Why Judaism Embraces Science
Disclaimer: The author’s views do not necessarily represent those of AAAS or DoSER
By Rabbi Geoffrey Mitelman
CLAL – The National Jewish Center for Learning and Leadership
I recently had a conversation with a neuroscientist, who also happened to be a self described atheist. He knew I was a rabbi and so in the middle of the conversation, he very tentatively asked me. “So…do you believe in evolution?” I think what he was really asking was, “Can you be a religious person who believes in science?” And my answer to that question is, “Of course.”
While some people think of science and religion as being inherently in conflict, I think it’s because they tend to define “religion” as “blind acceptance and complete certainty about silly, superstitious fantasies.” Quite honestly, if that’s what religion really was, I wouldn’t be religious!
In fact, it’s not “religion” in general, but that particular definition of religion that is so often in conflict with science. Instead, my experience with Judaism has been that it embraces science quite easily. So why is that?
While there may be many reasons, there are three in particular that I have found to be especially significant:
The Bible is almost never read simply literally
Yes, the Bible is the basis of Judaism. But Judaism as it is practiced today is not biblical, it’s rabbinic, which means that it’s about studying and engaging with the text, but not stopping at face value. I’ve met people who haven’t understood that distinction. When I had a student pulpit in Sandusky, Ohio, for example, a group came to the synagogue asking “where we offered up our sacrifices,” because they believed that Jews still followed the literal laws of Leviticus.
Instead, when Jews read the Bible today through a rabbinic worldview, we are trying to answer two separate questions: first, what did the text mean in its time, and second, how can we create interpretations that will give us lessons for our time?
Indeed, the Bible shouldn’t be taken simply literally today, because circumstances, societies, norms and knowledge have all changed.
A great example of that comes from how the Rabbis interpret the verse “an eye for an eye.” While that is what the Bible says, to the Rabbis, that’s not what the verse means. Instead, the Rabbis argue, “an eye for an eye” actually means financial compensation, and they go on for multiple pages in the Talmud trying to explain their reasoning. They don’t read that verse on its simple, literal level, but through the lenses of fairness, of common sense, of other verses in the Torah, and of the best legal knowledge they had at that time.
So now we can also see why in Judaism, the beginning of Genesis is not in conflict with the big bang theory or natural selection. On the one hand, for its time, the Bible provided an origin story that was a story that worked then, but now, science provides a much better explanation for how we got here.
But the Bible isn’t meant to be taken only literally; it’s designed to be a source of study and exploration for the questions of our time. The point of the Creation story is really to challenge us with questions like, “How should we treat people if everyone is created in the image of God? What are our responsibilities to this world if it God has called it ‘good’?”
In Judaism, there’s no concept of “God says it, I believe it, that settles it.” Instead, Judaism pushes us to embrace the text for what it was back then, and to create new ways of reading the text for what it can be now.
Questioning is not only acceptable – it’s encouraged
There’s a phrase that recurs all the time in Rabbinic literature: “How do we know this?” The Rabbis always had to explain their reasoning. And if there was a choice between believing something because of a Divine miracle or believing something because of thoughtful and reasoned arguments, there was no question which one the Rabbis would accept – reason and logic would always win.
The classic story about this comes from the Talmud, where a Rabbi named Eliezer was arguing with all the other Rabbis about a minute detail of Jewish law, and trying to convince them all that he was right. As the story goes,
…Rabbi Eliezer brought forward every imaginable argument, but the Rabbis did not accept any of them. Finally he said to them: “If I am right, let this carob tree prove it!” Sure enough, the carob tree immediately uprooted itself and moved one hundred cubits, and some say 400 cubits, from its place. “No proof can be brought from a carob tree,” the Rabbis retorted.
And again he said to them “If I am right, let this river prove it!” Sure enough, the river of water flowed backward. “No proof can be brought from a river,” they rejoined…
Finally, Rabbi Eliezer then said, “If I am right, let God Himself prove it!” Sure enough, a Divine voice cried out, “Why are you arguing with Rabbi Eliezer? He is always right!” Rabbi Joshua then stood up and protested: “The Torah is not in heaven! We pay no attention to a Divine voice, [because now that the Torah has been given to humanity, people are the ones who are to interpret it.]” (Baba Metzia 59b)
So even though the Torah was seen to be a gift from God and was sacred scripture, as soon as the Torah had been given to humans, any arguments would have to be settled by logic and reason and would trump even a voice from God. Miracles might be wondrous, but they could never act as proof. When it comes to determining the nature of reality, we don’t look to the supernatural.
Similarly, science is never to take anything on faith. Science is about continually questioning assumptions, revising theories, and integrating new data. So critical thinking an essential aspect of science is deeply rooted in Jewish tradition. Indeed, perhaps the most important question science poses is,
“How do we know this?”
There is no fixed, systematic theology
There’s a great Yiddish expression that says, “If I knew God, I’d be God.” In fact, I think that claiming that you “know God’s will” is an act of incredible hubris. Instead, what we say about God has much more to say about us than about it says about God. There are, in fact, a whole range of different theologies within Judaism (you can find some of them in the terrific books Finding God and Jewish Theology in Our Time, both of which describe a whole range of differing and sometimes even conflicting theologies.)
And while I can only speak personally here, to me, “God” isn’t really a noun at all – it’s a verb.
Here’s why. The most common name that God gives Godself in the Torah is “YHVH,” a name that is sometimes thought to be so holy that no one was allowed to pronounce it. But that’s not exactly right. It’s not that “YHVH” was not allowed to be pronounced, it’s that it is possible that it is literally unpronounceable. Ancient Hebrew was written with only consonants, but the four letters that make up the word “YHVH” (yod, hay, vav and hay) at times also acted as vowels, and as Rabbi Lawrence Kushner once said, if you tried to pronounce a name that was all vowels, you’d risk serious respiratory injury.
But perhaps even more importantly, the name YHVH is actually a conflation of all the tenses of the Hebrew verb “to be.” God’s name could be seen as “was-is-will be,” so God isn’t something you can capture or name; God is only something you can experience.
And indeed, when Moses is at the burning bush, having just been told by God that he will be leading the Israelites out of Egypt, he says, “Suppose I go to the Israelites and say to them, ‘The God of your fathers has sent me to you,’ and they ask me, ‘What is his name?’ Then what shall I tell them?”
God responds that God’s name is “Ehyeh asher ehyeh,” which is often translated as “I am what I am.” But it could also be translated as, “I am what I will be.” So God is whatever God will be – we simply have no idea. Indeed, for my own theology, I believe that God is found in the “becoming,” transforming “what will be” into “what is.”
Science, too, is very much about process. Science at its best is about testing hypotheses, setting up experiments, and exploring ideas. And if new data or new evidence arises, scientific knowledge changes. Science can’t be tied down to old theories; it is dynamic and ever changing.
Just like our experience of God.
And perhaps that’s how science and religion can be reconciled – not as two realms that are in conflict or as “non overlapping magesteria” (as Stephen Jay Gould once described them), but as things you do.
Science is about creating hypotheses and testing data against these theories. Judaism is about how we act to improve this world, here and now. And these processes can easily go hand in hand.
So yes, if science and religion are seen to be competing sources of truth and authority, they will always be in conflict, especially if religion is “blind acceptance and complete certainty about silly, superstitious fantasies.” But if instead, religion is about helping people create a deeper sense of meaning and a stronger sense of their values, then I truly believe that science and religion can be brought together to improve ourselves, our society and our world.
Rabbi Geoffrey A. Mitelman is the Associate Rabbi of Temple Beth El of Northern Westchester, and is a member of Clal’s Rabbis Without Borders cohort. He writes for The Huffington Post and Science and Religion Today, and blogs at “Sinai and Synapses – Judaism and a Closer Look at Human Nature”.This article was previously published at The Huffington Post. Return to Community Dialogue Essays page.