The Faculty of Jewish Studies
The Office of the Campus Rabbi
"TORAH AND SCIENCE"
by Prof. Moshe Kaveh (Physics)
President, Bar-Ilan University
A fundamental axiom of Judaism is that the Torah is a living book, "its glory throughout the land." The question we must ask: is scientific research part of the Torah?
It might seem that there is no nexus between Torah and science because of their differing basic assumptions. The fundamental principle of Jewish faith as expressed by Maimonides is that, "This Torah shall not be replaced." (1) According to this audacious axiom, even though the Torah was given to man centuries ago, it has the strength of absolute truth, and there can be no event that contradicts even a part of it. No historical development in science, philosophy, or theology can challenge the truth of the Torah as revealed at Sinai.
In contrast, science assumes that the future is preferable to the past, because it contains more information. Hence, the future surpasses the present and the past in that it comes closer to complete scientific truth. This leads to an apparent contradiction between the world of the Torah and the world of science. Scientific truth is never fully attainable, but is approached with the passage of time; whereas the truth of Torah and faith was revealed at Mount Sinai, and recedes from us with the passage of time.
Different theological and philosophical approaches to this question must be brought to bear. The simplest approach is the "isolationist" school of thought, according to which there is no way of bridging the truth of Torah with the truth of science, no way of relating Torah and science. The Torah is a doctrine guiding man's behavior, whereas science is a study aimed at understanding the real world in which man exists.
As such, science attempts to understand reality according to defined empirical criteria. Accordingly, a scientific discovery can neither support nor refute faith in the Torah, since the Torah does not deal with the determination of empirical scientific facts. This "isolationist" approach immediately dispels the tension which has existed for generations between science and Torah.
Despite its simplicity, this approach raises several fundamental problematic issues. For example, can one ignore the creation of the universe and all it contains, as described in Genesis? In order to uphold the "isolationist" approach, one must assume that the words of the Torah in Genesis are not to be taken literally. Their sole purpose would be to provide a "general introduction" and to establish that G-d created the world, but not to establish the laws by which the world continues to exist. This raises certain problems for us since, according to our faith, every written word in the Torah has significance, and many laws are deduced from seemingly superfluous words.(2)
Moreover, this approach inherently assumes great risk -- that scientific research would become a discipline isolated and immune to moral objectives. For example, this could lend to the dropping of an atom bomb in order to illustrate the horrifying application of Einstein's discovery regarding the relationship between matter and energy - and in the process killing millions of people. Likewise, in the future it might be possible to genetically duplicate a person -- something which I believe any normative religion must reject. The dangers in store for Torah and religion are no less severe. Judaism will find itself studying the past while science studies the future, leading to the risk of intellectual degeneration among youth who only study Torah.
The importance of Torah study in future generations lies in the way scientific information will be related to religious views of the world and Biblical exegesis. Herein lies a great challenge, presenting new fascination for each generation of Jewish scholars and scientists. In every generation there will be new scientific discoveries, and great Jewish scholars will have to take them into consideration and "incorporate" them into a Jewish religious context. Even if the future brings scientific discoveries that lead to tension between what is stated in the Torah and what is known from scientific research, this view of the world is preferable! For creative tension which will ultimately stimulate Torah scholars, not weaken religious faith.
Through this approach, scientific advancement will ultimately lead us to discovery of scientific truth, which is identical with the truth described in the Torah. Thus, we may say that the seeming contradictions between science and the Torah stem from our incomplete knowledge of scientific truth at present.
It is important to note that the dramatic scientific advancements of the last generation, such as our understanding of the creation and development of the universe, support this approach. The revolutionary developments of twentieth-century science are increasingly more and more supportive of the Biblical account of creation as detailed in Genesis. Only recently have we come to discover in full force the greatness of Maimonides, who wrote in the preface to his Guide for the Perplexed: "Knowledge of the Divine cannot be attained except through knowledge of the natural sciences."
Maimonides' view of Torah and science is quite bold. Not only does Maimonides reject the existence of a chasm between Torah and science, but he crowns science before Torah. The laws of nature are "the will of G-d," and if the objective of the Torah and its commandments is to bring human beings closer to G-d, from this we learn that we must strive to understand the "will of G-d"; that is, to understand the laws of nature. Moreover, Maimonides maintains that one cannot draw near to G-d properly by study of the Torah alone. The natural sciences, in his opinion, are a means of access that purifies the human brain to worship the Creator, once we discover the full significance of the verse, "How manifold are Thy deeds, O Lord" (Ps. 104:24).
Let's consider the following example of how man has learned over the course of time to understand one of the most simple facts of our lives, which for two centuries we had not been able to explain, namely: why is the night dark?
This question (known as Olbers' paradox, for the 18th-century German physician) reflects the scientific understanding of the world at that time, as follows: The world is ancient and has an infinite number of stars. We know that each star shines independently, and since there are an infinite number of such light sources, the night should be illuminated! Yet in reality as we know it, the night always has been dark.
Olbers' paradox was not solved until the twentieth century, with the discovery of Big Bang theory, which describes the formation of the universe by explosion of a tiny ball containing all the energy necessary to create the universe. Therefore, according to current perceptions of the universe, there are a finite number of stars, all moving outward. The faster a star moves outward, the less it illuminates (because of the Doppler effect), so that the stars at the outer layers provide us almost no light at all; therefore the night is dark. Only now have we come to understand this fundamental and simple fact.
This provides deeper appreciation of our affirmation in the evening prayers that G-d "by His word causes the evening to fall" -- every evening attesting anew G-d's creation of the universe. In this case it is easy to see why knowing the natural world comes before knowing G-d; for without the natural sciences we would not be able to attain a deeper understanding of G-d. This example provides a marvelous explanation of the verse from Psalms, "To declare Thy lovingkindness in the morning, and Thy faithfulness in the night" (92:3). Thus night attests that G-d created the universe.
Apparent Contradictions between Torah and Science
The twentieth century has solved seeming contradictions between the Torah and science that were raised in the past. Two of the better-known examples are:
1) How could it be that the universe was created ex nihilo?
2) Science claims that the world is very ancient, created 15 billion years ago; whereas the Torah speof creation taking place in six days.
The solution to the first paradox lies in the theory of the Big Bang, according to which the universe began its physical existence with the explosion of a microscopic ball. Physics manages to explain everything that exists in the universe beginning from that explosion, but it cannot find an answer to the question of what existed before the Big Bang. Thus, modern science finds itself "believing" in creation. Moreover, this is not a matter of "faith" but of empirical fact. By measuring the residual radiation in the world after the Big Bang, Pensias and Wilson established that Creation took place about 15 billion years ago. This discovery won them the Nobel Prize in 1978.
As for the problem of reconciling the Torah's account of six days of creation with what we know from scientific research, that the world was created 15 billion years ago -- a variety of answers have been offered over the generations. Many go in the direction of explaining that the concept of a "day" in the Torah is not necessarily 24 hours, but such suggestions constitute only Torah interpretation.
It is interesting to note the approach taken by several great Jewish figures who, with characteristic Jewish "insight," argue that G-d, being Omnipotent, simply could have created the world in six days, even though this process according to scientific research and human perception would have to have lasted billions of years!
This clever comment, it turns out, has a scientific foundation! Fifteen billion years is a time span that assumes no change in the entire universe. We know, however, that close to the moment of creation (the Big Bang), the universe was dramatically compressed into a small volume. According to Einstein's general theory of relativity, when mass is especially concentrated, reactions are dramatically accelerated, so that something which takes billions of years, in our time, could occur in a few minutes or hours. Prof. Schroder, who wrote a book on the subject,(3) recently made some precise computations, applying principles from Einstein's theory of relativity to the processes involved in creation of the universe, and concluded that 15 billion years could be compressed to six days of creation. Even if this explanation proves to be incomplete in the future (in the way that Einstein's theory can be said to be "classical" and was not aware of quantum theory). We nevertheless see that the basic concepts of time and place have changed in the twentieth century, enabling ancient questions now to be answered in the light of new scientific understanding.
The Plausibility of Religious Faith in the Twentieth Century
The view that, as time goes by science will only strengthen the eternal truth of the Torah, indeed appears to have a solid foundation. Moreover, the Jewish belief that G-d created the world appears more reasonable in the twentieth century than ever before. The question of creation was resolved in the twentieth century: all believe the world was created. Only the first verse of Genesis remains subject to debate. Believers maintain that "G-d created the Heavens and the Earth," whereas atheists assert that the world was indeed created, but that this was a random act.
In the twentieth century believers no longer find themselves on the defensive vis-a-vis scientific research. Quite the contrary, the religious person's belief is more reasonable than that of a person who claims there was no Divine providence but only random chance governing creation. For example, take the well-known "anomaly of water." How is it that water, of all possible substances, has the anomaly of being less (instead of more) dense it its frozen state, so that ice floats on water, enabling fish to survive in the water below during the winter? Moreover, the density of water is greatest at 4ºc, and decreases as the temperature approaches 0ºc. As a result, organic life can be maintained in the depths of the ocean, even during the coldest winter, because the warmer layers of water are also the most dense and therefore sink to the ocean floor.
Let me cite several other examples, taken from Bar-Ilan University Prof. Nathan Aviezer's excellent book,(4) in support our belief in Divine ordering of the universe:
1) Life on earth requires water. Without water there can be no life. On the neighboring planets of Venus, closer to the sun, the water evaporated, and on Mars, further from the sun, it all formed into ice around the poles, thus there can be no life there. How did it happen that of all the possible orbits for Earth around the sun, we have the specific orbit which allows for flowing water, giving life to all beings? Could one assume that this happened purely by chance?
2) How is it that the laws of nuclear reaction yield nuclear combustion on the sun, enabling life on Earth, whereas if those laws changed by a small percentage, the sun would explode?
3) How is it that stars which are distant from us explode and cause carbon to reach the Earth in order to form life on Earth's surface, whereas if closer stars were to explode, the radiation released would make life on the surface of the Earth impossible?
Many other examples of Divine providence show that faith is highly reasonable. From all this we can conclude that as time passes and science makes new discoveries, faith in the Creator and His providence over the world only will be strengthened.
The Role of Bar-Ilan University
Bar-Ilan University is the foremost institution in the world directed towards integrating Torah and science. We are blessed with this globe's greatest concentration of top-notch scientists who also are Jews learned in Torah. The scientists of Bar-Ilan University bring glory to G-d's name when they attend international conferences as emissaries of the sublime concept of integrating Torah and science.
Bar-Ilan University wants its faculty to excel in two areas: in science and in Torah; herein lies its great contribution to the Jewish people. In addition, the university serves the important mission of educating future generations in Torah and science. All students in the university's forty academic departments devote one-quarter of their studies to courses in Jewish heritage. Close to 25,000 students study Jewish heritage and identity in conjunction with scientific and academic disciplines at our main campus in Ramat-Gan and five regional colleges across Israel. May G-d grant that the next Maimonides be a student in our midst.
1 This is one of Maimonides' 13 "Principles of Faith" as they appear in the prayer book. In the original, Maimonides says in his commentary on the Mishnah (according to Shilat's translation): "This Torah shall not be abrogated, nor shall there be another Torah save for it,"; and according to R. Kappah's translation: "This, the Torah of Moses, shall not be abrogated, nor shall there be any other Torah from G-d save it."
2 According to R. Akiva's approach. Those who uphold the "isolationist" approach can base themselves on R. Ishmael's claim that, "The Torah speaks in human terms."
3 Gerland Schroder, Genesis and the Big Bang, 1994.
4 Nathan Aviezer, In the Beginning, 1994.
The weekly Torah portion is distributed with the assistance of the President's Fund for Torah and Science.