Shmuel Greene, the director of teen initiatives at The Partnership for Jewish Learning and Life in Whippany, has taken his late father’s mantra to heart in his work educating teens.
“My father always said, ‘It’s okay to choose to be an atheist, but not an ignoramus.’”
His father, Dr. Velvl Greene, was neither an atheist nor an ignoramus. The former chair of epidemiology and public health at Ben-Gurion University in Israel, the elder Greene joined NASA’s Planetary Quarantine Division in 1960, where his projects included the search for life on Mars.
Raised in a Yiddishist-socialist-Zionist but largely secular home, he later became a follower of the Chabad-Lubavitch movement and maintained a long religious and scientific dialogue with its rebbe, the late Menachem Mendel Schneerson. On the morning before he died in 2011 at age 83, Dr. Greene had finished translating their correspondence from Yiddish into Hebrew.
“My father, at his core, had curiosity and a desire for truth,” said his son, and that was true whether he was pursuing a scientific question or a religious one.
That curiosity is reflected in a new book of posthumously published writings by Velvl Greene assembled by Shmuel and his brother, Rabbi David Greene, who is himself a medical translator at the Mayo Clinic in Rochester, Minn.
The new volume, Curiosity and the Desire for Truth: The Spiritual Journey of a NASA Scientist (Arthur Kurzweil, 2015), is a collection of thoughts Velvl Greene wrote at the request of Schneerson, reflecting on divine providence in everyday events. The writings also reflect his spiritual journey from liberal Judaism to Orthodoxy.
Velvl’s voice in the volume is irreverent but respectful. He discusses the distinct dress of hasidic movements like Chabad, which neither he nor Shmuel adopted, and provides Schneerson’s response to Chabad followers “who say that a Jew should not be working in the Space Biology program because it goes contrary to Torah.”
He also writes of his first meeting with Schneerson at Chabad headquarters in Brooklyn, when the scientist wore an old, faded, strangely colored hat. Schneerson offered him a yarmulke instead, saying, “I can’t say a serious thing to you while you’re wearing that hat.” Velvl’s conclusion? “Number one: Don’t make an ass of yourself. Number two: If you have to deal with an ass, be nice to him.”
Shmuel, whose agency is the identity-building organization of the Jewish Federation of Greater MetroWest NJ, lives in Highland Park with his wife, Esther. David and his wife, Chanie, live in Rochester, Minn. Both brothers have five children. Shmuel is also part of the Mekor Chaim/Steinsaltz Ambassadors program that started in Highland Park in 2005 with the goal of bringing Rabbi Adin Steinsaltz’s teaching to students across the country.
Shmuel and his brother did not shy away from including passages from their father that might offend non-Jews and especially non-Orthodox Jews, who at one point he refers to as “reckless innovators.”
“There’s no doubt about it, he’s opinionated,” said Shmuel, who pointed out that his father was an equal opportunity critic. That extended to Chabad, and what he felt was the movement’s indifference to secular studies. “How can you understand the Bible if you never read Shakespeare? If you don’t know the language and its subtleties, how can you know this is really good literature?” said Shmuel, echoing his father’s perspective.
He added that his father felt “there is way too much abdication of power to rabbis” across the board.