Category Archives: science and religion

Not Knowledge But Wisdom

We confuse knowledge with wisdom. “Knowledge” derives from demonstrable facts: the facts of science, for example, which no serious and informed person can reasonably reject. We may debate alternative interpretations, but the debate will be demonstrably knowledgeable.

Some knowledge arrives less scientifically: how we know someone loves us, or the way a brilliant portrait catches the essence of its subject. These things too are “knowledge.”

Wisdom is something else altogether. It is insight into living deeply and well. All the knowledge in the world need not add up to wisdom, and wisdom can come from someone with no formal education whatever – “out of the mouths of babes,” as the saying goes (from Psalms 8:2, actually).

Religion converts knowledge into wisdom. A scholar may be exceptionally knowledgeable about the Talmud. The same scholar becomes your rabbi , however, only if that knowledge supplies wisdom also.

The S’lichot  service, this Saturday night, anticipates the High Holidays that begin just a few days later. We label them “high” because of the wisdom, not the knowledge, they provide. Take sermons, for example. Packed only with knowledge, they fail. What we want from sermons is wisdom, that we may live better.

So too, High Holiday prayers offer wisdom, rather than knowledge. Sh’ma koleinu  (“[God], hear our voice”), for example, is a central S’lichot  prayer. The searcher after knowledge questions scientifically if God can really hear, and, if so, how God does the hearing. “Renew our days, as of old,” the prayer continues. The seeker after knowledge is skeptical: Can we really recover the days of our youth?

As knowledge, these prayers fail.  God is not a super-human being with extra-sharp hearing; and the past is really “passed” – it is unrecoverable.

Yet the prayer remains “true” as wisdom. “God,” said theologian Henry Slonimsky (1884-1970), “is the Friend we suppose to exist behind the phenomena.” Behind the phenomena, note! Beyond what science studies. God is, alternatively, a “power making for righteousness,” according to Matthew Arnold, whom Slonimsky liked to cite, and who influenced Mordecai Kaplan to define God as “the power that makes for salvation.”

Wisdom relies on proverb, poetry and metaphor: language that is evocative more than it is descriptive. That God should “hear our voice,” Slonimsky insisted, expresses “the demand of the human heart” that our voices of pain and aspiration deserve being heard.

“How tragically inadequate the response,” he conceded, knowing full well that prayers may not be “answered.” But nonetheless, “we are so convinced of their utter righteousness, we will not take no for an answer.”

Here lies the wisdom of the High Holidays: the insistent cry of the human spirit. We are not so constructed as to be slavishly accepting of anything less than what this spirit instinctively demands: righteousness and justice, truth and goodness; we will fight to the end that these may prevail.

That same human spirit, however, is part and parcel of the universe, part of evolution itself, as if something about the universe is supportive of the spirit’s insistence. That “something” is the “Friend behind the phenomena” in Slonimsky’s words, the “power making for righteousness” for Matthew Arnold: what we normally call God.

The seemingly endless praying on these Days of Awe add up to more than the meaning of any given prayer. The experience as a whole reaffirms not just what God wants from us but what we demand of God: Yes, “righteousness” above all! Yes, “justice” and “truth” too. The human heart is certain of these certainties. It is our very nature to live with purpose derived from the promise that these will triumph.

We acknowledge (“knowledge,” that is) that our trials and tribulations may persist even after the prayers are over. But the wisdom of prayer is no less certain. Our lives are not for naught; we are part of something greater than whatever it is that pains us. We have a voice that demands being “heard”; and yes, we can feel ourselves renewed “as of old.”


A Realist’s View of Heaven; or Just, “Heaven, Really!”

The universe, we like to imagine, encompasses two categories of reality: the heavenly and the earthly. We know what the earthly is – science has been studying it for centuries. But what, exactly, is the heavenly? The usual explanations are often unenlightening – they just replace one problematic word (heavenly) with others (divine, Godly, spiritual, and so on), leaving us pretty much where we started: wondering if “heavenly” is anything real altogether — anything more, that is, than a wishful figure of speech.

The medieval commentator Ibn Ezra objects to this evasion of clarity. In the portion of Torah called Ha’azinu (Deuteronomy 32) — which Jews read in synagogue this coming week — for example, Moses calls on heaven and earth as witnesses (v. 32:1), and Ibn Ezra disparages interpretations that identify “the heavenly” as angels, or even rain. Yes, the angels must live in heaven and yes, rain comes from on high, but neither term tells us anything about heaven itself. “Actually,” he concludes, “heaven and earth” denote the two categories of “everything that has permanent existence.”

Let’s start there: we have two categories of existence that are permanent: the heavenly and the earthly. What can we add, without lapsing into dubious metaphysics?

The earthly is familiar to us. Over four centuries of scientific analysis has built up massive sets of laws describing it. Unfortunately, these laws are stunningly amoral – they explain the phenomena of nature, but without regard for good and bad, right and wrong. Philosopher John Stuart Mill captured the problem by observing: “Nature impales men… burns them to death… starves them with hunger, freezes them with cold…. A single hurricane destroys the hopes of a season…. All this Nature does with the most supercilious disregard both of mercy and of justice.”

So religion adds a category: the heavenly, something equally real, albeit not amenable to scientific measurement. We should not think of “the heavenly” as a separate realm, however, some actual space somewhere or other. It is just another perspective on the same phenomena that we study with science. It too looks at nature but from the perspective of human empathy, and the consequent demand for mercy and justice.

The earthly perspective of science provides an unsympathetic calculus of how the universe works: how hurricanes happen, for example. The heavenly perspective of empathy evaluates the way that universe affects the lives of those who live in it: not the science of how hurricanes happen, but sympathy for the way a hurricane devastates this ruined farmer or that grieving mother whose child was crushed under a falling tree. “Science and the earthly” measure truth; “empathy and the heavenly” allocate kindness.

The two perspectives coalesce in our concept of life. From a scientific perspective, the various forms of life come and go; Darwinian selection favors continuity of the species, but cares not one whit about any given instance of it. By analogy, sociology or economics, say, can rightly be called “sciences” insofar as they study the laws by which human organizations and the economy operate – without, however, any necessary sympathy for the poor, the sick, and the victimized in the systems that they study. When economists or urban planners actually decide to address these unfortunates, they adopt the perspective of the heavenly.

Thank God for the heavenly perspective that supplements scientific knowledge with kindness. But thank God for scientific understanding too – without it we wouldn’t know how to alleviate the misery that empathy uncovers.

Scholars tell us that the last three portions of the Torah (Deuteronomy 31-34, that is) follow from the portion before them, Nitsavim (Deuteronomy 29:9-30:20), which Jews read in synagogue just two weeks ago (and which Reform Jews read on Yom Kippur as well). There, Moses also summons heaven and earth (v. 30:19), this time to witness the claim that we are given life and death, and the insistence that we choose life. But who wouldn’t choose life? Why remind us about the obvious?

The point must be that in choosing life, we risk choosing only one of the two perspectives on it. We actually need both: the scientific laws on how life works, and the empathic kindness toward the way those laws impact the less fortunate among us.

Quite rightly, Moses calls both heaven and earth as witnesses to history. Either one alone, science without empathy or empathy without science, will ruin us.

Things and Their Significances

Jack London (“To Build a Fire”) tells the chilling tale of a solitary hiker traversing the Yukon at 50 degrees below zero. “He was,” says London, “quick and alert in the things of life but only in the things, and not in the significances….The trouble with him was that he had no imagination.” He knew it was cold – knew, in fact, that it was fifty degrees below zero. But he did not then “meditate upon his frailty as a creature of temperature, and upon man’s frailty in general… and from there … to the conjectural field of immortality and man’s place in the universe.”

Here are two levels of imagination. Elemental self-preservation requires the first: “to meditate upon his frailty as a creature of temperature.” Religion raises the second:  “man’s frailty in general… and the conjectural field of immortality and man’s place in the universe.”

Religion is a sort of imagination. It is the study of significances. To be religious is to be alive not just to things but to their significances. It is a flight of fancy, but not fantasy. It is the positing of a connective tissue behind and beyond phenomena.


Until modernity, conversation was rife with religious imagination. When, by the seventeenth century, modernity pushed the scientific system for all it was worth, religion failed, at first, to keep up. Only in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries did religion finally make the necessary intellectual advances, and in many places, it has yet to do so still. Where it has matured, however, sophisticated religionists acknowledge the validity of both science and religion: the knowledge of things and the imagination of their significances.

But when science came into its own, religion lost its monopoly on the imaginative process. Art had always been in service of religion, but as religion paled, art – itself, potentially, an exploration of significances — sprung itself free. Many artists conscientiously eschewed the task of imagining significances, but others developed their own alternative systems of exploring what things mean, and in so doing, became, by definition, religious once again, but independently and maturely so.


Identity is the name we give to the allegiance we have to one set of significances over another: to music, say, rather than religion; or to sports or business, for that matter. Any given set of facts can “mean” different things. A devastating tsunami may mean the market will go down (business); God is punishing humanity through a flood (one form of religion); we must find meaning in mortality (another kind of religion) and unite as a human community to do what we can to save one another (religion, again, but with an ethical component).

London’s Yukon hiker is a fictitious anomaly. Most human beings cannot escape the search for some underlying system of significations. The only question is what set of underlying significations any one of us espouses.



B’ha’alotcha: On Ritual, Religion, and Obsessive-Compulsive Disorder

Freud did not have our sedra specifically in mind when he wrote his treatises on religion. He would have pointed to its demand that the Passover sacrifice be done “in accordance with all its rules and rites” as evidence of his claim that religion is a caricature of obsessive-compulsive neurosis.

To be sure, it is a ritual; and the very nature of ritual is that it must be done “just right.” But that was, of course, Freud’s very point.

Still, Freud was not altogether objective in his critique. Lots of things, not just religion, are done “just right,” including Freud’s own writings which follow very strict canons of scientific research and argument. In the government of Freud’s Vienna, everything followed exact bureaucratic specification. And if Freud had consulted his own physician, lawyer, or accountant, he would have noticed all due attention being paid to detail.

As to ritual, whatever academic conferences Freud attended were nothing, if not ritually determined as to such things as who gave papers to whom; and who responded and how. Indeed, the psychoanalytic method has itself been described as a highly ritualized process. It was not, therefore, ritual that Freud found objectionable so much as it was religion, which he had rejected long before he applied his psychological theory to it. Freud’s commitment to scientific secularism had no room for religion, and as time went on, Freud developed theories that justified his objections.

But Freud was a genius and a doggedly accurate observer of human behavior; he was not, therefore, altogether wrong. Sometimes religious ritual does approximate obsessive-compulsive disorder. An example is the way some medieval Jews interpreted the phrase, “in accordance with all its rules and rites.” The 11th-century rabbi, Joseph Tov Elem (or Bonfils, his French surname), incorporated the line into a pre-Passover synagogue poem that highlighted the importance of attending to every detail of Passover preparation. One verse of that larger composition still concludes our Haggadah: “The Passover celebration has concluded appropriately,” we say, “in accordance with all its rules and rites.”

Bonfils had internalized an attitude that pervaded Christian circles in his day: the idea that religious rites (like baptism and Eucharist) achieve their intended impact as an automatic consequence of punctilious attention to detail. By contrast, skipping a single step or doing anything out of order renders the ritual null and void, so at roughly the same time that Bonfils was writing his poem, other rabbis were developing mnemonics to guide Seder leaders in doing everything “just right.” We still have one such mnemonic today: Kadesh urchatz, by Samuel ben Solomon of Falaise. We chant it as the Seder begins just to anticipate what follows, but originally, it was used to guarantee that the Seder not be rendered worthless on account of an error in order.

In its time, this was indeed an obsessive-compulsive attitude, but it is not typical of the mainstream Jewish approach to ritual over the years. Even “in accordance with all its rules and rites” was interpreted to mean more than an obsessive concern for sacrificial detail. Both Rashi and Ramban, for example, think it also entails linking the ritual acts of the Passover sacrifice to the non-ritual aspects of the Passover message — eating unleavened bread, for instance, as a recollection of the haste with which Jews departed Egypt so long ago. Elsewhere, too, the impact of halachic action is not normally believed to follow magically as a consequence of doing it flawlessly.

Of course we perform our rituals “properly.” Otherwise they would not be rituals. But everything that matters deeply to us gets done that way: arranging an anniversary evening, perfecting a golf swing, posing for an important photograph, creating a beautiful dinner: these are all examples of making sure that details do not get overlooked. Far from being obsessive-compulsive behavior, these are instances of artistic enterprise.

The lesson of it all — from the biblical Passover sacrifice to the Seder of today, and every other ritual we have as well — is that human beings have an artistic impulse at our very core. We describe God’s original act of creation as artistry; and we have been partners with God ever after. We love harmonized melodies, complementary color schemes, matching clothes, flowing language, and even coincidences that suggest patterns behind pure randomness. We should conclude (contra Freud) that while people can use ritual to further their own obsessive-compulsive needs, most of us appreciate it for its artistry — the means to express ourselves through what is graceful, elegant, beautiful, and profound.

The Bible Is Fiction

I once remarked that some of Freud’s work should be filed under F, for Fiction. “Oh,” replied my hearer, “One of my professors does that with the Bible.”

I was wrong and the Bible professor was right – but for an unobvious reason, a reason with deep consequences for the life of the spirit.

Properly speaking, fiction is a judgment we make about literature, not about truth.  “There are plenty of factually true statements in almost all works of fiction,” says Terry Eagleton (The Event of Literature), “but it is how they function strategically or rhetorically that counts.” If I start by saying “Once upon a time,” I invite you into an exercise in fictionalizing, even if what I say next is altogether fact. “Once upon a time, there was a president named Nixon, and he was almost impeached.” All true! But nonetheless, you wonder, “What’s your point? What moral are you pointing to by making it a ‘once upon a time’ statement?”

“Once upon a time” (like fiction in general) goes beyond concerns for the truth or falsity of what really happened. Fiction is like drama, where the historical accuracy behind, say, Shakespeare’s Richard III is not the issue. Richard wasn’t as bad as Shakespeare portrayed him, but so what? Shakespeare’s point is moral, not historical – moral in the sense of providing a lesson about the human condition. Both fiction and drama are presentational modes of communication. They are works of art. They have a presentational point to make.

By contrast, Freud’s Totem and Taboo is not presentational. It is written rather well, even artfully, in places, but its artistry is beside the point, whereas the artfulness of fiction is not. However well Freud wrote it, Totem and Taboo is an altogether specious account of the way ritual developed historically. Freud meant it as science, and its problem, therefore, is that it is bad science, not that it is fiction.

The Bible, however, is fiction, because, overall, its authors meant it as presentation, not as science, or even as history, which is a form of science with its own scientific rules of evidence. Sometimes they accepted the truth of the stories they used, but sometimes, they did not — Job and Esther describe personalities who never lived, and the authors knew it. Some of it reports historical fact, of course: there was a King David, as there was a Babylonian invasion. There was also a prophet named Isaiah, but his prophecies were included in the Bible to give us lessons of morality not of history. The same is true of Genesis through Deuteronomy, Kings, Judges and all the other books, some of whose characters really lived and some of whom didn’t. It doesn’t matter. Fiction can be chock-full of characters who really lived, with a story line of things they really did – and still be fiction.

“Fiction,”  says Eagleton, “is a question of how texts behave and of how we treat them.” The question is what we are invited to do with the biblical text.

Until relatively recently (the invention of printing) The Bible was read and studied, usually out loud, for the moral lessons within it. But then came printing, along with reading as a personal pastime and fiction as what people liked best to read. Fiction was falsely viewed as private entertainment about nothing substantive, hardly the moral equivalent of history, philosophy and science, which were public truths.

The Bible now seemed fictitious because it wasn’t “true” in the way that history, philosophy and science are. Supporters of the Bible bristled at this claim because fiction was considered paltry, hardly what you would stake your life on. The Bible is history, these defenders insisted, fact not fiction.

But that judgment misses the point. Even if every bit of the Bible were literally true, it would still be fiction because of the reason it was compiled, the reason we insist on reading it, and its presentational nature as a world unto itself with its own unique lessons to impart. If you want to know such things as the point of existence, the meaning of life, and the ways humankind has gone right and wrong, you cannot do a whole lot better than start with fiction: the fiction that is the Bible.

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 LogicoPhilosophicus, 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.