Why is it often so hard to do the right thing? Why doesn’t everyone share our same beliefs? And why is it so hard to be happy?
These are questions that are integral to the field of cognitive science—the study of how and why we think, feel and act the way we do. But what’s interesting is that so many of these questions have links to Jewish thought and practice.
As someone whose shelves are overflowing with books about cognitive science, and who often integrates these findings with Jewish teachings, I want to share three books that teach Jewish ideas.
Let’s be honest, behavioral economist Dan Ariely tells us. We all cheat. You cheat. I cheat. But we don’t do it because we are bad people. Instead, we tend to view ourselves as good people, so we tend to “fudge” things just enough so that we can keep that self-perception. So not only do we cheat, we also lie to ourselves about our own cheating!
But of course, lying and cheating are antithetical to Judaism. We are taught: “Do not defraud or rob your neighbor,” and “You shall have honest scales and measures.” (Lev. 19:13 and 19:36) Since Judaism tries to teach us how to honest and ethical people, it’s crucial to understand how and why we end up missing the mark. Ariely’s work gives an insight into what encourages—and even more importantly, discourages—cheating, in the hopes of building a more just society.
The Righteous Mind: Why Good People Are Divided by Politics and Religion by Jonathan Haidt
There’s a reason politics and religion are generally taboo topics for polite conversation—if you feel strongly about your political or religious beliefs, you just can’t seem to understand how people on the other side can be so stupid. Psychologist Jonathan Haidt explains that a large part of the problem is that we think of religion and politics as being about “right” versus “wrong,” and when we phrase the question that way, it actually becomes “us” versus “them.” As he says, “Morality binds and blinds”—morality creates a more cohesive group of “us,” but it also keeps us from seeing other perspectives and the needs of “them.”
That creates a real challenge edge for the Jewish community. Judaism is not just a religion, but a people. There definitely is an “us” when we think about the Jewish people. But a sense of universalism is central to Judaism, as well—when we think about Jewish ethics, we tend to think about at the needs of the poorest and most vulnerable members of society, regardless of whether they are Jewish or not. Haidt’s book helps us to understand where morality comes from, and how we can grow the sense of who we consider to be “one of us.”
Stumbling on Happiness by Daniel Gilbert
Which would you rather have happen: win the lottery, or become a quadriplegic? Most of us, without even a thought, would pick the first, because we think that winning the lottery would make us happy, and becoming a quadriplegic would devastate us. But how many wealthy people do you know who are actually miserable? And how many people who have suffered a tragedy are actually fulfilled in their lives? Psychologist Daniel Gilbert argues that we are very, very bad at predicting what will make us happy, and that’s because we have a “now-self” and a “future-self”—and they are not always the same self.
Judaism, too, lives with this tension of the present and the future. We both envision a time when the world will be at peace, but we have to do the actions here and now that will make that happen. Or at the High Holy Days, we dream about the kind of person we will become, but recognize that it’s our day-to-day actions that will make us that person. Gilbert reminds us that our “future-self” soon becomes our “now-self,” so we have act in ways that help us bridge that divide.
Ultimately, the reason I love cognitive science is that is helps us better understand who we are and why we act the way we do. And so I believe that if we use the best of science and the best of religion, we can make our own individual lives more fulfilled, and our world a little better.
These three books have been instrumental for me—what books have had a surprising influence on your Judaism?
“Start working on this great work of art, called your own existence”- AJ Heschel
A Life well lived is an art: with guides on perspective, scale, composition, ect.
The great artists know when to break the very rules they follow, it’s the breaking of pattern and expectation that creates interest, wonder, and awe.
Such is life.
So what is religion? Specifically, what is Judaism? What is Halacha, Jewish law, “THE way,” “THE path?” To be sure, there is more than one set of rules to follow in order to make great art, just as there is truth to be found in more than one religion. Great art borrows from other great art. Similarly, ‘no religion is an island’ (again Heschel); we borrow and share, and are deeply influenced by the religion and culture that surrounds us. Halacha then, is “a set of rules” that gives life structure and meaning.
But we have to remember that rules, patterns, are appreciated more when disrupted, challenged. It is the disruption of pattern that makes us take note of both the new and the expected. Fundamentally, our psyche is trained to take for granted the expected and to pay attention to the unique, the surprising, the break in a pattern. Such is the excitement of new love (as described in a New York Times piece on marriage, “New Love: A Short Shelf Life.” The summary: exciting for 2 years, boring and expected for about 20, with a renewed excitement at empty nest. –I’ll simply disagree for now – there is so much more to blissful married life).
In any artform, including Life, including specifically Jewish life, the better you know the rules, the more masterful the impact in breaking them. An analogy: Consider the power of a well placed single word paragraph.
English teachers can’t teach you that.
Consider Spielberg’s girl in the red dress at the end of Shindler’s List. The color adds meaning both to the innocence preserved and to the ominous nature of the otherwise black-and-white film.
In the Bible, the law of primogeniture, the rule that says that the oldest inherits, is constantly overturned: Abraham is not the oldest, Isaac is not the oldest, Jacob is younger than his twin Esau and has to trick and steal to inherit. Even King David, the rightful king of Israel, is the youngest. Why does the Bible so often highlight the breaking of this rule? Because rules gain meaning when the possibility of breaking them also exists.
It is said that there was once a very pious Jew who when he would read the verse, “…and do not be seduced by your heart or led astray by your eyes,” he would start crying (Numbers 15:39, the third paragraph of the Shema prayer said twice daily).
“Why do you cry,” he was asked?
“Because,” the pious man replied, “my entire life I have done exactly what the letter of the law has required of me, and in so doing, I’ve never had the opportunity to fully understand this verse.”
Years ago I chose not to wear my kippa (head covering). I wear it everyday, just about wherever I go. I wear it as a reminder of God, as a symbol of humility, that God is above me, and as an identification with the Jewish people. Driving a U-Haul across the country almost twenty years ago, I pulled into a truck stop in Oklahoma. I decided to put my kippa in my pocket. I wondered to myself why I was doing that? Am I not proud of being Jewish? So, I was wondering about this as I approach the register inside the station. The man in front of me was wearing jeans and a flannel shirt – just like me! I’ve always wanted to be a long-haul trucker. I had this great sense of authenticity. I fit in – until he turned around. His shirt was open and revealed a giant swastika that covered the entirety of his barrel chest. I became very conscious of the kippa in my pocket. All of its symbolism was somehow all the more powerful in my pocket than it is day-to-day in my life in Los Angeles, or New York, where I was headed.
“Profane one Shabbat so that one can keep many Shabbatot” -Yoma 85B
It seems that our religion, so often associated with the strictures of laws, might be better described as teaching the artful breaking of laws.
I content that there is an essential paradox at the heart of a meaningful life: Breaking with tradition and law, has the very real possibility of strengthening tradition and the power of the very rules being broken.
As someone who loves both religion and science, I often struggle with how they interact.
Are they in opposition to each other? Do they need to be reconciled? What happens when new scientific knowledge challenges the tenets of my faith?
Part of the difficulty in talking about science and religion is that there are several different ways we can discuss their interaction. Dr. Jennifer Wiseman, the Director of the Dialogue for Science, Ethics and Religion at the American Association for the Advancement of Science, outlined several different models in an outstanding talk. Therefore, inspired by her, I want to share four different ways we can frame the discussion about how we talk about science and religion.
The Contrast model is probably the most common way people speak about the interaction of science and religion. Often, this view is boiled down to the idea that “science deals with ‘how’ and religion deals with ‘why.'”
Stephen Jay Gould popularized it with the phrase “Non-Overlapping Masteria” (NOMA), which he describes as follows: “The magisterium of science covers the empirical realm: what the Universe is made of (fact) and why does it work in this way (theory). The magisterium of religion extends over questions of ultimate meaning and moral value. These two magisteria do not overlap.”
But there are two problems with this paradigm. First, religion has theories about what the universe is made of — for example, Jewish tradition has statements about the way the world came into being and why the world is the way it is. And science is now talking about morality and even meaning, with books like Sam Harris’ The Moral Landscape about the science of morality and The Brain and the Meaning of Life by Paul Thagard about neuroscience and meaning. Thus the magesteria, in fact, do overlap.
Second, and perhaps even more importantly, it’s simply not true that science talks only (or even primarily) about “how” — there’s a lot of “why” in there, asking questions like, “Why is there something instead of nothing? Why do our brains work in the way that they do?” Similarly, religion doesn’t talk only (or even primarily) about “why” — there’s a lot of “how” in there, asking questions like, “How do did humans come to be? How should we act in this world?”
So for people who view themselves as both scientific and religious, the Contrast model often makes them comfortable. But as science enters into the realm that has historically been the purview of religion, and especially if we look more deeply at religion and at science, this model stops working very well.
The Concert model is the opposite of the Contrast model, as people try to directly reconcile science and religion. It is another attractive outlook to those who are both dedicated to their faith and committed to reason, since it means they would not have to reject either. This model makes claims such as the concept of a “day” in Genesis may actually be billions of years, or that the crossing of the Red Sea was actually finding a swamp that could be crossed at low tide.
But here, too, there are problems with this view. After all, science is always changing, discovering new data and revising theories. If science and religion are in concert, what happens to religious faith when new scientific evidence arises? Indeed, not only physics and biology but also human sciences such as archaeology, political science and history are helping us understand who we are, why we do what we do, and our place in the universe. So if religious faith is based on science, what happens when science presents new evidence?
Indeed, this model makes it hard to do a critical analysis of Biblical texts, and that type of study frequently leads to a crisis of faith. In order for it to work, this model requires significant mental gymnastics, and forces people to maintain only a surface understanding of both science and religion.
So while this view may be appealing at first, it is actually quite fragile. All that needs to happen is for science to discover something that contradicts a deeply-held belief, and people will easily elect either atheism or fundamentalism.
The Conflict model is the paradigm that gets the most press, and it claims that religion and science are inherently incompatible. It’s the idea that if you buy into one, you must reject the other. This worldview is exemplified by Richard Dawkins and Christopher Hitchens on one side, and people who deny evolution because it contradicts the Bible on the other.
But while this outlook generates the most passion from people on the extremes, there are a vast number of people who do not buy into it.
An article in the Huffington Post describes recent work by sociologist Elaine Ecklund, who
…interviewed 275 tenured and tenure-track faculty members from 21 research universities in the United States. Only 15 percent of respondents said religion and science were always in conflict, while 15 percent said the two were never in conflict. The majority, 70 percent, said religion and science are only sometimes in conflict.
Similarly, a study from Pew Research Forum showed that “a solid majority of Americans (61%) say that science does not conflict with their own religious beliefs. Even among those who attend worship services at least once a week, a slim majority (52%) sees no conflict between science and their faith.”
Thus while zealous advocates on each side often dominate the discussion, there is a large silent majority who do not see science and religion as inherently in conflict.
The bigger problem is that while the Conflict model produces a lot of heat, it rarely creates light. It regularly devolves into unproductive arguments and ad hominem attacks, and causes both scientists and religious people to become either overly aggressive or feel themselves to be “victims” of the other side.
So even though for some people, this is an outlook they hold strongly to, it is much more likely to shut down conversations than to open them.
This is the outlook that I find most resonant. In this model, science and religion can remain in their own spheres, but when it is appropriate, they can also mutually inform each other, and provide us with a variety of ways to help us know what it means to be human. Indeed, its great value is that it reminds us that both religion and science have to be understood in the context of human experiences, because both religion and science are human endeavors.
The Contact model reminds us that science is not independent of the scientists who pursue their field of inquiry. After all, while the universe may be 13.7 billion years old, and humans may have evolved on the African savannah, it has only been since modern times that human beings have sought to undertake a rigorous understanding of fields like cosmology, paleontology, psychology, neuroscience and biochemistry. We have to remember that not only does scientific knowledge provide information, it is deeply influenced by the passions, the curiosity and the personal experiences of the scientists who pursue it.
Similarly, our own personal experiences influence our religious outlook. People’s feelings about religion are naturally affected by how they were raised and what has happened in their own lives. In the words of Rabbi Laura Geller, “All theology is autobiography.” And while religion is older than science, it is still a human creation, helping us structure our human experiences, and asks deeply human questions like, “How should I act? What should I value? Who should I choose to associate with?”
When we place science and religion in the context of human experiences, we recognize that both science and religion are driven by human needs and are victim to human foibles. The Contact model thus encourages humility in both science and religion, reminding both sides that there are things we do not know, and things we will never know.
So the other crucial piece to bear in mind for the Contact model is that “religion” and “God” are two separate things. “God” is bigger than any one human being or group of people; “religion” is our particular attempt to understand God, and is necessarily limited. As Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel taught: “[R]eligion for religion’s sake is idolatry…The human side of religion, its creeds, its rituals and instructions is a way rather than the goal. The goal is ‘to do justly, to love mercy and to walk humbly with your God.’ (Micah 6:8)” (I Asked for Wonder, 40-41)
So for those of us who feel connected to God, when we forget that religion is not Divine, but human, we can easily fall into the trap of arrogance and narrow-mindedness. Micah thus reminds us that justice, mercy and humbleness are truly the most important values.
Indeed, our ultimate purpose in life is to strengthen ourselves, both as individuals and as a society. Science does that by giving us a fuller understanding of the world, by advancing knowledge, and by examining the relationship between theory and evidence. Religion does that by giving us a sense of purpose, by strengthening communities, and by giving us a potential glimpse of the Divine.
When we remember that both science and religion are human enterprises, we can remember that the most important question isn’t whether they need to be viewed separately, or if they can be reconciled, or if they are inherently in conflict.
The most important question is: how are they being used?
(This post also appeared on Sinai and Synapses)