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Wednesday, May 24, 2017

This past week, Torah Academy of Bergen County had the distinct honor of hosting one of the great new lights of the Jewish people, Dr. Jeremy England, a young Orthodox professor of physics at MIT. Dr. England happens to be at the forefront of research into the origin of life, and is regarded by some as “the next Darwin.” He also happens to be a first-class interpreter of Tanach in the style of Rav Yosef Dov Soloveitchik. Dr. England will continue to emerge as a household name in the Jewish community in the coming years.

Dr. England states in a video presentation (Orthodox Jewish All Star Dr. Jeremy England, “The Next Darwin”):

“I do not think there is any problem with being both a scientist while also having a commitment to HaKadosh Baruch Hu and Torah. I would almost go so far to say that those who see a strong tension there either needs to have a subtler understanding of Torah or what science is, or both.”

Dr. England does not subscribe to Dr. Nathan Aviezer and Dr. Gerald Schroeder’s efforts to harmonize contemporary science with the text of Genesis Chapter 1. Dr. England (who communicated this to this author in an email dated December 14, 2016) likens this endeavor to be “a kind of forbidden mixture of meat and milk that isn’t the mission of an oved Hashem.”

Dr. England believes the resolution of the tension lies in the use of language. Dr. England is quoted (“Meet the Orthodox Jewish physicist rethinking the origins of life” by Simona Weinglass, The Times of Israel, October 29, 2015) as explaining:

“When it says ‘God said “Let there be light,”’ the point is that the light by which we see the world comes from the way we talk about it. And we have choices to make about how to talk about the world. A second and related point is that when you look at the Tower of Babel, God doesn’t want us to only talk about the world one way.”

“You start with a tower and one language, and at the end of the day it doesn’t stay that way, and that’s because God doesn’t want it to be that way. From the standpoint of Tanach it is a sort of inevitability of social physics that when you start with one language you end up with many languages, and the reason is because the world is too complicated to capture with one. And there’s something missing from your account of it once you are limiting your description in that way.”

Dr. England explains in further detail in an essay titled “The Partly Predictable World,” published in the December 2015 issue of Commentary. He explains that just as biologists and physicists describe the same phenomenon using different terminology or language, so does Torah and science describe Creation using different “languages.” Creation, Dr. England explains, is presented in the Torah using language that is suitable for its goal to prepare its readers to serve Hashem following a specific code of law.

Dr. England noted in his talk at Torah Academy of Bergen County that just as Rav Soloveitchik in his magisterial “Lonely Man of Faith” understands Sefer Bereishit as presenting two Creation stories, so too there is room for arguing that there is a third Creation story, the one being told by contemporary scientists.

Dr. England further clarified his approach, noting:

“We live in a time and a place where everyone around us talks about the models natural scientists have made of the world as though this is what actually is, as though the job of a scientist is just to turn over rocks and discover things that are intrinsically true about the world. In fact, what scientists do is make persuasive cases for models that they themselves concoct. This doesn’t mean these models are lies, but it does mean that there are multiple compelling ways of characterizing the same world that need not be mutually translatable in a precise sense, and the question of what accounts we need most urgently in order to accomplish avodat Hashem is presumably the one the Torah is concerned with.”

The Torah Academy students were spellbound by Dr. England’s presentation. They were “blown away” by having a world-class scientist presenting world-class Torah insights as well as profound insights into the scientific method. Students pursued Dr. England out the door and to his car with questions for this fascinating personality and were left eager to hear more. We look forward to Dr. England’s light shining forth to enlighten am Yisrael and the world in the coming years and decades with Hashem’s help.

By Rabbi Haim Jachter

 Rabbi Haim Jachter is the rabbi of Congregation Shaarei Orah, the Sephardic Congregation of Teaneck.