At Congregation Shir Hadash in Los Gatos, science is a familiar field: Two-thirds of the congregants work in science or in a profession that is aided by a scientific background. But even before there was a place called Silicon Valley, Jews have had a relationship to science that dates back centuries.
Historically, choosing religion over science has “never [been] the Jewish way,” says Rabbi Melanie Aron of Shir Hadash. “Jews come out on the side of science. We were meant to use our intellect.”
Starting next month, the shul will present opportunities to examine the interface between science and Judaism with the public series “Scientists in Synagogues.” The aim of the seminars is to start conversations about crucial issues relating to science, society and Jewish values.
The Sept. 1 kickoff event will include three short films that delve into the compatibility of science with religion, followed by discussion groups. One of the films is “Awe and Wonder” and another features actress, neuroscientist and observant Jew Mayim Bialik, a strong advocate for both Judaism and science.
Shir Hadash isn’t the only synagogue around the country offering this program, but the Reform congregation is part of a group of 12 (the only one in the Bay Area) chosen recently by a national Jewish science initiative called Sinai and Synapses to be a host.
The 5-year-old initiative is being run under the auspices of the National Jewish Center for Learning and Leadership, which goes by the acronym CLAL and whose vision statement is: “We dream of a world where Jewish wisdom is a public good that is accessible to all.”
Sinai and Synapses was founded in 2013 by New York-based Rabbi Geoffrey A. Mitelman, the project’s director. (“Jeopardy!” fans might remember him from his 2016 appearance on the game show, where he finished second.)
“Clearly, the Jewish community has a tremendous interest in science,” Mitelman says. “We often say that the challenge is not to get Jews excited about science — it’s to get them excited about Judaism. ‘Scientists in Synagogues’ uses science as an entry point in the Jewish community, and asks the scientists to share their work and their passion in the context of a Jewish setting.”
The program, which had its first run in 2016-17, is held in consultation with the American Association for the Advancement of Science’s Dialogue on Science, Ethics and Religion.
The 12 synagogues in the program represent a cross-section of the Jewish community: six Conservative synagogues, four Reform, one Orthodox and one Reconstructionist. Each receives mentorship, guidance and $3,600 for expenses, and must run a minimum of two programs between July 2018 and December 2019.
The Shir Hadash leadership hopes to examine ethics, the place of science in society and the approach Jews may take when the scientific process leads to conclusions that may challenge religious beliefs.
Fred Berkowitz, a tech entrepreneur who serves on Shir Hadash’s “Scientists in Synagogues” planning committee, believes the program will engage people with many different levels of scientific knowledge.
“I’ve been in technology a long time, before cellphones and ATMs, and I have wondered philosophically about how technology has affected us,” Berkowitz says. “I love Jewish traditions, but I don’t know what kind of guidance I can get from Jewish texts or from looking at religion and how it applies to technology.”
Aron says that because Jews don’t read the Bible literally, there were no conflicts with biblical text when new findings emerged about, for example, evolution or climate change.
“Perhaps the best example of the reconciliation of science and religion in Judaism is in the work of Moses Maimonides,” she said. “A physician and philosopher as well as a rabbi, he insisted that God intended that we use our reason to reinterpret the Torah, even drastically, to make it accord with the truth as best established by human reason.”
The Sept. 1 program is subtitled “Can a scientific outlook be compatible with ‘Avinu Malkeinu’?” The notice for the event explains that it will focus “on how we approach the traditions of the High Holy Day period given the specific mindset of most members of the Jewish community since studies show that, unlike Christians, when Jews feel that science and religion conflict, they choose science overwhelmingly.”
Other focal points will include privacy, the impact of social media and artificial intelligence.
“I struggle how to reconcile all of the issues technology presents,” Berkowitz says. “What is the impact of technology on the younger generation? Has technology been a net benefit or a net loss? And what guidance can Judaism bring to the conversation? There is a lot of juicy material and I would love to understand where religious guidance would help.”
Shir Hadash leaders are hoping “Scientists in Synagogues” reaches people whose Jewish education might have ended after their b’nai mitzvah.
“They left Judaism at a concrete stage,” Aron says. “They developed intellectually in their secular life, but not in their Jewish life. I hope this gives people a chance to think through how they feel about Judaism on an adult level. If we can reach our members and speak their language, we can tell them they don’t have to turn off their brain to be Jewish.”