The Torah Has Nothing To Teach Us About Science

Rabbi Marc B. Shapiro blogs:

Chief Rabbi Jonathan Sacks, whose prolific writing continues to astound, has recently said the same thing: “There is a difference between science and religion. Science is about explanation. Religion is about interpretation. The Bible simply isn’t interested in how the universe came into being.”[10]

In other words, the Torah has nothing to tell us when it comes to science. Therefore, there can be no such thing as a conflict between Torah and science.[12] With such an approach, all of the reconciliations between science and the Book of Genesis (e.g., a “day” is really an eon, the dinosaurs are from prior worlds, etc.), which for awhile were popular in Orthodoxy, are really missing the point. The old apologetics assumed that the Torah was in accord with science, and was even teaching scientific truths. It was just that we had to read the text differently than it had been read until now. Yet as with R. Kook, from Sacks’ and Navon’s perspective the creation story is a myth, namely, a tale designed to impart cosmic truths.[13] Although this position has been argued most forcefully by Slifkin, and has found a very receptive audience at synagogues (as I can attest, having tag-teamed with Slifkin as scholars-in-residence), are there any high schools that teach the Creation story in this fashion?

…The papal model of haredi society, where the quest for truth is subordinated to the dictates of the religious authority figure, is diametrically opposed to what our great medieval philosophers taught.

Furthermore, the haredi notion that contemporary gedolim can sit in judgment of the views of the Rambam and other greats, and determine that their views are no longer “acceptable”, will be rejected out of hand by all followers of the philosophic tradition. It is therefore not surprising that when Artscroll was presented with a plan to publish Maimonides’ Guide in English, the response was a resounding no, with the explanation given that the Guide should not be found in a haredi home.

… Here is what [R. Samson Raphael] Hirsch writes in Collected Writings, vol. 7, p. 57 (cited by Slifkin, here):

Jewish scholarship has never regarded the Bible as a textbook for physical or even abstract doctrines. In its view the main emphasis of the Bible is always on the ethical and social structure and development of life on earth; that is, on the observance of laws through which the momentous events of our nation’s history are converted from abstract truths into concrete convictions. That is why Jewish scholarship regards the Bible as speaking consistently in “human language;” the Bible does not describe things in terms of objective truths known only to God, but in terms of human understanding, which is, after all, the basis for human language and expression.

I find mid-twentieth-century Orthodox reconciliations of Torah and science very interesting in that the authors do not seem to be looking over their shoulders, worried about the reaction of the more literalist segment of Orthodoxy. R. Joseph Hertz’s essays following the book of Genesis in his edition of the Pentateuch are a good example of this. Another is R. Samuel Rosenblatt, Our Heritage (New York, 1940), pp. 174-181, in essays entitled “How the World Came Into Being” and “The Garden of Eden, Fact or Fiction.”

…According to R. Kook, Sacks and Navon (and many others) the events described at the beginning of Genesis never really happened as described. Gen. 1-3 is not historical. There was not a man named Adam and a woman named Eve in a garden with a talking snake some 6000 years ago, and these people are not the ancestors of mankind. The story is teaching moral truths, not scientific and historical truths. I don’t know how much clearer I or they can be. The statements in the Torah are “true” but not historically or scientifically “true”. In other words, they are myths. This is their position. Contrary to what you write, of course they are saying that the simple meaning is not [historically or scientifically] true. That’s their whole point.

I never used the word “fable”. I used the word “myth”, and that is the perfect term to describe their positions. Yaakov’s dream or Avraham’s imagination have no relevance to this. The proper parallel might be Job, according to the view that he never existed.

About Luke Ford

I've written five books (see My work has been noted in the New York Times, the Los Angeles Times, and 60 Minutes. I teach Alexander Technique in Beverly Hills (
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