Torah versus Science

August 25, 2011 | by

I don't understand all the fuss about certain school districts approving a mix of "evolution versus creation" in the classroom. I have undertaken extensive research of the natural world in light of the biblical account, and my conclusion is there need be no contradiction whatsoever. So what's the big fuss?

The Aish Rabbi Replies

To answer your question, I turned to Dr. Gerald Schroeder, a nuclear physicist who served on the staff of MIT and as a member of the U.S. Atomic Energy Commission, and who now lectures frequently at Aish Jerusalem. Here's what he said:

If I had to assign chief blame for the ongoing struggle between science and religion and the resulting erosion of biblical credibility, it would be to the leaders of organized religion. Since Nicolaus Copernicus had the audacity to suggest that the sun, not Earth, was the center of our solar system, their knee-jerk reaction to scientific discovery has been to deny its validity. Yet what does the position of the earth have to do with belief in a Creator of the universe or the validity of the Bible?! Nowhere does the text claim that Earth is central to anything. In fact, the very first sentence of the Bible – "In the beginning God created the heavens and the earth" (Genesis 1:1) – places the heavens before Earth. As scientific data demonstrating the sun's centrality accumulated, the Church was forced into embarrassed retreat. And today, the popular perception remains that science had proven the Bible wrong. Where in reality, the claim of Earth's centrality had nothing to do with the Bible.

Similarly, Kepler's discovery of the elliptical orbit of the planets did not sit well with the religious establishment. They said circles are perfect geometric shapes, ellipses are defective. And they said an infinitely powerful God would be expected to produce perfect orbits. Of course, the Bible doesn't teach that a circle is better than an ellipse! Yet the Church condemned Kepler's discovery.

Then Charles Darwin appeared on the scene. The thought that life in general (and humans in particular) had developed from lower life forms was simply unacceptable to the Church. The concept of evolution was condemned as heretical, notwithstanding the fact that Darwin in the closing lines of his book attributed the entire evolutionary flow of life to "its several powers having been originally breathed by the Creator in a few [life] forms or into one." Nonetheless, the gauntlet of heresy had been thrown down.

Judaism views this whole issue much differently.

The medieval philosopher Maimonides wrote that conflicts between science and the Bible arise from either a lack of scientific knowledge or a defective understanding of the Bible. Our Sages always viewed Torah knowledge in light of prevailing scientific theory. In fact, Jewish law states:

"Only wise and understanding men are to be appointed to the Sanhedrin. They must be experts in Torah law, with a wide breadth of knowledge. They must also know secular subjects like medicine, mathematics, astrology and astronomy." (Maimonides – Sanhedrin ch. 2)

So where does the problem lie? Often, acknowledged experts in science assume that although scientific research requires diligent intellectual effort, biblical wisdom can be attained through a simple reading of the Bible.

Yet such a strange and poetic text is not to be read literally. Two millennia ago, long before paleontologists discovered fossils of dinosaurs and cavemen, long before data from the Hubble and Keck telescopes hinted at a multibillion-year-old universe, the Talmud (Chagiga 12b) stated explicitly that the opening chapter of Genesis, all 31 verses, is presented in a manner that intentionally conceals information. Furthermore, Moses, on the day of his death, exhorted the people three times to read the Bible as a text having within it a subtext harboring multiple meanings (Deut. 31:19, 30; 32:44).

From a Jewish perspective, the conflict over teaching science in schools is ironic. Maimonides wrote that science is one of the primary paths to knowing God, and for that reason the Bible commences with a description of the Creation. Throughout the Bible, knowledge of God is compared with the wonders of nature, as stated so well in Psalms (19:2): "The heavens tell of God's glory, and the sky declares his handiwork."

The first step in a rapprochement between science and Bible is for each camp to understand the other. Distancing the Bible from a few misplaced theological shibboleths will do wonders in furthering this mutual understanding.

Arnold Penzias, who was awarded the Nobel Prize for his research on the Big Bang, once remarked: "What we see marking the flight of galaxies with our telescopes, Maimonides saw from his metaphysical view."

To learn more, read Dr. Schroeder's book, "The Science of God" (Free Press).

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