The Jewish Journalism of Joel Shurkin

Monday, June 20, 2005

The Naso graduation speech

The following d'var Torah was presented to Congregation Chevrei Tzedek in Baltimore on June 11, 2005.


This is a propitious day for me for many reasons, which is why I volunteered to do this d’var torah. For one, tomorrow is my birthday.

This also is the Torah portion I believe I had when I was bar mitzvah. I am not sure; we’re talking the Truman administration here. When I was bar mitzvah, the U.S. was in the middle of the Korean War (Truman had just fired General MacArthur), the first color television sets had just been introduced and the first baseball game was televised nationally. They picked a good one. A New York Giant named Bobby Thompson hit a home run with two on and two outs in the bottom of the ninth inning to beat the Brooklyn Dodgers in the final game of National League Playoff, possibly the most famous home run in baseball history. So I think this is the Torah portion. I remember I shared the day with a boy named Jerry Jentis--I have no clue what every happened to Jerry Jentis--I remember the roses in our backyard at the party. I remember my father in absolute glory—I did a very good job after a great deal of work, most of which I hated—and my grandmother, watching her first grandchild become bar mitzvah, floating through the air without any visible means of support. I learned the meaning of the word “kvell.”

I did not realize, however, when I volunteered for this d’var Torah, that this was going to be the graduation shabbat. Now, it turns out, I get to do a graduation speech too. I’ve always wanted to give a graduation speech. How I tie it into this week’s Torah portion will be a challenge.

But first, the graduation part. By tradition, the speaker at a graduation tells the graduates how splendid their life lives are going to be (they will be, I’m sure), their responsibilities to the world in general (they are great), to themselves in particular (ditto), and they always wind up quoting Shakespeare’s advice: “above all else, to thine own self be true.” By all means. I would rather quote Woody Allen who said: “80% of success is showing up.”

For those of you going to college, a quick word. If the next three or four years are not the happiest of your life, you are doing something wrong. They should be that good. Your responsibilities are limited, you are probably away from your parents, you have the whole world laid out before you, and you will have multiple chances to find out who you are and what you stand for. You will, in the immortal words of Yogi Berra, eventually come to a fork in the road. Take it!

One of the things those of you who are graduating from college will discover soon enough is that life is full of secrets. You will keep discovering there are things you don’t know how to do, you suspect other people do know how to do and they won’t tell you. For instance, how do you assemble Ikea furniture? They won’t tell you, but for a fee someone who knows will come to your house and do it. How many deductions are you supposed to take out of your wages? How do you open a shrink-wrapped package in less than three minutes without big scissors? How do you get ketchup out of a bottle without banging the bottom? Other people know how to do this but they won’t tell you. OK, if you see me at the kiddish, I’ll tell you the ketchup secret.

Which brings up the real secret they are keeping from you, the one thing you will have to learn the hard way because you parents haven’t told you. Here’s what no one else will tell you in a graduation speech: Being a grownup is vastly overrated. It is a lot more trouble than it looks, is full of all kinds of complexities and aggravations, and at least three times in the coming years you will want to give it all up and return home to mother. You can’t. For one thing, she won’t have you; she’s probably rented out your room, and for another, she’s trying to figure out how to do that as well

So now we get, believe it or not, to the d’var Torah. Naso is one of the most interesting--and incidentally, it is the longest of all Torah portions. I’m glad I didn’t have to read it. I would like to mention two parts of the parsha--neither of which are in the third we just read. Believe it or not, there are answers to some of the secrets there and can help you get through adulthood.

NazariteOne section is the restrictions on the Nazarite, the person who abandons the pleasures of life to an existence of asceticism, to naked piety. They vow not drink anything made of grape juice because wine is part of the sensual pleasure of life. They can’t cut their hair or even comb it because that might make them sexually attractive and lead them to temptation and to breaking their vows. They can not touch or even go near a dead body, even their mother’s or father’s, because they were supposed to emulate the holiness of the priests at prayer. Both men and women can become Nazarites and the vows could last a month, a year, or a lifetime. If they broke their vows, there was a special ceremony in the Temple and at the end of which the vows started all over again. Samson, who is born in today’s Haftorah, was a Nazarite, but he wasn’t very good at it. Samuel was a Nazarite and he did it properly and became a judge of Israel. We have them today. The father of the current chief rabbi of Haifa was a Nazarite and once taking his vows, he remained one the rest of his life.

Judaism makes allowances for such practices, but actively discourages it for several interesting reasons. For one thing, some rabbis considered it a mark of arrogance, it means you are trying to rise above everyone else. The other reason, I find, more interesting, and relevant to our little chat. Judaism spends very little time worrying about life after death. It is concerned with this life. This is the life you have, the one God gave you, and part of your responsibility to Him is to live it fully and happily--at least within the rules. A Nazarite does not fulfill that obligation.

I’ll show you how that is. The Artscroll siddur has a page and a half of blessings of praise and gratitude, including brachot for seeing lightning or hearing thunder; seeing a rainbow, a comet, high mountains or great river; an ocean, exceptionally beautiful people, trees or fields; especially strange looking people or animals; fruit trees in bloom; great scholars—Torah and secular—and seeing 600,000 Jews all in one place. The clear implication is that you are supposed to enjoy or at least experience all those things and then be grateful to God who created them.

In a wonderful and beautiful place in California, the Big Sur, there is a restaurant called Nepenthe. Nepenthe is not remarkable because of the food, which is mediocre. It is notable because of where it is. It sits high atop a cliff jutting out into the Pacific Ocean. Location. Location. Location. It was built on the land Orson Wells bought as a wedding present for Rita Hayworth. Half of the restaurant is outdoors, a series of long tables facing west. The tradition at Nepenthe is to get there just before sunset, have a few drinks and wait. The sunset over the ocean is a lot different than one that sets over the land. On most days it is spectacular, complex, full of changing colors and intensity. Sunsets on the California coast are a miracle. When the sun finally dips below the horizon and the colors in the clouds are at their deepest, the custom was for everyone in the restaurant to applaud. They even did a New Yorker cartoon about it once, a full page with a huge, intricate and obviously gorgeous sunset and people applauding and shouting “Author! Author!” That is a very Jewish reaction, and the reason why Jews discourage Nazerites.

Rabbi Nachman of Bratslava said that the greatest mitzvah is to be happy.

Priestly blessing
The second thing I want to talk to you about is the priestly prayer, which comes toward the end of Naso. It is the prayer that parents say to their children every Shabbat. In some homes, the parent goes to each child, puts a hand on the child’s head and whispers the prayer in their ear. It is the one that goes: “May god bless you and keep you; May God cause his face to shine upon you and be gracious to you; May God turn his face toward you, and grant you peace.”

It is likely one of the oldest prayer in the world, or at least one of the oldest prayers said verbatim in the world. The words have not changed in at least 2,700 years, and probably for longer than that. The prayer—in those exact words—was found etched on silver scrolls in tombs from the seventh century BCE, two hundred years before Ezra committed it to writing. In the Torah, God commands Aaron and his sons, the priests, to use the prayer to bless the Jewish people in the Temple. By the time of the Second Temple, the prayer was used regularly in the morning sacrifice and may have become the basis for the Amidah.

How was it done? The priests took their shoes off—as everyone did in the Temple—and the Levites washed their hands—as they did before every ritual. Then the priests shrouded themselves with their talit, held out their hands and gave the ritual hand sign. And yes, as most of you know, it was the same salute Leonard Nimoy used when he played the character Spock in StarTrek.

We had a friend in California—a convert—who once said that she learned early on in her conversion class that the answer to every question was “because of the suffering of the Jewish people.” It didn’t matter what the question was, the answer worked. Actually, she is wrong. The correct answer to all Jewish questions is: “because of the destruction of the Temple.”

Why do we now say the priestly blessing at home on Shabbat? Because of the destruction of the Temple, of course. The prayer, essentially, was outsourced. We don’t need priests—or rabbis—to be our intermediaries. It requires no minyon. There are no special rules. It is a heartfelt prayer, from an individual Jew to the God of the Covenant. We ask God to bless our children, to show His face to them and to grant them a life of peace.

Why do I find it that important for today’s d’var Torah? One, because it is too beautiful to be ignored, both in words and in sentiment. And two, as an historian, I am moved by the fact it is so old, an ancient prayer from almost time out of mind, the exact same words our ancestors spoke for perhaps 3,000 years. Word for word.

You see, we belong to a people, an ancient and honorable people. And a most remarkable one.

Last week two scientists at the University of Utah released a study that claimed to explain why Jews are so smart. The scientific question was interesting: they were looking at the four Ashkenazi genetic diseases (like Tay-Sachs), all four of which appeared at the same time, around 900 CE, and they wanted to know why. Their conclusion was that the diseases were the unintended consequence of the oppression the Jews were suffering through the Middle Ages (remember our friend in California). Only the smartest Jews would survive the oppression of the time, and they were driven to careers that required managerial skills and mathematical prowess—banking and commerce. Those were the people that were most likely to reproduce. In the selection for the best and brightest, the four mutations occurred. It was evolution’s way of tending to a crisis—selecting for intelligence—effective if a bit inelegant.

But what really interested me was the whole premise that apparently triggered experiment in the first place. It was hidden in the text. They noted that Jews represent three percent of the population of the U.S., and have won 27 percent of America’s Nobel Prizes, which certainly is notable. I can add more. Jews represent less than one quarter of one percent of the world’s population and have won 22 percent of all the Nobel Prizes ever awarded. Indeed, more than half of last year’s winners were Jews. Had there been a few more prizes, they could have held a minyan on the stage in Stockholm. Name the three most important people of the 20th century and you may very well wind up with three Jews: Einstein, Freud and Marx.

Now some of this is perfectly silly, but my point is not that we may be smarter than the average bears. As I said, we, you young folks and I, are part of a people, an ancient, illustrious, imaginative and creative people, with a religion that has stayed true to its core—that adapted and changed as needed in order to survive (remember the destruction of the temple?). You’ve heard the motto: they tried to kill us, they failed, let’s eat.

You will find, I think, that all of this is in your DNA, your heart and your soul, whether you recognize it or not. You will find it harder to abandon than you may think; and you will find it easier and more profoundly important to immerse yourself in it as you get older than you could ever imagine.

Be happy. Do us proud. Gut shabbos.

Monday, June 06, 2005

We thank you for your persecution--sort of

Utah researchers say that Ashenazi genetic diseases is what makes Jews so smart.
June 6, 2005.


I blush. I had second thoughts about running with this, but what the hell. Nick Wade of the New York Times says it’s legit and it is about to be published in a real journal.

Researchers at the University of Utah say that the pattern of genetic diseases that afflict Jews of eastern European (Ashkenazic) background is the result of natural selection for intelligence. Winning the coveted award for the most politically incorrect scientific paper of the year, the researchers (none of whom appear to be Jewish) said that because the Jews of the Middle Ages were locked in ghettos and forced into professions that required mental agility, natural selection selected the brightest.

images-3 For decades, going back to eugenics and William Shockley, scientists have erupted over the notion that intelligence was inheritable. Shockley, among others, destroyed his career by pointing out the obviousness of that claim. It still isn’t acceptable in polite scientific company.

The paper will be published in the Journal of Biosocial Science, (Cambridge University).

images-2 The diseases are similar evolutionary reactions to sickle cell, which occur in populations threatened by malaria. Evolution was forced to counter the threat by favoring any mutation that protected against it, even if it had side effects.

The notion derives from an theory propounded by Jared Diamond that Jews who were smarter than their fellows were more likely to survive the repeated persecutions brought on them. They also were more likely to succeed at the professions imposed on them, usually commerce, which required managerial and mathematical skills. They reproduced at a faster rate. In other words, your persecution made us smarter. I love it.

The Utah researchers said that the four Ashkenazi diseases—Tay Sachs, Niemann-Pick, Gaucher and mucolipidosis type IV, all manage chemicals called sphingolipids, which promote the growth and reproduction of brain cells.

I humbly point out that Jews represent 0.25 percent of the world’s population and have won 22 percent of the Nobel Prizes. The Utah researchers added that we represent 3 percent of the U.S. population and have won 27 percent of America’s Nobels. It can’t be the cuisine.