Both religion and psychology try to help us understand who we are and why we act the way we do. Indeed, that interaction helps foster a more constructive relationship between religion and science.
As part of Sinai and Synapses' series "More Light, Less Heat," Rabbis Josh Ratner and Fred Hyman -- two congregational rabbis in the New Haven area -- share how their knowledge of psychology and cognitive neuroscience have both informed and transformed their rabbinate.
Rabbi Josh Ratner:
I think the relationship between science and religion is largely complementary. One of the areas I'm most interested in, in terms of science, is cognitive neuroscience, or the study of how and why we think the way we do.
In books like [Cass] Sunstein and [Richard] Thaler's Nudge, or Daniel Kahneman's various books, there's been a lot of research over the last ten or twenty years about not only the way we think, but the things we don't think about in a way that sells influences and to make a dramatic impact on what we do and why we do it.
In the way it relates to me personally with Judaism is that notion of halakhah, with Jewish law, being sort of the default model of the way we have to live our lives Jewishly. And so to the extent that I believe in halakhah as a fundamental source for how we ought to act, it provides the defaults of how I "opt in" or "opt out" of various things.
Where it gets problematic to me is because I am beginning to understand how much of an impact small influences can make on human decision-making. To the extent that halakhah is part of human decisions, especially in the 20th and 21st century, where scholars are continuing to make new decisions about how we ought to act in society, I am aware of how much those subtle influences can be a factor in that decision-making, and it makes me wonder about how aware we are when making those decisions about how and why we make those decisions.
So it makes it a little more complicated to me in terms of how I embrace modern halakhah, but also serves me to be complementary when I look at more traditional halakhah.
Rabbi Fred Hyman
I'm going to talk to you today about how science has changed my understanding of religion, and this comes from my studies of educational psychology.
One of my professors told me about positive psychology. And it's a new movement in the field of psychology which started around the year 2000 by Martin Seligman, professor of psychology at the University of Pennsylvania. And he said that psychology lost its way, that for 100 years it has attempted to solve all of the dysfunctions of human behavior. But he said that it really has to get back to what it was really intended to do, which was to foster the well-being of human beings.
And so he engaged, along with his students and many others, to study positive values, such as happiness, resiliency, optimism, gratitude, forgiveness and things like that. And they really did a lot of research and really did it in a scientifically valid manner.
So these concepts, as they defined them, became reliable and valid. And when I studied this material -- which included going back to religion and philosophy for 2000 years, because they wanted to make it a multi-cultural, universal kind of phenomenon -- in saying that that's where psychology was originally oriented, well, I wanted to go back to the Jewish sources. And their sources were very meager.
So I felt that there was a lot of commonality between positive psychology and Judaism. Jewish tradition is very rich in these concepts, not in such a systematic way, but because Judaism and [the] Jewish people have experienced so much, Jewish religious literature contains a great deal of information on these topics -- on hopefulness, on optimism, on gratitude, forgiveness.
And a lot of this research shows how important these concepts and values are to lead an enriching, meaningful and healthy lifestyle. And so I've done a great deal of research trying to correlate the findings of positive psychology and Judaism. And it has transformed my whole understanding of our tradition. And I think it's a way we can really promote Judaism in a positive manner.