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When Judaism Meets Science


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The Science Challenge

Friday, July 1, 2011 @ 12:07 PM
posted by Roger Price
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Judaism does not deal well with science. To be sure, there are many Jews who are scientists and many scientists who are Jews. Some Jewish scientists even win Nobel prizes for their work. Indeed, the numbers and percentages of winners are astonishing. See,  Still, as a community, and a supposedly smart one at that, Jews do not deal well with science.

Rabbis will read the first line of B’reishit (Genesis), parse the sentence and even argue over word forms when trying to translate the opening phrase of the Torah. Should it be “In the beginning, God created . . .” or “When God began to create . . . ”? In their studies, they will refer, among others, to the sages in Genesis Rabbah and to Rashi, but rarely in their consideration of the origin of the universe will they talk about  Albert Einstein and the relationship of energy and matter, much less cosmic microwave background radiation initially discovered by Bell scientists Arno Penzias and Robert Wilson and recently mapped by NASA’s COBE satellite.  Nor are they likely to assert baldly, like astro-physicist Neil De Grasse Tyson and astronomy writer Donald Goldsmith have in the first sentence of their book Origins: “In the beginning, there was physics.”

Similarly, when drawing lessons from the rest of B’reishit, how many rabbis discuss Charles Darwin’s teachings on evolution, or those of James Watson and Francis Crick on DNA or the studies of a more contemporary paleontologist and professor of anatomy like the University of Chicago’s Neil Shuban?  The problem is not necessarily that rabbis in general are antagonistic toward or lack aptitude for science. Rather, they tend to exhibit a nonchalance.

Synagogues, congregations, temples and other sacred communities, when they have education programs, will discuss Israel, the Bible, holidays and current events, all good topics, and maybe even Talmud and the Shoah (Holocaust).  But science? Not likely.

And the siddurim (prayerbooks) American Jews use today? Even in the self-described progressive movements, while you might find some moving poetry and interesting commentary, there is not much science in Mishkan T’filah or Kol Hanishamah.

So what, you may ask. Why should Jewish teachers and Jewish communities care about science? The answer is simple: science today presents a serious challenge to core Jewish principles and beliefs to a degree and an extent never before presented in the long and rich history of the Jewish civilization.  The challenge comes not from a malevolent ruler bent on the physical subjugation or destruction of the people, the sort of existential threat that Jews know only too well and have succeeded in surviving. Rather, the challenge comes from objective facts, or perhaps, from a methodology of inquiry and assessment which, when confronted honestly, dramatically impacts key concepts to which a wide spectrum of contemporary Jews ostensibly adhere.

While Judaism may ignore and, in some form, withstand that challenge, it is no exaggeration to suggest that failure to explore the impact of science on Judaism today runs the risk of losing disaffected Jews who cannot reconcile what they are taught in their religious community with what they are taught in their secular community.  The problem of living in two civilizations is not new. The particular nature and depth of the challenge of modern science is. And the Jewish people can ill afford to lose a single soul.

Some in the Jewish community are aware of the problem and are offering approaches to Judaism consistent with what science teaches. Dr. Daniel Matt and Rabbi David Nelson, in God & the Big Bang and Judaism, Physics and God respectively, present good discussions about what science, especially physics, teaches and how aspects of the Jewish tradition can interface with those teachings.  Rabbi Arthur Green, in his recent book Radical Judaism, draws on evolution and the mystical tradition of the Kabbalah to advance a new theological synthesis. From a more traditional position, Israeli Rabbi Natan Slifkin, also known as the zoo rabbi, takes and discusses science seriously in his work The Challenge of Creation. And Arizona State University philosophy professor, and Chair of Jewish Studies, Norbert Samuelson has authored several relevant books, most recently, Jewish Faith and Modern Science.  There Prof. Samuelson critiques classical Jewish thought as irrelevant because it is based on obsolete notions of science, and urges new “constructive” interpretations of creation, redemption and revelation based on new knowledge.

As substantive and provocative as these works are, however, they have not succeeded in reaching a wide audience, much less in changing the language that average Jews use in their religious life. The purpose of this blog is to serve as a forum to explore the ramifications of science on Judaism today, to tackle questions of fact and fiction, of fantasy and faith, and to expand the discussion beyond a limited segment of the rabbinate and the academics. Perhaps we will not exactly boldly go where none has gone before, and resolve these matters as well, but as Rabbi Tarfon suggested many centuries ago, that should not dissuade us. It will have to be enough that we have begun.

Roger Price

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5 Responses to “The Science Challenge”

  1. While it might be dangerous to disagree on many levels it is important to note that some things that seem to function in parallel universes do actually complement each other by their disagreement. I wish you luck in your conversations and will happily participate in the listening.

  2. Marlene Shapiro says:

    Talk about B’reishit, What a thoughtful beginning! I look forward to your future posts and I will forward this site to my son, the physicist. -Marlene

  3. There is so much to learn about 21st century scientific breakthroughs and how science continues to challenge thinkers from a variety of disciplines.
    One book that made me think was Art and Physics by Leonard Shlain
    Enjoyed your first post and look forward to more, Gail

  4. R Peter Shapiro says:

    The subject is fascinating and merits further dscussion. Rabbi Matt’s book is an excellent starting point. The tension and relationship between religion ( the existance and/or power of God) and science has been in existance for centuries.
    One generalk observation is that age is a factor in how one relates to the subjects and which one has the greatest pull(appeal). The older one gets the more meaningful becomes religious beliefs. It is like the old joke when the man on his death bed calls for a priest, rabbi and minister and when reminded he is Jewish he respond at this late date I do not want to take any chances. The pull toward religion is also heighten by an early and inensive reliious education and continued practice.
    It would be interesting to see if there are marked difference and if so why as to the relationship of science and religion between and among the various streams of Judaism. In particular reform and Reconstruction.

  5. Bob Magrisso says:

    I look forward to discussion on this website…Marilyn’s comment reminds me of one of my favorite quotes the physicist Neils Bohr, one the founders of quantum mechanics, who was dealing with the apparent paradoxes of quantum mechanics. (Actually below are 2 quotes):

    The opposite of a correct statement is a false statement. But the opposite of a profound truth may well be another profound truth.
    —Bohr, Niels
    Quoted in Heisenberg, Werner. Physics and Beyond. (New York: Harper & Row, 1971). p. 102.

    [There are] two kinds of truth. To the one kind belong statements so simple and clear that the opposite assertion obviously could not be defended. The other kind, the so-called “deep truths,” are statements in which the opposite also contains deep truth.
    —Bohr, Niels
    Bohr, Niels. The Philosphical Writings of Niels Bohr, vol. II. (Woodbridge, Connecticut: Ox Bow Press, 1987). p. 66.

    I went to Amazon where you can read a bit from some of the books in your post and found another quote from Rabbi Matt that I like very much too (thank you R Peter Shapiro):

    Both spirituality and mysticism are often dismissed as otherworldly. What excites me about them is not some secret through which to enter another world, but rather the secret of living differently in this world, of living in the light of the discovery we are part of oneness.

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