Jewish Responses to Modern Science

Coexistence and conflict.

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But others, like Rabbi Kook, have maintained that the creation narrative has always been held by the tradition to belong to the "mysteries of the Torah," and is therefore open to interpretation. The creation narrative was not intended to be a literal description of how everything came into being, but rather to stress that it was God who called it all into being--and there is no reason why it should not be postulated that He used an evolutionary process to achieve His purpose.

Where science does come into conflict with the tradition is when scientific method is employed to examine the documents of the Jewish religion and to discover how religion itself came to be. Biblical criticism, and sociological and psychological theories about the nature of society and the human personality, do present a challenge to the doctrine of divine revelation.

Some Jewish thinkers have argued that biblical criticism is only conjectural, and sociology and psychology are not exact sciences. Orthodox thinkers still pursue this line, at least so far as criticism applied to the Pentateuch, the very word of God, is concerned. Reform and Conservative thinkers hold that, indeed, the application of scientific method in these areas has to be accepted even if the conclusions reached demand a new approach to the whole question of revelation.

Following Doctor's Orders

In connection with the science of medicine, all Orthodox thinkers welcome wholeheartedly the tremendous advances in this sphere. Already in the period of the geonim the view was held that the talmudic rabbis only had the medical knowledge of their day, so one must not rely on remedies found in the Talmud, for all the authority the Talmud possesses is in matters of religion and law. In matters of Jewish law such as whether a person who is sick should eat on Yom Kippur, it is for the doctor--not the rabbi--to decide, and the doctor's knowledge is based on the advance of modern medicine.

Scientific advances have, indeed, posed new problems for Jewish law and ethics--organ transplants and artificial insemination are obvious examples--but no Jewish thinker has expressed the view that, because of the problems to which it gives rise, the advance of science should be halted.

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Rabbi Louis Jacobs

Rabbi Dr. Louis Jacobs (1920-2006) was a Masorti rabbi, the first leader of Masorti Judaism (also known as Conservative Judaism) in the United Kingdom, and a leading writer and thinker on Judaism.