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Sanctifying Science

Sanctifying Science

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Velvl Greene, right, chair of epidemiology public health and professor emeritus at Ben-Gurion University in the Negev. Left, steps leading to the university. Photo: Dani Machlas
Velvl Greene, right, chair of epidemiology public health and professor emeritus at Ben-Gurion University in the Negev. Left, steps leading to the university. Photo: Dani Machlas

Few people can lay claim to discovering the cure for an epidemic, searching for life on Mars, providing intellectual support to the burgeoning civil rights movement in the United States and serving in the Canadian army.

Even fewer can say that in addition to all that, they had a close, personal relationship with the Lubavitcher Rebbe, Rabbi Menachem Mendel Schneerson of righteous memory. But Velvl Greene is one of a kind.

Greene, 77, chair of epidemiology and public health and professor emeritus at Ben-Gurion University, and director of the Lord Jacobovitz Center for Jewish Medical Ethics in Be'er Sheva, was not always a religious man.

Greene, who now lives in Be'er Sheva with his wife, Gail and close to most of their five children and 27 grandchildren, discovered Judaism by accident.

Today, the man of science says he sees no contradiction between science, his first love; and Torah, his second.

"There are very few things in the Torah that can be contradicted by what we know and what we have discovered," he says. "On the contrary, everything we know points to the veracity of this book. The more we learn about science and nature, the closer the scientific and religious worlds become."

Greene has spent much of the last few years lecturing around the English-speaking world on this very subject.

Destined for Greatness

Born in Winnipeg in 1928 to simple, Yiddish-speaking parents who raised him in a Jewish, Zionist, secular home, Greene was inspired by Zionism to choose his major at the University of Manitoba.

"I took a degree in agriculture because I intended to go to Israel to work the land," he says.

When he finished his studies, Greene was obliged to serve in the Canadian Army, which had given him a scholarship. But after less than a year in an officer's training program he left the army to pursue advanced degrees in food science at the University of Minnesota. That's also where he met Gail, his wife-to-be.

The couple remained in Minnesota until 1956, when Greene began teaching bacteriology at Southwestern Louisiana Institute in Lafayette, La., the first American integrated college. When the Supreme Court, in its famous Brown v. Board of Education decision, ordered integration of public schools and universities, half of the school's faculty chose to resign rather than teach black students.

"It was a very critical time," says Greene. "Like a lot of Jews, I was at the forefront of the civil rights movement. I got this great opportunity to be a part of the revolution, so I went."

Greene's political activity was curtailed in 1957 by the first penicillin-resistant outbreak of staphylococcus in the southern United States. Until then, explains Greene, penicillin had been the foolproof remedy for all bacterial infections. When the epidemic hit the local hospitals, the health authorities called Greene in to help.

"I didn't know much about it," says the academic. "But I was the only qualified bacteriologist in a 100-mile radius." Using what he calls "Draconian sanitation methods," Greene was able to halt the epidemic.

A year later, when the epidemic started to sweep northward, Greene, then the States' foremost expert in the field, was called in by University of Minnesota, which had been given a huge government grant to find a solution to the outbreak.

Greene packed up his wife and first child and returned to Minnesota in 1959, which is where the family remained until they made aliyah to Israel in 1986.

Second-Guessing Fame

With the second wave of the epidemic behind them, Greene began to concentrate on his career. His creation of the first university course in environmental microbiology attracted officials at NASA. In 1960, he joined the U.S. space agency's Planetary Quarantine Division, which was charged with trying to find life on Mars.

The project failed to find evidence of life on the Red Planet, but Greene enjoyed the fame.

"I was invited to speak at colleges across the country and I was interviewed by newspapers from New York to Fargo, N.D.," he says. "Then one day I saw myself on TV and I had a sort of epiphany. I suddenly asked myself: What the hell am I talking about? I began to question if I knew as much as people thought I knew."

Around the same time – in 1962 – the Rebbe had sent a representative to Minnesota, Rabbi Moshe Feller. Greene says the young rabbi had been inexplicably desperate to meet him.

"He wanted to put my name on his board," says the scientist. "But what did a black hat and beard have to do with me? I was a space scientist."

According to Greene, halfway through their conversation in his office, Feller excused himself and started praying.

"I had never seen this before in my life," he says. When the rabbi finished, Greene told him he had been insulting, and asked him to leave. "Here he was: He came into my office, wasted my time and stood there embarrassing me."

Feller's response would change Greene's life forever.

"I will never forget what he said," he relates. "He apologized for insulting me, and told me that he was sorry, but that what he had done was much more important."

It was the first time he had heard a rabbi talk about G‑d: "I was impressed by his sincerity and intrigued by his dedication."

Later that year Greene and his wife went to Warsaw, Poland, for a NASA conference. After walking through the remains of the ghetto, she returned, crying.

"She said she needed to become kosher to ensure that our kids would grow up Jewish," says Greene. "She said we were the only ones left."

On their return to Minnesota, the couple called in Feller to Kosher their kitchen. He began to teach them all the ways of Torah life. He also introduced them to the Rebbe, with whom he began a 30-year correspondence.

"We discussed all subjects in the world, including science," says Greene, adding that his fondest memory of the Rebbe was his smile.

A Thousand Times No

The Rebbe, though, had discouraged Greene from making aliyah to Israel.

"Coming to Israel had always been my dream since my old Zionist days," says Greene.

But every time he asked, the Rebbe counseled that it was a bad idea, since Greene was not familiar with the politics, the language and the culture.

"Above all," says Greene, "he said that what I was doing in the U.S. was more important; that what I was doing for him was more important."

In one letter, the Rebbe acknowledged that every time he told Greene he shouldn't go to Israel, it hurt him.

"I understand that each time I tell you this, you become depressed," he wrote.

But he still declined to give Greene his blessings.

In 1986, Greene wrote the rabbi about Israel for the last time. Ben-Gurion University had made Greene an offer he couldn't refuse, and he wanted to go more than ever.

"I didn't get an answer," he says. "So I wrote again and again, I didn't get an answer. So I went."

After two weeks in Israel, a special delivery package arrived to Greene, including a bundle of letters from the Rebbe that had been sent to the wrong address. In his last letter, the Rebbe wrote: "The opinion I gave you in 1976 is the same one I give you in 1986: I think you will do more for yourself, for Yiddishkeit and for me, if you stay in the U.S."

Greene immediately sent a message through the Rebbe's secretary.

"I didn't know if I should unpack, or start looking for a ticket back to the States," says Greene. "I was torn."

The secretary called back a few hours later with the following response: "It seems that in heaven's view, this should be your place."

The Final Analysis

So what does a religious scientist whose two primary passions in life seem inherently incompatible have to say about their reconciliation?

"There is absolutely no conflict between the science I know and the Torah," he says. "To start, we only know a fraction of what there is to know about the world in which we live. We learn a little bit more every year. So to make a definitive statement about contradiction and incompatibility in reference to a relatively tiny body of continually growing knowledge is a child's game."

According to Greene, science is limited to what can be verified. With hypotheses, you can never prove that something is the case; you can only prove that something is not the case.

"Everything else is extrapolation," he explains. "The perceived incompatibility between science and religion springs from the mistake of having too much confidence in science's extrapolations. We seem to have a lot of trouble admitting that we don't really know."

The issue most people have, Greene says, is that the narrative of the Torah is not the narrative of science. But the two are not in conflict, even at the start of everything, which science calls the Big Bang.

"Everything we know points to one single source, one single beginning, which is what the story of the Torah is all about," he says. "Even the evolutionists teach that there was once an original microbe, an original fungus, an original creature, and everything developed from that."

Instead of looking for inconsistencies, we should note how similar the two narratives really are.

Jewish science, he says, is honest science, and means knowing the difference between what we know and what we speculate.

"Science teaches you how the heavens move," he says. "The Torah teaches you how to move the heavens."



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