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Growth Through Rules

May 9, 2009 | by Louis Renaldo

From reductionism to Judaism: A convert describes his path to Jewish observance and spiritual fulfillment.

In the fading days of the summer of 1989, I began a journey of self-discovery, a journey in which my long-neglected soul has grown from an atrophied state into an all-encompassing spirituality -- to the point where the single most prominent characteristic of my identity is that of a religious Jew.

As I reflect upon the process of my conversion, it has become clear to me that this transformation was brought about through the observance of halacha, Jewish law. My experience has been counter to what I had intuitively thought of as the path of religious awakening -- my commitment to religion and observance preceded and caused my spiritual transformation. Now, I seek to understand this process, to glimpse an answer to the question "How does halacha cause spiritual growth?"

The answer requires an examination of what led me to Judaism. I grew up in a fairly religious Italian Catholic home, but I never had any real feeling for Catholicism. From an early age I found the imagery repelling, the rituals empty, and the theology cold. I never felt that I would or could be a practicing Catholic. As education assumed a primary role in my life, religion became merely an issue which caused arguments on Sunday mornings, when fights over church attendance would inevitably break out.

Attending public school in a heavily Jewish, although not religious, community on Long Island gave me an elementary knowledge of Judaism and more importantly, a tremendous, and permanent, affinity for the Jewish people.

I had learned to value scientific information above all other information, which lured me into an unexamined agnosticism.

But what really set the stage for the future transformation was the education I was receiving. The emphasis placed on the rational thought and the scientific process by American society had an enormous impact on my developing personality and vision. Technology is viewed as the answer to all wants; the media, schools, government, and the scientific establishment contribute to a secular yearning for a technological messiah -- a science which will cure diseases, feed the hungry, increase leisure time, bring world peace. A young and eager mind endowed with the gift of scientific aptitude is particularly sensitive to these societal influences. By the end of high school, I had learned to value scientific information above all other information, and what science had lured me into -- an unexamined agnosticism.


The decision to pursue a career in the biological sciences led me to the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, where I received rigorous training in the methodology of science as well as an enormous quantity of information. This intense scientific training expanded my belief in the supreme value of reason and rationality; at the same time, excursions into existential philosophy led to my assessment of morals as both relativistic and arbitrarily defined. As my reasoning ability was challenged and forced to develop further, in the context of an existentialist worldview, I was able to carry my view of science to the inescapable conclusion that only that which is observable is believable. The methods of scientific inquiry, I believed, yield "truth" in the absolute sense, and furthermore, that which is not open to scientific evaluation and verification must be valueless.

This reductionist approach provided answers to some otherwise difficult questions; for instance, the philosophical problem of Body and Mind was no problem at all -- there is no aspect of "mind" separate from the brain. The trouble with the Dualists, as I saw it, is that they mistakenly assign intentional and moral states to units of action which in reality are valueless -- there are no morals in electrical impulses and chemical reactions. From such a position, one must inevitably conclude that human beings, and thus human behavior, cannot have any moral content. If a single bioelectrical impulse traveling along a neuron in a petri dish is not a moral action, then the same must be true of human thought and behavior -- merely a complex system of such impulses. From this perspective, "right" and "wrong" are meaningless, and God is denied.

I believed in this... yet somehow, I was still an ethical person. It was not simply the fear of being caught breaking the law which shaped my behavior, because I found myself drawn to humanitarian issues, expending time and energy on behalf of others, sometimes at expense to myself. In fact, this deep feeling of a responsibility to others was a factor in my decision to pursue medicine. I looked to the character Rieux in Albert Camus' "The Plague" as the model of a man, a physician, creating value in a world which he recognized to be devoid of meaning. He appealed to me so much more than Meursault of "The Stranger" precisely because he value and does good. I concluded that morals are the natural product of rationality and reasoning.


At M.I.T., cracks began to appear in my carefully constructed world vision.

Slowly, cracks began to appear in my carefully constructed world vision. Ironically, it began at M.I.T., where the environment of intense rationality had contributed greatly to my atheistic reductionism in the first place. Two specific events had a lasting impact on me and began the path to Judaism.

First, I read Noam Chomsky's critique of B.F. Skinner's behavioral theory of linguistic development. Then I researched intelligence testing while writing a paper describing the use of the IQ test in supporting racist social policies. Both of these cases profoundly impressed upon me the effect that dogma can have on the ability to reason. I saw the scientific process twisted scientists misrepresenting data, making unsubstantiated claims, sometimes lying, in order to generate results that were consistent with their preconceived notions.

I wondered if dogma could influence the scientific process in the physical sciences, which deal directly with the material reality of the world, the final truth to which I thought all else must answer. Indeed, biology, chemistry, and physics lay at the core of my reductionist outlook. My initial reaction was "No," since the very nature of the physical sciences is objective -- they study not ideas, but matter, and matter is not subject to debate in the way that ideas are.

I entered the M.D.-Ph.D. program at the Albert Einstein College of Medicine confident in my reductionism, not recognizing that the process which would shatter this vision had been set quietly in motion.

The issue that would topple my reductionism arose during my first few months at Einstein. All through high school and college, and then again in graduate classes, I had heard the classic biological explanation of the origin of life. And it had always seemed reasonable. But when considering the awesome complexity, structure, and order within even single cells, in the context of how dogma can influence reason, I came to the realization that molecular biology too is gripped by dogma. It postulates the origin of life as a tremendous, complex series of events, each of which alone has an infinitesimally small chance of occurring. Forced by its basic tenets to deny even a hint of transcendence, biology must explain the beginning of life as a cumulation of events the possibility of which occurring is so slight that it is essentially zero.

Nobel laureate, Jacques Monod, has written: "Life appeared on the earth: what, before the event, were the chances that this would occur?... its a priori probability was virtually zero."

Constrained by reductionism, the scientist can draw only one conclusion; in the words of the Nobel laureate Salvador Luria, "each human being is the actualization of an extremely improbable chance -- in fact, a series of improbable chances, extending all the way back to the unique event that more than 3 billion years ago started life on the earth on its chancy course."

Instead of attempting to convince myself of the unreasonable, I had to admit that for there to be a creation there could be, perhaps there must be, a Creator.

Biology is forced by its basic premises to postulate that life began as a "unique event" -- an event which has no possibility of occurring, yet which must have occurred -- an idea which is not only absurd, but scientifically unsatisfying. Freed of this burdensome dogma, I could contemplate the origin of life without bias. Instead of attempting to convince myself of the unreasonable, I had to admit that for there to be a creation -- the physical reality of existence -- there could be, perhaps there must be, a Creator.


This insight radically altered my approach to the world around me. No longer could I view science, and the scientific method, as providing absolute truth, for if science yielded absolute truth, then dogma could not impact its results. But this was not the case. Consequently, as I reconsidered the value of scientific information, I realized that science is a belief system. Like all other belief systems, it has a set of basic assumptions and a methodology which generates information that is meaningful only in the context of those assumptions.

Understanding that each belief system has its own language or symbolism which gives meaning within the belief system to fit results of the inquiry, and that there is incompatibility between the symbolism of different belief systems, was a critical step. Somehow, I had given science a greater status, viewing the results generated by all other belief systems, if unintelligible under or contradicted by the basic tenets of science, as "untrue" in an absolute sense. No longer could I reject what history, philosophy, or religion might say about the nature of a human being simply because it disagreed with the rational view of science.

I subsequently began to examine what I had been forced to reject as untrue while I held science supreme. I had viewed morals, and moral behavior, as the natural outcome of reason alone. But this idea withered under scrutiny. There were too many instances in which reason clearly indicated a course of action, but I acted in another way, the "right" way. If morals were the outcome of reason, how could reason and morals demand a contradictory course of action?

As a rationalist, I had been compelled to deny that anything could transcend or supersede human reason, but this belief had forced me to postulate something unreasonable and untrue -- that because I clearly possessed morals, they must be the result of reasoning. Just as biologists, when considering the origin of life, must reject other views and postulate something unreasonable -- that because life clearly exists, it must be the result of a unique biochemical event.

Liberated from the confines of rationalism, I could for the first time consider the idea that morals have an existence independent of and sometimes contrary to human reason.


Obviously, this was a time of marked transition. What are described as "liberating" experiences in retrospect were at the time much less defined and rather unsettling. I searched through boxes of books in the basement of my parent's house to find the Bible I had received for my Confirmation in the ninth grade (still unopened). As I read through the Old Testament, it became clear that Judaism is not a random collection of arbitrary rules, a view I inherited from my high school friends, but rather it is an organized, and practical system. And not only did I find the ethics and values of that system compelling, but also the results -- the numerous observant Jews whom I had come to know as classmates...

As my knowledge grew, I found myself viewing Judaism not as an interested outsider, but as a potential insider -- the thought of Judaism as a way of life for me was appealing. Yet I had to repeatedly justify to myself the idea of being religious; years of ranking all epistemological methods inferior to science were hard to erase.

I consequently developed practical reasons for my continued interest. I saw the closeness of Jewish families and the Jewish community, and the emphasis that Judaism places on education and scholarship. I saw a means of transmitting a set of values and tradition to my children. My own somewhat limited participation in the rituals of Judaism had been positive experiences. But these were aspects that could be found in many religions; there was much more to Judaism specifically which called to me. I found the theology pure and accessible, unlike the mystery-shrouded, complex morass that I had previously known. Because of an intense dislike of missionary activity, I found Judaism's view of the non-Jew to be enlightened.

Appealing to me was that Judaism allows, even requires, enjoyment of what is in this world.

Also appealing to me, especially after struggling for years to eliminate all vestiges of the Catholic view of pleasure, was that Judaism allows, even requires, enjoyment of what is in this world. But the most appealing aspect was the freedom that Judaism offered -- demanding a specific set of behaviors, yet allowing the mind to wander, to explore, to question, even to doubt -- the idea that the way in which one acts is at least as important as what one thinks made intuitive sense to me.

This was no spiritual awakening. My attraction, my experience, was purely pragmatic, carefully reasoned and justified, and it continued to be. Passover, 1990, I attended two Seders, and after participating in the unique religious-political-historical event that a Seder is, I decided that I wanted to experience Judaism fully, to see if my intuitive feelings of affinity were strong enough to support both the lifestyle and the emotional stress of conversion...

The change which proceeded from this was spectacular, if not in rate then in magnitude. Assumed faith has led to genuine faith, and being observant of Jewish Law has awakened a spirituality which has consumed the boundaries of my "scientific" and "Jewish" belief systems. It has grown, not as a blazing flame, but rather as a slow burning, blurring the distinction between my two selves before I was even aware of the process. What was an ultimately untenable duality has been replaced by a new, unitary identity -- a cold rationality and a hot spirituality linked by, nurtured by, and restrained by halacha, Jewish law.


It is not immediately apparent how simply behaving as a Jew leads to spiritual growth, but the observation has been made throughout the ages. In the Talmud, the following is said to have been spoken by God: "Would that they had forsaken Me and kept My Torah, since by occupying themselves with Torah, the light which it contains would have led them back to Me" (Yerushalmi Chagigah 1:7). Rabbi Judah HaLevi observed in "The Kuzari": "Men cannot approach God except by means of deeds commanded by Him."

Rabbi Moshe Chayim Luzzatto in "The Path of the Just": "Outer movements awaken inner ones... for as a result of the willed quickening of movements there will arise in him an inner joy and a desire and a longing."

...Mitzvot constantly remind a person of the limitations of rational science, of a metaphysical truth beyond his empirically defined reality, and a divine significance becomes attached to the objects and events of the world.

Virtually every object, event, or experience has a halachic significance; therefore the world is appreciated not only in a physical sense, but also as having an inherent religious quality. Halacha demands an appreciation of and interaction with the world on a divine plane; with increased knowledge, physical reality assumes an ever-increasing halachic significance. Thus the will of God is placed at the center of one's vision, balancing the crushing rationality of cognitive man and keeping his gaze lifted above and beyond his mundane reductionist activities.

Halacha forces one to explicitly recognize God's presence regularly and repeatedly.

Furthermore, halacha forces one to explicitly recognize God's presence regularly and repeatedly. The simple act of uttering a blessing has profound implications: it is first, a recognition of the existence of God; and, an admission that what is in this world comes from God; third, an act of submission to the will of God. Even a trip to the supermarket, as one searches for kosher items, reiterates this statement of recognition of, dependence on, and submission to God. In this manner as well, halacha places God as the central focus of one's activities.


Through performing mitzvot, we increase God's presence in the world, and we feel spiritual by sensing His presence, by sensing holiness in our world and in ourselves.

"You shall be holy, for I the Lord your God am holy" (Leviticus 19:2). This mitzvah of holiness is followed by a description of how it can be fulfilled: the next 35 verses describe a variety of commandments. Thus, the way to holiness as individuals and as a nation is through the adherence to God's will.

This relationship between mitzvot and sanctification is reflected in the text of the blessing recited over mitzvot: "Blessed are you, Lord our God, King of the universe, Who has sanctified us with His commandments." All halachic acts are endowed with the power to sanctify because they are the method by which we may fulfill God's desire and command for us to be holy; they are the means through which God sanctifies us. Halachic acts reverse the contraction of God's presence in the world: each mitzvah sanctifies by reducing this contraction, by increasing God's presence. Our awareness of God's presence, is spirituality.

While it is easy to feel spiritual in holy places -- standing before the Western Wall, or at holy times like Yom Kippur -- we have the ability, by living halachic lives, to bring spirituality and holiness to every place we might be, to bring holiness to our excursions into and involvements with that which is mundane.

Halacha sanctifies by regulating human activity, limiting the promptings and attractions of the body. For the greater good, impulse can be conquered, and to do so for the will of God is holy.

...Our appreciation of the synthesis of holy and mundane, our inability to divide the sacred and the profane into completely unconnected spheres, reflects the human unity of soul and body: "The Holy One brings the soul and joins it, to the body and judges them as one" (Sanhedrin 91b). Halacha gives expression to the transcendent yearnings of a soul bound inextricably to a physical man, and only by relating to the world through halacha can soul and body be satisfied not as discrete entities, but as integrated one. And in this is the recognition of and imitation of God's unity, a unity which we acknowledge every day: "Shema Yisrael -- Hear O Israel, the Lord our God, the Lord is one..."

As my spiritual awareness grows, my actions are performed increasingly for God's sake, not for my own satisfaction. Not that the satisfaction which I receive from mitzvot has declined, but my reasons for pursuing mitzvot are no longer as dependent upon that personal satisfaction. A pleasant consequence is that my enthusiasm for certain areas of halacha has improved greatly. This increased devotion to mitzvot further increases my spirituality, which in turn increases my devotion to mitzvot.

To feel God's presence... it certainly was not part of my original set of pragmatic reasons for conversion, but it has been the most significant outcome.

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