Judaism and Science

"Proud, Happy, and Thankful to be Jewish.” 

“I am a Jew because my faith demands no abdication of the mind[1]
When asked why I am ‘Proud, Happy and Thankful to be Jewish’, the above quote from Rabbi Jules Harlow neatly encompasses the answer.  It should be enough.  But I will elaborate beyond.
Judaism has always been central in my life, whether as a kid in a Jewish Day School, or a soccer player at the Jewish Summer camp or, as it was for so many, part of youthful and understandable rebellion, or later in life when I learned about it as an adult.  My upbringing was strictly kosher and the reaction as a teenager was rational and expected:
As a Jewish child in Sweden, the pressure to cede to reason and science was enormous and rightfully so.  In a mind that saw the two, science and religion as an either/or choice, it was not a difficult decision.
God?
When I was in my thirties, I got my hands on a book called “Nine Questions People ask about Judaism”[2], the very first of those 9 was:  “Do I have to believe in God to be a ‘good’ Jew?”
The authors answered no and explained why.  A door opened and it never shut behind me again after that; finally, I said to myself, I can be an ‘atheist’ and still be active Jewishly.   That was the start of a quest, using modern, scientific approaches to learning what Judaism really is.  In 1990, Dr. Neil Gillman published ‘Sacred Fragments’ that again used reason to explain Judaism. 

He explained the old saying that Judiasm, as opposed to many other religions, preferred “Deed versus Creed”, so that even we laymen could understand it.  What you believe in Judaism, regarding a deity, or regarding a ‘no deity’, was between you and your own heart and mind, not something that could be “legislated”.  The example he used was that if a person walks into a Christian church, and says something like:  “well, that whole thing with God becoming incarnate (i.e. flesh) in the person of Jesus of Nazareth and that Jesus’ death and resurrection are the source of salvation for all human beings; I am not sure I believe that!” is simply not a Christian.  There is no parallel authenticating belief in Judaism.  The ‘litmus test’ to be a Jew is ‘more a matter of behavior than of belief’[3],[4]
A few years ago, at our Synagogue’s book club, the leader went around the room and asked if they believed and if so, what type of belief did they have.  Were they Theists (that is, God controls everything in the universe, not only the beginning but still, ‘He’ is omniscient, omnipotent and omnipresent), were they Deists (that is, God created the world and then withdrew and now there are other factors [including humans] who control the world) or were they Atheists? 
Not more than one (and another one was not sure but leaned that way) adhered to Theism, everyone else belonged to one of the two latter groups, Deists, Atheists or some kind of combination. They are all active in the Shul, many (included myself) are on the Synagogue Board and the sample group, we felt, was representative of the entire community.
The answer to the question:  “Do I have to believe in God to be a ‘good’ Jew?” was clearly No.
Science
In the 1800’s researchers concluded that the Torah/Bible was written by, at least, 4 or 5 different authors, all living between 400 and 1000 years after the events that are described in ‘The Five Books of Moses’.  This is called the “Documentary Hypothesis” and has been further confirmed by researchers in the 20th and the 21st centuries[5] .
No serious Jewish academic/researcher questions evolution or climate change or anything that the world’s scientific community is agreeing on today.  In the 1500’s Galileo stated a lot of facts – including that the earth was not the center of the universe which got him in trouble with the Church, not once, but twice - facts that we now take for granted. He was excommunicated from the Catholic Church.  His response:  I do not feel obliged to believe that the same God who has endowed us with sense, reason, and intellect has intended us to forgo their use.
Judaism – during its 3000 year history – excommunicated one person, when Baruch Spinoza met that fate in Holland in the 1600’s.  He certainly was the exception (of course, we don’t know about others, not as prominent as Spinoza).   And of course the Dutch authorities that ruled thusly did not represent Judaism, just themselves. 
Stating that Judaism is perhaps the most open (to science) religion may not be an exaggeration. 
The value of academics
It is often said, with a somewhat ‘racist’ overtone, that Jewish people who only represent 0.2% of the world’s population receive a substantial number of Nobel Prizes – way beyond what could be expected demographically.  Why is that?  Well, it is for sure not, as some anti-Semitic commentators imply, that we Jews think ‘we’re better than anyone else’. 
No, rather the explanation is another reason to be ‘proud, happy and thankful for being Jewish’:  The value the Jewish culture always has placed on academic studies, on studying, on teaching and on the principle that learning is a lifelong endeavor.  This is a value that is intrinsic to Judaism but it is also borne out of necessity; in times when Jews were dominated by the culture of their host country, and many avenues of work were closed, academics was often the one thing they could do.  Knowledge was not something tyrannical princes could beat out of them. 
And of course the tradition of valuing study has continued and maybe even through evolutionary biology measures become a dominant trait even when the oppression is gone. 
So, the many Nobel Prizes are the result of choices made both by Jews - and by non-Jews.
The Image of God    
The Torah states early that “God created man in His image, in the image of God He created him”[6]
Over the centuries many have wondered what that really means.  We are also told not to make any images of God, like Abraham’s father did for a living.  So, what does the Torah verse actually mean?
An interesting interpretation is that the meaning of ‘God’s Image’ is the faculty of reason.  God is most ‘reasonable’, and Man was given that same trait. In other words, like Galileo said:  God has endowed us with ‘sense, reason and intellect’.   
How important is knowledge in Judaism?
Per our tradition, we are supposed to recite a Prayer called the Shemoneh Esreh (the Amidah), three times a day every day.  For the observant Jew, it adds up to over 1000 recitations of this prayer per year.   The weekday Shemoneh Esreh consists of three sections, the first three prayers make up the Praise (Shevach), the last three Thanksgiving (Hoda’ah) and the middle 13 are the actual Petitions (Bakashah), the ‘meat’ of the Prayer.
So, the first of the “essential” actual prayers, which the smart reader has now figured out is Prayer # 4, asks God for Knowledge.  It is the first thing we ask for, as everything else stems from knowledge.  The prayer, called Binah, reads “You favor people with knowledge and teach mortals understanding. Favor us with your knowledge, understanding, and wisdom. Blessed are You, Adonai, who favors people with knowledge.”
Later we ask for a good harvest, health, forgiveness for sin, and nine other requests, but all of them presuppose that we have knowledge and that’s why that one is first.
Social Action
Another saying that is central to Judaism reads “You shall not oppress a stranger, for you know the feelings of the stranger, having yourselves been strangers in the land of Egypt” (Exodus 23:9).   If this reminds you about another quote – just a few verses prior to this one that reads “You shall not wrong a stranger or oppress him, for you were strangers in the land of Egypt (Exodus 22:20), it is not a coincidence.   The Torah makes this statement, with varying words, not twice but more than 40 (!) times[7].    Clearly this is central to Judaism, and the message is how we should treat minorities and other groups since we know what it is like to be a slave in Egypt[8]  
This is the text foundation for our commitment to Tikkun Olam, ‘repairing the world’.  Leaders of many Civil Rights, Environmental, Justice and peace organizations are Jewish with a ‘built-in’ sense of right and wrong.  One such local organization is JUJ – Jews for Justice – St. Louis. 
JUJ (www.jujstl.org) is working on a broad front for social justice.   JUJ is another reason for me to ‘proud, happy and thankful to be Jewish’. 
More where that came from
In this day and age, many people express themselves though Blogs, essentially on-line diaries.  The main purpose for many, I suspect is the writing itself and the pleasure thereof, rather than an expectation of a huge readership.  My Blog (http://richardgavatin.blogspot.com/) has been around since 2004 and comments on it are welcome. 
Richard Gavatin
Saint Louis, Missouri (May 2017)



[1] Rabbi Jules Harlow, Editor of the Siddur Sim Shalom (A Prayerbook for Shabbat, Festivals and Weekdays), published in 1985
[2] By Joseph Telushkin and Dennis Prager (1986)

[3] That is not to say that Christians don’t perform good deeds; of course they do!

[4] ‘Conservative Judaism’ by Neil Gillman 1993, page 156
[5] “Who Wrote the Bible” by Richard Friedman 1987

[6] B’reishit, Chapter 1, Verse 27, translation in Etz Hayim 2001
[7] As a comparison, the commandment to keep Kosher is mentioned once or twice, not that it isn’t important, but clearly less emphasized.

[8] To my friend, Rabbi Sharon Brous, founder and spiritual leader of IKAR in Los Angeles, multiple winner of Newsweek’s “America’s most Influential Rabbis”: Thanks for the insight into the “strangers in the land of Egypt” point.
Richard Gavatin

Saint Louis, Missouri (May 2017)




[1] Rabbi Jules Harlow, Editor of the Siddur Sim Shalom (A Prayerbook for Shabbat, Festivals and Weekdays), published in 1985
[2] By Joseph Telushkin and Dennis Prager (1986)
[3] That is not to say that Christians don’t perform good deeds; of course they do!
[4] ‘Conservative Judaism’ by Neil Gillman 1993, page 156
[5] “Who Wrote the Bible” by Richard Friedman 1987
[6] B’reishit, Chapter 1, Verse 27, translation in Etz Hayim 2001
[7] As a comparison, the commandment to keep Kosher is mentioned once or twice, not that it isn’t important, but clearly less emphasized.
[8] To my friend, Rabbi Sharon Brous, founder and spiritual leader of IKAR in Los Angeles, multiple winner of Newsweek’s “America’s most Influential Rabbis”: Thanks for the insight into the “strangers in the land of Egypt” point.

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