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Science and Judaism: One Rabbi’s Personal Theology

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

  And in response to a Hubble photograph of a “death star,” all that remains of a giant star so vast that it imploded and spewed its matter out into space, lighting up Earth’s sky almost a millennium ago, we quoted Amos:

Consider and comprehend
That the Lord’s hand has done this;
that the Holy One of Israel has wrought it.

Looming over it all were the words of Isaiah, the most gifted prophet of them all, putting us puny mortals into perspective:

It is [God] who is enthroned above the vault of the earth,
so that its inhabitants seem as grasshoppers;
who spread out the skies like gauze,
Stretched them out like a tent to dwell in.

A piano improvisation on the melody of “mah gadlu, ma-a-secha yah, m’od amku mach-she-votecha,” “how wondrous are thy works O’ God, thy thoughts are very deep,” accompanied the marvelous display. The quote is from the 92d Psalm, the Psalm for the Sabbath Day, that we usually chant on Shabbat eve and on Shabbat morning. Indeed, how wondrous is the Creation, and how profound are the thoughts, the laws of astronomy and astrophysics, if you will, that undergird it all. Here before their very eyes the congregation saw that wonder unfolding.

This multimedia presentation deeply moved those who came to witness it. One congregant said that she would never look upon the psalm in the same way again because the memory of the “Cosmological Shabbat” would always come to her mind whenever she sang “mah gadlu.” Another said she experienced reverence for God’s majesty, “awe” in the classic sense. Others remarked that the service was “uplifting.” Science and Sabbath joined in a hymn of praise.

Why was this event unique? Because never before in Jewish history have the scientific world and Sabbath observance been joined in such a fashion. Of course, it makes eminent good sense to undertake such a union. For one of the central themes of the commandment to observe the Shabbat is zecher l’massei bresihit, a remembrance of creation. This “Cosmological Shabbat” was born of a vision now embedded in The Institute for Science and Judaism. We happy few who created the Institute have caught the spark with which we hope to ignite a fire in the Jewish religious world that will lead it not only to accept but to embrace the world of science as a source of religious excitement.

I suppose such a notion might sound bizarre. Science and religion are conventionally thought to be polar opposites, locked in a battle for human allegiance. You all know about the Dover case. Creationists got control of the Dover School Board and decreed that “intelligent design,” which claims that an “intelligent designer,” not random gene mutation and natural selection, explains the existence of human beings and should be taught as an alternative to Darwin’s theory in high school biology courses. A federal District Court ruled that to teach Creation Science as science violated the First Amendment’s establishment clause. Battles in the “war” between science and religion are not always initiated by religious sects. You may have heard about or even read some of the searing barrages that a handful of evolutionary biologists, most notably the rightly esteemed Richard Dawkins in his widely read book The God Delusion, have rained down on what they narrowly conceive of as “religion.”

Probably, you imagine that Jews would not make the mistake the Dover School Board did. We typically don’t fight science, even when sound science seems to conflict with our most hallowed texts. But you may not have heard of the anathema issued against orthodox Rabbi Natan Slifkin and his books because he insisted that there is no opposition between Torah-true Judaism and Darwin. It’s probable most orthodox rabbis would not join in such a venture, but the problems this anathema created for Rabbi Slifkin in Israel are not trivial.

For me, however, Judaism and science have never been and should not be at war. On the contrary, in important respects they are natural allies. As with our Cosmological Shabbat presentation. science can be a source of religious inspiration. And we should be embracing science in our religious practice, as a growing number of us are beginning to recognize.

Now that is a theological assertion, and these days it is fashionable and I think necessary to “do” theology from an explicit, personal, experiential base before one articulates an underlying philosophical position. So let me tell you a little about my early experience with science and religion.

I grew up on the West Side of Manhattan in the forties. In our neighborhood there were two marvelous institutions, the Hayden Planetarium and the Society for the Advancement of Judaism. I went to the Planetarium religiously each month when the show changed to learn not only the salient facts of astronomy but also to see the Greek and Norse figures the ancients imagined when they looked at the constellations of the stars, and to see the moon, planets, comets, and other objects in the solar system as they were projected on the Planetarium’s magical ceiling or displayed in models or platforms throughout the planetarium. Initiated into the wonders of science there, I was excited and thrilled by the science books I read and by my high school science courses. It was a wonder-filled universe “out there,” and it eclipsed the horrors of World War II that was then ravaging much of the planet and, unbeknownst to me, exterminating one-third of my people, the Jews.

I went to the other great institution in our neighborhood, The Society for the Advancement of Judaism, for services and Hebrew School. We used a 1945 prayer book edited and to a significant extent written by the classic Reconstructionists, most notably Rabbi Mordecai Kaplan. Kaplan, in my opinion, was the greatest, most radical thinker American Judaism had produced. In that prayer book (since superseded) we read what was probably Kaplan’s only work of poetry. It graphically described the difference between the universe our ancestors knew and the one revealed by the revolutionary discoveries of then contemporary astronomers, precisely the discoveries that I was making in my monthly pilgrimages to the Hayden Planetarium:

“Our fathers acclaimed the God whose handiwork they read in the mysterious heavens above and in the varied scene of earth below.
. . .

Meantime have the vaulted skies dissolved.
Night reveals the limitless caverns of space,
Hidden by the light of day,
And unfolds horizonless vistas
Far beyond imagination’s ken.”

“Meantime,” i.e., since our ancestors’ time, the rotating, heavenly vault in which they imagined heavenly bodies were embedded has “dissolved,” banished by the Copernican revolution and modern measurements of the size of the universe. Continuing, Kaplan portrays the spiritual crisis that beset him when he realized what had happened: “The mind is staggered . . . the soul is faint . . . .” And yet, the soul  “learns to spell once more the name of God across the newly visioned firmament.” In that oft neglected prayer/poem, Kaplan evoked an entire theology that he spelled out in his later writings. I grew up with that poem ringing in my ears. As a result, my religious training and practice, my love of science, and my love of Judaism reinforced one another, and laid the groundwork for one of the most marvelous moments of my life.

Several decades ago I spent a week at Harvard studying modern cosmology. There a few alumni/students arranged a trip to the Harvard Observatory to view a celestial object through a telescope. We chose the globular cluster in the Constellation Hercules. The Hercules nebula appears to the naked eye to be a gray smudge. Our student guide informed us that this globular cluster, a very densely packed group of stars, was situated about 13,000 light years closer to the center of our Milky Way galaxy than we are. (The Milky Way galaxy is the enormous, spiral shaped system of 100 billion stars in which the sun and therefore the solar system and we are located.) The center of the galaxy is 36,000 light years from us, our guide reminded us, which meant that the star cluster we would see was one-third of the way closer “in” to the center than earth is.

I looked through the telescope, and there it was, hanging in the pitch blackness of space: dozens of closely packed stars surrounding a bright ball of diffuse light that was all one could see of the hundreds of thousands of other stars clumped together in that cluster. While I was looking, the student told us that the cluster is 25,000 light years from earth. That’s an unimaginable distance. Remember that light travels 186,000 miles a SECOND. In ONE DAY light travels 60 seconds x 60 minutes (an hour) times 24 hours, x 186,000 miles, or 16 billion, 70 million miles. Because the light entering the telescope traveled for 25,000 years before reaching us we were seeing it not “now,” but as it was 25,000 years “ago.”

Suddenly, in an intuitive flash, I grasped the “meaning,” the integrated whole of what I’d casually learned over several decades: the non-absolute character of time, the shape of the Milky Way galaxy and the distribution of stars, what it means to look in towards and away from the galactic center, how a globular cluster differs from the usual distribution of stars and the incredible distances between celestial objects. Had I known then the brachah (blessing) that our tradition teaches us to recite when we see a wonder of nature I surely would have chanted it: “Baruch atah adonai eloheynu melech haOlam oseh maasey braeishit . . . .” (Blessed are you God, the maker of the works of creation.) Instead, I responded with the only word that could possibly capture that moment. “God,” I whispered.

Actually, though I have thought about that moment often, I have until now not been able to explain why I uttered the English equivalent of the Holiest word in the Hebrew language: “God.” It is not that I literally believe that God has a hand with which He fashioned that mysterious smudge in the sky that the Greeks and everyone who has been privileged to see the night sky and catalog its contents has recognized and named. Nor do I believe, as the ancient author of Genesis did, that by the immense power of divine speech embodied in the oft-repeated phrase “And God said let there be . . .” that God conferred existence upon that strange object that looks nothing like anything we see regularly in the sky. The intuition and the knowledge I had accumulated bit by bit came together in a flash and gave me a whole a new way of “seeing.”

But why “God!”? Why not Eureka, a word I had known well? Because, like the advocates of “intelligent design,” I am convinced that behind the universe, imbedded in it, at work in it, immanent in it, there is a unifying mystery at work, a force, something that, in revelatory moments transports us into another ego state. Where does that notion come from? Why from our tradition, of course. From our ancestors who sensed it as well, although they personified it, as the ancients often personified what we have come to understand as forces, or the outcome of complex interactions, perhaps on the molecular, atomic or subatomic levels. The underlying universal force that we still sense, they imagined to have certain aspects of a human being.

I do not believe that force is humanoid. Existence is what it is, but at certain moments we are awed by it. Rabbi Mordecai Kaplan, who to quote him again, learned to “spell once more the name of God across the newly visioned firmament” must have sensed God’s presence, as have the mystics over the millennia, though they articulated what they felt in terms foreign to most of us and associated it with things other than what one might call Existence itself.

Finally, I learned it from the Shema: “Shema Yisrael, Adonai Eloheynu, Adonai Echad”. “Hearken, Israel, Adonai our god Adonai is One.” We recite it so often and too often by rote that we may have lost sight of its daring proclamation. It is not merely a rejection of polytheism; rather, it is an affirmation that our God is One with a capitalized O, Unity. To paraphrase Kaplan in the prayer I’ve discussed, God is the Oneness that ties together everything in the universe. Equally important, that oneness must in some sense be discernible to humans. For the Shema says “Hear, O Israel . . .” which is an exhortation to attend, to harken, to pay attention. Embedded in that command is an assumption, a faith, if you will, that you, we, all of us can “hear,” we can understand, with the whole of our being including, and I say this will all the force I can muster, with our rational faculties.

I also learned this from Albert Einstein who, when he took to philosophizing about science, recognized the debt he owed to Judaism because it had given him faith that beneath all of the buzzing, blooming, confusion, there must be a clear, comprehensible, understandable simple reality. That’s why he and his successors sought and seek a “unified field theory,” a “theory of everything.”

As you can see, for me, and for a few others, science is a critically important avenue to religious excitement. While I most emphatically do not worship either science or scientists, I do affirm that the scientific method, where it can be applied, is the most certain avenue we humans have ever found to truth. And I, like my ancestors before me, value truth very highly indeed. The Talmud teaches “the seal of the holy one, blessed be He, is truth.” If I were not convinced of that I would not have devoted the last good years of my life to Judaism.

But, precisely because science has brought me closer to God, I am adamantly, indeed furiously, opposed to the benighted efforts of some who in the name of religion seek to corrupt and demean science and, worse yet, seek to corrupt the teaching of science to our young people with educational and religious pap called “creation science.” I oppose them, as you should too, because the dumbing down of our youth by contaminating the teaching of science, and especially biology, will weaken our nation. It will do away with our pre-eminence in science, a pre-eminence that has given us a decisive economic and military advantage from the end of World War II until recently.

I oppose them even more on religious grounds. By undermining science, they ultimately will come between us and God. We Jews are the authors of the view that God created the universe, and of the theological position beginning with Maimonides and continuing on through in our tradition with Spinoza and Kaplan that God is to be found in significant part by understanding the created universe. Certainly science through its contribution to medicine and public health has made an enormous difference in the measure of goodness in the world, and could, if only we would learn the ways of peace, contribute much more. Numerous vitally important discoveries that can help reduce the quantum of suffering and violence in the world loom just over the horizon. We will never harvest their fruits if we and the people in whose midst we live continue to insist that science is a matter of “opinion” and, even within its proper domain, must be subordinated to mythology and ancient wisdom.

Based on this and a few revelatory experiences, I see great good emanating from a closer and respectful alliance between Judaism and science for other reasons as well. First, as you know, a great many scientists are Jews, and among them are some of the best educated and talented of our people. We need them to be a part of our religious communities, to help us enliven and enrich our religious lives. Some are doing that, but more are put off because we seem so locked into the medieval and earlier ages of Jewish experience. The breath of the exciting new world of knowledge that science has brought into being is virtually absent from our liturgy and practice. When a visitor from the farthest reaches of the solar system comes into view in our night sky, plainly visible even in our light polluted skies, do we respond? Mostly not. And we remain silent even though among the traditional berachot-–blessings—we have one that is specifically for just such an event. Our prayers speak of angels, chariots, and other supernal beings that supposedly bring on the day and the night, and we regularly bless the new lunar month. But where do we thank God for the world we know and relate it to our experience? Virtually nowhere. We must do that, we must infuse our religious life with the new metaphors that science has taught us and that we know bear the signet of truth.

Beyond that, too many of us remain uninformed about the fascinating ethical issues that modern medicine has raised by helping people who seem to have died in some sense live on and by enabling us to see the sometimes horrendous consequences of genetic defects that a life not yet born will encounter and engender if we do not interfere. Our tradition provides a framework for fashioning ethical responses to these issues, and some of our rabbis and teachers have been working with hospitals, doctors, and laymen to assist in formulating them.

In these and many other areas we see great good coming from an interface between science and Judaism, the composition of new liturgy and new interpretations of existing prayers, and the development of materials for Jewish schools to help our young people understand the relation between modern science and our Jewish tradition. This work depends upon a vision and a belief.

We believe that for Judaism, the religious life of the Jewish people, to thrive in the twenty-first century we must experience a new burst of creativity that has its roots not only in mind numbing chants or breathing exercises from other cultures, but in our shared, at times brilliant and at times tragic journey through the millennia and the marvelous literature it has produced. But roots are not enough. A religion flourishes over time because it grows new shoots, new branches and leaves that absorb the life giving energy that surrounds it. In our time that energy is the vast sea of new revolutionizing knowledge that comes pouring out of from the laboratories, the computers, and the fine minds that work for the enhancement of understanding and of human life in the world of science. We must absorb that life-giving energy and use it to reimagine our religious tradition. If we succeed in that we will re-energize the listless and entice the thoughtful to rejoin the journey through history and the occasional ecstasy that has been and for some fortunate ones among us has been the hallmark of the Jews.

(All rights reserved.)


George B. Driesen is the Adjunct Rabbi of Adat Shalom Reconstructionist Congregation in Bethesda, Maryland and President of The Institute for Science and Judaism. His comments were published previously at The views expressed by Rabbi Driesen are his own and do not necessary reflect those of this Blogmaster. We thank Rabbi Driesen for permission to republish his thoughts.

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One Response to “Science and Judaism: One Rabbi’s Personal Theology”

  1. Rabbi Saul Oresky says:

    This is brilliant, Rabbi Driesen. Thank you so much!

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