Tag Archives: science and religion

There Really Are Miracles: Hanukah, Parashat Miketz

There really are miracles.

Ask children, too young to look cynically at birthday candles, bubble baths and cushiony piles of autumn leaves; ask adults old enough to appreciate the gift of each unfailing sunrise and another day on earth. I’m not talking about the sun standing still or the Red Sea parting, or even the odd case of spontaneous remission from deathly illness that, admittedly, happens to some people (but not to others). The miracles I look for are not breaks in the natural order; they are simpler things, like human decency where we least expect it and the everyday moments that evoke deep breaths of gratitude just for the privilege of being.

Like beauty, miracles are in the eye of the beholder. For people too jaded to see them, Hanukah supplies a crash course in beholding. We do it through light.

Yes, light: an entity so ordinary that we take it for granted, yet a miracle in and of itself. In a universe of relativity, it is the only constant, moving at 186,287.49 miles per second. It is somehow both a wave and a particle; able to permeate not just air, but water and glass as well. We humans see only a fraction of the total light spectrum, but the part we see refracts gorgeously into the colors of the rainbow. Light heats our homes, warms our hearts, and shines our way forward.

Light runs deep in cultural consciousness. Lord Byron gives us “the light of love, the purity of grace.” Oliver Goldsmith likens light to hope, which “like the gleaming taper’s light,/ Adorns and cheers our way.” Milton called it the “offspring of heav’n first-born.”

It resonates equally through Jewish texts, not just as God’s first act of creation but a metaphor for angels, a gift reserved for the righteous from the moment of creation, and a “new light” that will shine on Zion in messianic times.

I love Hanukah, therefore. Forget the presents, the commercial kitsch and even the Maccabean war that started it all. The Rabbis who compiled our Bible omitted the books that describe the war; a single paragraph about it was added to the Amidah, but only as a footnote to the main story: the miracle of light. To the Gemara’s question, “What is Hanukah,” the Rabbis speak only of light – the wonderful cruse of oil that burned longer than anyone had reason to anticipate. Josephus recalls Hanukah in his day as a torchlight parade to light up the darkness.

Why, then, do we keep Hanukah? Not because we won a war: the Maccabees turned out to be as autocratic a dynasty as any other of the petty tyrannies that characterized antiquity. Hanukah is one thing only: a celebration of light – the light of freedom, the light of wisdom, the light of hope, the light of promise, and the light of joy. Our candles are lit at night, not daytime – so people can see them; and on our window sills, so the light invades the darkened streets and alleys l’farsomei nissa (in the words of the Talmud), “to publicize the miracle.”

How desperately we need reminders of miracles! We just had an election for a government that has increasingly stopped working. The stock market is at record highs, but unemployment won’t go away. We cannot afford the wars that we shouldn’t have been fighting in the first place, but have ample cause to worry about the world we are retreating from. At a time when “a thick gloom fell through the sunshine and darken’d me,” Walt Whitman wondered, “must I indeed learn to chant the cold dirges of the baffled and sullen hymns of defeat?” He might have been speaking for us.

Had Whitman walked past Jewish homes at night, he would have found the insistent Jewish answer in the light of Hanukkah candles. Miracles persist; the light shines even when all looks darkest, and keeps on shining long after we are certain it should have been extinguished.

One Hundred Great Jewish Books is now available.

One Hundred Great Jewish Books: Three Millennia of Jewish Conversation

One Hundred Great Jewish Books: Three Millennia of Jewish Conversation

I’m happy to announce that my latest book, One Hundred Great Jewish Books, is now available. The full title, One Hundred Great Jewish Books: Three Millennia of Jewish Conversation, reflects an idea I have been playing with for about a decade now. What is Judaism, if not an identity that is portrayed through a rolling conversation across the centuries! The book is a running record of the conversation as portrayed through every variety of Jewish book: classical texts and medieval responsa, but also modern fiction, short stories, histories, biographies, and even comic books, encyclopedias, and cook books. I read over 200 books to make the selection, but here it is at last: my running guide to the Jewish conversational record.

I hope you enjoy it, so we can continue the conversation here.

Why New Moons Matter

This is quite a holiday weekend. Americans everywhere look forward to July 4th, with its barbecues and fireworks, picnics and parades. Not to be outdone, our neighbors to the north celebrate Canada Day about the same time (“1867, July ONE, Canada became a do-min-ION”). And we Jews? We keep our respective national holidays (July 1 or July 4), but squeezed between the two mega- days of national consciousness for Canada and the United States is a specifically Jewish holiday as well: Rosh Chodesh: the new moon, the first day of the month — in this case, the month of Tammuz.

Americans do not celebrate new months; they dread them, as the day that rent and mortgage payments are due. Months are arbitrary, corresponding to nothing astronomical. We once had only ten of them; two more (July and August) were added by Julius and Augustus Caesar. Jews, by contrast, regard months as having significance. Our year is solar, but our months adhere to the waxing and waning of the moon. Holidays often fall on moon days: the new moon (Rosh Hashanah) or the full moon (Passover, Purim, and Sukkot).

Nowadays, the new moon is marked mostly just by relatively arcane liturgical customs that are noticed only by regular synagogue goers. But Jews in antiquity took the new moon seriously. According to the Yerushalmi, women observed it as a holiday. Ex post facto, the Rabbis judged it “acceptable” and gave it a midrashic rationale — but I doubt the women cared. The moon appealed to them as a natural symbol for their own monthly cycles. According to the Mishnah, they also danced on the full moon of Av, and “spun yarn by moonlight.” I suspect they were doing more than spinning yarn. This was probably part of a larger set of women’s rituals that the Rabbis knew about but neither investigated nor controlled. It was what women did: outside their purview.

It wasn’t just women who celebrated new moons, however. In medieval Erets Yisra’el, Jews marked them with a full Kiddush, the prayer we say to inaugurate Shabbat and holidays (like Pesach and Rosh Hashanah). The new moon Kiddush dropped out of use by the time of the Crusades, but we still have its wording, which is worth looking at for what it teaches us about Jewish values. It praises God for revealing the “secret of the moon’s renewal,” for “appointing people of wisdom who can determine the times of the new moons and holy days,” and for “calculating the tiniest divisions of time” that produce the calendar.

Astronomy was considered the queen of the sciences back then. What we have here, therefore, is a holiday thanking God for running the universe according to the natural laws of science, and then giving us scientists to figure out what those laws are.

What a spectacular idea – not at all like the usual holiday fare. Both American Independence Day and Canada Day celebrate the establishment of national entities. Each of them celebrates national freedom – secular parallels to Passover and Chanukah, or to the French Bastille Day, for that matter. Other holidays that turn up everywhere recall tragedy: Yom Hashoah for Jews, 9/11 (still in the making) for America. Sometimes we memorialize our war dead: Remembrance Day in Canada, Memorial Day in the States, Yom Hazikaron in Israel. Thanksgiving for food and well-being is common also: Sukkot and Shavuot come quickly to mind – and Thanksgiving Day itself, of course. Religions also mark our relationship to God: for Jews, the High Holidays, and the month of Elul leading up to it; for Christians, it is Lent, which culminates in Easter.

But science? What religion stops regularly to thank God for the laws of the universe? Where else do you find a religious culture dedicated to the awe one feels when contemplating the “starry sky above,” that philosopher Immanuel Kant saw as the ultimate source of spirituality? It is no accident that so many rabbis over the years have been scientists as well; or that so many Jewish scientists have found no conflict between their science and their Judaism.

I come from Canada, originally. I might phone home this year to wish my relatives a good Canada Day. I will certainly be out myself celebrating July 4. But I will not lose sight of Rosh Chodesh, squeezed innocently away between the two. Blessed is God who designed a universe replete with mathematical beauty; blessed is God who gave us minds to calculate the equations by which it works; blessed is God who revels in our mastery of scientific secrets.

Can God’s Mind Change? God’s Second Book (Part 2)

Isn’t it possible for authors to change their minds between books? Even if (as I argued in the last post) both Torah and the universe are products of the same divine author, it does not follow (as I thought it did) that the two books cannot contradict each other. So argues Rabbi Rick Block in a thoughtful note that I greatly appreciate.

Let’s rethink the issue, using a test case, philosopher Ludwig Wittgenstein, one of the most influential minds of the twentieth century. In 1921, he wrote Tractatus Logico-Philosophicus, a densely argued study of the logic behind language. Following the school of thought that we call logical positivism, he limited meaningful sentences to statements of fact that are ultimately rooted in evidence from the senses. That excludes religion, ethics, and aesthetics, none of which is open to empirical proof. Statements about God, goodness, and beauty are neither true nor false: they are simply meaningless.

Later, however, his Philosophical Investigations (published posthumously in 1953) seemed to contradict the Tractatus, in that it included religion, ethics and aesthetics as meaningful. Language, he now declared, was like a toolkit, that can be used to do different things: promising, hoping, describing (as in science) and so on. He called each of these things “a game.” The Tractatus described the game of science; but not the games of theology, ethics, and art, which are “meaningless,” perhaps, but only according to the game-rules of science. Investigations pointed out the need to describe the rules for these other games.

The Investigations does not disprove the Tractatus. It just limits its applicability and goes beyond it to include that part of reality for which the Tractatus did not work.

Like Wittgenstein, God too, we may say, has two books: Torah is God’s book of religion; Nature is God’s book of science. They are about different things; they cannot disprove each other, because they operate as different games with different rules of meaning..

Scientific knowledge works in mathematics, the language of Nature, it seems. When we translate those formulae into prose, we get sentences that follow Wittgenstein’s rules in the Tractatus. When we shift to religion, we change the game — and with it, the context in which to understand the sentences. Two sentences that seem to say contradictory things (“God created the heaven and earth,” from the Book of Torah, and “A big bang created time and a universe,” from the Book of Nature) sound like opposites because their syntax is similar. But they may both be right, because they operate in different realms of thought. In that way, they are like Wittgenstein’s two books. They complete, rather than deny, one another.

One more analogy is in order: fiction. Fiction is an art, much like painting, where Monet, for example, can paint several versions of haystacks, all of them equally accurate. A composer of fiction may, similarly, write two novels that contradict each other but be equally true. Insofar as scientific authors write metaphoric explanations of nature’s phenomena, they may do likewise, but when they try actually to frame nature’s laws, they may not make two contradictory claims, without one of them being wrong.

We can liken God’s two books to a nicely boxed set of two volumes, one on science and the other on what we loosely call religion. God’s first book, Torah, is the religious one. It is a work of art, containing such things as fiction, poetry, aphorisms, laws, ethics, values, and a subjective view of Israel’s history. Like any work of art, it regularly attracts new readings. The second book, Nature, is scientific. We change our readings there as well, but contradictory readings of Nature must refute one another, because the Book of Nature (as measured by mathematics) is changeless and, unlike art, a zero-sum game of “true or false.”

I do not mean to say that any reading of Torah is as possible as any other. Some interpretations of art are just wrong — as I said in an earlier blog, Hamlet cannot be a Marxist spoof on Capitalism. Also, ethics, unlike stories, poetry, and such, are absolute, so, like science, cannot admit two absolutely contradictory claims.

But comparing Torah with Nature, we can say that Torah and Nature are God’s two books which cannot refute one another. Like Wittgenstein’s two books, they represent extensions of one another – what we can call a dual extension of God’s mind.

When we look back at great authors, we call it a retrospective. Think of Torah and Nature as God’s retrospective, which we array with awe and reread with care.

God’s Second Book: The Most Valuable Jewish Value

Why be Jewish – other than the fact that you like it, of course? The most common answer is, “For its values.” But what exactly are Jewish values? I don’t mean grand generalizations like an affinity for justice and an insistence on learning – although these are not irrelevant. I have in mind something very specific, some single teaching that elucidates the Jewish outlook on the world.

My choice for today is ein mukdam um’uchar batorah, “There is no chronological order to Torah,” a teaching used to explain the fact that some things in Torah seem out of order. Implicit in this principle is an insightful understanding of the role of sacred scripture.

Scripture has become problematic in the modern world. On the one hand, acknowledging something as sacred writ is enormously enriching. That is why so many people insist on it even though they no longer believe that it was dictated by God. Scripture provides us with spiritual ballast, connection to times past, a text around which to ritualize a community’s present, a vocabulary for intergenerational discussion, and a sacred story that becomes the center of conversational gravity generation after generation.

But Scripture can also be a problem. Much like a national constitution, it serves its believers as a foundational document, but unlike a national constitution, it cannot be emended. It is, by definition, canonical, and, therefore, unalterable through time. It easily becomes a rival to such other sources of truth as science and reason.

The Rabbis, moreover, believed scripture came from God, making it all the more unalterable by mere human beings. Yet they knew also that some of its claims couldn’t possibly reflect the divine will. Stoning a “stubborn and rebellious son”? Extracting “an eye for an eye and a tooth for a tooth”? Impossible. So they erected the legal fiction of an oral law, a commentary that had come down from Sinai alongside the written Torah and been passed along as an interpretive guide to each successive generation. Jews could now read Scripture selectively.

The Bible’s most morally reprehensible elements, they held, had never actually been acted upon — they were there for other lessons they contained. Even the chronological sequence of the Bible was not actually the way it presented itself: ein mukdam um’uchar batorah.

I understand that as (among other things) a subtle recognition that Scripture cannot collide with science, not even the soft science of history, let alone the hard sciences like geology, chemistry, physics and astronomy. Maimonides (among others) affirmed that understanding. Accepting the consequences of ein mukdam um’uchar batorah allows me to lead my life with the certainty that nothing science finds can conflict with what Judaism has to say.

Galileo said, of his own scientific curiosity, that he was simply investigating God’s second book, nature; the first book, of course, was the Bible. I, similarly, see Torah (my Scripture) as God’s first book, and the universe as the second one — each of them created and revealed in its own way. It seems, at the moment, that the universe was formed from a cosmological singularity that brought time into being; it seems also that the Bible evolved from a historical process conditioned by that very flow of time. If opinions change on either of these realities, so be it. Since both “books” are by the very same author, they cannot contradict one another. I can rest secure that as new scientific findings arrive, my reading of Torah need not conflict with those findings.

In no way does that make Scripture irrelevant. Scripture was never intended to define scientific reality. It provides other benefits, like the ones outlined above. When I want to know how the world works, I go to science. When I want to know what the world means, I go to Torah. We need them both, and ein mukdam um’uchar batorah prevents my having to choose one at the expense of the other.

This insistence on a dual source of truth has been a Jewish hallmark through the ages. In an age of renewed insistence on Scriptural inerrancy, and a time when reasonable people can easily find religion antediluvian, I nominate ein mukdam um’uchar batorah as the most valuable value in the Jewish lexicon.

Escaping May 21 — Big Bang to No Bang with No End in Sight

If you are reading this, you somehow escaped the predicted end of the world yesterday. It was not the first of its kind. In 1956, sociologists Leon Festinger, Henry Riecken, and Stanley Schachter infiltrated an end-of-the-world cult to see what would happen when the doomsday date came and went (When Prophecy Fails, University of Minnesota Press). The prophet (“Mrs. Keech”) and her hard-core loyalists did not despair; they just returned to the books to calculate better.

This week’s prophet is Harold Camping. His specific May 21 date may be idiosyncratic, but millions of Americans expect the world to end with a “rapture” that will transport believers to everlasting salvation and leave everyone else behind for a cataclysmic war to the end. The idea goes back to nineteenth-century Nelson Darby (1800-1882), who divided world history into eras of special divine dispensation, the last of which is in process now. Believers differ in details, but if you doubt that this is, in general, mainstream doctrine all over the United States, check out the best-selling “Left Behind” novels that portray the rapture and the cataclysmic “tribulation” (the accompanying wars) that follow, to see what everyone else is reading while you are reading this.  As of this writing, they have sold over eleven million copies!

Ironically, Christian fundamentalists like Camping deny a big bang at the beginning of time and affirm it at the end: they have the big bang backward.

Belief in a sudden and violent end to history is not just a consequence of biblical literalism – in fact, it is anything but literalism. The May 20 full-page warning in USA Today placed by “Timehasanend. org” cites I Corinthians to the effect that,  “No man… not the angels… nor the son” knows “that [final] day and that hour.” It then takes great pains to disprove the literalism of that.  “The son” cannot mean Christ because I Corinthians  also tells us, “The spirit of God knows all things.” Surely Christ is coterminous with the Son. But Satan is widely called “son [of perdition]”; hence “the son” who does not know the final day and hour must be Satan!  That’s not literalism; we Jews call it midrash.

So biblical inerrancy alone cannot explain the attractiveness of big-bang endings. More significant is the psychological discomfort people have with the alternative: no end in sight. It takes courage to persevere in the drudgery of history. Until modern times, Jews too universally expected God to bring time to an end with a passion. Rabbis warned against reckoning the end.

Modernity funneled messianic expectations into faith in human progress. God wouldn’t end it all, but humans might. Triumphalist Reform rabbis like David Einhorn (1809-1879) suspected that history was finally cranking down to its end, with a messianic era right around the corner. Rationalists today are less sanguine, but they apply the kabbalistic doctrine of tikkun olam to social justice, with the faith that we just need to work harder at moving history along: that’s all.

I am all for social justice, but do we really think a thousand or even a million social action projects will some day break the back of evil?  Even this contemporary form of historicist hopefulness seems hard to hold. And it is dangerous, since unreal expectations are easily dashed and dashed expectations produce apathy. Recall the lessons of When Prophecy Fails. The real insiders to the cause, the true believers (as it were) went back to the books to revise predictions. But the movement rank and file abandoned the whole enterprise. And that is what will happen to social justice, if we promise more than it can deliver.

There is no big bang ending: not by God and not by us. If scientists are right, entropy is going to win: some tens of billions of years from now the stars will burn out but a darkened lifeless cosmos will continue, as galaxies go on endlessly expanding into the void anyway — without us in it.

That does not mean we should give up making life better in the meanwhile. It does mean that we should revise our theology to make the personal good we do sufficient satisfaction in and of itself. There may indeed be moral progress even within the entropy, but it doesn’t matter. All we need to know is that we have been thrust into a world where people are tortured, starved, and suffering, and we have the capacity to relieve their anguish: one by one.

This is no world-altering messiah waiting in the wings to save us. It is not even a messianic movement of the masses taking to the streets or to the ballot boxes. But it is all we’ve got; and it is enough.

The day after May 21, the world is still spinning; we are still on it; and there is no big bang in sight. There is just you and me, armed with goodness and the ability to help. It is “little-bang messianism.” And we are the messiahs.