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On Science and Its Truths

On Science and Its Truths

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Jerzy Müller
Jerzy Müller

In 1961, the Rebbe, Rabbi Menachem Mendel Schneerson, of righteous memory, and Professor Cyril Domb exchanged correspondence on the subject of Torah and Science. Professor Domb was a professor of mathematics at Cambridge University from 1952 to 1954 and professor of theoretical physics at King's College, London, from 1954 to 1981. From 1981 to 1989, Domb was professor of physics at Bar-Ilan University, and remains professor emeritus there. He is also president of the Association of Orthodox Jewish Scientists. He now lives in Israel.

Some background to the subject of the correspondence:

In February, 1961, Professor Cyril Domb wrote an article in London's Jewish Chronicle concerning the work of Martin Ryle in the field of cosmology. Ryle's work was instrumental in bringing the field out of the realm of speculation to become a true science. A discipline becomes a science when it starts generating precise predictions which can be tested by experimentation. This was not the case with early cosmologies, e.g., those of Einstein and of de Sitter, which were purely speculative. The "big bang" theory of George Gamow was more precise and made the assumption that the universe started with an enormous explosion billions of years ago, the time and magnitude of which was fixed by astrophysical data. Likewise the "steady state" theory of Hoyle, Bondi and Gold which postulated that matter is created continuously out of the vacuum of empty space—although such a process remained clouded in mystery. Once these theories had been formulated with precise predictions of data which could be compared with experiment, cosmology could accurately be described as a science. The problem of how to obtain the data was greatly helped by the emergence of radio astronomy, in which Ryle played a key part.

In the 1960's, Ryle's efforts began to show fruit, and he suggested that it should be possible to discriminate between the two theories. Gradually but steadily he began to favor the big bang theory. His activities and conclusions were reported in the press, and it was generally assumed that religious thinkers would support "big bang" and secular thinkers "steady state."

In a Jewish Chronicle article that attracted wide attention, Professor Domb asserted that Torah thinking could live with either cosmology, and he proceeded to explain his reasoning. The Rebbe, apparently, disagreed.

First Letter to Professor C. Domb

By the Grace of G‑d
Rosh Chodesh Sivan, 5721,
Brooklyn, N.Y.

Professor C. Domb
King's College, London

Sholom uBrocho:

Your article, "The Bible and Creation," in the Jewish Chronicle of February 17, 1961, has been brought to my attention. I take the liberty of commenting on it, and I do so on the basis of the Rabbinic saying, "kol yisroel areivim ze bo'ze," especially in view of the fact that we had occasion to exchange correspondence when you wrote to me on a question connected with Chassidus. This circumstance assumes particular significance in the light of one of the Chassidic tenets which, on reflection, is a basic principle of out faith, namely, that everything is directed by Hashgocho Protis. All the more so when two Jews come into contact with each other, for Jews enjoy Divine Providence in particular, especially when such contact is utilized toward the dissemination of the Torah and Mitzvoth, the embodiment of the Divine Wisdom and Will.

Your article indicates that you are aware of the difficulties and conflicts besetting the minds of many Jews, particularly in the ranks of the younger generation, difficulties arising from the existence - as it seems to them - of contradictions between religious belief and science. Though not a new problem, it has become accentuated by the belief that there are contradictions also from the direction of the so-called "exact" sciences which are popularly assumed to have been proven beyond a shadow of doubt. Hence they are faced with the problem of either remaining in the religious camp in defiance of the scientific deductions, or having to choose between the two.

Needless to say, the Jew whose faith has, as it should, the power of unassailable conviction, has no problem in the first place. For to him the Torah and all that it teaches is the Divine Truth, and he rejects a priori anything that contradicts it. On the other hand, since all Jews are required to uphold the Torah and its precepts regardless of the degree of their religious convictions, it is obviously a matter of obligation to help them dispel their doubts and conflicts.

As a matter of fact, the whole problem is based on a popular misconception as to what science is. Where there is a true understanding of what science really is, there is no room for such confusion. For, as it is well known but too often overlooked, the sciences, even the so-called "exact" sciences, are at bottom nothing more than assumptions, work hypotheses and theories which are only "probable", as indeed you pointed out in your article, but all too briefly. On the other hand, religious truths are definitive and categorical. To quote our Sages - and it is also self-evident – "bori v'shemo, bori 'odif". In other words, science cannot, a priori, challenge religion, especially our religion, for science can never speak in terms of absolute truth. The best proof for this, as you also mention in passing, is that many scientific theories of the past which had been accepted as ultimate have been swept away "absolutely" and categorically, to the extent that science can be "absolute". A glaring example is provided by the question of the geocentricity (of our global earth) in the planetary system, and better still the universe, which had been such a bone of contention between scientists and theologians, and when Copernicus' theory was accepted, many theologians hastily began their apologetics by attempting to reinterpret Biblical passages in the light of the new scientific "truth", but not very convincingly so. Now, according to the theory of relativity, it is held that from the scientific point of view either theory could be accepted.

I would like to add that the fact that scientific laws are only probable, and are merely statements of the most likelihood, reflects not only on future predictions, but also on deductions relating to the past, which must remain in the realm of probability based on observation. Where no observation/experiment is possible, deductions are purely conjectural. Hence science can never challenge the veracity of the Genesis account from the viewpoint of the evolutionary theory or any other theory, and it would be just as "scientific" to accept the account verbally as to reinterpret it allegorically to harmonize it with any particular cosmological theory.

The purpose of the above fairly lengthy observations is introductory to the suggestion I wish to make, namely, that in view of the fact that your article dealt all too briefly with such an important topic, I make so bold as to suggest that you should elaborate on it. In treating this subject more fully, you could bring out more forcefully the fact that science is basically a theory of probable phenomena, and can in no way challenge religious truths. There is no contradiction between this correct viewpoint and human daily conduct based on these scientific assumptions. Here is where religious beliefs and practices have the "advantage" over science, for it is only the Torah, Toras Chayyim, that give certitude to human deductions arrived at in the proper way, giving them the stamp of truth not only within the rational and sensible world, but also in a transcending way. Thus, as above, Shabbos is evidence of the creation of the world ex nihilo as a fact, etc. etc.

With regard to this particular portion of the Torah, however, I must disagree with the statement you made in the said article to the effect that from the Torah viewpoint it is possible also to accept the evolutionary theory, in support of which you cite certain interpretations of this portion. This is not so, and the test of the matter is Halachah. Where Halachah is concerned there can be no alternatives, for the rule of Halachah is the rule of reality. So long as the Halachah is not infringed, we are at liberty to interpret the Biblical verses on any level of P'shat, Remez, Drash and Sod. But this prerogative ends where Halachah has ruled - this rule must be accepted "on top" of all interpretations. Now, according to the Halachah our world came into being 5721 years ago, and the age of the world is reaffirmed on such Torah legal documents as Gittin, and the like; Shabbos is the seventh day of the week, which the Halachah connects with the six days of creation that preceded it (T.B. Shabbos 69b), and so on. The literal acceptance of the Genesis account does not conflict with the doctrine in Midrash, Kabbalah and the Zohar that G‑d "created worlds and destroyed them", since the latter refers to spiritual worlds as amply explained in these disciplines, according to the final explanation of the Ari.

I trust that as you reflect on the above observations, and on the opportuneness of the hour, when so many of our young people experience a religious reawakening and a desire to return to our Torah and traditions, yet they are confused and held back by the misconceived doubts and conflicts mentioned earlier, you will respond to the urgent need of bringing some clarity and light into those confused minds, a task for which your position eminently qualifies you.

At this time before Shovuoth, the Season of our Receiving the Torah, which is called Toras Chayyim and Torah Emes, I send you my good wishes for an inspiring Yom Tov and, in the words of my father-in-law of saintly memory, "to receive the Torah with joy and inwardness".

With blessing, [sig.]

Response from Professor C. Domb

Professor C. Domb
King's College,
London W.C.2.
England

25th Menachem Av 5721

Dear Rabbi Schneerson, שליט"א

Thank you for your letter of Rosh Chodesh Sivan. It is a source of great encouragement to me that you should have felt it worthwhile to write so fully about my article in the "Jewish Chronicle". I must apologise for my delay in replying - this is not due to lack of appreciation of the significance of your letter; on the contrary I felt I must have some time to think clearly before composing a suitable reply. I have been exceptionally busy in the past few months with the "Hovevey Torah" organization of which I am Chairman, and whose activities you may have heard of. Also I have taken an active part in attempting to raise the standard of the "Jewish Review" to make it a vehicle of intelligent orthodox opinion which is very badly needed in Anglo-Jewry at the present time.

I should first explain the background to my article in the "Jewish Chronicle". The non-Jewish press had featured prominently a controversy between two eminent scientists, Hoyle and Ryle, on some experimental results and their cosmological implications. Several newspapers published articles naively assuming that religious beliefs might stand or fall with the results of such scientific experiments. The Editor of the "Jewish Chronicle" telephoned me on Monday morning to ask my opinion, and to invite me to suggest somebody, or to undertake myself, to write an article presenting the Jewish point of view. The article must be produced within two days, was limited to 1000 words, and should largely base itself on the current controversy. Hence the reason for the terseness and lack of amplification of the arguments as you so rightly point out. I have on other occasions used some of the further ideas which you suggest in your letter. (I am sending under separate cover copies of other articles which have appeared in various places.) Requests reach me frequently to talk about "Science and Religion" and I try to vary the approach according to the background of the audience.

I shall consider seriously your suggestion of putting all the arguments together in more comprehensive form. At the moment I am still very much involved in a number of projects - including a new Daf-Hashavua adaptation of the Daf-Yomi which we are trying to launch in Hovevey Torah - but perhaps I may be able to find time בע"ה on a future occasion.

Regarding the criticism you make of my defence of the "evolutionary Theory", I should first point out that I was talking of evolutionary cosmology (a creatio ex nihilo followed by a steady evolution) and not Darwinian evolution. Generally on all matters of Halacha I do not rely on my own knowledge, but I consult with Rabbi E. Wiesenberg whom I consider to be a great Talmid Chacham and Yerei Shamayim. He has told me that our date 5721 A.M. is only binding on Jewish legal documents in conjunction with the phrase במנין שאנו מונים כאן, and there is a responsum from Rav Hai Gaon which says that our reasons for accepting precisely this date are not too clear. (Quoted in Sefer Halbbur by Rabbi Abraham bar השער השביעי הוי יודע כי החשבון הזה אשר בידינו לא מאדם הראשון ירשנו אותו ואין אנו יודעין בימי אדם הראשון איך נעשה)

In regard to the six days of creation I have always maintained that the Torah does not give us the key to an understanding of P'shat. How are we, for example, to measure the passage of the day before the creation of the sun? And if we are to accept the interpretation of a Midrash which says that soon after creation the period of the rotation of the sun was very slow, our whole basis of timing may have to be changed. I have therefore always taken the attitude of the Mishnah in Hagigah אין דורשין במעשה בראשית i.e. the ultimate secrets of creation are beyond normal human understanding. Any scientific theories are only temporary structures, and as long as their limitations are fully appreciated they may help in technical progress....

With best wishes for 5723

Yours sincerely

C. Domb

Second Letter to Professor C. Domb

By the Grace of G‑d
29th of Tishrei, 5722,
Brooklyn, N.Y.

Professor C. Domb
37 Green Lane
Hendon, London N.W.4/

Sholom uBrocho:

This is to acknowledge with thanks receipt of your letter of 25th Menachem Av, in reply to my suggestion that you publish a series of articles, or a comprehensive monograph, on the subject of "Religion and Science". Pressure of my duties and the intervention of Tishrei compelled me to postpone my reply to your letter.

You mention your preoccupation with other Torah projects at this time, and express the hope that you may perhaps find time on some future occasion to act on my suggestion.

Permit me, therefore, to observe that while the public dissemination of Torah merits a high priority, as the first Mishnah of Peah states, I cannot share your view that this applies to the present instance. My authority for this view is the Gemara (Moed-kattan 9 a/b) which rules that "A Mitzvah which cannot be performed by others takes precedence over all else."

As I pointed out in my previous letter, and as you well know, the present state of confusion besetting the minds of so many of our brethren, a confusion which is not limited to theoretical issues, but which touches upon fundamental principles and attitudes, down to the very observance of the Mitzvoth in the daily life, urgently calls for an authoritative clarification by a recognized authority in the field of science. I am confident that if the cobwebs of misconception attending the advancement of modern technology could be cleared away, numerous misguided individuals would be induced to re-examine their position, while others still clinging to their beliefs and traditions, yet are troubled by doubts, would have their confidence restored.

I realize, of course, that the undertaking which I am suggesting requires time and attention. Nevertheless, I feel that the encroachment on other important projects would not be so drastic, and in the longer run, perhaps, it might even turn out to be a contribution rather than an encroachment, in the light of the Mishnah, "one Mitzvah brings another in its train", especially a Mitzvah that cannot be performed by others, and where there can be no fear of duplication or excess.

Now to refer to some points raised in your letter.

I am surprised that the Rov did not mention the fact that the very same phrase contains the unequivocal words – לבריאת העולם. In other words, this dating is not conventional, as for example, in the case of "Minyan Shtorot", which was adopted and ordered to a certain convenient date in the past. Our annual dating is historic, beginning with the Creation of the world, and its use in legal documents explicitly substantiates its authenticity.

You cite certain Rishonim in this connection, but since I have not at hand these sources, I must withhold comment. However you surely know that there is general agreement among our authorities of the essential point that this dating is based on the Creation. Whatever reservations have been made by some authority (on account of the Flood, or other adjustments – שנת המבול שנת תוהו) the whole difference in the date would not exceed 3 years. (The Machlokes whether it was in Nissan or Tishrei that the world was created represents only a difference of six months.) The basic fact that our dating is related to the Creation of the world is not challenged by our authorities.

With reference to the view of "evolutionary cosmology", i.e. an evolution preceded by creatio ex nihilo, it is "difficult" to reconcile this view with the evolutionary theory, since it is impossible to cram within a period of 5722 years a process of evolution as conjectured by the evolutionists which, if it be true at all, would require millions and billions of years.

You mention the difficulty of understanding the account of creation literally, specifically how it is possible to define days before the sun was created. But I do not see the difficulty at all. The literal meaning of the words "And it was day and it was night" is inescapable, for the very same words are used in the text before as well as after the sun was created, i.e. in each of the six days of Creation. It would surely be illogical to assume that the very same expression, used in identical context and in the very same section, should have different meanings! This still leaves the question, how is the passage of a day to be measured before the sun was created? But this question, too, has no basis insofar as the text is concerned. For we are told at the outset that G‑d created light, and separated between light and darkness, that is to say, the Creator at once set the limits of the day and night. As for the source of this light, surely no one will claim that the sun is the only possible source of cosmic light, especially if we accept the view of science that light has to do with electro-magnetic waves, surely there could be other sources of light and energy besides the sun. Whether we accept the corpuscular theory of light, or the wave theory, or the theory combining the two, our position is not affected thereby.

One final remark, apropos of your mentioning that in these matters you do not rely on your own judgment but consult with Rabbonim, etc. Unfortunately, the majority of Rabbonim stand too much in awe of scientific theories, for they still adhere to the attitude of bygone generations, when science was regarded as an absolute truth, as something apart from human intelligence and speculation, in other words, that scientific laws are not produced, but merely "discovered" by the scientist, and are infallible and immutable. This attitude was fostered even by the Moreh Nevuchim that where "science" appears to contradict statements in the Torah or Talmud, the latter must be reinterpreted to conform to the scientific "truth". So deep-rooted is this attitude, having received the sanction of such eminent authorities in the past, that even now, when scientists themselves recognize that they are dealing not with independent "truths" and immutable laws, but merely with theories, formulated only for the convenience of systemization, and classification advancement, — many a well — meaning Rov still finds it difficult to change his attitude in regard to science.

That is why I consider it so necessary in the present day and age to clear away these widespread misconceptions not only from the minds of religious skeptics, but also from the minds of believers.

I trust you will take the lead in this important task.

With blessing, [sig.]

From B’Or HaTorah Journal: Science, Art and Modern Life in the Light of Torah. B’Or HaTorah is an English-language journal for wondering Jews, scientists, artists, teachers and students. It examines personal and intellectual concerns through the microscope and telescope of the scientist; the algorithm of the mathematician; the discourse of the philosopher; the imagery of the artist, poet and photographer; and the tested faith and learning of the Torah-observant Jew.
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Yehuda Shurpin for Chabad.org February 2, 2016

Re: Age of the Universe Regarding the age of the universe please see How Old is the Universe According to Judaism? Reply

Eli Asarch Denver January 11, 2016

Re Marian E. The oldest civilization is over 8000 years old, 2000 years older than the Torah suggests. Reply

Barb Brawer Monroe, N.C. January 9, 2015

Correspondence on the subject of Torah and Science. I found the correspondence very interesting. I agree completely with the Rebbe Rabbi Menachem Mendel Schneerson of righteous memory. I believe that it would have been a true Mitzvha to clarify this present state of confusion which is not limited to theoretical issues which touches upon fundamental principles of attitudes of core observences and by clarification by a recognized authority in the field of science and the modern technology. If this was cleared away many individuals would be induced to re-examine their positions and have their confidence restored in their beliefs.
It would have true Mitzvah that can't be performed by others and it's urgently needed.
"One Mitzvah brings another in it's train " Mishnah. Apologies if quote is incorrect.
P.S. Any authorities up to the challenge? Reply

Bruce Egert NJ June 17, 2014

There is no conflict between Jewish thought and teachings and the science of evolution, geology and cosmology. Ours is a philosophy that is molded to make an impression on the emotional aspect of a person's mind while science teaches the actual truth of how the universe was born and formed. Our tradition requires a leap of faith and our texts do so in an allegorical way. Reply

Marian E. Netherlands February 2, 2014

6000 years ... I wonder whether by the Creation of the Earth, almost 6000 years ago, could not be meant:
the start in creation of civilisation, bringing to this world Logos/Word, meaning, science and scriptures. Time of people starting to be conscience of their being human?
First civilisation started around that time, feeling and mind were seperated (waters and spirit). Animals got names. Duality started: that is called "good", that "bad"?
To me that would make "the 6000 years" completely logic and true, knowing that earth is much and much older.

And than again...: 6000 years could be true as a metaphore too, leaving us space beyond means and thinking:-)

so I came to the above as (at least my personal) respect- and grateful solution..
Saw The Oneness 6000 humanyears ago that it was time for our next step..., first steps "awake". "Wezer" is one of The Names, in dutch you can say "Wees er", which means "Be there", BE, there where you are...
🐝 🐝 Reply

David Dryden UK September 26, 2012

Enjoyable read Rabbi Schneerson handled these scientific questions excellently using the fundamentals of Torah and the nature of science itself to show the difference between truth and opinion (even "authoritative" opinion), between absolute truth and probabilities and approximates. This was a real help to me. Reply

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B'or HaTorah
B’Or HaTorah is an English-language journal for wondering Jews, scientists, artists, teachers and students. It examines personal and intellectual concerns through the microscope and telescope of the scientist; the algorithm of the mathematician; the discourse of the philosopher; the imagery of the artist, poet and photographer; and the tested faith and learning of the Torah-observant Jew.