This week, Sinai and Synapses’ new weekly interview series “Sacred Science” (hosted at Jewish Live) talked with Rabbi Rachael Jackson. She is uniquely well-situated to bring Jewish wisdom to science, and to break down some of the complex debates in science for the general population. Her decade spent as an analytical chemist, and becoming an ordained rabbi after that, have allowed her to be a unique voice for her community – one in which she is the leader of virtually the only synagogue. How do we talk to people we disagree with, and how do we open up to others? These are some of the topics Rabbi Mitelman and Rabbi Jackson discussed.
Rabbi Rachael Jackson is the rabbi of Agudas Israel Congregation in Hendersonville, North Carolina, ordained from Hebrew Union College-Jewish Institute of Religion. Prior to rabbinical school, she worked for a decade as an analytical chemist in biopharmaceutical, biofuel, and hazardous waste companies. She was a Sinai and Synapses Fellow from 2017-2019.
Watch the Conversation Here!
We will be taking a break for the New Year, and then the following week, January 5, we will be hosting Rabbi Rachel Gurevitz, PhD, rabbi of Congregation B’nai Shalom in Westborough, MA (a Scientists in Synagogues participating congregation from 2016-2017), with a doctorate in Cultural Geography.Read Transcript
Geoff Mitelman: So welcome, everybody! We are thrilled that you are here to join us for Episode 3 of “Sacred Science: Gleaning Wisdom from Science and Religion.” I’m Rabbi Geoff Mitelman. I’m the Founding Director of Sinai and Synapses, which bridges the worlds of religion and science, exploring some of the biggest questions that we’re facing in this world. We have just found in the last couple of weeks that the vaccines are starting to get distributed here throughout North America, which is very exciting. We’re dealing with questions, obviously, of climate change, of human origins. And these are questions that we say each week – they’re not just scientific questions, and they’re not just religious questions, they’re human questions that we need wisdom from as many sources as we can.
And so I am particularly excited to be sitting here with my friend – we’ve been friends for a few years now – Rabbi Rachael Jackson, who is the rabbi of Agudas Israel Congregation in Hendersonville, North Carolina. We were both ordained from the Hebrew Union College Jewish Institute of Religion, at the Cincinnati campus. Before she was a rabbi there, she spent 10 years as an analytic chemist. And from that work, and from her work both as a chemist and from being a rabbi, she applied and was accepted to be part of our interfaith fellowship, the Sinai and Synapses fellowship. She was part of our group of about 16 or 17 people for two years, having cross-pollination and conversations learning from and with other people. And out of that fellowship, she and four of her friends, four of our fellows, created an outstanding podcast that I highly, highly recommend – I’m not at all biased, but I highly, highly recommend the podcast called Down the Wormhole. So if you’re looking for something to read over the winter break, download Down the Wormhole. We’ll talk about that a little bit more. But, Rachael, thank you for taking some time here this afternoon.
Rachael Jackson: Thank you, Geoff. I am really thrilled to be here. Talking about, well, all of this stuff just really excites me and is thrilling. As you said, I am currently a rabbi in Hendersonville, North Carolina, which is not on the side of the water, but much closer to the mountains and far away from people, generally speaking. So we’re on the other side of the state than what most people think about when they think about North Carolina. And as you said, I actually got my Bachelor’s degree as a chemist, and for those of you that can’t quite see – so I’m actually dressed also really loving science today. And that was intentional. I’m just going to jump off on that for two seconds. So my title says “rabbi,” and I earned that degree, and I live that degree, and I love it. I also think that with that title, I have the ability to share my other loves and share my other passions in the world. And one very subtle way that I can do that is by the earrings I wear, or by the dress I wear, or since this is COVID, the masks that I wear. So today I have my galaxy mask, which I think is just a lot of fun, it’s like a nebula. So for me, I didn’t leave chemistry, I just left the career of chemistry. And just wanted to add that.
Geoff Mitelman: Yeah, I’m curious, I would love to hear a little bit about your experiences and your thoughts of the ways in which your work as a chemist, you know, as you said, for 10 years – and what was one of the wonderful things that you’ve said a couple of times is being able to have your fingers in a lot of pies when you’re working there, and how that connects with your work and as your life as a rabbi. I think there are very few rabbis who have actual degrees in science.
Rachael Jackson: Yes, thank you. So you’re right, I have not met very many rabbis that have degrees and work experience as a scientist. And for me, like I said, I didn’t leave that world behind, I just don’t do it every day. So I want to share a little bit of the background, though. So when I was a kid, I knew that I wanted to be a chemist. That’s what I wanted to be when I grew up, was a chemist. And so when I was in eighth grade, I had an – they call it an “internship,” I think just to make us feel better, with a local college, local university, and I fell even more in love with it. And my first job out of school was, out of university that is, was working with a blood bank and working as an analytical chemist. I did that just for a little bit, but it allowed me to see the breadth that there is in the world of science. From there, I actually moved into a biopharmaceuticals company, a small molecules company called Array Biotech, and that was in Colorado. This gave me the opportunity to work with PhD organic synthetic chemists and biologists.
And I was doing my analytical piece – which, just real quick, what does that actually mean, from a bench chemistry standpoint? It really means that somebody – at least for what I was doing – somebody would go create something in the lab, and they’d be like, “Wow, we did it!” And then they’d give it to me. And I’d be like, “No, you didn’t! Try again! Here’s how you need to go about it.” And I was like, “Please don’t shoot the messenger. That’s not okay.” So really learning how to actually work with people in communicating what they were trying to create, and where it could need a little bit of finagling. But I also worked in biohazard companies and a biofuel company, right, trying to make jet engine fuel from corn and yeast, and anything that wasn’t, you know, extinct dinosaurs.
But the biggest thing that I learned from that, too, that I use to this day, is the ability to communicate with somebody who doesn’t know your jargon, because it doesn’t matter what you’re saying if the other person doesn’t know the words that you’re using. So for me, that translated so easily into what I’m doing now. So that we can talk all we want about a vaccine and mRNA, but if you have no idea what mRNA is, then that word means nothing. So it’s really our job as the communicator, as the cheerleader, as the leader of these things, to really be able to communicate.
Geoff Mitelman: And you know – I remember it at HUC – they taught us that the only reason we have any right to speak in any kind of way, with any area of expertise, is because of our degree, because we have a rabbinic ordination. That’s the only reason that you have a right to call yourself a rabbi. But the only reason anybody’s going to listen to you is if you’re able to build relationships, that’s number one, and to be able to communicate it clearly, right. Anyone can say whatever they want, but if it’s not being heard, it’s totally useless.
Rachael Jackson: Beautiful, beautiful. And I think one of the other teachers that I heard also say is, and other teachers have said this in all different places, “It’s not what’s taught, it’s what’s caught.” But the onus is also on the teacher, right, you have to be able to throw something that’s being able to be caught. But I love that your first point was to build relationships, right. That is the question of “Where does our authority come from?” And that doesn’t matter if you’re a chemist, or a scientist, or if you’re a rabbi. Who is giving you authority really matters, because that’s what will allow you to communicate effectively, and with an audience. Otherwise, you’re kind of just talking to a wall.
Geoff Mitelman: And I think that’s something that’s coming up a lot, for example, in COVID. And seeing this there was a very interesting article in The New York Times [about] saying “Trust the science, trust, the science, trust the science.” But there’s also ethicists that need to be part of these conversations, there needs to be religious leaders, the questions of school closing. And this happened in New York City and in Brookline, Massachusetts. There was a big article in Slate about this just the other day, which is that sometimes it’s a little bit of a crutch to be able to say “Trust the science,” when in fact, there needs to be people who are experts in a variety of different ways. So I’m not going to trust my Facebook feed to understand what’s going on for COVID. But I do need to be able to trust, and to be able to know that I can trust, my politicians to be able to be making these kinds of decisions. I need to be able to trust the other stakeholders to be having the appropriate expertise and to say, “This is something that I’m not an expert in. I don’t want to be overstepping my bounds in this kind of way.” I think that’s an interesting piece. I’m wondering if you’re seeing that, you know, in rural North Carolina, where there’s a whole other kind of conversation that’s happening there.
Rachael Jackson: Yes, in a slow answer. I completely agree with what you’ve just said, we need to trust the scientists, and the ethicists, and the politicians, and the media, and our doctors, and the scientists, right? Not just the science, because if we say “Oh, trust the science,” well, that means I have to understand and be in relationship with the science. Most people are not in relationship with the science, right? But we can be in relationship with other people who we then trust, who can find the expertise elsewhere. So for me, it’s not just “Trust the science,” it’s trust the scientist, or trust the person who does trust the scientist. That matters a whole lot, especially at the end of 2020, where we’re seeing the degradation of trust in general. We have competing forces, competing trusts, where there might be a particular politician that has garnered trust among their people, which is in direct opposition to a scientist who has garnered a following among his or her people. Then you’re stuck with “Whom do I trust,” and that goes down to the relationship and the expertise. I am a Reform-ordained rabbi, and I am a chemist by training. I’m not a biologist, I am not a doctor, please don’t ask me to look at the growth on your arm, that is really so far outside of anything that I have ever learned, except to say, “If you’re worried about it, go talk to your doctor.” So you trust me enough, I have at least made the relationship enough, that that’s built in the trust. And then I have to know myself, to know what my expertises are, and know who I can direct a person to.
And I think that level of humility, frankly, of knowing what one’s bounds are, is so crucial. And we’re seeing that blur. Because there’s a big difference in enjoying something [and] following it, either from a scholarly perspective, or from a Facebook-feed perspective that is conflated with expertise. And so what we see here, in the rural part of our state, is that the person who is the expert is not the same person as the authority. And the person who is the authority is the person who is – and I don’t want to use this term, but I’m going to – who’s “winning out.” Because they’re not actually winning. We’re all in fact, losing when an authority is not an expert in whatever they’re talking about.
So I don’t know if that helps. It’s a huge issue here – we’ve had from day one. So we joke in Hendersonville, so none of you have seen us on a map, just gonna throw that one out there – “You might have seen our neighbor to the north, Asheville, but you haven’t seen us.” Our town is 14,000 people, our entire county is 100,000. And our town has over 250 churches… and us!
Geoff Mitelman: One synagogue!
Rachael Jackson: That’s right, we represent! And the number of marquees when I drive down the street, it’s like, you know, “We will come inside, and you can’t stop us,” and all these quotes from the Christian Bible, of saying “You can’t stop us from coming inside,” is my backyard, so I’m living that reality.
Geoff Mitelman: And, you know, you’ve mentioned a couple times in our friendship over the last few years, and through the Fellowship, of being the only rabbi surrounded by 250 churches. And then you’re often brought in – or you had been brought in physically pre-COVID times – but you were seen as the Jewish expert in a lot of ways. How does that sit, right? That’s got to be a challenging place where there are misconceptions about Judaism, particularly in the Christian world, in rural areas, where there are cultural elements – there are some gender pieces I’m sure that come into that. I’m really curious to hear what have you seen as something that’s been very effective, and what have been some of the challenges that you’ve been facing in that?
Rachael Jackson Excellent question. I think the very easiest way to answer that is [that] I knew what I was getting into, frankly. I knew that I was coming to an area where I’d be the only rabbi in the county, and for many other counties. And I knew that this was not just the Bible Belt, but the belt buckle of the Bible Belt. And so I think going in with eyes wide open was part of that. And recognizing that my goal, my rabbinate, was not just to be a rabbi to the Jews, but was to be a rabbi to non-Jews. Which meant helping dispel, with no judgments, any preconceived notions, without going in and saying, “How dare you not know this about us? Don’t you know, we’re 2% of the population in America?” And it’s like, you might be 2% of the population in America – but that’s all of America, and that includes New York and California and Florida. And suddenly you get rid of those, and you know, we’re less than half a percent. So recognizing that people do want to learn, recognizing that we can overcome ignorance, that we can overcome stereotypes, we can overcome those things.
However, I also realized that I’m unwilling to talk to a brick wall. And what I mean by that is, if someone doesn’t accept me as clergy because I’m Jewish or because I’m a woman, then that’s a non-starter. I have to be accepted for who and what I am because we can’t have a conversation if someone can’t talk to me. So I’ve had conversations with people in the area clergy or their parishioners who’ve said, “Well, why are you talking?” Well, because it’s, you know, it’s my turn. It’s literally my turn to talk.
Geoff Mitelman: “I was invited, it’s my turn now.”
Rachael Jackson: Because I was asked. “But we don’t allow for women clergy.” Well, I said, “And I’m here to show you that there are places that do allow for women clergy. And so can we have the…” “No!” and I said, “Okay, well, thank you for your time,” right. And it’s just a non-starter. So I think that that’s part of the conversation is recognizing that, if you’re attempting – if we put people on a spectrum, and I’m on one side of a spectrum, and someone else is on the opposite side, I’m not really going to have an effective conversation. Where we will meet is in the middle. And so bringing in allies: male, moderate allies, and talking to them saying, “Ah, this is my slow road in.” This is how we can change, is using a – for better or for worse, that’s the situation. So if I want to affect any change, I have to understand the entirety of my community. So I think that that’s one way. And the other part is, “I’m just open, you want to come in? Come into the synagogue! You want me to come to you? I’ll come to you.” I put dreidels in the hands – well I didn’t do it, I gave a dreidel to every kid in my son’s elementary school, like the entirety of the school, so that they could at least have something to ask a question about. So I think that that piece is really important, just being open.
Geoff Mitelman: And a phrase that I’m thinking about is this idea called the “adjacent possible,” right. You can’t change if you’re here, you can’t get there, but you can get there step by step by step by step, but it’s a slow road. But you can [make an] impact, you know, as you said, having somebody who’s somewhat next to where you are, who then maybe has someone next to where you are, who maybe someone next to where you are – and that’s where some of those conversations and relationships can build.
Rachael Jackson: Excellent, excellent. And I just want to add one piece, when I get frustrated with with the adjacent possible, and going “Like, why not now? Why do I have to go through this slow way?” And that is where I bring in a bit of Judaism, right. And I bring in a bit of that foundation of saying, “Well, we’re a really old culture and we’ve seen a lot of stuff and written down a lot of things.” And one of the small things that we’ve written down – and I’m sorry I don’t have the quotation, I can always find it, but it’s this idea of “The Messiah comes slowly, slowly,” like, the Messiah is not coming anytime quick. And there’s this paragraph that basically says, “If you’re planting a tree, and the Messiah comes, first finish planting the tree and then greet the Messiah.”
Geoff Mitelman: And it’s almost this question – and I am seeing this with questions of public health, I see these questions in religious conversations, I see these in political conversations – which is almost the dynamic or the tension between being right, versus being effective. And so many of us are much more interested in being right. And being able to talk to the people that we agree with and saying, “How could they possibly be believing X or Y or Z?” As opposed to saying “What’s going to be an effective inroad here?” In some ways it’s very similar, but in some ways, it’s a very different situation that you’re in than people who may be on the coasts, where there’s a liberal enclave and you can all denigrate people on the other side, versus you, parents and friends and things along those lines, [who] you’re going to the grocery store [with] and the PTA with and things like that.
Rachael Jackson: Absolutely. And I think it takes a particular skill set to both be in a homogenous group, as well as being in a group of heterogeneity, right. That it really does take, I think, some strength and creativity and encouragement to be in a group that all thinks the same. Because let’s be honest, a group of people doesn’t all think the same, they just you just have to look a little bit closer at what divides them to bring them together. And it’s much more obvious when you’re looking at your group and going “Oh, wow, that’s a very different perspective.” And still needing to bridge those gaps. But it comes down to relationships. So it comes down to, and this is what I also learned as a chemist, the synthetic chemists, so that was their job, that’s not who they were there aren’t synthetic!
Geoff Mitelman: They’re real human beings with their flesh and blood!
Rachael Jackson: They’re real people. But they were creating things, right, they were synthesizing things. The ones who didn’t try to make it my fault, the data that I presented to them, were the ones that I had a relationship with. We’re the ones that we would have lunch with, or could joke around with or had some common similarity. And so when it came to something that was hard (and by the way, when someone is telling you that the last six months of your work was for naught, that’s a hard conversation) it was much easier. I think the same thing is true, regardless of what we’re doing. So the same thing is true for me in the congregational world, but also being the rabbi in the other places and saying, “LLet me build these relationships.” So I frequently speak at a Unitarian Universalist Congregation here in town, I was speaking at a liberal Baptist Congregation here in town, I’ve spoken at as many interfaith panels as I can say yes to, so that there’s at least a faith, a face to diversity, that there’s a face to that we’re not all the same. And that, that it’s an approachable face, frankly, right? I don’t mean literally my face.
Geoff Mitelman: Right, but somebody that you can get to know. And this idea, as you describe, your work of being an analytic chemist of telling someone they’re wrong, that’s actually a really hard thing for people to be able to hear. And I think that whatever it is that somebody is creating, it may work and it may not, but they’re often very invested in that creation, and they link that creation with their identity. And that happens with scientific theories. They say like, “I’m tied down to these particular theories, and seeing this with different things, of social theories of what’s actually going to be an accurate way to be able to create more diversity and equity and inclusion, right?” There are lots of different ways to be able to say that and saying to somebody, “No, you’re doing it wrong to do it this kind of way,” is very threatening. And so, you know, how do you say, “I’m sorry, this is what you’re presenting – the data is saying something different than what your theory was, what your proposed ideas were?”
Rachael Jackson: Yeah, exactly. And learning that skill set I think is important for all of us, and I think it’s applicable to all of us. Every one of us has been in a relationship with somebody, spouse, sibling, best friend, children, right, and the approach of “You’re doing it wrong” really just doesn’t work for any kind of relationship. But also the quote that you just said, “Efficacy versus right,” I use a slightly different version of that – not just efficacy, but asking oneself the question, “Would I rather be right? Or would I rather be kind?” There are so many places in our world where it just doesn’t matter, that the absolute rightness is inconsequential to the conversation, is inconsequential to decision making, it’s inconsequential to so many things. So the question of “Do I want to be kind right now?” I think it is really crucial. And that’s something that we can learn from all fields, that we can learn from and apply. Now generally speaking, science isn’t all about the emotions, right? It’s not all about the touchy-feely. But until the synthetic chemists are actually synthetic themselves, they’re made up of people. And so we need to be kind to one another. So when a non-scientist and – if I may, can I have a parenthetical aside here?
Geoff Mitelman: Sure, absolutely.
Rachael Jackson: I heard a phrase years ago that basically said, “It’s a shame that music and art have become professions.” Because everyone’s got that in them. I think the same can hold true for science, for Torah study, for Talmud, for talking religion. I mean, it’s a good thing that we now have experts in these areas, but it’s not to say that the rest of us can’t really enjoy those things. I love being a backyard astronomer, I think it’s fascinating. I couldn’t point out half the constellations, and even then, probably less than that. But knowing that there’s the convergence of Saturn and Jupiter right this time of year, and it’s really close, and you can look in your telescope and see rings and moons, that’s fun for me. And I think that’s what we need too, for everybody in science and in Judaism, just to say, “It doesn’t have to be your life’s work to enjoy it.”
Geoff Mitelman: Well, but you know, that leads to a conversation that I’d love to unpack, because both of us have relatively young, sort of elementary age, children. And, both of us love science and say, “The universe is 13.8 billion years old, and humans evolve by natural selection, and climate change is real,” and all these different things that are, I don’t want to say the word “belief,” because it’s not the right word. I think the better word is “accept.” What did you say?
Rachael Jackson: “Understood!”
Geoff Mitelman: Or “understood,” and I would say are “accepted.” These are the accepted understandings of this. And at the same time, teach the Torah portion, understand the values in these kinds of ways. And you know, as we’re talking of different Torah portions of… my son’s tzedakah box is Noah’s Ark, and has asked questions about Noah’s Ark, and “How do we teach about Noah’s Ark?” And I don’t want to say, “Well, it was all a bunch of made-up stories,” because that then denigrates what his connection to the Torah is going to be. And I also don’t want to say, “Well, God was so angry that God decided to destroy the world 4,000 years ago,” because that’s not scientific. That’s not an accurate way of understanding this. I’d love to hear how you think about these kinds of questions, particularly with young children – and you’re talking with your son’s kindergarten class. And how do you think about this interplay as a parent and as a rabbi and as a scientist?
Rachael Jackson: Excellent. Well, sometimes it keeps me up at night, right, trying to think about this. Here, too, I’ll sort of rely on the relationship and the communication, right. It’s our job to communicate. I’m the adult, I’m the one that theoretically knows things. I say “theoretically” because there’s so many things I don’t know. But according to my six-year-old, I know everything. And I actually dispel him of that quite frequently. I don’t want him to believe that I know everything, because he can learn it. So I actually go to a place of emotions. I know that science, I said that science sort of takes us out of that, but I rely on the emotions of “Well, how does this make you feel?”
When we read our dinosaur book, we talk about which is our favorite herbivore and, you know, which is your favorite carnivore, and talking about the lifestyles, and how they used to live and what was the atmosphere like, way back when there were dinosaurs and how that’s changed – that elicits a feeling, that elicits a feeling of awe, of respect, of curiosity, of lots of different things, lots of different feelings, lots of different desires. And here too I’ll say – I’m not an expert in feelings, I might be categorizing some of these things wrong as feelings, but [a feeling is] something that I don’t think about. It’s something that affects me, right? That’s what curiosity is. It’s, “I don’t think about it, I just do it.” So what is the feeling that comes of that?
I use the same questions when we talk about Torah. So when we read Noah’s Ark, what kind of feeling happens there? And how do we understand this? Let’s figure out “What are they trying to tell us? What is the question that we’re trying to answer?” I move from the reading comprehension – What is the story? – Straight into the personal: how does the story make me feel? And then also, analysis: what is this trying to teach me? What am I trying to learn? That way, I don’t have to ask or answer the question of, “Is this a myth? Is this just folklore? Is this false? Is this creating some tension which didn’t exist?” Why should I be the one to put that tension in there, to say, “Oh, well, I don’t believe it existed, you know, I don’t believe that the world was wiped out back then.” Which, I don’t believe that. But I’m then adding that tension. If we talk about it in ways that don’t bring in the tension, I think we’re able to hold both equally.
Geoff Mitelman: And so one of those question,s of not answering more than what is being asked – particularly about sex with young kids, right? “Whoa, what’s prompting you to ask that question?”, right, and leading it in, so that it’s not adding additional challenges and tension that are almost always present for adults, but not always present for children.
Rachael Jackson: Yeah, exactly. And really addressing with children, especially, but I think for adults too, getting to the heart of the question that they’re seeking, not necessarily the question they’re asking. And those are different pieces. Someone might be saying,”If a person is lashing out and they’re mean, are they just a mean person? Or is there probably some hurt that’s happening? And can we address the hurt, right?” And again, I think that’s true for adults as well as children. Adults just don’t usually use their bodies the same way that five and six-year-olds, right. If they get angry, there’s “Ah!” They hit you or something. And you’re like, “Okay, I see we need to calm down, address the moment, Okay, we need to calm down about this, and then address what was making you sad.”
I think we can do the same thing when we look at science. And right now, when we’re talking science, the only thing on so many of our minds is COVID. What is making you anxious about this? Oh, are you anxious about getting a shot? Are you anxious about being one of the first people to get a shot at the vaccine? Are you anxious about the side effects that are going to happen? What are you anxious about? Not “Who do you believe and why do you believe them,” but “Let’s figure out what’s actually the challenge here so that we can get to a point where we’re all comfortable.” And that is also another place where I see my role sitting in both the worlds of understanding science and being a rabbi, is to bridge that “How are you feeling about this?” And also to be an authority of someone saying, “I trust the scientists, go get your vaccine!”
Geoff Mitelman: Well, and it’s almost the dynamic in Torah between the study of the p’shat and the drash, of “What does the text say? And then what’s the interpretation?” And you can play off the interpretation. And you can’t say, “All right, the Torah takes place in the South Island of New Zealand, right?” Like, that’s not in the text. You can’t make that up, the text says, and there are things in and on the other side, too. There are things in the text that are challenging and problematic. And I think it’s not healthy to [be] sort of like “Oh, well, that was then 3,000 years ago, and we’re much better now.” By being able to say, “Well, wait a second, what’s the problem? What’s the driving force of this text? Why was it written?” And it’s both [a question] of what’s the expert, and what’s being heard ,and they’re not always the same thing. But there is that interplay of, in science too, “What’s the data” and “What does the data mean?” And that’s not always so clear to be able to see those different pieces.
Rachael Jackson: No, I’m chuckling because that’s exactly the challenge with both science and Torah. And in this context, I’m using Torah as the broad Torah, not just the five books. It’s not what the words are. It’s not what the numbers are. It’s not what I was trying to get out of it. It’s the “Okay, how can I interpret the information I have at hand?” And you mentioned p’shat and drash, actually, like, the entirety of that concept, and some of us might be familiar. So let me just explain this term real briefly, the “Pardes,” this Pardes, the word itself means “orchard,” but it goes through four different categories: the summary, which is p’shat, right, reading comprehension; remez, which is, “What is it trying to say?” Right, that almost “between the lines,” but it’s still rooted in the text; drash is an interpretation; and then sod, which is “What is the hiddenness?” That is for you, it’s your mystery, it’s your personal attachment to this thing that has possibly no basis in reality, and that’s okay. So, really looking at all of that and that’s what science needs to do. Because we turn it and turn it and turn it over, we are not more stuck in the same place in any scientific field than we were 50 years ago, 500 years ago, 1,000 years ago, but appreciating where they were at the time. And then looking at where we are now.
Geoff Mitelman: And that any text, or any piece of scientific data, and any scientific theory, any scientific idea, creates islands of knowledge in a sea of ignorance. And we keep finding out more, like, “Oh, here’s an island of knowledge, but then surrounded by even more ignorance.” That then leads out to more kinds of questions. And that happens too with Torah, and building on that of Talmud and Rashi and the Tosafists and modern commentary. And it builds and builds and builds and builds and builds, and it doesn’t reject or ignore what’s at the root, but it becomes a starting point and not an ending point.
Rachael Jackson: Excellent, yeah. And I would add, this year, this concept of islands has been really hitting me hard. Again, being a solo rabbi in a small town and just trying to figure out, “How do we go digital? How do we bring people in? How am I supposed to do this all by myself?” And going, “I might be an island, right?” (Thank you, Simon and Garfunkel). But maybe we can actually be an archipelago. So this idea of islands of knowledge, we can actually string them together. It’s not just that we have found an island, it’s that we – I mean maybe we have, and that does happen occasionally, but I think at this time, we’re finding archipelagos, and how they’re all connected. And that gives us even more faith. And I use that term very delicately, because it gives us really just a grounding, a foundation, more certainty. And the more certainty we have, overall, the more able something is able to shake on one side and not destroy the foundation. And I think again, I think that’s very true when we’re looking at, in all worlds, whether that’s relationships, or this category of science, or this category of religion, and specifically, Jewish religion.
I mean, we can see… I’ve been thinking a lot about recently, early Reform Judaism, 200 years ago, 150 years ago, something like that, depending on when you decide when it started. But about 150 years ago, we threw the baby out with the bathwater. We’re like, “Ah, rituals! Who needs ‘em? Kashrut is for people that were, you know, not smart about how they ate, coming from people who didn’t use refrigeration. We don’t we don’t need those things.” And now we’re going, “Oh boy, boy, do we ever need those things,” and how great it is. And we did up a full pivot. We said, “Yes, let’s bring that in!” And now in some of these liberal streams of Judaism are saying, okay, perhaps with Kashrut with kosher-ness, maybe it’s being eco-kosher, maybe it’s about being how we tend to the planet as a whole, not just ourselves and really seeing ourselves part of the ecosystem as opposed to outside of it. And really creating that foundation, because ritual is so important.
And I think ritual is one of the things that we have been lacking this year. And I don’t mean ritual just in a synagogue but ritual of talking to somebody at the watercooler, the meeting in the parking lot after the meeting, the corporations that might have had monthly birthday celebrations, right, “Everyone’s got a birthday, let’s have cake in the break room every month.” And we don’t have those rituals. And we have individual and societal grief over the lack of those rituals. And that’s what we’re trying to bring together again.
Geoff Mitelman: I think ritual helps mark time, and one thing that’s happened with COVID, it’s like, what day/week/month is it? You know, I’ve totally lost track. And we’ve lost that ability to be able to say, “Oh, right, this is what this time represents and what marks it.”
I want to let people know that if there are questions, to be able to ask those in the chat, to be able to ask Rachel, and to be able to explore some of these questions. But one thing that I’d also love to have you talk about is the “Down the Wormhole” podcast, which is incredibly fun. And if you haven’t listened to it, it’s Rachael and four other people. But you’re the only rabbi, you’re the only Jew on the podcast here. And you’ve interviewed and talked to so many different people, ranging from paleontologists to medical professionals to biblical scholars and one thing that’s been interesting is I’ve heard from a lot of people that they feel like they learned so much from you, from that unique perspective. Because I think a lot of people, when they’re thinking about science and religion, they’re thinking about it as that “Christianity versus science” and “evolution versus creationism.” And, would love to hear either what are some of your favorite things that you’ve been able to see or learn from the “Down the Wormhole” podcast, and some of the experience of being a Jewish voice in this more pluralistic and often very Christian conversation, particularly surrounding religion and science.
Rachael Jackson: Well, that’s a lot to unpack right there, Geoff? Thank you!
Geoff Mitelman: Yeah!
Rachael Jackson: For those that don’t know, the Down the Wormhole podcast was created in August 2019. We’re into our 60-something episode, I can’t keep track because of when we record versus when we publish. So we’re in our 60s. And it is myself and four other former fellows from the Sinai and Synapses Fellowship. And we decided “We don’t want this to end, let’s keep these conversations going.” So that’s where it came from. But that’s not where it is anymore. It’s really any other conversations that we have, that we can sort of say, “Okay, what are the intersections, not intersection, not one, how did these different topics combine?” And it was really important for me to be on it, to be perfectly honest, because I wanted to be the Jewish voice. I wanted to say, (a) Some of these are conversations that not just Christians are having, but the Jews and other religions are having too, so here is a perspective, and (b) To show, well, just here’s another perspective. And I walk that line very carefully. And by carefully I mean, sometimes I completely fall on the other side of it. And I fail to walk it very well, of how much to put Judaism in these conversations and how much not to put Judaism in these conversations. And I think it’s really important to hold both truths, both in the sense of speaking too much and also not speaking enough.
But it’s really important, and I do have to say whenever we talk about Judaism, that’s a broad brush in which every bristle is different. And so I really try to be very careful when we do talk on the podcast, you know, these are things that are said. And we have this joke, which is almost rooted in Talmud, that “Two Jews, three opinions” to recognize that I don’t speak for all Jews, I don’t speak for all rabbis, I speak from my understanding of my foundational culture, my foundational family, which also happens to be of faith and of religion and all this other stuff. But you’re going to meet another Jew who might completely contradict and say the opposite of what I’m going to say. And that is part of our culture. So I think it’s really important to hear my voice because of that. I don’t know if that helped answer [your question].
Geoff Mitelman: And I think that’s one of the interesting pieces, of not saying “God said it, I believe it, that ends it.” And in being able to say that there are actually multiple different ways to be able to think about and talk about these kinds of conversations here.
Rachael Jackson: Yeah, exactly. And I just love our rich Jewish tradition, that it’s we’re not just adding the Jewish voice. But we can add the Jewish voice for 3,000 years, we can say, “Oh, actually, this was written down 2,500 years ago, and this is what it said. And here we have from 20 years ago, a completely different statement.” And both are part of our truth. Both are part of who we are. And that demonstration of holding opposing and, just not even opposing, they don’t have to be an opposition to anything, just different views. I think showcasing that is also really very important as part of our tradition, which is not the same in every case.
Geoff Mitelman: Right. But I think that it’s also important to be able to have that voice when we’re thinking about things like space, or medical ethics, or even you know, you guys do stuff on pop culture, also of being able to say… when people say “religion,” too often they’re thinking about Christianity and often a very specific brand of Christianity. And being able to say,”Tthis is a religion and science discussion that’s multifaith, it’s multi-vocal, each of the five hosts have their own perspective and stories and different elements here. But how can we ensure that there’s a more diverse group of voices than what happened otherwise?”
Rachael Jackson: Yeah, exactly. And I think, just by representation, shows that in pretty much all conversations we have over any of these topics, there are a multitude of voices that there are. So even if you’re having a conversation over X, Y, and Z topic, if you’d listen to Down the Wormhole, you go, “Oh, well maybe Judaism has something else to say. Or maybe Islam has something different to say, or maybe these native tribes and native religions have something else to say.” It can just maybe jog us to remind ourselves that when we say, religion or a topic, it’s not monolithic by any stretch of the imagination, and it reminds ourselves to be even more open. Even if we haven’t talked about X, Y, or Z topic, which is really important.
Geoff Mitelman: It almost went back to the analytic-chemist perspective, of being able to be able to say, in Judaism, you’re wrong on something. That’s a very valuable thing. And you know, the rabbis are filled with conversations of: “One Rabbi says this and another Rabbi says ‘No.’ And how do they have that argument?” How to have that makhlockhet, that argument, to be able to say, “Here’s what the argumentation is,” without it leading to excommunication, which does happen a couple times…
Rachael Jackson: It goes all the way back, and I didn’t intend for this to sort of be the theme of our conversation today, but it goes back to relationships. Right, so I’m thinking of one of the most famous combinations of rabbis, Hillel and Shammai – right, like when we talk about the rabbis of old and the chevruta, the pairs of them, Hillel and Shammai. They are way at the top of the most famous pair. And we look at this and today, we pretty much follow Hillel, like 300 conversations of Hillel. We only follow Shammai in a couple of them. And the question of well, “How did they get along so well?” And how did they demonstrate that they were really saying, “No, it’s this way, and here’s why I think that?” Because at the end of the day, the house of Hillel would marry people from the house of Shammai, and the people from the house of Shammai would marry the people of Beit Hillel, of the house of Hillel, that they would say, “This, I am very strong about this. But it is not the only thing that is important to my life. You and our relationship is more important. And so let’s go ahead and marry off one another, so that we may continue having these conversations.” So I think that piece is also very crucial when we have this conversation of it’s not just “You’re wrong, and here’s why.” It’s, “You’re wrong, here’s why, and that’s okay.”
Geoff Mitelman: Right, how do we create a sense where even if we disagree, we’re still acting in a way where we’re part of a larger community? I think that’s something that’s become even more challenging and I think even more important these days.
Rachael Jackson: Yes and I do want to add one piece – I would be sort of dishonest to myself if I didn’t. I think there’s a very big difference in having disagreements – very strong, very powerful, very, almost ideologically driven, disagreements about how to do something – which is very different than a disagreement on valuing someone’s life experience and valuing someone’s life. We can disagree, you know, till the cows come home, on which way we should light the candles for Hanukkah, or “Should we light a fire? Can we use a hot plate?” We can happily have those conversations, love them. An argument for the sake of Heaven is what we’re looking for. But if you argue my right to exist, I can’t argue with that. And so I think that’s where we’re also really struggling, is getting back to the point of saying, “I’m arguing procedure, I’m arguing a how-to, I’m not arguing a right to exist.” And we cannot accept that. And I want to make sure that we don’t get into this area of, well, “We’ll just accept those differences, we’ll accept for the sake of shalom bayit, for the sake of just general peace in the home, peace in the country, I will accept that you have a disagreement that I exist.” And that I think we have to be very wary of.
Geoff Mitelman: And as you were saying too, of you know, how to make sure that you’re not just arguing with a brick wall. And there’s both a reciprocity, but it’s also on each of us to be taking the steps that we choose to take, and consciously deciding that. And so I’m thrilled that we got to have this conversation here this afternoon. Thank you for taking time and modeling what these kinds of conversations can look like, and giving some very practical tools on everything from parenting to interfaith conversations to questions of chemistry and Torah. And so we’re so glad that you were able to join us, and I highly, highly recommend people to listen to the Down the Wormhole podcast, it is absolutely a blast to listen to. So Rachel, thank you for taking some time here this afternoon.
Rachael Jackson: Being with you, being with our listeners, our viewers, having this conversation, really is one of those parts that just warms my heart and just makes me excited. I’m a very visual, like, I’m a talker. I am excited, it makes me enjoy and give hope and have hope. So thank you for that. And just a real quick, you can find Down the Wormhole anywhere you find podcasts, you can find us on www.downthewormhole.com, really anywhere, and I hope we can continue having these conversations. And so thank you, Geoff, for creating the space to do so.
Geoff Mitelman: Well, thank you, Rachael. And thank you all for joining us. You can see this conversation, although you probably have seen already all this conversation, you can see previous conversations at www.jewishlive.org/sacredscience, and more about Sinai and Synapses at sinaiandsynapses.org. And you can follow us on all those wonderful social media places on Facebook and on Twitter. We are going to be off next week, we’re going to be off on December 29. And we will be back in two weeks with Rabbi Rachel Gurevitz. And she is at Congregation B’nai Shalom and she was part of Sinai and Synapses project “Scientists in Synagogues.” Really, really thoughtful, wonderful person. So I’m excited to talk with her. I hope you’ll join us in two weeks. So thank you, Rachel. Thank you all for joining us here this afternoon.