Floch '11 presents winning paper

by Jenny Che | 4/6/11 10:00pm

Intellect and faith can be reconciled and individuals can fill their minds with ideas that lead to a stronger faith, according to Brandon Floch '11, who presented his winning theological research at the third annual Sinai Scholars Society Academic Symposium hosted on Sunday at the University of Pennsylvania.

The Symposium is an annual conference that showcases students' research on the application of the Ten Commandments to modern life and modern issues, according to Asian and Middle Eastern languages and literatures professors Lewis Glinert, who worked with Floch on his independent study. Students with the best papers were chosen to present their work following the theme, "Ancient Ethics in a Post-Modern World," in front of scholars and their fellow peers.

Students hailing from universities across the nation, including Dartmouth, University of Colorado, University of Georgia and University of California, Berkeley, submitted papers to the nationwide Sinai Scholars Program, according to Rabbi Moshe Gray, the Chabad rabbi on campus. The program, offered in the fall and spring and currently in its seventh year at Dartmouth, is supported by the philanthropist Gorge Rohr and 125 students have participated in the program, Gray said.

Floch's winning paper was based on classic Jewish philosophical texts of the late 18th century and explored the limits of human knowledge and how one can conceptualize God, Glinert said.

"The idea is that most people think that your intellect, your way of comprehending, is completely different from faith, because intellect causes you to be skeptical, to examine, to question, but your faith causes you to accept, to be submissive," Floch said. "These two faculties seem completely opposite, but the text I was reading said, No, they're not completely opposite.' You can fill your mind with ideas to lead to stronger faith."

Floch's main source was Rabbi Schneur Zalman's 18th century Hasidic text, "Tanya," which explores issues of theology in a systematic, philosophical way. In the second book of the text, "The Gate of Faith and Unity," Zalman delves into the ideas of unity and oneness, suggesting that everything in the world is God, but God is also much more than that, Floch said.

In his presentation, Floch talked about human wisdom as a metaphor for God's wisdom.

"God is infinite, but how can you understand something that is infinite?" Floch said. "You do it by using a metaphor, by using human wisdom. We've filled our minds with ideas of what God could be we're bringing it down to the human level. It's beyond our capabilities to understand the infinite, but we can understand little pieces of it."

A main point of Floch's paper was that Judaism, and the Jewish concept of blind faith, requires stretching one's reason to its limits while still recognizing that certain things needed to be taken in trust, Glinert said. Floch used familiar student classes as an analogy for understanding classic Jewish thought, according to Glinert.

"What happens when you take Physics 101 and the professor will give you all manner of ideas which you have no possible way of evaluating or testing?" Glinert said. "You take it in trust, you do your best to push, but there are some things you take for granted because you'll probably never be able to understand or test yourself."

Floch argued for the need for an intellectual foundation, such as systematical mathematical reasoning, in order to advance knowledge and push one's ideas to the limits.

"In physics and astronomy, you have no idea how to prove the universe is infinite, the same way you can't prove that God is all-knowing, but you accept that," Floch said. "It's blind faith."

Glinert said Floch's presentation was an "eye-opener" to students and academic scholars alike.

"People in general students are no exception find it difficult in 2011 on college campuses to deal with the idea of God," Glinert said. "And [Floch] talked about it in such a powerful and insightful way that it really made people think."

The Symposium, created three years ago by Glinert and Gray, offers students the chance to defend their work in front of fellow students and high-ranking faculty, according to Glinert.

"The thought process behind the symposium is to give these Jewish students the opportunity to spend serious time researching and developing Jewish thought, which is not something they have the opportunity to do very often, especially as college students busy with school and majors," Gray said in an interview with The Dartmouth.

For his research, Floch worked with both Glinert and Gray, balancing an academic approach to theological literature with a Jewish-focused learning style, Floch said.

"It was nice to be have a religious education but also academic viewpoint from [Glinert]," Floch said. "Glinert knows everything, he's a fountain of knowledge, and [Rabbi Gray's] hands-off approach made me more curious about Judaism."

Gray said he saw the influence of the text on Floch and his personal growth over the last few years.

"It's interesting to see the change in one year and how's he's changed and matured," Gray said. "He wrote about what he struggled with, and I can see a strong difference between last year and this year."

Floch presented at last year's symposium on the topic of divine revelation.

Stephanie Wolf '12 also presented her work on the conflicts between the commandment to honor one's parents and the common individual desire to pursue self-interests. Wolf was not available for comment by press time.