Steinberg writes: “Judaism, as a monotheistic religion places an absolute truth in the existence of an Almighty God ... who created the world, established the rules of nature, and commanded a moral-religious practice embodied in the Bible which was given to the Children of Israel on Mount Sinai around 3,300 years ago (around 1290 BC)”. In contrast “science has inherent limits ... it is constantly altered and changed as new discoveries and facts develop. The mere fact that a scientific theory is accepted by the majority of scientists does not prove that it is correct ... [T]he theory of evolution, which at first may be widely accepted ... may be [later] proven to be partially or totally incorrect”.1
I hold the opinion that it is ill advised and wrong to attempt to protect the truth of the Torah by casting doubt on the certainty of scientific understandings and/or by trying to prove that scientific truth is not absolute but rather inconclusive or preliminary. Such strategy mistakenly treats the Torah as a text-book in physics, chemistry, or biology, as if the Shekhina had descended onto Mount Sinai to fulfill the functions of a university professor. Hence it is wrong to regard revelation as a substitute or supplement for natural knowledge or consider Scriptures a body of information on the nature of the world or its history.15 One should be aware of the paradox evoked when one regards the Torah as superior only to the extent that the information provided to him is more reliable than his biology book. Information obtained from historical, physical, or biological inquiry that satisfy human curiosity should be deemed within the realm of the profane. If the “Holy Scriptures” were a source of information, it would be problematic to see their sacredness. Therefore, any literal reading of the first chapters of Genesis is misguided, whether to show that the Torah is wrong (evolution is a process of millions of years rather than six days) or when modern science is used to validate the Torah (such as the assertion of the biblical statement “and there was light” by the “scientific discovery that the universe began with the sudden appearance of an enormous ‘ball of light’ ... dubbed ‘the big bang’”).16
It is arrogant for us to determine that we are at the center of a 5,770-year-old world, capable of understanding all of “divine” creation from words written in a few paragraphs in the book of Genesis. Nevertheless, Steinberg is, of course, entitled to his fundamentalist position regarding how to read the Torah. Conversely, one cannot accept the claim that his perspective is the unified view of Halakhic Judaism. In fact, throughout his article, Steinberg considers Judaism as representing a significant unity of beliefs which includes a particular conception of man, of the world, or of its history. This view is clearly erroneous as any analysis of Jewish intellectual history can prove.
Jewish doctrines and principles were so diverse and dependent upon different schools of thought pertinent to their epoch that they can hardly be alleged to present any significant unity.
Hence, Judaism as a historical entity was not constituted by its set of beliefs or philosophical opinions. (I argue that the core of the Rabbinic Judaism is its religious practice determined by the Halakha. However, I do not argue that there is no system of belief behind its practice, but instead that it is not intended to be a picture of the world. It is just a framework in which one conducts practices that are supposed to be appropriate. See also Jacob.17) In truth, articles of faith were the subject of fierce dispute throughout Jewish intellectual history. Even the interpretation of the idea of divine unity by rabbinic thinkers is characterized by direct oppositions. The primary document of Jewish faith, the Shema, opens with the verse “Hear O Israel, the Lord our God, the Lord is One”. We should pay attention that the “One” of Isaac Luria (1534–1572) is incompatible with the “One” of Maimonides. We should be acutely aware how dangerously close the Jewish Kabbalists’ belief in a decimalian system of deity is to the Christian Trinitarianism. Therefore, Steinberg’s assertion that “it is a cardinal axiom of Judaism that God created the world from nothing”1 is simply incorrect. The presence of Rabbi Levi ben Gershon’s (Gersonides) biblical commentary in the rabbinic Miqraot Gedolot Bible is a wonderful testimony to the openness of the rabbinic tradition to diverse theological interpretations, in total difference to the picture presented by Steinberg. Gersonides’ (1288–1344) radical hermeneutics is expressed not merely in seeing the biblical account of creation in non-literal terms – that is not unusual for the rabbis – but in applying a philosophical interpretation to that event which both limits and depersonalizes God and feels compelled to reject the notion of creation ex nihilo. Creation for Gersonides is an event in which God functions as the donor formarum (noten ha-shurot). While Gersonides is convinced that creation in all its parts testifies to God’s beneficent design, the creator is yet constrained to work with that which is co-eternal with him.18
Although Maimonides’ opinion on this issue is far from being clear, in the Guide of the Perplexed he states: “We do not reject the Eternity of the Universe, because certain passages in Scripture confirm the Creation; for such passages are not more numerous than those in which God is represented as a corporeal being; nor is it impossible or difficult to find for them a suitable interpretation. We might have explained them in the same manner as we did in respect to the Incorpo-reality of God. We should perhaps have had an easier task in showing that the Scriptural passages referred to are in harmony with the theory of the Eternity of the Universe if we accepted the latter, than we had in explaining the anthropomorphisms in the Bible when we rejected the idea that God is corporeal...”.19 Thus, in principle, believing in creation from pre-existing matter is not incompatible with the Torah.
More importantly, however, for the purpose of my argument here, Maimonides’ or Gersonides’ specific opinions on this issue are irrelevant. They are men of the Middle Ages, and their scientific views are deeply rooted in their times. Dr Steinberg and I, however, are men of the twenty-first century, and when we talk about “science” we should refer to what we mean by science today and not to what they represented in the Middle Ages. To us, the importance of chapter II:25 of the Guide19 rests in the approach of Maimonides to contradictions between the literal meaning of a Torah verse and well established knowledge, say, modern science. In such a case, Maimonides affirms that one should accept the science, reject the literal meaning of the Torah verse, and understand the verse figuratively: “For if the Creation had been demonstrated by proof, even if only according to the Platonic hypothesis, all arguments of the philosophers against us would be of no avail. If, on the other hand, Aristotle had a proof for his theory, the whole teaching of Scripture would be rejected, and we should be forced to other opinions. I have thus shown that all depends on this question.”
There is, indeed, a clear and extensive history to claims that the scientific knowledge of the rabbis of the Talmud was based on the theories current in their time and can be disproven by later scientific discoveries. For example, the Mishnah mentions the existence of a mouse that was half animal and half dirt.20 Since the sages obviously did not witness this imaginary creature themselves, they, probably, either read about it (perhaps in Plinius’ History of Nature 9:58) or heard about it from others. Similarly, the Talmud seems to accept that the human heart has only two chambers.21 This was indeed in accordance with how Hippocrates and Galen understood the heart at the time. Maimonides explicitly states, with respect to these very issues, that they are outside the limits of acceptable rabbinic authority: “Do not ask of me to show that everything they have said concerning astronomical matters conforms to the way things really are. For at that time mathematics were imperfect. They did not speak about this as transmitters of dicta of the prophets, but rather because in those times they were men of knowledge in these fields or because they had heard these dicta from the men of knowledge who lived in those times.”22
But Steinberg argues the exact opposite: the rabbis of the Talmud had divine assistance in understanding scientific reality. So if contemporary science disagrees with the sages’ perception of reality, then evidently nature has changed. Hence, Steinberg claims that intraspecies changes, “micro-evolution”, have been demonstrated and “indeed, already early rabbinic authorities described numerous intraspecies changes between the Talmudic period and their own”.1 They call it “Nature has changed”, and Steinberg enumerates them in his Encyclopedia.23 I am deeply puzzled: Is this an error effecting the naive, or perhaps a pretense of naïveté, claiming the existence of a mouse that was half animal and half dirt or a two-chambered heart which has changed in the evolutionarily minuscule time-period of 1,500–2,000 years?
Indeed changes in climate, diet, hygiene, and accessibility of clean water and food have caused biological relevant changes in human life expectancy, average height, and time of appearance of menstrual cycles in girls, as has been amply demonstrated scientifically. But the laws of nature have not changed: living creatures can arise only from other living things. I wonder why the same scientific standards Steinberg keenly demands from evolutionary biologists are not applied to those rabbinical claims that nature has changed. If, indeed, one would search for demonstrable proof to the validity of any claim that “nature has changed” in rabbinic literature, regrettably one would find absolutely no such evidence.
It seems that Steinberg pays only lip-service to the transcendental position in Judaism that became an essential part of Jewish theology since the Middle Ages to these days. I am puzzled by the obsession to locate a transcendental deity in the middle of the debate over how the universe came into being, whether the universe is eternal or created at a certain time, and how, when, and what is its history. It seems that he is not aware, or rather chose to ignore, the considerable theological challenge this view produces. By accepting an unconditional transcendental God, one must dismiss any notion of ontological reality, namely, the assertion of Godly cosmic intelligence which is reflected in the world and its functions. All knowledge, no matter where, how, and by whom it is produced, ought to be discussed unrelated to an ontological reality (of which we know nothing and cannot know anything). It should be emphasized that the transcendental position in Judaism did not start with the Jewish philosophers of the Middle Ages; evidence for this position can be found among Chazal in the Talmud; for example, Babylonian Talmud.24
Interestingly, some of our contemporary Orthodox scientists and rabbis have revived the medieval scholastic argument (which is Christian in its origin) that there is no necessary conflict between science and religious belief since God wrote two books, the Bible and the “Book of Nature”, by which his existence and intentions could be known. Therefore, the study of nature had religious value, and the notion that humans should use their God-given faculties of observation and reason to read the “Book of Nature” accurately could be regarded as a religious duty.6,25
I strongly disagree with this view, and I am acutely aware of its consequences. We must not deceive ourselves into believing that the Torah provides any more useful information regarding nature than the natural sciences provide about the Torah. Invoking this old idea is not only problematic from the perspective of Halakhic Judaism, but it also reflects a deep misinterpretation of current natural sciences, as amply exemplified by Steinberg’s article. There is a decisive difference between what was called “science” in ancient and medieval times and what is called “science” today, and Steinberg seems not to pay attention to it. The major change that took place in the scientific outlook (starting roughly in the seventeenth century) was the introduction of the concept of the functional relations among the phenomena investigated by science. Modern science succeeds by looking solely for functional relations across factual data. Experimental biology, as physics beforehand, refrains from dealing with problems of life itself and focuses upon its active mechanisms. These mechanisms are described by the functional relations among phenomena. The question remains purposefully open whether these mechanisms, being described by biologists, constitute life itself or are no more than mechanisms active in life. Indeed, Claude Bernard makes a distinction between the essence of life and the mechanisms acting in life.26 In my opinion this distinction is valid today, as it was 145 years ago. Generally speaking, what used to be called science until modern times did not differentiate between the mechanisms functioning in the world and the essence of the world itself. Nature was understood as expressing a purpose, meaning, or value embodied in the phenomena. The conception of nature and the world in terms of meaning dictated the way people looked on natural data. For example, the Aristotelian-Ptolemaic conception of the celestial bodies revolving with uniform velocities in circular orbits was not derived from observation. In fact, observations suggested all these movements to be neither circular nor uniform, but because circular and uniform movement was deemed as the perfect movement, and nature was supposed to express this meaning, an astronomy was devised in order to comply with the paramount notion of a perfect and meaningful universe.
This is the background for the long-standing confrontation between “religion” and “science”. If the content and conclusions about natural phenomena bear specific meanings and are expressions of these values, then matters of science are on the same plane as matters of faith, namely both enterprises deal with questions of meaning. If this view is accepted, then religion and science may be intertwined, mutually antagonistic, or supplementary as the case may be. However, today we have no “science” in the sense of the Middle Ages, in which religion and science meet. Modern science and the Torah are entirely alien to each other.
Since natural sciences have gradually and progressively liberated themselves from the task of discovering the meaning of reality and become exclusively interested in functional relationships, they have become indifferent to any and all issues of meaning, purpose, or value (an important qualification: the practice of medicine is a problematic discipline in relation to other sciences, in that its practice has major moral and value consequences and therefore should not be considered in the present discussion). This is the only context in which natural science is objective; it is uniform and common to all who understand it and is independent of the varying outlooks and values of those involved in scientific discourse. While the scientific discourse should be (by definition) understandable to anybody who acquires the knowledge of its language, the religious discourse, the language of the Torah is infinitely “incomprehensible” and needs constant interpretation. “The Torah speaks in the language of man” – we should always recognize that we are talking only in metaphors (This expression frequently arises in the Talmud as representing Rabbi Ishmael’s approach.27 Rabbi Ishmael means to say that the Torah contains certain verses that should be taken in the plain sense and not expounded homiletically. However, I use this remark in accordance with Maimonides’ interpretation, namely this expression implies that the Torah employs language that is suited to the understanding of the masses, and therefore one should not take the Torah’s words at face value. See, for example, Guide of the Perplexed: “You, no doubt, know the Talmudic saying, which includes in itself all the various kinds of interpretation connected with our subject. It runs thus: ‘The Torah speaks according to the language of man’, that is to say, expressions, which can easily be comprehended and understood by all, are applied to the Creator. Hence the description of God by attributes implying corporeality, in order to express His existence: because the multitudes of people do not easily conceive existence unless in connection with a body, and that which is not a body nor connected with a body has for them no existence.”28) – since the language of man is incapable of expressing divine matters. Leibowitz expressed this idea colorfully: “No expressions in ordinary language are adequate for speaking of God and of the position of mankind before God. Utterances of divine matters require careful scrutiny if one is to distinguish intended sense from literal meaning. Words may seem simple and unambiguous, such as ‘and God descended upon Mount Sinai’. Yet most of us understand that God does not dwell on the top of a cosmic skyscraper from which he descends in a helicopter. The same applies to all that is said in the so-called ‘historical books’ of the Bible”.29
Those of us who accept Halakhic Judaism acknowledge that Torah texts are unchangeable, and their study deemed the very highest of religious work. However, none of the readings and understanding thereby produced are or should be considered final. Thus, if experience appears to contradict an accepted interpretation of a text, we should search for a new interpretation, rather than denying the authenticity of our knowledge. We are indeed constituted by our books but categorically not by a single way in which these books can be read or understood.
As a practicing scientist and an educated member of society, I subscribe to the notion that the best way to achieve knowledge about the world and the processes acting within nature is by applying the scientific method. The accomplishments of science in terms of conclusions, deductions, and inferences are not dependent on a person’s willingness to accept or reject them but rather are forced upon those that know them. Thus, one has no free will to accept or reject the scientific truth of Darwinian evolution. Scientific research determines the truth (I am referring here to scientific truth which is instrumental and synonymous with “according with scientific method”, to differentiate it from “truth” as a value, which is not imposed, and which one can ignore even if he knows for a fact that it is the truth) about reality even against the will of the scientist. In fact, the scientific truth imposes itself upon the investigator if he wants to achieve any theoretical or practical result. Intentional deceit or falsification is usually detected because the scientist’s work is open to the critical scrutiny of his colleagues. Although continuation of the scientific activity may reveal in the future a somewhat different picture of reality, adherence to the scientific method is the only option that will allow us to rectify with time our mistaken scientific concepts.
In absolute contrast to the scientist in me, I am, at least to a certain degree, acting as a free agent when it comes to the practice of Judaism. To my knowledge, the choice to put on phylacteries this morning had practically nothing to do with whether I have irrefutable evidence to the existence of God, the creation of the world, or whether the biology I am studying the rest of the day enforces or denies my religious convictions.
While the position for which I argued here is that science and the Torah are incommensurable, there is one aspect in which Torah scholars and scientists are exactly in the same situation. Rabbi Naftali Zvi Yehuda Berlin (1813–1893), the Naziv in his introduction to his Ha’amek Davar, explains why he felt the need to write a new commentary on the Torah (my own translation): “just as it is impossible for a scientist to feel falsely assured that he has discovered all the secrets of nature ... and not just that, but that he has no certain proof that what he has discovered in his research is correct, [because] a colleague or someone in a future generation may come and contradict his scholarly construction, so it is not possible for the person engaged in scholarly Torah study to be certain about his interpretation and to confirm all the advances he has tried to make and investigated, and to claim that he has confirmed them all. Furthermore, there is never proof that his explanation reflects the true meaning of the Torah. Nevertheless, it behooves us to attempt to do all that we have the ability to do.” It seems that the Naziv holds that Torah scholars and natural scientists share a common stance, namely there is no certainty in the outcome of their respective undertakings. This humbling realization of the nature of human pursuit (be it the most noble and worthy), should not be considered an impediment, but rather a liberating idea that should energize the respective scholar to work even harder so that he will flourish in his endeavor.