The Talmud, Science and the God of the Gaps

There’s a guy driving his car in New York City. He has a very important meeting to get to and he can’t find a parking space. Desperate, he starts praying to God.

“Please, God, find me a parking space! I promise I’ll go to shul every Shabbat.  I’ll give ten percent of my income to tzedakah!”

Suddenly, a car pulls out right in front of him and there’s his parking space.

He quickly says, “Oh, never mind. I found one.”

This usually gets a pretty good laugh. But I think it also has an important point. It doesn’t really matter what the outside “evidence” or circumstances are. It is up to us to interpret the events of our lives. We can find miracles or we can find coincidences. We can find a Greater Consciousness or we can find our ego.

In synagogues, the section of the torah currently being read is from Exodus. It deals with building the Tabernacle, the Dwelling Place of God within the camp of the Israelites in the desert. One verse that many rabbis have noted says, “asu li mik’dash ve’shakhanti b’tokham”  “Make me a sanctuary and I will dwell within you.”  They point out that it doesn’t say, “within it (the sanctuary) but “within you.”  Even in the ancient world there was a recognition that the goal is not to build buildings, but to internalize a sense of God’s presence within ourselves.

And, also even in the ancient world, there was a recognition that there may be intellectual objections to finding God. How do we even know there is a God? Where can we see God’s working in the world? Even in the time of the Talmud people had doubts.

There is a discussion of this issue in the Talmud, tractate Sanhedrin (102b).  In it the seemingly technical, ritual question is asked, “What place on the bread is one supposed to point to when you say the blessing over the bread?” The answer given is that one must bless the bread right at the place where it first starts to form a crust. The explanation is that we seem to do all the work of making bread. We plow and plant, harvest and thresh, grind and bake. Where was God in this process that we should bless God, saying “Who brings forth bread from the earth?”  Didn’t we do it?  The answer is that when you put the bread into the oven there is no way that one could tell where exactly on the bread a crust would begin to form. There was something, in other words, about the process that they couldn’t explain.

But, wait a minute! This looks like one of the weakest arguments for the existence of God: it’s called “The God of the Gaps.”  People will find something that we can’t explain and then say “There, you see, there must be a God!”  But, it’s not a strong argument because if we are basing our belief in God on these areas that we can’t explain, in other words, if God lives in the gaps in our knowledge, then the place for God keeps getting smaller and smaller until there is no place.   This is a major theme in the history of the conflict between science and religion: science keeps coming along and explaining things: how all the species got here, how the world was formed, etc., and fewer and fewer people have a need for God.

So, is that really the argument that the Talmud is making?  I don’t think so. And I think we can find out about the Talmud’s answer by looking at some of the more recent trends in science.

Since the middle of the 20th century, there has been a trend in science which has not filled in more gaps, but rather has shown us that there are things are can never know.  In 1927 Werner Heisenberg published his Uncertainty Principle showing that there are things about the movements of atomic particles that are theoretically impossible to know.  In 1931 Kurt Godel published his mathematical Incompleteness Theorem which proved that there will never be a completely provable mathematics.  More recently we have seen the emergence of Complex Systems Theory. This says that in a complex system, a system with internal feedback loops (which includes a lot of what we experience in the world: weather, social trends, eco systems, economic systems, and many more) there is no way that we can predict what the individual in a system will do. I might know that there is 7.9% unemployment, but there is no way that we can say exactly who will be unemployed next year. We can say it will be cold in February in the North Eastern United States, but we can’t say exactly when the next storm is going to hit.

So, science is coming back to something that I think the Sages of the Talmud were talking about: There are things in this world that we can never control or predict. There is an essential openness, freedom and mystery that is built into the structure of the world.  There are gaps that will never be filled.  So, it is up to us.  In those places in life where there is no explanation, what do we do with it?  How do we interpret it?  This is also the theme of the holiday which was celebrated a couple of weeks ago: On Purim we read the Megillah in which God’s name is never mentioned. It is a story of chance and coincidence. People’s fate is either determined by the throw of a dice (according to Haman) or it is a meaningful opportunity to exercise our free choice and serve a higher calling (according to Esther).

We have the same choice. In our lives we can look at the parking space open up and say “never mind, I found one.” Or we can marvel at the mystery and give thanks.

8 replies
  1. Christian Potter says:

    Science and spirituality are not competing views, but rather complemetary ways of looking at the same world. Science focuses on matter. Spirituality focuses on, well….spirit. Science gives us mechanisms. It shows us how and why events happen. Spirtuality gives us meaning. It shows us how and why those events are important to us. Meaning cannot be proven, only experienced. Science gives us universal truths. Spirituality gives us individual truths.

    One’s theology is merely the subjective interpretation of the meaning of the events they experience. One may chose to view life as a series of random events. They will live in a random world. One may chose to view events as magical or miraculous. They will live in a magical or miraculous world. Both are true. Life is both random and miraculous. I chose to focus on the magic and miracles. It seems richer that way.

    • nmargalit says:

      Yes, but even though one can simply look at science and spirit as separate and complementary, there are ways of doing science that seem to challenge spiritual understandings, as when science is reductionist, that is, it says, “its only…” “its only chemistry,” “its only hygene,” “its only economics.” This is the classic way that science has been for three centuries. But what I’m commenting on is the fact that science is starting to change. It is no longer only looking to reduce. Science and spirit can truly complement one another when science comes around to acknowledging mystery and discovering its own limits.

  2. Christian Potter says:

    Science is all about uncovering mystery through observation, and that is limited only by the human imagination. The scientific method tells us only how things happen. Does knowing the mechanism of a miracle negate its “miraculousnes”?

    It is not the mechanism that makes the miracle but the time, the probability, in a sense the interpretation. If science speculates on the meteorological pnenomenon that caused the parting of the Sea during the Exodus, does that take away the miracle? For me, it does not. In fact, it makes it even more miraculous; divinity working within the confines of the natural laws it established at creation. I love the fact that built into the mechanistic workings of the universe is the possibility for highly improbable events or “miracles”.

    Religion and spirituality are very different. It is true that science has been reductionist and often quite critical of religion for most of its young life. I suspect that has been, and continues to me, rationalist reactionism. It would be hard to dispute that much malevolence has entered the world in the name of religion and its exclusionist theological views. Science was part of humanity’s rescue from interpreation of the universe as a “demon haunted world”. Providing an alternative to religious interpretation and persectuion and the pain that it caused. The role that science has played in human unification and the evolution of human conciousness has been, and continues to be, a very important one.

    As human conciousness continues to grow and evolve, scientific thought is also changing. The cutting edge of physics looks more and more like spirituality or mysticism. Interestingly, some of the greatest works of modern “mysticism” come from 21st century physicsts. They are a bit late though. They are saying what Buddhists have been saying for thousands of years.It does not negate the scientific method or scientific progress, it just recognizes the inherent mystery in the world. It makes me smile.

  3. Howard A Cohenl says:

    Great teaching about the crust on the bread. I once learned a little variation on this. It goes like this. Why is the hallah encrusted all around? So that when go to rip it and then share it the tough tough crust reminds us to break through “crust” that builds around our heart that impedes our eagerness to share with others.

  4. nmargalit says:

    Yes, exactly, both science and religion are going through paradigm shifting changes in our time. They are starting to bridge the gaps that have existed between them since the scientific revolution. In science this has to do with balancing reductionist thinking with systems thinking. In religion this has to do with understaningn that “You don’t have to be wrong for me to be right” — that is, there are many refractions of the truth and no one has the Truth with a capital T. Spirituality, religion and science are all getting closer together — but we’re not there yet.

  5. Iris Selig says:

    This is a great essay and a wonderful discussion thread. I think we need to come to terms with what we can – and cannot – understand or explain from both directions: the rational and the mysterium tremendum

  6. Daniel Walsh says:

    For every question science attempts to answer, it seems to me, two or more questions are generated. This phenomenon is typically, if not always, articulated in the concluding section of published experiments, sometimes under the subtitle, “Considerations for Future Research.” (It’s hard to imagine a scientific paper concluding its subject to be now fully known, its authors left to find new jobs). It doesn’t take a mathematician to recognize this as an exponential blossoming, questions branching off answers from previous questions, ad infinitum, an actual “tree of knowledge”. It may be that the dynamics of scientific inquiry informs us that human omniscience is intrinsically unattainable, that each new understanding of our universe carries within it a multiplicity of uncertainties made explicit. The more we strive toward omniscience, the more quickly it recedes (not even a dog chasing its tail has to contend with this widening gap!). Perhaps Heisenberg’s Uncertainty Principle holds true for the broad context of the scientific method (i.e., what’s true of the part, is true of the whole; “he who saves a life, saves the whole world” in both the Talmud and the Koran, undoubtedly expressed elsewhere). Lisa Randall, the physicist from Harvard, writes beautifully in her recent book, Knocking on Heaven’s Door, that science is rooted in humility, the ready, even enthusiastic, acknowledgement of human ignorance, that “We do not know…” (swiftly proceeding to “…so let’s find out!”). This describes the state of mind of Job after his encounter with the Divine (“I will ask, and You will inform me”), more fully aware of the world’s mysteries and his own lack of omniscience. Paradoxically, science may ultimately be a kind of spiritual undertaking, a humble and enthusiastic striving to reveal what is concealed, a delighting in that which exists (yod hey vav hey), whether it be a quark or the infinities of mathematics. How could the Eternal One not weep with joy over such beautiful and earnest efforts?

    See “The Joy of Science” by Dr. Robert Hazen, (Teaching Company video course) for a lovely display of the scientific spirit embodied.


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