White House Science Adviser To Be Sworn In On A 500-Year-Old Jewish Text

Library of Congress specialist Ann Brener, left, shows incoming White House Office of Science and Technology Policy Director Eric Lander and his family a 500-year-old copy of the Pirkei Avot shortly before he used it during his swearing-in ceremony.

WASHINGTON (RNS) — When Vice President Kamala Harris’ office reached out to Eric Lander, the new director of the White House Office of Science and Technology Policy, to ask what book he planned to use during his swearing-in ceremony on Wednesday (June 2), he was stumped.

“I confess I had not thought about the question until they asked,” Lander told Religion News Service. “But once they asked, I had to think deeply about it, because when you choose a text you're choosing values, or history, or other meaningful things.”

The question, he explained, made him think about the choice as “a statement of what's in my mind and what's in my heart" as he approaches his new role.

That choice set the scientist-turned-Cabinet official, who was confirmed by the Senate last week, off on a frantic evening of rigorous research that would eventually lead him to the Library of Congress and an obscure, recently rediscovered 500-year-old printing of a well-known Jewish text.

The MIT and Harvard biology professor and geneticist began his search by convening a Zoom confab with his wife and children, who helped point him to a value from Lander's Jewish tradition: Tikkun Olam, Hebrew for “repair the world.”

Lander, who also served as co-chair of former President Barack Obama's Council of Advisors on Science and Technology, said he attends Jewish services but that his own Judaism is “complicated to describe.”

Suffice it to say that “the traditions — the ethical traditions — everything that comes from that faith and the faith I still practice in some ways, they matter a lot to who you are,” he said.

His family picked up on a similar sentiment. "The minute we realized the question was valued, we all went to Tikkun Olam,” Lander said, explaining that Tikkun Olam has particular resonance in his family: “What is our purpose here? Our purpose is to repair the world, to help others in need of help, to take in strangers, to have empathy.”

That realization, in turn, reminded Lander of an expression found in the Mishnah, the earliest collections of rabbinic interpretations of oral Jewish law: “It's not required that you complete the work, but neither may you refrain from it.”

In scouring the Library of Congress catalog for a copy of Mishnah, however, Lander stumbled upon something a bit more specific: a 13-page volume containing the Pirkei Avot, a subset of the Mishnah that focuses on ethics and contains the expression.

Lander couldn’t help but notice the publication date: 1492, an era when Jewish populations were expelled from the Kingdom of Spain. He’d later learn the book was produced by a Jewish printer in Naples, whose history was entangled with Spain at the time: The kingdoms were ruled by men who shared a family connection and a name — Ferdinand.

While one Ferdinand is known for setting in motion the Spanish Inquisition, the other (in Naples) was more tolerant and accepted Jewish refugees.

In listening to that history, Lander heard a lesson for modern ears.

"The world has experimented with intolerance, with the view that everybody has to think like I think, worship as I worship,” he said. “(But) the world experimented in 1492 with tolerance — with the idea that we would have a diversity of people and perspectives. I think the lessons of the 1492 era are lessons for today: coming together and making our diversity an incredible asset for this country going forward.”

Ann Brener, a specialist at the Library of Congress who helped Lander with his request, is well acquainted with the book and its peculiar history. "This book that Dr. Lander found was only inches away from not being cataloged at all,” she said in an interview.

Brener stumbled upon the volume a decade ago while working with a collection of some 40,000 uncataloged rabbinic texts, most from the 19th and early 20th centuries. In the course of her work, she examined a thin publication that didn’t look altogether different from others: a large, folio-sized book with a flimsy binding lined with what looked like Victorian wallpaper.

But when she examined its pages, she realized she’d found something special.

“When I touched this paper, I knew immediately … that I was touching something very ancient — none of this 19th-century stuff,” she said.

Even then, the work wasn’t made available for people such as Lander to find online until a few months ago. Technically, it’s still not fully cataloged: Brener said it can only be located virtually because Dave Reser, a colleague at the Library of Congress, found a way to insert information from PDFs of research documents that included a record of the book's existence into the searchable online catalog.

“Sheer magic,” Brener said in a follow-up email.

But placing a record of a book online isn’t the same as making it easy to find or procure, and Brener was impressed Lander tracked it down.

“Dr. Lander acted like a true scholar: He went into the catalog, he did research, he found something that caught its eye,” she said. “That's what we always hope for in our leaders and, frankly, seldom find.”

Lander said that in his job advising the president, he hopes his example will illuminate how research — especially scientific research — can achieve the values behind Tikkun Olam, something he suggested is illustrated by the ongoing pandemic.

"Being able to care for the afflicted, help people avoid illness, recover from the illness — this is an element of repairing the world,” he said.

Lander has some experience with intersections of religion and science: In 2020, he was appointed to the Vatican’s Pontifical Academy of Sciences. He also rejects the idea that religion and science are fundamentally opposed to each other.

“I don't see why they should be incongruous with each other,” he said, arguing that “disagreements over facts” between faith leaders and scientists are the “least interesting” areas of discourse between the two.

He sees potential for future science-informed partnerships between the government and faith communities to tackle the pandemic — such as ongoing involvement of faith groups in vaccine distribution — or helping stem the impact of climate change.

"What really matters is values, and in that, I find much less incongruity,” he said. “We are all trying to make the world better, make people feel better, give them comfort in the world."

At the very least, both Lander and Brener hinted that using a 500-year-old Pirkei Avot to take the oath of office may serve as a reminder of an early — and enduring — collaboration between religion, technology, and science: using a printing press to reproduce sacred texts.

“In Hebrew, when you publish something, the term is to go out into the light — it’s a biblical phrase,” Brener said. “(The book) went out into the light in Naples in 1492, but Dr. Lander is letting it go out into the light for a second time, and I couldn't be more thrilled with that.”

If you are looking for a way to become an interfaith leader, work for racial equity and build bridges, please check out our free curriculum "We Are Each Other's" and start your interfaith leadership today

more from IFYC

Members of Black communities across the U.S. have disproportionately fallen sick or died from the virus, so some church leaders are using their influence and trusted reputations to fight back by preaching from the pulpit.
Dr. Eboo Patel, Founder, and President of IFYC offered this comment as we remember Juneteenth this year: “Slavery and racism are amongst America’s original sins. Juneteenth marks an important step towards redemption, and so we observe it as a sacred day of remembrance and reflection.” 
Truly, how long must we wait till we achieve our full and complete freedom? And when I say “freedom” I do not mean the theoretical kind, or the type where million-dollar corporations drape their logos with the colors of the rainbow to express a monetary tolerance.
On Thursday, June 10, 2021, Krista Tippett and Eboo Patel discussed the value of courageous pluralism and deep listening at a pivotal moment of our nation's collective formation. How can we equip young people to best address the needs of our time and beyond—truly cultivating the understanding that we belong to one another?
Interfaith coalitions have long taken up racial justice causes, most famously in the civil rights movements of the '60s, Yet, interfaith organizations themselves have often not taken racial equity work seriously.
The conversation among participants focused on past, present and future possibilities of interfaith collaboration at HBCUs and among Black and African American students on other college campuses.
These women are influencing so many in their community by being beacons of the values they hold dear, and that is an incredible way to guide a community. 
While pursuing a master’s degree in Buddhist studies, Han decided to focus her thesis on documenting the nuances of Asian American Buddhists, a community that seemed almost nonexistent, she wrote.
He sees potential for future science-informed partnerships between the government and faith communities to tackle the pandemic.
What has happened in our institution provides a template for similar institutions who may be going through some challenges in establishing an interfaith program. It shows that being true to one’s faith and being inclusive are not opposites.
I hear my sisters and brothers calling out in cacophony, “Aint I a Human?” When Sojourner Truth considered the ways in which white women were revered and protected; when she witnessed the ways their gentility and femininity were affirmed and nurtured; when she experienced the contrast in how she was treated relative to those who shared her gender but not her color, she was compelled to ask, “Aint I a Woman?”
The following interview features Imam Makram El-Amin, who has led the Masjid An-Nur (Mosque of Light) in Minneapolis for 25 years and serves as executive director of Al-Maa’uun, the mosque’s community outreach organization.
The following interview features Anthony Cruz Pantojas, co-chair of the Latinx Humanist Alliance, an affiliate of the American Humanist Association.
The following interview features Micah Fries, director of programs at the Multi-Faith Neighbors Network and director of engagement at GlocalNet.
The church first started offering vaccine doses in January in an effort to boost the vaccination rates in New York City’s Black and Hispanic communities.
This article is part of a series called Faith in the Field that explores responses to Covid-19—including vaccination efforts—within different faith communities. 
Fr. Dennis Holtschneider, president of the Association of Catholic Colleges and Universities, talks about the Catholic response to the pandemic.
Fred Davie joins Alia Bilal, Anthea Butler, Adam Russell Taylor and Eric Lewis Williams in a conversation that gets to the heart of how interfaith cooperation can be a part of accountability, justice, and reconciliation in America’s next chapter.
Two thousand volunteers of diverse faiths will engage people through their religious communities.
"Over the years, people have asked if I was 'called' to be a rabbi, and the truth is I don't know, but what I do know is I did listen to an inner voice which I now believe was a holy voice. That holy voice led me to listen even when I doubted..."
The USS Olympia is home to the Difficult Journey Home exhibit that opens May 28, and a historical marker will be unveiled during the Museum’s Memorial Day ceremony on Monday, May 31. Independence Seaport Museum

The opinions contained in this piece are solely the author’s and do not necessarily reflect the views of Interfaith Youth Core. Interfaith America encourages a wide range of views and strives to maintain a respectful tone with a goal of greater understanding and cooperation between people of different faiths, worldviews, and traditions.