Kol Ami — The Northern Virginia Reconstructionist Community
Kol Ami is thrilled to be part of the Scientists in Synagogues project for 2023-24. We will be offering a four-part series called Science Meets Judaism: Exploring the Connections. All programs are free and open to the public. Join us and participate in the conversation between science and Judaism in four different areas:
Starting on Rosh Hashanah morning, we will be examining Creation and the planet’s biodiversity crisis. Scientific consensus points to a sixth mass extinction event for the planet, distinct from prior mass extinctions because it is entirely due to human actions. Restoration ecologists and conservation biologists are actively working to stem extirpations and extinctions by restoring degraded land and taking action to increase populations of threatened and endangered species. In addition to the scientific challenges associated with this crisis are significant moral and ethical quandaries, given that humans have caused it and have the power to resolve it. We will be exploring new approaches to tikkun olam in which the rest of Creation is perceived as our partners in repairing the world, in concert with a long-term and large-scale vision of restoration. And we will discuss the evolution of Jewish thought relating to the biodiversity crisis, and how that meshes with modern principles of conservation and ecological restoration science. Rosh Hashanah morning, Sept. 16; continuing on Shabbat Bereisheet, Oct. 14, 2023.
During the 20th century, scientific behaviorism privileged the focus of research on observable animal behavior, while largely disregarding animals’ mental states and internal experience. But just as animals have their own personalities, some may share a capacity for perceptions that we would recognize as spiritual. Consider: if mammals at least possess the equipment needed to feel, then the sense of connection with nature and with one another that forms the foundation of soul is experienced by other beings. This presentation will propose a way to gauge soulfulness based on biology and on emotion. Rather than viewed in a strictly religious context, “soul” and “soulfulness” can be reinterpreted as reflecting a common capacity for many creatures to have felt experiences. From a Jewish perspective, what would it mean to view other creatures as possessing souls? How does that correspond to Jewish teachings on the lives of animals? Dr. Sharon will discuss two of the most prominent stories about animals from the Torah, and explore the ways in which “talking animals” embody a respect for other species and their roles in human life.
Artificial intelligence provides opportunities for solving previously unsolvable problems in many areas by allowing computers to bring together insights from widely divergent perspectives and finding connections that were invisible to humans. At the same time, A.I. introduces numerous risks to society. There are a range of issues related to using A.I. for identifying and selecting people. For example, facial recognition systems frequently work substantially better for men than women and better for light-skinned than dark-skinned people — crucial aspects when used for law enforcement and even for innocuous purposes. Automatic systems that determine who should be let out on bail or parole can eliminate biases caused by a judge’s discretion, but substitute invisible biases based on past patterns. Such systems aren’t “deliberately” biased because their creators set out to make them that way; they’re biased because of limitations in technology and human awareness that aren’t adequately accounted for. We will explore the ethical problems and potential solutions, and how Jewish thought can aid in evaluating the codes of ethics and bill of rights that have been proposed around AI systems.
Modern elementary particle physics has made major strides in recent years, as our guest physicist, Dr. Michael Dine, can attest from his own groundbreaking work. New theories about supersymmetry, the landscape concept, and the stability of the universe go far beyond the Standard Model. Dr. Dine will offer us a glimpse into the strange new world of physics and the implications of alternate theories for the ultimate fate of the universe. Speaking publicly together for the first time, Dr. Dine’s spouse, Rabbi Melanie Aron, will respond with a Jewish perspective on questions of eternity. How does rabbinic midrash about the divine creation and destruction of universes resonate today? Would the discovery of sentient life on other planets change our religious understanding of the place of humanity? And more generally, does it matter, when we pray, whether we think of God or the universe as eternal?
“Scientists in Synagogues” is a grass-roots initiative run by Sinai and Synapses in consultation with the American Association for the Advancement of Science Dialogue on Science, Ethics and Religion, and funded by the John Templeton Foundation, along with other individual donors.