Shabbaton will explore how science, Jewish law intersect

Rabbi Dov Linzer

By Eric Berger, Staff writer

How do you observe Shabbat on Mars if the day is not 24 hours and there are 687 days in a year? 

Or a question with more immediate relevance: Is lab-engineered bacon kosher?

These are the kind of topics that Jewish scholars and scientists will explore at an upcoming Shabbaton at Bais Abraham Congregation in University City.

The Modern Orthodox synagogue’s event on Nov. 11-12 will feature the head of Yeshivat Chovevei Torah, an Orthodox rabbinical seminary connected to a school that ordains women as Orthodox clergy. 

One of those women worked at Bais Abraham under the title of maharat. That sort of position has generated some controversy in the Orthodox world because women traditionally have not served as clergy.

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The science-centric Shabbaton is just the latest example of the synagogue working to be inclusive and delve into hot-button issues that might make some people in the Orthodox community uncomfortable.

“It’s definitely a crowd that wants to think deeply about the world and its intersection with Judaism,” said Rabbi Hyim Shafner who has led the congregation since 2004. “It’s an Orthodox synagogue, so people are very committed to Judaism. And people want to sift out the relationship between science and Judaism.”

In 2013, the synagogue also hosted three Orthodox Jews who identified as lesbian, gay, bisexual, or transgender as part of an effort to show “compassion and support for LGBT Orthodox members of the Jewish family,” Shafner wrote at the time. 

He said he faced pushback from other parts of the Orthodox community for that event and when he hired Maharat Rori Picker-Neiss, who has since become executive director of Jewish Community Relations Council of St. Louis.

“It can be seen as a slippery slope,” said Shafner. 

But he does not see the topics planned for the science Shabbaton as particularly hot-button issues. Other parts of the Orthodox world have worked to keep up with the latest discoveries and inventions. For example, Chabad.org has a page entitled “Is Lab-Created Burger Kosher?”

Rabbi Dov Linzer, who leads Yeshivat Chovevei Torah Rabbinical School in Riverdale, N.Y., will deliver two talks at Bais Abraham titled “Halacha and Science: Sympathies and Strategies,” and “The Emperor’s New Clothes: Can Halacha Always Address New Scientific Realities?”

Linzer says he plans to discuss how there are some questions about issues like end-of-life treatment, surrogate motherhood (which woman’s religion matters?) and cloning where there is little if any information in Jewish law to base decisions around. The rabbi plans to explore the conundrum of, ‘What does it mean if there are no answers in (halacha) to be had.”

“You can’t deal with not having an answer, so we try to produce sources to provide a basis for those decisions,” Linzer said.

Ari Maller, an astrophysicist, will also talk with Shafner about the implications of space travel for Judaism. One of the questions on the docket is “How do we understand alien life?”

Robert Wasserman, the president of Bais Abraham, said he started thinking about such a Shabbaton while watching “Star Trek” with his daughter. He said he was particularly interested in space-time questions and what different cycles on other planets would mean for Jews. 

“Science today is emerging and evolving so much quicker than it has in the past, given the ability to communicate so broadly” and new technologies, Wasserman said. “We felt it was important to expand the discussion of these topics, bringing together both the scientific community and the Jewish community.”

Wasserman said he would like to attract people from outside the Orthodox community and that he has reached out to leaders of other synagogues. Linzer said he has attended similar programs in other parts of the country but that those were during the week. Even though this will be a time for discussing halacha as it relates to aliens, there is one area where Orthodox Jews have plenty of clarity. 

“The one thing I have been thinking of,” Linzer said of the Shabbaton, “is that it’s a shame that it won’t be able to be recorded.”

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