During an autumn stroll, a mother and her school-aged daughter were admiring the beautiful array of colored leaves. They were discussing what lay behind this quietly spectacular transformation.
"Mom, why do the leaves change color?"
"Grandma says G‑d paints the leaves... one at a time"
"Well, dear, in the spring and summer, the leaves make food for the tree. Inside each leaf, there are millions of tiny green molecules called chlorophyll.
The chlorophyll makes the food by collecting light from the sun, carbon dioxide
from the air, and water from the ground. Then it puts them all together to make
sugar and starch. In the autumn, the tree stops making food because it doesn't
need any in the winter. When that happens, the chlorophyll breaks down, and with
it goes the green color. By that time, the other molecules in the leaf become
more obvious and they give off the red, orange and yellow colors that we see
"That's not what Grandma says," commented the little girl.
"No? What does she say?"
"She says G‑d paints them... one at a time."
Whom should the child believe? Mom? Grandma? Both? Neither?
Those who side with Grandma are to be admired for their piety. Still, it is
unfair to totally reject Mother out of hand. Is it not possible that the
scientific explanation has some truth and some value? If so, it is unwise to
reject it out of ignorance. It would amount to saying, "Religion, I know and
like; but science, I don't really understand. Therefore religion is better."
Sometimes people reject a scientific explanation because it seems to conflict
with the religious view. True, there is nothing wrong with accepting one view
over another, but on what basis? Can one rule out an explanation based on direct
observations and plain logic? After all, one trusts observations and sound
reasoning in other areas of life; why not here? Faith is fine, but here is a
problem with "blind faith" that ignores the observed facts and rational
deductions of science.
Rejecting religion out of ignorance is no better than rejecting science out of ignorance
Those who side with Mother are to be praised for their sophistication. Still
there may be more to Grandma than meets the eye. One should at least know
whether religion provides insights into the natural world, before rejecting it.
It is unfair to say, "Science, I know and like; religion, I don't really care to
understand. Therefore science is better."
Rejecting religion out of ignorance is no better than rejecting science out
of ignorance. It's like the story of the rabbi and the scientist who wound up
seated together on an airplane.
"You must be a rabbi," opened the scientist.
"Yes, I am," confirmed his neighbor.
"I know all about Judaism," quipped the scientist.
"Do you really?" the rabbi responded, a little piqued.
"Sure: Do unto others as you would have them do unto you."
"I see. And what, may I ask, is your occupation?"
"I am an astrophysicist."
"Oh, really?" The rabbi paused a moment, then countered, "I know all about
"Come now, Rabbi. What do you know about astronomy?"
"Tvinkle, tvinkle little stah."
Some would reject the religious view in the leaf color debate because they
imagine G‑d to have human dimensions and features. They envision Him as an
invisible, bearded baritone holding a nylon paintbrush, a tin of latex paint and
a stopwatch to make sure all those leaves get done on time. Of course they
reject the religious explanation of natural events as a childish fantasy. On
those terms, who wouldn't?
But what if "He" is an Absolutely Infinite Being using the brush of
photoperiodically-induced cellular physiology dipped into pigments like
chlorophyll and carotene? Surely if the Creator is capable of making something
from nothing, He can also regulate existing chemicals and processes.
Neither science nor religion is as stiff and boxed-in as many people think.
Science has room for the Creator, and religion has room for science. Individual
scientist or theologians, or even whole sects of them, may be too biased or
uninformed to recognize this, but authentic science and authentic religion are
quite compatible and even complementary.
Science is concerned with how the world works... Religion addresses why the world works that way
It is important to articulate precisely the basic difference between scientific and religious explanations of events. Followers of either system accept the validity of our sensory experiences. So they will agree pretty much on what they observe in terms of temperature, weight, volume, brightness, duration, etc. They should also agree on the validity of sound, logical proofs and deductions. Where they differ is in the questions they answer.
Essentially science is concerned with how the world works, while
religion addresses why the world works that way.
To explain how the leaves change color, science breaks the leaf down into its
component parts and processes.
The first level of analysis seeks to explain leaf color in terms of
chlorophyll. Essentially we want to say that the leaf is green because
chlorophyll is green. But all this does is transfer the question from the leaf
to the chlorophyll. To explain chlorophyll's coloration, we study what it does:
photosynthesis. We want to say that chlorophyll is green because of how light is
used in the manufacture of sugar by plants.
Superficially this is satisfying. Plants are green because photosynthesis
needs red, blue and violet, but not green light. Problem solved. Or is it? After
all, one may yet ask why photosynthesis requires precisely those colors and not
others. This is just as legitimate as asking why leaves or chlorophyll look
green. The plant physiologist will acknowledge the validity of the question, but
will tell you that the answer is not found in physiology but in the branch of
science which underlies it--biochemistry, the study of how complex molecules
carry out life's processes.
Many volumes have been published on the molecular intricacies of
photosynthesis. It is among the best documented of chemical processes. The
mechanism is also quite well agreed upon by the experts. Thus it is reasonable
to expect that here we could find out why leaves are green. But with all the
details of the hundreds of different molecules and chain reaction, biochemistry
has still not explained one whit why only those wavelengths are usable, and
therefore we have not yet answered the question of why chlorophyll is green or
why leaves are green. Thus we still do not have an explanation of why leaves
change color. In addition to this, there remains the mystery of visual
perception altogether, which leaves unanswered how vision takes place in a tight
box of a skull where light neither penetrates nor is generated.
Another major question emerges form this whole story. The entire biochemical
system involved in photosynthesis is an incredibly ordered process. Hundreds of
chemical types, each comprised of a multitude of atoms, are matched and linked
together with remarkable precision, and all these parts continually interact in
a non-random way. In fact, not only is the biochemical system not random, but it
is obviously all geared toward a single function--the transformation of light
energy into chemical energy in the form of sugar.
The question is: What is organizing this system? What is keeping all these
parts working together? Is it sugar? Obviously not. Is it light? Impossible.
It is unreasonable to think that any single part of the system can
organize the behavior of all the other parts. For a while, many scientists
thought to explain the control of cells and organs in terms of DNA. However,
this view too is becoming less popular as leading biologists continue to
discover more basic life processes that are quite beyond the control of the cell
The chemical components are by nature independent, without power over each
other, and quite unaware of their role in manufacturing sugar. Hence, it must be
that the controlling factor is outside the chemical system and more powerful
than any of its parts, since it guides the behavior of each part. The greatness
of the "mystery factor" controlling photosynthesis is emphasized when one
considers that the chemistry of photosynthesis in a leaf is just one aspect of a
much larger, integrated picture. The behavior of these molecules is thoroughly
interwoven with the rest of the plant as well as with sunlight, air, water,
soil, other plants, animals and people. After all, photosynthesis provides food
for virtually all life on this planet.
From the Torah perspective the answer is obvious. There is only one factor
that can be beyond every system and yet control all the parts. But the
hard-nosed reductionist keeps searching, hoping that maybe, when we take those
molecules apart, the explanations to all these questions will surface. But alas,
they do not.
The most basic of the exact sciences is particle physics. In fact, it is not
nearly so exact as it used to be. There was a time when matter was hard, when
space and time were fixed, and when there were only three basic particles:
protons, neutrons and electrons. But with our refined instrumentation and
experiments, many strange results have shaken our materialistic view of nature.
Now matter is just a special form of energy, space is curved and time passes
at different rates in different reference frames. Matter is now made up of a
multitude of unknowable particles (or waves, depending on how you look at them),
including leptons, muons, gluons, mesons and quarks, having odd properties like
spin, flavor and charm. Even more surprising, these "particles," which are the
basis of everything physical, have the remarkable habit of continually
disappearing and coming into existence at random locations and at random times.
Has particle physics answered why leaves are green or any of our other
questions? No. Furthermore, we now have the new question of how atoms can be
stable (and they do seem to be) while their parts are so ephemeral. Such
problems led Paul Davies, a prominent physicist who is a self-avowed atheist, to
remark in a New Scientist article that "the new physics…seems to demand some
guiding influence located, as it were, above nature, sustaining all of
It is here that science and Torah really converge. There is no difference
between what Davies is saying in the name of physics and what Jews have been
saying since Abraham… There is a Divine Providence that continually sustains and
orders the entire universe, and not just at the cosmic level, or on the grand
general scale. Modern physics sees supernatural guidance operating at the most
minuscule subatomic level. Moreover many physicists believe in the anthropic
principle which maintains that human awareness is actually the goal and reason
for creating an orderly universe in the first place.
But beyond this point physics cannot probe, because no science is able to
address why this awareness was desired.
For example, when one sees the precisely timed emergence of beautiful colors
in autumn leaves, and when one considers all the microscopic and submicroscopic
levels and processes that underlie this display, and that all the parts and
processes are meticulously organized and integrated, and that no team of
scientists could duplicate one iota of any of it…all this adds to the
realization of the greatness and power of the One who could create, sustain, and
coordinate all those zillions of parts.
Still the complexity is finite. How much greater, then, is the Almighty G‑d,
before whom supernovae and atoms are equally minuscule and governed with equal
skill and care. This awareness enhances our awe and appreciation of the Creator.
Modern science and Torah are both leading us to a Creator who cares for His
creation. But only Torah takes the next step and explains why we were
created: To reveal G‑dliness in the world through our well-chosen thoughts,
words and deeds, that give purpose and meaning to our own lives and the world as