Math & Judaism

“His [April 2018] talk was both meaningful and accessible. All who were present had an uplifting and thought-provoking opportunity to learn. And on top of that, we all laughed with Dr. Lesser a great deal.” – Rabbi Ben Zeidman, Temple Mount Sinai, El Paso

EXECUTIVE SUMMARYOn connections between Judaism and math/statistics, Professor Lesser has published several national journal articles and presented to a wide variety of Jewish (and non-Jewish) audiences.  Lesser’s journey has spanned nearly every stream of Judaism, giving him a foundation to appreciate and connect with highly diverse audiences) . 

An award-winning Professor at The University of Texas at El Paso (same 31.76oN latitude as Jerusalem!), Dr. Lesser conducts research in statistics/mathematics education.  He was listed as a supporting faculty member throughout the existence (2005-2018) of the UTEP Inter-American Jewish Studies Program and a few of his 110+ scholarly papers connect mathematics/statistics with Judaism. Since 1997, Lesser has given presentations on this intersection in forums including the International ALEPH Kallah, citywide Yom Limmud or Tikkun Leil Shavuot events (e.g., Houston, El Paso), individual congregations (from Modern Orthodox to post-denominational; for example, here), and pluralistic day schools or Sunday schools (e.g., Ft. Collins, El Paso, Houston, Albuquerque, Austin). Lesser makes material engaging and accessible for audiences of varied (Jewish or mathematical) backgrounds. He has also given presentations for the UTEP Religious Studies program on his Jewish songs based on Talmud, Torah, Midrash, and culture.

In May 2006, he published in Journal of Mathematics and Culture the first juried comprehensive education-oriented article on Jewish mathematics, based on his years creating curriculum integration as a full-time mathematics teacher at a pluralistic community Jewish high school.  The article offers both scholarly background as well as diverse classroom-tested examples of not only the obvious area of gematria, but also quotations, mathematical firsts, counting (permutations, marking time, etc.), infinity, pi, mathematical modeling, geometry, logic, and connections to Jewish text/customs/holidays/games (e.g., dreidel).  These enhancements connected to school culture/activities and appeared to help motivate some students towards broader view and deeper engagement. Lesser published a related 2013 short piece in The Jewish Educator and a longer followup 2016 paper in Journal of Mathematics and Culture (JMC). Adapted versions of the two JMC papers appeared as chapters in the 2019 White Plum Publishing book, Culture that Counts: A Decade of Depth with the Journal of Mathematics and Culture.

Also, Lesser explored language/culture parallels between math education and Judaism in a 2015 paper in Teaching for Excellence and Equity in Mathematics and contributed (with Steve Varela’s team commissioned by the Texas Holocaust and Genocide Commission) to the 2015 ethics module Integrating Ethics from Thought to Action.

Lesser has used his award-winning pedagogical skills to give (for varied multi-congregational settings, audiences, and formats) engaging interactive talks, such as:

How We Count” — an engaging exploration of how Jewish values are embedded in the very way we mark time, count in holy texts, and count our fellow Jews.

Lots and Lotteries” — an engaging exploration of Jewish texts and views on chance — ranging from the ancient casting of lots to modern playing of lotteries

Who is Wise?” — a professor discusses secular and Jewish perspectives of what makes someone wise