Science and religion often are thought of as enemies.
Rabbi Geoffrey Mitelman disagrees.
Rabbi Mitelman is the founder of Sinai and Synapses, which boasts of being “Scientifically Grounded. Spiritually Uplifting” and attempts to bridge the chasm between religion, particularly but not exclusively Judaism, and science.
Rabbi Mitelman will speak at Temple Israel in Ridgewood on January 12. (See box.)
As a child, he said, Rabbi Mitelman, 40, was enthralled by both science and religion. He grew up in Westchester County; his parents were leaders of their synagogue, Woodlands Community Temple in White Plains. “I spent a lot of time in the synagogue library” while his parents were at meetings there, he said. He matriculated in Princeton as a math major, but soon he switched to religion and Jewish studies.
After ordination from the Reform movement’s Hebrew Union College in 2007, Rabbi Mitelman got a job as an assistant rabbi at Temple Beth El in Chappaqua, where he found himself bringing science into his sermons.
“When I was teaching or preaching, I would bring in something I read in Scientific American or the New York Times science section,” he said. “A lot of psychology and neuroscience. The congregants were very excited by those conversations. The challenge is not getting Jews excited about science. It’s getting them excited about Judaism.
“A lot of my congregants were engaging more in the science than in their Judaism. They had ambivalent feelings about Judaism and religion. They viewed religion as all those people who fought against science and education.
“I tried to say there’s a more constructive way to think about these questions. A lot of the big questions are human questions, not just religious or science. We need wisdom from where we can find it.”
So Rabbi Mitelman left his synagogue in 2014 and created Sinai and Synapses. It is an organization that promotes the conversation between religion and science.
One of its projects works with select synagogues that have “top-notch amazing” scientists among their members. Those scientists are encouraged to take public roles in their congregations. “We give them a little mentorship and guidance to help them integrate their science work and their Jewish life,” Rabbi Mitelman said.
These scientists are encouraged to speak both in their own synagogues and to other congregations, and to share their work in other ways, including writing on the organization’s blog.
Sinai and Synapses also has a fellowship that brings together scientists, writers, and clergy of different faiths.
“Academics and clergy tend to be isolated from each other,” he said. “There’s wisdom an astrophysicist can give to an Episcopalian priest. There’s wisdom a rabbi can give to a doctoral student. They learn from each other and go out and create content and programs in their own communities that are influenced by their new ideas.”
Rabbi Mitelman hopes to launch a new program to help synagogues “use the science of positive psychology and human flourishing to engage 10- to 17-year-olds.”
Positive psychology “aims to ask, ‘How do we create more meaning and deeper engagement in whatever we’re doing? These are things Judaism talks about all the time. Prayer can create a deeper level of engagement to be fully present. Judaism commands us to turn off our cell phones for Shabbat, for however many hours you actually do that. It creates a deeper level of engagement in whatever you’re doing.”
One focus of positive psychology is building deeper relationships with people — something that is a focus of synagogue life as well.
“Teenagers are looking to create more engagement in their lives,” Rabbi Mitelman said. “They’re looking to thrive, hoping to make a difference in their world, not just tick off the next piece for their college resumes. How can we equip them with some tools to really flourish?”
In recent years, much of the conversation about religion and science has been led by the so-called New Atheists, writers like the biologist Richard Dawkins, who published “The God Delusion” in 2008. How does Rabbi Mitelman respond to them?
“I find that a lot of the New Atheists are absolutely brilliant scientists who tend to have a straw-man argument against religion. They tend to rally their base. They are not bringing the best arguments of one side against the best arguments of the other.
“They’re not interested in talking to a person of a religious persuasion to say, ‘Why do you connect to religion? What value do you find in it?’”
He said that Richard Dawkins paradoxically has “been very detrimental for the teaching of science, because he alienates so many religious people. People tune him out.”
So what would he say if Richard Dawkins asked him why he was religious?
“I see religion as a set of tools and a worldview that provides tremendous joy and tremendous meaning to me,” he said. “It helps give me language to think about things I wouldn’t necessarily know how to articulate. It gives me wonderful texts to be able to grapple with and learn from and interpret and respond to. It helps me give structure to my life with a calendar and ritual. And it allows me to find incredible joy and meaning. It’s not something I would use to be able to understand the origins of the universe, to understand quantum physics or the big bang theory or even evolution. That’s not something I turn to religion for.”
As an example of finding language for experience in religion, Rabbi Mitelman tells of his encounter with the Grand Canyon.
“If you’ve ever been to the Grand Canyon, you can’t really put it into words,” he said. “It’s so massive and old and beautiful. Your jaw drops. I found words from the liturgy. ‘Ma gadlu ma’asecha Yah — How great and how deep are your works, Adonai.’
“Seeing how the Colorado River spent millions and millions of years to create the Grand Canyon. The level of depth we can go into. That allows me to have words not just to describe the Grand Canyon, but to impact how I deal with people. I can ask how I can go deeper when I’m in conversation with others.
“I don’t necessarily believe that God literally made the Grand Canyon, but with religion I can experience something that I wouldn’t have been able to put into words.”
Who: Rabbi Geoffrey Mitelman
What: Rabbi Salkowitz Memorial Lecture and Distinguished Speaker Series
When: Saturday, January 12, 4:30-8 p.m.
Where: Temple Israel, 475 Grove Street, Ridgewood