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The Holy Scientist

| 5 Comments | 2 TrackBacks
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Over the past little while, We've been talking about the conjunction between ethical religion, science, and workable free socieites. Faith, Freedom, Virtue, Callimachus' piece on Intelligent Design, Bronowski's The Sense of Human Dignity, and Feynman's Uncertainty and the Open Channel all speak to these points in important ways.

More recently, "Divine Evolution..." looked at how to bridge the gap between religion and evolution, and addressed the concept that science also had a spiritual function. In the ensuing discussions, I ended up mentioning National Geographic's Was Darwin Wrong? - which said this:

"No aspect of biomedical research seems more urgent today than the study of microbial diseases. And the dynamics of those microbes within human bodies, within human populations, can only be understood in terms of evolution."

So I guess it's time to tell you the one about the man of G-d who blessed the sick, the professor of bacteriology who worked with Pasteur, and the refugee who overcame prejudice.

Oh, by the way - they're all the same guy. Meet Dr. Mordecai Haffkine, of blessed memory (zichronah l'verachah).

I'll begin by adding that I owe a lot of this to Rabbi Mark Friedman's article in the August 4/05 Canadian Jewish News: "Great scientist, great Jew". Some excerpts and commentary:

"Dr. Mordecai Haffkine was offered the post of assistant professor of bacteriology at the Imperial University of Odessa in 1888. There was one condition attached: he would have to agree to be baptized a Christian. His response was this: "I was a Jew before I became a bacteriologist. I feel there is greater honour in remaining a Jew."

That's our boy. Shortly thereafter, he left Russia to go work with some no-name:

"The next year, 1889, Haffkine was invited to Paris to continue his research at the world-renowned Pasteur Institute. The day after his arrival, he was nailing something to the doorpost of his laboratory when Dr. Louis Pasteur stopped by to welcome him and asked him why he had begun renovating his laboratory so soon. Haffkine answered that it was a mezuzah, a quotation from the Torah that is nailed to the doorpost of a Jew�s living quarters or workplace.

"But in a laboratory, Dr. Haffkine? In a place of science?" Dr. Pasteur asked.

Dr. Haffkine answered, "Particularly in a place where we search for truth and need God's guidance in the quest."

"Particularly in a place where we search for truth" - because science is, at its core, about The Habit of Truth.

"...and need God's guidance in the quest."

To a believing Jew who saw Hashem as the prime mover and master of all Creation, and who commands his faithful to lift up the sick, how could it possibly be otherwise?

Anyone who saves one life, the Torah accounts it to him as if he had saved the world
(Mishnah Sanhedrin 4:5)

Dr. Haffkine's special interest was cholera. We don't see much of that here any more, so let me explain briefly: it's a disease where your diarrhea and puking are so bad that you usually die of dehydration. And without treatment, you usually do die.

So why cholera?

Well, it's like this. During the era of The Black Plague, people began looking for scapegoats. Not just for the plague, but for many diseases. Since cholera is often carried by bad drinking water, it wasn't uncommon - and people looked for a scapegoat.

In many cases, Jews were accused of poisoning the wells through witchcraft. They were murdered by the tens of thousands.

And the irony is, more than few wells really were more or less poisoned. Without the understanding to grasp how or why, however, and no realization that the problem was a type of living creature mentioned nowhere in the Bible, people turned to other explanations offered by their priests and authority figures. Witchcraft, they knew, was real. The devil was real. The devil had servants who practiced witchcraft - and who were the great opponents of the living G-d, the ones who had slain him then and doubtless sought to harm his followers now?

Witchcraft trials aren't quite as much fun outside of Monty Python, out here in the demon-haunted world. Not that there were a lot of trials where Jews were concerned.

"If I could find a serum for cholera, it would be a fitting memorial for those martyred," Haffkine explained.

No scientific rule guided him in that choice.

The good news is, in the end Mordecai Haffner discovered that serum. As all good scientists do, he tested it. It cured mice. All he had to do now was figure out if it was toxic to humans.

Rather than have another take the risk, Dr. Haffner injected himself with cholera beacteria - and then with his serum. Forty eight hours later, he could report success.

No scientific rule guided him in that choice, either.

It would be nice to say that it was all happiness after that, that people accepted the vaccine and many were saved. Not so. Recall the 2005 tsunami, where some of the Muslim nations rejected help from Israel because they were Jews? Well, this sort of b.s. has a long pedigree...

"Within several weeks, word came to Pasteur of a severe cholera outbreak in Odessa. Haffkine offered to return there with his serum. But the Russians had a problem with accepting the offer.

"The government of His Imperial Majesty prefers peasants to die with a prayer for the czar on their lips than to owe their lives to a Jew," he was told."

No doubt many prayers were said for the Czar thereafter. I trust that he appreciated them.

Fortunately, some other nations were more civilized:

"Haffkine's opportunity to help came in 1893. Cholera had broken out in India and the British government requested that he bring his serum to India. He would remain there for 14 years.

"Life is holy unto the Lord." These are the words he would murmur to himself each time he went out to vaccinate a village. Accompanying him everywhere were his trusted microscope and his tallit and tfillin. He prayed every morning, seeking God's guidance as he went off to deliver his serum."

The wooden box that contained his microscope. The black velvet bag with his tallit (prayer shawl) and teffilin (phylactery). The only two things he had chosen to carry by himself from Odessa, back in 1888.

"Life is holy unto the Lord."

Holy that we may pray, and give thanks, and learn in ways large and small to treat it with reverence, that this reverence may guide us.

Holy, that we may apply ourselves to learn the workings of creation through the power of the scientific method, and apply them to the betterment of our world.

To the people he saved, he was an angel of mercy. An angel who flew on both wings.

Anyone who saves one life, the Torah accounts it to him as if he had saved the world
(Mishnah Sanhedrin 4:5)

Zichronah l'veracha.

2 TrackBacks

Tracked: August 15, 2005 5:53 PM
Religion & Science from Danny Carlton: codenamed "Jack Lewis"
Excerpt: Excellent post at Winds of Change on religion and science. It is a must read. Seriously.  ...
Tracked: August 16, 2005 3:52 PM
The Holy Scientist from Don Singleton
Excerpt: Winds of Change has a FANTASTIC post on religion and science. I encourage everyone to reat the entire post. Here are just a few excerpts

5 Comments

There's another post somewhere about how so MANY doctors believe in God.
Like my own, true-love Doctor wife.

Wonderful, inspiring story. It has always seemed to me that if God created the world, then

the world is the word of God

and science is one way (not the only way) to understand what God is telling us. To try to understand the world better, and to use that understanding to prevent death and suffering, is as much an act of worship as studying any Holy Writ.

For a thorough examination of this theme -- of God vs. Evolution, or not vs. Evolution, read H. Moose's (nomme de plume) WWII era work, "The Bible Unauthorized." It is a tour de force of how the Torah accommodates the Big Bang quite well.

"No aspect of biomedical research seems more urgent today than the study of microbial diseases. And the dynamics of those microbes within human bodies, within human populations, can only be understood in terms of evolution."

This, please let it be noted, is undisputed, and it's a red herring. Evolution of populations within the bounds of one species is not controversial. Any ID theorist or reasonably aware creationist could respond by saying, "Fine. And what does this have to do with the debate at hand?"

*****
Anyway, I don't want to forget to say, thanks for sharing this terrific story of faith and science.

I'll begin by saying that relegion should be kept a side while discussing physical sciences and end up with the argument that physical science can't prove the existence of anything premature.

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