How are Jews handling worship and COVID-19? What ongoing debates in the Jewish world have been amplified in this unique historical moment? How might past controversies help us deal with this highly unusual situation now? Roger Price is the founder of the blog Judaism and Science, which has been addressing this issue, and most recently, he has published a book, When Judaism Meets Science. Rabbi Geoffrey Mitelman was able to sit down with Roger for an interview detailing what’s been on his mind as of late.Read Transcript
Geoff Mitelman: Welcome everyone. My name is Rabbi Geoff Mitelman, and I am the founding director of Sinai and Synapses, which bridges the worlds of religion and science. And I’m here with Roger Price – I’m actually not with him, he’s in Chicago right now, but he’s somebody that I’ve gotten to know over the last few years [who’s] really interested in the integration of Judaism and science, and so we’ve talked quite a few times. And he’s the author of a book that he’ll hold up in a moment called When Judaism Meets Science, which has been a really excellent book, and you can see some of it on his website, but you should definitely buy the book to be able to read it.
But I want to be able to talk with him here, and explore some of that intersections about Judaism and science and how that’s different than a lot of the conversations about Christianity and science right now. We’re talking – it’s the summer of 2020, and we’ve been dealing with COVID-19 for a few months and thinking about how that is going to reshape the world. But Roger, I’m excited to be able to talk to you here.
Roger Price: Well, I’m delighted to be here, and I’m happy to hold up my book so your folks can see what it looks like. And if they go to any of their favorite e-tailers they can see it there.
Geoff Mitelman: Terrific. So I want to start with what prompted you to be able to write this book. You know, you and I have talked for a while about the interplay of Judaism and science. So what excites you the most, and what prompted you to blog and then turn this into a book here?
Roger Price: Well, about 10 years ago I retired from the practice of law and I wanted to, you know, catch up on the reading that I’d been unable to do while I was practicing. And two of the topics that I wanted to focus on was – one was religion, one was science, and with religion, in particular, Judaism. And I started to look for books on Judaism and science. And I found, to my surprise and dismay, that there were hardly any. There were maybe a half-dozen books in English in the United States that one could look at. By contrast, there are hundreds, thousands of books on Christianity and science, and they seem to be coming out on a weekly basis. But I found very, very few talking about Judaism and science, and the ones that I found – although, as I discuss them in my book, they were valuable to one degree or another, none of them did just what I wanted to do. Which is to say, none of them really apply contemporary science to the text we have in the Torah and the Tanakh, none of them really addressed how science and Judaism interplay in contemporary issues, from abortion to vaccinations, and none of them looked ahead, none of them looked to the future.
And so this frustrated me, and I thought for a moment I was going to have to write the book I wanted to read, and I realized quickly I didn’t have the temperament or the knowledge base to do that. My kids suggested that I write a blog. And after they patiently explained what that was, I started to write a blog. And some years later, I had well over 50 essays and 125,000 or so words. And I thought this might become a book with a little bit of organization and little bit of everything. And having gone up and down the hill with myself whether I wanted to go through with that work, I decided it was important to do so, and so I fortunately found a publisher, and we have a book.
Geoff Mitelman: So I want to highlight something that you brought up, which is that for a lot of the conversations about religion and science, a lot of the books are about Christianity and science. And often it’s about evolution and creationism, and that’s not much of a live issue in Judaism. And when we talk about this with Sinai and Synapses, a lot of people push back, and they say “Well, Jews accept evolution, why is this even an issue?” And one thing that I think both you and I have discovered is that when you’re looking at specific topics, like vaccination or genetic engineering or artificial intelligence, there’s actually some questions to be able to explore where we can find some wisdom from Judaism and find some wisdom from science. And they’re not necessarily going to overlap, they may be in tension. So how can we look at what’s a particular topic, and where do Judaism and science explore those together?
Roger Price: Well, I think that’s right. There are some issues that are important to the Christian community which are not important to the Jewish community. And in part that’s because the nature of Christianity and the nature of Judaism are quite different. With respect to current issues, there is a wide variety of opinion on a number of topics that you mention – genetically modified organisms, for instance, or gun safety issues, or for that matter, of abortion and vaccination, and we could go on. And different group of Jews have different approaches to those topics. Unfortunately, in our community, we don’t have a lot of inter-denominational discussion. One group tends not to draw on the wisdom that other group may have.
And so the conversation sort of gets stilted, and people not only revert back to their tribe, they revert back to their subgroup within the larger tribe. That hinders the development of wisdom, and it hurts our community. And we see that hurt our community, most particularly, on the vaccination issue, but on some of the other issues too. And I suspect that’s going – one day, when we, if we get a vaccine for COVID-19, that’s going to be another problem on top of the problem we have with measles and some of the other things we’ve been wrestling with.
Geoff Mitelman: And you also bring this up – and you talk about this in your book also – which is one of the challenges of fake news. One thing that we’re grappling with, I think a lot of the Jewish community is grappling with (particularly with COVID-19, we will use that as an example that’s on people’s minds right now), [is that] the information that comes in around COVID-19 has changed, and has been potentially conflicting, and it’s hard to know. And rabbis are not epidemiologists, and they’re trying to do the best they can, integrating the best knowledge that they have to keep their community safe.
Being able to say “What’s the best information that we have, how can I then understand it, how can I then translate it, then how can I then implement it?” There are multiple different steps where problems can arise. And what happens if you’re finding information it’s inaccurate, what if you’re looking to groups that, whether intentional or not, are sharing inaccurate information?
Are you seeing – and you talk about this a little bit in your book too, of how do we find and integrate scientific information if we’re not scientists?
Roger Price: Yeah. I mean the main discussion that I had in my book of fake news, as you know, dealt with a battle for Jerusalem 2700 years ago. And there’s a report of that battle in the Book of Kings in our Bible, but there’s also a report of that battle in an Assyrian tablet called a prism, one of which happens to be at the Oriental Institute at the University of Chicago.
And you can read both reports and you’ll get some overlap, but you’ll get different understandings of what happened in that battle. And that’s the first recorded instance that I know of what you would call “fake news” today. With respect to the current dilemma of COVID-19, one of our problems, because we have such rapid communication today, is that we’re communicating before we know things, and we’re not double-checking our information. With respect to this particular virus, we haven’t had enough time to really understand it. And we haven’t had – I mean, I read last week that there is some thought that there is a special mutation that affects the Chicago area. Now, if that’s true, I suspect that means there’s a special mutation which is affecting Miami or Los Angeles or Westchester County, some specific communities. We haven’t had time to really understand aspirants, and without getting too political, the leadership at the national level has been…. lacking.
A few weeks ago I wrote a piece about COVID-19, and I talked about “The Wise Ones of COVID Gubernia,” which is a town in the old country.
And the gist of their wisdom was that people should wear masks. When I completed that, we were at the height of the first-wave crisis. And within a few weeks later, the numbers started to look much better, I thought “Oh boy, my piece is now dated.”
What I didn’t really realize is that it’s really pre-dated, because we are getting more and more information that suggests that the wearing of masks is good for two reasons: one, it helps keep anyone who is infected from spewing the virus towards someone else, and to some degree, it helps whoever is walking down the street from receiving the infected spray. And if both parties wear masks, then you really do have a reasonably decent ability to protect yourself from getting an infection.
The lessons that we have from the Jewish tradition in this, and I cite seven of the wise people of COVID Gubernia, is reasonably clear: we have an obligation to protect those who can’t help themselves. We value life, and health, and the protection of our bodies. And we have a communal interest in making sure that our community is safe for the youngest, the oldest, and all those in between.
Geoff Mitelman: I think that, you know, that’s an important way of drawing this distinction of the interplay of Judaism and science, because it’s not trying to say “Let’s prove the Torah is true,” right, that’s not something that Jews tend to do as it is, and it’s also a fool’s errand because the Torah is not a science textbook. And it’s also not “Well, they live in these separate worlds and they can happily, you know, “Here’s the science, and here’s the Judaism,” and they’re separated out. But it’s rather we have these values that are articulated, and there have been. rabbinic texts and legal texts of different complicated ways of thinking about how do we balance different values. And that was described 2500 years ago, and 1500 years ago, 2000 years ago, as the Talmud is written, that are then being applied to questions that we’re facing today, of questions of health versus privacy, questions of individual rights versus a responsibility to the community, those are questions that we are really grappling with in a variety of different ways, dealing with the science, but also dealing with the politics, because science and politics also interplay. They’re trying to be able to say these are separate worlds, and never the twain shall meet, is not accurate, it’s also not helpful.
Roger Price: Well, that’s true, and one of the values of the Jewish ethical tradition is not simply that it’s old, although parts of it are quite old, but that it’s based on, now, thousands of years of human experience. And while our understanding of science has changed, human nature hasn’t changed all that much. And our relationships with each other, with our significant others, with our children, with our parents, with the community around us, those are age-old issues, which is one of the reasons that a lot of the stories in the Torah resonate today, because we can see ourselves in those stories.
The other aspect of this is because our tradition is so old and has so much experience, it has both majority and minority viewpoints on many, many topics. And if you read the tradition as a whole, you can gain an appreciation for the nuance with which various communities have dealt with various problems.
And so if you look at a problem like gun safety, or you look at a problem like abortion, in the civic community, these problems are reduced to bumper stickers. And those bumper stickers do not come anywhere close to being reasoned or analytical or helpful. In the Jewish world, these issues have been discussed and debated, and lines have been drawn and moved. And it is the nuance that has come out of this discussion which is so valuable. And in part, if you take a look at the book, you will see that, you know, my general view is that we can look at Judaism as a conversation. It’s a 2500-, perhaps plus-, year old conversation, with many viewpoints and many bits of wisdom. And part of what that teaches us is the need, when we get into these delicate issues, for a good deal of humility when we are addressing some of the topics you mention.
Geoff Mitelman: And you mentioned at the beginning of our conversation that your book is also looking to not just look towards the past, but also towards the future. What are a couple of the things that you think are going to be the interesting and critical, live issues for the Jewish community in the future surrounding Judaism and science?
Roger Price: Well, there are two issues which I think are going to be of utmost importance for all of us.
One is the possibility that we will encounter intelligent life on another planet. This would be, to put it mildly, a game changer. But I think, if that’s going to happen, –although, you know, the ship could land tomorrow, I suppose – but more likely, that’s an issue for the distant future.
For the immediate future, there is the question of the impact of artificial intelligence and robotics. And in the book I posit the development of an android, a robot shaped like a human, who is then uploaded with all the literature and lore of the Jewish people, and is sitting around its home one day contemplating the Torah and the Talmud and all the histories and the novels and the literature and the poetry and the records of all the communities of the past thousands of years,, and understands that being Jewish is more than having data at hand, being Jewish is being able to talk with Jews, and interact with Jews, and do Jewish stuff. And this android, which I call the Jewdroid, decides that it wants to go into a shul and become a member.
And the question is: will the congregation accept the Jewdroid? The issue, from a Jewish perspective, is that the Torah teaches us that we should respect the stranger, we should welcome the stranger, and the question presented as this “is this stranger too strange, or what do we do with this with this creature?”
And I have found that in my travels, this is thought to be a very intriguing question. It’s not something that’s going to happen tomorrow, but I originally thought maybe 25 years from now, this would be a real issue. I think it’s less than that. I think it’s 5 years or 10 years. And if you’ve been following the developments around the world, you know that a couple of years ago, for the 500th anniversary of the Protestant Reformation, a church in Wittenburg, Germany created a robot which provided blessings to the visitors.
There is now a statue, that looks like a statue you might see in a Catholic home, that reads Bible verses to whoever’s in its home. We don’t have anything like that, but we do know that a few years ago, at the Jewish Museum in Berlin, there was a robot to write Torah scrolls. In San Francisco, there was a giant robot that lit a menorah with a spark coming out of one of its fingers. So it’s not too farfetched to wonder how robotics will impact congregational life, as teachers, as, you know, workers around the synagogue, any number of issues.
Geoff Mitelman: Well, and you know, my wife is on our synagogue’s ritual committee. I think she joined in January or February. And their theoretical discussion – they were going to talk about this in January or February just to be able to learn how to study conservative responsa – [was a] totally theoretical question of “Can you have a minyan through the computer?” And that was going to be the totally theoretical question they were going to look at in February. And, um… it ended up not being so theoretical within about two months, and I think that that’s an important piece of not just one of the topics that we’re going to be looking at, but what’s the process by which the Jewish community explores some of these questions that are advancing scientifically and technologically.
Roger Price: Well, that’s exactly right. Of course there is a sub-story to the story of the Jewdroid, which is the question of “What does it mean to be Jewish today?”
But taking the idea of the Jewdroid more literally, that is something that’s going to come up, and those people who work with synagogues,I’m sure would all agree – there is at least one person on the Board of Directors who could be replaced by the Jewdroid. They may have different views on who that person should be, but they would all agree there’s at least one person.
Geoff Mitelman: And I think that’s the other interesting thing that you’re bringing up, which is – and the rabbis did this in the Talmud all the time, which is to push something to its sort of absurd limit to be able to actually go to the core of a big question of, you know, can you – is a sukkah kosher if it’s built on the side of an elephant? And they’ve explored, that question, and they did that to be able to ask what’s a question of permanency, and being able to move around. And so you’re saying, “Can a Jewdroid be a member of the of the of the Jewish community and count for a minyan and be synagogue president?” is the same as the question “Can a woman be counted in the minyan,” which is the same as the question “can it be somebody who is married to somebody who is not Jewish,” “Can somebody who is not just somebody who’s not Jewish say a particular blessing,” right? Every community has its different lines that they’re going to draw. They may be different in the Orthodox community or Conservative community or Reform community, but there are going to be lines that are going to be drawn somewhere. And so how do we think through what that question is going to be?
Roger Price: Well, that’s exactly right. And when I’ve raised this issue in groups, and I’ve asked the question “Tell me your objection, what are the objections one might raise at the Congregational meeting about whether to allow the Jewdroid?” And someone will raise one objection or another, and I normally say, “Is that issue identified on your membership application?” And all of a sudden I hear this real quiet, “Oh, I guess it’s not.” Well, if it’s not, why are you raising it now?
And of course, some congregations have very detailed applications – as long as you’re ambulatory, maybe not, then maybe you can come here.
Geoff Mitelman: Yeah. Well I think what’s fun about your book, and really I highly recommend it, is that you explore some really – I was going to say, unorthodox, but very unusual topics, that you might think there’s conversations about Judaism and science, but having it as the entry point of these questions that we’re grappling with, its helps us understand the science a little bit better, and also some of the questions that the Jewish community needs to grapple with as well.
Roger Price: Yeah, well I try to – you know, some of the issues I got into, I got into because I read stuff in Jewish corners that made no sense to me. For instance, I remember reading an article that argued that Jews should not get vaccines, because vaccines because vaccines contain treyf products.
And it is certainly true, if you look up the ingredient list of various vaccines, which you can do on the Internet through the Centers for Disease Control, you will see some very – how should I say this – unpleasant products that are in vaccine formulations. But that doesn’t mean vaccines are not kosher or suitable for Jewish use, because the whole notion of kashrut has to deal with consumption, oral consumption. And if you are getting a vaccination in your arm or your thigh or some other part of you, you are not violating kashrut, and I make that abundantly clear by citing rabbis of all denominations around the world.
And that led into a separate topic of the safety and efficacy of the vaccine. And the data on that with respect to measles, polio, and some of the other horrible diseases we’ve encountered, is really crystal-clear.
Geoff Mitelman: Yeah, I think that’s an important piece. And so I really want to thank you for taking some be able to unpack both the kinds of topics that you’re grappling with, but also that process by which or you’re looking at this. And so again I really recommend Roger’s website, which is, I believe it’s judaismandscience.com, correct?
Roger Price: That is correct.
Geoff Mitelman: –and his book “When Judaism Meets Science,” continue to really explore some of these questions. He’s been a good friend of Sinai and Synapses and I’m thrilled to be able to talk with you here today.
Roger Price: Thank you for having me, Geoff, I hope you and your family stay safe and well.
Geoff Mitelman: Thank you. Bye-bye now.