There has been both kvelling and kvetching amongst the Jewish media following the announcing of this year’s Nobel Prize winners. Six of the eight scientists awarded the laureate are Jewish, among them Americans, Israelis and a Belgian, Francois Englert, who shared the 2013 Prize in Physics.
The kvelling is understandable: the swelling of communal pride at the achievements of our brethren helps to reinforce our puffed-up sense of how clever we are as Jews. Is it genetic or is it experiential? Is it because of our unique commitment as a community to learning, or is it because of our suffering and our need to be smart to survive? The kvetching is the flip side of this. Much has been said about the Israeli brain-drain, the difficulties faced by academics in making a career in the Holy Land, and the lowering standards of high-school education there. Similarly statistics have been quoted about the decreasing percentages of Jewish scientists gaining PhDs in the US. Hands have been wrung; as a community we should not rest on our laurels, not even upon our Laurels.
As a rather unscientific rabbi, I have little to offer in terms of commentary on scientific topics. Instead let me proffer congratulations to the scientists, and add a short rabbinic story (found in various midrashic variants) about one of their predecessors. This rabbinic biologist, by means of ornithological observation, very nearly stumbled upon the scientific Holy Grail, the secret of life beyond death:
“Once upon a time there was a man who went from Israel to Babylon. Whilst he ate some bread, he saw two birds fighting with one another. The one killed the other. The bird went and brought a herb and put it in his mouth and brought the other back to life.
The man went to it and took the herb that fell from the bird, and he went to revive the dead with it. When he arrived at the ladder of Tyre, he found a lion discarded and dead. He put the herb on its mouth and revived it. The lion stood up and ate him.”
Numbers Rabbah (Vilna), Korach 18
There is a poignant air to this tale. A question of being so near, but yet so far away. And a miss is as good as a mile. That the elixir of reincarnation was actually in the hands of man and yet…
What compelled the man to revive the lion? A rush of blood to the head? Curiosity? Hubris? Whatever the reason, this story shows the perils of not thinking through scientific experimentation, with its own ramifications for the discovery of such a herb. Whilst the bird and the lion could be revived, nevertheless some deaths cannot be reversed. The lion eats the man and there is no way back.
The story itself raises questions as to its veracity. Who was left to tell the tale – the lion? In a way it fictionalises itself – and self-aware it offers a commentary on the scientific process. It gives incentives to further medicine, dangling the possibility that the ultimate healing is out there, whilst demonstrably posing the dangers that such a breakthrough may bring. As such, perhaps it can serve to both inspire and caution our future Einsteins and Englerts. For as my former class-mate and colleague, Rabbi Geoffrey Mitelman ,wrote recently (http://www.reformjudaism.org/science-religion-better-world), SCIENCE + RELIGION = BETTER WORLD!