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When Judaism Meets Science

“a rare masterpiece”
– Rabbi Lawrence Hoffman, HUC

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– Rabbi David Teutsch, RRC

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– Rabbi Geoffrey Mitelman, Sinai and Synapses

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Posts Tagged ‘Judaism’

Exploring Prayer: A Conversation with Alden Solovy

Tuesday, July 28, 2015 @ 10:07 AM
posted by Roger Price

Alden Solovy is a poet and liturgist. A native of Chicago, Illinois, Alden made aliyah to Israel in 2012. His first book, Jewish Prayers of Hope and Healing, was published in 2012 by Kavanot Press. He is currently working on a mythical journey, told with prayers and poetry, called Song of the Spiritual Traveler, as well as two new anthologies. This year Alden will also be the Liturgist-In-Residence for the National Havurah Committee’s 2015 Summer Institute. His prayers and additional biographical information are available at www.tobendlight.com

This conversation was conducted electronically and is offered as part of this forum’s mission to explore issues of fact, fiction and faith. We appreciate Alden’s willingness to participate.

*   *   *   *   *   *   *

JudSciGuy: How did Alden Solovy, who holds an M.B.A. degree in economics and finance from the University of Chicago, get involved in writing prayers?

Alden: Composing prayers was a natural expression of my yearning to move closer to God. In response to various life tragedies I began a spiritual journey of prayer, meditation, daily journaling and writing gratitude lists. The writing evolved into a practice of composing prayers. The practice was a large part of my healing process from those tragedies, including the loss Ami z”l – my wife of 27 years – from catastrophic brain damage, which I discuss in detail in my first book, Jewish Prayers of Hope and Healing. read more

Faith in Religion, Confidence in Science

Monday, June 22, 2015 @ 11:06 AM
posted by Roger Price

Credit: Yale

In response to a theoretical physicist’s article regarding developments in cosmology and the then current debate about whether the universe had a finite age or was in a steady state without beginning or end, the Lubavitcher Rebbe, Rabbi Menachem Mendel Schneerson, initiated a brief but revealing correspondence. The correspondence was prompted by Schneerson’s deep concern over what he considered to be widespread misconceptions about science and his perceived urgent need to correct those misunderstandings. In this correspondence, Schneerson demonstrated an expected devotion to the text of the Torah and traditions relating to it, but also a certain and perhaps unexpected awareness of technical issues, for instance whether light was an electro-magnetic wave or “corpuscular” or both. More importantly, in the course of the correspondence, he articulated his approach to faith and science and what some asserted was a conflict between them.

Schneerson thought the purported conflict was the result of a misconception of the nature of science. The “sciences,” he said, “are at bottom nothing more than assumptions, work hypotheses and theories which are only ‘probable’ . . . .”  By contrast, he viewed “religious truths” as “definitive and categorical.” Consequently, science could not challenge religion because “science can never speak in terms of absolute truth.”  read more

Is This Really the Torah God Gave Moses at Sinai? (Part II)

Sunday, January 4, 2015 @ 02:01 PM
posted by Roger Price

The idea that 3300 years ago, at Sinai, God gave Moses a Torah identical to the Torah we have today is a powerful concept, one that still resonates. But is it probable, even plausible?

Previously, to explore this idea, we have taken the text of the Torah as we have it today and looked at issues of content, language and script. We have already found that the Torah we have not only makes no claim as to its original content, but that internal evidence from the Tanakh strongly suggests that whatever Moses may have written and conveyed at the end of his life was limited in scope. Moreover, external evidence from archeological and other sources indicates that Moses’s sefer haTorah was not written in either the language or the script that a contemporary Torah is. In this post, we look at the transmission of a presumed original Torah, focusing on security for the object and textual variations.

Securing the transmission of the originally inscribed text

Let’s start with the medium of Moses’s inscription of the sefer haTorah that our Torah says Moses wrote just before he died (see Deut. 31:9, 24-26) and the security afforded the resulting work. Our Torah does not say precisely whether Moses chiseled the words into stone, wrote them with a stylus in wet clay or used a quill on parchment or papyrus.  If the entire Torah as we know it was inscribed on stone or clay tablets, there must have been many of them to include almost 80,000 words containing over 300,000 letters. If one or more scrolls were used, the material involved must have been sizable as well. In any event, it is certainly hard to imagine the 120 year old Moses chiseling, pressing or writing that much text as he was about to die.  read more

A Nice Jewish Shot: Why Vaccinations are Kosher and Required

Thursday, June 19, 2014 @ 09:06 PM
posted by Roger Price

Let’s face it. Sometimes you can deny certain established scientific truths and it does not make much difference. You can, for instance, believe that the Earth was created about 6,000 years ago and life as we know it will still go on. OK, maybe Jon Stewart and certain professors and pundits will make fun of you, but as the little redhead Annie always reminds us, “the sun’ll come out tomorrow, bet your bottom dollar, that tomorrow there’ll be sun.”

If, however, you deny the safety and efficacy of approved medical vaccinations designed to prevent harmful, debilitating, even deadly diseases, such as polio, measles, hepatitis and tetanus, your belief may well make a great deal of difference to you, your family, your community and, indeed, all of humanity.

And yet, there are those who for a variety of reasons refuse to inoculate themselves or their children, or both, even when established governmental authorities require such action. While it is tempting to stereotype all such persons as undereducated or acting out of ignorance, some are not. Aside from the rare situations based on the medical condition of the child, some people object to a particular vaccine or procedure.  Others have broader religious, philosophical and personal beliefs that militate against inoculations. (See, e.g., here and here.) Some even may be part of an otherwise socially conscious community. read more

The Intriguing, Seductive and Ultimately Unsatisfying Anthropic Principle

Friday, May 30, 2014 @ 11:05 AM
posted by Roger Price

Magnetic Milky Way

Credit: ESA and the Plank Collaboration

Some believers in a traditional deity deny, or at least are skeptical about, certain claims of science. The issue may be the origin of the universe in a Big Bang, the age of the universe, the nature of the evolution of life on Earth or some other proposition.  In these instances, the believers see science as inconsistent with, even in opposition to, a sacred truth revealed in some literature such as the Torah, the Christian Bible or the Qur’an, and therefore should be rejected.

On other occasions, though, believers will embrace science. They will hear that the initial conditions of the universe, certain laws of nature or the location and chemistry of our planet are set within a limited range that allows for human existence — a proposition sometimes called the Anthropic Principle (i.e., relating to humankind) — and take those conditions and characteristics as proof of a personal god. They will understand a “fine-tuned” universe as demonstrating, or at least strongly implying, the existence of a Fine-Tuner, a Devine Designer. read more

The Coyne Wars Reach Einstein

Sunday, March 9, 2014 @ 10:03 AM
posted by Roger Price

Q: What do Jonathan Sacks, Ross Douthat and Albert Einstein have in common?

A:  Let’s see. The first is the former Chief Rabbi of the United Hebrew Congregations of the British Commonwealth, the second is a New York Times based columnist who writes frequently    about religion, and the third was the pre-eminent physicist of the twentieth century, responsible for teaching us how light can bend, time can slow, and mass and energy can convert into each other.

Oh, I know. In recent months, Jerry Coyne, biology professor at the University of Chicago, and author of the excellent book Why Evolution is True, has written critically of each.

In the cases of Sacks and Douthat, Coyne was responding to an essay. Rabbi Sacks’ piece appeared in The Spectator under the title “Chief Rabbi: atheism has failed. Only religion can defeat the new barbarians.” In it, Rabbi Sacks railed against two forces he saw as detrimental to an enduring, moral society: first, the idolatry of “the market, the liberal democratic state and consumer society,” aided and abetted by tone deaf, humorless secularists, the “new atheists,” and, second, a religious fundamentalism which combines into a toxic brew “the hatred of the other, the pursuit of power and contempt for human rights.” read more

The Conflict over Whether Judaism and Science Conflict

Thursday, January 30, 2014 @ 01:01 PM
posted by Roger Price

From time to time, like when an itch just needs to be scratched or a roiling cauldron must overflow, essays are written and debates ensue over the question of whether there is a conflict between Judaism and science. The direct answer to the question depends to a considerable degree on how one defines Judaism, and to a lesser degree on how one defines science. But discussions about the topic, even from Jewish perspectives, often miss that basic point.

Recently Moment Magazine asked nine rabbis the following question: “In what ways, if any, do science and Judaism conflict?” The rabbis were apparently selected as representative of, though not necessarily representatives of, various orientations and denominations. Moment even ordered their responses as if there were a spectrum of Jewish thought from Independent to Humanist, Renewal, Reconstructionist, Reform, Conservative, Modern Orthodox, Orthodox, and, ultimately, Chabad. (Parenthetically, whether this means that Moment believes that Reform is at the center of Jewish opinion is unknown.)  The rabbis’ responses are illustrative of the problem inherent in these kinds of discussions. read more

Jewish Sociology: Chicken Little, Chicken Soup and the Reform Moment

Thursday, December 26, 2013 @ 05:12 PM
posted by Roger Price

Almost half a century ago, a cover story in Look Magazine described “The Vanishing American Jew.” Extrapolating from demographic trends on intermarriage, birth rates and generational assimilation, the author predicted that the Jewish community in America would blend in and disappear before the end of the century.

One year later, 1965, the General Assembly of the Jewish Federations in North America, invited Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel to speak. This was the first time that Heschel had been invited to address the GA. Among other things, Heschel reportedly urged that two words be banned from future dialog: survey and survival.

These events are important to remember a half century later as the Jewish American community seeks to digest the meaning of the data collected by the Pew Research Center in its recent study of Jewish Americans (the “Pew Portrait”).  The study has been criticized here and elsewhere on its methodology.  But with rare exception, nobody doubts the importance and value of the data collected by Pew. Yet, informative as the data are regarding the state of the Jewish American community, as telling are the many and diverse responses to the Portrait. In just a few short months, Pew has become a sort of Rorschach test. read more

JEWISH SOCIOLOGY: PEW’S IMPRECISE AND MISLEADING CONSTRUCT OF “JEWS OF NO RELIGION”

Monday, November 25, 2013 @ 04:11 PM
posted by Roger Price

Credit: Pew Research Center

Of the many interesting aspects of the recently released survey of Jewish Americans by the Pew Research Center (the “Pew Portrait”), perhaps none is more troubling than the distorted bisection  of American Jews into two primary sub-groups, one labeled “Jews by religion” and the other “Jews of no religion.” Once those designations were established, Pew, among other things, then sought to determine whether members of the two sub-groups had different attitudes or characteristics, whether, for instance, a person assigned to one sub-group was more likely or less likely to believe or behave differently than a person assigned to the other.

How large is the group of “Jews of no religion?” Pew found that about one fifth of adult American Jews (totaling approximately 1.2 million individuals) were Jews of “no religion” and that among Jews born after 1980 (“Jewish Millennials”) the fraction increases to one in every three. (See Portrait, at 7, 23, 32/214.) Pew’s survey director reportedly said that the rise in the number of Jews “of no religion” was the most significant finding of the study.

Just as one might expect, as soon as the Pew Portrait was published, the commentary class waxed wise on Pew’s findings about the Jews of no religion. Much of the concern expressed was about related findings that Jews of no religion were less connected to the Jewish community, less likely to be involved in Jewish organizations and less likely to raise their children as Jewish. (See Portrait, 60-62, 67-69/214.)

In all the hubbub, an important fact seems to have been overlooked: not only is the label “Jews of no religion” awkward, nowhere in the more than two hundred pages of the Pew Portrait does Pew precisely define what it means by “religion.” Pew’s failure to do so has created unnecessary ambiguity and confusion and muddled its survey results. At one point Pew says that Jews of no religion are “also commonly called secular or cultural Jews.” (See Portrait, at 8/214.) But those characterizations were not offered as primary choices in Pew’s survey questionnaire.  (See Portrait, at 177, 186/214.) A look at the survey, beyond the executive summary, reveals some of the problems of Pew’s binary construct which is, perhaps, more provocative than probative. read more

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