Institute to Highlight Best in Jewish Thought

The pursuit of knowledge has always been a major facet of Jewish culture, and a newly formed organization is seeking to extend this tradition by bringing some of the leading Jewish lights in the arts and sciences to the Philadelphia area to discuss their accomplishments and insights.

Two men — Marc Erlbaum and Rabbi Asher Crispe — have founded the Institute for Jewish Thought and Culture, which will present quarterly lectures in the Philadelphia area to exemplify the range of Jewish achievement, according to Erlbaum, in fields ranging from literature to economics to biology.

From contemporary authors to scientists and philosophers, the institute will seek out icons "who are shaping modern culture," and who will examine in their presentations how contemporary issues and religious tenets may interact, said Erlbaum.

The goal is to celebrate Jewish diversity in scholarship, he added.

The institute will kick off its work with "The Theory of Everything," a lecture by Columbia University physicist and string theorist Professor Brian Greene, author of The Elegant Universe, on Wednesday, March 21, in the University of Pennsylvania Museum's Harrison Auditorium.

Scientific Food for Thought

String theory seeks to reconcile the discrepancies between general relativity and quantum mechanics, two theories in physics that do not mesh well with one another. The current grand challenge in physics is to find a unified field theory, a system that will account for both quantum and relativistic phenomena.

Crispe, director of the institute, will appear with Greene, and delve into what Jewish tradition has to say about science and physics.

"I think that there are a lot of people that see the world as stratified between religious and secular," noted Erlbaum, but he does not believe that the two are mutually exclusive.

"The question is, do we have a tradition in Jewish thought that has advocated, historical- ly, the quest for unity?" asked Crispe, rhetorically.

"Many people have the perception that religion is a hindrance to scientific pursuit," he went on, which he considers a misconception. Throughout the history of Judaism, he noted, "the workings of creation were synonymous with the study of physics."

The institute will hold seven weekly classes, follow-up explorations on various topics in physics and Judaic thought. Topics will include cosmology, quantum mechanics and the age of the universe.

These weekly extension classes will also follow later lectures, to further expound on the issues touched on by the speakers.

Erlbaum hopes that highlighting major Jewish achievements will unify the larger Jewish community of Philadelphia.

"We felt that there were people who were interested in academic and cultural subjects," he said, "but feel that there would not be any relevance of that to their own religion and culture."

By combining academic issues and faith, Erlbaum seeks to draw in people who might gravitate toward religious classes, along with people also interested in academic lectures, all to spur on some intellectual dialogue.

"We're trying to stimulate a conversation among a lot of respective fields," said Crispe.

Just as Greene will talk about the search for unity in physics, the lectures will aim to show the underlying unity among many disciplines and the "cross-pollination" among ideas, he said.

The institute is looking to instill Jewish pride in the wide spectrum of secular and religious thought, said Erlbaum. "Our goal is to try to display how all of these things are relevant to our tradition."


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