Wednesday, November 16, 2005

Ya'akov Menken The Making of a Kiruv Comrade

{Revised} 12/8/2005- I may have to take down this post if R. Menken keeps it up. It appears that he is actually beginning to allow dissenting viewpoints on cross-currents! And in the context of the Documentary Hypothesis, no less! And, when he replies, he is not snotty at all, but rather treats the commenters with respect! I will continue to monitor this situation, but for the time being, kudos to R. Menken for doing tshuva and changing his tone and approach while staying true to his mission. Could I have had anything to do with it? Doubt I'll ever know...

I am now going to turn to the writings of a major Kiruv Comrade. A Kiruv Comrade is a mutation of a Kiruv Clown, in that he doesn't just put forth "fast food answers to gourmet questions," he also tries to suppress dialogue while pretending to be open to all viewpoints before selecting the correct one.

Thus, this isn't just a personal attack on Menken, but rather against all Kiruv Comrades of his ilk. He is just a template. However, he wrote the book on Kiruv Doublespeak as will be made manifestly clear.You'll soon see that Menken's book, the "Everything Torah Book," is better titled "Everything Torah Bunk."

Menken liberally employs his post-modern kiruv approach throughout the book. He makes it look like he isn't afraid to tackle any subject and thus there should be no doubts that his orthodoxy is closed-minded or fundamentalist. However, beneath the veneer of reasonableness, you have a fundamentalist who is so intellectually dishonest and so misleading about true science, that he must corrected in public, since he won't allow honest debate on his blog, Cross-currents.

First, as a case study, let's take a Menken post called "Go After the Majority." I suppose this is an amusing reference to the majority rule in halacha. However, it's scary to see a grownup reason the way Menken does. A link to the post is:

My response to the post and Menken's comments goes like this:

"Rabbi Menken, you state in the comments above:

"One cannot dismiss or ignore evidence because it leads in uncomfortable directions." When I recorded that the generation of life is “simply too complex to be the result of happenstance,” that wasn’t some sort of vague feeling. Gerald Schroeder’s work with the numbers is one example of an extremely rigorous analysis, and he concludes that it would take a bunch of random monkeys 100 billion years to type a simple sentence by coincidence—far less complex than the most basic of life forms.” Your statement of the generation of life, while perhaps not the result of a vague feeling, most certainly was NOT the result of a scientific inquiry, which after all is the theme of Intelligent design. Schroeder’s work is far from “rigorous.”

I and many others are tired of Rabbis trotting out Schroeder’s books and statements and peddling them as scientific justification for your religious stances. Schroeder may have a PhD at the end of his name, but his quasi-religious arguments bear no relation to what he did as a geologist. Has anything he’s written with respect to “intelligent design” been peer-reviewed by scientists (as opposed to Rabbi peer-review)? Has he published on these topics in any respected scientific journal or even magazine? Of course not. This is because his work has been totally discredited as unscientific bunk.

With all due respect, your assessment of Schroeder’s work (which has been regurgitated in countless iterations by Aish, Kelemen, and Slifkin, et al.) as “rigorous” is off the mark and irrelevant. Let’s hear about Schroeder when he gets published after peer review by scientists."

Now, in full kiruv distortion mode he responds to the above as follows:

"What is curious is the number of prominent secular scientists who have, after achieving the pinnacle of their profession, adopted belief in G-d besides Gerald Schroeder, another notable example is Arno Penzias, who shared the Nobel Prize for discovery of the Big Bang. "

Let's first note the fallacy here, that of appeal to authority. Because these 2 scientists believe something (undefinably vague statement of belief in "God") we should not even evaluate the question, but should just stipulate they are correct. Of course, he omits the obvious; that 90% of eminent scientists don't believe in God. Should we just defer to them and call it a day,
R. Menken?

Now, addressing this point, which itself is misdirection, Schroeder is certainly NOT at the pinnacle of his profession, which incidentally is not even astrophysics. He's a geologist. He was never a Professor at MIT, as some like to claim. So he got back to his roots, moved to Israel, and wrote a few pop books for parnassa- that's the "pinnacle?" The books are considered bunk by any scientist and incidentally I'm sure by Rabbi Adlerstein as well.

As for Penzias, he truly is a top scientist and physicist. He won the Nobel prize in physics not (as Menken incorrectly states) for "discovery of the Big Bang," but rather for locating a radiofrequency artifact constituting evidence of the Big Bang, known as the Cosmic Microwave Background (CMB). (Hubble discovered the Big Bang.)

More to the point is that, in his Torah for Dummies book, Mencken claims:
"Dr. Arno Penzias... adopted observance of the Torah after making his discovery! So, does the age of the universe contradict the Torah? Few are better qualified to answer than Professor Arno Penzias and his answer is somewhat obvious."

Well, news flash, Rabbi Mencken- why not be responsible when making such specious assertions about a person's faith and check your facts? Didn't you get the memo?: Penzias is NOT orthodox and is not shomer shabbos. Dr. Penzias received an honorary doctorate from the Reform bastion, the Hebrew Union College. His daughter is a reform Rabbi ordained by HUC. I guess the answer isn't "somewhat obvious," after all.

Menken goes on to take some cheap shots and to demonstrate his profound ignorance about science and the very process of peer review:

"[BTA] has not merely confused my book with that of some other author, but has apparently also confused the chemistry and math departments (or two different offices in the physics department). Peer review is done when one conducts an experiment which produces data, leading to results and conclusions. Others must replicate the experiment and emerge with similar data in order to confirm the results. No one has suggested a structured peer review of 1+1=2, or even a far more complex series of mathematical equations—since any knowledgeable individual can do it at home." [wrong! See the peer-reviewed Journal of the American Mathematical Society]

First of all, he's intentionally evading my point (that Schroeder gets his credibility supposedly from being a scientist, yet his ideas are NOT SCIENTIFIC!) Perhaps Rabbi Mencken didn't have his coffee that day. However, it's pretty clear he was being deliberately obtuse.

Second: His definition of peer review is all wrong, based on pure ignorance. But not knowing something shouldn't stop us from making condescending statements about it, eh R. Mencken? Peer review is done for theoretical scientific research, not just experiments. See the table of contents of one of the oldest and most respected peer-reviewed journals, Nature: The majority of the articles discuss theory. And here's a definition for peer review for next time, Rabbi:

What Schroeder posits is a theory, thus making it subject to peer review. He didn't get it published, as it was not worthy of publishing. End of discussion. Now, wasn't that easy?

Third, Schroeder's theory is deeply flawed. There is no such thing as a universal "sphere" or "time;" such ideas are completely meaningless in General Relativity. Why not cite Ptolemy for truly mathematically "cute" cosmology instead of a former MIT Teaching Assistant-geologist?

My comments continue:
"Also you are guilty of "picking and choosing" when it comes to Schroeder. To my understanding he is only addressing the likelihood of initial amino acids in the early earth's soupy atmosphere evolving into the complex life forms we see today with his Million Monkey examples. (Or as Dennis Prager says "bacteria to Bach"). However, Schroeder accepts evolution in principle, he just seems to think something "extra" is necessary. "

As far as I'm aware, Schroeder has no problem with humans evolving from apes, for example; he just claims that there must have been a push along the way to accelerate progress. Of course, his model is based on incomplete evidence, as this field is constantly progressing. In the most recent Scientific American, November issue, for example, new evidence is discussed for Earth cooling hundreds of millions, if not billions, of years earlier than previously thought.
Thus, with a cooler earth earlier, amino acids could have coalesced even sooner into primitive life forms. And- you guessed it- with all that extra time, the calculations become a lot more appealing in terms of the probability that life evolved in the time frame given. I think you said it best: "One cannot dismiss or ignore evidence because it leads in uncomfortable directions."

R. Menken disregards the reference to recent research about a cooler early earth, because of its uncomfortable implications, no doubt. However, in response to the "bacteria to Bach" topic he says with an apparent straight face:

And what is most important is that no one in the field challenges the accuracy of his conclusion they realize it is almost inconceivable that it happened by chance, but fall back on this anyway, since there is no other "natural" explanation of how we got here.

Oh really? See Dawkins' "The Blind Watchmaker." Therein, he shows how his home computer reproduces whole sentences in microseconds!

It should be noted that Mencken devotes 4 sentences to the theory of evolution in his Everything Torah Bunk book. Despite having just spent 5 pages on the documentary hypothesis and 3 pages on the Big Bang, Rabbi Mencken states anemically:

"The topic of this book is Torah, not evolutionary theory- we needn't enter the debate about the evidence pro or con. For our purposes [meaning "Kiruv Comrades"] it is enough to understand that physical evidence for evolution can be reconciled in simiilar ways as the Age of the Universe." ETB, pg. 201.

Methinks R. Mencken knew he could not even address Dawkins' proofs. Perhaps instead of poking around for a Jewish scientist or two to validate his belief system, he should just stick to discussing the beliefs themselves.

Let's just sum up here. Kiruv Comrade Mencken (KCM) has been shown for what he is. His his obfuscation are no match for the power of the internet and the power of the blog.

We can now see why KCM would have such a vested interest in running his "blog" Cross- currents like the Stalinists run Pravda. I think he should just acknowledge that the scientific conflict-related questions are unanswerable, if he really wants to be true to the Torah.

Potential BT's: Please have this type of nonsense in mind the next time a Kiruv Clown Rabbi (not all kiruv rabbis are clowns) subtly transorms into a Kiruv Comrade when you ask tough questions. The bullet point outline of their tricks and tactics:

  • Employ misdirection, especially appeal to authority, e.g. "Rashi didn't have a problem with it and you're a snail in comparison..." or "Drs. Penzias and Schroeder observe the Torah, so the "Torah" must be as I say it is;
  • They distort your question to begin with and answer a different question, e.g. "this book is about Torah, not evolution..."
  • They are deliberately vague when it suits their purposes, e.g. saying "The 'Torah' is true." or (from above) Dr. Penzias adopted observance of 'the Torah' or "Does the age of the universe contradict 'the Torah?'" In these examples, what does "observe" mean? Can it be reform as well? What does "the Torah" mean? Does it mean being orthodox written and oral torah? What does he mean when he says "contradict the Torah?" Of course he means does it contradict the first few days of creation, not all the other stuff in the Torah! It's notable that he says "few are better qualified to answer than Dr. Penzias! I agree that Nobel Prize winning astrophysicists have far more credibility than hack geologists, but don't rabbis have a say in whether there's a contradiction, Rabbi Mencken? Hareidi Judge/Dayan Rav Moshe Sternbuch seems to have an opinion, and that opinion is that 7 days = 7 days and all that Schroeder stuff is bunk! So it looks like R. Mencken is in between a rock and a hard place: both scientists and Rabbis of much higher stature than he say all that Schroeder stuff is bunk- Everything Torah Bunk, that is.
  • The Big One: They act dimissive of the question you have as if it is of little of no consequence, e.g. "the answer is somewhat obvious..."

Well, there you have it. I hope all the critics can now see why it important to call out an overexposed Kiruv Comrade. He is doing more harm than good, but he thinks the end (getting Jews to say they're frum) justifies the means (employing dirty tricks and possibly totally misconstruing the true essence of frumkeit- emunah pshutah).

P.S.- There's a lot more to Menken than I ever dreamed. Check out this account of how he defamed a guy named Rosenblatt while defending sexual predator rabbis.

Isn't is interesting the writing style Menken uses to bash a good samaritan- just like his snide comments on cross-currents.