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When Judaism Meets Science

 

“a rare masterpiece”
– Rabbi Lawrence Hoffman, HUC

“careful research, passionate analysis, and good sense”
– Rabbi David Teutsch, RRC

“clear, engaging”
– Rabbi Geoffrey Mitelman, Sinai and Synapses

“a tremendous tome”
– Rabbi Wayne Dosick, SpiritTalk Live!

“an absolutely fascinating book”
– Rabbi Richard Address, Jewish Sacred Aging

“scholarly, judicious, and fair–minded . . . and very ‘readable’”
– Ronald W. Pies, MD

“a fresh way to explore Jewish topics . . . useful in teaching adults”
– Rabbi Gail Shuster–Bouskila

“A must read! . . . careful thought and such literary excellence”
– Rabbi Jack Riemer

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Posts Tagged ‘science’

Jews, Judaism and Genetically Modified Crops

Sunday, February 28, 2016 @ 10:02 AM
posted by Roger Price

Credit: USDA

Genetically modified (“GM”) crops are plant products which have been genetically altered for certain traits. Such traits include resistance to viruses, bacteria, fungi, nematodes, insects, herbicides and drought, as well as aspects of product quality like improved yield, nutritional value and longer shelf life.  (See here and here.)

The characterization is somewhat of a misnomer. Modification of biological organisms is not a new process. It has been occurring in nature for billions of years. Indeed, the natural selection of some traits over others is the driving force of biological evolution, the process by which a species over time secures a competitive advantage in its environment. Today, though, the label of GM foods is meant to identify those products that have been modified or engineered by human means.

And yet, the intervention of humans in an otherwise natural process is not new either. Humans have been actively engaged in plant breeding for up to ten thousand years. An Assyrian relief, dated to 870 BCE, illustrates pollination of date palms by man.

Similarly, the Torah tells of Jacob manipulating his flocks of goats and lambs so that he would increase his herd with the fittest among them. (See Gen. 30:31-31:13.)That the author ambiguously attributed Jacob’s success to both magical sticks and God’s miraculous power is irrelevant, for present purposes. What is important is that the story is testament to the reality that at least since the text was written some twenty-five centuries ago, humans have recognized the desirability of and have sought to guide the alteration of existing species in ways thought beneficial. This guided intervention has produced a host of useful and now common food products, but it is, or was, slow, unpredictable, unreliable, costly and inefficient. read more

In the Beginning and In the End

Thursday, October 15, 2015 @ 02:10 PM
posted by Roger Price

Credit: NASA/ESA Hubble Space Telescope.

When the cosmos was about to be created — the fundamental forces of nature being unified in an exceedingly hot, dense point and galaxies, stars, planets, even stable matter itself yet unformed — there was no recognizable space, no measurable time. There was no darkness over the surface of the deep because there was no deep, no surface, no over and no under. No wind hovered over any water, as there was not yet any hydrogen or oxygen, much less any combination of them in the form of water. And there was no wind, either. What there was — all that there was — was chaotic, pulsating Potential.

At some moment, for reasons yet unclear, what was began to change into what is. Gravity separated first from the combined strong nuclear and electroweak forces. Then the strong force emerged and the electroweak force devolved into the electromagnetic force and weak nuclear force. The nascent universe, still small and unbelievably hot and turbulent, was an ever changing soup of energy and sub-atomic particles. It was all good, and about to become better.

Within one second from the mystery of beginning, our mini-universe inflated, and then started to expand. Its temperature dropped from an unfathomably hot state of 100 nonillion degrees Kelvin to only one trillion degrees, but that relative cooling was sufficient for sub-atomic particles to become protons and neutrons and other heavier particles. At the three minute mark, with the temperature now down to a cool billion degrees, particles fused into atomic nuclei, mostly hydrogen nuclei, some helium nuclei and other kinds as well. This, too, was good. 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

Free Will vs. Deterministic Cause and Effect

Thursday, March 19, 2015 @ 11:03 AM
posted by Rabbi Allen S. Maller

For over 3,000 years philosophers and religious thinkers have argued about free will. Some have argued that everything has a material cause that determines all material effects including emotions like fear, love and happiness. Others have argued that there are also subjective mental states like belief, morality and self-identity that influence individual’s reactions to an objective material stimulus.

Now it seems that science has discovered that even worms have free will. If offered a delicious smell, for example, a roundworm will usually stop its wandering to investigate the source, but sometimes it won’t. Just as with humans, the same stimulus does not always provoke the same response, even from the same individual.

New research at Rockefeller University, published online in Cell, offers a new neurological explanation for this variability, derived by studying a simple three-cell network within the roundworm brain. “We found that the collective state of the three neurons at the exact moment an odor arrives determines the likelihood that the worm will move toward the smell. So, in essence, what the worm is thinking about at the time determines how it responds,” says study author Cori Bargmann. “It goes to show that nervous systems aren’t passively waiting for signals from outside, they have their own internal patterns of activity that are as important as any external signal when it comes to generating a behavior.” 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

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 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

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