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. . . unfortunately there are no data for the Very Beginning. . . . Only God knows what happened at the Very Beginning (and so far She hasn't let on).
-Leon Lederman

Science and Judaism: Would That You Were Right, Rabbi Mitelman

Tuesday, October 11, 2011 @ 10:10 AM
posted by Roger Price
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   Shortly before this blog was launched several months ago, Rabbi Geoffrey Mitelman of Beth El Synagogue in Northern Westchester, New York wrote an article for Huffington Post titled Why Judaism Embraces Science. See,  There Mitelman presented three “especially significant” reasons for his thesis.

   At the outset, I recognize that Mitelman was writing a brief essay and not an academic paper, let alone an expansive book. And I also recognize that his audience was whoever was reading or may read the HuffPost blog and not a dedicated group of adult learners. Nevertheless, the three bases for Mitelman’s post, even if assumed to be correct, do not compel the conclusion for which they are mustered and they raise more questions than Mitelman answered in his piece. 

   These are Mitelman’s three reasons for why Judaism embraces science:

  1. The Bible is almost never read simply literally.
  2. Questioning is not only acceptable –it’s encouraged.
  3. There is no fixed, systematic theology.

   Certainly, these three statements, taken together, may be consistent with an openness to science, but even there one has to be careful. The nature of the structure built on Mitelman’s three pillars really depends on how each pillar is formed and supported.

   For instance, the assertion that the “Bible is almost never read simply literally” is a statement pregnant with problems. Mitelman bases this assertion, in part, on his contention that “Judaism as it is practiced today is not biblical, it’s rabbinic” meaning Jews do not take the text “at face value.”

   There is at least some irony whenever a rabbi, especially a Reform rabbi, claims that Judaism is now rabbinic, that is, grounded in the teachings of ancient sages. Asking whether  “for the sake of the living” we shall “inquire of the dead” and “open the old folios” to “submit to what they said hundreds of years ago under quite different conditions,” early Reform leaders such as Rabbi Bernard Felsenthal railed against the obligatory authority of the Talmud and ancient rabbinic codes. (See, e.g., 3 CCAR Yearbook (1893) at 66.)  Today, for many, Judaism may well be post-rabbinic, post-halakhik, and even post-modern, but let’s grant Mitelman the point that Judaism as currently practiced is not biblical Judaism.

   And let’s not quibble too much here about whether “almost never” is an accurate description of how the Bible is read today. Let’s even agree that while there may be some Jews who read the Bible with a narrow literalness, many, perhaps most Jews (I have not done a study either), read some or all of the Bible as allegorical.

    The tradition of reading parts of the Bible as allegory or metaphor is certainly both rich and lengthy. Rabbi Moshe ben Maimon (“Maimonides” or “Rambam”) (1135-1204 CE) surely viewed the Bible as God’s word, therefore true and of binding authority, but he held that “The account given in Scripture of creation is not, as is generally believed, intended to be in all its parts literal .”  (See, Guide For the Perplexed, 2:29 Friedlander trans., Dover, 1956.) Consequently, he took biblical  anthropomorphisms and anthropopathisms as symbolic.  Similarly, Rabbi Avraham Yitzchak Kook (1865-1935), the first Ashkenazi Chief Rabbi in Palestine, said that the “Torah certainly obscures the [meaning of] the act of creation and speaks in allegories and parables . . . .” (As quoted in Slifkin, The Challenge of Creation at 206-07.)

   But the tradition is also not uniform. Some Jews today do believe in the inerrant nature of Torah. (See, Post 09/22 /11.) Others may concede the allegorical nature of the creation stories, but maintain the veracity of the remainder of the biblical text. And here’s the rub.

   To say (and this is me, not Mitelman) that the biblical creation stories are allegorical is one thing. To say that the patriarchal family is symbolic, that the descendants of Ya’akov (assuming there was a Ya’akov) were not in Mitzrayim, that Moshe (if he existed) did not lead them out of there, that there was no actual theophany at Har Sinai, no travel through the desert wilderness, no farewell address, no crossing into the Eretz Yisrael is quite another.  

   Mitelman argues that the “Bible isn’t meant to be taken only literally — it’s designed to be a source of study and exploration for the questions of our time.”  Meant by whom? The Reconstructionists notwithstanding,  most sidurim (prayerbooks) contain the following statement that is chanted during the Shabbat morning Torah service: V’zot haTorah asher sam Moshe lifnei b’nei Yisrael al pi Adonai b’yad Moshe. (This is the Torah that Moshe placed before the Israelites, the word of God through the hand of Moshe.) Did the biblical God mean for Jews to take the Torah literally? Did the redactors of the text mean for their community to take it literally?  Do those who chant those words weekly mean what they say?

   If Mitelman is suggesting that Judaism can and does change over time, he is surely correct. Such a suggestion is openly acknowledged by non- or post-halakhic Jews, and halakha changes for traditional Jews as well as new responses are developed for new circumstances. But the fact that Judaism may accommodate change over time is a far cry from embracing science. 

   The hard issue is not whether or how many Jews read some or all of the Bible allegorically, it is how one makes the decision about what, if anything, should be read literally, and what, if anything, should be read non-literally. Mitelman states that the Bible “shouldn’t be taken simply literally today because circumstances, societies, norms and knowledge have all changed.”  And while that rule may apply to certain chapters or verses, applying it to the entire text leaves you with what?

   Some believe that Torah, both written and oral, is from God at Sinai. Others argue that it is a collection of myths gathered over time and edited into the text we call the Bible. What exactly are the criteria for determining what in the Bible is fact and what is fiction, what is allegorical or metaphorical or poetic and what is historical truth? And if we can make those distinctions, what do we do with that information?

   Mitelman’s second principle is stronger. There is a clearly recognized tradition, invoked across the Jewish spectrum of asking questions. And minority and majority answers are acknowledged.  But to suggest that Judaism embraces science because the two both utilize questions goes too far.

   Science, as Mitelman recognizes, “is never to take anything on faith.” Indeed, a principle methodology of science is to test a proposition to the point of falsification. But Judaism requires a faith component, doesn’t it? Or doesn’t it? If Judaism now lacks a faith component, however one defines it, then is it not qualitatively, even compositionally, different than it historically has been?

   Maimonides is, in many respects, the prototypical Jewish rationalist. As discussed above, he was willing, in his day, to approach biblical texts both rationally and non-literally.  But Maimonides also promulgated thirteen articles of faith, including not only the statement that God exists, but also that Torah is from heaven and that the reward for the observer of the commandments is life in the world to come. None of these is testable. Each requires faith.

   Many Jews today may lack belief in resurrection and the world to come, but what of the first principle, the existence of God? This is by no means a trivial or purely hypothetical issue, as can be seen in the compendium of views recently published by Moment Magazine on whether Judaism can exist without a God. See,

   Science and Judaism are different systems. Science cannot proceed on faith. Can Judaism proceed without it?  

   Mitelman’s final point, that Judaism has no fixed and subscribed credo, is undoubtedly an accurate description of reality.  Writing in Judaism as a Civilization (JPS 1934) almost four score years ago, Mordecai Kaplan recognized that

     “there is no intellectually formulated conception which has acquired authoritative recognition in Judaism as the only true idea of God.  The inevitable conclusion   to which we are led by the consideration of the God-idea in the history of the Jewish People, and of the part played by it in civilization in general, is that the Jewish civilization . . . is in no need of having any specific formulation of that idea authoritative for all Jews.” (At 393-34.)

   The years since Kaplan wrote these words have been momentous for the Jewish People, but the diversity of theological viewpoints has not lessened at all. See, e.g., Jewish Theology in our Time (2010).

   But again, this fact, the absence of a uniform theology, does not compel an embrace of science.  It merely means that there may be a host of different attitudes toward science.

   Science, as Mitelman notes, is “very much about process.” And Mitelman suggests that, for him, God is too. But for others God may be King or Shepherd, Immanent One or Transcendent One, Rock and Redeemer or Provider of rain in its season,  Guardian of Israel or Healer of the infirm, or  holder of any number of other roles. And science is none of that.  

   So, as much as I wish that Rabbi Mitelman were right, I am not persuaded. I am not persuaded, first, that there are not serious conflicts between what science teaches and the biblical text.  It would be nice, perhaps, if it were true, as he argues, that “the beginning of Genesis is not in conflict with the big bang theory or natural selection.” But it is not so easy to shove the square peg of B’reishit into the round hole of big bang cosmology (or the other way around).  Aside from the internal inconsistencies in the two origin stories in B’reishit, there are sharp differences between either story and standard big bang cosmology. And evolutionists such as Jerry Coyne and Richard Dawkins would surely take issue with the second part of Mitelman’s statement.

   And I am not persuaded, second, that most Jewish leaders today are serious about wrestling with the challenges science presents. As I stated in the opening post of this series (see, Post, 07/01/11), Judaism does not deal well with science. Arthur Green and Norbert Samuelson and some others are the exception.  And, obviously, Rabbi Mitelman is among the few willing to engage and embrace science. For that I thank him.

   Let the conversation continue.


            Roger Price

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6 Responses to “Science and Judaism: Would That You Were Right, Rabbi Mitelman”

  1. David Teutsch says:

    Science, too, has faith claims. It has faith that the scientific method leads in the direction of truth. It claims that we are capable of perceiving external reality. It claims that rational discourse leads toward facts and/or truth. And so on. The particular sets of faith claims that science and religion have are compatible as long as they are not mutually exclusive, so to raise the question of compatibility is not to deal with the two abstractions of science and religion but the particular faith claims of an individual or a subgroup.

  2. Dan Cedarbaum says:

    Roger Price has given us a tightly reasoned and clearly written critique of Rabbi Mitelman’s claim that Judaism “embraces” science. Yasher koach. But Roger’s careful dissection of the rabbi’s arguments strikes me as a little harsh, given the context.

    “At the outset,” Roger himself states, “I recognize that Mitelman was writing a brief essay and not an academic paper, let alone an expansive book. And I also recognize that his audience was whoever was reading or may read the HuffPost blog and not a dedicated group of adult learners.” However, Roger proceeds to unravel the strands of R. Mitelman’s reasoning in a manner that seems more appropriate for a response to an academic paper. (Again, the technical skills that Roger displays are impressive.)

    At the risk of sounding anti-intellectual, or unduly pragmatic, I am tempted to ask whether what Roger has written is “good for the Jews”. Roger’s reaction to R. Mitelman’s piece reminds me of a reaction that I often have, but then suppress, to public debates about evolution and creationism. Having had some training in the history and philosophy of science, I cringe when, as so often happens in those debates, one of the good guys describes evolution as “true” or “a fact”. “Wait a second,” I want to yell, “Darwinian evolution is a theory, not a fact – the best explanation by far that we currently have for the relevant empirical data but one always subject to being replaced if someone were to develop a better explanatory model, particularly in the event that new empirical findings were not well explained by the current theory.” But I bite my tongue, because the discussion that I would be starting would be unduly nuanced in this context, and in practice speaking up would serve only to confuse matters and does not seem to me required in order to preserve intellectual honesty (again, in this context). In other words, for purposes of the public policy issues involved, Darwinian evolution can, and I think should, be treated as if it were “true”.

    Similarly, I would give Rabbi Mitelman a certain amount of intellectual slack. Granted that Rabbi Mitelman is over-generalizing to some extent, and granted that his reasoning is not as tight as Roger’s, I think that he makes a good case for the proposition that, on the whole, mainstream Judaism has in fact produced an environment that has encouraged an overwhelming number of Jews to embrace science. Also, the three principal reasons that he states seem to me in fact to have played significant roles in the production of that environment. (Yes, we might chuckle a little about a Reform rabbi’s embrace of Rabbinic Judaism as mainstream, but I believe that it remains a fair characterization, and, in any case, the Jews I know who call themselves “post-Rabbinic” or “post-halakhik” tend if anything to be more fervently attached to science than other Jews.) For the sake of (relative) brevity, I will touch on only the first of R. Mittelman’s three reasons, that “The Bible is almost never read simply literally”. Roger correctly points out that some Jews are truly Biblical literalists, but I know more than one Orthodox rabbi who believes that such fundamentalism is not within the pale of normative mainstream Judaism. In any case, the vast majority of Jews are, and for at least 2,000 years have been, non-literalists. And I think that R. Mitelman can fairly claim that that has contributed substantially to the relatively open intellectual environment he describes.

    Having said all of that, perhaps what I have written is more appropriate for the HuffPost blog than for Judaism and Science.

    Chag sameach.

  3. I appreciate the responses, both in the piece and in the comments. Part of my goal in that post was to explore these issues to encourage a deeper exploration of these questions. I’m glad that this is happening.

    I wanted to respond to a couple of “process” issues raised here:

    1. I would certainly not argue that Judaism necessarily embraces science, since you accurately brought up the various historical realities. Instead, as the previous commenter alluded to, my goal was to ask, “What elements of Judaism seem to have created a climate where science is embraced?” How those elements manifest themselves certainly changes in different times and places, but I was exploring what historical and philosophical elements in Judaism seem play a role in the fact the Judaism (as opposed to say, fundamentalist Christianity) allows for scientific thinking.

    2. The HuffPo piece was absolutely aimed at a general audience. So that meant a few things: first, it had to be relatively short (so that people would read it!), second, the level of academic nuance had to be toned down (it was not designed for a scholarly paper), and finally, I was hoping many non-Jews would read it, so my description of Judaism would had to be somewhat simplified as well.

    Having said that, I am very much enjoying reading the responses to this piece.

    Kol tuv, all good things,

    Rabbi Geoff Mitelman

  4. Just an anecdote. As a retired orthopedist when doing surgery with an assistant the topic of evolution came up. One of my partners, Dr. JB Frost made the observation that he believed God to be the BIG, Supreme Evolutionist. I agree.
    Respectfully, Wm. H. Ray, MD, Ret. AAOS

  5. R. Geoffrey Dennis says:

    Since the good rabbi has argued, at least for himself, and in truth, a vast number of modern Jews, that the Torah should be read metaphorically, figuratively, and allegorically, aren’t you pretty much punching at a straw man for the rest of the article? Once it is conceded that the Torah cannot be read as making factual claims regarding the operation of nature, then any conflict with science is, or religious objection to embracing the findings of science is, de facto, eliminated. This, of course, does not encompass the norms, poetry, or other features of the Torah, which are aesthetic and values-based, rather than fact based writings, but where the beef once it has been agreed the Torah is not a source of scientific fact? You seem disappointed that most religious Jews aren’t interested in arguing with you. Sorry, you just have to take “yes,” and pick a fight with Christian fundamentalists.

  6. Ludwik Kowalski says:

    Some of you might be interested in my post about NOMA at:

    The last sentence of this short essay is: “Unresolved conflicts in debates about God usually result from absence of agreements on what the word God stands for.”

    Comments will be appreciated,

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