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Secular Science and Jewish Faith

Yom Kippur 2002

by Harold M. Schulweis

A special welcome to you who have returned home to us, to your families and your synagogue from the world of academic culture, college and university. 

Zayde persuaded my parents to send me to Yeshiva. When I told him that I was indeed accepted as a student at Yeshiva College, he was taken aback. Yeshiva, he understood. But Yeshiva college was for him an oxymoron like jumbo shrimp, a glatt treif platter. Why did I need college anyway? I told him I would be studying philosophy and history and science. That information only confirmed his uneasiness. He came from a tradition that was wary of "chomath yavan,”  Gentile culture, pejoratively goyishe wisdom. 

Zayde worried that his eldest grandson would be seduced by the alien culture. In some circles this remains a concern. 

College is considered a "Jewish disaster area" because college was not simply the opportunity of meeting people of other faiths, but a cultural clash between two competitive civilizations: Athens and Jerusalem. 

Here you enter college with memories of Genesis, a world created in 6 days, with species each according to its own kind. Then you are assigned to read Charles Darwin's 1865 Origin of the Species and his 1871 Descent of Man. Two different worlds. In the Synagogue world you hear that on Rosh Hashanah we celebrate the creation of the universe and mark your Jewish calendar as 5763. But in college you learned different datings. Going back in geological time, based on paleontological events, the evidence of rocks and fossils, with the first single cells of life, the world is conservatively 3.6 billion years old. The Rock of Ages is not The Age of Rocks. Darwin's universe is not, as described in the Bible, created by the Divine fiat "And God said.”   For the scientist, the universe is evolved from a randomly conjoined combination of carbon, oxygen and potassium molecules. 

Following Darwin, you and I were not created by designed supernatural divine election but by random natural selection. As Darwin argued you and I were descended from a "hairy tailed quadruped, probably arboreal in nature." Darwin, in a celebrated phrase informs his readers that "Ontogeny recapitulates phylogeny.”  What does he mean? He means that each and every one of us as individuals recapitulates the process of world evolution in our own person. You and I are microcosms of the evolution of life. So we read, in Darwin's works, that the fetus of a dog after a week looks virtually the same as the fetus of a human being. Several hours after conception, you and I had gills and a tail just like tadpoles and fish, the gills representing an ancient fish, the tail an ancestral reptile. The Origin of the Species is not Bereshit. These were different ways of understanding, of describing and thinking of the world. 

How can you and I harmonize the early chapters of Genesis with The Origin of the Species? Whose book do we choose? Do we turn our faces toward Athens and our backs to Jerusalem or vice versa? How do we keep Jewish faith and secular science on one plate? Do we "Eat Kosher but think treif" – keep kosher at home, but treif on the college campus? "How you goin to keep them down on the farm after they've seen M.I.T.?" 

While historically, and up to this day, the Darwinian theory of evolution rocked the foundation of Christian belief, why did it not affect Jewish religious thinking? Just as medicine presented no problem to Judaism as it did to Christendom, Darwin was no threat to Judaism. Why not? Why generally does science and faith in Judaism create no conflict which it does with Judaism's daughter religions? 

What is unique about Jewish faith that accounts for the compatibility of science and religion? How did the mother and daughter part ways? 

The Church had to choose between the truth of Darwin or the truth of God's testament  – either/or. For the synagogue this is a false choice. Why? Because there cannot be a conflict between scientific truth or biblical truth. Truth is one and God is one and the name of God is Truth. So we read in the Talmud (Sabbath 55a) "chotmo shel hakodosh baruch hu emet"  – "the seal of God is truth.”   

The term "emet,”  the rabbis in the Talmud point out, is formed by the aleph, mem, teth  –  first, middle and last letter of the Hebrew alphabet. Judaism is in love with God whose signature is truth. In Judaism truth has no race, no ethnicity, no religion, no geography. In Judaism there is no secular truth as opposed to religious truth. There is no Jewish astronomy or pagan astronomy, or Jewish biology or Gentile biology. 

What about non-Jewish alien sources of knowledge? A fascinating discussion in Talmud Peshachim (94b) includes a rabbinic debate on some matter referring to the calendar and the movement of the moon and stars. Some of the rabbis cite "chomay Israel"  –  Jewish sages. But some Rabbis cite "chomay umoth ha-olam"  –  Gentile sages. But the conclusion in the Talmud is "Nirim divreyhem midrabanam"  –  we follow the pagan sages because in matters of astronomy they are superior to us. Truth is truth whatever its origin. What do we recite when we take out the Torah on Shabbat?  We sing the words of "bay ana rachetz" from the Zohar. 

"Kshot" is the Aramaic word for "truth.”   God is truth. His Torah is truth. His prophets are people of truth and He performs deeds of goodness and truth. 

Jewish history has nothing parallel to the fate of Giordno Bruno who, because of his teaching of the Copernican heliocentric theory, was buried alive by the church.  The synagogue, unlike the church, has no history analogous to the persecution, torture and arrest of Galileo because of his teaching on astronomy.  The synagogue never produced a librorium prohibitorum  –  an index of books that under severe penalty cannot be read or studied. 

I think it was Alexander Pope who composed Sir Isaac Newton's eulogy. "Nature and nature's law lay hid at night. God said, ‘Let Newton be, and all was light.’" Does it make a difference to Judaism that the discovery of gravitation is attributed to a mere human being, or that Newton was not a Jew or that his scientific logic is not in the Bible? From a Jewish perspective, Newton's scientific illumination of the ways of the heavenly bodies pays homage to the God of heaven and earth. As someone put it: "Theology tells you how to go to heaven; science tells you how the heavens go."

How is it that the Jewish philosophers and Jewish theologians from Philo to Maimonides, from Saadya to Soloveitchik did not see science and faith as adversaries? How did they read the Bible and what is their legacy to all of us? How should we today read the Bible? Misreading the Bible leads to the deprecation of Judaism. 

Jewish minds did not read the Bible as if it were a book of biology or a book of archeology or book of astronomy or a book of history or a book of logic. Torah is not science. It's not geology and it's not history. 

Our Jewish sages never claimed that the Bible is presented as empirical truth. 

Does a believing Jew assert that the world is 5,763 years old? Listen to Rashi, the 11th century great interpreter of the Bible who lived quite before the 19th century Darwinians. Asked about the date and the age of the world Rashi answers, "The Torah doesn't tell you the order of the ages." And he cites the remarkable rabbinic commentary that God had created many, many worlds before this one. Torah is not archeology or astronomy. If you look for science in the Bible or for religion in science, you will end up confused and dispirited. 

Equally important, the genius of religious Judaism as evident in the Talmud, the midrash, and Jewish philosophy is that our sages were not bound by fundamentalist literalism, an approach that reads every word and every verse as prose description that you should bring with you into the college of comparative religion, philosophy and theology. I have found that literalism makes disbelievers of some people. Maimonides in the Perek Helek puts it sharply:  "Literalism robs our religion of its beauties, darkens its brilliance, and makes the laws of God convey meanings quite contrary to their intended meanings." 

Literalism reduces religion to absurdity. To be literal is ludicrous. If you want to ridicule the Torah, just read it literally. Read literally it becomes material for stand-up comedians. For example, to begin with Vayomer Elohim  – "And God said, ‘ Let there be light'.”   And to whom was God speaking, since there was no one there in the unformed, void and chaos of the universe? Is God speaking to Himself? What does it man that God speaks? Does God have a voice, a larynx, vocal cords and in what range does He speak: alto, tenor, basso profundo? Does He sound like James Earl Jones, or Woody Allen? 

But the sages of the Talmud and the Midrash realized that the Bible text, "And God said," and indeed repeats the term, "And God said" ten times in the creation of the universe, means to teach something else than a literal account of God's method of communication. In all the other cosmogonies in all of the stories of creation, Greek, Mesopotamian, Babylonian, the world is created by bloody warfare between titan gods, by collusions and conspiracies among the gods Gaia and Uranus, Marduk and Tiamat. But when the God of Israel created the world with words alone, with speech alone, "And God said" means to instruct us that there is no Satan, no primordial battle between rival gods, no dualism between good and bad God. In the biblical view, the world did not come into being by wars and violence between contending deities. The world was created by one God with the word, and we should learn to sustain with the word, not the sword. In our morning prayers one of the first prayers we recite is "Baruch sheamar vhayah ha-olam"  –  Blessed is the One who spoke and there was a world. 

What rescued Judaism from a rigid, narrow, fundamentalist literalism is expressed brilliantly by the 19th century Talmudist, Rabbi Naphtali Zvi Yehuda Berlin, the Rosh Yeshiva of Volozyn based on the commentary on Deuteronomy 32:44. "And Moses came and spoke all the words of this song in the ears of the people.”  The Rabbi declared that shirah, this song, refers to the whole Torah, and the whole Torah is poetry and possesses the nature and essential character of poetry, not prose. To understand Torah you have to understand symbols and parables and metaphors and allegories. Torah is art, a spiritual interpretation of life, not a mechanical record of facts. Do you write a love sonnet, the way you write a legal contract of sale? 

Yes, yes. But which is true? Science or faith? Genesis or Darwin? 

Here I read two books about the same event: A blind man is operated on by an internationally known ophthalmologist. And in his book, the ophthalmologist describes the operation, the diagnosis, the detailed protocol, the physiology of the eye, the instruments employed in dealing with the optical nerves connected to the brain. The language of his book is scientific, exact, precise, detailed, literal. 

The other book was written by the blind man who was given new sight by the ophthalmologist. He describes the event in terms of excitement, exultation, exaltation and gratitude. The book is filled with ecstasy, poetry and awe. He describes the first time that he set his eyes upon his newborn child and his fine witness of the rising of the sun. Which of these two books is true? Which of these two books is truer? Are these two books contradictory? Both books refer to the same event. But consider how different their intention. Both books are true but are judged differently according to their purpose.

Science is not Torah. Torah is not science. 

Science is concerned with facts. Torah is concerned with value. Science is concerned with "what is.”   The Torah is concerned with "what ought to be.”   History is concerned with "what was.”   Torah is concerned with "what should be.”   

Science is morally neutral. It tells you "how.”   It doesn't tell you "what for.”   I do not go to the ophthalmologist to discover my vision of life because that is not his competence. He can make me see the letters on an eye chart, not the goals of my life. Science offers us knowledge. Torah offers wisdom. Knowledge can build crematoria or sanctuaries. But science is morally neutral. It can instruct people how to build bombs or how to build hospitals. Science tells you "what is.”   Torah is concerned with "what for.”   Darwin is concerned with the “origin of the species,” Judaism is concerned with the purpose of the species. Darwin is concerned with the “descent of man,” Torah is concerned with the destiny of man. 

The Torah is not science, and science is not Torah. When Torah is treated like science, you invite mythology. When science is treated like Torah, you invite idolatry. Torah, Jewish faith has to watch that scientific ingenuity doesn't produce a golem that turns on society. 

Back to Darwin. Look what some social scientists made out of Darwin's description of nature as a jungle in which the fittest survive. I have in mind some of the greatest leaders and interpreters of Darwin, such as Herbert Spencer in England, and William Graham Sumner in America. Spencer argued that we should learn from Darwin's description of the "survival of the fittest”  how to structure our society. Political policy should emulate nature's course. We should follow Darwin's scientific account of evolution and apply it to our political and moral governance. Society should follow nature. Listen to Herbert Spencer's argument:  “What happens to a sow when it has a runt in the litter? She eats it. What happens to a mutilated baby chick? The mother hen pecks it to death. What happens when wolves go on a hunt and one of them is wounded or maimed?  The wolf pack abandons him." But now Spencer continues: "And what do we do in our society?  We ignore Darwin. We do not follow the wisdom of nature. We do not allow the fittest to survive. Instead, contrary to the natural laws of nature we build hospitals for the sick, asylums for imbeciles, create a welfare society that drains our treasury. We institute poor laws, we support the incompetent, the impotent with welfare, we drain ourselves with taxes." So contrary to nature and Darwin's science, we support "the survival of the unfittest.”   

Notice what has happened. Spencer turned science into Torah. He religionized Darwin. He argued that society should imitate nature and not interfere with nature. Don't let society intervene with welfare. Don't support the frail, the incompetent because you will create a society in which you tax the energy and the resources of the successful and the powerful. 

It is precisely in such a case that Judaism dissents. Here Jewish faith clashes, not with science but with scientism;  not with empirical facts, but the illicit of conversion of facts into value; not with the natural description of the survival of the fittest, but with the claim that only those who are physically fit deserve to survive. 

This is where the uniqueness and distinctiveness of Judaism should serve you and our civilization. Judaism is the conscience of Science. Because science is morally neutral, it can be made to justify greed, selfishness and indifference. You should master science, but it should not master you. Science may be accepted, but it must not be deified. Science is neutral. It can tell us how to produce medicines and vaccines, but its information can and has been used to produce crematoria, death camps, anthrax, cyanide to suffocate infants, “smart” but vicious bombs to devastate cities. Science is morally malleable. 

So, the rabbis had no difficulty with the evolution of the world. One of the great rabbinic enthusiasts of Darwin's evolution was the first Chief Rabbi of Palestine, Abraham Isaac Kook. The world, the rabbis reiterate, is incomplete, unfinished evolving.  From the viewpoint of Judaism, evolution does not call for opposition. Evolution requires human help. The most significant emphasis in the biblical story of Genesis is that there is in this natural world a human being with an evolving image of Godliness. Transformed by the environment, the human being in turn can and should transform his environment. The truth of evolution and the truth of Judaism are complementary. We respect the evolutionary character of nature and human nature as Darwin describes, but as committed Jews, we prescribe. As serious Jews, we are bidden to transform nature, nature raw in claw and fang. We are to defang and detoxify nature. Contrary to social Darwinism, we are to imitate God, not nature. We are to soften the coarseness, elevate the fallen, straighten the spine of the weak, remove the toxicity of the waters and the contamination of the air. We are to engage in research that will free those crippled with the paralysis of illness. We are to imitate God's attributes, not the wildness of the jungle. 

It is noteworthy that in the current debates over permitting the use of Federal funds for medical research with stem cells taken from human embryos, contrary to the judgment of the Vatican and many Church leaders, the rabbis across the board from Orthodoxy, Reconstructionism, Reform and Conservative judge such therapy as a great mitzvah. The scientific use of stem cells genetically identical with the cells of the sick recipient holds out a joyful promise for people living under the shadow of Alzheimer’s, liver failure, diabetes, spinal cord injuries. You will hear no rabbi argue that such scientific interpretation runs counter to God's will, that humans here are playing God. 

There is evolution but we human beings are a crucial part of evolution. Torah is the conscience that helps direct the arc of nature's trajectory. Judaism and science are not in opposition, but allies in tikkun olam  –  the repair of the world that cries out for human intervention for godly purpose. Within that hairy tailed arboreal quadruped lies dormant, a potential evolving Image of God. That is the thrust of Judaism and the thrust of these High Holydays. We can and must change. We can change ourselves and our environment. For the great cry throughout the services is the cry "tshuvah, tefilla, tzedakah.”   By turning and self-judgment and acts of goodness we children of God can modify the decrees of nature. Science must not turn into Scientism, an absolute religion. Science needs a moral critique. Science needs the conscience of Torah. Science needs to know its limitation. Master the science. Study the facts. But you, as children of Torah, should ask to what end are these facts gathered, to what end this competence, to what end this technology? And, if I may be personal, the religious question asked of you in your choice of profession is "what for?”  To what purpose your degree, your certificate of masters? Who will profit from your knowledge? How will it affect your society? These are not the questions of science. These are the inquiries of Torah. The religious question of science is. "what for?" 

At the end of the movie "Inherit the Wind," with Spencer Tracy as the secular attorney Clarence Darrow and the fundamentalist, William Jennings Bryant, played by Frederic March, the camera focuses on two books, The Origin of the Species by Darwin 1856, and the Bible. In the last scene, Clarence Darrow lifts and places both books together side-by-side. It is a Jewish response. Athens and Jerusalem need each other. God is one and truth is one. Zayde has no reason to be afraid of college. My young friends, carry with you the ethics and purpose of Judaism into the citadels of academia. College will be no Jewish disaster area, but a secular sanctuary, an homage to the God of truth.

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Thu, March 23 2023 1 Nisan 5783