This post is part of the seriesScientific Naturalism and Rationality Meets Judaism“.

Who’s the real idiot?

It is knowledge to know that tomato is a fruit; it is wisdom not to put it in a fruit salad.
One of my teachers at the yeshiva

This weekend I met my friend Robert who put my feet on the ground. But first, here’s what happened in the yeshiva last Wednesday:

I came in late to the dining room, because I worked out for too long at the gym. When I arrived there was no food left and only one person was still eating. Call him “Yosef” for the purpose of this blog. As all people in the yeshiva, he was very considerate and offered me half of his food. I accepted and we began eating and discussing religion. I noticed very quickly that he had truly adopted Jewish faith as a fundamental axiom of his belief system. Yosef exclaimed “Judaism is the true way!” and “It is the absolute truth!” and so on. I already anticipated that I will have to disagree with him quite strongly and I felt bad about it, because he had just shared food with me. I began by saying “The way I see it, it could be subjective truth”. He got a little furious and said “No! It is the absolute truth!” We switched topics a little and I asked how did he end up coming to yeshiva. He told me a long and touching story about his Rabbi and how he became a soldier of the Jewish God. The punch-line of Yosef’s story was a coincidence that had an overwhelming meaning to him.

His Rabbi had told him a story about someone religious (maybe himself) who went to NASA to give a lecture about Jewish religion to NASA scientists. The Rabbi was really excited about the lecture which was an important opportunity for him to share “the word of Hashem”. During the lecture it didn’t seem as if anyone in the audience would have taken seriously the “religious superstition” he was describing. At one point during the lecture, however, he suddenly realized that he had forgotten to do the Mincha – the afternoon prayer – and the Sun was setting. So in the middle of his lecture he stopped and started praying. He started meditatively reciting passages in Hebrew, kneeing and bowing. And this had had made more of an impact upon the audience than anything else he had said, because it showed that his devotion was real. One person in the audience was so impressed by this that later on he became a Rabbi himself.

A week after Yosef had heard this story, Yosef’s Rabbi called him and said that there is another Rabbi coming to town, and it happens to be the same guy who was at the NASA lecture.

This coincidence, according to Yosef, was the key for him to adopt the Jewish faith at a completely new level. He was certain that it was a message from God. God himself was communicating to him through this coincidence!

I said “How do you know? What if it was just a coincidence? What if you are putting words in God’s mouth? Isn’t that a little arrogant?”

I wasn’t angry yet. But I knew that if this continues, I might loose my shit.

His response was an emotional recitation of the story, as if I had forgotten some details. “It was the SAME PERSON!” he explained. As if that would make me suddenly realize that it was truly God who was talking to him. The difficult part for me in that situation was that his story was truly touching and he explained it with great emotional commitment. And in this sense his experience was spiritual, no question, and this is exactly what I’d mean by “subjective truth”. The way he saw what had happened and the way in which he was entangled in the situation was his subjective truth and there is nothing wrong in being in awe about that. But drawing a conclusion about the metaphysical existence of God…? I don’t see a logical link here! Unless the awe itself is God. But then again, why would his awe want him not to eat pork?

Our conversation proceeded and then he told me something that actually made me lose my temper.  Here is a condensed version of our conversation that followed:

Yosef: “Do you know in which year Abraham was born?”

Me: “Like, around 3000 BCE?”

Yosef: “He was born in the year 1948 if you count from the day on which the world was created”

[Lengthy discussion about whether or not the concept of the “day on which the world was created” makes any sense and how did people even get this number 1948].

Me: “Well, OK.”

Yosef: “In which year was the state of Israel declared?”

Me: “Erm, let me guess, 1948?”

Yosef: “Precisely! Hashem is real! This is NOT a coincidence!”

I felt that I am boiling inside.

Me: “I think I have to go before I say something stupid.”

Yosef: “I see, it is probably too early for you to swallow such spiritual truths. You have to begin with the easier things.”

Me: “Yeah, it is hard for me to swallow this utter bullshit, and I recommend that you stay away from it too.”

This took place on Wednesday. Fast forward to last Friday. I am having a drink with my friend Robert. I was having a beer and Robert was having a non-alcoholic ginger beer. Robert is not Jewish. Robert is a philosopher in his heart. Robert is “christian without the christian dogma”. Robert is smart and – turns out – wise! I told him this story, specifically about “1948” and why I flipped out.

Robert: “I would just say ‘Oh, nice’.”

Me: “What? Wouldn’t it bother you that he is being totally unscientific and drawing illogical conclusions and all that?”

Robert: “Imagine one person sees a feather falling from the sky next to him and says ‘Oh, wow, this will be a wonderful day!’ and then another person next to him will say foaming at the mouth ‘Don’t be so stupid! Don’t you understand that it was just a bird flying and, scientifically speaking, the feather just accidentally fell from the bird and you just happened to stand over here!?’ etc.”

I was listening.

Robert: “Now, who is the real idiot?”

I burst out laughing.

Robert (left), me (right)

Even worse… right after Robert said this, and I laughed, I realized that this had happened to me. Three and a half years ago a feather fell from the sky and landed next to me while I was sitting alone on the shore of the lake Villarica in Chile. I was in a meditative mood and I took the feather and I saved it. I still have it!! Who’s the real idiot?

However, I must add (in my defense) that the attitude that “the feather is a sign” or that “it will be a good day” are… somehow subjective truths. I am not sure how exactly, but they are not facts in the same way as “around 75% of air is nitrogen” is. And I don’t want to mean this in a derogatory manner. Subjective truths probably occupy the biggest part of our lives, especially those of us who are not scientists. And even in science, it is a deep philosophical question, where does the limit go between true ontological or metaphysical existence and subjective interpretation and the projection of our own mental predispositions.

Disclaimer: I am not sure that “subjective truth” is the right term to describe my intuition about what’s going on, but it’s closest that I can think of.

This whole story must have brought me closer to understanding what God could, naturalistically speaking, be.

5 replies
  1. existentialpragmatist
    existentialpragmatist says:

    Which will furthest avoid obsolescence: the sagest wisdom of the most universally agreed upon virtues; or the certainty of the boiling point of water. Or are not both equally infinite in their truth, or at the same time just as precariously resting upon the precipices for which their truths are mandated?

  2. Veronika
    Veronika says:

    I think this is a great story to start your self-reflection notes from Yeshiva. Really looking forward for how this all is going to develop in your head.

    My personal believes are close to your way of thinking of “subjective truth” and symbolism in religious acts. For instance for me it’s hard to accept the idea of sacramental wine physically changing into a Christ blood. This is how it was a great surprise for me to find out that it is really what my parish believe in. And even more, receiving an Echarist as a Lutheran and not believing it is blood, is a sin.

    When it comes to some specific facts, for some reason I don’t think it is so important. The same goes with history research. All historical writings are subjective because it is a matter of how you interpret it, taking into account your personal background.

  3. Anssi
    Anssi says:

    I loved the NASA story.
    Its wonderful to suddenly recognise an inner need to stop and be still. Sometimes this can happen the middle of a situation where it might take some uncompromising faithfulness to yourself to take a small retreat :)…not of course at the expence of other people even thought it might at first be judged selfish.

    Thank you.

  4. Mendel Greenberg
    Mendel Greenberg says:

    First off, I’ve been reading these posts of.yours and find them quite interesting, actually amazing!

    Second, there is a story told in the talmud about a certain Rav Zaira who was moving from Babylon to Israel to learn with the sages thare. The story continues that he fasted for 40 days (I believe that means eating just a bit by night) to forget what he learnt in Babylon, so that he could come fresh to the Israeli style of learning.

    I believe that you will have an easier time understanding what you’ve learnt if you just put all you previous scientific background on the side for a little (just a little) bit. It will help you remain nuetral and will make it (I believe) easier to reconcile the conflicts you find.


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