Chemistry and the Torah: The Limits of Understanding
As teenagers living in America, we are often encouraged to take advantage of our natural capacity to question. Throughout a regular school day, I’ve heard that the average student asks 25 questions, which is 125 questions a week and 4,500 questions in a school year. It is indisputable that questioning enhances our knowledge and helps us grow as people.
In both Judaic and secular subjects at Shalhevet High School, where I am a senior, my teachers are open to questioning and promote intellectual growth in that way. As a centrist Orthodox high school, Shalhevet expects us to adhere to halachic standards and, at the same time, our questions are encouraged and treated seriously.
What we need to ask ourselves, though, is at what point can we accept that answers might be beyond our understanding? Or, at what point are there no answers? And, if we don’t know or understand an answer, does that mean we can’t or don’t have to believe it?
In Judaism, we are always going to be faced with questions that contain answers that either we do not understand, or do not have answers for at all. Built in to the Torah are specific commandments that we don’t know the reason for. These commandments are known as chukim. As with everything in the Torah, these mitzvot must serve an essential purpose or they wouldn’t be there. It is even possible that chukim exist merely to promote the idea that we can’t or won’t understand everything we do.
A lack of understanding is something we deal with everyday. It is irrelevant how much I have paid attention in AP chemistry; I still do not understand colligative properties perfectly. I have questioned, and I have experimented, but the answers I have been given are just too complex. That does not mean that the properties aren’t accurate. It is merely a reflection on myself, and the fact that I am not learned enough to understand. I can still believe that when I mix salt with ice, I will raise the freezing point and therefore be able to make ice cream.
Similarly in Judaism, there are also commandments with reasons I may never understand. I cannot possibly understand why Hashem needs me to praise Him with the same words everyday (daven to Him, which is not a chok). I have heard many explanations, but I don’t understand them; they do not fully explain the requirement. Regardless, I am obligated to daven, whether or not I understand why.
I hope that in the future, after davening and learning, the answers will become clearer. The same way I do not completely understand colligative properties, I do not understand davening. But I never denied the validity of the properties, and I can also not deny the validity of davening.
Judaism is a simple religion containing many complexities. No one could realistically hope to understand everything. It is important to question and to learn. But when we don’t understand something, or don’t agree with something, we need to remember that it doesn’t give us license to not follow halacha or to not keep the Torah.
The Jew who believes in Hashem and the holiness of the Torah is not unlike the struggling chemistry student; if you believe in the foundations of the discipline, then you accept the validity of the parts you don’t understand and push for greater understanding in the future. Religion is simple and you must be loyal to Hashem’s every word regardless of your lack of understanding. But on top of that you are obligated to find out the answers to your questions and adapt them to your life.
It is extremely challenging to keep the commandments while not fully understanding them, but in reality we accept things constantly that we do not fully understanding (i.e., colligative properties). Commandments should, therefore, also be accepted without full understanding since they not only enhance our lives, but lead us in the correct derech (way) every day.
Alison Silver is a senior at Shalhevet High School. Her article originally appeared in The Boiling Point.