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Last time we looked at a newsletter from Yeshivas Torah Moshe, featuring a Q&A with Rabbi Moshe Meiselman, he was talking about how Zionist shuls just talk non-stop during davenning and about how there is no reason to say a misheberach for the IDF. In the latest newsletter, Rabbi Meiselman makes an interesting theological claim about the human body. But first, a story.
I have an interesting scar on my abdomen. Many years ago, it was arranged that I would give a lecture at a certain shul in Los Angeles. A Syrian Jew who had signed up for the shiur pulled out a blade and knifed me in the stomach.
It was a good thing that he did so, because I was lying on his operating table at the time and he was saving my life. The previous day, I had been suffering from terrible pain. I was forced to cancel my lecture at the shul, and the Syrian, who had planned on hearing me speak, instead performed an emergency appendectomy on me.
Now let's get back to Rabbi Meiselman. After claiming that there is no legitimate scientific evidence for the universe being billions of years old, the next question posed to him was "According to the Torah, what is the point of the appendix and is it necessary?" Rabbi Meiselman replies as follows:
ANSWER: The biological world is vastly more complex than anyone realizes. Current scientific theory asserts that because humans evolved from other organisms, we have accumulated vestigial organs left over from non-human ancestors. Fifty years ago, it was thought that the spleen was such an organism. Splenectomies were done with casual ease. Now, we know that it has many important functions and is a major part of the immune system.
Hashem told Iyov, you can't even fathom the vast wisdom imbedded (sic) in the smallest creature. The Sifri in Haazinu says Hashem designed every aspect of the human body to function and achieve its purpose. There are no vestigial organs that evolved and got left inside us by accident. Everything is part of a total design.
Dovid Hamelech asked Hashem why he created spiders. Hashem gave him a simple example of how useful spiders are for Dovid Hamelech personally by having them weave a web in front the cave that Dovid was hiding in. When Shaul Hamelech’s men went searching for him, they saw the web woven around Dovid’s cave and figured it is useless searching it since the web made it obvious that no-one had been inside for a very long time.
The appendix performs a function in the body that we do not know. But we do know that Hashem made it part of the human body for a purpose.
An orangutan receiving an appendectomy
Rabbi Meiselman's response is deeply problematic. First is the misrepresentation of science. While decades ago there were scientists who considered various organs to be merely vestigial and therefore useless, few take that position today. The general view today is to be wary of pronouncing something to be vestigial. Furthermore, even if something is vestigial, this does not mean that it no longer has any use at all. It may still retain some of its original function or even have a new function. In the case of the appendix, it is thought to house beneficial bacteria and enhance immune functions.
But here's the thing. Yes, the appendix seems to have some minor benefits. On the other hand, it can also rupture and KILL you. After my own brush with death, I looked into it, and discovered to my shock that even nowadays, there are thousands of deaths annually from appendicitis that is not treated in time! And historically, the death rate must have been enormous.
The only reasons why doctors do not routinely remove everyone's appendix today are that (A) the surgery itself carries a certain degree of risk, and since appendectomies can be quickly done in the rare cases where they are needed, it is better not to do it unless there is call for it, and (B) the appendix may be useful for reconstructive surgery if other parts of the body fail. But if you lived in a time before modern surgery, and you had to choose between living your life with an appendix (and no possibility of it being removed) or living without one, it would be vastly better to choose living without one.
Whatever minor benefits the appendix has, these are certainly outweighed by the fact that it can kill you. Even today, people who go to live in the small research/military town of Villas Las Estrellas in Antarctica, where there is no easy way of reaching a hospital, have to get their appendix removed before they go.
The human body is an amazing thing. But it does not demonstrate that it was designed from scratch, with optimal design. Rather, it demonstrates that it developed from animals. That's why so many of us get lower back pain - because the spine was originally in a horizontal position. That's why we get goose bumps when we are cold or scared - because our animal ancestors had fur which would stand on end and keep them warm or make them look bigger to scare away predators. And that's why we have organs which have some benefits, but which can also go badly wrong and kill us.
There's no theological problem with any of that. As I discussed in The Challenge Of Creation, several 19th century theologians welcomed the theory of evolution, because it finally solved the problem of sub-optimal design. If God designed man from scratch, then these quirks are theologically problematic. But if God chose to develop man via a process of "creative wisdom" (to use Rav Samson Raphael Hirsch's description of evolution), via which He used laws of science to develop man from earlier forms, then these quirks are inevitable side-effects of the amazing creative process that was used.
The charedi community often professes great disdain for the fundamentals of modern science concerning the antiquity of the universe and biological evolution. On the other hand, with the exception of the anti-vaxxers, the charedi community usually professes great respect for modern medicine. The appendix - and in particular, the practical situation of going to Antarctica - is an interesting case where the two are inextricably linked. Would Rabbi Meiselman advise people in such a situation against having an appendectomy? If not, then it exposes the flaw in his worldview. Because if man was designed from scratch by the ultimate engineer, the advantages of an organ should outweigh its disadvantages.