If I had not been familiar with Sinai and Synapses,* I might have dismissed this special issue of an obscure journal as yet another attempt to use science to rationalize religious beliefs. It is nothing of the kind. The entire issue consists of essays by Fellows who have been supported over the years by the Sinai and Synapses organization, about which I have said a few words below, in an Endnote. The Fellows are experts in their fields and mostly faculty at secular universities. All of them, I am certain, know what they are talking about.
The front matter contains helpful synopses of all the papers. Sometimes, I admit, the synopsis was all I wanted. I learned, however, that a second-century CE rabbi, Judah ha-Nasi, had noted that “pestilence” often transferred from pigs to humans, so Rabbi Judah recommended fasting whenever pigs suffered pestilence. I wondered why on earth such an influential rabbi would care one whit about pigs, so I naturally turned first to the article, “Zoonotic pandemics and Judaism’s early-modern turn to science,” by Jonathan Crane of Emory University. I was relieved to find that Rabbi Judah did not raise pigs, but he had nevertheless noted the similarity between pigs’ organs and humans’. More strikingly, he recognized that diseases could be contagious and could be transferred from pigs to humans. Rabbi Crane introduces us to later Talmudic scholars who, in addition to citing earlier scholars and relying on their expertise, adduced their own evidence and required confirmation. Specifically, medieval Jewish scholars such as Maimonides accepted the scientific knowledge of their day, and the early modern period found Jews embracing “exogenous knowledge as well as the emerging means to discover and develop it.” Rabbi Crane continues, “To be precise, scientific method and evidence matter when it comes to physical issues like medicine and public health.”