Posted by Roger Price
The psalmist and the skeptic and the prophet and the professor look at the universe in which we find ourselves, see the same stars, feel the warmth of the same sun, hear thunder pealing from the same sky, understand the processes by which nature unfolds in spring, retreats in fall only to regenerate again the following year, and yet often draw different conclusions from the same observable data. So, for instance, in response to the emergence of humankind, a non-theist might merely record the evolutionary data or might marvel at the improbability, the mystery, and the grandeur of our existence. The traditional Jewish believer, by contrast, might offer a prayer to the Supreme Being: Blessed are You, sovereign of the universe, who has fashioned us from the dust of the Earth in Your image and breathed our soul into us.
Is there another way, a way to attempt to understand one’s place in the cosmos that is consistent with current scientific knowledge, and yet recognizes the miracle of our presence without dependence on some supernatural being? Is there an approach to the cosmos which might be attractive to many, perhaps most, American Jews who do not believe in the traditional personal God who dominates the Torah, but nevertheless accept the existence of (and may even yearn for) some extraordinary power, force or spirit which pervades all that is? And, if so, is that path kosher?
Pantheism is one possibility. The term comes from two Greek words, pan meaning all and theos meaning God. Literally, then, pantheism is the belief that all is God, that God and the universe are coextensive. This formulation also means that there is no God but the universe.
Pantheism is a word first used just over three hundred years ago to express the philosophy developed by Baruch Spinoza (1632-77 CE), a Dutch philosopher of Portuguese Jewish descent who many consider one of the foremost thinkers of the Enlightenment in seventeenth century Europe. Spinoza himself did not use the term pantheism, and there is some debate about whether his philosophy was pantheistic. But Spinoza surely did not understand God in the traditional sense of an omniscient, wise or comforting personality, or as a judge who rewards and punishes.
Rather, for Spinoza, all things in nature were in God, and God was “the active, eternal, and immutable dimension of nature.” (See Nadler, Spinoza: A Life (Cambridge University Press 1999), at 187.) Consequently, God did not perform miracles, if by that term one meant events in violation of natural laws. There could be no miracles in that sense, as there was no distinction between nature and God. Nevertheless, Spinoza was not an atheist. His God was, for him, existing and real, the infinite substance and infinitely perfect.
Of course, Spinoza, at the tender age of 23, was also ex-communicated by the leaders of his Jewish community. The precise reasons for this action are not known, as the order placing Spinoza in cherem, i.e., cursing him and expelling him, did not detail his purported offenses. But it is certainly plausible that his alleged heresies included a rejection of an anthropomorphic God, the divinity of the precepts of the Hebrew Bible and the attribution of the authorship of the text to Moses, each and all of which positions, among others, Spinoza ultimately held and discussed in his writings.
Today, pantheism comes in various forms, and pantheists debate whether and how to use God language. In general, though, pantheism is characterized by several key concepts including (1) the acceptance and utilization of science and the scientific method and (2) a strong sense, even a spiritual one, of an integrated relationship of all things in the Universe, unencumbered or unenhanced, depending on your view, by a supernatural deity.
Pantheists, moreover, take a broad view of the universe, and attempt to synthesize logic and reason with awe and wonder. Their cathedral is not a building, but the universe itself. The universe, they say “creates us, preserves us, destroys us. It is deep and old beyond our ability to reach with our senses. It is beautiful beyond our ability to describe in words. It is complex beyond our ability to fully grasp in science.”
But how exactly does a pantheist relate to the universe? According to the World Pantheist Movement, “with humility, awe, reverence, celebration and the search for deeper understanding,” ways which are and are recognized to be similar to the ways those who believe in a traditional God relate to God. Except, as a pantheist would say, “minus the grovelling (sic) worship or the expectation that there is some being out there who can answer our prayers.”
If much of this sounds familiar to Jews, apart from the reference to groveling, it should. Jews know a thing or three about oneness.
According to the Torah, as Moshe (Moses) is recapitulating the law for the emerging Israelite nation, he asks the people to pay attention to his words with these: “Sh’ma Yisrael” or “Listen, Israel” (more conventionally, “Hear, O Israel”). “יהוה Eloheinu” (“HaShem/Adonai (is) our God”), he continued, “יהוה echad” (“HaShem/Adonai (is) one”). (See Deut. 6:4.) This call to take heed is, perhaps, not intended to be much more than an interjection in an otherwise dense legal oration, similar to the request to listen immediately prior to the recapitulation. (See Deut. 5:1). Over the centuries, though, the Sh’ma has assumed prime theological importance. We may disagree about what God is, even whether God is, but if God is, then God is one.
But what does that mean? Was Moshe asserting that the Israelite God was Number 1, first among many, or was he saying something else? Certainly, the statement can and has been understood to mean that the Israelite God was a single entity, in contrast to two gods or the multiple gods of nature. In this view, the Sh’ma is an affirmation of monotheism, a pronouncement that the Israelite God was the one and only god, and, conversely, a rejection of polytheism. But, if so, the Sh’ma was redundant, as at least two nearby passages which precede it explicitly state that יהוה (HaShem/Adonai) alone is God, that there is no other. (See Deut. 4:35, 39.)
Judith Plaskow, a professor of religious studies at Manhattan College, has suggested that this view of the “one God who was creator and ruler of the universe” is insufficient, for while it “defines ‘one’ in opposition to ‘many’, . . . it never really specifies what it means to say that God/Adonai/the One who is and will be is one.” (See Hoffman ed., My People’s Prayer Book, Vol. 1 -- The Sh’ma and its Blessings, (Jewish Lights 1997) at 98.)
Referencing Judaic scholar Marcia Falk’s understanding of an inclusive and not merely numerical monotheism, Plaskow argues that “Rather than being the chief deity in the pantheon, God includes the qualities and characteristics of the whole pantheon, with nothing remaining outside. God is all in all.” (Id. at 99.) Monotheism, she adds, is about “the capacity to glimpse the One in and through the changing forms of the many, to see the whole in and through its infinite images.” Here she finds “a unity that embraces and contains our diversity and that connects all things to each other.” There is precedent for this encompassing vision. Some scholars have argued that “early Hasidism had profound pantheistic tendencies and that many of its teachers saw God as the vital divine force that suffused every corner of the universe.” (See Nelson, Judaism, Physics and God (Jewish Lights 2005), at 262.) But the record is not clear.
Some modern commentators appear to share those tendencies. For instance, in a recent essay, Rabbi Bradley Shavit Artson, of American Jewish University, talks about the “reality of an evolving, emergent, dynamic creation” in which “every natural event is related to every other natural event and to all natural events.” In his creation theology, “it is not God alone who is one. All is one. We are related to each and to all, as is the Creator.” (See Artson, “Revisiting Creation, Natural Events, and Their Emergent Patterns” in The CCAR Journal, The Reform Jewish Quarterly (Winter 2012), at 76.) “We are stardust -- we are all stardust,” he writes.
Similarly, in his search for new metaphors in an age of science, Reform Rabbi David Nelson, currently assistant professor of religion at Bard College, reaches to the Big Bang. He says that “The oneness of God can now be understood as indicating that everything, the totality of being itself, is, in a sense, God. ‘God is one’ may now be taken to mean the ‘God’ is a term that signifies the unity of all existence, a unity rooted in the common origin of all existence in a single point of time, space, and nascent matter.” (See Nelson, above, at 19.)
“The very term singularity,” he argues, “which has become a common place of contemporary physics, might be seen as a modern Jewish metaphor for the traditional Jewish idea of oneness.” (Id.) By singularity, Nelson is referring to the earliest moment in the history of the universe when, according to Albert Einstein’s general theory of relativity, the universe must have been incredibly small, compact and hot.
Metaphors are tricky things, however. They are, by their very nature, comparisons to and therefore dependent on an unrelated object. Consequently, if the referenced object changes, then the strength of the metaphor must change as well, and, in some cases, so too must the validity of the metaphor.
Professor Stephen Hawking has been a dominant astrophysicist for over forty years. His work in 1970 (with Roger Penrose) convinced the scientific community about there being a Big Bang singularity. Subsequently, however, Hawking recanted. Today Hawking does not dispute the description of our universe at a very young age as small, perhaps a billion-trillion-trillionth of a centimeter, and therefore unimaginably compact and hot, but argues that the predictive value of Einstein’s theory breaks down at the earliest moment of the origin of our universe, when t= 0. Indeed, Hawking’s consideration of quantum theory leads him to claim that there was “a vast landscape of possible universes.” Alluding to one of Einstein’s famous phrases, Hawking writes: “If one were religious, one could say that God really does play dice.” (The Grand Design (Bantam 2010), at 139, 144.)
The point here is not that Nelson’s metaphor fails, but that it (1) demonstrates the risk in appealing to science, especially astrophysics, that is in flux and (2) takes us only so far. Nelson himself has recognized its limits. All this does not mean that the metaphor is not useful. To the contrary, it is very useful. Nelson’s Big Bang metaphor may not take us to the original quantum event which initiated the universe as we know it, but it takes us to within a split second of that event, and to a moment before we were stardust, before there were stars. It underscores the common source of all beings, of all things. And, to the extent it does, it is of a piece with the tapestry being woven by Plaskow, Falk and Artson, with material supplied by Einstein, Spinoza and, in some ways, the biblical authors of the Sh’ma.
Moreover, the intent here is certainly not to label either Nelson, Plaskow, Falk or Artson as pantheists, but, rather, to note that some of what each contemporary Jewish scholar has written is consistent with classic pantheistic expressions on the interconnectedness of the universe and the notion of the equivalence of God and nature.
Contemporary pantheism, however, often rejects its Spinozan origins, effectively favoring pan over theism and resembling, in the end, a paganism against which Judaism has historically stood. There is, though, a related approach, panentheism, which avoids this problem.
Panentheism does not argue that God is everything, but, rather, that God is in everything. That is, it allows for a God that is, in one or some ways, more than merely the sum of the parts of the universe. This orientation also permits new language to be written by poets about the interconnected unity of energy and matter and life, about humanity’s unique role in the natural scheme of things, yet with room for that unknown force or power or energy or field or whatever it was that preceded inflation in the Big Bang model and all that followed and will follow from that first inflation and then subsequent expansion as our universe continues its journey of evolution.
In the cosmic drama that we have only recently begun to understand, Conservative Rabbi Jeremy Kalmanofsky sees “no religious response to the scope of space and time other than worshipping the Name of Existence—the sacred reality in which we participate, but that utterly transcends our place in the cosmos.” In short, accordingly to Kalmanovsky: “Finding God inhering naturalistically in all things -- a theory usually called panentheism -- is the only adequate religious response to science.” (See Kalmanofsky, “Cosmic Theology and Earthly Religion,” in Jewish Theology in Our Time (Jewish Lights 2011), at 25-26.) Note that Kalmanovsky is not saying that there is only one response to science. He is saying that there is only one response which is both religious, that is, which includes some concept of (a) God, and adequate, by which he seems to mean serious in its acceptance of modern science.
Pantheism, maybe, and panentheism, more certainly, seem to provide approaches which not only have authentic Jewish connections, but may also appeal to what a substantial number of American Jews claim to believe, even if they do not know the names of the philosophies they have intuitively adopted. If this is so, why haven’t the seminaries and synagogues responded?
Carl Sagan, an astronomer and writer who died too young in 1996, wrote that “(a) religion old or new, that stressed the magnificence of the universe as revealed by modern science, might be able to draw forth reserves of reverence and awe hardly tapped by the conventional faiths. Sooner or later such a religion will emerge.” (Sagan, Pale Blue Dot: A Vision of the Human Future in Space (Random House 1994), at 52.) What are we waiting for?
A version of this essay was previously published at www.judaismandscience.com.
11.13.13 at 12:49 pm | What, if anything, do the numbers in the Bible. . .
10.23.13 at 1:02 pm | Facts, not fear, should govern the discussion as. . .
9.24.13 at 9:01 am | Hint: No Cyrus, No Jews.
8.29.13 at 12:42 pm | To avert the severe decline in interest and. . .
8.15.13 at 8:13 am | The future of American Judaism is heading to. . .
7.12.13 at 8:48 am | Did Asimov stumble on to the secret model of. . .
2.1.13 at 11:09 am | Traditional Jewish approaches to abortion are. . . (53)
11.13.13 at 12:49 pm | What, if anything, do the numbers in the Bible. . . (37)
9.24.13 at 9:01 am | Hint: No Cyrus, No Jews. (31)
April 12, 2013 | 9:46 am
Posted by Roger Price
American Judaism has a God problem. Actually, and paradoxically, it seems to have two God problems. One is Jewish atheism. The other is Jewish theism. Here we will look at the data and the dilemma.
At the outset, we have to recognize that there is something odd about the concept of Jewish atheism. Is there really such a thing? Can there be a Judaism without God, however you want to define it. What are the People of the Book without the Hero of the story? How can there be commandments without a Commander? Doesn’t a Covenant with God require a Party of the First Part as well as a party of the second part? What do you do with prayer? Can there even be a place for atheism within Judaism?
The questions recall the story about President Harry Truman being asked whether he believed in baptism. “Believe in it?” the crusty president responded, “Hell, I’ve seen it done!”
And so it is with atheism and Judaism. Most of us have “seen it done.” We have seen Jews who are atheists, that is, Jews who do not believe in any god, much less God, but who do social work and philanthropy in and through Jewish federations and community organizations. We have seen them performing what we and they can fairly call mitzvot in the real world. And we have even seen them participating in synagogue life.
Atheists in shul? An old story tells of two gentlemen, Hersh and Maish, who went to their synagogue every Shabbes , Shabbes after Shabbes, year after year. And why did they go? Hersh went to talk to God. And Maish? He went to talk to Hersh. There are, as we know, a lot of reasons, apart from God, to participate in synagogue life. Some seek a connection to history and heritage, others yearn for community and camaraderie, and still others seek to engage in text study or social action. No doubt some just go for the cookies.
In shul or out, there seems to be truth to the notion that some of our best friends are Jewish atheists. Is the evidence for this phenomenon more than fiction, more than anecdotal? Let’s look at the data, starting with a brief review of American religious orientation for purposes of context.
Over the course of almost 70 years, the Gallup organization has surveyed Americans numerous times with respect to their belief in God, a term generally left undefined in the surveys. In 1944, 1947, 1953, 1954, 1965 and 1967, the question was simply put as follows: “Do you believe in God?” the affirmative responses ranged between 94% and 98%, the negatives between 1% and 3%, with 1% or 2% having no opinion.
In 1976, the question was modified to ask: “Do you believe in God or a universal spirit?” In 1976, 1978, 1983, 1988 and 1994, the answers again fell in a very tight range with 94%-96% answering affirmatively, 3-5% answering negatively and 1-2% having no opinion.
In the late 1990s, Gallup offered respondents choices about their belief in God. On at least one occasion, the respondents had a choice of God, universal spirit, neither and other, in addition to no opinion. Another time, respondents could choose whether they believed in God, were not sure, or did not believe. Still another variation asked whether respondents were convinced God exists, thought God probably existed, had a lot of doubts, thought God probably did not exist, or were convinced God did not exist. The worst God did in the 2006, 2007 and 2010 surveys was a 73% for convinced in the 2006 survey. Add in the 14% who had just a little doubt, however, and God received an 87% vote of confidence.
In 2011, Gallup asked the question two different ways, inquiring both about a belief in God and about a belief in God or a universal spirit. It received similar responses to each variation, but a somewhat different result compared to all prior years. In the 2011 survey, only 91-92% answered affirmatively, while 7-8% answered negatively, and 1% had no opinion. Not surprisingly, there were differences reported in different demographic categories. Those who were less likely to assert a belief in God were men (at 90%) to women (at 94%), young adults aged 18 to 29 (at 84%) compared to all other age groups (at 94%), and those with post graduate education (at 87%) compared to those with less formal education (at 92-94%). People living in the East answered affirmatively 86% of the time, while those in the South asserted a belief in God or a universal spirit 98% of the time. Midwesterners and Westerners responded affirmatively 91% and 92% of the time respectively.
Surveys by the Pew Forum on Religion & Public Life and by Harris are fairly consistent with the main findings of Gallup. A survey of over 35,000 individuals published in 2008 by the Pew Forum, and called the U. S. Religious Landscape Survey, found that 92% believed in God. A considerably smaller survey of religious beliefs by Harris in 2009 found that only 82% of American adults believe in God, while 9% do not and 9% were not sure.
Given the amount and consistency of the data available, it seems reasonably clear that an overwhelming majority of Americans profess a belief in some concept of God. Those who deny the existence of God do not, in national polling, appear to exceed 10% of the general population. When one drills down into the survey results, though, the picture becomes less monochromatic. For instance, in the Landscape Survey, while 92% expressed a belief in God, only 60% believed in a personal God, while 25 % believed in an impersonal force and 7% either did not know or held another belief.
What about the Jews? In 2001, the Center for Jewish Studies, a part of The Graduate Center of the City University of New York, published a report titled the American Jewish Identity Survey (“AJIS,2001”). AJIS estimated the Jewish population of the United States at that time to be 5,497,000. Of these, about half were absolutely unaffiliated with any Jewish organization, religious or secular. Forty-four percent (44%) claimed to belong to a synagogue, temple, congregation or havurah. Twenty-five per cent (25%) said that they were involved in a secular Jewish organization. Obviously, there was some overlap in the latter two groups.
The denominational breakdown reported was as follows: Those who identified with Reform totaled 30%, followed by Conservative at 24% and Orthodox at 8%. The Reconstructionist movement was mentioned by 1% as was Secular-Humanist. Those describing themselves as “None” or “just Jewish” were 20% with “Other” coming in at 6%. (These figures do not add to 100% because the survey excluded “Don’t Know” and “Refusals”.) Formal denominations aside, those describing themselves as secular or somewhat secular were 34% and 15% respectively in the survey. Those describing themselves as religious or somewhat religious were 9% and 35% of the survey. Seven percent (7%) were uncertain as to their outlook. In short, the outlook of American Jews surveyed was more secular than religious.
And what did AJIS, 2001 find with respect to the beliefs of American Jews? In response to the question of whether God exists, 48% agreed strongly, 25% agreed somewhat, 8% disagreed somewhat, 8% disagreed strongly and 11% were uncertain.
A similar result appeared in the Pew Landscape Survey. Where the percentage of mainline Protestants and Catholics who were absolutely certain about the existence of God was between 72% and 73%, only 41% of Jews had such firm convictions. Based on their analysis (although without some attribution), Robert Putnam and David Campbell, authors of an expansive study of religious attitudes and practices in the United States, have concluded that “half of all self-identified Jews are not so sure they believe in God.” (See American Grace (Simon & Schuster 2010) at 23.)
The situation is even starker when one looks at Jewish scientists. In 2005-08, Rice University sociologist Elaine Howard Ecklund surveyed scientists at twenty-one elite research universities to determine their religious beliefs. In general, fewer scientists (36%) expressed a belief in God than did the population as a whole (over 90%). Jewish scientists did not even reach that low threshold, with almost 75% of them reporting that they were atheists. (See Ecklund, Science vs. Religion (Oxford 2010), at 32-36.)
Even when Jews, as a group, do hold a belief in some sort of deity, they conceive of God differently than others do. According to the Pew Landscape Survey, while Protestants and Catholics believe in a personal God at the respective rates of 72% and 60%, only 25% of Jews do. Conversely, while only 19% of Protestants and 29% of Catholics believe that God is an impersonal force, fully 50% of Jews hold that view.
While there may be problems with sampling and the precision or lack of it in the questioning, among other issues, what data exist consistently suggest that across the American Jewish spectrum there is no widespread belief in a traditional, personal God. A significant number of Jews do believe in some sort of spirit or impersonal force, but it is not at all clear what the respondents may have meant by those terms. Finally, there is another group of Jews, some affiliated and some not, who appear to be atheists in the pure sense of the term, i.e., individuals who deny the existence of God.
So Judaism, American Judaism at least, has two God problems. One is that many Jews affirmatively do not believe in any kind of god. The other is that many Jews who do believe in God do not believe in the traditional, personal God.
The first problem challenges the stability of the classical formulation of the three supporting pillars of the Jewish civilization: God, Torah and Israel (the people, not the state). And this problem, and the questions with which we began this piece, are not just academic as indicated by the polling data.
Discussing whether there can be Judaism without belief in God, some commentators have characterized the idea as “ridiculous” and the result “a fraud, an illusion” because the Jewish narrative depends on God, and without God “cannot reproduce itself.” Others perceive a historical “march of Judaism from religion toward secularity.”
How Judaism will evolve is unclear, but the reality is, as AJIS, 2001 recognized, “(s)ecularism is a serious conviction for some Jews, as well as an existential condition for a great many more.” (AJIS, 2001, above, at 5.) We do not know whether this secularism has emerged in response to science, to the Shoah or to one or more other factors. We can be sure, though, that the American Jewish community can ill afford to alienate further this large component of itself.
The second problem challenges non-Orthodox congregations in particular, or perhaps helps explains their lack of attractiveness to so many Jews today. The God language that one encounters in a Jewish faith setting, regardless of denomination, is for the most part traditional God language that the overwhelming majority of contemporary American Jews reportedly rejects.
At the same time, if American Jews could be enticed to affiliate with a synagogue, temple, congregation or havurah simply because it adopted a non-traditional theology or philosophy then one would expect Reconstructionist and Humanist groups to be larger than they are and growing, but they are neither large nor growing, remaining relegated to just 1% each of affiliated Jews. Is that because the Reform and Conservative movements have older, more established brands or have more “stores” or offer more programming? Does the current situation result from inertia on the part of potential congregants or the failure of the Reconstructionists and the Humanists to promote themselves effectively? Or is a non-traditional theological approach really not as attractive in practice as the surveys suggest it should be? Or, perhaps, not a decisive factor determining affiliation? We don’t really know the answers to any of these questions, but the data nevertheless suggest that Jewish religious institutions might be more attractive to a significant portion of the Jewish community if they were more creative and bold, with new liturgies that talk to their congregants’ sensibilities, even as they appeal to their hearts and provide a link the past.
The data developed in the surveys cited above also suggest the high degree of difficulty the major denominations will have addressing Judaism’s twin God problems. If the organized Jewish community does not address these two problems, however, they will lose the future. And not only the future, because without a viable and committed American Jewish community in the future, there will be no recollection of, much regard for, the past either.
Another version of this post was published previously at www.judaismandscience.com.
March 24, 2013 | 8:04 am
Posted by Roger Price
The Hebrew Bible, thanks in large part to the often literal translation of it in the King James Version, is a source of scores of English idiomatic expressions. We may not know much about biology and history, but we do know, for instance, that a “leopard cannot change its spots” and that there is “nothing new under the Sun.” (See Jer. 13:23; Eccles. 1:9.)
Someday, no doubt, if it hasn’t already, Google will track the frequency with which we use these expressions and determine the rank order of their popularity. Surely high on the list will be “written in stone.” The phrase comes from the Book of Exodus where we are told that Moses ascended Mt. Sinai and received from God two stone tablets which were engraved by God with God’s teachings and commandments. The initial set of tablets was then smashed by Moses when he saw that the Israelites had fashioned an idol, a golden calf, when he was away up the mountain. God then met with Moses a second time, resulting in the production of a second set of stone tablets with the laws.
From these references comes the notion that something written in stone is fixed for all time, immutable. The writing is a statement from and by authority, possibly even sacred, but certainly to be followed without modification. Conversely, something “not written in stone” is a statement of lesser seriousness, one subject to challenge and change.
But “written in stone” may be more than a mere connotation of substantiality, firmness and durability. Sometimes words and pictures set in stone may be evidentiary. The probative value of such evidence depends on a lot of factors, of course. In some cases, though, because the availability of similar evidence is so limited and the potential significance of it so extraordinary, the determination of what is written in stone assumes unusual importance. That is exactly the situation with respect to the issue of the historicity of the Exodus and the origin, or ethnogenesis, of the Israelite people.
The timeline for these events is obviously crucial and it is in some dispute. Recognizing that there is no “assurance of certainty” in dating, a generation ago, Nahum Sarna, then professor of Biblical Studies at Brandeis University, concluded that various “lines of evidence converge to make a very good case for placing the events of the Exodus within the thirteenth century B.C.E.,” that is, toward the end of the Late Bronze Age (1550-1200 BCE). (See Sarna, Exploring Exodus (Schocken 1987), at 7, 14.) The settlement of the Israelites in Canaan, and the period described in the Biblical book of Judges would then come at the beginning of the Iron Age I (1200-1000 BCE). The reported reigns of Saul, David and Solomon would follow at around 1020/1025-928/931 BCE. (See Silberman, Secrets of the Bible (Hatherleigh 2004), at xiv-xv.)
Others, like Biblical archeologist Dr. Bryant Wood, place the Exodus much farther back in time, at around 1446 BCE, with the conquest of Canaan set in 1406-1400 BCE. Some even suggest that the Exodus was related to the expulsion of the Hyskos around 1570-1550 BCE.
What evidence is there that during the Late Bronze Age a substantial population or even some Western Semitic Asiatics traveled from Egypt to Palestine? Not much, actually. As one scholar has put it, “the simple fact remains: archeology can neither confirm not disconfirm the deliverance of a band of Asiatic slaves from Pharaoh’s mighty hand.” (William Brown, “An Update in the Search of Israel’s History,” in Bright, A History of Israel (Westminster John Knox 2000, 4th ed.) at 469-70.)
A ten foot high black granite slab known as the Merneptah Stele provides one clue, though. Currently housed in the Egyptian Museum in Cairo, the stele is engraved with a poem that celebrates a victory by Merneptah, once pharaoh of Egypt, over a group of invaders around the fifth year of his rule. Toward the end of the poem, while bragging of his military conquest and the destruction of his enemies, Merneptah says, in part: “Plundered is the Canaan with every evil; Carried off is Ashkelon; seized upon is Gezer, Yanoam is made as that which does not exist; Israel is laid waste, his seed is not; . . . .” (See Sarna, above, at 11(emphasis supplied).) According to Sarna, Merneptah reigned over Egypt between 1224 and 1211 BCE. (Id.) All of this suggests that the purported events occurred around 1219 BCE, though some place Merneptah and the reported events ten to fifteen years nearer to our time.
The Merneptah stele contains the Egyptian determinative sign for people as well as for Israel suggesting that the reference is to Israel as a people rather than a nation or a settled land, but even that issue is not closed. Nevertheless, the inclusion of Israel along with the territories purportedly conquered by Merneptah suggests not only that Israel as a people existed, but also that Israel was sizable and strong enough to be considered worthy of mentioning as a defeated opponent. That, in turn, implies that Israel’s presence was not new, but extended over some meaningful duration.
All of that is less than precise, unfortunately, but the real importance of the Merneptah Stele to scholars was twofold: first, the stone marker was the earliest known non-Biblical reference to Israel and, second, its existence put a maximum end date to the Biblical account of the Exodus from Egypt.
In 2001, Manfred Gorg, recently deceased but then a professor of Old Testament Theology and Egyptology at the University of Munich, published in German an analysis of a grey granite slab fragment he had recently found in the Egyptian Museum in Berlin. Designated item no. 21687, the slab is 18 inches high and 16 inches wide and appears to be a broken portion of statue pedestal. The slab contains a legend in hieroglyphics that Gorg has translated as saying : “one, who is falling on his feet . . . .” (van der Veen et al., “Israel in Canaan (Long) Before Pharaoh Merenptah(sic)? . . .”)
Below the legend are the images of three individuals. With shoulder length hair, pointed beards, and headbands, the three individuals appear to be Western Semites. (See Biblical Archeology Review, “When Did Ancient Israel Begin?” January/February 2012 (at 60.))
A name ring appears at chest level and below on each individual. Two of the three name rings appear to be clear and identify Ashkelon and Canaan. The third name ring is broken, but Gorg claimed to have reconstructed it, read it as sounding similar to Yishrael (or perhaps Yasharel) and interpreted the name as that of “Israel.” (See van der Veen, above, at 15.) Egyptologists split on Gorg’s analysis. For instance, Bryant Wood accepted this interpretation, but James Hoffmeier, at Trinity Evangelical Divinity School, did not. (See Id.)
Recently Peter van der Veen of the University of Mainz and Christopher Theis of the University of Heidelberg reviewed the Berlin Relief no. 21687 and, with Gorg, published their enhanced analysis in English. (See generally, van der Veen, above.) After a detailed inspection utilizing special lighting and other techniques, they believe that they are able to “safely” reconstruct the writing on the damaged slab. Moreover, they conclude that the name in the third ring is a name “that undoubtedly resembles the biblical name ‘Israel’ . . . .” (See Id. at 17-18.)
Having considered and dispensed with each of Hoffmeier’s several objections to this reading, including the difference between “s” and “sh,” what may or may not be a lamed or resh and whether the sculptor was consistent in his spelling, they then address whether the name found could refer to Biblical Israel. Noting the references to Ashkelon and Canaan, and their geographic proximity, van der Veen et al. ask rhetorically “what other name in the same general region would be so strikingly reminiscent of that of biblical Israel?” (Id. at 19.) Their answer is that there is “no linguistically feasible name” in any other known texts, so “‘Israel’ remains the most logical candidate.” (Id.)
But how old is the Berlin pedestal relief? van der Veen et al. tentatively ascribe a date for the slab to Ramesses II (around 1279-1212 BCE), a later date being deemed unlikely on linguistic grounds. (Id. at 20.) At the same time, they acknowledge that such a date “is by no means certain.” (Id.) Perhaps even more intriguing, they suggest that based on certain “archaic elements,” the names on the pedestal could have been “copied from an earlier source that could have had its origin during the first half of the Eighteenth Dynasty or perhaps earlier still . . . .” (Id. at 17.) Parenthetically, Sarna dates Ramesses (Rameses) II to 1290-1224 BCE. He puts the 18th Dynasty at 1552-1306 BCE. (See Sarna, above, at 8, 10.)
van der Veen et al. recognize that many scholars will have difficulty believing that Biblical Israel arrived in Palestine prior to Merneptah, especially as far back as the mid-Eighteenth Dynasty. (van der Veen, above, at 20.) Yet a migration “nearer the middle of the second millennium BCE” is what they say the evidence suggests. (Id. at 21.)
There is, of course, a lively debate about whether one or more actual migrations from Egypt might have occurred, when it or they might have occurred and how many individuals participated. What cannot be denied, however, is that the writing on the stone known as Berlin no. 21687 is more than a phrase. It is evidence. It may or may not be reliable evidence of the claimed military victories, but if van der Veen et al. are correct, it appears to be rock solid evidence of the existence of a people known as Israel and at a time earlier, possibly even 200 years earlier, than any other hard evidence had indicated.
Does this new information prove that the Israelites were slaves in Egypt over an extended period and left as Torah tells? No. It says nothing about whether one or more migrations occurred or who or how many participated in any such event. Nor does it say anything about whether any exodus was due to natural or supernatural causes. Does this new information prove that the Israelites emerged in Canaan by way of a military invasion and conquest from the desert, a relatively peaceful immigration perhaps reuniting formerly separated families, a rebellion among indigenous groups, a combination of the foregoing or in some other fashion? It does not do that either. So the Berlin artifact probably will not quell the dispute between the archeological minimalists and the maximalists, between those who would deny any exodus event because it did not occur precisely as the Bible says it did and those who would see the entire Biblical account vindicated if one buckle of one Bronze age shoe were ever found in the Wilderness of Zin.
But evidence matters, especially hard evidence. And this new evidence is more than a “drop in the bucket.” (See Is. 40:15.) Rather, than a “fly in the ointment” (see Eccles. 10:1), this Berlin pedestal should at the least cause everyone to reconsider when and how Israel as a people came to be. Maybe someday, we’ll even “see eye to eye.” (See Is. 52:8.)
Another version of this post was published previously at www.judaismandscience.com.
February 19, 2013 | 3:21 pm
Posted by Roger Price
We are blessed to live in an age of great discoveries. Prior to 1992, astronomers had not been able to identify with certainty any planet in orbit around a star outside of our solar system. But these planets, known as extra solar planets or exoplanets, have now been found. In fact, in the first decade or so from the discovery of the first exoplanet, hundreds of such planets were located in diverse areas of the known universe.
The National Aeronautics and Space Administration (“NASA”) launched the Kepler space mission in 2009 in order to find Earth sized planets within the habitable zone of a star. The mission focused on a relatively small star field in the constellations Cygnus and Lyra, perhaps the extent of the sky obscured by an average extended fist. The discoveries have been phenomenal, and the pace seems to be accelerating.
Most of the exoplanets first found by the Kepler mission were large, Jupiter sized planets. Thanks to advances in technology, however, in December 2011 Kepler astronomers announced the discovery of several Earth sized exoplanets. One, called Kepler-20e, is somewhat smaller than Earth and the other, called Kepler 20-f, is somewhat larger. Neither seemed suitable for life, however. The smaller of the two exoplanets orbits so close to its parent star that its surface temperature approaches 1400 degrees Fahrenheit. The other, by comparison, is relatively cooler, but still registers around 800 degrees Fahrenheit.
Last month NASA announced the discovery of 461 new planet candidates. This brings the total number of potential planets to 2,740, singly or in groups in orbit around 2,036 stars. Of the new planet candidates, four are found in the region where liquid water might exist, i.e., the habitable zone of their solar system. One of the four, designated KOI-172.02, is similar to Earth in at least two respects: its radius is about 1.5 the radius of Earth and its year is about 242 days. NASA has not yet confirmed that KOI-172.02 is in fact a planet, but as science writer Timothy Ferris has said, “We live in a changing universe, and few things are changing faster than our conception of it.” (Ferris, The Whole Shebang (Simon & Schuster 1997), at 11.)
For sure, it is much too soon to claim that we are close to discovering life on other planets, especially intelligent life with which (or whom) we could communicate. Primitive life forms emerged relatively soon after our own planet coalesced and water formed, but well over 4 billion years had to pass before our species evolved. And even if there is life, and intelligent life at that, communication with it is problematical. Our own language skills have been developed only recently, by the cosmic clock, and our ability to utilize electromagnetic waves for communication is barely more than a century old.
It is not too soon, though, to contemplate the implications of a discovery of life on other planets. People have speculated about other worlds for centuries, of course, even millennia. The Jewish commentary is rather sparse, but still provocative.
There are psalms, one of which, depending on the translation, has been read to refer to thousands of worlds (see Ps. 68:18) and another of which, again by some translations, speaks of a kingdom of God that encompasses “all worlds” (see Ps. 145:13). The Talmud includes a discussion about what God has done since the destruction of the Temple in which there is the suggestion that “he rides a light cherub and floats in 18,000 worlds.” (Avodah Zarah 3b.) The number 18,000 may be derived from a perceived allusion in Ezekiel (at 48:35) to a circumference of 18,000. In any event, the Tikunei Zohar (c. 13th Century C.E.?) continues the theme, contending that the 18,000 worlds are to be presided over by 18,000 Tzaddikim (righteous men). We do not know, though, whether these references are to physical worlds or spiritual worlds.
Subsequently, different rabbis considered the issue of extraterrestrial life and produced, don’t be shocked, different results. In the 14th Century C.E., the Spanish Rabbi Chadai Crescas wrote in Or HaAdonai (HaShem) that nothing in Torah precluded the existence of life on other worlds. (At 4:2.) His student, Rabbi Yosef Albo (d. 1444?), on the other hand, held a different view. He reasoned in Sefer HaIkarrim that such creatures would have no free will, and therefore there would be no reason for them to exist. For him, as a theological matter, they could not and did not exist.
Some four hundred years later, the Vilna kaballist Rabbi Pinchas Eliyahu Horowitz took a position between Crescas and Albo. In Sefer HaBris, he agreed that extraterrestrial beings would have no free will and no moral responsibility, but thought that they might still exist. Concluding his review of the literature, Rabbi Aryeh Kaplan said: "We therefore have a most fascinating reason why the stars were created, and why they contain intelligent life. Since an overcrowded Earth will not give the Tzaddikim the breadth they require, each one will be given his own planet, with its entire population to enhance his spiritual growth.” (See The Aryeh Kaplan Reader, (Mesorah, 1983), at 173; see also, Aryeh Kaplan, “Extraterrestrial life.”)
Writing shortly after Neil Armstrong placed the first human foot on the Moon, Rabbi Norman Lamm, who was to become and still is Chancellor of Yeshiva University in New York, considered at length man’s place in the universe and the religious implications of extraterrestrial life. He feared neither technological advances nor mankind’s changing role in the universe. He saw “no need to exaggerate man’s importance” or “to exercise a kind of racial or global arrogance, in order to discover the sources of man’s significance and uniqueness.”(Lamm, Faith and Doubt (KTAV 1971), at 99.) Moreover, while recognizing the difference between conjecture and proof, Lamm acknowledged that “(n)o religious position is loyally served by refusing to consider annoying theories which may well turn out to be facts.” (Id. at 124.)
Judaism has seen mankind as the purpose of creation, and man as made in the image of God, but Lamm asserts that “there is nothing in . . . the Biblical doctrine per se . . . that insists upon man’s singularity.” (Id. at 128.) “Judaism . . . can very well accept a scientific finding that man is not the only intelligent and bio-spiritual resident in God’s world.” (Id. at 133.)
Forty years after Lamm wrote his comments, exoplanets are more than a theoretical possibility to be considered by philosophers. If the astrobiologists actually found life elsewhere, a second genesis event, if you will, the discovery would be stunning, maybe literally so. Whether everyone would be as sensitive and humble as Lamm is an open question.
No doubt there will be those who will welcome the development with open arms. For instance, Father Jose Funes, a Jesuit astronomer at the Vatican Observatory, believes that there would be no conflict with his faith, because the creative freedom of God cannot be limited: “As there exist many creatures on Earth, so there could be other beings, also intelligent, created by God.”
Others are not so sure. For Christians who hold that humanity was initially subjected to original sin and that a Savior, in the form of God incarnate, came to save it, what does extraterrestrial life say about sin, about saving and about the Savior? At the recent 100 Year Starship Symposium, sponsored by the U.S. Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency, Christian Weidemann, a philosophy professor, asked, presumably in all seriousness: “Did Jesus die for Klingons too?”
Jews don’t have to answer those questions. But they will have some of their own dilemmas to confront. That there really are – not just theoretically, but really are – actual planets out there that may serve as the hosts for extraterrestrial life is a fact that colors a question Christopher Hitchens asked some years ago in an essay for The Templeton Foundation. The essay was in response to a general question that Templeton posed to over a dozen scientists and non-scientists: Does science make belief in God obsolete? Hitchens answer was “No, but it should.” In his fuller response, he was, well, Hitchens, which is to say unsubtle, impolitic and acerbic. He asked what planner would design a doomed galaxy like our own, subject our species to near extinction, and then just 3,000 years ago disclose a saving revelation “to gaping peasants in remote and violent and illiterate areas of the Middle East?” (At 15-16.)
It is easy to dismiss Hitchens because his tone is so off-putting. But Rabbi Arthur Green, current rector of the Rabbinical School at Hebrew College in Boston and a man who is as devoted to Judaism and the Jewish people as anyone, has asked essentially the same question. Using similar words, but in a different context and no doubt with a different purpose, Green has asked “Can we imagine a God so arbitrary as to choose one nation, one place, and one moment in human history in which the eternal divine will was to be manifest for all time? Why should the ongoing traditions, institutions, and prejudices of the Western Semitic tribes of that era be visited on humanity as the basis for fulfilling the will of God?” (Green, Seek My Face, Speak My Name (Jason Aronson 1992), at 105.)
Of course, Hitchens and Green provide different responses to their independent recognition of the origin and nature of Biblical stories. One sees myth, the other Myth. One finds at best nothing special, while the other sees the basis for a morality applicable to all humanity. But, if the underlying question being raised by both Green and Hitchens, is a good one, why isn’t it a better one when raised to the cosmic level? Can the God which once spoke sparingly to selected individuals, and then became the God of a family, of a tribe and, ultimately, a people and a nation, now expand its reach not just around our globe and to everything that lives in this biosphere but beyond, to other star systems, even other galaxies? Can we on Earth accommodate such a God?
Even without the benefit of the discoveries of the Kepler mission, Rabbi Jeremy Kalmanofsky has addressed the issue. “Theology that cannot face brute facts about cosmology and evolutionary biology is hopeless,” he has written. “Contemporary Judaism needs a faith befitting a cosmos . . . .” (Kalmanofsky, “Cosmic Theology and Earthly Religion,” in Jewish Theology In Our Time (Jewish Lights 2010), at 24-25.)
Thinking about the existence of extraterrestrial life, the science fiction writer Arthur C. Clarke said, “Sometimes I think we’re alone. Sometimes I think we’re not. In either case, the prospect is staggering.” True enough. Now though, we have some good evidence that there are exoplanets in a position to host life forms. Shouldn’t we be engaged in developing a theology for the cosmos, an exotheology for this new reality? And won’t we need a new liturgy as well, one that is universal in the fullest sense of that word?
Another version of this post was published previously at www.judaismandscience.com.
February 1, 2013 | 11:09 am
Posted by Roger Price
That different Jews have disparate views is not news. What is news is when most Jews agree on a particular idea or approach. And so it is with the curious consensus of Jews on abortion.
In mid-2012, the Public Religion Research Institute (“PRRI”) published its findings from a 2012 survey of Jewish values (the “Jewish Values Survey”). The survey sought to measure the opinions of American Jews on a wide variety of political and economic issues, as well as with respect to certain religious beliefs and practices.
While Jews varied considerably in their views of a wide range of topics, on one – abortion – they were not only reasonably cohesive in their attitude, but strikingly different from other groups. Given the emphasis in the Jewish tradition on valuing life, on equating the preservation of one life with the preservation of a world and, conversely, the destruction of one life as the destruction of the world (Mishnah Sanhedrin 4:5), this result, on its face, seems as anomalous as it is clear.
First, let’s look at the PRRI data. Essentially regardless of denominational affiliation or demographics, American Jews think abortion should be legal in all (49%) or almost all (44%) cases. That is, fully 93% of all American Jews support legalized abortion in some fashion. Even political leanings, while influential, are not determinative. Among Jewish Democrats support is 95%, but 77% of Jewish Republicans also favor legalized abortion in all or most cases, far exceeding the rate of other groups studied.
The comparable numbers for other faith groups is quite different not only in their overall support or opposition to legalized abortion, but in the internal differences within each group. Jews are the only group surveyed in which a plurality support abortion in all cases. While about half of all Jews support abortion in all cases, in no other faith group does such support exceed 25% of the population. Moreover, in comparison to the 93% total of Jews who support legalized abortion in all or most cases, the only other group surveyed that showed clear majority support for legalized abortion was white mainline Protestants (59%). The comparable numbers for black Protestants and Catholics are 50% and 48%. Just one-third of white evangelicals support abortion in all or most situations.
Moreover, while the survey found that just 6% of Jews oppose legalized abortion in most cases and 1% did in all cases, the other groups surveyed were much more diverse in their views. For instance, while 19% of Catholics thought abortion should be illegal in all cases, 31% said only in most cases. Similarly, 21% of white evangelicals opposed legal abortion in all cases, but 44% only opposed it in most cases.
So, why are Jews so much different from others on this issue? Is there something in the Jewish tradition which leads inexorably to the overwhelming consensus most Jews have reached?
The Torah itself, indeed the entire Tanakh (Hebrew Bible), is silent on the topic of abortion. A passage in the Torah, however, does reflect a biblical view of a fetus. The passage concerns an injury to a pregnant woman which causes a miscarriage of her fetus. The Torah states that such conduct warrants financial compensation but nothing greater, specifically not the same penalty that would be imposed for murder. (See Ex. 21:22-23.) In other words, this passage considers the fetus as not fully a nefesh, a person, and more akin to personal property.
When the ancient sages talked about abortion, they did so in the context of the knowledge of their day and with at least one eye on the Bible. Consequently, as a matter of principle, abortion was generally prohibited because, for example, it destroyed something created in God’s image (see Gen. 1:26-27; 9:6), and that destruction was also contrary to the first commandment, to populate the world (see Gen. 1:28).
At the same time, the sages’ understanding of fetal development was quite limited. Within the first forty days of pregnancy, they thought the mother to be carrying “mere fluid.” (See BT Yevamot 69b.) In later stages of pregnancy, they viewed the fetus as a part of the mother like a limb or appendage of the mother. (See, e.g., BT Gittin 23b.)
By the middle ages, essentially two positions existed. The great commentator Rashi (1040-1105 CE) accepted the principle that the fetus was not a person. The philosopher and physician Maimonides (1135-1204 CE), took a different view, though. When considering a threat to the mother’s life from a fetus, Rambam analogized the fetus to a rodef, or pursuer, for whom one was not to have pity. Abortion was justified, even though the fetus was of high value, because the fetus was characterized an active endangerment to the mother.
The position of contemporary American Jewish leaders is remarkably, although not entirely, uniform. In responsa, resolutions and other literature and statements, non-orthodox rabbis express a reverence for the sanctity of life, reaffirm the traditional Jewish belief that personhood, and the rights attendant to it, begin at birth, not conception, and support the “right” of a woman to choose an abortion, not on demand or for trivial reasons, but in cases where, for instance, continuation of a pregnancy might cause the mother severe physical or psychological harm.
The issue of abortion in the Orthodox community is hotly debated, indeed seen by some almost as a litmus test of one’s commitment to Modern Orthodoxy or, alternatively, to a pre-modern, culturally conservative orthodoxy. The latter tends to hold that abortion is permissible only where the danger to the mother’s life is clear and direct and generally forbidden otherwise. But there are exceptions. And one can even find rulings of respected Orthodox rabbis permitting abortions in cases of substantial emotional difficulty such as when the expectant mother becomes suicidal or when pregnancy is the result of adultery.
Consequently, while it is clear that for over two thousand years, Judaism has understood (1) personhood begins at birth and not conception and (2) that the life of a mother supersedes that of a fetus which threatens that mother, the notion reportedly expressed by roughly half of American Jews that abortion should be permissible in all cases is absolutely unwarranted by Jewish tradition and values, whether filtered through an Orthodox, Conservative, Reconstructionist or Reform lens. For instance, and without limitation, abortion for purposes of gender selection, convenience or purely economic reasons, especially at any time in gestation, is not defensible Jewishly.
To be clear, the 2012 Jewish Values Survey did not describe the reason(s) for the hypothetical abortion being considered. Consequently, it is not even clear that a majority of American Jews really do approve of abortion in “most” cases, though they surely do in many cases. To the extent the view of American Jews on abortion is premised on the argument that abortions are not properly the subject of criminal laws, that view finds stronger support in the Jewish tradition.
At the same time, we have knowledge and tools and insights today that the ancient sages surely lacked. We know how a fertilized human egg develops from zygote to embryo to fetus and then, on birth, to a baby. We know, for instance, that by the fourth week of pregnancy, in an embryo barely one-twenty-fifth of an inch long, the embryo’s brain and spinal cord and its heart have begun to form, and arm and leg buds have appeared. Within two weeks, the heart starts to beat, blood to flow, and the embryo is the size of a lentil, maybe a quarter of an inch long. Brain activity commences. By the end of the eighth week, all essential organs and external body structures, including eyes and eyelids, have begun to form. The embryo is about an inch long, but still weighs less than one-eighth of an ounce.
The fetal stage begins after week eight. In an uneventful pregnancy, the fetus will grow to about three inches and almost an ounce at week twelve and to four to five inches and almost three ounces at week sixteen. A translucent skin begins to form and the fetus can make sucking motions. If you want to read detailed descriptions or see images of fetal development, they are readily available.
Moreover, we also know today, and really only recently, that while only one-fifth to one-third of babies born at 23 weeks of gestation survive, by week 24 fifty percent or more do. By week 26, over ninety percent of babies born prematurely can survive.
Science can and should inform the discussion in the Jewish community way more than it does. Among other things, science teaches that an embryo in its first forty days is more than “mere fluid.” No, the embryo is not at all viable at that stage, but to deny that it is alive and might, without interference, emerge someday is at best disingenuous.
Similarly, science teaches that a fetus throughout pregnancy is neither a “mere limb” of its mother nor a pursuer. Through sonograms in the first trimester of pregnancy we can literally see the shape and specific features of a fetus. We can see its head, monitor its heart beating. What we cannot do – or ought not do – is deny its essence. Assuming viability, an abortion not related to saving a mother’s life cannot fairly be analogized to ridding one’s self of personal property or amputating one’s limb. Nor, although a fetus may well be the direct or indirect cause of a mother’s life-threatening condition, is it accurate to say that the fetus is a “pursuer.” There is no evidence, and really never was in Rambam’s day either, that the fetus possessed the capacity to form an intention to kill its mother or, indeed, do any harm.
Yet, to acknowledge that life is present and that Jewish tradition is based on archaic concepts is not to conclude the inquiry. Science cannot, for example, extinguish the rape or incest that may have caused the pregnancy. In short, medical science is informative, but not dispositive of the questions to be considered with respect to abortion.
In fact, modern medical science perhaps raises more questions than it answers. For instance, just as it can provide information that make the fetus appear to look more like a baby, today medical science can also tell us if that potential child is afflicted with a serious defect or disease. Today the human genome has been mapped, and many of us can get tested for genetic anomalies at relatively nominal cost. What do we do with the information we learn? If we find that a female fetus has a mutation on either gene BRCA 1 on chromosome 17 or on BRCA 2 on chromosome 13, and therefore has a statistically significantly greater likelihood of developing breast cancer than a mutation free female, what then? What about a finding of a mutation of the ApoE gene on chromosome 19, which suggests an increased chance of Alzheimer’s after age sixty? What of the literally dozens of diseases that affect groups of Jews disproportionately, from ataxia-telangiectasia to Werner syndrome? We have only just begun to have a discussion about the need to have a discussion about these issues.
Dennis Prager sees the approach of American Jews to abortion as a matter of “moral disappointment,” but also as part of the substitution of “leftism” for Judaism. Prager’s frustration with American Jewry on abortion is understandable, but his argument is not persuasive. Whatever he may mean by “leftism,” it seems hard to sustain that assertion when the statistics indicate that 93% of the group is on one side of the issue. That is, if almost everyone is on the “left,” then there is no “left” anymore, or “right” for that matter. Invoking the left/right dichotomy is generally not very helpful or productive on political matters. On issues as knotty as abortion, it is next to useless.
And Prager’s suggestion that one can be pro-choice, i.e., anti-criminalization of abortion, and still recognize that “many abortions have no moral defense” is not on much firmer ground. He wants pro-choice Jews, “especially rabbis,” to say that they regard “most abortions” as “immoral.” But, to be polite, this approach lacks precision. How can “most abortions” be immoral if only “many abortions” have no moral defense? Exactly which cases is he referencing and what is the source of his data? What precisely does he mean by “moral” and “immoral” in this context? And why “especially” rabbis, as if (1) they have an impeccable track record on moral issues and (2) the rest of us are too obtuse to understand what’s at stake?
The difficult challenge here is not whether to be pro-choice or pro-life. Those are false and incomplete options, especially in Judaism which is neither really pro-choice nor pro-life as those terms are commonly used today. Moreover, while American Jews are not in sync with Jewish tradition, Jewish tradition is not in sync with modern medical science. Instead of knee jerk reactions, we need nuanced reflections. We all do, rabbis and laity, physicians and patients.
Fortunately, the biblical view on the status of the fetus is not one of those rules literally or figuratively written in stone.Nor is the tradition that developed subsequently. We remain free to struggle over how and where to draw the line we inevitably must draw when faced with situations about which we would rather not know much less contemplate and resolve. The true challenge, when considering matters of life and death, is to be cautious when others are certain, to be sensitive when others are strident, and to exercise humility when others exhibit hubris.
Note: Another version of this post was published previously at www.judaismandscience.com.
January 4, 2013 | 11:26 am
Posted by Roger Price
Rabbi Moshe ben Maimon, Maimonides, also known by the acronym Rambam, lived over eight hundred years ago (1138-1204 CE). He never saw the planet Earth as Apollo 8 astronaut William Anders did on December 24, 1968, when Anders took the now iconic Earthrise photograph while flying over the lunar surface during the first manned orbit of the Moon. We do not know if Maimonides even imagined such a sight.
When on December 16, 1992, the Galileo Orbiter was almost four million miles from our home planet, it shot an amazing picture of Earth with the Moon in the background. Maimonides never had the opportunity to see Earth and Moon from this perspective either.
Living some four hundred years before Nicolaus Copernicus considered the nature of the solar system and Gallileo Galilei fashioned his first telescope, Maimonides did not realize that the Earth circled the Sun, and not the other way around as was commonly understood in his day. Nor could he have known that the Sun was but one medium sized star in a rather pedestrian galaxy known as the Milky Way which spans 100,000 light years and is similar in size and shape to the spiral galaxy NGC 3370 as seen in a picture taken by the Hubble Space Telescope. Similarly, he would not have known either that our galaxy consisted of a few hundred million stars, give or take, or that the Milky Way was but one of a few hundred million galaxies, give or take, in the visible universe.
When Rambam died, Charles Darwin was still twenty-six generations into the future. The notion that all living things shared common ancestry with other living things had not yet been conceived. Nor certainly, did anyone in or before Maimonides’ time envision the double helix of DNA which serves to transmit genetic information from parent to offspring.
What, though, if Maimonides were with us today? What if he could see what we can see? What if he could know what we now know ?
What if Rambam learned that the universe as we understand it began in a sudden explosion some fourteen billion years ago, inflated and is now, even now, expanding at an accelerated pace? What if he were taught that matter and energy are convertible? What if he were confronted with the uncertainties of quantum mechanics? What if he saw pictures of Earth taken from the Moon or beyond, or were presented with a composite picture of cosmic microwave background radiation?
What if Rambam read not just Darwin’s On the Origin of Species, but contemporary studies on evolution? What if he simply visited the American Museum of Natural History in New York City, or some similar institution, and saw cladigrams replete with examples of the development of incredible varieties of past and present life forms? What if he could review human genome studies?
With all this information, given his temperament, his outlook, one wonders, to borrow a phrase from another group, WWMD? What would Maimonides do?
The question is not entirely fair, of course. We could, if we were so inclined, ask what James Madison would do to restructure government in a United States of America now extended fully and formally across North America and to Alaska and Hawaii, thoroughly industrialized and a great financial and military world power. Or, what Mozart would do if he were familiar with the works of Stravinsky or Sibelius or, for that matter, just Brahms and Beethoven.
Who knows? The answer may say more about the person asking the question than it does about the subject of the inquiry. After all, taking someone out of his historic context and placing him in a new one would not necessarily mean that he would merely apply his original philosophy or approach to a new set of facts and conditions. Still, the question remains: WWMD?
To begin to consider this perplexing question, we can seek clues, naturally enough, in Maimonides’ Guide for the Perplexed (the “Guide” or “GP”). The Guide illustrates how deeply immersed Rambam was in Jewish tradition, in the lore of the ancient Sages. But when those wise men opined on a matter of science, Maimonides tended to prefer, when he could, to accept demonstrable evidence over conjecture, even pious conjecture.
For instance, in at least two instances discussed in the Guide, Maimonides considered what the ancient Sages said about certain astronomical events. At one point he recognized that those who preceded him were necessarily limited in their understanding of certain matters. He said:
“You must, however, not expect that everything our Sages say respecting astronomical matters should agree with observation, for mathematics were not fully developed in those days; and their statements were not based on the authority of the Prophets, but on the knowledge which they either themselves possessed or derived from contemporary men of science.”
(GP Part 2: Chapter 14. All references are to Friedlander’s translation, Cosimo ed. 2006.)
At another point, Rambam discussed the then current belief, once espoused by the Sages, that the Sun and other heavenly bodies produce “mighty and fearful sounds” as they circuited in their orbits, a belief he says that was connected to a “theory of the motion and of the stars in a fixed sphere.” He noted first that Aristotle rejected that belief, holding that the Sun, Moon, planet and stars produce no sound. Second, he contended second that the Sages themselves had abandoned their theory on the motion of the stars. He concluded his thought by commending the Sages for so doing because “speculative matters everyone treats according to the results of his own study, and everyone accepts that which appears to him established by proof.” (GP, at 2:8.)
Both of these instances underscore the importance to Maimonides of the best science available at the time. And both show a willingness to depart from the generally accepted wisdom of the Sages when that wisdom was not grounded in good current science.
The preceding reference to Aristotle is telling. In the Guide, we also find that Maimonides reached beyond the confines of traditional Jewish thought to other philosophies, in particular, but without limitation, to the Greeks, and specifically to Aristotle. So, if he was traditional in his devotion to the teachings and practices of the community into which he was born, he was also liberal in his willingness to consider a variety of sources of information.
Yet while Maimonides was open to new, and non-traditional ideas, he was not necessary accepting of them. Aristotle, for example, held that the universe was eternal. As Maimonides understood it, this meant, among other things, that the universe had no beginning. Maimonides did not defer to Aristotle on the concept of the eternality of the universe. Rather, he believed that the universe had a beginning, that there was creation ex nihilo.
Maimonides refutation of Aristotle on this point was intended to preserve the underlying truth, as Maimonides saw it, of the Biblical creation story. Maimonides may have viewed some of that story as allegorical, but he accepted as accurate the core concept of a beginning of matter and time. So he characterized Aristotle’s view was mere argument, unproven and not “sufficient reason for rejecting the literal meaning of a Biblical text.” (GP, at 2:25.) Even here, though, he acknowledged that if Aristotle’s theory were proven, “the whole teaching of Scripture would be rejected and we should be forced to other opinions.” (Id.)
Of course, challenging someone eight hundred years ago on the basis that the proponent of a scientific theory lacked evidence was rather easy. There was not much evidence around. We know now, (but have only known for less than one hundred years), that Rambam was more correct than Aristotle, at least on one issue. The universe, to the extent we can perceive it today, appears to have had a beginning some fourteen billion years ago. Cosmologists are fairly confident of our understanding of the origin event, to within an exceedingly small fraction of its initiation.
But Aristotle’s theory of eternality, a discussed by Maimonides, incorporated another element as well. Aristotle also thought that “everything in the Universe is the result of fixed laws, that Nature does not change and that there is nothing supernatural.” (GP, at 2:25.) Rambam believed that accepting that part of the argument “would necessarily be in opposition to the foundation of our religion . . . unless the miracles are also explained figuratively.” (Id.) Today we are well aware of what might be called fixed laws, or at least laws that operate consistently within certain parameters.
What would Maimonides do with that information? Rabbis Marc Angel and Natan Slifkin can both fairly be described as Modern Orthodox. Both stress Maimonides’ commitment to understand the natural world and to seek its underlying Truth. Angel argues that “Rambam would surely not expect us to continue to operate on the basis of Ptolmaic theories.” (Angel, Maimonides, Spinoza and Us (Jewish Lights 2009), at 162.) To the contrary, Angel contends that because of his rational approach, Maimonides would consider it foolish to reject what contemporary science has proven beyond a reasonable doubt. (Id. at 164.) Slifkin, too, acknowledges Rambam’s tendency to favor natural, non-miraculous explanations of phenomena and suggests that he would have no problem accepting modern scientific views on, for instance, cosmology and evolution. (See Slifkin, The Challenge of Creation (Zoo Torah, 2d Ed. 2008), at 62, 147, 221 n.1, 268, 343 n.2.)
But where does this lead? Angel’s chosen standard of proof is a stringent one, used in criminal, not civil cases, cases. More importantly, would Maimonides really embrace today’s scientific teachings as a way to know God or would those same teachings lead him elsewhere? Would Maimonides, like nearly seventy-five percent (75%) of Jewish scientists surveyed at elite research universities simply take an atheist position? (See Ecklund, Science vs. Religion: What Scientists Really Think (Oxfor U. Press, 2010), at 36.)
A contemporary conservative rabbi, Jeremy Kalmanovsky, has written that “finding God inhering naturalistically in all things – a theory usually called panentheism – is the only adequate response to science.” (See “Heavenly Theology and Earthly Religion” in Jewish Theology in Our Time (Jewish Lights, 2010) at 25.) Would his inclination toward naturalism carry Rambam to that conclusion too? And, if he reached that point, what would be the consequences in terms of theology, prayer or otherwise?
We cannot forget that Rambam also departed from the Sages’s emphasis on action, on mitzvot, and taught that in order to be part of the Jewish community, to earn a place in the world to come, Jews needed to adhere to certain principles, including the existence of God. So he formulated the first Jewish creed, consisting of thirteen principles of faith. These principles included the beliefs that God existed, that God was one, that God conveyed God’s law to Moshe on Har Sinai, that the Messiah would come and the dead would be resurrected. How, if at all, would Maimonides’ principles be affected by his newly acquired scientific knowledge?
Our consideration of the question is complicated by the fact that Maimonides wrote in Arabic, and apparently obscurely at that. And what we read, we read in translation. Translations of dense writing, written less than forthrightly, do not exactly provide a firm foundation for determining with precision the writer’s intent. But translations are not the only impediment to understanding Maimonides, or even the most important. As Natan Slifkin has noted, there is considerable debate about the true nature of Rambam’s views. (See, Slifkin, above, at 69.)
Menachem Kellner of the University of Haifa, reviewing a new book about the Guide, titled his review “Mymonides and Hismonides.” And, we should add, Hermonides, too. Kellner’s point was that Rambam has become something of a Rorschach test, “few have read him, fewer have understood him, and yet everyone wants him in his or her camp.” That certainly seems to be the case. Self-described progressive or liberal Jews look to Maimonides as a kindred modernist, open to secular thought and science. But Orthodox scholars such as Marc Angel and Natan Slifkin hold tight to Rambam as well. Much in his approach allows them to integrate contemporary science with traditional Judaism, and, so, to live authentically Jewish lives with intellectual integrity.
Even those who, like Mordecai Plaut, are offput by what they see as the encompassing and robust science of the modern age, because its very “restriction to the empirical” renders it “entirely unsuited” to helping us love God refer to Rambam as authoritative, in this case for the proposition that we should not study modern science. Plaut’s point is that the modern science, with its emphasis on impersonal forces, devoid of purpose, is “radically different” than the world in which Maimonides lived, so much so that today he would reject it.
That Maimonides is understood quite differently by so many may complicate our consideration of the question raised, but it also underscores the importance of the question. So we still need to consider how this medieval philosopher would respond to our modern age. And we ask again, if he were here today: WWMD? What would Maimonides do?
Note: A version of this post was published previously at www.judaismandscience.com.
December 16, 2012 | 8:23 am
Posted by Roger Price
Irving (“Yitz”) Greenberg is an American orthodox rabbi, known for critical thinking and reaching across denominational lines. In 1977, writing about the Shoah (the Holocaust), Greenberg argued that in the future, “no statement, theological or otherwise, should be made that would not be credible in the presence of burning children.” A few years later, Greenberg repeated that proposition in a seminal essay entitled “The Third Great Cycle in Jewish History.”
Let’s call this principle the Greenberg Hurdle. It is, and perhaps should be, an obstacle that is hard to overcome. And while it may be construed to suggest, if not require, silence on certain fundamental issues, we should reject that temptation. Conversation should not cease just because it is difficult.
When he announced his principle, Greenberg did not do so in the context of a discussion of science and he does not appear to have had any general or specific concern about science in mind. Nevertheless, the Greenberg Hurdle does seem applicable to issues at the heart of the interface of science and faith.
Religion in general and God in particular once functioned, among other things, to explain the origin and evolution of the universe and our place in the scheme of things. Today what once was totally mysterious and inexplicable, can, though still wonderous, be described to a reasonable degree of certitude, without primary or, for some, any reference to a supernatural force.
As University of Michigan astrophysicist Fred Adams discloses in detail in Origins of Existence, the evolution of the universe can be described from the age of 10-43 seconds. If 10-1 is a tenth of a second and 10-3 is a thousandth of a second, then Professor Adams can bring us back to less than a millionth of a trillionth of a trillionth of a trillionth of a second after the birth of the known universe, that is, after what most of us think of as the Big Bang.
And, based on several independent methods, Vanderbilt astronomy professor David Weintraub places the age of the known universe, however it began, at 13.7 billion years old, give or take. (See, How Old is the Universe?)
Further, with mathematical theory now confirmed by experimental observation, we also know, among other things, the relative abundance of the lightest elements, the nature of the radiation footprint from the time of creation and the rate of expansion of the universe. We can understand how galaxies coalesced and organized, and how stars formed and died, in the process spewing into space those heavy elements like carbon, nitrogen and oxygen which formed the building blocks of life.
The Greenberg Hurdle presents a challenge to those who talk, especially in traditional terms, about God as the creator of light and life. What kind of deity had what kind of role in the universe described by Adams and Weintraub and others? And how do we address or relate to it?
Of course, faith, by definition, is not dependent on a fully confirmed factual foundation. One does not need faith to hold to that which is proven. Rather, faith concerns the unknown. But if a faith is to be worth living for, worth dying for, it should at least account for and be consistent with what we do know.
At the same time, while mathematical models and recent observations have taken us on quite a journey, we have not yet reached the end of the inquiry. Scientists have not discovered what existed or occurred prior to 10-43 seconds, nor, importantly, how it existed or why it occurred. And this failure, while understandable, is, nevertheless, crucial.
As Columbia University physics professor Brian Greene acknowledges, the standard Big Bang theory tells us “nothing about what banged, why it banged, how it banged, or, frankly, whether it really ever banged at all.” (See, The Fabric of the Cosmos (at 272).) A model with a pre-existing inflation field provides an explanation for a repulsive push, a bang if you will, but raises other troublesome issues. (Id. at 272-303.) Without more knowledge, to claim that as does Professor Adams (at 3) that “(i)n the stark simplicity of the beginning, there was only physics” (emphasis supplied), may not be quite accurate.
Moreover, while there is convincing evidence that Earth is close to 4.5 billion years old (Weintraub, supra, at 16-39), and further evidence that primitive biological life arose within the first billion years after Earth was formed, how living cells emerged from the chemical stew remains a puzzlement.
For over fifty years we have known how to synthesize amino acids, which are key to the formation of proteins, from basic inert chemicals. And we have identified possible environments that might have been conducive to the emergence of biological life. But science has not yet been able to create autonomous, self-replicating organisms.
To the extent that science seeks to explore and explain root causes, it, too, must confront the Greenberg Hurdle. It, too, must be credible. In recent years, astrophysicists have attempted to resolve some of the remaining questions identified by Greene with reference to string theory and membranes and spatial dimensions more than the three we know well. But strings and membranes and multiple dimensions, however elegantly they may be justified by mathematics, have not yet reached the required level of credibility.
From their different perspectives, science and faith can react with amazement at the universe we know and our place in it. And whether the universe burst forth by some quantum fluctuation or by the word of God, humility, as well as awe and wonder, is in order.
Note: Another version of this post appeared previously at www.judaismandscience.com.
November 19, 2012 | 2:44 pm
Posted by Roger Price
It is one of the most dramatic moments in the entire Torah. There is no lightening or thunder, no plagues or parting of the sea, just an elderly statesman appearing before his people one more time, to teach one more lesson before they part from each other, the people to cross the river and the old man to enter eternity. Having led for so many years with the assistance of signs and wonders, now he simply speaks words, hoping to refresh their recollection and inspire them. He reminds them of their history in order to set the stage for their future. He tells them again what they should and should not do, emphasizing that they will have to make choices, choices that will lead to prosperity or adversity, choices that will enhance life or bring death. This leader, this teacher, this Moshe urges them: “Choose life, that you and your children should live . . . .” (See Deut. 30:19; see also Lev. 18:5.) Not for nothing is the Torah known as Etz Chaim, a tree of life. (See Prov. 3:18; Ezek. 20:11.)
This reverence for life is more than some gauzy good feeling. Judaism at its best is grounded in experience, rooted in reality. Centuries after the biblical authors first put quill to scroll, the rabbis in the Talmudic period considered situations where observance of biblical ordinances on the sanctity of the Sabbath might adversely, perhaps fatally, affect real people – a wall that had collapsed on a child but could be removed, a fire that could be extinguished. (See Yoma 84b, see also, Yoma 83a.) Referring to an obscure statement in the Holiness Code which seems to prohibit standing by or upon the blood of your neighbor (Lev. 19:16), the rabbis formulated the doctrine of pikuach nefesh (the preservation of human life), the principle that all of the laws, all of the rules, and all of the regulations which are in Torah can be abrogated to save a life. There are three major exceptions, essentially related to idolatry, murder and adultery, but the bias is otherwise comprehensive in favor of saving the life of another: “Whoever saves a life is considered to have saved the entire world.” (See Sanhedrin 37a.)
And if someone should fall ill, Jewish tradition seeks healing. In the Torah, God was conceived as Rofeh Cholim, the Healer of the sick. (See, e.g., Gen. 20:17, Num. 12:13; see also, 2 Kings 20:1-5, Jer. 17:14.) Not surprisingly, the traditional prayer service contains a prayer for the sick, the Mi-Shebeirach. Even for those who cannot accept the notion of an intervening Divine Doctor, the expression of concern, of desire, of hope for a r’fua shleima, literally a complete cure, resonates with great power.
The biblical authors also knew that it was not enough just to revere life or treat illness. Prevention of harm was seen as crucial. So the Torah warns us not to place a stumbling block in the path of the blind (Lev. 19:14), and we understand that we are responsible for the welfare of others – especially those whose circumstances or condition place their health or safety at risk.
And what does all of this have to do with nuts, the delicious treat that can lower bad cholesterol and provide heart healthy nutrients? The short, if not simple, answer is that for many people, and an increasing number of them, nuts can be deadly. They can, for instance, as Tablet columnist Marjorie Ingall has written, turn charoset into the Mortar of Doom.
Researchers estimate that 15,000,000 Americans have food allergies. These allergies affect 1 in 13 children under the age of 18 (about two children in the average classroom). And the problem is getting worse. As the National Center for Health Statistics has reported, food allergies in general are increasing rapidly among children. Moreover, children in large urban centers have significantly greater incidences of food allergies than do children in rural communities. Summarizing the statistics, ScienceDaily reports that almost ten percent of urban children have food allergies.
Ninety percent of allergic reactions to food are caused by eight particular allergens. Two of the primary triggers are peanuts and tree nuts. Rates of peanut allergies specifically have tripled between 1997 and 2008. Today almost three percent of children in urban areas are allergic to peanuts.
Distinguishable from food intolerance, a food allergy involves the immune system. When an allergic person eats an offending food, that person’s immune system perceives the food as a foreign invader and attacks it, releasing a number of chemicals in the process. Dr. Sarah Boudreau-Romano concisely explains the science behind the storm of these adverse reactions in her blog “The Allergist Mom.”
Symptoms may be relatively moderate such as a tingling sensation in the mouth, hives or cramps, but also may include swollen lips, difficulty in breathing or swallowing, reduced blood pressure, and loss of consciousness. When a person’s blood pressure drops to a dangerously low level, anaphylactic shock occurs. Even a very small amount of allergen can result in life-threatening anaphylaxis.
Injection of epinephrine (adrenaline) is both the first line of defense and the only available treatment for anaphylaxis, but its use is not really a cure. Rather, if administered quickly enough, it merely buys a few minutes of time to get to a hospital emergency room for further treatment. To really avoid allergic reactions, a person with a food allergy must avoid the allergy causing food.
So, as important as it is to be able to recognize and treat an allergic reaction, prevention, in the form of avoidance, is truly the best medicine. The good news is that congregations, temples, synagogues and shuls, as well as Jewish federations, centers and other organizations, can respond to the growth of food allergies by adhering to the principle of pikuach nefesh.
One such policy is to become a nut-free facility, that is, prohibit any food containing peanuts or other nuts from being brought into or being cooked or served in the facility. This approach is especially helpful in protecting young children who cannot read food labels or otherwise guard against their own allergic mishap. Allergies aside, some organizations already ban any food that is not prepared in their own kitchens or under certain religious supervision. Groups that do allow food to be brought in, E.G., for pot-luck meals, need to recognize that for some people with food allergies luck is not a good policy.
A number of congregations across the country already strive to be nut aware and nut free, for example, Woodlands Community Temple in White Plains, New York (Reform) and Congregation Beth Shalom in Seattle, Washington (Conservative). Here is a protocol based on what some groups are doing now to implement the principle of pikuach nefesh.
Yes, yes, some will feel that such a policy inconveniences them. But L’Chaim is not just a toast with a click of the glass. It is a core value and a promise. And, so, Jewish tradition has not recognized an inconvenience exception to the principle of pikuach nefesh at any time or in any place. Rather, across time and space, Jews have consistently opted to protect those in need and preserve life. So, too, now. All together: L’CHAIM! TO LIFE!
Note: This post appeared previously at www.judaismandscience.com.