Reflections from Jerusalem
Back in 1977-1978 I spent a very formative Junior Year Abroad at the Hebrew University in Jerusalem. I was majoring in International Relations at Middlebury College, so the idea of studying in Israel made a lot of sense. Today, I have a doctorate in comparative religion and work to promote the seemingly esoteric dialogue between science and religion. The autobiographical and metaphoric road that led me to this current work went through Jerusalem and this past December took me back again to that troubled and magical city after twenty-three years away.
Metanexus Institute recently awarded Bar Ilan University one of the Templeton Research Lectures grant (see page 6), so as part of that program I had the opportunity to travel to Israel/Palestine to meet with intellectuals and coordinate activities surrounding the project. I was joined for part of the two-week trip by Pamela Thompson, the Director of Communications for the Templeton Foundation, a wonderful colleague in our work.
Our host was Noah Efron, the Chair of Bar Ilan University’s Department on the History and Philosophy of Science and principal investigator for the Templeton Research Lectures. Efron is a graduate of Swarthmore College and MIT, before taking the position in Israel. Bar Ilan was founded in 1955 as a religious university in what was then largely a secular country motivated by the socialist Zionist ideals of the Kibbutz movement, which spawned the founders of the state of Israel. Today, third generation Kibbutzniks are moving towards privatization, and religion plays a much larger role in the life of Israel (and Palestine). Curiously, Bar Ilan itself has become a much more philosophically diverse population of students and faculty, than its explicitly religious mission and administration would suggest. It is important to note that the rift between secular and religious is one of the defining characteristics of Israeli society. Paradoxically, Judaism in Israel consists of a proliferation of orthodox sects and a lack of alternatives to Jewish orthodoxy (the Reform, Conservative, and Reconstructionist movements barely exist in Israel and have no legal status).
In meetings with Moshe Habertal, Moshe Idel, and Donniel Hartman, research fellows at the Shalom Hartman Institute in Jerusalem, we discussed these sociological, political, and religious changes in Israeli society. The challenge of modernity to Judaism is how to have a vital and consequential religious life, while still affirming pluralism, tolerance, and democracy. The dialectics of universalism and particularism, of rationalism and mysticism, of reason and revelation stand at the center of this struggle for postmodern Judaism. All three saw these issues as somehow central to the well-being Israel and the Jewish people in the 21st Century.
While reluctant to travel in Gaza and the West Bank out of security concerns, I did visit with Palestinian intellectuals at Al-Quds University in East Jerusalem. The conversation was curiously parallel to some that I had had with Jewish scholars at Bar Ilan. How do we interpret the Book of Nature, as understood by modern science, and the Book of Revelation, the Koran or the Torah, as the case may be? There was a lot of interest in a kind of apologetics, which uses science as a proof-text for the preferred scripture. If it could be shown that Big Bang cosmology, quantum mechanics, evolution, genetics, or other scientific facts were somehow already part of the sacred scripture, then the scripture would be proven true. Others disagreed with this approach, calling it a misuse of scripture and of science. One Muslim scholar disparagingly called this hermeneutics “precursor-itis”. However, in both traditions, there are strong voices favoring a necessary convergence between science and religion, as in Ibn Rushd (a.k.a Averroes, d. 1198) and Maimonides (a.k.a. Rambam, d. 1204), who profoundly influenced medieval Christian scholastics like Aquinas (d. 1274). Today, the science is vastly different than the Aristotelian synthesis of the Middle Ages, but the basic intellectual and spiritual challenge is the same. The only question is how does one interpret these two “Books”?
(We at the Metanexus Institute will be exploring these questions of scriptural and scientific interpretation in depth at our annual conference in June 2002 at Haverford College, which will bring together Jewish, Muslim, and Christian philosophers and scientists. We will revisit these questions again in August in Granada, Spain at a Science and Spiritual Quest conference, which we are co-sponsoring.)
On the streets of Israel and in the news on CNN, however, the conflict with the Palestinians was the main concern with a series of tragic terrorist attacks in Jerusalem and Haifa followed by mounting Israeli retaliations in Gaza and the West Bank. The second Intifada had escalated dramatically during my visit. At a private dinner with retired U.S. Marine General Anthony Zinni, the chief U.S. mediator between Israel and the Palestinians, we discussed how Arafat lacked the will and the ability to control what was becoming a general insurrection among the Palestinians, who felt frustrated and humiliated by the lack of progress. The cycle of tit-for-tat escalation and the analogical ideologies of these two nationalist movements reminded me of my earlier career promoting U.S. and Soviet arms control and disarmament. Perhaps the two sides will sober as they look into the abyss of mutual assured destruction.
Certainly, Israel and Palestine have been dramatically damaged economically by this on-going conflict. Unemployment among the Palestinians is as high as forty percent. The hotels and tourist sites in Israel that we visited were largely empty. On a day trip to the Dead Sea, Qumran, Ein Gedi, and Masada, we virtually had the places to ourselves. In the current circumstances, it was certainly hard to imagine any kind of peace settlement. A palatable sense of despair hung heavily over all our meetings. Several days of torrential December rain provided relief from both a severe drought and the on-going violence. Expect a miracle, I reminded my hosts, as I had witnessed as a young man in 1977 when Anwar Sadat came to Jerusalem to make peace.
On my last night in Jerusalem, I listened to the enchanting Muslim call to prayer which marked the end of the daily Ramadan fast, lit Hanukkah candles with friends, and watched the moon rise over the Old City with the silver Judean Desert hills as a back drop. By all accounts, Jerusalem is a really lousy piece of real estate. In its four thousand years, Jerusalem had been sieged, sacked, and conquered twenty-seven times. When the Christian Crusaders came through, blood was reported to run knee-deep through the narrow streets of the City. Perhaps the only difference today is that science and technology provide more powerful tools for acting out our fears and fanatical delusions, as if somehow in this vast universe, God could be restricted to one time, one space, or one religion.
And yet there is also a grace that has been experienced here by prophets and sages throughout the ages. These powerful epiphanies tell of a force in the universe that favors compassion and mercy, a force that offers the possibility and promise of peace and justice, a force that renders our sufferings and sacrifices significant in the face of apparent futility. As I wandered through the maze of narrow streets in the Old City that night and reflected from its ancient walls on the vast expanses of the heavens above me, I was amazed at my own circuitous life journey that led me to this wonderful work and back to this Holly Land. Far from being irrelevant to the quest for peace, for which this City stands as symbol if not fact, the dialogue between science and religion provides an opportunity for profound intra- and inter-religious dialogue, is an antidote to fundamentalist fanaticism of all-kinds, and humbles us before God, Universe, and Humanity that we might be better servants of the particular traditions and universal values to which we profess.