Sacred Space is a new multi-episode series developed by the Academy for Jewish Religion (AJR) that will bring innovative thinkers at the forefront of meaningful conversations about religion and spirituality in everyday life. Rabbi Geoff Mitelman is a consultant for this project on science and religion at the Academy for Jewish Religion, sponsored by the AAAS Dialogue on Science, Ethics and Religion (DoSER).
The Academy for Jewish Religion is the first ever Jewish seminary to be chosen by the American Association for the Advancement of Science as part of their Science for Seminaries Project. Science for Seminaries “provides participating institutions with resources to integrate science into their coursework and campus-wide events,” and is run by DoSER in partnership with the Association of Theological Schools.
The host of Sacred Space, Cantor Elizabeth Sternlieb, took some time to speak with Rabbi Mitelman and Dr. Jennifer Wiseman of the AAAS DoSER program. The full video can be found here.
Elizabeth Sternlieb: I am so honored to have with me two very special guests, Rabbi Geoff Mitelman and Dr. Jennifer Wiseman. Rabbi Mitelman is the Founding Director of Sinai and Synapses, and Dr. Wiseman is the director of the American Association for the Advancement of Science’s Program on Dialogue on Science Ethics and Religion, otherwise known as DoSER.
So Dr. Wiseman, I think I’ll start by asking you how the DoSER program got started, and what is the most exciting thing that the DoSER program is doing today?
Jennifer Wiseman: Thank you very much. Well, whether we realize it or not, science and technology affect just about every aspect of our lives, and certainly the way we think about who we are as human beings in the larger natural world, when we think about the environment the planet and the universe.
And so this program was started back in the mid-1990s, when the American Association for the Advancement of Science, or the AAAS, realized that in helping people with science to be a positive part of their lives, they needed to recognize that religion and religious faith and identity are a very important core of most people’s identity, and their lives, and the way they shape their values.
And so the program was started to help create connections and dialogue between scientists and faith communities in the realm of talking about ethical uses of science and technology.
Elizabeth Sternlieb: And one of these projects is the Science for Seminaries Project, and I’m eager to talk more about that. So how does the DoSER project connect with the Academy for the Jewish Religion in New York?
Jennifer Wiseman: We learned early on that seminaries are places where science is highly desired, but many of these seminaries have not been well-equipped to incorporate forefront science into the training and experience of the students. And so together, with many different kinds of seminaries across the country, we formulated a kind of program where seminaries can get support from the AAAS to incorporate science into the programs they already have, including things like religious history, or pastoral care, or ethics or even the study of of biblical scripture, and how the science of today is relevant to these courses. This has proved to be a very successful way of demonstrating to these students that science is relevant to everything else in their future lives as rabbis and ministers and pastors.
And we also are helping these seminaries to actually develop relationships with each other, even across different denominational and religious lines. And that’s proved to be very, very fruitful and popular as well.
Elizabeth Sternlieb: Beautiful. Thank you so much for that thorough explanation. So Rabbi Mitelman, you are a science expert, and I feel that you’ve been such an innovator, and I know you’ll be teaching a science literacy course at AJR. I’d love to hear what you have to say about the class and a little more about your passion for this entire subject.
Geoff Mitelman: Certainly. Thank you both, and it’s wonderful to be with you. And I’ve known, actually, Dr. Wiseman for now – believe it or not, ten years. And the questions that we’re facing in this world, they’re not scientific questions, and they’re not religious questions, they’re human questions. How do we grapple with “Who am I, how do I act in this world?” We need wisdom and knowledge from as many sources as we can.
And so one of the things that I’m very passionate about, and one of the reasons that I started Sinai and Synapses, is because there’s a perception that there are two sides. One is viewed as scientific and educated and liberal, and the other side is viewed as religious and uneducated and conservative. And there’s a belief that if you buy anything in either of those columns, you’ve got to buy everything in that column. And first of all, that’s inaccurate, and second of all, it’s totally unproductive. And so that creates a real, I think, a challenge, and an opportunity for the Jewish community.
And what we’re trying to do here with AJR, and with the science literacy program, is to be able to say, “What are some of these kinds of cutting-edge questions, ranging from genetic engineering, to technology, to the origins of the universe? How can we think about and talk about these kinds of questions in a nuanced way?”
Another line that we often say is that the challenge in the Jewish community is not getting Jews excited about science, it’s about getting Jews excited about Judaism. And so using science is a way to be able to engage people who wouldn’t have been engaged otherwise. And we work very, very closely with DoSER on these projects as well.
Elizabeth Sternlieb: So what kind of issues do you think might affect most or all faith communities when it comes to the subject of science and religion?
Jennifer Wiseman: Well, I’ve seen this conversation change in our culture. You know, a decade or so ago, if you brought up the phrase “science and religion,” people would immediately say, “Oh, that’s some kind of argument between evolution and the bible.” And now their questions and interests are so much broader and richer than that. People are interested across religious faiths about environmental care. We’re all realizing that our planet is volatile, that climate is changing, that what we do as human beings makes a difference. So many faith communities are interested in learning about the natural world, in one sense to incorporate that into a liturgy and a sense of praise for the beauty of creation, and in another sense, for learning how this knowledge can be channeled towards service. Many faith communities, from many religious traditions, have a commitment to serving others. And I would add that I think, for most faith communities that I’ve talked with, they are very excited about science. Science is not a threat, it’s something that people see as very interesting, very exciting. And people want to know what we’re learning and how to incorporate it in positive ways, in life, and family, and service to others.
Geoff Mitelman: Yes, that was beautiful. And I would actually say that we shouldn’t lean into the differences, because one of the things that is wonderful about science – and science, at least, ideally is replicable and the same and there’s a universality to it – science is supposed to be the way that we can really understand the world that we can all agree on. The challenges that – I think the wonderful thing, though, about religion is that unlike science, which is universal, religion is very particular. There are individual identities, individual communities, individual ethical questions. We may all agree on what the science is, but we may disagree on “What do we do with it?”
One of the things that I love about Judaism is this idea of a machloket, or being able to have an argument. And that’s what science is also supposed to be. Science is supposed to be, “I’m going to present this data, and you’re going to present this data and we’re going to argue about i,t but we’re going to argue about it in a way that’s going to be constructive.” And I think that’s a really – for me, that’s a very valuable analogy between Judaism and science.
Elizabeth Sternlieb: Great. Thank you both. Dr. Wiseman, I wonder if you would share a little bit about how science and technology might intertwine with social justice. I know that it is on everyone’s mind right now.
Jennifer Wiseman: Certainly. So there has been, in the past, this idea that somehow science is just “objective.” And we know that there’s been cases throughout history when science has been used in very unethical ways, thinking of things like the Tuskegee Experiments, and things of that nature. But even today, things that seem more benign – we are actually finding out that there are kinds of of biases built into, let’s say, some of the computer codes and things that help us manage health care and things like that, that actually end up predicting outcomes for certain groups of people that were based on a kind of biased model that went into it in the first place.
So we’re learning to be cognizant of test subjects in our scientific world, and who benefits from it. And so these are justice issues that kind of intertwine with everything in science, and people are thinking more and more about how we can use science and technology in ways that actually make for a more equitable and flourishing society.
Elizabeth Sternlieb: Yes, very, very important topics to think about and be aware of and stay on top of for sure.
Geoff Mitelman: You know, I think it’s really important for clergy to be able to use all of these questions surrounding science and technology and their intersection with religion ethics, to be able to reach their communities. One of our biggest projects, and we are running this right now, we’re having our fourth cohort of scientists and synagogues, to be able to work with the people who are going to be the future leaders – of at least for us, for the Jewish community – what do they need to know and even more importantly how can they talk to their community in ways where they can be constructive conversations and reach a wide audience.
Elizabeth Sternlieb: Beautiful, thank you. Dr. Wiseman, any last thoughts?
Jennifer Wiseman: I hope we remember that science is a study of the natural world. And of course science can teach us specifics of how the natural world works, but that knowledge can enrich things like art and music and theology and philosophy and the bigger questions that we ask as human beings. And in that sense, science can be a portal to great beauty in our lives.
Elizabeth Sternlieb: Thank you both so much for sharing this sacred space, and I look forward to hearing more about your work in the future. And I’ll keep an eye out for you, rabbi, at AJR.
Rabbi Geoff Mitelman: I’m looking forward to being back!
Jennifer Wiseman: Thank you.