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Archive for the ‘Spirituality’ Category
Who could look at the stars and yawn? Certainly not astronomer Carl Sagan. Sagan, a serious scientist, popularized a journey though the universe just over a third of a century ago with his award winning TV series, Cosmos. To impress upon his viewers how many stars existed, Sagan would enthusiastically assert that there were “billions and billions” of them, stressing and drawing out the first syllable each time.
As he acknowledged at the outset, however, the “size and age of the Cosmos are beyond ordinary human understanding.” So, to try to make such an enormous quantity understandable, he said that “the total number of stars in the universe is larger than all the grains of sand on all the beaches of the planet Earth.” (Watch here; see also, Sagan, Cosmos (Random House 1980) at 4, 196.) It was a wonderful reference.
We may sense that there are a lot of stars in the sky, but with the naked eye it is hard to pinpoint and count them, even or maybe especially on a clear night. Sand is somewhat different. We can take a fistful of it at a beach, survey the area, think about the coast lines of the various continents, and then factor in countless interior beaches. Sagan says that our hand will hold about 10,000 grains of sand. (Cosmos, at 196.) Without help, we may not be able to do the math or know the result of the equation, but we can understand that the beaches hold an enormous number of grains of sand.
What Sagan did not say is that his two subjects, stars and sand, were invoked long ago in the Hebrew Bible as metaphors for abundance. They appear first in the book of Genesis, each separately and once together. read more
Religion is not a maladaptive “illusion” (Freud), nor is religion a manipulative “opiate” (Marx). Religious behavior is a ubiquitous biological adaptation rooted in Homo Sapiens, because religion like intelligence and language helps human communities survive. Religion, like intelligence and language, can be used for both good and evil purposes, but this is also true of culture, science, politics and all other important human activities. Since almost all revealed religions teach that humans have a pre-birth soul that predisposes them to respond to a Divine call even before the revelation occurs, I identify the existence of a biologically based, self-conscious spiritual soul with the evolution of Homo Sapiens spirituality.
A reference to a prescriptural, prehistoric period when spiritual evolution was unaided by God appears in the book of Genesis (4:26) where it states, “At that time humans began to invoke YHVH by name.” Most of the rabbinic commentators translate the verb hukhal to mean ‘profane’ taking this as a negative statement. But ‘began’ is the more normal meaning of the verb. The Torah asserts that prior to Enosh humans did not practice religion based on the divine insight of revelation (i.e., “invoke YHVH by name”) that they were able to do later. Mystical and spiritual experiences were interpreted by human intelligence without the benefit of prophetic revelation. In the spirit of this Torah insight I offer the following account of the evolution of pre-historic human spirituality. read more
It was in 1953, or so. The exact date is lost to memory. The pub was somewhere just north of Columbia University. Albert Einstein, perhaps the greatest physicist of the century, picked the place in part because he was visiting an old friend at Columbia, as he was traveling from Princeton to his summer home on Long Island. Not coincidentally, for he did not believe in coincidences, it was also not too far from the Jewish Theological Seminary.
Einstein wanted to meet JTS luminaries Mordecai Kaplan and Abraham Joshua Heschel, and had heard that the bar had a booth in the back that was conducive to conversation. He was interested in Kaplan because he had heard of Kaplan’s attempts to create a Jewish theology without supernaturalism. The idea of a naturalist philosophy, or trans-naturalist as Kaplan sometimes called it, appealed to Einstein. Anyone whose prayer book was radical enough to get burned, by Jews no less, was a bonus for the seventy plus year old, but ever rebellious, Einstein.
Heschel was a different matter. A dozen or so years earlier, Heschel had been severely critical of Einstein because he thought Einstein had dismissed the God from heaven. Einstein was aware of the criticism, but had also heard Heschel described by some as a pantheist and by others as a panentheist. Einstein’s theology, such as it was, fell in there someplace, too, usually. It made no real difference to Einstein. All agreed that Heschel had a mystical bent. That approach made no sense at all to Einstein, but to some degree that was one of the points of the whole pub exercise. He was there for a variation on one of his thought experiments. Except this time he was interested not so much in experimenting (though the idea of having a German Jew, a Polish Jew and a Litvak at the same table was intriguing). He was just enjoying thinking about thinking. read more
The psalmist and the skeptic and the prophet and the professor look at the universe in which we find ourselves, see the same stars, feel the warmth of the same sun, hear thunder pealing from the same sky, understand the processes by which nature unfolds in spring, retreats in fall only to regenerate again the following year, and yet often draw different conclusions from the same observable data. So, for instance, in response to the emergence of humankind, a non-theist might merely record the evolutionary data or might, like cell biologist Ursula Goodenough, marvel at the improbability, the mystery, and the grandeur of our existence. (See, e.g., The Sacred Depths of Nature (Oxford University Press 2000).) The traditional Jewish believer, by contrast, might offer a prayer to the Supreme Being: Blessed are You, sovereign of the universe, who has fashioned us from the dust of the Earth in Your image and breathed our soul into us.
Is there another way, a way to attempt to understand one’s place in the cosmos that is consistent with current scientific knowledge, and yet recognizes the miracle of our presence without dependence on some supernatural being? Is there an approach to the cosmos which might be attractive to many, perhaps most, American Jews who do not believe in the traditional personal God who dominates the Torah, but nevertheless accept the existence of (and may even yearn for) some extraordinary power, force or spirit which pervades all that is? (See Post March 14, 2012) And, if so, is that path kosher? read more