Religion and science need not be at loggerheads

11 03 2013

Today is Commonwealth Day, which celebrates the establishment of the Commonwealth of Nations whose values as expressed by the Commonwealth Charter include the promotion of democracy, human rights, international peace and security, tolerance respect and understanding, freedom of expression, the rule of law, good governance, sustainable development, protecting the environment, access to health eduction food and shelter, gender equality, recognition of the importance of young people, recognition of the needs of small states, recognition of the needs of vulnerable states, and the role of civil society.

Commonwealth Day is marked across the Commonwealth with multifaith services.  In the UK, these take place at Westminster Abbey and are attended by Her Majesty Queen Elizabeth II. In New Zealand these services take place at the Anglican Cathedral in Wellington, and are attended by the Governor General, His Excellency Lieutenant General The Right Honourable Sir Jerry Mateparae and commonwealth high commissioners, ambassadors as well as other dignitaries.

This year’s theme is Opportunity through Enterprise: unlocking potential with innovation and excellence. I was invited to speak representing New Zealand’s Jewish Community, and was allocated two minutes to do so. Here is what I said:


These days, in our high-tech world, it is unfashionable to be a religious person. The cool kids compare God to the Invisible Pink Unicorn, or mockingly proclaim their religion as “Jedi” on the census form. They prefer to worship science.

The scientific method is arguably the most important development in human civilisation in the last 500 years. The cycle of hypothesis – experiment – analysis – conclusion has enabled ever accelerating expansion of the limits of knowledge and capabilities of the human species. But while science is the perfect descriptive tool and has strong application in predictive modelling, it is limited by our ability to perceive, measure, and imagine. Ignoring these limitations, unquestioning adherence to science amounts to worship.

Sam Arbesman in his recent book “The Half Life of Facts: why everything we know has an expiration date” describes how this ever accelerating knowledge leads us to discard yesterday’s scientific facts as today’s historical curiosity. Knowledge, as such, is inherently uncertain.

Science can tell us within its limits, to great precision, of the way things are, but is silent on the way things should be. Enter religion. The religious values of “what is hateful to you, do not do to your fellow”, “love thy neighbour as thyself”, “welcome the stranger” and “we are each created in the likeness of the Divine” provide a moral compass for how we should lead our lives. And as with science, we should continually and progressively question these values and the institutions that gave rise to them to ensure their validity and continued relevance.

Science and religion need not be at loggerheads. In fact, it is at the intersection of increasing knowledge and moral imperative where we find the most interesting opportunities for enterprise, particularly in the world of high-tech startups.

Collaborative consumption, democratisation through increased direct communication, reputation metrics, crowdsourced information repositories, and open education are all important Internet startup trends for this coming year, and all of them are creating value driven by bringing people together to do good together, as well as holding individuals and institutions accountable for their positive and negative contributions to society. And the further development of social enterprise holds promise for us to transcend the profit motive for the greater good of society and the planet.

We can be optimistic about our future. With average intelligence rising by 3.5% per decade, the global death rates due to violence and malnutrition at historical lows and falling, global life expectancy at an all time high and rising, we seem to be increasingly capable as a species of doing the right thing, improving ourselves and those around us.

So let’s work together to encourage, empower, and lend our moral compass to the next wave of entrepreneurs who will continue to make our world a better place.




My message to the Israeli ambassador: Put down your weapons, and negotiate in good faith

13 12 2012

Last night, the Klezmer Rebs performed for the Hanukah party in Wellington’s Civic Square.  I felt particularly elated to be playing Klezmer music in the main square of my home town, a thriving multicultural city that has gone from strength to strength in the thirty years that I’ve called it home.  Props to our Mayor Celia Wade-Brown for inviting the Jewish Community to celebrate in the square.

The main organiser of the event was the Israeli Embassy.  I have never been happy with an embassy organising what is essentially a religious event, for complex reasons which will be articulated in a future blog post.

The Klezmer Rebs collectively, and I personally have been very uncomfortable with the recent actions of the Israeli government, and we feel that there has been no measurable progress toward a sustainable peace, due in significant part to a lack of leadership by the Israeli government.  So we took the opportunity to make a political statement directly to the Ambassador, Shemi Tzur, in our introduction to our medley of peace songs.  I wrote the statement, and the band helped me revise it.  Here’s what I said:

Mr Ambassador, I’m glad you implored people earlier today to pray for peace, but we need more than prayer – we need action.  Praying, singing and dancing for peace aren’t enough; bringing about peace, and overcoming decades of counterproductive attitudes and actions is very hard work and requires individual and collective leadership and commitment from everyone including the Israeli government.  The time has come to tell your Government to show that leadership, put down your weapons, and seriously negotiate in good faith to bring about peace.  Bombing civilians and building settlements on land whose ownership is in question is not good faith.  Fulfil the words of Isaiah, and show that Israel is called into righteousness as a light unto the nations.  The time is now.

Prior to making that statement, I called to Shemi by name from the stage to make sure he was paying attention.  He was standing directly in front of the PA, and I looked him in the eye as I made the statement.  Today’s DomPost ran an article on page 2 (print version only) entitled “Peace plea made to Israeli envoy at Hanukkah Concert”, which said that “… Mr Tzur said via a spokesman he had not heard the message and had no further comment”.  All I can say is that this is an indication that the Israeli government is either disingenuous, pathologically deaf, or both.

We feel it is important that the Ambassador and his government hear this message from Jews.  Many of us abhor the actions of the Israeli government, and feel that successive governments since 1967 have let down their citizens, the Jewish People, and the world through their inaction and lack of leadership to address the fundamental issues that need to be resolved to create a lasting peace in the Middle East.

Several people came up to me after the concert and congratulated me for the courage to make such a statement publicly.  Only one person approached me, my cousin, and admonished me for making political statements on behalf of the Jewish community at a public event. Nowhere had I purported to be making statements on behalf of anyone, other than myself and the band, but I do know that there a large segment of the local Jewish community agrees with the statement that I made.

We are at a turning point.  Some would say that we are beyond the point of no return, but I am a perennial optimist and know that with enough good will and political pressure, we can make real progress toward peace.  And if they can’t hear us, perhaps we need to turn the volume up.




Breadmaker Challah

3 01 2010
175ml Boiling water
150ml Cold water
1 1/2 Tbsp Sugar
2 tsp Salt
1 1/2 Tbsp Yeast
4 Eggs
650g High-grade flour (6 1/2 Cups)
50g Poppy or sesame seeds

Method:

Add the boiling water to the cold water, giving 325ml in a large measuring cup.  Stir in the sugar, salt and yeast (use fresh yeast from your local bakery for best results).  Mix well until all of the ingredients are dissolved, and pour into a large breadmaker or mixing pan.  Add the oil.  Very lightly beat three of the eggs, and mix this in as well.  Add the flour, and gently stir for 30 seconds.  If you are using a breadmaker, set it to “dough” and let rip, otherwise knead the mixture by hand in a large mixing bowl for 10 minutes or so.  The resulting dough ball should be just lightly stick to your finger when poked; if not, add more water or flour to obtain the right consistency.

Let the dough rise for an hour or so, and then punch it down.  Let it rise for another hour, punch it down, and remove from breadmaker or mixing bowl.

Preheat the oven to 195° C on “fan bake”.

With well-floured hands, divide into three equal sized balls, roll them into long cylinders, and braid them in situ on a lightly oiled baking sheet.  Allow the braided loaf to rise for 18 minutes.

In a small cup, beat the remaining egg with an equal amount of water.  Paint this egg-wash mixture onto the loaf, and then sprinkle the loaf with poppy or sesame seeds.

Put the loaf into the oven for 18 minutes.

Take the loaf out, re-paint with egg-wash, especially the bits which have expanded and are now not covered with seeds.  Sprinkle more seeds on the loaf.  Put back in the oven for another 18 minutes.

Remove the loaf, allow to cool for at least 18 minutes.




Basil Pesto Kugel

4 09 2009

Here’s a variation on kugel … not as bland as straight kugel, but not as in-your-face as pasta-pesto.

500g pasta
250g sour cream
250g cottage cheese
250g milk
2 eggs
1 plant, fresh basil chopped
4 cloves garlic, crushed
75g pine nuts
75g parmesan cheese, grated

Preheat oven to 190°C.

Boil the pasta until for about 5 minutes, until very al dente, rinse in cold water, and drain.

In a large bowl, lightly scramble the two eggs, and mix in all of the rest of the ingredients.  Pour this mixture into a lightly greased casserole.

Bake for 50 minutes at 190°C

Serves 6.







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