Jewish Responses to Modern Science

Coexistence and conflict.

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.

Relying 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.

Reconciling Contradictions

Some Orthodox thinkers here fall back on the idea that scientific theories are only “guesswork,” which it is folly to accept in the face of contradiction by the divinely revealed Torah.

But others, like Rabbi Kook, have maintained that the creation narrative has always been held by the tradition to belong to the “mysteries of the Torah,” and is therefore open to interpretation. The creation narrative was not intended to be a literal description of how everything came into being, but rather to stress that it was God who called it all into being–and there is no reason why it should not be postulated that He used an evolutionary process to achieve His purpose.

Where science does come into conflict with the tradition is when scientific method is employed to examine the documents of the Jewish religion and to discover how religion itself came to be. Biblical criticism, and sociological and psychological theories about the nature of society and the human personality, do present a challenge to the doctrine of divine revelation.

Some Jewish thinkers have argued that biblical criticism is only conjectural, and sociology and psychology are not exact sciences. Orthodox thinkers still pursue this line, at least so far as criticism applied to the Pentateuch, the very word of God, is concerned. Reform and Conservative thinkers hold that, indeed, the application of scientific method in these areas has to be accepted even if the conclusions reached demand a new approach to the whole question of revelation.

Following Doctor’s Orders

In connection with the science of medicine, all Orthodox thinkers welcome wholeheartedly the tremendous advances in this sphere. Already in the period of the geonim the view was held that the talmudic rabbis only had the medical knowledge of their day, so one must not rely on remedies found in the Talmud, for all the authority the Talmud possesses is in matters of religion and law. In matters of Jewish law such as whether a person who is sick should eat on Yom Kippur, it is for the doctor–not the rabbi–to decide, and the doctor’s knowledge is based on the advance of modern medicine.

Scientific advances have, indeed, posed new problems for Jewish law and ethics–organ transplants and artificial insemination are obvious examples–but no Jewish thinker has expressed the view that, because of the problems to which it gives rise, the advance of science should be halted.

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

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