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Archive for the ‘Physical Sciences’ Category

Science and Judaism: One Rabbi’s Personal Theology

Tuesday, October 29, 2013 @ 04:10 PM
posted by Rabbi George B. Driesen

A few years ago on a Shabbat evening at Adat Shalom Reconstructionist Congregation in Bethesda, Maryland an almost surely unprecedented event occurred. Through the magic of the Hubble Telescope, the internet, and the digital projector, congregants were able to see large images of the vast, exploding universe in which we are all suspended. As the images were paraded one by one before the amazed eyes of the congregants, Steve Brody, an Institute for Science and Judaism Board member and astrophysicist, identified and explained them. Some were familiar; most were not.

There were galaxies, clusters of galaxies, clouds of interstellar gas in which stars are being created, dying stars, and the remains of a supernova. While Steve explained the scientific significance of these denizens of space, a rabbi declaimed passages from the Tanach, our Hebrew Bible. In apposition to a photograph of the Milky Way in which the profusion of stars that comprise it appeared in all their glory, the rabbi quoted God’s promise to Abraham:

      [God] took him outside and said “Look toward heaven and count the stars,
if you are able to count them.”
And He added “So shall your offspring be.”   read more

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

Einstein, Kaplan and Heschel Walk Into A Bar

Wednesday, September 19, 2012 @ 06:09 PM
posted by Roger Price

It was in 1953, or so. The exact date is lost to memory.  The pub was somewhere just north of Columbia University. Albert Einstein, perhaps the greatest physicist of the century, picked the place in part because he was visiting an old friend at Columbia, as he was traveling from Princeton to his summer home on Long Island.  Not coincidentally, for he did not believe in coincidences, it was also not too far from the Jewish Theological Seminary.

Einstein wanted to meet JTS luminaries Mordecai Kaplan and Abraham Joshua Heschel, and had heard that the bar had a booth in the back that was conducive to conversation. He was interested in Kaplan because he had heard of Kaplan’s attempts to create a Jewish theology without supernaturalism. The idea of a naturalist philosophy, or trans-naturalist as Kaplan sometimes called it, appealed to Einstein. Anyone whose prayer book was radical enough to get burned, by Jews no less, was a bonus for the seventy plus year old, but ever rebellious, Einstein.

Heschel was a different matter. A dozen or so years earlier, Heschel had been severely critical of Einstein because he thought Einstein had dismissed the God from heaven. Einstein was aware of the criticism, but had also heard Heschel described by some as a pantheist and by others as a panentheist. Einstein’s theology, such as it was, fell in there someplace, too, usually. It made no real difference to Einstein. All agreed that Heschel had a mystical bent. That approach made no sense at all to Einstein, but to some degree that was one of the points of the whole pub exercise.  He was there for a variation on one of his thought experiments. Except this time he was interested not so much in experimenting (though the idea of having a German Jew, a Polish Jew and a Litvak at the same table was intriguing). He was just enjoying thinking about thinking. 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

Brains, Bosons and the Hebrew Letter Bet: The Higgs Field and the Jews

Monday, July 30, 2012 @ 09:07 AM
posted by Roger Price

Just guessing, of course, but most of the particle physicists from forty-five nations who have been conducting experiments at the Large Hadron Collider (“LHC”) at the European Center for Nuclear Research (“CERN”) near Geneva, Switzerland probably never heard of B’reishit Rabbah, much less contemplated the discussion there about why God created the world with a word (B’reishit) beginning with the Hebrew letter Bet and not a word beginning with Aleph, the first letter in the alphabet.  In the course of that discussion, some eighteen centuries ago, Jewish sages offered various and inventive explanations. Among other things, they noted that the letter Bet is closed at the top, bottom and back (right) side, but open in the front. According to one of the scholars, Bar Kappara, this configuration indicated that one may think about what happened after the days of creation unfolded, but not what occurred before then. (See Neusner, Confronting Creation (U. of South Carolina Press 1991), at 39-41.)

If the CERN scientists had read Bar Kappara’s words, they might understand them as an anti-scientific admonition. But that would be a misreading of the somewhat idiosyncratic scholar, for Bar Kappara favored scientific investigation. In particular, he valued and encouraged the study of astronomy. Channeling the prophet Isaiah (at 5:12), he suggested that one who could make astronomical calculations, but failed to do so, did not appropriately regard God’s works. (See, 4B Encyclopedia Judaica (Keter Publishing 1972), at 227.)  What Bar Kappara did not like was metaphysical speculation. read more

Jewish, Beyond Belief: Why Behavior Matters

Sunday, July 22, 2012 @ 09:07 AM
posted by Deborah Grayson Riegel

As a native New Yorker, I know that my hometown is famous for many things, ranging from bagels to Broadway. But earlier this summer, our city made national news for a novel, awesome phenomenon: a double rainbow appeared over our legendary skyline. The spectacle literally stopped traffic (well, more than usual, anyway), and photos of the colorful image flooded the internet. I have no doubt that among the mesmerized lay photographers, charmed children, and everyday gawkers, there were many Jews who saw the sky and uttered the following prayer upon seeing a rainbow: Baruch ata Ado-nai Elo-heinu melech ha’olam zocher ha’brit v’ne’eman bivrito v’kayam b’ma’amaro. Blessed are You, Lord our God, King of the universe, who remembers the covenant, and is faithful to His covenant, and keeps His promise. My daughter Sophie would not have been among those Jews. Her reaction to the rainbows would have been the same as it had been to hearing about the great flood, the plagues and even the creation of the universe: “Haven’t you people ever heard of science?” 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

New Planets, A God For The Cosmos and Exotheology

Monday, January 30, 2012 @ 09:01 PM
posted by Roger Price

We are blessed to live in an age of great discoveries. Prior to about fifteen years ago, astronomers had not been able to identify planets in orbit around stars beyond our solar system. These planets, known as extra solar planets or exoplanets, have now been found. In fact, in the first dozen years from the discovery of the first exoplanet, about 500 such planets were located in diverse areas of the known universe.

Then NASA initiated the Kepler space mission, which was designed to find Earth sized planets within the habitable zone of a star. The mission focused on a relatively small star field in the constellations Cygnus and Lyra, perhaps the extent of the sky obscured by an average extended fist. The discoveries have been phenomenal, and the pace seems to be accelerating. As science writer Timothy Ferris has said, “We live in a changing universe, and few things are changing faster than our conception of it.” (Ferris, The Whole Shebang (Simon & Schuster 1997), at 11.) read more