Not Your Father's Talmud

Rabbi Adam Chalom of Kol Hadash Humanistic Congregation in suburban Chicago explores the Talmud from a Humanistic perspective, one page a day.

Location: Highland Park, Illinois, United States

Rabbi Adam Chalom is the Rabbi of Kol Hadash Humanistic Congregation in suburban Chicago. He is also the Assistant Dean for the International Institute for Secular Humanistic Judaism.

Thursday, April 28, 2005

Myth and Science in the Natural World - Berakhot 59

One of humanity’s most powerful traits is our desire for explanation – while some traditionalist religions claim to have all the answers and try to stifle further inquiry, the human impulse to understand and explain will not be permanently contained. In today’s Talmud page, we read several creative interpretations of natural phenomena in ways that sound more like mythology than philosophically-sophisticated theology. What causes an earthquake? When God thinks of his children (i.e. the Jews) suffering among the umot ha-olam [nations of the world – everyone else], two tears fall into the ocean, and the sound heard around the world causes the rumbling. Or perhaps God claps his hands, or he emits a sigh, or he walks on the sky, or he presses his feet together under his throne. This sounds much more like Zeus on Olympus than an elevated and remote creator-God who creates the world by mere words.

In mythology, God or the gods have bodies, emotions, and physical interactions with the world. Medieval Jewish religious philosophy, Maimonides in particular, went to great lengths to explain away Biblical anthropomorphisms (God resembling humans) – but the Talmud had no such difficulties with those concepts. And for the theologically-skeptical, the more alike God looks and acts to a big and powerful person, the more likely such images are mere projections of human longing and aspiration rather than accurate descriptions of the universe.

And what’s harmful about that? If one can separate myth and literature from science and history, not too much. After all, another natural human trait exemplified in this discussion of blessings for natural phenomena is the very human reaction of wonder at the power and grandeur of the natural world. When we feel an earthquake, or see lightening, or witness a rainbow, or visit a great ocean, or study the vastness of the stars in space, we are all awed. But awe at the beauty of the natural world must not prevent scientific study or explanation of how and why those phenomena take place. If our ONLY explanation for earthquakes remained “God’s tears,” we would never be able to learn how to build better buildings to withstand them, or to create devices that can detect them and predict aftershocks. We can share mythologies from our culture and from others about why there are seasons, or rainbows, or human knowledge of good and evil – but those stories are just stories, not facts.

Rabbi Adam Chalom