Torah and Science: Better Together

One of my fondest memories from my early days studying at the Jerusalem College of Technology (JCT) in the early 1970s were the Friday night sessions with Professor Yehuda (Leo) Levi at his home in the Bayit Vegan neighborhood of Jerusalem.

Though JCT now boasts a sizeable institution with three campuses and thousands of students, back when I was a student, there were no more than 40 of us studying in a small, converted apartment building. After the Friday night meal, we would trek over to Professor Levi’s home, and gather around his dining room table in the dim but warm glow of a generator driven lamp to discuss Torah and science.

Professor Levi was the head of the nascent electro-optics department at the College.  In addition to various scientific publications, he had by then also authored a slender volume called Vistas from Mount Moriah: A Scientist Views Judaism and the World (1959), in which he presented a philosophy of science from the perspective of a Torah observant Jew.  He went on to publish additional, more extensive works on the subject, but this book was our text.  And the starting point of our discussions was a statement in the Babylonian Talmud (Shabbat 75a), in which the rabbis derived the obligation for calculating seasonal cycles and planetary courses from the passage in Deuteronomy (4:6), “For this is your wisdom and understanding in the sight of the nations.”

From this brief passage, Professor Levi exhorted us to regard scientific understanding as a religious imperative, bringing with it universal glory to the enterprise of Torah.

Since that time, it seems, religious belief has increasingly been on the defensive against militant secularists, whose strident assault has intensified as science has succeeded with ever-increasing precision in explaining the workings of the physical and biological world.

A number of eminent personalities have taken up the defense of religion in the last quarter century, including John Polkinghorne, a theoretical physicist and Anglican priest, whose numerous works include Belief in God in an Age of Science (1998); Stephen Jay Gould (1941-2002), an evolutionary biologist and a self-proclaimed Jewish agnostic, who promoted his idea for reconciliation of science and religion in Rock of Ages: Science and Religion in the Fullness of Life(1999); Francis Collins, the former head of the Human Genome Project and currently director of the National Institute of Health who has written The Language of God: a Scientist Presents Evidence for Belief (2006); and Rabbi Jonathan Sacks, former Chief Rabbi of the United Hebrew Congregations of Great Britain who has published The Great Partnership Science, Religion and the Search for Meaning(2011).

Common among all these works is an overt or tacit acceptance of the thesis advanced by Gould that science and religion constitute two “non-overlapping magisteria (NOMA).”  “The net of science,” says Gould, “covers the empirical realm: what is the universe made of (fact) and why does it work this way (theory).  The net of religion extends over questions of moral meaning and value.”

Rabbi Sacks argues to a similar effect.  “Science is about explanation.  Religion is about interpretation,” he writes. “They are different intellectual enterprises that engage different hemispheres of the brain.”

However the conflicts between science and religion may ultimately be resolved, this is not the harmonization that Professor Levi spoke to us about on those memorable Friday nights.  The thesis he culled from the writings of the rabbis of the Talmud was just the opposite.  The glory of Torah is not in its separation from science, he taught us, but in the amalgamation of the two disciplines.

In contemporary Judaism, a fierce assault on the co-existence of science and religion comes also from the opposite direction.  In the Israeli Haredi yeshiva world, and to a somewhat lesser extent in its American counterpart, there has been a campaign to suppress secular learning, as it is perceived to be a threatening, foreign intrusion into the purity of Torah study.  For example, on September 16 of this year, the Israeli Supreme Court upheld a law exempting Haredi schools from teaching the State’s core educational curriculum.

The opposition to any advanced studies outside of purely religious works appears premised, in part, on a perception that secular learning has nothing of value to say about Torah.  At least insofar as scientific study is concerned, this is simply not the case.

Already in the 13th century, Nachmanides (1196-1270) wrote in his commentary on Genesis (9:12) that he was compelled to interpret the biblical passage on the appearance of the rainbow based upon secular learning on the refractive properties of water.  Maimonides (1135-1204) in the Laws of Forbidden Foods (2:13) ascribes one of the 613 biblical commandments to a prohibition against eating spontaneously generated vermin, something which from the seventeenth century onward is known through scientific investigation not to exist.  In this case, science has mandated a reinterpretation of a basic Torah directive.

There are other examples in which the scientific revolution has consciously or subliminally forced a re-examination of classical statements in Torah, even in the most religiously conservative circles.  Principal among these are terrestrial geography and heliocentricity.   More generally, relativity and quantum mechanics, the twin foundations of modern physics, point the way towards at least partial resolution of seemingly intractable conceptual problems in Torah that were profoundly troubling to prior generations.  These include the conflict between free will and Divine provenance, the efficacy of prayer and existence of evil in a world made by a supremely good Creator.

[There is something uniquely Jewish in the way that JCT side-steps the contradictions between religion and science, while plowing ahead to reap the innumerable benefits to be had by joining the two.]

There is a wonderful metaphor recounted by Professor Levi in yet another of his works, Shaarei Talmud Torah (Heb. 2006), in the name of Rabbi Isaac Hutner (1906-1980).  A student who had completed his yeshiva studies and had entered the world of commerce and occupation complained that he now felt as if he were living a double life.  Rabbi Hutner responded that one who rents one room in a house and another in a hotel is certainly leading a conflicted life.  But one who rents a two room apartment is not leading a double life – he is leading a more comfortable life.

The Beit Medrash and the labs, the shiur rooms and the lecture halls in places like the Jerusalem College of Technology are spaces existing comfortably side-by-side in a single, expansive house.  The scientists they produce have the potential to illuminate both the texts and concepts of Torah in ways not accessible to prior generations.  Their achievements will bring glory to the edifice of Torah, much as suggested by the rabbis regarding Torah scholars proficient in astronomical calculations.

And as for the contradictions that cannot yet be resolved, the Talmud has a word for that.  Teiku!  Someday, someone may figure it out, but for now, we move forward.