Jewish Journal

The conflict over whether Judaism and science conflict

by Roger Price

February 27, 2014 | 12:43 pm

From time to time, like when an itch just needs to be scratched or a roiling cauldron must overflow, essays are written and debates ensue over the question of whether there is a conflict between Judaism and science. The direct answer to the question depends to a considerable degree on how one defines Judaism, and to a lesser degree on how one defines science. But discussions about the topic, even from Jewish perspectives, often miss that basic point.

Recently Moment Magazine asked nine rabbis the following question: “In what ways, if any, do science and Judaism conflict?” The rabbis were apparently selected as representative of, though not necessarily representatives of, various orientations and denominations. Moment even ordered their responses as if there were a spectrum of Jewish thought from Independent to Humanist, Renewal, Reconstructionist, Reform, Conservative, Modern Orthodox, Orthodox, and, ultimately, Chabad. (Parenthetically, whether this means that Moment believes that Reform is at the center of Jewish opinion is unknown.)  The rabbis’ responses are illustrative of the problem inherent in these kinds of discussions.

Not all of the rabbis responded directly to the question asked. One, for instance, focused on the challenges brought by the application of certain technologies, a related and interesting issue, but one distinct from the question posed. To the extent that they more or less addressed themselves to science, however, the responses were reasonably uniform. In general, the rabbis saw no conflict between Judaism and science, or no necessary conflict, or, at least no apparent conflict that could not be resolved with greater study, understanding and tinkering.

That the opinions offered, on first reading, seemed compatible is a bit surprising. Is the result due to a patina of politeness, or is there a real consensus here? Is the notion of a conflict between Judaism and science imaginary, one asserted by troublemakers or, for instance, to sell books or magazines? Let’s look more closely.

One reason for the apparent consensus on the Jewish side might be that the responses apparently needed to be constrained to between 200 and 400 words, and that amount of space that does not allow for either nuance or development.  In addition, the respondents were not in dialogue with each other, not asked to comment on, much less challenge, what their colleagues had said.

Moreover, when the rabbis did reference a scientific topic, they tended to mention one or the other (or both) of just two topics, cosmology and evolution. Those are important subjects, to be sure, but they are also ones with long histories which have allowed for the emergence of some agreement.

Prior to the sixteenth century of the Common Era, Jews, like others, believed that the Earth was at the center of universe. Nicolaus Copernicus’s theory of a heliocentric model set forth in 1543 in On the Revolutions of the Celestial Spheres was rejected initially by the Catholic Church and, according to George Washington University professor Jeremy Brown, received a mixed response at first from Jews. Those who opposed it did so because the model was contrary to a literal reading of certain Biblical verses, including one in Joshua about the sun standing still. By the eighteenth century, Jews were increasingly accepting the heliocentric model because they were increasingly rejecting a literal reading of the entire biblical text.

Reactions to Charles Darwin’s publication in 1859 of On the Origin of Species evolved similarly.  By positing generally that living organisms shared a common ancestry, and specifically that humankind descended from a line of ape-like ancestors that also gave birth to apes, Darwin flatly contradicted a literal readings in Genesis 2:7 and 2:21-22 which talk about the formation of the first man from the dust of the earth and the first human female being fashioned from one of the man’s rib.  As Geoffrey Cantor and Marc Swetlitz note in Jewish Tradition and the Challenge of Darwinism, among Darwin’s more vocal opponents was Reform leader Rabbi Abraham Geiger. Relatively soon, though, the main principles of evolution were accepted by most, if not all, Jews.

One could conclude, as does Professor Brown, that “Judaism and modern science are quite capable of co-existing. It just sometimes takes a little time.” But, as the various responses to Moment’s question reveal, that co-existence is tenuous and uneven.

For several of the rabbis, there seems to be an easy acceptance of science, even seeing Judaism as “pro-science” and science as an “ally” of Judaism. Significantly, underlying those responses was a general sense that the Torah need not be read literally, that that there were “mythic truths” and “scientific truths,” and that one could and should “separate myth from fact.” 

Neither of the rabbis assigned to the Modern Orthodox and Orthodox categories talked in terms of non-literal readings of Torah or myths. Both, however, did reference the great twelfth century rabbi-philosopher Moshe ben Maimon (“Maimonides” or “Rambam”) in their responses, and both acknowledged that Maimonides was prepared to (re-)interpret Torah, as one said, “even drastically,” to accommodate what science established.

One of the two seemed hesitant, though. While initially rejecting the notion that Judaism and science conflict, and appearing to accept Maimonides’ approach, Rabbi Shmuley Boteach set the scientific bar impossibly high. To accommodate a scientific theory, he reads Maimonides as requiring that the theory be “proven true by some infallible means.”  Rabbi Boteach does not indicate what might constitute such “infallible means,” however, and others in the Orthodox camp think that proof beyond a reasonable doubt -- a tough, but achievable standard -- would be sufficient. (See, e.g., Angel, Maimonides, Spinoza and Us (Jewish Lights 2009).) That’s good, because science is not and does not claim to be infallible. Indeed, a defining characteristic of the scientific method is continual testing and probing of a proposed hypothesis in order to confirm or disprove it.

What is the reason for Rabbi Boteach’s hesitancy here? Nobody knows for sure the answer to “WWMD?” or “What Would Maimonides Do?” in response to current developments in science. (But see, here.) At least one Orthodox scholar, however, persuasively argues that given current science Rambam would have accepted the reality of evolution. (See Slifkin, The Challenge of Creation (Zoo Torah 2006).) 

Rabbi Boteach then, no doubt unintentionally, demonstrates why there are problems with these kinds of discussions. First he states that there would be “no conflict” with the biblical creation story “(i)f evolution . . . (is) proven to be true” because the Bible clearly shows “a pattern of the inanimate being followed by the vegetable, animal and finally intellectual.” In addition, he apparently thinks that he does not have to reach the conclusion that evolution is true because, with a nod to the late great evolutionist Stephen Jay Gould, he thinks that there “remain holes in the evolutionary model” which preclude “full accommodation to the theory.”  You don’t have to be as irascible as evolution professor and militant atheist Jerry Coyne to plotz here. (See, e.g., here.)

First, the asserted biblical pattern is incomplete. The text in Genesis also states, for example, that vegetation preceded the formation of the Sun.  (See Gen. 1:12, 16-18.) But the Sun would have been necessary for photosynthesis to occur and the vegetation to live. Rabbi Boteach could have taken the allegory route, but he chose not to do so. Having made that choice, picking and choosing some passages and avoiding others is, to put it mildly, not helpful if you want an honest discussion.

Second, while there may be debates about the mechanics of evolution in a particular setting, and there may be gaps in the fossil record of particular species, so what? No one who has read any of Stephen Jay Gould’s writings would doubt for a nano-second that he believed anything other than that the process of evolution of species was a reality.

That process of adaptation and change over time has been established in fossils in the field and in DNA in the laboratory. A brief look at the genomes of some species illustrates the point. Humans share only about 7% of their DNA with bacteria, but about 21% with roundworms, 36% with fruit flies and 79% with zebra fish. By the time that we reach African apes like gorillas and chimpanzees, the similarities in the genomes, by one count, reach 98.4% and 98.8% respectively. In other words, the data we now have supports the fact of evolution. It is as compelling as the data, derived from a variety of techniques, that show that the age of known universe is just shy of 14 billion years.  Anyone who cannot accept these truths cannot be considered serious.

In the Moment survey, Chabad Rabbi Dov Wanger also evokes Stephen Jay Gould, though not by name, when he writes that “Science tells us what” and “Judaism tells us why.”   This approach is akin to Gould’s Non-Overlapping Magisteria. (For more on Gould and NOMA, start here.) While there are problems with this approach, Rabbi Wanger advances the discussion by arguing that Judaism and science often have different roles.

Gould’s vision of separate dominions is discussed at greater length by Orthodox Rabbi Avraham Edelstein in an essay published independently of the collection in Moment. In “Judaism and Science – Harmony or Conflict?” Rabbi Edelstein argues that Gould’s formulation is limited. He agrees that Torah is not “a book or nature,” but adds that it is a “book of what happens behind nature.”  He then acknowledges that Torah and science “can be in conflict,” that “there are definite areas of incompatibility between modern science and Judaism.” Unfortunately, he fails to specify what they are, other than to note “some tension” with evolution and “great tension” with science’s secular world view, its inability “to bring God into the picture.” But he also sees modern science, including Big Bang cosmology and quantum mechanics as “drawing closer to religion in general and Judaism in particular.”

Regrettably, all of the comments missed two points which need further exploration. First, none of the commentators talked about the distinction between value propositions and truth statements in Judaism. This is at least odd because Judaism is built on the recognition of distinctions, and it is here that conflicts with science may arise or be resolved. Second, the commentators tended to talk about areas in which science has reasonably well established its proofs. No one ventured into what might be more fertile grounds where science has yet to explain certain phenomena. 

As to the first point, to the extent that Judaism asserts value propositions such as “The world is good,” “Love your neighbor,” “Honor your father and mother,” “Seek justice,” “Welcome the stranger,” “Repair the world,” or even “Do not boil a kid in its mother’s milk,” science, meaning scientific methodology has limited, if any, applicability. Yes psychologists and social anthropologists can discuss the utility of those value propositions, but they are not phenomena that are observed and measured. Scientists will not test those propositions in repeatable experiments, with or without control groups, to determine their validity.

To the extent, however, that Judaism makes truth statements, such as “The world was created less than six thousand years ago,” “The world was created in six days,” “The first humans were created in adult form,” “The first female human was created from a rib of the first human male,” “All humankind descend from Adam and Eve,” “Domesticated camel caravans were common in Canaan 3800 years ago,” “Over one million Israelites were slaves in Egypt, left that country and encamped in the Sinai wilderness for forty years,” “Priests wore pants in the Tabernacle in the wilderness,” “Joshua and the Israelites conquered Canaan in a series of military exercises,” “During one of Joshua’s battles, the Sun stood still for a full day,” “The entire Torah as we have it today was given in its entirety by God to Moses on Mt. Sinai,” then science, including cosmology, physics, chemistry, evolutionary biology, archeology, anthropology, comparative literature, and linguistics most definitely can play a role and the result of scientific analysis may well conflict with the text of the Torah and Jewish tradition.

Regarding the second point, there are many questions as to which science currently has no answer and each has implications for Judaism. (See, e.g., here.) Consider just six ranging from the cosmic to the more personal, and then we’ll rest.

(1)  Prior to the origin of our universe in an event called the Big Bang, what, if anything, existed? Quantum chaos? Another universe? Something? Nothing?

(2)  What, if anything, caused the Big Bang? A random event? A purposeful intervention?

(3)  What kind of universe do we live in? The elements with which we are familiar from hydrogen through carbon and on to lead and uranium make up only 5% of the known universe. Stuff called Dark Matter and Dark Energy make up the rest. But what are they exactly? Where did they come from?

(4)  How did life on Earth begin? How did inorganic chemicals combine into self-replicating molecules?

(5)  What, if anything, really distinguishes humankind from all other animals? The human genome is, as we have seen, exceptionally close to that of apes. As University of Chicago anthropology professor Russell Tuttle teaches, we feel, fear and think, but so do they. What made us different? Is it the ability to conceive ideas, hold beliefs, share information with symbolic language, know the thoughts of others? If so, how did all of that happen?

(6)  Are there other intelligent life forms in the universe at the present time? There may be untold billions of planets in the known universe, but some are only recently formed and others are associated with dying stars and, in any case, few are in the habitable zone of their host star. We know that intelligent life on Earth took over four billion years to emerge after our planet was formed. How likely is it that there is a planet out there now, old enough, but not too old, and in the right zone to have produced intelligent life?

Judaism and science may have much to share with each other on these and other questions. And the discussion needs to continue. But that discussion, on the Jewish side, is too important to be left just to the rabbis, many of whom are not well versed in the sciences or, worse, know just enough to say something foolish or dangerous. Whoever wants to engage, and also wants to be taken seriously, needs to be careful to define the terms used, make distinctions between value and truth statements and get the science as right as possible. 


        A version of this essay was posted previously at www.judaismandscience.com

Tracker Pixel for Entry


We welcome your feedback.

Privacy Policy
Your information will not be shared or sold without your consent. Get all the details.

Terms of Service
JewishJournal.com has rules for its commenting community.Get all the details.

JewishJournal.com reserves the right to use your comment in our weekly print publication.