Science and Judaism (Fertility) (Judith Shulevitz on Fresh Air with Terry Gross)

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(Kazmir Malevich, Black Square and Red Square 1915/Cindy Sherman, Untitled #183, 1988)

So on the commute home from Syracuse I caught Judith Shulevitz, the science editor at the New Republic, talking about her latest article on what may be the bad genetic effects passed on to the children born to older parents and by possible side-effects of advanced fertility techniques and environmental toxins. For all the details, go to Shulevitz’s article . Mostly, the complications experienced by what percentage of children born to older children involve mild to more severe forms of cognitive and motor disorders. Is the problem as severe as indicated. Will the medical, social, and psychological consequences of late parenting upend American society as claimed in the article’s title? I’ll leave the more technical questions to the science writers who know more about this stuff.

What struck my interest about the article  and the appearance at Fresh Air was the enormous confluence of factors involved. Science (are there and what are the genetic effects of later parenting? how awful are these fertility treatments that older women, in particular, suffer in order to conceive? What are the environmental pressures on the ageing bodies of older fathers?). Economics (Consider the pressures at work that pressure women to decide to start planning families later down a career path). Politics (we live in a country that does relatively nothing to support young families) . Gender (we are asked to consider enormous pressures suffered disproportionately by women that turn out to be medical, economic, political, and also social and psychological)

At some point, the entire story began to sound like a scene out of the book of Genesis, not any one particular scene, but the kind of structural ur-scene that Cindy Sherman might conceive in one of her photographic, faux cinematic, faux art historical mockups. All the ingredients are there –ageing mothers and older husbands, sagging bodies, intense anxieties about fertility, shame, guilt, and always the bitter promise of mutual recrimination between partners. The only one missing from the biblical scene is a God or a science whose miraculous intervention we are now beginning to suspect comes too late in life.

Shulevitz is also the author of The Sabbath World, a book that takes its departure from Abraham Joshua Heschel’s 1952 classic, The Sabbath. Terry Gross interviewed Shulevitz when the book came out, and knew well enough to know, being Terry Gross, to ask about what connects her book on religion with this new journalistic piece on science and fertility. It was at this point that I began losing my radio signal, so I actually missed the last few minutes of the interview. What I got was the sense that no, contra one way of reading Heschel, science and Sabbath are not at odds. But they form different human modalities that one needs to learn how to synch and move between, and that it’s important to step into community as a counterpoint to the kinds of pressures occasioned by the world of science and work. I can’t speak for the more faith-based forms of Protestantism, but in my view, what makes Judaism, and perhaps Catholicism and Islam not so difficult to synch with science is that these kinds of religion share with science a systems-based, rule-based character.

I’m reading Technics & Civilization now, so everything is Lewis Mumford who seemed to have understood back in 1930 that the assimilation of the machine is deeply aesthetic. I think religion, the right kind of religion, has a place to play in that dynamic.

About zjb

Zachary Braiterman is Professor of Religion in the Department of Religion at Syracuse University. His specialization is modern Jewish thought and philosophical aesthetics.
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