Judaism (Encyclopedia of Science and Religion)
Judaism is a monotheistic, scriptural religion that evolved from the religion of ancient Israel during the Second Temple period (516 B.C.E.0 C.E.). Two core beliefs shaped the attitude of Judaism toward nature and toward the systematic study of nature (i.e., science): that God is the creator of the universe and that God revealed God's will in the form of Lawhe Torah (literally "instruction")o the chosen people, Israel.
The doctrine of creation facilitates an interest in the natural world that God brought into existence, even though the details of the creative act remain beyond the ken of human knowledge. Several Psalms express the notion that the more one observes nature, the more one comes to revere its creator, since the world manifests order and wise design. Awareness of nature's orderliness leads the observer to praise and thanksgiving and evokes awe and reverence. The study of nature, then, did not conflict with love of and obedience to God. Indeed, in the Middle Ages, Jewish philosophers regarded the study of God's created nature as a religious obligation. Nonetheless, the natural world was not to be worshiped for its own sake; that is the form of idolatry against which Judaism rails. In Judaism, nature always points, rather, to the divine creator who governs and sustains nature and who intervenes in human affairs, making God's will known through the performing of miracles, the greatest of which is the revelation of the Torah to Israel.
Even though in principle there is no theological impediment to study the natural world, the degree to which Jews should engage in scientific inquiry has always been debated in traditional Jewish society. Since philosophy and science originated in ancient Greece, the debate pertained to the cultural boundaries of Judaism, especially because Jews encountered Hellenistic culture as the culture that occasionally oppressed them, curtailing Jewish political independence and threatening Jewish mores. Since immersion in Greek culture could conceivably lead one away from commitment to God's Torah and the life it prescribed, rabbinic literature contains suspicious attitudes toward "alien wisdoms" (hochmot hitzoniyot) and issues a call to avoid teaching "Greek wisdom" to children. This caution is found side by side with information about rabbis who promoted the Greek paideia or who were themselves learned in the natural sciences. More problematically, the primacy of Torah study itself was justified by the claim that the revealed Torah, identical with God's wisdom, encompasses all true knowledge. If so, Jews have no need to pursue knowledge outside the perimeters of Torah. It is difficult, then, to generalize about the rabbinic attitude toward the study of nature and determine the precise scope of rabbinic knowledge of the science in their day.
The main scientific data in rabbinic literature pertains to astronomy and human physiology. Several rabbis (e.g., R. Yohanan ben Zakkai, Gamaliel II, and Joshua ben Hananya) were expert astronomers, using observed data for the calculation and adjustment of the lunar-solar calendar. The rabbinic corpus is also replete with information about the motions of celestial bodies, the four seasons, the planets, the zodiac, and even comets. The picture of the universe in Talmudic texts has the Earth in the center of creation with heaven as a hemisphere spread over it. The Earth is usually described as a disk encircled by water. Interestingly, cosmological and metaphysical speculations were not to be cultivated in public nor were they to be committed to writing. Rather, they were considered as "secrets of the Torah not to be passed on to all and sundry" (Ketubot 112a). While study of God's creation was not prohibited, speculations about "what is above, what is beneath, what is before, and what is after" (Mishnah Hagigah: 2) were restricted to the intellectual elite.
Within the created world, the human body was of utmost interest to the rabbis, although their information about human anatomy was shaped by religious concern for ritual purity. Rich in details about the skeleton, the digestive organs, the respiratory system, the heart, the genitals and other organs, the rabbinic corpus also includes rather fanciful material and is totally lacking in graphic illustration. The discussion is concerned primarily with physical disfigurements that disqualify men from the priesthood, with rules concerning menstruating women, and with other sources of ritual pollution. The rabbinic corpus also includes informative claims about embryology, diagnosis of diseases, and a host of medications and hygienic strategies for prevention of disease. Indeed, the physician is viewed as an instrument of God, treated with utmost respect, and several Talmudic scholars were themselves physicians. Nonetheless, the rabbinic discourse about scientific matters was unsystematic, primarily because it was embedded in the interpretation of Scriptures. Whether the rabbinic legal reasoning as a whole could be considered "science" is debated in contemporary times, reflecting twentieth-century changes in the philosophy of science.
Scientific learning in the Middle Ages
The cultivation of science as a public, albeit elitist, activity began in earnest in the ninth century, when most of world Jewry lived in the orbit of Islam. Greek and Hellenistic philosophy and science were translated into Arabic and stimulated the rise of Islamic rationalist theology. Writing in Arabic, Jews emulated Islamic scholars, reinterpreting rabbinic Judaism in rationalist categories derived from Muslim neo-Platonism and Aristotelianism. Jewish scholars studied all branches of the sciences and a few Jews (e.g., Isaac Israeli, Moses Maimonides, and Levi ben Gershom, known as Gersonides) achieved distinction in the non-Jewish world. Jews participated in astronomy at the court of Alphonso X and were largely responsible for the construction of the Alphonsine Tables for computing planetary positions that remained popular until the mid-seventeenth century. Lacking an institutional setting, Jewish scientific learning was an autodidactic, bookish activity of translating texts of the liberal arts and natural philosophy from Arabic into Hebrew and occasionally from Hebrew into Latin, writing commentaries on them, and working out the theological implications of the apparent conflict between revealed knowledge ("religion") and knowledge discovered by human reason ("science"). One primarily exception was the astronomical observations of Gersonides (1288344), who built an instrument to study the distance between the stars, the Jacob Staff remained in use by European navigators until the mid-eighteenth century.
Moses Maimonides (1135204) articulated the most sophisticated synthesis of science and Judaism. In principle, he held, there can be no contradiction between the inner, nonliteral meaning of the Torah and what is true in the sciences of physics and metaphysics. Apparent conflicts emerge either because a nondemonstrable scientific theory is adopted (for example, Aristotle's view that the world is eternal and his explanation of celestial motions), or because the biblical text is not interpreted in light of philosophy and science. For Maimonides, who accepted Aristotelian science in regard to processes of the sublunar world, possessing knowledge about the physical world was a religious obligation, because accurate knowledge about the physical world leads one to understand how God governs the world (i.e., God's attributes of action). However, Maimonides's radical negative theology, according to which scientific knowledge does not yield valid knowledge about God's essence, placed a limit on science and made the intellectual perfection (the goal of human life according to Maimonides) unattainable.
For the subsequent four centuries, Maimonides's followers translated scientific literature into Hebrew and interpreted Scripture as an esoteric text that contains scientific-philosophic truths. To disseminate philosophic-scientific knowledge Jewish scholars composed encyclopedias that summarized known scientific data in the linguistic sciences (logic, rhetoric, and grammar), the mathematical sciences (arithmetic, geometry, optics, astronomy, music, mechanics, algebra), the physical sciences (based on the eight books of Aristotle's Organon), metaphysics, and politics (including ethics and economics). This vast knowledge was deemed necessary for the attainment of intellectual perfection, resulting in immortality of the intellect. Whether it was also sufficient knowledge for immortality was vigorously debated, especially after Maimonides's theory of divine attributes was modified by Gersonides to mean that scientific knowledge does yield positive knowledge about God's essence. For Jewish philosophers to attain religious perfection, they had to be philosopher-scientists.
Jewish scientific learning during the Middle Ages was broad in scope and ambitious in aim but it was not unproblematic. First, scientific learning was cultivated only by Jews in Mediterranean communities of Spain, Southern France, Italy, and North-Africa but did not penetrate the Jewish communities north of the Alps. Second, the Jewish scientists-philosophers did not have an institutional setting and did not receive official support for their inquiries. Unlike their Christian neighbors, Jews did not create universities, and the scientific curriculum was not incorporated into the rabbinic academies for higher learning. Third, scientific knowledge was cultivated by a very small number of experts and did not engage the community at large. Finally, there was organized opposition to the cultivation of the sciences, spearheaded not just by rabbis who regarded secular knowledge to be irrelevant or even undermining to the authority of the Jewish tradition, but sometimes by Jews who were themselves quite knowledgeable in the sciences. The Maimonidean controversy that engulfed world Jewry during the thirteenth century and resurfaced in the fifteenth and sixteenth centuries indicated that the cultivation of science remained problematic even in the Middle Ages.
Early modern period
In the early modern period (sixteenth through eighteenth centuries), the Maimonidean tradition lost its interpretative power and was replaced by Kabbalah, the Jewish mystical tradition, as the official theology of Judaism. In a way, the turn to Kabbalah was an attempt to overcome the restrictions of Maimonides's radical negative theology. For the kabbalists, knowledge of God's essence and intimacy with God were to be attained not through observation of the material world interpreted by Aristotelian scientific theories, but through fathoming the symbolic meaning of God's revealed Torah. Constructed out of the building blocks of the Hebrew alphabet, nature mirrors God's essence and the primordial Torah is the key to decipher nature's symbolic structures. The kabbalists regarded nature not as observable, measurable mass, but as an information system that has to be decoded. Their elaborate speculations about the origins of the universe were ultimately a hermeneutic activity, framed by the very language of Jewish canonic texts. This approach to nature was in accord with trends in Renaissance culture and usually went hand in hand with preoccupation with magic, astrology, and alchemy, but it did not necessarily prevent the Jewish scholar from also being informed about new scientific discoveries in astronomy, human physiology, botany, zoology, and mineralogy.
While Kabbalah did not preclude one from interest in nature, on the whole, Kabbalah probably retarded the involvement of Jews in the scientific revolution of the seventeenth century. Jewish scholars played a marginal role in the development of early modern science, although a small number of Jews were aware of the emerging new sciences. David Ganz (1541613), for example, corresponded with the astronomer Johannes Mueller and was personally familiar with Johann Kepler and Tycho Brahe. The first Jew to mention Copernicus and praise him, Ganz nonetheless adapted Brahe's model, which reconciled the Copernican and Ptolemaic systems on the basis of actual observations. For Brahe, Ganz translated the Alphonsine Tables from the Hebrew into German, and for his Jewish audience Ganz composed in Hebrew the history of Jewish involvement in astronomy. That book, however, was printed only in 1743, indicating a relative lack of interest in the subject among Jews. A typical Jewish response to the heliocentric theory was voiced by Isaac Cardozo (1604-1681), the most scientifically informed Jew of his day, who rejected it on religious grounds and adduced nineteen biblical verses against the theory. By contrast, Joseph Solomon Delmedigo (1591655), who had contacts with Galileo Galilei and who was the first Jewish scholar to use the recently invented logarithmic tables, parted company with the followers of Ptolemy to espouse the Copernican system. Delmedigo was also a student of Kabbalah, which he proceeded to criticize, but he promoted knowledge of the empirical sciences as a way to alleviate the miserable conditions of Jewish life in Europe's ghettos. The small cadre of Jews who earned doctoral degrees from European universities, especially in medicine from the University of Padua, did not change the fact that interest in the natural sciences was marginal in Jewish culture during the early modern period. Instead, the study of Halachah and Kabbalahoth are elaborate, textual, self-referential, abstract edificesreoccupied Jewish intellectual interests. The ethos of Jewish traditional life in eighteenth-century Europe remained largely uninformed by the scientific revolution.
In the late eighteenth century, a small group of Jewish intellectuals in Germany began to agitate for change. Inspired by the Enlightenment, these Jews insisted that Judaism must embrace scientific knowledge or else stagnate. Desiring social integration and an end to Jewish segregation and persecution, the advocates of Jewish Enlightenment (Haskalah) were very critical of traditional Jewish education and encouraged Jews to study the sciences in order to become fit to enter modern society. The proponents of Haskalah worked tirelessly to persuade European states to grant Jews equal civil rights.
France was the first country to grant citizenship to Jews (1791), as the logical consequence of the Declaration of the Rights of Man (1789). Yet the struggle for legal emancipation lasted until the 1870s in central Europe and was achieved in Russia only with the revolution of 1917. As citizens, Jews who flocked to the universities of western and central Europe embraced the natural sciences as secular pursuits that promised social progress and modernization. Some even converted to Christianity in order to be able to hold academic positions, and for those who remained nominally Jewish, science replaced traditional Jewish Torah-study and was devoid of religious meaning. In the nineteenth century, individual Jews contributed immensely to a plethora of natural sciences, but they did so as individuals and not as members of Israel, God's chosen priestly nation. The secularization of Western (Christian) culture, which privatized religion, and the prevailing scientific theories of classical physics exacerbated the perception that science and religion were diametrically opposed. The main Jewish responses to modernityeform, Conservative, and Orthodoxyrticulated distinctive approaches to the perceived tension.
Strands of modern Judaism
Reform Judaism essentially denies that there is a conflict between Judaism and science. Reform thinkers assume that Judaism is a rational religion that welcomes the scientific, ongoing sequence of observation, hypothesis, experimentation, and conclusion, with each conclusion subject to further investigation by the same method. The rationalist spirit of Reform Judaism intended to strip Judaism from the morass of ossifying, legalistic minutiae and bring to the fore the timeless, universal truths of Judaism. The rationalist temper, which led Reform Judaism to discard many traditional practices or invent new rituals, did not necessarily mean endorsing the most challenging scientific theory of the nineteenth centuryarwinism. In the United States, the radical reformer David Einhorn (1809879) sneered at the idea that humans descended from lower animals, and his opponent, Isaac Mayer Wise (1819900), also took a dim view of Darwinian thought. However, by the 1880s several Reform rabbis attempted to reconcile religion with the new science and defended Judaism's superiority over other religions because of its nondogmatic, ever-evolving character. Reform rabbis accepted biblical criticism and viewed the Bible itself, and not only rabbinic Judaism, as a product of history. To their chagrin, however, Reform rabbis had to contend with Protestant biblical criticism that used the Darwinian model to prove that Judaism was a primitive religion out of which evolved the superior religion of Christianity.
Interest in the relationship between science and religion is stronger in Conservative Judaism because it takes the rabbinic tradition to be obligatory, while acknowledging that it evolved over time. More than the natural sciences, the academic discipline of history was the scientific inquiry that concerned Conservative Judaism. In the nineteenth century, Conservative scholars accepted the evolutionary model and applied it to the history of Jewish law, leaving the Bible untouched. In the twentieth century, the critical method has been applied to the biblical text and the perceived challenge by science is rebuffed by saying that the revealed biblical text did not intend itself to be understood literally but as a poetic statement of certain truths: that the world was created by God, and that God planned it carefully and designed it to be hospitable to human beings. These conclusions are consistent with contemporary scientific theories in physics and cosmology. Indeed, the twentieth-century move away from classical physics to a new model of the universe explained by relativity theory or by quantum mechanics enabled some Conservative rabbis to make the biblical narrative more intelligible. Rabbi Lawrence Troster, for example, argued that the Anthropic Principle shows that the universe is not a neutral entity, empty of purpose and meaning, and that partnership between science and religion is possible and desirable. For him the Big Bang theory can lead to an intellectual or emotional enthusiasm for the creator. Conversely, contemporary physics should lead to rethinking the meaning of the doctrine of creation, especially creation in the image of God, and of the problem of evil. Troster's studies are consistent with the work of Norbert Samuelson, the only Reform rabbi who has made a significant contribution to the dialogue of science and religion.
The main area for the confluence of science and religion in Conservative Judaism is bioethics. Conservative legal thinkers such as Elliot Dorff maintain that scientific research is both possible and potentially fruitful and that contemporary interpretation of Halachah must be informed of advances in science and technology. Yet, scientific activity cannot be taken for its own sake: Scientific means and ends have to be evaluated by religious values. Science, and especially its application in technology, can be used to solve legal problems or to alleviate legal restrictions. Though rabbis must be informed about science, the scientific facts of every disputed issue do not settle anything since how one construes the facts is crucial, and this is determined by one's religious and moral values. Biomedical issues of most concern to Conservative thinkers are issues of human sexuality (e.g., fertility and homosexuality) as well as questions of the beginning and end of life (i.e., abortion and euthanasia). Conservative legal thinkers legitimize the consultation with science by insisting that Jewish law itself presupposes the existence of knowledge and morality independent of Jewish law.
Of all variants of modern Judaism, Modern Orthodoxy (in contradistinction from Ultra Orthodoxy) is most preoccupied in the dialogue between science and religion, precisely because on the surface the two may appear to be contradictory. Founded by Samson Raphael Hirsch (1808888) in Germany, Modern Orthodoxy was also a response to the challenges of modernity, even though it rejected the radical ritual changes of Reform Judaism or the historical approach of the positive-historical school, the ideological foundation of Conservative Judaism. For Hirsch, a "Torah-True Judaism" meant that the Torah is eternal and unchanged, but that Judaism must be informed about and selectively involved in the secular world. His slogan, "Torah im Derekh Eretz" (Torah combined with secular knowledge), became the institutional credo of Yeshiva College in New York City, which was founded in 1928 and became a university in 1946. This institution was committed to the synthesis of "Torah U-Mada" (Torah and science), although the precise meaning of this ideal is repeatedly questioned. The faculty and graduates of Yeshiva University publish essays about the interplay of science and religion in their academic magazinesi>Tradition: A Journal of Orthodox Thought and The Journal of Halacha and Contemporary Societynd even founded a magazine devoted solely to that issue: The Torah U-Mada Journal. Precisely because Orthodoxy understands Judaism as truth, it takes note of seemingly competing truth claims in science.
For Modern Orthodoxy the affirmation of the dialogue between science and Judaism is based on the following assumptions: first, Halachah is binding and all-encompassing and no aspect of human life is irrelevant to it, including science. Second, since halachic discourse exposes the true meaning of divine revelation, there can be no contradiction between what is true in science and what is true in Judaism. Third, scientific and technological advances can help resolve many practical details of religious practice, especially in matters that concern the human body. Medical ethics is thus a primary area in which a fruitful interaction between science and Judaism can take place.
Fourth, science is not the source of value, and science requires a framework of values whose authority is other than human. Judaism's moral values are absolute and immutable because they are revealed by God.
Orthodox scholars reject biblical criticism and treat the halachic tradition as an eternally valid legal system that has its internal mechanisms of self-interpretation. In terms of the doctrine of creation, Orthodox Jews, who tend to pursue the study of the natural sciences but shun the humanities and social sciences, argue, not without a tinge of apologetics, that the Big Bang theory validates even the details of biblical narrative of creation, although science still fails to explain why the world was created. That explanation is available only to the believing Jew who ascribes the creative act to God's will. In regard to bioethics, Orthodox jurists such as Rabbi J. David Bleich and Rabbi Immanuel Jakobovits, who are informed in contemporary medicine, bring their extensive knowledge of the halachic tradition to bear on a host of medical problems. These include dwarfism, transsexual surgery, egg donation, and implantation, Tay-Sachs disease, dental practices, skin grafting, organ transplantation, hazardous medical procedures, establishment of death, the treatment of human corpses, eugenics, sterilization, contraception, the proper conduct of physicians, gene therapy, and cloning technology. Though no medical issue is outside the scope of Halachah, it is the halachic corpus itself that defines the principles that enable the Modern Orthodox jurist to determine what is permissible. To the extent that this endeavor requires a theological justification, the model is found in medieval Jewish philosophy of Maimonides and his disciples. Ultra-Orthodox Jews, however, do not accept the Maimonidean synthesis, are not interested in accommodation to modern life, and take a literalist approach to Scripture. For them, science and Judaism belong to different realms and their truth-claims are of unequal epistemic value.
In sum, while there is no theological impediment to the study of nature in Judaism, there has been some unease about the pursuit of science in traditional Jewish society. Either because scientific knowledge originated outside Jewish society, or because scientific inquiry could divert Jews focusing exclusively on Torah, premodern Jewish culture harbored suspicion toward the study of nature, classified as "secular learning." In the Middle Ages, especially in Spain and Southern France, Jews cultivated the natural sciences and excelled in mathematics, astronomy, and medicine, but these achievements were overshadowed by the preoccupation with law and with Kabbalah in the early-modern period. In the modern period, the dialogue between science and religion has been configured in the context of Jewish social integration into Western society and the need to rethink the authority of Halachah. Reform Judaism, which champions full integration and denies the authority of the rabbis, takes for granted that Judaism is rational, and does not see science as a challenge to Judaism at all. Conservative Judaism, which promotes allegiance to the Jewish tradition along with admission that Halachah evolved over time, is aware of the challenge but considers scientific theories useful for a deeper understanding of Scripture and legal decision-making. Finally, modern Orthodoxy, which insists on the eternal validity of Halachah while being open to modern life, is most creative in attempting to respond to new scientific theories and technological advances. Most modern Jews, who define themselves religiously, and not only ethnically or culturally, regard scientific study of God's created world positively, while insisting that scientific means and ends be judged and/or complemented by Jewish religious and moral values.
See also JUDAISM, CONTEMPORARY ISSUES IN SCIENCE AND RELIGION; JUDAISM, HISTORY OF SCIENCE AND RELIGION, MEDIEVAL PERIOD; JUDAISM, HISTORY OF SCIENCE AND RELIGION, MODERN PERIOD; MAIMONIDES
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