Most Jews have no problem with science; the challenge is often getting them excited about Judaism. So how can we use science as a way to engage our communities? What are the biggest, most interesting and most pressing questions in the scientific community that also influence Jewish thought and Jewish living? And how can we bring both science and Judaism together to enhance our lives and our communities?
My organization, Sinai and Synapses, has been working on a project run by the world’s largest scientific organization, the American Association for the Advancement of Science (AAAS), to offer tools and knowledge for rabbis, cantors, educators and interested laypeople to learn how to use science as a Jewish professional. We’ve been talking with experts in fields ranging from psychology to astrophysics to technology to equip both current and future Jewish leaders with scientific knowledge that they can then use in their communities.
After all, most Jews are probably more likely to read the New York Times science section or watch “Cosmos” than to engage in Talmud study. But if Jewish leaders can understand the science of cosmology, they can use that to talk about the grandeur of Creation. If they can learn about epigenetics, they can see how it can inform pastoral care. If they can discover what engenders compassion in others, they can build a more caring community.
So we worked with Clal to run webinars for rabbis to ask questions like “Is neuroscience undercutting moral responsibility?” We taught an elective course at the Hebrew Union College – Jewish Institute of Religion where 14 students explored the neuroscience of prayer. And Hebrew College in Boston ran a class open to the public entitled “Science and the Soul.”
The AAAS Program of Dialogue on Science, Ethics and Religion is overseeing this project, having recently completed a first round of Science for Seminaries, where ten Christian seminaries integrated science into their curriculum. But even if you are not a Jewish professional, this project offers one particular resource that’s incredibly valuable.
It’s a series of videos called “Science: The Wide Angle.” Using short videos from top-notch scientists, this series brings up topics like, “Is the Human Mind Predisposed to Religious Thought?,” “Biological Evolution & the Kinship of All Life,” and “Awe & Wonder: Scientists Reflect on Their Vocations.” Not only that, there are study guides and resources for educators to deepen the theological questions that arise out of these scientific topics.
After all, science is a tremendous source of both deep inspiration and thorny ethical questions. We need religious leaders to engage in these questions, to understand them, and then to utilize them in ways that can give people meaning and guidance for their lives. It might be through seeing the wonders of Trappist-1, it might be grappling with the limits of artificial intelligence, or it might be discovering how much free will we truly have.
But regardless of how we use science and how we use religion, we can’t ignore either. Instead, if we want to have a sense of the world as a whole and our place in it, we need both sources of wisdom in our lives.