Stephen Hawking’s Rosh Hashanah Gift

For two weeks before Rosh Hashanah, R. Berel Soloveitchik could not taste food. It all went down like chalk, because he could not salivate. Anticipating the Divine judgment with which he would soon be scrutinized, his salivary glands stopped working. His bone-dry mouth could not make out any familiar tastes.

Unfortunately, most of us do not share this problem. If we are concerned at all, it is with our lack of concern. We have a hard time getting our hearts to respond to what we tell them with our minds – that we ought to be facing the Day of Judgment with fear and trembling.

If we can’t fully move ourselves to proper trepidation over our appointment with the heavenly tribunal, we can consider alternative ways to find merit in judgment.

For hundreds of years, people have puzzled over the upbeat parts of Rosh Hashanah. Despite the fact that our lives hang in the balance, we somehow find room for celebratory activity. We have Yom Tov-style meals; we wear fine clothes. (The Kotzker remarked that we ought to carry ourselves on Rosh Hashanah like the sequence of tekias shofar, with the teruah surrounded on both sides by a tekiah. In other words, we ought to appear whole on the outside – but broken on the inside.)

There are many explanations for finding room for joy, including the simplest one – that we have confidence in Divine compassion modifying our judgment.

Other motifs associated with Rosh Hashanah lead to different explanations. “There is no king without a people.” Hashem’s role as King is inconceivable without subjects accepting Him as their leader. The very first moment that this was possible, explains Rav Hutner (Maamar 25) was the moment that Man came to life through Hashem breathing in to him the nishmas chaim. (Breath/ neshimah and soul/ neshamah are thus closely related.) The inner life of the shofar, so to speak, takes us back to that instant in which Man was first able to recognize his Creator – and therefore to accept Him as King. (And every blowing proceeds from inside outward. Hashem breathed into Man, as it were, from “inside” Himself; we mirror this in sounding the shofar, expelling our breath from inside ourselves to the outside.) The shofar marks the first coronation of the King. Each year, we coronate Him anew, renewing the recognition of His absolute power and dominion.

Rosh Hashanah is the day of the coronation of the King. It is, in a manner of speaking, HKBH’s Yom Tov. Said the Chasam Sofer: If we can set aside our own anxiety, and feel joy for the special event of the King, we earn huge merit for ourselves. Acting as loyal subjects in this way, looking away from our personal problem, we endear ourselves to our Monarch.

While this may not seem any easier than trembling for two weeks before the first of Tishrei, it may be easier this year, thanks to an unwitting boost from Stephen Hawking. Apparently concerned that people might, G-d forbid, think that he seriously meant his reference at the end of A Brief History of Time to knowing “the mind of G-d,” Hawking set the matter straight last week. He had now determined that G-d does not exist at all; no mind of G-d need to be invoked to solve any mystery regarding the initial conditions of the universe. It is in the nature of matter to spring up spontaneously according to his understanding of the laws of physics; there is, therefore, no reason to have to posit His existence, and no place for Him to insinuate Himself as the answer to our question of how we all got here.

Chief Rabbi Lord Jonathan Sacks was, as expected, one of the first to take on the person looked upon by many as the smartest man alive. He argued that religion and science do not and cannot oppose each other. Pitting them against each other weakens both. Science can answer the questions “what” and “how,” but not “why.” In science, Man will not find answers to important questions that plague him: Why am I here? What purpose, if any, is there in life?

While Rabbi Sacks persuasively leaves room for G-d where Hawking attempts to crowd Him out, but he does not do as well in necessitating His presence there. Speaking to a global audience, the Chief Rabbi likely had to provide an approach with universal appeal, rather than one based on the uniqueness of the Jewish experience. We are not bound by that limitation, and are free to remind ourselves of other approaches in our tradition. The most important one is that of R. Yehuda HaLevi in Kuzari, who argues for Jewish belief based on our national experience, rather than any G-d of the Gaps approach that seeks to answer questions of our origin.

We believe because we experienced G-d. He took us out of Egypt, shepherded us across through the Sea, spoke with us at Sinai – and then graced us with His Presence when we obeyed His Will, and withdrew it when we disobeyed.

The Vilna Gaon, it is said, recommended learning Kuzari in place of Sha’ar HaYichud in Chovos HaLevavos, claiming that R. Yehuda Halevi’s G-d of history approach is the authentic tradition of the Jewish people, in contradistinction to the collection of First Cause/ Prime Mover approaches offered by other rishonim.

As others struggle to adequately address Hawking’s challenge, we won’t be struggling, but remembering. We will remember our national experience, something that Hawking has no way of knowing or much reason to believe. The only G-d he could know is the one made up by Man to fill in gaps in his comprehension. Finding those gaps filled in to his satisfaction, Hawking has no need for any god. We will have clarity, where other people will not. Because HKBH revealed Himself to us as a people through a series of experiences, we will stand in shul at the time of tekias shofar, and take joy in the advantage that He bestowed upon us of knowing Him in a different way than all other peoples.

We will, in effect, rejoice in the coronation of the King. The Chasam Sofer would approach. Yehi Ratzon that Hashem will as well.

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12 comments to Stephen Hawking’s Rosh Hashanah Gift

  • Yashar Ko’ach. Sometimes, when faced with the types of arguments set forth by scientists we tend to forget our own unique national experiences. For ourselves, we have no need to come up with answers to Hawkings and others like him. Thank you. A gut yor!

  • We don’t need to concede the scientific frontier to Hawking. I wrote a response to Hawking on my rationalistjudaism website

  • Chaim Fisher

    Thankfully Hawkins’ ‘genius’ seems to be limited to arcane comments on theories that promise the world but have so far delivered nothing. String theory and M theory and all these foolish-named projects have produced absolutely no applications of use to anyone.

    And not just theoretical physics is suffering. All non-engineering science is in trouble, unless you are one of the suckers who believes the New York Times science writers, puffing up and lying about ‘progress.’ Global warming has been proven to be faked in many vital ways–whether or not it is true! The Hubble telescope has produced a few (also obviously faked-up) National Geographic quality photos, but nothing more. Every new atom-smasher has promised us the key to the universe but not even been able to undo a bicycle lock. The genome project promised a cure for cancer and, at the billions of dollars it cost, should have delivered something. But phut was all we got.

    Even the swine flu prediction was a magnificent public failure. At a cost of half a billion dollars the world inoculated itself and went hysterical with masks and special hospital wards, only to find out that the disease was less dangerous, apparently, than any standard flu. Fatalities were way less than one in a million.

    All this crying wolf and breast beating about nothing has not been lost on the intelligent population. The world is cutting Climate Change preparations off almost completely, cutting back the big Euro atom buster by more than half, dumping the space program, and in general telling the modern-day alchemists with all their PhD’s to go take a hike.

    That’s one reason why Hawkins is reduced to writing this pop best seller style book. The readers will see right through it. Science is fizzling in front of our eyes.

    People of faith are looking better and better as science stumbles. The general population turns out to be a lot smarter than the egg heads. They just have egg on their face.

  • Chovot HaLevavot’s Sha’ar HaYichud is also problematic in its mathematical proof of God’s unity. In chapter 5, he introduces 3 mathematical propositions on which he rests his proof. One of these propositions is that “That the infinite should have parts is inconceivable. … Let us assume that a thing is actually infinite, and that we take a [finite] part from it. The remainder will undoubtedly be less than it was before. If this remainder is infinite, one infinite will be greater than another infinite, which is impossible. If this remainder is finite, then when we put the part we took back together with the finite remainder, the result should be finite [thus contradicting the premise].”

    There are two problems with this: he assumes that the size of an infinite quantity decreases when you take a subset of the infinite quantity. (In informal terms) when there is a one-to-one mapping between two infinite sets, they are the same size. There is a one-to-one mapping between the even integer and the set of all integers. Each integer can be doubled to give an even integer, even though the even integers are a subset of the set of all integers. Thus demonstrating that the size of an infinite quantity decreases when you take a subset of the infinite quantity.

    The other problem is that there *are* different sizes of infinity. The integers may be listed (in an infinitely long list) without skipping any numbers in the middle, however the real numbers may not. (If they could, the positions in the list would be a mapping to the set of all integers.) No matter how many real numbers you list, you can always find another real number that should be in the list. So the real numbers are a larger infinity than the integers.

    This is not to say chas v’shalom that God is a smaller infinity or a larger infinity (there are an infinite number of sizes of inifinity, so if we assign God to one of them, there would have to be a bigger infinity than Him) — rather this is to demonstrate the futility of proving God through mathematical reasoning in the first place. Which, if you think about it, actually makes sense. Since we have no Human language to describe God as he is (all the anthropomorphisms we do use are borrowed terms and analogies), formal mathematics shouldn’t have the ability to describe or define Him either.

    I haven’t worked out the details of what this says about the validity of science in dealing with issues like creation, but my feeling is that it does imply that science can’t foreclose God’s existance…

    (I hope my informal explanations of the mathematical arguments are understandable. For mathematically rigorous version of the arguments I have made informally here, see the Wikipedia entries on Hilbert’s_paradox_of_the_Grand_Hotel,; Countable_set; Aleph_number;

  • dr. bill

    Chaim and Ken, The CR said it well; an erudite, succinct and yet popular version of major religious thought.

    Kol hamosif goraiah. It would be silly to speak of God as infinite just as it is silly to speak of Him as blue.

    What Hawkings said is that the origin of the universe, hitherto unexplained within the system, may have a explanation within the system. For those who thought the Big Bang “proves” God’s existence – sorry. Similar to what Rabbi Alderstein implies, the universe is a source from which some derive religious belief; history is a better source. Neither brings one to certainty, at best they may enhance belief. When we create “proofs” of any sort, the consequences can have a down-side. For a simpleton like me, a physical world and historic events that I can perceive means more than what I cannot. But frankly, sitting with a young woman at my daughter and son-in-law’s table on RH on her way back to religion, spoke more to me than either.

    For what it is worth, science it is not fizzling; excess has always fizzled regardless of its promoters.

  • Bob Miller

    It appears that, to some scientists, the system is being taken as a given, not as something that, in its totality, begs for explanation.

  • another Nathan

    Paul Davies is a physicist who doesn’t write with an innate hostility to G*d. His eminently readable “The Mind of God” explores many of the issues dealing with the existence of existence. He outlines strengths and problems of many of the theories. The main thing one comes away with is his sense of awe and respect. He concludes by surmising that the Mind of God can best be apprehended by the mystical experience, which he says he has not had.
    (I asked Rabbi Dovid Gottlieb of Ohr Somayach about Paul Davies. R. Gottlieb considers him legitimate).
    Chaim Fisher, you are taking the us vs-them approach. You end up sounding like a 9/11 conspiracy theorist, with faked pictures and plots. Just to debunk one of your debunkings, you consider the swine flu potential epidemic a ‘failure.’ Have you considered the possibility that without the massive response by governments and health authorities, it might have been a catastrophic epidemic? That the reason the swine flu was relatively harmless was BECAUSE the science was a success?
    Eicha Rabbah states “Should a person tell you there is wisdom among the nations, believe it.” Appreciating science is not against Torah.

  • Chaim Fisher

    Another Nathan:

    Plot conspiracies? Just read the climate change e-mails suggesting wholesale faking of data. The world’s legislators did, and dropped climate change like a hot potato.

    The Council of Europe also attacked the WHO on the swine flu overdo. What would your explanation be to the halting of the US space program and the cutbacks on the Hadron collider and the the dead stop of climate change legislation? Whole countries falling for conspiracy theories? Science has to pay its way.

  • “another Nathan” Thanks for the Paul Davies recommendation. I’ll try to find time to read his book.)

  • Bob Miller

    Chaim Fisher,

    I guess enough hadrons were colliding on their own.

  • One Christian's perspective

    Chaim Fisher, thank you for your well expressed response. I learned a lot.
    I am amazed that the great minds of the world of science still refuse to examine faith and its effect on believers and non-believers who are prayed for. My internist tells me faith and prayer are being recognized by the medical profession as something having a positive effect that can be measured. He has seen, in his own practice, that
    people with an active faith who stay in the Word of God have far better results with their medical issues. He is a believer and says he is encouraged by peoples stories and recoveries. Faith can be observed and it can be measured. Vital signs, physical observances and disease modifications can and are effected by faith. With faith: blood pressures can be lowered in the face of a crisis; peace of mind can be seen in the aftermath of Sept.11th; someone with a raging infection can have that eliminated without antibiotics within a day; someone with significant pulmonary emboli in both lungs is able to walk out of a hospital within a week without need to see a pulmonologist or cardiologist unless other symptoms arise – they did NOT ; a person who received a stem cell transplant for non-Hodgkins lymphoma experiences almost no graft vs host disease and is asked to participate in a study to understand “why” ; in 1943, a baby born 10 weeks early with a 50/50 chance to live is alive today at 67 with insignificant indications of that experience. These are some of the experiences I have witnessed. These hospitals were among the top 10 in cutting edge stem cell research and cardiology and they did what they do best within the limits of medicine and research but faith proved that the greatest healer is God and the most powerful work is that of a simple prayer from believers in the Sovereignty and Power of God. Granted, not all prayers are answered as we would, sometimes, have them but faith that yields to the will of God and trusts Him for the outcome is never disappointed. I was that baby born in 1943, who after seeing the Sept. 11th horror from the living room of a friend recovering from a stem cell transplant later prayed the 23rd Psalm until I fell asleep and awoke to the awesomeness of God as He revealed His presence in every aspect of what we all watched after the event for days – He merely put all the blessings together in a clear simple picture of His mercy in a way I could understand it and yet be blown away. My sister was the one with blood clots in 2009 and her heart and lungs are doing well; she will be on blood thinners for life – but she has life. My best friend had non-Hodkins lymphoma return in 2000 and a stem cell transplant (from her living sister) in 2001 – all of her potential donors (5 or 6) were a perfect match; she is alive and well. It is God who gets the Glory for the things He has done. He hasn’t changed. He is the same today as yesterday as in the time of Noah, Moses, Joshua, King David and beyond.

    I pray that Stephen Hawkin will meet Him before he dies. That will be his greatest observation and discovery.

  • One Christian's perspective

    Sorry, I spelled Stephen Hawkin wrong. It is Hawking.

    I forgot to add that my friend with the stem cell transplant is also the one with the raging infection that was detected by NIH. They asked her to come in so they could give her antibiotics IV – that was on a Friday. By Saturday, they scratched their heads and said “I don’t understand. You had a raging infection and now we cannot culture anything.” She went home on Sunday. BTW – NIH was so thorough and professional and missed nothing in her care and treatment, that, I am left with the only explanation as God healed her. This infection could have killed her.