In his Guide for the Perplexed, Maimonides, the great medieval Jewish scholar, philosopher, physician, and scientist writes: “The man who wishes to attain human perfection should study logic first, next mathematics, then physics, and lastly metaphysics.” Not only are the sciences and mathematics inextricably bound within the Jewish experience, but according to Maimonides, these disciplines form a foundation for the understanding of Torah.
At URJ Heller High, our students are immersed in a comprehensive Jewish learning experience as they actively engage with thousands of years of Jewish history, modern Israeli culture, and the Hebrew language. However, Jewish learning is not necessarily limited to the Jewish history classroom. General studies (those courses that fulfill requirements of students’ home schools, such as physics or pre-calculus) are also opportunities for Jewish learning at our school. Following in the footsteps of Maimonides, I constantly seek occasions to incorporate Jewish themes into my science and mathematics courses, for example:
Calculating the dimensions of Noah’s ark;
Determining the sound intensity needed to bring down the walls of Jericho;
Investigating examples of sequences and series in the Talmud;
Doing trigonometry with hamantaschen*;
Researching Israel’s unique geological formations, or
Learning about the lives and contributions of Jewish scientists and mathematicians throughout the ages,
In a recent trigonometry assignment, students were tasked with creating a piece of “function art” that incorporated a Jewish or Israeli theme. Students were required to use various transformations (amplitude, period, phase shift, and vertical shift) of trigonometric functions (sine, cosine, tangent, and their reciprocals) to create their masterpieces. In addition to the artwork itself, students submitted color-coded lists of the corresponding equations, along with their domains and relevant transformations.
Examples of student “function art” included a kiddush cup, a hamsa** (an amulet against the evil eye), the emblem of the State of Israel, and a Sefer Torah. The final products demonstrated both high levels of artistic creativity and mathematical accuracy. More importantly, this project illustrates an application of mathematics to the Jewish experience. Judaism is not restricted to the synagogue or to the history books.; rather, it can connect to every facet of our lives – even in the unsuspecting realms of science and mathematics.
*Hamantaschen – a triangle shaped cookie made around the Purim Holiday.
**Hamsa – an amulet in the image of a hand with an eye in the middle used to ward off the “evil eye.”
Lance Levenson has taught science and mathematics at URJ Heller High since 2014. Prior to making aliyah Lance taught middle school science, as well as religious school at a Reform congregation in the Washington, DC area. He earned a BS degree from The George Washington University and an MA in Teaching from American University. Originally from Philadelphia, Lance made aliyah in 2012.