Tag Archives: Abraham Joshua Heschel

What Truly is a “Miracle”?

(This post was written for Huffington Post’s “TEDWeekends” series)

Do we still experience miracles today? It all depends on what we think a “miracle” truly is.

Often, when we think of miracles, we envision the events that form the basis for many religious traditions — the parting of the Red Sea, Jesus healing the lepers, Mohammed rising up to heaven.

But we also use the word “miracle” in more everyday situations. When a family member recovers from an illness, we call it a “miracle.” When we narrowly avert a disaster, we call it a “miracle.” When we think, “If I had missed that dinner party, I never would have met my spouse,” we call it a “miracle.”

And perhaps the most common way we use the word miracle is in “the miracle of birth,” which Alexander Tsiaris’ TEDTalk, “Conception to Birth — visualized” shows us quite concretely.

Tsiaris’ work helps us see all the miracles that occur as each of us comes into this world, and he gives us several examples. As our body develops in the womb, our cells somehow “know” what to do: collagen, which is usually opaque, becomes transparent in the only part of our body that needs to be — our eyes. In only weeks, two parallel strands fold over each other like origami, and we develop our heart. During one phase of pregnancy, our cells grow so quickly that if that pace were maintained for the full nine months, we would weigh 3000 pounds at delivery.

All of the elements in pregnancy, the whole process, truly seems “miraculous,” and yet it happens thousands of times each and every day. So if it is so common, how could it be “miraculous”?

Tsiaris says it well at the beginning of the talk — when you see the journey from conception to birth, “you just have to marvel.” And that’s what a “miracle” truly is, at least in Judaism: something that makes us go “wow.”

Indeed, the Hebrew word for miracle, “nes,” really means a “sign.” It’s not necessarily a voice from the heavens, or even a deviation from the natural order, although those would certainly astound us. Instead, a nes is something that engenders a sense of awe and mystery.

In fact, there’s even a section in the morning liturgy called the “nisim b’chol yom,” “the miracles of the every day.” Each morning when we wake up, we are supposed to offer thanks to God for the most mundane realities — for being able to see. For having clothes to wear. For being able to walk. For having awoken from our sleep.

There are at least two purposes to the nisim b’chol yom. First, it is to remind us that many people don’t have a place to sleep, clothes to wear, or food to eat, and so we have a responsibility help fix that. But even more importantly, it’s to remind us just how likely we are to take our daily blessings for granted. The nisim b’chol yom, the miracles of the eeryday, are designed to create a daily sense of wonder. It’s less about thanking God than it is about giving thanks for the mystery

And that’s how I interpret Tsiaris’ line that there is “divinity” in the way we come into existence. I don’t think he means it in the sense of the “God of the gaps,” implying that if there’s something we don’t understand, “God did it.” Scientific knowledge will continue to move forward, giving us a clearer and deeper comprehension of how things work. Instead, I think he means “divinity” in the way Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel talked about the goal of religious living: “to experience commonplace deeds as spiritual adventures, to feel the hidden love and wisdom of all things.” (God in Search of Man, 49)

So even as we develop a deeper understanding of the way the world works, even as we understand the nuances of the complex world we live in, we can always reclaim our sense of wonder.

As Tsiaris’ video so powerfully shows, life truly is a miracle — and that’s a fact we should never forget.

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How Should We Talk About Science and Religion?

As someone who loves both religion and science, I often struggle with how they interact.

Are they in opposition to each other? Do they need to be reconciled? What happens when new scientific knowledge challenges the tenets of my faith?

Part of the difficulty in talking about science and religion is that there are several different ways we can discuss their interaction. Dr. Jennifer Wiseman, the Director of the Dialogue on Science, Ethics and Religion at the American Association for the Advancement of Science, outlined several different models in an outstanding talk. Therefore, inspired by her, I want to share four different ways we can frame the discussion about how we talk about science and religion.

Contrast

The Contrast model is probably the most common way people speak about the interaction of science and religion. Often, this view is boiled down to the idea that “science deals with ‘how’ and religion deals with ‘why.'”

Stephen Jay Gould popularized it with the phrase “Non-Overlapping Masteria” (NOMA), which he describes as follows: “The magisterium of science covers the empirical realm: what the Universe is made of (fact) and why does it work in this way (theory). The magisterium of religion extends over questions of ultimate meaning and moral value. These two magisteria do not overlap.”

But there are two problems with this paradigm. First, religion has theories about what the universe is made of — for example, Jewish tradition has statements about the way the world came into being and why the world is the way it is. And science is now talking about morality and even meaning, with books like Sam Harris’ The Moral Landscape about the science of morality and The Brain and the Meaning of Life by Paul Thagard about neuroscience and meaning. Thus the magesteria, in fact, do overlap.

 Second, and perhaps even more importantly, it’s simply not true that science talks only (or even primarily) about “how” — there’s a lot of “why” in there, asking questions like, “Why is there something instead of nothing? Why do our brains work in the way that they do?” Similarly, religion doesn’t talk only (or even primarily) about “why” — there’s a lot of “how” in there, asking  questions like, “How do did humans come to be? How should we act in this world?”

So for people who view themselves as both scientific and religious, the Contrast model often makes them comfortable. But as science enters into the realm that has historically been the purview of religion, and especially if we look more deeply at religion and at science, this model stops working very well.

Concert

The Concert model is the opposite of the Contrast model, as people try to directly reconcile science and religion. It is another attractive outlook to those who are both dedicated to their faith and committed to reason, since it means they would not have to reject either. This model makes claims such as the concept of a “day” in Genesis may actually be billions of years, or that the crossing of the Red Sea was actually finding a swamp that could be crossed at low tide.

But here, too, there are problems with this view. After all, science is always changing, discovering new data and revising theories. If science and religion are in concert, what happens to religious faith when new scientific evidence arises? Indeed, not only physics and biology but also human sciences such as archaeology, political science and history are helping us understand who we are, why we do what we do, and our place in the universe. So if religious faith is based on science, what happens when science presents new evidence?

Indeed, this model makes it hard to do a critical analysis of Biblical texts, and that type of study frequently leads to a crisis of faith. In order for it to work, this model requires significant mental gymnastics, and forces people to maintain only a surface understanding of both science and religion.

So while this view may be appealing at first, it is actually quite fragile. All that needs to happen is for science to discover something that contradicts a deeply-held belief, and people will easily elect either atheism or fundamentalism.

Conflict

The Conflict model is the paradigm that gets the most press, and it claims that religion and science are inherently incompatible. It’s the idea that if you buy into one, you must reject the other. This worldview is exemplified by Richard Dawkins and Christopher Hitchens on one side, and people who deny evolution because it contradicts the Bible on the other.

But while this outlook generates the most passion from people on the extremes, there are a vast number of people who do not buy into it.

An article in the Huffington Post describes recent work by sociologist Elaine Ecklund, who

…interviewed 275 tenured and tenure-track faculty members from 21 research universities in the United States. Only 15 percent of respondents said religion and science were always in conflict, while 15 percent said the two were never in conflict. The majority, 70 percent, said religion and science are only sometimes in conflict.

Similarly, a study from Pew Research Forum showed that “a solid majority of Americans (61%) say that science does not conflict with their own religious beliefs. Even among those who attend worship services at least once a week, a slim majority (52%) sees no conflict between science and their faith.”

Thus while zealous advocates on each side often dominate the discussion, there is a large silent majority who do not see science and religion as inherently in conflict.

The bigger problem is that while the Conflict model produces a lot of heat, it rarely creates light. It regularly devolves into unproductive arguments and ad hominem attacks, and causes both scientists and religious people to become either overly aggressive or feel themselves to be “victims” of the other side.

So even though for some people, this is an outlook they hold strongly to, it is much more likely to shut down conversations than to open them.

Contact

This is the outlook that I find most resonant. In this model, science and religion can remain in their own spheres, but when it is appropriate, they can also mutually inform each other, and provide us with a variety of ways to help us know what it means to be human. Indeed, its great value is that it reminds us that both religion and science have to be understood in the context of human experiences, because both religion and science are human endeavors.

The Contact model reminds us that science is not independent of the scientists who pursue their field of inquiry. After all, while the universe may be 13.7 billion years old, and humans may have evolved on the African savannah, it has only been since modern times that human beings have sought to undertake a rigorous understanding of fields like cosmology, paleontology, psychology, neuroscience and biochemistry. We have to remember that not only does scientific knowledge provide information, it is deeply influenced by the passions, the curiosity and the personal experiences of the scientists who pursue it.

Similarly, our own personal experiences influence our religious outlook. People’s feelings about religion are naturally affected by how they were raised and what has happened in their own lives. In the words of Rabbi Laura Geller, “All theology is autobiography.” And while religion is older than science, it is still a human creation, helping us structure our human experiences, and asks deeply human questions like, “How should I act? What should I value? Who should I choose to associate with?”

When we place science and religion in the context of human experiences, we recognize that both science and religion are driven by human needs and are victim to human foibles.   The Contact model thus encourages humility in both science and religion, reminding both sides that there are things we do not know, and things we will never know.

So the other crucial piece to bear in mind for the Contact model is that “religion” and “God” are two separate things. “God” is bigger than any one human being or group of people; “religion” is our particular attempt to understand God, and is necessarily limited. As Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel taught: “[R]eligion for religion’s sake is idolatry…The human side of religion, its creeds, its rituals and instructions is a way rather than the goal. The goal is ‘to do justly, to love mercy and to walk humbly with your God.’ (Micah 6:8)” (I Asked for Wonder, 40-41)

So for those of us who feel connected to God, when we forget that religion is not Divine, but human, we can easily fall into the trap of arrogance and narrow-mindedness. Micah thus reminds us that justice, mercy and humbleness are truly the most important values.

Indeed, our ultimate purpose in life is to strengthen ourselves, both as individuals and as a society. Science does that by giving us a fuller understanding of the world, by advancing knowledge, and by examining the relationship between theory and evidence. Religion does that by giving us a sense of purpose, by strengthening communities, and by giving us a potential glimpse of the Divine.

When we remember that both science and religion are human enterprises, we can remember that the most important question isn’t whether they need to be viewed separately, or if they can be reconciled, or if they are inherently in conflict.

The most important question is: how are they being used?

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The Beauty in Science and the Beauty in Judaism

Think about the most inspiring piece of art you have ever looked at. Or the most powerful book you have ever read. Or the most moving play or movie you’ve seen.

Now — why did you find it so beautiful?

There were probably any number of reasons — it may have changed the way you thought about things. It might have emotionally affected you. It almost certainly stuck with you afterwards.

But despite the fact that whatever you chose was personal and subjective, there seem to be certain facets of beauty that cut across all genres, times and places. Educator Howard Gardner argues in his book Truth, Beauty and Goodness Reframed that there are three main elements of beauty: we find something beautiful if it is interesting, if it is memorable, and if it is has a “pull” to it, leading us to continually come back to it.

In fact, it’s that third factor, what he calls the “invitation to revisit,” that is the sine qua non of beauty. The most beautiful objects are ones we can’t seem to leave alone — there always seems to be more to them than meets the eye on first glance, and the more we experience them, the more we appreciate them. And Gardner explains that this “invitation to revisit” could arise from several possible factors: “one likes the experience, one has curiosity to learn or to understand better, or one has a feeling of awe…” (53)

But what’s fascinating is that two of those elements — curiosity and awe — are two of the driving forces behind both science and Judaism. They are what lead us to see their inherent beauty.

The beauty of science was eloquently described by Nobel-Prize winning physicist Richard Feynman, who talked about what he saw when looked at a flower:

As he says, while he could appreciate the surface beauty of a flower as well as anyone else, knowing about the science broadened and deepened his experience: “I see much more about the flower… I could imagine the cells in there, the complicated actions inside, which also have a beauty…It adds…[a]ll kinds of interesting questions which the science knowledge only adds to the excitement, the mystery and the awe of a flower.” So a fuller understanding of science gave him a richer sense of beauty. And notice what specifically what enriched it: curiosity and awe.

So how do these two elements give us a sense of beauty both in science and in Judaism?

Curiosity

As Feynman tells us, the more questions we can ask about something, and the more ways we can look it, the deeper our appreciation of it will be. Indeed, curiosity in science almost demands an “invitation to revisit,” asking how we can look at the same set of facts in a new way, and looking to see how an answer to one question leads to a whole host of new ones.

But that same process also guides the study of Jewish texts.

Study in Judaism begins with the Torah. But when we study Torah, we are not supposed to stop at the p’shat, the simple, literal level of the text. Instead, we are primarily seeking to create drashot, inerpretations of the text. We are asking, “What are the unspoken assumptions here? What other questions do we need to ask? What are the different ideas that this text is trying to teach, and how many different ways can we read it?”

We do this because while the text is static, we are dynamic. While we read the same words each day, each week, and each year in our prayerbook and in our Torah, what we take away from them changes. We revisit the same texts because when we repeatedly come back to the same words, we find new meaning in them and new ways to discover values that guide our actions. The text is the always the same — but we are not.

And so curiosity, asking new questions, always wondering “What else could this mean?”, leads us to revisit both scientific data and Jewish texts, and elevates our sense of beauty in both realms.

Awe

Science easily gives us a deep sense of wonder, whether we are looking out onto the vast reaches of space, or are examining how our mind works, or are wondering how the variegated species on this earth arose. But even as we intellectually explore those ideas, there will always be an emotional aspect to that experience that we cannot describe in words.

After all, when we feel a moment of awe, we are not seeking to analyze or describe it. Our most powerful experiences, our most wondrous moments, our most significant encounters simply cannot be put into words, let alone dissected and scrutinized. Indeed, it is that very inability to describe those experiences that makes them so beautiful.

And as Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel explains in his landmark book God in Search of Man, that sense of ineffability is the root of religion, as well:

[I]n religious and artistic thinking, the disparity between that which we encounter and that which is expressed in words and symbols, no words and symbols can adequately convey. In our religious situation we do not comprehend the transcendent; we are present at it, we witness it. Whatever we know is inadequate; whatever we say is an understatement. We have an awareness that is deeper than our concepts; we possess insights that are not accessible to the power of expression…

The roots of ultimate insights are found…not on the level of discursive thinking, but on the level of wonder and radical amazement, in the depth of awe, in our sensitivity to the mystery, in our awareness of the ineffable. It is the level on which the great things happen to the soul, where the unique insights of art, religion and philosophy come into being.

[Our experience of God] is the result of wonder and radical amazement, of awe before the mystery and meaning of the totality of life beyond our rational discerning. Faith is the response to the mystery, shot through with meaning; the response to a challenge which no one can forever ignore. (116-117)

So no matter how often we look at a sunset, we will never cease to be amazed by it. No matter how accurately we understand the way babies develop in the womb, when we hold our child for the first time, we will never stop calling it “the miracle of birth.” We are simply overwhelmed by those experiences.

And so religion, as Heschel argues, is how we respond to that sense of awe. Religion doesn’t begin with trying to prove the existence of God. It doesn’t even begin with asking whether we “believe in God” or not. It begins with a moment of mystery. And even if we can scientifically explain that mystery, it will never lose its emotional impact.

Indeed, while curiosity broadens our minds, awe deepens our souls.

Turn it and turn it

Ultimately, it’s that combination of curiosity and awe, that mixture of breadth and depth, that joining of head and heart that allows us to see the beauty not only in science, but in Judaism, as well.

In Pirkei Avot, Ben Bag Bag taught that there is always more to Torah than meets the eye. And so we are to “turn it and turn it, because everything is in it.” (Avot 5:21) But it’s not that the Torah has all the answers — it’s that the more we turn it and turn it, the more we learn about ourselves and our place in the world.

Because there is beauty when we see connections that we had not made before. There is beauty when we discover things we never knew. And there is beauty when we realize just how much we don’t know.

After all, the most beautiful things are ones we keep coming back to — not because the objects themselves have changed, but because we ourselves are constantly discovering new levels of meaning within them.

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