When does life begin? Who has the right to end it? Where is the soul? And between birth and death, how to decide if a life is worth living?
These age-old questions, once the domain of sages and religious leaders, are being increasingly tackled by doctors and other scientists. But the best approach blends the two, according to a conference in South Florida starting this weekend.
"Scientists can't deal with miracles, but we humans can," says Rabbi Sholom Lipskar, the main organizer of the three-day Miami International Torah and Science Conference, starting 8:15 p.m. Saturday, Dec. 14. "[But] science empowers us to understand God in a more majestic way."
Site for the free biennial conference will be The Shul, just north of Miami Beach, where Lipskar is the head rabbi. The conference had a kind of soft launch Friday night with a dinner and talk.
Scheduled at that event was rabbi-cardiologist Alan Rozanski of Columbia University, who is noted for a study that indicated a person's attitudes and even moods affect physical structures like arteries, Lipskar says. The dinner had more than 200 reservations, Lipskar says.
Lipskar himself then will help kick off the opening session Saturday night, discussing the beginning of life. Topics will include new biotechnological ways to begin life and the light that halacha, Jewish religious law, can shed on it.
The rabbi will share the dais Saturday night with Nathan Katz, founder of the Program in the Study of Spirituality at Florida International University. Katz, who himself has helped plan the conferences since 1999, agrees on the value of blending scientific and spiritual perspectives.
"Traditionally, religious people and accomplished scientists live in different approaches to reality," he says. "Here, they seem to be making a tremendous effort to understand each other's perspective. That deepens their own understanding."
Sunday's events will start at 11:30 a.m., with a talk on epigenetics, a new study of changes outside a gene. Lipskar finds the study "exciting, because Kabbalah and Hasidic philosophy already concluded this: that there is something outside the genetic structure that can change it in behavioral reality."
The Sunday evening events will deal with the end of life — including the provocative question: "Does Life Ever End?" Final issues on Monday will cover neuroscience and cosmology, even comparing ideas of 17th century philosopher Baruch Spinoza and contemporary scientist Stephen Hawking.
The Torah and Science Conferences are held every two years, always around Hanukkah, Nov. 27-Dec. 5 this year. The timing was chosen to relate the spreading light of the menorah candles to the growing light of knowledge and reason.
It was light, and the theories of Albert Einstein, that caught the attention of the late Chabad Lubavitch chief rabbi Menachem Mendel Schneerson, who died in 1994. Schneerson gave his blessing to the first Torah-Science Conference, which was held in 1987.
Subsequent conferences have probed heady concepts like time, intelligent design, the nature of the soul and brain, and links between the natural and supernatural realms. Even after the conferences end, the papers of the speakers are available through B'Or Ha'Torah, a peer-review journal of the Jerusalem College of Technology.
Basic viewpoint of the conferences is that faith and science are different yet complementary, Lipskar says. And that each viewpoint is necessary.
"Science makes you an expert, but not a kinder, gentler person," the rabbi says. "When you integrate science and religion, you add the element of meaning and purpose. You have the conductor of the orchestra."
If you go
Event: Miami International Torah & Science Conference
Featuring: Discussions of the beginning and end of life, from the perspectives of religion and science
Where: The Shul, 9540 Collins Ave., Surfside, Fla.
When: Dec. 14-16
Starting times: Saturday at 8:15 p.m.; Sunday at 11:30 a.m., 1 p.m. and 7:30 p.m.; Monday at 9:30 a.m., noon and 7:30 p.m.
Info: 305-868-1411, ext. 329, or torahscienceconference.org