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Bumpy Lemons
by Dr. Arnie Gotfryd

"It isn't a question of logical proof since the facts, the actual events and occurrences, relay a clear and undeniable testimony." - The Rebbe, Mind Over Matter, Ch.1

 
 
I just bought a brand new, bright yellow Citron and it cost me a fortune. It handles really well and it makes a great impression. It's pretty simple to operate if you know how to clutch, and it comes with built-in fragrance so you don't even need to dangle those lemon air fresheners.
 
Market analysts say it's only a fad and they've got no resale value at all. They may be right, but I don't care because for now, me and all my friends just have to get one. It's the thing to do. Some claim they can find the same quality for less, but I know better  - Those cheap knockoffs are all lemons.
 
Surprise, it's not a Citroen that I acquired; it's really a Citron - a Diamante Citron to be precise. The Citron (officially Citrus medica) is a unique species, resembling a bumpy lemon, which Jews have been using for over 3,300 years in celebration of the Festival of Sukkot (aka Sukkos, or Tabernacles).
 
So why is it that this week, Jews the world over are ready to pay anywhere from forty to eighteen hundred dollars for a piddly citrus fruit that won't be worth a quarter once the holiday is over? The simple answer is - It's a mitzva! But there's another aspect to this I want to focus on.
 
The Torah, in specifying the four species that we wave on Sukkos, uses unequivocal terms for the myrtle, willow, and date palm, but when it comes to the Citron (aka esrog or etrog) the Torah simply refers to it as "pri etz hadar - the fruit of a beautiful tree."
 
Now that seems pretty open-ended. Frankly, I like fig trees; I think they are much more beautiful than esrog trees. Somebody else may like cherry trees, and yet another will favor the mango. Who's to say what is beautiful? But wherever and whenever Jews have taken a pri etz hadar to fulfill this tradition, it's always been an esrog, and failing that, nothing.
 
So much for the broken telephone claim, i.e., that the oral tradition gets blurred over the centuries so there are all kinds of variations in how to do the mitzvos. No blur here; those Jews know exactly what they want and even exactly where to get it. The Lubavitchers, for example, favor esrogim from Calabria, known as yanovers, because on tradition, that Italian island is where Moses got his esrog.
 
The Lubavitcher Rebbe was so committed to excellence in every detail of this mitzva that he literally risked his life to travel hundreds of miles from Nazi-occupied France to Italy and back, just to have the extra spiritual value of an esrog from Calabria with which to celebrate Sukkos.
 
But what if somebody made a mistake along the line and the "fruit of a beautiful tree" wasn't really an esrog? How would we know the difference? True, the tradition is precise, but is it accurate? Precision means we are all on the same page; accuracy means it's also the right page.
 
I'm really sensitive to this issue because my post-graduate research in applied ecology was largely about precision and accuracy.
 
I was studying the plants and animals of urban forests and in order to understand what creatures lived where, and why, I had to measure all kinds of things about the vegetation - for example, the height of the trees. I hired four field assistants, trained them identically using standard instruments, paid them well, and sent them out to study the woods. My problem arose when I noticed that I could tell whose data was whose just by looking at the numbers. How was I supposed to combine data from different observers if their numbers were so subjectively biased that I could recognize who did what measurement just by looking at the variability and size of the numbers?
 
I made the rounds of statisticians and ecologists looking for advice as to how to quantify observer bias so I could determine how reliable my conclusions were, based on this data. Nobody seemed to know. Some said, "Don't worry, observer errors just cancel out." Others said, "It's too small an effect to worry about." A few said, "Hey, I've got the same problem but I'm just ignoring it because I don't know what to do."
 
I wasn't satisfied so I devised an experiment to measure observer bias and determine how much it could influence scientific results and conclusions without anyone realizing it. The results were astounding. Based on my findings, many hundreds of ecologists using the same field methods I had used were deluding themselves as to the scientific significance of their results when all the while, their numbers were somewhat arbitrary. In one academic paper I wrote that we had to take observer bias into consideration because otherwise we were trying to "split hairs with a dull axe." Once published, this research drew a lot of attention, overwhelmingly positive, from ecologists worldwide.
 
What made me nervous about all this, however, was the initial reaction of the scientific community: A deafening silence. In fact, my subjectivity research was literally blackballed for years and this was done in the most curious fashion. While every other paper submitted (by me or anyone else) would get many comments from a variety of reviewers, my subjectivity work was repeatedly rejected without a single word of comment or explanation from any reviewers whatsoever. The problem was that the reviewing scientists could not endorse my work without condemning their own, and they could not condemn my work without finding fault in my methods. Because the methods were very sound, they felt threatened, so that left me with no reviewers and no publication for far too long.
 
That also left me with a big question: If scientists can be blind to their own subjectivity, what about theologians? All the major religions are claiming Truth with a capital "T", but who has it really? I realized that if there was a G-d, He'd have to be One, not three, so I ruled out one religion. Once I read the inconsistencies and distortions of another text, I realized a second religion couldn't be right. So that left Judaism.
 
I decided to look at things scientifically. You're observing Sukkot? Why an Esrog? You've got a verse about a beautiful tree? Why this tree? Your rabbi told you? Your father told you? His father and his rabbi told him? Whoever has a tradition has this one? It goes all the way back? To where? To Sinai? What verification do we have of that? Millions of people experiencing Divine revelation? Lots of arguments but none about this? No alternative traditions from then until now? 
 
No wonder those Jews are so obsessive about the details! Who wouldn't be, knowing that the Creator of heaven and earth and you and me has deemed it significant?
 
Bring on those bumpy lemons. They make perfect sense to me. And who says that $1800 is a lot to pay for a Citroen?

 

 


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