We were intended by God — we’re not afterthoughts

The magician succeeds by misdirection — look here and you will not notice everything that I am doing with my left hand.

Part of Christopher Hitchens’ magic in his essay is misdirection: He would have us ignore ourselves. How do human beings know? If we are, as scientific materialists tell us, nothing more than an accident of ancient chemistry, haphazardly evolved with no thought, no design, no intelligence behind the universe, then how do our minds draw correct conclusions about the origin of things? In Hitchens’ article he makes numerous assertions about the way the world began and will end and what God would or would not do, without wondering if it is wonderful that he can know this at all.

Minds evolved to survive on the savannah do not need to invent, much less master, nuclear physics. “I am awesomely, wonderfully made” sings the psalmist. The addition of evolutionary mechanisms to our stock of knowledge makes that declaration more potent, not less.

Evolution tells us that random mutations followed by adaptations to environment account for who we are. If we are adapted to fit an ecological niche, and our minds are as random and limited as our legs, ears and eyes, why can we understand truths about the world? Even more powerfully, where would free will enter this story? Products of heredity and environment do not get free will: No one picks his or her environment or his or her genes, so where do we get this glorious ability to choose?

It is possible that we are determined and all of our conclusions are limited or simple illusions. I cannot argue against the certainty that people are robots. But if you believe that what we know about the world has some relationship to truth, and that we are free agents, then you are driven to the conclusion that materialism may be too simple a conclusion. Perhaps God has something to do with this remarkable pageant.

The improbability of human existence can be seen from two different directions. Hitchens writes that given the ages Earth was without us, the close brush we had with extinction and the universe’s constant threat to wipe out life on our planet, we are clearly a wild card in the deck, products of happenstance.

There is another way to view the same set of facts: Given how long the Earth prepared for our appearance, however, (the midrash actually talks about how God set everything like a table for the guest of honor) and the unlikelihood of our being here and surviving, we could equally argue it is clear that we were intended. Once again, what Hitchens writes as conclusive — we were afterthoughts — can be seen in a very different light.

Rabbi David Wolpe and Christopher Hitchens will debate religion and faith on Wednesday, Nov. 12, at 7:30 p.m. at the Wilshire Theatre Beverly Hills as part of the Celebration of Jewish Books

Physicist Robert Jastrow famously remarked, “At this moment, it seems as though science will never be able to raise the curtain on the mystery of creation. For the scientist who has lived by his faith in the power of reason, the story ends like a bad dream. He has scaled the mountains of ignorance; he is about to conquer the highest peak; as he pulls himself over the final rock, he is greeted by a band of theologians who have been sitting there for centuries.”

Faith is not a cowering born of fear, to be discarded when a vaccine proves more efficacious than a prayer. Two thousand years ago the rabbis taught us that faith from love is more powerful and lasting than faith from fear. They understood the uncertainty of reward and punishment in this world, teaching explicitly that there is no reward for mitzvot in this world (B.T. kidd. 39b).

There are religious people who are credulous and narrow. To set up these straw men is one way of disputing, but there are religious people who both contribute to and learn from the intellectual advances in the world. For we believe that God intends us to learn, to grow, to discover and to create. These things are not contradicted by a tradition that pictures God as a creator; rather creativity is one of the ways of imitateo Dei — becoming more like God in our conduct in this world.

Hitchens does not mention that people who are religious give more to charity, have more stable lives, are less addicted to drugs and alcohol and form more cohesive communities. None of this proves religion is true, of course. Things can be false and still good for us.

What it suggests, however, is that faith is far more complex than a simple ancient illusion. Only a narrow antagonism assumes religion can be replaced with the Hubble telescope.

Disdain is an ugly quality on either side of the debate. Humility and goodness are a prerequisite if one wants not merely to score points but to touch souls. Belief is not a static illusion to be knocked down at the introduction of a new scientific hypothesis or discovery. Faith is an orientation of soul, a posture toward God’s universe that finds expression in many religious traditions. God is not a magic dispenser of favors in the sky but a creator whose presence is a challenge to create goodness and a call to humility.

Those who value religious traditions should value thoughtful opposition, because it forces us to re-examine our own lives. In the end, however, I believe that questions honestly asked lead us back to the Source of all.

David Wolpe is senior rabbi of Sinai Temple.

Holy Land Exploration

In a compelling collection of 19th and 20th century images and objects, the Skirball Cultural Center’s new exhibit of photographs, lithographs and archaeological artifacts tells the story of Israel as, literally, a “holy land” — a place that has long held fascination for the three monotheistic faiths, academics and Western tourists hoping to discover the exotic world of the East.

“Exploring the Holy Land,” which opens Oct. 3, documents the major movements that have motivated exploration of the area. Co-curators Tal Gozani and Erin Clancey have collected objects that “show how the pervasive aura of mysticism and spirituality of this ancient landscape inspired travel to the region,” Gozani told The Journal.

The collection contains photographs and lithographs from Jewish and Christian artists, depicting their own faiths as well as Islam. Felix Bonfils, a Christian, was a well-known photographer for the American Colony — a community of Christian pilgrims that established a photo studio in Jerusalem in 1898. “The American Colony was one of the many photo studios that disseminated photos of significant tourist locales of the Near East. His [Bonfils’] photographs offer a seductive portrait to lure visitors to the Holy Land,” Gozani says.

The work focuses on capturing images that would fascinate those considering religious tourism. Noted for his ability to capture crowds in religious activity, including photographs of Greek ceremonies at the Church of the Holy Sepulchre, his individual portraits are no less compelling. Bonfils’ photograph of a woman holding a jug on her head, says Gozani, “really captures the fascination of the Western world with the ‘exotic’ East — especially with Middle Eastern women.”

Also featured in the exhibit is S.J. Schweig, a Jewish photographer born in 1905. An acclaimed still-life photographer, Schweig later supervised a number of publications for the Jewish Agency, an organization that represented Jewish interests in Israel during the period of the British mandate. David Roberts, a famed Scottish lithographer who depicted lavish scenes of the Holy Land and Egypt, has reproductions of his work included as well.

Gozani says that it is striking to view the vast barren landscapes depicted at the turn of the last century, that are no longer empty. The images “are a great testament to the development of the land of Israel,” she says.

Gozani says her favorite image is a photograph called “Jaffa Gate” taken in 1880. “On the one hand, if you didn’t know that the photo was taken in 1880, you wouldn’t necessarily be surprised if someone told you that it was taken recently, as the gate itself looks nearly as it does today. Amazingly, the dress of the natives also doesn’t necessarily give away the time period,” she says. The only signal as to the late 19th century time period is “the clothing of the tourists, as well as the horse-drawn carriages.”

The photographs arrived at the Skirball through their former home at Hebrew Union College, the Reform Rabbinical Seminary. Several of the photographs came from the collection of Dr. Peerless from Cincinnati, who donated this collection of hundreds of photographs to HUC.

The archaeological artifacts on display came from a private collection, and feature objects from the sacred realm as well as from everyday life. The artifacts are from the Ancient Near East and Egypt and span a broad time period between the Bronze Age to the first and second centuries C.E. Many come from the collection of Nelson Glueck, who was a prominent archaeologist during the period of the British mandate. The exhibit runs until Dec. 2, 2001, and is housed in the Ruby Gallery.

Downhill Doubts

My father has disowned me. We did not get into a fight about the family business — there is no family business. I did not marry out of the faith, and I have no children about whose upbringing we can disagree. The source of our irreconcilable differences is that we went skiing together last year, and he is convinced that I cannot be his natural child.

His theory, which is a little complicated, goes like this: Jews have been enormously successful in myriad activities during the past 4,000 or so years, among them arts, science, finance and, lest we forget, religion. We have been far less successful in the field of navigation and exploration. It took Moses 40 years to get from Egypt across the Sinai, about a three-week walk if you know where you’re going. We did somehow manage to get just about everywhere in the world, but it’s not clear as to whether our ancestors wound up in, say, Spain as a result of a well-considered expedition to spread the word, or if they just made a wrong turn at the Gaza Strip and refused to stop at a gas station to get directions until they hit the Prado.

The theory continues that only a handful of Jews turned right and headed for Northern Europe. As a result, there are no Svens or Larses in our mishpocheh, only Arnies and Murrays.

When I was growing up, the chosen destination for winter holidays was Miami or Maui, not Aspen or Gstaad. Maybe our family just never got the word that it was okay to go outside and play in the snow, but now that I’ve become a somewhat adventurous skier, my father says the three most dangerous words in the English language are “Follow me, Dad.” His reasoning is that it’s crazy for Jews to be skiing in the trees. By that logic, if I ski in the trees, I must be either crazy or not Jewish and therefore not his son. Ergo, I am disowned.

I knew we were in foreign territory on my first ski trip to Deer Valley, Utah. After a rough day on the bunny hill, I returned to the Stein Ericksen Lodge and found the bar packed at 3 p.m. (It turns out that Stein is the first name of Mr. Ericksen, a famous Norwegian Olympian. I thought there was a Jewish partner in the hotel with top billing.) At one table of raccoon-eyed apres skiers was a blond couple wearing white sweaters with a little blue snowflake pattern. These people drink in the afternoon and never spill anything on themselves. In my family, a white sweater is a blank canvas on which one invariably spills his Bloody Mary.

There are many famous Jewish athletes, but every time one comes to prominence, every time Shawn Green comes to bat, we whisper with pride, “Did you know he’s Jewish?” Then we answer back, “Really?” with a prideful little nod of the head, a raised eyebrow, awestruck that the shtetl could ever produce such a lean, limber specimen, as if to say, “Our boy’s pretty good, huh?” Yet, for all the Sandy Koufaxes and Lenny Krayzelburgs, you never hear about great Jewish Winter Olympians.

My mother explained the dearth of famous Jewish skiers by saying, “It’s cold, it’s wet, it’s too fast, it goes down a hill, you could fall and hurt yourself.” After a moment she added, “And those clothes make you look fat.”

I don’t know what it is that says to a button-down businessman, “You’d look good in a red-and-yellow one-piece and a blue hat.” Perhaps it’s the thought that if he falls down and can’t move, people will be able to find him. No one looks good in these clumsy outfits, with the possible exception of Robert Redford, who, I should point out, is not even remotely Jewish.

Then there are the boots. You tighten these eight-pound molded plastic monsters until only the big toe can move one millimeter. Occasionally I hear someone on a chairlift tell me about how comfortable his boots are since he got the ergonomic foot beds. No, Bally loafers are comfortable. Ski boots are anti-Semitic.

Skiing does not come naturally to most people. We struggle with the rhythm of off-weighting, keeping our balance forward, planting the pole, initializing the turns, visualizing the fall line (why do they insist on calling it that?). It could be reasonably asked why people want to subject themselves to this torture test in the first place. Once I reasonably mastered the groomed slopes, I took on the bumps. Again, why? I ask myself that question at the end of every mogul run. I think the answer may lie in the importance of my burgeoning relationships with my chiropractor and my masseuse. For a lot of people, skiing is like taking the very long way, the scenic route, from your condo to the bar.

Maybe there aren’t enough Jews in Canada or enough ice in Tel Aviv to field a hockey team. And with our considerable investment in cosmetic dentistry, we are often precluded from participating in any sport where getting your teeth knocked down your throat is the goal of the opposing team. I tried to talk some friends into forming a luge team, but it holds little appeal for our people. Any sport in which you travel at speeds of more than 90 miles per hour and lead with your genitals is not going to gather a minyan. There are no guys named Arnie or Murray on the luge, and there never will be.