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Faith at Harvard
by Simon Jacobson

The Cathedral in Cambridge and the Sanctuary in Jerusalem

Harvard University recently issued a new proposed Core Curriculum, outlining a fresh set of guidelines defining the requirements for undergraduate studies.

Harvard’s new curriculum establishes eight primary subject areas that all students will have to take: Aesthetic and Interpretive Understanding; Culture and Belief; Empirical Reasoning; Ethical Reasoning; Science of Living Systems; Science of the Physical Universe; Societies of the World; and the United States in the World.

The nation's most famous university’s new plan – which is expected to be formally approved by the faculty before they become binding in May, and won't go into effect before September 2009 – replaces the previous seven categories: Foreign Cultures; Historical Study; Literature and Arts; Moral Reasoning; Quantitative Reasoning; Science; and Social Analysis.

As can be surmised, the most controversial category of all was around what was finally called “culture and belief.” Last October, when Harvard’s Task Force on General Education first issued its preliminary proposal, the committee initially proposed mandating the study of “reason and faith.”

Louis Menand, co-chair of the six-professor committee and Bass Professor of English, explained the importance of adding this requirement. “Religion turns out to be an enormously important phenomenon in the world, which 30 or 40 years ago we didn’t think we had to deal with.” Menand added that religion is often easy to disparage in a secular environment and that courses on religion were seen as “esoteric” in his earlier days in the academy.

While some considered it bold to add “faith and reason” and a few suggested that it is a return to Harvard's religious heritage, let’s not get too excited about the university shedding its secular culture. “Religion is realpolitik, both nationally and internationally,” the report said. “By providing [students] with a fuller understanding of both local and global issues involving religious faith, the courses are intended to help students become more informed and reflective citizens.”

Even supporters of the proposal to add “faith and reason” to the core curriculum did so more out of practical concerns than out of acknowledging the value of faith. “Some may want to throw up their hands and wish religion would simply disappear as it was supposed to with the onslaught of modernity,” Wertham Professor of Law and Psychiatry in Society Diana L. Eck wrote in support of the proposal, “But realpolitik dictates otherwise.” Roger G. Waite wrote in the Harvard Salient that, that while this may not be Eck's view, it seems that many in the faculty see religion more as a stain on modernity too large to be ignored than as a part of the fabric of humanity.

So instead of the rich intellectual heritage of great thinkers like Augustine and Aquinas who tried to reconcile reason with revealed religion, the Harvard report suggested that “faith and reason” include topics such as “Wars of Religion,” “Medicine, Spirituality, and Religion in America,” “Religion and Society in Nigeria, “Why Americans Love God and Europeans Don’t” and “Darwin Seminar: Evolution and Religion.”

But this too was unacceptable to other faculty members, primarily from the science department, who sharply criticized the inclusion of “faith and reason.” Psychology professor Steven Pinker rejected it on the grounds that “the juxtaposition of the two words makes it sound like 'faith' and 'reason' are parallel and equivalent ways of knowing. But universities are about reason, pure and simple. There is an enormous constituency of people who would hold that faith and reason are two routes to knowledge. It is a mistake to affirm that. It's like having a requirement in 'Astronomy & Astrology.' They're not comparable topics.”

Though 71% of incoming Harvard students say they attend religious services and many already elect to study religion, the committee gave in, ultimately substituting “faith and reason” with “culture and belief.”

As the wise men at Harvard debate the significance of faith and religion, and scholars over the world either attempt to cut G-d out of the picture entirely or at best, try to fit G-d into their molds – our weekly Torah portion tells us how Moses and the Jewish people carved out a piece of the material world and shaped it to fit G-d's mold – they built the holy Sanctuary, thereby transforming the material universe into a home for G-d – “build me a holy place and I will dwell among you.”

As we read the narrative in this week’s Torah chapter about the construction of the Sanctuary, one unusual reiteration stands out: The verse repeats the words “as G-d commanded Moses” eighteen different times!

Indeed, the Talmud explains that this one of the reasons for the eighteen blessings in the Amidah Prayer (Shemonah Esrei) – corresponding to the eighteen repetitions in this chapter (Yerushalmi Berochot 4:3).

Why does the Torah have to repeat the phrase eighteen times? Why would we think that the Temple was not being built according to G-d’s command that we need to be reminded eighteen times that it was? And what deeper connection is there to the Amidah prayer, besides the seemingly incidental number eighteen?

Building the Temple is the purpose of existence: To create a Divine home out of this material world. The entire point of life, according to the Torah, is to spiritualize matter; to sanctify our activities and turn them it into channels of Divine expression.

But this work is not as easy as it sounds. We live in an agnostic universe, a world which conceals its inner nature. It takes much effort to “dig” beneath the surface and recognize the forces within that sustain existence. Our material world cultivates self-interest, which lead, at their worst, to greed, corruption and all human vice and injustice.

Thus, the desperate need to ensure, at every turn, that every detail of the Temple was being built according to the Divine plan. Though G-d had already spelled out the instructions how to build the Temple, now when it came to implementing it in real time in the real world, a new reality check was necessary, to assure that the material structure would be completely aligned with the Divine blueprint.

One could think that living in the material world we have no choice but to compromise our spiritual integrity somewhat. As the Psalmist says: “The heaven’s are G-d’s heavens, but the earth He gave to man” (Psalms 115:16). It’s one thing to build a Temple in heaven, but down here on earth, that is the domain of man.

Whether it is Rome or Cambridge, Athens or Oxford, history is witness to academia’s attempts to take control of the earthly domain and even at time of the heavenly one. [By no means is this effort limited to academics; warriors, monarchs, empires and “leaders” of all sorts have endeavored to dominate over earth and heaven as well]. However in all of sciences’ attempts to understand or deny G-d, one thing is always glaringly missing: The courage of humility – to acknowledge the possibility, just the possibility, that perhaps they have it wrong: It’s not that G-d has to fit into our models, but the other way around. If G-d is the entirety of reality, doesn’t it make sense that we, who are small parts of the “whole” cannot dictate the terms of the “whole;” the whole defines its parts, not vice versa.

Evolutionary thinkers are spreading their arrogant gospel and trying to explain why people believe in G-d. Based on the so-called laws of “natural selection” why is it necessary for the survival of the species that humans developed faith? Did anyone consider that perhaps people have faith because G-d actually exists?...

Reality is reality. Period. First comes reality, then comes us. And we have to figure out how we fit into “reality,” not try to “package” reality – or ignore it – into our confined straits.

That’s where Abraham, Moses and so many other great minds surpassed the professors and the scientists. They came to understand, yes understand, that “the ultimate of knowledge is knowing that we don’t know” – to know the unknowable, to surrender our limited faculties to a far higher state of being.

This fusion of the finite and the infinite was consummated with the building of the Temple. “Heavens and heavens of heavens cannot contain You, but this building [the Temple] can indeed contain” the Divine. And this empowered us all to transform our corner of the universe into a Divine abode.

But one thing is necessary to successful achieve this fusion – a continuous alignment of your endeavors to your higher calling; to ensure that the entire spectrum of your activities – which break down into eighteen (“chai” for life) different components of life – are linked with “as G-d commanded Moses.”

With all our reminders and signposts, it’s never enough to remind ourselves that we must always connect our actions – even when we are building a holy Temple – with the Divine (see Tanchuma 11). If this is true about building a Temple for G-d, how much more so when we are immersed in our material lives – how vital it is that we are vigilant to ensure that we are aligned with the Divine plan.

One primary way that we create this connection is through prayer, which is equated with the service in the Temple. Three times every day we therefore rise up and stand humbly before G-d in the Amidah service, reciting the eighteen prayers, each aligning another aspect of our diverse lives, with G-d’s plan for us (“as G-d commanded Moses”).

From the beginning of time till this very day, from the banks of the Euphrates to the woods of Boston, from Rome to Jerusalem, we have always been faced with the big question:

Are we attempting to confine the spirit in our limited containers; or are we transforming our material universe into a Divine Temple?

Are we humans trying to create a G-d in our own image, or are we trying to uncover the Divine Image in which we were created?

   
 

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