Is science at war with religion?

Rabbi Geoffrey A. Mitelman has devoted his career to showing that not only are those two forces for good in the world not at war with each other, but in fact they work together.

He has founded an institute, Sinai and Synapses, to help connect those two worlds, and to help people see the connection. And he will talk about it tonight when he delivers the 2014 Rabbi Joshua Trachtenberg Memorial Lecture at Temple Emeth in Teaneck.

Rabbi Geoffrey MitelmanRabbi Mitelman, who was ordained at Hebrew union College-Jewish Institute for Religion in Cincinnati, until recently was a pulpit rabbi in New York’s suburban Westchester County. Sinai and Synapses, his brainchild, was incubated at Clal – The National Center for Jewish Learning and Leadership.

“Sinai and Synapses aims to give people tools and language that is scientifically grounded and spiritually uplifting,” he said. “There is a perception in American society – a false perception – that science and religion are at odds. In fact, most people in the Jewish community don’t see them as in conflict. The question is how they see the relationship between them.”

His organization approaches the question by “looking at the most accurate science that we can, and to say how we can join the best scientific knowledge with the metaphors, ideas, and language that can uplift people, make them feel more holy and more inspired. Ultimately, the way we approach the question of science and religion is to say that they are both human endeavors, and both are designed to help us understand ourselves and our world.”

In Teaneck, Rabbi Mitelman will talk about time, and about memory, which is so closely bound to time’s passing. “There is nothing more Jewish than memory,” he said. “So how does science look at the Jewish idea of memory?

“Memory works in two ways,” he continued. “There is both recalled memory – the kind you see on Jeopardy. Facts. The other is called reconstructed memory; it’s a narrative that we tell ourselves. It’s not necessarily an accurate representation of what happened, but it is designed to help us use the past to affect the future.

“Events from the past are important to the extent that they impact our present and our future. And it’s true of both individual and collective memory.”

“From an evolutionary point of view, it would make sense to remember where the poison berries are, so we don’t eat them down the road. And it also means that at times like Sukkot or Passover, we don’t just say, ‘Wasn’t it sad that we were slaves in the land of Egypt,’ but we think about how what we have learned from being slaves in Egypt can help us make our world better. We can reach out to strangers and help the poor.”

He plans to talk about how we “understand and experience time,” Rabbi Mitelman said. “If you go back 3,000, 4,000, 5,000 years, people could kind of understand the way the sun and the moon and the stars move, and that guided and inspired both science and religion.

“Most of our sense of time is defined by astronomical events. A day is based on the 24 hours that it takes for the earth to rotate on its axis, the month by the time it takes to rotate around the moon, and the year on how long it takes to go around the sun. But the one type of time that we use is not astronomical. That’s the week.

“So Shabbat, and the sense of seven days of the week, is a qualitatively different experience than day, month, or year. How does that influence the way we think about time? How often do we think about something that happened a week ago, or two weeks?”

Every day is too frequent a period for us to be able to reset ourselves, he suggested, “but you have to have a break every certain amount of time.

“We have a short break every week, called Shabbat. Once or twice a year we have a break called vacation.”

So, he said, the question is, “How do we mark time? How do we create units of time?”

This is a particularly Jewish question because Jews, as the 20th century theologian Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel put it, “think in terms of time rather than space,” Rabbi Mitelman said.

He presented a couple planning a wedding as an example. “A wedding can be in almost any place; the Jewish question is what time it can be held.

“And you celebrate Sukkot when it’s time for Sukkot. No matter whether you’re in New York or New Jersey or France or Israel or Antarctica, Sukkot is when Sukkot is. You can celebrate it in any way you want.”

Scientific precision can come to the aid of the calendar-maker, now that technology exists – and has existed for some time – that can tell the split second when a holiday will begin. Because the need to observe the second day of some holidays arose because people in the ancient world did not know exactly when holidays would start – precision was not possible then – “we wonder what that means now.” Is there good reason to do away with holidays’ second days, now that the uncertainty of when the first ones begin is long over?

Rabbi Mitelman came to the idea of Sinai and Synapses serendipitously. He began his undergraduate career at Princeton majoring in math, which he loved. By his sophomore year he had switched to religion and Jewish studies, and eventually that path took him to and through rabbinical school and then onto the pulpit of a Reform synagogue. But “I got very interested in a field called cognitive science, which looks at questions of memory and choices and perception and understanding, and I started to intuit that a lot of these are Jewish questions that can inform Jewish choices, so I started using a lot of scientific studies and research in my sermons and teaching, and it seemed to resonate with my congregation.

“In the Jewish world, there is an emphasis on and embrace of science, and I was able to ground what I was teaching in the most accurate science that we have at this moment, and that can bring enormous value to people’s lives.”

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