Intergalactic Judaism: An Analysis of Torah Concepts Based on Discoveries in Space Exploration, Physics and Biology; By Rabbi David Lister; Urim Publications
Editor’s Note: The following is adapted from the foreword to Intergalactic Judaism with permission from the author.
A while back I inducted a new rabbi into office. It’s something I do often, and there is a certain predictability to the proceedings. I give the new rabbi my blessings and encouragement. He in reply thanks those who have helped him through the years, and sets out his aspirations as a spiritual leader and his vision for the future of the congregation. Imagine, therefore, my surprise when this particular rabbi took as the centerpiece of his address a poem entitled “Ode to a Harley Davidson” (a classic motorbike, for the uninitiated). It was unexpected, eccentric, and wholly effective. It perfectly fitted his theme – as unusual as the poem itself – which was that Judaism is about celebrating the present moment, the epiphanies of everyday life.
By now you will have guessed that the rabbi was David Lister, the author of this book. He is a man of rare spirituality and deep humanity, with a radiant smile that seems to come all the way from heaven itself. This is an unusual person, and appropriately he has written an unusual book. The title itself, Intergalactic Judaism, is enough to make you want to open it immediately and start reading. Once you have started, you are unlikely to stop. I’m not sure that I’ve read anything like it before.
Here is a work that combines dazzling erudition in astronomy, theoretical physics and various other scientific disciplines, together with a fine knowledge of Jewish mysticism and biblical commentary, and – what is truly rare – an ability to combine them seamlessly into a view of the world that is both spiritual and humane. What Rabbi Lister has, and generously shares with us, is a capacity for wonder: at the majesty of creation and therefore of the Creator. Here, with examples drawn from interstellar space to lightning, earthquakes and the humble lichen, is one man’s testimony to the miracles with which we are daily surrounded and which, if only we would open our eyes, testify to the awesome splendor of the universe. This is a surprising book and a moving one, and no reader will come away without having learned not only facts of which he or she was previously unaware, but also a new reverence in the face of existence itself, a sense of privilege at being alive. “Lift your eyes and look to the heavens,” said Isaiah, “and see who created all these.” Rabbi Lister has written, in effect, an extended commentary to that verse.
In his halachic code, the Mishneh Torah, Maimonides wrote that the natural sciences, along with metaphysics, are the paths to the love and awe of God. Understanding the complexity of the universe, he believed, we could not but feel the greatness of God, the smallness of mankind, and the strange and striking grace by which we are able to communicate with heaven because God has communicated with us. That is a set of ideas that suffered an eclipse with the mechanistic view of the universe that grew with the Enlightenment, and the “blind watchmaker” of neo-Darwinism. The time is right for us to reconsider and rehabilitate the Maimonidean perspective because so much of modern science – from cosmology to the mapping of the human genome – has revealed a world far more complex and finely tuned for the emergence of life than had hitherto been suspected. Rabbi Lister’s book, though not on this theme, is part of that process. Rightly he sees religious faith and science not as enemies but as potential friends.
The great nineteenth-century mystic, Rabbi Zadok hakohen of Lublin, once said that in the beginning, God wrote a book. He called it the universe. Then he wrote a commentary to this book and called it the Torah. That, he added, is why there are new insights (chiddushim) into Torah every day. We say in our prayers that God, every day, renews the work of creation. And if the universe is new every day, then Torah – God’s commentary to the universe – must also be new every day. To that lovely thought this book is testimony. It is full of new ideas, or rather ancient and classic ideas in a new context, and just as a diamond sparkles with new radiance when placed in a new setting, so do the words of Torah when reset by a jeweler, which is what our author is. Thank you, Rabbi Lister, for an unusual and delightful book which, by making us see the universe in a new light, will help us be a little different in future, more attuned to the wonders of creation, more open to the divine music of life.
About the Author: Rabbi Lord Jonathan Sacks, former chief rabbi of the British Commonwealth, is the author of many books of Jewish thought, most recently The Great Partnership: Science, Religion, and the Search for Meaning.
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