Tuesday, March 31, 2009

Science and Religion and Explaining the Holocaust

From time to time I attend a funeral at which the officiant begins by quoting these lines from Ben Sira: “Seek not to understand what is too difficult for you, search not for what is hidden from you, be not over-occupied with what is beyond you, for you have been shown more than you can understand.”

I always wonder how secular people take that sentiment, which strikes me as so offensive to the modern ear. “That which is too difficult for me?” “More than you can understand?” What happened to modern science, to exploration, to the idea that mystery is only that which I have yet to comprehend?*

But it’s certainly a Jewish perspective. See the mishnah in Chagigah (2:1), that one should not investigate certain matters related to Gd. See the innumerable Jewish sources delineating the ways in which a human being cannot comprehend the infinite.

I believe that this issue of a defined limit to human comprehension is one of the major points that separate Science and Religion within Judaism. Much about them is reconcilable, but this point, I think, is simply one of disagreement.

The scientific approach takes as axiomatic that given enough data, I will be able to reach an accurate conclusion. New tools/formulae may be required for data acquisition as well as analysis, but those, too, are within my grasp.

The religious approach of Jewish tradition, on the other hand, takes as a given that intellect is not the sole actor on the stage of exploration; other forces define/shape/limit my comprehension. These may include my spiritual character, the alienness of the subject matter, or some deus ex machina intervening to put a halt to my understanding, but there are non-neural factors which affect my ability to absorb and analyze.

This is on my mind because last night, while packing up some old tapes, I found a recording of a parshah class Rav Aharon Soloveitchik taught at Yeshiva University in the late ‘80s. I think it was Fall of 1989, because I was in my Junior year in high school, and the parshah under discussion was Ki Tavo.

One day I’ll have to blog about those classes, and the impact they had on me. I was looking for direction, and even though I only attended a handful of those shiurim, and I can’t say I grasped everything being said, they were still a key experience. But enough about that for now.

Rav Ahron discussed the problem of reward and punishment, and Divine oversight and theodicy. In the course of addressing various questions, he came to the Holocaust, and he said:

Because if one tries to explain the Holocaust, he will be nichshal [stumble] in one of two things. If he will try to explain the Holocaust under the secular perspective he will be nichshal in blasphemy. And if he will try to explain from a religious perspective, and point a finger at certain people, why the Holocaust took place, then he will speak stupidity and gasus haruach [arrogance].

[Speak might actually have been spout – it’s hard to tell on the recording, and my mental recollection is spout.]

From a scientific perspective, this answer is entirely unacceptable. I have data about Gd, I should be able to determine how Gd could permit the Holocaust. But from the religious perspective of Jewish tradition, Rav Aharon’s answer makes perfect sense – there is, indeed, a non-intellectual limit on what I will ever comprehend, so that none of my answers, from any approach, will ever be accurate.

One could, of course, try to harmonize the Science and Religion approaches. One could claim that what Religion calls the limit on comprehension, Science calls a lack of data – we cannot understand Gd because we lack the tools to collect the relevant data.

But I don’t believe that this is what Religion is saying; Religion, in Jewish tradition, states definitively that human beings will never possess the tools to collect the data. We will simply live in philosophical limbo, trying to contend with our world while avoiding blasphemy, stupidity and arrogance.

[*The use of Ben Sira is all the more remarkable to me because non-Orthodox officiants are the ones who cite this passage. Ben Sira is not generally considered to be in the Orthodox liturgical canon, his presence in the Talmud notwithstanding.]


  1. I always find the discussion of science and religion fascinating, because I am a scientist, and now, a practicing Jewish Scientist. I never went beyond my Masters degree in Chemistry because frankly, I didn't care enough about science. I didn't need to know all the answers of how or why. And after seeing what goes on in the lab, there is so much faith, they don't even realize it. I worked at one time on reactions that were occuring in a vaccum, that is very very low pressure. The reactions were taking place with gases in a box. So you HAD FAITH, that the signal coming out of the box was this reaction occurring. But you had no real proof. I mean, you couldn't see anything. there wasn't anything to see. Just the electrical signal coming out as a spectrum on a sheet of paper. We just took a leap of faith that this the reaction "looks like" this spectrum.

    All that to say, scientists are control freaks. They try to explain and understand what they can't control in order to get some kind of control over it.

    A funny thing happened last week in our lab. My boss asked me for a miracle (things weren't working). I told him that Hashem doesn't just deliver miracles, that a human has to put in an effort first, and then Hashem helps out after that. He asked me if I would be the human through which Hashem would "deliver". And this from a pHd scientist.


  2. Great post. The quote from Rav Aharon is beautiful. I'd love for you to blog about the recordings at some point.

  3. I don't expect to be able to understand everything, but you can classify me as someone who is offended by that line.

    I hate being told that there is some sort of grand plan that I just don't understand.

    Often it is supposed to be words of comfort to people mourning someone who died at an early age. I don't find any comfort in it, just irritation at something that seems a bit self serving.

  4. Jack,
    As an aside, when someone is mourning, they are called an "Avel". Rav Hirsch comments (I just read this but can't remember where) that "Avel" is related to the hebrew word "aval" or but.
    When one is mourning or has lost someone close to them, the can say they are "doing OK", however there is always that,"...but", that something that is missing.

  5. Shorty-
    That is interesting. I always wondered why they called the known part of the experiment the "control"...

    I think I would be offended, if not for my own awareness of just how little I understand of everything. Not from a religious perspective, just from a me perspective.

  6. Hi Neil,

    I hear you.


    It is hard. When we were 29. One of my best friends died from a brain tumor. I have never forgotten the look of shock and horror on his family's faces.

    We all have different needs, but I don't want someone to tell me anything more than there is no explanation. That's about all that makes sense to me.

  7. Jack-
    Isn't "there is no explanation" saying the same thing, albeit less directly?