Science, Faith, and the Microbiologist Who Became the Patriarch of a Family of Committed Hasidim

My encounters with the life and legacy of Velvl Greene.

Velvl Greene, left, with Rabbi Menachem Mendel Schneerson.

Velvl Greene, left, with Rabbi Menachem Mendel Schneerson.

Feb. 28 2018
About the author

Alan Rubenstein, director of university programs at the Tikvah Fund, teaches a great-books seminar, “Windows on the Good Life,” at Carleton College in Northfield, Minnesota.

During the coldest months of the year, I co-teach a course on the Hebrew Bible at Carleton College in Northfield, Minnesota. This year we’re reading the book of Exodus and grappling with the encounter between Moses and God at the burning bush, which (in Robert Alter’s translation) opens like this:

And Moses was herding the flock of Jethro his father-in-law, priest of Midian, and he drove the flock into the wilderness and came to the mountain of God, to Horeb. And the Lord’s messenger appeared to him in a flame of fire from the midst of the bush, and he saw, and look, the bush was burning with fire and the bush was not consumed. And Moses thought, “Let me, pray, turn aside that I may see this great sight, why the bush does not burn up.” And the Lord saw that he had turned aside to see, and God called to him from the midst of the bush and said, “Moses, Moses.”

This moment of divine revelation is markedly different from any of the earlier ones in Genesis. Unlike with Adam, Noah, and the patriarchs, God seems to test Moses before engaging him in conversation. Earlier episodes have shown Moses to be a man of courage and spiritedness. Now, God will see if he also possesses curiosity: the drive to investigate, to know, and to understand.

Moses passes the test: “The Lord saw that he had turned aside to see, and God called to him.”

This passage has long been mysterious to me. Why is God concerned with this particular aspect of Moses’ character? How if at all does it relate to the mission of leading and instructing the Israelites for which he has been chosen? And does the Bible generally endorse the human drive to investigate nature?

As it happens, these questions are also pertinent to the life and work of the late Velvl Greene, a microbiologist and pioneer in the field of environmental epidemiology in whom I’ve become deeply interested. At the time of his death in 2012, Greene was serving as director of the Lord Jakobovits Center for Jewish Medical Ethics at Ben-Gurion University in Israel. But he’d spent most of his career at the University of Minnesota, and he also had the distinction of working for NASA’s Planetary Quarantine Program, focusing, in part, on whether apparent signs of life from outer space weren’t actually just earthly bacteria contaminating the equipment.

I might never have known about Greene but for my good fortune in befriending his son, Rabbi David Greene, the Chabad sh’liaḥ (emissary) serving in Rochester, Minnesota, just a short jaunt down Highway 52 from Northfield. The younger Greene found me in the typical Chabad way—by hearing of a Jewish person living in a place without a large Jewish community and, with the warmth of a long-lost relative, reaching out. Ever since, over scotch and pickled herring, we’ve been studying Jewish texts together.

From our first meeting, Rabbi Greene started sharing stories about his father: a professor and scientist with an entirely secular upbringing who’d become the patriarch of a family of committed Lubavitch Ḥasidim. In response to my interest, he gave me an early manuscript of a book later to be published as Curiosity and the Desire for Truth: The Spiritual Journey of a NASA Scientist.

Assembled and edited posthumously by the younger Greene and his siblings, the volume comprises brief passages intended to form the basis of a never-completed memoir. Thus the reader finds autobiographical fragments interspersed with observations about natural phenomena and more abstract reflections on the topic of science and religion. Thanks to the elder Greene’s considerable talent as a storyteller, the book is a pleasure to read, a pleasure only enhanced by its fragmentary nature.


From the book one can piece together Velvl Greene’s own story. He was born in Winnipeg in 1928 to decidedly anti-religious immigrant parents from Ukraine who were Yiddish-speaking Zionists and socialists. Young William, as he then was, attended the I.L. Peretz Folk School, where he would memorize the Hebrew poetry of Ḥayyim Naḥman Bialik but not learn that Jews traditionally pray three times a day. When, as a teenager, he and other members of his socialist Zionist youth movement felt the need to express their solidarity with the Jews of Warsaw suffering under the Nazis, he changed his legal name to “Velvl,” the Yiddish name that he had inherited from his grandfather.

Greene went on to earn his PhD at the University of Minnesota and, after a brief stint in Louisiana, returned to the university as a faculty member and remained there until 1983, when the family moved to Israel. It was early on in his tenure that he had a momentous meeting with Rabbi Moshe Feller, who had recently come to the Twin Cities as an emissary of Chabad—one of the first dispatched by Rabbi Menachem Mendel Schneerson (known among his followers as well as by others as simply “the rebbe”). Noticing a report in the local Jewish paper about a prominent university scientist known by the name “Velvl,” Feller immediately thought he’d chanced upon a prime candidate for Chabad’s distinctive mode of outreach.

The meeting between two became a fixture of Chabad lore. (An animated version was later produced for the instruction of budding sh’liḥim everywhere.) Greene invited Feller to his office for a brief get-together. In the midst of their conversation, the rabbi excused himself to recite the afternoon prayers, leaving Greene to watch in embarrassed silence as his guest swayed and murmured in front of him. As often happens in such situations, embarrassment gave way to irritation. “The interview is over, you’ve insulted me,” Greene said when the rabbi finished his devotions—to which Feller responded, with perfect composure: “What I came for was very, very important, but what I had to do now was even more important.”

Greene later described the effect on him of these words:

If you want to know what changed [for me], if you want to talk about the word epiphany—that happened there. Now I know he was davening minḥah, the afternoon prayer, and he had to do it before the sun went down. . . . Now that is dedication, and that impressed me.

At the time, Greene recounts in Curiosity and the Desire for Truth, he and his wife Gail were part of a Jewish book group that had recently discussed the Yiddish writer Sholem Asch’s historical novel Kiddush Hashem (“Martyrdom”), set during the Khmelnitsky massacres of the mid-17th century. The group had marveled at the idea that anyone would be willing to die rather than compromise his devotion to God. Were there any such Jews left? After his meeting with Feller, Greene recalls, he telephoned Gail and told her, “We got one.”

But the story of how Rabbi Feller netted his catch is not the only reason Professor Velvl Greene is a fixture of Chabad lore. Greene wasn’t merely a man of high standing in the secular world; he was a man of science—distinguished in the area of human knowing that commands the highest authority in Western culture. Could a credible scientist really become an “ultra-Orthodox,” ḥasidic Jew? In the person of this catch, Chabad might gain an ambassador for its outreach efforts with the power to influence and inspire many others.

And this indeed happened, thanks in part to the intervention of the rebbe himself who, envisioning just such a role for Greene, engaged him in an unusually lengthy and elaborate correspondence. In these letters, excerpts of which are included in the book, the rebbe combines personal encouragement for Greene’s journey into religious observance with marching orders for his new mission. For years, Greene gave talks to Jewish audiences, often at Chabad houses on college campuses, in which he argued for the compatibility of science and Orthodox Judaism. What he said on such occasions was matched in importance by what he was—living, breathing testimony to such compatibility.


In any group of college students, there may well be a few who, having started out convinced that science and religion are at eternal loggerheads, will be brought to a new open-mindedness after listening to an accomplished scientist talk about his faith. But the fact of Greene’s faith hardly amounts to a philosophical or theological argument. Faced, for instance, with the stubborn question of the age of the world, which, according to extensive scientific evidence, is to be measured in millions of years, whose mind is likely to be changed in favor of the Torah’s account of creation merely by encountering a scientist who has somehow made his personal peace with this patently unbridgeable discrepancy?

Or, to come at the same question from another angle, what if Greene’s admiration for those Jewish martyrs in 17th-century Poland amounted to nothing more than what the philosopher Leo Strauss, in a similar context, would call a “heroic delusion”? An average Jew on the street might make do with a delusion of this sort—but would or could a scientist, committed to uncovering the truth regardless of consequence?

And, from still another angle, what about that encounter between God and Moses at the burning bush: can one really maintain that the Bible encourages curiosity about nature if that curiosity leads to discoveries that undermine simple faith?

In exploring these questions, let’s focus on the exchange between Greene and the rebbe on the subject of evolution: the most famous source of the modern tension between science and biblical religion. Greene refers to the exchange in the book, but the original correspondence, which the younger Greene was kind enough to show me, is far more revealing.

The occasion was a well-known letter to a different correspondent in which the rebbe had denied that the evolutionary account of the world’s origins could be accepted with certainty over the account in Genesis. Finding this unacceptable, Greene wrote to Schneerson:

My secular background and my scientific training prevent my immediate and unquestioning acceptance of many of your concepts, for example some of those you have outlined in your famous letter on evolution.

Greene quickly went on, however, to stipulate his complete agreement “that acceptance or non-acceptance of those concepts in no way modifies my obligation to perform [the commandments].”

In his reply, the rebbe declined to accept the terms—science versus religious belief—in which Greene had formulated the issue:

My said letter does not appeal to “belief”; its premises are scientific based on my years of scientific study, first at the University of Berlin and later in Paris. I upheld the permissibility of the Creation account in [Genesis] on scientific grounds. [By contrast,] I pointed out that the so-called scientific arguments which purport to deny the possibility of the Torah account of Creation are not scientific, since in truth science does not, and cannot, make such a claim.

Aside from Schneerson’s appeal to his personal authority—I’m also a scientist, he in effect says, so my thoughts about this issue should be scientifically credible—what is most striking here is his use of the word “permissibility.” What it suggests is that a refutation of evolution is unnecessary; in order to rescue faith from the claims of evolutionary biology, it suffices to demonstrate that science hasn’t entirely and conclusively disproved the biblical creation narrative. The rest is up to the believer. To paraphrase Strauss again: the person of faith accepts—even embraces—the fact that his belief is unaffected by the absence of conclusive proof. It is the volitional aspect of faith that commends it. If faith in God were as easy as believing that 2 + 2 = 4, faith would be entirely unremarkable.

This is fine, as far as it goes. But it still leaves the believer in a position of holding on to “permissible” but highly implausible beliefs in order to keep faith intact. Oliver Wendell Holmes, Jr. once wrote of William James that his eagerness to believe in spiritual forces led him to “turn down the lights to give miracles a chance.” Is this the best we can do? And is it really superior to Greene’s suggestion that the discrepancy between the evolutionary account and the biblical account must be set aside from the issue of observance—or, as many modern theologians (and some scientists) assert, that the two accounts are two different ways of telling the same story?



In the end, however, both Greene and the rebbe advance a more promising argument for scientific humility. That is, they agree that scientists should not extrapolate from their expertise on the operations of nature to claim expertise on questions of meaning and the best human life. To look to science as an authority on the latter issues is unwittingly to accept a new kind of orthodoxy, with its own priestly caste of experts whose recondite knowledge must overrule the supposedly uninformed judgments both of ordinary mortals and of long-revered sources of moral wisdom. To this new orthodoxy, some critics have given the name of scientism, thereby distinguishing it from science itself.

Greene catches a whiff of such scientism in some commonly heard justifications for abandoning Jewish practice. In one passage he writes:

Perhaps Darwin and Pasteur and Mendel really induced my grandparents to renounce the commandments or the Torah. . . . It’s hard to tell if this is really true. . . . We can always find good, socially acceptable reasons to surrender to our natural appetites. . . . But it really demeans science to use it for this purpose. If you want to eat shrimp, by all means—[I wish you a] good appetite! But don’t justify the demands of your gut or your glands by invoking [either] science or the Holocaust. That’s vulgar.

Comments like this show Greene at both his best and his worst. On the one hand, he is offering a deserved rebuke to those who would authorize scientific know-how to dictate the conduct of human life. But, on the other hand, he is positing only two alternatives: crass hedonism and Orthodox Judaism. What about, for instance, the legacy of humanism—i.e., texts and tales of heroic human virtue that, in stirring the soul, appeal neither to revelation from Sinai nor to the cravings of the gut?

In that regard, some of Greene’s meditations offer a better way of thinking about these matters. In addition to anecdotes about his path to religious observance and reflections on the authority of science, Curiosity and the Desire for Truth contains many beautiful sermons expressing his own sense of simple wonder at phenomena that his scientific training in particular has allowed him to see more clearly than do most of us.

Indeed, one might posit that Judaism helped spark Greene’s poetic imagination, perhaps contributing at least as much as his scientific credentials to his influence as a speaker on behalf of Judaism. A prime example of his scientific-poetic meditations is this reflection on birth:

I’ve often marveled at the basic miracle of birth. Every one of us, in our mother’s womb, was a real aquatic creature before we were born. We were surrounded by water; . . . our lungs were folded up like a fan, not in use but getting ready. . . . When the child is born, no matter how long the mother labors, “birth” is practically instantaneous. Once the child’s head emerges, it must take its first breath; it’s now a land creature, not an aquatic one. . . . How does it happen? A most amazing chemical miracle takes place, starting during the labor of the mother.

Elsewhere, he adds: “Miraculously, these things take place routinely every minute of every day. . . . If we knew what goes on in our own very lives, if we knew what goes on with the birth of a baby, we would get on our knees and thank God forever.”

This is non-reductive science in action: science that knows and relishes the fact that the more we learn about how things work, the greater our cause for wonder: a fact suggesting in turn that, for him, not only did religious belief deepen his appreciation of scientific discoveries, but the reverse was also true.

And with this in mind I come back to Exodus and to the bush that burns without burning up. I see that fire as the fire of curiosity and wonder; the bush cannot be consumed by it because the source of that wonder is inexhaustible.

As my teacher Leon Kass and others have argued, science at its best is not merely an effort to “solve problems,” that is, to swap our sense of wonder for greater control of nature. The human drive to know, which, by increasing the intensity of curiosity’s flame, gives to science its soul, is concerned with something else. Once we did not know about cells or hormones or black holes—or the age of the world. Now that we do, we have new horizons of nature to marvel at, and also to be grateful for.

Moses is one of very few figures whom the Bible portrays as exhibiting this sort of curiosity. Exodus 33 also informs us that he had the unique privilege of speaking to God “face to face, as one speaks to a friend.” A leader on his way to becoming a prophet like no other must possess an innate drive to know, without which one would never come to understand the inexhaustible wonder of God’s creation.

More about: Arts & Culture, History & Ideas, Religion & Holidays, Science and Religion