Torah and Science

Torah and science coexist in the world that Hashem fashioned.

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Excerpted with permission from Torah U'Madda Journal.

Torah and science share axioms that stamp them both with the Seal of God, the seal of truth. The first of these axioms is the all-encompassing truth that there is order in nature. This is central to Torah theology and also a prerequisite for the development of any science.

The First Axiom: Order in Nature

If there is no order, no causality, then the human mind is stalled. Natural occurrences are then believed to be the whim of a god who may be motivated by vengeance against another god. Disorder and chaos are the consequences of arbitrariness associated with God's actions. It also negates individual responsibility, since personal action is futile in a chaotic world with only a godly whim and without rational causality.

torah and scienceModern science developed when there was a widespread intuitive conviction of the existence of order in nature, an intuitive conviction that we know so well from rabbinic statements regarding Abraham's search for God.

According to our tradition, this intuitive knowledge had been debased when earlier civilizations were derailed from the path of truth at the time of Enosh. In Genesis (4:26) we are told: "And to Seth, in turn, a son was born, and he called him Enosh. It was then that man first began to call on the name of God."

Rashi defines "to call on the name of God" as "calling the names of men and the names of idols after the name of the Holy One, blessed be He--making them the objects of idolatrous worship and calling them deities." Pantheism began to reign.

The first error, as the Rambam (Maimonides) explains, was to assume that if God is worthy of honor, His works are also worthy of honor. However, in the course of time, the works themselves became God.

God's Laws of Nature

Slowly, civilization forgot the truth of truths: that God, the Lawgiver, the Promulgator of the laws of nature, created our world be-middat hadin (in the attribute of justice), to follow immutable natural law. God, the Prime Mover, set in motion these laws of nature and asserted, in the second creation of the world after its destruction in the Flood (Genesis 8:22): "The days of the earth shall be forever; seed time and harvest, cold and heat, summer and winter, day and night shall never cease."

Surely, even a society whose religion was based on the theology of gods at war, Greek mythology at its worst, was aware of the order in nature. The main recurrences of life--the changing seasons governing the agricultural cycles upon which man's life depends, summer and winter, day and night, like begets like--are too insistent to escape the notice of man.

But what is equally true is that nothing ever really recurs in exact detail. Therefore, it is possible to expect broad recurrences as evidence of order in nature, and yet accept the fact that the details, the small events that make up the life of the individual, are beyond the ken of rationality. When rationality is totally superseded, then voodoo and witchcraft--or in our society, astrology and homeopathic medicine--seem to make sense.

Rational science has indeed become so complex in our day that the halakhic principle "excess is equated with deficiency" (kol yeter ke-natul dami) seems to reign. So much of science is incomprehensible that we no longer believe that it must be understandable. Once man gives up his claim to rational understanding of his world, nonsense begins to make sense! Life becomes a series of irrational acts. Order in nature becomes a theoretical construct, not applicable to everyday life.

The Second Axiom: Faith in Reason

The second axiom that science and Torah share is that the human mind can perceive order in nature. Faith in a God who is rational and omniscient led to faith in reason. It is the trust that our God constructed this universe in a harmony which excludes arbitrariness. God fashioned us with the spark of divine intelligence that gives us the ability to perceive this order in nature.

Indeed, when man appeared on the scene of creation, a new natural order became manifest. No longer do you read (Genesis 1:1), "In the beginning God ('Elokim') created," but rather (Genesis 2:4), "These are the chronicles of heaven and earth when they were created, on the day 'Hashem Elokim' made earth and heaven."

The Prime Mover now reveals Himself not as "Elokim" but as "Hashem Elokim," the Lawgiver whose middat hadin is now tempered by "Hashem," the Personal God. His laws of nature now encompass a new scheme, a new law of nature called "reward and punishment," in which man becomes autonomous in determining his own fate and the fate of the entire world.

Violation of this co-joined law of nature returned the world to chaos (Genesis 6:5-7): "And God ('Hashem') saw that the evil of man was great on the earth... and God regretted that He had made man on earth, and He grieved in His heart. And God said, 'I will blot out man from the face of the earth, from man to beast, to the creeping things, to the birds of the sky, for I regret that I have made them'."

The Personal God, "Hashem" was saddened by the failure of mankind to accept this co-joined law of nature, the "Hashem Elokim" laws. Jeremiah writes (33:25): "If my covenant be not with day and night, if I have not appointed the ordinances of heaven and earth..." This failure caused God to destroy the world.

"Hashem" is the Author of Torah and "Elokim" is the Legislator who promulgated the laws of nature. They are one and the same, neither two gods, nor a schizophrenic god at odds with himself or divorced from reality. As a result, our language should not allow for the question of whether Torah and madda [science] are ever in conflict--not if we restrict madda to God's world of science and exclude man-made madda recorded in the literature of sociology, social biology, psychology and the arts and letters.

Yet, madda must yet be put to the test; it must be measured by the yardstick of Torah to determine whether it is fit for the human experience.

Attention to Detail

"Hashem Elokim" is the source of the broad principles of order in nature, and also of the detailed occurrences that comprise the life of the individual. The Talmud (Hullin 7b) states: "No man bruises his finger here on earth unless it was so decreed against him in heaven." Elsewhere (Shabbat 55a) it states: "There is no death without sin, no pain without sin ... "

It is the "Hashem" relationship that modifies events. The counterpart of God's intimate control over details of our life expresses itself in the religious life of the Jew in the details of the mitzvot. God did not only give us broad principles of ethical moral behavior, but also the details which cannot be neglected lest the principles be forgotten.

The ideological battle over the importance of detail was the battle between Cain and Abel. Cain felt that it was the principle of relating to God that mattered, and it made no difference what specific offering was brought. Abel believed that the principle should be expressed in details of respectful awe. It was also the battle between Korah and Moses.

This explains the enigmatic comment of R. Isaac Luria, of blessed memory, that if you deduct the numerical equivalent of Abel (Hevel =37) from that of Moses (Moshe =345), you will be left with the numerical value of Korah (=308). When the principle of Abel, concerned with the details of man's relationship with God, is removed from Moses, then Korah and Moses were saying the same thing. Both believe in God, and want to do what is right, but Korah added, don't tell us exactly how to do it. Enunciate the broad principles and leave details for individual expression.

This unified theory of Torah and science is unique to Torah because it defines our monotheistic faith. Science is nothing more than the search to discover unity in the seemingly chaotic variety of nature. Torah is the discovery itself. 

The Third Axiom: Observing the World

A third axiom that Torah and science share... is that both science and Torah require an active interest in the simple occurrences of life. It is halakhically demanded that we be curious about God's nature. We must be "observant" Jews! That is also the basis of all scientific development: a curiosity and a confidence that one's curiosity could lead to discovery. 

Science and Torah co-exist in the world that Hashem fashioned. They relate to each other in the intimate unified relationship of a blueprint and a structure built when the blueprint was accurately followed. The imagery that the Sages tried to share with us is that of the Torah as the blueprint for the world around us. We are commanded to interact with this world.

The mitzvah (Genesis 1:28) of "be fruitful and multiply and fill the earth and subdue it" commands us to master the world. We are granted permission and given an obligation to do so. The generation of the Tower of Babel was the generation that rejected this duty and decided to build a megalopolis vertically, in order to avoid conquering the jungles and crossing the oceans. For this they were punished.

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Moshe D. Tendler

Rabbi Dr. Moshe Tendler of the Community Synagogue of Monsey, NY, is Rosh Yeshiva at Rabbi Isaac Elchanan Theological Seminary and a professor of biology at Yeshiva University.