Tag Archives: miracle

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. TheĀ 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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Why Can Judaism Embrace Science So Easily?

I recently had a conversation with a neuroscientist, who also happened to be a self-described atheist. He knew I was a rabbi and so in the middle of the conversation, he very tentatively asked me. “So…do you believe in evolution?” I think what he was really asking was, “Can you be a religious person who believes in science?” And my answer to that question is, “Of course.”

While some people think of science and religion as being inherently in conflict, I think it’s because they tend to define “religion” as “blind acceptance and complete certainty about silly, superstitious fantasies.” Quite honestly, if that’s what religion really was, I wouldn’t be religious!

In fact, it’s not “religion” in general, but that particular definition of religion that is so often in conflict with science. Instead, my experience with Judaism has been that it embraces science quite easily. So why is that?

While there may be many reasons, there are three in particular that I have found to be especially significant:

1. The Bible is almost never read simply literally

Yes, the Bible is the basis of Judaism. But Judaism as it is practiced today is not biblical, it’s rabbinic, which means that it’s about studying and engaging with the text, but not stopping at face value. I’ve met people who haven’t understood that distinction — when I had a student pulpit in Sandusky, Ohio, for example, a group came to the synagogue asking “where we offered up our sacrifices,” because they believed that Jews still followed the literal laws of Leviticus.

Instead, when Jews read the Bible today through a rabbinic worldview, we are trying to answer two separate questions — first, what did the text mean in its time, and second, how can we create interpretations that will give us lessons for our time?

Indeed, the Bible shouldn’t be taken simply literally today, because circumstances, societies, norms and knowledge have all changed.

A great example of that comes from how the Rabbis interpret the verse “an eye for an eye.” While that is what the Bible says, to the Rabbis, that’s not what the verse means. Instead, the Rabbis argue, “an eye for an eye” actually means financial compensation, and they go on for multiple pages in the Talmud trying to explain their reasoning. They don’t read that verse on its simple, literal level, but through the lenses of fairness, of common sense, of other verses in the Torah, and of the best legal knowledge they had at that time.

So now we can also see why in Judaism, the beginning of Genesis is not in conflict with the big bang theory or natural selection. On the one hand, for its time, the Bible provided an origin story that was a story that worked then, but now, science provides a much better explanation for how we got here.

But the Bible isn’t meant to be taken only literally — it’s designed to be a source of study and exploration for the questions of our time. The point of the Creation story is really to challenge us with questions like, “How should we treat people if everyone is created in the image of God? What are our responsibilities to this world if it God has called it ‘good’?”

In Judaism, there’s no concept of “God says it, I believe it, that settles it.” Instead, Judaism pushes us to embrace the text for what it was back then, and to create new ways of reading the text for what it can be now.

2. Questioning is not only acceptable — it’s encouraged

There’s a phrase that recurs all the time in rabbinic literature — “How do we know this?” The Rabbis always had to explain their reasoning. And if there was a choice between believing something because of a Divine miracle or believing something because of thoughtful and reasoned arguments, there was no question which one the Rabbis would accept — reason and logic would always win.

The classic story about this comes from the Talmud, where a Rabbi named Eliezer was arguing with all the other Rabbis about a minute detail of Jewish law, and trying to convince them all that he was right. As the story goes,

…Rabbi Eliezer brought forward every imaginable argument, but the Rabbis did not accept any of them. Finally he said to them: “If I am right, let this carob tree prove it!” Sure enough, the carob tree immediately uprooted itself and moved one hundred cubits, and some say 400 cubits, from its place. “No proof can be brought from a carob tree,” the Rabbis retorted.

And again he said to them “If I am right, let this river prove it!” Sure enough, the river of water flowed backward. “No proof can be brought from a river,” they rejoined…

Finally, Rabbi Eliezer then said, “If I am right, let God Himself prove it!” Sure enough, a Divine voice cried out, “Why are you arguing with Rabbi Eliezer? He is always right!” Rabbi Joshua then stood up and protested: “The Torah is not in heaven! We pay no attention to a Divine voice, [because now that the Torah has been given to humanity, people are the ones who are to interpret it.]” (Baba Metzia 59b)

So even though the Torah was seen to be a gift from God and was sacred scripture, as soon as the Torah had been given to humans, any arguments would have to be settled by logic and reason — and would trump even a voice from God.

Similarly, science is never to take anything on faith. Science is about continually questioning assumptions, revising theories, and integrating new data. So critical thinking — an essential aspect of science — is deeply rooted in Jewish tradition.

3. There is no fixed, systematic theology

There’s a great Yiddish expression that says, “If I knew God, I’d be God.” In fact, I think that claiming that you “know God’s will” is an act of incredible hubris. Instead, what we say about God has much more to say about us than about it says about God. There are, in fact, a whole range of different theologies within Judaism (you can find some of them in the terrific books Finding God and The God Upgrade, both of which describe a whole range of differing — and sometimes even conflicting — theologies.)

And while I can only speak personally here, to me, “God” isn’t really a noun at all — it’s a verb.

Here’s why. The most common name that God gives Godself in the Torah is “YHVH,” a name that is sometimes thought to be so holy that no one was allowed to pronounce it. But that’s not exactly right — it’s not that “YHVH” was not allowed to be pronounced, it’s that it is possible that it is literally unpronounceable. Hebrew is written with only consonants, but the four letters that make up the word “YHVH” (yod, hay, vav and hay) at times also acted as vowels. And as Rabbi Lawrence Kushner once said), if you tried to pronounce a name that was all vowels, you’d risk serious respiratory injury.

But perhaps even more importantly, the name YHVH is actually a conflation of all the tenses of the Hebrew verb “to be.” God’s name could be seen as “was-is-will be,” so God isn’t something you can capture or name — God is only something you can experience.

And indeed, when Moses is at the burning bush, having just been told by God that he will be leading the Israelites out of Egypt, he says, “Suppose I go to the Israelites and say to them, ‘The God of your fathers has sent me to you,’ and they ask me, ‘What is his name?’ Then what shall I tell them?”

God responds that God’s name is “Ehyeh asher ehyeh,” which is often translated as “I am what I am.” But it could also be translated as, “I am what I will be.” So God is whatever God will be — we simply have no idea. Indeed, for my own theology, I believe that God is found in the “becoming,” transforming “what will be” into “what is.”

Science, too, is very much about process. Science at its best is about testing hypotheses, setting up experiments, and exploring ideas. And if new data or new evidence arises, scientific knowledge changes. Science can’t be tied down to old theories — it is dynamic and ever-changing.

Just like our experience of God.

And perhaps that’s how science and religion can be reconciled — not as two realms that are in conflict or as “non-overlapping magesteria” (as Stephen Jay Gould once described them), but as things you do.

Science is about creating hypotheses and testing data against these theories. Judaism is about how we act to improve this world, here and now. And these processes can easily go hand in hand.

So yes, if science and religion are seen to be competing sources of truth and authority, they will always be in conflict — especially if religion is “blind acceptance and complete certainty about silly, superstitious fantasies.” But if instead, religion is about helping people create a deeper sense of meaning and a stronger sense of their values, then I truly believe that science and religion can be brought together to improve ourselves, our society and our world.

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