A Love of Science Can Change Judaism

Sinai-and-Synapses-Square-LogoBy Rabbi Geoff Mitelman

It’s rarely a problem to get Jews to embrace science. What’s harder is to get Jews excited about Judaism.

I certainly experienced that when I was a congregational rabbi – I often heard things like, “I don’t believe in God. I believe in science and in nature.” Perhaps because Judaism has long embraced questioning and challenging authority, or perhaps because theology is rarely emphasized in large parts of the Jewish community, many Jews erroneously think that if they accept science, then they need to reject their Judaism.

That’s why I launched Sinai and Synapses, incubated at Clal – The National Jewish Center for Learning and Leadership. Sinai and Synapses offers people a worldview that is both scientifically grounded and spiritually uplifting, and provides tools and language for learning and living to the millions of people who see science as their ally as they pursue personal growth and the repair of our world. We run a variety of programs, and we have just announced two major innovative pilot projects regarding Jews, Judaism, and their relationship to science, both in partnership with the American Association for the Advancement of Science (AAAS) and funded by the John Templeton Foundation, the Emanuel J. Friedman Philanthropies and the Lucius N. Littauer Foundation.

One is “Scientists in Synagogues,” which will create new opportunities for grass-roots exploration of the thorniest and most compelling questions we face regarding Judaism and science. The other, “Science in Rabbinic Training,” will reach rabbis and rabbinic students to help them discover new ways to bring science into their education.

These projects present great opportunities for both scientists and the Jewish community to rethink the relationship between Judaism and science, moving them to increasingly integrated and sophisticated understandings of how they relate and connect to one another. Indeed, Sinai and Synapses is bringing together major stakeholders in both the religious and scientific communities to advance new ways to engage both populations, including Jewish foundations, a traditionally Christian foundation, and the world’s largest scientific organization.

Both projects arose from the “Perceptions Project,” a program run by the AAAS Dialogue on Science, Ethics, and Religion (DoSER) program to explore how religious communities and scientists understand each other. Sinai and Synapses was a partner for the Jewish workshop, and we saw striking data about how the Jewish community relates to science.

When the Perceptions Project asked people how they perceived the relationship between science and religion, several potential responses were offered. One was “in collaboration,” one was “independent,” and two were “in conflict” – one “on the side of religion” and the other “on the side of science.”

About 25% of the American populace chose one of the two conflict options, which, interestingly, was the same percentage as the Jewish population. But while most of the Christians who saw religion and science in opposition viewed themselves as on the side of religion, those Jews who saw science and religion in conflict came down on the side of science – and by a huge margin. For the “conflicted Christians,” three out of four opted for religion, and one out of four chose science. But for the 25% of conflicted Jews, 15 out of 16 saw themselves on the side of science, and therefore, anti-religion.

This finding led Sinai and Synapses to create Scientists in Synagogues. This initiative will select ten congregations that count top-notch scientists among their members, offering them mentorship, guidance and publicity, as well as a stipend for programming regarding Judaism and science. These scientists will explore how they integrate their Jewish identities and their scientific work, and will then become role models and ambassadors for productive conversations surrounding Judaism and science.

According to Clal President Rabbi Brad Hirschfield, “This program, Sinai and Synapses as a whole, and this multi-institutional partnership in particular, respond to a pressing need and do so by exemplifying Clal’s commitment to making Jewish a public good – to making Jewish thought and experience increasingly accessible, meaningful, usable and impactful to an ever-widening audience, both within and beyond formal Jewish life.”

Science in Rabbinic Training will be led by the AAAS Dialogue on Science, Ethics, and Religion (DoSER) program, whose mission is to relate scientific and technological development to purposes and concerns of society at large. It is a next stage in the larger and already highly successful Science for Seminaries initiative where seminarians integrate science into their theological education. To reach both rabbis and rabbinic students, this program will partner with Clal, Hebrew College, and the Hebrew Union College – Jewish Institute of Religion, where I was ordained.

“Many people look to their religious leaders for guidance on issues relating to science and technology, even though clergy members may get little exposure to science in their training,” said DoSER director Jennifer Wiseman. “With this project we’re offering the science resources for rabbinic training that have proved so beneficial to seminaries in other faith traditions.”

Ultimately, both Scientists in Synagogues and Science in Rabbinic Training will use the power of relationships and personal stories to highlight people who effectively bring their science and Judaism together in their own personal lives. Our goal is to increase the number of people who see science and Judaism as collaborative. After all, the biggest questions we face are not religious questions or scientific questions, but human questions. We need both sources of wisdom to help respond to them.

Rabbi Geoffrey A. Mitelman is the Founding Director of Sinai and Synapses, an organization that bridges the scientific and religious worlds, and is being incubated at Clal – The National Jewish Center for Learning and Leadership.

His writings about the intersection of religion and science have appeared on the homepages of several sites, including The Huffington Post, Science and Religion Today, Jewish Telegraphic Agency, and My Jewish Learning.