Could we be asking the same questions, even if we arrive at them from very different traditions? Could our different ideas of God be more compatible with each other, and with science, than we think? If curiosity is what motivates us, many connections that didn’t previously seem possible become apparent.
As part of Sinai and Synapses’ series “More Light, Less Heat,” Rabbi Michal Loving and Rabbi Rachael Jackson discuss how various life experiences showed them how science and religion add up to a holistic human experience.
Rabbi Rachael Jackson is the rabbi of Agudas Israel Congregation in Hendersonville, North Carolina, ordained from Hebrew Union College-Jewish Institute of Religion. Prior to rabbinical school, she earned her Bachelor’s degree from Northern Arizona University and worked for a decade as an analytical chemist in biopharmaceutical, biofuel, and hazardous waste companies. These two careers are not as divergent as one might think, for Rachael believes that science and religion are quite similar: while each discipline specializes in its own set of questions, both seek to explain the hows and whys of the world. Science and religion inspire awe, and whether Rachael is working with instruments or working with people, reverence and wonder are constants in her life. The focus of her rabbinate is thus on exploring and imparting the meld of Judaism and modernity, and natural law and Jewish living. She is especially interested in the field of medical ethics, and is a Board member of the Pardee Hospital Ethics Committee and the incoming Vice President of the Interfaith Assistance Ministries. She is also a 2017-2019 Sinai and Synapses Fellow.
Here she discusses what science and religion have in common, and how she realized this at a young age:View Transcript
Hello, I am Rabbi Rachael Jackson, and I am a congregational rabbi in Western North Carolina. I want to talk about the conflict, or supposed conflict, between science and religion. But first, a story. When I was eight years old in third grade my teacher, Ms. Kjelgaard, took two clear liquids and poured them into a third Erlenmeyer flask, and the next thing we knew – purple foam.
I was hooked. I needed to know how this magic happened, because after all, magic is just what we don’t understand. And so I spent several years trying to figure out and understand, before receiving my Bachelor’s degree, and then working for about a decade as an analytical chemist – all the while trying to figure out how and where could this happen? And what does it mean for us, having that unencumbered, uninhibited curiosity explored in the scientific world?
At the same time, at my synagogue, we would have Torah conversations, Torah study, where we would say “How is this possible?” “How does this affect us today?” or “Why is this happening?” “What is the Scripture trying to teach us?” And so I realized that the conversation is the same. It’s similar to a Venn diagram, with science and religion as two different components, and the confluence in between. Because the in-between is really our desire to know more and our curiosity to understand the world in which we live in and how we answer those questions.
So we have to ask the right questions and use the right tools. Science is one tool, and religion is another tool, and so our challenge is not that there is a conflict between these two topics and realms, but rather, our challenge is to be able to communicate effectively the relevancy and the validity of both to people who may not understand either – to strip away the jargon and make these topics understandable and valuable to everybody.
Rabbi Michal Loving is a community rabbi in southern California. She holds a degree in English and Philosophy from Whittier College, a Master’s degree in Philosophy from California State University Long Beach, and was ordained by Hebrew Union College-Jewish Institute of Religion. Her writing on spirituality, education, and inclusion has appeared in various publications, including The Jewish Community Chronicle, The Reform Advocate, and the book The Sacred Encounter: Jewish Perspectives on Sexuality. When she is not discussing theology, she spends her free time reading, playing Minecraft with her three young sons, and tripping over LEGO pieces.
Here she discusses all the different meanings of religion:View Transcript
Hello, my name is Rabbi Michal Loving, and I want to tell you about why I don’t believe there is a conflict between science and religion. I first started thinking about this when I was 14, and I remember very distinctly, I was on the bus on the way to a youth group meeting. I was a firm agnostic, and I was speaking to a Modern Orthodox Jewish friend of mine. We were talking about evolution. And I said, “As an agnostic, how can I be sure that God is in evolution and God is in the Big Bang? Didn’t science create the world?” and he said, “No, Michal, not at all. God helped create the science. God is responsible for the Big Bang theory. God is responsible for evolution, and everything that you believe scientifically.” And that just rocked my world. I thought it could God cause things but that mean? If that’s the crux of underlying science and religion is both faith, why does that faith have to be contradictory?
I think the biggest issue people have is their conception of God – who or what God is, and what is God capable of. When people tell me that they don’t believe in a God, my first question is “well, what God don’t you believe in?” And it turns out, many times the God that they don’t believe in is an all-powerful, all-knowing interventionist God who is all good, and who is able to create miracles and do things in daily life that we would think contradicts our notion of science and of the way the world works.
And I say “that is one conception of God.” That may be Biblical conception of God, but it is not the only conception of God. Judaism is a full of different theologies and philosophies, ranging from pantheism – God is in nature – to God wanting to do all these wonderful things in the world, but not being powerful enough. Who, and how – does God, and who is God, and how does God interact in the world? If God is the underlying force within this world, but yet we have a different definition of God than the person next to us, that’s OK. That’s very Jewish. All we know is that our God may not be the God of the person next door, or the person sitting across from us. It doesn’t mean that we don’t believe, it just means we don’t all believe in the same thing.
I also think that religion is more than just God. Religion is community and history and culture. And those don’t contradict science at all. If we take religion as all of these things, as history, community, culture, food, jokes, as well as this individual philosophy of God which may not match up to our neighbors, and science is yet another part of this world, then there are no gaps that need to be filled. There is no conflict for me. Logic and emotion and reason and wondering can all be held at the same time. They are all part of the human experience. And as we experience humanity, then truly we’re able to experience the divine.