How Judaism Engages Science: A Conversation With Greg Cotsoona

How Judaism Engages Science: A Conversation With Greg Cotsoona

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.)

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