As both an ordained Orthodox Rabbi and trained scientist, Dr. Jeremy England has a unique perspective on the human effort to make sense of the world, both through empirical and spiritual practices. How do both rabbis and scientists draw boundaries and distinctions, and why is this so important for our society? How can we hold the religious and scientific understandings of the emergence of life together?
Sinai and Synapses’ new weekly interview series “Sacred Science” (hosted at Jewish Live) talked with Jeremy England, PhD. Dr. Jeremy England has a Ph.D. in physics from Stanford and was a professor at MIT, and is now at GlaxoSmithKline as well as an adjunct faculty at Georgia Tech. He’s an ordained rabbi and author of a new book entitled “Every Life is On Fire: How Thermodynamics Explains the Origins of Living Things.”
Watch the Conversation Here!
Next week, December 22nd, at 2 pm Eastern, we will speaking with Rabbi Rachael Jackson, rabbi of Agudas Israel Congregation in Hendersonville, North Carolina and former analytical chemist for biopharmaceutical and biofuel companies.Read Transcript
Welcome everybody to our second episode of “Sacred Science: Gleaning Wisdom from Science and Religion.” I’m Rabbi Geoff Mitelman, and I’m the Founding Director of Sinai and Synapses, which bridges the worlds of religion and science, because the biggest questions that we’re facing in this world ,like climate change, or political psychology, or questions of where we come from and our origins, aren’t purely scientific questions, they’re not purely religious questions, they’re human questions. And we need as much wisdom as we can to help us understand and address them.
So, I am very excited this afternoon to be sitting here with Dr. Jeremy England, who has a PhD in physics from Stanford University. He was a professor at MIT, and he is now at GlaxoSmithKline, doing work on artificial intelligence and machine learning. And he’s also an adjunct professor at Georgia Tech University. Also, within the last two years, he became an ordained rabbi. And in the last couple of months, he wrote a new book entitled, Every Life Is on Fire: How Thermodynamics Explains the Origins of Living Things, using both biology and physics and epigraphs of text from the Hebrew Bible. And so Jeremy, I’m thrilled to be sitting with you here today. Thank you for taking some time.
Jeremy England: Thank you for inviting me, it’s a pleasure to be here.
Geoff Mitelman: So I want to talk about your book in a couple of minutes, but I think I’m really interested in hearing your story and your journey, because I think it’s relatively unusual to be an expert in biology and expert in biophysics, and also to be an ordained rabbi, and particularly an ordained Orthodox rabbi. So I would love to hear a little bit about how you think about and approach these kinds of questions, because there’s a perception in America right now that religion and science are in total opposition to each other, you can’t hold them, or there’s sort of a separation of “I hold one six days a week, and on Shabbat I’m a religious person,” but you really bring those together in a very interesting kind of way. So I’d love to hear just a little bit about how you think about and approach those kinds of questions.
Jeremy England: Sure. So I guess I could comment briefly, to begin with about how I ended up in this situation or position of being so intensely interested in both things, which may help me ultimately explain a little bit about how I think about it. I grew up in a home where I was conscious of having a Jewish identity, but not one where religion or Judaism or keeping the Torah, studying the texts of the tradition, was something that was strongly emphasized. And so I got a bit of exposure to – I don’t know, Hebrew letters, a little bit of exposure to what was in the Torah. And then, you know, by the time I was kind of reaching adulthood, it was something where it was in the background of my personal identity, but not really something that I think I thought of as making a big difference, in an explicit sense, to how I lived my life or how I acted in the world.
And at the same time, at that same age, I was also very intensely growing up as a scientist. I had decided I was really interested in science, I was studying it a lot, before college and university and beyond. And I think that what happened was I already had gotten really – and I don’t mean this in a bad way – but put through the wringer or, you know, run the gauntlet, or however you want to put it, developing as a young scientist, before I really encountered the Torah as a subject one could relate to as an adult and really dig deeply into. And there were, you know, a lot of details to the particular story that one could tell there.
I think one notable thing I should mention, especially given recent events, is that I started reading, while I was studying as a Rhodes Scholar in Oxford after college, the writings of Rabbi Jonathan Sacks, whose passing saddened us all recently. And I was just struck for the first time at how intellectually deep it could be. On the one hand, understanding the sort of philosophy and categories of Western thought, but on the other hand, also kind of being willing to step to the side of that and say, “Here’s a different perspective, here’s how you understand the Jewish tradition in light of those ways of thinking.”
And so it was that, it was reading other people like Rabbi Soloveitchik, it was visiting Israel and falling in love with the Jewish people and our land and our tradition, for the first time, really intensely in my life. And doing all of that, while at the same time feeling like that “I’ve already really learned a lot of science, and I don’t think that all of this is wrong, and I don’t think I want to just jettison who I was beforehand.”
So I think I had a certain point, where maybe I was in my early 20s, where I just decided, “Okay, I’m not going to budge an inch in compromising how I understand what makes sense about science or what’s valuable about it, but I’m going to give a lot of runway to understanding Torah and what it has to contribute to my understanding of the world, and see where that takes me and insist on not budging,” you know, or compromising a bit on how much authority I invest that with. Like, I made a decision that I cared about the Jewish tradition, and I wanted to really give it a chance to make sense and even kind of put it, you know, at the foundation, or try to do that. And I think there were many years of just kind of finding things that seemed kind of contradictory or struggling with that here and there.
And what I think I ultimately have concluded – and I can expand on this in a second – what I think I ultimately concluded is that perceived conflicts between what people would say, you know, between science and Biblical religion, or science and Torah, or however you want to put it, it usually results on either side of that line of scrimmage – results from people, in a sense, sharing the same faulty premise about what kind of truth they should be looking for in a given place.
So there’s, there’s kind of a shared misunderstanding of what science is and what it can tell you about the world, and also a shared misunderstanding of the proper way to relate to Torah and what you can expect it to teach you, what is it trying to do, what’s the sort of proper use for which it was created? And I think that, in a sense, whether you’re talking about someone standing on one or another side of that line, they agree about that confusion, and then agree that they have this insoluble conflict that they have to resolve or that they have to, you know, fight on unresolvable forever. So that’s, that’s just kind of hinting at how I think about this, but I’ve been talking a lot, so I’ll pause. But that’s kind of how I ended up in this particular position.
Geoff Mitelman: Well, you know, what’s interesting is that a lot of the conversation about science and religion either is this misperception of where truth comes from, and that if you pick one kind of truth you’ve got to reject the other kind of truth, and they may have different kinds of jobs. And, you know, I sometimes say that the Torah is not designed to be a science textbook, right? It’s not designed to be an understanding of the Big Bang cosmology, like they didn’t have the tools to be able to do that.
Jeremy England: It’s not a phone book, either. Right? There’s a lot of things that you could use books for, if they have a certain purpose for which it wasn’t designed by its creator. And so yeah, I think that that’s a fundamental point one has to start with. A thing I’d add on top of that, is that I think, what does if we have if we want to admit, you know, we don’t want to make it sound too easy to say.
Yeah, it’s a peculiar thing that people think that there’s a conflict, but really, there’s none. And one can’t even understand why, you know, where would someone even get that idea.
I think the reason that’s a little too pat or facile is that the Torah is, in a sense, trying to tweak your nose about this question line. And one has to admit that, right, because it’s not presenting itself as “There are many ways of talking about the world, here’s one, you can pick some other ones as well,” it’s trying to put itself forward as kind of the foundation. It suggests itself as the foundation of a whole ideology and way of looking at the world. It seems like it’s not willing to accept other standards on equal footing, at some level. And it also talks about the world in a way that’s not scientific, but does engage in some of the same activities that it seems like scientists sometimes are engaging in, like trying to cast a glance backward and figure out what happened in the past, or talking about the different things there are in the world, or talking about ways of forecasting the future. You know, there are these things that science does that it seems, on the surface, that the language of the Hebrew prophets is engaging in a similar activity. So I think it does take effort to pick apart a little bit more how you square all of this.
Rabbi Geoff Mitelman: Yeah, because I think that’s – I mean, you bring this up in your book too, which is that the question of origins is not just a scientific question. It is a deep existential, philosophical question. I think there is, on some level – conflict is not the right word, but for a lot of people who, for example, reject Big Bang cosmology or evolutionary theory, I don’t think it’s because they misunderstand the science. But it’s because of the way that it’s often presented, it’s that if there’s a randomness to the way that all the molecules come together, or the way Darwinian evolution comes – if there’s randomness, that means that there is no purpose, which means there is no meaning, which means there is no God. And that beginning, right, it becomes very hard. And if you’re saying, “Well, wait a second, I’ve got a relationship with my Creator, my community supports me in this kind of way, I don’t want to get to this point, so I’m not even going to engage in this first question.” Because there is some conflict because it is asking this question of, “Who are we? Where do we come from? What is our origin?” And there are claims that are made, both scientifically and religiously, about that.
Jeremy England: Yeah. And not to mention the fact that I think there’s also this kind of halo or penumbra of cultural attitudes about religion that pervade the broad scientific community – not to the exclusion of other attitudes, but are certainly very common, especially, you know, amongst some of the most famous scientists at elite institutions, that gives one the sense that “If you want to kind of buy into this thing, that you’re going to have to give up on some other things,” because there are people going around declaring that, you know, religious attitudes are misguided or, you know, self-deluding, or what have you.
And I think that the way that I would start to try to chart a way through this, which came out of kind of trying to crawl my way out of that jungle, when I first decided, “Okay, I’m going to kind of hold on to both of these things and see where it takes me,” is that I think that what’s really helpful is to understand, to assume – first of all, because I think it’s hard to find this unless you assume it – but it’s very rewarding to start digging for it, to assume that the Torah knows what you know, and more. And in particular, [that it] knows what science is and knows what it is to reason about science. And I don’t even mean necessarily that you get so much mileage out of trying to say, “I assume that it knows that the four bases of DNA are this, this and this”, you know, I don’t have a horse in that race, in some sense. Like, I don’t think that that’s getting to that level of detail and trying to line up things in the Torah and in the science in that way, usually, doesn’t end very productively, or at least has to be done very delicately. And so we can talk in due course about why that might be.
But I think that to say that it knows what it is to look at the world, to think of it as a predictable, natural fabric. And the rules for that predictability were sort of laid down by someone, and then to try to reason about the world in order to figure out what about it is predictable – that’s the thing that the Torah does know what that is. That’s it, that’s a part of the human condition. And I think that we are now so inured to this science-religion debate that we tend not to sort of step back and think, well, “What is the science really?” And if we do that enough, I think we realize that there’s a huge amount of science kind of with a lowercase ‘s’ that just has to go into being a human being who navigates the world. Or, for that matter especially, someone who’s trying to keep the Torah, right, because the Torah assumes that you have accurate predictions you can make about your future based on how the world seems to work, and then enjoins upon you obligations that cause you to have to navigate that predictability in a certain way.
For example, you’re not supposed to say, “Okay, I need to have wine for Kiddush this Friday night, because it’s going to be Shabbat. I don’t have any wine now. So if Hakadosh Baruch Hu wants to make a miracle for me, I’ll get wine somehow, I don’t need to find out how one gets wine. I don’t need grapes.” The truth is there’s a process by which wine is created. And there’s a chochmah, a wisdom, to how to turn the world into wine, or pieces of the world into wine. And if you don’t apply that chochmah, if you don’t apply that wisdom, you’re generally not going to get what you expect. Now there’s this sort of extra comment at the edges of that, which is that you shouldn’t ever get too certain that you know what’s impossible, because likely is not the same thing as a certain. And so there is this radically counter kind of element to the message of the Torah which is that Hakadosh Baruch Hu identifies himself as “Ehyeh Asher Ehyeh,” “I will be which I will be,” you know, that until the future happens, you shouldn’t assume you know what it is, and He decides what it is, and that’s His message to you. And you have to kind of stay ready for it, and not assume that it’s already kind of – His hands are tied in some way.
But that being said, you are responsible for making people safer by looking at the world through the lens of science or just fulfilling your obligations by assuming the world has “scientizable” predictability to it. And that’s a part of being oveid HaShem, part of serving HaShem, according to the Torah, is relating to the world in that way. So at the very least, not talking about electrons and you know, Big Bang cosmology or whatever, there is, at the very least an understanding that you can find, I think, pretty easily in the text, that scientific reasoning is the thing that we use to understand the world, and that we have to use and need to know about. And I think you can go deeper than that. But I think that’s the starting point, is understanding that it doesn’t misunderstand anything that you know about the world that’s true.
Geoff Mitelman: It’s a lot of “if/then,” right. All of, you know, Devarim. It’s like, “This happens, then this happens.” And there’s been a lot of work… and I think you actually talk about this in a piece that’s on our website about climate change, which is that a lot of Devarim has been used to talk about climate change. And there’s a recognition that if we act in this kind of way, this is likely to happen in the world, right? If we are poisoning the air and poisoning the water, then we’re going to reap those consequences. As you know, Deuteronomy says if you do this, then you’re going to be blessed with rain, that there is a recognition that if you assume X is going to happen, then Y is likely to be the consequence there. And that’s not a supernatural element. That’s the way the world works right now.
Jeremy England: Yeah, although I would make a distinction in the sense that, I think there are people who might go as far as saying, “Yes, there is a” – I don’t know if you’d call it a science, but there’s kind of a predictability to how the world works that the Torah tells us about. But somebody would say, “But we would have no way of knowing that if the Torah didn’t tell us that, because it’s not ‘scientizable.'” It’s not something that science would tell us. Science doesn’t tell us that if you have lots of idolatry and murder in your land, that you will stop having rain, right, or it’s not obvious what the connection is between those two things. And I don’t want to make it sound like that when we read Shema and the Torah is telling us something that sounds sort of like it’s saying that, that it’s somehow claiming either magically, or in a way we haven’t yet understood, about meteorology, that there’s a direct connection between these things. I think it’s a more complicated discussion there on that point.
But I think I would say maybe I’m talking about something a little bit different. So you mentioned that this piece that I wrote a while ago, looking at Yosef, who we’re reading about right now, in recent and current parashiyot in the Torah readings every week on Shabbat. So Yosef is the son of Yaakov, he goes down to Mitzrayim as a slave, down to Egypt as a slave. And he ends up being this – I don’t know, people would call him a Wazir, or prime minister, or second-in-command in the court of Paro, because he’s this interpreter of dreams. And we sometimes relate to that as being about magic, or sort of fortune-telling, or things that we maybe accept within the premise of the narrative of the Torah, because, you know, supernatural things seem to be able to happen there.
But where it’s hard to know, you know, how do you take that into a world that has a seemingly “scientizable” fabric or predictability, to make sense of it? And I’ve tried to argue that can also be understood himself as a scientist, that he’s not really reasoning or talking about the world the way a prophet talks about the world. He’s saying, “Look, the world is made a certain way, by God. And because it’s made this way, there are predictable things. And in a sense, because we can predict something about the world that others can’t predict in the commodities market, we can buy low and sell high.” And that can both be an efficiency that maybe saves lives and prevents famine – and it also ultimately enriches Paro and makes him you know, God-King, and he enslaves everyone. So it’s kind of a double-edged sword.
But I think the important thing to notice is that the Torah is, on the one hand, admitting it understands. And I think you can pull this out of the text carefully – I’ve tried to write this elsewhere – but it understands what it is to realize there are things about nature that are predictable, but it doesn’t want to just say, “Here’s the thing about nature that’s predictable, go do with that when you like, here’s some chochmah, here’s some wisdom about, you know, here’s instructions for how to make a nuclear bomb. Use it for good, use it for evil, you decide.” That’s not what it’s about. What it’s trying to do is it’s trying to say okay, let’s look at this scenario. Let’s suppose someone claims they can save humanity from this looming natural disaster, right? What’s the proper attitude to have in the face of such a disaster? And I think that, you know, Yosef’s story is a complex one, because on the one hand, he sounds like the hero because he’s really smart. And he seems to just kind of save people through kind of hedge fund/meteorological prediction, or whatever he’s doing. He figures out economically, politically, scientifically, how to handle things. But the end result is mass slavery for most of Egyptian society. And that’s because there was no ultimate recognition that our success or failure also has to do with our moral success or failure, you know, that if we are getting to eat or starving, that we shouldn’t just be thinking about the rain, or we shouldn’t just be thinking about where the food is stored, we also should be thinking as it happens in Sefer Yonah, the book of Jonah, much later, about national repentance, and about our relationship to a creator of the world who believes in justice and loving kindness and expects us to pursue those things in our lives.
So, Yosef, you know, he is the extreme example of “If you just perform a technical solution to a problem, you end up just being an enabler for Paro.” To say “I am the king of the universe, I control nature. If you trust me, I will eliminate the unpredictability from the world and you can eat, but you have to worship me.” That is a danger that’s inherent in science, not just with respect to the, you know, the current version of that kind of story, where I think climate change sometimes ends up paralleling that dynamic in the sort of political emanations from that whole discussion, which is something I talked about in that piece.
But it’s also not just about that one issue, it’s about science in general. Science is so powerful, just as a means to do things, that we are enough in awe of it that we start to think “Maybe we should ask it what we should do.” And that is the essence of the danger that the Torah is trying to make inseparable from its discussion of what scientific reasoning is, and that narrative.
Geoff Mitelman: Well, and that leads nicely, because I’d love to talk a little more about your book, because one thing that you push back against, very accurately, is scientific reductionism, right? Like, if we understand something on the big side, just “Okay, if we can get it down to the small, molecular atomic level now we’ll understand everything.” And you’re like “No, it’s much more complicated than that.” I would love to just have you share a little bit about your book and the theories that you’ve been propounding, which is, you know, it’s a 200-page book. So here’s five minutes on it…
Jeremy England: Standing on one leg! So yeah, no, I’d love to. So I think perhaps the place to start there would just be to say that I quite separate it. from my interest in studying Torah. I have sort of, to speak, a day job of being a scientist and trying to figure out things about the world and how they work, and had been working for quite a few years on various aspects of theoretical biophysics. And my research drove me in the direction of starting to think about how you get matter that is not lifelike in any notable way to start behaving more that way. Like, what are the conditions under which you see things that life does – like making copies of itself, like harvesting sources of energy, like food from its surroundings, like predicting things that are predictable about its surrounding environment and behaving in ways that reflects an accurate understanding of what’s predictable about that world? That there are things, living things do that, that you don’t expect to see from a rock or, you know, a table, or things that we say are very clearly not alive? And so you can start as a physicist to think about those different kinds of behaviors and say, what are the conditions where these are possible? What are the conditions where these behaviors might emerge? How do you control that? How do you do experiments where you can make predictions and understand better what those phenomena are like?
And I think that it’s very different than saying, “Let me come up with a theory that sounds like I’ve turned a camera on what something looked like billions of years ago. And here’s exactly what it looked like.” It’s more like a proof of principle for how these different behaviors come together, and how they can arise in a condition – where you don’t have to worry about chicken-and-egg yet. And you can start with sort of, you know, a “afar min ha’adamah” like, “dust of the earth,” sort of inanimate material. But as long as certain basic physical conditions hold, you can get very interesting emergent, lifelike complexity.
So that was just what my research while I was at MIT, and where it’s carried me since, was about. And then I got to the point of thinking about, “I’d like to write a book about this to, you know, tell people a broader audience about these ideas because they’re interesting.” And I think I felt so conscious of the fact that this is not just a discussion about science, as Rabbi Mitelman was referring to before, that when you start to say, “all right, what is life or what are living things, what makes a living thing different than a nonliving thing, where the living things come from?” You can’t help but strike chords with other parts of people and what they’re curious about, or what they long to know, or long to find some kind of meaning or clarity in. Because we are alive, and we care very much about where we come from.
And so I didn’t want to seem naïve and sort of say, I’m just going to put some technical comments out there for consideration. I mean, I can do that in scientific papers. And, you know, that is really where the research gets published, and, you know, argued about and vetted by a community of experts. And obviously, that’s an essential part of the process. But when putting it up for broader discussion, it seemed important to bring a broader commentary in. And then the natural way for me to do that was to say, “Okay, if I have these ideas about the physics, maybe I should go and look and see if the Torah has something to say about it,” So that I can understand better, you know, “How I should put a wrapping around this that gives it a broader context?”
And I was very gratified to find, when I started looking, that there was a very particular place in the Torah in Sefer Shemot in the book of Exodus, when Moshe is first encountering Hakadosh Baruch Hu (when Moses was first encountering God at the burning bush), where it suddenly seemed like this was a moment where particular features of that narrative had quite diametrical correspondence to some of the ideas that I was trying to teach about in a book. And that they almost helped to teach about the physics, because they were relatable. They had to do with talismans, the kind of tangible, conceptual things that people relate to in everyday life. And so it both started to see like, “I can probably teach the physics better if I, you know, combine these ideas.” And also,”I will write the book in a way where no one will be able to mistake the fact that I see” – that this discussion is situated in a broader context that goes beyond the sort of expert and technical realm of what scientists can comment about.
And so what I did was I wrote every chapter based on a theme taken from this moment in Exodus. So there’s the staff that turns into a serpent – that’s one of the signs that’s given to Moses. There’s the burning bush itself, there’s the water of the Nile, and the dry ground that turns into blood. So these are different elements, where each one of them can be unpacked, if you’d like to start, showing you something about the physics that you’re talking about. And then, because they’re all actually in one way or another about the boundary between life and non-life, you think about like – “A staff is not alive, a serpent is alive, blood is part of life, or the essence of life, and mud is not,” so one of these examples or another, they’re all about crossing that boundary. And they contain contemplations that you can pull out of the text that I think end up – I hope – enriching the discussion, and ultimately helping the book to land on and kind of zooming out that happens, where, you know, we talk almost exclusively about physics for the whole book, and then at the end, it’s sort of “So where does this leave us? Are we just a quintessence of dust? You know, is this physics saying that life and non-life are not meaningfully distinguishable? And we shouldn’t care? And there’s no moral meaning? Or can we say something else? And can we learn from the Torah how to talk about it?”
Geoff Mitelman: And what’s interesting – and we had a little conversation beforehand,– of the distinction between life and non-life is [that it is] not as clear as we think it is, or –and you talk about this – there are some where “Okay, these are things are clearly alive.” And there’s some things that are clearly not alive. But what happens in that “muzzy” area? And I think this is something that comes up all the time in Jewish law and in the Talmud, of trying to draw a distinction. I have one line that I like to say is that “ritual helps us turn the analog into the digital.” My five-year-old right now, it’s Hanukkah right now, he wants to know, “When are we going to light the candles? When is it dark?” And, you look at it and like, well, how do you know, this was light, and now it’s dark? Well, we need to have something like, “5:13 pm — that’s where it is.” And ritual is the same thing, of becoming an adult. And you talk about this about life and death in tzara’at, of what’s actually, you know, the part of your body that’s living and dying. And that seems to match also nicely, this question of “How do we determine what’s alive and what’s not alive? And how do we even make that distinction?”
Jeremy England: I think that probably the deepest impression in that discussion that ever was first made in me was reading Halakhic Man by Rabbi Joseph Soloveitchik because he was with someone who had, I think, a quite profound understanding of some of the philosophical questions raised by modern physics in the early 20th century. And [he] also obviously was this genius, you know, product of the brisker tradition of Talmudic study, and he could combine those two things when talking about this. And so I remember he discusses at some point in the book, the idea of the dimensions and other properties necessary to make a mikvah suitable for use for immersion.
And talking about it in the same way that really a physicist comes to the world and says, “All right, I have my procedures of measurement, I’m going to hold this stick up next to something and say, okay, it’s 2.5 meters, or what have you,” that you need to start with agreed upon protocols and procedures for assessment of the full fabric of the world. And then once you have those procedures, you can start building a theoretical frame around them and start saying, “How are these numbers that I measure here related to these numbers?” And so I think, you know, Joseph Soloveitchik, and also, I don’t know – I guess I can say contemporary philosophers at the time, like Wittgenstein, there are people who I think have been very thoughtful about this, in pointing out something that I think a lot of scientists or people who are educated in science are not always focused on – which is that measurements are things people do, that numbers are not, they’re floating in some invisible world that we haven’t touched. And then we make measuring devices, which are kind of magical transponders that reach out into that world of numbers and pull back the correct number. Measuring devices are human constructions and all measurements and all attributions of numbers to the world are the result of procedures that we agree upon for what is a fair way of calling out a number in a certain situation.
And that is something where I think it’s easier to appreciate when you lay physics alongside Halakhah, alongside Jewish law, because in both cases, you have this need to say, “how do we decide if this Sukkah is kosher or if this mikvah is suitable for tevilah, for immersion?” In all the different decisions you have to make like that. But there are different decisions than physical ones, because physics tries to be very internally referential. It’s saying, “I just want to know, I’m going to measure these things, I’m going to measure these other things – can I make theories of how different measurements are predictively related to each other that are not obvious?” You know, so that even though I measured x, y, and z over here, I can predict in a completely different setting some other things that can happen that I would measure. That’s very different in Halakhah, because in Halakhah, as you’re referring to, [is] also interested in just how we should then act, once we make certain measurements, right – that once I’ve determined that I can accomplish a certain mitzvah in this setting, because of the measurements or observations that I made, then I act differently.
And so this is something I think that gets taken up in the last chapter of the book, looking at the example of tzara’at, because tzara’at is sometimes mistranslated as leprosy. It’s one of the signs given to Moshe when he’s at the burning bush. It’s sort of this ambiguity in the boundary of a living thing, it’s a disruption in one’s skin, which is your actual physical boundary. And it both connotes the boundary between life and non-life, and also kind of the mixing of different things. I think if you think about the concept of teumah, which we often translated as impurity, in the Torah, it’s about the intermixing of different kinds of living things. Like maybe you’ve intermixed with something that was not alive, or maybe you’ve intermixed with another person besides yourself, or all these things that are connected to tuemah, kind of work that way. And so, tzara’at, which produces teumah, is this kind of ambiguity or intermixing. And I think that one of the things that is so hard to relate to in the present day is that it is not a dermatological phenomenon at all. You cannot say, “Okay, so we had this, this Torah word for it.” But what is, if I go to a dermatologist today, what is tzara’at actually, what do we call it?
The problem with that is that tzara’at is defined on purpose in Jewish law to live in a different conceptual space. It can only be identified by a Kohen, for example, by a priest, which means it is not objective. It is, by definition, something that only exists sort of as an assessment made by a subset of people who have the right and designation in order to make that assessment. And it also has some legal properties that make it impossible to talk about in terminological terms. For example, if tzara’at that starts in one place in the body spreads to cover the entire body, then you don’t have tzara’at anymore, because now your whole body is something different. And the “mixed-upness” was kind of the problem seemingly in the legal concept there.
So I think that what’s so important there is that tzara’at reveals to us that legal constructions are a more flexible conceptual space than maybe the typical ones we’re using in our discussion of predictable relationships between materials or biological systems, and that’s okay. And that’s part of the meaning that we can find in the world if we share procedures for how we act in the world. And that’s not really different than saying you can be murdered or you can be divorced, or all these other things that have a social dimension to them that you can’t remove.
Geoff Mitelman: Right, and there’s the distinction between, and I don’t want to say it this way, but I will, sort of between natural facts versus social facts and social facts are very real, like they have an import. And, you know, we’re thinking about the presidential election that we’re dealing with, and you know, and conversations about what is reality that social facts do have often a moral import and they imply that here’s what the sort of the natural fact is, and that’s going to then change how we should be responding to that and that’s what the implications are going to be?
Jeremy England: Yeah, and I think that, I mean, this is probably trying to make too grand a claim without much substantiation about, I don’t know, the history of Western thought for the last however many thousands of years. But it seems to me, speaking loosely, that, perhaps part of the reason that now there is so much perceived conflict between what we call “science” and “religion,” whether within context of Jewish discussions, or broader ones, obviously, you know, in Western society, it’s a majority Christian society, you know, there have been other contributions to that conflict as well. I think part of the origin of that may go back to the intermixing of Greek and Judaic thought that happened at the beginning of Christianity.
Because I don’t think the Chazal, the sages of the Talmud, really would find what people usually treat as the sticking points, or the hard puzzles of how to relate science and religion and get them to play along together, –I don’t think that they would have encountered the same kinds of difficulty necessarily. Because in their approach, they’re clearly so disposed to talking about procedure, and that we arrive at different kinds of truths, by having different kinds of procedures and ways that we act after we’ve made certain assessments and come to certain agreements and make judgments. And then we go and conform our behavior in certain respects.
And I think it’s hard to generalize about all Greek philosophy. But there was a very strong strain of Greek thought that really made its way deeply, I think, into Christianity and medieval Christian philosophy, such that it eventually influenced even, you know, medieval Jewish philosophy, Islamic philosophy, whatever – where there’s much more of this notion of ontological truth, right, that there are free-standing truths about the world that our wisdom can access, and then we can discover and figure out. But it’s not about our procedures of these sort of imperfect things that we’re always straining to perfect or improve. And if we ever improve or perfect them enough, then we’ll finally get the real truth of what actually is. And I think the more you tend to reason about the world in that way, the more confusing things get when you try to square things with how the Jewish tradition sometimes insists on talking about the world, you know, because you just can’t encompass all these situations.
I mean, especially in Jewish law, there are very clear examples of this where, you know, you have like this concept of shavisah l’nafshah chatichah d’lsura, the idea that two different people should act as though the world has the different set of facts true about it, because they each insist on those separate facts, and then they should keep the law according to the facts that they insist on. So you resolve a disagreement about the facts of what happened, not by saying “let’s get to the bottom of this and find out which one is actually true,” But you end up saying, “Okay, you go do this thing, because you claim ‘A’” and so a legal consequence of “A” is that such and such is forbidden to you. And you can go do “B” because it’s permitted to you because you insist on a separate set of facts. And so we don’t have to resolve the disagreement about the facts in order to find a resolution of procedure.
And I think that kind of flexibility and, in my view, sophistication, and understanding the role of people in making different statements and judgments about the world that they only partly perceive and comprehend, is really something that it’s hard to get Greek philosophy to play nice with. And so I think once that comes through into the religion-science debate, where you have kind of post-Christian, Greek philosophy influenced science, talking about what science is, it creates more of a sense of things being at loggerheads than they really need to be.
Geoff Mitelman: One of my favorite lines from Psalms, and it’s quoted in a Midrash, also, of saying “truth springs up from the earth,” which is very different than the truth coming down from heaven. It comes from the bottom up from our lived experiences that we can argue about it that also truth comes from the earth. And you can even talk about this from a scientific perspective of nature is going to tell us if we’re correct or not, right, like we can have whatever wonderful theories are there but if the natural world is saying something’s different, then we’re the ones who are wrong. And, you know, there’s a line that I love, I think it’s from Stuart Firestein, who’s at Columbia, who said “That sciences job is to help us become progressively less wrong.” And there’s always sort of a provisional truth that if we can find out, “here’s what we know at this point, here’s what we don’t know, and here’s what the open questions are.” So holding truth with a capital “T” coming down from up on high, as is often viewed in Greek philosophy, I think is in direct contradiction to the way that I think a lot of science works and I think the way that Judaism looks at the world and the way that we look at facts and truth.
Jeremy England: Yeah, that’s another thing I would agree with, is that really doing the work of science when you’re engaged in it, you know, in a day-to-day sense, if you admit to yourself what you’re doing and what you’re going to be able to claim or what you’re going to be able to discover, it really is more honest, I think, and realistic to admit at the outset that all the laws of physics and all of the scientific theories and whatever that we can prove more or less correct, they’re definitely human constructions and they are always only going to be approximately correct. But more importantly, they’re always kind of limiting projections of the whole picture of things.
So I could take a black and white photograph of a rainbow, and I get a lot of information about the scene that I’m capturing with that representation. But then I have to accept that I’ve eliminated the possibility of perceiving certain things about what I’m assessing by my procedure or my choice of representation. And I think sometimes scientists, culturally don’t want to admit to themselves that everything that they’re doing, every model they make, every theory that they’re constructing really imposes that kind of sacrifice on them. That they don’t get to talk in one set of terms about their subject and capture everything that might be true about it. And, you know, sometimes I think it’s more obvious that that’s true where you say, “Oh, well, I’m only going to get to measure one thing in the system and there’s a whole lot else going on, but, you know, forget about it.” I think economists have to admit this to themselves much more readily because they can measure so little and it’s obviously true that what’s going on in the world is more than just like a number of dollars changing hands or something.
And I think maybe fundamental physicists who are looking at, you know, high energy particles smashing into each other, whatever, it’s easier to maybe feel like, well this might really be the full picture of everything. I think one has to make that argument carefully, but I think you can argue against that view, even in that case and say, look, these are human constructions. We’ve developed ways of talking about what we observe and in the world that are very successful and help us to make predictions. But the moment we start saying the thing that I have constructed to represent the world, whether in words or images or whatever, is a replacement, a totalizing description for all that the world is. That is the essence of idolatry, right?
That’s what we’re being cautioned against by every other verse in the Torah, basically. That we have to remember that the constructions of our own hands, or of our own words or of our own minds, are just that. And that doesn’t mean they’re useless or that they don’t carry us somewhere. But the moment we start to kind of say that everything has to bow to this one principle or one idea, we’re going down a very slippery slope in the wrong direction.
Geoff Mitelman: I want to open this up – if there are questions they can come in through the chat. I want to ask, actually, a more personal question, which is that: You talk about wanting to frame your book and some of the chapters in the language of the Torah and from excerpts from Shemot. And I’m curious as to what the reaction to that has been, because you might assume that there’s a lot of pushback of, “Oh my God, he’s trying to say that the Torah is literally science,” or there may be some people like, you know, “I hadn’t even thought of it like that before, that’s really helpful.” I’m curious because it was such an interesting choice, and I think it’s very helpful because you also talk about how the Torah talks in human terms, and questions of subatomic particles and the origins of the universe are at scales that we humans can’t really conceive of, so the language of the Torah is very human-centered. I’m curious as to what the reaction has been, you know, quoting Shemot and Hebrew Bible, and being a person who has a connection to religion.
Jeremy England: Well, I think in general I’ve been very happy with the reaction. I think that, as you might expect, there’s been different kinds of reactions. And some of them are perhaps predictably, kind of stridently opposed, or sort of rubbed the wrong way at least, by this kind of an approach. And I think that a significant percentage of those are pretty dismissive, you know, before really getting into the meat of it in the sense that I think for some people, just the idea that you should talk simultaneously about science and also ideas that come from what is called “religion,” that that’s just, these two things should not be put together. If they have been put together, it’s by definition toxic, you shouldn’t touch it, you shouldn’t engage. And so I think, I know I lose some people off the bat immediately; Who might’ve been very enthusiastic readers of a book about the physics if I had been willing to limit myself to that.
And so, you know, I think it’s unfortunate. There also are other people who may have more serious and careful arguments to make against doing this, which I think is always, you know, important to hear and consider. And I do think it needs to be said, there are ways of talking about science and Torah at the same time that I think can be not so successful either in terms of relating the right way to the Torah, or of doing science properly. Because I think that science is a way of reasoning about the world. It’s really about figuring out consequences of certain assumptions if you apply certain kinds of logic to it, and then that helps you get certain kinds of predictive power. And if you start kind of injecting little, you know, alternative choices that you make in your logic, because you have a kind of a conclusion you’re trying to get to, because it’s a story that you like, or if you, kind of, stop being very empirical about the world and try to think more about what your religious texts is telling you the world should be, and try to wall yourself off from empirical realities that you need to face. You’re not going to do science very well. And so I think in general, it’s not a good idea to start from the Torah and be like, “Let me go look for my next scientific project by just coming to a random page and saying, okay, how can I make lots of oil from a little bit of oil?” Or something like that, right. That’s unlikely to be a very successful enterprise.
Although there’s kind of a bonus feature there about Hanukkah that we could circle back to that’s kind of fun, which I think is maybe a point worth making. But at the same time, I think it’s also not going to be treating the Torah in the right way if you start kind of either trying to use science to prove it correct, because it’s not supposed to be related to as a testable hypothesis. It’s supposed to be related to more like, “I make a covenant where I choose this to be my procedure for making sense of the world, and everything else flows from there.” So it’s upside-down to kind of be trying to find out if the Torah is correct by looking to see if science says it is. And not only that, I think it’s also not the use that the text was produced for, for it to kind of say, “How can I learn about DNA or electrons from it?” or what have you.
So there’s a lot of ways of trying to mix these things together, that I think are misguided for one reason or another. But all that being said, what I’ve tried to do, and I hope has been somewhat successful is show an example of how you can be careful in how you treat each of these kinds of subjects intellectually in a way where they can benefit from each other. And what I will say, getting back to your original question, is there have been a lot of people, I think, who have had very gratifying and positive reactions to that, because I think they do have this feeling that the very narrow and even hostile kind of attitude that you sometimes get from people, let’s say in the scientific-minded frame, about whether we can talk about things in other terms, it just feels too limiting to them. That they can tell there’s, in a sense, it’s a black-and-white picture, and that we’ve lost something in our representation of the world that way. I mean, I think also there are people coming, you know, from the standpoint of Torah who are really hungry for something that seems not to compromise on the science in order to get to some kind of happy ending in terms of resolution of that discussion. So, yeah, I think overall I’ve been very gratified and encouraged by the reaction.
Geoff Mitelman: I think what’s also interesting is that – and we’ve noticed this a lot through our work at Sinai and Synapses, – which is that in a lot of the Christian world it’s, “How do you get Christians to be excited about science and accept science?” And in a lot of the Jewish world, at least in the more liberal branches of Judaism, the challenge is not getting Jews excited about science, it’s about getting Jews getting excited about Judaism. And there’s pushback, of saying, “Well, wait a second, I accept Big Bang cosmology and Darwinian evolution, so the Torah is all a bunch of bronze age myths, let me not even engage with that.”
And particularly for people who, you know, their Jewish education, for whatever reason, doesn’t go farther than usually seventh grade, being able to understand a much more nuanced way of “How does Judaism explore these kinds of questions? How can we look at the texts and the Torah in a way that takes it ‘seriously, but not literally,’” right? Like how can we engage in it in a way that it can speak to us without it necessarily saying, “This is my literal truth, and I’m going to put everything into this little bucket right here.”
Jeremy England: Yeah, I think that that’s very important. And really in some senses, it is a rehabilitation of what seems to me to be a very authentic and ancient way of reading the Torah that you get if you’re just reading Chazal, if you’re reading the Sages of the Talmud, I don’t think this would be a foreign way of approaching it to them. But more sort of the way that they demonstrate by example is the most enriching, you know, that you get the most out of it. And it’s obviously still, you know, different because it’s thousands of years ago and it’s a different style or approach than what you get from contemporary people today. But I definitely think that there’s something we can learn. I think of it as sort of a revival movement, in some sense, rather than thinking that the most authentic and traditional way of reading Torah is one that has this big chip on his shoulder about science. I think that really is a much more recent thing that really has to do with, you know, the particular history of the onset of modernity in Europe and other places and how sometimes that it seemed like there was this package deal where you had to kind of give up on keeping the Torah and also give up on believing that it had things to tell you that were true about the world and the way it works. So it’s really about I think rehabilitating, you know, the ability to read the Torah in the language in which it’s written and what is it saying when it says the world has made in seven days? What could it possibly be trying to teach you by saying that instead of assuming it’s being written in the language that Isaac Newton wrote Principia in and then saying, “Well, now that seems to be false because I have to pick one.”
Geoff Mitelman: Right? And you referenced this, little bit of it, at the beginning, and this is a question that just came up, which was that the way that you look at Judaism and science is really – it’s fascinating. And this person wants to know, “Has it helped you achieve what you couldn’t do when you first saw yourself as a scientist?” You know, when you were talking about how you came to approach both of these kinds of questions. Does your view on Judaism impact the way that you see yourself as a scientist?
Jeremy England: Yeah, I would say definitely. I mean, on the one hand, like I was saying earlier, I think one has to be very careful procedurally not to do science as though it’s, “I don’t have to do science anymore, I can just kind of make my living as a scientist by giving divrei torah that happened to reveal scientific truths,” or something like that. Because I don’t think that’s kind of the use case for which the Torah was built. And it sort of is using the Torah as a shovel to dig with. And, you know, there’s a lot of things that are problematic about relating to it that way.
That being said, I do think that reading the Torah carefully and assuming it has something to teach me that’s true about what the world is and how it works – it forces discipline on how one understands what science is, that then leads to – in certainly in my experience and I think in general – better clarity about how to do science right.
So the example that I can point to in my own life is that I think that, when reading about ma’aseh Bereshit, the work of creation, you know, the six plus one days that you get at the beginning of the Torah, when I was in grad school, right at the point where I was starting to say, “All right, I am a scientist, I’m not going to throw that out the window. However, let me read the Torah and assume that it’s teaching me something that’s true.” “How do I square these things?” I think one thing that was very important was this realization, the point when it says, “Vayomer Elohim y’hi or, va’y’hi or.” “God said, let there be light and there was light” (Gen. 1:4) One of the things it’s saying is that the light by which we see the world comes from the way we talk about it, and that it’s pointing out to you, that you should be aware of what language you’re speaking and that there are different languages for characterizing the same world. And they don’t necessarily talk about it in identical or even completely, perfectly mutually translatable terms. So I can talk about the world, quantum fields, you know, electrons, I can talk about DNA, I can talk about lots of things. I could break the world into those pieces, or I could take a different language and sort of draw the boundaries differently. There’s this wonderful quotation from Ludwig Wittgenstein, “The borders of my language are the borders of my world,” right? And I think it’s very appropriate to this discussion. He was very Judaic in his thinking, although I think, I believe he was the child of converted Jews.
But in any case, the point is when we’re reading about the six days or the six plus one days of creation, the Torah is showing us how we should talk about the world as the first pass, you know, when we’re on the mission to accomplish what it’s trying to teach us how to accomplish. If you take its goal for granted, that it’s trying to teach us how to be ovdei HaShem, to serve Hakadosh Baruch Hu, to keep his laws and to do tzedek u’mishphat, like justice and righteousness in the world, and all of that. You don’t start with electrons and DNA, you start with white and dark and sea and land and men and women and fish and birds. And that’s the fundamental vocabulary on which everything else is built. So [if] you can make that your fundamental vocabulary, you can also make those other things your fundamental vocabulary, [and] you’ll get different languages and different ways of characterizing the world. But the Torah prefers a way of talking about the world as its starting point. And that’s a point that it’s making.
So long story short, or at least not longer – for which I apologize – to answer the original question. I think the point is that when I came back to, “All right, I’m a theoretical biophysicist. What have I learned now about what science is doing and how it understands the world?” I think that was the first time it really clicked for me that biology and physics are different languages. That even though they’re both science and nominally, I’m speaking English when I do each of them, I have to be aware that biology really has different words in taxonomies and vocabularies, et cetera, and standards than physics does. And once you realize that, that’s the beginning of being able to start to think about how would I make physical theories that can explain lifelikeness to me. Because you don’t make the mistake of wanting physics to tell you what is alive and what isn’t. So I do think that where my scientific career has ended up leading certainly came from a kind of philosophical clarity that I’m not sure I would’ve gotten if I hadn’t really been digging deep into the Torah and trying to make sense of it.
Geoff Mitelman: And thinking about these questions of light and dark and the origins of Bereshit and how we read it. The poetry is wonderful and it’s trying to teach us something and the way that I tend to look at it… and I’m thinking about it now I’m reading your book, which is a little bit different, which is, it’s not originally what the words meant, but erev often connotes an idea of randomness, like an erev rav, and boker is connected to the word of livaker, of distinguishing. And so each day is va’yehi erev va’yehi voker, which is, “there was chaos and then there was order,” but the way the universe normally works is from order to chaos. And so each day is the way that we can move from a level of chaos into a level of order. And the only way we do that is by investing energy in the system and that’s something that we’ve got to consciously do. And so thinking about that as a responsibility, a normative responsibility of, “how do we create more peace and justice” because there are a lot more ways for the world to go wrong than it is for it to go, right? And you talk about this also in the book, what can we know and what can’t we know from all the different levels of complexity and understanding?
Jeremy England: Yeah, I think that’s a really interesting way of reading it. I think that also a wonderful thing about Torah that is, I think, hard for people to relate to coming from other, more modern kind of disciplines, is how much it can be that it’s truth is in part that it means, you know, 70, at least, different things. And that you could pack that all into very dense real estate, that you can have like a few words that you can read in a lot of different ways. And that in order to express all of that, there’s a way of doing that which has narrative demands. And so then you end up telling it in a certain way. But then I think part of what they’re still trying to remind you of is make sure you know how you’re reading this, and then what you’re trying to get out of it. Because, you know, when the Torah says that God did something, that Hakadosh Baruch Hu did something. We should not presume to know what the picture of that looks like. We’re not even allowed to make pictures of it, right? It’s not a cartoon and it’s not something simple.
So when it says that HaShem made the world in six days plus one, we could just as easily take from that – “Well, making a world sounds like something that takes a really, really long time. So maybe what I should learn from this is that if the Torah is going to tell me that HaShem did something, that I should be very careful not to assume I understand from the plain meaning of the text what the timing of all of that looked like right there. Maybe it’s actually going to talk about events in a way that seems out of order, or where some things that, you know, are talked about very briefly, really took a long time.”
And if you take that principle out into the rest of the Torah, a lot of other things start to make sense that way, right? You even see sometimes the same events described more than once, where there’s different levels of emphasis on the direct role of HaKadosh Baruch Hu, like in the case of m’kot b’chorot, the striking of the firstborn in Egypt. The text essentially tells that twice: And in one case it’s like HaShem came and did it and another case, there’s this kind of referring to the idea of a mash’chit, like a slayer who’s going around. And whether that’s a disease or whether it’s an angry mob, or who knows what, you have such a sense if you’re willing to, you know, be open to it, that really the peculiar way in which, let’s say, the beginning of Bereshit or Genesis is not lining up with what you think the science is telling you, you could just as easily learn from that, that it’s trying to teach you how to see the hand of HaShem in the world. And that in order to do that, it’s going to have to kind of bend your mind into a lot of strange shapes and talk about the events of the world in ways that don’t match up with the way that other languages talk about it.
Geoff Mitelman: Yeah, and I think this is a wonderful way to be able to draw towards a close, because tonight we’re going to be lighting the sixth night of Hanukkah to be able to light our Hanukiah and to be able to bring a little bit more light into this world, which we have to be able to do, and to be able to experience God’s light coming in through us and being able to take agency here and to also be thinking about how “every life is on fire” and your book, which I highly recommend, a little plug for your book, I highly recommend it. It’s a fascinating book that looks not only at the origins of the universe and the origins of life, it’s also a wonderful treatise about the interplay of science and religion. So Jeremy, I want to thank you for taking the time here this afternoon. I want to thank all of you for taking some time to learn. We do this at https://www.judaismunbound.com/sacred-science Tuesdays at 2:00 PM. You can look at our website, sinaiandsynapses.org, to see some of our other work. And next week we are going to be talking with another rabbi who has a background in science. So we’ll be talking with Rabbi Rachael Jackson, who was part of our interfaith fellowship and has a background in chemistry. And so she’s going to be talking a little bit about her journey and her work. So thank you all for joining and Jeremy, thank you for taking the time here this afternoon.
Jeremy England: Thanks a lot.