A DIFFERENT REALITY
Interview with Dr. Eliyahu Rips
Professor Emeritus of Higher Mathematics, Hebrew University
When Harold Gans of Baltimore, author of The Cosmic Puzzle: A Scientific Investigation into the Existence of G-d, invited me to interview the Orthodox scientist engaged in Torah Codes computer research, my reply–expressed as diplomatically as I could—was no. I couldn’t in good conscience get involved.
I had been moved, many years before, by accounts of the painstaking exploration carried out by hand by the righteous tzaddik Rav Michoel Weissmandel zt”l, who while alone in hiding during the Holocaust, had investigated the phenomenon of what would one day be dubbed “Torah Codes.” But a recently published American bestseller, written by a well-meaning secular Jew, had to my mind sensationalized the topic, popularizing it as one would some sort of New Age craze. To pin the Jewish People’s emunah onto what struck me as gimmicky computer acrobatics was to cheapen, I felt, not only our capacity historically for genuine faith, but to insult the Torah itself. Furthermore, if even a single one of my brethren were persuaded by the so-called Codes to explore Yiddishkeit and later had reason to be skeptical of their veracity, his skepticism could naturally extend to Judaism in its entirety.
To my surprise, Mr. Gans didn’t seem bothered by my a priori rejection. Actually, he said, it was preferable that a critic conduct the interview rather than a proponent.
So that’s how I came to interview Dr. Eliyahu Rips, professor emeritus of Advanced Mathematics at Hebrew University, and it was my good fortune that the weekly interview sessions had been going on for several months before the financial backing fell through. For I’d come, by then, to witness the renowned scientist’s integrity as a Torah scholar, and my curiosity was piqued. The implausible phenomenon of meaningful phrases and sentences unfolding and rearranging themselves before my eyes on the computer screen, betwixt and between the Hebrew letters, was an occurrence too consistent to be ignored yet too astounding to be digested by my small mind. One impossibly coherent phrase or line or sentence after another, after another, after another…multi-dimensional, multi-directional, interlocking crossword puzzles appearing to be intrinsically part of the visible text—continued to confront my resistance. I was beginning to see—though not, of course, to understand–that the Torah itself, as Dr. Rips said, is a miraculous document, miraculously structured.
It wasn’t, G-d forbid, that I hadn’t been a believer until then. After all, it was for the sake of my belief that I’d left behind my beloved childhood home, and had married a fellow-baal-teshuvah, and had raised our children in Israel. But I had been drawn to Torah instinctively, like a moth to light, more with my heart than my mind, and had thus, by necessity, suppressed innumerable unarticulated questions.
There were nights, after an interview, that I’d step outside, look up at the stars, and understand, for a few moments, that the structure of reality is contained within the Torah; that it’s no mere poetic metaphor that the past and the future are present, or that the universe was—and continues at this moment to be–created with His words.
No sooner would my mind expand, however, than it would involuntarily shut down, and no mental forceps of my own devising could pry it open. I’d be abashed before my own conscience by how quickly I’d revert to my usual mundane state, and had to learn not to hold on too tightly to an awareness beyond my natural capacity to grasp. The human’s limitations are meant to be. I’d take heart from Dr. Rips’ remark that “modern man is scornful of simple faith, but simple faith is scientifically correct.”
The story is told that sometime before the creation of the State, an Arab farmer was plowing his field in Eretz Israel when suddenly the earth gave way and an underground chamber of light became momentarily visible. It was here that the utensils of the Temple had been concealed.
I, too, stumbled in my life upon an underground chamber. And though granted a glimpse of its hidden light, I was not inclined, at first, to take a peek.
Can you tell us about your journey to Judaism?
My upbringing was 100% atheistic. I was taught that there are laws of nature and nothing beyond that – unbreakable, universal laws of nature. The idea was firmly implanted in Soviet society that science had already proven conclusively that there is no such thing as miracles. No miracles are possible, in principle The Soviet environment afforded me no exposure to Judaism whatsoever.
When the Czarist government was overthrown and the Soviet Union was established, the older generation of Jews tried for a period of time to keep Judaism as much as possible. But that generation was for the most part murdered by the Germans. In my family, three out of my four grandparents were killed, and whatever my parents had absorbed from them was expunged by the surrounding atheistic culture.
After I came to Israel and was exposed to Judaism for the first time in my life at age 23, I was attracted naturally to the Jewish faith and to observance. I thought this was something very likable. Only a year or so later did I face my intellectual difficulties with it. I already was practicing and liking Judaism, but there was a problem: it was against the way I was brought up. It was precisely this point: whether there is such a thing as miracles. My education had taught me there are no miracles, and the story the Torah tells includes miracles.
Now, assume that for emotional reasons, with all your heart you would like to believe but you have been taught it’s not true, there are no miracles. Even if you would wish, you feel unable to compromise your intellectual honesty. Refusing to face such questions would have meant conceding defeat, and trying to save oneself from defeat.
So, what to do?
I remember this period very well. The first level of solution for this came after several months of very painful thinking. It took intellectual work of several months, while working on my PhD in Mathematics, until I understood something that afterward looked simple: If there is a Master of the Universe Who created the world, then He also has power over the laws of nature because He created them. He can stop the action to set aside the laws and do miracles and then restore the laws, because He stands above the laws of nature.
That’s simple. It was a matter of logic. So why did it take months to understand that this argument is not a stretch?
People assume that there is a logical necessity to negate miracles. If one goes beyond that and arrives at an intellectual understanding that there is no logical necessity to negate miracles, then there arises another question. In our tradition, emunah does not mean “faith” in the sense of belief without evidence. The Ramban [Perush haTorah Shmos] says that our belief in Hakadosh Baruch Hu as Creator, Knower and Governor of the universe is based on the miracles we experienced. He says we reason from complete evidence, while Aristotle, lacking the historical evidence, over-generalized to an unchanging universe. The Rambam in Egerett Techiyas haMettim says exactly the same thing.
The Torah makes verifiable empirical predictions. For example, the Torah predicted that the Jewish People would a) sin by worshiping idols, b) undergo exile, and c) return to their land. These predictions are humanly unaccountable (a) and (b) have come true 3600 years later and (c) are – possibly – in progress. The Torah also predicts that at some point the laws of nature will change [Techiyas haMettim, Olam haBa].
To define emunah as unquestioning faith is to take an approach of “the last resort” in the face of the triumphant, victorious falsities that dominate the present-day world.
So, it was not until you got to Israel that you were exposed to other ways of thinking?
Actually, for me the first fissure in the atheistic culture had occurred at age 16, while I was still in the Soviet Union. I had started university and was attending a course on scientific atheism. I had expected rational arguments would be presented in this course, but was disappointed and surprised to find that the teaching was in the style of Soviet propaganda, which I already hated. The arguments were crude. They left me with a feeling of dissatisfaction. Not that I knew any other alternative – I did not. But the impression was one of indoctrination rather than real argument.
It was not something I could think about; I was unaware of any other reality. But it was the first crack in the edifice.
Can you imagine a situation in which people do not view science and religion as mutually exclusive? Before Copernicus, people did not think there was a conflict between science and religion. The problem in the world at that time was between several contesting religions, all of which come from Judaism.
In the Middle Ages, the concern was whether Aristolean views could be reconciled with religious views. So there was a kind of tension but nothing comparable to what happened after Copernicus. The discovery by Copernicus was the first to contradict the plain reading of the Torah, that we are at the center. We were knocked out of the center.
Why? Bereishis doesn’t say explicitly that we are at the center, does it?
When the sun rises, who is moving? We are not sensitive to this anymore. It does not say so explicitly but when you read it, you have this feeling. What I am trying now to address is that we are going more and more in this direction, of an antagonism between science and religion. The feeling is of an irreconcilable split.
One turning point in the positive direction was the discovery of quantum mechanics, because it has far-reaching implications which when thought out, leave no room for a purely mechanistic worldview.
Because of the perfection of the universe?
No. In the mechanical view, the world exists like a mechanism, soulless. This is the mechanical point of view. And when it was replaced by quantum mechanics, it turned out that one cannot even formulate the laws of nature without an observer.
A human observer?
No, it insists only that there is an observer.
Not very many people are studying the philosophical implications of quantum mechanics, how different is the worldview imposed on us by quantum mechanics, as compared to what would be previously considered immutable reality. What we generalize, from our experience, is that we are living, and that there is dead matter. In the worldview which in our immediate observation, this dead matter seems to exist independently.
Such as a table?
Yes. Such as a stone. It seems to exist by itself, and that we are irrelevant to its existence. And this attitude is generalized to the whole world, which is imagined to exist as dead matter.
If a person totally believes in science, what is his opinion of religion?
That religion is superstition.
Yes. Superstition in the sense that it is 1) wrong and 2) doesn’t present an intellectual challenge. Nothing to think about. Nevertheless, he sees this whole situation as unproblematic.
Let us now go to the other side, to a person who is religious. He actually has to struggle with the situation. He can do it in a number of ways:
1) The religious person can claim that the perceived antagonism between science and religion is just that, a matter of perception, and not a real conflict.
2) He can say that the opinion of scientists is not important to him.
3) He can see this antagonism as intentionally designed by G-d. “For the Eternal tests you to know whether you really love the Lord your G-d with all your heart and all your soul” [Devorim, chapter 13].
The idea here is that we are intentionally put into an intellectually ambiguous situation. My attitude regarding all three of these viewpoints is that there are certain truths in each of them. Why? Because if you look at the dry facts, it is hard to find something that actually contradicts Judaism. Why? Because all the theories that are put forth against faith are actually about something unobservable. They try to say what happened in the past. They are based on reconstruction of the past, which we cannot immediately observe and experience. And such reconstruction unavoidably uses implicit assumptions, which are culturally dependent. To accept this reconstruction, a person is actually accepting the prejudices of a certain culture.
This is actually the same as what I said: the task of not accepting the premises of contemporary culture is a trial — a test. It is easier to assume the premises of the culture in which we are living than to go against it. To not look at the world through the same glasses as those of the surrounding culture is a trial. To actually succeed in this situation, it is necessary that the values of Torah should be more important to a person than the values of the surrounding culture. And this is what the 2nd attitude says.
On the surface, they are three separate attitudes, but they are connected, and simply emphasize different points.
In any case, a religious person needs to struggle with the situation.
Whereas the non-religious person does not feel that same need?
[Dr. Rips goes into the other room and returns with a printout of the following quote:]“The universe we observe has precisely the properties we should expect if there is, at bottom, no design, no purpose, no evil and no good, nothing but blind, pitiless indifference.” This carries an obvious problem. If, as the author contends, there is no design, no purpose, etc. how does he know these notions, to be able to deny them? To deny certain things you have to operate with them.
Because there is design, there is purpose, etc., this is why he has this idea. But because he is not properly connected to it, he denies it.
Many practicing Orthodox Jews who are professionals with dedication to various fields, have two views of the world: the scientific view and the religious view. It is as if there are two drawers. Sometimes you open one drawer and close the other, but you cannot open both drawers simultaneously. You know you’re keeping a secret from yourself. You try to escape from the fact that you are keeping a secret from yourself.
They were brought up in the system that taught them to believe unquestionably in the Torah, then they are trained professionally and exposed to the world that unquestionably does not believe in the Torah, because the secular world view involves the fields of evolution, Bible criticism, of conflict between the cosmology of Torah and the cosmology of science. And unconsciously they feel that if they go and ask all the questions, it will destroy their religious belief. They also feel that many people who went and asked these questions actually rejected their religious belief as a result, which they do not want. They feel an obligation and a deep commitment to remain true to Torah.
In my case, the sequence of events came about in the opposite manner. I was first exposed to the world that denied Torah and then to the world that accepted it. The way that I try to resolve the conflict is therefore the precise opposite of the way they try to resolve it. To them it seems irresponsible and dangerous. A person like me is seen as trying to open both drawers simultaneously.
This is the essence of the controversy.
A person who deeply understands the Torah and how it contains the seeds of reality can grasp how reality grows out of the Torah. He realizes that Torah is a divine document which is miraculously structured.
There are two kinds of people: those who trying to escape from G-d and those who are trying to come closer. Yet even someone who is trying to come closer may still seek an intellectual escape.
And those who believe we live, G-d forbid, in a godless universe…?
Despite the fact that many people imagine they live in a g-dless universe, a g-dless universe cannot be imagined. G-d is much more than an unimaginable perfection.
At the Revelation, the Jews were unable to tolerate it. It is written in Shir HaShirm, “My soul went out from my body when He spoke.”
We are actually encountering something unimaginable. Everything done by humans, and anything humanly imaginable, is done step by step, by incremental progress. The universe is such that it cannot have been created step by step. All of it must was accomplished simultaneously.
Being able to encompass everything at one stroke, this is nothing other than a definition of G-d
Ultimately, in Heaven there is a desire to make a person be close. Yet the person feels unworthy to stand before Hashem, and Hashem says, “Where are you? Why are you trying to hide?”
If we are going to understand the essence of this life then we can become worthy.
G-d didn’t say, “Repent.” He said, “Where are you?”
There is a tremendous light that could be in this world, an enormous light at any moment. But we are not ready to receive it. We would feel it burning us. We have to get used to a small light, and to become a little more prepared for the unspeakable light that is ready to overwhelm the world. To those who consider themselves believing Jews, it shouldn’t be hard. It’s in our tradition. But to be faced with it, to have it before your eyes, hidden but not hidden; to have it jump out at you; it’s too much to take
I, too, don’t know how to face the reality, not to try to escape it.
Unfortunately, people respect science. I feel very bad about this, because this is exploiting a very pitiful weakness. Science is nothing but a professional common sense. It may be very worked out and very professional but people see in science some magic. Part of the problem is that the scientists speak in a language only scientists can understand. It requires abstract thinking, but this is not the highest wisdom. Scientists can be very stupid in other areas.
Theoretically there are three ways of reaching the truth:
the rational human mind
One thinks that the three ways should give harmonious or compatible results. Outside of the Jewish world, until the end of the Middle Ages, this was indeed the case: the three ways were perceived to be in harmony, or at least reconcilable. At the end of the Middle Ages, these three ways were no longer perceived as harmonious or reconcilable. This resulted in a giant split across human civilization. It was an interesting idea to me – to look with my right eye and see one picture and look with my other eye and see another picture. If you open both eyes at once, you are confounded. The way some people react to this is that some open the right eye and close the left and some open the left and close the right. Some believe in the world constructed by science and disbelieve whatever is claimed to have been given by revelation. Others trust revelation and do not trust what is given by science. All of these groups believe they are seeing the whole picture, with both eyes open. They lie to themselves that they are not lying to themselves. Actually, the split can be eliminated. The eye which sees empirical things can see confirmation of the Divine revelation.
Hashem wants human beings to be his beloved partners, but man must make himself worthy of this. A person who is not burdened by a sense of sin will desire spontaneously to move closer to G-d, and vice versa.
Modern culture despises and invalidates simple faith. There are people now, and there were more people in earlier times, who had simple faith. They were and are intellectually correct. Spoiled modern man cannot appreciate it. We cannot just step into simple faith. People have intellectual trouble.
My goal is that this man should see that this simple faith is scientifically correct.
I have nothing to teach the man with simple faith. Know that he is right and learn from it. Our forefathers with simple faith were already in the place where a person should be. Our task is now to use our intellectual capacities for good while earlier they were used to take us away from our simple faith.
Nothing happens by chance but only a small percentage is understandable to us.
We know that in the last generation people saw terrible things, especially those who underwent the Holocaust. Unspeakable, terrible things. Some of them came out of this with strengthened faith but others were totally confounded because they tried to infer conclusions from the reality that they saw in the world that seemingly did not contain even one ray of light.
Intellectually the Torah is a stronger reality than the world that surrounds us.
Now let us find our main point.
Maybe this is a preparation for us to face in the struggle of such a terrible reality that if we would not know in advance and for sure that the world is created by a benevolent Creator, we would not be able to keep the faith.
The Jews in the Holocaust saw the evil absolutely triumphant day after day. Then they still had to know that the true story of the world is in Torah, despite the reality that denied it, as if the reality were giving Torah a slap in the face. Evil was absolutely triumphant day after day.
The problem is an emotional storm. It can sweep people away.
In very difficult times, one person deepens his faith and the other loses it. Either you see the world as the ultimate reality or there is another, more important reality.
When a Jewish person sincerely believes that a Jewish martyr goes to a place where no other person can stand in the other life, so it limits the evil to this world. Evil is unable to actually hurt us because it is limited to this world. The more important part of the story is taking place where evil has no strength at all.
What is it, do you think – aside from our whole history as a people!–which causes so many Jews to be scared of being Jewish?
The covenant creates ties and the ties are inescapable. If you do not make a force to make them positive they will manifest themselves in a negative way. The society will make you feel that you are connected to something negative. The alienated Jews are trying to escape from the inescapable burden of Judaism, time and time again repeating this Sisyphean torture.
When I was not religious I was not exposed to Judaism at all. I didn’t know about any of the mitzvos and any of the historical events. There was therefore no element of rejection, just unfamiliarity.
The estranged Jew’s very negative attitude toward Judaism is actually a kind of paradoxical or perverted manifestation of the overwhelming existence of G-d. If there were no clue of His existence, there would be no reason for this rejection. There would just be indifference. The rejection is because people feel themselves to be in the shadow of something negative against their will.
What do you think it is that makes conceiving of the reality of G-d so difficult?
The governing religion of today is the religion of self-fulfillment. Many Jews are afraid that recognizing the sovereignty of G-d will deprive them of their personal freedom. Acceptance of the sovereignty of G-d is the opposite of frivolous, and the opposite of frivolous is moral.
When a person tastes the taste of subjugation to G-d, then He realizes that this is the taste of real freedom, yet he will never think this way before experiencing it. This is why there is so much fear. They fear for their personal freedom, not suspecting that this is the way to attain their freedom. This was the reason Bnei Yisrael said, “We will do and we will listen.” After doing, they will experience it and they will understand.
We are used to a world of uncertainty, even while living a frum life. The problem is not that G-d is too far away. He is inconceivably imminent, but human beings cannot grasp the reality of His Presence.
At Sinai, everybody felt the totality of facing the word of G-d. The true normality is one in which we can go to the Holy Temple to be where G-d’s Presence is.
The Temple was the stamp of the Divine Presence in this world. G-d needs to reestablish His Presence.
Sometimes we are given a glimpse into the world in which the absolute certain knowledge of G-d is normal and the prophet promises us that this normality will suddenly be revealed.