The Rebbe and American Values

Menachem Mendel Schneerson

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In God We Trust: A Handbook of Values for All Americans, Rabbi Menachem M. Schneerson

Compiled from talks and written works of the Lubavitcher Rebbe Menachem Mendel Schneerson (of blessed memory) makes a reasoned case for all in America to commit to a set of values that come from a place beyond man.

The Rebbe’s goal is not to convert anyone, make a case for Judaism, or suggest that America should become the kind of theocracy-in-fact that many fundamentalist Christians seem to support.

Rather, he suggests that the nation is better when we as individuals subscribe to and live by a set of values that is not subject to change at the drop of a hat. For those of us inclined to see the wisdom in what the Rebbe says, he makes an entirely satisfactory case. The Rebbe’s focus always was first and foremost to his own chassidim, his followers, and given that much of what was written here came from imprecations to the Lubavitchers in the original Yiddish, some of the material does not deliver the same force with outsiders as it might.

This is by no an aspersion on the Rebbe: when the occasion arose during his life (which, as he aged, was often) to counsel those of other faiths, he did so with a profundity and empathy that was as accessible as it was uncannily accurate. Those occasions – which came in primarily in the form of correspondence and personal meetings – are not captured here. If there is a weakness, it is in the necessary exclusion of those works (they were personal, after all) from the compilation.

Others, some of whom were the Rebbe’s Chassids, others who were not, have set out explicitly to lay out universal values, and have arguably done better. Denis Prager, Rabbi Shmuely Boteach, and (Think Jewish), to name a very few, have concerned themselves much more with the matter of the wider audience.

But what the work does convey is what is to me one of the most profound beauties of Judaism: its staunch refusal to position itself as the sole legitimate faith, and its explicit recognition that there are many nations, each with it’s own path to God.

Self-Dealing in Science

Español: Investigadores en un laboratorio de l...

Scientists in a laboratory of the University of La Rioja. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

In a superb article in The Atlantic profiling Professor John Ioannidis and his work exposing the widespread issues with modern medical research, David Freeman wraps up with an interesting thought from his subject about wider problems in scientific research.

We could solve much of the wrongness problem, Ioannidis says, if the world simply stopped expecting scientists to be right. That’s because being wrong in science is fine, and even necessary – as long as scientists recognize that they blew it, report their mistake openly instead of disguising it as a success, and then move on to the next thing, until they come up with a the very occasional genuine breakthrough. But as long as careers remain contingent on producing a stream of research that’s dressed up to seem more right than it is, scientists will keep delivering exactly that.

All of which suggests a very un-pretty truth about science: that research is more about careers than truth. There is nothing wrong with that: everyone is entitled to a career. It does mean, however, that the facts are at a variance with the impression scientists try to give the public.

And it washes away the patina of monk-like purity that critics of faith have tried to confer upon scientists and their work. Purpose and self-interest play as much a role in science as innocent curiosity, if not a greater one. Ulterior motives abound, motives that do not make their way into the papers scientists write about their work and the results obtained thereby.

Until all scientists come clean about the self-interest and bias that informs their research, they do their work and their profession a disservice.

Ethics and Tikkun Olam

Chief Rabbi Jonathan Sacks

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To Heal a Fractured World: The Ethics of Responsibility by Rabbi Jonathan Sacks

By creating a work that implores not only Jews but people of all faiths to recognize our mutual responsibility to one another, Rabbi Sacks, the Chief Rabbi of Great Britain and the Commonwealth, proves once again why he has become one of the most eloquent and inspiring advocates of a life lived with meaning and purpose.

Ethics is always a tricky subject, but to his credit Rabbi Sacks is reasoned but unrepentant about his message: there can be ethics without religion and religion without ethics, but it is the joining of the two that deliver the far greater impact over time.

Religious skeptics need not bother: Sacks is not trying to make a case for religion here, but for ethics.

A must read for anyone wondering how to make a real difference in the world.

Pathways, not Traps

The Haskalah is not something to be rejected or destroyed. Not only is faith redefined better than faith lost: it is a challenge to the observant to reach out, to understand, and to help build pathways for return.

It serves no-one to make the progression to greater observance harder than the Ba’al T’shuvah’s own heart makes it. And yet, by defining ourselves in silos, we create nothing more than traps for the soul.

Tolstoy and Secularism

“The instructions of a secular morality that is not based on religious doctrines are exactly what an ignorant person might do, if he were made a conductor and started to wave his hands in front of musicians well rehearsed in what they were performing. By virtue of its own momentum, and from what previous conductors had taught the musicians, the music might continue for a while, but obviously the gesticulations made with a stick by a person who knows nothing about music would be useless and eventually confuse the musicians and throw the orchestra off course.”

Leo Tolstoy, A Confession and Other Religious Writings