Science and Torah collide: How yeshiva students ended up at CERN

This year was the first year that Migdal HaTorah made the trip to Switzerland, but the yeshiva has operated based on the principles of logic, science and Torah working as one since it opened in 2013.

The students of Migdal HaTorah in front of the visitor center at CERN in Geneva. (photo credit: YESHIVA MIGDAL HATORAH)
The students of Migdal HaTorah in front of the visitor center at CERN in Geneva.
A modern Orthodox yeshiva that balances teaching Gemara alongside Socratic logic is unusual, to say the least. A yeshiva that incorporates physics and visits CERN, the European Organization for Nuclear Research, is unheard of. But Migdal HaTorah, a gap-year yeshiva located in Modi’in-Maccabim-Re’ut, does both.
This year was the first year that Migdal HaTorah made the trip to Switzerland. But the yeshiva has operated based on the principles of logic, science and Torah working as one since it opened in 2013.
Students at the yeshiva take an analytical approach to learning the Talmud, philosophy and Jewish law. The yeshiva offers classes on topics such as Science and Torah, Jewish philosophy, and Contemporary Views of Jewish Law.
Rabbi Dr. Dvir Ginsberg, rosh yeshiva (principal) of Migdal HaTorah, stressed that many high school students are taught that Judaism and science conflict, as some see science as a “challenge” to literal accounts of the Torah or feel that it is a waste of time or the domain of atheists and non-believers.
“From the massive scope of the world of cosmology to the fundamental particles and forces comprising the Standard Model of Physics, each area of study is a greater reflection of God’s infinite wisdom. The study of the universe, and all that is contained within, leads one to a greater appreciation of both the wisdom of the Creator, as well as humanity’s unique place as observer of the universe,” said Ginsberg. “Science could never be a threat to Judaism. The opportunity to investigate and understand the physical world can only be a complement to learning Torah, rather than something set to undermine it.”
The trip to Switzerland began in Bern with a visit to Albert Einstein’s home and a museum about him in the city where he experienced his annus mirabilis (miracle year) and published five papers, including on Special Relativity. The yeshiva visited the Bern synagogue, founded in 1915 and still the heart of the Jewish community in Switzerland’s de facto capital. Mark and Galina Moerdler sponsored the trip to Switzerland, as they believe in the educational value of the experience and wanted to make sure it would become a reality. The logistics of the trip were arranged by David Walles from Kosher Travelers, who organized the food and travel for the more than 40 participants.
CERN itself is located in Geneva. Israel is one of over 20 member states of the nuclear research project. The students were given an overview of the project by Dr. Klaus Bätzner, who has worked at CERN for 30 years, before being shown various pieces of equipment that make up the particle accelerator and the Large Hadron Collider (LHC). The professor and other guides explained the purpose of each piece in detail and detailed the process that makes up every 14-hour experiment conducted at the facility. The students were then split into two groups. One group visited the control center for the LHC where tests and results are monitored and analyzed. The second group visited the control center for a device developed by CERN to study cosmic particles located on the ISS.
Ginsberg noted the questioning, interest and desire to learn expressed by the students during the visit to CERN, adding that many of the students wished they could have continued on and learned more.
Dr. Bätzner discussed a new hypothesis with the students that posits that CERN’s search for dark matter and dark energy, which make up 95% of our universe, will turn up empty and that the matter and energy which we currently call dark matter and dark energy is in actuality just matter and antimatter that is made and destroyed so quickly that we aren’t able to observe it. This hypothesis would solve the issue of identifying dark matter and dark energy and would explain why a NASA probe that left the solar system in recent years deviated from its expected flight path. Upcoming tests in CERN that will measure gravity may give enough support to this hypothesis for it to be considered a theory.
“Visiting CERN was an amazing experience as we observed how scientists recreate conditions just after the creation of our universe through the use of a particle accelerator,” said first-year student Shaun Slamowitz. “Seeing how they convert energy into never before seen particles to discover the fundamentals of our universe was awe-inspiring and left me with a greater appreciation for God’s incredible creation.”
Dr. Gerald Schroeder, an Orthodox Jewish physicist and author of Genesis and the Big Bang, who accompanied the yeshiva, said the trip to CERN showed that it is “clear” that Migdal HaTorah realizes that “Torah and teva [nature] are both Torah and to understand Torah, sometimes you need teva and there’s no place better to start than in Bern and then following with Geneva. It’s just the fundamentals of how the world is put together.”
Schroeder pointed to Albert Einstein, the famous Jewish physicist, calling him the starting point for understanding Torah and nature. “He saw this integration [between Torah and nature.] He may not have seen a personal God. He certainly saw the hand of God active in nature,” said Schroeder.
“The trip gave us more knowledge of the universe which allows us to connect to G-d in a deeper way,” said second-year student Zev Granik. “Similar to Torah learning, when I learn about the discoveries at CERN I feel like I am connecting with God’s creation in a way that engages the intellect.”
The author is a dorm counselor at Migdal HaTorah.