Rabbi David W. Nelson believes the final frontier is not out in space but rather inside our own heads. Author of Judaism, Physics and God: Searching for Sacred Metaphors in a Post-Einstein World, he has spent much of his career as a Jewish educator and thinker considering the implications of new trends in neuroscience on Jewish life. On June 7-8, Nelson — visiting assistant professor of religion and Jewish chaplain at Bard College in New York — will serve as scholar-in-residence at Temple Ner Tamid in Bloomfield.
NJJN: Do you have a background in science?
Rabbi David Nelson: No. I learned all my physics for my first book by reading; I learn about brain, mind, etc., from reading. When I get around to writing this, I will avail myself, as I did in the first book, of the assistance of experts in the field who will guide me and keep me from going off the rails.
NJJN: Does your work on neuroscience and Judaism mean that Judaism is all happening inside our heads — that is, that there is no external God?
Nelson: All human experience happens “in our heads” by definition. The challenge for philosophers is to distinguish, if possible, between human experience that is linked to a “hard, objective reality” beyond our brains and those that are all inside our brains. The human study and understanding of how gravity affects falling bodies is an example of the first category, while dreams are an example of the second. My personal belief is that God is a real, external reality, though I would imagine that the way I think about God is quite different from how others think about God.
For me, science is about the human propensity for rational, analytic thought. My goal is to apply such human thought to questions of religion.
NJJN: How do you think about God, and how do you think most people think about God?
Nelson: I am very reluctant to answer this question in a “short form” but I’ll try, with the huge caveat that what I can say here will, by necessity, be incomplete and therefore, probably, flawed.
My belief has two parts. Part one: I believe that God is, first of all, the sum total of the hugely complex laws, principles, and systems that give our universe structure, elegance, and beauty. God is not the “law-giver” who promulgated these laws, but rather, I believe that God is the laws, the forces that drive reality. That we live in a universe filled at every level with complexity and pattern instead of one that is formless and chaotic is testimony to the existence and absolute power of those forces.
Part two: I believe that God, along with every single element in the universe ruled by God, evolves and changes. Probably the most significant change is that God went from being “inanimate” to being aware, as the universe also went from being inanimate to being aware. These beliefs are radically different from those of most people in many ways. I think most people who believe in God at all see God as a law-giver, not as the laws. They also believe that God was sentient, aware, conscious, and so forth, from God’s very beginning. And they believe, especially if they’ve read Maimonides, that God never changes, in fact never could change.
NJJN: Do advances in neuroscience in particular have implications for Jewish life?
Nelson: Current and, most importantly, future advances in neuroscience will have astonishing implications for every aspect of human life, thought, and experience. Judaism is, obviously, included in that.
NJJN: What do you hope people who come to study with you at Temple Ner Tamid will gain from your discussions?
Nelson: I hope that those who attend will start thinking deeply about issues of mind, brain, and consciousness, and about Jewish life, thought, and belief, perhaps in new ways that have never before occurred to them. This is “Radical Amazement” — when we encounter ideas that are innovative and creative and that make us say, “Wow!”