Thursday, 18 September 2008

Been Busy Looking For Truth In Many Places


It’s been a breathless couple of weeks.

As well as sermons (and preparation for the High Holydays to come), I’ve produced a keynote lecture on Kiekegaard and the Akedah, an article on the religious significance of Einstein (to be published in the Jewish Quarterly) and a piece on the religious significance of Rothko (for the Jewish Chronicle).

Philosophy, science, art.


The full pieces will make their way onto the blog in time. (for advanced copies, please e-mail me).

At the moment I am struck by this unavoidable truth.


One sometimes hears the claim that religion and science are interested in two entirely different spheres; science explains how things happen and religion explains what a person should try and do. That feels fuzzy and wrong. It certainly runs counter to the claims of Einstein, his great intellectual nemesis Nils Bohr, and Rothko too - that what applies to apples falling from trees must also hold true for the innermost secrets of the heart. If religion, art, philosophy and science aspire to revealing truths, they either have to overlap or be rejected. I cannot claim to be able to accept the truths of science in one sphere, while holding tight to religious dogma in another. As the Kabbalists point out kula chada – it’s all one. This is a significant challenge to the contemporary religious truth seeker. Scientists, philosophers and certainly artists such as Rothko enjoy nothing greater than superseding earlier truth claims, but religions in general and traditional forms of Judaism in particular don’t like being superseded. We don’t throw out the Code of Jewish Law just because, contrary to the Talmudic claim that fish and meat consumed together are dangerous, we subsequently discover no such pathology exists. But there has to be a line.


Solomon Schechter, the first President of the Jewish Theological Seminary wrote about the Rabbinic tale in which the Biblical patriarch Abraham smashes the wares of his father, a seller of idols. It must have been tempting for Abraham, wrote Schechter to continue the life of dishonesty of an idol salesman, but the Jew, ‘being the first and fiercest Noncomformist of the East’ is called upon to ‘boldly denounce’ superseded truth claims.[1] As Jews we have to be in search of truth in wherever it may be found and we need to prepare ourselves for the consequences of what we might find. At the very least if we find certain truth claims of our faith superseded by science we should admit that, if we do persist in following various religious doctrines, we are not doing so in pursuit of some grand universal truth, but rather, to borrow language from Mordechai Kaplan, we are performing ‘customs’ and travelling on ‘folkways.’[2] The pursuit of truth costs. Either we commit ourselves to paying the price or we should walk away from the challenge.


[1] Schechter, Studies in Judaism, p. 18 citing Bereishit Rabba 38:13

[2] Kaplan, Judaism as a Civilisation, (1981) p.437

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