Book Review: ‘The Rabbi’s Brain’ is an Odd, Confusing Read

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The Rabbi’s Brain: Mystics, Moderns and the Science of Jewish Thinking

Andrew Newberg and Rabbi David Halpern

Turner Publishing

The Rabbi’s Brain is an eminently odd book, not least of all because of its vaguely sci-fi title.

The premise of the book, written by Andrew Newberg (director of research of the Marcus Institute of Integrative Health at Thomas Jefferson University Hospital) and Rabbi David Halpern (a resident at Jefferson) boils down to this: “It is certainly the case that Jewish people in general have brains that are different from those of other people,” and the brains of rabbis in particular may differ even further from those belonging to “other people.”

The premise on its own is enough to give one pause.

Jews, as a group, are of a wide variety of ethnic backgrounds, which would seem to preclude reaching any broad conclusions about their shared biological brain function as fundamentally Jewish. Secondly, Newberg describes himself as a “pioneer in the field of neurotheology,” a field that “links the brain and religion.” Indeed, he is as he describes — a pioneer — just as surely as neurotheology as a field has been the subject of criticism relating to the fantastical broadness of its scope and some dubious claims that the foundation rests upon.

I am not a scientist. I wasn’t even a particularly gifted science student. I can’t go through this book point by point and refute this and that. But somewhere in the middle of this clunkily written, small-fonted, 400-page book, I had to ask myself if I was really prepared to buy that, say, the Jewish experience of guilt after the Holocaust could actually be mapped neurologically, or whether I was really ready to take notes on theology from term-paper grade prose like this: “Clearly, the free will debate is one that has gone on for centuries, and it does not look like it will be resolved quickly.” And you don’t need to be a scientist to raise an eyebrow when a medical doctor, writing about the possible link between religious practice during the High Holidays and corporeal health, says: “Is there something more supernatural at work?”

And as for the question of the rabbi’s brain being specifically different, Newberg and Halpern present a study wherein the activity in Halpern’s brain while he recited the Shema seemed unique when compared to Newberg’s brain as he did the same, and both of their brain’s activity during prayer was markedly different from studies of people’s brains during “Christian and Islamic prayer, Buddhist meditation, mediumistic trance states, mindfulness meditation, Sikh meditation, and speaking in tongues.” How many people undertaking those practices were tested? Were there control groups? What is there to support this claim?

Or take this: In their self-described “Survey of Rabbis,” Newberg and Halpern write that 78 percent of respondents “described themselves as moderately or intensely emotional,” which leads to a conclusion that “a strong reliance on emotions seems highly appropriate for the rabbi’s brain.”

Perhaps, but that 78 percent of rabbis would say that is meaningless without context. How does that compare to a randomized group? Or just a randomized group of Jews? Or adherents of other religions? Without a comparison there, how can that conclusion be drawn?

As an introduction to certain neurological principles, the book can be interesting. Beyond that, this attempt to marry theology and neurology seems dubious at best, and at worst, seems like simply the wrong way to understand Judaism and religious practice generally, like using math to understand art.