Tuesday, October 23, 2012

What a Wonderful World.

Question with boldness even the existence of god: because if there be one,  he must more approve of the homage of reason than that of blind-folded fear. - Thomas Jefferson

Science was my first love. I loved science for as long as I can remember. I loved science when I was a little girl watching a line of ants marching with crumbs from my peanut butter sandwich. I loved science while sitting at my window watching the moon, and if we were in a place without the NY light-pollution, I would marvel at  the myriads of stars. I have to give credit to my mother for this. She was the one who introduced me to my first love. We would sit at night with some milk and cookies and she would explain to me how a seed can grow into a plant, and how sailors can navigate using just the stars. Later the cookies and milk were replaced by coffee and the discussions turned to genetics and geology. 

Unfortunately the chassidic education isn't particularly known for their high caliber of scientific teachings. Love can withstand all challenges though, and this one did too. I got my hands on any book related to biology, ecology, astronomy..., I drank the information thirstily. I remember  when we got our first laptop in my parents home (internet free obviously), it had the Encyclopedia Britannica installed. I would spend hours under my covers getting lost in long labyrinths of information. If I didn't understand one word I would find its encyclopedia page, which would in turn lead me to more unfamiliar pages. Some of the information was way past my comprehension, but just the manner in which such complex concepts can be answered was so thrilling; it transformed a vast and at times frightening world into a fascinating systematic universe.

After graduating high school, I knew that I must continue my studies. I enrolled in a college program, one my parents approved of. The education was definitely a step up from high school, but did not offer a very comprehensive program. Most professors expressed surprise when they realized that this chassidic girl, who they would expect to be clueless, actually was at the top of her class. I conveniently withheld that I already read through all topics on their syllabus as a teenager. I got married shortly afterwards, and with my newfound independence I transferred to a secular college with a proper biology program. 

 Now if you remember from my last post, it was a while after I got married that I rejected the religious outlook on the universe. Being in a secular environment definitely broadened my perspective, but it didn't weaken my resolve, I came in with an attitude that my emunah is infallible. Science and I go way back, and religion never came between us. In fact I had created an environment where religion and science can co-exist perfectly. I had answers to all apparent discrepancies. I either found a plausible scientific explanation for it, or relied on an important caveat in my belief structure. Which was that I still believed in miracles. One of my favorite quotes is one by C.S. Lewis; "“Miracles are a retelling in small letters of the very same story which is written across the whole world in letters too large for some of us to see." This quote fits so perfectly with both my old view and the new one. Its intended message told me that miracles are a very valid way of explaining observable discrepancies because we just aren't capable of seeing the complete picture. It is like the tiresome creationist argument that says "an ant will never be capable of understanding how a human machine works". But the unintended context is so much more valuable to my new outlook. We create miracles when we just don't want to see the alternative answer.

 As a side note: I think that this is important when considering debating creationists or religious apologists. We think our rationale and oh-so-attractive facts can sway their thoughts, but when one believes in miracles or the supernatural, then you are bringing kryptonite to a fight with Batman.  It is a very effective tool, but the wrong one for this particular enemy. When I ask myself how it was possible for me to hold such strong contradictory beliefs, this duality was the reason why I was able to hold onto my emunah even  in  an evolutionary biology lecture. I even wrote a paper entitled Scientific counter-argument for evolutionary changes in biological process. I got up in front of my evolutionary biology professor and classmates and presented a paper against evolution. That is how confident I was in the accuracy of my beliefs. 

Oh well, as you know that didn't last too long. The science was there, the information was there and without a complete different component to shake my comfortable belief system, It would have stayed in that stage for a while longer. In chemistry even spontaneous reactions, reactions that would happen on its own, sometimes need a catalyst. A catalyst will lower the activation energy or get the reaction done in a different chemical pathway. Emotion was my catalyst. A very difficult winter brought along struggles and sorrow. I watched people close to me suffer, people who were the epitome of goodness, and I started getting angry.

 As with tragedy, people repeated the lines that the religious find comforting: "Hashem knows best", "We do not understand his ways", "She is in a better place now"... I thought about these supposedly comforting lines, and they didn't sit well with me. Over the next few weeks I recognized the ridiculousness in being comforted by the idea that god, even when he seriously screws up, is still compassionate and loving. I rejected the bifurcated fallacy in believing that god is great so anything he does that seems sadistic must be because we can't understand him.  

Anger led to a new way of looking at old information. I no longer felt required to make religion reconcile with science. I looked at my science in a new way, without the requisite faith. I now saw a world where 99% of all "created" species were extinct, a world with a geological structure which very obviously underwent millions and millions of years of evolution, and a universe with earth very much not as its center. I realized how religion tainted my beloved science. How it took so much of it value and just tried to conceal it under a mystical, supernatural veil. How instead of allowing me to recognize that illnesses and natural tragedy is just a natural and sensible part of the universe we live in, it would try to make me feel better by saying there’s an undefinable god behind it and I will understand it later. It teased me with promised answers, all the while hiding the answers that I can clearly understand presently.

 Now in the rare occurrences when my mother and I get into a scientific conversation things have changed.  Take the time when I had just finished mapping the neuronal pathways of a thought in our frontal cortex, I am at a point of near euphoria over the sheer brilliance and complexity, and she says " Wow, מה רבו מעשיך ה (how wondrous is god's work) ". Blippoty blog, all excitement gone. It seems perhaps a bit extreme, but with that statement she essentially is ruining the authenticity of the natural world. The beauty of science is in its entirety, its beginning, and every aspect of its persistence and complex development. The beauty is in the highs like the ever-expanding universe, a herd of elephants across the African Safari at sunset, and the genetics in embryological development . But the beauty is also in the lows like an entire species being wiped out by a change in temperature, a lamb being devoured by a lion, and genetic mutations in malignant neoplasm. Cancer, as sad of an entity it is, needs to be appreciated for its science just as much as a cure for it will be. That is the element that religion takes that away. Religion removes that element of unstoppable rawness that makes me quiver. Religion tells us that you don't have the see these raw emotional moments in science because "Hashem knows best", "We do not understand his ways", "She is in a better place now". For that I can not forgive it, nor will I continue to allow it to hang around with my first and true love- Science.

Never Be Told!


  1. What specific hasidic group do you belong to? or come from?

  2. I'm intrigued by your point that the dualistic nature of understanding science and religion inoculates it from a rational destruction. Do you mind to further elaborate on this point? I'm curious due to rational arguments I had with people close to me that never go anywhere.

    1. I'm not sure I get your question: Do you mean a rational discussion, or are you referring to the question is religion supports the scientific explanation of an eventually destruction of our earth? Both of these are really interesting areas we can discuss :)

    2. Your article so eloquently points out how a believer will not be swayed by rational or scientific arguments, especially if they were never sheltered from knowledge and science in the first place. You recount so beautifully how you were a firm believer all the while you had all this scientific knowledge within you and how you never saw it as a contradiction. This what I'm referring to as the "dualism". You point out even more that the only thing that actually swayed you was emotion or anger, and I would posit that it may have been a good dose of peer pressure in that secular college you attended.

      All this is very saddening to me. As I'm doing my utmost to educate my kids in both, science and rational thinking, I'd hope to have the ability one day to just sit down with them and have a frank discussion about God and religion and to have it all done with. Yes! Destroyed! However, the point you so eloquently make is how hopeless my situation is.

      In any case, thank you for a piece well written.

    3. do think that a believer can be swayed by rationale arguments, but generally it is futile because they themselves have worked really hard to get to a point where their inner conscious will be satisfied with religion and science working together. For someone to whom religion is deeply tied into their identity and their thought- process, factual evidence is not enough.
      I was hoping that my point about emotion will be understood in the proper context and I think you might have misunderstood it. Emotions have a very strong role in the deep conscious. It can bring things out you didn't know existed earlier. That is what happened here. I didn't reject god because I was angry at him, although I did have a stage like that. I rejected god because anger allowed me to put religion aside for a bit, and without the religious perspective, it became obvious to me how much I was twisting both the torah and science so that they can co-exist!
      I can understand how as a parent this would be hard, but I don't think that it is hopeless, I think that if your kids are trained to be honest with themselves, and they are allowed to explore, discover, and figure things out for themselves, they will live an authentic, honest life.
      I do not proclaim to know the truth, I never have and I hope I never do. My blog is about my journey to figure out how to be the most authentic me possible. That is all I hope to impart to my readers!

  3. Hello,
    My trust on your tolerance is behind the mouse-click on the submit button.
    For why do I need your special acceptance and for why I indeed rely on it, share the same answer. I grew up, just like you, in a society that guards your mind, which is why my knowledge is way below average. Even basics, like English writing and reading was precisely neglected in our Yeshiva (boys division). I do not need to prove that – you can see it in my purely grammar. On the other hand, your being “one of us” makes it easy to feel my struggle as well. - What a long introduction, let us get to the point.
    I wear (in public) a hat (“biber hit”), other times I wear just a yarmulke, in better times (e.g. in the “closet”) I take that off too. I could respond to your post in three types of clothing. Perhaps, the most closes to the truth will be last one, since it is with no covers on, just the real me. – Don’t get excited, even the real me is a strongly believer in the creation of the world by God. Not that I did not find science fascinating, I did however not encounter yet (in my limited world) any serious contradiction, science vs. Torah, in my fundamentals I stick with. - Again, my sentences are becoming tangled; time to start from fresh.
    I am placing my hat on my head (covering my brain…) and responding to your post:
    Phase 1)
    Dear lost Jewish sole, M(a)y God bless you.
    I am crying for your future. Had you (and your parents at the first step) discussed your attending college with a Rav or Rabbi, you would not have find “life” so difficult. Instead of blogging and tweeting, you would be standing now in Eichler’s Judaica buying colored stories-of-Tzadikim books for your toddlers, and before you know it, your dining room wall will be full of chosen-kalah pictures from your extended family. In no time, dozens of grandchildren will make your house dirty with each visit, and of course, the Naches and joy will stick there after cleaning too.
    You tasted more than a teaspoon of prohibited stuff. Our elder sages knew well that once you peek into the other side of ghetto-wall, you unquestionably become infected.
    Did you really believe that attending a course, which is non-Torah based, will not ruin your faith?
    You are still young. There is a variety of sources for cases like these. Google will help you too.
    http://www.youtube.com lord sacks vs richard dawkins
    google “rabbi mordechai neugroschel”
    Finally, The “muser-shmooz” is over. Hat is now off.

  4. Phase 2)
    Dear Friend,
    Once you proclaim your new religion (or your non-religion) and building up new circles of people thinking the same, it is not easy to change. Not for the lack of evidence and powerless proof, our tradition has or has not, but for the inability of a human being to be so objective up to the point of accepting a life-style full of obligations in exchange to a free-of-duty happy-go-luck life path. And it is kind of foolish to drop a growing, exciting, community which is open for news and going back to an old unchangeable society.
    Let us do some homework. I want a reasonable answer for the following question:
    What divides people to have so many different opinions on “every” issue on earth. Be it in government related issues or domestic bungalow colony major group decisions. What happened with “The Truth” everyone claims to shield with? Most of the time, both parties, both sides, include smart people too. And, of course, the truth is only one. There is only one right answer, one number, to solve a 5 + 5 problem, the rest of the numbers are incorrect solutions. Why can’t we all (the population in its billions, or at least the millions of smart people) get along and focus on the truth only?
    My narrow mind tells me that these two reasons cause them all:
    1) One has to be extremely objective, independent and neutral to accept a point of view, let alone a “faith”, which will cost him, which is not for his benefit – Unfortunately this is an almost an impossible task, since each and every person in the world has his own desires and goals, and every human on earth was brought up with “fundamentals” and takes them as a fact.
    2) Unfortunately, there are smarter people then me. I won’t be able to understand their way of thinking. – Maybe I am the smarter one, I hope so, but they claim the same on themselves. I guess I’ll stick to what I see, and let them be happy with their believes too.
    If this is true, then don’t get carried away. Your professor has a goal too. He won’t be able to fill up a class room is he will connect all wonder of science to one source.
    And If number 2 is also true, then the reason having an hard time to except the concept of “you will never understand, you’re human”, should not be a problem.
    Am I talking bla bla stuff? Possible, and sorry for shmearing-un your blog with stupidity. I am in learning stages tough, so let me finish.
    Phase 3)
    As stated in the introduction, what I am saying here is what I believe: I think that the Judaism we were told is not the original Judaism. Over the generations it has been dramatically changed. Just a tiny example. I mentioned before that at this phase I am taking with no yarmulke on my head, which indicates some sort of rebellions. Taking of the yarmulke is the “last step”, it’s something that is in public etc. while there is no need for evidence that the Jewish folk in its first 3000 years had no clue what a yarmulke is at all (only rabbis wore some kind of cover on their head). How did such a custom become “the” duty?
    The same is said concerning details of faith in God; it is hard for me to put them all into words. There is so much stuff out there, mainly in the books of the Rishonim. It is mindboggling how our fathers always accepted the tougher ideas, leaving behind others thought. May it be from the greatest sage ever, if he says something “new”, they didn’t take it into account. Why? I don’t know. What I do know is that because they hide all this wonderful deep-thinking stuff from us, we don’t know how to respond to the wonder of science when they appear to be contradicting. This is reason behind this blog too.
    Real Judaism only wants from you very little. Many people don’t even know that according some rabbis the world exists billion of years. http://www.scribd.com/doc/96529254/Rabbi-Aryeh-Kaplan-The-Age-of-the-Universe
    I think I expressed my self enough to understand. I trust you, smart cookie.
    I wish we can converse more.
    My time is up.

    1. Thanks for taking the time for write your well-formulated response. Mine will be a lot shorter. I do no proclaim to have The Truth. In fact, I am fundamentally against the notion that one human can tell another what is true and what is not. I believe in the reasoning ability of humans, I worship it. What I am doing, and asking, is to be allowed to figure out what that truth is for me with my own intellect. You need to do that too, on your own terms. My blog is about my quest for truth amidst people who believe that they know the absolute truth and insist everyone follow that! G'luck

  5. I'm glad I walked into this curious looking path off the main road. Thank you for sharing your thoughts with the world (and me). Yeh, I know you write for your own good, but you didn't do it for that alone, since you didn't have to post online. Validation is what any writer seeks when letting their mind's art fly free. Here's my vladiation.
    I've got many reactions to your many points. Not for now. This is to be a pure salute.

  6. The fact that there are brilliant, Harvard educated neuroscientists who believe in religion shows that religion and science can be combined. In fact, there are entire Jewish movements who are not biblical literalists and believe in reconciling creationism with evolution since the torah speaks only in Lashan Bnei Adam. According to this view the world wasn’t literally created in six days since the sun was only created the 3rd day, so the first 2 days couldn’t exist before the sun.

    As an educated Chasidic guy, I share some of your frustrations, but I have learned to embrace the traditions and live in peace with my inner self. Even though a god is illogical and there is no proof of his existence, I strongly believe that there something of a higher power that wants us to lead good lives and hates corrupt or immoral behavior that hurts other people.

    Science will never answer all of our questions. The theory of evolution is sometimes laughable. There are peer reviewed journal articles that raise questions in evolution starting from the statistical probability of life just evolving, to contradictory evidence in the fossils such as not finding half developed species (half fish half mammal). Its far from a perfect answer to how the world has come to be. Religion should stop the quest of scientist to find answers and so shouldn’t science address religion.

    1. A lot of what you addressed here, are issues I have thought a lot about when I still trying to make science work with my religious beliefs. There are a few aspects that I want to address- But I will add a disclaimer: I do not claim that I have the absolute answer- I am just describing my thought process and its conclusions.
      - Scientists who believe in religion: That is exactly what I described in my post. Many people attempt to put science and religion on the same platform and try to make them work. That is problem #1, there are complete different entities- based on different sets of ideals. The problem is that making them work has to mean that either the scientific facts get twisted to "fit" into the Torah, or religion gets twisted- which brings me to point 2.
      - Lashon Bnei Adam:That is something I have heard so many times and found it unsettling. When you say Lashon Bnei Adam it generally refers to Lashon Bnei Medieval Adam- according the the viewpoint and understanding of the the man in the times that the Torah was given. Apparently it is not good enough for us, because these Lashonim as very much being questioned. They don't seem to be Lashon Bnei Contemporary Adam. If 6 days was essentially many millions years- Proper lashon bnei adam would have been God created the world... End of description- that leaves it open to all sorts of analysis, starting from a true age of earth. But writing 6 days when we can obviously see the world and its process have evolved over billions of years- is not Lashon Bnei Adam at all!! I would expect an all knowing god to know that in years later people would be able to date the earth. The same concepts can be applied to a lot of what we call"lashon bnei adam". It seems to be that present day Adam isn't quite comfortable with that Lashon.
      - For every peer-reviewed article that raises questions- there are peer-reviewed article that answers it. Questioning is what I am doing, it is what science has been doing. Religion doesn't do that- it tells you what to believe and how to think . I have specifically asked about these 2 questions that you bring up: They are the two "big ones" that creationists bring up. And I have read and understood satisfactory answers to both. Maybe I'll explore on that in a later post.
      - Yeah: I agree- religion has no place in telling science what it can or cannot look for. Science should also not have to bother justifying its theories according to an outdated archaic code of laws.

    2. Creationists are not the ones to bring up limitations of the theory of evolution- trained scientists are the ones who mention it. I think that we have to recognize that evolution is far from perfect, and by choosing to accept "satisfactory answers" to legitimate limitations, indicates that our logic is a true slave to our emotions.

    3. Yes, I know- and they would not be scientists if they didn't. In science It is expected that someone will bring up uncertainty, or limitations in a theory. For me it is not about the "satisfactory answers", It is about looking at the background of the one giving it. Making my own peer-review and looking at the credibility of the author. Scientists whose work I follow, I can easy verify their credibility, yet for some reason, the author of the Torah, I find it harder to verify his credibility- especially with his track record of violence, intolerance, sexism, racism....