Not every Sunday a Rabbi walks into a church, let alone to get his third shot of the vaccine against Covid-19. However that is exactly what happened a few weeks ago when I walked the few blocks from home to Blakemore United Methodist Church to get my booster. At first, I didn’t pay much attention to this whole situation. But after talking with a dear scientist, we realized how seemingly paradoxical and yet, at the same time, amazing it was for a Rabbi to express his support for science at a church.
There is a trend here in the United States (and abroad as well) trying to present faith and science as opposite ends of a spectrum. If you are for science, then there’s no room for faith and, if you are religious, then you can’t possibly embrace what the scientific developments have to offer. In this zero-sum game, vaccines and churches (or synagogues) cannot go hand in hand. You are forced to choose one or the other. The problem is, unfortunately, that when faith and science are presented as opposites, both lose. Every time we tend to the extremes, we all lose.
The Talmud is very fond of the use of metaphors while speaking about Torah. Different Talmudic texts will compare Torah to water, fire, oil, milk, and a gazillion other images. Perhaps one of the most intriguing metaphors used by the Talmud to speak about Torah, occurs in the tractate that I’ve been reading for the last couple of weeks. Tractate Ta’anit is one of my favorites and it deals with what used to happen in Israel during times of drought. As the Rabbis discuss the relationship between fasting and rain, Rabbi Bena’a proposes that Torah should be understood as a drug. Yes, you heard it right. A drug. In this context, then, when studied for its own sake, Torah is a drug that gives you life (sam chayim), but when used not for its own sake, Torah is a drug that brings you death (sam mavet).
The fact that one Rabbi thinks that the Torah can bring life or death depending on the use we make of it is almost as radical as it sounds. We would probably tend to believe that the Rabbis will say that there’s always more room for Torah, and that there could not be an intoxication of Torah. And yet, the Talmud actually believes that the opposite is true, and that although Torah could be extremely beneficial for our lives, its abuse can be detrimental to our spiritual health as well. In that case, what needs to be considered is not only the properties of Torah per se, but also the ways in which we engage with her on a daily basis.
Perhaps, not by chance, in ancient Greek, the word Pharmakon meant remedy and poison at the same time. In that spirit, we can conclude that all sorts of things can be used and misused in many different ways. Torah can open for us the gates of wisdom and can guide us to an uplifting and meaningful spiritual life, but it can also be abused to preclude women from praying in the Western Wall in Jerusalem or to ban the recognition of the different streams of Judaism in Israel and abroad, just to name a few. Faith can certainly be distorted to the point of creating a lot of unnecessary pain. It can blind people and ignite the fires of mistrust between different groups. It can lead to a lot of nonsense. And, in its more extreme iterations, an exploited faith can push people against science and also, against vaccines.
As with science, Torah can also be abused. In one of the most interesting books that I read this past year, When we Cease to Understand the World, the Chilean author Benjamin Labatut shows us how all throughout the previous century the mix between scientific knowledge and hubris gave us very troubling results. But as with Torah, that is not a reflection on science per se but on the uses or misuses of science. It brings the conversation back to us, to what we do with the powerful tools that we have at hand. Are we going to use them to create a kinder and more just world or are we going to exploit them to enlarge the gap between those who are comfortable and those who are struggling the most? Are we going to use them to procure a healthier society that doesn’t discriminate between rich and poor or, to the contrary, are we going to hide behind them to maintain a very unequal status quo? Sam Chayim or Sam Mavet? Remedy or Poison?
The same conversations that we can have on the realm of the big ideas can certainly be brought down to our daily lives. The tensions between living a balanced life and the allure of the extremes can be felt all around us. Whether it is in the current state of our partisan politics or in the abuses that we may do to our diets or exercise regimes (or their lack thereof), it’s all there. So, as we are now beginning with a new calendar year, I think that it might be beneficial for us to think about some of these questions. As we are now reflecting about our New Year resolutions, what I hope for this 2022 is that we will achieve some inner balance, that we will find ways to make positive changes in our lives without falling into unhelpful excesses and that we will be able to embrace what Torah and Science have to offer us. Both, I believe, can be the remedies that we deeply need to amend this broken world.
Happy New Year and L’Chaim!