Would Oliver Sacks Call Himself “Religious”?

Oliver Sacks is one of the most respected scientists today. The author of many best-selling books on the brain, he is a professor of neurology at New York University, and has helped us understand subjects ranging from Parkinson’s disease to visual agnosia to how and why music moves us.

Over the weekend, he wrote a beautiful piece for The New York Times entitled “Sabbath.” In it, he shared some of his personal religious struggles throughout his life, including growing up Orthodox and needing to tell his father that he was gay. When he told his mother, she called him “an abomination,” and the hurtful response from his parents and his community unsurprisingly drove him away from Judaism for most of his adult life.

READ: Let’s Get the Conversation Started: LGBT Jews and Orthodox Communities

But in the 1990s, he notes, he got to know his cousin (and Nobel Laureate) Robert John Aumann, who is still an Orthodox Jew. As Sacks got to know Aumann, he began to see a different take Judaism, particularly through the lens of Shabbat:

“The observance of the Sabbath is extremely beautiful,” [Aumann} said, “and is impossible without being religious. It is not even a question of improving society — it is about improving one’s own quality of life.”

Scientists such as Sacks are often searching for accuracy and truth. They are looking for falsifiable hypotheses, to disprove theories that don’t work any more, and to knock down ideas that are now known to be wrong.

But as Sacks began to understand, that’s not how religion works. Instead, religion is primarily a tool, and it all depends on who is using it and how. Yes, it can be used to harm and to wound, as he experienced all too well. But it can also be used to help us better ourselves and our world.

Most certainly, Sacks still has mixed feelings about his Judaism. He would probably not call himself “religious.” But when the Torah was given to the people Israel, the Book of Exodus says that the Israelites responded “We will do and we will hear.” Or, in other words, Jews are to do something before we necessarily understand or even believe it. Rather than looking for “proof” that something idea is 100% correct and accurate, when it comes to religious rituals, the goal is to see, “How is this impacting my life, my outlook, or my connection with others?”

That’s why the end of Sacks’ piece is so powerful. Recently, he was diagnosed with terminal cancer, and has been coming to terms with how he views both his work and his life. And as he says:

[N]ow, weak, short of breath, my once-firm muscles melted away by cancer, I find my thoughts, increasingly, not on the supernatural or spiritual, but on what is meant by living a good and worthwhile life — achieving a sense of peace within oneself. I find my thoughts drifting to the Sabbath, the day of rest, the seventh day of the week, and perhaps the seventh day of one’s life as well, when one can feel that one’s work is done, and one may, in good conscience, rest.

Judaism, too, is not necessarily about “the supernatural” or “the spiritual,” although that can certainly be a part of it. Instead, it is a set of practices that are designed to help orient ourselves in a particularly way. Even more importantly, when used well, it can create pockets of wholeness and peace.

Oliver Sacks may still feel ambivalent about God and about Judaism, but Shabbat clearly adds a sense of wholeness to his life. And while many scientists are wary of religion, because God is not a provable or testable hypothesis, that’s the wrong way to approach the question. If we are looking for a hypothesis to test, perhaps we should ask, “Can this practice enhance my life?” That’s the true test of what religion can do.

READ: Science and Judaism 

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