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Ask the Rabbis // Religion & Science

In what ways, if any,
do science and Judaism conflict?

 

INDEPENDENT

There is no conflict between science and Judaism. Nowhere, for instance, does the Torah indicate that the universe was created in six 24-hour days. After all, we measure time by our spin around the sun, and the sun did not appear on the scene until the fourth “day.” The 13th-century Rabbi Yitzchak of Acco theorized the age of the universe to be around 14 billion years (Shoshan Yesod Olam). This was written into our tradition eight centuries before modern science arrived at a similar estimate.

The ancient rabbis also describe the universe as originating with God’s Light, which condensed to form matter (the Zohar, Vol. 1, folio 30b and Vol. 2, folios 75b-76a; Midrash B’reishit Rabbah 3:1). Or, as Einstein would put it millennia later: “E=mc2.”

It is not science but scientism that is in conflict with Judaism. The late Dr. Robert Jastrow, founding director of NASA’s Goddard Institute, described scientism as “a kind of religion in science…violated by the discovery that the world had a beginning under the conditions in which the known laws of physics are not valid, and as a product of forces or circumstances we cannot discover.”

“For the scientist who has lived by his faith in the power of reason, the story ends like a bad dream,” Jastrow told The New York Times in 1978. “He has scaled the mountains of ignorance; he is about to conquer the highest peak; as he pulls himself over the final rock, he is greeted by a band of theologians who have been sitting there for centuries.”

Rabbi Gershon Winkler

Walking Stick Foundation

Thousand Oaks, CA

HUMANIST

When religion bases its teachings on blind faith, unsubstantiated mythology and superstition, it stands in conflict with scientific thinking.  Worse, when it denies the hard evidence that science provides, it suppresses the advancement of knowledge.  Judaism is mostly innocent of these charges, though a minority view historically rejected the Copernican revolution, holds to a literal reading of the Bible, thinks the world is only thousands of years old, believes in miracles or awaits an unproven world-to-come. In contrast, the true strength of Judaism is its ability to separate myth from fact and to welcome intellectual debate and skeptical thinking.

Putting aside all the Nobel Prizes, it should really be no wonder that so many Jews entered scientific fields in the first place. Science, for Judaism, is an ally, not an opponent.

Einstein once wrote that “the cosmic religious feeling is the strongest and noblest motive for scientific research.” He also said that for Johannes Kepler and Isaac Newton to disentangle the principles of celestial mechanics, they required a “deep conviction of the rationality of the universe.”

Rabbi Peter H. Schweitzer

The City Congregation for Humanistic Judaism

New York, NY

RENEWAL

Just because something is scientifically possible does not mean that undertaking it is advisable. Oil extraction techniques that destroy the environment, for instance, contravene the mitzvah of bal tashchit—refraining from damage to nature. The rapidly evolving practice of designing and creating animal-human hybrids is a current point of contention. When this is done for reasons of saving life—undertaken in labs through genetic engineering and/or implantation of physical material—Jewish bioethicists see the letter of the laws of kilayim (based on the biblical injunction to refrain from interbreeding species) as being satisfied. But Rabbi Moshe D. Tendler has written that a human brain, for example, in an animal’s body would contravene the Jewish principle of k’vod habriyot, respect for the integrity of species. This accords with the Ramban, who taught that one who mixes two different species is “changing and denying the Divine Creation of the world.” Looking to the future, the Jewish value of tzaar baalei chayyim (refraining from cruelty to animals) might render unkosher something like science fiction writer Frank Herbert’s “chairdog,” a chair that is alive and partly sentient that shapes itself to the person sitting in it.

Conflicts of Judaism and science help us think things through. Conflict can also abate as science advances. For example, organ and tissue donation, once impermissible during the early days of low effectiveness, is now accounted a mitzvah under most circumstances.

Rabbi Goldie Milgram

ReclaimingJudaism.org

Philadelphia, PA

RECONSTRUCTIONIST

Judaism is rich, but often arcane; our stories alienate skeptical moderns who cherish hard facts.  Science is true, but often cold; its mechanistic view devalues nature and humanity.  Science emphasizes knowledge and utility; Judaism views the world with appreciation and awe. Both matter, and we Jews have long been blessed to blend the best of each.  While offering its own mythic truths, Judaism has long respected scientific truths: The Bible carefully observes the natural world (Proverbs, Job, Ecclesiastes); great Talmudic rabbis were also agronomists and researchers; astronomers and doctors wrote great medieval Jewish treatises, and Rav Kook supported Darwin, writing that “evolution sheds light on all God’s ways.”

Our pro-science history gives hope today, when attacks on science threaten our very lives.  There’s a robust scientific consensus that our short-sighted actions are already causing dangerous climate change; it’s getting worse but can be averted with our serious commitment. Some ideologues (usually funded by carbon-intensive industries) “deny” climate science. Here, we Jews, who bring scientific facts into our spiritual formation, can lead:  When we pioneer zero-carbon religion for our imperiled era, we’ll be both empirical and ethical. Sustainability is the synthesis of science and spirit.

Rabbi Fred Scherlinder Dobb

Adat Shalom Reconstructionist Congregation

Bethesda, MD

REFORM

As an undergraduate in a religious studies course, I wrote a paper on creation and evolution, asking whether creation could really have happened the way it is described in the Torah. It was at that point that I learned about day-age theory, which states that a day of creation was perhaps not 24 hours but, instead, hundreds of thousands or even millions of years. If we read the creation story with that lens, we can see that the order of creation described in Torah symbolizes the scientific process of evolution.

For progressive Jews, science and Judaism do not have to conflict. We do not have to read Torah literally.  Torah and Judaism are meant to teach us values and ethics, which give us a framework to guide our lives. Judaism provides us ways to express awe, wonder and appreciation for the mysteries of the universe and give thanks for the human mind, which is able to seek new understandings of that universe through scientific exploration and experimentation. For many, that scientific process enhances the appreciation of God’s miraculous creation.

Rabbi Laura Novak Winer

Fresno, CA

CONSERVATIVE

In chapter one of Genesis, God said, “Let us make the human being in our image”—something God did not say about the creation of other animals. Human beings generally recognize that they are qualitatively different from all other animals. Does this conflict with the teaching of Darwinian evolution that the human species is just one among the primates and evolved from previous primate species?  Evolutionary biologists continue to probe the question of how human beings evolved differently from other primates. Their consensus is that species evolved in a process of random natural selection.  The idea of natural selection being random appears to conflict with Jewish teachings that God purposely differentiated human beings from other creatures.

But rather than serving as a cause for pitting Judaism and science against each other, the apparent contradiction can serve as an example of God’s greatness. God created a world in which human beings are similar to their close primate relatives in many ways. But in certain decisive ways, human beings are distinct—the best example being that we are able to debate and write about these very questions.

Rabbi Amy Wallk Katz

Temple Beth El

Springfield, MA

MODERN ORTHODOX

It all depends on the approach. In recent centuries, fundamentalist believers have focused on the conflicts, claiming that science is undermining our sacred texts and that one must therefore uphold God’s authority by rejecting scientific views. (See under: Evolution versus Creation.) The Lubavitcher Rebbe rejected geology’s assertion that the earth was billions of years old—explaining that the fossils were implanted in nature by God when the earth was created thousands of years ago. Ultra-Orthodox Jews, and now many centrist leaders of yeshivas, have rejected biblical criticism and historically critical approaches to halacha as forbidden because, they believe, these approaches undermine the belief that every word of Torah is given directly by God and not subject to change.

I offer an alternative view. Maimonides believed that Nature, i.e. the world, is Exhibit Number One of God’s existence and presence. To understand the nature of Nature is to understand the divine creative power and elements of its wisdom and values. Therefore, in his magnum opus Mishneh Torah, in the opening book Sefer Mada, he explains physical creation by making physics and astronomy elements of the holy Torah—that is, ways of studying and learning about God and God’s Torah. In his Guide for the Perplexed, Maimonides further explains that the Book of Revelation as expressed in Nature cannot conflict with the Book of Revelation which is the written and oral Torah. After all, they have the same Author. When they appear to conflict, humans should use their reason and judgment and reconcile the Torah’s teaching with the best—that is, the most credible—science of the day. While Maimonides affirms that the final word must go to God and religion, he insists that it is a mitzvah to use our reason and (re)interpret the Torah—even drastically—to make it accord with the truth as best established by human reason. In other words, he argues that the truth and authority of the Torah should not be predicated on know-nothingism, ignorance or lack of scientific understanding. To which I say: Amen.

Rabbi Yitz Greenberg

Riverdale, NY

ORTHODOX

I reject the belief that Judaism and science conflict. Maimonides first confronted the scientific challenge to the Bible’s story of creation when it came into conflict with the Aristotelian theory of the eternity of matter. Maimonides was clear. He rejected Aristotle’s theory, but not because it contradicted scripture—he was prepared to reinterpret scripture to accommodate the theory, but only if the theory were proven true by some infallible means. Rather, he rejected Aristotle’s theory because it was wrong, as was subsequently proven by science. Today everyone rejects the eternity of matter in favor of the Big Bang, with its strong creation overtones.

This is the approach we should take today as well. If evolution and neo-Darwinism, for example, are proven to be true, then there is no conflict with the biblical story of creation, given that the Bible is clear that the creation follows the pattern of the inanimate being followed by the vegetable, animal and finally intellectual. Of course, we would insist that God guided, at every step and in every way, the ascent of life. But before we make a full accommodation to the theory, we must note that there remain holes in the evolutionary model, such as the quantum leaps in the fossil record that led some paleontologists, notably Stephen Jay Gould, to suggest that evolution is governed much more by “punctuated equilibrium” than by continuous evolutionary development.

Rabbi Shmuley Boteach 

Englewood, NJ

CHABAD

I hate to get all rabbinic about this, but Judaism and science conflict completely—and they don’t conflict at all. Does one side of a coin conflict with the other? It’s the exact opposite, and yet they’re one and the same. Do the brain and the heart conflict? They can be diametrically opposed, and yet both together are who I am.

Science tells us what. It is the study of measurable phenomena, the expectation of how those phenomena are likely to repeat or how they may have developed in the past. It is a doctor understanding the nature of what exactly makes up the human body and how those pieces work in concert.

Judaism tells us why. It is the study of the Infinite Will, the understanding of our raison d’être and the application of moral and ethical guides for our existence. It is the psychologist delving into why I do what I do, the philosopher considering the implications of my being and my actions, the parent appreciating the wonder and awe of a newborn baby.

Total opposites, yet both struggling with the same reality. Science is the study of G-d’s actions, while Judaism is the appreciation of His will. If they seem in conflict, one or both have not yet been understood to their ultimate truth.

Rabbi Dov Wagner

Rohr Chabad Jewish Student Center, University of Southern California

Los Angeles, CA 

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2 comments

  1. Obviously it is a large tent and the residents disagree. I’m glad we are all Jews and not split into doctrinal schisms like the other religions. Personally I feel Reconstructionist as described here makes the least amount of sense, but a good read and I encourage more comparative religion.

  2. A direct answer to the question depends to a considerable degree on what one means by Judaism.
    Is the Judaism at issue limited to value imperatives like loving one’s neighbor, welcoming the stranger, seeking justice or, even, not boiling a kid in its mother’s milk? Or does it include truth statements like the world was created less than six thousand years ago, seed bearing plants and fruit trees were created before the Sun was, the Israelites were slaves in Egypt, hundreds of thousand maybe millions of freed slaves encamped for forty years in a wilderness, and Joshua led a conquest of Cannan? To the extent that it is the latter, scientific methodology may be applied and the result may or may not be consistent with the statement asserted. To the extent that it is the former, science has a much less instructive role.
    Not surprisingly, and obvious from a review of the responses by the various rabbis, one can easily pick threads from the rich tapestry of the Jewish civilization and then find a conflict or not as one wishes.

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