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Humbling ourselves before Creation: Science and Religion are our sacred heritage

Updated: Jul 7, 2020

By Rabbi Yohanna Kinberg

What I am offering in my blog this week was written by Rabbi Mordecai Kaplan (1881-1983), the founder of Reconstructionist Judaism and the primary influencer in my formation as a rabbi. He wrote this liturgical poem in 1945, 25 years before the first Earth Day celebration.

Kaplan was born in Eastern Europe (Lithuania) and immigrated to New York as a child. Raised Orthodox, he was privlifged in his access to public higher education in New York. He was both a rabbinic scholar with a traditional Yeshiva education and a student of the world through his studies of history, anthropology, sociology and literature at accessible institutions like City College. Kaplan embodied insight and wisdom from both religious and secular influences. He is the preeminent intellectual influence of American Judaism. His vision for a liberated mind and an expansive soul has become the foundation of our uniquely American form of Jewish life.

What happens when you mix traditional Jewish thought with access to Modernity, with access to the expansive world view of the secular scholarship of the Universe? You get Kaplan. He revolutionized Judaism and enabled the religious mind and the scientific mind to occupy the same space. My own Judaism and that which I teach to the community I serve is a science based Judaism. One which entirely accepts science as fact and the basis of reality, while also fully embracing the wisdom and teachings of the Jewish people as a sacred path for living.

Where is the nexus of these two seemingly opposite world views; that of science and religion? The nexus is found in humility. Knowing that we know and understand so little about our world. Humility or Anavah/ענווה in Hebrew means understanding our place in the Universe. Each if us is at the same time insignificant, but one of billions of humans who have lived on this planet and at the same time essential, the world would not be the same without each of us and our ability to move and influence this world critical.

Pride goes before ruin, Arrogance, before failure. Better to be humble and among the lowly Than to share spoils with the proud." (Proverbs 16:18-19)

In the liturgical poem below Kaplan offers us a vision and connection between the awe our ancestors experienced in the formation of Judaism and the awe we moderns also experience, even with our scientific understanding of the Universe. We are not so different from them. We walk the same path as our ancestors authentically because of our continued cultivation of humility in respect to the Universe, our place in the Whole. So much has changed over the millennia. Yet our awe, our humility, our smallness under the night‘s sky, remains the same.

We know we have not done right by our planet, and within Kaplan‘s framework we have not done right by God. We have used and abused this gift of nature and the vast and complex network that is our ecosystem. We have exploited our gift. And yet we somehow remain in awe. So many tell me that they find God, they find inspiration in nature, and not necessarily in the synagogue. They find Godliness in rhe majesty of creation. And that is legitimate.

And yet, oy vey, we treat the planet in ways we would never treat our prayer books or our sacred Torah scroll. We remain in awe of nature but we have not remained humble. We nurture our awe but not our humility.

Science empowers us. The more we know about the way our world works, the more powerful and in control we feel. And religion brings us back down. It humbles us. It reminds us of our place. It reminds us of our ethical obligation to respect and honor creation. Religion sets limits. It guides our path towards being in right relationship with the planet, each other and the “other.” It reminds us that we are all interconnected. On a global scale, within the big, big picture there is no “I”, there is only us. Oneness is real. It is true. Each of our own fates is tied up in that of our neighbor and the one we do not know living thousands of miles away. And our own fate is also tied up in the fate of the trees, the oceans, the eagle and the fish.

On this 50th Anniversary of Earth Day, we are called as Jews to lift up both science and religion. The survival of humanity, the survival of our planet hinges on our ability to take the wisdom of science as seriously as that of religion. And it is also true that without awe, without the humbling force of religion, we are unlikely as a species to curb our greed, our arrogance, our insatiable hunger for comfort and power.

I invite you to meditate on the words of Kaplan and the spiritual lessons he offers in this liturgy. We will be leaders, the Jewish people, in ensuring our planet is hospitable for our great great great grandchildren. The fight for survival that enabled us to be here now, to survive thousands of years of oppression, will now empower us to do the right thing, to walk the holy path towards future survival. And this means uplifting science as a religion and religion as a science. To combine both into a new world view-one which embraces all human wisdom, all knowledge, all insight towards a better future.

God the Life of Nature by Mordecai Kaplan

Our Ancestors acclaimed the God

In the mysterious heavens above

In the orderly march of days and nights, And in the checkered fate of man.

Meantime have the vaulting skies dissolved; Hidden in the light of day,

Far beyond imagination’s ken.

Yet soon regains its poise,

Orients itself anew

Shrunk to glittering sparks.

Yet soon revives,

Across the newly visioned firmament.

Whose handiwork they read

And in the varied scene of earth below, Of seasons and years,

Night reveals the limitless cavers of space And unfolds horizonless vistas

The mind is staggered,

And peering through the boundless dark, By the light of distant suns

The soul is faint

And learns to spell once more the name of God

Binding them together in act, God is the sameness

Of this our earthly abode

God is the unity

The uniformity of all that moves, And the nature of their interaction.

As we do in thought.

In the elemental substance of stars and planets, And of all that it holds.

Of all that is,

The rhythm of all things

Lift your eyes, look up;

Who made these stars,

He who marshals them in order,

Summoning each one by name.

God is the oneness that spans the fathomless deeps of space And the measureless eons of time,

God binds up the Pleiades in a cluster And loosens the chains of Orion;

God directs the signs of the Zodiac

And guides the constellations of the Bear.

God is the mystery of life,

With inner drive and purpose,

That transfigures lifeless substance,

Brightening into the radiant glow of feeling, Till it turn into the white fire.

Enkindling inert matter

God is the creative flame

Leaping into ever higher realms of being,

And though no sign of living thing We cannot deem this earth, Alone instinct with God.

By that token

Are all the worlds bound

God is in the faith

The fear of loneliness, of helplessness, God is in the hope

Cleaves the dark abysms

God is in the love

By which we overcome

Of failure, and of death.

Which like a shaft of light,

Of sin, of suffering, and of despair. Which creates, protects, forgives.

Break the eternal silence of the spheres, This tiny speck in the infinitude,

Which unites the worlds in bonds of matter In the bond of Life.

It is God who forms the mountains And creates the wind,

And reveals the inner mind to man;

God who makes the dawn and darkness,

Who marches over the heights of earth; The Lord, the God of hosts, is God’s name.

The Meaning of Religion in Modern Jewish Life

P. 188..: By utilizing the nature festivals, Pesach, Shavuot, Sukkot to recall historical experiences, the Jews directed the human

mind to the consciousness of history as an ethical and spiritual influence in human life. In the Jewish festivals both nature and history are given their due share of recognition. Both the creative powers in the physical world and the spiritual forces in the human world that make for personal and social redemption are treated as manifestations of the divine. Despite the emphasis upon the manifestation of God in history, Jewish religion would not have its adherents forget that God is also manifest in nature. Thus, in addition to Pesach recalling the Exodus, it retains its character as a harvest festival and Sukkot marks the final ingathering of the produce of the fields and the orchards, as well as Israel’s journeying in the Wilderness. Giving thanks for the yield of the earth is not compatible with regarding things earthly as a necessary evil. The purpose of the nature aspect of the Pilgrimage Festivals is not to keep alive the magical attitude of primitive civilization, but to awaken in us a sense of gratitude for the material benefits which we enjoy through the bounty of nature. Such gratitude is bound to translate itself into a realization of the responsibility as to the manner in which we employ that bounty. It is only then that we are likely to become aware that the material blessings we enjoy are not so completely ours as to enable us to gratify with them some passing lust or fancy. “The earth and all that it contains belong to the Lord”.

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