Who would have rejoiced the most had he been able to attend the joint Jerusalem College of Technology (JCT), Bar Ilan and Yeshiva University Annual Torah and Science Conference held at the JCT Jerusalem Campus on April 9th - Theodore Herzl, Maimonides or Israel's first Chief Rabbi, Rav Avraham Kook?
The jury is out on that, but there is no question that all three would been astounded to see the impressive lineup of Torah-true scientists, philosopher-rabbis and technology researchers speaking in Hebrew (and probably not thinking what a miracle that is) about newly-evolving, fascinating results of their hypotheses and research projects concerning the interface of science and Jewish law, technology and Jewish law, scientific philosophy and Torah.
The college's auditorium was packed with both white-haired and youthful scientists and students, a veritable sea of varied kippot (both black and knitted) and headscarves.
It was surely a religious Zionist dream come true.
A roster of eminent religious scientists chaired the event, among them Professors Chaim Sukenik, Joseph Bodenheimer and Noah Dana-Picard of JCT, joined by Professor Karl Feit of Yeshiva University, Professors Natan Aviezer and Eli Martzbach of Bar Ilan University. An equally renowned group from Israel's universities delivered the lectures and parallel sessions.
Setting the stage, Rabbi-philosopher Uri Sharqi debunked the popular conception, outdated for several centuries, that there is a need to "reconcile" Torah and Science, especially with regard to the origin of man and the age of the Universe. They are considered totally different worlds in modern thought, he explained, and do not address the same issues. Quoting Rabbi Kook's assertion that Torah thoughts and methodology enrich scientific thinking, he placed the development of science, the noble effort that gives scope to the aspirations of mankind, in proper proportion, ensconced in a metaphysical envelope.
Such considerations neither preclude nor impact using scientific advances to solve halakhic questions, attempting to find answers to the halakhic questions they raise, or finding halakhically permissible ways to take advantage of opportunities created by modern technology.
An update on the surprisingly extensive work on those challenges was an integral part of the conference, allowing the coming generation of scientists to display their work in the Poster session, chaired by Rabbi Dr. Dror Fixler of Bar Ilan.
22 young research teams, each given 2 minutes, showed the wide scope of this Torah-Science research – for example, the halakhic validity of gluten-free matza, the use of electronic aids to help in labor pains on the Sabbath, the effects of the state allowing abortion at will, implications of the use of cochlear implants and a new look at the prohibition against using moisturizing creams on the Sabbath.
Parallel sessions in the afternoon ranged on diverse subjects such as Medicine in the Far Future, Ascertaining the Time of Death, Numbers of Amoraim (Talmud Sages) as Gleaned from the Midrash, Brain Research on Women's Intuitive Capability (and, in fact, women made up at least a third of those attending), to The Makeup of Double Geometric Time and the contributions of an almost unknown 17th century Jewish astronomer Rabbi Rafael Halevy.
Closing the conference was the award of the prestigious Lev Prize, in memory of the college's founding dean, Professor Ze'ev Lev, to Nobel Prize Laureate Professor Robert Aumann, exemplar par excellence of the intertwining of Torah and Science. Interestingly, Professor Lev and Professor Aumann were neighbors and friends in Jerusalem for many years.
There is no question that religious scientists, philosophers and technology-researchers are central to international and Israeli conferences of all kinds, but it was gratifying to see the strength and significance of that community's contributions to Israel's respected place in the world of science – as well as the efforts expended to advance the specialized, unique world of science and halakha that benefit observant Jewry.