Religious Life

Science and Religion – A Weekly Letter From Rabbi Davis – May 31, 2019

Shalom Chaverim,

One of the stories I have been following recently is the spread of measles within the ultra-orthodox community. I find it baffling. Judaism is a tradition that cherishes life. Our Torah commands us, “ushmor nafshekha meod” to keep ourselves safe and our bodies healthy. We are rightly proud of the large numbers of Jewish doctors and scientists. And yet, there are anti-vaccinations rallies among this segment of our community. Why?*

To be sure, there are leaders in the ultra-orthodox community speaking out about the need for vaccinations. At the same time, there is a general devaluation of science in parts of the Jewish world. We see that played out in certain yeshivas where science (and all secular studies) are treated as secondary to religious studies.

Ultra-orthodox Jews are not the only ones infected with an anti-science virus. Tragically, we are seeing it afflict leaders of our nation. The impetus behind their scientific denialism may be different but the effects no less deadly. The administration’s attack on science and its willful disregard of the reality of climate change is tragic. It is also antithetical to Judaism. For Jews, science is not a dirty word. Judaism does not ask us to abdicate our intellect, to silence critical thought. Just the opposite. God wants us to know and understand. Judaism celebrates science if for no other reason than it reveals the complexity and majesty of God’s creation.

In The Great Partnership: Science, Religion and the Search for Meaning, Rabbi Jonathan Sacks contends that, “We need both: science to understand the universe and religion to guide our way within it.” For they answer different questions and offer different insights to our lives: “Science tells us what is. Religion tells us what ought to be. Science describes. Religion beckons, summons, calls. Science practices detachment. Religion is the art of attachment, self to self, soul to soul. Science sees the underlying order of the physical world. Religion hears the music beneath the noise.”

For the sake of our children, our lives, our planet, let us embrace the sacred partnership between religion and science.

Rabbi Alexander Davis

*In 2005, the Rabbinical Assembly voted unanimously to deny exemptions for vaccinations based on religious grounds for students enrolled in the Conservative movement’s Jewish schools. They wrote in part, “Immunization is recognized as a necessary component of basic pediatric care by the overwhelming majority of the medical community. Jewish Law characteristically treats such defining standards of medical practice, based on the best available science, as dispositive.”