COVID-19 has raised interest in public health and epidemiology. In fact, as an epidemiologist, people often asked what epidemiology is or if I study the epidermis (skin) prior to the pandemic. As the pandemic continues with uneven surges around the globe, the general public’s interest and the number of applications to study in public health programs grows. The following text illuminates how Jewish values and science, have, for millennia, been in step with one another.
When I started my PhD program in epidemiology, I expected to learn many new things – regression models, adaptive study designs, and imputations to name a few – but I did not expect to further my Jewish learning. Much to my chagrin, I was surprised when I saw a quotation from Rabbi Hillel pop up in an epidemiology textbook.
Rabbi Hillel is famously known for the quotation, “If I am not for myself, who will be for me,” but I had never heard the subsequent sentence. The full quotation is, “If I am not for myself, who will be for me. But if I am only for myself, what am I worth?”
As an epidemiologist, this quotation speaks volumes about our professional and moral responsibility to protect and improve the health of individuals and their respective communities. As a citizen in 2021, it reminds me that, in the words of Ralph Goldman, we live in an intertwined and interconnected world. It recalibrates my internal moral compass to make sure that I am always working to make the world a better place than I found it.
In the next textbook, I came across a note describing how a regression model is like a caricature – it is an imperfect model that accounts for and represents important and unique characteristics, yet, very rarely (if ever), can it account for all dimensions of all variables and perfectly predict. I couldn’t help thinking to a Kabbalist scholar in Tzfat’s teaching about God and the divine or ain sof, or infinite light [literally, a light without an end]. Specifically, the Torah, like many other religious texts, speaks the language of man and employs anthropomorphic terminology not because of its accuracy in describing God’s greatness but because of our limited comprehension as humans. In other words, both regression models and anthropomorphic terminology are useful tools to get us one step closer to a deeper and more complete understanding, but we are still not there.
I am now sitting down for my qualifying exam, and I see a series of questions referring back to Bradford Hill’s criteria for causation. I couldn’t help but to smile. Causality is such a basic yet overarching question in public health, but it was rarely covered, if at all, in depth during this doctoral program. This question brought me back to my first public health course in my Masters program – the reason I fell in love with the field. At its core, epidemiology is the scientific way to explain the world around us.
Since I was a child, I learned that to be Jewish is to ask questions. There is arguably not a more iconic Jewish moment of this characteristic than at the Passover seder when the four different types of children ask questions as part of the Seder. Judaism is not only a religion; it is a peoplehood and a way of life. It is a living and dynamic discussion, an earthly and eternal exploration. Judaism is an epistemic and emotional framework to understand relationships on intrapersonal, interpersonal, group, and societal levels.
Just as epidemiology is the scientific way to explain the world around us, Judaism, too, has its own method: Na’aseh v’nishma, or we will do and we will hear. There are certain undeniable activities and knowledge that we as humans innately know how to do or understand, Na’aseh. But there are other activities and knowledge, often more complex, that have been discussed, debated, and codified, v’nishma.
Both science and Judaism are alive and evolving; neither is fixed. With respect to the scientific approach to causality, Bradford Hill affirmed that there are no hard-and-fast rules of evidence that must be obeyed and that no indisputable evidence can be required as a sine qua non. Like science, Judaism offers guidelines and criteria to understand the world around us. We choose which criteria we employ and which evidence and teachings we which offer, but justifications in both spaces have changed just as our knowledge, needs, and environment have changed. There is a reason why many of the first scientists were religious – because both epistemologies seek to answer the question of why. Both approaches pursue truth, belief, and justification.
Rabbi Hillel’s quotations reminds us of another shared purpose and goal of both science and Judaism: ethics. As scientists who study people, we have an ethical and moral imperative to not only respectfully treat those we study with dignity but also ensure our work aligns with the ethics of autonomy, beneficence, justice, and non-maleficence. As Jews, we affirm these same values when engaging in work for the purpose of Kiddush Hashem, the sanctification of God’s name.
Building resilient and healthy Jewish communities capitalizes on the synergy of our tradition and science. Our worth as an individual and a community comes not from our financial position, educational level, nor social capital. Our net worth is based on our value added to the global village.