Dominus Illuminatio Mea: An Oxford attempt to reconcile science and religion in the 16th century

Thursday, 15 September, 2011 - 2:27 pm

The words Dominus illuminatio mea serves as the motto of the University of Oxford, the oldest university in the English-speaking world, founded around 1167. These words, taken from the opening of Psalm 27, means ‘The Lord is my light’, and has been in use at least since the second half of the 16th century, the time of the great revival of interest in the Hebrew Bible in Oxford, and appears on the University's arms.


Oxford is not the only university to use the Psalms for its motto. Trinity Western University uses "A Mighty Fortress Is Our G-d" or in Latin Turris Fortis Deus Noster, which is the best known of Martin Luther's hymns. Luther was paraphrasing Psalm (46:8 8), ‘The Lord of Hosts is with us; the G-d of Jacob is our fortress forever’. The motto of  University of Calgary, as well as University of North Carolina, is from Psalms (121:2) ‘I will lift up my eyes’ or in Latin Mo Shùile Togam Suas. Columbia University uses In lumine tuo videbimus lumen in Latin, which means "In Thy light we see light" (Psalm 36:9).

University of Aberdeen’s motto is Initium sapientiæ timor domini, which means ‘The fear of the Lord is the beginning of wisdom’ (Psalms 111:10). Brown University uses In deo speramus, which means ‘In G-d we hope’. This comes from Psalms (27:14) ‘Hope for the Lord, be strong and He will give your heart courage, and hope for the Lord.’ This incidentally also seems to be the origin of ‘In G-d we trust’ on American coins.


There are also two universities that use verses from the Pentateuch. University of Washington uses Fiat Lux in Latin, which means ‘Let there be light’ (Genesis 1:3) and University of Kansas Videbo visionem hanc magnam quare non comburatur rubus, which means ‘I will see this great sight, how the bush does not burn’ (Exodus 3:3). Most universities however don’t use words from the Bible as their motto. Chicago University’s motto for example is Crescat scientia, vita excolatur, which means ‘Let knowledge grow from more to more, and so be human life enriched’. Harvard, the oldest institution of higher education in the United states, established in 1636 uses since 1836 a shield with the Latin motto “Veritas” (“Verity” or “Truth”) on three books. As Oxford, the oldest of the above universities, chose a verse from the Hebrew Bible, the book of Psalms, it is interesting to understand the meaning of this verse within the context of Jewish tradition.


Ivan Illich interpretation


An article by Ivan Illich (1926-2002), born in Vienna to a Croatian father and Sephardic Jewish mother and later became a Roman Catholic priest, attempts to explain this motto. He writes, "The relationship of things to G-d "who is light" must be understood. The thirteenth century is suffused by the idea that the world rests in G-d's hands, that it is contingent on Him. This means that at every instant everything derives its existence from His continued creative act. Things radiate by virtue of their constant dependence on this creative act. They are alight by the G-d-derived luminescence of their truth." This is a profound mystical interpretation but does not completely explain the meaning of ‘The Lord is my light’. These words don’t appear to be referring to the light that continues to bring the world into existence but rather the light of G-d that illuminates the soul on a personal rather than a cosmic level.


‘The Lord is my light’ in Jewish thought


We will therefore attempt to give a more thorough explanation of ‘The Lord is my light’ as found in Jewish thought. We would like to begin this analysis by prefacing it with three comparative Biblical verses. In Michah, it states (7:8): ‘Although I will sit in darkness, the Lord is a light to me’. In Numbers (6:25) it states: ‘May the Lord cause His countenance to shine to you and favor you.’  The most relevant verse for our study is further in Psalms (18:29): ‘For You light my lamp; the Lord, my G-d, does light my darkness.’  In this verse King David presents the concept of G-d illuminating the soul of the person through a metaphor of kindling a physical lamp.


The analogy of a lamp


This analogy by King David is a profound idea that becomes a central theme throughout the works of the Prophets and later works to help understand the relationship between man and G-d. In this essay we will first attempt to explain how this idea is presented in the work of Rabbi Dov Ber of Lubavitch (1773 – 1827), the second leader of Lubavitch, we will then demonstrate how this concept is sourced in the work of his father Rabbi Schneur Zalman of Liadi (1745-1812), who in turn draws from a teaching of the Jewish mystical work of the Zohar. We will then explore how this idea is further found in the works of the Prophets through one of the most famous symbols of Judaism, the Menorah.


In his work Gates of Radiance, Rabbi Dov Ber quotes the verse in Psalms (18): ‘For You light my lamp; the Lord, my G-d, does light my darkness’ and elaborates on the light metaphor with the analogy of a lamp. In a lamp, he says, there are four components. The first is the wick, which illuminates as the flame burns. The second is the flame itself that burns from the wick. This flame consists of two components, expressed in the two colours of the fire. One is a dark colour that is closer to the wick - called by Rabbi Dov Ber a "dark radiance" - which burns and gradually consumes the wick. The the other, constituting the third part f the lamp, is a bright flame, further up the wick, which Rabbi Dov Ber calls "the light which illuminates" or the "bright radiance." The fourth aspect of the lamp is the oil which flows into the wick and becomes absorbed. Without oil, the flame would simply not catch and become extinguished.


The two aspects of the flame, as mentioned above, represent two aspects of the spirituality of the soul, as it sates in Proverbs (20:27) ‘The soul of man is the lamp of G-d’. The bright radiance is the Divine soul expressing its most sublime sacred attainment - total surrender to the Divine when contemplating the Oneness of G-d. The dark radiance that consumes the wick reflects the Divine soul as it engages the animalistic soul that involves a struggle to transform one's negative emotions into a more spiritual orientation. This is reflected by the way the dark flame consumes the wick.


In this analogy, the oil represents the fuel that ignites the wick. For one person this may be the total surrender of the self to the Divine when contemplating the oneness of G-d thereby transforming one's negative emotions. For another person, the oil may be the performance of a good deeds, Mitzvah. In both cases, they represent the flow of oil that enables the Divine radiance to illuminate the soul - the wick. Accordingly, the verse in Psalms (18): ‘For You light my lamp; the Lord, my God, does light my darkness’, refers to the Divine that illuminates the soul of the person through oil, which may be the performance of good deeds or the surrender of the self before the Divine.


The Lord is my light


In the mystical interpretations to Psalms by the third leader of Lubavitch, Rabbi Menachem Mendel (1789-1866), known as the Tzemach Tzedek, he juxtaposes the interpretation of the verse (Psalms 18): ‘For You light my lamp’ with the verse (Psalms 27): ‘The Lord is my light’. This would suggest that the verse: ‘The Lord is my light’ is also a reflection of the relationship between the soul of man and G-d. The person has the ability to provide oil through good deeds thereby precipitating the concept of ‘The Lord is my light’ - the flow of the Divine that kindles the soul, similar to a fire that catches onto a wick when there is oil.


Origins found in the Zohar


The analogy of a candle and wick that require oil is found in an earlier work by Rabbi Schneur Zalman of Liadi in the Tanya (Ch. 35), where he quotes a teaching of the Kabbalistic work of the Zohar (Balak), based on the verse in Ecclesiastes (2:14): “The wise man’s eyes are in his head.” The Zohar poses the question: Where else are a man’s eyes? Surely, then, the meaning of the verse is that the Divine Presence, called the Shechinah, rests above the head of a person. Therefore, every wise man has his eyes i.e., his interest and concern and hence also his speech concentrated “in his head,” i.e., in that light of the Shechinah which rests and abides above his head.


The Zohar continues that the person must be aware that this light kindled above his head i.e., the light that shines upon his soul, requires oil. For man’s body is the wick that retains the luminous flame and the light is kindled above it; and thus King Solomon cried out, saying (Ecclesiastes 9:8), “Let not oil be lacking above your head.” This verse means to say that the light over his head requires oil, meaning the good deeds that man performs are the oil which supplies the light illuminating his soul, and for this reason “The wise man’s eyes are (should be) in his head.” - to ensure that he never lacks oil - good deeds - for this light. The quotation from the Zohar - with a loose translation edited by the author - ends here.


In the work of the Tanya, Rabbi Schneur Zalman proceeds to elaborate on this teaching of the Zohar. He writes, the meaning of this analogy comparing the light of the Shechinah to the light of a candle is clear to every intelligent person that just as it is true of the candle’s flame that it does not shed light nor is it retained by the wick, without oil, similarly, the Shechinah does not rest upon man’s body, which is compared to a wick, except through man’s performing good deeds.


The body can only act as a wick, not as oil, as it is a coarse physical being which will not be absorbed within the light of the Shechinah, but will always remain separate from it. The good deeds that man performs however provide the oil.


It is evident from the Zohar, however, that one’s soul, although a part of G‑d above, is insufficient to serve as oil for the wick by itself. The reason for this is since man’s soul is not, after all, completely nullified before G‑d and one with Him to the extent that it is capable of becoming absorbed within the G‑dly light. This is true even of the soul of the righteous, who serve G‑d with the loftiest forms of love and fear. Indeed, it is the soul’s very love of G‑d that emphasizes its separateness; for love entails two separate entities, the lover and the beloved. Similarly with fear: there is one who fears, and another who is feared.


Only good deeds, mitzvot, which are completely one with G‑d’s will, can serve as the oil which is absorbed within the flame of the light of the Shechinah that is kindled over man.


Elisha & the story of the oil


This analogy is further found in the earlier works of the Prophets in the Book of Kings in an enigmatic story pertaining to oil.


In the Book of Kings (2 4), it relates: “Now a woman, of the wives of the disciples of the prophets, cried out to Elisha, saying, ‘Your servant, my husband, has died, and you know that your servant did fear the Lord; and the creditor has come to take my two children for himself as slaves.’ And Elisha said to her, ‘What shall I do for you? Tell me what you have in the house.’ And she said, ‘Your maidservant has nothing at all in the house except a jug of oil.’ And he said, ‘Borrow vessels for yourself from outside, from all your neighbors; do not borrow only a few empty vessels. And you shall come and close the door about yourself and about your sons, and you shall pour upon all these vessels; and the full one you shall carry away.’


And she went away from him and closed the door about herself and about her sons; they were bringing vessels to her and she was pouring. And it was when the vessels were full, that she said to her son, ‘Bring me another vessel,’ and he said to her, "There is no other vessel.’ And the oil stopped. And she came and told the man of God: and he said, ‘Go sell the oil and pay your debt; and you and your sons will live with the remainder.’”


In the Jewish philosophical and mystical work Maamarei Admur Hazaken Haktzarim (p.137) by Rabbi Schneur Zalman of Liadi, it explains the story with an interesting euphemistic allegorical interpretation.


He explains that the woman in this story refers to the soul and Elisha refers to G-d. The soul cries to G-d that the flame – love of G-d - of the soul, (indicated in the Hebrew word for husband, ish, which is similar to the Hebrew word aish, meaning fire) has been extinguished and the creditor, the animalistic soul, has taken her two offspring, meaning one’s love and fear for G-d, for material desires instead of for G-d.


Elisha then asks her, what her soul has remaining that is not been corrupted by the animal soul. She responds that she has just a single jar of oil. This refers to the essence of the soul that remains dedicated to G-d to the degree of self sacrifice.


G-d tells the soul to borrow vessels for the oil, which means to engage in the study of Torah and good deeds, which will serve as vessels to contain the light of G-d, even though they will be void of a love of G-d. The good deeds will be able to serve as the wick for the fire, the Divine light, to be kindled on the soul.


The Menorah symbol


A similar analogy in the book of Zachariah (4:1) attempts to take this a step further. It states, “And the angel who spoke with me returned, and he awakened me as a man who wakes up from his sleep. And he said to me, "What do you see?" And I said, "I saw, and behold there was a candelabrum all of gold, with its oil-bowl on top of it, and its seven lamps thereon; seven tubes each to the lamps that were on top of it. And there were two olive trees near it; one on the right of the bowl, and one on its left.”


Rabbi Dov Ber elaborates the interpretation of this dream in his Gates of Radiance in an essay entitled ‘With you is the source of life’ (p. 53). The Prophet Zachariah is referring to a time of exile of the Jewish people where there might not be any light on the candelabrum; there are not sufficient good deeds or study of Torah that can serve as oil to kindle the soul with Divine light. In such a case, the oil is fed from above arousing the person even against their will to return to good deeds and an awareness of G-d.


This is illustrated in the idea of the oil-bowl standing above the candelabrum and being fed oil from the two olive trees to its right and left, channeling the oil into the lamps.


This idea that it is possible that the person might not have any oil of his or her own is also indicated in the verse that was discussed earlier, ‘For You light my lamp; the Lord, my God, does light my darkness.’The end of the verse pertaining to darkness refers to the possibility that a person does not have any oil to ignite the Divine flame due to being in a state of total moral confusion where good has been consumed by negativity. It is pertaining to this that it states, ‘G-d does light my darkness”.


However, the first half of the verse using the analogy ‘For You light my lamp’ refers to the light of the Divine that kindles the soul conditional on some provision of oil that the person provides through good deeds or self-abnegation and humility. It appears that it is this definition that the Oxford motto ‘The Lord is my light’ is referring to.


Menorah as a Jewish symbol


This extensive analogy found in the Torah, from Psalms to Book of Kings to Zechariah, seems to give rise to the symbol of the Menorah as a primary Jewish symbol. It is reflecting on the relationship between the individual soul and G-d and thus also the Jewish people as a whole and G-d as taught by the Prophets to Israel. They should regard their life and soul as a candelabrum that needs the provision of oil through good deeds in order to be kindled.


Wisdom is light: a theory for the Oxford motto in 16th century


To conclude, why would Oxford have chosen the motto ‘The Lord is my light’ in the 16th century? What is it about the symbolic meaning of light in the Biblical context that links it to an institution of learning?


In the Zohar (Genesis, 30b), wisdom is also called light. The similarity between wisdom and light is the fact that wisdom illuminates an idea that previously was not understood. However, wisdom in the Biblical sense is the perceptive seeing not of ideas in general but of the Divine.


In the Gates of Radiance (p.40) it explains various levels of such wisdom that allow for fear of G-d, from fear of doing evil to transcendent awe of G-d. This correlation between wisdom and awe of G-d is found in numerous places in Jewish teaching, as in Job (28:28) ‘Fear of G-d is wisdom’. Similarly in Psalms (111:10), ‘Beginning of wisdom is fear of G-d’ and in Ethics of the Fathers (3:17): ‘If there is no wisdom there is no fear and if there is no fear there is no wisdom.’ In the view of Judaism, wisdom is identified with and needs to be predicated on an awe of G-d.


In the analogy of the oil and the light, then, the oil is wisdom, which means fear of G-d, and is expressed in good deeds that kindle the soul with the Divine light.


Science & religion are not incompatible


In this sense, the idea behind the motto in 16th century Oxford might have been the desire to address the nature of the pursuit of knowledge, especially at a time when academia might have been shifting away from theology to the sciences. In this struggle, it would have been important to use the motto of this age old institution to anchor the idea that ultimately pursuit of wisdom must be predicated on knowledge of G-d, rather than the pursuit of wisdom for its own sake.


This would have been particularly relevant in the 16th century when long held principles were changing. This can be seen with the world changing claim of Copernicus regarding the heliocentric model of the universe in 1543, as well as other advances in the sciences like Vesalius’ pioneering research into human anatomy, early research in Europe into pulmonary circulation, detailed astronomical observations and William Gilbert’s research into the earth’s magnetic field.


Interestingly, this debate regarding the purpose of education and the need for the compatibility between the pursuit of knowledge of the sciences and the knowledge of G-d is as relevant today as it was in the 16th century, when this motto was introduced.


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