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When Judaism Meets Science

 

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Archive for the ‘Life Sciences’ Category

Extraterrestrial Life-Forms: A Religious View

Tuesday, October 1, 2013 @ 10:10 AM
posted by Rabbi Allen S. Maller

When the inquisition condemned Galileo for writing that the earth might not be the center of the solar system, the Roman Catholic Church was supporting the philosophy and science of the Greco-Roman world because it seemed to support the religious idea that the earth, life in general and human life in particular, should be the center of God’s world.

Today very few religious people think that if the earth revolves around the sun, it makes humans less important to God. The value, meaning and importance of a human life, is not a scientific issue; it is a religious issue.

So too, when by the end of this decade, astronomical evidence of stars with earth-like planets, at the right distance from their star to have liquid water, and an atmosphere with oxygen, is found, there will be no need to deny the evidence and condemn the scientists as anti-religious. Religious people need to know that the Torah and the Qur’an clearly teach that the Living God created the whole universe to be conducive to the universal evolution of life. read more

To Frack or Not to Frack: Is that a Jewish Question?

Sunday, August 4, 2013 @ 09:08 AM
posted by Roger Price

 

Did you know that fracking, the industrial process of extracting natural gas from shale rock is treif, that it violates Jewish values? Who knew? You could read the entire Torah, study the Mishnah and Gemara too, go through the commentaries of the rationalist Maimonides and the more mystical Nachmanides, and review Joseph Caro’s Shulchan Aruch and you will never once see the technology discussed, much less the word uttered. And yet, there are Jewish individuals and organizations that insist that fracking is so contrary to Jewish values that it must be banned.

What is fracking anyhow?

Before we drill down a bit into the Jewish aspects of these arguments, let’s take a moment to review some basic facts about fracking. Hydraulic fracturing (hydrofracking or fracking) is a method of drilling for gas trapped in shale rock formations deep in the earth. The process has been utilized in the United States for over sixty years, but recent advances in technology have both led to new discoveries of huge reservoirs, or basins, of potentially recoverable natural gas in a large number of areas across the continental United States and allowed gas drillers to go deeper into the ground and also farther horizontally to recover that gas. read more

Extraterrestrial Life Evidence in Ten Years

Wednesday, May 22, 2013 @ 10:05 AM
posted by Rabbi Allen S. Maller

When the inquisition condemned Galileo for writing that the earth might not be the center of the solar system, the Roman Catholic Church was supporting the philosophy and science of the Greco-Roman world because it seemed to support the religious idea that the earth, life in general and human life in particular, should be the center of God’s world. Today very few religious people think that if the earth revolves around the sun, it makes humans less important to God.

So too, when by the end of this decade, astronomical evidence of stars with earth-like planets, at the right distance from their star to have liquid water, and an atmosphere with oxygen, is found, there will be no need to deny the evidence and condemn the scientists as anti-religious. Religious people need to know that the Torah and the Qur’an clearly teach that the Living God created the whole universe to be conducive to the universal evolution of life. The Zabur of David says, “Your kingdom is a kingdom of all worlds; and Your dominion is for all generations.” (Zabur-Psalms 145:13); and the Qur’an says, “We have not sent you but as a blessing for all the worlds.” (Al-Anbiya 107). Muslim commentators say this refers to the 18.000 worlds created by Allah. Our world is one of them. (Mir’at-e-Kainat, vol.1, p.77) read more

Confronting Cremation: Violation of Jewish Law or Sensible Modern Ritual?

Sunday, April 14, 2013 @ 04:04 PM
posted by Rabbi Regina Sandler-Phillips

This article was published previously by Rabbi Regina Sandler-Phillips in The Forward at http://forward.com/articles/156397/confronting-cremation/?p=all#ixzz2IGRcOnqF. Thank you to Rabbi Sandler-Phillips for her permission to republish here.

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At first glance, the two sides of the Jewish cremation dilemma seem clear. Opponents deplore what they see as a violation of Jewish law, desecration of the body and callous indifference to the memory of the Holocaust.

Proponents claim that cremation is less costly and more ecological, and that it saves land for the living. Yet a closer examination reveals a much more complicated picture. We need a Jewish conversation that speaks to the realities of both cremation and burial. This conversation is difficult because it involves facing death — not the illusory death of movies and computer games, but real and inevitable mortality — and what it means for our lives.

     Levayah, the Hebrew word for “funeral,” actually means “accompanying.” Whether we bury or burn, our willingness to accompany is usually quite limited. Between medical pronouncement and final disposition, our dead are typically wrapped up and taken away to preparations of which we have only the vaguest knowledge. It’s much easier to focus on the details of a product — an urn or a coffin, a memorial plaque or a headstone — than on honoring and protecting a body in transition. read more

The Curious Consensus of Jews on Abortion

Thursday, January 10, 2013 @ 10:01 AM
posted by Roger Price

That different Jews have disparate views is not news. What is news is when most Jews agree on a particular idea or approach. And so it is with the curious consensus of Jews on abortion.

In mid-2012, the Public Religion Research Institute (“PRRI”) published its findings from a 2012 survey of Jewish values (the “Jewish Values Survey”). The survey sought to measure the opinions of American Jews on a wide variety of political and economic issues, both domestic and foreign, as well as with respect to certain religious beliefs and practices. Some of those opinions were analyzed internally by Jewish denomination and externally by comparison to those of other faith or ethnic groups.

While Jews varied considerably in their views of a wide range of topics, on one – abortion – they were not only reasonably cohesive in their attitude, but strikingly different from other groups. Given the emphasis in the Jewish tradition on valuing life, on equating the preservation of one life with the preservation of a world and, conversely, the destruction of one life as the destruction of the world (Mishnah Sanhedrin 4:5), this result, on its face, seems as anomalous as it is clear. read more

Organ Donation: Holiest of Mitzvot

Tuesday, December 25, 2012 @ 10:12 AM
posted by Rabbi Shmuly Yanklowitz

When we pass from this world and our bodies enter the ground, do we merely wish to be remembered or do we wish to give the gift of life to others? For the medical, economic, and moral wellbeing of our society, the United States must change its policy on organ donation requirements.

Last week, we in my community were shocked and relieved when one congregant received a new kidney (a 100 percent perfect match, which is quite rare). After much pain and prolonged dialysis, she and her family are able to start a new life.

When my colleague and friend Robby Berman founded the Halachic Organ Donor Society, he sought to educate and inspire the Jewish community to save lives. Many had been confused by obscure teachings that Judaism was in some way opposed to organ donation, since, as some have told me, “I will emerge in heaven without that body part,” or that it is a violation of the dignity of the human corpse. Nothing could be further from the truth; organ donation is tantamount to pikuach nefesh (saving a life), one of the greatest of Jewish mitzvot. read more

Eyes and Evolution: Why Do Some With Eyes See Not?

Saturday, November 17, 2012 @ 08:11 PM
posted by Roger Price

In the great satirical movie Duck Soup (first released 79 years ago to the date of this post),  Mrs. Gloria Teasdale (Margaret Dumont), the financial underwriter of the nation of Freedonia, recruits Rufus T. Firefly (Groucho Marx) to be the insolvent country’s new president. The opposition then retains two spies, Chicolini (Chico Marx) and Pinky (Harpo Marx), to work for them. Toward the end of the film, in a bedroom scene with Teasdale, the spies both dress like Firefly in order to secure the combination to a safe.  After she gives the combination to one Firefly (the disguised Pinky), Mrs. Teasdale watches him leave the room, but suddenly another Firefly (the disguised Chicolini) appears. Teasdale confronts Chicolini who denies leaving and blusters “Well, who you gonna believe, me or your own eyes?” He knew that Teasdale had convincing evidence against him. She was, after all, an eye-witness. And yet, she did not understand.

Perhaps more than on any other of our senses, humans rely on sight. Our camera eyes allow massive amounts of information to enter our brain, first through the lens at the exterior of the eye, and then from the inverted image on the retina at the back of the eye by way of the optic nerve.  In the plains of Africa, our ancestors stood to gather information about their surroundings. Today we focus on ironically named smartphones, not so much to hear audio transmissions, but to stare at screens with text or other visual data.

So important is sight to us that over two-thirds of the sensory cells in our bodies are the light sensing cells in our eyes. So energy consuming is the human retina that it uses more oxygen per gram than does the brain.  (Shubin, Your Inner Fish (Pantheon Books 2008), at 150; Lane, Life Ascending (W. W. Norton 2009) at 175.) read more

Judaism and Nuts: Ethics and Allergies

Sunday, October 21, 2012 @ 12:10 PM
posted by Roger Price

Credit: USDA

It is one of the most dramatic moments in the entire Torah. There is no lightening or thunder, no plagues or parting of the sea, just an elderly statesman appearing before his people one more time, to teach one more lesson before they part from each other, the people to cross the river and the old man to enter eternity. Having led for so many years with the assistance of signs and wonders, now he simply speaks words, hoping to refresh their recollection and inspire them. He reminds them of their history in order to set the stage for their future. He tells them again what they should and should not do, emphasizing that they will have to make choices, choices that will lead to prosperity or adversity, choices that will enhance life or bring death. This leader, this teacher, this Moshe urges them: “Choose life, that you and your children should live . . . .” (See Deut. 30:19; see also Lev. 18:5.) Not for nothing is the Torah known as Etz Chaim,  a tree of life. (See Prov. 3:18; Ezek. 20:11.)

This reverence for life is more than some gauzy good feeling. Judaism at its best is grounded in experience, rooted in reality. Centuries after the biblical authors first put quill to scroll, the rabbis in the Talmudic period considered situations where observance of biblical ordinances on the sanctity of the Sabbath might adversely, perhaps fatally, affect real people – a wall that had collapsed on a child but could be removed, a fire that could be extinguished. (See  Yoma 84b, see also, Yoma 83a.) Referring to an obscure statement in the Holiness Code which seems to prohibit standing by or upon the blood of your neighbor (Lev. 19:16), the rabbis formulated the doctrine of pikuach nefesh (the preservation of human life), the principle that all of the laws, all of the rules, and all of the regulations which are in Torah can be abrogated to save a life. There are three major exceptions, essentially related to idolatry, murder and adultery, but the bias is otherwise comprehensive in favor of saving the life of another: “Whoever saves a life is considered to have saved the entire world.” (See Sanhedrin 37a.)  read more

When they are underway, the annual migrations of various animal species are truly magnificent to behold. By sea, land and sky, they move: the sea turtles and the baleen whales, the caribou and the wildebeests, the green darner dragonflies and the arctic terns and the free-tailed bats, among others. (See http://ngm.nationalgeographic.com/great-migrations/; http://www.mnn.com/earth-matters/animals/photo/.)

These migrations, which can transpire over thousands of miles, exhibit common characteristics. They suggest preparation and persistence, attentiveness, intentionality and unique allocations of energy. The participants will face distractions and temptations, but they will meet these challenges and more with what seems to be a shared sense of purpose. They are marvelous and inspiring adventures.

Perhaps these animals move because of some encoded instinct or perhaps from some form of communication we do not yet understand. Whatever the cause, they are not on an orderly and docile walk, two by two, as in the Noah fable. They are engaged in an existential activity, where travel is grueling and life and death are at issue for each animal individually and for the group as a collective, whether bale or pod or herd or team or swarm, flutter or flock. read more

The Cosmos, Oneness and Judaism: Are Pantheism and Panentheism Kosher for Jews?

Wednesday, June 20, 2012 @ 06:06 PM
posted by Roger Price

The psalmist and the skeptic and the prophet and the professor look at the universe in which we find ourselves, see the same stars, feel the warmth of the same sun, hear thunder pealing from the same sky, understand the processes by which nature unfolds in spring, retreats in fall only to regenerate again the following year, and yet often draw different conclusions from the same observable data. So, for instance, in response to the emergence of humankind, a non-theist might merely record the evolutionary data or might, like cell biologist Ursula Goodenough, marvel at the improbability, the mystery, and the grandeur of our existence. (See, e.g., The Sacred Depths of Nature (Oxford University Press 2000).) The traditional Jewish believer, by contrast, might offer a prayer to the Supreme Being: Blessed are You, sovereign of the universe, who has fashioned us from the dust of the Earth in Your image and breathed our soul into us.

Is there another way, a way to attempt to understand one’s place in the cosmos that is consistent with current scientific knowledge, and yet recognizes the miracle of our presence without dependence on some supernatural being? Is there an approach to the cosmos which might be attractive to many, perhaps most, American Jews who do not believe in the traditional personal God who dominates the Torah, but nevertheless accept the existence of (and may even yearn for) some extraordinary power, force or spirit which pervades all that is? (See Post March 14, 2012) And, if so, is that path kosher? read more