Bringing Rabbis and Scientists Together

Do Jews view science differently than other religious people do? What topics are most pressing or interesting in the Jewish community? And have Jews bifurcated their sense of identity when it comes to Judaism and science?

These questions launched a new initiative run by my organization, Sinai and Synapses, called “Scientists in Synagogues.” It is a grass-roots program to offer Jews opportunities to explore questions surrounding Judaism and science, and to see how some of the most thoughtful Jewish scientists integrate their Judaism and their scientific work. It grew out of a project called the Perceptions Project, which explored how different groups (predominantly evangelical Christians, but also Jews, Catholics and Mainline Protestants) understand science and scientists.

QUIZ: Test Your Knowledge of Science and Judaism

A few weeks ago, we brought together nine rabbis and nine scientists to launch Scientists in Synagogues. We spent the morning exploring the historical, theological and sociological relationships between Judaism and science with three experts. But even before the rabbis and scientists came together, we asked all the congregations to send out a survey (based on questions from the Perceptions Project) about how their congregants viewed Judaism and science.

READ: Jewish Responses to Modern Science

About 450 people took it, and though it certainly was a self-select group who took the survey, several findings arose that reinforced some previous research about how Jews view science.

1. Jews love science

We asked some questions about how people felt about science, and the responses were overwhelmingly positive. 85% believed that science does more good than harm, and 89% believed that because of science and technology, there will be more opportunities for the next generation. Most amazingly, 100% of the respondents believed that scientific research is valuable for its own sake.

However, even as Jews view science positively, many don’t connect a love of science with their Judaism. That’s because…

2. Jews bifurcate their Judaism and their science

As the Perceptions Project suggested, and our survey reinforced, Jews tend to think of science and Judaism as totally separate spheres. We asked our respondents how they viewed the relationship between science and religion — as being in conflict, as collaborative, or independent. And as I wrote in this space two years ago,

Among all religious groups, Jews were both most likely to pick “independent” and least likely to pick “collaborative” to describe the relationship between religion and science.

In other words, every other religious group was more likely to find that science could enhance their religious outlook than the Jewish community. Instead, Jews were much more likely to separate their religious and their scientific outlooks and keep them siloed off.

The line that I sometimes use, then, is that it’s not a problem to get Jews excited about science. The challenge is getting Jews excited about Judaism.

But there is a potential silver lining, especially when we think about how Jews view God.

3. Doubt and faith go hand in hand

We asked people what their views were about God, and though Jews often grapple with their views on God, only 5% said that they “don’t believe in God.” Instead, between 13 and 27% of people chose one of five other options, with the most popular being “While I have doubts, I do believe there is a God.”

This means that Jews are not as scared of theology as we might think, and that they tend to open to different views of God. So given that Jews love science, we might be able to use science and scientific language to explore different theologies and different views of God.

In many ways, Scientists in Synagogues is designed to address these three takeaways. First, how do we ensure that we are using and exploring the best and most accurate science? Second, how can we better integrate science and Jewish life, Jewish identity and Jewish values? Finally, how can science help us gain new tools and new language to think about God?

As these rabbis and scientists met last month, they began to plan their programming on topics such as the neuroscience of free will, how technological innovation is changing human community and communication, the relationship between the natural and the human-made, and Jewish and scientific metaphors for the cosmos.

Our hope is that through bringing rabbis and scientists together, we can bring Judaism and science together, and use both sources of wisdom to better ourselves and our world.

If you are interested in the presentations from the morning sessions, below are videos of Professor Noah Efron of Bar Ilan University on the historical relationship between Judaism and science; Rabbi Lawrence Troster on the theological relationship between Judaism and science; and Professor Michael Zimmerman on the sociological relationship between Judaism and science

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