Rabbi Andrew Shaw
Executive Director, Mizrachi UK
Just five letters into this week’s Parsha comes a message so important and so relevant to our lives today and so applicable to the life of Dr Stephen Hawking, the outstanding scientist who passed away this week aged 76.
The message is delivered by the fifth letter, which is the last letter of the word ‘Vayikra’ and it is an aleph, but it is written small. The normal size letters spell out the word vayikar, meaning, “he encountered, he chanced upon.” However, the full word ‘Vayikra’, refers to a call, a summons, a meeting by request. In contrast vayikar suggests an accidental meeting, a mere happening.
As Rabbi Sacks points out:
The letter aleph is almost inaudible. Its appearance in a sefer Torah at the beginning of Vayikra (the “small aleph“) is almost invisible. Do not expect – the Torah is intimating – that the presence of G-d in history will always be as clear and unambiguous as it was during the exodus from Egypt and the division of the Red Sea. For much of the time it will depend on your own sensitivity. For those who look, it will be visible. For those who listen, it can be heard. But first you have to look and listen. If you choose not to see or hear, then Vayikra will become Vayikar. The call will be inaudible. History will seem mere chance. There is nothing incoherent about such an idea. Those who believe it will have much to justify it.
What has this got to do with the life of Stephen Hawking?
As we know, he was one of if not the brightest star in the firmament of science, whose insights shaped modern cosmology and inspired global audiences in the millions. He was diagnosed with motor neurone disease at the age of 21 and given only two years to live. Incredibly he demonstrated , for the next five and a half decades, the power of the mind over the body and the ability to create and communicate despite the most debilitating conditions.
However, his genius did not mean he was always in line with Jewish thought, and he saw the world very much as ‘vayikar’ rather than ‘Vayikra’.
Let me explain:
A few years ago, I read Hawking’s book, Grand Design. I was fascinated by the chapter on the mystery of being, where he asks various questions. What is the nature of reality? Did the universe need a creator? Etc
He then goes on to say ‘Traditionally these are questions for Philosophy, but Philosophy is dead. Philosophy has not kept up with Modern developments in science, scientists have become the bearers of the torch of discovery in our quest for knowledge’.
Astounding, one of the most intelligent people on this planet, and he says that philosophy is dead and that it has not kept up with science! Try telling that to Rabbi Sacks who wrote the phenomenal philosophic and scientific work. ‘The Great Partnership: Science, Religion, and the Search for Meaning’.
As well as books like this, there are countless publications showing the synergy between Religion and Science – or more appropriately Torah and science. In Hawking’s worldview there was no need to have anything BUT science in the quest for knowledge and that is a tragedy.
At Mizrachi, we are firmly part of the camp that declares the importance and necessity of Torah AND Science. We take inspiration for this idea from the greats of our history both ancient and modern.
And so I declare, first of all, that it is a well-known fact that every statement in the Bible is to be understood in its literal sense except those that cannot be so construed for one for the following four reasons: it may, for example either be rejected by the observations of the senses … or else the literal sense may be negated by reason.
Saadia Gaon, Sefer Emunot ve-Deot, Book VII
The account given in Scripture of the creation is not, as is generally believed, intended to be in all its parts literal … The literal meaning of the words might lead us to conceive corrupt ideas and to form false opinions about God, or even entirely to abandon and reject the principles of our faith. It is therefore right to abstain and refrain from examining this subject superficially and unscientifically … It is, however, right that we should examine the Scriptural texts by the intellect, after having acquired a knowledge of demonstrative science, and of the true hidden meaning of the prophecies.
Maimonides, The Guide for the Perplexed, Book II, 29
What is striking about it, as with all his work, is not only its scientific and philosophical sophistication and his taken-for-granted certainty that Judaism is compatible with modern science, but also his deep sense that modern science has liberated Judaism from certain Greek ideas that have long distorted its own self-understanding.
Rabbi Sacks on Rabbi Soloveitchik – The Great Partnership
There is no contradiction with being a believing and practicing Torah Jew and to be a believer in science as it refers to areas such as the Age of the Universe, Evolution or any other discipline. There are unfortunately Jews who swear by science and rational thought but are not involved in a Torah lifestyle. Conversely, there are those who embrace the world of Torah but shun the world of Science.
We will always marvel at what Steven Hawking gave to the world, but for us it always comes back to forging a middle path – a Judaism of scholarship with piety, both ancient and modern, and a Judaism both scientific and philosophical. A Judaism that recognizes Hashem as the architect of all we see in the cosmos, to see the world very much as ‘Vayikra’ – His creation, His masterpiece and our partnership
As we sit around our seder tables this year – I hope we all make sure that we are committing to the path of true Jewish continuity. Through learning, commitment and practice, engaging with the modern world and engaging with our Judaism.