The most beautiful thing we can experience is the mysterious. It is the source of all true art and science. He to whom this emotion is a stranger, who can no longer pause to wonder and stand rapt in awe, is as good as dead: his eyes are closed.
Albert Einstein, Living Philosophies
NASA’s Voyager 1 spacecraft was launched in September 1977 on a mission to gather information about Jupiter and Saturn. With that mission complete, it continued past the outer planets. In August 2012, it exited our solar system into interstellar space, and still traveling away at 40,000 miles per hour, it continues to beam back data and is now the farthest human-made object from earth. 1http://voyager.jpl.nasa.gov/mission/fastfacts.html
The astronomer Carl Sagan was part of the Voyager team. At Sagan’s suggestion, on February 14, 1990, from somewhere beyond Neptune, 3.7 billion miles away, Voyager pointed a camera back and took a picture of the earth. The picture looks like an empty black rectangle, with scattered rays of light. But if you know where to look, about halfway down one of the rays, there’s a “pale blue dot,” only 1/10th of a pixel, a speck. Earth. 2http://voyager.jpl.nasa.gov/news/pale_blue_25.html
Sagan later wrote about the picture:
Consider again that dot. That’s here. That’s home. That’s us.
On it everyone you love, everyone you know, everyone you ever heard of, every human being who ever was, lived out their lives.
The aggregate of our joy and suffering, thousands of confident religions, ideologies, and economic doctrines, every hunter and forager, every hero and coward, every creator and destroyer of civilization, every king and peasant, every young couple in love, every mother and father, hopeful child, inventor and explorer, every teacher of morals, every corrupt politician, every ‘superstar,’ every ‘supreme leader,’ every saint and sinner in the history of our species lived there – on a mote of dust suspended in a sunbeam. 3Carl Sagan, Pale Blue Dot: A Vision of the Human Future in Space, 1994.
That famous passage evokes a feeling that is difficult to describe. Wonder, smallness, fear, exhilaration. It is the feeling that might come from watching a magnificent sunset, or standing before an old master painting, or holding the hand of a dying loved one. It’s awe.
Yom Kippur marks the conclusion of the Yamim Nora-im, the “Days of Awe.” Today we say, “Eternal God, cause all your works to stand in awe before you.”4Gates of Repentance, p. 316. And we say, “Your infinite majesty makes me tremble with awe.”5Gates of Repentance, p. 520.
But what is awe? And where do we find it on Yom Kippur? And why?
The Hebrew word for “awe” is “yirah,” and the basic meaning of “yirah” is “fear.” At Mount Sinai, when the Israelites hear God’s voice and believe they will be overwhelmed and die, Moses says, “’Al tira-u,’ fear not, for God has come only to test you, that you should have ‘yirah,’ fear of God, and shall not sin.” 6Exodus 20:17
Actual, literal fear—the fear of God’s anger and God’s punishment—is a powerful motivator. Proverbs says, “For fear of God one departs from evil.” 7Proverbs 16:6 And it can even lead to good. In the Torah portion we read tomorrow afternoon, we’re commanded, “You shall not curse the deaf or place a stumbling block before the blind, but rather fear your God.” 8Leviticus 19:14
But fear is not the same as awe. When we hear the climax of a symphony or look up at a skyscraper, we’re not afraid, not quite.
There is more to yirah than fear of harm. Our tradition describes another kind of yirah, “yirat ha’romemut,” awe at God’s exalted nature. When Jacob dreamed the dream of a ladder reaching to heaven, and God revealed to him “I am with you…and will not leave you until I have fulfilled my promises to you,”9Genesis 29:15 Jacob awoke and “vayirah,” “he was filled with awe.” “How awesome is this place; it is none other than the house of God!” 10Genesis 29:17 Psalm 8 is quoted in our prayer book: “When I consider the heavens, the work of your hands, and the moon and stars, which you have made—what are mortals, that you are mindful of us? Humans, that you should care for us?” 11Psalms 8:4-5
Exhilaration, mystery, wonder. This is closer to our Pale Blue Dot feeling.
In modern Jewish thought, the great sage of awe is Abraham Joshua Heschel. He taught at the Jewish Theological Seminary in New York and was a key figure in the Civil Rights Movement, in addition to being one of the most important Jewish thinkers of the 20th century. For Heschel, all religion begins with the “sense of the ineffable.” 12Man Is Not Alone, p. 59 There is an aspect of existence that we cannot speak. It is connected to grandeur and wonder, mystery and “radical amazement.” It is awe, and by definition, it cannot be described. But Heschel’s meditations resonate:
The meaning of awe is to realize that life takes place under wide horizons, horizons that range beyond the span of an individual life or even the life of a nation, a generation, or an era. Awe enables us to perceive in the world intimations of the divine, to sense in small things the beginning of infinite significance, to sense the ultimate in the common and the simple; to feel in the rush of the passing the stillness of the eternal. 13God In Search of Man, p. 75
This, for me, comes closest to describing the Pale Blue Dot feeling. Sensing wide horizons, infinite significance, the eternal.
This may be as far as our Jewish sources take us when it comes to awe. But one of the beauties of Reform Judaism—and one of our founding principles—is that we seek wisdom and truth wherever they may be found, even outside our own writings.
And so we might note that Western philosophy has a long tradition of discussing the phenomenon of awe, calling it the “sublime.” For Edmund Burke, an 18th-century British philosopher, encountering the sublime causes astonishment, terror, tension in the body. A mountain cliff or endless ocean, so much greater than human scale, is beyond the mind’s ability to comprehend. 14A Philosophical Enquiry into the Origin of our Ideas of the Sublime and Beautiful (1757) Immanuel Kant categorized and analyzed the experience of the sublime as a working of reason and the mind. Of all his classic works, he chose to have inscribed on his tombstone a line from the conclusion to the Critique of Practical Reason: “Two things fill the mind with ever new and increasing admiration and awe, the more often and steadily we reflect upon them: the starry heavens above me and the moral law within me.” 15https://www.college.columbia.edu/core/content/kant%E2%80%99s-tombstone-kaliningrad
The accounts of the philosophers fit well with Jewish teachings about awe. But in the 21st century, one source of knowledge has become the dominant authority on reality: science. There are so few aspects of human existence that modern science has not sought to study and explain. And recently, a number of scientists have turned their attention to the phenomenon of awe.
In 2003, psychology professors Dacher Keltner and Jonathan Haidt, proposed that awe is an emotion with two components: 1) vastness—something literally or symbolically much larger than the self, and 2) accommodation—“a challenge or negation of mental structures when they fail to make sense of an experience of something vast.” 16“Approaching Awe, a Moral, Spritual, Aesthetic Emotion.” Cognition and Emotion (17:2, 2003). 304. It’s the challenge to existing concepts that makes awe experiences “mind-blowing” or “earth-shattering.”
Keltner and his colleagues have gone on to describe many characteristics of awe. Like other basic emotions, it has a universal facial expression: raised eyebrows, widened eyes, a dropped jaw, and visible inhalation of breath. 17Campos, Shiota, Keltner, Gonzaga, & Goetz, “What is shared, what is different? Core relational themes and expressive displays of eight positive emotions.” Cognition and Emotion (27, 2013). 37-52. People who experience awe feel more connected to other people. They are more generous and helpful.
One study brought students to the UC Berkeley Museum of Paleontology. Standing in the exact same spot, the students were directed to look either down a hallway or up at an awe-inspiring replica of a T-Rex skeleton. They were asked to complete the sentence, “I AM ______.” The students facing the T-Rex were more likely to answer that they were part of a collective—a culture, a religion, or a political movement. 18Shiota, Keltner, & Mossman, “The nature of awe: Elicitors, appraisals, and effects on self-concept.” Cognition and Emotion (21, 2007), 944-963.
Experiences of awe may have physical effects on our bodies. One study found that experiencing awe led to lower levels of cytokines, proteins associated with inflammation. 19Stellar, et al. “Positive affect and markers of inflammation: discrete positive emotions predict lower levels of inflammatory cytokines.” Emotion (15:2, 2015). 129-133. Shaun Gallagher, a professor of philosophy at the University of Memphis, led a team that built a simulator, so that test subjects could see the views astronauts see from the windows of the International Space Station. Not only did the subjects in the simulator report the same descriptions of awe as actual astronauts, the scientists were able to identify specific brain activity patterns corresponding to awe. 20Gallagher, Janz, Reinerman, Trempler, & Bockelman. A Neurophenomenology of Awe and Wonder. Palgrave Macmillan UK, 2015.
According to Prof. Keltner, awe is a pro-social emotion. Around the world, his research has shown that the most common source of awe is not the grandeur of nature, but interactions with other people. Awe, he theorizes, not only leads us to gather in communities like this one, but increases our empathy, compassion, and humanity. 21“Awe: For Altruism and Health?” Slate.com. http://www.slate.com/bigideas/why-do-we-feel-awe/essays-and-opinions/dacher-keltner-opinion
What significance for our practice and understanding of Judaism should experiments like these have? Is this emotion of awe, described by scientists, the same experience that the Bible has in mind when it says, “Awe of God is the beginning wisdom?” 22Proverbs 9:10
This intersection of science and religion is complex and fascinating, and this year we will be exploring it in detail. Temple Beth Or is one of 11 synagogues throughout North America selected to participate in a grant program called Scientists in Synagogues. The program asks rabbis to work together with scientists in their congregations to create programs that illuminate the relationship between Judaism and science. 23For more information, see http://ejewishphilanthropy.com/announcing-selected-congregations-for-scientists-in-synagogues/ Working with Marc Damelin, TBO’s vice president for education and a microbiologist, we will present a number of Scientists in Synagogues programs throughout this year. Our guiding subject for this year will be the spirituality and science of awe. As the activities for the year are scheduled, we will publicize them widely, and I encourage you all to participate.
I’ve chosen the subject of awe because I am convinced it is vital to our Jewish lives. Many of the beliefs of Judaism have become neglected in our modern world. Awe does not require belief—it is pure experience. Heschel is surely correct when he writes: “Awe precedes faith; it is at the root of faith. We must grow in awe in order to reach faith. We must be guided by awe to be worthy of faith. Awe rather than faith is the cardinal attitude of the religious Jew.” 24God In Search of Man, p. 77
These are the Days of Awe, and Yom Kippur is first among them. And I hope you do experience awe here today. Hearing the melody of Kol Nidrei or Avinu Malkeinu, or considering the terrible implications of God’s judgement, or seeing this sanctuary filled with our community, or watching your family grow up before your eyes. We need awe, as human beings and as Jews.
Judaism and philosophy and science have all recognized a human experience. We brush up against that which we can’t comprehend. We suddenly realize that the universe is not merely as it seems. Is this psychology and physiology, an evolutionary development? Or the divine? Or something else? We have a whole year to ask that question.
But for now I side with Heschel, when he says: “Awe, then, is more than a feeling. It is an answer of the heart and mind to the presence of mystery in all things, an intuition for a meaning that is beyond the mystery, an awareness of the transcendent worth of the universe.” 25God In Search of Man, p. 106
May we all experience the intuition that there is ultimate meaning in the universe. May we glimpse, if only at scattered moments, the divine image in all people. May we live our lives so as to more and more often be awake to the mystery of Creation.
Let there be awe in our lives. And may it lead us to a year of humanity, health, and faith.
G’mar chatimah tovah. May you be sealed for blessing in the Book of Life.
|↑3||Carl Sagan, Pale Blue Dot: A Vision of the Human Future in Space, 1994.|
|↑4||Gates of Repentance, p. 316.|
|↑5||Gates of Repentance, p. 520.|
|↑12||Man Is Not Alone, p. 59|
|↑13||God In Search of Man, p. 75|
|↑14||A Philosophical Enquiry into the Origin of our Ideas of the Sublime and Beautiful (1757|
|↑16||“Approaching Awe, a Moral, Spritual, Aesthetic Emotion.” Cognition and Emotion (17:2, 2003). 304.|
|↑17||Campos, Shiota, Keltner, Gonzaga, & Goetz, “What is shared, what is different? Core relational themes and expressive displays of eight positive emotions.” Cognition and Emotion (27, 2013). 37-52.|
|↑18||Shiota, Keltner, & Mossman, “The nature of awe: Elicitors, appraisals, and effects on self-concept.” Cognition and Emotion (21, 2007), 944-963.|
|↑19||Stellar, et al. “Positive affect and markers of inflammation: discrete positive emotions predict lower levels of inflammatory cytokines.” Emotion (15:2, 2015). 129-133.|
|↑20||Gallagher, Janz, Reinerman, Trempler, & Bockelman. A Neurophenomenology of Awe and Wonder. Palgrave Macmillan UK, 2015.|
|↑21||“Awe: For Altruism and Health?” Slate.com. http://www.slate.com/bigideas/why-do-we-feel-awe/essays-and-opinions/dacher-keltner-opinion|
|↑23||For more information, see http://ejewishphilanthropy.com/announcing-selected-congregations-for-scientists-in-synagogues/|
|↑24||God In Search of Man, p. 77|
|↑25||God In Search of Man, p. 106|