February 27, 2020

The conflict over whether Judaism and science conflict

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 “>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, “>Jerry Coyne to plotz here. (See, e.g., “>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 “>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 “>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 (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