How Can Science Inform the Jewish Understanding of Memory?

BQO-Scheller-memory-croppedJewish children reading at the Wailing Wall in Jerusalem. (iStockPhoto)

For Jews, the injunction to remember is deeply embedded in religious thought and practice, and in cultural life more generally. The Hebrew word transliterated as zakhor is the command “remember!” It is used frequently in the Hebrew Bible, as in the Commandments (zakhor et yom hashabbat lekadsho — remember the Sabbath day and sanctify it). As the late Rabbi Yosef Hayim Yerushalmi wrote in his 1982 essay Zakhor: Jewish History and Jewish Memory, the word

appears in its various declensions in the Bible no less than one hundred and sixty-nine times, usually with either Israel or God as the subject, for memory is incumbent upon both. The verb is complemented by its obverse — forgetting. As Israel is enjoined to remember, so it is adjured not to forget.

Yerushalmi’s book explores the dynamics of Jewish religious and cultural memory, from antiquity through our own times, and the complicated ways memory is in tension with the discipline of history. My colleagues at the American Association for the Advancement of Science’s Dialogue on Science, Ethics, and Religion (DOSER) have, in our project on “Science Engagement in Rabbinical Training,” explored Judaism and Jewish memory as one of our themes. How might modern scientific discoveries shape the Jewish understanding of memory?

Epigenetics and Memory
One relevant area of scientific research involves the Holocaust. For decades, researchers have studied the psychological and social effects of Holocaust trauma on subsequent generations. More recently, researchers have begun to explore how the trauma of the Holocaust can affect not only familial relationships, but also the very biology of survivors’ descendants.

A leading figure in this latter area of research is Rachel Yehuda, professor of psychiatry and neuroscience at the Icahn School of Medicine, and director of the school’s Traumatic Stress Studies Division. In a seminar cosponsored by AAAS/DOSER in January 2017, Yehuda discussed her research at the Rabbinical School of Hebrew College.

In 2007, Yehuda and colleagues published a paper that shows descendants of Holocaust survivors, like their parents, produce lower levels of the hormone cortisol — one of the symptoms of post-traumatic stress disorder. The causes of such biological changes in the offspring of Holocaust survivors seems difficult to reconcile with the dogma of genetic determinism, which holds that DNA controls our lives but is not in turn shaped by our experiences. But the new field of epigenetics — the study of heritable traits that cannot be explained by DNA alone — challenges that view, and provides a way to understand how our life experiences can shape our genes.

In a 2015 study, Yehuda and colleagues examined the epigenetics of Holocaust survivors and their children, and found that parents’ traumatic memories can modify the function of genes in the children of survivors. Yehuda’s team studied 32 men and women along with their adult children in “the first demonstration of an association of preconception parental trauma with epigenetic alterations that is evident in both exposed parent and offspring, providing potential insight into how severe psychophysiological trauma can have intergenerational effects.”

(It is worth noting that much of this research is still in its early stages, and that the studies published to date tend to have small sample sizes — in part because of the small number of Holocaust survivors alive today.)

In a 2014 interview with Tablet, Yehuda explained that this traumatic legacy impacts children in different ways based on a variety of environmental and physiological factors:

All of these things combine together to determine whether or not what you’ve inherited — either genetically or epigenetically — becomes useful to you as a person. If the environment can transform you in one way, it can transform you in another way too. If we make little changes in very important circuits, this can have a very big impact on health and well-being.

Yehuda went on to discuss the implications of her findings for how we think about the relation between the generations more broadly:

There’s a quote in Ezekiel, “The fathers ate sour grapes, and the children’s teeth were set on edge.” So, the Jewish culture and religion has understood that children bear the burden of their parents’ legacy. Fair or unfair, it’s a fact. It’s a cultural fact. It’s a biological fact. Everyone is born with a unique set of genes. The task is to refine from these traits the best self that we can have and not get distracted by the traits that are weaker; build up the traits that are stronger. We all have the same job to do.

This is very different from saying that genes determine who we become, or even that genes and environment compete in some way to shape our futures. In a 2013 lecture sponsored by AAAS/DOSER, Denis Alexander, a molecular biologist and emeritus director of the Faraday Institute for Science and Religion, spoke to the issue of genetic determinism and the supposed dichotomy between nature and nurture; a reporter from AAAS paraphrased his remarks in this way: “Rather than focus on dueling forces, scientists should stress that human development is the product of complex, interwoven systems.”

Alexander mentioned a Finnish study that was misinterpreted by the media and the public to mean that we are entirely at the mercy of our genes. Researchers had found a particular mutation in 17 out of 228 violent criminals. But while over 100,000 people in Finland carry this mutation, only 3,500 of them were incarcerated at the time of the study. Thus, “the majority of people with this mutation are not violent offenders,” Alexander said. This is important because people could view themselves as puppets whose genes pull their strings. “Genes maybe influence us,” Alexander said, “but they certainly don’t control us, as if our genes and our genomes were somehow operating in a separate space from the rest of our personhood.”

The research into the epigenetic effects of Holocaust trauma might have practical consequences. Rabbi Dan Judson, director of professional development and placement at the Rabbinical School of Hebrew College, said the 2017 seminar at the Rabbinical School of Hebrew College was “a unique opportunity for students to learn from scientists who are working in fields which have a direct bearing on the work that rabbis do.” Yehuda’s presentation, Judson said, could shape the understanding of pastoral care. (And indeed, Yehuda herself is a coauthor of the 2016 book The Art of Jewish Pastoral Counseling: A Guide for All Faiths.) As Yehuda put it in her 2017 talk, “The effects of trauma are not only long-lasting, but transformative.” The question is: how do trauma survivors and their children ensure that the transformation is constructive rather than destructive?

Science and Religion in Dialogue
Beyond the epigenetic studies of a sort of “memory” inscribed in the very bodies of survivors and their descendants, how might science inform Jewish religious understanding and practice?

According to a 2014 study conducted by the AAAS in collaboration with sociologists at Rice University, almost a quarter of American Jews see religion and science as being in conflict. The vast majority of that group — that is, over 90 percent of the American Jews who see science and religion in conflict — said they see themselves on the side of science. Among all religious groups, Jews were both most likely to see science and religion as “independent” of one another and least likely to see science and religion as “collaborative.”

As Rabbi Geoffrey Mitelman, founding director of the science-and-Judaism initiative Sinai and Synapses, put it, “every other religious group was more likely to find that science could enhance their religious outlook than the Jewish community. Instead, Jews were much more likely to separate their religious and their scientific outlooks and keep them siloed off.”

At a 2014 workshop hosted by AAAS that brought together rabbis and scientists, a participant who wears both hats said, “My underlying conflict is that as a scientist I’m trained to look for answers; as a rabbi I’m taught to live with questions.”

Mitelman sees this compartmentalization as an opportunity. “If Jews tend to have a positive outlook on science, why not use science to help people enhance their connection to Judaism?”

Discussion Summary

Our discussion touched on the relationship between ethics and science, epigenetics and older biological theories such as Lamarckism — with a helpful response from my colleague Curtis L. Baxter III — as well as epigenetics and pastoral care. The following video of Dr. Yehuda’s lecture, referred to above, may help shed more light on these interesting topics, and the connection between epigenetics and pastoral care, in particular:

6 Responses

  1. D.J. Adler says:

    Thank you for this wonderful essay. I’m delighted to learn about “AAAS/DOSER.” I long ago concluded that scientists do not really care about ethics or religion except as a matter of something like zoology (when scientists sometimes study religious believers in insulting ways). (I also think scientists only really care about politics when it affects their budgets.) So I am very pleasantly surprised to find that there are scientists who have dedicated their careers to actually creating a dialogue between these important domains. (They are not just “nonoverlapping magisteria”!) So does AAAS/DOSER have public events ever, or put audio and video online? Is there a DOSER podcast or something like that?

    • Hello Dr. Adler. You can learn about our program — projects, events, and resources at our website: The resource page includes video recordings of our public events, which generally include a scientist speaking about their work and a theologian, philosopher, or ethicist discussing its societal implications. Alas, we don’t have a podcast, but that’s a great idea.

  2. Darwinian evolutionist says:

    “our life experiences can shape our genes” Huh? This sounds like Lamarckianism, the guy whose ideas were demolished by Darwin. Is this like saying the baby giraffe’s neck is longer because it’s mother stretched her neck?

    • A reply to your question from one of my colleagues:

      Not only “life experiences” but the environment and nutritional factors as well can have an effect on gene expression. An article by Perry and colleagues suggests that we need to revisit the evolutionary theory of Lamarck and Darwin in light of recent advances and new knowledge in the field of epigenetics. Here is the link to the article.

      Another good article I found comes at your question from a comparative biology perspective. The author goes through the historical perspective of epigenetics to show how hard it can be to settle theories of evolution in light of new advancements in science and how they play a role in revisiting and revising long held scientific theories. Here is the link to the article.

      As the history of science has shown us that not all scientific theories can stand the test of new discoveries and data. For example, at one time the earth was thought to be the center of the universe or the presence of gravitational waves to name some changes in scientific theory and thought. In the end, we have to be mindful of how new scientific advances may reshape or modify classic scientific theories.

      — Curtis L. Baxter III

  3. Religious Doc says:

    This idea that this epigenetic research could help inform pastoral care is intriguing, and maybe the first time I’ve heard someone actually suggest something USEFUL about epigenetics instead of just hand-waving. But I’m not clear what Professor Yehuda (or Rabbi Judson) is saying about how epigenetics can actually help here, about the specifics.

  4. Eugene Fink says:

    I wonder if there is any brain research into memory that is relevant to Judaism as well?

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