Saturday, June 6, 2015

These Little Lights of Mine

How can a religious person be a scientist? How can a scientist be a religious person?

     In today's Torah portion, Be'haalotcha, there's a description of the menorah. Not the Chanukah menorah, with its eight branches: that came many hundreds of years after the biblical story. No, what we're talking about here is the menorah of the mishkan, the traveling sanctuary, and later of the Temple in Jerusalem. It had seven branches: three on each side, one in the middle.

     I was very interested to read the commentary in the Etz Hayim translation of the Torah that says:
...the six branches of the m'norah represent the several scientific and academic disciplines, whereas the center stalk represents the light of the Torah. Secular learning and faith are not rivals; each has its own concerns and addresses its own set of questions. They shed light on each other and and together they illumine our world.
     I was particularly interested that the source of this insight was given as Rabbi Isaac Luria, the founder of a major branch of Jewish mysticism (the Lurianic Kabbalah). If Luria, the mystic, could recognize the worth of secular science, it is amazing to me that any Jew could try to shut it out.

     So I was sad when I listened to the story of Shulem Deen, a former New Square Hasid, as told on the NPR podcast Reply All. He bought a computer back in the days when a free America Online disk came with the package. By going onto the internet, he learned things he never imagined--like how Reform Jews think, for a start! And he ended up being expelled by his Hasidic community, which saw him as a source of a freethinking contagion that might spread.

     To my mind, this attitude toward secularism is the flip side of the New Atheism, as expounded in the writings of people like Christopher Hitchens and Richard Dawkins. The ultra-Orthodox forbid the study of secular science. The New Atheists do a cursory study of religious texts to find apparent absurdities without making any attempt to understand religious teachings in context. Neither can abide the other, and both treat the other as a threat.

     If only all religious people could value science as much as Isaac Luria did! (And many of us do.) If only all scientists could understand the religious imagination and the scientific spirit of investigation as both answering the human need to seek meaning in the universe. (And many do.)

     The desire for meaning is like the shamash, the extra candle on the Chanukah menorah. It kindles our curiosity and our sense of wonder. It is the source of both science and religion, which are candles of different colors that belong together.


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