Rabbi Dr. David Hartman may his memory be a blessing, recalled what it had been like for him as a pulpit rabbi. He said that his Orthodox congregants wanted him to give them “relevant” sermons, not sermons about Jewish observance, ethics, or values. Rabbi Hartman said,
“So I gave them relevant sermons. I told these Orthodox Jews that they were doomed, that they had failed to properly prepare their children to be Jews, that they were led by people without a coherent vision of Jewish life, that everything they were doing was killing Judaism and the spirit of the Jewish people, and that despite all their check-writing, hand-wringing over Israel, and pretending to be a holy congregation, they had made no effort to create true spiritual community.
“That seemed to satisfy them, because for them Judaism was all about guilt, boredom, and failure, not about immersion in a positive, healthy, Jewish life.
“Later, the President of the congregation asked me why I would choose to be the rabbi of a ‘doomed’ congregation, and I told him, ‘Because I believe in techiyas hamaysim [the resurrection of the dead].’” (1)
I guess I believe in the resurrection of the dead, too.
We are still here, and we are committed to revitalizing our congregation. Amen v’Amen!
(I don’t usually allow it, but for that you may applaud)
I don’t want to berate you about your Jewish practices, or how much money you do or don’t give, and so on, but I would like instead to talk about what it mean to live a life of holiness. And yes, there will be some overlap. I will have to speak a little bit about some things you may not practice at this point in your life, but I hope that you will at least come to understand some of what those observances are supposed to do for us, and what you might find if you choose to add them into your life.
Yom Kippur is about the possibility for change and growth, confession, teshuvah, repentance. Those are reasonably easy concepts to understand.
But Rosh Hashanah is more abstract. It’s Torah name, Yom T’ruah means Shofar Sounding Day. And we understand the Shofar sounds to be a wordless prayer…
Wordless prayer? Abstract indeed!
But at the same time the Shofar is a trumpet, and as such is an announcing tool for our coronation of God as Sovereign.
We are proclaiming that we are willing to devote our lives to the often frustrating, difficult, tedious work of continual growth as human beings, and the continual improvement of God’s world.
Rosh Hashanah is focused on prayer, and on proclaiming and accepting God’s sovereignty, and accepting God’s demand of us,
“You shall be holy for I the Lord your God and holy.”
We are here to commit ourselves to lives of holiness.
So what exactly does that mean?
Is being holy the same as being good?
In short, no.
It is difficult to talk about holiness, which is intangible, immeasurable, and elusive, and
I’m trying to use words to express what cannot be expressed in words.
Because of this challenge, we unfortunately tend to diminish holiness by talking about ethical and moral and social justice, and kindness, but that eviscerates the powerful concept of holiness.
In teaching us to “Be Holy” the Torah is trying to remind us that we are living in God’s creation, we are here to be the hands and feet of God in this world, and to do God’s work.
That is no small challenge, especially if you have doubts about God, or don’t know God’s place in your life.
Believing in God, or any kind of a “higher power” is considered by some people to be unscientific, unverifiable, unproductive and uninspiring.
On the contrary, waking up in the morning, looking in the mirror and believing that what you see is the pinnacle of of creation is the true height of arrogance, self-centeredness, delusion, and close-mindedness.
Because more important than whether or not you believe in God or at least the possibility of God, is knowing, with absolute certainty, that you are NOT God.
Though it is hard to conceive of it, this world existed long before we arrived, and will go on long after we pass from it.
So if you are not convinced that God exists, just act as if there is a God.
Pretend God exists, and live your life accordingly. It can’t hurt, it might help, and will encourage you to live a good and just life.
But neither should spiritual belief be taken to the opposite extreme.
The mayor of Istanbul stated:
All life is holy and precious, be it of humans, animals or ecology, and no person has the right to take away the right of another living being to live. (2)
Is this really what we mean by holy? Being a vegan? Letting Zika virus thrive? Not killing the termites that are eating your house?
Sorry, I’m not convinced-In fact, Hitler was a vegetarian. Our tradition points out that if we are compassionate when we should not be, we will not be compassionate when we must be. Distinctions are important.
A Peter Mayer song begins,
When I was a boy each week
On Sunday we would go to church
Pay attention to the Priest
and he would read the Holy word
and consecrate the Holy bread
and everyone would kneel and bow
Today the only difference is,
Everything is Holy now.
Everything is Holy now (3)
If everything is holy, then nothing is holy. Because holy means set apart from the ordinary.
The world is can be a wondrous and beautiful place, the existence of the world may be an ongoing miracle, but wonder and beauty are not holiness.
Earthquakes, Hurricanes, Floods, Crime, Illness and Injury are not holy.
What happened in Charlottesville was not holy. The KKK and the Nazis and the hatred we see around us are not holy. The failure to condemn evil is not holy.
If everything is holy, then nothing is set apart, and nothing is sacred..
And, indeed, as Jews we are partners with God in making this world a place where holiness is only need be distinguished from the ordinary and not from tragedy and evil as well.
So we return from what holiness is not, to seeking holiness is.
In the Torah account, God’s first creation is light, the second act is to separate that light from the darkness.
This is the message of the Havdallah ceremony that ends the Sabbath and Yom Kippur.
Havdallah means separation, we are distinguishing between light and dark, holy and ordinary, weekdays and Shabbat.
Indeed, if every day were holy, why would we even be here right now?
Why today? Why not last month? Couldn’t we celebrate all the other equally important, not any holier, not any different days? Why don’t we blow shofar every day and eat matzo and bitter herbs all year long while wearing masks and costumes?
Your wedding day does not equate with your car’s oil change day.
Attending a baby-naming is not on the same plane as attending the premier of Star Trek Discovery on Sunday night. (Not even for me.)
There are moments that are holy. We mark these with ceremony, blessings, traditional foods, music, and prayers.
“You shall keep the Sabbath, because it is holy for you.” “Six days you shall labor, but on the seventh day you shall rest;” The first half of that commandment is the six days of labor!!
There you have it, six ordinary days, one holy day. 85% of that mitzvah is the ordinary, non-holy work week.
Rabbi Rolando Matalon speaks of the importance of Shabbat in understanding holiness because we hope that it is a day can experience time differently.
85% of the time we may say “Time is money.”
On Shabbat we say, “Time is life.” And “Time is a precious gift.”
On Shabbat, Time is NOT money. On Shabbat we don’t allow daily stresses to dominate us.
I am not talking about becoming Orthodox, or giving up driving, electricity, or your computer for 24 hours.
But carving out even just a few hours of holy time on Shabbat, maybe even just for a family dinner on Friday night creates a sacred opportunity to connect others, and develop our internal lives.
Mitzvot of time create pathways, like wireless hot spots of connectivity that link us to the Divine.
Shabbat, holidays, and life cycle celebrations are holy moments, holy hot spots.
So sacred time is one piece of holiness.
Sacred space is another. The Western Wall, the entire land of Israel, and the rooms where we gather to pray, are holy spaces, as are our own homes where a mezuzah on the doorpost, designating our living space as dedicated to the service of God.
The Ark where the Torah Scrolls are kept, is a sacred space. The space where you sit, enfolded in your prayer shawl, your Tallit, is your own portable sanctuary, your own personal, portable sacred space.
More holy hot spots.
But holiness is much more significant than holy space and holy time,
Leviticus repeatedly instructs us to be holy people:
“You shall be holy for I, the Lord your God am holy.”
Time can be holy, Space and be holy, but we are obligated to be holy.
Erin Smokler and Rabbi Rolando Matalon discussed holiness in a lecture a couple of years ago, here are some of their thoughts and mine about becoming holy people.
Smokler who works with Orthodox women rabbinical students teaches, “Be holy—is aspirational, we are seeking to attain a status, it’s a project, but it is the task of a lifetime, and never really achieved. If you think you have it, you have just lost it. It cannot be achieved, it is a task and a process and a pursuit.
We are commanded to be holy because God is holy. So we could begin by asking how does God create holiness?
After the work of the first six days was complete, the Torah says,
“Then God blessed the seventh day and made it holy, because on it God rested from all the work of creating that God had done.”
God sanctified the Sabbath by defining limits. By putting a boundary at the end of creation and declaring “Now I will stop, cease creating, and allow everything to just ‘be’ for a day.”
We too need to be willing to place and accept limits on ourselves, to create unfilled, uncluttered hours in our lives for something special and sacred to enter in. Even when we don’t know in advance what it is that will fill that time, we have to create that pause first.
This is like preparing a garden, first we have to clear away the weeds, and turn over he soil to make the space where we can plant. Whether it will be flowers or vegetables we may not have decided, but the preparation of the empty space is the same.
How can we create these empty hours in our lives? I don’t mean by sitting and meditating. I mean by under-scheduling them. By not having to be somewhere doing something ‘productive.’
Then, how do we use that time to create holy hot spots? Meals with friends, reading, walks in nature, even attending services.
Smokler likewise suggests communal prayer and song, wordless melodies, and instrumental music to name a few.
Personal, private prayer, can also create holy hot spots. Hopefully having a prayer habit can help clear away distractions and the demands of the daily life to create moments for holiness to enter.
Developing positive character traits, or “middot,” and enhancing our relationships, creates ever more of these connections.
These are all ways to build community and cultivate personal transformation
Chesed, caring others, can also allow emergence of kedusha, or holiness.
Through doing mitzvot, and through righteous and just living, we create holy hot spots.
The more hot spots, the more connectivity, and the more bandwidth.
Living holy lives means actively cultivating transcendence, that is, getting past our limited physical reality and reaching toward the reality of God who is unlimited in time or in space.
Rabbi Matalon questions if this is even possible for us in today’s world.
We are caught in a prevailing Western culture of individualism, we are constantly barraged with the message that “it’s all about me.”
If God doesn’t give me what I want, that means God doesn’t exist and I have no use for religion either.
We are surrounded by an environment of excessive consumption, vulgarity, and selfishness, others exist to serve me, the world is here to serve my desires.
There is a prevailing impatience, and an expectation of instant gratification.
People want quick fixes, Now now, now, and they are demanding more and more.
Furthermore we have internet platforms that promote utilitarian relationships, we network to find people who will be useful to us. We are urged to ask what can we get out of connecting with this other person. We are training people to ask what can I get from this relationship, networking, clients, career contacts, political alliances, etc
This is what Martin Buber called relating to others as I-it, as objects,
when we should be relating to them as equally valuable and important persons, Relationships of I-Thou.
Ironically, It’s pretty hard to detach from all of that and still remain committed to improving the world.
So our attempt to do honest spiritual work is to row against these raging currents.
There is no self-concern in God when we truly are at ONE, in order to attain such a level of holiness we need to transcend the boundaries of SELF, and train ourselves to truly connect with God and with others.
How do we find the time to connect to what is beyond time?
Rather let’s ask ourselves, “How do we make the time?” and how do we use our time?
And how do we do this in the life of our Jewish community?
We join our efforts to our the synagogue community not just for entertaining talks, or to hear David’s lovely music, or to train our kids for a bat or bar mitzvah, but to encourage ourselves and others to do the work that will allow all of us to transcend our “Selfs.”
The authentic Jewish path is not the Ultra Orthodox response of withdrawing from the world to isolate ourselves in a community where we don’t have to face the challenges of the 21st century.
Nor is our path to abandon our traditions and assimilate into Western popular culture accepting unquestioned liberal values in the place of authentic Judaism.
Ours must be the center path of moderation, of living in two civilization, partaking of the finest of each, but setting aside the which should properly be rejected.
The book, Alcoholics Anonymous addresses the need for balance between living without God and living only for a supernatural God:
Those of us who have spent much time in the world of spiritual make-believe have eventually seen the childishness of it. This dream world has been replaced by a great sense of purpose, accompanied by a growing consciousness of the power of God in our lives. We have come to believe God would like us to keep our heads in the clouds with the Divine, but that our feet ought to be firmly planted on earth. That is where our fellow travelers are, and that is where our work must be done. These are the realities for us. We have found nothing incompatible between a powerful spiritual experience and a life of sane and happy usefulness. (4)
May your holy hot spots keep you in in constant connectivity with what truly matters, and may God bless us all to live inspired and inspiring lives in the New Year. L’shana Tova!
1 Rabbi Larry Pinsker
2 Quoted by Debora Steinmetz in a talk on holiness at Drisha Institute
3 IBID (Kadir Topbaş)
4 Alcoholics Anonymous Book
Posted in From the Rabbi's Study Tagged with: animal rights, columbia md, Congregation Shalom Aleichem, Connecting with God, Divine, Drisha, Erin Smokler, Everything is holy, for I the Lord your God am holy, Holiness, Holy, Holy Hot Spots, Holy Hotspots, Jewish, Jewish new year, Kedusha, Kedushah, Leviticus, Leviticus 19, Peter Mayer, Rabbi Heiligman, religion, Rolando Matalon, Sabbath, Sacred, Sacred time, Sacredness, Shabbat, Shofar, Time is money, Time is precious, Torah, Wordless prayer, You shall be holy
We have a Jewish saying, “Let the old year end with all of its sorrows, and the New Year begin with all of its blessings.”
I think we are ready for that. As we watch the old year fade into the new, we are acutely aware of how much pain and destruction and we have seen in the past year, and just over the past month.
This has been a year when humankind has been humbled by nature. It has been proven to us, that we are not the masters of the world, despite our delusions to the contrary.
Still, I don’t accept Harvey and Irma, African drought and South Asia flooding, or any natural disasters as “acts of G-d.”
Frankly, I think it is a blasphemous insult to suggest Gd deliberately causes suffering.
Nonetheless, when disaster strikes, people always ask, “Why?” Whether it is a personal illness or other crisis, a local tragedy, or a large scale natural disaster, our first gut level reaction is to ask, “Why?”
There is, however, a problem with the Why Question.
Asking “Why” or “Why me?” presumes that there is a reason that this particular person is suffering. Indeed, human beings are psychology wired to look for patterns and reasons, for cause and effect. We constantly seek to better understand our world. It starts around the age of 6 months, when babies play “Drop.” What will happen if I drop my bottle from my high chair? Does gravity still work? Every time?
Even my cat Spock likes to play this game. (Only cute until he broke my iPhone screen.)
But people look for patterns because if we can figure out what caused a disaster or problem, we can imagine ourselves immune from the problem. We think we can avoid the bad things that happen to other people.
“I live way above sea level, so I’m safe.”
“I don’t smoke and I exercise, so I won’t get cancer.”
“I drive safely.” But none of this really prevents illness, tragedy, or disaster. In some cases, there may be a grain of truth. Smoking can cause cancer, but not every smoker gets cancer, and not every cancer patient smoked. So it still comes back to “Why me?”
And of course the person who has been spared rarely asks, “Why not me?”
Once we start playing the “Why” game, the answer leads to the Blame Game. Why didn’t somebody prevent it? Plan better, build better, give more warning?
And then the next step devolves into blaming the victim.
Why didn’t they build on stilts? Don’t they have flood insurance? What do they expect living on the beach? Why didn’t they leave?
Why do they live on the beach when they know the danger? Why do Californians build houses in fire-prone canyons and on earthquake fault lines?
Why didn’t they exercise more, get their mammogram or colonoscopy, eat organic, or drive a safer car? They must have been a smoker, or drinker, or too fat or too thin.
Why wasn’t this disaster prevented?
Because if I can just find the answer to that question, I can blame the victim for not somehow preventing it, and I can self-righteously return to the safety and comfort of my own safe, protected life.
But of course that is all delusion. And rather than understanding this better than generations before us, we in fact are more deluded than they were.
We live at a time and place where infant mortality is rare, we have antibiotics, air-conditioning, reasonable accurate weather forecasts, cancer therapies, building codes and health departments.
We are more insulated from the fragility of life than any other time in human history. We have moved beyond using medicine for healing the sick to surgery for fixing wrinkles. And in the process we have come to believe that every one of us will live to a ripe old age with excellent health and with plenty of wealth.
But while we hope and pray this is true, and that no one, God Forbid, should face misfortune or catastrophe, we also need to acknowledge that we live in an imperfect world.
Why do bad things happen to good people? Because that is the way of the world.
Contrary to the prosperity theology of televangelists, wealth is not a sign that someone has God’s favor, in fact, the financial crisis showed us just the opposite, it is often a sign of cutthroat greed and outright immoral and even illegal behavior.
Wealth may indeed be a sign that someone has worked long and hard for what they have,
Or perhaps they are ‘privileged’ by birth, skin color, DNA, good schools or simple luck.
So similarly, bad luck, poverty, a flooded neighborhood, a health challenge, disability or a foreclosure doesn’t say anymore about a person’s character, integrity, or worth than prosperity.
We talk about Tzedakah, when those who have more give to those who have less. The Hebrew word means the Right Thing, unlike charity, which means love. We are obligated to give whether we feel loving or not. It’s just the right thing to do. Gemilut Hasadim is not limited to what rich can do for the poor, a poor person can visit the rich when they are sick or bereaved, or join them in celebrating a wedding, a bar mitzvah, or a baby naming.
From Torah times till today, being an innocent, good, or holy person has never meant being exempt from suffering.
No, humanity has never been spared from heartache. Pain and tragedy are part of life, and righteousness has never been able to prevent it. So when we see someone suffering, let us not fall into the smug trap of blaming them and thereby excusing ourselves from action.
In real life, now, as in ancient times, good people suffer. While bad things sometimes happen because of our own poor choices or because of evil intent, life isn’t that simple, and often there is absolutely no reason why a particular person is hurting, or for that matter, why anyone at all is suffering.
“Why?” And “Why me?” are the wrong questions.
The questions we should ask in the face of suffering, are the questions that we can answer, such as:
What can I do to help?
“What can I do to ameliorate this situation?”
How can I snatch spiritual and emotional triumph from my own trials and defeats?
How can I best handle troubles?
Obviously little troubles and major ones. It’s just that when it’s my problem it’s so hard to keep things in perspective.
There are everyday troubles and problems, such as financial worries, difficult bosses and co-workers, even what might be called mixed blessings, such as beloved, but difficult family members.
I was shopping and heard someone call out, “Why me?” When a rabbi hears that question, the red lights start flashing. I turned to see a new mother with a 3 week old baby. She was sleep deprived and stressed out, and frustrated that even a routine shopping trip wasn’t easy with a cranky baby.
Her stress was very real and there may have been more going on, but it appeared she was still learning to cope with everyday frustrations of parenting.
But if she could have seen it from another view, her crying newborn was a blessing. A somewhat annoying blessing at that moment, but a blessing nonetheless. Infertile couples would love to have that problem.
We are all going to face minor and major challenges and troubles in our lives. We can transcend them by cultivating gratitude for what we have and focus less on what we lack. In the face of loss, we have memories, in the face of ongoing challenges, we have life, hope, and all the strengths that make us who we are. If we are part of a community like this, we have people to help us through the hard times. God willing, we will discover strengths within ourselves that we didn’t realize we had, and find the inspiration and ability to overcome our troubles.
But what about when it’s other people hurting. Shall we blame or avoid them?
Really-I expect that if you are here in this room with me, I don’t need to ask such a question.
But just to review a few mitzvot…
Our Torah tells us,
Don’t stand idly by the blood of your neighbor, which is to say, Don’t be a bystander when someone is in danger.
When your neighbor needs assistance, don’t turn away.
When your neighbors need a loan, you must help them.
Be careful not to oppress the widow, the orphan or the non-citizen among you. Leave food behind in your field for the poor, the widow, and the orphan so they can collect it without having to beg for it.
When we are looking at other people’s suffering, it is even more important to ask the right questions. Not “why did this happen to them?” but rather,
How can I provide emotional, financial, logistical or spiritual support to the people who are affected?
What can I do to help the people of Houston, Florida, the Caribbean Islands?
Obviously as individuals we cannot prevent hurricanes, or famine but as a society, we can improve how our governments and relief agencies respond.
From Katrina, Florida learned than relying on personal transportation for evacuations is inadequate, as Irma approached Florida, better plans were in place, and implemented.
Good for the state of Florida. That is Teshuvah, when we learn from and don’t repeat the mistakes of the past.
But individual citizens, and, I might add, non-citizens, made a huge impact in Houston. Boat owners from all around the area and beyond used their watercraft, time, energy, and strength to rescue people from Harvey. They asked themselves, “What can I do to help?”
Living, thank G-d, far from the disasters, we as individuals know the answer to “What can I do to help?”
We can support the charities that are best able to get emergency aid on the ground quickly and efficiently.
And I know it can be hard to know where to send your money, but I hope you have already donated to emergency assistance or are planning to.
In the aftermath of Katrina it was Walmart that proved amazingly well situated to provide water, food, and emergency supplies with an already-in-place distribution system. They out-performed FEMA in the immediate aftermath of the storm.
Walmart has now pledged 20 million dollars matching customer contributions 2:1 for relief. Because they have a successful track record of quick response, I trust Walmart’s efforts.
A few other outstanding corporations are also offering millions in aid and are raising more from the wider community.
Jewish philanthropists Michael and Susan Dell of Dell Computers, recognizing the need to help their own community, have pledged a whopping $36 million to assist his fellow Texans.
This is part of a larger plan known as the Rebuild Texas Fund that is being launched through the Michael and Susan Dell Foundation. Through this fund, $18 million is immediately being donated. The overall goal is to raise $100 million that will go toward rebuilding Houston.
I’m sure you have heard about Mattress Mack opening his stores as shelters. This is a case of someone looking at the situation and asking himself, “What can I do to help?” and coming up with an immediate solution to an immediate crisis. Some people are a little cynical about him, figuring he will sell plenty of mattresses and furniture as a result of his kindness, and he may indeed, but this is not the first instance of Mack’s generosity. He also helped fund the nation’s first mobile stroke unit, a specialized ambulance, and ran a fundraiser for the Salvation Army to which he donated $50,000 of his own money.
Our Howard County Jewish Federation has not only raised our goal of $10,000 to respond to the famine in Uganda, but it raised over double that amount! Way to go Howard County!
Now there is a great need here in North America, and again I have faith in our community that we will rise to the occasion.
Our Federation is now assisting in collecting funds for on-the-ground organizations is Houston, and no doubt by the time I deliver this, they will have expanded their efforts to include relief for Irma victims.
All of these are people and organizations are asking the question, “What can I do to help?” In Hebrew we talk about Gemilut Hasadim, acts of kindness, or put even more strongly, Mesirat Nefesh, sacrificing our comfort or time or resources to help others. That is to say, giving beyond the comfortable point that we can afford and not feel it.
This means not just the pocket change at the end of the day going into a Red Cross tin, but making a meaningful effort to make a difference. Some can offer boats, others money, or even shelter in a mattress store. But all of them are helping their neighbors, whether we understand that to be in Howard County, or our neighbors in Texas, Florida, or the Caribbean.
Spending these holy days in our own prayer, or Tefillah, is certainly central to Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur.
But notice that most of our prayers are in the plural. We and Our and Us. Facing disaster from a distance pushes us to expand our sense of Us-ness, so to speak, of recognizing who is “We.”
And if we truly “get” our prayers, we come to realize that while there are ever widening circles of We, there are very very few “Theys” in the world that we would fail to see as our brothers and sisters were in time of need.
Several years ago when an earthquake struck Iran, they did announce they would accept aid from anyone except their arch-enemy, Israel. So ok, there are a few spots that we cannot reach. But many many more that we can.
Israel had been secretly helping Syrians for years. They have brought food and medical aid caravans to Syrians who were astonished to learn where the aid was coming from. That program has now gone public.
Our tradition holds that each of us is responsible for our own sins, but we are also responsible as a community for the kind of world we maintain. We therefore share responsibility for each other’s sins, because we tolerate the problems in our society that lead people to sin. If this is true, then it is our collective mitzvot that can raise each other up.
And if we share responsibility for each other’s sins, then certainly we share responsibility for each other’s well being.
Collective responsibility is highlighted on the Yom Kippur liturgy. Next week will recite the confessional prayers. These are all stated in the plural. We have sinned, we have betrayed, we have stolen….
For the sins which we have committed before you, forgive us, pardon us, grant us atonement.
As individuals we are judged on Rosh Hashanah, and likewise,
As a community we are also judged.
Back in 2005, when Katrina hit New Orleans, our congregation donated our entire High Holy Days appeal to relief. I wish I could say that we are in a position to do that again. But we are not.
So while I have used this talk to ask you to support those in need beyond our community, I hope you will also help Congregation Shalom Aleichem, so that next time disaster strikes we will again be able to offer that kind of generosity as a congregation.
As the Rosh Hashanah prayer teaches us, Teshuvah, Tefillah, and Tzedakah, Repentance, Prayer, and charity alleviate the severity of the decree.
As the TV character, Red Green used to say, “Remember, We’re all in this together.”
In 5778, I wish and pray for you to have all you need and more. To have great abundance to gratefully share with others, and to experience good health, love of friends and family, much joy, and all other good things. May you and yours all be inscribed in the book of Life.
Posted in From the Rabbi's Study Tagged with: cancer, columbia md, Congregation Shalom Aleichem, disaster, evil, floods, gemilut hasadim, God, helping victims, High Holy Days, hurricane, hurricanes, Jewish, Jewish new year, Joanne Yocheved Heiligman, Rabbi Heiligman, religion, sermon, suffering, Tragedy, tzedakah, unity, when bad things happen to good people, why, why me
5777 – February 3-4, 2017
by Dr. Gary Heiligman, PhD
That science and the Bible are in conflict is a very popular notion
As a result many Christians (and a few Jews) seem predisposed to disregard science because “scripture proves it is wrong.”
In any event, science can be corrected, but scripture cannot–
Well, before we get into the detailed answer a look at demographics shows that the popular conception is wrong. In fact, …
I found the following statistic quoted by many who want to highlight the conflict
between science and religion.
According to one study, 93% of Members of the National Academy of Science are “atheists”.
Really? REALLY? I know a lot of scientists and engineers, and while there are some atheists there are an awful lot of religious people too: Catholics,
Protestants, Mormons, Jews, Orthodox Christians, and others. So whence comes
In 1998, a questionnaire was sent out to 1000 members of the NAS. The first
question in the survey was:
1. I believe in a God in intellectual and effective communication with humankind, i.e., a God to whom one might pray in expectation of receiving an answer. By “answer”, I mean more than the subjective psychological effects of
Not unsurprisingly, only 7% of NAS respondents answered “yes” to this first
question. Later questions in the survey apparently went into more subtle
distinction, but you get the basic idea. The question was asked in such a way
that only “believers” in a supernatural god– one that acts outside of science,
would answer “yes” (Source: Larson EJ, Witham L. “Leading scientists still
reject God”. Nature 1998 Jul; 394:313. For a fuller discussion of the problems
with this survey, see https://ncse.com/library-resource/do-scientists-really-reject-god.)
So… what fraction of scientists really are atheists? The Pew Research Center
studied “Scientists and belief” in 2009 <http://www.pewforum.org/2009/11/05/scientists-and-belief/>.
No surprise: 17% of scientists identify as “atheist” (vs. 2% of the
No surprise: 11% of scientists identify as “agnostic” (vs. 2% of the
No surprise: 52% of scientists say they believe in God or a universal power or
spirit, whereas 41% say they believe in neither (vs.95% / 4% of the
Big surprise: There is no historical trend in belief.
In 1914, 42% of scientists said they believed in a personal God
in 1996, this number was virtually the same (40%) when asked the exact same
There is a strong social component here as well, with the numbers varying
significantly depending on age (66% of 18-34 year old scientists believe in God
vs. 46% of 65+ year old) and field of study (41% chemists believe in God vs. 29%
of physicists and astronomers).
And finally, what about Jewish scientists? 8% of scientists identify as Jewish (vs.
2% of the public*). In fact, “Jewish” is the only category of religion that is
over-represented amongst scientists in the Pew survey of religious affiliation.
For comparison only 4% of scientists identify as evangelical Protestant (vs. 28%
of the public). –
* – The fraction of Americans who identify themselves as Jewish has not changed
significantly from (1.7% to 1.9%) in the interval between 2007 and 2015,
according to the Pew Center <http://www.pewforum.org/2015/05/12/americas-changing-religious-landscape/>. Among organized religions Jewish affiliation is still the most common other than Christianity, exceeding Muslim (0.9%), Buddhist (0.7%) and Hindu (0.7%).
So, having shown that there are lots of religious scientists, what do they do
Here are two examples.
28 And the Lord opened the mouth of the ass, and she said unto Balaam, What have I done unto thee, that thou hast smitten me these three times?
29 And Balaam said unto the ass, Because thou hast mocked me: I would there were a sword in mine hand, for now would I kill thee.
30 And the ass said unto Balaam, Am not I thine ass, upon which thou hast ridden ever since I was thine unto this day? was I ever wont to do so unto thee? and he said, Nay.
21 And the LORD said unto Moses, Stretch out thine hand toward heaven, that there may be darkness over the land of Egypt, even darkness which may be
22 And Moses stretched forth his hand toward heaven; and there was a thick darkness in all the land of Egypt three days:
23 They saw not one another, neither rose any from his place for three days: but
all the children of Israel had light in their dwellings.
This seems impossible… so how are we to understand these passages? Well, one way to do it is to search for scientific explanations for Biblical narratives that
violate common sense.
This is a popular and highly remunerative cottage industry. Here is one example from the UK newspaper The Telegraph from 2010:
Biblical plagues really happened say scientist.
The Biblical plagues that devastated Ancient Egypt in the Old Testament were the result of global warming and a volcanic eruption, scientists have claimed.
Researchers believe they have found evidence of real natural disasters on which the ten plagues of Egypt, which led to Moses freeing the Israelites from slavery in the Book of Exodus in the Bible, were based.
But rather than explaining them as the wrathful act of a vengeful God, the
scientists claim the plagues can be attributed to a chain of natural phenomena
triggered by changes in the climate and environmental disasters that happened
hundreds of miles away….
…Professor Augusto Magini, a paleoclimatologist at Heidelberg University’s institute for environmental physics, said: “Pharaoh Rameses II reigned during a very favourable climatic period. “There was plenty of rain and his country flourished. However, this wet period only lasted a few decades. After Rameses’ reign, the climate curve goes sharply downwards. “There is a dry period which would certainly have had serious consequences.”…
…Dr Stephan Pflugmacher, a biologist at the Leibniz Institute for Water Ecology and Inland Fisheries in Berlin, believes this description could have been the result of a toxic fresh water algae. He said the bacterium, known as Burgundy Blood algae or Oscillatoria rubescens, is known to have existed 3,000 years ago and still causes similar effects today….
…One of the biggest volcanic eruptions in human history occurred when Thera, a
volcano that was part of the Mediterranean islands of Santorini, just north of
Crete, exploded around 3,500 year ago, spewing billions of tons of volcanic ash
into the atmosphere….
…The cause of the final plague, the death of the first borns of Egypt, has been
suggested as being caused by a fungus that may have poisoned the grain supplies, of which male first born would have had first pickings and so been first to fall victim….
But Dr Robert Miller, associate professor of the Old Testament, from the Catholic
University of America, said: “I’m reluctant to come up with natural causes for
all of the plagues.
The problem with the naturalistic explanations, is that they lose the whole
point. “And the whole point was that you didn’t come out of Egypt by natural causes, you came out by the hand of God.”
Scientific explanations divert our attention from the spiritual
So, do we just take the Bible on faith? How do we Jews approach events like the
plagues and the splitting of the Red Sea?
The daily amidah prayer, immediately after the kedushah
says the following: “You favor humanity with perception (da’at)
and teach humankind understanding (binah).
Grant to us perception, understanding and intellect (haskayl).
Blessed are you, Adonai, Grantor of perception.
If there appears something in the Torah which contradicts reason…then here one should seek for the solution in a figurative interpretation…the narrative of the tree of knowledge of good and evil, for instance, can only be understood in a
figurative sense. —
Abraham ibn Ezra, 11th century
if science and Torah were misaligned, it was either because science was not
understood or the Torah was misinterpreted. Maimonides argued that if science
proved a point that did not contradict any fundamentals of faith, then the
finding should be accepted and scripture should be interpreted accordingly.
[Guide for the Perplexed, 2:25]
OK, so let’s reconsider the two cases of unbelieveable biblical statements and apply a little perception, understanding and intellect.
Last Friday night our golden retriever Joy expressed extraordinary interest in the
leftover bones from the meal. I told my wife, “Joy says that she knows what to
do with that” and, indeed, she did…
How unlikely is it that Balaam’s ass, whom he had ridden for years, “spoke” as
plainly to Balaam as my dog spoke to me last Friday night? Balaam’s ass sensed
instinctively that he was going in the wrong direction and doing the wrong
thing. One just imagines her looking up at him after she has lain down and
“saying” to him: “Why have you beaten me these three times?” Only the most
unimaginative literal interpretation leaves us with a “scientific”
You all have heard the Rabbi’s discussion on the Balaam story, how God makes a
prophet of an ass and an ass of a prophet.
This all comes to a head when we consider…
During the brouhaha over “intelligent design”, the Rabbinical Council of America, one of the foremost bodies of orthodox rabbis, issued the following
Dec 27, 2005 — In light of the ongoing public controversy about Evolution,
Creationism and Intelligent Design, the RCA notes that significant Jewish
authorities have maintained that evolutionary theory, properly understood, is
not incompatible with belief in a Divine Creator, nor with the first 2 chapters
There are authentic, respected voices in the Jewish community that take a literalist position with regard to these issues; at the same time, Judaism has a history of diverse approaches to the understanding of the biblical account of creation. As Rabbi Joseph Hertz wrote, “While the fact of creation has to this day remained the first of the articles of the Jewish creed, there is no uniform and binding belief as to the manner of creation, i.e. as to the process whereby the universe came into existence. The manner of the Divine creative activity is presented in varying forms and under differing metaphors by Prophet, Psalmist and Sage; by the Rabbis in Talmudic times, as well as by our medieval Jewish thinkers.” Some refer to the Midrash (Koheleth Rabbah 3:13) which speaks of God “developing and destroying many worlds” before our current epoch. Others explain that the word “yom” in Biblical Hebrew, usually translated as “day,” can also refer to an undefined period of time, as in Isaiah 11:10-11. Maimonides stated that “what the Torah writes about the Account of Creation is not all to be taken literally, as believed by the masses” (Guide to the Perplexed II:29), and recent Rabbinic leaders who have discussed the topic of creation, such as Rabbi Samson Raphael Hirsch and Rabbi Abraham Isaac Kook, saw no difficulty in explaining Genesis as a theological text rather than a scientific account.
Judaism affirms the idea that God is the Creator of the Universe and the Being
responsible for the presence of human beings in this world.
Nonetheless, there have long been different schools of thought within Judaism regarding the extent of divine intervention in natural processes. One respected view was expressed by Maimonides who wrote that “we should endeavor to integrate the Torah with rational thought, affirming that events take place in accordance with the natural order wherever possible.” (Letter to the Jews of Yemen) All schools concur that God is the ultimate cause and that humanity was an intended end result of Creation.
For us, these fundamental beliefs do not rest on the purported weaknesses of
Evolutionary Theory, and cannot be undermined by the elimination of gaps in
Judaism has always preferred to see science and Torah as two aspects of the “Mind of God” (to borrow Stephen Hawking’s phrase) that are ultimately unitary in the reality given to us by the Creator. As the Zohar says (Genesis 134a): “istakel
be-‘oraita u-vara ‘alma,” God looked into the Torah and used it as His blueprint
for creating the Universe. Qq
You will note that the “God of the gaps” is not a Jewish concept. Which brings us
to this week’s Torah portion…
God sends the plagues of locusts and darkness upon Egypt and forewarns Moses about the final plague, the death of every Egyptian firstborn. Pharaoh still does not let the Israelites leave Egypt. (10:1-11:10)
God commands Moses and Aaron regarding the Passover festival. (12:1-27)
God enacts the final plague, striking down all the firstborn in the land of Egypt
except those of the House of Israel. Pharaoh now allows the Israelites to leave.
Speaking to Moses and Aaron, God repeats the commandments about Passover.
The last three plagues are all characterized by darkness: the locusts darkened the sky and covered the earth, the darkness lasted for three days, and the death of the firstborn occurred at night. Why was darkness so critical that it deserved
a plague of its own?
One standard explanation is that this darkness was not just physical but also
spiritual. They saw not one another. Absent any scientific explanation, this statement alone describes the moral problem that made Egypt an unsuitable place for the Jews. The story of slavery begins with the Egyptians not seeing the Israelites as humans like them… and by this point the Egyptians could not even see each other as human.
So: Does science conflict with the Bible? No. Scientific reasoning may conflict
with literal interpretations of the Bible. But when it does Judaism expects us
to use our common sense, our reasoning ability, and the sophisticated techniques
of both scientific inquiry and Torah study to understand what the Torah is
really teaching and extract greater wisdom from it.