FRAMING THE DISCUSSION
.הַכּל אֶת וּבורֵא שָׁלום עשה ,חשֶׁךְ וּבורֵא אור יוצֵר ,הָעולָם מֶלֶךְ אֱלהֵינוּ 'ה אַתָּה בָּרוּךְ
Praised are You, Lord our God, King of the Universe, Who fashions light and creates darkness; Who makes peace and creates everything.
From the Daily Shacharit Service.
Misunderstanding Physics and Astronomy; Interpreting Creation
What is at stake for Jewish philosophy in the question of the nature of space is once again the determination of what it means to believe that God created the universe. Here, however, we need to add the modifying clause “out of nothing.”
The early rabbis determined not only that God created the universe but that he created it from nothing. Furthermore, this negative action is what the scriptures intend. But the question is, what does nothing mean? For the classical Jewish philosophers the question of created nothing turned on their Aristotelian analysis of space and matter. However, as we have seen, modern astrophysics has radically different conceptions of both. Hence, only if Jewish philosophers first understand the nature of both matter and space can they make intelligible what the central rabbinic doctrine of creation out of nothing means. Without the science, the professed belief is (to paraphrase the Rambam in the first book of his Mishneh Torah) mere verbiage devoid of meaning.4
There is no greater difference than this between classical and modern intellectual life: Almost all world religions, including most expressions of Judaism, claim that the so-called plastic world, which means the universe that we perceive by means of our external senses (touch, smell, taste, hearing, and sight), is not all of reality; there is also something called the spiritual world. Furthermore, most of these religions (including Judaism) are more committed to the value of the spiritual than they are to the plastic.5 In contrast, it is almost universally agreed by most modern scientists that any claims about real spiritual entities are in principle excluded from the domain of science. This modern scientific dogma does not in and of itself entail that nothing real is spiritual. However, it does entail that any consideration of the spiritual is in principle not science unless it can be reduced to considerations of something materially positive.
Shabbat Among the Stars
A few years ago on a Shabbat evening at Adat Shalom Reconstructionist Congregation in Bethesda, Maryland an almost surely unprecedented event occurred. Through the magic of the Hubble Telescope, the internet, and the digital projector, congregants were able to see large images of the vast, exploding universe in which we are all suspended. As the images were paraded one by one before the amazed eyes of the congregants, Steve Brody, an Institute for Science and Judaism Board member and astrophysicist, identified and explained them. Some were familiar; most were not.
There were galaxies, clusters of galaxies, clouds of interstellar gas in which stars are being created, dying stars, and the remains of a supernova. While Steve explained the scientific significance of these denizens of space, a rabbi declaimed passages from the Tanach, our Hebrew Bible. In apposition to a photograph of the Milky Way in which the profusion of stars that comprise it appeared in all their glory, the rabbi quoted God’s promise to Abraham:
took him outside and said “Look toward heaven and count the
if you are able to count them.”
And He added “So shall your offspring be.”
Looming over it all were the words of Isaiah, the most gifted prophet of them all, putting us puny mortals into perspective:
is [God] who is enthroned above the vault of the earth,
so that its inhabitants seem as grasshoppers;
who spread out the skies like gauze,
Stretched them out like a tent to dwell in.
I am convinced that behind the universe, imbedded in it, at work in it, immanent in it, there is a unifying mystery at work, a force, something that, in revelatory moments transports us into another ego state. Where does that notion come from? Why from our tradition, of course. From our ancestors who sensed it as well, although they personified it, as the ancients often personified what we have come to understand as forces, or the outcome of complex interactions, perhaps on the molecular, atomic or subatomic levels. The underlying universal force that we still sense, they imagined to have certain aspects of a human being.
Modern Interpretations and Unanswered Questions
It is because of Darwin – and “Darwin” here means not only his evolutionary biology but also the accompanying evidence of geology, astrophysics, and a host of other scientific data…that theology has been transformed…
…[T]he inevitability of this move is most loudly proclaimed by the fact that we talk about the biohistory of our planet and its species without recourse to divine intervention. If God is not present in “Creation”, as the medieval already understood, neither providence nor the possibility of miracles remains. With that, there is little more to talk about than the human idea of God and various psychological and social benefit – or perhaps detriments – that such belief entails. The best representatives of modernity in the Jewish theological conversation, Hermann Cohen in the German neo-Kantian context and Mordecai M. Kaplan against the background of American pragmatism, both operated within these bounds.
The most impassioned and inspiring Jewish religious voices in the twentieth century were those shaped by religious existentialism and phenomenology, attempts to set aside or “bracket” the seemingly insurmountable modern objections to the claims of faith and to rebuild Judaism around an intimate personal relationship with God, a renewed study of the premodern Jewish sources, and the need for religious community. In varying ways, Franz Rosenzweig, Martin Buber, J.B. Soloveitchik, and A.J. Heschel all fall into this category…But like their existentialist counterparts in Christendom, these thinkers were all longer in passion than in defining precisely what they meant by “God”…None of them was quite able or willing to tell his readers just what the God of love, devotion, and demand might have to do with the history of our physical universe, the evolution of life, and the emergence of humanity from among the primates.
A Modern Orthodox Perspective
Yet I don’t think it is possible to begin to speak about Jewish theology without an acceptance of God’s presence in the world and God’s inspiration (however defined) of certain people who were able to achieve a closeness with the Divine.
I say this even though I personally am comfortable removing God from almost everything that takes place in the world, a position that many in my own community will view as inauthentic. While my view is certainly a break from what is often expressed among the Orthodox, Maimonides, the preeminent medieval Jewish philosopher, and other thinkers of his time believe that the world generally functions according to the laws of nature and humans act in autonomous fashion…
I have found this naturalistic perspective to be religiously helpful in many ways, not least of which religion no longer focuses on what God does for me but how best I should live my life…Needless to say, such a perspective means that the liturgy of the High Holy Days, which speaks of God’s involvement in all that happens, is not to be read literally.
“Experiencing” God – an analogy, with apples, egos, and quarks
But is the difference between seeing God and seeing an apple an intrinsic difference? [No]. I begin by suggesting three possible analogies for the epistemological1 process involved in knowing God: seeing a basketball team’s passing game, seeing an ego, and seeing a quark.
[S]eeing a passing fame is different from seeing a star basketball player. We clearly see the player as we see an apple; we know what he looks like or we identify him by the name and number on his shirt. But seeing the passing game involves seeing…a patterned relationship in which the ball is moved back and forth between five players…[T]hough I know nothing about passing games, the coach does, and he can bring a wealth of experience on what he sees and judge it. In other words, there is an interactional quality to this experience; both of us see the same objective game, but, in a way, we also see different games, or we see the one game differently, depending on what we bring to the experience…But there is a passing game out there; it is not an invention of basketball coaches and players.
Similarly, to see an ego is not to see an apple…To see someone’s ego is to see one specific, complex, pattern of human behavior…Here too the frame is limited, to the individual human being and his or her life experience…the psychologist and I see the same behavior, but the former brings a wealth of professional training and experience…that enables him or her to see what I can’t see…
Again, seeing a quark is not like seeing an apple. But a trained nuclear physicist brings her interpretive structure (theory or myth) to look at the computer printout of the activity that took place in her supercollider and then claims to see a quark. I look at the same printout and see a chaotic mass of numbers; she sees a quark.
Seeing God is like any of these, probably most like seeing an ego…Here the frame of reference is immense, the broadest possible canvas: all of nature, history, and human experience…We discover the patterns and then identify them, name them, and the names are our inventions, just as we invent the names “ego” and “quark”. We can do this because the patterns are out there to be discovered.
What are these God-patterns? They constitute what I call the core of the classic, metaphorical system for God in Judaism: a sense of the integrity of all things (God is ehad, one); a sense of a transcendent reality that governs all of history and nature; a sense that this reality is personal…and…a sense that this transcendent reality cares about creation and about me.
From Neil Gillman, Doing Jewish Theology, Woodstock, VT, Jewish Lights, 2008.
1 “Epistemology” is the part of philosophy that inquires into whether and how people can acquire knowledge or know about something.