As both a working scientist and an active Jew, I am often asked how I compromise my commitment to each discipline in order to make the two harmonious in my life. The truth is I do not feel that I have to compromise either. Science is important to me as it helps answer testable questions about the universe: How does the sun “rise”? How do we get rain? Why do peacocks have long tails? Religion, on the other hand, deals with intangible questions: What does life mean? How can I be a more righteous person? How can I connect spiritually with the world? Since religion and science ask different questions, they do not contradict one another. I feel comfortable discussing the story of creation after reading a paper about the big bang theory, because to me the stories in the Bible are much more than historical accounts. They are guides to how we can live a better life; they are lessons about how insignificant we are in the grand scheme of things yet how we have the power to change the world. Judaism teaches me that I should try and understand G-d’s world; science gives me tools to do so.
No theme creates a divide between some religious thinkers and scientific communities more than the theory of evolution. Bill Nye, a much esteemed science guy, recently published a statement (it was more like a rant) about how people who do not believe in evolution are willfully ignoring the facts. The nice thing about facts is that they are right, whether we choose to believe them or not. Unfortunately, the reason many people choose to disregard the evidence supporting evolution is that they do not want to forsake their belief in the Bible, which does not mention anything about natural selection, sexual selection, or random genetic drift (the bible also does not mention that pasteurizing maintains milk, or that water is made up of hydrogen and oxygen, but science has managed to sneak those by our societal filters).
Recently, I had the interesting experience of watching my graduate school adviser, a well-spoken evolutionary geneticist (these things do not always come as a pair), debate a traveling “creationist” at a creationist museum in an area of town where one may expect to find such a thing. The audience was biased from the get-go and the creationist spewed a lot of rhetoric presented as fact with no basis other than a literal interpretation of the bible. My adviser shared much of the evidence that supports the theory of evolution while being very careful to not to offend the audience’s religious sensibilities. In the process, I found out that my adviser is actually a practicing Catholic. Despite the facts presented by my adviser the crowd clearly favored the un-rooted story given by the creationist.
I walked out of the event smugly proud of my Judaism. I reflected on how great it is to be part of a living tradition that encourages rational thought and celebrates modernity while still embracing the past. I can go to shul and talk about my research and not get evil stares from the community—what a privilege. This smugness lasted only until last night when I found a video of a rabbi I used to know as an undergraduate belittling the idea of evolution because it is not found in the Torah. My smug smile quickly became an embarrassed sigh. How could I reconcile his ranting with my ideals? It took me a few moments to realize that I did not have to.
My connection to Judaism is not affected by the ranting of others, and my acceptance of science will not make me ineligible for a minyan. I find that both Judaism and science feed my curiosity to understand the world and each answers questions that the other cannot. How lucky I am to have them both working in synergy.
Dovi Kacev grew up in South Africa and San Diego and is a resident of the San Diego Moishe House. He is an avid surfer, and he studies sharks.