Jewish Responses to Modern Science

Coexistence and conflict.


Reprinted with permission from
The Jewish Religion: A Companion
, published by Oxford University Press.

The struggle between science and religion in the nineteenth century, although largely engaged in by Christians, was naturally of equal concern to religious Jews. With regard to the basic problem of the scientific approach to the discovery of truth versus religious faith, Jewish thinkers, believing that all truth comes from the One God, generally refused to adopt the “two-truth” theory, according to which religion is in conflict with science but each is “true” in its own sphere.

modern science and judaismRelying on the medieval discussions of faith versus reason, the majority of Jewish thinkers who grappled with the problem held that religion has to do with life’s values and with a reaching-out to the transcendent, and is therefore fully compatible with scientific views about the composition and workings of the world perceived by the senses.

Knowledge vs. Belief

While Judaism views with favor investigation into the nature of the physical universe–from the religious point of view this increases human perception of the glory of God as manifest in His creation–such investigations are irrelevant to the question of religious faith.

As C. S. Lewis puts it, the scientist, in his field, knows, whereas the religious person believes. In other words, science explains the way in which the universe works as it does, while religion seeks to explain the purpose of the universe and man’s place within it. The one is a matter of knowledge, the other a matter of belief.

Very few Jewish thinkers, for instance, felt themselves compelled by their religious faith to hold fast, despite all the new evidence, to the geocentric view of the universe. Far from the new picture of the immense size of the universe (with our whole solar system a mere speck in the vastness of space) destroying faith, they believed that scientific discoveries help to increase man’s sense of wonder at the divine wisdom.

The problem for religious Jews is not, therefore, science per se, but the apparent conflict between particular scientific theories and the biblical record: for instance, between the Genesis narrative of spontaneous creation in six days and the theory of evolution, or between the great age of the universe revealed by science and the biblical chronology according to which the world is no more than 5,500 years old.

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Rabbi Dr. Louis Jacobs (1920-2006) was a Masorti rabbi, the first leader of Masorti Judaism (also known as Conservative Judaism) in the United Kingdom, and a leading writer and thinker on Judaism.

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