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Can Belief in Science Fulfill the Criteria for Worshipping Avodah Zarah? Teshuvah and Fundamental Beliefs by Gidon Rothstein

Posted By Gidon Rothstein On September 12, 2010 @ 12:44 pm In New Posts,Philosophy | 23 Comments

Who’s Crazy Enough To Worship Idols?

Growing up, I remember finding עבודה זרה a totally foreign concept— we were supposed to believe that many years ago, benighted and backward peoples believed that stones and statues and trees could control their lives, and worshiped them to secure better outcomes. And we Jews, with a tradition of rejecting idolatry going back to Avraham Avinu, did not do that.  We did not bow down to figures or icons, which freed ourselves about having to worry about that whole sensitive area.

As I got older, the questions became more complex, since there are world religions today that are at least questionably close to fitting the halachic categories of עבודה זרה. For a simple example, when Buddhists bow to statues of the human founder of their belief system, the halachic ramifications of that bowing depend significantly on how the person expresses his or her attachment to Buddhism.  Some bow to the statue—and Buddhists themselves use the word ‘worship’ for what they are doing– “only” מאהבה, as an expression of love and respect (which is not acceptable in halachah, but is significantly less serious than actual idol worship), but some expressions of what that worship seem to me to be full-fledged idolatry, with all the halachic ramifications that ensue. 

If my understanding of Buddhism is deficient, I know that some versions of Feng Shui, the Chinese practice of arranging furniture to produce a better energy in a room, speak explicitly of it as a way to get good spirits (actual metaphysical forces) to come to that space, and keep bad or evil spirits away.  I remember once buying a book about the practice, out of curiosity, and realizing that it was real, actual idol worship.

Those examples may resonate with some readers, but may seem rather distant to those who have no interest in Eastern philosophies, and I did not come to delve into that, only to note that even the forms of idol worship that we might have assumed we had left in the past still exist today. 

Idolatry That’s Much Closer to All of Our Hearts

More interesting to me, though, and more directly applicable to those who live in Western societies, is the question of whether Jews’ belief in science can become so engrossing as to fit the category of idolatry as well.  By offering a few supporting details for that claim, I hope to accomplish two goals: 1) to remind myself and others that God’s prohibition of idolatry went further than just bowing down to explicit forms of religious worship, and 2) secondarily but not less importantly, to raise the possibility that we often lose sight not just of minutiae of Torah, but of significant, fundamental propositions of Torah (in this case, the nature of idolatry that we have to avoid).  If so, part of our teshuvah process, this and every year, should be to recheck ourselves as to whether we’ve gone astray not only in failing to live up to our ideals, but also in forgetting what those ideals should be—and, again, not just in small or ancillary details.

No Luddite or Technophobes We Jews Be

Let us start by reminding ourselves of our long tradition of embracing the clear conclusions of science, those that note generally recurring patterns in the world’s operation, and structuring our lives accordingly. Thus, Abbaya and Rava tell us, Shabbat 67a, that anything that has actual medicinal value cannot be prohibited as imitating the ways of idol-worshipping nations.  So, too, when Rambam notes that we do not follow the opinion of R. Matya b. Harash (Yoma 83a), he distinguishes between a form of healing that is natural and one that depends on a סגולה, which I understand to mean operates in a way that is not identifiably natural.  Natural means of healing are permissible always; once we leave nature, we might be treading in dangerous territory.

That would seem to leave science wide open, since science explicitly seeks to be empirical, to study nature’s modes of operation.  In many if not most cases, when science operates within those parameters, that is absolutely true, and Jews may or must follow the conclusions of scientific study.  It is for that reason that so many Jews have found the sciences, medicinal or otherwise, a congenial occupation, since the study of how God set up the world, and the rules that generally govern its operation, is a perfectly acceptable—perhaps even meritorious—activity for a believing Jew, one more path to understanding the great wonders of God.

Idolatry Without the Bowing

But there is a simple halachah recorded by Rambam—taken from a Mishnah in Sanhedrin—that gives room for further consideration.  When listing those sins whose egregious and public flouting could lead a court to administer the death penalty of stoning, the Mishnah includes עבודה זרה, which it then defines to include (7;6), “sacrificing, offering incense, libating, bowing, or accepting it as lord or saying to it ‘you are my god.’”  Rambam’s Laws of Avodah Zarah, 3;4, codifies this idea as it sounds, that accepting anything other than God as one’s god is a crime, punishable by stoning.

In the first two chapters of those laws, I note, Rambam had made clear that this is not limited to statues and other completely ineffective aspects of the world.  As he put it in the beginning of the second chapter, the “essential commandment of idolatry is not to worship anything created, not an angel, not a heavenly sphere, not a star…” It was not, I stress, that Rambam (at least as he presents it in the משנה תורה) did not think that these parts of creation had any power; rather, even if God had delegated some control to them, it was prohibited to worship them.

And Rambam reminds us that idolatrous belief did not have to exclude a belief in God.  Rather, Rambam explicitly includes the worship of subordinate powers as an example of idolatry, even granting that God created those subordinate powers.

One more misconception about idol worship might be the sense that the idolater conceives of the focus of worship as a conscious being of some sort, so that the worship will influence it to act better towards the worshipper, but this also seems untrue.  For only one proof, the fact that simply accepting any power as one’s god (even not in its presence—that is the distinction the Talmud draws between מקבלו עליו לאלוה, accepting it as a god, and saying אלי אתה, saying ‘you are my god.’) shows that it is not the expectation of a response that makes something idolatry, it is also the underlying attitude the person brings to it.

How Much Belief in Science Is Going Too Far?

Which brings us to the complicated case of nature and science.  To the extent that a Jew believes that God runs the world through a general pattern of occurrences we call Nature—and without in any way judging whether Ramban is right that these are all miracles, but regular ones, or that these are laws of Nature, as Rambam would seem to have them—there is no objection or worry of idolatry.

But what happens if a Jew shades over—as many prominent non-Jewish scientists do today; most recently, Stephen Hawking, who announced that scientists’ understanding of the laws of physics precludes the existence of God—into believing that science necessarily limits the power of God? That is not the same, let me stress, as saying that science defines the way the world almost always works, or even the way the world works 99.9% of the time; the difference between 99.9% and 100%, though, crucially divides a believing stance from one that seems to me dangerously close to accepting science לאלוה, as the power that runs one’s life.  If one comes to believe that God cannot abrogate the laws of science as we know them, God forbid, I personally think that is indistinguishable from accepting some worship as an אלוה, as a god, and would put the person believing that in the category of an  עובד עבודה זרה, although probably as a שוגג, doing so without full understanding.

This past summer, I had the following startling experience: In the course of a conversation with a group of serious, committed Jews, I mentioned my understanding that it was a necessary part of Orthodox belief to accept the possibility of miracles. Asked for an example, I offered the following scenario: if a person, God forbid, is ill, and medical science (which, I stressed, a patient in our times must consult) has no tools left to heal the person, that person—and all other Jews as well—must nonetheless believe in the possibility of a miraculous recovery. Not the necessity, not the likelihood, but the possibility.

To my surprise and distress, just about everyone else in the conversation—and, I repeat, these were highly dedicated Jews– seemed shocked by the idea.  It was clear to them that the world operates solely by the laws of Nature, and there is no possibility for it to operate otherwise.

From my perspective, this ignores the lessons of the Exodus from Egypt, one of the points of which was to firmly and permanently fix the belief in a God Who can, whenever circumstances are right, change Nature, even radically.  (Some will say Rambam disagrees with this idea; I believe they are completely wrong, but do not have the space to prove that point here).

If I am right, many, many Orthodox Jews are unwittingly violating the prohibition against עבודה זרה, since the belief in science in many segments of the Jewish community extends to believing that science shows the limits of what God can or cannot do, as Stephen Hawking said it years ago in his A Brief History of Time.  I say unwittingly because I don’t think they realize that this belief is exactly a form of idolatry, and ignorance of the law does, in most cases, change a person’s halachic status from a willful violator to an unintentional one. But even unintentional sins require atonement.

A Missing Piece of Our Teshuvah

Which brings me to the teshuvah aspect of this discussion.  If I am right in my thought process so far, it would mean not only that many Jews are committing a serious sin without realizing it, but that they are also struggling to repent their sins without realizing one major area calling for rectification.  And not just an ordinary sin, but one of the central concerns of the Torah, the sin the Prophets spent pretty much all of the first Temple period trying to uproot!  And if many of us are still violating that basic prohibition, how many other sins are we accumulating without even realizing them?

A central challenge of this time of year, then, is not only to regret that which we know we do wrong, but to search as thoroughly as we can, to try to educate ourselves as much as we can, to be more familiar with what Judaism wants of us, what God has demanded of us, so that we can at least know more fully where we have failed – knowingly or not—and work to repair our relationship with God from a state of full understanding of where that relationship currently stands.

23 Comments (Open | Close)

23 Comments To "Can Belief in Science Fulfill the Criteria for Worshipping Avodah Zarah? Teshuvah and Fundamental Beliefs by Gidon Rothstein"

#1 Comment By Yehudi Yerushalmi On September 13, 2010 @ 5:08 am

Just curious,

How many people from that group of committed Jews had a professional background in science?

That (“blind faith in science”) is a typical reaction of those committed Jews who themselves have no scientific education.

#2 Comment By Jenny On September 13, 2010 @ 5:08 am

Hi Rabbi Rothstein,

Wouldn’t the legitimate opinion that all miracles have already been “programmed” into the creation of the world allow for the belief that God cannot change nature? While this would not exonerate the group of people that you’re referring to (as they should still understand that the possibility of a miracle exists) – they won’t change the natural order, which may or may not include a miracle in this instance.

#3 Comment By Gidon Rothstein On September 13, 2010 @ 10:03 am

Yehudi, Sadly, I have met Jews with a professional background who nonetheless had that attitude. As for Jenny, I think the “programmed miracles” view is a lot more complex than people believe– if, e.g., we believe in freewill, the course of history isn’t so determined that miracles could just pop up on program– but leaving that aside, it would still be in the nature of miracles that they would violate the laws of Nature as understood until that point. So, there might be a natural explanation for how a donkey spoke up to Bilam, but it’s taken thousands of years for us to find it, and we’re not there yet. Yet some scientists today– and the Jews who follow them– speak as if the laws of Nature they know are the categorical truth, and rule out anything that violates them. So even if the exceptions are already there in the program somewhere, we wouldn’t know them ahead of time, and would be shocked to see them, even if after the fact we could find a technical natural explanation for what happened. And, with all that, we still couldn’t say that Nature rules the world; only God does.

#4 Comment By Shalom Rosenfeld On September 13, 2010 @ 11:12 am

What do you mean by “miraculous recovery”? See the Sforno on G-d’s command to talk to the rock: there are miracles within nature (daven for a sick person); there are miracles that bend the laws of nature (the “garden-variety Biblical miracle”); and then there are miracles that toss nature out the door (Joshua did one of those; Moses almost did).

#5 Comment By Moshe On September 13, 2010 @ 4:52 pm

I believe R’ Dessler makes the same logical connection between belief in the forces of science and idolatry, and even takes it further. I’m not sure if he is trying to argue that it is idolatry on the technical level or it is a theological outlook that too closely resembles it.

#6 Comment By Steve Brizel On September 13, 2010 @ 7:00 pm

Unfortunately, if one views rationalism as the only legitimate Jewish philosophical POV, the reactions described by R Rothstein are predictable. Perhaps, that is why we constantly need reinforcement and reminding about the power of Tefilah.

#7 Comment By Gidon Rothstein On September 13, 2010 @ 8:00 pm

To Shalom, miraculous can mean any of those three, and many Jews would deny any of them if they step outside the realm of science. Moshe, I’d love to get the citation from R. Dessler, and Steve Brizel, I’m not sure it’s a question of these people viewing Judaism from a rationalist POV, because there have been rationalists who are also perfectly faithful; it’s more pernicious, it’s an attachment to the articulation of rationalism found in the outside world, and that version is outside the bounds of Torah.

#8 Comment By Ari On September 13, 2010 @ 8:11 pm

It may be theologically problematic to not believe in miracles, and definitely if one doesn’t believe G-d is involved with the world, but I do not see what it has to do with avodah zarah. Avodah zarah means worshiping or accepting *as god* some other power. People do not worship science or accept it as a god, they just believe G-d created absolute rules that He never violates. You cite only one proof: “the fact that simply accepting any power as one’s god shows that it is not the expectation of a response that makes something idolatry, it is also the underlying attitude the person brings to it.” Fine, maybe one doesn’t need to expect a response to be oved avoda zarah, but they to accept it as god!
I think it is a fundamental aspect of Judaism to believe G-d is involved with the world, and to believe that miracles in some form have happened, but I do not think its kefirah to attempt to minimize all miracles so they fit with common natural laws. The rationalists who do that may be going against much of tradition, but as long as they believe G-d is directing things, they are probably not going against any Ikkar of the Torah.

#9 Comment By MJ On September 13, 2010 @ 8:18 pm

R. Rothstein’s article is a tendentious and disturbing attempt to count more modern orthodox Jews as idolaters because they supposedly believe that God is incapable of abrogating the laws of nature.

Believing that God does not intervene in nature is not the same as Believing that God could not. Rambam, to my understanding, says that God does not interfere in the regularities of nature, but R. Rothstein apparently has a long Torah he does not share with us here about why this reading of Rambam is wrong, and we should therefore take his word that believing otherwise is idolatry.

In Salem, those who wanted to find one always managed to find a witch to burn. So to here. It is apparently not enough to condemn modern Orthodoxy for laxity in observance, ideological muddle, or cultural assimilation, we must also be idolaters!

#10 Comment By Ariel Segal On September 14, 2010 @ 7:28 am

Hi Rabbi Rothstein. Stimulating as usual! Torah-Science issues have intrigued me since I became frum.
With regard to
>>Abbaya and Rava tell us, Shabbat 67a, that anything that has actual medicinal value cannot be prohibited as imitating the ways of idol-worshipping nations.

I am listening to some lectures about traditional Chinese medicine, to see if there is anything useful to be learned. Some of the underlying philosophy involves concepts of yin and yang and different elements. As long as the content deals with (possibly effective) medicine, is the background philosophy, to the extent it is descriptive, any more dangerous than assumptions about intelligences and elements from the Aristotelian cosmology which Rambam accepted within certain limits?

Gmar Chatima Tova.

KT, Ariel Segal

#11 Comment By Gidon Rothstein On September 14, 2010 @ 8:41 am

The possibility of separating ideas from their original background is always there– much of American Buddhism has no connection to the ideas, just as many people practice yoga without a clue as to the ideological underpinnings. If some version of medicine identifies things about how the body works, in a natural way, then we can learn from it to heal ourselves better. We just have to be careful to wall ourselves off from the other.

#12 Comment By Bob Miller On September 14, 2010 @ 11:23 am

We ought to be especially careful of politicized science, namely, science bent to serve a political agenda. Modern political movements, both “left” and “right”, have often become secular substitutes for religion. United with a sort of science or quasi-science, extreme politics can become an intoxicating avodah zarah.

The object of worship of such an avodah zarah can be the human race itself, some portion of the human race (The Party, Academia…), oneself, one’s human leader, or no one in particular (remember that Amalek and the Ba’al Peor cult stood for nihilism).

#13 Comment By Steve Brizel On September 14, 2010 @ 11:32 am

I think that Bob Miller is correct. We should always be careful to separate our applause for scientific advancement and achievement from the all too prevalent AZ of scientism and the fact that merely possessing a scientific degree is far from an indicia of being an ethical individual.

#14 Comment By Bob Miller On September 14, 2010 @ 1:23 pm

Seemingly ethical people who are nonbelievers are basically running on the “fumes” of religious ethics. In due course, possibly in the next generation, those fumes dissipate.

#15 Comment By Moshe On September 14, 2010 @ 4:12 pm

The comment I was referencing from R’ Dessler, I believe is a larger theme in his thought. Specifically, he has a piece in Michtav M’Eliyahu volume 1 page 181, in which he delineates the various levels of belief of extent to which nature is a force unto itself. The lowest level is one who believes that generally nature runs its course with the possibility that G-d could shift it a bit. He equates this belief to “shittuf,” as if one’s own actions “combine” with G-dly decree to chart out the course of all events.

#16 Comment By Steve Brizel On September 14, 2010 @ 5:58 pm

I think that it is critically important to read the articles of R Rothstein and R Bieler together and ask oneself whether the unfettered rationalist belief in scientism is a hindrance to taking Tefilah seriously. If a person is so secure and confident in his or her way of life and subscribes only to the view that Hashem Yisborach reserves His right to intervene only in cataclysmic events but not in advancing human knowledge or technology, then such a person will not take Tefilah , its halachos and related minhagim seriously.

I would be remiss in not noting that RYNS viewed air and water pollution as directly caused by man in his striving for technological progress and that some of the worst events in human history have been perpretrated by people who believed in scientism such as many of the devotees of Nazism and Communism, Yimach Shmam VZicram.

#17 Comment By Bob Miller On September 15, 2010 @ 5:43 am

It’s a chutzpah to make one’s own reason the absolute arbiter of what to think and do. Since when do we or can we have enough of the big picture to rely only on our reason? Not only that, but we have personal biases, as Rav Elchonon Wasserman ZT”L noted, that can degrade our ability to reason.

#18 Comment By pinchas On September 18, 2010 @ 5:39 pm

A couple of side points:
1. Don’t think the Ramban’s perspective is quite as cut and dry as normally assumed. He clearly accepts laws of nature; for one example, see his reluctant acceptance of “Greek words” due to natural proof in his comment on the rainbow in Bereishit 9:12-17.
2. I assume what you are suggesting is an asmachta, as I find it hard to see how an unstated attitude or assumption, even if it can be teased out with thought experiments or targeted questions, would literally be biblical avoda zarah, even b’shogeg. Is my assumption here correct?

More to the main point: it seems perfectly reasonable to me that people will assume that the world will operate as they have seen it operate and as it has been documented to operate. That assumption has no necessary relation either to God or to science, per se. I also don’t think the recognition that the world may sometimes deviate from expected patterns requires any belief in God’s power; it just requires a recognition of the limits of our understanding.

So it seems like the cases you outline feature two related underlying issues:
1. Arrogance about the presumed extent of scientific understanding of the world.
2. The type of proof we require to establish “fact”. Do we accept knowledge only from direct observation? From reports of observation? From tradition? From revelation, or reports of revelation? etc.

On #1, it is pretty clear that we should accept scientific observation with the caveat that it is not perfect; even from a scientific perspective, I would have a hard time taking seriously anyone who says it is perfect.

On #2, I am not really sure what to say–if tradition contradicts observation, when do we follow one or the other? After all, no one today follows most medical advice in the gemara, and many would prohibit doing so.

Rabbi Rothstein,
Could you share insight into whether your concern relates more to the certainty people ascribe to scientific findings, or to the tendency to elevate scientific data over Tanakh or other religious sources? Or are those two issues so interconnected as to be indistinguishable?

#19 Comment By Daniel On October 12, 2010 @ 9:04 pm

This seems to be a hashkafic/halakhic analysis of a phenomenon noted already by Dr Haym Soloveitchik in Rupture and REconstruction:
pivotal question, however, is not God’s sensed presence on Yom Kippur or on the Yamim Noraim, the ten holiest days of the year, but on the 355 other—commonplace—days of the year: To what extent is there an ongoing experience of His natural involvement in the mundane and of everyday affairs? Put differently, the issue is not the accuracy of my youthful assessment, but whether the cosmology of Bnei Brak and Borough Park differs from that of the shtetl, and if so, whether such a shift has engendered a change in the sensed intimacy with God and the felt immediacy of His presence? Allow me to explain.
We regularly see events that have no visible cause: we breathe, we sneeze, stones fall downward and fire rises upward. Around the age of two or three, the child realizes that these events do not happen of themselves, but that they are made to happen, they are, to use adult terms, ’caused.’ He also realizes that often the forces that make things happen cannot be seen, but that older people, with more experience of the world, know what they are. So begins the incessant questioning: “Why does . . .?” The child may be told that the invisible forces behind breathing, sickness and falling are “reflex actions,” “germs” and “gravitation.” Or he may be told that they are the workings of the “soul,” of God’s wrath” and of “the attractions of like to like” (which is why earthly things, as stones, fall downward, while heavenly things, as fire, rise upward). These causal notions imbibed from the home, are then re-enforced by the street and refined by school. That these forces are real, the child, by now an adult, has no doubt, for he incessantly experiences their potent effects. That these unseen forces are indeed the true cause of events, seems equally certain, for all authorities, indeed, all people are in agreement on the matter.
When a medieval man said that his sickness is the result of the wish of God, he was no more affirming a religious posture than is a modern man adopting a scientific one when he says that he has a virus. Each is simply repeating, if you wish, subscribing to the explanatory system instilled in him in earliest childhood, and which alone makes sense of the world as he knows it. Though we have never actually seen a germ or a gravitational field, it is true only in a limited sense to say that we “believe” in them. Their existence to us is simply a given, and we would think it folly to attempt to go against them. Similarly, one doesn’t “believe” in God, in the other explanatory system, one simply takes His direct involvement in human affairs for granted.99 One may, of course, superimpose a belief in God, even a passionate and all-consuming one, upon another causal framework, such as gravity or DNA. However, a God “believed” over and above an explanatory system, functioning through it as indirect cause, in brief, a God in a natural cosmology, is a God “believed” in a different sense than way we now “believe” in gravitation or the way people once “believed” in God in a religious cosmology, a God whose wrath and favor were the explanatory system itself.
God’s palpable presence and direct, natural involvement in daily life—and I emphasize both “direct” and “daily”—, His immediate responsibility for everyday events, was a fact of life in the East European shtetl, so late as several generations ago. Let us remember Tevye’s conversations with God portrayed by Sholom Aleichem. There is, of course, humor in the colloquial intimacy and in the precise way the most minute annoyances of daily life are laid, package-like, at God’s doorstep. The humor, however, is that of parody, the exaggeration of the commonly known. The author’s assumption is that his readers themselves share, after some fashion, Tevye’s sense of God’s responsibility for man’s quotidian fate. If they didn’t, Tevye would not be humorous, he would be crazy.
Tevye’s outlook was not unique to the shtetl, or to Jews in Eastern Europe; it was simply one variation of an age-old cosmology that dominated Europe for millennia, which saw the universe as directly governed by a Divine Sovereign.100 If regularity exists in the world, it is simply because the Sovereign’s will is constant, as one expects the will of a great sovereign to be. He could, of course, at any moment change His mind, and things contrary to our expectations would then occur, what we call “miracles.” However, the recurrent and the “miraculous” alike are, to the same degree, the direct and unmediated consequence of His wish. The difference between them is not of kind but rather of frequency. Frequency, of course, is a very great practical difference, and it well merits, indeed demands of daily language, a difference in terms. However, this verbal distinction never obscures for a moment their underlying identity.
As all that occurs is an immediate consequence of His will, I events have a purpose and occur because of that purpose. Rationality, or, as they would have had it, wisdom, does not consist in detecting unvarying sequences in ever more accurately observed events and seeing in the first occurrence the “cause” of the second. Wisdom, rather, consists in discovering His intent in these happenings, for that intent is their cause, and only by grasping their cause could events be anticipated and controlled. The universe is a moral order reflecting God’s purposes and physically responsive to any breaches in His norms. In the workings of such a world, God is not an ultimate cause; He is a direct, natural force, and safety lies in contact with that force. Prayer has then a physical efficacy, and sin is “a fearful imprudence.” Not that one thinks much about sin in the bustle of daily life, but when a day of reckoning does come around, only the foolhardy are without fear.
Such a Divine force can be distant and inscrutable, as in some strains of Protestantism, or it can be intimate and familial, as in certain forms of Catholicism. In Eastern Europe it tended toward intimacy, whether in the strong Marian strain of Polish Catholicism in the much-supplicated household icon, the center of family piety the Greek Orthodox devotion. And much of the traditional literature of the Jews, especially as it filtered into common consciousness through the Commentaries of Rashi and the Tzenah Re’enah,101 contained a humanization of the deity that invited intimacy. God visits Abraham on his sickbed; He consoles Isaac upon the death of his father. He is swayed by the arguments of Elijah or the matriarchs, indeed by any heartfelt prayer, and decisions on the destiny of nations and the fate of individuals, the length of the day and the size of the moon, are made and unmade by apt supplications at the opportune moment. The humor of Sholom Aleichem lay not in the dialogues with God, but in having a “dairyman” rather than the Baal Shem Tov conduct them102. The parody lay not in the remonstrances but in their subject matter.
The world to which the uprooted came, and in which their children were raised, was that of modern science, which had reduced nature to “an irreversible series of equations,” to an immutable nexus of cause and effect, which suffices on its own to explain the workings of the world. Not that most, or even any, had so much as a glimmer of these equations, but the formulas of the “new country” had created a technology which they saw, with their own eyes, transforming their lives beyond all dreams. And it is hard to deny the reality of the hand that brings new gifts with startling regularity.
There are, understandably, few Tevyes today, even in haredi circles. To be sure, there are seasons of the year, moments of crest in the religious cycle, when God’s guiding hand may be tangibly felt by some and invoked by many, and there are certainly occasions in the lives of most when the reversals are so sudden, or the stakes so high and the contingencies so many, that the unbeliever prays for luck, and the believer, more readily and more often, calls for His help. Such moments are only too real, but they are not the stuff of daily life. And while there are always those whose spirituality is one apart from that of their time, nevertheless I think it safe to say that the perception of God as a daily, natural force is no longer present to a significant degree in any sector of modern Jewry, even the most religious. Indeed, I would go so far as to suggest that individual Divine Providence, though passionately believed as a theological principle—and I do not for a moment question the depth of that conviction—is no longer experienced as a simple reality.103 With the shrinkage of God’s palpable hand in human affairs has come a marked loss of His immediate presence, with its primal fear and nurturing comfort. With this distancing, the religious world has been irrevocably separated from the spirituality of its fathers, indeed, from the religious mood of intimate anthropomorphism that had cut across all the religious divides of the Old World.

#20 Comment By Daniel On October 12, 2010 @ 9:05 pm

I would agree, that, to what degree this is true, this is very disturbing on a hashkafic level

#21 Comment By Saul Stokar On October 13, 2010 @ 2:01 am

In my opinion, Rabbi Rothstein has seriously misunderstood Hawking. He quotes Hawking as maintaining that “the laws of physics precludes the existence of God”. Hawking says no such thing. In his new book (“The Grand Design”) he says: “It is not necessary to invoke God to light the blue touch paper and set the universe going.” Note the distinction between the term Hawking actually used (necessary) and the term Rabbi Rothstein ascribes to him (“preclude”). According to Hawking, God is not necessary for the creation of the universe, which can come into existence spontaneously as a fluctuation. However, Hawking does not “preclude” God’s existence, nor does he deny the possibility that God ordained the laws of nature that allow the universe to come into existence as a vacuum fluctuation.

#22 Comment By Gidon Rothstein On October 13, 2010 @ 7:44 am


You misunderstood my point, especially since I haven’t read The Grand Design. In his Brief History, Hawking says that if there is a God, He is necessarily limited by the laws of Nature; that statement was what I was pointing out precludes the existences of the kind of God in which Judaism believes.

R. Yolkut,

I wasn’t going as far as you’re trying to– I wasn’t weighing in on how much of day-to-day experience we should or shouldn’t see as coming from God. I was speaking about the more theoretical question of whether we believe that God *can* impact our lives in ways that get away from Nature. The loss of that piece of faith, I was arguing, turns our belief in Nature into something at least close to idolatrous.

#23 Comment By Avraham On November 3, 2010 @ 4:35 am

Science is not avoda zara but kfira – if az is the 49 gates of tum’ah then science would be the 50th. The goal of modern (i.e. enlightenment based) science is to explain the world in terms that exlude any outside (i.e. Divine) force, hence Stephen Hawkings position. But you to be careful in labelling things like Feng Shui as az; az has quite specific issurim, and handling spirits is not an issur if you realise that their power is Divine. See for example the story of the Holy Rhizhiner and the ?leprechaun in Ner Yisroel p81 in the volume on stories (can’t remember exactly which one).

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