Rabbi Annie Tucker has been involved with Sinai and Synapses for a long time, and in numerous ways. She was Senior Rabbi at Beth Hillel Bnai Emunah in Wilmette, IL when it was selected for the program in 2016. Subsequently, in 2018, the Princeton Jewish Center, where she had been Associate Rabbi from 2006-2013, was selected for the program. And in 2019, she became Senior Rabbi at Temple Israel Center, which had been part of Scientists in Synagogues in 2016. Through these different posts, she has learned much about how to work with the Jewish community in just a few short years – and what it is to lead in a time of great uncertainty.
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Geoff Mitelman: I’m Rabbi Geoff Mitelman, I’m the Founding Director of Sinai and Synapses, and I have the great honor and privilege to be talking with my rabbi here, Rabbi Annie Tucker. I’m a member of Temple Israel Center of White Plains and Rabbi Tucker – can I call you Annie as we talk here? –
Annie Tucker: Absolutely.
Geoff Mitelman: Right. Only if you call me Geoff.
Annie Tucker: Okay, that’s a deal. You got it.
Geoff Mitelman: So I’ve known Annie for a while, because in 2016, her synagogue – she was the Rabbi of Bethel Hillel B’nai Emunah in Wilmette, IL, and her synagogue was one of the chosen synagogues for our first round of Scientists in Synagogues. Before that, in 2018, the Princeton Jewish Center was selected. Before she went there, before she was in Wilmette, she was at the Princeton Jewish Center. And now she’s Senior Rabbi of Temple Israel Center, which is also a synagogue that’s involved with Scientists in Synagogues. So Annie has been really thoughtful and dedicated about questions of science and religion, and just an incredibly thoughtful, intelligent, caring person. So Annie, I’m thrilled to be talking with you here this afternoon.
Annie Tucker: Thank you, and it’s really such a pleasure. It’s funny to remember back how we met through our work in Scientists in Synagogues, back when I was in Chicago, and it’s such a special pleasure to be friends and colleagues here in White Plains and to have this conversation today. So I really appreciate all your leadership in this nexus between science and religion. It’s exciting to see the work that you’re doing and that you’re allowing congregations to do.
Geoff Mitelman: I mean, it’s really been gratifying. And your synagogue, when you did it in Wilmette, was so interesting, and so thoughtful – questions of free will and neuroscience. I’d love for you to start by sharing a little bit of what was the project that you did, for those who may not have known?
Annie Tucker: Yeah, the project we did in Chicago was really, really fascinating. I worked with a very dear friend and congregant in my former community, Dr. David Mogul, who is a professor of neuroscience – and his particular research actually has to do with epilepsy. The second that I saw this proposal, I was really intrigued by the idea of bringing the conversation about science and religion to BHBE. And I knew that he would be a terrific partner in that, that he’s just a smart, creative thinker, and a scientist but also a proud Jew. And so we sat down together and I basically said, “This looks terrific. I wonder if, together, we can sort of generate something that would be interesting.”
And I think that we clearly wanted to do something in the realm of sort of a neuroscience psychology book, given his background and also my own. I was a double major in Psychology and Jewish Studies in college, and often joke [that] psychology helps more than Jewish studies, which I think probably doesn’t migrate with the rabbi. And so we were definitely interested in that realm. And as we spoke further, the theological question of Pharaoh’s heart being hardened, and free will, and what that means for people of faith was what we kept coming back to, and we decided to look at it from both from a scientific and a religious perspective.
Geoff Mitelman: And that’s – we’re recording this right now at the end of January, and now the Torah portion this week is Mishpatim. So relatively recently, over the last couple of weeks, we’ve been talking about these questions of Pharaoh’s hardened heart, and how much how much do we actually know, and how much control do we have over our own choices? And I know you wrote a piece about “a foot in the door,” and linking of when we make a decision, that it actually that makes it easier to make future decisions, and how the text talks about Pharaoh. I would love you to – I mean, you wrote the piece, if you remember it –
Annie Tucker: It’s such a great example of sort of drawing on psychology and Jewish studies. I think I studied the foot-in-door technique back in, you know, Intro to Psych at UPenn, a million years ago. But there is some research from the world of social science that once you start to act in a particular way, because you want to avoid cognitive dissonance, you are more likely to continue acting in that way.
And so, one of the experiments with that is that if a salesperson comes to your door and makes a very minor ask of some sort, then it makes it that much more likely that, if they approach you later with a larger ask, you’ll say yes, because you sort of see yourself as the kind of person who would be amenable to this. And so my interpretation of the hardening of Pharaoh’s heart is just that actually, Pharaoh hardened his own heart — that because he was a person of sort of intractable evil and intolerance and fear and all of these things, and that each time, with each successive plague, that he acted with cruelty towards the Jews, it became that much more likely that he would continue to act in that way. And so it seemed as if God hardened Pharaoh’s heart, but it actually was Pharaoh’s own personhood that really did that. And there’s really a sort of psychological basis for that.
Geoff Mitelman: I think what’s also interesting – and if I remember, this came up in some of the work you were doing as well – is that it’s not just a question of freedom, but a freedom to be able to do what, right. The reason that we want to have free will is that we want to be able to do something. And you know, we’re still talking about COVID two years later. But a lot of these questions about “I want to have the freedom” – the freedom to do what? – in the same way that what Moses says to Pharaoh is not just “let my people go,” but it’s “Let My People Go so that they may worship Me.” That there is an end goal, and we think about not just our rights, but our responsibilities. And there’s a lot of science of, “How do we change behavior, and have people be able to take on their responsibilities and not just claim their rights?”
Annie Tucker: Absolutely. I also think that does tie to moral development, which obviously is something that religion in general takes really seriously – that again, if we sort of use that example of Pharaoh, that each time he took one step in the direction of cruelty, it became that much more likely he would take another step. It works in the reverse as well, right? Each time we take one step in the direction of kindness or philanthropy or generosity or understanding, it makes it that much more likely that we’ll continue forward in that direction. And there’s something very powerful about that, not only psychologically, but also spiritually.
Geoff Mitelman: You know, I’d love to hear a little bit – because you’ve been involved or led three different synagogues that have been very passionate about science and Judaism, including Rabbi Gordon Tucker (who has no relation), and your predecessor, and Rabbi Adam Feldman (z”l) who had led the Jewish Center and sadly died, I think, about two years ago. And you as well.
So you’ve worked with multiple different communities, different parts of the country, different parts of ideas. And thinking about Judaism in science, where do you see some of these questions coming up in the Jewish community, of this intersection of science and religion? Where is that really interesting or exciting or challenging for you?
Annie Tucker: I guess I’d say two things. The first thing that I think is exciting about bringing science into a congregation, or having conversations about science or religion in a congregation, is that I think that Jews, that people that are members of our congregations, are often intellectually hungry and sophisticated thinkers, and that the more we can make Judaism – that we can make religion – intellectually rigorous, the more we can put it in conversation, in dialogue, with issues and ideas of the day. That’s a great thing, not only for science, but also for religion. It makes religion more relevant, it makes it more appealing to people. It makes faith communities places not only of soul and spirit, which they are and they should be, but also places where your mind can be engaged.
And I think – I have been involved with three congregations, all of whom worked with Scientists in Synagogues, not always under my tenure. But I think that the common denominator is that I’ve been privileged to be in three really intellectual communities. And so individuals in those communities like to think and to learn, and that’s sort of what’s drawing them towards this work, I think.
The second thing I was going to say, which is a little more specific to your question, is that everything that I said a moment ago was true even before the pandemic, but I think the pandemic has even deepened both our reliance upon science, right. Science, and scientific considerations, and public health considerations, and epidemiology, and all kinds of things that most of us non-experts thought about not at all, are now things that all of us think about constantly. And so all the more so, I think, that to bring those conversations into our congregations, I also think about other issues of the day – when I think about climate change, which is a really pressing issue of the day, and how that intersects with science. Or even racial justice, which is when I think about social science and that some of the really pressing, meaty, interesting issues of the day have a really strong scientific component, and I would also say a real strong moral and spiritual component.
Geoff Mitelman: And we’ve had – I remember we had Professor Larisa Heiphetz, who was a guest here as well. She spoke at TIC, I think, in June of 2020, sort of at the height of a lot of these questions of Black Lives Matter and racial justice, and at least trying to understand “How and why does this happen?” and “How and why do we overcome it?” And there’s actual scientific information about how and why these happen. We’re social creatures, and what leads us to be acting in these kinds of ways – and what are the ways in which religion can either exacerbate some of these issues or help ameliorate them?
Annie Tucker: And I was going to say, you know, in addition to all that science brings to religion, I think that there’s a piece that religion brings to science. And one of the biggest pieces that I think it brings is this element of hope and of personal responsibility, right. And when you think about some of these issues that we just put on the table, the pandemic or climate change or racial justice, that it can feel so overwhelming, and so impossible to solve. And I think that people of faith in general, and also Jews in particular, are people of hope, right? And even when the project is large, and even when the odds seem overwhelming, that we really have a belief that there’s a role for individuals and communities to play in moving these things forward. And so I think that spiritual solace, and also that notion of personal responsibility, can be really helpful in the conversation as well.
Geoff Mitelman: And gives us something to actually do, right. There are some times of thinking about halakhic questions, of, “Oh my God, this is so much minutiae. Why do I have to think about this little thing versus that kind of thing?” First of all, sometimes they spin out to be absolutely fascinating questions, and what seems small is actually quite big. But it also allows us to think about these questions.
Paul Root Wolpe (though I don’t think he’s the only one who said this) once said that, “The question of ethics is not right versus wrong. The questions of ethics are usually right versus right,” when you’ve got competing values. And Judaism has a whole set of laws, of being able to say, “It’s not that this is the right thing and this is the wrong thing.” Although it’s much more [like] “We’ve got this value, and we’ve got that value. How are we going to try to balance them and honor both of them?” But ultimately, I think one may have to win out over the other.
Annie Tucker: Absolutely. I think that’s very well said.
Geoff Mitelman: And that leads nicely to another question that I want to explore a little bit. So my wife Heather is on the Ritual Committee, and I remember, I think she had just joined in maybe December of ’19 or January of ’20.
Annie Tucker: I was going to say, she came in at a very exciting time for the ritual committee. The ritual committee’s work has gotten a lot more dramatic in recent months.
Geoff Mitelman: Right, and I think my recollection – this may be sort of second- or third-hand, so correct me if this is wrong – but what she had said is that you wanted to start by looking at a totally theoretical responsum, which is, in the Conservative movement, of a question and “how do we address it,” and so to learn how to be able to look at different responsa. You want to talk about the questions of streaming services on Shabbat, but that’s something that was like – January of ’20, “Nobody’s going to be talking about using technology on Shabbat. It’s totally theoretical.” And two months later…
Annie Tucker: Actually, I’ll make it even more specific what the teshuvah was about. It was about joining a minyan via Zoom. It was whether you could Zoom to minyan or Skype to minyan. And you’re absolutely right, that before March of 2020, we sort of looked at this as torah lishma, sort of just pure learning, to understand how the halakhic process works. And it felt so theoretical that, you know… (laughs)
Geoff Mitelman: So there are a whole bunch of questions that I would love to hear a little bit about. But one is that you had to pivot. A lot of the Conservative movement – and we’ve talked with a couple of Conservative rabbis on this show before – Ror reform rabbis (and I’m ordained as a Reform rabbi), in some ways, it’s very easy, right? Like it’s multiple streams, and it’s not a big deal. In the Conservative movement and particularly at TIC, which has a very strong traditional bent and there’s a lot of halakhic observance. There’s obviously a decent number of people who drive on Shabbat, but there’s a very thoughtful, very observant community at TIC. And so it’s a challenge to have to think about this. How did you think about those kinds of questions in the spring of 2020? And how has that shifted over the last couple of years, as spikes have come, and changes have come? When is the pandemic going to become endemic? When do we know it’s a danger – and when is it a life-threatening danger versus just a regular kind of danger? I know these are a lot of questions that you had to grapple with in your first year, which was also an additional challenge.
Annie Tucker: Yeah, definitely. It has been anything but dull these last couple of years, for sure. I love how you described Paul Root Wolpe’s phrasing of things, of “right versus right”, because that’s so true in general, in terms of moral decision-making. And certainly, that felt true in terms of the decision-making we’ve been making through COVID.
And I actually would say it’s sort of right-versus-a-right-versus-a-right. Of course, the top consideration that has always been in mind is the safety of our communities. You know, that goes without saying. And certainly that has been extremely important to us, and I’m really proud that with a lot of thoughtfulness and probably a little bit of luck too, that we really have had no cases of community spread at Temple Israel Center, that we’ve been able to stay open and keep people really, really safe. And we have an incredible reopening committee that has made sure that that is true. So that has been really, really important to us.
However, of the two other pieces that we have looked at a lot, #2 is really halakhic integrity. As you pointed out, we’re a community that has a real diversity of membership in terms of what people do, in terms of their own practice. But I think a shared communal value of the congregation is that we are a place that takes halakha very seriously when it comes to making decisions for the community. And so you know, sort of making sure that what we were doing was being done in a way that was really rigorous halakhically and thoughtful halakhically, that was the second category.
And then the third category, which I think also many of us are thinking about, is what is right for the community. And what’s right for the community has so many different facets. Being together in person, as we know, both from social psychology, but just we also know from our own souls – people have a need to be with one another. Supporting and hoping to stave off mental illness, that’s been a huge piece of the pandemic too. People feeling isolated and feeling disconnected and [there have been high] rates of mental illness, both in adults and especially in teens and children. So how can we, you know, hold people together and support people and build community to try to work against that?
And also the health of our institutions, right. Wanting to see institutions that we love and care about carry us through through to the other side. And so, I would say that what we’ve kept in mind is: how can we be open as much as possible, or how can we connect people as much as possible, in the safest and the most halakhically pure way possible? And there have been different stages along the pandemic that I’m happy to talk about, but that’s really – when I think about the arc of our decision making, and the core values guiding our decision making, I would say that those are the three.
Geoff Mitelman: I mean, you were talking about how blessed we were that there was no spread at TIC, and you know this better than anybody because it’s your installation – you were installed, and that was the day that the first case was found, at least in New York – was in the Jewish community in New Rochelle, 10 minutes away. A lot of overlap there, and everybody was close by.
Annie Tucker: I mean, first of all, I think that there’s been luck in general, because as I said, our safety protocols are really thoughtful and careful, but there’s a lot of luck that we’re all relying upon. And then I think that there are other communities that have been safe and careful, and things happen, of course.
One moment of real luck for us was my installation, which was on February 29th of 2020. So it was before we really knew what was going on. And it’s amazing to me – both it’s amazing that the installation happened, I feel very grateful about that – but even more, I feel grateful that no one became sick during that installation, because we didn’t know, but it could have become a super-spreader. And there was an ironic moment where the rabbi installing me actually asked me to stand in the middle of the room and ask anyone near me to touch me, and people to touch the person touching me, so there was like a chain going to the rabbi. Which, when I emailed him, you know, after the installation, he was like, “Maybe that wasn’t my best rabbinic moment.”
Geoff Mitelman: I mean, that’s one thing that we’ve talked about on the show a bunch of times, which is: what’s the difference between information that’s going to be accurate forever, what’s information that is, well meaning but inaccurate, what’s information that was accurate, but has changed, and what’s willful misinformation? And I think what you’ve been having to grapple with – and we’d love to know a little bit about this – is “what happens when things change,” right? There are so many different competing values, there are probably some very strong feelings in a variety of different ways. As the numbers went down in the spring of ’21, and everyone was outside – I mean, you know this because we were coming back more and more in person – and then all of a sudden there was Delta, so we pulled back. And then Omicron, we were pulling back. And now, at least in our family, I think most of the synagogue is vaccinated and starting to open, and the numbers of Omicron going down. So how do you deal with the fluidity of this information, which is also not always necessarily accurate or clearly communicated from public health officials?
Annie Tucker: I mean, that is all really tricky. As I said, we have an amazing reopening committee that meets every week, every single Tuesday we’ve been meeting. There are a few weeks, I think a few quiet weeks, in those halcyon days before Delta, where we went on hiatus. But pretty much, we’ve been meeting every week for 2+ years – yeah, for two years at this point, even, actually, before the TIC closed down, when we knew that things were on the horizon. The committee, like most committees, has doctors and public health officials, synagogue leaders, clergy, and we really have these conversations, you know, the conversation that you’re t alluding to, right: “What are we reading? How do we understand it? What’s the guidance?”
It’s not always so easy and clear to interpret it, and also [determine] what’s right for our congregation. And I guess one of the things that I would say is, I think that we always try to err on the side of caution, for obvious reasons. But something that I also do think that we’ve tried to do is not to overcorrect, right – that when there are changes in the pandemic, we often do have to move backwards rather than forward, which I think psychologically and spiritually actually is the hardest for all of us, right. When you’re making progress, even if it’s really slow and incremental, it at least feels like you’re moving forward. When you take away something – like, you know, we were having kiddush for a while inside the building and then with Omicron, we’re now having kiddush outside, and it’s very cold here in New York, and so that’s a real loss for people. So we make sure that we’re erring on the side of caution, and that does sometimes mean reversing course. But our president, actually, in particular has been a real voice of not over-correcting and making sure that we’re going a step further, probably, than we need to in terms of safety, to make sure that we’re really being safe.
But as I said at the beginning, there are other important values that we’re trying to uphold, including community and connection and helping people fight isolation. And b’nei mitzvah families who want to be able to celebrate s’machot – happy events, which is so important. And learners being able to learn in person, which is a real value. So, while safety and health is so important, it shouldn’t absolutely eclipse all the other good things that we’re trying to do as a congregation.
Geoff Mitelman: Yeah, I think that’s one thing that I know. I think my wife had said the teshuvah about “When do we know COVID is ‘over,’” right. And on some level, it is never going to be over. We’ve eliminated only one disease over the face of the earth. Smallpox is the only one that has never come back. And respiratory infections come back each year. So what are some of the benchmarks that you’re using – are the TIC and that the committee using – to be able to say “We’re following the science?” Which, I hate that phrase, because there’s a lot of different ways to look at what the science is saying. But at least informed by the best information that we have, as we can interpret it the best that we can, and trying to deal with some of these both halakhic questions that on some level are very theoretical, and other ways are very, very practical. Like, who’s setting foot in the building, and when, and how? What are some – I’m just curious, I would love to know, what are some of the benchmarks and thoughts [that you’ve been having]?
Annie Tucker: Yeah, so I have a lot of thoughts your question is generating. So the first is that it’s funny – “Have you started looking into this too much?” Also actually seems really quaint to me, about sort of when does the pandemic end, right – the question itself, I think we’ve come to understand that it probably won’t, and we will probably live with it in some, hopefully much modified, form. And that the reason that teshuvah was written in the reason we were looking at it at the ritual committee, is that there certain things that our congregation has done that other congregations have done based on something called she’at hadehak, which basically means “a situation of real urgency,” and that we wouldn’t normally do in a situation of non-urgency. So, for example, we have morning minyan via zoom, evening minyan also. Morning minyan, we meet only via Zoom, so there are 10 people that are more that are connected by screen. And then we have 10 people in the building, but there are others that come in. And morning minyan via Zoom is something that we’re only doing because of she’at hadehak. Like once it is safe for people to come together in person, it would not be my halakhic – I would not give a halakhic approval to have totally virtual minyan. One that has 10 people in person is actually very different halakhically, but only a virtual minyan was really designated so because of she’at hadehak.
So halakhically, the question is not really when the pandemic ends, but the question is when does she’at hadehak end, right? When do these urgencies lift? And I’ll tell you that there’s both a scientific component and sort of a psychological component. And we actually talked about this at the ritual committee too, right. So some of the things that we think about in the reopening committee or that I think about when I am thinking about Zoom minyan – is it actually safe, right? What are the case counts like in a particular area? How virulent, both looking at hospitalizations, and looking at deaths, and looking at cases in general, and looking at spread in our community, and all those sort of scientific things? What are the public health departments suggesting? That’s all really, really important.
The second piece is: what are people up for, right? When do people feel safe coming back to minyan? And even if we knew it was 100% safe, if I really believed that no one our community felt it to be safe, then it doesn’t yet seem time to bring people back in person. And so it’s trying to balance those things.
But I’ll also tell you that I do think that part of our role as religious leaders is to really gently, and with a lot of sensitivity towards people who aren’t there psychologically and emotionally (and also who may not be able to be there because of their own physical situations or immunocompromised individuals) – I think that it is, and will ultimately be, our role, to nudge people back gently in person. Because another thing that we found really interesting as we have halakhic conversations about things like Zoom and minyan is that convenience and fear can start to meld together a little bit. So an example of that would be our evening minyan, which, as I said, is 10 people in person, but anyone else can join via Zoom. And so that’s an incredible thing, in that there are lots of people who come to minyan now who didn’t come before, and wouldn’t come before they couldn’t come by Zoom. Right? They don’t drive at night, they live a little bit too far, they wouldn’t make the trip, it’s a 15-minute service. It’s amazing that they’re able to connect to our community and to ritual in that way.
There are also people on Zoom that if there wasn’t a Zoom, they would be there in person. So if there’s a Zoom option, it’s easier to join via Zoom. And eventually, even now, but especially eventually, we may want to think about that. Because greater access is terrific, and I want to preserve that, and I imagine that we will post-pandemic in terms of learning, in terms of services. But ultimately, my bias, as a rabbi, is that real connection and community is formed in person, when people can schmooze before and after, and give each other a hug, and sit next to each other and share, really share, in each other’s presence. And so, how to balance out all those things is really complicated as well.
Geoff Mitelman: And what’s interesting is questions of technology are really key. Because technology, almost by definition, is designed to make things more convenient.
Annie Tucker: Absolutely.
Geoff Mitelman: And if we define technology more broadly than just Zoom and iPhones and things like that, Judaism has grappled with these questions of technology, both in terms of printing, like – people talk about this, too, that the reason the Torah scroll is versus a Chumash – it’s a different technology of bookbinding versus having scrolls.
And so there are a lot of different ways in which the technology – and I wonder, of these questions, of what technologies are going to stay post-pandemic, whatever the post-pandemic means. What are the technologies that are going to stay? What’s going to happen with different denominations?
I think what’s going to happen – I think a big question is “What’s going to be the financial model?” You know, who’s going to be part of the community? What are they willing to contribute? How connected are they going to be? And there is value, actually, sometimes in making things a little bit more difficult, because there’s some psychology of this – [that] the more invested you are, if you spend a certain amount of time and energy, very often people say, “Well, it must have been worth it, because I spent so much time and money on it.” And [they] feel happier about it than, “I click on this and I sort of half-watch,” or “It’s in the background.”
I’m curious as to what you think, knowing that it’s hard to make predictions, especially about the future. But what do you think might be some of the challenges for – whether we want to say TIC, or the Conservative movement, or the Jewish world as a whole? Where do you see as some potential challenges, where there’s going to be balance and some conversation of right versus right?
Annie Tucker: I mean, look, I think all the things you were mentioning are real places of challenge and also of opportunity. You know, one of the things that the pandemic has done, in a lot of ways for the better, is that there’s so much content out there, a lot of it free, anywhere, anytime, any place that you wish to find it. And so you don’t need to go to your synagogue to attend a service, or to attend to class, or to attend a program. There are organizations across the world that are offering content.
And so, in certain ways I think it is going to be a challenge to organizations to up their game a little bit, right. But I also hope that in certain ways, as much as congregations are places of content, I hope that at Temple Israel Center, we teach really deep Torah, and engage in important issues, and we have conversations that are important to have.
I think in our hearts, synagogues are places of connection and community. And my hope is that although you can attend a service or you can take a class online, anywhere across the world, ultimately you’re going to want a rabbi to officiate at a funeral who knows you. And you’re going to want people to show up at that Shiva who have watched your children grow up. And you’re going to want a place to celebrate happy occasions, where the people that are there with you are people that can hug you afterwards, and not just wave to you across the screen.
And so, I think that in certain ways, it may shift things. Like, this is my most optimistic view, that it may shift things – that the synagogues, that the Jewish world, does better at sharing the content production, right. That instead of each individual rabbi having to generate all the content for his or her congregation, that we better utilize resources and we cross-pollinate, and we share, and we allow our synagogue professionals to spend the bulk of their time caring for people, building community, creating sacred relationships. To me that would be an interesting and actually, in certain ways, a positive outgrowth of the pandemic.
Geoff Mitelman: Yeah, I think that’s one thing that [I’ve been] hearing from a lot of clergy, one of the great challenges, particularly when it was by Zoom and there were very few, if any, people in the sanctuary, and some lot of rabbis just led it from home because hey, they’re there, and their office was closed – is that a lot of a lot of people, a lot of rabbis, and I’m assuming that you fall into this category too, which is to be a rabbi, [is] to be in relationship with other people, to teach people. And something about Zoom was that it was a one-to-many medium. And there was no feedback, there was no energy, you had no idea – were people interested? Were people listening? Was this working? Were they singing along? Were they not singing along? You know, there’s a loss.
Annie Tucker: It’s a huge loss, I think a loss for members of communities and also for clergy. I remember my good friend and colleague, our cantor, Rabbi Levin Goldberg, saying that the first time that she was back in shul and could hear people singing with her, that it was just like a balm for her soul, right. That you sing – especially in a community like ours that is really about participation, not about sort of performance. That’s what she is here to do. That’s what she loves to do, to help people sing, to sing along with people.
And I’ll say also it’s not just numbers, but it’s also mask-wearing, which of course is a necessary evil right now. But when you speak words, and you can’t see people’s whole faces, it’s harder to have a sense of how they’re landing. And I think that there’s a chemistry that happens in a religious service, right? It’s not just output in one direction, but it’s really the synergy that happens when a group of people come together and share a sacred moment. And it’s harder when there are fewer people in the room. It’s harder when people are spaced. It’s harder when people are wearing masks.
Another thing we’ve gone back and forth on a lot at Temple Israel Center is, you know, can the service leaders at least be unmasked, even if everyone else has to be masked – so that people can see our faces, and that individuals who have a harder time hearing can read our lips and all those things? So it’s constantly sort of balancing and calibrating the experience that we’re trying to create, and the safety that, of course, must undergird that experience, and there’s so many different factors.
Geoff Mitelman: Well, you’ve been talking a lot about the science and the technology and the epidemiology – I’d also love to know, what are some of the scientific questions that you think are going to be important and interesting for the Jewish community in the next maybe five years or so? You mentioned a couple of them.
Annie Tucker: Yeah. I mean, one that I haven’t mentioned yet but that I’m interested in, and I know that there’s already sort of scientific and halakhic research in, has to do with genetically modified foods, and sort of the halakhic status, the kashrut status. I think there’s some really interesting things there in terms of environmentalism and climate. And also there’s some really interesting things there are in terms of kashrut. And so I think that that’s sort of a really interesting area of halakhic and scientific development.
We’ve talked a tiny bit about climate change, but I think both climate science in general, but also sort of what individuals and communities can do that can meaningfully impact climate science, and what obligation, therefore, we should and must have, I think that that is a pretty interesting, and in a lot of ways, untapped area of halakhic and scientific pursuit. So I imagine that we’ll see some things in that realm as well. Yeah, those are those are two that I would highlight.
Geoff Mitelman: And when you’re talking about genetically modified organisms and food –I’m thinking about impossible pork, right.
Annie Tucker: Yeah, totally.
Geoff Mitelman: You know, I remember – I will not share his name, but there was somebody that I went with to have an Impossible Burger, which is a plant based burger with cheese on it. And it was like the first time they had that cheeseburger in however many years. And, you know, my wife was a vegetarian. You know, a lot of the stuff we have is vegetarian there as well. And it’s it it’s interesting because it feels it feels uncomfortable to me to eat a cheeseburger or have vegan cheese with what we call “unmeat” or “unchicken.” And yet, that is totally halakhically acceptable. And there are questions about marit ayin, of like, would it be viewed in this kind of way? And do you see that it’s a hamburger or not a hamburger?
Annie Tucker: Yeah, it’s funny. Actually, I mean you know, the technology is changing so much, and it’s getting even closer and closer to the original product, right – he alternative product. But you know, I’ve long enjoyed sort of fake bacon, right – veggie bacon. They actually used to sell it in the old cafeteria at JTS, and my friends would always tease me for eating fake bacon. And there were definitely folks who sort of felt like there’s something wrong about it, right. If you’re not supposed to eat real bacon, you shouldn’t eat fake bacon. And I think there are halakhic arguments to be made, like marit ayin. Although in general, I sort of feel like a strip of soy bacon and a strip of real bacon look pretty different from each other, and I’m not sure that they would really be confused.
But I think all these questions are pretty interesting, right. And again, they get at the central question of “what is kashrut really about,” right? Is it about particular restrictions? Is it about mindfulness in eating? Is it about our relationship to animals? You know, there are all these larger values. And to sort of determine how we should think of genetically modified foods, or some of these substitution products, they cause us first to ask the question or to answer the question: what is kashrut sort of calling us to do? And are we still upholding that, even if we’re introducing these foods into our diet?
Geoff Mitelman: You know, as you’re talking about kashrut, too, I think one of the one of the things that happens with Judaism, and it happens with other religions too, but I see particularly in the Jewish community, of using science to explain, or even explain away, some of our our halakhic rules. And I think that’s problematic on both sides. And I’m thinking about about brit milah, for example. People say, “Well, it was a medical procedure, and because we don’t need the medical procedure, we don’t need brit milah.” Or, “Kashrut was all about health, and so now we’ve got refrigeration and so we don’t need it.” And I think that’s not accurate, and it’s also – that loses something from a religious perspective, and it also loses something from a scientific perspective.
Annie Tucker: I totally agree with you. And I’d give some of those same examples, right, that we don’t eat pork because it was linked to trichinosis, or that “kosher slaughter was designed to be the most humane to animals, and now we have even more humane procedures.” And I happen to agree with you that it’s both dangerous, and I don’t think it’s good science or good religion. I especially don’t think it’s good religion, because I don’t think that we really know the reasons for these mitzvot. But I think as humans, we often seek to provide explanations, both because it helps to make it more meaningful to us, and also because we’re rational creatures, and we sort of want to do it because there’s some reason and not just because God said it was so, or because of the weight of tradition. But there’s almost a hubris in saying, “Well, we understand, we know, why this law existed. And we know, therefore, that it should no longer be operable.” And I think there’s also – it’s a real slippery slope when it comes to starting to change things and to modify things for those reasons. So I agree with you.
Geoff Mitelman: And the typical Rabbinic perspective on this side, and then this side: “How can this person be right and how can this person be right? Oh, you’re both right.” That you know, when you’re talking about the humane slaughter of animals or things about climate change, there are elements where the science is helping us. And you talked about earlier, your racial justice as well. Trying to be able to understand the science a little bit better, that links with – there are political pieces. I don’t want to deny the political elements of that, and I think it’s okay to be able to say, “I am saying this politically,” right, that this is my political perspective. But that actually I think there are different ways in which keeping kosher can become more ethical, can become more environmentally friendly, that there are ways in which we can talk about racial justice in a more sensitive way, in a more equitable kind of way. That sometimes saying, “Just because this is what the tradition says so,” that’s also not a good answer, in my mind.
Annie Tucker: And, you know, as you’re talking, I’m thinking that, there’s parshanut – there’s sort of, like commentary and analysis – and then there’s halakha, and sort of making halakhic decisions. I think that I see science and all that it brings often in the parshanut category, right? It helps us sort of deepen the conversation and read different layers onto the text and better appreciate nuance and all those things. And that can be incredibly important. And sometimes that actually can also influence the halakha but that it really is more a tool of study and engagement, rather than necessarily as a mechanism to absolutely approve.
Geoff Mitelman: I was thinking about all those different, mishnah versus midrashim, right, like –
Annie Tucker: Or halakha vs haggadah, or some of those distinctions between the legal material and then, you know, the sort of narrative material.
Geoff Mitelman: And ultimately, like with every kind of halakhic decision, there’s going to be a decision. There’s got to be P’sak halakhah. Like, this is – we can deal with analysis paralysis – and Jews are very good at analysis paralysis (laughs). But ultimately, you’ve got to be able to say “this is what the P’sak halakhah is.” But I think that’s also something where, in this may be in more of the non Orthodox movements, of being able to say “This can change, this can adapt if need be.” Different movements are going to have different needles that are going to move it there, but, to be able to say, “This is what the halakha is, given what we know right now, and if there is new knowledge, right, that’s why there’s –I think it’s in Eduyot – where they say that, that if somebody who has a court that is greater number and greater in wisdom, they’re the only ones who can overturn something, but they can’t overturn it. They can say, “You know what, we were wrong. We were right back then, for what we knew – but now we have more information.”
Annie Tucker: Just finally, and also that ties beautifully into sort of the beginning part of our conversation about the pandemic, that I think that’s all we can do in these times. You make the best decision that you possibly can, for the particular moment, with a particular variant, with particular numbers, with a particular knowledge, with a particular set of circumstances. And you’re always sort of humble enough to say, “This very well made change,” either because the facts on the ground change, or because our understanding of how to deal with the facts on the ground change, or for any other number of reasons. And that sort of allows us to be nimble and to make those pivots that we all had to make so many times.
Geoff Mitelman: Both in religious communities and science, we talk a lot about the importance of process, right. Science is not a collection of facts that are immutable and never going to change. It’s the process of self-correction. And a lot of work in synagogues, for better and for worse, there’s a lot about a lot about process. Everything happens slowly, sometimes more slowly than we want. But I think more important is being able to say who’s at the table, who is helping to make these decisions, what metrics are they using to be able to make them – that when there is a good process, that ultimately leads to a good product, that can then be communicated, hopefully, more accurately and more effectively. I think that’s a lot of what you’re trying to do, and what the scientific community is trying to do.
Annie Tucker: It’s so funny. It reminds me of when – back at Princeton, my first job, I worked for the synagogue president, who worked on Wall Street. That was his day job, and he became the president. And I was sitting down with him and I said, you know, “What’s it like being the synagogue president? What’s been good, what’s been bad, what’s been surprising?” and he’s like, “Annie, in my day job, I make a decision and we do it.” He’s like, “In my synagogue job, I make a decision. I have to convince every single other person in the whole synagogue that it’s the right thing to do.” And there’s something about that, right, that the process and the buy-in, and that the engagement, that in certain ways, in synagogues – our product is our process, that it’s about engagement and involving our community. And there’s something that’s really beautiful about that, and that also can be really challenging about that.
Geoff Mitelman: Yeah. And I think that’s the truth of every nonprofit organization in a lot of ways. That there’s always a tension between – (and I’m going to use these words with lowercase, and not intended to be political) – but there’s the progressive and the conservative elements. We need to be able to be pushing forward in making ideas and ideally making the world better, and conservative – something is conservative because it’s worked for a long time. And sometimes if things move too quickly, it leaves other people behind. And so how do we hold both of those things? And how do we balance them? And everyone’s going to do it wrong, but you’re trying to do it right as possible.
Annie Tucker: Exactly. And I think the Conservative movement, in general, that’s exactly the space that we sit in – of trying to preserve tradition and the best parts of tradition, and also continue to make it relevant and adapt it and modernize it, and not lose too much of the traditional piece, but also make sure that we’re really moving forward. And that tension, which was challenging even before the pandemic, has become all the more so through the pandemic. But as you’re saying, I think we’re in good company in a lot of ways. That’s, like, the grand project of life.
Geoff Mitelman: Well, Annie, I can’t thank you enough for your time and your leadership at TIC. We’ve been so blessed to have you as the Senior Rabbi, and that I get to hear you – I’ve been in and out because of our COVID-phobicness, but now that we’re home, we’re planning to come back. And so I’m excited to be able to see you in the community in person, much more. And thank you for all the work.
Annie Tucker: Thank you. Thank you for your leadership in this realm, and for inviting me to be part of it in so many different ways, and for your friendship.
Geoff Mitelman: Well, we’re blessed to have you, and all the communities that you have helped lead at TIC and BHCBE and the Jewish Center are all lucky to have you. And so lucky to be able to think about these kinds of questions of science and Judaism, and continue to think about more of these kinds of questions.
Annie Tucker: Thank you so much.
Geoff Mitelman: So next week, we are going to be talking again on Wednesday with Dr. Dominic Parker, who is the co-author of a new book called The Power of Us about actually why sometimes peer pressure can be incredibly valuable. But how does it nudge us to be doing good things? I know when I was a public rabbi, I’m sure you’ve heard many B’nai Mitzvah stories of D’var Torah about when they didn’t go along with God and stood out on their own. And the truth is that we, as human beings, are very social creatures, and we can we can leverage some of that. So we’ll be talking with him this upcoming Wednesday at 2pm Eastern. You can find us each week at jewishlive.org/sacred science, you can find me on Twitter @RabbiMitelman or Sinai and Synapses at our website and all of our social media handles. We hope to see you again soon, and thank you all so much for your time.
Next week, on Wednesday, February 2 at 2:00 PM, we will be speaking with Dominic Packer, PhD, who is a Professor of Psychology at Lehigh University researching how people’s identities affect conformity and dissent, racism and ageism, solidarity, health, and leadership. He is the co-author of the recently released book, The Power of Us: Harnessing Our Shared Identities to Improve Performance, Increase Cooperation, and Promote Social Harmony.