My Biggest Religious Mistake: Ignoring Science

The Beginning: Science As A Friend

Ever since I was young, science fascinated me.  My dad was a professor of electrical engineering, and so he was always buying me stuff like chemistry sets and educational videos about science.

I guess it was a surprise to all of us that I ended up getting more and more drawn to the liberal arts.  Poor Dad.

But something about that fascination stayed with me.  Science had been my view into the way the world worked, and the implications of it always hit me in a deeply spiritual place.  When I learned about the vastness of time, I would stay up nights sweating with panic attacks about infinitude and my own small place within it.  When I learned about the vastness of space, I was fascinated by what might be out there.

And as I got older, and I learned about theoretical physics, I realized that for me, science didn’t exist the way it did for most people.  Science was my spiritual outlet.  Learning that everything was energy, even matter, learning that there were a few universal constants, and without them being set just so nothing would exist in the way it does now… all of that, and so much more, became a way for me to access God.

Science never contradicted religion, in my eyes.  It just proved it.  Seeing the patterns of a universe that was so clearly alive, so clearly breathing and smiling and laughing just like us all.  It was so clear that there was a hand in it, something vast, deep, and intelligent.

When I began to embrace Judaism, science wasn’t an impediment.  It was fuel.  I would learn something about science and then see it in the Chassidus and/or Kabbalah I learned.  And vice versa.

Yes, there were contradictions.  Yes, there were things that were hard for me to resolve.  But I wasn’t afraid of them because I saw something deeper connecting the threads of the two, something much more true than the debates that seemed to rage around them.

Science screamed to me, God is real, the physical is spiritual, everything that happens is for a reason.  It screamed all those things to me before and after I was religious.  It made no difference, and all that religion did, all that Judaism did, was enhance that message.

The Questions Mount

But then something started to happen.  I started to settle comfortably into my religious life.  I became more enmeshed in the cultural goings-on of the Jewish world.  I moved to New York City, and slowly blended into the pace here, the comforting feeling of a community.

I became busy trying to make a living, trying to keep my family able to breathe in this world where rent eats into your bread, into your oxygen.  Keeping four heads above water became the priority.

And so that exploration got put on hold.  I began relying on dogma to keep me going.

I still remember when those thoughts began to transform into piranhas, eating me from within. 

What about Noah and the flood, I wondered?  Almost impossible to explain how there could be a flood that took the whole world.  Made no sense.

What about evolution?  The age of the world?

In the past, those questions would scare me, but I would examine them; I would try and understand how they informed by Judaism.

In fact, it was those very questions that convinced me to keep coming to my Chabad house.  I yelled those questions over and over at my rabbi and the people around on my first Shabbat there.  I was amazed at how brave they were answering, how they didn’t hide from the questions, but dove into them like Olympic swimmers.  I didn’t buy a word of what they said, but it was the lack of fear that impressed me.

But now I was too busy to live like that, too focused on other things.  And so I shoved my questions deep down into some pocket of my brain.  Later, I told myself.

The questions kept burning, though, and life kept getting busier, more stressful.  So I shoved them harder down.  I still remember moments when I’d have some time to myself, when I’d be writing a blog post on the subway, and suddenly I’d have this thought: WHAT ABOUT NOAH?!

I would ignore it, move on.

Science: Now My Enemy

Soon, I got so used to ignoring the questions that science became my enemy.  I started to develop a fear of those questions, because the more I ignored them, the bigger they seemed.

And the bigger they seemed, the more I felt this gnawing question attacking me, the more scared I became. The questions started to seep outside of my writing time.  Into my work time, my family time, even my prayer time.  And soon, they weren’t individual questions anymore, but one big question: “Do I still believe?”

And that question scared me so much that I refused to look at it.  Tried as hard to shut my ears and my eyes.  Hear no evil thoughts, see no evil thoughts.

But the harder I pushed them away, the harder they came.

I’ll never forget the day I sat in prayer at shul, my tallit over my head, my head lowered as if in deep prayer.  And all I could think as I stared at my siddur was: “I don’t believe in this.  I don’t buy this.”

My gosh, that was painful.  And that was when I started to truly break, just having that feeling so depressed me, so pained me…

Rivka To The Rescue

Finally a month or so later, I told my wife: “I need to tell people about this.  I can’t be writing under a name like Pop Chassid, I can’t be walking around with a kippah and a beard without being honest about my challenges.”

I planned to write a piece all about it, I said.

She looked at me skeptically.  All this time she had been supporting me, been strong next to me as I winced in spiritual pain.  But now she had something to say.

“Elad, how can you do that when you haven’t even tried to answer your questions?  You complain and complain, you feel lost, and yet you aren’t looking for any answers.  And now you want to tell people… what exactly?  You don’t have anything to tell them, because you haven’t been looking for something to say.”

I remember feeling this awareness that she was saying something deeply true, something I needed to listen to.  But even then, I was scared.  That same fear that kept me hidden down in the dark recesses of my mind, trying to ignore every question coming at me, was coming back.  But she persisted.  Said I needed to learn, needed to examine, before I start saying how I feel. I was trying to run away with that post, she was saying, the same running I had been doing this whole time.

And so I put my toe in the pond.  Downloaded a few articles about science and Judaism.  As I read, it was like that first time at my Chabad house: I wasn’t totally convinced, but something in me moved.  Became more alive.

And so I downloaded more.  My wife gave me a book on the exact subject we had hanging around in our house that I never bothered to pick up.  More and more I read, more and more I explored.

And suddenly, I wasn’t the kid in the Chabad house anymore.  I was the kid watching those scientific videos.  I was feeling that life I felt when I learned about theoretical physics.  I was alive.

And the more I learned, the more I challenged myself, I realized two things:

1. I still didn’t have any solid answers.

2. The problem wasn’t in the lack of answers.  The problem was in the hiding from my questions.

As soon as I started to examine the questions, started to look at them in a curious as opposed to doubtful, fearful way, a switch in me turned on.  That same switch that was turned on in my past, when science wasn’t a fear but the wine to my spiritual meal.

And even more profound, the more I examined, the more I realized how Judaism demands that we examine.  Demands that we use our minds to understand the physical in light of the spiritual and vice versa.  By hiding those questions deep down, I was committing a grave sin: I was turning dogmatic instead of being truly religious, truly committed to my journey.

I’m only now coming out of that stupor.  I’m only now feeling confident enough to write a piece about this latest journey (which my wife now supports, by the way!).  I’m only now waking up, feeling plugged in again.

The questions remain, but now they are a source of strength, not a source of pain.  I have realized how essential they are to my very soul.  How God cannot stay alive within us if we hide from that which plugs us into him.

Yes, I am full of questions still.  No, I am still not sure where this journey will take me.  No, I have no idea what this means for my “identity”.

But for the first time in a while, those thoughts don’t scare me: they excite me.

  • Princess Lea

    One of the basic concepts in Judaism: “No one died from an unanswered question.”

    It’s not that we can’t ask. We can ask, and be cool with the fact that there may not be an answer. That’s what faith is.

    Do I believe the world is more than 5,000 years old? Yes. Because as I heard from Rabbi David Fohrman, the Torah is not a book of history or science. Is it a book of law.

    Many people, for instance, don’t know that Hashem is outside of time, that time itself was a creation (I didn’t fully understand this concept until I read “Watchmen”). That, in itself, answers many questions. A “day” in the time of creation was not yet 24 hours, since a 24 hour day is based on the spinning earth itself and the time it takes for it to make a full rotation. And, time is relative.

    If you haven’t read him yet, I would recommend the books of Rabbi Natan (Nosson) Slifkind.

    • I second the recommendation for Rav Slifkin. I recently re-read his book The Challenge of Creation which gives an excellent overview of various approaches to Torah-science controversies and cites many, many gedolim who have had thoughtful responses to these problems.

    • bat Sarah

      If the Torah is the ultimate truth, it cannot be taken out of its historical, scientific, OR legal context.

      Time being a creation does not prove that a “day” is not 24 hours because then the use of any such (time-related) term would be totally meaningless.
      Being that G-d is omnipotent, He is capable of creating things already past certain developmental stages.

      • Princess Lea

        I am not making my own chiddush. I am quoting Rabbi David Fohrman and Rabbi Natan Slifkin. Feel free to take up this conversation with them.

        • bat Sarah

          But think about it for yourself. Are you accepting what they’re saying because it is comfortable to have science and religion agree with each other, or does it truly make sense despite the point I raised?

          • Princess Lea

            I do not claim that science is the be-all and end-all of all knowledge. Enough scientific “truths” have been disproven over the eons that I am not in thrall to it.

            But your “point” does not “do” it for me, however. I have very much “thought about it myself,” and I am not blindly deferring to other Rabbinic opinion.

            In the end, this idea can be argue until the days of Moshiach, because it cannot be proven in this era. I have explained where I stand, I have provided Rabbinic backup, and there is nothing more to be debated, as you and I will just remain at a “Tayku” impasse.

          • HS

            Does it really matter? There are different pirushim, and you can’t assume what her motivations are for holding by one and not the other.

            The question of the length of days of creation, whether we would perceive them as 24 hr “normal” days, or if they were some other kind of period which are still called “days” by the Torah, is ultimately one for discussion, but has very few practical implications.

            At the end of the day, Torah cannot contradict the physical world, and the physical world cannot contradict Torah. Both inhabit (albeit different levels of) reality. Seeming conflicts between realities are superficial.

  • emma rubinstein

    This book, given by a Jewish cousin, is helping me a lot to find answers to my different questions about science and Judaism, “The Great Partnership: Science, Religion, and the Search for Meaning” by Rabbi Jonathan Sacks.

    • Just ordered it, thank you!

      • emma rubinstein

        And please, let me know your thoughts about it. Thanks!

      • Ariella K

        its amazing!

  • Sam Litvin

    Just don’t try rationalizing it through religion. Science is science, done by very intelligent and hard working people. Religion is spirituality done by learned and intelligent people. I wouldn’t ask my Physics professor for lessons on Torah and so do not go asking your Talmudist for answers on explaining science, they are not trained in it and whatever their answers will be, shall be an attempt to reconcile their lack of knowledge and conflict via rationalization. It might make you feel better but won’t be true. Because religion did not create the plane and religion cannot hold the plane in the air, only science can do that and to understand it takes honesty and a lot of work.

    • I think when we force ourselves to look at things honestly, rationalizing becomes impossible.

  • Akiva Landsman

    I relate to this post a lot. There’s something very simple and sweet about living without questions, but many of us aren’t wired for that sort of blind faith. Good for you that you are facing your questions; it goes hand in hand with your post on resisting lifeless conformity.

  • Farah-Lee Fruma Hoenders

    Wow Elad, this article really spoke to me!! down to the description of how you felt when picking up the siddur, and it pretty much mirrors my own journey as a Baal teshuva vis a vis questions. Thank you for writing it because I don’t feel alone! I’ve come to my own realisations which are pretty much out of the box of traditional Chabad Orthodox thought, whilst still trying to retain my commitment to following the path, so I feel like a total contradiction at times. This article has given me some food for thought. It’s not always an easy journey to finding the truth, I can empathise with you! As long as we keep searching…! Hatzlacha!

  • Pingback: Backing Off a Bit | Wrestling With G-d()

  • Eli Rubin

    Really great post. Real faith is not about answering questions but about engaging them.

    Several commentators mentioned the work of Rabbis Jonathan Sacks and Nathan Slifkin. I am a great admirer of Rabbi Sacks and also familiar with R. Slifkin’s work. But it should be pointed out that while their approaches to these questions may be legitimate and thoughtful they differ drastically from that of the late Lubavitcher Rebbe.

    The Rebbe’s approach is a huge topic, which is usually over simplified and has yet to be properly dealt with. But readers may be interested in a short piece I recently wrote about how the Rebbe’s study of quantum theory under Erwin Schrödinger, at the University of Berlin, helped him articulate his unique view.

    http://m.chabad.org/therebbe/article_cdo/aid/2619782/jewish/Studies-in-Berlin-Science-Torah-Quantum-Theory.htm

  • yoni the yogi

    The Rambam says in Moreh Nevuchim that if someone thinks that Torah and science contradict each other, it means that this person has no Torah and no science.

  • Yonatan Gordon

    Rabbi Yitzchak Ginsburgh gave a seminar consisting of 6 lectures on Evolution and Intelligent Design in 5766. We are still working to put it into book form, but for the meantime the lectures may be listed to here: http://www.inner.org/torah_and_science/evolution/index

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