Can organizational psychology shed light on the Talmudic reasoning for inheritance laws? Can insights learned from classic Jewish sources tell us whether it is right to fund dental treatment with state funds allocated for lifesaving drugs? Can a theory learned from computer science be used to ascertain what is the most accurate version of the Bible?
Scientists and rabbis at Bar-Ilan University in Ramat Gan answer in the affirmative to all of these questions.
On Wednesday, in the fifth in a series of conferences dealing with a wide range of subjects that bring together science and Torah, economists and Torah scholars will be getting together at Bar-Ilan University's Beit Midrash to show that ancient Jewish texts can teach us something about creating a better modern economy while at the same time showing that contemporary economic theories can help us to understand age-old rabbinic teachings.
The program is called "Nitzotzot [sparks]: The President's Doctoral Forum for Innovation in Torah and Science," and it pairs outstanding doctoral students with erudite rabbis to foster a cross-fertilization of ideas.
"This is a new approach to Torah and science that had not really been tried before," said Rabbi Shabtai Rappoport, head of Bar-Ilan's Ludwig and Erica Jesselson Institute of Advanced Jewish Studies Beit Midrash.
"What is known as 'Torah and Science' has gradually evolved over the past few decades," Rappoport said on Tuesday. "In the first stage, rabbis were involved primarily with apologetics. They dealt with apparent contradictions between Torah and science such the age of the world or determinism as opposed to free will.
"In the next stage, the focus was on ethical issues in fields such as medicine and technology.
"But the third and most important stage in Torah and science has not been properly explored until now.
"I believe that a new Torah thinking should be born of every new scientific discovery. When there is a breakthrough in science it should have an impact on our understanding of the Torah."
Rappoport gave an example of how a theory in organizational psychology helped scholars better understand a Jewish law regarding the inheritance rights of a widow.
According to the theory developed by one of Bar-Ilan's doctoral students, Shani Pindek, women are willing to help others for different reasons than men. While men tend to help people in order to advance themselves professionally and show that they are competent providers, women tend to help others as a way of showing that they are caring individuals who will make good, nurturing mothers.
The theory argues that women are not acting out of altruism when they help another; rather, they have a real inner need to do so.
This explains why the Talmud obligates the husband to provide his wife with money to be used for charity. A woman cannot help but give charity; the Talmud understands this and provides for her need. This principle also has an impact on inheritance laws for widows.
On Wednesday, Prof. Shmuel Nitzan of Bar-Ilan's department of economics will show how the aggregate aspirations of a given country's citizens dictate public policy.
For instance, a large percentage of Israelis favor using limited state funds to subsidize dental care, even if it means that there will be less money left over to subsidize lifesaving drugs.
In fact, Deputy Health Minister Ya'acov Litzman (United Torah Judaism) is backing a bill that will do precisely that.
However, Rabbi Dr. Michael Avraham, a teacher in Bar-Ilan's Beit Midrash, will show the difference between aspirations and human weaknesses. Rappoport will proceed to argue that according to principles in the Torah, it is wrong to use limited funds budgeted for lifesaving drugs to subsidize dental care:
"The Torah helps us differentiate between what a person really wants and what he wants because of various weaknesses of character. Obviously, a person would prefer to save another person's life rather than to have a dental problem treated. And that is how we should approach this dilemma."
Previous conferences at the Beit Midrash have focused on the ethics of welfare policy, synthetic biology and medicine.