Posts, Writings, Ramblings and more from Yaakov Menken

Rabbi Dovid Winiarz zt”l

by Yaakov Menken on January 23, 2015 at 11:32 am

Rav Dovid Winiarz zt"l

Rav Dovid Winiarz zt”l

At the beginning of this week’s reading, Pharoah flatly rejects the idea that all the Jews should be allowed to leave Egypt to worship G-d. He was willing to consider allowing a subset to leave for a time, but not the entire nation. Yet that is precisely what Moshe demanded, and at the end, of course, that is what happened. Moshe was unwilling to leave anyone behind.

This week, the world of Kiruv, Jewish outreach, lost a true hero. On the way to the conference of the Association for Jewish Outreach Professionals, the car in which Rav Dovid Winiarz zt”l was travelling slid on a patch of black ice, and he died in the accident.

Reb Dovid was a person who believed in the ideal of leaving no one behind, and who lived for that ideal.

He used social media as his vehicle of choice, even adopting the moniker “the Facebuker Rebbe” for his activities. And like any Rebbe, he was there for any Jew with words of advice and inspiration.

He epitomized what outreach is really all about: Ahavas Chinam, love for every person regardless of circumstances. Helping a Jewish person discover the majesty of our Jewish heritage isn’t about saving souls; it’s another aspect of the concern for others we are supposed to demonstrate in all circumstances. Dovid was concerned for others, in every way.

You saw it in the way he did business. He was an agent for Fidelity Payment Services, a popular provider of merchant transaction processing. You saw exactly the same caring person helping his clients as you did in his outreach. The CEO of Fidelity, Benyamin Weiser, mentioned to me that R’ Dovid had a uniquely soft approach in both sales and service, which he attributed to his outreach work, but I feel was simply the essence of who Dovid Winiarz was.

Someone wrote on Facebook that he wanted to hear from R’ Dovid’s close friends about doing something in his memory. I sent that person a note, telling him that he’s going to receive a lot of messages (as I’m sure he did) because everyone felt he was R’ Dovid’s close friend. His enthusiasm was infectious, he was always trying to get more people involved in spreading Judaism, and simply helping others in whatever situation. In just days, hundreds of people have joined the tribute page set up on Facebook in his memory, with countless stories of what he personally did to help so many. One person commented that everyone knew R’ Dovid was a Tzaddik, a truly righteous person. What was hidden about his holiness is that no one knew the superhuman amount that he did for so many people.

As I wrote earlier this week, if we are to learn from R’ Dovid, it would have to be first and foremost his attribute of Ahavas Chinam, free and boundless love for others, that we emulate. Spreading knowledge of our great legacy should be merely one facet of that desire to help.

Rav Dovid Winiarz is survived by his wife and ten children; a fund has been established to help the family.

Do the Right Thing

by Yaakov Menken on January 2, 2015 at 12:09 pm

bless-childrenYaakov blesses all of his sons before he dies. But before this, Yosef takes his sons Ephraim and Menashe to see their grandfather, who gives them a special blessing — first and foremost, by elevating them to have the same status as his own children. Throughout the rest of the Torah, the tribes of Ephraim and Menashe are similar to any of the others. In the desert, the new nation of Israel traveled with the descendants of Levi in the center, with the Mishkan (Tabernacle), while three tribes camped in each of the four directions around them. The tribes of Menashe and Benyamin joined under the flag of Ephraim, to the West. In the Land of Israel, each was allocated a separate region of the country.

This is not all, however. Yaakov gives Ephraim and Menashe a unique distinction — that throughout Jewish history, fathers in the Nation of Israel will bless their sons by saying, “G-d should place you like Ephraim and Menashe.” Our Sages established that parents should bless their daughters to be like the four original mothers of Israel: Sarah, Rivkah (Rebecca), Rachel and Leah. But instead of blessing boys to be like our forefathers Avraham, Yitzchak and Yaakov, instead the paradigms are Ephraim and Menashe.

Even more so, Yaakov excludes any future sons of Yosef from his blessing. On the contrary, he says they will be absorbed into the tribes of their older brothers. Why — what makes Ephraim and Menashe so unique?

Rabbi Shmuel Hominer zt”l explains that unlike the children of Yosef’s brothers, Ephraim and Menashe grew up in Egypt, surrounded by idolatry and impurity. Instead of living in the Land of Israel, with their grandparents, uncles, aunts and cousins all dedicated to continuing in the way of their forefather Avraham, the honored guests in their home were government officials, Pharoah’s magicians, those given prestige by the surrounding society.

When Yaakov came down to Egypt, he discovered that Ephraim and Menashe had not been drawn away from the path of their forefathers. They were not influenced by the idolatrous society around them. On the contrary, he recognized that they had clearly learned from their father, Yosef HaTzaddik, the righteous Joseph, to follow the path of Torah.

It is obvious that for them to have achieved this level was not accomplished easily. Their life was no bed of roses. There were many very serious tests of their commitment along the way, and they could certainly have turned out very differently. Nonetheless, they clung to what they learned from their father, and not all those around them.

This is why Yaakov singled out Ephraim and Menashe — so that all of us should similarly be blessed to follow a different path, no matter what society says. What society believes is worthwhile or honorable, and what the Torah says, can be two profoundly different things. And each of us must seek, and be blessed, to follow the Jewish path in all our ways.

Speaking about the Jerusalem Attack

by Yaakov Menken on November 19, 2014 at 8:43 am

WMAR TV in Baltimore came to the Tfillah (prayer) at the Shomrei Emunah Synagogue. I think they asked me to speak on camera because I have a daughter in Jerusalem now.

An American Hero Named Elimelech

by Yaakov Menken on November 7, 2014 at 3:39 pm

kids-kicking-cancerHave you ever heard of Elimelech Goldberg? Don’t worry, I hadn’t either. [Dr. Elimelech Goldstein, the volunteer medical director of Hatzalah of Baltimore, is a friend and former roommate, but that’s another story entirely.] But if you’re familiar with the Orthodox community, you’ve surely heard of the Chai Lifeline organization, and their incredible Camp Simcha for children with cancer and other life-threatening illnesses.

Rabbi Goldberg was, for many years, the director of that camp; his first daughter, Sarah, passed away at age 2 after fighting leukemia, so he had a powerful bond with children fighting illness. And he is also a black belt in a style of martial arts… one that you’ve probably never heard of either. But that’s relevant, so bear with me please.

A South Korean man named Kwang Jo Choi was a leading instructor in Tae Kwon Do, which is probably more familiar (and if not, it’s the South Korean version of Karate). He moved to North America in order to find orthopedists to help with injuries suffered as a result, which, he learned, were caused by the way he was performing martial arts. So he created a new style, called Choi Kwang Do, which incorporated techniques which he had learned from his rehabilitation exercises — including breathing and stretching exercises which help a person to combat pain.

So Rabbi Goldberg, at Camp Simcha, found himself teaching a 5-year-old boy breathing exercises during chemotherapy. And it worked. Mental and breathing exercises helped the boy ignore the pain of treatment.

So, in 1999, Rabbi Goldberg founded an organization called Kids Kicking Cancer. As described by CNN, “The program provides free martial arts classes focused on breathing techniques and meditation for children battling serious illnesses.”

CNN? Well yes, you’ve heard of CNN. And for the past seven years, the CNN network has identified and nominated ten people as “CNN Heroes: everyday people changing the world.” This year, Rabbi Goldberg is one of the nominees, giving us the opportunity to highlight the outstanding way in which he is changing the world for the better.

I hope you will join me, as I vote for Rabbi Goldberg to be the CNN Hero this year. You can vote once per day, with each of your email addresses and with Facebook, through Nov. 15. Both because of his outstanding work and the way it will help his organization (and by extension, Chai Lifeline and Camp Simcha), he deserves our support!

The Big Bang Contradicts Physics, not Religion

by Yaakov Menken on October 29, 2014 at 7:13 pm

Pope Francis is in the news today, for having “sided with science” and against creationists — by endorsing the Big Bang Theory. According to these articles, his statement was “revolutionary” and “embraces modern science.”

As far as saying that the universe is billions of years old, or that creatures evolved, this could be true — though even there, he said that it could not have happened without Divine Intervention. When it comes to the Big Bang, however, these articles neatly turn the truth on its head.

Put simply, the Big Bang Theory violates the known laws of physics. This “Big Bang,” a point of energy that formed the universe — from where did it come? How was it formed? How did this energy and matter form, to then explode outwards? There are various conjectures and speculations to explain what might have happened, but what we know about astrophysics and thermodynamics doesn’t involve nothingness exploding into energy and matter.

In fact, the term “Big Bang” was placed upon the theory by a prominent astronomer who, like most of his colleagues, believed in a “steady state” universe with no known beginning. The majority belief in steady state persisted until detection of the cosmic microwave background radiation, a remnant of the Big Bang, proved in 1964 that the universe was expanding from a beginning point.

If anything, Pope Francis merely recognized that physicists have come to agree with the Biblical account. The Big Bang theory was proposed by Monseigneur Georges LeMaitre, a Catholic priest, and in 1951 Pope Pius XII declared it entirely consistent with Catholic belief.

But in actuality, the theory doesn’t belong to Monseigneur LeMaitre, either. The Ramba”n [Nachmanides] on Genesis 1:1 states that the universe began as a single point of pure energy, having the power to form all matter. If one reads it without knowing it’s the Ramba”n, it sounds like a clear lay description of the Big Bang.

Elon Musk Can Sleep Easier

by Yaakov Menken on October 28, 2014 at 4:09 pm

Elon Musk, CEO of SpaceX and Tesla Motors, was quoted yesterday comparing artificial intelligence (AI) to “summoning the demon.” “I think we should be very careful about artificial intelligence. If I would guess at what our biggest existential threat is, it’s probably that… With artificial intelligence we are summoning the demon. You know all those stories where there’s the guy with the pentagram and the holy water and… he’s sure he can control the demon? Didn’t work out.” This is not a new sentiment for Musk, who called AI “more dangerous than nukes” earlier this summer.

Could AI truly be an “existential threat” – could computers, intended to help us, instead make us extinct? In theory, yes. Musk referred to HAL 9000, the sentient computer that murdered the crew in 2001: A Space Odyssey, as “a puppy dog” compared to what AI could produce. Colossus: The Forbin Project, the 1970 movie about two supercomputers that took over the world (and nuked a city when not obeyed), enslaving mankind for the “good” of mankind, seems more in line with his concerns.

If Musk has erred, it’s not because he has overestimated the power of consciousness. On the contrary, he sells it short, as the field of computer science has since its inception. If AI isn’t as scary as he imagines, it’s not because of what a sentient computer could do, but because it can only happen with a sentient computer.

Professor Alan Turing of Manchester University is often referred to as the “father of the modern computer” without much exaggeration. He and his peers changed our world – but they believed that the field of computer science would progress in a very different way. Whether or not anyone envisioned a global information network, enabling you to read this article on a handheld wireless device, they certainly believed that by the end of the last century, computers themselves would “awaken,” and add information on their own initiative. While the relevant field is usually called artificial intelligence, artificial consciousness is arguably more accurate; the intent was to produce a computer able to demonstrate creativity and innovation.

Turing needed an impartial way to determine if a computer was actually thinking. He proposed, in a 1950 paper, that if a teletype operator were unable to determine after five minutes that the party at the other end was a computer rather than another human being, then the computer would have passed the test. Turing proposed development of a program that would simulate the mind of a child, which would then be “subjected to an appropriate course of education” in order to produce an “adult” brain.

With all the phenomenal developments in the field of computer science, we are but marginally closer — if, indeed, we are closer at all — to developing a “child brain” than we were then. “Eugene Goostman,” recently declared to have passed the Turing Test during a competition at the University of Reading, was simply a chatbot programmed with evasive answers. It presented itself as a 13-year-old Ukrainian boy (who spoke English as a third language) not because it possessed the faculties of a young teenager, but to cover for its many errors and fool the assessors. Deceptive programming isn’t the intelligence Turing had in mind.

But “Goostman” was also in no way unique. Since 1990, inventor Hugh Loebner has underwritten an annual Turing contest at the Cambridge Center for Behavioral Studies in Massachusetts. And every year, all of the contestants are programs intended to fool the judges, and nothing more; the creativity or passion comes not from the silicon, but only from the programmers behind them.

As it turns out, Turing was preceded by over a millenium in determining his standard of human consciousness. The Rabbis of the Talmud stated the following, in Sanhedrin 65b:

Rava made a man. He sent him before Rebbe Zeira. [R. Zeira] spoke to it, but it did not answer. R. Zeira said, “are you from the scholars? Return to your dust!”

What the teacher Rava created was a Golem, an artificial humanoid that certain righteous individuals were purportedly able to create via spiritual powers. Much like a robot, it could obey commands and perform tasks – but it could not engage in conversation. The Maharsha explains why Rava’s Golem was unable to properly answer R. Zeira:

Because [Rava] could not create the power of the soul, which is speech. Because [the Golem] did not have a neshamah [soul], which is the spirit that ascends above, [but] only the life spirit which is also in animals, which descends below, [R. Zeira] said to it, “return to your dust.”

What this Talmudic passage and commentary tell us, then, is that creating an artificial consciousness isn’t nearly as simple as Turing imagined it to be. The Maharsha essentially tells us that intelligent speech is a manifestation of the soul invested in human beings — not something that programmers can simply drum up with several pages of well-written code. When Turing wrote that “presumably the child brain is something like a notebook … rather little mechanism, and lots of blank sheets” — he was making an assumption that, today, seems positively foolish.

Yet without any true progress towards development of artificial thought, many in the research community remain undeterred even today. Ray Kurzweil, now Director of Engineering at Google – and one of the great innovators and thinkers in computer science – predicts we’ll achieve this goal in 15 years, simply because technology progresses exponentially. An article in Princeton Alumni Weekly recently stated, regarding a prominent professor of psychology, that “if the brain is just a data-processing machine, then [Professor Michael] Graziano sees no reason we cannot create computers that are just as conscious as we are.”

That “if,” of course, is simply a restatement of Turing’s invalid assumption. Today’s supercomputers already process information more rapidly than we do, have larger memory banks, and of course have essentially perfect recall. Computers can see well enough to drive vehicles and hear and transcribe speech. But they cannot find meaning in what they see, nor respond as humans do to what they hear.

On the contrary, the failure to produce a semblance of a thinking computer should be causing a lot of second thoughts about the nature of human consciousness itself. We have proven that the brain is not simply a data-processing machine. When our most dedicated thinkers are unable to produce human thought, or even make substantive progress after decades of effort, are we perhaps not fools to imagine it developed by accident?

Come for Shabbos!

by Yaakov Menken on October 8, 2014 at 4:44 pm

One of the themes of the holiday of Sukkos is that we are all bound together. The Torah tells us to take four species: the Esrog, a citrus fruit with a pleasant taste and smell; the Lulav from a Date Palm which produces fruit but is not fragrant; Hadasim, myrtle branches which are aromatic but does not provide edible fruit; and aravos, from the willow, which has neither taste nor smell.

IMG_2693As we discussed last year, the fruit symbolizes the Torah inside a person, while the fragrance represents the Mitzvos, the deeds a person does which affect those around him or her. The four species represent those who have both Torah and good deeds, those who have one but not the other, and even those who have neither.

And what are we told to do? We bind them together! Every Jew is a unique and essential part of our nation.

Two weeks ago I mentioned The Shabbos Project, started in South Africa, in which members of their diverse Jewish community all celebrated one Sabbath together. And this year, they have taken it global, setting the Oct. 24-25 as the special Sabbath — right after Sukkos!

Would you like to join us? Here in Baltimore, a number of local organizations are working together to pair host families with Jewish individuals, couples and families which may never have taken part in a traditional Shabbos, much less attempted to do it themselves. Rather than try to make Shabbos “from scratch” that weekend, why not join us? We’re planning a special program with prayers, classes, and of course lots of delicious food and good company. Jewish men and women of all ages are invited!

If you’d like to join us, please send an email to office -at- torah.org and baltimore -at- theshabbosproject.com so that we can match you with a host family. And if you’re too far away to join us, please see http://www.theshabbosproject.org/our-partners/ to contact resources in a city closer to you!

Wishing you a wonderful holiday and of course a Good Shabbos!