What this Topic Means to Me:
By: David Bashevkin
I am not much of a scientist. The last time I was in a formal class of physics or chemistry was in 10th and 11th grade. But I have always been fascinated by the history of science and mathematics. I never excelled at calculus, but I have always been enchanted by books that discuss the history of calculus, as well as infinity and science in general. Don’t ask me to do any calculations, but I’m happy to discuss the implications of the interaction between math and science on religious ideas.
This came to the fore when I was studying in Ner Yisroel. My friend, Dovid Weinberger, knew I was interested in how scientific and mathematical ideas differ from religious ideas and the system of Torah in general. He encouraged me to reach out to his Uncle Shmuel, a renowned mathematician and learned Jew, at the University of Chicago. We began corresponding. It’s hard to remember what exactly we corresponded about—after hours of searching, it seems the emails got deleted from my old Yahoo email account. I even called Dr. Weinberger and while he remembers our conversations, he couldn’t find the correspondence either. But I do remember the basic thrust of my questions. I wanted to understand how a seasoned mathematician relates to the rabbinic law. There is a rigor and a sequentiality to math that I always found intimidating and maybe even a drop more “true” than halakhic and Torah reasoning. What implications, if any, I remember asking him, does Gödel’s incompleteness theorem have for the system of halakha? As a mathematician, what do you think when we say that the wisdom of Torah is infinite? Are your math colleagues smarter than rabbis? How does the development of Torah differ from the innovations of science?
Overall, looking back I think there was an element of immaturity involved. When you’re younger, you tend to think that the smartest person in the room—the one with the highest SAT scores, the one in the higher level math class—is probably the correct person in the room. We tend to think that the discipline that attracts people with the highest IQ’s probably has all the right answers on how to live your life. It reminds me of an exchange between Stephen Colbert (a devout Catholic) and Ricky Gervais (an agnostic atheist). Ricky poses the following thought experiment:
Science is constantly proven over time. You see, if we would take something like fiction or any other holy book and destroyed it—in a thousand years time it wouldn’t come back just as it was. But if you took every science book and every fact and destroyed them all—in a thousand years they would all be back because every test would be the same result.
It’s a fascinating exchange to watch in whole.
The crowd applauds and Colbert is just left saying, “that’s good—that’s really good.” Now I don’t think this thought experiment does any sort of damage to religious thought and commitment, but I do think it is worth thinking about. Science does have a grounded sequentiality that could be reconstructed, whereas religious ideas are tethered to human experience and are subject to more evolution. Let’s take revelation out of the equation and just focus on the development of the Oral Law or mysticism—certainly it would be harder to imagine reconstructing these disciplines, as opposed to math and science, which with enough time would seem to be able to organically be reconstituted. This distinction, however, may actually be a praise of sorts for the value of religion. Maybe disciplines untethered to human experience and human input, however rigorous and however valuable, are also limited in their ability to actually inform and provide purpose to human experience. Maybe the sober detachment of science poses limits on what guidance it can, in fact, provide. That, of course, is not a condemnation of science, just as I don’t read this thought experiment as a condemnation of religion. They each relate in different and important ways to our personal and collective history.
The first scholarship I ever shared in print was an article I wrote for The Seforim Blog entitled, “The World as a Book: Religious Polemic, Hasidei Ashkenaz and the Thought of Reb Zadok.” It’s about an analogy: the world as a book. Rav Tzadok (1823-1900) explains that he found an analogy that he admits did not come from Jewish sources. He writes, “God created a book, and that is the world, and the commentary (on the book), and that is that Torah.” The rest of the article is my exploration into finding the origins of the analogy. For centuries, people looked at the “Book of Nature” and the “Book of Scripture” as two different books—Rav Tzadok reframed their interaction. Nature was written as a book, but to meet and understand the author, you need to read the commentary. Like any literary exercise or DVD extras (remember those?), commentary explains the purpose—maybe they’re discussing a scene from a movie, an edit from a television show, or the choices an author makes about a character. But if the Torah can, in fact, be seen as a commentary, it is providing the purpose behind the magnificent and wondrous scientific world we each see.
And I think this imagery is what makes thinking about science and religious ideas together so captivating. Everyone has two books that animate their lives. We have a book of nature—our natural abilities, the family we were born into, the color of our eyes and hair. There is little we can do to change the book of nature—our task is merely to describe it. But we also have a book of scripture. Scripture is made to interpret and in our lives, we have the commentary that interprets, explains, and provides depth of meaning to all of our choices, decisions, and purpose. The joy of life is not found pitting the books against one another, but having them both open—text and commentary—and discovering the sublime joy of finding purpose in this mysterious world.
Science and Religion Introduction
By: Yehuda Fogel
Science and religion have long had a complicated relationship. At times friends, other times lovers, and occasional enemies, engagement between the worlds of reason and revelation is fraught with millennia of debate and discussion.
What is the Jewish perspective on science? There are few things more triggering to those who appreciate Jewish thought than the assumption that Jewish thought presents a single face on any one topic, or that there is even any one ‘Jewish perspective’ on a topic. Jewish thought is multivalent, with many voices bearing down on each topic.
This is particularly pointed in the question of the relationship between science and Judaism. As a fundamental question about the nature of revelation, reason, the boundaries of understanding and faith, there is no one answer. This month, 18Forty is thinking about science and religion. This complex topic carries the weight of thousands of years of debate, and oversimplifying this legacy into any one conclusion dishonors the many voices that have spoken and written throughout history.
We begin our consideration of the relationship between science and religion by honoring the multivocal legacy of the Jewish tradition and providing you with an introduction to some of the ways science and Judaism have interacted. These philosophical perspectives are by no means independent from each other, and in many contexts they overlap and interrelate, but we provide them on their own to get a sense of some of the dynamics that narrate this relationship. To learn more about the history of this interaction, read the erudite article on “Historical Interactions Between Judaism and Science” by Jeff Dodick and Raphael B. Shuchat, whose framing on the philosophical approaches to this relationship we are indebted to.
There has long been a notion of there being two books: the book of scripture and the book of nature. This appears in the writing of luminaries from the Rambam to Rav Tzadok, as well as in a host of Christian thinkers. Many of the questions about science and Judaism (or religion, more broadly) can be conceptualized as a question of the relationship between these two books. For some thinkers, the two books are synonymous or at least in harmony; whereas for others, seeming conflicts between the two books is due to the fault of one or the other. Consider this lens when thinking about science and Judaism, and the many ways this relationship has manifested itself.
Five Attitudes on the Relationship between Science and Judaism
1: Limiting Approach
When the two books conflict, and the Torah doesn’t seem to mesh with science, this approach limits the reach of one of the books. This might limit the scope or breadth of science, arguing that scientific views change all the time, whereas the Torah is authentic and unchanging. The anti-evolutionary stance by some rabbinic thinkers, such as Rabbi Avigdor Miller and Rabbi Menachem Mendel Schneersohn, might be an example of this approach, as they jointly diminish the dangers of evolution by emphasizing the ever-changing nature of scientific knowledge, and deign, therefore, to accept the Torah’s creation narrative as is.
Alternatively, it might argue that what we know about the Torah is also limited, and we might not yet understand the Torah well enough to know how it fits the truths of science. This perspective can take two forms: it might limit the doctrines themselves, arguing that Torah always trumps science or vice versa; or it might limit our understanding of these doctrines, emphasizing our lack of sufficient understanding of either doctrine. In the rabbinic world, this has been cited to explain how scientific theories about the age of the universe and evolution might change in time, eventually meeting the truths revealed by the Torah.
2: Explanatory Approach
In this approach, a conflict between Torah and science prompts a reconsideration of one’s understanding of Torah, and a reinterpretation of the prior religious understanding. Biblical texts that clash with scientific understanding may be reinterpreted to fit the current scientific norm, allowing the two books to meet comfortably. The Rambam often utilized this approach, reconsidering portions of the Torah in light of the scientific thought of his day. This approach, with its emphasis on reconsidering long-held religious notions, demands great courage and creativity, and can birth particularly novel approaches to traditional literature.
3: Parallel Approach
Science and Torah are both valuable, but the two domains should not meet. While both explain facets of this universe, they need not conflict or even address one another. Scientist Stephen J. Gould’s term “respectful noninterference” frames it well. In the words of the great (if at times controversial) Jewish philosopher Yishayahu Leibowitz, science cannot conflict with religion because the two seek to answer fundamentally different questions. We might put it this way: While both books are important and true, they occupy different shelves in the cosmic bookstore, each in its own genre.
4: Complementary Approach
The two books might be in different genres, but they complement each other, each offering something to the other. This perspective places science and Torah in close contact, seeking the sacred synthesis that might emerge from the meeting of two truths. In one particularly powerful demonstration of this perspective, Rabbi Avraham Isaac Kook saw evolution as a non-issue for the religious Jew. He went further to identify spiritual potential in the ideas of evolution, which Rav Kook felt has a deep affinity with the “secret teachings of the Kabbalah:” “Evolution which proceeds on a course of improvement offers us the basis for optimism in the world. How can we despair when we realize that everything evolves and immediately improves… Evolution sheds a light on all the ways of God.”
5: Conflict Approach
Science and Torah may not ask the same questions, but they certainly offer conflicting answers. This perspective sees the conflict and doesn’t recoil or reinterpret. Some might face this perspective and choose to diminish the value of one of the two books, but others might allow the conflict to live in its fullness, allowing science and Torah to live in disharmony, while continuing to attempt life in fidelity to one or both of these books. While this approach is rarely stated explicitly or taught widely, and cannot as easily be attributed to any one thinker or debate, it constitutes a silent dynamic present in those who read and think through conflict without resolution or compromise between the two books.
Dr. Jeremy England: What Does a Scientist See in the Torah?
Thinking through the relationship between the natural world and God, many point to the miracles of nature as the greatest proof to the existence of a Creator. ‘Life itself’ proves God, the seeming naturalness of this world is a testimony to the miracles of creation. But as we continue to study the origins of life, at times the supposed miracles can cut against the findings of scientists. What then? In Professor Jeremy England’s moving Wall Street Journal op-ed, “The Creator’s Calling Card,” he writes:
Living things are the most intricate and marvelous things in the universe. The simplest organism has such dazzlingly complex architecture that one has never been observed coming into being without help from another life form. This is why life itself is perhaps the best expression of transcendent intention in the arrangement of this world.
But if that’s true, isn’t explaining life’s natural origins through science the most effective way to debunk biblical religion? Arguing that God had to have been there at the beginning seemingly would get harder if life’s very existence were to stop looking so miraculous. Yet lately the science appears to point in that direction.
Jeremy may be one of the best poised to engage with this question. As an Orthodox rabbi and physicist who studies artificial intelligence and evolution in some of the most elite institutions in the world, Jeremy is an expert in the origins of life. His hypothesis on the subject, ‘dissipation-driven adaptation,’ has attracted attention in scientific journals, and he lectures widely on the crossroads of Torah and science. Dedicated just as deeply to exploring the nature of life’s origins as to the Torah, what happens when scientific findings run against the grain of religious doctrine?
This is the question Jeremy deals with in his op-ed, turning to the miracles of Exodus to better understand how God “gives away the secret of his greatest trick. Then…teaches us how to go on seeking him nonetheless.” This sentence speaks well to who Rabbi Dr. Jeremy England is: one who approaches the secrets of the universe, and seeks God nonetheless.
The question everyone has for Jeremy is simple: how does a biophysicist – or any scientist – relate to religion? He says:
I don’t want to have a divided mind. It has to be acknowledged that Tanakh is not trying to keep you comfortable with the idea of natural law, it is trying to make you uncomfortable with the idea of fixed, natural laws. That’s at least one current within it. (There are other ones that are countercurrents. There is also the Psalmist’s idea of mah rabu ma’asecha Adonai kulam be-chochma asita [how many are the things you have made, O Lord; you have made them all with wisdom]—the idea that Hashem made everything in wisdom and it has all this natural order and regularity to it. So, there are these currents in tension with one another.) But papering over that tension and saying, “It’s easy, we don’t have to worry about it”—that can come at a cost.
Engaging with these questions can mean living with discomfort, and it can also provide the wonder associated with seeing the world in a less rigid light. Jeremy’s approach is built on a foundation of dedication to sincerity with the scientific world – and the Torah:
I think it’s also possible to be very committed to Torah in ways that are very authentic and ancient, and still be fully committed to scientific reasoning. I see a lot of people who have a great desire to act on a commitment to Yahadut and their tradition, but they also put a box on it that comes from outside the tradition. That which is kosher according to theoretical physics or biology—that I can think and do. There’s a real, serious danger there, especially in an era when a lot of people are going off the deep end and turning science into not just a way of reasoning about what is predictable about the world, but into a full-blown belief system that has a mystical component to it.
For those curious about science and Torah – or for any people possessing a curiosity about our world – Jeremy England is an important voice to listen to. Jeremy brings depth, knowledge, and humility to his every encounter. Jeremy’s deep engagement with the spiritually fruitful relationship that science and Torah can have manifests powerfully in his latest book, Every Life is on Fire: How Thermodynamics Explains the Origins of All Living Things. A powerful exploration of the origins of life, Jeremy’s full comfort in science, religion, and finding wonder in each, are on full display. Listen now to his conversation with 18Forty about his life, work, and thought on science and religion to hear from someone who brings intellect and heart to all his work.
Professor Allison Coudert: How did Religion Influence Science?
By: Yehuda Fogel
How has religion influenced science? We often think of the relationship between religion and science as antagonistic, two friends trying to outrank the other, or perhaps even two enemies trying to vanquish the other. At times, religious thought may acknowledge the great possibilities in scientific thought, the wonders and understanding privileged to the world of science. Scientists may also acknowledge the limitations of reason and the space for faith where reason ends.
Enter Professor Allison Coudert.
A noted scholar of religious studies, Allison is deeply comfortable at the intersection of religion and science, with a particular emphasis on Jewish contributions to science and gender issues. In her book Religion, Magic, and Science in Early Modern Europe and America, Allison explores the complicated interplay between the webs of enchantment that animate religion, magic, and science. Allison explores the boundaries that we have put up between theological exploration and scientific exploration, finding that mystical ideas from the Kabbalah have influenced the scientific inquiry of Early Modern Europe that redefined Western civilization. The missing step between Kabbalah and scientific advancement is the Christian Hebraists, a fascinating group to whom Allison also dedicates a book.
Gottfried Wilhelm Leibniz (1646-1716) is one of the noted logicians and philosophers of the Age of Enlightenment, the 17th century intellectual trend that preceded (and in some ways birthed) the 18th century Industrial Revolution. Leibniz was a serious polymath who wrote in Latin, French, and German, with interest in and knowledge about everything. One of Allison Coudert’s earlier books is on Leibniz and the Kabbalah, in which she argues that the Kabbalah should be considered a meaningful influence on Leibniz’s thought, and subsequently on the eventual emergence of the development of science and scientific thinking.
The question of how has religion influenced science is by no means a simple equation, as Alison demonstrates in her many studies. The nature of this influence, and of the broader relationship between religion and science, has many threads. One such thread is disenchantment.
Max Weber (1864-1920) was an important German historian, sociologist, and political economist, many of the most lasting ideas we have of the current state of our contemporary world were the subject of important analyses by Weber. One of Weber’s most lasting – and controversial – ideas is that of ‘disenchantment.’ Here’s the background:
In 1917, the German political economist Max Weber gave an important lecture at the Ludwig-Maximilians-Universität in Munich, which was entitled “Science as a Vocation.” Weber argued that the increased intellectualization and rationalization of Western culture have not improved our knowledge of how to live in the world; rather, they have given us the firm belief that we can learn whatever we need at any time. There are no “mysterious incalculable forces that come into play”; instead, we believe deep down that we can in principle “master all things by calculation.” Then came one of the remarks for which Weber became well known: “This means that the world is disenchanted.”
Disenchantment had been becoming more and more apparent in Western culture for a long time, Weber believed, yet at the turn of the 20th century it had become a defining trait of modernity. To be a modern person meant, and means, first of all, not to trust in magic, prayer, ritual, sacraments, or anything of the sort; more than that, though, it means not to allow oneself to be enthralled by anything at all, at least not for very long. Anything that appears mysterious can be shown, by careful methodical investigation, to have a rational explanation. A century after Weber’s lecture, the West is divided over the success of disenchantment.
Disenchantment is for many the calling card of modernity. That vague sense of fragmentation, rationality, mystery-less-ness that so many have felt in this era, all under one term: disenchantment. As can be expected from so sweeping a claim, the history of disenchantment is freighted with debate. Some dispute the very premise, pointing out that the ‘magical’ still has a following in much of the world. Some prefer instead to focus on the necessity of ‘re-enchanting’ the world, while others discuss “disenchanting disenchantment,” or even “disenchanting reenchantment,” referring to our need to either seek enchantment in a post-enchantment world, move past our fascination with our lack of enchantment, or move past our need for new enchantment.
The idea of disenchantment presumes that scientific, rational thinking is either devoid of wonder, or that its widespread adoption in the west has led to a shift towards less wonder-filled thinking. As religion and science are two different impulses, the rise of one (science) leads to the diminished appreciation for the wonder that fuels the other (religion).
However, Allison Coudert sees a far more textured reality at play. In her words:
Eighteenth-century enlightenment science and philosophy and its nineteenth-century counterparts enchanted the world by revealing the marvelous and magical possibilities of science and by emphasizing the sheer pleasures of the imagination. But it was not science alone that offered new kinds of enchantment; literature, art, and the new forms of entertainment that arose did as well. Reason, I contend, was not the enemy of magic and enchantment but one of its greatest allies.
Allison breaks down the binary between science and enchantment/wonder with which we are so comfortable:
I am arguing that throughout Western history there have been periods of disenchantment, but in every case new forms of enchantment arose to fill the gap. This is particularly true of the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries when enchantment escaped the confines of the church, entering the public realm of pleasure gardens, theaters, scientific societies, zoos, pubs, cabarets, circuses, freak shows, mountain trekking, bicycling, and out-door camping…
In this perspective, religion and science are not antagonists, but rather religion can be a source of the awe and enchantment that fuel scientific inquiry, and vice versa. Both are fueled by and fuel the wonder (or enchantment) that brings mystery and excitement to humanity. In Rabbi Joseph B. Soleveitchtik’s timeless formulation, the endless external inquiry and drive of Adam 1 – who seeks to understand all – and the inward inquiry and reflection of Adam 2, both work to guard the Garden of Eden.
The interplay between awe, reason, science, and religion is complex, and Allison Coudert is well-equipped to guide you. Allison has a PhD from the Warburg Institute, University of London, and she now serves as a professor of religion in UC Davis. Allison brings deep curiosity, scholarship, and creativity to her conversation with 18Forty.