Rabbi Avi Weinstein

Neurotheology and the Jewish Brain

In Uncategorized on April 19, 2009 at 11:09 pm

Dr. Andrew Newburg seems to be the unassailed pioneer of this new field of Neurotheology. He has been taking pictures of brains of meditators and has proven what one might expect–that the part of the brain that is engaged in concentration and mindful focus are very active during these meditative states, so that paradoxically, while one is “inactive”, he is actually working very hard, but in a way that energizes instead of enervates. He also finds that a belief in God amplifies these feelings of empathy, peace and unity.

Michael Gerson was a speechwriter for W and as I found out from one who would know, converted from Judaism to Christianity. He writes thoughtful op-ed pieces for the Washington Post about religion and its value. I confess that I liked him better when I thought he was just a thoughtful Christian, but now, I feel funny even quoting him. After all, he betrayed his people for a calling that I cannot accept. Nevertheless, he wrote an op-ed piece on Newburg and his latest findings. He also reports that Newburg’s findings indicate:

Contemplating a loving God strengthens portions of our brain — particularly the frontal lobes and the anterior cingulate — where empathy and reason reside. Contemplating a wrathful God empowers the limbic system, which is “filled with aggression and fear.” It is a sobering concept: The God we choose to love changes us into his image, whether he exists or not.

This op ed piece appeared soon after my post on why we say a partial Hallel prayer on the intermediate and last days of Pesach. The verse in Proverbs warns us: Do not be joyful from the fall of your enemies, and the Midrash immediately explains that this is why only a partial Hallel is part of the intermediate and last days of the Pesach liturgy. I recently gave a more detailed version of these sources in a class that I gave as part of the morning service. I ended it with a similar ending that I had written here in the previous post:

Blessed is the people who wish to believe in God’s empathy, and in so doing, believe in their own.

Immediately afterward, one of the congregation came up to object and say that it was this very quietism of Ashkenazic Jewry that prevented the Jews from having a state much sooner. It would have helped us if we could have actively fought and hated our enemies with more gusto.

Newburg might say that this fellow chose to envision a different God, and as a result, is very much stuck in a survivalist mode that does not allow for these feelings of compassion, peace and unity. I imagine the fellow would counter that this type of love and compassion is a luxury that Jews cannot afford.

But we couldn’t afford it in the 13th century either, yet this is the path we chose and this is the way we chose to see God and certainly ourselves.

A study guide that takes us through the sources will be forthcoming.

  1. Michael Gerson went to Wheaton College (the leading college of evangelical Christians) and attended high school at Westminster Christian Academy in St. Louis — a very academically oriented and theologically conservative Protestant high school. He has stated that both his parents were Evangelical Christians.

    One of his grandfathers was born Jewish.


  2. Seemingly a paternal Grandfather–Zackheim had it wrong then. He was my source. Thanks.

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