9 January 2015
18 Tevet 5775
During this first week back at school after winter break, I spent many hours walking the building, reconnecting with students and teachers and observing our students’ resumption of learning. From play rehearsals to student-alumni basketball games, from dining hall conversations about social justice and student protest to Talmudic debates, it has not taken much time for the inspired buzz of exploration, inquiry, and engagement to return to 333 Forest Street.
The other day I saw one of my colleagues who did not look quite like himself. He seemed a bit dazed. After we exchanged pleasantries, I asked him, “Are you okay?”
“Actually,” he responded, “I am in a state of wonder. I just sat in on one of my colleague’s biology classes. They were looking at proteins. They (the proteins) were absolutely breathtaking. I am, simply, speechless.”
A simple Google search for “beautiful protein structures” helps to understand why my colleague was in awe.
I admit I was surprised by the source of my colleague’s wonder, probably because of my own high school science education. While I recall feeling challenged and enjoying my classes, even when we were asked to think critically (mostly, we were memorizing a great deal of concepts and information), science was more of an intellectual game. How much could I learn, how fast, and how well could I do on my tests?
So, I left this brief encounter thinking about three things: the relationship between science and spirituality, Abraham Joshua Herschel, and the meaning and purpose of education.
Many people in the modern world believe that there is an irreconcilable conflict between science and religion or spirituality. In this biology class, it was the very scientific method of observing carefully the natural world that produced my colleague’s state of spiritual wonder. Scientific analysis of our world, even in its most microscopic forms, can actually open our eyes to seeing the grandeur and magnificence of God’s creation.
For me, the word “wonder” always leads me to the writings and thoughts of Abraham Joshua Heschel. In Man Is Not Alone, Heschel writes:
The greatest hindrance to knowledge is our adjustment to conventional notions, to mental clichés. Wonder or radical amazement, the state of maladjustment to words and notions, is, therefore, a prerequisite for an authentic awareness of that which is.
Standing eye to eye with being as being, we realize that we are able to look at the world with two faculties—with reason and with wonder. Through the first we try to explain or to adapt the world to our concepts, through the second we seek to adapt our minds to the world.
Heschel rejects an irreconcilable dichotomy between science and spirituality. He sees scientific thinking as necessary, but not sufficient for the human experience and understanding of the world. To truly understand our world means to go even beyond reason and explanation, scientific observation, and critical analysis. For Heschel, “wonder…is the root of knowledge.” We only truly know something or someone when we are able to see them through new eyes, when we allow ourselves to be surprised and inspired by them.
The sacred task of education is to guide students on their journeys to becoming fully human, to encountering and gaining deep understanding of themselves and their world, and to feeling profoundly responsible for sustaining and improving both themselves and their world, our world. In order to do this, we need to train our students not only to think but also to feel. We need to engage not only their minds but also their souls.
We need to challenge and inspire our students to “adapt their minds to the world” and to develop their unique capacities to see—through the scientist’s eyes and the poet’s eyes, through the historian’s eyes and the rabbi’s eyes, and even, as Heschel would say, through the prophet’s eyes.
Rabbi Marc Baker