Lectures on the Torah Reading

by the faculty of Bar-Ilan University

Ramat Gan, Israel


A project of Bar-Ilan University's Faculty of Jewish Studies, Paul and Helene Shulman Basic Jewish Studies Center, and the Office of the Campus Rabbi. Sponsored by Dr. Ruth Borchard of the Shoresh Charitable Fund (SCF). Published with assistance of the President's Fund for Torah and Science. Permission granted to reprint with appropriate credit.
Inquiries and comments to: Dr. Isaac Gottlieb, Department of Bible, gottlii@mail.biu.ac.il

Parshat Tazria-Metzora 1998/5758

The Torah as Eternal: Some New Thoughts on Torah and Science

Prof. Dov Schwartz

Department of Philosophy

There are two central issues in this week's reading: the impurity of a woman after childbirth and during menstruation, and the laws on various diseases that affect both people and objects. Both subjects have prompted numerous commentators, from the Sages through medieval exegetes to modern interpreters, to offer scientific, physiological, and medical explanations for these laws.

For example, the Sages said, "A woman who gives forth seed [presumably, attains sexual satisfaction] first, will bear a male" (Niddah 31a and parallel versions). In his commentary on the beginning of the reading, Nachmanides tried to reconcile this remark of the Sages with the prevailing physiological view of his times, which maintained that "the woman contributes nothing to the fetus." Also modern commentators, such as Rabbi Barukh Epstein, author of Tosefet Berakhah (b. 1860), strove to make the Biblical text accord with their concepts ancient and modern medicine. Of this Talmudic statement he wrote: "Sometimes the characteristics of the fetus are determined by the potency (koah) of the one who is last; therefore if her potency comes first and his afterwards, the fetus is formed according to the father's potency, with his male characteristics..." (Tosefet Berakhah, Va-Yikra, p. 78). These commentators were convinced that scientific truths were concealed in the words of the Torah, as if G-d, in the Revelation on Mount Sinai, gave Moses the results of scientific experiments that would be performed in the future.

Such a way of thinking is certainly legitimate within the context of Jewish philosophy. Science today is highly specialized and demands great technological sophistication, and scientific interpretation of the Torah is done mostly by religious scientists who seek to find allusions in the Torah to the conclusions that they have arrived at by scientific inquiry.

About thirty years ago Rabbi Joseph Dov Soloveitchik shocked the world of Jewish thought and Biblical interpretation by expressing his disinterest in the relationship of faith to science. He wrote, " I have never been seriously troubled by the problem of the Biblical doctrine of Creation vis-a-vis the scientific story of evolution at both the cosmic and the organic levels, nor have I been perturbed by the confrontation of the the mechanistic interpretation of the human mind with the Biblical spiritual concept of man." (The Lonely Man of Faith, p. 7). This approach of his was rejected even by his closest circle of adherents, likeminded religious Zionists, as I have shown at length in my book, Emunah al Parashat Derakhim (Faith at the Crossroads). Nevertheless, Rabbi Soloveitchik's remarks make us take a second look at the relationship between Torah and science.

It should be noted that throughout the generations, philosophers and commentators have remarked on the limitations of science, particularly in the area of astronomy. Maimonides admitted that the astronomy if his day was sorely lacking (Guide to the Perplexed 2.24). Rabbi David Ganz, in his book Nehmad ve-Naim, bemoaned the fact that Jewish scholars had conceded to the Gentiles in a debate on astronomy (Pesahim 94b). In his opinion, if the rabbis of the Talmud had been familiar with "modern" astronomy, they would not have conceded their position.

These thinkers did not doubt that the Torah is based on scientific truth. All they wished was to prove that we had not yet attained knowledge of true science, beyond a shadow of doubt. In view of Rabbi Soloveitchik's remark, we would like to further probe the relationship between the two areas from a different point of view.

One of the prevailing views today on the nature of scientific theory was formulated by the philosopher Sir Karl Popper. He held that the mark of any scientific theory is the possibility to refute it. In other words, science deals only with assertions that can be contradicted; other assertions do not fall within the realm of science. If we accept this definition, there can be no connection between Torah and science, particularly because the Torah, according to faith, deals with eternal assertions that cannot be refuted, and science takes no interest in such assertions. G-d revealed Himself as it were at Mount Sinai in order to give human beings the absolute path to perfection; having created Man and fashioned his character, only He could present the absolute way of life that would lead to human perfection. If so, the Torah does not seek to provide information of a temporal nature, and its words should not be used to derive support for one or another scientific theory. Scientific theories may be refuted tomorrow or the next day; as happened to Aristotelian physics and scholastic science. But the Torah, as an absolute didactic path, will stand, according to the approach of believers, forever.

Moreover, the approach that tries to integrate Torah and science is inherently dangerous, for correlating the Torah with theories that are held today but may fall tomorrow and become subject-matter for the history of science is likely to lead to relativization of the Torah. To wit, Saadiah Gaon proved the truth of Creation based on the assumption that the universe is self-contained, according to the prevailing scientific view of the tenth century. Briefly, he held that since the universe is limited, its power could not be infinite. "It is inconceivable that there be a force without bounds in a body that has bounds" (Emunot ve-De'ot, 1). Hence one must conclude that the world had a beginning. This argument, of course, falls if the universe is infinite, as is now held by modern astrophysicists. Surely, in its opening verse the Bible intended to present G-d as the source of existence; much difficulty may be avoided if we do not seek to fit a well-defined scientific theory into these words.

I am aware that many may disagree with me and argue that the Torah reflects eternal scientific truth; to this I say, "both approaches are the words of the Eternal G-d". Another assertion likely to be heard concerns the work of dozens of commentators and thinkers, whose life's work involved seeking a correlation between the Torah and science, such as Saadiah Gaon, Maimonides, Ralbag, and many others. In response to this, I can only cite the words of Rabbi Abraham ibn Ezra in his poem Nedod hesir Oni-- ("Wanderng has removed my poverty"): "We are like midgets on the shoulders of giants, able to see a bit farther, thanks to those who went before us." Therefore, I have sought to set forth a different approach, one which advocates total separation of Torah and science in view of the eternal nature of the Torah. According to this approach, the laws of purity were for to educate people to a certain way of life, not to lay claim to any particular scientific truth.