On Jews Turning to Science

Rabbi Dr. Shmuly Yanklowitz

By Rabbi Dr. Shmuly Yanklowitz

As the COVID-19 pandemic rages on to do untold damage and send society back into petrifying uncertainty, the role of science in our lives is about to be, perhaps, even more important than ever.

And while some seek comfort right now in ignoring what science has to say about how we ought to move forward in defending the dignity and safety of all people, we know that the Jewish tradition gives us not only the obligation to do what the science tells us is right, but also a long history of science as a key element in our understanding of the world.

Our great sage Moses Maimonides, in addition to writing the “Mishneh Torah” and “The Guide for the Perplexed,” was a highly accomplished scientist and physician. And the medieval rabbis Abraham Ibn Ezra and Levi ben Gershon were so well remembered for their contributions to mathematics and astronomy that they both now have craters on the moon named after them.

For far too long, the spoken relationship between science and religion has been one of clash; either one must be right or the other. But Judaism is pro-science, and thus we need to shift that discourse to one of synergy and constructive relationship.

“If science is about the world that is, and religion is about the world that ought to be, then religion needs science,” Rabbi Jonathan Sacks, of blessed memory, wrote in his 2011 book “The Great Partnership: God, Science and the Search for Meaning,” “because we cannot apply God’s will to the world if we do not understand the world.”

In April, I had the opportunity to interview the public intellectual and Harvard professor Steven Pinker as part of the “Scientists in Synagogues” project of the nationwide Sinai and Synapses program. In that discussion Pinker noted that, in a world in which we all took science more seriously, we’d be much better equipped to identify where our justice work is most needed, and to know specifically the best ways for us to protect the lives of all people.

“We’d be perhaps less whipsawed by the headline of the morning, by the anecdote, by the outrage, by the vivid narrative, and more cognizant of trends that affect millions … billions of people,” he said. “We would track things like extreme poverty worldwide … deaths in warfare, different categories of violence, like homicide and police shootings and terrorism and war and genocide — and allocate our effort, our resources, our moral energy to where the most people get hurt and where the most people can get helped.”

Pinker pointed out that our engagement in science and technology plays a pivotal role in our work to repair the world, perhaps even more important than our political and social action.

“Progress doesn’t happen by itself,” he said. “It is only the result of human agency … That doesn’t always mean protest activism. Sometimes it does, but sometimes it means science and technology, developing artificial fertilizers, developing antibiotics and vaccines and public health measures.”

In recent years, our Scottsdale, Arizona-based organization, Valley Beit Midrash, has adopted a robust learning approach on science and Judaism that has invited scientists to present their findings and for us to consider those ideas in a Jewish context. Selected as a partner of the Sinai and Synapses initiative, in the past year or so we’ve hosted scientist-led learning events on topics such as cosmology, psychology and extraterrestrial life.

More generally, our integration of science into our Jewish learning has several purposes.
One goal is to lift up the voices of Jewish scientists in the Jewish community. The Jewish community is often willing to listen to rabbis and theologians, and we want to bring scientists into the communal discourse as well. Scientists provide immense value to us, and we want to value them in return.

A second objective is to bring in unengaged Jews who have a particular interest in science. It’s no secret that a significant percentage of Jews are not involved in Jewish religious life. However, many of them find intellectual, if not spiritual, fulfillment in science, which of course is a part of the Jewish project. Science can be their way into Judaism.

Also, we need to enhance the whole communal learning experience by adding science to the offerings provided, thus expanding the Torah’s reach. Now, thanks to a micro-grant from the Jewish Community Foundation of Greater Phoenix, we are continuing that work.

We hope that you’ll join us in our upcoming science and Judaism learning programs.

It’s only by recognizing religion and science, not as opposing forces, but as related facets in an all-encompassing pursuit of truth, that we can bring both endeavors to their full potential.

Rabbi Dr. Shmuly Yanklowitz is the president and dean of Valley Beit Midrash of Scottsdale, Arizona and the author of more than 20 books on Jewish ethics.


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