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5777 RH1 – Science and Religion

A few weeks ago, my family got out of town for a little getaway up in Crestline, up above San Bernardino. We got there just in time for the Blue-Cut fire, and all the traffic from thousands of people fleeing the fire was right on the much-too-narrow mountain road we were on, trying to get to our cabin.  Luckily, we weren’t actually in danger, but we could see and smell the smoke. So much for tranquility.  

There were a lot of fires this season, and what makes them so deadly is the 5-year- long drought. 2015 is now officially on record for being the hottest year ever. It’s not just on the campaign trail. Things are heating up.

Now I don’t want to harangue you about climate change. But let me just say this: It’s real, and it goes beyond air and water quality. The Pentagon has been warning for years about security threats that stem from drought and desertification in vulnerable regions of the Middle East and North and Central Africa. There’s a lot we can do to slow down things down if we work together. Friends, climate change is not just a liberal claim so Washington and Sacramento can raise taxes. It’s not a Chinese hoax, either, as one of our presidential candidates has both said and denied saying.

We’re commanded to take care of the earth [Gen. 2:15] and even our Midrash [Kohelet Rabbah 7:13] warns of dire consequences if we do not. But there is a sizable movement decrying the whole idea that the planet’s warming, and it’s led to a lot of people just not buying into science these days. We, as Jews, and more importantly, as the Jewish community, have our own take on science and religion, one that can be an important contribution to this discussion. First, though, I want to read you the overall scorecard on the battle between science and religion. Rosh Hashanah, the birthday of the world, is a good time to see who’s playing and what’s at stake.  Although I must tell, you, this debate sometimes feels as old as creation.  

I guess the reason for that is that the religious climate change deniers seem to be the intellectual descendants, if you will, of the folks who fought the teaching of evolution in schools. Remember the 1925 Scopes trial immortalized in the play and film, Inherit the Wind? Marvelous cast, with Frederick March and Spencer Tracy, who I think is one of the greatest actors ever!

But to every action there is an equal and opposite reaction. A little science, there. And the opposite reaction to religious people thinking that science is bunk, is when science rules out any use for religion.

“Scientific Materialism” says, “Nothing exists except matter.” And if everything in the universe is matter, it HAS TO BE the result of the strict mathematical laws of physics and blind chance. Overreaching principles govern all phenomena. Right down to human behavior. As one scientist once told me, “You are nothing but a bunch of neurons firing across your synapses.” Ouch. That still hurts.


To be clear: Materialism is an opinion about what science tells us.  It is not science, which in itself is neutral. Not all scientists are materialists. Many scientists, in fact, are religious. But enough scientists lean to scientific materialism that many lay people who are looking for a reason to be non-religious feel vindicated.

I, of course, am championing religion here. Not fundamentalism, religion. Let’s call it, “the home team.” But first, hats off to the visiting team, I want to acknowledge that science does a number of very fine things, and by and large scientific knowledge has made our lives easier. I certainly don’t want to say anything against progress. I, for one, do not mind at all that science, mathematics and technology have teamed up to invent scientific models and all kinds of sophisticated devices designed to make the average person, like myself, feel incredibly stupid. By the way, make sure your cell phones are set on “stun”.

People used to think that the Earth was at the center of the universe. And that business about the Earth being flat?  Not everybody bought into that. After all they’d seen the shadow of the Earth on the moon during a lunar eclipse, and it was round. But the belief that the sun and the moon and even the stars moved around the Earth persisted for centuries.

Now, when Monotheism came along, it was a radically different way to look at the universe and our role in it. Everything still moved around the Earth, but before Monotheism, the world was seen as “enchanted”— people respected the inner spirit of rocks, trees, everything—because they understood the world to be full of magic. If you knew the names of the gods who controlled nature, and said the right words, you could affect nature. That’s the very definition of magic.

Monotheism acknowledges that nature is powerful.  It’s just not Gd. Psalm 29, which we sing on Friday nights and as we take the Torah around the synagogue on Shabbat morning, talks about the power of nature. (Hum a few bars.) In this psalm, Gd makes the hills skip like rams. But the hills aren’t alive, not with the sound of music, not with their own spirit. Gd created nature to do amazing things. So Judaism wouldn’t deny that we’re reaching Gd when we pray. But if you’re sick from natural causes, then get the best doctor and treatment you can. It’s like what the priest says when he goes with the rabbi to a boxing match. The bell rings, and the fighter crosses himself and comes out to the middle of the ring. The rabbi says to the priest, “Does that help?” and the priest says, “Yeah, if he can fight.”

With monotheism, in time religion came to be considered the very seat of rationality and logic. The human capacity to reason was, according to both Judaism and, later, Christianity, the primary quality that set us above the other animals and the inanimate wonders of God’s creation.

The Church Fathers were almost unanimous in thinking that reason and logic were gifts from Gd and evidence of God’s existence. We could use our memory and our rationality to build tremendous monuments. Science, in the sense of explaining how the world worked, was not something that religion shunned back in the day.

From the fourth to the fifteenth century of the Common Era, most scientists were priests. Many rabbis were mathematicians, working out that crazy Jewish calendar and how high you could make a sukkah. Maimonides became, in the twelfth century, the very symbol of Jewish rational thought. He gave reasons for almost all the mitzvot, the commandments. Reason ruled. When the shofar was sounded in his day, he gave a reason why we’re obliged to hear it—it’s a wake-up call; what we talked about last night.

But for a long time many people used reason differently.  For example, there was an idea of Aristotle’s about gravity that lasted all the way to the 1600’s. Aristotle said that the reason things fell was because the earth was where they wanted to be. And the reason they went faster and faster as they fell, what we call acceleration, was that the closer they got to the earth, the more excited they became that they were reaching their natural resting place. So they fell faster. And it was perfectly reasonable to think that bigger things fell faster than smaller things. With apologies to Jimmy Cliff, Aristotle thought the bigger they are, the harder they fall.

And that’s how it was in the 16th century, the time of Galileo Galilei. Proof wasn’t important. Reason would bring light to any issue. Proof was unnecessary because reason would bring light to any issue. That’s how it was in the 16th century, the time of Galileo Galilei.

Now Galileo liked to measure distances and see how the numbers added up. But what they added up to was that all things fell at the same speed, no matter how heavy they were. And once you worked it up, it seemed that the Earth moved around the sun, and not the other way around. But if that was so, it meant we weren’t the center of the Universe. So when Galileo said to the ruling clergy, “Look through my telescope. Look at Saturn, there are rings around it, and it goes around the sun, and so do we,” the Church leaders refused to look at his new-fangled technology, this telescope, and they called him a heretic. Just what was this craftsman doing, challenging with mere measurements the reasoning of the Church?

The lines were fairly clearly drawn. I’d say that was the half-time show. From here, the score starts to tilt toward the materialists.

Galileo died, broken and muzzled, in 1642, the very year that Isaac Newton was born. In one generation, the attitude toward science had changed. The Protestant countries—England, Netherlands, the Scandinavian countries—had the most scientific growth throughout the Scientific Revolution because the Protestant governments allowed people to interpret the Bible in their own way, and to do whatever they thought was necessary to become closer to Gd.


They also promoted literacy, which allowed more people to conduct and interpret scientific experiments. People of all classes could read not only the Bible, but also the pamphlets about the new scientific discoveries and comment on them. In short, Newton’s England was not Galileo’s Italy. By the time Newton died, he had described the motion of the universe in terms that had nothing to do with “why,” but described the “how” of things. Now almost everything in the physical universe could be predicted. He invented calculus as a tool to help him, for which every high school student thanks him to this day. Right, Eitan?

Newtonian thinking prevailed for over three hundred years. Eventually new breakthroughs in the 20th century led to the view that the earth was a speck on the edge of a typical, even mediocre, galaxy, and that people were an accident of the collision of dust.  In a few short centuries, thousands of years of thinking that we were the purpose of all creation slipped to a belief in the Western world of Humanity as a speck of senseless powder.

If we’re a coincidence, there is no creator. The physicist Pierre-Simon Laplace, when asked by Napoleon why Gd was nowhere mentioned in his great treatise on celestial mechanics, replied, “I have no need of that hypothesis.”

But we do have a need for that hypothesis, today and every day, because we measure more than the speed of stars or falling objects.  We may be a speck of dust careening through the cosmos, but we try to know the difference between right and wrong. We may be on the edge of the physical universe, but we are smack in the middle of the moral debate. Which reminds me of a story which you may have heard me tell:

An atheist in Scotland was rowing out on the lake, when suddenly the Loch Ness Monster attacked and grabbed him from his boat. He panicked and shouted “Gd help me! Gd help me!” and suddenly, the monster and everything around him just stopped. Frozen in time. And a voice from the heavens boomed “You say you don’t believe in Me, but now you are asking for My help?”  The atheist looked up and said, “Give me a break! Ten seconds ago I didn’t believe in the Loch Ness Monster either!”

In the movie “Contact” based on the novel by Carl Sagan, a scientist and a minister are talking. The scientist, played by Jodie Foster, says she can’t believe in Gd because you can’t prove Gd exists. The minister says, “Did you love your father?” The scientist says, “Yes, very much.” The minister says, “Prove it. Prove love exists.” Gd talk does not talk about Proof, not in the scientific sense. We talk about Faith.

Religion comforts people with its faith in Gd the protector and a just afterlife. It empowers us with its affirmation that we were created in some sense in the image of something bigger and better than we are.  Scientific Materialists have sometimes pooh-poohed these ideas in a very patronizing way. They maintain that it’s an accident that you exist.

But don’t count religion out yet. We may be at the two-minute warning, but there’s still time left to play. There are a number of relatively recent plot twists and surprise plays to the story.

In 1914 Vesto Melvin Sliphur discovered that about a dozen galaxies were moving away from each other at fantastic speeds. By 1925 he’d observed close to 45 galaxies, all doing the same thing. They were receding from us at a rate proportional to their distance, like raisins in a cake as it rises, or dots on a balloon being inflated.

Milton Humanson, a mule train driver and janitor turned astronomer, along with Edwin Powell Hubble, after whom the space telescope is named, also estimated the distance and speed of these galaxies. Their fantastically huge figures have been proven wrong, since. Truth is, these galaxies are ten times more far away as they thought, and moving ten times as fast.

The new information all points in an uncomfortable direction for the Materialists: that if you followed this movement backwards, there must have been a moment when all the matter in the universe was together in one place and then it must have exploded, and it’s still exploding. This theory became known, originally derisively, as the Big Bang. A beginning to time.

And you can’t ask, “What happened before that?” any more than you can ask, “What’s north of the North Pole?” Materialist scientists were freaked out. If time and space had a beginning, they might have been created and…….as the atheists say, “Oh, my non-existent supreme being!” If there was a beginning, there could be an end.

There once was a scientist was giving a talk about this very subject. He closes his speech with, “…and so our own sun will burn out in about four billion years.” And one lady gives a shriek, “How long?” “Four billion years.” “Oh. Thank goodness; I thought you said four million.”

The Big Bang Theory established the idea that the universe had a beginning and could end. Attempts to minimize the “damage” have been going on ever since.

That’s the macro. There’s a micro, too. New observations and discoveries reveal the beauty of the atom, and how at the sub-atomic level, things happen that allow us to live. At the very heart of the Big Bang, exactly the right conditions existed to create the approximately 200 elements known in the universe, from Hydrogen 1 to Uranium 235. We have practically all of them right here on Earth. It seems that at the very beginning 13.7 billion years ago, all the ingredients for life were starting to be stirred up like a cake batter. And why not? Cake’s a good image for today: It is the Birthday of the World.

There seem to be a series of what scientists call “anthropic coincidences” that set up the very conditions at both the sub-atomic and galactic levels that allowed this planet to sprout forth life. (BBT song?)

Now to the last surprise play of the game today. I know that when someone mentions “Quantum Physics,” eyes begin to glaze and thoughts come up like “Gee I’m glad I was an English major.”  But stay with me here, I’m not going to get too technical.

In a nutshell, quantum physics is a very accurate way of explaining lots of scientific ideas by framing outcomes not so much as predictions but as probabilities. In other words, they don’t say that when something happens, that it is the predicted and necessary result of scientific formulae.  Rather, they say that this something has a certain-X-percent likelihood of happening, which is greater than another-Y-percent probability of an alternate scenario, and there are a lot of possibilities, and each one has its probabilities. 

Now my wife is a Libra. That’s the sign of the scales. She’s one of those people who are always weighing one alternative against another. She loves this idea of infinite possibilities. But then, in Quantum Theory, when the result is measured, and it’s concrete, the probability of that answer is 100%, and all other probabilities are 0%. All the other possibilities go away. She hates that part.

But the point is that Quantum Theory insists that someone has to measure, and get the result. You can’t have knowledge without a knower.  That means there’s someone outside the system, independently observing, and autonomously influencing the outcome to some extent. In other words, if you take Quantum Theory one step further, the universe itself can’t be understood without an outside observer.

This, as far as I know, doesn’t change when the discussion turns to the new kid on the Science block, String Theory. It combines Quantum Theory with Einstein’s General Theory of Relativity in a way that harmonizes them. But in order for it to function, you still need an outside observer to measure results.

Let me say this again: From the sub-atomic to the galactic, both in String and in Quantum Theory—the scientific systems that define the universe with the most accuracy so far—there is by necessity an outside entity that chooses to measure and of necessity influences the outcome. We see that ultimate measurer, in religious terms, as God. And we always have.

Take a look at your Machzor and turn to page 18 & 19. We Jews have always known that the universe is built with precision clockwork, a precision to turn the Swiss green with envy. Read with me, please on page 19: “Praised are you Lord our Gd, King of the Universe, whose word brings the dusk of evening. Your wisdom opens the gates of dawn; Your understanding regulates time and seasons. The stars above follow their appointed rounds, in response to Your divine will. You create day and night; You alternate darkness and light. You remove the day and bring on the night; You separate one from the other. We call You ‘Lord of heavenly hosts;’ You are our living Gd. May You rule over us as You rule over nature; Praised are you O Lord, who brings the evening dusk.”

That’s the first blessing before the Shma. It says what it has said for over two thousand years: That all the anthropic coincidences are there because they were put there—because we were meant to observe them and recognize who put them there.  As praying Jews, we’ve said this for over two thousand years.

And all the regulars here have heard me contrast this first blessing with the second, which, as you can see if you gib a keek on the next page, shows us a loving, personal Gd. It shows that a universe that runs like clockwork does not mean the watchmaker has left the building.

“Science is an ally, not an opponent” says Humanistic Rabbi Peter H. Schweitzer. Chabad Rabbi Dov Wagner at UCLA calls science and religion two sides of the same coin, adding, “Science is the study of Gd’s actions, while Judaism is appreciation of Gd’s will.” Our team says that science validates religion.

The tetragrammaton, the unpronounceable four-letter name of Gd that you sometimes hear as Yahweh, is a conflation of all the tenses of the Hebrew verb “to be.” Rabbi Geoffrey Mitelman teaches that Gd is found in the “becoming,” transforming “what will be” into “what is,” just as science is about process. “It’s about creating hypotheses and testing data against these theories,” he says, and “Judaism is about how we act to improve this world here and now.” Rav Kook, supporting Darwin once said, “Evolution sheds light on all Gd’s ways.”

Materialism was born when science and religion separated. Based on the most recent advancements in the very highest realms of physics, the study of the laws that govern our universe, it’s time for a reconciliation. Jews have a role here. Our allies are scientists open to the idea that what we need to learn goes beyond what we can verify. They are members of the Green Muslim movement and evangelical environmentalists who lead the Christian “creation care” movement, taking the issue of saving our planet outside the realm of partisan politics.

It’s essential to get to a time when science and religion approach the same goals: a truth we all can live with, enjoy and be enriched by.  A truth that can speak to the power of vested interests that threaten Gd’s creation, the world we were charged with protecting.

My blessing for the world is for healing, in the words of the Alenu, l’taken olam b’malchut shadai, to repair the world as if in the kingdom of Gd.

And my blessing for you is: May our religion of reason help you reach your goals this year, and may the probabilities of your having a good and productive New Year reach 100%.

Gut Yuntif.

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