Science and Religion, Another View

Image: Photo of Rosalind Ellis Franklin. I have been unable to obtain rights information for this photo; if any reader is aware of the owner, I would appreciate that information.

Science and everyday life cannot and should not be separated. Science, for me, gives a partial explanation of life. In so far as it goes, it is based on fact, experience, and experiment. . . . I agree that faith is essential to success in life, but I do not accept your definition of faith, i.e., belief in life after death. In my view, all that is necessary for faith is the belief that by doing our best we shall come nearer to success and that success in our aims (the improvement of the lot of mankind, present and future) is worth attaining. –Rosalind Franklin in a letter to her father, 1940.

These words were written by one of the discoverers of DNA. I’ve been reading her biography, Rosalind Franklin: Dark Lady of DNA by Brenda Maddox. It is a well-researched and highly readable account of the tragically short life of a scientist whose work in the 1950’s has changed all our lives.

If you are thinking, “Didn’t Watson and Crick discover the structure of DNA?” you are partly correct. However their work would have been impossible without the data and the images produced by Franklin’s methodical experiments. Some scientists today feel that she was unfairly robbed of credit she should have been given at the time. (Read the book or follow the links for more information about Franklin and DNA.)

I was fascinated by this young woman. She was the daughter of one of the most influential Jewish families in Britain, a descendant of King David, no less. She was a brilliant scientist known not only for her work with DNA but also for work on RNA and viruses, and one of the leading experts on the structure of coal in her day – all before her death at 38!

I can see in her words above that she had done some serious thinking about an issue that troubles many of my students, who find most of their childhood notions of God completely blown up by science. If science is true, then religion is … what? Bunk?

This young Jew (she was about 20 when she wrote those words) must have felt the tension between the religious language she learned as a child and scientific truth. I find her statement above impressive.

Since the scientific revolution it became difficult to talk with a straight face using  much of the language that we traditionally used to talk about topics of ultimate meaning. There is no big man in the sky. Life evolved on earth, it did not appear neatly organized over six days. No angels. No heaven in the sky. No hell under the earth. No “book of life,” not really. So why not just throw out all that religion stuff, all the fairy tales?

Rosalind recognized that real religion is the recognition of something greater than one’s self. For her, that Greater One is “the improvement of the lot of mankind, present and future.” She knew that she was not the center of the universe, no matter how brilliant she was, no matter how fancy her pedigree. She was not distracted (and in fact, she seems mildly annoyed) that others cling to impossibilities.

If you find her and her ideas interesting, I recommend the book. I felt that every moment of reading it was well-spent.

Where is God in Megillat Esther?

Image: A masked person. Photo by madeinitaly.

The name of God appears nowhere in the text of the Book of Esther [Megillat Esther.] What are we to make of this? Is Purim a godless holiday?

There are a number of ways to read this absence. Chapter 9 of the scroll says that the story was copied onto scrolls and sent far and wide to be read by the Jews. Perhaps the writer (traditionally, Esther herself) felt that it was better not to put scrolls with holy words into general circulation where they could be desecrated. So she chose to omit the name of God, in order to protect the holy Name.

However, modern scholars are fairly certain that Esther is a novella, a fiction, not a history. It has a number of assertions about the Persian court that any Jew of the time would recognize as fake. It is more likely a parable about life in Diaspora.

If that is the case, then the absence of God’s name perhaps has a more deliberate meaning. Jews in Diaspora do not live in Jewish space. The Jews of Megillat Esther live in Persia, under the rule of a Persian king and his court, and as the story illustrates, powerful men can turn on them at any time.

When this happens to Jewish communities, it is natural to ask, “Where is God?” And the Book of Esther directs us to ask that question: where is God, when our enemies slander and betray us, when they imprison and kill us for no good reason other than hatred?

We cannot “see” God in the Esther text. God is apparently missing, and in the context of this story, that poses a theological question: Where is God?

Esther and Mordecai do not have the luxury of waiting for God to appear. They do not have the luxury of miracles. This is not a Red Sea moment, when the waters pass and we all walk to safety. Rather it is like so many other moments in Jewish history, when God seems to be somewhere else, and it is up to good men and women to improvise salvation. Esther married a non-Jew, and Mordecai was the architect of the massacre in Chapter 9. We can disapprove of them if we wish, but once Haman turned on them, they had very few alternatives.

Where is God in the text? We can say, “Thank God!” that Esther was queen, married to the heathen Ahasuerus. We can say, “Thank God!” that Mordecai saw a solution to the problem of the king’s ring and seal. God IS in the text, in the courage and ingenuity of Esther and Mordecai!

Where is God? God resides, as always, in the hearts and hands of good men and women.

Enjoy your Purim!

 

 

 

Will God be Mad at Me if I Don’t Fast?

English: Lightning 1882
(Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Recently I was asked if God would be mad if a person didn’t fast on Yom Kippur.

We have a mitzvah (a commandment or sacred duty) to refrain from eating or drinking from the sundown that begins Yom Kippur until the sundown that ends it. It’s a tough mitzvah. Some Jews observe this mitzvah because it is a commandment from God. Some observe it because it is a custom of the Jewish people. Some observe it because it puts them in better touch with what it feels like to be poor and hungry.

There is another mitzvah that sometimes cancels this one out. This is the mitzvah of taking care of our bodies. We have a sacred duty to care for our bodies, and if a pregnant woman, a child or a sick person (say, a diabetic) fasted it could do a lot of damage.  For those people, it is a mitzvah not to fast on Yom Kippur, but to eat exactly as prescribed by their doctor.

Let me repeat: If you are pregnant or sick or a child, it is a mitzvah to eat exactly as your doctor has told you to eat, even on Yom Kippur.

But what about the healthy person who can’t or won’t control herself for the 25 hours of the holiest day in the Jewish Year?

If you truly can’t master your urge to eat, this may be a wake up call that something is going on with the body. Talk with your doctor and get tested.  (I’m assuming here that you have access to medical care. If you don’t have access to medical care and think that something may be wrong, ask for help in finding free or low-cost medical care. It is OK to ask for help. And if you cannot find it, I am truly sorry.)

And if you won’t master your urge to eat – well, I do not think God “gets mad” at  people. I certainly do not think that you will bring down bad luck on yourself by not fasting. I think you are missing an opportunity to experience your bond with the Jewish people all over the world who are fasting, to find out just what goes on with your body when you go past hunger, to cultivate compassion for people who have no choice but to miss meals on a regular basis.

The purpose of mitzvot is to make us holy. That’s what we say in the blessing before we do a mitzvah, “Who makes us holy with mitzvot.” Fasting on Yom Kippur is an opportunity to grow in holiness, in connection to the Jewish People, and in understanding of a human situation.

Ready to give it a try in a few days? Check out Tips for Fasting on Yom Kippur!

Fear and Humming: a Cancer Scare

English: SAN DIEGO (Sept. 22, 2008) Lead Mammo...

It all started six weeks ago when I found a lump in my right breast. My regular mammogram was coming up, so I figured OK, I will just keep the appointment. That was the wrong plan, because insurance being what it is, I needed to have a different kind of appointment with different approvals for a mammo with an actual bump. Oh.

I got the callback for Mammo #2 after a week. (Yes, I had to wait for the results on #1 before they could sign me up for round 2.) Round 2 was more mammography plus an ultrasound.

That trip to the radiologist was scary. I thought I was pretty calm at first, but when techs kept “going to check with the doctor” and then coming back to take more images again and again, I got very nervous. The last verse of Adon Olam [Master of Time & Space] played over and over in my head:

B’yado afkid ruchi
b’eit ishan v’a-irah
V’im ruchi g’viyati, 
Adonai li, v’lo ira.

In English:

Into your hand I trust my soul,
When I sleep and when I wake.
As with  my spirit, my body too:
God is with me and I will not fear.

Then the tech asked me to hum.  It was the first thing she’d said to me in a while.

“What?”  I was startled – you want me to what? 

“Hum, please, it will help us see details.”

So I hummed what was in my head: Adon Olam.  It was weirdly comforting. It was also just plain weird.

She snapped a few more pictures and then let me get dressed. Off I went to wait for another report. I got yet another callback: time for an “ultrasound guided needle biopsy.”

That time, no singing.

And finally, good news: it’s benign, probably a bit of damage from last year’s car accident. Whew.

The whole adventure took 6 weeks. My beloved life-partner, Linda, was a wonderful support. I can only imagine what bells were going off in her head as a two-time cancer survivor. I told a small circle of people what was happening, and they were solid: my rabbi, my cantor, a couple of friends.

I learned some things about myself. I was afraid, so afraid that I couldn’t admit I was afraid. The ancient words of Adon Olam became my mantra, insisting that I will not fear. I clung to the words, and to the tune, and to all of it because it was a fixed point in what I feared was about to become an unraveling world.

Did I believe “God is on my side so I will not have cancer?” Of course not. The fixed words of the prayers were a handhold on the familiar, on the things that endure. They were comforting precisely because they had been hummed by so many distressed Jews before me. They were comforting to me because they were a statement of faith that whatever happens, I am not alone.

I believe that God is the ultimate mystery; I do not presume to say much of anything about God on my own. What I do believe is that I am not alone, that goodness will be made manifest to me through the actions of good people, and through the blessings of creation, which is itself good. (Gen.  1:31) And I do believe that the traditions of Judaism link me to many of those people, and to a particular experience and appreciation of life.

Adonai li, v’lo ira.

In a way, it’s a whistle in the dark. I choose to believe that at the heart of the universe, there is goodness. Even had it been cancer, even had it been very, very bad, my life has meaning.

Adonai li, v’lo ira!

If God is Not a Vending Machine, Why Pray?

English: This vending machine was made by Nati...

“Keep us in your prayers.”

Oklahoma Lieutenant Governor Todd Lamb said these words last night to TV anchor Rachel Maddow, when she asked what concerned viewers could do for the victims of the tornadoes that ripped through Moore, OK yesterday. According to his official biography, Mr. Lamb attends a Baptist church. I don’t know anything about Ms. Maddow’s religious affiliations. And yet I know in my gut what Mr. Lamb was saying to Ms. Maddow, and her serious nod in reply made sense, because we’re all Americans and we say these things when things are so bad that there isn’t a whole lot anyone can do.

What is it we are asking for, when we ask for prayers? My guess, from Mr. Lamb’s affiliation, is that he hopes that viewers will direct words or thoughts to God that will influence or inform God’s choices over the next hours and days. I do not want to make light of Mr. Lamb’s faith, any more than I’d want him to make light of mine. My faith works differently, however. (I feel odd calling it “faith,” but again, we’re Americans and that’s the lingo.)

When I tell people that I will keep them in my prayers, I am absolutely serious about that statement. I call their names to mind or may even mention their names aloud when I say my daily prayers. However, I do not expect the prayers to influence God. For starters, the one thing I know for sure about God is that I know bubkes [nothing] about God. God is beyond my little brain. I take my directions for my behavior from Torah, which suggests that even if my brain is too limited for God, it is good to pray daily, and it is good to use that time to pray for things that concern me.

So why pray, if I think that God is beyond my imagination? I pray because I am a limited being. I pray words that have been said for generations, that have shaped the thoughts and attitudes of Jews through the centuries. When I pray for people, I grow my compassion for them. I meditate on their sorrows, and my heart grows bigger. Will my prayers affect the fate of people in Oklahoma? I don’t know for sure. What I am sure of is that it is good for me to have compassion for them, it is good for me to think of them as part of my circle of concern. It will be good for me, should I ever be so unfortunate as to be in a disaster, to know that other people far away care about me. But it will also be good for me to have learned, from prayer, that I am not the only person in the world with troubles.

God is not a vending machine. I cannot put a prayer in and get what I want. God is not even a bad vending machine, that takes my prayer and gives me what it wants. God is beyond me. But in praying for those in trouble, I strengthen the bonds of humanity. When I pray, I remind myself that I am not God.

When I pray, I remind myself that I am my brother’s keeper, no matter how different our politics, no matter how different our ideas about things like “God.”

Spiritual but not Religious

English: Bishop Gene Robinson of the Episcopal...
Bishop Gene Robinson of the Episcopal Diocese of New Hampshire (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Yesterday, I listened to Terry Gross interview Retired Bishop Gene Robinson (Episcopal.)  Bishop Robinson is an interesting figure for many reasons, but he said something that stopped me in my tracks.  I can’t quote him precisely, but here’s a paraphrase:

Nowadays a lot of people say they are “spiritual but not religious.” I think that what happens is that they come to synagogue or mosque or church looking for God and instead what they find is religion. We need to do something about that.

Where do you find God? Where have you not found God?

 

Second Commandment

English: Left to right: iPhone, iPhone 3G, iPh...
Idol?

Do not make a graven image for yourself, or any kind of likeness of anything that is in heaven above or that is in the earth beneath, or that is in the water beneath the earth. You shall not bow down to them and serve them, for I the Eternal your God am a jealous God, visiting the iniquity of the fathers upon the children to the third and fourth generation of those that hate me, and showing mercy to the thousandth generation of those that love me and keep my commandments. – Exodus 20: 3-4

A closer look, a restatement, a meditation:

Do not make a graven image for yourself, or any kind of likeness of anything that is in heaven above or that is in the earth beneath, or that is in the water beneath the earth.A manufactured thing is different from a living thing, like a human being, an animal, or even a landscape.

you shall not bow down to them   –  Do not put any manufactured thing at the center of your life.

and serve them – Manufactured things should serve human beings, not the other way around.

for I the Eternal your God am a jealous GodThis is a high-stakes situation! Mess up the priorities, and there will be trouble, to wit:

visiting the iniquity of the fathers upon the children to the third and fourth generation of those that hate meMessing up our priorities and favoring manufactured things, human-made things, over the living world can cause a whole bunch of trouble for our children and grandchildren.

showing mercy to the thousandth generation of those that love me and keep my commandments.Conversely, keeping our priorities in order can make it much more likely that our great-great-grandchildren can live in peace in the living world.