Science Enriches Conversations in Jewish Theological Communities

Trappist-1 system illustration | NASA/JPL-Caltech/T. Pyle (IPAC)

One of the most fascinating science stories of 2017 is the discovery of seven nearly Earth-sized exoplanets circulating the nearby red dwarf star, Trappist-1. This discovery shows that exoplanets are relatively close to our solar system—approximately 40 light years or 235 trillion miles away—and three of these exoplanets are in the “habitable zone,” which could mean that these planets could sustain liquid water, on which life as we know it depends. This discovery adds to the current tally of thousands of exoplanets detected orbiting stars other than our Sun—making it clear that planets are actually common in our galaxy (though most are unlike Earth in many ways). Though no life has yet been discovered on any planet beyond our own, the possibility raises many questions. For example: Is human life on earth unique in light of the continuing discovery of exoplanets?

The AAAS program of Dialogue on Science, Ethics, and Religion (DoSER) partnered with Sinai and Synapses (an organization that bridges the scientific and religious worlds) to explore this question in a March 9, 2017 webinar entitled, “Are We Special If We Are Not Alone?” Jewish religious leaders engaged with Sara Seager, a professor of planetary science and physics at Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT), to learn about Trappist-1, and how astronomers discover exoplanets and search for life on other worlds. They were also introduced to a software resource for novice astronomers that allows them to explore the universe on their own. 

One of the many fascinating takeaways from Seager’s talk was the detailed description of how astronomers can observe the atmospheres of distant exoplanets to determine if there is any possible trace of oxygen or water vapor in the planet’s atmosphere. Through these observations, they are able to hypothesize about the potential for life on a planet.      

After Seager’s presentation, Sinai and Synapses director Geoff Mitelman took questions from the enthusiastic participants, such as: How can we determine the age of these newly discovered exoplanets? 

The webinar was one of a six-part series that focuses on forefront science. Another webinar featured the scientific studies of empathy and compassion conducted by David DeSteno, professor of psychology at Northeastern University. It also highlighted research in decision making and behavior by Nathaniel Daw, a professor at Princeton University’s Neuroscience Institute and department of psychology. The final three webinars in the series will be held in November 2017.         

The series is part of a pilot project that engages the Jewish theological community in conversations about science topics. Entitled "Science Engagement in Rabbinic Training," the project works with Jewish theological institutions and Jewish leadership organizations to equip current and future Jewish religious leaders with science resources and basic knowledge on some of the most important forefront science topics of our time. It does this through the webinars, intensive week-long courses at two Jewish theological institutions, and through a presentation at the annual retreat of the dialogue organization, Rabbis Without Borders

The week-long intensive course at Hebrew College in Newton, Massachusetts January 23-27, 2017, integrated several science topics including cosmology and the origins of the universe, quantum mechanics, indeterminacy, and other compelling areas with a study of the Talmud. One theology course module focused on epigenetics and pastoral care. Rachel Yehuda, professor of psychiatry and neuroscience and the director of the Traumatic Stress Studies Division at the Icahn School of Medicine, presented her research into the genetic impacts of Holocaust survivors' traumatic experiences on their offspring. She explained the science of epigenetics and how trauma crosses generations at the genetic code level. 

The January 10-12, 2017 intensive at Hebrew Union College-Jewish Institute of Religion in New York City focused on similar topics. In both cases, course participants were able to thoughtfully engage with scientists and were provided with resources to aid them in engaging the science topic with their rabbinate constituents and surrounding communities. Steven Gimbel, professor of philosophy at Gettysburg College and author of “Einstein's Jewish Science,” discussed the thesis of his book January 31, 2017 at the Rabbis Without Borders retreat, which was hosted in Baltimore by the National Jewish Center for Leadership and Learning (Clal).

Through enriching theological courses and partnerships with Jewish leadership organizations, the Science Engagement in Rabbinic Training project is accomplishing its objectives. Taking lessons learned from DoSER's Science for Seminaries project that supported Christian seminaries in integrating science into their core theological curricula, this effort is providing valuable assistance to theological training institutions through course enrichment and science-themed public events. 

The project is designed to encourage more science dialogue in the Jewish theological education community, and in Jewish communities more broadly. It seeks to aid religious leaders in their conversations with their congregants who have questions and concerns when it comes to certain advancements in science, and to build on community interest in and enthusiasm for science.