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Perspectives of heaven and earth

Perspectives of heaven and earth

Ha’azinu | Deuteronomy 32:1-32:52

The universe, we like to imagine, encompasses two categories of reality: the heavenly and the earthly. We know what the earthly is; science has been studying it for centuries. But what is the heavenly? The usual explanations are often unenlightening — they just replace one problematic word (heavenly) with others (divine, Godly, spiritual), leaving us pretty much where we started: wondering if “heavenly” is anything real — anything more, that is, than a wishful figure of speech.

Medieval commentator Ibn Ezra objects to this evasion of clarity, citing interpretations that identify “the heavenly” as angels, for example, and dismissing them as fanciful. “Actually,” he concludes, “heaven and earth” denote the two categories of “everything that has permanent existence.”

Let’s start there: We have two categories of existence that are permanent: the heavenly and the earthly. What can we add, without lapsing into dubious metaphysics?

The earthly is familiar to us. Over four centuries of scientific analysis has built up massive sets of laws describing it. Unfortunately, these laws are stunningly amoral — they explain the phenomena of nature, but without regard for good and bad, right and wrong. Philosopher John Stuart Mill observed: “Nature impales men…, burns them to death…, starves them with hunger, freezes them with cold…. All this Nature does with the most supercilious disregard both of mercy and of justice.”

So religion adds a category: the heavenly, equally real, albeit not amenable to scientific measurement. “The heavenly,” not a separate realm, is just another perspective on the same phenomena we study with science. It too looks at nature but from the perspective of human empathy and the consequent demand for mercy and justice.

The earthly perspective of science provides an unsympathetic calculus of how the universe works: how hurricanes happen, for example. The heavenly perspective of empathy evaluates the way the universe affects the lives of those who live in it: not the science of how hurricanes happen, but sympathy for the way a hurricane devastates this ruined farmer or that grieving mother whose child was crushed under a falling tree. “Science and the earthly” measure truth; “empathy and the heavenly” allocate kindness.

The two perspectives coalesce in our concept of life. From a scientific perspective, the various forms of life come and go; Darwinian selection favors continuity of the species, but cares not one whit about any given instance of it. By analogy, sociology or economics can rightly be called “sciences” insofar as they study the laws by which human organizations and the economy operate — without, however, any sympathy for the poor, sick, and victimized in the systems studied. When economists or urban planners decide to address these unfortunates, they adopt the perspective of the heavenly.

Thank God for the heavenly perspective that supplements scientific knowledge with kindness. But thank God for scientific understanding too — without it we wouldn’t know how to alleviate the misery that empathy uncovers.

Scholars tell us the last three portions of the Torah follow from the portion before them, especially chapter 30, where Moses once again summons heaven and earth to witness the claim that we are given life and death and the insistence that we choose life.

But in choosing life, we risk choosing only one of the two perspectives on it. We need both: the scientific laws on how life works, and the empathic kindness toward the way those laws affect the less fortunate.

Moses calls both heaven and earth as witnesses to history; either one alone, science without empathy or empathy without science, will ruin us.

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