It Didn’t Bother Descartes

A week before beginning my graduate studies in psychology, I happened upon a two-day workshop on the cantorate. Growing up in an observant Jewish home and attending synagogue every week, I certainly knew what a cantor was: the clergyman responsible for the chanting of the liturgy. I had trained with a cantor for my bar-mitzvah, and I even had a few cantors in my extended family. But up until that point, I had never seriously considered pursuing the cantorate as a profession. Years later a Fulbright Young Scientist Award brought me to Tel Aviv University to continue my research on number-processing impairments in brain-injured patients. Not surprisingly, my time in Israel intensified my ties to Judaism, and also my desire to pursue a second career as a cantor, a goal I realized a few years later.

Although my time in seminary might prove an interesting subject for discussion in this forum, I’ve chosen instead to write a bit about my experiences teaching at Hebrew College, a transdenominational graduate institution that trains Jewish educators, rabbis, and cantors. I maintain a bifurcated portfolio at HC, serving as both the dean of the Cantor-Educator Program and the director of the program in Jewish special education. In the latter program, I teach a number of courses similar to those I once taught at Massachusetts General Hospital including cognitive assessment and psycholinguistics. A major difference, however, is that in my current setting I am free and indeed encouraged to season my lectures with religious and moral teaching.

One might think that doing so would detract from scientific rigor or perhaps argue that religion and science are somehow inimical. My own sense is that if it didn’t bother Descartes (himself a devout Catholic), it shouldn’t bother me or my students. Empiricism and faith can happily coexist, and indeed may strengthen one another.

Perhaps a couple of examples will be instructive. Years ago, when I started teaching neuropsychological assessment, I created a slide with the following well-known quotes:

Whatever exists at all, exists in some amount. Thorndike, 1918 and Anything that exists in amount can be measured. Mc- Call, 1939

At Hebrew College, though, I added this to the mix:

Teach us to number our days so that we may attain a heart of wisdom. (Psalm 90).

As you might imagine, inclusion of the biblical quote moved our discussion onto a somewhat different plane, forcing students to reflect on purpose as well as approach.

When I lecture about special education policy, class discussion is not limited to historical or sociological concerns, but moves seamlessly into the theological. I cite God as the prototypical special educator in his relationship with Moses, the greatest of the Jewish prophets. When Moses argues with God that he is not up to the task of leading the children of Israel out of Egypt due to his language impairment, God responds: “Who placed the lips upon man or who makes one mute or deaf, seeing or blind? None but myself, God. Now go and I will be with your lips, teaching you how to speak.”

There is no doubt as well that science strengthens religious inquiry. Three personal examples come to mind: a paper I wrote in seminary on the insights of cognitive science to the study of Kabbalah (Jewish mysticism), my master’s of sacred music thesis that used linguistic theory to understand aspects of biblical cantillation, and a book I reviewed a few years ago which used contemporary theories of memory to interpret certain musicoliturgical practices among Syrian Jews.

In the end I believe that science and religion are both best understood as human attempts to seek and delimit truth. Their methods may vary, their assumptions surely do, but their goals are entirely consonant.

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