'They tackle the same questions with different methods'

An empirical haggadah reading? How one US group is mixing science and religion

Sinai and Synapses seeks to disprove the theory that spirituality and science are at odds, with programming that admittedly may leave participants with more questions than answers

Reporter at The Times of Israel

Sinai and Synapses puts science and religion in dialogue. (iStock/ Pict Rider)
Sinai and Synapses puts science and religion in dialogue. (iStock/ Pict Rider)

BOSTON, Massachusetts — Memory takes center stage during Passover, as Jews at the seder table are encouraged to remember the Exodus as if they themselves participated in the millennia-old departure from Egypt.

Can science help people understand the concept of memory as explained in the haggadah, or elsewhere in the Jewish tradition, such as Shabbat Zachor — the Sabbath of Remembrance — before last month’s holiday of Purim? For at least one organization, the answer is yes: Sinai and Synapses, which seeks to build dialogue between science and religion in the United States and beyond.

“So many of the conversations are science versus religion,” said founding director Rabbi Geoff Mitelman. “What I would say is, here is an interesting study on memory or… AI, something people are really thinking about, talking about. Start with those conversations and link in Jewish text and ideas. It seems to resonate with so many different people.”

One way Sinai and Synapses does this is through a similarly alliteratively-named program called Scientists in Synagogues. The name is an apt description. Through the program, which the John Templeton Foundation primarily funds, scientists give presentations in synagogues on pressing issues of the day, while weaving in Jewish-related content. On the weekend before the recent solar eclipse, senior astrophysicist and lecturer at the Harvard & Smithsonian Center for Astrophysics Dr. Howard Smith gave three separate space-themed talks at Temple Israel in Boston, saving his most provocative for the grand finale: “Aliens!? The Truth Is We Are Alone in the Universe.”

Last year, a rabbi and a researcher teamed up on a Passover project through Scientists in Synagogues. Rabbi Binyomin Davis, executive director of the Orthodox congregation Aish Chaim in Philadelphia, and David Keleti, a clinical proposal writer for a Medicaid healthcare company, co-wrote a reflection titled “Re-Enacting and Remembering.” In exploring issues of memory within Passover, the piece incorporated Jewish texts such as the Talmud and the Zohar, as well as the modern science of psychology.

“I think religion and science are framed as in opposition,” founding Sinai and Synapses director Mitelman said. “A battle over what’s truth with a capital T. It’s a categorical error.”

The way he sees it, “science does not give us truth with a capital T but a provisional truth, the most accurate understanding of what’s going on, what’s happening right now.”

An undated photo of a past Sinai and Synapses event. (Courtesy)

A religious viewpoint is different, he adds, citing his perspective on the Book of Genesis and on the Torah in general: “It was not written as a scientific textbook but a text that includes poetry, laws, and stories, and ones that ask profound moral questions such as ‘How do we balance the individual and society, between rights and responsibilities?'”

Religion and science “try to answer the same kind of questions,” he said, “but not use the same methodologies.”

A eureka moment

A decade ago, Mitelman was working as a pulpit rabbi in Westchester County when he had a eureka moment. Fascinated by math and science from an early age, he would sometimes bring STEM-related topics into his sermons, whether a new research study or a headline from The New York Times Science section. This resonated with congregants, inspiring him to create Sinai and Synapses. Today, the organization reaches a worldwide audience from its home base in Manhattan, where it is incubated at Clal – The National Jewish Center for Learning and Leadership.

Sinai and Synapses founding director Rabbi Geoff Mitelman. (Courtesy)

Sinai and Synapses offers programs for both Jewish and interfaith audiences. In the former category, there’s Scientists in Synagogues, which has held events in almost 50 communities across the US and Israel since its inception, and in the latter category, there’s a fellowship open to clergy, scientists and writers from all faith backgrounds.

“Our goal is to lower the temperature around the way people view what science is and what religion is,” Mitelman said. “At the core, they ask the questions, ‘Who am I?’ ‘How do I act in the world?’ ‘What is my responsibility to other people?’ ‘How do I discover what’s accurate and true in the world?’

“We try to address these kinds of questions. Religion and science approach them differently. There’s no one-to-one overlap, but they are in contact… You can be both someone who’s passionate about science, loves science, and also feels very connected to a religious community.”

On the Shabbat morning before the April 8 solar eclipse, congregants at Temple Israel in Boston got to experience a unique Torah lesson. It was led by senior astrophysicist Smith, who discussed the creation and scope of the universe while bringing in perspectives from the Torah, Talmud and kabbalah.

Senior astrophysicist and lecturer at the Harvard & Smithsonian Center for Astrophysics Dr. Howard Smith speaks at a Sinai and Synapses event, at Temple Israel in Boston, Massachusetts, April 5, 2024. (Courtesy)

The talk featured an “armchair tour of the universe” in the synagogue library, with everything scaled down by a factor of 10 billion. A yellow balloon represented the sun. A mustard seed stood in place of the earth. The synagogue was not big enough to accommodate the edge of the solar system — much less the nearest star of Proxima Centauri, which for scale purposes would have been in California.

When Smith discussed the 16th-century kabbalist Meir ibn Gabbai, he focused on ibn Gabbai’s work “Avodat HaKodesh,” specifically on a chapter that discussed how the world was created. Ibn Gabbai contemplated the Hebrew word “Bereshit,” which opens the Torah. The kabbalist noted that it is usually translated as “in the beginning,” but speculated as to whether it could also mean “with the beginning.” It is a key distinction, Smith told the audience, as the latter meaning suggests a single event through which God created the heavens and the earth.

“Beresheit refers to a Big Bang creation,” Smith said. “But it’s not necessarily what all of the rabbis thought at the time. Most of the world believed in an eternal, static cosmos.”

Howard Smith, is a senior astrophysicist and lecturer at the Harvard & Smithsonian Center for Astrophysics. (Courtesy)

Time ran out before he could get to the last topic on the agenda — his thoughts on which blessing to recite for seeing the solar eclipse.

Smith’s resume includes chairing the astronomy department at the National Air and Space Museum at the Smithsonian, as well as writing the 2010 book “Let There Be Light: Modern Cosmology and Kabbalah, A New Conversation Between Science and Religion.”

“He’s very highly recognized, a very respected scientist… a Jewish thinker,” said Temple Israel rabbi and director of congregational learning Suzie Jacobson. “It’s a wonderful opportunity… I’m very passionate about this, very excited.”

“I felt like it’s such a rich, interesting conversation,” Jacobson said, “to talk about kabbalah, Jewish mysticism and thought, and also look at astrophysics and other scientific exploration of the cosmos.”

ET gets no phone or home

Smith is not shy in expressing bold statements, including strong doubts that humanity will meet other intelligent life in the universe — which he expressed in his concluding talk.

“Most scientists assume we’re just a commonplace chemical accident, that of course chemical accidents can happen anyplace,” Smith told The Times of Israel. “There are gazillions of planets in the universe.”

He added, “I’m from the perspective that’s a religious perspective: Let’s be honest, this is an assumption, an unproven assumption, that is, that life is not only a chemical accident but an accident that happens frequently. Maybe not.”

Smith said, “If you have a puddle of water, the chances for life forming, evolving, surviving, becoming intelligent, developing technology — even if that ‘accident’ happens one time in a million or billion, we are probably alone because the cosmos is incredibly large and the speed of light limits our communication.”

An electric Hanukkah menorah and circuit presented by Sinai and Synapses. (Courtesy)

By the end of his talks, attendees might have left with more questions than answers. But maybe that was intentional on the part of the speaker.

“As we approach new material, either in science or in religion, especially mystical ideas like kabbalah, the goal is to open you up,” Smith said, “to creative, different ideas in an honest way. There’s a little bit of risk and danger in that. You might have to change your mind about something!”

Sinai and Synapses is planning future programming for this month and next, including Scientists and Synagogues presentations on the dangers of combining herbal supplements — including ones present in the Jewish tradition — with prescription drugs, and on anxiety management in the wake of the October 7 massacre in which thousands of Hamas-led terrorists butchered some 1,200 people in southern Israel and abducted 253 to the Gaza Strip. A few months from now, Mitelman also hopes to launch the next round of the interfaith fellowship.

“What’s been wonderful is the relationships that get built,” he said, including one between an evangelical Christian pastor in Calgary and a Jewish mathematics professor in the UK, who are helping each other with their book projects.

“We try to bring people together,” Mitelman said, “on how do we explore questions from multiple different angles, multiple different avenues.”

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