Adrian A. Durlester

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Shemot 5767- Logic & Metaphysics

Leopold Zunz, in his book "Reformed Judaism" attributes to the Hatam Sofer, Rabbi Moshe Sofer (Schreiber) (1762-1839) the following quote:

"The Jew sings logic and prays metaphysics."

It is odd that Zunz, a early Jewish Reformer and founder of Wissenschaft des Judenthums, should quote the Hatam Sofer, a dedicated opponent of the reformers. The Hatam Sofer, after all, was noted for his statement "hadash asur min-HaTorah" - nothing new is permitted in the Torah. (As an aside, since readers know of my passion for synagogue music, it should be noted that the Hatam Sofer was also adamantly opposed to the incorporation of music in Jewish worship.)

The Reformers sought to infuse Jewish prayer and ritual with the same logic that the Hatam Sofer said that Jews sing, or at the very least, modify it in light of the logic of modern science. They have succeeded, to some degree. Yet, through it all, the views of the Hatam Sofer held. Try as they might, the reformers could not excise for the siddur everything that was in seeming contradiction to modern science. Room had to be left for faith, mystery and metaphysics. So much of the mystery had been stripped away that today's Reform movement is struggling to recapture some of the baby that got thrown out with the bathwater.

And to add irony to irony, now much of Jewish song has become focused on "metaphysics."

This dilemma, this luminal area, this boundary between logic and metaphysics, between faith and science, is well illustrated in our weekly parasha, the first in the book of Shemot (Exodus.)

Moshe is tending sheep in the wilderness near Mt. Horeb, and "an angel of the L"rd appeared to him in a blazing fire out of a bush.He gazed, and there was a bush all aflame, yet the bush was not consumed." (Ex. 3:2, JPS) It's interesting how we sort of brush the angel aside, perhaps because it so overly offends our modern scientific sense. A burning bush that is not consumed in its own flames with the voice of G"d emanating from it we can handle. Put a angel physically standing in the midst of all that and our "religion tempered by science" antennae go up. So in most popularizations of the story, the angel is conveniently left out. Yet how much greater the miracle is to imagine not just the burning bush, and the voice of G"d, but an angel of G"d standing within the flames, also uncomsumed and unaffected.

Again, in the next verse, we focus on part of the text and less on another. For Moshe says "I must turn aside aide to look at this marvelous sight; why doesn't the bush burn up?" (Ex. 3:3, JPS) We've already been told, in verse 2, that the bush is not consumed by its own flame. Yet Moshe repeats this in his question. Here is the "logical" song of the Jew. It is not logical, even by scientific understanding in Moshe's time, that a bush could burn and not be consumed by its own flames.

Moshe continues his "logical" song. When charged by G"d to go to Pharoah, he asks "Who am I that I should go to Pharaoh and free the Israelites from Egypt?" A perfectly logical question and reaction. And G"d answers "I will be with you..." OK. Moshe buys that and moves on. They're gonna ask me Your name-what should I tell them? And G"d answers with the ever-flippant "Que sera, sera." Yet, as though expecting another logical outburst from Moshe, G"d pre-empts any reaction and goes into a long diatribe of instruction and explanation. (vv. 16ff)

It is not until the start of chapter 4 that Moshe again speaks up. I guess he's decided to live with the "ehyeh asher ehyeh" answer. Clearly Moshe is ready to "pray metaphysics." Still, his ever logical self has to ask "but what if they don't believe me ands don't listen to me?"

And what does G"d do this time? Cheap theatrics (see my earlier musing on this very subject.) He gives Moshe a very pratical and "logical" tool of demonstration (and one, perhaps, that G"d knows the Egyptians magicians will be able to reproduce? A setup, maybe?) Staff into snake. One of the oldest tricks in the magician's canon.

Then, just to be sure Moshe got it, he gives him the "Snow White leprosy hand" demo as well. Another cheap parlor trick. And if that isn't enough, says G"d, then use this "water into blood" trick.

Even the redactors of the Torah are caught in the logic and metaphysics dilemma. Oh my goodness, they must have thought. Moshe's baby son by his Midian wife was probably not circumcised. And so they insert this convoluted and mysterious incident of the "bridegroom of blood" to take care of the inconsistency. (But, like any good biblical redactor, they knew enough to leave contradiction and mystery in their own explanation of another contradiction and mystery!)

And we're still trying to put the logic back into the prayer. Remember that recent special with the somewhat over the top amateur archaelogist trying to come up with valid scientific explanations for all the plagues?

I don't know the context of Zunz's quote of the Hatam Sofer, so I don't know if he's agreeing or disagreeing with the premise. I'd like to think that he was, to some degree, agreeing that what we pray is often inconsistent with what we believe is scientifically possible. The question becomes, is this good thing or a bad thing, this inconsistency. I think you already know my position before I even state it. Yes, I favor the inconsistency. It doesn't bother me one iota to pray over miracles, unexplainable phenomena, items of faith that my logical side argues cannot be. I love wearing the faith and scholarship hats. I love teaching the "Faith and Science" class. They are not wholly incompatible. They may be "apples and oranges" and I agree that one cannot be used to prove or disprove the other. Theoretically, an apple/orange hybrid is possible, though genetically difficult to engineer.

I have scientist friends who really hate it when I start to mix science and metaphysics. They are the people that can't stand ideas like those expressed in "What the Bleep Do We Know?" or "I Heart Huckabees." They can't picture, like I can, Morgan Freeman standing in the midst of a burning bush, unconsumed, calling out to a shepherding Jim Carrey "Yo, Moses! Check this out." For them, science and faith are separate systems that can never ben reconciled. Perhaps they are correct. Or perhaps, as I have often speculated, that holy grail of physics, the unified field theorem, is the connection that explains our universe in logical and metaphysical ways.

I think I've had this tendency since childhood. I remember one year my elementary school science fair entry, inspired, I think, by just having read "The Effect of Gamma Rays on Man in the Moon Marigolds" (which realy has nothing to do with any of this). Under relatively controlled conditions, I subjected seedlings to classical music, rock music and no music, my theory being that the relaxing classical music would cause those seedlings to thrive better than the others. (Like any good scientist, I manipulated the data so my premise was demonstrated in the results.) It wasn't a matter of pure science. I wasn't examining the differences in frequencies and amplitude. I just thought that the seedling might, in some metaphysical way, like the classical music better. Much as the water photographs of Dr. Masaru Emoto were used in "What the Bleep..." as a similar example.

Who better than G"d to understand the system of our universe, in which the observer has an effect? Is it really such a far-fetched idea? G"d waited until Moshe turned aside to see this burning bush with the angel in it before G"d spoke to Moshe. Put in into the context of the Schroedinger's cat thought-experiment: if Moshe had not turned aside, we wouldn't be here. Yet for that brief moment before Moshe decided to respond, all possible futures existed simultaneously. If that's not G"d, I don't know could be.

Hmmm. Is one allowed to go down the rabbit hole on Shabbat?

Shabbat Shalom,


©2007 by Adrian A. Durlester


Some other musings on the same parasha:

Sh'mot 5766-Free Association III
Shemot 5765-Why Us?
Shemot 5764-Uncomsumed-ness
Shemot 5763 - Free Association II
Shemot 5760-Tzaz Latzav, Tzav Latzav
Shemot 5761-The Spice of Life
Shemot 5762-Little Ol' Me?

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