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I forward this from the Meta listserve, and call attention to the comments
of Isaac Zlochower, with which I agree.
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Date: Wed, 14 Apr 1999 15:54:02 -0400
From: Billy Grassie <email@example.com>
Subject: Meta 075: Judaism and Science
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Meta 075. 4/14/99. Approximately 2509 words.
Below are a number of messages continuing the thread on Judaism and Science
with Norbert Samuelson (see Meta 063 and 068). The first message is from V.V.
Raman at Rochester Institute for Technology, who challenges Samuelson's
characterization of the "Post-Protestant" secular university.
The second message is from Isaac Zlochower, a research chemist at the
Pittsburgh Research Lab. - NIOSH. Zlochower discusses the history and
consequences of Jewish intellectual isolation in Europe and wonders about the
challenges for contemporary attempts at distinctly Jewish syntheses of science
The third message is from Brian L Lancaster, Centre for Jewish Studies,
University of Manchester, and Director of the Consciousness and Transpersonal
Psychology Research Unit at Liverpool John Moores University. Lancaster
discusses Jewish mysticism, psychology and symbolism in Judaism and science.
-- Billy Grassie (from the Cosmic Questions Conference in Washington, D.C.)
Subject: Re: Meta 068: Juadism and Science
Some comments on Prof. Samuelsons posting.
<Rather, science provides a vital tool for fulfilling what is a Jewish
obligation - - to know and to serve God. Consequently the modern tendency to
make a radical separation between what we call "the religious and the secular"
has no application to Jewish intellectual tradition.">
*Replace the epithet "Jewish" by "Hindu," "Muslim," "Protestant," "Catholic,"
or any other God-fearing community, and the respective intellectuals will not
only applaud this statement, but declare this is a clear and profound
understanding of their own tradition.
<To the extent that a radical understanding of the politically desirable
principle of separation of religious institutions from the institutions of the
state, which includes the academy, is forced by a Protestant or so-called
"Post-Protestant" cultural majority on non-Christians, the principle functions
as just one more example of continued Christian intellectual imperialism, for
it forces non-Christians and non-Post-Christians to think in what is almost
exclusively a Christian perspective on both religion and science.)>
*Like the invention of the wheel, the discovery of the zero, and the emergence
of modern science, "the separation of religious institutions from the
institutions of the state, which includes the academy" is one of the major
breakthroughs in the history of human thought (civilization)." Calling this
"Christian imperialism" is like calling the decimal system Hindu imperialism.
Those who choose not to adopt it are welcome to their choice. Nobody is forced
to adopt a secular perspective in making scientific discoveries. It just
happens to be helpful/fruitful for some people.
V. V. Raman
April 5, 1999
From: Isaac A Zlochower <firstname.lastname@example.org>
Subject: Re: Judaism and Science
Prof. Samuelson's remarks on Judaism and science need some further
amplification, I believe. The long hiatus (nearly seven centuries) in new
contributions relating scientific discoveries and western knowledge to Judaism
stems from the exclusion of Jews from the cultural life of western societies
and their physical isolation in Ghettos. This long period of persecution and
isolation produced an inward turning of Jewish scholars to pietism and almost
exclusive concentration in Talmudic studies and Rabbinic law. The desire for
knowledge and intellectual achievement did not thereby diminish - and may well
have been aided by the bleakness of alternative pursuits, but was very much
circumscribed for both internal and external reasons.
The Jewish people and the world as a whole lost much from this prolonged
isolation from the intellectual life of the western world. The more liberal
spirit that was manifested in western Europe in the 19th century resulted in
the emergence of some of these Jewish savants into western culture, but usually
at the expense of their Judaic values. For them, Judaism and identification as
Jews was an unacceptable hindrance to acceptability into that new world. A few
voices in that century attempted to integrate western knowledge into
traditional Judaism, but they were not scientists.
Even today, when educational and career opportunities are much more open to
traditional Jews, few have attempted to fully integrate their scientific
expertise and Judaic knowledge. The secular bias in universities and the canons
of acceptable scientific discourse have served to suppress religious
expressions on the part of traditional Jewish scientists in their scientific
work. Recent years have, however, witnessed the publication of books for the
general public by traditional Jewish scientists who have ventured to integrate
their scientific knowledge and the biblical text. Examples are several books by
the physicists, Dr. Gerald Schroeder and Prof. Nathan Aviezer. Such efforts are
only the early phases of a process whose full flowering remains in the future.
Among the issues that such integrationists need to confront is the question of
the factual basis of the biblical narrative, particularly in the description of
events in the early part of Genesis. Are the narratives of the creation
stories, Noah's flood, the dispersal of Noah's descendants to be treated as a
retelling of ancient Mesopotamian lore in a moralistic, monotheistic manner, or
are they based on real events? Associated with the above question is the
question of authorship of Genesis and the manner of transcription. If all the
books of Moses were basically Divinely dictated, then all the events described
should be real lest GOD be implicated in falsehood. If Genesis is based on
ancient oral tradition, then some tales may be a reflection of prevalent pagan
myths and a monotheistic reaction to them. The traditional view which is
espoused by Schroeder and Aviezer much prefers the Divine authorship of
Research Chemist, Ph.D.
Pittsburgh Research Lab. - NIOSH
Pittsburgh PA, 15236
From: Lancaster Brian <B.L.Lancaster@livjm.ac.uk>
Subject: Judaism & Science
I am writing to contribute to the dialogue following Norbert Samuelson's piece
on Judaism and science. I note, in particular, his interest in kabbalistic
texts bearing on questions of human nature. He writes, "I think the Jewish
texts I want to focus on are Kabbalistic (since I think this tradition more
than any other in Jewish intellectual history has had human nature as its
As a psychologist and Orthodox Jew who has spent some twenty years studying
such textual sources-both in the religious and in the academic sense-may I
reinforce his intended focus? The nature of the human form (by which term is
included both aspects of what European thought tended to separate as 'mind' and
'body') is certainly a central theme of all strands of Jewish mysticism. Whilst
diverse traditions within Jewish mysticism may seem to have quite distinct
emphases in terms of their symbolic systems and their approaches to mystical
and magical practices, their interest in working with, and understanding, the
human form serves to link them to their common root in the Torah ("In the image
of God ...."). This observation may be exemplified from the case of the
mysticism practised within the mediaeval Sefardi and Ashkenazi communities. The
texts of the former largely revolved around the teaching of the sefirot
(emanations of the divine) whereas the theme of the golem (an artificially
created 'man') played a significant role in the latter.
Whilst the differences between these traditions are indeed significant, what
unifies them is precisely the central role played by the human form, for the
sefirot were conceived in such anthropomorphic terms, as obviously was also the
golem. The speculations and practices of both traditions very much focused on
the human as microcosm which became the vehicle through which a connection with
the divine was experienced.
Beyond the centrality of the human form, what also unites the various strands
of Jewish mysticism is their approach to language. Indeed, Kabbalah is
quintessentially a mysticism of language. Not only are its major themes
frequently elaborated in terms of Hebrew letters and the subtleties of the
biblical text (which places it firmly within the rabbinic tradition), but also
its major 'meditative' practices focus on the activation of Hebrew forms
(through chanting or visualisation, for example). It is this fact which enables
a dialogue between 'spirituality' and (psychological) science to be especially
Given the extensive literature on the psychology of language, including
cognitive, neuropsychological and pathological dimensions, there is
considerable potential for a synthesis between these insights and those evident
in kabbalistic texts of language mysticism. In a recent article, for example, I
have drawn attention to the implications of the deconstructive emphases in
kabbalistic language practices for our understanding of pre-conscious
linguistic processing. Indeed, the idea that the spoken word represents the
final stage in the progress of a thought from the realm of the unconscious to
that of the conscious sphere is conveyed in several texts.
The Zohar (I:32a), the most influential of kabbalistic writings, states that
the relation between light (conscious) and dark (unconscious) constitutes the
"secret of memory." In a statement which is redolent of our contemporary
understanding of the 'cognitive unconscious' (in contrast to more
psychoanalytic conceptions of the unconscious), it suggests that "The
difference by means of which light is distinguished from darkness is one of
degree only; both are one in kind, as there is no light without darkness and no
darkness without light; but though one, they are different in their surface
form." Whilst the language of a text such as this is not immediately
psychological, broader analysis clarifies the psychological impact of such
symbols as light and dark, voice and speech, recollection and memory, etc.
Regarding memory in particular, which is perhaps the most elusive of
psychological topics, I am inclined to think that kabbalistic sources may offer
specific insights. When taken in conjunction with neuroscientific data on
memory, these insights may significantly advance our elucidation of the nature
of memory. In passing, it is worth stressing this notion of a synthesis between
insights from diverse traditions-in this case the mystical and the
scientific-advancing our understanding of a topic. This represents the dialogue
between science and religion that interests me, and may be contrasted with so
much that goes under the name of dialogue but which in reality only amounts to
explaining (or even explaining away!) one in the terms of the other. A
specifically Jewish dimension in this arises through the traditional
interpretative dynamic between the written Torah and the oral Torah.
Whilst a discussion of this dynamic would take up too much space here, it is
perhaps relevant to note that the 'oral' dimension refers not only to
'tradition' but also to any insight not breaking the spirit of the text which
may have been gleaned through observation. In our terms such observation might
well include the scientific analysis of physical and psychological reality. As
the 19th century Malbim notes, the Hebrew 'shvach' means both 'praise' and
'improve;' by 'improving' God's work through scientific understanding we are
indeed 'praising' Him.
The question raised by Nelson Rivera concerning the role of numbers in Jewish
mysticism may be answered in the context of the centrality of language on which
I have touched above. As is well known, each Hebrew letter has a numerical
value. Generally, this is construed as a matter of convenience or, perhaps, as
reflecting a primitive situation in which separate numerical signs had not been
invented. However, from the point of view of Jewish mysticism, the equation
between letter and number is absolutely central to the relation between God and
His creation. The Sefer Yetzirah (thought to date from around the 2nd century
CE) notes that the Hebrew 'sefer' (from which we get 'cipher') implies number
as well as letter and narrative. The inner relation between mathematical
structure and linguistic device is portrayed as a dynamic within the whole
process of Creation. Moreover, kabbalists have delved extensively into this
relation between number and language when attempting to unravel the meanings of
the Torah. To the kabbalist, such work of becoming conscious of these
relationships has the connotation of engaging with God in the work of creation.
An illustrative example of the approach here may be found in the commentary on
the Torah of the 14th century Jacob ben Asher. Writing about the ladder of
which Jacob dreamt, he notes that the Hebrew for 'ladder' equates with a range
of other Hebrew words, each giving the connotation of movement between one
sphere and another. This is not a vacuous substitution between words and
numbers, but a highly disciplined approach to elaborating the complex of
meaning within a text by working through diverse associations. (The relevant
quote, together with a fuller discussion of the psychology of such associative
practices may be found in my book, "Mind, Brain and Human Potential", Element,
Whilst there are clearly echoes of Hellenistic themes in the emphasis on number
and proportion in the work of creation, the specifically Jewish dimension is
evident in the fluid relation between number and language. Rivera wonders, "if
there is something intrinsically, or at least typically, Jewish about the
conviction that the laws of nature are inscribed in numerical/mathematical
characters." I rather doubt this since, as he points out, Greek sources are
strong on this idea.
Moreover, Islamic and Christian thinkers drew considerable inspiration from the
Greek sources. However, it may be that the fluidity in translation between
codes (i.e. number to language and vice versa), and therefore between different
levels of meaning, passed into the cultural-historical Jewish heritage, and has
given a characteristic edge to the Jewish mathematician or physicist. But I do
not think that this edge is specific to these disciplines. Psychology, for
example, seems to have drawn strongly on these skills of translation between
different levels of meaning. Freud is well known for his sweeping insights into
the inner dynamics of meaning within numbers and phrases (see especially his
'Psychopathology of Everyday Life'). If there is a "typically" Jewish
contribution to our culture beyond the overtly religious, it cannot be of a
simple, uni-disciplinary nature, since these contributions have been in
literary areas as well as the mathematical, scientific and psychological. I
think an argument can be made which stresses the rabbinic fascination with
interpretation and translation between codes, together with the premium placed
on contributing to society. As the 1st-2nd century teacher, Rabbi Tarfon, put
it, "Although you are not required to complete the work, you are not free to
desist from it."
The challenge to draw science and religion together is a large one which is
worthy of many complementary approaches. I do believe that Judaism, and more
particularly its mystical tradition, has an important contribution to make to
such dialogue. In part, this is a consequence of European history, involving-as
it does-the traumatic divide between Christianity and Judaism. It seems to me
no accident that the roots of modern science may be traced to the impact on a
number of Christian intellectuals of newly translated kabbalistic works in the
early Renaissance. In many ways, the ideas culled from these works lost their
moral ballast as they became incorporated into European culture. In our day,
kabbalistic teachings can-I believe-invigorate the science-religion debate,
most especially where that debate focuses on the science of the individual mind
and its root in the mind of God.
Brian L Lancaster PhD
Centre for Jewish Studies,
University of Manchester,
Consciousness and Transpersonal Psychology Research Unit
Liverpool John Moores University
Henry Cotton Campus
Liverpool L3 2ET
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