Jewish Belief in the Age of Science


         


 
 
 
 

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Mystical Judaism in the Age of Science

By Yechezkel Gold

God gave Torah to Israel on Mount Sinai after the Exodus from Egypt. Since then, the way of the Torah has been beset by challenges and confrontations issuing from the ethos of the cultures with which it has come into contact. Ideally, the People of Israel should have dwelt alone, as the verse states: "a people that dwells alone" (Numbers 23, 9).

This was indeed the case, to a significant extent, when our people lived in our land, and in particular in the days of the Temple when the Divine Presence resided among them, as the verse states: "And they shall make for Me a sanctuary and I will reside among them" (Exodus 25, 8).

Influence from foreign thought was unwelcome, as the verse forbidding intermarriage states: "for he will turn your son away from me and they will serve foreign gods and God's wrath will be kindled against you" (Deuteronomy 7, 4). The influence of other cultures greatly intensified on the Jews, of course, after the Temple's destruction and our people's going into exile.

Nevertheless, Torah and Judaism have remained unchanged. Certainly, the Rabbis' teachings developed and elaborated in the course of the generations, but always with great caution to remain faithful to the underlying spirit and principles. The basic assumption is that Torah is truth and obligatory for the Jews. There are 613 Torah commandments and the correct way to live according to them is made explicit in the rabbinic literature.

The guiding principle is that God taught Moses the entire Torah, the Oral as well as the Written, at Mount Sinai, an including even a "new" deduction that a sharp-witted student will create in the distant future. Thus, a new deduction means only to properly render explicit what was formerly implicit. (Written Torah refers to the Bible; Oral Torah to the correct meaning and implications of the Written Torah [ Maimonides, Introduction to Mishna Torah]). For this reason, the Rabbis carefully distinguished and excluded teachings deviating from authentic Torah.

The Talmud tells us that our exile is part of God's master plan, implying that it is not just punishment for our sins. Adapting successfully to non-Torah cultures while remaining fully Torah observant has been the test, not only of the Jewish people, but also of Torah. Revealing that - and how - the Torah applies in every situation in every society means passing the test.

Each foreign culture poses its own challenges, intellectual as well as practical, to Torah conduct. There were always those who passed the test and thereby bequeathed God's legacy, enriched, to succeeding generations and to eternity, and those who faltered, perhaps living on the sidelines, being Jewish in name and in fact but not very much in deed, eventually being lost through intermarriage. But the story of Torah and the People of Israel is the story of those who remained faithful to God's way.

Each generation has had its teachers and writers who showed the way from the physical and cultural reality of their time to authentic and sincere Torah observance, whether in the realm of practice (a particularly creative and important field in recent times because of accelerated technological advances) or in the realm of the personal beliefs and ideals that lie at the foundation of Jewish practice.

The ethos of the Age of Science poses many challenges to Torah belief. Many have abandoned the faith because of materialism, a belief ( which can be construed to be consistent with Science) denying God and spirituality. Moreover, widespread ignorance prevents most Jews from making an intelligent assessment of their religion. The number of Jews for whom Torah is almost inaccessible because of lack of education and Torah upbringing and because of the many hurdles scientific ideology and the ethos of our times present, is certainly unprecedented. May God help us to remove some of these hurdles.

Science's ideology is founded upon verification, a requirement premised upon the assumption of determinism. Data that cannot be verified, and especially which have been contradicted by other data, are dismissed. The underlying principle of verification is that there are underlying principles with which all date the must be consistent.

When Einstein said "God does not play dice with the world", he was expressing a belief in science that there is no real randomness. He equated this with God's direction of His creation. For this reason, he opposed some of quantum theory's implications that beyond a certain level of probability, there is no order. Einstein assumed that underlying principles - a basic intelligence operating in the universe in a logical, consistent and predictable manner - manifest God's wisdom. The quantum theory undermined this naive idea about God.

While historically most people until the years of great scientific and technological progress believed in God and followed religion, the advent of quantum theory greatly undermined many people's confidence in God and in Torah. Quantum theory describes conduct of extremely small levels of matter-energy and the impossibility of predicting behavior except using statistical methods for large samples. Suddenly, science exposed the world to the notion - already found in nihilism and existentialism, and subsequently developing in postmodernism greatly bolstered by the authority of science - that we can not discern a Guiding Hand in the nature, that life is not only unpredictable to our finite minds, but that it REALLY is unpredictable. From this came the philosophy of randomness, that (God forbid) there is no Guiding Hand.

The theory of materialism, which denied God and spirit, had already provided a basis for a new, non-spiritual view of man. Behavioral psychology assumed man to be an intricately programmed learning machine, accommodating the organisms' instincts with its environment. Psychoanalysis went further, creating a sort of irreligious, non-spiritual spiritualism. With man's natural tendency to veer from God's way, already much alluded to in the Bible and described in the Rabbinic literature, these new ideologies have provided the naive with an excuse and a basis to stampede away from Torah observance, and for their progeny to be raised ignorant of Torah and what is worse, essentially oblivious of it. Instead, they are brought up with an ideology hostile to Torah values. The idea of randomness suggested and supported by the great prestige of the quantum theory greatly bolstered these notions.

Not that man's, and especially Jews', spiritual side has been obliterated. Many are seeking spirituality, especially young adults, and they are venturesome in their quest. An Israeli working in India recently was discussing with an Indian the prominence of Israel and Israelis in current world events as reported by the media. The Indian, marveling, asked how many Jewish Israelis there are (there are about 5 million at present) and the Israeli replied, "about 5 million". The Indian, thinking his question had been misunderstood, "corrected " him: "No, I did not mean to ask how many Israelis there are in India, but how many there are in Israel." It is commonplace for young Israelis to travel to the Orient and other "exotic" places in their search for meaning and spirituality.

My sense is that they do not find what they seek there, and eventually subside into a sort of anguished, suppressed resignation to materialism. Some find some outlet for their spiritual nature in political ideology and in other ideologies such as concern for the environment or exaggerated involvement with the body and with health. While the latter concerns are indeed matters deserving some attention, they hardly constitute an adequate spiritual system.

Wrong, shallow intellectual assumptions have stymied the soul's spirituality. To many People, despite conscious or subconscious unrequited spirituality (and I would argue that expressing connection to God is the nature of man's soul), secular life continues, bolstered by impressive technological advances and, for most, shallow assumptions about the philosophy of science. Besides, many people at least seemed reasonably content with this (perhaps they are) and others, regarding them, convince themselves that they, too, ought to be content without belief, religion and spirituality. They may blame themselves for their weakness in not being content in a purely material world.

Obviously, this state of affairs could not continue if it were entirely bankrupt. Like the generation of the Tower of Babel, mankind still dreams of erecting an edifice, which will relieve us of all natural problems, thereby eliminating, they hope, the need for God from our lives. As science advances, this even seems to be within reach. We do wish to be placid and content, and confronting basic issues like God and Torah is unsettling, so if we do not absolutely need to deal with God because we are physically comfortable, we generally refuse.

This was also true in ancient times, but the ease of contemporary living tends to cover up the need to seek God. Honestly facing basic issues about God and Torah has always been unsettling. Rashi in hiscommentary on the Torah relates that Moses, alone, among the Prophets, received a communication from God while awake, but other Prophets would swoon during prophecy from the overwhelming power of the experience. The same pertains even with levels of connection to God less potent than prophecy. Living with God means living with constant challenge, intellectual, emotional, and still more within the soul. Facing that challenge often draws one away from practical matters, just as preoccupation with purely practical matters draws people away from God. Only high souls can comfortably integrate the two, an enormous job.

Indeed, in order to devote oneself properly even to Torah study, and in particular, to living practically according to Halacha, the Jewish laws, most people need to put the immediate struggle to come to personal terms with God at least temporarily in abeyance. This may be the simple meaning of the quote, "if only they would leave Me and guard My Torah" (Lamentations Rabbah). Nevertheless, individuals for whom honesty and integrity are important generally consider personal, direct dealing with God indispensable.

In Cabalistic terms, souls which must alternate between renewing their direct connection and commitment to God on the one hand, and expressing their commitment to Him through Torah study and living according to His commandments on the other, are called "nursing souls". There are three general types of soul, termed "unborn, nursing and mature". Analogous to an embryo, the unborn type of soul lives without spiritual awareness. Hopefully those individuals will live according to Torah out of habit and education, but they will not have confronted the personal meaning of Torah.

Like an infant who has emerged as an individual into the world but returns often to mother for physical and emotional sustenance, the "nursing" soul alternates between intimate, open connection with God such as through prayer and contemplation, and actualizing this connection in practice through committed orientation toward the world.

A "mature" type of soul has the two states well integrated, so that transition from prayer to tending unfortunates or even transition to working at a job (provided the person can perceive the connection between God and his work) is relatively smooth and unstressful. This is relatively rare.

Many people resolve the difficulty of alternating between the two states by focusing on practical observance and making a contribution to the world. Their prayers are somewhat perfunctory, fulfilling an obligation, renewing and maintaining their commitment to God, Torah and community without too much involvement. This approach may be somewhat shallow, but it works reasonably well for many people. Indeed, Hasidic thought extols the simple faith in Torah as the way of bridging the realm of Godliness with the mundane.

Though the integrity of some souls instinctively needs to periodically make personal contact with God through prayer and/or contemplation, others may come to this for other reasons: they are "called". People tend to turn to God personally when they have serious problems that they cannot solve. Then they begin to pray for help and to seek meaning and solace in God. Erroneously, we may think this tendency a weakness and to consider that answers and comfort achieved thereby wishful thinking. The reality is otherwise.

When pressed, the weak, inadequate individual capitulates, buckles, and conforms. Healthy individuals may find it necessary to take stock and bolster supports by inner, spiritual work, but they will not simply submit. Finding spiritual meaning, ultimately finding God, comes from strength, not from weakness. The completed process, finding the true faith, results in spiritual maturity, an unwavering belief in and dedication to God and Torah.

Actually, this process has two levels, developing concomitantly but distinct. Personal connection to God is the ultimate foundation, what the Rabbis term "the main thing". To bridge this profound level of soul with proper and effective expression of Godliness is the role of Torah. Nothing is outside the Torah.

Just how to use Torah as a bridge is a subtle but crucial point: Many people may begin the process of forming intimate connection with God and Judaism but later withdraw because the all encompassing path of Torah seems to them to dominate their lives and disregard their personal talents and interests. While it is true that closeness to God automatically brings fervent desire to exalt, glorify and serve Him,* this does not mean suppressing one's own unique talents and interests (unless, of course, they really subvert God's Torah, a relatively rare phenomenon). Using our personal interests and talents is the best and most effective way to serve and exalt God. [* Note: Adam was closest to God at the moment of his creation, when he was "the product of God's hands". Our individual souls are in similar intimate union with God, prompting us to Crown God as our King on the anniversary of that event each year, Rosh Hashana. ] Rather, Torah teaches us how to express the exalted sanctity our souls encountered, thereby greatly elevating our world.

Discovering and affirming the role of one's personal talents and interests is important for maximizing this sanctification. Our unique talents are the best bridge between the realm of pure soul and our world. Serving God means making a worthwhile contribution to Judaism, to the world, and is accomplished by being secure in oneself, having done one's personal, inner spiritual work, making personal connection with God and learning to express that sublime inspiration consistent with God's Torah through one's own unique talents.

The Rabbis imply the idea of this bridge between lofty, personal spirituality and individual interests and abilities. The verse states that God gave Moses and Aaron one of the commandments, yet the Rabbis objected that we know that only Moses received God's commandments. The rabbis resolve this seeming discrepancy by saying that when the time came for Moses and Aaron to communicate God's will to the people of Israel, out of mutual respect, each was silent and God's communication issued from between the two (Rashi on Exodus 12, 1). In Cabala, Moses represents "the groom's chaperone" i.e. God's agent, while Aaron represents "the bride's chaperone", i.e. the People of Israel's agent. The Torah emerged between these two realities, between Godly reality and mundane, human reality, bridging them.

Before the age of science, accomplishing this inner, spiritual work was relatively easier. Deep inside, one believed in the veracity and importance of Torah and knew that sinning veers from God and truth. Now, however, with even logic's and causality's claims to absolute reality silenced especially by quantum theory, connecting to God sincerely, and in particular, with inner integrity, is more problematic. Our culture has grave intellectual doubts about the reality of spirit. We have psychologized the soul and even ethics and relativized reality. While earlier ages' challenge was doubting the superiority of Torah all over other systems, they took for granted that honest belief in God and spiritual life were crucial for life. In the Age of Science, these assumptions have been undermined.

I have written elsewhere in an article entitled Mysticism, Kabbala and Science that not only does quantum theory not contradict Torah, but rather that it is more consistent with Torah and consonant with Cabalistic thought than the notions of reality which science entertained previously.

Cabalism, millennia old, describes that above reason and causality are the 13 attributes of mercy through which God can forgive our transgressions despite the (otherwise) necessary negative consequences. These attributes are identified with mazal, luck or chance: they bespeak a non-deterministic world. By revealing the limits of physicality and demonstrating the ubiquitousness of "chance" (actually, Divine Providence) quantum theory is consistent with Torah's truths.

Knowledge of matters of flexibility does not, of course, bring one to conclude the reality of spirit, especially of God and ethics. How, then, can one know? Given life's intrinsic unpredictability, where can one find God? The answer is well known; it requires a certain audacity, as well as scrupulous honesty, to attain. God is independent of the universe, and the universe does not, can not, approve or grasp God. Rather, it requires a "a leap of faith". Let us examine what this leap of faith means.

Although matter is simply inert substratum, being alive means organizing matter into what it can be (or at least trying to). Life means interacting with our environment somewhat independently of it, selecting what is beneficial and rejecting what is pernicious.

Living entities are limited in their degree of independence. Plants simply vegetate and animals add only locomotion and a certain ability to learn to that. Cabalistic literature dubs man "the speaker"; ability to symbolize represents a higher level of independence, intellect not limited by strict physicality, able to perceive what is beyond material and to manipulate material and even ideas from a vantage point relatively independent of the substratum of material and ideas. Man, with greater independence, is more truly alive. The soul, though, can transcend even intellect and connect with God, the ultimate of independence and freedom. Through a leap of faith, the soul rises above causality and reason and doubt and cultural, scientific bias and even self, to God, to glimpse from there the reality that should and could be.

Reality as it should and could be is manifest only through connection to God because only from a perspective coming from closeness to God (each person to the extent he is capable) can one view life truly and have the concomitant sense of responsibility for all, and cherish each creature. Only faith raises the soul to God.

Quantum theory then, revealing more of matter's true behavior, has opened a door to escape the seeming intellectual tyranny of the Age of Science, as the verse states: "the trap broken and we escaped" (Psalms 124).

There remains, in this context, to discuss very briefly the respective roles of Jews and gentiles in God's design. In particular, why the Jews?

As we discussed above, life is an expression of a degree of independence from matter. Each living creature endeavors to shape the material realm according to its own inner blueprint. For humans, the greater independence from matter brings awareness of God. Truly expressing that divine reality requires expressing that independence and responsibility in all aspects of life. The practice of Torah encompasses all aspects of life. Besides their individual meanings, the mitzvohs are vehicles for that independence, expressing the Godly perspective rather than being overly drawn by mundane or selfish considerations. This is often hard work for us Jews, especially when persecution renders the job greatly more difficult.

So why the Jews? Because on some profound level of our being we willingly accept God's sovereignty, because we love good and truth and above all, because we are willing to live for God, i.e. according to Torah (see Rashi on Deuteronomy 33, 2). What of the rest of mankind? If we Jews really lived according to God and Torah, then as the Prophet Isaiah (60, 3) prophesied, "the nations will walk in your lucidity", and we believe that it would assist all mankind to learn to serve God cooperatively (Zefania 3,9).

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