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When Judaism Meets Science

 

“a rare masterpiece”
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– Rabbi Richard Address, Jewish Sacred Aging

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– Ronald W. Pies, MD

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Archive for the ‘Faith’ Category

The Intriguing, Seductive and Ultimately Unsatisfying Anthropic Principle

Friday, May 30, 2014 @ 11:05 AM
posted by Roger Price

Magnetic Milky Way

Credit: ESA and the Plank Collaboration

Some believers in a traditional deity deny, or at least are skeptical about, certain claims of science. The issue may be the origin of the universe in a Big Bang, the age of the universe, the nature of the evolution of life on Earth or some other proposition.  In these instances, the believers see science as inconsistent with, even in opposition to, a sacred truth revealed in some literature such as the Torah, the Christian Bible or the Qur’an, and therefore should be rejected.

On other occasions, though, believers will embrace science. They will hear that the initial conditions of the universe, certain laws of nature or the location and chemistry of our planet are set within a limited range that allows for human existence — a proposition sometimes called the Anthropic Principle (i.e., relating to humankind) — and take those conditions and characteristics as proof of a personal god. They will understand a “fine-tuned” universe as demonstrating, or at least strongly implying, the existence of a Fine-Tuner, a Devine Designer. read more

The Coyne Wars Reach Einstein

Sunday, March 9, 2014 @ 10:03 AM
posted by Roger Price

Q: What do Jonathan Sacks, Ross Douthat and Albert Einstein have in common?

A:  Let’s see. The first is the former Chief Rabbi of the United Hebrew Congregations of the British Commonwealth, the second is a New York Times based columnist who writes frequently    about religion, and the third was the pre-eminent physicist of the twentieth century, responsible for teaching us how light can bend, time can slow, and mass and energy can convert into each other.

Oh, I know. In recent months, Jerry Coyne, biology professor at the University of Chicago, and author of the excellent book Why Evolution is True, has written critically of each.

In the cases of Sacks and Douthat, Coyne was responding to an essay. Rabbi Sacks’ piece appeared in The Spectator under the title “Chief Rabbi: atheism has failed. Only religion can defeat the new barbarians.” In it, Rabbi Sacks railed against two forces he saw as detrimental to an enduring, moral society: first, the idolatry of “the market, the liberal democratic state and consumer society,” aided and abetted by tone deaf, humorless secularists, the “new atheists,” and, second, a religious fundamentalism which combines into a toxic brew “the hatred of the other, the pursuit of power and contempt for human rights.” read more

JEWISH SOCIOLOGY: PEW’S IMPRECISE AND MISLEADING CONSTRUCT OF “JEWS OF NO RELIGION”

Monday, November 25, 2013 @ 04:11 PM
posted by Roger Price

Credit: Pew Research Center

Of the many interesting aspects of the recently released survey of Jewish Americans by the Pew Research Center (the “Pew Portrait”), perhaps none is more troubling than the distorted bisection  of American Jews into two primary sub-groups, one labeled “Jews by religion” and the other “Jews of no religion.” Once those designations were established, Pew, among other things, then sought to determine whether members of the two sub-groups had different attitudes or characteristics, whether, for instance, a person assigned to one sub-group was more likely or less likely to believe or behave differently than a person assigned to the other.

How large is the group of “Jews of no religion?” Pew found that about one fifth of adult American Jews (totaling approximately 1.2 million individuals) were Jews of “no religion” and that among Jews born after 1980 (“Jewish Millennials”) the fraction increases to one in every three. (See Portrait, at 7, 23, 32/214.) Pew’s survey director reportedly said that the rise in the number of Jews “of no religion” was the most significant finding of the study.

Just as one might expect, as soon as the Pew Portrait was published, the commentary class waxed wise on Pew’s findings about the Jews of no religion. Much of the concern expressed was about related findings that Jews of no religion were less connected to the Jewish community, less likely to be involved in Jewish organizations and less likely to raise their children as Jewish. (See Portrait, 60-62, 67-69/214.)

In all the hubbub, an important fact seems to have been overlooked: not only is the label “Jews of no religion” awkward, nowhere in the more than two hundred pages of the Pew Portrait does Pew precisely define what it means by “religion.” Pew’s failure to do so has created unnecessary ambiguity and confusion and muddled its survey results. At one point Pew says that Jews of no religion are “also commonly called secular or cultural Jews.” (See Portrait, at 8/214.) But those characterizations were not offered as primary choices in Pew’s survey questionnaire.  (See Portrait, at 177, 186/214.) A look at the survey, beyond the executive summary, reveals some of the problems of Pew’s binary construct which is, perhaps, more provocative than probative. read more

Science and Judaism: One Rabbi’s Personal Theology

Tuesday, October 29, 2013 @ 04:10 PM
posted by Rabbi George B. Driesen

A few years ago on a Shabbat evening at Adat Shalom Reconstructionist Congregation in Bethesda, Maryland an almost surely unprecedented event occurred. Through the magic of the Hubble Telescope, the internet, and the digital projector, congregants were able to see large images of the vast, exploding universe in which we are all suspended. As the images were paraded one by one before the amazed eyes of the congregants, Steve Brody, an Institute for Science and Judaism Board member and astrophysicist, identified and explained them. Some were familiar; most were not.

There were galaxies, clusters of galaxies, clouds of interstellar gas in which stars are being created, dying stars, and the remains of a supernova. While Steve explained the scientific significance of these denizens of space, a rabbi declaimed passages from the Tanach, our Hebrew Bible. In apposition to a photograph of the Milky Way in which the profusion of stars that comprise it appeared in all their glory, the rabbi quoted God’s promise to Abraham:

      [God] took him outside and said “Look toward heaven and count the stars,
if you are able to count them.”
And He added “So shall your offspring be.”   read more

Extraterrestrial Life-Forms: A Religious View

Tuesday, October 1, 2013 @ 10:10 AM
posted by Rabbi Allen S. Maller

When the inquisition condemned Galileo for writing that the earth might not be the center of the solar system, the Roman Catholic Church was supporting the philosophy and science of the Greco-Roman world because it seemed to support the religious idea that the earth, life in general and human life in particular, should be the center of God’s world.

Today very few religious people think that if the earth revolves around the sun, it makes humans less important to God. The value, meaning and importance of a human life, is not a scientific issue; it is a religious issue.

So too, when by the end of this decade, astronomical evidence of stars with earth-like planets, at the right distance from their star to have liquid water, and an atmosphere with oxygen, is found, there will be no need to deny the evidence and condemn the scientists as anti-religious. Religious people need to know that the Torah and the Qur’an clearly teach that the Living God created the whole universe to be conducive to the universal evolution of life. read more

The Evolution of Human Spirituality

Thursday, July 11, 2013 @ 10:07 AM
posted by Rabbi Allen S. Maller

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

Isaac Asimov, Two Foundations and the Jews

Friday, June 21, 2013 @ 09:06 AM
posted by Roger Price

 

Abraham Joshua Heschel, the renowned 20th century philosopher, understood that gaining “control of the world of space” is one of the main tasks of humankind.  The result of the conquest of space is “technical civilization.” But, Heschel argued, “(l)ife goes wrong when the control of space, the acquisition of things of space, becomes our sole concern.” For Heschel, time, not space, “is the heart of existence.” (See Heschel, The SabbathIts Meaning for Modern Man (Farrar, Straus and Young 1951) at 3.)

Judaism, according to Heschel, “teaches us to be attached to holiness in time, to be attached to sacred events, to learn how to consecrate sanctuaries that emerge from the magnificent stream of a year.” (Id. at 8.)  Recognizing that a different sensitivity is involved in creating holiness in time, rather than space, he urged that we cultivate that sensitivity in order to achieve the goal of being, rather than having.

If Abraham saw Judaism as a religion of time, Isaac did not. Isaac Asimov, the renowned 20th century writer, had a rather cramped view of religion. Born into an orthodox Jewish family in Russia, he came to America in 1923 as a young child. As he related in his third autobiography (no misprint), however, his parents never made “any effort” to teach any religion to him, even to have him participate in a bar mitzvah ceremony. (Asimov, I. Asimov: A Memoir (Doubleday 1994) at 12.) Not surprisingly, throughout his adult life, Asimov was strictly non-observant with respect to any known religious practice. At the same time, Isaac Asimov never changed his name as did others to hide his Jewishness, always acknowledged that he was Jewish and seems to have absorbed some Jewish values if not Jewish practices or sense of peoplehood. (See Id. at 13, 15-18, 322.) read more

Extraterrestrial Life Evidence in Ten Years

Wednesday, May 22, 2013 @ 10:05 AM
posted by Rabbi Allen S. Maller

When the inquisition condemned Galileo for writing that the earth might not be the center of the solar system, the Roman Catholic Church was supporting the philosophy and science of the Greco-Roman world because it seemed to support the religious idea that the earth, life in general and human life in particular, should be the center of God’s world. Today very few religious people think that if the earth revolves around the sun, it makes humans less important to God.

So too, when by the end of this decade, astronomical evidence of stars with earth-like planets, at the right distance from their star to have liquid water, and an atmosphere with oxygen, is found, there will be no need to deny the evidence and condemn the scientists as anti-religious. Religious people need to know that the Torah and the Qur’an clearly teach that the Living God created the whole universe to be conducive to the universal evolution of life. The Zabur of David says, “Your kingdom is a kingdom of all worlds; and Your dominion is for all generations.” (Zabur-Psalms 145:13); and the Qur’an says, “We have not sent you but as a blessing for all the worlds.” (Al-Anbiya 107). Muslim commentators say this refers to the 18.000 worlds created by Allah. Our world is one of them. (Mir’at-e-Kainat, vol.1, p.77) read more

The Camel’s Nose and the Torah’s Tent

Wednesday, May 1, 2013 @ 08:05 AM
posted by Roger Price

The time is out of joint – O cursed spite,

That ever I was born to set it right!

Nay, come, let’s go together.

                              Shakespeare, Hamlet, I, 5

For those who hold that the Bible, and particularly the Torah, is the Word of God, without flaw and inerrant, the last few hundred years have been very frustrating. The development of the Documentary Hypothesis, the idea that the Torah was a compilation of works from several discrete sources, was and, despite scholarly challenge, remains a formidable obstacle to the claim of unitary and divine authorship. But the Documentary Hypothesis is, for all its power and value, just that, a hypothesis. Similarly, the notion that much of the Torah text is pretext, i.e., a series of allegories designed to enhance the image of one or more Kings of Judah, is another provocative and persuasive concept, but again, just that, a concept.

Yet while some would dismiss such broad theories as too sweeping, and not definitive, small, stubborn little problems with the text cannot be so easily refuted and disregarded. One sign that the Torah is not the work of a single writer, much less a divine one, is the presence of anachronisms in the text.    read more

Confronting Cremation: Violation of Jewish Law or Sensible Modern Ritual?

Sunday, April 14, 2013 @ 04:04 PM
posted by Rabbi Regina Sandler-Phillips

This article was published previously by Rabbi Regina Sandler-Phillips in The Forward at http://forward.com/articles/156397/confronting-cremation/?p=all#ixzz2IGRcOnqF. Thank you to Rabbi Sandler-Phillips for her permission to republish here.

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At first glance, the two sides of the Jewish cremation dilemma seem clear. Opponents deplore what they see as a violation of Jewish law, desecration of the body and callous indifference to the memory of the Holocaust.

Proponents claim that cremation is less costly and more ecological, and that it saves land for the living. Yet a closer examination reveals a much more complicated picture. We need a Jewish conversation that speaks to the realities of both cremation and burial. This conversation is difficult because it involves facing death — not the illusory death of movies and computer games, but real and inevitable mortality — and what it means for our lives.

     Levayah, the Hebrew word for “funeral,” actually means “accompanying.” Whether we bury or burn, our willingness to accompany is usually quite limited. Between medical pronouncement and final disposition, our dead are typically wrapped up and taken away to preparations of which we have only the vaguest knowledge. It’s much easier to focus on the details of a product — an urn or a coffin, a memorial plaque or a headstone — than on honoring and protecting a body in transition. read more