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Science and Judaism Workshop Yields Surprising Insights


Science and Judaism Workshop | AAAS/Christine A. Scheller

“Jews were not the first scientists; that distinction goes to Greece and the Pre-Christian century. But according to the great German sociologist Max Weber, it was Judaism that first led to what he calls Western rationality, which made science possible, and the reason it did so was because Bereshit Chapter One is the first act of demythologizing the universe. Until then, the universe was seen to be the result of vast and capricious cosmic forces--it could not be predicted, could only be. It was the abandonment of myth that made people able for the first time to see the universe for what it was, and Weber regarded that as the root of Western rationality out of which came science.”

—Lord Jonathan Sacks (former chief rabbi of The United Hebrew Congregations in the United Kingdom, and author of "The Great Partnership: Science, Religion, and the Search for Meaning") in Moment magazine



What are the concerns and opportunities at the intersection of science and Judaism? This was the question at the heart of a workshop hosted by AAAS DoSER in New York City November 11. With assistance from Sinai and Synapses (an organization founded in 2013 to improve the tenor of science/religion dialogue), a diverse group of Jewish leaders and scientists gathered for a full day of conversation at Clal - The National Jewish Center for Learning and Leadership.

Part of the Perceptions Project, this workshop sought to seed ideas for future collaboration between scientists and Jewish communities rather than resolve tensions that a joint AAAS/Rice University survey showed rarely exist.

For example, only 1.4 % of Jews said science and religion are in conflict, and that they are on the side of religion, whereas, 29.4 % of Evangelicals, 11.9 % of Mainline Protestants, and 12.2 % of Catholics expressed this view. On the other hand, 38% of Jews agreed with the statement: “Given enough time science will be able to provide a natural explanation to everything.” Only 14.4 % of Evangelicals (the group of particular interest to the Perceptions Project) agreed with this statement.

After hearing a summary of this data, one participant noted that unlike Christians, Jews were not divided by denomination in the survey, so it’s difficult to fully analyze their responses. Another said there is an implicit message in the comparison with Evangelicals that Jews are right about science and Evangelicals are wrong. “Keep in mind that is not necessarily true,” this attendee said.

There was general consensus among participants, however, that tension is low between Jewish and scientific communities because, as one person put it, “Judaism is not only based on the Bible, but on the Talmud,” which includes a range of rabbinical perspectives.

“My underlying conflict is that as a scientist I’m trained to look for answers; as a rabbi I'm taught to live with questions,” said another person.

However, a scientist who wears a kippa to work said that although he doesn’t feel discriminated against, he isn’t comfortable talking about his faith in a professional context. “I honestly do feel intimidated by the anti-religious culture,” he said, adding that he is more comfortable talking about science in a religious setting than talking about religion in a scientific setting. “It’s still socially acceptable to say rude things about religious people. I don't know why that is, but it is.”

A rabbi said the scientific value placed on open inquiry suggests that big questions about reality ought to be addressed from different angles. “It doesn't sound like good science if they're not open to all the questions,” he said.

Scientific areas of particular interest to the group—which ranged from non-practicing to Reform to Orthodox—were identity, medical ethics and end-of-life issues, along with the creation/evolution debate.

Workshop participants said this debate is a concern in some Jewish communities in part because of the theological importance of the creation of humanity. The classic view of evolution is based on randomness and error, a rabbi said. This core view doesn't sit well with a Jewish perspective that says the human person has an intended spot and particular purpose in the world, he explained.

Jennifer Wiseman and Rabbi Geoffrey Mitelman| AAAS/Christine A. Scheller

Several participants expressed interest in becoming more equipped to address questions about science with students, whether it be finding better answers to students’ questions about whether or not there is a conflict between science and religion or addressing why religion is relevant in a world that values science more.

“If Judaism doesn’t celebrate what the world is about, it makes us irrelevant to the Jewish community,” a rabbi said.

Medical ethics and end-of-life issues offer a rich way to talk about science and religion, some participants said, because each field of knowledge has something to offer in these contexts.  

Recommendations for future collaboration included workshops for rabbinical students and teachers, curriculum development, and incorporating discussions about science into Jewish community life.

Learning how to listen to those with differing views on issues of deep personal meaning is one of the most important topics at the interface of science and Judaism, a rabbi said in a post-event survey.  

“The more religious people (including Jews) who can say, ‘I embrace both my religion and my science,’ the more the conversation will change,’” said Sinai and Synapses founding director Rabbi Geoffrey Mitelman.

* Read Rabbi Mitelman's article about the workshop at The Huffington Post.