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The Rebbe Meets Einstein: A Dialogue

Monday, June 5, 2017 @ 09:06 PM
posted by Ronald W. Pies, MD
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“The Bible shows the way to go to heaven, not the way the heavens go.” — Galileo Galilei
There is no harmony between religion and science. When science was a child, religion sought to strangle it in the cradle. —R.G. Ingersoll



                When I was a resident in psychiatry over thirty-five years ago, one of my mentors said something that forever changed the way I thought about my profession. “In psychiatry,” he said, “you can do biology in the morning and theology in the afternoon.” My teacher was being a bit facetious, but on a deeper level, he meant what he said. I understood his message to be simply this: the problems of my patients could be understood and approached from both a “scientific” and a “religious” perspective, without fear of contradiction or inconsistency. Yes, I know—there are many critics of psychiatry who would challenge its “scientific” bona fides, but that is a debate that would take me far afield. Instead, I would like to use my teacher’s claim as a point of entry into a much broader question; namely, in what ways do science and religion differ, and in what sense do they have features in common?

                This is hardly a new question, and I don’t claim to have any revolutionary new answers. But I hope that by distinguishing between the truth claims and the wisdom claims of these two realms—science and religion—I can make the case for a modified form of “compatibilism.”  To do this, I will draw out the ancient Augustinian distinction between scientia and sapientia, whose meanings I will try to make clear presently. In addition, as an illustration of how this distinction may be helpful, I will present an imagined dialogue between two seminal figures in the realms of science and religion: Albert Einstein and Rabbi Menachem Mendel Schneerson, known as “the Rebbe.” What makes this dialogue different from the usual “Science vs. Religion” boxing match is the eclectic and nuanced positions of the two figures. For in an important sense, Albert Einstein was a deeply religious scientist–and the Rebbe, a deeply scientific theologian.

A Tale of Two Contested Terms: Science and Religion

                When considering the commonalities and disjunctions between “Science” and “Religion”, it seems useful to proffer at least a notional, working definition of these terms—if only to avoid confusing the reader with definitions so broad or idiosyncratic as to render discussion pointless. But this task proves extremely difficult, and a full historical review of how variously these terms have been defined would take us hopelessly off course. In view of that, I would like to put forth some rough-and-ready definitions, as I understand the two terms in question. These definitions do not claim to provide “necessary and sufficient” criteria for either of the terms “science” or “religion”; indeed, the philosopher Ludwig Wittgenstein taught us to question the very notion of such “essential” definitions. Yet for purposes of this essay, we must begin somewhere.

Accordingly, I would like to define “science” as “that field of study which attempts to describe and understand the nature of the universe, in whole or in part, by means of careful observation; hypothesis formulation; empirical attempts to verify and falsify hypotheses; and experimental tests of predictions generated by specific hypotheses.

Defining religion is perhaps even dodgier than defining science, and I am reminded of the satirical definition that appears in Henry Fielding’s novel, Tom Jones:

“By religion I mean Christianity, by Christianity I mean Protestantism, by Protestantism I mean the Church of England as established by law.”

As Professor of Religion Thomas A. Idinopulos has noted, “The more we learn about religions, the more we appreciate not their similarities but their differences…” Nevertheless, I want to venture a working definition of “religion”, based in part on the work of the scholar, Ninian Smart (1927-2001). In my view, religion may be defined very roughly as,

That body of beliefs, rituals, values, norms, and narratives that address the place of humankind in relation to the universe; and which proffers a coherent “world view” in which faith, devotion, a sense of the sacred, and adherence to ultimate values play an important role.

Note that “religion” as here defined does not necessarily entail belief in a deity, or in an omniscient, omnipotent Creator who intervenes in the affairs of mankind—though the definition does not preclude such an entity. Indeed, if we consider Buddhism a “religion”, it is fair to say that the concept of a transcendent deity is not found in Theravada Buddhism, and is only partly expressed in some strains of Mahayana Buddhism. Jainism, too, lacks any well-formed notion of a deity. So when we ask whether science and religion share certain attributes, we need not do so predicated on any notion of God, as understood in, for example, the three Abrahamic faiths (Judaism, Christianity and Islam).

Compatibilism or Incompatibilism?

As suggested by the two “dueling” epigrams at the beginning of this essay, there is a yawning chasm between two views of religion in relation to science. To oversimplify greatly, the renowned scientist Galileo presented an “compatibilist” view,  suggesting, in effect, that religion tells us what we must do to be worthy of  going to “heaven”–not how the stars and planets operate under natural law. The latter is the province of science. This position is not far from that of the modern-day scientist, the late Stephen Jay Gould, who coined the term “non-overlapping magisteria” (NOMA) to describe the realms of science and religion.  As Gould succinctly put it, “The net of science covers the empirical universe: what is it made of (fact) and why does it work this way (theory). The net of religion extends over questions of moral meaning and value. These two magisteria do not overlap…”

In stark contrast, we have the “incompatibilist” view of the American lawyer, R.G. Ingersoll (known as “The Great Agnostic”), who argued that religion and science are, in effect, mortal enemies. For Ingersoll, not only is there no harmony between the two realms, religion also sought to “strangle” science during its earliest developmental years.**

In partial contrast to Gould’s and Ingersoll’s positions, I will argue that there is, indeed, a limited but important degree of overlap between science and religion (contra Gould); and that religion need not be an enemy of science (contra Ingersoll). But before unpacking this “modified compatibilist” argument, I would like to present a hypothetical dialogue between two immense historical figures in the “magisteria” of science and religion: the physicist, Albert Einstein (1879-1955), arguably the most renowned scientist since Isaac Newton; and Rabbi Menachem Mendel Schneerson (1902-94), known as “The Rebbe,” who was the head of the Lubavitcher movement, a branch of Orthodox Judaism. But the Rebbe was no ordinary “man of religion.” In his student days, he studied science and mathematics at the University of Berlin and the Sorbonne. Thus, the Rebbe was quite capable of discussing science intelligently, even with the likes of Albert Einstein. For his part, although Einstein had been brought up in a non-observant, Jewish household, he “…had great respect for the humanistic elements in Jewish tradition” (Muraskin), and “…[retained] from his childhood… a profound reverence for the harmony and beauty of what he called the mind of God, as it was expressed in the creation of the universe and its laws. (Isaacson, p. 20). This latter point becomes crucial in the modified compatibilist argument I will develop.

Although the dialogue I present is hypothetical, Einstein’s views are represented by  verbatim quotes from Einstein himself, over the span of many years. In the case of the Rebbe, the quotes represent the teachings of Rabbi Schneerson, as memorized and collated by a group of “oral scribes”.  These collated teachings were then transcribed by the Rebbe’s student-disciple, Rabbi Simon Jacobson. In the dialogue that follows, I have added a few informal “greetings” and transitional remarks, shown in italics. So now, let’s imagine a meeting in Professor Einstein’s study, in late 1954—shortly before the scientist’s death. Einstein would have been 75 years old; the Rebbe, around 52. Though the “dialogue” is shown in English, one can easily imagine the two men conversing in Yiddish—the “mother tongue” of Jews around the world.

The Rebbe [R] Meets Einstein [E]

“[R] Greetings, Herr Professor! It is an honor to meet you! So, if I may be so bold, here is the problem. For some people, there still exists today a rift between science and religion, as though some parts of life are controlled by G-d and others by the laws of science and nature. This compartmentalized attitude, however, is wrong. Since G-d created the universe and the natural laws that govern it, there can be no schism between the creator and His creation.

[E] Rebbe, it is a pleasure to meet you! I would say that behind the discernible laws and connections there remains something subtle, intangible, and inexplicable. Veneration for this force beyond anything that we can comprehend is my religion. To that extent, I am, in fact religious. I do not believe in a personal God and I have never denied this, but have expressed it clearly. If something is in me which can be called religious then it is the unbounded admiration for the structure of the world so far as our science can reveal it.

[R] Indeed, Herr Professor! And the natural laws of the universe can hardly contradict the blueprint from which they were made! So, science is ultimately the human study of God’s mind, the search to understand the laws that G-d installed to run the physical universe.

[E]  Yes, Rebbe–though I cannot conceive of a God who rewards and punishes his creatures, or has a will of the type of which we are conscious in ourselves…Enough for me [is] the mystery of the eternity of life, and the inkling of the marvelous structure of reality, together with the single-hearted endeavor to comprehend a portion, be it never so tiny, of the reason that manifests itself in nature.

[R] Indeed, Herr Professor, there is no question that the universe is guided by a certain logic…Scientists and philosophers peer through the outer layers of the universe to discover the force lying within. What we are all actually searching for, whether or not we acknowledge it, is G-d, the hand inside the glove.

[E] “You know, Rebbe, I think we are in the position of a little child entering a huge library filled books in many languages. The child knows someone must have written those books. It does not know how. It does not understand the languages in which they are written. The child dimly suspects a mysterious order in the arrangement of the books but doesn’t know what it is. That, it seems to me, is the attitude of even the most intelligent human being towards God. We see the universe marvelously arranged and obeying certain laws, but only dimly understand these laws.

[R] “So the true challenge of science today is not to refute G-d, but to discover how [science] reflects and illuminates parts of G-d’s mind that have yet to be uncovered.”

[E] For me, Rebbe, the most beautiful emotion we can experience is the mysterious. It is the fundamental emotion that stands at the cradle of true art and science…To sense that behind anything that can be experienced there is something that our minds cannot grasp whose beauty and sublimity reaches us only indirectly: this is religiousness. In this sense, and in this sense only, I am a devoutly religious man.”

Truth Claims and Wisdom Claims: Scientia and Sapientia  

There are clearly truth claims in science and religion that simply cannot be reconciled; for example, whereas some Christian fundamentalists calculate the age of the Earth as just over 6000 years, most scientists believe the correct figure is about 4.5 billion years. Assuming we  agree on the definition of “year” as 365 24-hour days, there is simply no way these claims can be reconciled. Moreover, the methods of religion and science are also radically different, if not broadly incompatible. For example, we do not generally find theologians conducting controlled experiments to determine the actual age of the earth.

However, on the level of wisdom claims, there are areas of significant compatibility between science and religion. Some derivations of the word “religion” relate it to the Latin, religare, meaning “to bind fast” or “to connect.” I would argue that religion, as I have defined it,  seeks to connect us, as human beings, to the underlying and ultimate “Originating Force” responsible for our existence—which many would call “God”, “Brahman” or “The Tao.” Similarly, Science seeks to connect us to the “cosmic order” in a material sense. Thus, when Crosby, Stills, Nash and Young sang, in “Woodstock”, that “…We are stardust, we are golden, we are billion year old carbon...” they were merely reflecting the prevailing scientific claim, best expressed in 1973 by astronomer Carl Sagan i.e., that “…the iron in our blood, the calcium in our teeth, the carbon in our genes were produced billions of years ago in the interior of a red giant star. We are made of star-stuff.”

A more spiritualized version of this idea was expressed in 1918, by the President of the Royal Astronomical Society of Canada, Dr. Albert D. Watson:

“It is true that a first thoughtful glimpse of the immeasurable universe is liable rather to discourage us with a sense of our own insignificance. But astronomy is wholesome even in this, and helps to clear the way to a realization that as our bodies are an integral part of the great physical universe, so through them are manifested laws and forces that take rank with the highest manifestation of Cosmic Being.” (italics added).

It should be clear that the italicized portion of the statement is not an assertion of “scientific fact”; that is, it is not a simple, verifiable “truth claim” like, “The half-life of strontium 90 is 28.8 years.” Rather, it asserts a fundamental relationship between “our bodies” as physical entities and “the highest manifestation of Cosmic Being” (the capital letters were doubtless important for Dr. Watson). I would characterize this as a “wisdom claim”, not unlike that of Einstein, when he said, “…behind the discernible laws and connections there remains something subtle, intangible, and inexplicable.”

The distinction I wish to emphasize—that between truth claims and wisdom claims—is far from novel. I am drawing on the ancient distinction Augustine of Hippo (354-430 CE) made sixteen centuries ago—that between scientia and sapientia. For Augustine, scientia  denoted “knowledge of temporal things”, or what we might call “facts about the observable world.” In contrast, sapientia (wisdom) denoted “wisdom derived from the contemplation of eternal truth.” (Ireland, 2013). I believe that much apparent disagreement between science and religion stems from a failure to distinguish these two distinct modes of “knowing.” Indeed, mistaking a scientia statement for a sapientia statement (or vice versa) would be akin to what the philosopher, Gilbert Ryle, called a “category mistake”—roughly speaking, a bit like calling a whale a fish. So, for example, in the Passover Haggadah—the guide to observing the Passover meal (seder)—we read the following:

“It was not just our fathers and our mothers who were Pharaoh’s slaves in Egypt; but we, all of us gathered here tonight, were Pharaoh’s slaves in Egypt.”

Now, it is nonsensical to read this statement as belonging to the category of scientia. It is quintessentially a statement of sapientia, or “wisdom”. As Prof. Marcus Borg observes, “…the exodus story is understood to be true in every generation. It portrays bondage as a perennial human problem…[and is] thus a perennially true story about the divine-human relationship.” (Borg, 2001, p. 49).

Moreover, as Borg points out, many sapientia statements in religious texts are essentially metaphors—and only appear to contradict scientific facts about the observable world (Borg, 2001). The danger is that we “literalize” what are essentially metaphorical statements of sapientia. For example, in the Book of John (15:5), Jesus tells his disciples, “I am the vine, you are the branches. He who abides in me, and I in him, he it is that bears much fruit…” Clearly, this extended metaphor is not a factual claim that can be contradicted by science; rather, it is a wisdom statement, expressing the idea that Jesus’s followers are spiritual extensions of himself, and that good things will come of their faith. It is important to note, as Borg does, that metaphorical statements are not false statements, even though they are not “scientific” statements in the sense of scientia. They may still contain important wisdom; indeed, Borg observes that “…metaphors can be profoundly true, even though they are not literally true. Metaphor is poetry plus, not factuality minus.” (op cit, p. 41).

A Personal Coda

                I have a strange ritual I perform every morning, based very loosely on a Jewish prayer called the modeh ani, which is traditionally recited upon first awakening. This is a prayer of thanks, and in English, it says:

I offer thanks to You, living and eternal King, for You have mercifully restored my soul within me; Your faithfulness is great.

Why do I call my ritual strange? In short, because I am not at all sure that there is any “eternal King” up there listening to me, much less that such a Cosmic Ruler could care one whit about my needs, wishes or aspirations. And yet—each morning, I give thanks for “life and health” and speak as if some “higher power” could hear me. My prayer is not scientia. It is not a statement of fact, susceptible to scientific refutation. It is an act of consecration—one “dedicated to a sacred purpose.”  It is religious, in so far as my giving thanks connects me to something larger than myself.  My prayer does not quarrel with science; it presents no challenge to my scientific or medical knowledge. Rather, such an act of consecration is a gesture toward sapientia –a seeking of wisdom, even in the face of deepest doubt.


** The claim that religion has been unequivocally hostile to science could be disputed by several historical examples; e.g., in the infamous Galileo affair, in which the Catholic Church ultimately condemned Galileo for heresy, it is not clear that the Church’s initial opposition was purely a reflection of “anti-scientific” attitudes. Some scholars have suggested that Cardinal Bellarmine—the head of the Holy Office of the Inquisition –“… was willing to countenance scientific truth if it could be proven or demonstrated” to his satisfaction. A full discussion is provided by McMullin (2006) and Machamer (2014).


References and websites consulted:

Cambridge Studies of Religion. Chapter 1:

Isaacson W: Einstein: His Life and Universe. Simon & Schuster, 2008.

Schneerson MM: Toward a Meaningful Life. Adapted by Simon Jacobson. William Morros & Co., 1995

McMullin E. Galileo on science and Scripture. Cambridge Companions Online, 2006.

Machamer, P. “Galileo Galilei”, The Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy (Winter 2014 Edition), Edward N. Zalta (ed.), URL =

1918 March, The Journal of the Royal Astronomical Society of Canada, Volume 12, Number 3, Astronomy: A Cultural Avocation by Albert Durrant Watson, (Retiring President’s Address, Annual Meeting, January 29, 1918) Accessed 11/10/16 at:


Borg M: Reading the Bible Again for the First Time. Harper San Francisco, 2001.


Dr. Ronald W. Pies is, among other things, a professor in the psychiatry departments at SUNY Upstate Medical University and Tufts University. He is the Editor in Chief Emeritus of Psychiatric Times, as well as the author of numerous books and papers. Some of his works may be found at: The views express by Dr. Pies are his own and not necessarily those of the Blogmaster. They are presented as part of this blog’s mission to explore the interface of Judaism and science, and the Blogmaster thanks Dr. Pies for his contribution.

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One Response to “The Rebbe Meets Einstein: A Dialogue”

  1. Many thanks to Roger Price for giving my essay a home! I'd be happy to reply to any questions or comments sent in the spirit of mutual understanding and exchange.

    Best regards,

    Ron Pies

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