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The Why and How of Torah and Science

The Why and How of Torah and Science


Religion and Science

1. Why "Religion and Science"?

Science is essentially the study of G‑d's work. It may therefore correctly be described as an enterprise that enables us to appreciate the Divine ‘revelation’ as it is expressed in the creation of our world and in the presence of its physical and spatiotemporal laws.

Torah is based on the Word of G‑d that was revealed through Moses, the master of all prophets at Mount Sinai and in the Books of the Prophets.

Both religion and science are therefore based on the revelations of the one and only True G‑d. We can thus make the conclusion that there cannot be any contradictions between religion and science, even on a theoretical level. Consequently, any apparent contradiction between Torah and Science is must be attributed to the deficiency of our human minds; our knowledge is either incomplete or erroneous.

Is scientific knowledge possible without religious knowledge? Yes, it is. But in that case the knowledge would be incomplete. Science alone cannot provide answers to a whole number of basic issues. Why was our world created? Why are we here? What is our mission in this world? How should we get along with one another? In sum: Science takes things apart to see how they work. Religion puts things together to see what they mean.

Is religious knowledge possible without scientific knowledge? Yes, it is. But it will be incomplete in a similar vein.

In his book "Guide for the Perplexed" Rambam suggests the following approach to the acquisition of knowledge: a man must study the rules of logic, geometry, arithmetic, philosophy, and the natural sciences. Only one who is well versed in the above-mentioned sciences will be equipped to properly interpret the Holy Scriptures.

The knowledge of science for this purpose is ever-increasingly important today . Sages and scholars who wish to impart the truths of the Torah to their students must be competent to answer questions of a scientific nature in order to enable their students to synthesize their knowledge of Torah with the scientific realities that they perceive with their senses. Scientific questions cannot be avoided. Confrontation with scientific knowledge is critical in order to nurture a harmonious world view in which the belief in the Supreme Being who created this world is not perceived to contradict the empirical reality.

Secondly, such scientific knowledge is critical in order to be able to harness the world and use it for its divinely intended purpose.

If science is about the world that is, and Torah is about the world that ought to be, then Torah needs science because we cannot apply G‑d’s will to the world if we do not understand the world. (By the same token, science needs Torah, for each fresh item of knowledge and each raises the question of how and for what ultimate goal it should be used, and for that we need the revelation of the Torah.)

I suggest that the Torah itself illustrates this when describing the hero of his day, the righteous Noah who survived the Flood. Scripture states (Genesis 5, 29): "He named him Noah and said: 'He will comfort us in the labor and painful toil of our hands, caused by the ground that G‑d has cursed”. This arguably means that Noah, who was an upright person man, used his scientific reasoning to invent the plough and other agricultural tools, and in doing so made life much more bearable and amenable for people of his generation. He used his intellectual faculties to master the requisite sciences for the betterment of the world. Knowledge of G‑d or Torah alone would not have enabled him to do so.

2. Knowledge of God. What does the learning process look like?

The theme that we have developed thus far means that both through the study of the Holy Scriptures and through the study of the sciences we can acquire knowledge and understanding of God. To be sure, as humans we will never attain God's knowledge, but knowledge about God. We will never be able to apprehend the essence of the Eternal. As the prophet (Isaiah 55:8) states: "God said: 'For My thoughts are not your thoughts and neither are your ways My ways.'" But the Eternal in his wisdom gave us a great deal of tools and information, so that man can use them to understand the actions and principles that He has employed to make our world tick.

What does the learning process look like? In "Guide for the Perplexed" Rambam describes this process in the following way: If a craftsman created, for instance, a watch, he first invented it by means of his mind, and then embodied his idea in a tangible form. The craftsman understands the function of every little nut and screw in his watch. When others look at that watch, they will first see its appearance, for example, that it is covered with silver and has two hand straps. One may stop there. Yet the inquisitive mind will probe further, he will keep on studying this watch, and eventually will understand how it operates and what makes it tick. But we will never know this watch as well as the craftsman who created it.

In the very same way, the Eternal created this world based on a preliminary plan. Science is based on axioms that serve as that basis for theorems. The first people took for an axiom the world they saw around them, the water, soil, air, and so on. But using his intellect, man eventually looked closer at this world, finding hidden cause-and-effect relations and drawing theorems from axioms. As a result of such investigation and discovery, we have today planes that can fly and phones can call; we look deep into atoms and stretch out wide to the limits of the Universe.

In a similar vein, the Eternal gave us the Torah and communicated with us through His prophets. Both the Torah and the prophecy are axioms for us, and they need not be proved. When we read them, we first start to understand the external, surface meaning. Then we may delve into their deeper meaning and through maximizing our intellectual potential, we might find hidden messages and deeper meanings, see different cause-and-effect connections, and ultimately acquire a true notion of matters that were not expressly described in either the Torah or the prophecy. For example, what is the Divine light, and what is its purpose; why does evil exist, what is the freedom of choice, what is the true notion of God, how does divine providence work, what are miracles, what are the soul and intellect, and how are they interconnected.

3. How do we acquire knowledge?

We have already mentioned before that the Eternal gave us the ultimate tool for knowledge: our intellectual faculty. In "Guide of the Perplexed", when Rambam comments on the phrase in the Torah (Genesis 1:23) that we were created in the image and likeness of God, he stresses that a "likeness" to God refers to the fact that we have intellect. He explains that the first man had intellect, which helped him assign the correct names to the animals. This explanation can also be expanded. In his comment to Bereshit (1), Ramban states: "After creating the first substance, the Eternal did not create anything else. He only gave it a form, for He produced all existing things from that, dressed them, and transfigured them." In the same way, a man that uses his intellect can also attribute new forms to substances (for example, clay -> pot) and transfigure them.

Ramban and Ibn Ezra both wrote that it is intellect that connects a man with the Eternal, and by developing his intellect, man strengthens his connection with the Eternal, and vice versa.

We are all born with different intellectual potential. In his book, "Tanya," Rabbi Shneur Zalman of Liadi writes: "Wisdom and comprehension are gifts from the Highest." The capacity of the human intellect is limited and some will achieve more than others. Not everyone can become an Einstein or a Torah Sage. Yet that does not mean that man has the right to refuse to develop his intellect. We should pursue the path of knowledge, and it is for the Eternal to decide to what extent we will reach.

The most dramatic example that proves the aforesaid is the story of Rabbi Akiva. He had been an illiterate shepherd until he turned forty, and apparently believed that his intellectual potential was quite miniscule. But one day, as he watched drops of water wearing away a stone, he decided to dedicate himself to his studies, and he eventually became a great sage of the Torah. His intellect turned out to be great.

4. What do we need knowledge for?

The last Rebbe of Lubavitch comments on a passage from Noah: "Noah was six hundred years old when the floodwaters came to earth." "Zohar" interprets this in the following way: "In the sixth century of the sixth millennium, the sources of Divine wisdom will reveal themselves next to the sources of mundane wisdom." The Rebbe explains: "The source of mundane wisdom is our scientific study. By way of the double revolution that combines scientific notion with divine wisdom, the era of the Messiah shall be upon us."

Let us see what our prophets and sages wrote on the topic of knowledge.

In Tehillim (Psalm 14), it is written: "The Lord looks down from Heaven on the children of men to see if there are any who have wisdom, and search after God." Also in Tehillim (chapter 25), the Psalmist implores: "O Lord, show me Your ways; teach me Your ways."

Koheleth (12:14) reads: "I applied my mind to seek and search out by wisdom all that is done under Heaven; it is an unhappy task that God has given to the sons of men." In the same book (13:16), we read: "The wise have eyes in their heads, while the fool wanders in darkness." Ibn Ezra offers the comment: "The wise man sees the path before him and goes towards his purpose, following the straightest path, while the fool wanders, not knowing where to go; for the wise man perceives reality by means of his intellect, and his sight is wide. The fool's vision, conversely, is limited and narrow." In my opinion, Koheleth is expounding on the following idea: while wisdom and knowledge might "make us sadder," only a wise man can help people overcome their doubts, improve on their weaknesses, and become a beacon of light for the purposeful life.

From Koheleth's sentiments we might also draw purely scientific conclusions. For instance: "Everything that the God has created it is not possible to add something or take away." This passage states the fundamental laws of matter and energy conservation, "there is nothing new under the sun." This phrase is about the fundamental principle of physical laws determining permanency throughout time, and also about the fact that the law attributed by God in the course of the world's creation cannot be changed.

I would like to make a daring comparison here: Let's consider a man who is a true believer and follows the commandments, but for whatever reason does not possess knowledge. He is surely a good man, and might be compared to an accomplished athlete. At the same time, a man who trusts and follows the commandments and possesses knowledge might be compared to a good coach, who has the skills to train thousands of athletes and other coaches.

The prophet Isaiah said: "The Earth will be full of knowledge about God, like water covering the ocean."

The prophet Jeremiah said: "The Lord said: 'Let not the wise boast of their wisdom or the strong boast of their strength or the rich boast of their riches, but let them rather boast that they understand and know Me.'"

In his book, "Beliefs and Opinions," Saadia Gaon asks: "Why did the Highest create man, only to fill him with doubts and uncertainty?" And he answers this question in the following way: "Uncertainty and doubts were given to man in accordance with the plan of Creation, but with the help of his own intellect, man cleanses his knowledge until doubts and uncertainty leave him." Then, Saadia Gaon states: "Thanks to his knowledge, man improves his inner condition and external behavior, and in doing so improves the relationships amongst all people. They in turn seek out wisdom. All this becomes possible when doubts and uncertainty are cast out. Only then can knowledge of God spread everywhere."

In the same book, Saadia Gaon writes: "Sometimes our comprehension of the reality around us is only possible with the help of science to prove it. As we acquire knowledge of reality, we should appeal to many sciences."

In "Guide of the Perplexed," Rambam comments on the passage from the Torah where Moses addresses God: "God, let me know Your ways, and I will have grace in Your eyes," he concludes that the proximity to God and obtaining grace in His eyes depends mainly on how a man knows and understands the Eternal. In the second volume of "Guide for the Perplexed," Rambam offers the following allegory: "Let us imagine a city with a walled palace in the center. A ruler lives in this palace, and the citizens wish to gain access to the ruler's palace. But some cannot even find the wall; others might reach the wall, but only a few enter the courtyard, and only the chosen ones make it into the actual palace." According to Rambam, people who lack knowledge are those who cannot even find the wall.

In the same book, Rambam considers one of the most important questions in Judaism relating to how the Lord rules the world. He states that the more developed a man's knowledge of God is, the closer the divine providence watches over him.

As he ponders on the notion of love for the Highest, that is essential for Judaism, Rambam states that the essence of love for God is the wish to understand and behold him.

5. Judaism and science

The two paths of Judaism and science intertwined and parted as part of their development. For almost two thousand years, the only dominant scientific theories in the civilized world were the philosophy of Plato and Aristotle, Euclidean geometry, the Ptolemaic system, and astrology. The first clear attempts to combine Judaism with philosophy and present Judaism as a belief based on rational thinking were made by the Babylonian Geonim, with Saadya Gaon being their most prominent representative. In his book "Beliefs and Opinions" he delineates the principle of rational thinking as a philosophical scientific approach with the purpose of obtaining knowledge about God.

With the decline of Babylonian communities, the rationalist tradition was seamlessly continued by Spanish Jewry, including Kuzari, Rambam, Ramban, Ibn Ezra and others. The Spanish sages of Torah had almost a complete scientific knowledge of the world, available in their time. The climax of this tradition is the great work by Rambam titled "Guide of the Perplexed," where the law of Moses is explained and expounded on both from the position of the Torah and from the points of view of Greek and Arabic philosophies.

Unfortunately, after the Spanish catastrophe, the paths of Judaism and science parted ways. In the centuries to come, mysticism began to dominate Judaism. Many pose mysticism as the antithesis to rationalism. In my opinion, they are wrong in doing so, for both are integral parts of Judaism. And there are parallels. For example, Ari's teaching of tzimtzum may be said to coincide with modern ideas of the world's creation.

However, in the 20th–21st centuries, the situation changed dramatically. Because of the massive leaps and bounds science has made, it now plays a leading role in our lives and religion cannot simply ignore it any longer. This opinion was also voiced by the last Rebbe of Lubavitch, who had an excellent scientific education. Speaking of the necessity to harness science in the study of religion, he warned us against a simplistic approach and pointed out that while religion is absolute truth, science is somewhat relative, and it should be included in the dialogue on religion with great caution. He also noted that science can allow us to discover new meaning in the Torah and better see the Holy Scriptures from different perspectives.

6. Examples of a scientific approach to commenting on the Holy Scriptures

In conclusion, allow me to cite a few examples of the scientific approach in commenting on the Holy Scriptures.

In "Guide of the Perplexed," Rambam stresses that the Eternal interacts with our world through His ‘angels’. To confirm this postulate, he cites the dream of our patriarch Jacob where he sees a ladder that leads from the earth to Heaven. Angels used it to climb up and down, and above them all was the Eternal. Rambam and Ibn Ezra comment on Jacob's dream in much the same vein. In "Bereshit Rabbah," Rabbi Berekiah mentions that there were four angels, two of them went down, and the other two went up. Then Rambam argues that all forces of nature are angels, and that there are a total of four of them. Today, we know from science that there are four forces of nature: gravity, electromagnetics, and strong and weak nuclear forces. Rambam writes that the angels are in fact ‘messengers’. We know from quantum mechanics that these forces can only function through the exchange of information that is passed through bosons, gluons, photons, and maybe even gravitons.

Our sages (of blessed memory) once said: "One angel fulfills one mission." In modern times, we know that each force is in charge of only one interaction. The sages (of blessed memory) said that two angels cannot fulfill the same mission, and now science has taught us that two forces cannot stand in for the same interaction.

2. In describing the creation of man, the Torah states (Bereshit 1): "And God created man in His own image, in the image of God He created him; male and female He created them." According to the Aggadah interpretation Rashi cites, a two-faced creature was made. But this might just be an allusion to something deeper. From science we now understand that a woman's DNA contains only the female X chromosome, while male DNA contains both male Y and female X chromosomes. Man is thus according to his DNA both male and female at the same time.

3. From the Torah we know that when the Eternal orders Noah to build the ark, He defined its dimensions. Seeing that in the Torah there is no useless information, I have drawn the geometry of the ark according to the dimensions the Eternal defined. As it turns out, the shape of the Ark is a frustum built on the principle of the golden ratio. The tilting angles of this frustum coincide with the tilting angles of the three greatest Egyptian pyramids with account for measurement error. Moreover, science has taught us that the space within pyramids has unique features, including the fact that water and food do not spoil there.

4. Here are a few other brief examples. The Prophet says that the Eternal said: "For My thoughts are not your thoughts, neither are your ways My ways." This comment has been fertile grounds for interpretation. From the scientific point of view, a possible comment might be the following: we live in a finite world, our intellect and senses are finite and unlike the Eternal, our limited mind is not fully capable of understanding the notion of the infinite. In the 20th century, many scientific equations began to feature the notion of infinity. For example, Einstein proved that the mass of a body traveling at the speed of light moves towards infinity. In black holes, the density of a substance and its gravity also approaches infinity. If we take what we have learned from science, the presence of infinity in a formula means that the modern laws of physics and mathematics are inoperative. From the point of view of religion, we might interpret this in such a way to mean that in certain fields the extent of our scientific reasoning abilities have already reached the limits of this world.

Another important issue is the behavior of light. We all know that light is one of the central concepts of Judaism. But before the beginning of the 20th century we knew little about the properties of physical light. Only in the 20th century did we learn that light is not matter because photons have no mass, that the speed of light is the absolute speed limit for any particles of our world, that when an object travels at the speed of light time stops, and that the ratio of energy to matter is also defined by the speed of light. Light combines matter and antimatter within itself at once. This approach casts new light on the ideas of Bereshit in the Torah concerning the first day of creation.

I would like to end my article with the following thought: approaching the Torah from a scientific point of view is essential and critical. By taking advantage of what it has to offer, one can discover new meanings in the Torah and become inspired with new ideas. But there is another dimension to his enterprise. In the messianic era, the era of Mashiah, all people are to return to the belief in and worship of the Eternal. But we know that each individual has his/her own path. Some people can embrace faith without any proofs, but others, on the contrary, need to be convinced through proofs and logical argumentations. Today there are a huge number of people living in the material world that are, unfortunately, non-believers, for they believe that religion and, God forbid, the Holy Scriptures has been disproven by science. This means that by applying the scientific approach and pursuing an integrative approach between science and religion, man can fulfill the greatest mitzvah of them all: bringing the masses closer to G‑d and ushering in the era of Moshiach.

​Eduard Shyfrin is a Jewish professor and businessman who resides in Russia. Born in 1960, Shyfrin is involved ​in Torah study and is an active member of the local Jewish community.
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