Religious Belief, Make-believe and Science

I’ve written a short little book that is a re-writing of Rav Hirsch’s Nineteen Letters. The re-working tries to package the key ideas in modern language and reapply them to different historical circumstances. Here is an edited excerpt from the manuscript. It’s aimed for a lay audience, and tries to be accessible to young adults. But I’m interested to hear what readers of this blog think about this excerpt, in which I outline why the Nineteen Letters interests me as a philosopher. Rav Hirsch’s book is an argument for living an observant Jewish lifestyle that never once tries to argue that the theological or historical claims made by the religion are true. I find that interesting and strangely compelling, as I try to explain in what follows. The excerpt starts with some philosophical background …

Philosophical background

In the course of our everyday lives, we are forced to make a large number of assumptions. Indeed, we habitually make all sorts of assumptions for all sorts of reasons. When I attend an ‘introduction to physics’ lecture, I assume that the teacher is teaching well established facts and not simply making things up! When I get into an aeroplane, I assume that the laws of aeronautics that have held planes up in the sky for the entire history of aviation will continue to operate, at least until I land safely on terra firma. I assume that other people exist and that I’m not just dreaming them up. These things I assume to be true. These assumptions are simply beliefs that I might not feel confident enough to call ‘knowledge’ when pressed by a sceptical philosopher; but I believe them, nevertheless, without any real reservation.

But, sometimes we assume things that we don’t believe to be true at all. A good example of this is an assumption merely for the sake of argument. How do I prove you wrong when I think you’re being completely illogical? One thing I can do is to assume your conclusion and show you how that assumption would lead me to absurdity. This process proves that what I assumed at the outset must have been false.
This method of disputation is called a reductio ad absurdum. And, the sort of assumption we make when we develop a reductio ad absurdum is very different to the assumptions that we make in order to fly planes and invest in physics lectures. Those assumptions we believe to be true. These assumptions, at the outset of a reductio ad absurdum, we don’t actually believe – we may come to believe them if it turns out that we can’t actually find fault with them, but, for the purpose of the reductio ad absurdum, we need only entertain the proposition – merely for the sake of argument.
This discussion gives rise therefore to the notion of entertaining a proposition without necessarily believing it. Surprisingly, there are a whole host of reasons why we might want to entertain propositions that we don’t necessarily believe – entertainment for the sake of argument is just one of many. I turn now to metaphor.
Very often, the literal meaning of a metaphor is blatantly false. The sentence, ‘There was a pregnant silence,’ has a literal meaning and it also expresses something by way of metaphor. Even when the metaphor is true, the literal meaning isn’t. The silence didn’t have a baby. There was no foetus in its womb. Similarly, I might say that somebody has a cold heart, even though his heart may be very warm to touch. The metaphor is true even though the literal meaning is false.
An obvious question arises: How does the falsehood – that the silence was pregnant or that his heart was cold – help to express the truth – that the silence was long and of psychological significance, or that he has no compassion? Kendall Walton (2005) argues that very often, we move from the falsehood of the metaphor taken literally to the truth that it expresses by entering a make believe world in which the falsehood is actually true. Let me explain…
Children like to play games of make-believe. Often, in their make-believe worlds, mundane objects serve as colourful props: a stick becomes a sword; a cardboard box becomes a spaceship. Make-believe games are sometimes initiated merely by inviting a child to look at an everyday object as a prop. ‘Come and have a horsie ride on my back,’ I might say to my son, as I transform before his eyes into a prop. ‘What a nice bus!’ I might say to him, about a cardboard box, inspiring him to open the lid and say, ‘Yes, look at its doors!’
Walton argues that very often, though not always, metaphor works by inviting us to treat an object or a person as a prop in a make-believe game. One example he offers is the family of metaphors that treat arguments as warfare. This extended metaphor includes talk of ‘claims being indefensible, criticisms being on target, winning and losing arguments, shooting down arguments, attacking and defending positions…’ (Walton, 2005, pg. 73). All of these ways of talking suggest a game of make-believe in which the various arguments that we’re talking about serve as props. We don’t actually have to play the game, but the very suggestion of the game tells us something about the candidate props: Just as a box needs an entrance in order to serve as bus with a door, an argument will have to be pretty sub-standard as an argument, with lots of opponents, in order to serve as a prop for an indefensible position besieged by enemies.
Sometimes, I might not know what sort of make-believe game you’re suggesting to me when you use a metaphor. When you tell me that he has a cold heart, what are you doing? What sort of make-believe game needs people to serve as props for cold-hearted and warm-hearted? It might not be clear to either of us. But my attempt to find a make-believe game in which a person like him would have a cold heart rather than a warm one might be enough to awaken the sort of attitude towards him that you wanted to awaken in me. The very sight of him makes me cold. I couldn’t imagine him radiating warmth to anyone.
What this detour through the arguments of Kendall Walton has taught us is that we don’t just entertain propositions that we don’t believe for the sake of argument. Sometimes, we engage in make-believe. Make-believe engages much more than the intellect. It tries to bring the emotions with it as it imagines what it is feels like to live in the world that we’re entertaining.
Now I’d like to introduce a novel reason that we might have for entering into a world of make-believe.
Imagine that you have a speech to make in front of a massive audience. You’re wracked with nervousness as you imagine standing, exposed, in front of this endless crowd of stern-looking faces. You worry that you’ll seize up; that you’ll freeze. In order to calm your nerves, a friend tells you to pretend that everyone in the audience is wearing a silly hat. Now, his suggestion may or may not help you, but what was your friend thinking? Why did he think that his bizarre suggestion would help?
Let me defend your friend’s suggestion: you’re worried that you’re not going to behave appropriately; you’re not going to speak fluently and with sophistication because of the fear that the stern-looking faces of disapproval invoke in you; by imagining that the situation is different, you might be able to recalibrate your behaviour; you might behave more appropriately; how intimidating can a person be when he’s wearing a silly hat?
Now, of course, the crowd are not wearing silly hats, and you know that they’re not; you can see them. But, the very attempt to visualize the hats may insert just enough irreverence into the proceedings as to awaken, if only a small fraction of, the confidence that you would have had had they really been wearing silly hats!
Your friend’s idea is that if you’re scared that you won’t act appropriately in situation x, try to pretend that situation x is really situation z; do this because situation z is more likely to generate the sort of behaviour that you actually want to embody in situation x.
Bizarrely enough, medical science has recently found a use for just this sort of self-deception. V. S. Ramachandran is a renowned neuroscientist and physician. He is the first physician to cure the pain of phantom limbs. He did so precisely by deceiving his patients and by inviting them to continue periodically to deceive themselves over an extended period of time (cf, Ramachandran 1998).
A phantom limb is a limb that an amputee continues to ‘feel’ after it has actually been amputated. Neuroscience has had some success in locating the source of the problem. Briefly put: the brain contains a number of maps of the body that help us to process the various sensations that we feel: my hand is cold; my foot is warm; my lower-back aches. A phantom limb is generated when a person has a limb amputated but has a brain that fails to redraw the relevant maps. Amazing advances have helped neuroscientists to locate the areas of the brain that actually contain the maps.
Very often, a phantom limb will hurt. Sometimes the pain is excruciating. Phantom hands are often clenched so tightly that the phantom fingers and finger nails inflict unbearable pain on the phantom palm. Many of these patients can’t escape the pain because their phantom fists are paralysed in this eye-watering clench. Ramachandran asked himself, ‘how can I help these patients to redraw the body maps in their brain?’ He came across the most simple of solutions. He got his patients to put their remaining hands into a box, mimicking the position that they felt their phantom hands to be in. The patient then had to put his eyes onto the peep holes of the box. Inside the box was a mirror. So, when the patient looked into the peep holes, he didn’t merely see his actual hand; he saw its reflection as well. This looked just like seeing his actual hand and his phantom. By slowly opening his only real hand, he could make it looks as if he was opening both of his ‘hands’. And, sure enough, this deceived the brain into thinking that the phantom hand had opened. This relieved the pain.
When the patients weren’t using the box, the phantom hands went back into their painful positions; but repeated exposure to the box eventually trained the phantoms to behave; and eventually they disappear altogether. Ramachandran claims to be the first physician to have amputated a phantom limb!
Now, these patients aren’t mad. They know that they only have one real hand. They knew that the box contained a mirror – they must have worked that out! But the illusion was what the brain needed to behave appropriately in the real world. This is just like the make believe about the silly hats; it might help to give rise to behaviour that’s more appropriate to the real world than your behaviour would have been without the make believe. Sometimes our actual actions are so ill-suited to the actual world that only an illusion or a game of make-believe can generate behaviour that actually fits the actual world!
I have one more point to make about make-believe: not everything that we include in our make-believe is false. If president Obama and his daughters play a game of make-believe in which he is the president of the USA, and they are high ranking members of his cabinet, then even though he’s making-believe, part of what he is making-believe, namely, that he is the president of the USA, also happens to be true outside of the make-believe.
Sometimes what we make-believe is false, like the box being a bus, but sometimes our make-believe can even be true. What it means, fundamentally, to make-believe, is not to believe the false, necessarily – because sometimes we make-believe things that are true. What it means to make-believe is to entertain a proposition (be it true or false) not merely with the intellect, but with the whole self; it is to entertain a proposition, not merely to see where it leads your train of thought; but in order to see how it affects you; to see how looking at the world from its perspective might transform you.
This philosophical background is almost complete, but, before I return to developing my point about The Nineteen Letters, I want to offer some Jewish examples that utilize the notions that we’ve been developing.
In his Laws of Repentance, Maimonidies tells us that we are supposed to view the world as if it’s balanced on a knife-edge. The world is equally balanced between virtue and vice. If you do one good deed, then you’ll tip the balance in the world’s favour. It will contain more merit than evil. The world can therefore continue to exist. But, if you do one sin – however minor – you risk tipping the balance against the world. The world will contain more vice than virtue and will surely be destroyed. Maimonidies isn’t asking you to assume this, or entertain it for the sake of argument. He wants to engage more than your intellect. We are talking about make believe.
Perhaps that which he’s asking us to make believe happens to be literally true. But, I don’t know many people who really believe, in their heart of hearts, that one sin will bring the whole world tumbling down. I doubt that Maimonidies believed it. Perhaps it’s metaphorically true: The image of the evenly balanced weighing scales – even though it isn’t literally true – helps to convey by metaphor the true significance of the smallest little deed. But, the whole discussion of the truth or falsehood of Maimonidies’ image seems strangely misplaced.
It doesn’t matter whether the world is really balanced on a knife edge. You should view it as if it is. Doing so, even if you know that you’re only making believe, will help you to awaken a sense of responsibility that we all need in this actual world but often lack. The power of the make believe will be limited if you think that you know that it’s not, strictly speaking, true. But, it will still help, just as pretending that people are wearing silly hats, or that reflected hands are real, can sometimes help you to behave in ways that better fit the world that we actually live in, even though you don’t actually believe the pretence.
We are taught in a Mishna that every deed we do is written into a book. The book records all of our merits and all of our mistakes. I am convinced that this image expresses a great truth. God can see all that we do, and He never forgets. Nevertheless, I believe that the rabbis didn’t just mean to tell us a truth when they told us this fact. Rather, they were inviting us to look at the world in a certain way; a way that will affect our behaviour and character. If I was constantly conscious of the heavenly account that was being written about me, what sort of person would I become? If I lived in a world that I knew depended upon my doing good for its very existence, what would that do to me? If I view myself as having been freed, personally, from slavery on the Seder night, what affect will that have upon me?
Some of the viewpoints that we are commanded to take are literally true, some are true by metaphor, and some of them might even be false – like the Maimonidean image of the weighing scales. But all of these viewpoints, if you do more than believe them, but engage the emotional faculties of make-believe, are transformative.
The notion that we sometimes enter into a description of the world with both our intellect and our emotions, not in order to describe the world as it is, but in order to change ourselves and our behaviour; in order to become the sort of people that we want to become – The notion that we sometimes entertain a propositions without any significant concern for its truth, but because of its effect upon us; that is a notion that appears in numerous halakhot; in numerous chapters in the life of an observant Jew.
With this observation in mind, and with this philosophical backdrop in place, I’m ready to introduce what I take to be the key philosophical significance of The Nineteen Letters of Rav Hirsch.

Philosophical Significance of The Nineteen Letters

Judaism is true. The Torah is true. It was revealed to the Jewish people collectively and via the prophecy of Moses. For various reasons that I won’t go into, I’m not going to discuss the considerations that have led me to believe in the Torah with such conviction. But I do.
Because the Torah was given to us by God, and because He doesn’t engage in deception, I am convinced that every sentence of the Torah is true. Of course, we should note, parenthetically, that there are a number of ways in which a sentence could be said to be true. When the Torah reports that Hashem delivered us from Egypt with a strong hand, we believe its truth with every fibre of our faith, but we know that Hashem doesn’t actually have a hand. That doesn’t, God forbid, make the Torah’s claim false – when the Torah talks about God’s hand, it is engaging in metaphor.
There are some claims made in the Torah that we take to be literally true; that the Ten Commandments were revealed to the entire nation at Mount Sinai, for example. Then, there are times where we’re forced to see that the Torah engages in metaphor: if God had a hand, he’d have a body; if he had a body, he’d be spatially located; if he was spatially located, he’d be limited – he’d have a beginning and an end; we know that God is perfect; that he has no limitations, so, we know that he has no hand – The Torah’s talk of God’s hand has to be a metaphor – but, it’s still true; a true metaphor.
Furthermore, there are parts of the narrative of the Torah, the truth of which does important work for us. The fact that Moses really did receive the Torah from God seems to be what gives the commandments their lasting authority. The truth of that claim plays a paramount role. But, there are many parts of the Torah’s narrative that, even though they’re certainly true, their truth isn’t really the point. Remember: it might be true that the fate of the world is constantly balanced on a knife edge, as Maimonidies claims; but the truth of the claim isn’t the point – the point is that you have to live within that claim if you want to awaken an appropriate sense of responsibility. When you ask, about Maimonidies’ claim, ‘yes, but is it true?’ – you miss the point. The same can be said for many of the narratives of the Torah, even though they are undoubtedly true (either literally or metaphorically).
Let me introduce an example of a Biblical narrative whose main value has nothing to do with the mundane fact that it happens to be true: the story of creation at the beginning of the book of Genesis.
Modern science with its talk of Big Bangs, evolution and billions of years presents the person of faith with a choice between various options, some of which are more controversial than others:
1. We can say that the Genesis narrative is to be taken 100% literally and to deny the truth of the           theories of contemporary science.


2. We can try to reconcile the Genesis narrative with the theories of science, and this can be done in one of three ways:
a.) We can follow the novel approach of Gerald Schroder (1997), and try to demonstrate that a literal interpretation of the Genesis narrative is actually reconcilable with the claims of science. He argues, for instance, that the theory of relativity, in combination with the theory of the Big Bang, entails that time was running very fast at the beginning of the universe and that in the space of what, to us, would seem like six days, many billions of years went by.
b.) We can accept that the Genesis story contains many metaphors, and though they’re all true, they don’t  stand at odds with the claims of science. In fact, they express, by metaphor, the same truths. The Torah is simply using metaphor to talk about what the scientist describes literally. Much of Natan Aviezer’s work strives to show how the theories of modern science are expressed metaphorically by the Biblical account of creation (Aviezer 1990, 2001)
c.) The Genesis account contains metaphors, but it isn’t expressing scientific truths via its metaphors. The Bible isn’t really trying to describe how the world was created. The Bible isn’t a science book. The Biblical account of creation is an allegory that encodes important moral truths, and doesn’t try to encode historical/scientific truths. There is no conflict to reconcile. The creation story isn’t really about the actual creation of the world. It’s a true allegorical account of the place of mankind in the moral universe. Rav Kook expresses such a position in his collected letters (Iggrot Ha-Re’iyah 134).
But, I’d like to suggest that the whole question is misplaced. Though I’m sure that, in some sense or other, the story of creation is true, I don’t think that the main significance of the story is its truth. Hashem gave us the Torah. And, I see from His Torah that He wants me to view the world as if it was actually created in six days via ten Divine utterances in a specific order. Though I know it’s true, I don’t have to worry about how and in what sense it’s true. Rather, I have to view the world through its lenses; as if it were literally (and not merely metaphorically) true.
We needn’t feel threatened by Big Bang theory or evolution. Those theories constitute good science, and I have no reason to deny their truth. In the science lab, I may well affirm their truth. But, I do know this: God doesn’t want me, in my everyday life, to view myself as a descendant of monkeys that evolved as an afterthought after billions of years worth of blind genetic mutations. He wants me to view the world as if every single creature in it was created at His direct command; that every creature has its place and its role; that humanity was created very near to the beginning of time and that humanity was the pinnacle of creation; that God has a personal and direct interest in our lives. I know that these claims are all true (and that they can be reconciled with the sciences in, at least, one of the ways that I sketched above). But, their real import is the effect that they have over us.
To view the world through the prism of the Genesis story is the main point of the story. It gives us a perspective that awakens a sense of responsibility for our surroundings and helps us to understand the sort of role that Hashem wants us to play; and the sort of relationship He wants us to have with Him. And, it is this insight about the role of many of the Biblical narratives that leads me to celebrate The Nineteen Letters of Rav Hirsch.
The Nineteen Letters has always been spellbinding in my eyes precisely because it doesn’t try to prove that God exists or that the Torah is true. Instead, it invites you to look at the world in a certain way; to embark upon a certain journey. It does so in the belief that if you begin to look at the world through the eyes of the Torah, you will be moved much closer to ethical perfection.
Perhaps Rav Hirsch didn’t spend time arguing for God’s existence in The Nineteen Letters, simply because, as Rav Rosenbloom (1976) explains:
[H]e considered it so self-evident that it needed no elaboration. In his later commentary on the Psalms he seems to echo Mendlessohn’s view on this subject: “The revelation at Sinai was not essential for the recognition of the fact that there must be someone who is the omnipresent creator, regulator, and ruler of the world. The realization that there must be a God could come to anyone who thoughtfully contemplates nature, and the heavens in particular.”
So, perhaps the key virtue that I see in his book was unwitting; but perhaps it wasn’t. But the virtue is there nonetheless: the book doesn’t try to argue what cannot be argued for – because the truth of Judaism cannot be demonstrated by any simple argument or proof; it doesn’t try to describe that which cannot be described – because human language always fails in its attempt to describe Divinity; instead, it invites you to try to look at the world in a way that will, ultimately, help you to transcend the limits of language. Look at the world in a certain way, and see where that vision leads you.
Right at the beginning of the book, Naftali tries to convince Benjamin to read the Bible as if it were the word of God spoken to the Jewish people. From that point onwards, there is no argument about truth. The journey is supposed to be transformative.
In the history of Jewish philosophy, books that have tried to convince the doubtful or the uncommitted to believe and to adhere to a life of Jewish observance would always contain arguments for God’s existence, arguments to demonstrate the truth of the Bible, and/or arguments to demonstrate that the Bible is actually consistent with the science or philosophy of the age. Rav Hirsch bypasses all of this.
Just try to look at the world, for one moment, as a Jew. Don’t do this as an intellectual exercise. Don’t merely assume the truth of the Torah. Don’t merely entertain it. Live it. At first, you don’t need to believe it. Just try it. We know that it can be useful sometimes to make believe with our minds and our hearts a proposition that we don’t actually believe. So try it. Don’t try to live the dry and stuffy Judaism that you have come to know in the past; the close-minded Judaism; the xenophobic Judaism; the introverted Judaism. Try to live the Judaism that Rabbi Hirsch rediscovers in our texts and our law – a Judaism of love and justice and hope. Live it for a minute, and, when you’ve done that with real intellectual and emotional honesty, see what it does to you. See how it transforms you. It seems to me that there will be two results, both of which are hugely important.
  1. You will have become a better person. If you view yourself constantly, as Rav Hirsch asks us to do, as an ambassador of the Almighty God, charged with a sacred mission of teaching the world about love and justice; that God Himself is calling upon you constantly to be an example of social and environmental activism; that He is calling upon you to bestow the world around you with unconditional love; you will have been transformed.
  2. But, no less importantly than having transformed your ethical character, the experience will bring you closer to God Himself.
The first result, that standing within the Jewish narrative will improve your behaviour and character, is a result that we can understand in the light of the previous section – what I called the philosophical background. I want to talk now, briefly, about the second result; that standing within the Jewish narrative and viewing the world from its perspective can bring you closer to God.
If you believe in the God of classical monotheism, then you believe in something that, by your own admission, is infinite, omnipotent, omnipresent, and omnibenevolent. The problem is that you’d probably have to admit, in addition, that He lies beyond the power of human comprehension. We can’t understand Him. And, you might well be lead to think that He lies beyond the human power of description. Language isn’t able to contain Him. That means that everything we’ve just said about Him, in some sense or other, fails. We were trying to say something that we ourselves think to be unsayable; we were trying to describe the indescribable. Philosophers from Kant to Wittgenstein have been lead to conclude, for a variety of reasons, that there is a whole host of stuff that exists but can’t be described. The person of faith is compelled to agree: we believe in a God that, however hard we try, we never fully succeed in describing.
But, the thing is, we do experience Him. The person of faith regularly has an overwhelming sensation of being in the presence of an indescribable other. Now, of course, it could be an illusion. But, then again, all of my sensations could be illusions. And, until you can prove to me otherwise, I’m going to go on assuming that the things that I see with my eyes, really are there; that the sounds that I hear with my ears really occurred; and that the God that I experience in my moments of religious insight really does exist.
So what do we do, when we want to explain to others what we’ve been experiencing, when we’ve been experiencing something indescribable?
Well, it seems to me that we have a number of good tactics already for dealing with this sort of problem. We use narratives. Imagine a story that has an ethical moral. The following is a plausible account of what goes on when you tell such a story: you encode an ethical virtue that you believe to be true, but you might think that it cannot be fully described; the virtue stated coldly outside of the story says less that the virtue embedded in the narrative. The story doesn’t just give the moral an added emotional force; it somehow says more; or, the story shows your audience something that no language can actually say.
Now of course, the narrative can be true (either allegorically, metaphorically or literally). We believe that the Torah is true in its entirety. But when you’re trying to convey a moral with a story; the truth of the story seems less important than the fact that it is a story.
God lies well beyond our comprehension, yet a certain way of life, and a certain set of metaphors, symbols, and narratives, can lead us towards having a real and tangible relationship with Him. We have the ability to experience things that can’t be fully described; Non-literal language and narrative are the only tools we have with which to point people in the direction of those experiences; the experience of Godliness. This mystical notion, that language can, in some sense or other, point you towards things that language cannot actually describe, might have been the essence of the Maimonodean philosophy of language; it can also be found (on some interpretations) in the early work of Ludwig Wittgenstein.
This all explains the second result of entering the Jewish narrative. And, it explains the second reason why I find The Nineteen Letters to be so important and distinctive. It doesn’t try to prove that God exists. It invites you to look at the world in a certain way; to embark upon a certain journey. It does so in the belief that, in good time, you can come to experience things that can’t be described. Once again, I note that this might not have been the motive that Rav Hirsch had when writing the book – perhaps it was, perhaps it wasn’t. But it’s a phenomenal quality nevertheless. The arguments of the book lead to the following insight:
Just like the person who is told to visualize his audience wearing silly hats; just like the patients who act as if the mirror reflection of their hand is real; just like the people who view the world as if it’s is balanced on a knife edge and that their actions will make all of the difference – looking at the world in a certain way can have a profound effect upon you. One of the effects that the Jewish way of looking at the world can have upon you is that you’ll become the sort of person who’ll be more likely to have direct experiences of God himself.
Just like a wine taster has to train his senses to taste the subtle differences between various vintages; so does the person of faith have to refine his religious senses if he wants to experience Divinity. The Jewish way of looking at the world will train those very senses.
And, once you actually do have God in your life, even if, at the beginning of the process, you were only pretending that He exists, you’ll no longer be able to doubt the truth of Judaism. You will know God; He will be your God; you will feel His presence in your life. The very idea of proving God’s existence or the truth of Judaism will be as superfluous as the idea of having to prove that what I’m seeing with my eyes and hearing with my ears really does exist. You might be able to doubt it in the philosophy class room; but you won’t be able to doubt it in your everyday life.
The whole notion that we should try to prove that God exists is sacrilegious: it ignores the fact that I’m constantly aware of Him in my life.
Richard Dawkins is aware that many theists will try to make the sort of argument about language that I’ve just put forward, and it annoys him. I quote an interview with him (The Times (London), Saturday Review, August 22nd2009.):
Do you go to church? You’ve heard sermons?… The vicar will talk absolutely straight about something like Adam and Eve. But then if you stopped him on his way out of church and you said, ‘Vicar, you don’t actually believe in Adam and Eve, do you?’ and he would say, ‘Of course I don’t believe in Adam and Eve’. And I would say, ‘Well why don’t you say so in the sermon? Because plenty of people in your congregation won’t have realised that and I think that’s a very serious point’… It’s almost as though they [i.e. vicars] don’t really see the distinction between what’s true and what’s only true in a metaphorical sense or mythological sense. It’s as though they don’t really care about the difference … I don’t mind people talking about mythological truths but I do mind them muddling it up. There is such a thing as scientific truth and I think it matters, and if you don’t think it matters then I get annoyed.
To some degree I sympathise. We’re cheating if, every time science proves us religious people wrong, we play the metaphor card – ‘Oh, it was only a metaphor!’ – it makes us look like we’re engaging in some sort of cynical double-speak. So, on the one hand, I’m all in favour of clarity. Let’s say it right from the outset. Let’s be clear that certain Biblical language never claimed to describe reality in the way that scientific language does; its main aim is something entirely different; the Bible recognizes that the reality that it seeks to lead you to lies beyond the reach of language. Let’s be clear about where there’s metaphor, narrative, poetry, and the like, and let’s be clear about where our texts should be taken literally.
But, on the other hand, if a poem kept reminding you that it was just a poem, it might lose a great deal of its poetic power. The catch is that, the Torah, on the Hirschean view that I’m developing, wants you to view the world through the prism of its narrative. If you keep reminding yourself that it’s just a narrative, its power will be somewhat diminished. The narrative (which is most likely true in a different way to the way in which science is true) can lead you through the limits of language, and out through to the other side: to direct knowledge of the God who lies beyond any possibility of description – but it will only work if accompanied by an appropriate attitude.
It’s important to practice good science, which certainly includes Darwinian biology; but it’s equally important to strive to view the world exactly as God told us to: as the product of six days of creation; this may have merely been a metaphor; but God want us to view the world that way – as if it were literally true. You might think that that’s a contradiction. But, you’re able to look at a crowd of stern-looking faces and visualize them wearing silly hats, even when they’re not. So, from the vantage point of religion, it doesn’t matter how the world actually came into being – although this is a legitimate concern of the scientist; from the point of view of religion, what’s more important is that you know how its creator wants you to view it.
And, if you doubt that there is creator, you won’t; once you’ve come to know Him.
The glasses of the Torah, through which we’re commanded to see the world, help a person to experience the God that eludes literal description, and helps a person, and ultimately, humanity, to actualize their ethical potential.
Nevertheless, I agree with Dawkins that the different sets of lenses with which we look at the world shouldn’t be confused with one another.
Now it should be clear why I find The Nineteen Letters to be so exceptionally worthy; and so necessary for our times. Religion is constantly attacked by people who say that it contradicts science or that it’s irrational and ungrounded. The temptation on the part of religious people is to write books that deny the truth of science, or books that split hairs in order to reconcile the truths of the Bible and the truths of science, or books that try to prove that God exists and that He wrote the Torah. But all of these books, the atheistitic ones and the theistic ones, seem to be missing the point. Science and religion are meant to perform totally different tasks. They are not even in conversation with one another.
Science aims for the best explanation of empirical data; it aims for the best description of the natural world. The Torah presents, not a description, but a way of looking at the world – a way that expresses great truths; a way that, if we chose to adopt it, will refine us and bring us closer to God. Once you’ve adopted Judaism’s way of looking at the world – a Judaism made much less stuffy by the interpretations of Rav Hirsch; and you’ve done this with your mind and your emotions; there can be no looking back.
Sam Lebens
Aviezer, N. (1990) – In the Beginning: Biblical Creation and Science. KTAV publishing house.
Aviezer, N. (2001) – Fossils and Faith: Understanding Torah and Science. KTAV publishing house.
Ramachandran, V. S. (1998) – Phantoms in the Brain, co-authored by Sandra Blakeslee. Harpercollins.
Rosenbloom, N. (1976) – Tradition in an Age of Reform. Jewish Publication Society of America
Schroeder, G. (1997) – The Science of God: The Convergence of Scientific and Biblical Wisdom. New York: Free Press.
Walton, K. (2005) – ‘Metaphor and Prop Oriented Make-Believe’ in M. Kalderon (ed), Fictionalism in Metapysics. Oxford: OUP.


  1. Anonymous

    This is excellent and excellently written. This deserves careful study, but I have two minor points after a first read:

    1. There’s no need to insist that Judaism “cannot be argued for”, that any attempt is “sacrilegious”, and that’s too strong on at least one count. After all, Saadya and others attempted to argue for certain of the truths of Judaism.

    2. There’s something towards the end that comes problematically close to the “non-overlapping magisteria” view. In fact, it might be so close as to *be* that view, and you might not find it problematic at all. But, again, this doesn’t seem necessary for the main point.

    Finally, a minor question: If God wants us to view the world a certain way, then wouldn’t pursuing Darwinian biology that “contradicts” this view be dangerous?

    Once again, I think this is excellent stuff. Who is the author?


  2. Sam Lebens

    Thanks a lot for this. I feel a bit self-conscious about this article, so it was nice to hear such positive feedback.

    1. You're right. I think arguing for God's existence borders on sacrilegious, merely because, if you're a person of faith, you feel his existence so often and so profoundly, that a logical argument almost undermines the immediacy of religious experience. But I should have worded this more carefuly. Saadya Gaon is one of my favourite thinkers. I agree that much of what Judaism teaches can be argued for on logical grounds. But I disagree with him when it comes to the existence of God.

    2. I think there's some value to the notion of non-overlapping magisteria. But I have to be more careful in the way I present what I say. I do think that the two disciplines, religion and science, have useful contributions to make one to the other. Religous traditions can make important suggestions about the ethical conduct of science. Scientific findings can be an important source of religious inspiration and knowledge of the Creator through His creation. So, once again, I need to word things more carefully. At one point, I think I say that the two can't even converse. I think that's an exageration. But I do think they do different jobs. The Chief Rabbi of the UK has a new book, The Great Partnership. His position about the relationship between science and religion is almost identical to my own (or should I say, mine is almost identical his). The book is a popular book that makes a little too much of certain metaphors, and has a throw away line about the law of the excluded middle, but it is still, in my opinion, are VERY important book.

    About the minor question. There is a danger that you put your finger on. But I think this merely demands sophistication. If we know that the world was created over billions of years, and human life emerged through evolution, then I don't think we should believe otherwise. I don't think that God wants us to be dellusional. Saadya Gaon has a lot of good material on this matter in his introduction to Emunot Vadeot. But, I still think that we're supposed, in our day to day life, to view the world AS IF the creation narrative were literally true; this doesn't mean that we have to believe it! With sufficient sophistication, and practice at make-believe, the experience of viewing the world a certain way can be transformative, even though we don't believe in its literal truth.

    Thanks so much for the feedback.

    I'm Sam Lebens.

  3. mS

    Sam, thank you! Great ideas! I took many notes for myself.

    I wonder though if this should be including in your rewriting of 19 Letters. As you said, "if a poem kept reminding you that it was just a poem, it might lose a great deal of its poetic power." Perhaps it's important to include it, in the interests of intellectual honesty, or befriending the skeptical reader, or something like that. But why not just write a book that throws its readers into the narrative, into a Jewish perspective? Perhaps like (I haven't read it but I get the impression it does this) Ze'ev Maghen's John Lennon and the Jews?

    Also on viewing creation through "Bereshit bara…" as opposed to the scientific literature: R. Matis Weinberg has done fantastic work (see or the "Frameworks" books). Check out for example his talks on VaYikra, which deal with and assume some familiarity with evolutionary biology and philosophy of evolution.

    Why not view through "Bereshit bara…" all of creation, including even the development of science? Science isn't an alternative story, it's a sub-plot.

  4. Sam Lebens

    Thanks Meir Simcha.
    This was something that I wondered about too.
    I have only included this as something of an appendix to the book, in the name, firstly, of intellectual honesty. The other thing is that I think that to know that Judaism isn't necessarily asking you to believe all that much about history and science, but that it's asking you to look at the world in a certain way, is actually something that will help many Jews back into their Judaism.

    So, on the one hand, reminding yourself that it's just a poem can undermine the force of the poem. But, on the other hand, knowing from the outset that your holding a poetry book rather than a science book will help to callibrate people's expectations appropriately. Too often, people give up their faith because of a piece of scientific evidence that is, in actual fact, irrelevant! So that's the other reason why I want to keep this stuff in the book itself. I actually think that it can be a boost to people's faith rather than a detraction from it. What do think?

    I have really enjoyed R. Weinberg's Framework series.

    I'm not sure exactly what you meant to say in your last sentence ("Why not view through "Bereshit bara…" all of creation, including even the development of science? Science isn't an alternative story, it's a sub-plot."). I'd like to understand better.

    1) What were you taking me to have said that was at odds with this? Which I may well be, but I'm not sure I understand what you meant.
    2) What would it mean for Science to be a sub-plot? 3) What, on your view, should we do when well grounded Scientific theories clash with the overiding narrative?

    I'd love to discuss this further.

  5. Benji

    Have you published the book on Rav Hirsch’s Nineteen Letters and if so where is it available? I would like to read it.

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