How Judaism Engages Science: My Conversation with Geoff Mitelman

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Last week, I looked at how Islam interacts with modern science. In this installment, I’m talking with Geoffrey Mitelman, a friend and colleague, who’s also the director of Sinai and Synapses, a Jewish science and religion organization (full disclosure: I’m also an advisor). A graduate of both Princeton University and Hebrew Union College (a Jewish Institute of Religion), Geoff is always engaging. He’s one smart and very funny guy, who also has had a very impressive appearance on the game show Jeopardy!

What are some the differences in the ways Jews and Christians think about God?

Let’s start by saying that all theology is really autobiography. What we say about God is much more about our own experiences, beliefs, and ideas. And so, before we talk about theology, we start thinking about community. And while this is a bit oversimplified, there’s a slogan that has truth to it, “Judaism is joining a family, whereas Christianity is a club.” In Christianity, the crux is whether or not you accept Jesus. In Judaism, you join either by being born Jewish or converting to Judaism and joining the Jewish people. Judaism as a family goes back to Abraham and Sarah in the book of Genesis. And thus, like the nature of family, there can be a wide variety of beliefs. Jews don’t have to prove things of belief, but they can still be part of that family. For example, “Jews of no religion” make up 27% of Jews, and this can exist because they are still part of that family.

Is there a challenge when it comes to Judaism and science?

The bigger challenge in the Jewish community isn’t getting Jews excited about science. It’s getting them excited about Judaism.

Genesis 1 and Genesis 2 are key texts for Christianity and science. How about for Judaism?    

Another particular aspect of Jewish interpretation of Genesis is that Jews rarely see these texts about creation as coming ex nihilo or “out of nothing.” The first word of the Torah is actually our name for the first book of the Bible, Bereshit, and the meaning of the word is complicated. It could be translated not “in the beginning” but “with the beginning.” The text does not describe the absence of anything, but instead uses the Hebrew huvavohu, to describe something, a “formless void.” We are not as given over to Plato and Aristotle and the western philosophical tradition as Christianity. (Interestingly, that’s why the first century Jewish thinker Philo, who lived around the time of Jesus, is much closer to Christianity—because he leaned on western philosophy.)

  • Of course, the first place to go is the Sinai and Synapses website.
  • Most Jewish movements—like the Reform and Conservative—have teshuvot (“responsa”) that address specific scientific and technological questions, from both traditional texts and current thinking.

Some have noted how the percentage of Jews in science is extraordinarily high. Why is that the case?

It’s partly due to a way of rabbinic thinking in Jewish law. It’s almost like a peer-reviewed paper. In the Talmud, it very rarely says “here’s what you should do.” This means that in Jewish discussion of texts, such as the Torah and the Talmud, there’s a good deal of argumentation—“show me the text”—it’s like science (and to some degree, like Canon Law in Catholicism). We call this havruta or “pairs,” since two people learning together are better than one learning alone. It’s therefore not lectio divina—a silent reflection on Scripture. Instead, there’s lots of gesticulations and textual work. Traditionally, in the Jewish school or yeshiva, it’s cacophony.

Do some Jews use science to prove the truth of their faith?

It depends on what you’re trying to prove. My experience is primarily no, but as in every religion, there are some. But even most traditional Jews would not use science to prove faith. I come out of the Reform tradition—as in, always in process of “re-forming”—and thus always responding to what science has to say. It started with the Pittsburgh Platform in late 1885, which says, “We hold that the modern discoveries of scientific researches in the domain of nature and history are not antagonistic to the doctrines of Judaism.” This continues today to respond to new scientific and technological challenges. In Judaism, the Torah is a manifestation of God’s love in the way that a parent shows love to their children by teaching them. The practical way to approach Jewish law is called halakhah, which literally means “a way of walking.” Again, it’s much more about the process than any final result.

How can Jewish leaders bring science into their congregations?

In many ways, it’s the same way Christians can bring science into their congregation. First, build relationships. Get to know the people in your community. What excites them? What inspires them? Then, look at a fairly specific topic. Conversations about “science and religion” tend to be very similar and are assumed to be antagonistic conversations, even if they are not. Instead, move towards more specific questions where robust and constructive conversations can happen—think genetic engineering, the interplay of technology and Shabbat, or environmental work. Finally, awe, wonder and curiosity are fantastic points of connection between Judaism and science. Asking people about moments when they felt humbled, or surprised, or felt connected to something larger than themselves allows them to open up and deepen the relationships that already exist.

Geoff, thanks for taking the time for this interview and for your partnership with us at Science for the Church! Greg

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