During his lifetime, Dr. Velvl Greene—NASA scientist, public-health expert and director of the department of Jewish medical ethics at Israel’s Ben-Gurion University in the Negev—served as a guide, mentor and role model for thousands. Now, through a delightful, posthumous biographical memoir— Curiosity and the Desire for Truth/The Spiritual Journey of a NASA Scientist—Greene, who passed away in 2011, is continuing to enlighten and inspire a new generation of readers.

Born in Winnipeg, Manitoba, in 1928 to a family of immigrants from the Soviet Union, Greene grew up in a home steeped in Jewish history, culture and the Yiddish language, but without much knowledge of Jewish law or observance. “We learned Yiddish, not Hebrew,” he recalls. “Hebrew was for prayer, which we didn’t do.”

After earning a Ph.D. in bacteriology from the University of Minnesota, Greene published more than 90 scientific papers. He lectured and consulted around the world, and was one of the original participants in NASA’s exobiology program.

But it was not until the early 1960s, when he was a professor of public health at the University of Minnesota, that he met newly arrived Chabad-Lubavitch emissary Rabbi Moshe Feller, who introduced him to an entirely new and unexpected search for truth that he lovingly describes in this memoir.

Curiosity and the Desire for Truth, assembled and edited by his sons—Rabbis David and Shmuel Greene—draws on their father’s notebooks, recorded lectures, interviews, journal articles and written correspondences, including a number of fascinating letters to and from the Rebbe—Rabbi Menachem M. Schneerson, of righteous memory.

The combined elements provide awarm, engaging, always thoughtful and frequently amusing account of a deeply intellectual and compassionate scientist, and his ongoing search for the answers to life’s most important questions.

The following are some illustrative excerpts from Curiosity and the Desire for Truth, which is available for purchase on Amazon, Lulu, at Jewish bookstores, and in Israel at Pomeranz Bookstore.

Dr. Velvl Greene, left, with the Rebbe—Rabbi Menachem M. Schneerson, of righteous memory
Dr. Velvl Greene, left, with the Rebbe—Rabbi Menachem M. Schneerson, of righteous memory

A Matter of Importance

Back in the early 1960s, Rabbi Moshe Feller was the shaliach, the emissary, who the Rebbe sent to Minnesota. His job was to bring Jews closer to Yiddishkeit. Rabbi Feller had heard about me and wanted to meet with me face to face. At the time, I was doing research for NASA, as well as for the Army Biological Laboratory. I worked in a very, very secure laboratory. There was no access for anybody without high clearance.

He tried to call and make an appointment, but I told him it was impossible. When I first got a call from him, I knew, a guy with a black hat comes to Minneapolis—how many guys with black hats are there in Minneapolis? So I knew he’s a meshulach, he’s a representative; he’s coming to get money.

So I told him on the phone, “You don’t have to come. I’ll send a check.” And he said, “I don’t need a check.” That’s the first time he said that, and the last time he said it, “I don’t need a check, I want to see you.” I said, “Rabbi, I’ll give you twice as much.” I thought, ah, I’m going to give him $36 instead of $18. He said, “I must speak to you, it’s a matter of extreme importance.”

Believe it or not, I arranged for him to come.

He came into my office. This is a little Jew with a black hat, a beard, two big guards on both sides of him with guns. I saw that and my heart just, you know—I was sympathetic to him, even though I knew he was there for money or something else, whatever gig he had.

So I asked him to sit down and we talked. I said, “You’re a nice guy, I’m gonna tell you how to be successful. The first thing you got to do is trim the beard a little bit. Look like a mensch. Get out of that black suit, you look like an undertaker.” I was giving him good advice. He was listening.

And then he looked out the window—this is important—he looked out the window, and he looked at me. He said, “Excuse me, I’ve got to do something.” I said, “Well, the bathroom is over there.” No. He got up, he took a cord from his pocket, he tied it around his waist, and he started to shake like this.

What is he doing? It’s not Rosh Hashanah, and it’s not Yom Kippur. Is he praying? It’s the middle of the afternoon and there is no one telling him what page to be on. After all, this was my job as a Reform rabbi [although not ordained, Greene was appointed rabbi of a 60-family congregation] to tell you what page you’re on. There was no one telling him what page to be on. And most of all, I was no longer in control. He’s in my office, he asked for an appointment, and he’s ignoring me. He’s facing the window and he’s shaking.

When he was finished, he sat down again. I said, “Rabbi Feller, the interview is over; you’ve insulted me. You came for an appointment with me, and all of a sudden you’re doing some mumbo-jumbo.” And then he said the key words. He said, “What I came for was very, very important, but what I had to do now was even more important.”

If you want to know what changed, if you want to talk about the word epiphany, that happened there. Now I know he was davening Minchah, the afternoon prayer, and he had to do it before the sun went down—and that was more important than even what he came for.

Now that is dedication, and that impressed me.

The Threshold

At the first meeting with the Rebbe, in 1963, he gave me the marching order, the rules. He said, “You must help Rabbi Feller. You appear to me as a man of the community, as someone who is a little more established, a professor and so forth, and Rabbi Feller is there; you must help him.”

So that’s what we did for the rest of our life, basically.

I was impressed by two things. Number one, the man represented to me as a navi, as a prophet. In fact, we have a book by Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel called The Prophets, in which he is trying to ascertain if there is a unifying characteristic of all the different neviim. Each one was from a different time, they lived in a different period, they had different personalities. Some of them were rich and some of them were prominent; some of them were just peasants, farmers. Heschel put together some of the characteristics of a prophet.

Chaim Nachman Bialik also wrote Yiddish poems about who is a navi. When I saw the Rebbe, my first impression was from the heart. As a little boy, 10, 11 years old, in the Peretz Shul in Winnipeg, I memorized a poem by Bialik. In Hebrew it was called “Im Yesh Et Nafshecha L’Daat”; in Yiddish, “Oib Dyn Neshama Vill Dergayn Dem Kvall”; in English, “If Your Soul Wants to Get to the Bottom Source.”

In it Bialik writes about the history of the Jewish people. What gave the Jews the strength to withstand all of the libels and the punishments and the suffering and the wandering and the banishment and still remain who they are? In his poem Bialik says, “Oy bruder, oib vilst veesen

fun dos altz,” if you want to know where they got the strength to put out their knife to meet their heart and jump into the fires of the Spanish Inquisition, if you want to know, he says, “Bais medrash kumt,” come to the synagogue. And there you will see, on a long winter night, an old man studying the Talmud of thousands of years ago; there you will see a man who can hardly read, pouring out his heart, saying the psalms in Tehillim; there you will see 10 people davening, praying, because they brought down the Shechinah upon them, they brought down the countenance of God to rest on them.

Bialik says if you see this, then you should know — listen to the words in Yiddish, “Dos shtayst du aifen shvell fun unzer lebben,”you’re standing on the threshold of our life, “Un zehn dayn oigen dee neshama,” your eyes are looking into the Jewish soul.

Standing there in 770, in December 1963, all I could think of was this poem. This is the threshold. This is the Jewish soul. Honestly, I recognized that poem. I didn’t need any more propaganda. I didn’t need anymore. This was for me.

‘Greene’ Dinosaurs

When I was a very young graduate student, whenever I was in New York, I’d gravitate to the Museum of Natural History. I’ve always been fascinated with the diversity of human life, including the theory of evolution.

I never missed the dinosaur exhibits. Every time I went I saw something new and interesting. Eventually, the curators came to know me, and they’d allow me into the backroom workshops where the structures were being fashioned. That was the most fascinating of all.

Everyone knows what the dinosaurs looked like, right? Everyone’s seen either the incredible displays here, or at the Smithsonian in Washington, or smaller museums. When I was in the backroom at the museum, watching them reconstruct one of the huge skeletons, I thought that was the essence of pure science.

Very rarely, of course, was the entire skeleton of a dinosaur found. For the most part, what the technicians did was to piece together a skeleton, using what they’d found in several different places. Some of the bones were real ossified bones from one site or another, and others were artificial, reconstructed bones made to replace those that were not available. These were made—in those days—of plaster of Paris.

The genius of the workers is that they were able to interpolate the parts that were missing, working with the bones they had. If they knew an animal had five vertebrae, but they had only three actual bones, they’d be able to reconstruct what the other two would look like.

Now understand, this was in the 1950s—long before I ever ran across Rabbi Feller or the Rebbe. It was long before I began piecing the elements of Judaism together in my mind. In retrospect, I believe I was potentiated, even then. My soul was cast in a Jewish mold, with only a hint of where I would ultimately find myself once I began a spiritual journey in addition to delving into the secrets of science.

Maybe the most fascinating part of it all was what today we take for granted as forensic science—first reconstructing the framework, the skeleton, then putting the musculature over it. They could tell from the way the bones grew, and how they were positioned within the body, what kind of muscular structure they supported. This takes a tremendous amount of knowledge and skill, to reconstruct how big the muscles were, how the tendons lay. They’d extrapolate from the size of one known body part, like the feet, how big the haunches were or where the spine curved. When that was done, they’d even recreate the head, based on the skull structure.

The finishing touches came when they recreated skin and produced an animal that, they said, looked like those that had actually wandered the earth. But this part wasn’t based exactly on knowledge; because of course no one has ever seen dinosaur flesh. We’ve seen mammoths—we’ve found them reasonably intact, but they weren’t of the same vintage. For the dinosaurs, it was pure speculation. Even so, when they finished, they’d take the photographs, and put them it textbooks. This, they said, is what a dinosaur looked like.

You know the pictures—the skin of a dinosaur is greenish, maybe with a muddy blue tinge. It had little stipples in it, little dimples. Way before [Steven] Spielberg, way before [Michael] Crichton and Jurassic Park, we all knew exactly what a dinosaur looked like; we’d seen the pictures in our grade-school textbooks. Obviously, we’d know a dinosaur when we saw it!

My problem was, I was a grad student. I was on a search for truth as well as life. Everything had to be consistent.

So I asked the man who was there working with it, “Why is that dinosaur green?”

And he looked at me a little strange, but said, “Because dinosaurs are green.”

Then he thought about it for a moment, and asked, “Why? What color do you think they should be?”

Believe it or not, this is a conversation that came to figure hugely in my life. It was a prime moment.

So I thought about his question. Then I said, “Well, I don’t really know. How about pink? Or they could be blue or have yellow polka dots.” Now this was way before the Flintstones, too—maybe they got the idea from me.

The technician became very offended. “That’s ridiculous,” he said. “Who ever saw a yellow dinosaur?”

To which I obviously responded: “Who ever saw a green one?”

In terms of teachable moments, that was a big one. It taught me one of life’s most valuable lessons.

I learned that science in itself contains a lot of speculation and extrapolation. A good scientist is one who uses those tools, but he knows and acknowledges the difference between what he knows and when he’s merely speculating.

That’s truth. It’s good to know.