Yes, most of us remember that classic movie with Fred Macmurray, or its remake with Robin Williams, both of whom played the role of a brilliant professor of chemistry who had a problem remembering simple things such as being on time for his own wedding. Today, however, I want to introduce you to a “Jewish” American tragedy by the name of James Tour, born near New York City in 1959 and currently a professor of synthetic organic chemistry specializing in nanotechnology, at Rice University. First, permit me to provide a bit of background about this brilliant man.
He was voted 1 of the top 50 most influential minds in the world. As an undergraduate he was briefly addicted to pornography. He was married at age 22 and went on to do postdoctoral work at Stanford U, become a visiting scholar at Harvard U., speak at every major college in the USA, author over 650 research publications, be voted by R and D Magazine as the “Scientist of the Year’, become a member of the National Academy of Inventors, and so on. The list of his achievements in the world of science is long and very impressive. So, why in the world am I writing this article about him in my webpage?
Recently, I happened to come upon a posting of his on the internet titled, “A Jewish Scientist Makes aJewish Discovery.” By the time I was halfway through the 7 minute 23 second clip, I came to realize that even the most brilliant of minds can come to surprising conclusions without objectively reaching them.
First, a note about his upbringing. The name “James” is the English form of the Late Latin name Iacomus which was derived from Ιακωβος (Iakobos), the New Testament Greek form of the Hebrew name Ya'akov. James (known as James the Just) is mentioned in the New Testament as being the brother of Jesus. No doubt, no one at the time called him “James” in place of Ya’akov.
Since the 13th century this name has been used in England, though it became more common in Scotland where it was given to several kings. In the 17th century the Scottish king James VI inherited the English throne, becoming the first ruler of all Britain, and the name grew much more popular. Famous bearers include the English explorer Captain James Cook (1728-1779), the Scottish inventor James Watt (1736-1819), and the Irish novelist and poet James Joyce (1882-1941). This name has also been borne by six American presidents. Of course, there is also the fictional British spy hero James Bond, created by author Ian Fleming.
How many Jews have borne this name? Is it a Jewish name in its non-Hebraic form? How many notable Jews bore this name? Well, there is James David Maslow, an American actor and singer. who played the role of James Diamond on Nickelodeon's Big Time Rush, James Callis, a British actor who starred in Battlestar Galactica (1970s), and the actor James Caan from The Godfather. I was unable to find distinguished Jews in other fields by the name of James and eventually concluded that if Jewish parents give that name to a son, they haven’t really been too committed to the Jewish world, yet alone fostered strong Jewish identities themselves. Bluntly put, JAMES is NOT a name for Jewish males and I strongly question “Jewish” parents who bestow that name on one of their offspring.
Sorry, I guess that I have strayed from the main point in my article which is how great minds can also go astray.
Now, back to that clip I saw on the internet. Seated in an armchair, James Tour begins his monologue thus: “What means the most to me is that I AM a Jew who believes that Jesus is the Messiah!” Then he proceeds to offer his audience a brief sketch of the events in his youth which led him to his present belief in, not a human, Jewish Messiah, but one who is also somehow divine.
“[While growing up] I had no particular interest in my Jewishness.” I wonder whether his parents shared his disinterest? “I attended a pre-Bar Mitzvah course which never really held any excitement for me.” So, a few weeks of preparing for his Bar Mitzvah seems to have been the extent of his Jewish education. He made no mention of ever having attended any type of Jewish day school. When he finally had a question relating to Judaism, “I once tried talkingto a rabbi and he just brushed me off!” Of course, Tour does not tell us the nature of the question (perhaps the rabbi was unqualified to answer it) nor the status of the rabbi—Orthodox, Conservative, or Reform. For a young inquiring mind, I fail to understand why he did not at least try to go to one other rabbi. We often go to other scientists and physicians for their differing opinions. So, one rabbi turned off this bright young boy from any further inquiry into Judaism.
When Tour began his freshman year in college, in addition to perusing porno magazine, he also came into contact with “born again Christians.” “I asked myself, what is ‘born again’?”“I’m not a sinner. I never killed anyone. I never robbed a bank.”
Then, one day, he opened the New Testament and read the line “for all have sinned. . . . but everyone who looks upon a woman with lustforher has already committed adultery in his heart.” (Jesus’ remedy, however, was not tshuvah but plucking out one’s own eye!) Tour then describes his epiphany: “Pow. I felt immediately convicted and now I realized I was a sinner.” and that “In modern [i.e. Reform] Judaism we never really talked about sin. I don’t ever remember talking about sin in my home.” Apparently, his parents, even if they had ever attended high holiday services, never took notice of the lines,
Our God, and the God of our ancestors, may our prayers come before you and withdraw not yourself from our supplications for we are not so shameless of face or hardened as to declare in your presence, O Eternal, our God and the God of our fathers, that we are righteous and have not sinned; for we have certainly sinned.
Of course, had James Tour ever opened an English language siddur, even on a semi-daily basis, he would have come across prayers such as,
My God, guard my tongue from evil and my lips from speaking falsehood.
May it be your will, Lord our God and God of our fathers, to make us familiar with your Torah, and to cause us to adhere to your precepts. LEAD US NOT INTO SIN, TRANSGRESSION, INIQUITY, TEMPTATION . . . LET NOT THE EVIL IMPULSE HAVE POWER OVER US . . . . MAKE US CLING TOTHE GOOD IMPULSES AND TO GOOD DEEDS . . . .
MY GOD, GUARD MY TONGUE FROM EVIL, AND MY LIPS FROM SPEAKING FALSEHOOD. May my soul be silent to those who insult me [written centuries before “Turn ye the other cheek also”]
MERCIFUL AND GRACIOUS GOD, I HAVE SINNED BEFORE YOU; O LORD, WHO IS FULL OF COMPASSION, HAVE MERCY ON ME AND ACCEPT MY SUPPLICATIONS. [Note, “supplications” NOT “sacrifices.”]
Finally, if James Tour needed a specific “Jewish list” of “ordinary” sins committed by normal people, he could have found them in our own prayer book with no need to be told by “gospels” written bygentiles centuries later. Please read below a comprehensive list of the weekday Jewish confession recited every weekday morning and afternoon, as well as on the YomimNaroim:
ASHAMNU: We have become desolate. We commit ourselves to recognizing that our failures are self-destructive.
BAGADNU: We have betrayed our potential, our families, God Himself. We can question who we have been in our multifaceted role as a human being and as a Jew? Who have we betrayed? Is it not ultimately ourselves as well as others?
GAZALNU: We have stolen. This includes not only financial theft, but theft of time, and misleading others into thinking that we are more accomplished than we actually are. This sin is especially damaging in that it reflects the fact that we have rejected the role in life that God has given us.
DEBARNU DOFI: We have spoken with "two mouths" – we have been hypocritical. We can confront our fear of rejection, and the dishonesty that we use to "cover ourselves." Who are we afraid of? Why? Should we not be more willing to tackle the reality that confronts us?
HEYVINU: We have made things crooked. This includes all forms of dishonest rationalizations. Our hunger for decency sometimes is satiable through false justifications. We must remember that even a murderer invariably justifies himself at the time he commits the crime. We must rise above the false self-pity that at times lets us slip into situational ethics.
VI'HIRSHANU: And we have made others wicked. We have forced others into destructive responses. An example of this is a parent who slaps the face of an older child, almost forcing him into loss of verbal (and possibly even physical) self-control.
ZADNU: We have sinned intentionally. The classical example is lying, in which case there is always full awareness of the factuality of the sin. How could we learn to bring God back into our consciousness when we are blinded by stress and fear?
CHAMASNU: We have been violent. This includes all forms of taking the law in one's own hands. Almost everyone has fallen into the trap of letting the ends justify the means.
TAFALNU SHEKER: We have become desensitized to dishonesty. Dishonesty feels "normal" to us. When we live in a time and place where lying is "normal," we can endeavor to envision our spiritual heroes in our shoes.
YATZNU RA: We have given bad advice. This often is the result of being ashamed to admit ignorance. One of the most beautiful aspects of taking counsel from the Torah sages is their refreshing ability to use the words "I don't know." Committing ourselves to re-introduce this phrase can be life-changing.
KIZAVNU: We have disappointed God, ourselves and others by not living up to our promises. We tell people that we can be counted upon, when we really mean that we can be counted upon if things work out. When they don't, it is important to ask one's self: Why is it that in situations where integrity and convenience can't coexist, it is always integrity that must be sacrificed?
LATZNU: We have been contemptuous. We have diminished the importance of people and values that deserve respect. We all know at least one person who makes himself/herself "big" by devaluing others. If that person is ourselves, then we must question the direction that our need for self-esteem takes us.
MARADNU: We have rebelled. We, in our bottomless insecurity, have found ourselves negatively proving ourselves endlessly both to God and to our fellow man. How many times this year could our lives been spiritually improved, if we didn't have to "teach" anyone a lesson?
NI'ATZNU: We have enraged people. We have purposely pushed other people's buttons. We have caused God's anger to be awakened by our self-destructive behavior. We've let our desire for human connection lead us to destructive interactions.
SARARNU: We have turned aside. We have confronted truth and looked the other way. We have chosen ease over morality.
AVINU: We fallen victim to our impulses. Would our lives be improved if we learned to not only ask ourselves the question "what" but the question "when"? The desire for instant gratification has financial, physical and emotional implications.
PASHANU: We have broken standards of behavior that we know to be right and then justified this because of our egotism. Have we not found ourselves justifying bad decisions with lie after lie? Have we not moved forward because to do so would mean tacitly admitting that our present level is not "perfect" enough to gratify our bottomless egos?
TZARARNU: We afflicted others. Even in situations where harsh words are demanded, whenever we go beyond what is called for, we are accountable for the pain suffered by every unnecessary word. While we may be just letting off steam, our victims may believe every word that we say. The result can be a tragic diminishment of their self-esteem.
KISHINU OREF: We have been stiff-necked. We have been stubborn and unwilling to redefine ourselves. No matter how wrong we are, we insist that we are right.
RISHANU: We have been wicked. This includes all forms of physical aggression or financial injustice (such as refusal to repay a loan). When Moses saw his fellow Jew striking another Jew, he called him “rasha.” He never used this phrase in any other context.
SHICHATNU: We have been immoral. This includes all forms of dehumanizing "hunting" members of the opposite sex, or the equally dehumanizing choice of becoming "prey." Do we question why we select a specific image to be the one that we use to let the world know who we are?
TA'INU: We have erred. This, of course, is not a reference to sins that we have done because we weren't aware of better options. This refers to the choice to remain ignorant out of fear or laziness that inevitably leads to making further mistakes. This is a good time to make a solid, defined resolution to learn more. Let it replace the vague realization that time is slipping by.
TITANU: We have misled others. We have spread our ignorant assumptions and thereby victimized others.
No, Dr. Tour, aside from the fact that Jesus was not the Jewish Messiah, you had no need to look elsewhere if you wondered about the nature of sin and how we are all to some extent guilty. Judaism, if you had really studied and lived it, would have provided you with the answers to your questions.Your parents, like so many others in America, failed you, and you failed to apply your scientific objectivity to first exploring the faith into which you were born before going astray. Remember, the God of the Jews (and of mankind) is our Father, not only our King, and WE, all of us, are His Sons (and Daughters).