Humanity has a unique capacity to reshape the world through its embrace of technology. As technological progress becomes exponentially faster, however, we are faced with difficult questions about how to govern it as it begins to take on a life of its own. When does a new technology become no longer ours, and how might Jewish wisdom help us anticipate how the fruits of our creations could redound back on us?
Rabbi Rachel Gurevitz is the rabbi of Congregation B’nai Shalom in Westborough, MA. Rabbi Gurevitz was ordained from Hebrew Union College in 2006. She received her doctorate in Cultural Geography from University College London in 1999. She is an Associate of CLAL (National Jewish Center for Learning and Leadership), where she was in the pioneering fellowship year of Rabbis Without Borders, was selected for a LEAP fellowship (a partnership project with the Katz Institute for Advanced Judaic Studies at UPenn), and serves as a mentor with CLI program (Clergy Leadership Incubator). Her synagogue was part of Sinai and Synapses’ project Scientists in Synagogues in 2016.
Next week, January 12th, at 2 pm Eastern, we will speaking with Tania Lombrozo, Ph.D., Professor of Psychology and Director of the Concepts and Cognition Lab at Princeton University, who frequently contributes to publications such as NPR on the cognitive psychology of fake news.Read Transcript
Welcome, everybody to Sacred Science – our fourth episode here. I am Rabbi Geoff Mitelman. I am the founding director of Sinai and Synapses, which bridges the worlds of religion and science, exploring so many huge, big questions that we’re facing in this world, ranging from technology to the ethics of vaccines, which are starting to finally get rolled out, to questions of climate change and astronomy and quantum entanglement. And I’m very excited to be sitting here with my friend Rabbi Rachel Gurevitz. We met over 15 years ago at URJ Kutz Camp (Alav ha-shalom), which unfortunately is closed, but we were on faculty – I think we were on staff actually – together at the URJ Teen Leadership Academy. And Rachel and I have gone through programs at CLAL, which is the National Jewish Center for Learning and Leadership. In 2016, her community congregation B’nai Shalom in Westborough, Massachusetts was part of our project “Scientists in Synagogues,” exploring questions of the way technology has changed who we are. And even since you were part of that project in 2016, you’re still looking at fascinating scientific questions. And so, Rachel, I’m thrilled to be sitting here with you in two different locations.
Rachel Gurevitz: It’s great to be with you. And thanks very much for the invite to join you this afternoon.
Geoff Mitelman: So I’d love to start by asking you to share a little bit about what got you excited about these questions of science and Judaism – you were part of the first group to be part of Scientists in Synagogues – and what got you and your community excited about and thinking about it in terms of these questions?
Rachel Gurevitz: When we first looked into joining Scientists in Synagogues, I think I started by coming at it in a very pragmatic way. I jumped at the concept because of where my congregation is and what a fairly good chunk of my congregation do professionally. We are in this corridor that goes westward between Boston and Worcester. And in this area, we have a very high amount of people involved in the medical world – not just in doctors and nurses, but in medical research, we have a lot of people involved in biotech, a lot of people in tech in general, there’s just an awful lot of that industry out here, all kinds of research, people involved in all kinds of aspects of computer science. And so we have just a lot of people who, that’s how they think about the world. That’s how they engage in the world. And I don’t think there was an awful lot of explicit connection between what many people did professionally for a living and their sense of their Judaism. And, you know, that was the whole point of Scientists in Synagogues, was seeing how these two worlds could perhaps be in conversation, and might actually help people think about these different pieces of their Jewish identity in a way that was a little bit more integrated. So that was sort of my starting place.
But I have to say that now that we’ve been doing this for a while, I realized that there’s an awful lot else that was behind the interest in doing this. If I think back to my own childhood, I’ve always had a fascination with science. I’m not somebody who has a particularly high-level grasp of very technical science. I fancied myself in that way, I think, in my early teens, and then I tried doing physics and biology and chemistry for the exams that I had to take at 16 in high school, and that taught me that perhaps wasn’t my forte.
But I love what the sciences bring to us in terms of knowledge and understanding of the world, even if I don’t have the personal skill set to grasp it all. And so to be able to come back to some of the fascination, the awe, and the amazement that comes with looking at the world – both at the macro level and at the extreme, extreme micro level – the way that science does, and to think about what that reveals about our world and who we are, and then how that might interface with some of the existential questions that come up in terms of a faith-based way of thinking about “What does it mean to be a human being? What is our purpose? Where are we taking the world?” Just to be in a space where we can have those conversations, is thrilling and quite enlightening. So I think we’ve gained so much more than just connecting the dots for people who do some of this stuff professionally.
Geoff Mitelman: When you talk about tech and technology, we think about technology as the latest iPhone or being able to Zoom. You know, that’s what we think about as technology. But if you think about technology as a human endeavor to shape or create the world, and make the world different than what it was previously, other animals don’t have technology. Plants don’t have technology the way we would think about it in this kind of way. So it’s very deeply rooted in our human evolutionary history. And it’s very rooted in Biblical text. It’s one of the first things that happens in Genesis and Bereshit – about Adam creating, and God creating and Eve creating. And these are questions of “What happens when we create something and it is no longer ours?” We use the phrase of technology “giving birth to things” in the same way that we give birth to children, and we no longer control those children, they are their own people. The technologies that we birth, we don’t always understand how they’re going to redound back onto us.
Rachel Gurevitz: Right? No, for sure. And I think that we’ve seen that some of the tools that we have created have enabled the unfolding of civilizations in ways that are just astounding, when we think about the potential of human creativity. But with every single stage, there have been questions about the ethics of the power that we have. And I often think about creativity and creation in terms of that power. Whatever we believe about God, the fact that we’re told that we’re made in the likeness of God, and God has the power to create, we see in so many different ways that we have that power to create. And oftentimes, we get caught up in the magnificence of our ability to do that. And we see in so many spheres that the moral questions, or the questions of what new reality has unfolded because of our creations, that happens as a secondary question, because there’s just that innate drive to experiment and to try and to do new things. And there’s so much positive with that.
But there’s another side as well that we’re constantly grappling with. And it starts with speech, aside from what we have – the ability to invent and create and make or understand about the world. The Bible might be speaking allegorically, when it says, “God said, let there be light,” but we create realities for ourselves and for each other all the time, through the act of speech. And so much of what we’ve created, especially when we’re thinking in the modern era about the vehicles through which we communicate with each other, and share information, we see the incredible power of those vehicles to magnify speech in ways that can be very inspirational, and can also be incredibly harmful and destructive.
Geoff Mitelman: And what’s interesting is the power of speech, which is that actual speech doesn’t live in the world for very long. Like, your breath goes out and it just dissipates out into the world. But the idea of writing and recording, that actually lives forever. And particularly now with social media, with different recordings. Someone will tweet something then, and they were kind of a nobody in 2013, and then they become a major public figure. And then they can go through their tweets and say, “Wait a second, look at what that person said in 2013,” there’s a record of the speech, and the potentially destructive speech that they had. And there are still a lot of ethical and etiquette questions surrounding social media, surrounding those kinds of conversations. What’s appropriate, what’s not appropriate? Who is the audience that’s here? And that’s a challenge Judaically, and it’s a question for us in 2021 right now.
Rachel Gurevitz: Yeah, no question. And one of the areas of science that I know is most cutting-edge, which I know very little about (so forgive me if there is anybody who’s listening who really knows this field), but I’m intrigued by questions that are being thrown up by the field of quantum physics. Quantum entanglement, all of these different ideas, that are looking at questions as to whether something like thinking a thought, or observing something, creates a reality that may or may not have manifested were it not for the thought being thought or the observance taking place.
And if you think about the possibility, that at the quantum level, that a thought, or a taking something in, is changing the course of what happens next in any particular moment, or in the larger unfolding of the universe, then it, I think, really helps us to glean the weightiness of how much more so when we turn thoughts into words that are then shared to a broad audience, and are taken in by more and more people. You know, and I do think about how so much of our religious tradition, in a very, very different language ,speaks to those issues.
So if we take, for example – we did a session at our congregation a couple of years ago. One of our congregants, who now teaches a Scientists in Synagogues elective with our high school students, did a program on black swan events. And he was showing us the sort of the science of them. And the sense that perhaps these rare events, that sort of take us by surprise, are actually happening more and more frequently because of the speed of change, and the speed of what technology and our inventiveness has permitted. And we looked at the Jewish response to some of those transformative, completely catastrophic, completely out-of-the-box events that totally transformed Jewish history. And if you look at something like the destruction of the Temple, which we see as an absolutely transformative turning point in Jewish history, in terms of creating a whole different way of doing Jewish, being Jewish, living as Jewish community, with the beginnings of a rabbinic era – how fascinating it is that, embedded in the rabbinic stories about the destruction of the Temple and the destruction of that moment of the unfolding of our history, is the story of Kamsa and Bar Kamsa? And how it was these acts of baseless hatred, essentially acts of speech, that created the catastrophic moment out of which we had to kind of reinvent ourselves. It’s a completely different realm of literature, a way of thinking, and yet, how different is it from when we look at the unfolding, or looking back at what we might call a black swan event in a more contemporary situation.
Geoff Mitelman: There are a couple of different things that are leading to some thoughts. One is the idea of one of my favorite quotes from Kierkegaard, which is that “Life has to be lived forward, but can only be understood backward.” And you don’t always know how important something is until you look back on it. By definition, you don’t know that a black swan is going to happen. And it’s going to be a massive transformative event, until you look later 20, 30, 40, 50 years ago.
But the other thing that I think is interesting is COVID in March and April of 2020. And all of the discussions, particularly in more traditional Jewish circles, where [about how] there are elements of Halakha, elements of Jewish law, on what technology is allowed and what is not allowed. And even questions that are happening right now, which is that we are living in the moment right now, and everything feels so urgent, immediately, right now. And there are some people who are saying, wait a minute, let’s look at the long trajectory of Jewish history of 2,000 years, 1,500 years of rabbinic literature, and let’s not totally and completely reinvent all of Jewish law, because of this particular event because it feels so urgent right now.
At the same time, the technology is different in 2020, the opportunities are different in 2020, than we had in the year 600. Would the rabbis have made different Halachic decisions if Zoom existed when the plague of Justinian was happening, for example?
Rachel Gurevitz: Right. Those are fascinating questions to consider. What’s interesting to me actually is, I mean those are technical questions, and different denominations have different ways of dealing with “Shall I, or shall I not use this piece of available technology in this way, in this moment to create some kind of engagement?” You know, certainly speaking for our congregation, all of the rounds of conversations that I’ve had, prior to big moments in the sort of the festival year, certainly leading up to High Holy Days, big time – but also, what we did for Hanukkah, what we’ll likely do for Pesach this year, is, as opposed to just even in a progressive community where we don’t really have a problem using the technology, and simply saying, “Here it is, we’ve got this easy path that allows us to continue to do everything that we were doing,” what we’re hearing over and over and over again, is how people are thirsting for real human connection, and always looking for the opportunities to create those. That in some ways, while the technology seems to create this veneer of all of these alternative ways of being and existing, actually, what we really thrive on and really need and desire as human beings actually hasn’t changed very much, I think, over the millennium. And we keep kind of coming back to how to be human in this moment. The challenges are different, the possibilities are different, but sometimes the core essence of what we think it is to be us. And what is our purpose to be living a life as a human being is not really so different. That’s one of the things I find fascinating when I’ve dug into looking at Midrashim, or rabbinic texts ,or other legal texts, as a sort of counterpoint to the scientific presentations that we’ve had in our programs at the synagogue – is that when we get to the underlying question, the philosophical questions about “What’s the meaning of this?” We find that the human questions haven’t always changed a great deal.
Geoff Mitelman: Yeah, I mean human nature is, at least several hundred thousand years old, as modern Homo sapiens. And part of what it means to be human is to use technology, is to change our environment. And I’m remembering one of the programs at your synagogue. I remember visiting there was Jeremy Wertheimer from Google speaking. And I’ve now heard, actually, a few different people talk about this analogy, but I find it fascinating – which is, people talking about the ethics of self-driving cars, right? There is absolutely no way that the rabbis of the Talmud understood about self-driving cars, there’s so much that is outside of their understanding or worldview. And it would blow their mind if they were even to think about it. But they do have a lot of conversations in the Bible, and then in later rabbinic literature about the ox that gores. If you own an ox, and it’s in the habit of goring somebody, who is ultimately responsible? And the questions of self-driving cars, it’s not “Should I buy one? Or should I not buy one? How much does it cost?” The questions are, “Who will ultimately be responsible? Not if, when, it hurts or kills somebody.”
And there’s actually a lot of analogy there, because an ox, like a self-driving car, is not a human being. It’s used to be able to make life easier and faster, it may, in fact it is likely to, it almost certainly, will hurt somebody. So who is ultimately responsible? And there’s actually some tremendous wisdom from rabbinic literature from about these biblical and rabbinic texts that apply to 21st-century questions here.
Rachel Gurevitz: Right. That was a particularly wonderful and fascinating presentation. And what was so wonderful with Jeremy Wertheimer is that he was a VP of Google andhad come into that organization having, first of all, created his own product that was incorporated into Google. [He] has a PhD in AI, but he’s also an observant and learned Jew who was able to bring these Talmudic texts to us and actually look at how there were these similar questions being asked. You know, when I think back to that program, which we did now three years ago – yeah, at least, lost track of time a little bit – is that he very strongly, I think, believed that we had the kinds of ethical frameworks that we would need, or we would have the ability to evolve them to deal with all that AI would bring forth in our world, because these questions were not new questions. And there was a lot of that, which was very convincing.
I was just mentioning before we went on air that just the other week, I watched the Netflix documentary, The Social Dilemma (and if anybody hasn’t seen it, I highly recommend it), in which a lot of people who were there in the early days of Google and Facebook, for example, now are expressing some concerns about what the algorithms and the AI that they use in those systems, what they bring forth. Because, in some ways, it’s not that it’s simple to figure out the ethical dimensions of “Who is responsible?” with a self-driving car. I mean, I make no claims that that’s a simple question to solve, whether it’s the people who design the car, or whether it’s the person behind the wheel, who ought to have known that they needed to still be aware and awake and intervene when the car looked like it was making a mistake. But then what do you do in the situations when either way is going to cause harm, and which way causes the least harm, and there’s a lot of experimentation? None of that is simple.
But I think it’s relatively simpler than dealing with what we’re dealing with today, which is how and what is being brought to us through social media. You know, when I think about just the simplest things, the things that I have purchased in the last 12 months that I never would have purchased, had the ad not been shown to me. Now, in some ways, that’s true of watching TV as well, of anything, right. Except that the TV channel is – there are people who are choosing which channel to advertise which products to. But with social media, the feeding of that, the algorithms that are going into what I see versus what you see. And advertising is just a tiny fraction of it, when we come to think about the news articles that are thrown up to me, the opinion pieces, the things that are going to get an emotional reaction from me so that I’m going to read that piece, or share that piece, or respond in some other way to information that is coming to me.
The question there [is] of how that might be shaping my way of looking at the whole world, understanding what’s going on, in any particular moment in time, whether it’s in my town, or my country, or the whole world. And when individuals become groups of people who are thinking and believing certain kinds of things because of the way in which these algorithms are designed to get us engaged with the platform, and to keep reading, then when we have the question of “Where does the ethical responsibility lie, and what manifests from that?” That, I think, is so much more complex.
And we’re seeing these arguments in these debates playing out right now, you know, that there were those who want to hold the platforms responsible for this network that they’ve created. It’s an incredibly complex ethical field. And just us even being self-aware or conscious of how we think about who we are, and how we act, and the choices we make, and the groups we affiliate with, how that might be changing because of how these algorithms or how AI is bringing information to us, I think raises really, really deep philosophical questions about who we are as human beings in this moment.
Geoff Mitelman: And what’s interesting is that so much of – and I’m going to say technology more narrowly – of things along the lines of social media and phones, and the stuff that we’re using now, right, when we think about technology, we think about a lot of zeros and ones in digital world – versus religion, [which] is in what we would call “meatspace.” Religion is designed to be physical and ritual, with questions of bowing ,and questions of carrying something, and holding something, and striking the match, and lighting the candle. There is an element of religion that is deeply embodied. And technology, as we’re using it now, is in many ways sort of the opposite of that. Now, it could be that they are in total conflict with each other, or they’re used in a complementary kind of way to enhance each other – so that if I see you on social media, when I then see you at Kiddush the next Shabbat, I can say, “Hey, how is your mother doing? I saw that your mother is in the hospital right now.” And I wouldn’t have known that if I wasn’t on social media with that person. Versus, how much does it become a narrow echo chamber, so that when I am talking to that person at Kiddush, I no longer like them, because my social media feed is different than their social media feed, and now they are an evil, horrible human being?
Rachel Gurevitz: Right, right. I mean, that’s it. And we’re seeing that play out, certainly at the national level, but I would argue even at the local level. When we see the fragmentation of communities and groups that we could be building, coming back to where we started, building and creating together in a way that embraces pluralism and diversity. You know, it’s a very, very different kind of definition of community, to, I think, the moment that a lot of us feel we’re in at this moment. And there’s a lot of deep striving for “How do we get from where we’ve gotten to in this moment, back to something that looks more like that broad, inclusive kind of community?” And this plays out at so many levels. I mean, it plays out within the Jewish community, you know, who’s counted in the “We,” how do we think of ourselves as a “We?” and the fragmentation of different kinds of Jewish. And it also plays out, as I said, nationally, and even within local communities in ways that I know that there’s a lot of groups and organizations that I think are working hard, striving to counteract that. I feel that that’s a message that I have been trying to push now for at least the last six, seven, eight years, consistently, as I sort of watched the deterioration of public discourse. And yeah, sort of looking for “How will we turn the tide? How will we bring ourselves back to something that is less fragmentary?”
Geoff Mitelman: Well, you know, that leads to an interesting question. I want to pivot a little bit, but linked to what you were saying, because you just did a presentation about Jewish views on vaccines, and vaccinations, right, [that was] generally pro-vaccine, but you know, the question that comes up and there was a great article in The New York Times that, I think, was by Ross Douthat, a couple weeks ago, of this idea of “Trust the science, trust the science, trust the science.” And as Douthat says, if you’re saying “trust,” “Do you trust Anthony Fauci? Or do you trust Donald Trump? “That’s kind of a no-brainer, you’re going to trust Anthony Fauci, you’re going to trust the scientists who are doing this.
But the question of “trust the science,” it’s not a question of, “Do I trust that the vaccine is going to be safe?”, but it’s really a question of, “Do I trust that it’s going to be rolled out in an ethical way? Is it going to be done in a way where the distribution is going to be effective? Am I making the right ethical choices of who gets it? When?” And these kinds of questions. And those are not scientific questions. Those are ethical questions. Those are questions that we need religious leaders – we need politicians, –we need to be able to have lots of stakeholders in these kinds of conversations. So being able to say “Trust the science” is a wonderful bumper sticker, and it’s also, in my mind, kind of useless. As somebody said, the word “trust” is doing a lot of heavy lifting in that [phrase], and we trust the people that we trust. I would love to hear what came up with these conversations about Jewish views and Jewish ethics on vaccines, because it’s not just “Is this vaccine going to be effective?” But there are a lot of ethical questions that come up as well.
Rachel Gurevitz: We did focus a little bit more on whether or not we can trust in the safety of the vaccine, in our initial conversation. A lot of what I shared in this was part of our Friday night sermon. I had a couple of doctors on, one of whom was among the first to get the first dose of that vaccine when it started to roll out in the Boston area. And the other is an epidemiologist, an infectious disease expert who is a member of our congregation, and is at Mass General, and so has a lot of expertise in the field.
But coming back to the previous conversation about information, and how information is causing this fragmentation of communities, I actually think that well, for some of us, those of us who are interested in science, and who, at least know enough to know that there’s a whole system behind what is responsibly put out in the world as science. Ideas evolve. It’s not that mistakes are never made, but that there are systems of peer review, there are systems in place to check the data before something manifests, before something gets rolled out. So I think that when we talk about trusting the science, there’s a methodology, there’s a process there in which we talk about trust, that many of us, I think, inherently, that’s how we make decisions about what we can trust.
How do you deal with the discourse in a moment in time when there’s a slew of people who are choosing to trust in conspiracy theories, right, and things that aren’t based in these kinds of systemically really well-grounded, rooted ways of evolving knowledge in our world? Something has shifted, and that’s part of the fact that we’ve been bombarded in ways that I think we, as human beings, are not yet able to grapple with in fully adaptive ways. I think that people are being ricocheted, with these kinds of sources of information. So I think the issue of actually trusting what is fact, and what is science, is, in fact, a question more than it should be, in this particular moment, because of all of those other things going on.
The other questions you raise, in terms of the ethical systems of what you do when there’s a limited resource and you need to bring it out – yeah, those are questions that I think there’s more than one way to answer them. It’s not like when every state has their “This is category Phase 1, Phase 1A, Phase 1B, Phase 2.” You could come up with well-thought-out lists of how we roll out a vaccine and get it to everyone, where not every version of that would be the same. But when we think about “Who are the people who are leading the call, leading the drive, organizing the drive?” trust comes up again. Because do we trust the people who are responsible? Or have we seen too many times how certain minority groups are used ,and not respected, and not fully informed about what it is they’re being asked to do? Do we see too many times when, who seems to get to the top of the pile is to do with money and influence? And so trust has been eroded in a lot of ways.
And again, when it comes to human nature, this is not new. If we think about the latter days of the kingdoms of Israel, the latter days of the priesthood, when the temple stood, right, where trust was eroded, when there was so much corruption – when the way in which the temple was being used, as a way of taxing people and gleaning, enriching certain people for power and influence, and the ritual on the faith-based world of religion in the Jewish world had been brought together with the political control of the Jewish world – that post-Maccabees, post-Hasmonean era, sort of evolution of the Jewish world. I think that was a time when we saw a lot of fragmentation. Because there was a lack of trust in those who claimed authority. I think about Monty Python’s Life of Brian – there’s a very funny scene that sort of highlights all of the various factions in the Jewish world, back at that time, but we now see that over time there was a particular voice that gained authority. And that sort of brought the Jewish people forward. But there was a period in time where there were these factions that were in extreme disagreement with each other. And it didn’t strengthen the Jewish community, it didn’t help the Jewish community thrive and survive in that moment. We had to go through something that was very disruptive, before we then rebuilt. And I do wonder if we’re in something of a moment like that, that we’ve been living through.
Geoff Mitelman: Although I may push back a little bit about that not being a good time for the Jewish community at that time. And we don’t know what was recorded and what was lost, but so much literature, so many ideas came out of these kinds of questions and conversations. The book of Daniel came out at this time, the books of Maccabees, and then we have the Dead Sea Scrolls that are there. Christianity came into existence, rabbinic literature came into existence. There is a great tension, though, because you need to have a legitimate authority, to be able to say, “Here’s what’s going to happen, here’s how these resources are going to be meted out.” And there needs to be buy-in from the populace, otherwise there’s going to be a rebellion (or an election of some kind, but they didn’t really have elections back then). But if the ruling power is not viewed as legitimate, that does create a lot of problems on the ground. And it also creates a lot of opportunities to generate new ideas and new literature and new ways of thinking about the world in the same way that COVID, I think, is going to radically reshape what religion is going to look like, and what synagogues are going to look like, and what Judaism is going to look like, 20, 30, 100 years from now.
Rachel Gurevitz: I think one of the questions that I find fascinating, and again, I want to come back to some of the most cutting-edge science, particularly in the quantum world, again, I think I saw Ernie might have joined us in the Zoom room – Ernie Wolshin is our congregant who’s been teaching our students, our Scientists in Synagogues elective, and understands this way better than me. But from some of what he has shared with me, from really interesting questions and conversation, is this question of whether certain things are inevitable – whether the unfolding of our existence, whether the unfolding of our universe at a particular level, certain things are inevitable. And if so, what is some of the driving force behind that?
And so I raise it as a question: when you gave your examples about the creativity that came out of a chaotic time, that required people to think and ask questions and debate and come up with something new, is that an inevitable part of the way we progress as humanity? Do we have to go through these cycles in which there is tremendous upheaval, and sometimes destruction, out of which new life comes?
I mean, there’s so much in so many different cultures that speak, in allegory, of that kind of unfolding. Even if we think back to Lurianic Kabbalah, the idea that worlds were created and exploded and destroyed multiple times over before God pulls back enough to allow for the physical world to exist, that mystical idea of the shattering of the vessels. That’s part of this mystical creation story that comes after Luria and his era experienced the destruction of Jewish civilization as they knew it in Spain. With the expulsion of the Jews in Spain, their world was literally destroyed, right, and shattered. And they had to pick up the pieces and figure out where they would be and how they would live and how to be Jewish at a time when a lot of people became hidden Jews, or were killed.
There’s something a little dark about that, but it is a question, is that as human beings, what are we capable of? Are we capable of that sort of progressive messianic concept of each of us doing our part to make the world a little bit better? And gradually are small acts of doing things that make our lives and the lives of others a little bit better. Does that build towards the Messianic world in that linear way? Is that how our universe and our existence unfolds? Or is it in this cycle of destruction and recreation and destruction and recreation? And I don’t know if we’ll ever know the answers to those questions. But how we as individuals, and as societies, navigate the moment we’re in I think is shaped a little bit by the kinds of philosophy we bring to what we understand about the nature in which life and our world unfolds.
Geoff Mitelman: And you know, as you talk about this question of making the world a little bit better, which is very, very rooted in Judaism, and particularly in more progressive branches of Judaism, of this idea of tikkun olam, of repairing the world. But linking back to what we talked about at the beginning, which is [that] technology by definition is designed to make our world easier and better – now, the impact may not always be easier and better. There’s nobody who is trying to go on Shark Tank and trying to make people’s lives worse, they’re trying to figure out what the pain points are. But all of what we are trying to do is to create the world a little bit better. And I would even say, I think I would say this, that even politicians who I strongly disagree with and feel like they are hurting our country, in their own mind, they are acting in a way of trying to make their constituents and their world better. Now, I fundamentally disagree with how they are doing it, but I think that most people are thinking about “How can I make the world better?” And the question is, how does it then manifest itself in the world? And that we don’t know, until there’s something that actually exists and we see what the impact is.
Rachel Gurevitz: Right, although none of this is being done in a vacuum. And this comes I think, back to truth, knowledge, science, things that have foundation. There are practices, there are things that people have done, that civilizations have done, that our country has done historically, that have been proven to improve the lives of people, and there are other things that have been rolled out and practiced for an extended period of time, that can be demonstrated has not, or has led to a small group of people doing incredibly well, and others being left behind. I mean, if we’re thinking about economic systems, for example. There are ideologies, and then there’s sort of the facts on the ground.
In some ways, I’m a very pragmatic person. But I’ve always – even my faith has always been rooted in what is observable. And I understand that that’s subjective to some degree. But you know, when I’m having conversations about theology, for example, that bring it back to something that’s totally outside the sphere of what we’ve been talking about. You know, on the one hand, I am very drawn to mystical concepts of God, which really does dovetail very well with some of what theoretical physics has had to offer, the idea of the unfolding of the universe in which, God is a verb idea that we are all in the process of being God and unfolding God in its entirety. And, at the same time, when I’m speaking with my students about beliefs, and language, and ideas that we use, to convey how God shows up in our lives, I’ll say, “If you think that you’ve read something, or that you have this concept that flies in the face of a direct life experience that you’ve had something that God, God takes care of us, and then we’ve watched a loved one suffer, right? Then trust the experience.” That’s what scientists do, you have a theory, but then you measure it. And if the measurements, if the things that are observable don’t match up with a theory, you don’t force the facts to fit the theory, you are guided to rethink the theory. And so that’s how I engage with the faith world is, our observable experiences should then help us to reshape some of the beliefs that we have about what things are and how things work in the world.
Geoff Mitelman: And one thing that I love – and I’ll share this in a moment. Before I say that, if people have questions, they can write them in the chat and we’ll be able to hopefully address them. But one thing that I’ve particularly liked as an image of God (because I don’t think there’s just one image of God or one language of God – I find that there are a lot of different ways to be able to think or talk about God), one of them comes from a professor named Steven Goldman, who talked about a “scientific object.” So there’s the thing that exists in the world, and the thing that we understand right now. And so the analogy that I give is: The Earth is whatever the Earth is, right? That it exists as an object. And what we understand about it, though, has changed over the last couple hundred years. So how old is the earth? That’s changed. Was it round or flat? That’s changed. Are continents moving or not? That’s changed. So our understanding of that has developed or atoms, atoms are whatever atoms are, right? Like, we can’t control them. But our understanding of what happens on the atomic and subatomic levels, that’s changed as we’ve developed new knowledge.
I like to analogize that with God, God is whatever God is, and our knowledge and our experience, that can change and grow. And it doesn’t mean that “I was totally wrong, and I was an idiot to think in that kind of way.” It means that was what I knew at that time, and new information and new perspectives are forcing me to rethink this a little bit. And now my theology is shifted and changed a little bit here.
Rachel Gurevitz: I like that analogy a lot. I think that’s really great. And as I have to launch my theology unit with our 10th-grade confirmation class this evening, I’ll borrow that in your name!
Geoff Mitelman: It’s on our website, too, you can see that, I think it’s called “God as a ‘Scientific Object,’” to be able to see that there. And I think that’s really accurate that you need to trust our experience. And the truth is, that’s kind of what science is designed to be able to say. Science is our understanding of what we can know right now. It’s not necessarily just our five senses, but it is “What are we able to understand and measure and engage?” That’s what science is designed to be able to do. And sometimes there’s going to be new information and new measurements here. But, yes, if there’s new data that is shown to be accurate and overturns a theory, you don’t hold on to that theory because it was really nice back then, you’ve got to think about what’s the interplay between that theory and the new data.
Rachel Gurevitz: Right. No, thank you, I think it’s a really helpful way to sort of have these concrete examples from science that now is established to demonstrate the evolution of our thinking. And it does seem incredible that way. Sometimes it appears we’re in a moment where not everyone is absorbing and evaluating information in that way. And that makes this question about how we evolve and move forward as a society, I think, that much more complex in this moment.
Geoff Mitelman: And coming back to your line earlier, of being able to trust. I think that’s one of the real challenges that we’re facing in our society right now, which is that we’ve lost the trust of legitimate authorities in a lot of ways. Or more people have lost trust in more authorities. So a lot of people no longer trust institutional religion. A lot of people actually still find value in religion, but they don’t necessarily trust institutional religion. There’s a lack of trust in government, there’s a lack of trust, potentially, in the scientific community. And all of the laws and ideas are wonderful, but they’re kind of useless if there’s not a basis of trust all around in our society right now.
Rachel Gurevitz: Right. I keep coming back to whenever we’re looking at patterns, and they might be temporary, but things that profoundly affect the human experience. Because I know that, for me, there’s faith, and there’s heritage, there’s culture, there’s a sense of peoplehood. But then, for a lot of us, there’s community. And there’s a lot of different ways to create community. But there’s something about faith-based communities, that at least, the way that we practice them, gives us a space to have these kinds of conversations that we’re having. I mean, that’s what Scientists in Synagogues did for our congregation, gave us a space to introduce some conversations that brought people together from across our congregation who otherwise wouldn’t be in conversation with each other and builds community. Then those communities are brought to the service of other things above and beyond themselves. And I think that that’s faith-based community at its best – is when that’s the experience that people are having.
But in a world where there’s a dismissal of the potential of those vehicles, I worry about the isolation of people. And who we are as human beings, our mental health, our ability to thrive, to experience joy, to connect with all kinds of things beyond ourselves, is, I think, damaged when we find ourselves in this more fragmentary, individualistic kind of moment. And it doesn’t have to be the faith-based community or congregation that’s the vehicle for community. But I do worry about where that is taking us. And I’ve had conversations, really thoughtful conversations with some of the younger members of our community, or people who have connected to our community temporarily in one way or another. And everything is interrelated. So you know, if I think about one of the sort of millennials in our congregation talking about how something like the changing economy means that the need to change jobs. People used to talk about the job for life, and a certain quality of living. And now the need to get up… we have people who are picking up every five, six years, and moving across country, to create the next opportunity for themselves, for their families. That has contributed to this kind of fragmentation. It’s hard to put down roots, it’s hard to invest emotional and spiritual energy in creating community with people who are not just like you, coming back to the conversation we had earlier, to have a more pluralistic community to want to create community with the people who are with you geographically, even if they are not just like you. Why would you invest that energy, if three, four or five years later, you’re going to be picking up and going somewhere completely different?
Then that brings us back to the online spaces and technology. Millennials are much better at using those spaces to try and recreate a different kind of experience of community. Because some of the more embodied, grounded experiences that perhaps a previous generation had more direct experience of, it’s hard for them to grasp and to keep hold of. So all of these things are interrelated. But I think that they come down to what it is we human beings are seeking and needing to thrive. And trying to find ways of articulating that and demonstrating how certain vehicles might provide some of what it is people most need in their lives. That’s a job that we certainly have as faith communities that perhaps we’ve not done as well as we need to.
Geoff Mitelman: And you know, you and I have both been so influenced by CLAL, and the line from our friend Rabbi Irwin Kula, which came from Clay Christensen, which is “What’s the job that gets done? And for whom?” And that changes. And that’s a great question for new technologies, of “What’s it doing? And for whom?” But religion also has this question of “What’s it designed to do? And who’s it doing it for?” And sometimes it’s not meeting the people that we intended to meet, but we’ve also got to be able to understand who are we trying to reach, and how, and why. So I want to thank you, Rachel, for taking some time to think about some of these big questions ranging from technology to ethics to interplay and community. It was absolutely fascinating to talk with you. So thank you for taking some time here this afternoon.
Rachel Gurevitz: Well, thank you for the opportunity. I don’t know if I’ve done much to kind of lift up anyone’s spirits. It’s a complex world that we live in. But I do find these opportunities to think outside of the little bubbles and the boxes of these individual disciplines, whether it’s technology, science, philosophy, religion, sociology, economics, and to have the space where we see how all of these are intertwined in who we are, and how we live our lives and what we give to the world, I think are the fundamental questions that at different levels really engage us all.
Geoff Mitelman: And they’re really at the root, the question of what does it mean to be human? And that’s what we aim to try to be able to do through this conversation, through Sacred Science, and through all of Sinai and Synapses as a whole. So, Rachel, we’re thrilled that you’ve been part of our project here. If you’re interested in learning more about Sinai and Synapses, you can go to our website at sinaiandsynapses.org. Or you can follow us on Facebook and Twitter. And next week, we will be talking with Professor Tania Lombrozo, of Princeton University, who does work on the science of awe and the way that awe and majesty and mystery impact who we are as human beings thinking about it from a scientific and a religious perspective. And she also explores some of these questions, Rachel, that we were talking about, of why do we believe certain kinds of things and not other kinds of things? Why do we look for scientific explanations that are okay to not necessarily need to go in-depth on some of the religious questions as well. She’s also written for NPR. So we hope you’ll be able to join us next Tuesday at 2pm. And thank you all for joining us. And thank you, Rachel, for such a thoughtful conversation.
Rachel Gurevitz: Thank you, Geoff.