Chemistry and the Torah: The Limits of Understanding

As teenagers living in America, we are often encouraged to take advantage of our natural capacity to question. Throughout a regular school day, I’ve heard that the average student asks 25 questions, which is 125 questions a week and 4,500 questions in a school year. It is indisputable that questioning enhances our knowledge and helps us grow as people.

In both Judaic and secular subjects at Shalhevet High School, where I am a senior, my teachers are open to questioning and promote intellectual growth in that way. As a centrist Orthodox high school, Shalhevet expects us to adhere to halachic standards and, at the same time, our questions are encouraged and treated seriously.

What we need to ask ourselves, though, is at what point can we accept that answers might be beyond our understanding? Or, at what point are there no answers? And, if we don’t know or understand an answer, does that mean we can’t or don’t have to believe it?

In Judaism, we are always going to be faced with questions that contain answers that either we do not understand, or do not have answers for at all. Built in to the Torah are specific commandments that we don’t know the reason for. These commandments are known as chukim. As with everything in the Torah, these mitzvot must serve an essential purpose or they wouldn’t be there. It is even possible that chukim exist merely to promote the idea that we can’t or won’t understand everything we do.

A lack of understanding is something we deal with everyday. It is irrelevant how much I have paid attention in AP chemistry; I still do not understand colligative properties perfectly. I have questioned, and I have experimented, but the answers I have been given are just too complex. That does not mean that the properties aren’t accurate. It is merely a reflection on myself, and the fact that I am not learned enough to understand. I can still believe that when I mix salt with ice, I will raise the freezing point and therefore be able to make ice cream.

Similarly in Judaism, there are also commandments with reasons I may never understand. I cannot possibly understand why Hashem needs me to praise Him with the same words everyday (daven to Him, which is not a chok). I have heard many explanations, but I don’t understand them; they do not fully explain the requirement. Regardless, I am obligated to daven, whether or not I understand why.

I hope that in the future, after davening and learning, the answers will become clearer. The same way I do not completely understand colligative properties, I do not understand davening. But I never denied the validity of the properties, and I can also not deny the validity of davening.

Judaism is a simple religion containing many complexities. No one could realistically hope to understand everything. It is important to question and to learn. But when we don’t understand something, or don’t agree with something, we need to remember that it doesn’t give us license to not follow halacha or to not keep the Torah.

The Jew who believes in Hashem and the holiness of the Torah is not unlike the struggling chemistry student; if you believe in the foundations of the discipline, then you accept the validity of the parts you don’t understand and push for greater understanding in the future. Religion is simple and you must be loyal to Hashem’s every word regardless of your lack of understanding. But on top of that you are obligated to find out the answers to your questions and adapt them to your life.

It is extremely challenging to keep the commandments while not fully understanding them, but in reality we accept things constantly that we do not fully understanding (i.e., colligative properties). Commandments should, therefore, also be accepted without full understanding since they not only enhance our lives, but lead us in the correct derech (way) every day.

Alison Silver is a senior at Shalhevet High School. Her article originally appeared in The Boiling Point.

A Biblical ‘Song’ and Dance

Two years ago, Aileen Passloff stumbled across a long-lost rehearsal tape from her 1967 dance/opera, "The Song of Songs," inspired by the Bible’s "Song of Solomon." The New York choreographer promptly telephoned her friend, Deborah Lawlor, co-founder of Hollywood’s Fountain Theatre, who had performed in the lyrically erotic show.

"This music had lived so vividly in our hearts all these years … [but] having never been written down, [it] had subsequently been lost," Lawlor, 63, said. When Passloff called, they decided to restore the tape digitallly to give the music "a new production and a new life."

Al Carmines’ lush score provides the backdrop for "The Song of Songs," now at the Fountain, in which five dancers pair off while singers chant biblical text. Its creators hope to convey the essence of the ancient poetry, which describes God’s love for the Israelites as the passion between a man and a woman. "The chief metaphor is that of a woman’s body as a garden," Passloff, 71, said. "It’s unexpected stuff for the Bible."

The acclaimed choreographer — the granddaughter of Russian Jews — was herself surprised by the sensual text when her first boyfriend gave her a copy in high school. Years later, she jumped at the chance to turn "Song" into dance at Carmine’s Judson Memorial Church, a Greenwich Village artist’s hangout.

While recreating the work in Hollywood a quarter century later, Passloff didn’t remember a single step of the original. But the music she had discovered on that dusty reel-to-reel tape helped her remain true to its romantic spirit, she said. If she and Lawlor relied on musical archeology to revive the piece, they feel it’s as relevant post-Sept. 11 as it was in ’67.

"There’s so much ugliness in the world, it’s important to think about the qualities that make us human rather than beasts," Lawlor told The Journal.

"At a time when it’s scary to be vulnerable, the ‘Song’ is about daring to open up and to love," Passloff said.

The Fountain Theatre, 5060 Fountain Ave., Los Angeles. For tickets, call (323) 663-1525.

Remember the Good

One of the most precious moments parents and children share
with each other is the quiet and routine of bedtime. I hope you sleep
well at night, but, as we all know, sometimes it is
difficult to fall asleep, or to have a restful sleep. There are too many things
on our minds. We’re filled with excitement and anticipation. Or we aren’t
feeling all that good. Things are happening in other places that concern us or
disturb us.

King Ahashuerus had such a night in the Purim story. We read
in Megillat Esther, the Scroll of Esther, that one night following the first
feast that Queen Esther had for King Ahashuerus and Haman, “sleep deserted the
king, and he ordered the book of records, the annals to be brought; and it was
read to the king.”

We’re all familiar with the story: The king discovers that
Esther’s uncle, Mordecai, has not been rewarded for saving Ahashuerus’ life. He
orders that this honor is to be carried out by Haman, and things begin to
change for the Jews of Shushan.

Jewish tradition sees something more taking place in this
scene. Judaism’s moral imagination describes that King Ahashuerus was not able
to sleep because of all that was going on around him: Esther was involved with
planning and preparing her next feast; Haman was busy building gallows;
Mordecai was upset, praying and wearing sackcloth. The midrash even states that
this was the very same night, in an earlier generation, during which the
Children of Israel remained on guard, watching for the angel of death to pass
over their homes as they anticipated their exodus from Egypt.

How can anyone sleep, our tradition seems to wonder, when
people are in peril? How can we find rest while others are weary, nervous or
even awaiting their redemption? For you and me it seems so easy. We crawl into
bed, turn off the news and it’s quiet all around us. Or at least it seems that
way. Do we really turn off our consciences so easily? Do we actually stop being
aware of everything we will awaken to the next morning?

I don’t think so. Even King Ahashuerus seemed to understand
that he needed to find a way to respond or he wouldn’t calm himself nor find
any rest on that fateful night. According to our tradition, the thing that most
disturbed Ahashuerus was whether or not someone had “asah li tovah” ( done
something good for me), which he had not properly acknowledged.

What a beautiful way to end a day! Did I fail to recognize
any goodness today? Is there something I can do about it now or tomorrow? The
difficult, the troubling, all that disturbs does startle us from our sleep.
That’s human nature. But what of goodness, of caring, of all that reflects our
ideals – — how do we remember all of that?

This Shabbat is called “Shabbat Zachor” (the Sabbath of
Remembrance). We read about Amalek, Haman’s ancestor whose evil attack against
the Children of Israel is recalled by the Torah to inspire us toward goodness
and resolve.

King Ahashuerus isn’t the only one with a record book.
Earlier in the Torah, Moses is told to write down as a lasting memory all that
Amalek did to Israel. As he does so, the Israelites quarrel among themselves as
they complain for water and sustenance.

“Is the Eternal present among us or not?” they ask.

The next verse then states: “Amalek came forward and fought
with Israel.”

It was the weakness of the people’s own spirit, their
inability to appreciate all that had brought them to this very moment of
redemption and opportunity that presented Amalek with the opportunity to
attack. They were separated from the truths and lessons of their own
experience, of the presence of God in their own story. Whom did Amalek reach?
The “stragglers” — those who were weak of heart and spirit, not physical
strength, the midrash suggests. Those people who knew how to complain but could
not appreciate the miracle and reality of their lives.

Remember King Ahashuerus’ sleepless night? We learned that
he was disturbed because something good might have been done for him to which
he had not properly responded.

As a father, this is what I want for my children. When I say
“good night” at the end of a day, of course I want them to sleep comfortably
and undisturbed. But I also want them to focus on remembering the good, the
decent and the beautiful of their day.

Zachor. We must all remember to tell this to our children
and our grandchildren. It is not enough to recall what Amalek did, as Moses was
commanded. Like Ahashuerus , we must also recognize the good that Mordecai did
and the meaning that every new day promises us all.

Shabbat Shalom! Happy Purim!

This weekend, Rabbi Ron Shulman celebrates his 20th anniversary with Congregation Ner Tamid of South Bay in Rancho Palos Verdes.

The Lure of Extremism

As these words are written, Irv Rubin, the national chairman of the Jewish Defense League (JDL) lies in a coma, the apparent victim of self-inflicted wounds.

Having known Irv and the activities of the local JDL for over a quarter-century, it is an appropriate time to reflect on what animated someone like Irv to expend his prodigious energies in what were often pointless and counterproductive activities. For a man who was rational, and with whom one could discuss cause and effect and the logic of doing things one way (the non-inflammatory way) as opposed to another, it always amazed me how he would invariably choose the wrong path.

Whether choosing to picket the home of Tom Metzger in rural Fallbrook, when Metzger was a candidate for Congress in the early 1980s or choosing to defy the desires of the local community (Jews and non-Jews) by physically confronting a march of the pathetic remnant of the Aryan Nations in northern Idaho in the mid-90s, Irv was usually less concerned about the effect of what he did than the act of doing it and the publicity that ensued.

In following that modus operandi, Irv betrayed an attitude and world view that could only be described as extremist. Irv felt good picketing in front of Metzger’s home and got attention; Metzger was, after all, a bigot and head of the California Ku Klux Klan. But, as I remember asking Irv at the time, in trying to dissuade him from demonstrating, how many votes did he think that his presence would generate for Metzger? A 6-foot-plus Jewish militant coming down from Los Angeles and harassing a neighbor was hardly a political adviser’s recommendation on how to defeat Metzger’s bid in rural north San Diego County.

Irv understood — but he went and did his thing anyway. He had a different agenda than actually impacting the vote in the Metzger election. That same conflicted set of priorities played itself out time and time again.

In the days after Buford Furrow’s attack on the North Valley Jewish Community Center and his murder of Joseph Ileto, there was an unprecedented rally against hate attended by thousands of Angelenos. Then-Attorney General Janet Reno, Gov. Gray Davis, former L.A. Mayor Richard Riordan and representatives of virtually every ethnic, racial and religious community were there. The only disruptive voice was Irv’s. He screamed and yelled while the governor and attorney general spoke, complaining about gun control legislation. How ironic that in a setting of unity and harmony — and in the wake of profound tragedy — his would be the lone voice of disharmony.

A review of Irv’s public life reflects his inability to free himself from the lure of extremism and the attention that it generates. Other than a brief period two decades ago when he ran for the Republican nomination for the Assembly and thought that, with some moderation, he might actually get elected, his career was one that had a disturbing symbiosis with extremism.

In every group, perhaps minority groups more than others because of the legitimate grievances that they often have, there is a constituency for a leader that brooks no compromise and offers "in your face" rhetoric to the rest of the world.

Whether Louis Farrakhan for the African American community, Meir Kahane and Irv for the Jews or the leaders of the hate-filled Nation of Aztlan in the Latino community, there is a small-but-solid core of folks who relish a militant leader who tells them, "I’m standing up for you and I don’t give a damn what they think." The "they" changes, but the tone, intensity and message don’t.

Irv played to that constituency in the Jewish community with occasional success. To the extent that other organizations in the Jewish community were seen as vocal — even militant — and effective, it cut into his audience. No wonder that he spent a significant amount of his energy attacking Jewish defense organizations — he had to discredit his perceived competition.

As Irv’s constituency got smaller, his need to act out and demonstrate his continued vitality and usefulness became even greater. No wonder that the crime of which he recently stood accused happened at the end of his career when his following was, literally, microscopic. He desperately needed to prove his relevance, no matter the manner.

The tragedy of Irv’s career is that his energy could have been put to useful purpose. The hours of picketing and harassing and the thought given to one enterprise after another might have borne fruit had they been directed toward positive ends. Perhaps a lesson for us all.

The Friends of Irv Rubin are organizing a prayer vigil for him at 4 p.m. on Sunday, Nov. 17, at County-USC Medical Center, 1200 N. State St., Los Angeles. Those coming should bring a candle.

David A. Lehrer is president of Community Advocates Inc., a newly formed human relations organization in Los Angeles with former L.A. Mayor Richard J. Riordan as its chairman and Joe R. Hicks as its vice president.