Vayakhel-Pekudei: Faith at Harvard


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?

* * *

Question of the Week: What do you think the relationship between faith and science will be like in 50 years from now?


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Faith & Science
17 years ago

I think faith will be stronger

Richard Gayzur
17 years ago


In fifty years, the relationship between faith and reason, science and religion, and any other cultural, if not factually polar opposites will be blurred and infinitely worse than today. The problem is the likely state of the planet at that time. By most reasonable accounts, we will have exhausted a substantially larger part of the earths resources, done little to effectively implement alternative consumption policies and will witness the emergence of an unprecedented series of political/military affiliations – including many intra-national affiliations – designed to wrest life sustaining natural resources (read: water) from others. In this – literally – life and death environment, various factions will seek to blur the lines between faith and reason, religion and science, etc., to a degree than few of us can imagine at this time. Virtually all combatants will seek divine, moral and every other kind of justification for what will invariably be an ongoing series of attrocious transgressions with no real precedent in human history.

I would very much prefer to see this scenario/prediction proven utterly ludicrous and completely wrong. I write it knowing two things: 1) that my own son will most probably be witnessing these events in the later stages of middle age and 2) that the current American government, and many of its sycophants, have done everything possible to accelerate and amplify the problems.

Hence, the larger and more immediate question becomes the morality of fulfilling our role as ecological stewards of this planet. Unless we confront this issue, realistically and here and now, faith/reason – religion/science dichotomies will ring as little more than hollow intellectual ramblings five decades hence.

Ironically, functioning as true and common stewards of the planet will do more to resolve these apparent dichotomies than any intellectual discussions ever have or will.


17 years ago

Fascinating, perspicacious article with insights aplenty. Very pertinent in the contemporary world. A great wake-up call to integrating the different elements of our lives into a holistic, meaningful, ethical, altruistic, Divinely inspired whole.

Jonathan Usher
17 years ago

If we become an Islamic nation than there will be all faith, or at least ritual, and no science. If not then a basic strong faith, not based on ritual will emerge with not only tolerance but complete acceptance of other tolerant religions.

Irwin Harelick
17 years ago

Question of the Week: What do you think the relationship between faith and science will be like in 50 years from now?

First, let me say that faith is not synonymous with a belief in G-d; faith comes in many forms. Adherence to secular humanism, for example, can be explained only by faith in the ultimate goodness of humankind. Faith (saddha) is an important element in Buddhism, a practice/philosophy in which there is no presumption of a supreme being.

Second, the movement to strengthen the separation of church and state should not be taken as a crisis of faith. There is a difference between personal faith and the will to impose that faith on others.

Given these caveats I will address the question using the more narrow interpretation of faith, i.e. a belief in G-d.

Science is restricted by the principle that energy (or matter) can niether be created nor destroyed and therefore scientists readily acknowledge that the question of an initial creator is outside their realm. Whats more, quantum physics has made it more clear than ever that empirical evidence and scientific method can never yield absolute truth. This was shown brilliantly in your own essay Is Logic Logical. In addition, a 2005 survey showed that about 2/3 of scientists believe in G-d and among those who dont, many consider themselves very spiritual.

So I believe there is no conflict between science and what I will call general faith. The problems begin when faith proclaims specific doctrines that fly in the face of scientific evidence. One example is the creation of the earth as described in Genesis.

So where will we be in 50 years? I predict that the belief in a beneficent supreme being will be strong, maybe stronger than it is now. And it will be partly the result of scientific discovery (each new discovery will strengthen the idea that we really know very little). But specific doctrines stating exactly what G-ds features are and what he expects from us will either change or become less credible to most people. There are already strong movements within Judaism and Christianity that believe the Bible is true only as allegory or metafor. Attitudes about the role of women and the condemnation of gay people will surely change just as the Bible is no longer used to defend slavery or racial segregation.

Mark Orman (PhD)
17 years ago


You make the comment … in all of sciences’ attempts to understand or deny G-d…. As one who works in the sciences, I find this comment inaccurate and misleading, essentially setting up a straw man to be knocked down. Scientists are concerned with under- standing and explaining naturalphenomena by means of natural mechanisms. In this regard, and for these purposes, G-d doesnt enter into the picture, and is not invoked. This doesnt preclude belief in G-d, the relevance of religion to our lives, and the importance of spirituality. However, these are simply irrelevent to the scientific enterprise.

Recently, a few atheistic scientists (most notably Dawkins) have written books to propagandize their atheistic perspective. I think that these actions are not typical of scientists, and in his case, I would certainly agree with your use of the word arrogant. For example, his attempts to invoke physical principals to deny the possibility of G-dly intercession blithely ignores the religious precepts (as per Maimonides) that G-d is not of this world, and cannot in any way be characterized by our understanding of this world or for that matter, by our understanding of anything other than revelation. However, generalizing ones criticism of the Dawkins perspective to science as a whole is I think a a bum rap, and in my opinion, unecessary as well as harmful. It may be irritating to find that scientists are trying to explain away religion as an evolutionary development (and there may in fact be something to this point of view, although that doesnt negate the existence of G-d, only the argument for such existence based on the universality of religious belief). However, to take this antagonism and extend it to evolution per se is, in my opinion, a major mistake, one that unecessarily creates confrontation between religion and science (witness the creationism conflicts). In this regard, I remember sending an email to you after you had a visiting Chassidic Israeli scientist lecture at one of your Wednedsay seminars at the Chofetz Chaim shul a few years back. He was very disparaging about evolution, and it was my view that this perspective (coming from a PhD in the sciences) only made him look foolish and medieval, as well as fomenting an unnecesary and unwinnable confrontation between religion and science. It is bad enough that we have to deal with a few arrogant scientists and faculty members who are disparaging of spiritual belief. I dont think we should add to this confrontation by disparaging science (e.g., evolution) or mischaracterizing the nature of the scientific enterprise.

17 years ago

My experience has been that when religion is incorporated within the university setting which tends to be very left wing establishments, there is more room for political and bias against traditional Jewish values.

Many universities have diversity programs/initiatives but still give exams on Jewish holidays and have graduations on Pesach and Shabbat.

When a course is a requirement for graduation, topics like religion or politics are very dangerous areas. Professors are biased and there are often contributions from foreign governments hostile to Israel and biased against U.S.

Better to stay with the more objective topics for requirement and leave religion as an elective.

Mort Horowitz
17 years ago

I believe that the relationship between faith and science will be a compatible option for us in 50 years.

Einstein, who was not devoutly religiuos but beieved in G-D, said that there remain too many mysteries in the universe.

James Gawron
17 years ago

The last minute name change of the proposed course shows who is in control at Harvard. Faith and Reason implies that you think something besides Reason is relevent at a university. Culture and Belief relegates Faith to a phenomenon to be studied by Reason alone. This is a sure sign of the velvet glove of the agnostic hiding the iron fist of the atheist. A little over two centuries ago a man by the name of Immanuel Kant wrote a book entitled The Critique of Pure Reason. He wrote this book expressly because he saw the beginnings of a perverse obsession with reason that was driving society to amoral horrors. Kant one the most respected philosophers of Western Civilization can hardly be considered a religious zealot. Our friends at Harvard are obviously in need of a critique. They are the zealots of a perverse pure reason which denies to faith, morality and of course religion any place of dignity at the university or anywhere else for that matter. The black comic shame is that there is probably not one department at Harvard whose leading researchers could not benefit from a short exposure to Kant. From physics to law to art Kant literally defined the term Enlightenment. Harvard gives us only darkness. I intend to prepare for Passover and the Counting of the Omer (your Spiritual Guide to the Omeris terrific)and not give the darkness any more thought.

Arthur Jameson
17 years ago

A good article supporting your excellent essay, is from Peter Steinfels in the New York Times of 5/12/07.

At Commencement, a Call for Religious Literacy

And so, members of the graduating class of 2007, we’ve come almost to the end of this commencement ceremony and of these brief commencement remarks.
We’ve told some predictable jokes about your imminent unemployment and your student loans. We’ve thanked your parents, praised your professors and stated the obvious about the world you are entering — that it is full of dangers, full of opportunities, full of wonders, misery, love, beauty, surprises and violence.
It is also full of religion.
There is some question whether your education has prepared you for this latter reality, which is, of course, very much related to the former ones.
For a long time, quite a few people assumed that a major point of higher education was to put religion behind you. Eventually, it was also assumed, the world would do the same. Things haven’t worked out that way.
Just what do college graduates know about religion? The data is sparse. But Stephen Prothero, chairman of the religion department at Boston University, has assembled a rather bleak picture from available polls as well as his own experience and that of other professors.
It is a huge scandal, Dr. Prothero writes in his recently published book, “Religious Literacy” (HarperSanFrancisco), that “every year colleges provide bachelor’s degrees to students who cannot name the first book of the Bible, who think that Jesus parted the Red Sea and Moses agonized in the Garden of Gethsemane, who know nothing about what Islam teaches about war and peace, and who cannot name one salient difference between Hinduism and Buddhism.”
Admittedly, graduation day may not be the best moment to suggest a new reading assignment, but you might check out Dr. Prothero’s book on religious literacy, which is subtitled, “What Every American Needs to Know — and Doesn’t.” You might even try the basic religious literacy quiz on Pages 27 and 28 that he has given his students, who mostly flunk it. You might peruse the 85-page “Dictionary of Religious Literacy” that he offers as religious “information U.S. citizens need to make sense of their country and the world.”
No doubt, your college years have brought you well beyond the high school students who think Sodom and Gomorrah were husband and wife, and Joan of Arc was married, naturally, to Noah. But how do you compare to the adults impassioned to have the Ten Commandments displayed in courthouses but unable to name half of them? Can you name the Five Pillars of Islam or who delivered the Sermon on the Mount (no, not Billy Graham, Dr. Prothero has had to point out) or a single sacred text of Hinduism?
Personally, Dr. Prothero suspects that “faith without knowledge is dead.” (Presumably you recognize that as a play on the phrase that troubled Martin Luther in the Epistle of James, “faith without works is dead.” Presumably you know about Martin Luther and why this troubled him.) But the purpose of a plea on behalf of religious literacy, he repeatedly insists, is not religious but civic.
“In today’s world it is irresponsible to use the word ‘educated’ to describe high school or college graduates who are ignorant of the ancient stories that continue to motivate the beliefs and behaviors of the overwhelming majority of the world’s population,” he writes. “In a world as robustly religious as ours, it is foolish to imagine that such graduates are equipped to participate fully in the politics of the nation or the affairs of the world.”
Having just completed all your requirements for graduation, you might be interested in Dr. Prothero’s views on the matter. He proposes that all public high schools require one course on the Bible and one on the world’s major religions. He proposes that colleges require all students to take one course in religious studies. He thinks that this can be done without proselytizing and fully in accord with the Constitution. (Incidentally, one of the things distressing him is how few college students can identify the First Amendment’s two clauses dealing with religion.)
If high schools do not do their job, college should fill in, he says, and he is not fazed by the idea of making this mandatory. “We do have math requirements,” he said in a recent phone conversation. “There’s a sense that we have certain non-negotiables.”
And remember, he also said, “my book is called ‘Religious Literacy,’ not ‘Religious Fluency.’ I’m setting a low bar.” It was not necessary for President Bush to have known the precise difference between Sunnis and Shias, he said, but merely to have known that there was a difference and “that it might be important to know more.”
What about atheism? Does religious literacy require the study of nonbelief? Certainly, Dr. Prothero said. At least in the West, he explained, atheism is part of the religious conversation: You cannot understand religion in the modern West without taking atheism into account, and you cannot understand atheism without understanding its religious context.
Perhaps Dr. Prothero overestimates what can be communicated in a fact-based course in religious studies. Perhaps he underestimates some of the important fruits of the religious diversity that you graduates have enjoyed in your dorms and classrooms.
It may be essential to know the basic doctrines, practices and stories of the world’s great faiths — and of atheism, too. But it is also essential to know how these believers and nonbelievers feel and think, and think about what others think about them — the kind of knowledge that requires imagination, empathy or, what college often provides, real encounters.
Before this commencement day ends, graduating class of 2007, you will surely be asked to contribute to the alumni fund. But one hopes that as alumni you also have something to contribute to this fresh discussion of what a college-educated citizen should be expected to know about religion.
One thing is clear, Dr. Prothero says enthusiastically, “We have a public conversation going.” So, class of 2007, join in. And godspeed.

The Meaningful Life Center