Most of the participants in the science-religion debate think that it is only about 150 years old and that it originated in the Europe of Darwin and Wellhausen. Indeed, much of the debate--as we identify it today--does contain elements that were newly introduced during the Darwinian era, such as biological evolution and cultural anthropology. But the basic disagreement predates, by far, this recent past. The science-religion controversy is a venerable and long chapter in the drama of world and Jewish history.
Galileo's persecution by the Inquisition of his church occurred in the early 17th century, but Maimonides' efforts to reconcile Aristotelian science with Torah were recorded five hundred years earlier. The debates described in the Talmud between the rabbis and the 'heretics' (who depended on their own empirical observations rather than revelation and tradition) date back to the very early years of the common era, some 1800 years ago. It does not require too great a flight of the imagination to visualize Moses' appearance in Pharaoh's court as an early science-religion debate: one side accepting the validity of tradition, revelation and miracles, with the other side trusting only logic, reason and empirical 'proof'.
For some reason, the centuries-old debate still continues. In Jewish life, it seems to continue with unabated intensity. For example, the mediocre Anglo-Jewish newspaper that tries to serve the social and informational needs of my small American community devotes an inordinate amount of front page space to science-religion 'news'. Sometimes an article on science appears by one of our more liberal rabbis trying to establish his credentials as a 'modern' philosopher; at other times, the paper reports on the dangers that accompany the efforts of 'creationists' in America and Israel to challenge contemporary science curricula. However presented, the controversy is still viable. Attempts to defuse the issue and to resolve the disagreements in books, journals and conferences have not really succeeded. The Torah-science debate, it seems, is with us today as much as it was a century ago, or many centuries ago.
The Debate Continues--But the Debaters Change
This is not to say that the same banal arguments are repeated century after century and generation after generation. Both the actors and the script have changed. The arguments in ancient days pitted revelation against reason: religion and Torah were regarded as dogma while science was labeled enlightenment. One side represented conservative, reactionary authority, while the other side claimed to speak for liberalism, empiricism and freedom. Today the debate actually deals with very different subjects. The labels may be the same (depending on which side uses them), but the arguments really reduce to the validity of the scientific method and the true meaning of the Torah. Much of the controversy is based on interpretation and misinterpretation of natural phenomena and probability and the relevance (even the feasibility) of Divine revelation. Paradoxically, the 'science arguments' have become more and more dogmatic and the 'science spokesmen' have become more and more authoritarian, while the 'Torah spokespersons' become the challengers of conventional wisdom and the advocates of free inquiry.
Perhaps the arguments strayed from the original because the participants in the argument have been replaced. Folklore would have it that the proponents of science are scientists: physicists, chemists, biologists and engineers with lab coats and complicated equipment. Arranged against them--again according to folk wisdom--are the bearded, black-hatted rabbis whom the Jerusalem Post labels 'ultra-Orthodox' and whom most of us consider to be Torah scholars if only because of their dress.
It may have been like this at some time in the past. It is not today. The debate might be going on in the Jerusalem Post and in the Anglo-Jewish diaspora press, but it is not heard in the science lab where I work.
A Personal Confession
To tell the truth, the Torah-science debate never played a serious role--either positively or negatively--in my own professional career or in my slowly developing 'observant' lifestyle. The debate left me cold 35 years ago, before I kept Shabbat; and it isn't a priority item in my life, now that I do.
When my scientist colleagues evaluate--or criticize--my research, or writing or teaching, they completely ignore my association with Lubavitch. It appears that my religious outlook is of greater concern to the editors of the Jerusalem Post than to the editors of Science. (Maybe this is a defect on my part. Maybe there should be a more evident influence of Chabad philosophy on my professional work. Perhaps it should modify my research and alter my capacity to reason.)
But really, there are only two kinds of science: 'good science' and 'poor science'. I've always tried to practice 'good science', before, during and after my stages of indoctrination into Torah and the mitzvot. Sometimes I succeeded; sometimes not. But my honest belief in the literal truth of every word in the Torah hasn't significantly affected the success/failure ratio of 'getting funded' or 'getting published'. If there is a science-religion conflict, I missed it in both my scientific career and my Torah career.
Moreover, I don't know of any good scientific establishments--in academia, industry or government--where the Torah-science debates are any more relevant than they were in my life. Certainly not as relevant as implied by the newspapers of my Jewish community. In the science world I know, the quality of data and the quality of reasoning used to interpret these data are the criteria of acceptability, not one's diet or head covering. Most of the good scientists I know, like most of the people I know, are as yet non- observant in their personal lives. (Though I am often impressed by the number who are!) However, their pro-Torah or anti-Torah biases, if such exist, don't really shine forth. Such biases are possible, of course, but good scientists don't participate in the debate. Instead they let rabbis take the 'side of science'.
As I search my memory, I do recall an incident where the science-religion controversy had more than a passing impact on my work. In a class of 120 nursing students, one young lady insisted that the proper 'community health' approach to infectious disease should be prayer. On her examination paper she explained clearly that epidemics were divine punishments visited on communities because of their sins. It is a testable hypothesis and should be studied by epidemiologists. Indeed, it might be the proper answer in a theology course. But it was the wrong answer in my course in public health. She failed the examination. She appealed on the grounds of my anti-religious bias. She lost the appeal.
It may be significant that the controversy is ignored not only in the laboratory where I work, but also in the minyan where I pray. This may be the real paradox. One should expect the issue to explode here, or at least to generate acrimony. Consider the scenario: 20 to 30 veteran Israelis--most of them academics, some even world-class scientists, some with rabbinical ordination from rigorous yeshivot and a few who came along later in life as I did--all praying together or studying at various Torah classes that coalesce during the week or singing z'mirot on Shabbat. Most come across as pretty sincere in their belief, their observance, their professions. But the classical conflicts enumerated above don't seem to be very important. The professor of statistics is not visibly disturbed by the probability of miracles. The researcher in anatomy uses the Shulchan Aruch (Code of Jewish Law) rather than his textbooks to determine the kosher status of a fowl. The chemist is more concerned with the proper pronunciation of the Torah reading than with the ratio of Carbon 14 to Carbon 12 in ancient ax handles.
There are many who are bothered by the paradox I just described. If real scientists and observant Jews aren't debating the Torah-science issues, then who is? If we live in a world where genuine scientists pray and where sincere Torah observers are elected to national academies, then who is keeping the debate alive and why?
I submit that several major constituencies in Jewish life have (or once had) a vested interest in the debate. I submit further that their motives for participating in and perpetuating the debate deal less with a search for truth than they do with self-preservation. And I submit, above all, that the biases introduced by these movements have so obfuscated the basic controversy that the average Jewish layman doesn't even know what the argument is really about.
First Constituency: The Immigrant Generation
One constituency was my parents and their generation who grew up in the last decade of the nineteenth century. They made up their minds about 80 years ago, and nothing discovered in science or elucidated by Torah scholars since then modified their conclusions.
To my parents' generation, science and technology were not mortal enemies of Torah Judaism; they were its natural successors. In their eyes, science and technology represented progress, promise and the New World. They didn't really understand what Liste, Kelvin, Darwin and Freud were saying, but they believed in those men. On the other hand, they didn't really understand what the Torah was saying, either. But they associated the Torah with the shtetl, mud, superstition and restriction. The generation that opted for Zionism and Socialism, for culture and freedom and liberalism, replaced the superstitions of the Old World with the superstitions of the New World. They didn't do it intentionally, but they did it nonetheless: they deified science and technology and built altars to these new gods. In some cases they sacrificed their children on these altars. They certainly sacrificed their heritage.
This is not the place to analyze the causes and dynamics of that sociocultural revolution. But I'm sure of two things: the reasons they gave for discarding Torah (they would prefer to use the word 'updating' because 'discarding' has such a pejorative ring) had precious little to do with Torah; and the reasons they gave for deifying science did not derive from knowledge of science. The point to be made, however, is that it happened. The support of science, the blind acceptance of the validity of scientific statements and the equation of science with truth (at least science and truth as they were perceived at the turn of the century) became an important thread in the fabric of modern Western Judaism.
The situation is really a little pathetic to one who follows historical developments in science. The Jewish community has changed profoundly since it emerged from the shtetl mud a hundred years ago. The twentieth century, which experienced both Holocaust and rebirth, has irrevocably re-molded Jewish values and perceptions. Zionism, Socialism and Communism are no longer the major issues of our existence, even in Israel. Dreams about internationalism and the United Nations and equality among the 'family of nations' grow more sour every time the General Assembly meets. The promise of America and its political-economic mirage are being critically re-examined. But Jewish attitudes to science--especially as they conflict with Torah--are quite unchanged. They remain fixed--squarely in the last decade of the nineteenth century.
Second Constitilency: The Modern Religious Establishment
The 'modern' Jewish approaches to Judaism in America also draw some sustenance from the Torah-science conflict. However, unlike the immigrant generation, they do not consider science to be the successor of Torah; instead, they try to rewrite the Torah in order to show its fundamental agreement with modern truth--science. In this way, they can justify two of their basic claims to legitimacy on the Jewish scene: as guardians of religion, Torah and tradition, on the one hand, and as modern replacements for the Neanderthals who teach that Torah is eternal and immutable on the other.
Interestingly, all of the modern Jewish outlooks, regardless of their theological disagreements, have an almost identical approach to the challenge of science to Torah. According to this approach, the Torah writes allegorically whereas science proves things; the Torah was designed to teach morality whereas science teaches facts; as scientific discoveries are made, the Torah must be reinterpreted to avoid conflict with new discoveries. Jews are no longer obligated to accept Torah narratives in a literal sense, says the liberal theologian. Instead, they are ready to accept any new theory, any new statement, any new version of reality--as long as it has the imprimatur of science. Thus, Torah must be preserved for its moral and humanistic and even literary value, but its primitive elements and non-scientific pronouncements are dated and disposable and modifiable. The bottom line, actually, is to deny completely that the Torah is capable of saying anything it really intends to say, and to grant credibility only to what is accepted by the sophisticated, liberal establishment of Cincinnati, New York and Los Angeles at the close of the 20th century.
In liberal theology there are very few absolutes. Compromise is a virtue, and tinkering with tradition is a way of life. It should not be any surprise, therefore, to recognize that in the Torah-science conflict, modern religion doesn't even pause to challenge science. There is no claim made by a psychiatrist with credentials that is too bizarre, no hypothesis by an astrophysicist that is too preposterous. All science and all research are accepted as valid sources of truth and the Torah is stretched and twisted on the Procrustean bed of compromise to conform to the new discovery.
Even better is any new discovery which conflicts with the 'inconvenient' laws of Torah. The hypothesis that kashrut (dietary) laws were really ancient public health regulations, for example, killed two birds with one stone. It showed that the Torah was once valid (even advanced!) and it simultaneously permitted us to replace the old laws with modern sanitary codes formulated by the high priests of the Federal Food and Drug Administration.(No argument against this hypothesis, even from recognized experts in public health and medicine, seems to be effective. Science--even poor science--wins against anachronisms every time. Kashrut can be accepted and observed as a noble tradition, or as a historical link. But as a divine decree it loses any real clout.) This is also true with the Torah sex laws. Since it is known that all ancient people had sex taboos, the Torah can just be considered another historic document. Therefore, some parts can be accepted (for hygienic or moral reasons) and others can be rejected. The concept of Commandment was the first casualty of the rewriting of Torah--long before the concept of the age of the Earth.
The question can be fairly asked, Why modify the Torah? What is the benefit of rewriting it? Why not discard it altogether like my parents' generation did? Indeed, there are those, to the left of the Jewish American religious establishment, who claim that any observance of Torah--moral as well as ritual--is anachronistic. Beyond the liberal rabbi is someone more liberal who questions the need for a rabbi altogether. That is exactly why the liberal religious still need the Torah, or whatever emasculated parts they have chosen to retain. The Torah-science controversy has become a Torah-science 'synthesis'--the perfect ecological niche for those among us who 'want to do their own thing' and simultaneously remain traditional. We want to retain some kind of Jewish institution, a synagogue or temple, if only because the Gentiles have their churches and look with suspicion on the unchurched. Or we want to salve our conscience after visiting the Yad Vashem Holocaust memorial, or to justify paying the salary of a rabbi. We will use whatever Torah is needed to maintain identity and will deny the remainder because of scientific discovery. Very rarely does the for- mula include such components as the Will of G‑d--the desire and intent of the One Who gave us the Torah in the first place.
The preceding model can be used, as well, to describe the Torah-science conflict in Israel today. The compromises and selective utilization of Torah by those who manage Israeli culture, politics and educa tion are much more exciting than the dull American controversy. But I won't touch it until I take up permanent residence in Israel and can speak as a participant rather than a spectator.
The Third Constituency: Soviet Russia
There is yet another milieu in which the Torah-science debate is taken seriously: in Soviet Russia and other totalitarian states where the value of the individual and his spiritual component is basically denied. (Editor's note: this article was originally published in the 1980's).
Here, of course, the debate is not left to rabbis who are untrained in science and who only want to compromise a little bit. Here, the fight is conducted seriously, urgently and systematically with the whole power of the state mounted on the side of "science". And the fight has been remarkably successful except for a small handful of stubborn men and women who are the true kedoshim (holy martyrs) of our generation.
But in Russia the fight is understandable. Torah is the antithetical paradigm of the Soviet philosophy. Torah and dialectical materialism are in absolute and uncompromising opposition to each other at every possible point along their interface. That is why the Soviet government deems it imperative to eradicate Torah, its values and its narratives, its heroes and its ideals. For communist ideology to win, it must not only eradicate the Ten Commandments; it must also destroy, completely, the idea that there is a Creator and that there was a Creation, that there was a beginning and that there is one G‑d and many worlds. They are not worried about being considered "old fashioned". The very ideas go to the heart of an attack on the Soviet premise and its continuity. Thus the Soviet government, for its very survival, uses science twice: once as a weapon to contradict Torah, and once--as the model of neutral values--to replace Torah.
The Issues and the Baggage
It appears, from the preceding, that the Torah -science conflict--or what is labeled as the Torah -science conflict--is not really new, is not of much concern to either scientists or Torah scholars, and is obfuscated by a great deal of extraneous baggage. The participants in the debate are not really motivated by a search for the truth. Instead, there are those who want to replace Torah with science, others who want to rewrite or reinterpret Torah to make it conform with science, and still others who use science to destroy the essential validity of Torah. And superimposed upon this is a lot of anger and basic ignorance. It is remarkable how few of the "pro-science" arguments are based on valid, reproducible scientific data. Scientific hypotheses and speculations galore are cited, often by spokespersons whose deepest involvement with science is the National Geographic or a college textbook. But first-class thinkers and philosophers of science--who appreciate probability and uncertainty and the limitations of scientific experiments--rarely participate in this debate. By the same token, the "pro- Torah" arguments are too frequently out of context quotations from an English translation of the Bible. The commentaries of a hundred generations of Torah sages are almost universally ignored. We need go no farther than the commentary of Rashi on the very first sentence in the first chapter of Genesis. How much acrimony would be spared, how much wasted debate about big bangs would be avoided if Rashi's explanation--that the Torah starts with the story of Creation in order to establish the proprietorship of the world and the right of the Proprietor to allocate portions according to His Will--were taken at face value! Why is it easier to accept the authority of Lord Balfour to justify Jewish occupation of the Land of Israel? Perhaps because Balfour was English? More probably because Balfour's declaration doesn't imply acceptance of other things. Implied by Rashi is a Creator Who is concerned, Who communicates His instructions by means of a Torah, Who makes certain demands.
Thus the essence of the Torah-science debate is the personal and communal consequences and obligations that are incumbent on every Jew, on every human, if indeed the Torah is true. The debate ceases to be an exercise in philosophical speculation when one's very fate depends on the outcome. It might be fun to debate about a Big Bang 15 billion years ago or ten Divine statements 5745 years ago, or to argue about the validity of whatever evolutionary theory is in vogue today. But the basic question is the same one today faced by Moses and the sages of the Talmud and Maimonides and the Rebbe of Lubavitch in that communist prison in 1927. The question they faced was that of the ultimate source of truth and the ultimate guide to human behavior. Is it human reason, observation and conjecture? Or is it Divine instruction as revealed in the Torah?
The Torah-science debate consequently becomes an urgent issue when it leads people away from Torah. If a Jew becomes convinced that the discovery of dinosaur bones is an excuse for not wearing tefillin, this is much, much more serious a problem than scoring points in a debate. And the Torah-science debate, or what is labeled as such, is important if such arguments as those dealing with the age of the universe distract or delay someone from accepting fully the mitzvot which the Torah obligates him or her to do.
Science and technology have so much to offer mankind; what a terrible waste that misconceptions and mistakes serve as a crutch for the non-observant and as an obstacle to those who want to return to the Torah. This latter point might need re-emphasizing and will be treated more fully in a later essay. It isn't the basic disagreement between good science and Torah that leads to acrimony and to transgression of Torah. It is completely consistent with Divine Providence if a scientific observation or experiment reveals a previously hidden truth about our physical universe or our health. There can be no inconsistency between truth and truth, reality and reality.
On the other hand, the mistakes in science (or the misunderstandings of Torah) are the stumbling blocks in this dialogue. The self-serving hypotheses that masquerade as science and the "scientific" dogmas that have been generated over the last century cloud an honest examination of the issues. They inhibit the honest searcher for truth from exercising his free will.
There is a great need to remove some of this baggage. There is an urgent requirement to clear the tangled underbrush from the landscape. We can only have an honest debate on the issues and controversies in the Torah-science arena when we have neutralized the biases, examined some of the key dogmas and clearly articulated the arguments.
If we do this, we might discover that there is no debate, no disagreement, no need to compromise. We might discover that, after all, science is not a crutch for the non-observant and is not an obstacle to those who have not yet returned.