The Contexts for the Torah & Science Conferences

The Contexts for the Torah & Science Conferences
Nathan Katz
Florida International University and
Chaim Yakov Shlomo College of Jewish Studies

Ever since the first Miami International Torah & Science Conference (T&S) was held in 1987, the Orthodox Jewish world has been engaged in a vivacious set of conversations taking place simultaneously all around the globe, organized within numerous religious communities. These conferences have placed our Torah-orientation deliberations squarely within one of the most important explorations of our day: understanding the relationship between religion and science (1).

Chabad-Lubavitch context

T&S conferences were the brainchild of the visionary leader, Rabbi Menachem M. Schneerson, the Seventh Lubavitcher Rebbe, who commissioned two of his most eminent disciples, Professor Herman Branover of Ben Gurion University and Rabbi Sholom Dovber Lipskar, spiritual leader of The Shul in Surfside, Florida, to lead the effort.

When the Rebbe saw the program for the first such conference, he circled the word ‘relativity’ in the conference subtitle [which remains ‘Absolute Standards in a World of Relativity’]. The Rebbe noted that Einstein’s research probed the nature of light. Just as the speed of physical light provides a measure of absoluteness to the physical world, the light of Torah commandments, invoked by kindling the Chanukkah candles [when the conferences are held], signifies another level of absoluteness (2).

From the very beginning, the first twelve conferences based these discussions on the notion that religion and science bear parallel structures of absoluteness and relativity, and so Torah can and should inform our study of the sciences, just as science informs our Torah learning.

There are two fundamental paradigms of the relationship between religion and science that guide our explorations today. The first is one of complementarity, and perhaps none other than Albert Einstein most succinctly expressed this idea. He famously opined, “Science without religion is lame [and] religion without science is blind.” (3) In this view, science and religion function similarly in different realms or discourses. One might conclude that science enables us to describe and directly affect the physical world, while religion advises us of the value of what we are doing.

The Alter Rebbe, Shneur Zalman, author of the foundational Chabad text The Tanya, offered a deceptively similar viewpoint. In it, he wrote that “secular knowledge is itself a neutral activity; its value lies in its purpose. Practical purpose; to earn a living. Higher purpose: understanding G-d’s will and doing His work”.(4)

Einstein and the Alter Rebbe are making similar yet distinct points. Like Einstein, the Alter Rebbe held that science carries a dual structure, a structure of purpose. Secular knowledge of science can be pursued for a practical purpose alone, but it can also be used as a key to unlock G’d’s Will if not His very essence.

The Seventh Rebbe, steeped in both secular science and Jewish mysticism, especially as propounded by his predecessor, the Alter Rebbe. The Seventh was trained in Europe and America. In Berlin and Paris he studied technology and calculus, earning his degree in the latter city, and in New York earned a living as an engineer with the United States Navy.(5)

He intuited such dual parallels frequently. Science informed his reading of Tanakh. For example, he commented on Malachi 2:10, “Where we once believed the world to be made up of a multitude of different elements, through examining substance at the sub-atomic level we find that they are all built of the same matter. This demonstrates the tremendous unity of creation”.(6)

He took this insight a step further when contemplating nuclear weapons.  Discussing the atomic bomb and marveling how such awesome power is found inside the tiniest of realities, the Rebbe said it was the same as the soul, which has the power to change the world. For example, when discussing nuclear weapons, he commented that atoms when detonated release previously unimaginable energy, and so too the individual souls when opened release a similarly unimaginable spiritual energy. (7) Enough to bring the Messiah!

We will return to this fascinating dual structure toward the end of this essay when we introduce a quantum approach to knowledge. For the present, we proceed to survey and understand other conversations around the world that also seek to elucidate the complex relationship between religion and science.

The Global Context

The Torah and Sciences conferences are mirrored around the world, even though most such endeavors are not know to the others. To best understand these discussions, we must view their context: namely, the interactions between science on the one hand, and religion –either a specific religion or religions generally. We offer that these discussions are impacting the theological development, ethical systems, and social meaning of religions in the twenty-first century.

We will consider six institutes, each of which has a web page. Two of them are secular – the John Templeton Foundation and the University of California at Berkeley’s “Understanding Science” project. We will then evaluate religiously based organizations, one Christian, one Buddhist, one Hindu, and one Jain. Taken together, these indicate the global context for the Torah and Science conferences.

The John Templeton Foundation

Perhaps the leading institution that studies the interrelations between religion and science is the John Templeton Foundation. (8) Founded in 1987, the Foundation’s vision intertwines religion and spirituality.

Our vision is one of infinite scientific and spiritual progress, in which all people aspire to and attain a deeper understanding of the universe and their place in it. We look forward to a world where people are curious about the wonders of the universe, motivated to pursue lives of meaning and purpose, and overwhelmed by great and selfless love.

The Foundation pursues this vision largely by awarding the Prestigious Prize, by a publications program, and by support through often generous grants research and projects about “Science & the Big Questions,” “Character Virtue Development,” “Individual Freedom & Free Markets,” “Exceptional Cognitive Talent & Genius,” “Genetics,” and “Voluntary Family Planning.” Much of the Foundation’s efforts go to education, especially projects that cross-disciplinary and cultural boundaries and that engage the public. We had the pleasure of hearing from two Templeton awardees over the years: Professor James Huchingson of Florida International University, and Professor Nathan Aviezer of Bar-Ilan University, both of whom received an award to develop curricula about religion and science.

The University of California at Berkeley’s “Understanding Science” Project

On a much more modest scale is Berkeley’s program to enhance science education, (9) with a track for science and religion. (10) The latter section emphasizes the point that science and religion are “reconcilable,” citing physicist Francis Collins: “One of the greatest tragedies of our time is this impression that science and religion have to be at war.”(11) In this, the Berkeley project echoes the assumptions and the conclusions of most of the institutes active globally today.

The Dalai Lama’s Mind and Life Institute

Perhaps the best known and even most influential of all religion and science in the Mind and Life Institute (12) founded and inspired by His Holiness the XIVth Dalai Lama. Similar to the Templeton Foundation, the Min and Life Institute is based on the integration of religion (or ‘spirituality’) and science, neuroscience in particular. “The mission of the Mind & Life Institute is to alleviate suffering and promote flourishing by integrating science with contemplative practice and wisdom traditions.”(13)

The Institute began “. . . in 1987 from a meeting of three visionaries: Tenzin Gyatso, the 14th Dalai Lama — the spiritual leader of the Tibetan people and a global advocate for compassion; Adam Engle, a lawyer and entrepreneur; and Francisco Varela, a neuroscientist. While the trio understood that science had become the dominant framework for investigating the nature of reality — and the modern source for knowledge that could help improve the lives of humans and the planet — the three regarded this approach as incomplete. Whereas science relies on empiricism, technology, “objective” observation, and analysis, the Dalai Lama, Engle, and Varela were convinced that well-refined contemplative practices and introspective methods could, and should, be used as equal instruments of investigation — instruments that would not only make science itself more humane but also ensure its conclusions were far-reaching. The Mind & Life Institute was formed to bridge this divide and advance progress in human well-being.”

In the ensuing three decades, it has become a world leader in the multidisciplinary study of consciousness. It goes without saying that Buddhism has for millennia formulated models and analyses of consciousness, so its interest in neuroscience is a natural. Indeed, neuroscience has become a leading resource for understanding religion, spirituality, consciousness, and related topics. In no small way, there has been an indirect link between the Mind and Life Institute and the Torah and Science conferences, which tend to feature neuroscience prominently in its deliberations. The Mind and Life Institute was started with funds awarded to the Dalai Lama as part of his Nobel Peace prize, and it has sponsored scores of significant neurology-meditation seminars, conferences and workshops.

In part inspired by the pioneering work of the Mind and Life Institute, our conferences have explored the links between neuroscience and spirituality. Professor Kenneth Heilman (14) of the University of Florida and Professor David Drubach (15) of the Mayo Institute have edified us about the cutting edges of neuroscientific research into aspects of religion and spirituality, and Professor Drubach’s talks on neuroscience and meditation, creativity, and resilience parallel many of the Mind and Life Institute’s concerns.

Scientific Creationism: International Society for Complexity, Information, and Design

There have been many conversations between Christianity and the sciences, including environmentalism and attempts to develop an environmentalist Christian theology.

In the United States especially, many such conversations have centered on the controversies between Darwin and biblical creation stories. This issue has appeared, receded, and reappeared in the American political landscape for more than a century, and the most recent formulation is known a “scientific creationism”

The nation’s leading proponent of scientific creation is Professor William A. Dembski (16) of Southern Evangelical Seminary in North Carolina. Dembski, who holds advanced degrees in mathematic and in theology, is author of perhaps the most influential work in the field, Intelligent Design: The Bridge between Science and Theology. (17) As Dembski has written, “Intelligent Design opens the whole possibility of us being created in the image of a benevolent G-d.” (18)

Our conference on genetic engineering and human cloning (1999) featured an extended discussion of teaching in religiously oriented schools, and our audience included many teachers and administrators from Jewish and Christian schools, as well as some of their students. This is a topic that obviously affects private education in the United States.

Hinduism and Quantum Physics

In its website of the same name (19), literally dozens of scientific topics are explored within a Hindu context. The most compelling field compares Hinduism’s elaborate metaphysical systems with contemporary science, especially quantum physics.

Hinduisms non-dualistic threads posit an underlying reality behind/beneath all phenomena, known as Brahman, and Brahmas is equated with Consciousness (cit). This stance, as the web site argues “The basic oneness of the universe is not only the central characteristic of the mystical experience, but is also one of the most important revelations of modern physics”.

This key point equating the physical university with consciousness is elaborated: “They force us to consider that the entire notion of a purely objective world is in conflict not only with the theory of quantum mechanics, but with the facts drawn from actual experiments. These findings point insistently to a profound interaction between conscious mental activity and the physical world itself.”

Similar to the Mind and Life Institute’s focus on neuroscience and spirituality / meditation, the Hindu discussion views the essential connection in terms of metaphysics and ontology, while the Buddhists pay attention to human experience in meditation and other forms of spirituality. Both the Hindu and Buddhist discussions have been received very well in scientific communities, and were reflected by Yaakov Friedman of Jerusalem College of Technology in his “scientific search for ‘oneness’ on the world.”(20)

Jainism and Environmental Science

Jainism is not well known outside of India. It is a minority tradition, borrowing much from Hinduism (and Buddhism) while remaining quite distinct in its community, its practice, and its view of Nature. Jainism is among the smallest religions in the world, with fewer than 10,000,000 adherents. In some senses, historically it is similar to Judaism: both are extremely small, yet both have introduced world-changing insights. The Jewish contribution is, clearly, the introduction of monotheism, which shaped its daughter religions, Christianity and Islam, and its impact has reverberated around the world. The cardinal, foundational principle in Jainism is non-violent or ahimsa. All Jain doctrine and practice follows from ahimsa, so non-violence (or, more correctly, non-harm) underlies its ethics. All life (jiva) is to be guarded – human life, animal life, plant life, and even the air, the waters, a stone. This ethical principle finds its fullest expression today in environmentalism.

One of the best Jainism websites (21) is dedicated more to metaphysics (like the Hindu site mentioned above), but suggests a discussion of Jainism and the Environment.

Like Hinduism (and unlike Buddhism), Jainism has creative and sustained interest in metaphysics, but the trend in the Jain world is clearly toward the environment. Yet, we could discover no web page dedicated to this exploration, although scholars such as Christopher Chappel (22) of Loyola Marymount University and Pankaj Jain (23) of the University of North Texas have been leading both Jains and environmentalists to regard each other well. A very clear overview of Jainism and environmentalism was written by Dr. L. M. Singhvi, his attempt at a Jain statement of environmental principles.(24)

As Jainism is not taught in most western universities, the Jain contribution to environmental thinking has been a bit slow getting off the group. As knowledge of Jainism spreads, we can anticipate that this discussion will become increasingly mainstream in years to come. The Torah and Science conference are part of this global conversation, as taught by Manfred Gerstenfeld of the Jerusalem Center for Public Affairs at the Tenth conference in 2013.(25)

Islam and Science

One simply does not find the types of discussion oriented web sites in the Muslim world that are really comparable to the web sites we have bee discussing. Nevertheless, there are many Internet sources available that provide data for assessing the state of the conversation in Islam.

A number of scholars, the foremost among them the prolific Seyyed Hossein Nasr have examined the role of science within Islam. Among his more than forty books readily found on the Internet, more than half a dozen are on Islam and Science (26). Historical approaches to the role of science within Islam are available of the Internet.(27)

Despite the richness of sources, there is little contemporary discussion. As my friend, an academic imam put it to me: “I do not know of any in English. I know of the azharite view that posits the Quran is not a book on science and that anything that people use to show science is speculative and fraught with danger. As the shaykh asked, will you then change a theory when one of your views is proven wrong? Khalid abu el Fadl’s books are along these lines in some areas. Much of the apologetic out there about ‘Quran knowing about x before such and such was discovered’ is just absolute nonsense. The Quran could not tell people what they did not know; it had to tell them what was established IN THEIR TIME by resorting to those whom they considered wise, or by their own research (a problematic term given we are speaking of desert seventh century denizens).” (28)

One web site on Islam deals with topics such as astronomy, cosmology, geology, biology, and reproduction.(29) Another website includes an essay that discusses the role of science and Islam as a source for both inspiration and knowledge.(30)

The Context of Judaism and Science

To return to our initial question about the general relation between religion and science, we return to Chabad’s foremost source text, the Rambam (Moses ben Maimon, Maimonides, 1135?-1204). A physician who wrote not only ten treatises about medical science, he also wrote on geometry and physics. His impact on our conferences, however, was more his overall view of this fundamental relationship. Most thinkers have either held science and religion to be disconnected, or perhaps complementary, in this essay the complementary view is represented by exemplified by Einstein. As we turn toward Heisenberg’s view to be discussed, that science at depth converges with religion, we will briefly consider Maimonides’ nuanced view of their relation.

Of course, some of the Rambam’s opinions about science are well-known: that his premise was to reconcile Aristotle and science with Torah; that he wrote widely on scientific issues; that he greatly influenced the fecund work of medieval Islamic science; and that he scorned astrology not only because it is unscientific, but also because it is a form of idolatry in that it ascribes power to a source other than G-d.(31)

We will focus on his use of the concepts of ma’aseh bereshit, literally the “work of creating,” and ma’aseh merkavah, or “work of the chariot,” a traditional allusion to mysticism. The Rambam took these concepts to be in Aristotelian terms “physics” and “metaphysics.” (32) Today, we might call them “science” and “spirituality” respectively. Kellner opines, based on the Guide of the Perplexed: “Metaphysics is on some important level unknowable, physics… is mutable… Is there not a problem with an unknowable science and a mutable serving as ‘principles’ for an immutable body of law?” (33)

The Rambam also held that our knowledge of physics, or the natural sciences, is gradually unfolding by our development of increasingly useful models which continually refine our understanding of the natural world. From there he takes the same step that his Muslim colleagues (notably al-Farabi, ibn-Sinha, and ibn-Rushd) took, that science gives us both inspiration and knowledge. Reversing that order, the Rambam taught that through increasingly accurate scientific models, we gradually come to understand something of the nature of G-d, or at least of G-d’s Will. As the Rambam is studied especially closely in Chabad, we offer that this point underlies the Alter Rebbe’s view expressed in The Tanya, cited above.

In short, the Jewish position (at least that of the Rambam, the Alter Rebbe, and an assumption of the Torah and Science conferences) is that as we increase our scientific knowledge (ma’aseh bereshit) we glimpse mystical knowledge (ma’aseh merkavah). Or, as Keller concludes his fine study, “… as long as science does not refute the existence, unity, and incorporeality of G-d –and it appears there is no way that it could – progress in the sciences is no way threatens obedience to the commandments… In fact, I would go further and say that scientific progress, in bringing one close to the truth, enables one to better observe the commandments.”(34)

Conclusions and the Quantum

The Torah and Science conferences explore timeless questions with contemporary approaches; thus, they are subtitled as “Absolute Standards in an Age of Relativity,” an echo of the Rambam’s and the Alter Rebbe’s musings.

The starting point for such discussions is Einstein’s view that both Science and Religion are necessary for understanding and positively impacting our world. We need to learn both “how to see” and “how to walk.”

Turning on the Rambam’s analysis, we move from Albert Einstein to Werner Heisenberg, the founder of Quantum Physics. Heisenberg wrote: “The first gulp of natural sciences will make you an atheist, but at the bottom of the glass G-d is waiting for you.” (35) At first, science informs us about nature, and we become enamored of its truth to the extent that it sublates other truths, such as religion or mysticism. If we stop there, science becomes a new Tower of Babel, a monument to human ego. However, when we master science enough, we also become drunk – but we are then not drunk with arrogance but with Divine Intoxication.

(1)  The Torah and Science Conferences were an outgrowth of the Association of Orthodox Jewish Scientists, which held its first such meeting in 1954 in Philadelphia under the leadership of Dr. Elmer Offenbacher. (See www.torahscienceconference.org.)
(2) www.torahscienceconfrence.org (Accessed Jun 12, 2018.) Papers were subsequently published in B’Or HaTorah journal.
(3) www.thequotes.in (Accessed December 2, 2017.)
(4)  Adin Steinsaltz, Opening the Tanya: Discovering the moral and mystical teachings of a classical work of Kabbalah. (New York: Jossey Bass, 2003), p. 45.
(5) Chaim Miller. Turning Judaism Outward: a biography of the Rebbe Menachem Mendel Schneerson. (Brooklyn: Kol Menachem, 2014), p. 144.
(6) Joseph Telushkin. Rebbe: the life and teachings of Menachem Mendel Schneerson, the most influential rabbi in modern history. (New York, Harper, 2017), p. 188.
(7)  Telushkin, Rebbe, pp. 187-188.
(8)  https://www.templeton.org (Accessed most recently on July 9, 2018)
(9) https://undsci.berkeley.edu (Accessed July 9, 2018).
(10) https://undsci.berkeley.edu/article/0_0_/science_religion (Accessed July 9, 2018)
(11) “Science and Religion: Reconcilable Differences.” https://undsci.berkeley.edu/article/0_0_/science_religion (Accessed July 9, 2018)
(12) https://www.mindandlife.org (Accessed most recently July 9, 2018).
(13) https://www.mindandlife.org/mission (Accessed July 9, 2018)
(14)  Kenneth M. Heilman. “Jewish Creativity: Possible Brain Mechanisms.” XIIth International Conference on Torah and Science, held at The Shul Surfside, FL. 21-42 December 2017.
(15) Daniel A. Drubach. “Neuroscience of Free Will and Freedom of Choice.” XIIth International Conference on Torah and Science, held at The Shul, Surfside, FL. 21-24 December 2017.
(16) William A. Dembski – https://www.closertotruth.com/contributor/williama-dembski/profile.com
(17) William A. Dembski. Intelligent Design: The Bridge between Science and Theology. Downers Grove, IL: InerVarsity Press, 1999.
(18) “Scientific creationism” = https://www.ScientificCreationism.com
(19) http://www.hinduism.co.za/hinduism.htm
(20) Yaakov Friedman, “Unification of Laws of Nature by Extending Relativity.” Read at the XIIth International Conference on Torah and Science,” at The Shul, Surfside, Florida, 21-24 December 2017.
(21) http://www.spaceandmotion.com/Religion-Jainism.htm
(22) Christopher Key Chapel. ”The Living Cosmos of Jainism: A Traditional Science Grounded in Environmental Ethics.” Daedalus 130, 4 (2001): 207-224.
(23) Pankaj Jain. “Dharma and Ecology of Hindu Communities” Sustenance and Sustainability.” http://www.academia.edu/366233/Dharma_and_Ecology_of_Hindu_Communities_Sustenance_and_Sustainability
(24) Dr. L. M. Singhvi. “The Jain Declaration on Nature.” http://Jainworld.com/jainbooks/Books/Jaindecl.htm
(25) Manfred Gertsenfeld. “The Jewish Perspective on the World as a Resource.” Read at the Xith Torah and Science Conference, December 13-16, 2013, Surfside Florida.
(26) Among Nasr’s foundational works are: Science and Civilization in Islam (1968); Islamic Science 1976); Western Science and Asian Cultures (1986); The Need for a Sacred Science (1993); Religion and the Order of Nature (1996); and Islam, Science, Muslims, and Technology (2007).
(27) “Islamic attitudes towards science.” https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Islamic_attitudes_towards_science (Accessed 6 August 2018). There is an especially good bibliography appended to this essay.
(28) The author of the e-mail dated July 30, 2018 will remain anonymous.
(29) https://www.whyslam.org/on-faith/the-quran-and-modern-science Accessed June 24 2018).
(30) Muhammad Abdul Jabbar Beg. “Origins of Islamic Science.” https://www.musimheritage.com/article/origins_islamic_science (Accessed 30 July 2018).
(31) Menachem Kellner, “Maimonides’ Allegiances to Science and Judaism.” The Torah U-Madda Journal 7 (1997): 88-104, p. 94.
(32) Kellner. “Maimonides’ Allegiances to Science and Judaism,” p. 92.
(33) Kellner. “Maimonides’ Allegiances to Science and Judaism,” p. 93.
(34) Kellner. “Maimonides’ Allegiances to Science and Judaism,” p. 100.
(35) https://www.goodreads.com/author/quotes/64309.Werner_Heisenberg