Tuesday, November 27, 2012

Stormy skies make the best sunrises

All of the photos on this page were take from the same hill on my land in Pine County, Minnesota, looking east.  And all of them were taken on cloudy mornings.

"Minnesota Snowscape"
On a clear dawn, there isn't much of a show.  The sky gradually gets lighter, there's a strip of orange on the horizon, the sun comes up, and that's it.  One clear day looks pretty much like another.  I don't photograph many of those.

But on a cloudy morning, there is potential for some really great shots.  No two cloud formations are ever the same, and the scene lasts much longer as the sun rises behind the clouds.  When I see a cloudy dawn, I grab my camera and head for my favorite spot.

"Dragon in the Sky"
And there's always that one special moment when it all peaks.  Capturing that moment can be a challenge, because you don't really know when it is coming.  So I shoot a series of shots and then choose the best.  It doesn't always pan out, but when it does, the results are spectacular. (As for the duds, well, as my father told me many years ago, even professional photographers take bad pictures -- they just don't show them to anybody.  For every great pic on my blog, there were a whole lot of deletes.)

"Flaming Sunrise"
When I was a child living in the city, we used to sing a song about "rain, rain go away -- come again another day, little Johnny wants to play." From an urban perspective, rain was a nuisance that kept me from going outside and having fun.  But now that I'm older and we are in the middle of a major drought, I realize that my childish wish for "rain, rain go away" would be a curse.  Without rain in summer and snow storms in winter, a lot of plants and animals suffer.  Including us humans.

"Red in the Morning"
And now comes the homily.  Life, like a sunrise, varies from day to day.  We say we'd like to have perpetually clear skies, but in reality that would be rather boring.  It's the clouds in our lives that add some interest, even if they do sometimes rain on our parades.  The storms provide the challenges.  As I look back over my life, the "sunny days" are pretty much one big blur.  The ones that stand out are those that -- for good or bad -- brought some excitement into my life.  And even those dark days had important lessons for me to learn.

This is not to say I'm always excited to have disruptions in my life.  After all, some storms can be really destructive.  But, as the old saying goes, there's a silver lining in every cloud.  Or, in the case of sunrises, there's always the potential for a really great peak experience.  Maybe this is why just about every religion has the symbolism of moving from the darkness into the light.  And every storm contains a potential rainbow.

"After the Storm"

Thursday, November 15, 2012

Visiting my recycling center

Today was America Recycles Day -- an event I had not heard of before, but since my local recycling center (PHASE Recycling in Sandstone, MN) was hosting an open house, I decided to go.  I had always wondered what happened to all that co-mingled material.  Was it really sorted out and re-used?  If so, how?

The tour was very instructive.  And yes, PHASE does sort through it all, starting with a line of people separating out the metals, aluminum, plastics, cardboard, paper, etc.  Then each material is compacted into bales that weigh a thousand pounds or more.  It takes a LOT of plastic bottles to make a bale.  Last year, PHASE reclaimed over TWO MILLION POUNDS of materials to be recycled.  Wow!  And this is not from a big city, either.  Although there are some good-sized towns in Pine County, we are basically rural.

PHASE stands for Pine Habilitation And Support Employment, Inc.  PHASE provides employment for developmentally-challenged individuals, as well as a very good service for our community.  And the building itself is "recycled" -- it used to be Chris's Grocery Store.  When the grocery built a newer, bigger facility nearby and became Chris's Food Center, the old building sat vacant for a while.  Meanwhile, the county was finding it hard to finance their recycling program.  PHASE took it over, acquired the old grocery, refitted it for their needs.  Today, about 30 people work there -- an excellent example of a "green" industry creating jobs!  WAY TO GO!

Friday, November 9, 2012

Voting for Darwin, Evolution, and Modern Science

One of the more bizarre events in the contentious 2012 election occurred in Athens-Clarke County, Georgia, where 4000 people wrote in "Charles Darwin" against unopposed creationist Congressman Paul Broun (R).  More info on that...)   Broun had denounced evolution and other scientific theories, including embryology and the Big Bang Theory, as "lies straight from the pit of hell."  Opponents of his ideas wrote in "Darwin" in protest.

Charles Darwin, 1809-1882
While there was little chance of Darwin actually being elected (Broun got more that 209,000 votes and is declared the winner, but click here to see what other people and things were written in) it does raise the question in my mind:  Why are fundamentalist Christians so threatened by science?

And while it is true that there are some creationists among us Jews, they are in the minority.  By and large, most Jews find no problem in reconciling scientific discoveries with religion.  Even in the 12th century, Moses Maimonides (a major Jewish philosopher still studied today) wrote in his Guide for the Perplexed: "The account of Creation given in Scripture is not, as generally believed, intended to be literal in all its parts." (section 2:29)

In his introduction to the same work, Maimonides also said: ""Now, on the one hand, the subject of Creation is very important, but on the other hand, our ability to understand these concepts is very limited.  Therefore, God described these profound concepts, which His divine wisdom found necessary to communicate to us, using allegories...  It has been outlined in metaphors so that the masses can understand it according to their mental capacity, while the educated take it in a different sense."

One of my teachers, Rabbi Moshe Adler, once explained it this way:  "God could have sent down Carl Sagan to explain how the universe was created, but the people of that time would not have understood him.  So God gave them a story."

And indeed, the Genesis version of Creation does seem to follow the basic order of evolution:  Light/energy; land & atmosphere; green plants; egg-laying animals; mammals; and finally, humans.  The only part out of order is the creation of the heavenly bodies, which comes on the 4th day, right in the middle of the process.  Some Jewish commentators have suggested that this was not a chronological statement, but, rather, a theological one:  Putting the sun in the middle meant it was neither a solar god starting the process nor a deity finishing it. It was merely one more physical thing on the list of items being created.  (See Slifkin, Nathan, The Challenge of Creation:  Judaism's Encounter with Science, Cosmology, and Evolution, pp. 235-37.)

What Maimonides was saying is still true today, perhaps even more so in this age of quantum physics and string theory.  Many scientific theories are very complex, and require a high degree of intelligence and many years of study to fully understand them.  For the average person, a simpler explanation will often suffice.  Given that the Bible was passed down orally at a time when science was in its infancy and most people were illiterate, it makes sense that many things were told in simple stories, without going into great detail about how the process actually worked.

Moses Maimonides, 1138-1204
And let me add that Maimonides was an Orthodox Jew, as were many other commentators who sought to reconcile science and religion down through the ages.  So it is definitely possible to be both Orthodox and scientific.  Maimonides even went so far as to say that, when it came to statements by the Talmudic sages that contradicted later discoveries in science, "Do not ask of me to reconcile everything that they (the Sages) stated from science with the actual reality, for the science of those days was deficient, and they did not speak out of traditions from the prophets regarding these matters."   So, we are not required to believe in spontaneous generation, a geocentric universe, the heavenly spheres, or the sometimes strange folk cures described in the Talmud.   (see The Dirt Mouse, the Sweat Louse, and the Dong Chong: A Study of Spontaneous Generation in Jewish Law).

Christianity, on the other hand, has often felt threatened by science.   There was a period in medieval Europe when popes were forbidding Christians to go to Jewish doctors, condemning "Jewish medicine" as being from the devil.  (On the other hand, church officials themselves often went to Jews for healing, because they had a better success rate than the Catholic priests who were offering chunks of the "true cross" and other holy relics for cures.)  One might laugh at this, but, as noted above, Congressman Broun still believes modern science comes from the devil, although he is not so crass as to call it "Jewish."  Even more scary, this is a man who sits on the House Committee on Science, Space, and Technology!  How can you make legal decisions and policies on science when you don't even believe in it?  (See Bill Nye: Paul Broun 'unqualified to make decisions about science, space and technology')

Among the theories denounced by Broun is embryology, a science that is pretty well established in the modern world, much to the benefit of human babies.  Which raises the question:  Does Broun still believe that the father plants a homunculus (fully-formed miniature adult) into the mother?  Does he reject what we see on ultrasound tests?  Tracking of genetic diseases through DNA?  Effects of drugs on the development of the fetus?  Surgical correction of birth defects while still in the womb?

If you reject embryology, how do you account for any of these things?

Years ago, I heard a Chabad Hasidic rabbi say that when scientists first looked through their early microscopes, they actually saw the homunculus, but later suppressed this knowledge.  I find this absurd. What more likely happened is that they saw the nucleus of the sperm cell for the first time but, not understanding what it was, projected their beliefs onto that dark spot and thought they saw a tiny person.  As microscopes improved, it became obvious that this early assumption was wrong.  The vast majority of Jews today accept embryology as proven fact.  Even very Orthodox Jews use in vitro fertilization to try and conceive when natural methods fail.

All of which brings me back to my original question:  Why are Christian fundamentalists so threatened by evolution?  I think the answer lies in how they construct their theologies.   For them, it is absolutely essential for every single word of the Bible to be literally true.  Why?  Because they rely upon those words to prove that Jesus was their messiah.  If you start questioning the literalness of Bible verses, you run the risk of the whole house of cards tumbling down.  In Paul Broun's words, the so-called "lies" of science were intended to "keep me and all the folks who were taught that from understanding that they need a savior."

We Jews, on the other hand, do not believe we need a human sacrifice to be forgiven, nor do we rely upon the literalness of biblical stories as the foundation of our faith.  We are more focused on actions rather than beliefs.  A sin, in Judaism, is a specific negative act committed against Torah laws in the physical world, not merely a belief.  Just thinking about something -- even a seemingly heretical idea -- does not make it a sin.  (Although it could make you seem odd to your neighbors.)

So yes, we take the laws of Judaism literally -- a pig is a pig and must not be eaten, nor can it be allegorized away -- but when it comes to personal beliefs about God and religion in general, there is a great deal of latitude.  Thus we find multiple interpretations of biblical stories in Judaism, existing side by side.  We may argue and debate them (and how we do love to debate!), but in the end, what matters most is how we are living our lives.  Two Jews may be equally strict in observing the Sabbath, but may also have very different interpretations as to why they are doing so.  And both can be correct on some level.

So, for example, one can literally believe that the Noah Flood covered the entire planet, or that it was a more localized mid-east phenomenon as suggested by modern science.  (See William Ryan and Walter Pitman, Noah's Flood: The New Scientific Discoveries about the Event that Changed History, which presents a very strong case for it taking place around the Black Sea.)  Either way, the moral lessons of the story remain the same.  It teaches us, among other things, that God values every species on our planet, and so should we.  Similarly, we can say that whether or not the Exodus happened exactly as described in the Torah, it still contains valuable teachings about freedom that are relevant today.  (There are also Christians who think this way.  See The Bible and Congressman Broun by Adam Hamilton.)

In closing, I find myself still agreeing with Maimonides, again from Guide for the Perplexed:

When I have a difficult subject before me -- when I find the road narrow and can see no other way of teaching a well established truth except by pleasing one intelligent man and displeasing ten thousand fools -- I prefer to address myself to the one man, and to take no notice whatever of the condemnation of the multitude."


Monday, November 5, 2012

Living with Predators on the Circle of Life

Last Saturday there was a big ruckus down at the chicken coop.  When I went to investigate, I soon saw why:  A Red-Tailed Hawk had killed one of my banty roosters and was feeding on the carcass in the middle of the chicken yard.  No wonder everybody was so upset!

Red Tailed Hawk
(Photo courtesy of
"Wayward" on Wikipedia)
Now, I had very mixed feelings about this sight.  On the one hand, I was sad to lose a good rooster.  But on the other hand, it was a rather exciting nature moment.  How often do you see a hawk feeding on a kill like that?  And of course I didn't have a camera  -- it was Shabbos (the Sabbath) so I wasn't taking pictures that day.  When the hawk saw me, it flew up into a tree, and just sat there, waiting for me to leave.

Over the years, I've lost a number of roosters to various predators.  Although I'm rarely there to see a wild animal go after the chickens (I did glimpse a fox once), I have seen the roosters stand up to cats and people.  In a free-range flock of chickens, the roosters are always on the alert for danger.  They are the sentries of the flock.  There is a distinctive "predator alert" call they give, which the other chickens recognize immediately and run for cover.  The rooster himself will often attack whatever is threatening them, and this is probably why so many lose their lives.  The banty that the hawk was eating must have put up a terrific fight; there were feathers all over the place.  But every other chicken made it safely into the shelter of the coop, where I found them all cackling and raising a huge racket.

Of course, if I kept the chickens penned up in cages all the time, this would not happen.  But part of the reason I have my own chickens is because I do not want my eggs to come from factory farms.  Giving the chickens freedom to scratch, peck, flock together and do all the things chickens do means a certain amount of risk.  But I believe the chickens, like most people, prefer some risk rather than be locked up.   Every living thing craves freedom.

There was a time when a farmer would shoot a chicken-stealing hawk as a matter of course.  Nowadays, these birds are protected, which I consider a good thing.  Although a hawk might take a chicken now and then, he is more likely to grab a mouse or a rat.  The number of rodents eaten by raptors is huge.  (I remember seeing a story about a family of Red-Tails that nested on a building near Central Park, New York.  I'll bet they found plenty of rats around there!)  So really, these beautiful birds are more beneficial than destructive.  Death is a part of the circle of life.  Although it is indeed sad to lose one of my roosters, I still prefer to try and live in peace with the hawks and other wildlife around here.