Science and the Majesty of His World: Love and Fear of God

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Rabbi Jonathan Sacks

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"But the key is in the message from heaven telling Abraham to stop: "Do not raise your hand against the boy, or do anything to him. Now I know that you fear God, because you have not withheld from Me your son, your only son" (Beraishit 22:12).  Why did God need to "test" Abraham, given that He knows the human heart better than we know it ourselves? Maimonides answers that God did not need Abraham to prove his love for Him. Rather the test was meant to establish for all time how far the fear and love of God must go. "

How does one come to love and fear God? Maimonides wrote in his halachic code, the Mishnah Torah, in chapter 2 of Hilchot Yesodei HaTorah, that if you want to achieve the love and fear of God – or what today we might call awe and a sense of wonder – then study natural science.

Until not very long ago, science on the one hand, philosophy on the other, had removed God from any place in our understanding of the natural world. Now what I think we must all be familiar with: if any of us have read books about science, cosmology or what-have-you, or philosophy, recently, is that, incredibly, God has suddenly come back into the picture. He has done so in the writings of scientists like Freeman Dyson, Paul Davis and others. There is a famous sentence at the end of Stephen Hawkins’, A Brief History of Time, where he says that if we could create a sort of grand, unified field theory, a theory of everything, we would then know the mind of God. 

So God has come back into the writing of scientists and He has also come back into the writing of philosophers. An old philosophical colleague of mine, David Conway, has just published a book called Rediscovering Wisdom, in which he says that philosophers have to get back to their original task which is of contemplating God – and he is still a member of the philosophy faculty. That would have caused instantaneous excommunication had he said just a little while ago.

So what has brought about this very unexpected turn? I think, two things. The first is that the sheer leaps forward that we have made in our discovery and understanding of the natural world have revealed these astonishing vistas of the sheer complexity and scale of the created world. On the one hand, as we look out, we see this enormous universe of at least a billion galaxies, each with a billion stars – and that is if we look outward. If we look inward, we see this phenomenon of the human genome: every human body contains 100 million million cells; every cell contains a nucleus; every nucleus contains two complete sets of the human genome; and every human genome contains more than three billion bits of information. 

It also turns out, as I am sure you know, again with real mystical underpinnings, that all life, every single life form known to mankind, from human beings to the simplest and most primitive microbe, all come from a single source. There is only one source of life from which all other life forms have diverged. What is equally powerful – and what Matt Ridley makes clear at the very beginning of his book Genome – is that all life is exactly as the Bible said, a matter of language, of instructions, of letters and words. 

So one thing has happened which has got nothing to do with whether we can prove or not prove the existence of God, and that is the fact that the macrocosm of the universe, the microcosm of the human genome – whether or not they prove the existence of a Creator – have certainly immeasurably increased our sense of wonder at creation itself. 

I think we have begun to realize the sheer weight and dimension of those echoing words of Psalm 104:24,“How manifold are Your works: You have made them all in wisdom.”

As I already explained to you, the Rambam goes so far as to say that one should study natural science if you want to understand love and fear God. So the Rabbis were interested in science. They were incredibly openminded about science. But the fact is that they did not become scientists – not until the modern age. I admit there were some exceptions, but science did not become a Jewish preoccupation as such despite the fact that all the foundations of the scientific world-view are present in Bereishit, chapter 1.

The book that begins with the words bereishit bara Elokim, In the beginning, Gad created… is called by us Torah, and if Torah is the name of a genre, it is telling us what kind of book it is, and Torah means teaching, or it means instruction, or it means, in the widest sense of the word, law – then Torah is, as I said before, an answer to a very specific question. Not the question, What is the case? How did the world come into being? – Facts. But an answer to the question, How shall I live?

The first and most fundamental thing that the Torah is telling us about Creation is this: The scientific fact that God created the world, creates the legal fact that God is the owner of the world. In other words, Divine Creation is not interesting in its own right, but as the explanation for, the justification of, Divine sovereignty. God’s right to issue rules, commands, principles, for life on earth. Creation, in other words, is like the two English words which are very similar: the word ‘author’ and the word ‘authority’. God is the author of the world. It is important for us to understand that God is the moral or legal authority of the world, the Divine sovereign.

And that is what answers the significance of Creation as far as the Torah is concerned. The significance of Creation, of Bereishit chapter 1, to the project called Judaism, has got nothing at all to do with science, even though it is an explanation congruent with science. But it is in fact to do with quite different matters, namely with our moral and spiritual situation in the universe. 

“Take your son, your only son, the one you love – Isaac – and go to the land of Moriah. Offer him there as a burnt offering on a mountain I will show you.”  (Beraishit 22:2)

Thus begins one of the most famous episodes in the Torah, but also one of the most morally problematic. The conventional reading of this passage is that Abraham was being asked to show that his love for God was supreme. He would show this by being willing to sacrifice the son for whom he had spent a lifetime waiting.

On this principle there was little argument. The story is about the awe and love of God. Kierkegaard wrote a book about it, Fear and Trembling, and made the point that ethics is universal. It consists of general rules. But the love of God is particular. It is an I-Thou personal relationship. What Abraham underwent during the trial was, says Kierkegaard, a “teleological suspension of the ethical,” that is, a willingness to let the I-Thou love of God overrule the universal principles that bind humans to one another.

But the key is in the message from heaven telling Abraham to stop: “Do not raise your hand against the boy, or do anything to him. Now I know that you fear God, because you have not withheld from Me your son, your only son” (Beraishit 22:12). 

Why did God need to “test” Abraham, given that He knows the human heart better than we know it ourselves? Maimonides answers that God did not need Abraham to prove his love for Him. Rather the test was meant to establish for all time how far the fear and love of God must go. 

To best understand this difficult story, we have to realize that much of the Torah, Genesis in particular, is a polemic against worldviews the Torah considers pagan, inhuman and wrong. One institution to which Genesis is opposed is the ancient family as described by Fustel de Coulanges in The Ancient City (1864) and recently restated by Larry Siedentop in Inventing the Individual: The Origins of Western Liberalism. 

Before the emergence of the first cities and civilizations, the fundamental social and religious unit was the family. As Coulanges puts it, in ancient times there was an intrinsic connection between three things: the domestic religion, the family and the right of property. Each family had its own gods, among them the spirits of dead ancestors, from whom it sought protection and to whom it offered sacrifices. The authority of the head of the family, the paterfamilias, was absolute. He had power of life and death over his wife and children. Authority invariably passed, on the death of the father, to his firstborn son. Meanwhile, as long as the father lived, children had the status of property rather than persons in their own right. This idea persisted even beyond the biblical era in the Roman law principle of patria potestas.

The Torah is opposed to every element of this worldview.  The principle to which the entire story of Isaac, from birth to binding, is opposed is the idea that a child is the property of the father. What God was doing when he asked Abraham to offer up his son was not requesting a child sacrifice but something quite different. He wanted Abraham to renounce ownership of his son. He wanted to establish as a non-negotiable principle of Jewish law that children are not the property of their parents.

If the analysis of Fustel de Colanges and Larry Siedentop is correct, it follows that something fundamental was at stake. As long as parents believed they owned their children, the concept of the individual could not yet be born. The fundamental unit was the family. The Torah represents the birth of the individual as the central figure in the moral life. Because children – all children – belong to God, parenthood is not ownership but guardianship. 

So, God owns the world, we don’t. Therefore it is God’s right to set conditions for our enjoyment of the world. God becomes the lawgiver. He is the sovereign because He is the Creator. And that explains one of the key ways in which we understand our relationship with God. We call Him an Adon, Master: Baruch ata adoshem – God is the Master and we are avadim – we are servants or, technically, we are His slaves. We belong to Him. 

And you will understand that that concept, of God’s ultimate sovereignty of the world is what is at stake when the Torah establishes its ideal of a free society, as God says, again in Vayikra 25:55, “The children of Israel are My servants.” Said the Rabbis, quite correctly, “and not servants to other servants.” In other words, God must militate against human slavery because if God is the owner of human beings, then no human being can be the owner of another human being. It is that first thing that creates God’s sovereignty which is the basis for human freedom in the Torah. 

Daily Goals:
Rav Soloveitchik explained the episode in terms of his own well-known characterization of the religious life as a dialectic between victory and defeat, majesty and humility, man-the-creative-master and man-the-obedient-servant. Thus the binding of Isaac was not a once-only episode but rather a paradigm for the religious life as a whole. We must remember that humans were given intellect and free will, and that precisely because we pride ourselves on our power of reason, the Torah includes chukkim, statutes, that are impenetrable to reason and we follow them because of our love and fear of the Almighty. 

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