When Torah Meets Science

Torah Umadda Week Examines the Interplay between Modern Science and Torah Scholarship

If you could turn on a light just by thinking about it, would doing so be permissible on Shabbat according to halacha [Jewish law]?

Dr. Norman Adler
Dr. Norman Adler

That question was one of many students were asked to consider during a lecture titled “Nerve Cells, Robots and Human Choice: Halacha at the Frontiers of Neuroscience,” presented by Dr. Norman Adler, University Professor of Psychology, and Rabbi Herschel Schachter, Nathan and Vivian Fink Distinguished Professorial Chair in Talmud at YU-affiliated Rabbi Isaac Elchanan Theological Seminary (RIETS).

The discussion, held at Stern College for Women’s Koch Auditorium on November 2, fused an evolution of scientific thought about the brain and genetic predisposition with Torah perspectives on free will and technology, prompting students to reflect on a plethora of issues that were equal parts science, philosophy and Jewish law. To what extent do we control our actions? In a world where action can be achieved with the push of a button, where do we end and machines begin? Why can you use a hearing aid on Shabbat? Are machine-made matzot still able to fulfill the mitzvah of matza, which must be created with specific intent?

“It is critical for young Orthodox Jews to understand the field of neuroscience and its counterpart in Jewish thought,” said Adler.

The lecture was part of a series of science-and-Jewish-thought-based discussions that together comprised “Torah Umadda Week” (the phrase, which also reflects YU’s mission, means “the synthesis of Torah learning with secular knowledge”) at Yeshiva University from November 1-3, coordinated by Yeshiva University’s Office of Admissions, the Torah Activities Club, the Pre-Med Club, the Neurobiology Club, the Genetics Club and Stern College’s biology department. Two other presentations, “From Maimonides the Doctor to the Doctor at Maimonides Medical Center: The Training of the Jewish Medical Student Throughout History,” by Rabbi Dr. Edward Reichman, and “Reproducing Jews,” by Dr. Richard Grazi, rounded out the week.

Rabbi Hershel Schachter
Rabbi Hershel Schachter

“So beautifully reflecting the philosophy and mantra of Yeshiva University, this program presents experts in the fields of science, medicine and halacha that share with the students the results of their cutting-edge research,” said Reichman. “The week’s activities in their totality reveal the breadth of the Torah Umadda philosophy and stimulate the students to explore and research further.”

For Tsipora Huisman, president of the Pre-Med Club, the week was an important reminder of the unique interplay between Jewish and scientific studies: “All day I’m immersed in classes in Torah and secular topics, but events like Torah Umadda Week really bridge the gaps between them.”

Jina Davidovich, founder of the Torah Umadda Committee, hoped that the week’s lectures would continue the discussion of what it means to be a Torah Umadda Jew on campus, adding that more events like Torah Umadda Week and others were in the works.

“I contend that Torah Umadda is not the philosophy by which we allow secular knowledge into the room of our conscious, placing a barrier between our religious identity and the secular knowledge that we cautiously peruse,” said Davidovich. “It is the imperative to invite secular ideas into the warm embrace of our Torah knowledge, examining how both forms of knowledge inform one another and enable each individual to better understand their religion, themselves and truth.”

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