Faith in the Age of Science
I was born in 1960. That year the first satellite was launched ushering in the age of satellite navigation. Today, I can’t go anywhere without first consulting Waze on not only how to get there, but for the quickest route with the least traffic.
Science and technology have played a significant role in my life. My father was an Engineer. I remember my mother taking me to the Allied Chemical Building in New York City before I started school to be amazed by what this company was doing in Chemistry. I was given an erector set and electronic kit to play with and built structures and circuits which started me down a path of STEM in High School which all led to Engineering School.
I also had adequate religious training. Although I did not attend Jewish Day School, I did attend Hebrew School and Hebrew High School throughout all the years of secular education. I was involved in my Conservative community attending Minyan every morning, participating as a Ba’al Koreh and Ba’al Tokeah in my synagogue. I was also extremely active in USY on a local chapter, divisional, and regional levels and participated in my first trip to Israel on USY Pilgrimage.
Yet, if you were to ask me back then of my beliefs; I would have said that I believed in Science more than Religion. Being raised in an age when so much scientific and technological advancements were occurring it was easy to put your faith in Science. Thanks to the advent of transistors, electronics were getting smaller and smaller. Computers were being introduced into school curriculums. I remember my first BASIC programming class in 9th grade; my teacher was one chapter ahead of the class in the textbook and I was 5 chapters ahead of her I was so enamored with the technology.
My first introduction to the fact that science and technology were not absolute came from an unlikely source. My Engineering school had a Freshman humanities course that included reading The Structure of Scientific Revolutions by Harvard Sociologist Thomas Kuhn. In this work, Thomas Kuhn demonstrated that Science was not a search for absolute truth, but a set of definitions ever-widening to encompass all the phenomena that were observed. When something was discovered that could no longer be explained by the existing science, a scientific revolution would occur which continued to provide an explanation for all the previous phenomena and incorporated additional explanations for the newly unexplained. In all honesty, I was not paying too much attention to my humanities class Freshman year, but somehow, I did remember reading this book years later.
I started my career as a programmer down on Wall Street. Again, following the trajectory of technology, I applied my skills providing automation support to business. It was the heady years of being a Yuppie and I was a full-fledged member of the Wall Street crowd. Every Friday evening, I would go out and blow off the pressures of the week at all the local bars. Oh, the stories I could tell…
And one night I met a young Jewish woman at one of these local watering holes. We ended up dating and getting engaged, but something was not quite right. Due to my own issues and challenges, we ended up breaking up. Thus, began my questioning.
Why did I begin dating this girl seriously when I had not dated many previously? Was it because she was Jewish? Do I want to marry a Jewish girl? Do I believe in Hashem? Do I believe in Judaism? All these questions were rattling around my brain that Rosh Hashanah when I went back home and attended services. My synagogue was going through a transition. The Conservative movement had begun to allow young women to be Bat Mitzvahed on Shabbat. Many Conservative Synagogues had split and spin offs. My shul built an Orthodox Minyan downstairs to keep the community together.
I found myself davening in the downstairs Minyan when a classmate of mine approached me and said, “We are having an Alan Zwiren Shabbaton this weekend, will you be attending?” I graciously accepted the invitation and spent Shabbat in Forest Hills. Saturday afternoon when all others went to sleep, I stayed awake in my friend’s apartment and found a book by Herman Branover called Return: The Spiritual Odyssey of a Soviet Scientist. In it, Herman Branover, who was raised in the anti-religious Soviet Union on Science, described his journey to faith and belief. In the book, he described how he overcame his absolute belief in science to allow room for faith.
To say at the end of Shabbat I was more confused than ever. My host recognized the signs and suggested I talk with his Rabbi. So, I called up and made an appointment. As my friend tells the story, one day he is connecting me to his Rabbi and 4 weeks later he called up the Rabbi’s house and I answered the phone while babysitting.
What happened in between set me down the path I still follow today. I met the Rabbi in the Synagogue where he was conducting a class for two young women. I waited quietly listening to the lesson on the Parashat HaShavuah; due to my Jewish education, I was already familiar with the lesson he was giving. After he was finished teaching, we sat down, and I told him of my dilemma.
I explained my challenge in believing in Hashem and Religion. I did not really emphasize my background of absolute belief in Science and Technology, but it was present throughout the conversation. There are many different approaches when confronted about the existence of God. Aish HaTorah had a seminar to prove scientifically that God exists. Thankfully, this is not the path that my Rabbi took.
What he did say had a tremendous impact on me. First, he stated that if I was challenging him to prove that God exists, please leave. However, if I were willing to explore and discuss the possibility that God exists, he would be more than happy to engage with me. And thus, the next steps on my journey were taken.
The Rabbi recommended I read several books that we eventually discussed. The first was Fear and Trembling by Søren Kierkegaard. This book acquainted me with the concept of “Leap of Faith” based upon the story of the Akeidat Yitzhak. This was followed by a primer in Judaism in the modern age called This Is My God: A Guidebook to Judaism by Herman Wouk. Finally, he had me read a book by a Ba’al Tshuvah, Michael Levin, on his journey.
Since that time, I have come to reconcile my perceived gap between Science and Religion. I had been able to compartmentalize and separate my belief in Science and Religion. That is until recently when I read The Great Partnership: Science, Religion, and the Search for Meaning by Rabbi Jonathan Sacks.
This book enabled me to unify my strong belief and understand in both Science and Religion. Rabbi Sacks presents a strong case that Science and Religion are two sides of the same coin; Science explains the how and Religion explains the why. He shows that both have been heading to the conclusion that one without the other are meaningless. From quoting the Rambam to Rav Kook HaCohen ZT”L to Rav Soloveitchick supporting science to Einstein, Plank and Darwin supporting the existence of God.
Life and belief are journeys. As the lesson of Jacob’s ladder teachers, us, we must constantly be ascending lest we are descending. My journey is far from complete; however, I now understand how the two important influences of my life do not conflict, they coexist and reinforce one another. Everyone has their own challenges, their own doubts, and their own beliefs. I do not know if this book will help anyone else reconcile their faith in these modern times; however, I can say with absolute certainty it has fortified mine.
Jews have always been a people of Science, Technology and Faith. Although less than point two percent (.2%) of the world is Jewish, over 22% of Nobel prizes have been awarded to Jews. Israel is a further manifestation of this phenomena. Israel has contributed greatly to the worlds of Science, Technology and Religion. Today Israel is known not only as the Startup Nation, but it is also sought after for its technology and scientific discovery! Today I live in a country where I can be comfortable with both Science and Religion. And yet, that is not necessarily the case for all concerned.