Disease Control, more deaths are caused each year by tobacco use than by illegal drug and alcohol abuse, vehicular injuries, suicides, and murders. Combined.

“Smoking,” the CDC notes, “harms nearly every organ of the body” and contributes not only to heart ailments and a broad host of cancers, but to strokes and reproductive problems as well.

And yet there are parts of the observant Jewish world that seem impervious to the fact, or at least late to the realization, that smoking not only takes a medically measureable toll on all who indulge in it, but causes many people to die much sooner than they would have had they not come to nurture the bad habit.

There is a well-known responsum from the revered Rav Moshe Feinstein, of blessed memory, in which the renowned decisor stopped short of forbidding smoking as a matter of clear-cut halacha. But not every inadvisable act, not even every dangerous one, is necessarily forbidden by halacha. What is more, the responsum is 30 years old, dating to a time when dangers of tobacco were suspected but their full gamut and seriousness not yet fully appreciated.

Perhaps more germane, the halachic rationale for not forbidding smoking is a Talmudic principle: When it comes to common (hence not necessarily subject to prohibition) but foolish behavior, shomer pesayim Hashem—G-d protects fools (Psalms 116:6).

And so, to return to my first and likely last act of stoolie-hood, shortly after seeing the bus ad, I contacted the New York City agency responsible for it and informed a bureaucrat that the Orthodox Jewish community in, among other places, southern Brooklyn and Williamsburg, harbors a good number of smokers—with a fairly high collective intelligence quotient. Might it be possible, I asked, for buses servicing those areas to sport ads similar to the one I saw and, in order to seize the attention of the local population, with Yiddish translation rather than Spanish?

I don’t know if my suggestion fell into fertile soil or on deaf ears. I’m not even sure if the bus ad campaign is still active; I haven’t seen the wizened lady of late.

But every time I see people—especially yeshiva students, who may soon be married (or may have recently been) and who have their lives ahead of them and are not yet likely nicotine-addicted—sucking on cigarettes, I fantasize the bus of my dreams suddenly materializing and driving slowly by. And, seeing the ad on its side, the young men are reminded that with every inhalation of carbon particulates, tar, carbon monoxide, nicotine, formaldehyde, ammonia, hydrogen cyanide, arsenic, and DDT, they are not only flirting with, G-d forbid, prematurely widowing their wives and orphaning their children but are proclaiming themselves for all the world as fools.

© 2011 AMI MAGAZINE

 

 

Graphoanalysis: Science or Snow Job?

As a boy growing up in the 1960s, I became intrigued with handwriting analysis. It’s an intriguing notion, an almost obvious one: our character traits are subtly expressed in our handwriting. Every person is unique, after all, and so is every person’s handwriting. Our brains are the physical organs that mediate our “selves” and ultimately produce our writing. It seems reasonable that our handwriting unconsciously reveals things about our personal characteristics. The revelations will be subtle, to be sure, but with enough research, studies, and testing, it should be possible, the reasoning goes, to establish rules to allow for the accurate analysis of personality from handwriting.

And, indeed, the claim that such rules are available and can be practically applied, at least by experienced initiates, is the fundamental principle underlying the discipline of graphology, or handwriting analysis.

I read whatever material on the topic I could find. In the end, though, I concluded that if graphology were in fact a science, it was too inexact and fuzzy to be of any use. And so I lost interest and moved on to model rocketry.

But graphology, to understate things, went on quite well without me. Today, there are scores of books on the topic; companies specialize in analyzing handwriting; individual graphologists offer their services for a fee; people use graphological analyses of their strengths and weaknesses to make life decisions; and employers routinely evaluate applicants at least partly on graphologists’ judgments of handwriting. (The use of graphological profiles as an employment tool is particularly popular, for reasons not clear, in Western Europe and Israel.)

 

Some Clarifications Up Front

When approaching the subject of graphology, it’s important to realize that the phrase “handwriting analysis” is sometimes used to refer to an expert document examiner’s comparison of a person’s handwriting with writing introduced as evidence in a civil or criminal trial. In such cases, the analyst (often called a “questioned document examiner”) is simply comparing details in one sample of handwriting with those in another and rendering his or her judgment about whether both were produced by the same person. Such expertise has nothing to do with graphology, the assertion that people’s character traits are discernable in their handwriting.

A second important point to keep in mind when investigating graphology, at least as it is embraced by most people today, is that it is presented as a scientific discipline. There are those who claim a mystical ability to divine personality and facts about individuals from their handwriting, just as there are people who claim to be able to do the same from facial birthmarks or palm creases or tarot cards. Some of those methods, depending on how they are used, may be halachically forbidden, although there have been Jewish mystics who, it is claimed, could “read” a person from his face or his writing. Whatever the merits of such claims, though, graphology’s contemporary promoters do not claim any such supernatural divination. What they say they do, rather, is a form of scientific analysis, the interpretation of handwriting quirks and patterns, based on what they claim to be a cause-and-effect premise, to yield subjects’ psychological, occupational, and even medical attributes.

 

A Little History

The earliest use of handwriting as a window into the mind may go back to the Roman emperor Nero, who is said to have judged people by their writing. The first written treatise on graphology is generally considered to have been produced in 1625 by an Italian named Camillo Baldi. In the nineteenth century, members of the Catholic clergy in France founded “The Society of Graphology” and one of them, Abbot Jean-Hyppolyte Michon, wrote several books on the topic. Within a hundred years, German thinkers had embraced the idea that state of mind affects handwriting; and Americans soon followed, with the establishment by a Kansas shorthand teacher of the International Graphoanalysis Society in 1929. (“Graphoanalysis” refers to one of a number of different schools of graphological methodology, which all differ in their assignment of meanings to certain writing patterns.)

It wasn’t until the 1950s, though, that experimental claims of graphology’s validity as a psychological tool were put forth, and its popularity began to soar both in America and Europe.

 

Method in the Manuscript

Although, as noted earlier, there is no canonical school of graphology, but rather an assortment of schools that each claim a particular technique of ferreting details of a mind from the writing that it has produced, most graphologists pay particular attention to the size and slant of characters, their curvature, and things like the pressure of upward and downward strokes. A right slant generally correlates with extroversion, and a left slant with introversion. The shape of the letter ‘t’ and the way it is crossed are important markers in most systems, as are the size of the personal pronoun “I” and the way it is rendered. Anyone interested in the finer points of the methodology used by the various approaches within graphology can choose from dozens of books and papers outlining the details of all the various systems.

 

Sifting Through the Studies

The intricacy of the systems utilized by graphologists is clear, as is the popularity of graphology itself. But is it justified? Have the claims made on its behalf been borne out by facts? Has handwriting analysis been proven to be a useful tool? The answers are clearer than one might expect, and—at least to some—may be surprising.

There have been literally hundreds of studies aimed at finding evidence for graphologists’ claims. The ones that have demonstrated efficacy on any level for handwriting analysis have been those conducted by graphologists themselves, or have appeared in journals where payment is rendered for the inclusion of papers. Objective studies in recognized professional scientific periodicals have yielded no evidence that personality traits can be reliably divined from handwriting.

Anat Rafaeli and Richard J. Klimoski, for example, studied expert graphologists’ interpretation of the handwriting of 104 real estate agents in 1983 and compared the assessments with the agents’ performance. No relationship was found. In a 1992 survey of research on handwriting analysis for personnel selection, Mr. Klimoski concluded that the “credible, empirical evidence” does not support the claims of graphology as applied to personnel selection.

In 2009, Carla Dazzi and Luigi Pedrabissi published a paper in Psychological Reports on a study they conducted about graphology and summarized their findings thus: “No evidence was found to validate the graphological method as a measure of personality.”

Even one of the very few studies that yielded a slightly greater correct/incorrect ratio in the judgments of graphologists over a control group—a 1973 paper for the Netherlands Society of Industrial Psychology—provides little succor for proponents of handwriting analysis. The Dutch researchers concluded that for judging an individual, “…graphology is a diagnostic method of highly questionable and in all probability minimal, practical value.”

More enlightening are the results of “meta-analyses” of studies on the issue. A meta-analysis is essentially an evaluation of a group of studies, which—since the weaknesses of individual studies are diluted in the pool of others considered—yields a clearer and more accurate picture.

In one such meta-analysis of 17 graphology studies in 1988, Efrat Neter and Gershon Ben-Shakhar found that graphologists were no better than nongraphologists in predicting future performance by examining an applicant’s handwriting. The researchers concluded that in cases where “neutral scripts” (writing samples whose content did not reveal anything about the writers’ lives, attitudes or interests) were used “the validities of the graphologists were near zero.” Their results, they wrote, suggested that the source of whatever “limited validity” may have been demonstrated for graphologists’ appraisals “may be the script’s content”—in other words, the content of the writing sample, not the handwriting itself.

In 1992, Australian researcher Geoffrey Dean published, in the journal of the American Psychological Association, a review of 200 studies of graphology’s efficacy. He found that no graphologist of any of the schools of handwriting analysis fared better than untrained amateurs making guesses from the same materials presented to the graphologists. In the vast majority of the studies surveyed, neither group exceeded chance expectancy.

The late professor of psychology Barry L. Beyerstein was a particularly blunt critic of graphology, calling it “scandalous that a pseudoscientific ‘character reading’” like handwriting analysis “should be used to make decisions that can seriously affect people’s reputations and life prospects.”

“The scientific literature,” he said, “overwhelmingly supports the notion that handwriting analysis is pseudoscientific bunk.”

 

The Handwriting Analysts’ Response

What do graphologists say when confronted with such comments and the results of studies finding no validity to their claims?

To answer that question, I interacted with accomplished handwriting analysts. They don’t dispute the fact of the scientific findings but insist that the studies are flawed. Some will point in the direction of their own, or other graphologists’, studies. Others claim that if handwriting analysis were unreliable, courts would not employ it. But I could find no evidence that any court of law in the United States has ever relied in any way on graphology (although, again, comparisons of handwriting samples to identify writers is commonplace in courts).

And some say, in effect, leave the studies aside; look instead at the facts—namely the convictions of their clients, who claim that analyses of their handwriting (or that of others that they have submitted) have been accurate, even astoundingly perceptive.

When such claims are examined, though, they tend to lose some luster. In many cases, the accuracy of the readings can plausibly be tied to the content of the written questions or writing sample submitted. The graphologist need not have consciously intended to mine that content but may nevertheless have registered elements of it in his mind, which later emerge in his evaluation. In cases of public figures, the evidence of reputations often seems to inform (again, consciously or not) analyses of their handwriting.

An example would be one graphologist’s analysis of presidential candidates’ handwriting before the 2008 elections. He concluded that Senator John McCain has an “optimistic nature” and also “a restless inner temperament, with elements of impulsivity and impatience. He can blow up in an instant… prefers to defend the given order and is stubborn, determined and unyielding in his approach to life.”

And, the analyst added, the senator is a “maverick.” All of which is common knowledge.

As to then-Senator Barack Obama, an analyst said that he “needs to always be the center of attention,” has a “seemingly informal style” and “has overcompensated for an absent father and an overbearing mother and grandmother.” (The same handwriting expert also saw in Mr. Obama’s writing “a Christian cross and the alif, the first letter of the Arabic alphabet… hinting at the crescent, the symbol of Islam.”)

And, in consonance with popular opinion at the time, he added on a radio program that “Barack’s signature scared the daylights out of me.”

 

Or/But/While

In other cases, vagueness and what might be called “or/but/while” statements allow people to see perception where in fact there may be none.

Examples of vague, open-to-many-meanings, or universally applicable phrases include things like: “divided nature,” “compatible with most people,” “protects innermost feelings,” “strives for independence,” “always asking questions and seeking answers,” and “sense of pride and dignity”—all actual phrases culled from random published analyses of handwriting samples. At first glance each phrase might seem to communicate something clear and discrete; but a second look and bit of thought yields the realization that each phrase is sufficiently vague to apply to almost anyone. Or consider (also from an actual analysis) the following: “Had trouble with parents in teens.” The inherent vagueness of the word “trouble” and the essential psychology of adolescence combine to make such an assessment more of a truism than a revelation.

Someone, however, predisposed to seeing himself in a graphological analysis would readily feel, about any or all of the phrases above, that the graphologist has indeed divined elements of his personality.

“Or/but/while” statements also abound in most graphoanalyses. Those would be things like the following (also culled from random actual readings): “has an opinion… [either] because he has character, or because he is arrogant”; “can be compatible with most personalities but will not hesitate to argue her point of view”; “charming in social situations while remaining socially distant”; “take[s] great pains to be impartial… [but] can be contentious, argumentative”; “takes [money] seriously but doesn’t allow financial concerns to consume him.”

The upshot of “or/but/while ” statements is that the subject can choose to focus either on what precedes the “or,” “but” or “while,” or on what follows it. If he’s inclined to want to believe his character has been plumbed, he’ll likely zero in on the description he feels suits him best.

 

A Case Study

The more daring graphologists, however, do indeed include, at least inter alia, clear assessments in their analyses of handwriting samples, descriptions of character traits that are neither vague nor qualified. It would seem that evidence for graphology’s effectiveness would assert itself in such judgments.

“Moshe,” who is something of a public figure, challenged a respected graphologist to provide scientific evidence for the efficacy of handwriting analysis. The handwriting professional told him that the fact that people found analyses of their handwriting to be accurate descriptions of themselves is the only evidence needed. And he offered to analyze Moshe’s handwriting. Moshe confided to me that he took up the offer but, to make the experiment a truly “blind” (unbiased, scientific) one, he submitted instead the handwriting of someone else—“Tzipporah”—whose character traits are markedly different from his. He is analytical, philosophical, lawyerly, and gregarious; she is intelligent but emotive, quiet, and unpretentious. While he is systematic, very organized and calculated, she has more of a “go with the flow” personality. He is very self-assured; she is modest and reserved

The following are Moshe’s words, after receiving the detailed analysis of “his” (actually, Tzipporah’s) handwriting:

Most of the analysis reflected things about me that are easily available on the web. And those things are simply not true about [Tzippora].

Other parts of the analysis are open to broad interpretation, and in some cases even contradictory. For example, it claims the writer is ‘not meticulous about details’ and ‘given to procrastination’ but in the very next paragraph says he is “organized, with good planning skills” and, earlier, that he ‘pushes himself’ and “rarely allow[s] obstacles to deter him.”

And where the analysis does state clear “facts,” they are generally without basis—either regarding me or “Tzippora.” Neither of our fathers were delinquent in establishing “clear direction” in life. Neither of us has “past experiences [that] have created aggressive feelings.” Neither of us had unusual “trouble with parents” in our youths, and certainly don’t “blame” ourselves for that nonexistent trouble. There is much more, too, that is wildly inaccurate about both “Tzipporah” and me.

The graphologist didn’t even indicate that the writing was that of a female, not a male like me.

Moshe does not believe that the handwriting analyst consciously sought to fool him. He thinks the graphologist actually believes in his ability to see character traits in handwriting. “But,” says Moshe, “he is wrong. He somewhat described things fairly well known about me—even though it wasn’t my handwriting he analyzed—and totally struck out when he tried to go further.”

 

Where There’s A Will…

There will always be people who want to believe that they can obtain insight into themselves through various means. Whether they pursue a psychotherapist or a soothsayer, their goal is the same: to better understand themselves and, hopefully, better utilize their strengths, address their weaknesses,  and live better lives. And so it might well be asked what gain is to be had by presenting handwriting analysis in its true colors—something bearing the patina of “science” but lacking any evidence for its validity. After all, even if it is just a parlor game, where’s the harm in playing it?

The answer lies in the stark fact that many who seek analyses of their (or others’) handwriting actually make life-altering decisions based on what they are told. A potential marriage partner may be nixed, or a job not offered. One graphologist told me that his skills resulted in a student being revealed as guilty of a crime committed in his yeshiva. He claimed that the student subsequently admitted his guilt. But there have been many cases of admissions of guilt under pressure that turned out—on the basis of hard evidence or eyewitnesses— that emerged only later to be false. A handwriting analysis can itself be a crime, and not a victimless one.

There are, however, effective ways to receive accurate and truthful information about one’s character, strengths, and weaknesses; and to obtain useful advice for how to make life-choices. For a believing Jew, the path to such good advice has been clearly pointed out by Chazal, in Avos (1:6): “Choose for yourself a rav,” the Sages advised, “and acquire for yourself a friend.”

And when you need personal guidance, turn to them.

© 2011 Ami Magazine

The Nature of Nature

It is a strange and disorienting panorama that Rabbi E. E. Dessler, the celebrated Jewish thinker (1892-1953) asks us to ponder: a world where the dead routinely rise from their graves but no grain or vegetation has ever grown.

The thought experiment continues with the sudden appearance of a man who procures a seed, something never seen before in this bizarre universe, and plants it in the ground.   The inhabitants regard the act as no different from burying a stone, and are flabbergasted when, several days later, a sprout pierces the soil where the seed had been consigned, and eventually develops into a full-fledged plant, bearing – most astonishing of all – seeds of its own!

Notes Rabbi Dessler, there is no inherent difference between nature and what we call the miraculous.  We simply use the former word “nature” for the miracles to which we are accustomed, and the latter one for those we have not before experienced.  All there is, in the end, is G-d’s will.

It is a thought poetically rendered by Emerson, who wrote: “If the stars should appear one night in a thousand years, how would men believe and adore…”

A thought, in fact, that subtly informed famed physicist Paul Davies’ recent op-ed in The New York Times, where he wrote that “the very notion of physical law is a theological one.”

And it is a thought, too, that, according to several renowned Jewish thinkers, has pertinence to Chanukah.

The supernatural nature of nature lies at the heart of the answer he suggests for one of the most famous questions in the canon of Jewish religious law, posed in the 1500s by the author of the authoritative Code of Jewish Law, the Shulchan Aruch, Rabbi Yosef Karo: Why, if oil sufficient for one day was discovered in Jerusalem’s Holy Temple when the Macabees reclaimed it from Seleucid control, is Chanuka eight days long?  True, that is how long the candles burned, allowing the priests to prepare new, uncontaminated oil.  But was not one of those eight days simply the day for which the found oil sufficed, and thus not itself a miracle-day worthy of commemoration?

Suggest those sources: Seven of Chanukah’s days commemorate the miracle that, in the time of the Maccabees, the candelabrum’s flames burned without oil.  The eighth commemorates the miracle of the fact that oil burns at all.

The suggestion pithily echoes an account in the Talmud (Ta’anit, 25a), in which the daughter of the Talmudic sage Rabbi Chanina ben Dosa realized shortly before the Sabbath that she had accidentally poured vinegar instead of oil into the Sabbath lamps, and began to panic.  Rabbi Chanina, a man who vividly perceived G-d’s hand in all and thus particularly merited what most people would call miracles, reassured her.  “The One Who commanded oil to burn,” he said, “can command vinegar [as well] to burn.”

There is, in fact, one day of Chanukah’s eight that is set apart from the others, designated with a special appellation.  The final day of the holiday – this year beginning with the candle-lighting on the night of Tuesday, December 11 and continuing through the next day – is known as “Zos Chanukah,” after the Torah passage beginning “Zos chanukas hamizbe’ach” (“This is the dedication of the altar”) read in the synagogue that day.

The Jewish mystical sources consider that day to be the final reverberation of the Days of Awe marked many weeks earlier.  Although Rosh Hashana was the year’s day of judgment and Yom Kippur was the culmination of the days of repentance, later “time-stones” of the period of G-d’s judgment of our actions are cited as well.  One is Hoshana Rabba, the last day of Sukkot.  And the final one, according to the sources, is “Zos Chanukah.”

It would indeed seem to be a fitting day for thinking hard about the “supernature” in nature, the miraculous in the seemingly mundane.  For what is what we call a miracle if not a more-clear-than-usual manifestation of G-d?  And what are the Days of Awe if not a time when He is “close” to us, when G-d-consciousness is at front and center?

And so, perhaps the final day of Chanukah presents us with a singular opportunity to ponder how, just as the ubiquity and predictability of nature can mislead us, allowing us to forget that all is, in truth, G-d’s will, so too can the weeks elapsed since the late summer Days of Awe lull us into a state of unmindfulness regarding the import of our actions.

If so, the final night of Chanukah might be a particularly apt time to gaze at the eight flames leaking enlightenment into the world and, as we prepare to head into the dismal darkness of what some might consider a “G-d-forsaken winter,” know that, still and all, as always, “His glory fills the universe.”

© 2007 Rabbi Avi Shafran

Evolution of a Thought

Beneath the surface of the societal debate about whether the theory of evolution should be the only approach to biology in the American public school lies the real issue of contention: whether human beings are essentially different from the other occupants of the biosphere.

There are certainly enough unanswered questions about evolution and unknown details about the Biblical account of creation to permit the two to at least coexist, if not fully resolve themselves, in a single human mind.  What truly animates those opposed to the way science is currently taught to most American schoolchildren is the notion – tirelessly promoted by adherents of the Church of Secularism – that humans are in essence mere apes, if singularly intelligent ones.

Science, of course, can never prove otherwise, limited as it is to the realm of the physical.  And our bodies do, after all, function in a manner similar to those of gorillas and chimpanzees.  But a purely “natural selection” approach to biology inexorably leads to the “animalization” of the human being, to the view that our sense of ourselves as special, as responsible creatures, is but an illusion and a folly.

And yet, all people who possess the conviction that it is wrong to steal, or to murder, or to mate with close relatives, or to cheat on one’s spouse (or on one’s taxes); all who see virtue in generosity, civility, altruism or kindness; all, for that matter, who choose to wear clothes, believe – against the dictates of Darwinism – that the human realm is qualitatively different from the animal (or, in secular-speak, the rest of the animal).

Either we humans are just another evolutionary development, leaving words like “right,” “wrong,” good” and “bad” without any real meaning, or we are answerable, as most of us feel deeply we are, to Something Higher.

The latter, of course, is the bedrock-principle of Judaism.  And while there may be no way for the physical sciences to prove that humans are essentially different from all else, there are nevertheless some objective indications, subtle but powerful, that support the contention.

Language, of course, is one.  G-d’s infusion of spirit into the first human being, the Torah informs us, made him “a living soul.”  But Jewish tradition renders that phrase “a speaking soul.”  Communication, to be sure, exists among many life forms, but the conveying of abstract concepts – including the aforementioned “right,” “wrong,” “good” and “bad” – is something quintessentially human.

That we men and women generally care for our elders is another species-anomaly.  Natural selection is myopically future-fixated.  Progeny are what count in the evolutionary imperative; the elderly have already served their evolutionary purpose.  And so animals care for their young, not their old.  Most humans, though, feel an obligation to look not only ahead but behind.

And then there is a thought that had been percolating in my mind for a several days, growing slowly – evolving, if you will – until it emerged, fully-developed, only recently, at the end of a tiring hike, when, lying on a large flat rock, I caught my breath, watched an ant and remembered a Psalm.

My wife and I had spent a few days in the northeastern Catskill Mountains, and that morning had climbed up the steep rocky path leading from a winding country road to Kaaterskill Falls, a hidden and stunning double waterfall.

The trek was exhilarating but exhausting (at least to me; my wife waited patiently each time I paused to rest).  When we reached the falls, nestled in a lush, verdant forest, we marveled at the beauty of the two cascading torrents, and at the loud yet soothing music provided by the rushing masses of water.

And there, on the rock, next to me, was the ant, meandering most likely in search of a meal (we had already eaten that morning).  As I watched the insect, the Psalm – the 104th – came tiptoeing into my head.  It is traditionally recited at the end of morning services on Rosh Chodesh, the first day of a new Jewish month; indeed, my thought had germinated when I had recited it the previous Rosh Chodesh, eleven days earlier.

It is a paean to the variety, interrelatedness, beauty and grandeur of nature.  It speaks of the clouds and the wind, mountains and valleys, the food provided every creature according to its needs, nesting birds and sheltered rabbits.  “How great are Your works, oh G-d!” the Psalmist interjects amid his observations, “All of them crafted with wisdom.”

“I will sing to G-d while I live,” he concludes.  “May my words be sweet to Him… Let my soul bless G-d – praised be He.”

King David’s rush of appreciation and praise, born of nature’s magnificence, seemed an appropriate accompaniment to both the falls in their glory and the ant in his search.  Pondering that, I felt the thought congeal.  The tiny creature and we lumbering interlopers on his turf had much in common; he needed his nourishment, just as we would soon be hunting lunch down ourselves.  Yet there was stark evidence that morning of an essential difference between the ant and us.  Between the ant and the Psalmist.

It was yet another, and significant, aspect of human uniqueness, another aptitude unknown in the animal world, and not easily related to any evolutionary advantage.

The bug, I realized, like all the other bugs – and bears and snakes – in the woods, was utterly oblivious to the beauty around him.