Shabbat, April 22, 2017, 26 Nisan 5777
At this moment, in Washington D.C. and in cities around the country, Marches for Science are taking place. This movement identifies itself as a “diverse, nonpartisan group [that] …champions robustly funded and publicly communicated science as a pillar of human freedom and prosperity.” It “call[s] for science that upholds the common good and for political leaders and policy makers to enact evidence based policies in the public interest.”
The march offers us an opportunity to consider the relationship between science and religion.
I find that people make a lot of assumptions about Judaism’s position vis a vis science, and draw certain conclusions regarding what I must believe as a Rabbi.
It is not a secret that, for the past century or so, Jews have been drawn to study the world around us. Our people has been awarded a vastly disproportionate share of Nobel Prizes in science-related fields, including 41% of Nobel Prize winners in economics, 28% in medicine, 26% in physics, and 19% in chemistry. This, despite comprising less than .2% of the world’s population.
It is safe to say that Jews have an affinity for science.
When I was in middle school in the 1980’s, the Orthodox Jewish Day school that I attended sponsored a Shabbaton one weekend. I remember a conversation that I had with one of the Rabbis from the school. Looking back, I suspect he was the product of an earlier generation of education. He insisted that the world was a bit less than six thousand years old. So I asked the obvious question. “What about dinosaur fossils?”
“God put them in the earth to test us,” he responded.
I was not convinced.
While there may be some corners in the Jewish world in whcih science is shunned, the vast majority of Jews, from secular to Orthodox, enthusiastically embrace the mutual compatibility of religion and science.
But it has not always been the case. Rabbis in ancient times expressed conflicting attitudes about science. They often criticize the Roman Empire. Despite its sophisticated culture, architecture, roads, bridges, and aqueducts, it is morally rotten and ethically hypocritical.
They even express discomfort with medicine. The Talmud (BT Berachot 10b) praised the Biblical King Hezekiah’s for suppressing a book called Sefer Refuot, the Book of Remedies.
A disagreement between medieval commentators captures our tradition’s ambivalence. Rashi explains that the Book of Remedies was full of prescriptions for medications that effectively treated all sorts of maladies. Because they were healed, people were no longer turning to God in prayer. Efficacious medicine was causing people to lose their faith. So King Hezekiah hid it away. And the Rabbis praise him for it.
Maimonides understands the passage differently. He (who it should be noted, was a physician) explains that the Book of Remedies was quackery. It was full of false charms that had no healing potential. So King Hezekiah suppressed it to protect the people from nonsense, possibly even idolatrous, beliefs. That is why the Rabbis of the Talmud praise him.
For thousands of years, Jewish culture has placed a tremendous focus on the mind. Education is one of our most important values. For thousands of years, knowledge and wisdom have been valued more highly than physical strength.
But up until the modern era, that did not, for the most part, include science. There are a number of literary genres that developed over the centuries: halakhah – legal writings, aggadah – exegesis, mysticism, commentaries, liturgy, poetry – both secular and religious. But there never developed a tradition of Jewish scientific writing. Until the Enlightenment, there were barely any original works of science written by Jews.
There were certainly some outliers, Maimonides being the most well-known of them. A Rabbi, doctor, philosopher, and community leader, Maimonides voraciously consumed every kind of learning he could get his hands on. It goes without saying that he received the best Torah education available. But he also wanted to learn Greek wisdom and science. This kind of learning was not available within the walls of the Jewish academy, so he had to seek it elsewhere. Maimonides went through the typical program for an educated person of the twelfth century. As a teen-ager, he studied mathematics, astronomy, logic, and physics. He then went on to metaphysics, ethics, politics, theology, and medicine. Throughout his life, he studied Arabic philosophy, theology, and legal writings. He regularly corresponded with the great thinkers of his day.
This kind of embrace of all forms of knowledge was looked down upon by mainstream religious thinkers. It eroded faith and took students away from the study of Torah, they feared. But Maimonides was enamored with rationalism. He sought to combine the study of the natural world with the study of Torah. He tried to explain Torah using the metaphysics of Aristotle, seeking to reconcile them as much as possible. Knowledge of the world and its Creator are to be found in nature no less than in Sacred writings.
There was one major Aristotelian principle that Maimonides rejects: Aristotle’s belief in the eternity of the universe. But in his Guide for the Perplexed, Maimonides writes that he is open to being convinced otherwise, if someone can bring him empirical evidence. If a scientific proof is found to contradict Torah in some way, he explains, it means one of two things. Either the scientific proof is incorrect and needs to be revised, or our understanding of Torah is incorrect and needs to be revised.
What is the purpose of studying the world around us? What should human beings do with our scientific discoveries? There are a number of possibilities.
We can employ science to make life more pleasurable. This is a sort of utilitarian argument. We harness and manipulate our world in order to enhance human pleasure.
We could study science purely for its own sake. The conceptual joy of learning, without applying our discoveries.
Or, we can turn science into a religion. Ethics are expressed by Natural Law itself. Society should imitate nature. This can lead to outcomes which most of us would find horrifying. Nazi ideology saw itself as implementing Darwinian survival of the fittest. Its warped pseudo-science led to the Holocaust.
At the end of the day, Maimonides feels that science ought to be subservient to Torah. Learning about the natural world should lead a person to greater knowledge of God, and greater piety. The Torah concerns itself, ultimately, with truths that are higher than science.
While there were some Jewish thinkers who followed Maimonides’ embrace of philosophy and science, Jews for the most part did not pay much attention to it.
In Europe, it was the Church which expanded the study of empirical science. Why did Judaism not embrace science during this time period? First of all, Jews were kept out of the universities. As an exiled people living an often precarious existence, there were not too many opportunities for precocious students to embrace secular studies.
In the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries, when modern science began, increased antisemitism turned Jews inward. Mysticism had also become hugely popular throughout the Jewish world. It emphasized that the fundamental truths about God and the cosmos are not to be found in empirical reality.
It was in the late nineteenth century that a radical shift took place. The universities were opened up. Jews began to write our own history. Zionism emerged, awakening the prospect of Jewish self-determination. Jewish interest in the world around us exploded. After prizing knowledge and wisdom for millennia, and developing tools for critical thinking in every generation, Jews were ready to study the sciences – with fervor.
Science and Torah should never be seen as mutually incompatible. Quite the opposite. They need each other. Science’s purpose is to explain what is. Torah’s purpose is to tell us what ought to be.
Science cannot tell us what to do with knowledge. It is morally neutral.
The study of of nuclear physics tells us how to capture the energy contained within an atom. But it can’t tell us what we should do with it.
If Darwin is concerned with “the Origin of the Species,” than Torah is concerned with “the purpose of the species.”
For thousands of years, we have been developing answers to that question. As human beings, we are here to be stewards of the earth. We are here to recognize the image of God that is inherent in every person. We are here to care for one another. As Jews, we are here to follow the mitzvot.
Learning more about God’s creation creates more tools with which to fulfill our purpose. That means we must embrace science, and direct the knowledge we gain to solving the problems in our world.
Just last month, the Rabbinical Assembly of Conservative Judaism overwhelmingly passed a resolution calling for full funding for research on climate change, as well as scientific and medical research. In addition, the resolution called “upon all governments to …utilize only science-based evidence for environmental and energy policies.”
This is certainly consistent with Jewish thinkers since Maimonides, and reflects the vast preponderance of Jewish religious thinkers today, spanning every movement in Judaism.
Maimonides: The Life and World of One of Civilization’s Greatest Minds, by Joel L. Kraemer.
“Rethinking Ethics in the Light of Jewish Thought and the Life Sciences,” by Norbert M. Samuelson, The Journal of Religious Ethics, Vol. 29, No. 2 (Summer, 2001), pp. 209-233.
“Science,” by Hillel Levine, in Contemporary Jewish Religious Thought, ed. by Arthur A. Cohen and Paul Mendes-Flohr, pp. 855-861.