Wednesday, December 30, 2009

Rav Shvat's Shiur

Every culture has their own children's stories, which not only express their philosophy but also, in turn, influence the next generation, as well. On the one hand, Islamic stories stress how Allah runs the world, with man's free-will relatively limited, while western stories stress man's free will and initiative, but basically eliminate the role of G-d. The stories in the Tanach clearly intend to raise a generation who does not rely on miracles yet prays to Hashem to help man's efforts, initiatives, and free will. To celebrate Chanukah fully, we must recognize and thank Hashem also for the miracle of the oil, yet also for the military victory of Yehudah HaMaccabi and his brothers, who davened before every battle, in addition to developing military strategy of their own. Thus we will BH raise a generation which will revive the ideal Jew and ideal Jewish Nation of old.
Chanukah Same'ach,
Rav Ari Shvat

Click here for the audio link, or listen in the handy audio player supplied below.

Tuesday, December 29, 2009

The Nobel Prize: Good for the Jews?

Rav Yonah Goodman
Director of the Advanced Institute for Contemporary Education and Religion

Israeli Professor Ada Yonath of the Weizmann Institute in Rechovot recently received the Nobel Prize in Chemistry in Stockholm. She has become the 176th Jew (comprising 22% of Nobel Prize winners throughout history) and the ninth Israeli to win the Nobel Prize. But is there any reason for us to get excited about this? Rav Yonah Goodman, Director of Religious Education, Orot College, offers an answer.

Recently, Israelis learned that this year’s Nobel Prize in Chemistry is to be awarded to an Israeli scientist, Professor Ada Yonath of the Weizmann Institute. The media devoted several days to the story, but why should we care? Does Yonath’s prize have any implication for the rest of us?
As it so happened, I was talking about the news with several secular teachers. They all insisted that they were very excited and that they planned on discussing the prize in class. One even declared, “The nations of the world have given us a tremendous honor,” and the students must hear about it.
However, when I asked an educator in a religious school if he was going to bring up the subject in his classroom, he seemed surprised at the question. He replied, “What? We need the non-Jews’ honor?! They should be the ones to determine if we’re worthy or not? After all, our honor is dependent on our spiritual stature and not on commissions comprised of various professors. Maybe you missed it, but on Simchat Torah, we danced with a Sefer Torah, not a chemistry book!”
Although I doubt that most religious teachers would agree with his statement, there is no question that the topic was covered with much more enthusiasm in the secular system (including its media) than in the religious sector, which mainly reacted with indifference to the story.
Indeed, I frequently wonder if the secular public’s enthusiasm for a given topic is sufficient cause for part of the religious public to condemn it. Nevertheless, I believe that there are many reasons why Professor Yonath’s achievement matters:
1. Is chemistry – and science, in general – truly unimportant? How can we successfully run a country if we do not have people who excel in every field? Should we resort to importing non-Jewish doctors, engineers, CEO’s, and officers?
2. HaKadosh Baruch Hu ordered us “to perfect the universe through the sovereignty of the Almighty” (from the Aleinu prayer) – and not only on the spiritual plane. Are we not obligated to contribute to the human effort to heal the sick (an endeavor which was advanced as a result of Yonath’s discoveries)? When Hashem commands us “and subdue it” (Breishit 1:28), we are not meant to wage war. Rather, our task is to overcome challenges and dangers – using a wide range of tools, including scientific ones.
3. Am Yisrael’s mission is to aspire for spiritual excellence and to spread Hashem’s Name throughout the world. We can only accomplish this goal if we are part of the world. Moreover, we must show that our spiritual ascendency goes hand in hand with the fact that we are a healthy nation which includes many different and assorted professionals who contribute to the country and the world. (See Orot 104.) Has our “Diaspora mindset” caused us to become estranged from the wonderful world which HaKadosh Baruch Hu created? (And we have not even mentioned our privilege and responsibility to recognize the wonders of Creation and use them to strengthen our faith. See Rambam – Hilchot Yesodei HaTorah 2:2.)
4. As an interim conclusion, we can say that this award presents us with an opportunity to debate our fundamental approach to secular studies. Are they a manifestation of a weakness or a primary objective? Note that we are not addressing other important questions, such as at what age and to what extent should secular subjects be studied (see Rav Kook’s Iggeret 170); in which framework should they be taught; and so on. We are only focusing here on the importance of clarifying the national-religious public’s attitude towards secular studies.
Another issue is our position on the aforementioned educator’s statement, “What? We need the non-Jews’ honor?!” Obviously, we must find favor in HaKadosh Baruch Hu’s eyes and do His Will wholeheartedly. This is our mission. Yet, HaKadosh Baruch Hu was the One who instructed us to be an ohr lagoyim (a light among the nations), and this light will only increase if we not only excel in our spiritual world but in every field of endeavor. Furthermore, our lifestyle can serve as evidence that these fields need not contradict one another and that they can even be combined. Hence, if the nations of the world recognize our abilities and honor our achievements, this is certainly a partial fulfillment of our duty.
Finally, we should note that Professor Yonath’s life story raises additional issues, which are not necessarily connected to chemistry or secular studies. In a number of interviews, Professor Yonath was asked about her childhood. And as it turns out – surprise, surprise – her parents never enrolled her in classes for gifted children, and she never attended science courses at the nearest university.
In fact, her parents could barely feed her. She grew up in a poor home. Her father died when she was only eleven, and young Yonath was forced to find a job. Yet, according to her, these difficult conditions were what taught her about exertion, perseverance, responsibility, and confronting challenges. These traits enabled her to dedicate decades of her life to her research, even though she faced numerous difficulties and setbacks (including the scorn and contempt of those who doubted her ability to succeed on her chosen path). Without her diligence and determination, she would not have achieved results which will likely benefit the health of millions of people worldwide.
Is there really nothing we can learn from this story? After all, we frequently deal with pedagogical problems in an overly specific manner. For instance, when a child gets discouraged and does not solve a math problem, he is told to keep trying. When a child claims that he cannot clean his room, his mother insists that he is indeed capable of completing the task. Yet, while we handle specific problems, Professor Yonath’s story reminds us that perseverance and determination are important educational goals. Without these traits, we will produce neither scientists nor Torah scholars.