Perspectives On Heaven And Earth


Candlelighting, Readings:
Candles: 5:58 p.m. (Fri.); 5:55 p.m. (Sun.); 6:53 (Mon.)
Torah: Deut. 32:1-32:52
Haftorah: II Samuel 22:1-51
Havdalah: 6:57 p.m. (Sat.); 6:52 p.m. (Tue.)

he universe, we like to imagine, encompasses two categories of reality: the Heavenly and the earthly. We know what the earthly is — science has been studying it for centuries. But what, exactly, is the Heavenly? The usual explanations are often unenlightening; they just replace one problematic word (Heavenly) with others (Divine, Godly, spiritual, and so on), leaving us pretty much where we started: wondering if “Heavenly” is anything real altogether; anything more, that is, than a wishful figure of speech.

Medieval commentator Ibn Ezra objects to this evasion of clarity, citing interpretations that identify “the Heavenly” as angels, for example, and dismissing them as fanciful. “Actually,” he concludes, “Heaven and earth” denote the two categories of “everything that has permanent existence.”

Let’s start there: We have two categories of existence that are permanent: the Heavenly and the earthly. What can we add, without lapsing into dubious metaphysics?

The earthly is familiar to us. Over four centuries of scientific analysis has built up massive sets of laws describing it. Unfortunately, these laws are stunningly amoral:  they explain the phenomena of nature, but without regard for good and bad, right and wrong. Philosopher John Stuart Mill captured the problem by observing: “Nature impales men … burns them to death … starves them with hunger, freezes them with cold. … A single hurricane destroys the hopes of a season. … All this nature does with the most supercilious disregard both of mercy and of justice.”

So religion adds a category: the Heavenly, something equally real, albeit not amenable to scientific measurement. We should not think of “the Heavenly” as a separate realm, however, some actual space, somewhere or other. It is just another perspective on the same phenomena that we study with science. It, too, looks at nature but from the perspective of human empathy, and the consequent demand for mercy and justice.

The earthly perspective of science provides an unsympathetic calculus of how the universe works: how hurricanes happen, for example. The Heavenly perspective of empathy evaluates the way that universe affects the lives of those who live in it: not the science of how hurricanes happen, but sympathy for the way a hurricane devastates this ruined farmer or that grieving mother whose child was crushed under a falling tree. “Science and the earthly” measure truth; “empathy and the Heavenly” allocate kindness.

The two perspectives coalesce in our concept of life. From a scientific perspective, the various forms of life come and go. Darwinian selection favors continuity of the species, but cares not one whit about any given instance of it. By analogy, sociology or economics, say, can rightly be called “sciences” insofar as they study the laws by which human organizations and the economy operate — without, however, any necessary sympathy for the poor, the sick, and the victimized in the systems that they study. When economists or urban planners actually decide to address these unfortunates, they adopt the perspective of the Heavenly.

Thank God for the Heavenly perspective that supplements scientific knowledge with kindness. But thank God for scientific understanding, too. Without it we wouldn’t know how to alleviate the misery that empathy uncovers.

Scholars tell us that the last three portions of the Torah, not just this week’s, but last week’s and next week’s too, follow from Netzavim before them (especially Chapter 30) where Moses again summons Heaven and earth, this time to witness the claim that we are given life and death, and the insistence that we choose life [Deuteronomy 30:19]. But who wouldn’t choose life? Why remind us about the obvious?

The point must be that in choosing life, we risk choosing only one of the two perspectives on it. We actually need both: the scientific laws on how life works, and the empathic kindness toward the way those laws impact the less fortunate among us.

Quite rightly, Moses calls both Heaven and earth as witnesses to history. Either one alone, science without empathy or empathy without science, will ruin us. 

Rabbi Lawrence A. Hoffman,  co-founder of Synagogue 3000, and professor of liturgy, worship and ritual at Hebrew Union College-Jewish Institute of Religion, is the author of “My People’s Prayer Book: Traditional Prayers, Modern Commentaries” (Jewish Lights), winner of the National Jewish Book Award.