The Surprising Science of Judaism
How science and Judaism are often intertwined, and why age-old Jewish behaviors are supported by modern-day science.
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On the spectrum of homogeneity and heterogeneity, science and religion often seem to be more different than alike.
And, at times, in every culture, they’ve resulted in conflict — be it evolution versus creationism, Galileo versus the Catholic Church, or the ultra-Orthodox Jews versus Israeli archaeologists.
But as the late, great Rabbi Lord Jonathan Sacks said in what he calls “The Great Partnership,” the idea that religion and science are contradictions to each other is mistaken.
“The human mind is capable of doing two quite different things,” Rabbi Sacks said. “One is the ability to break things down into their constituent parts and see how they mesh and interact. This is often called left-brain thinking, and the best example is science.”1
“The other, often called right-brain thinking, is the ability to join events together so that they tell a story, or to join people together so that they form relationships,” he continued. “The best example of this is religion. To put it at its simplest, science takes things apart to see how they work. Religion puts things together to see what they mean. And we need them both, the way we need the two hemispheres of the brain.”
Ian Barbour, a theologian and physicist who’s credited with creating the contemporary field of science and religion, diagrammed four modes of possible relationship between the two — conflict, independence, dialogue, and integration. He developed this model primarily to schematize the interaction between Christian churches and universities in Western civilization. However, it is also adaptable to understanding how the Jewish People have related their own pursuit of wisdom, through the use of human intellect in conjunction with both human experience and holy scriptures.2
While Jewish tradition and scientific reasoning occasionally offer two divergent sources of truth, Judaism and science share the convictions that our world is very much real and tangible, that the world and the actions of human beings matter, and that there is order to be found, according to Professor Roald Hoffmann, a Nobel Laureate in Chemistry.3
In his ELI Talk, Rabbi Geoffrey Mitelman said:
“Yes they deal with different subjects, yes they come at it from different perspectives, but they’re both ultimately trying to answer the question: What does it mean to be human? How can I be a better person? How can I make our world a little bit more whole? Even though science and religion deal with different questions, even though the Torah is not a science textbook, we can use the best of science and the best of religion in the service of making ourselves and our world a little bit better, a little bit more whole.”
And according to the website MyJewishLearning:
“While science explains how the world works, the Jewish tradition explores why the world works. Science describes the world, and the Jewish tradition prescribes how we should act in it.”
Rabbi Moshe Zeldman asserted that “probably the most interesting thing” about Judaism to him was that it presents itself as a whole system of belief which “didn’t really require a leap of faith.”
“I wasn’t interested in a rabbi saying, ‘Listen, here’s what you’re supposed to believe. We can’t explain why. It doesn’t have to make any sense. Just accept it,’” he said. “Judaism says that you’re supposed to approach the questions of how we look at life, how we understand the idea of a god and a god-given book of instructions that you can actually approach those ideas rationally.”4
To be sure, 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, yet not stopping at face value. According to Rabbi Mitelman, when Jews today read the Bible 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?5
“In Judaism, there’s no concept of ‘God says it, I believe it, that settles it,’” he wrote. “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.”
According to Rabbi Mitelman, there’s a question that incessantly recurs 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.
“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,” Rabbi Mitelman wrote.
For example, the Torah prescribes a responsible stewardship of our environment. Just as we Jews have a weekly Sabbath on the seventh day of the week, we also have a yearly Sabbath, which takes place every seven years, called shmita, literally meaning “renunciation.” It is the seventh year of the seven-year agricultural cycle mandated by the Torah in the Land of Israel.
During shmita, the land is left to lie fallow and all agricultural activity is forbidden by Jewish law, including plowing, planting, pruning, and harvesting. Other cultivation techniques (i.e. watering, fertilizing, weeding, spraying, trimming, mowing) may be performed as a preventive measure only, not to improve the growth of trees or other plants.
In ancient Israel, farmers still harvested crops, but only as much as people needed for their sustenance. And Julius Caesar exempted the Jews from taxation in a shmita year since “they neither take fruit from the trees, nor do they sow.”6
Today, in modern-day Israel, shmita only applies within the borders settled by the ancient Israelites upon their return from Egyptian slavery. This excludes the southern Arava Valley and large portions of the Negev Desert, where farming continues as usual. And most large commercial farmers symbolically relinquish ownership of their land for the sabbatical year, enabling them to sell produce grown in the soil with certain modifications, such as plowing before shmita begins. Farmers who choose to practice shmita more literally can use various methods to continue providing produce to the market, such as growing hydroponically or in raised containers.7
Israeli organic farmer Ben Rosenberg said that the ground is the best way to grow food because it’s the natural environment, and there’s no doubt that the land replenishes itself when it rests. He also said the main ecological advantage of letting the land lie fallow for a year is that diseases cannot infect unplanted soil. And there’s one more advantage that he can’t prove scientifically.
“I do not understand the reason,” Rosenberg said, “but wine from the grape harvest of shmita has been a superior vintage in four out of the five shmita years I have been in Israel.”
What’s more, the Bible and the Talmud did not see science as an opposing system of truth; rather, science and the Jewish tradition were understood to be two different manifestations of the same divine truth. The Bible embraced knowledge of the natural world as a means of knowing God.
In the eleventh century, Maimonides claimed that any time you find a clash, a contradiction, between science and the Torah, it’s one of two possibilities: either you’re not reading the Torah properly, or you’re not understanding science properly. Either the science got it wrong, or those who are telling you what the Torah says are getting it wrong.8
“Because, in principle,” Rabbi Zeldman said, “you can’t really have a contradiction.”
The Rabbis of the Talmud saw science not only as a means of knowing God, but also as a necessary tool in halakhic (Jewish legal) decision making. The Talmud, for example, used detailed astronomical calculations in determining the Jewish calendar, but also asserted that these calculations provided insight into the divine mind.9
In the tractate Bavli Berakhot, there is a substantial dreambook comparable in many ways to the Oneirocritica (“The Interpretation of Dreams” from ancient Greece). Dream interpretation was a science in antiquity, with extensive literature going back to Babylonia.10
There’s also Sefer Yetzirah, which essentially proposes an atomic model of the cosmos, in which all the diverse entities of the phenomenal world are seen as different combinations of 22 primary elements, symbolized by the 22 letters of the Hebrew alphabet.
“It is obvious from a close reading that Sefer Yetzirah is advocating more than a passive knowledge of the physical world,” Jonathan Ben-Dov and Seth Sanders wrote in New York University Library’s Ancient World Digital Library.
Later Jewish magic seized on this aspect of the Sefer Yetzirah and believed that it held the secret method to making a homunculus (a representation of a small human being) or a golem (a creature formed out of a lifeless substance such as dust or earth that is brought to life by ritual incantations and sequences of Hebrew letters). This may sound like hocus pocus, but it is not too far removed from the modern scientific belief that if one knows nature’s laws, then one may be able to control nature and even replicate its processes in the laboratory.
There is other concrete evidence of scientific interest among Jews in late antiquity. As Raphael Patai has shown, Jews were involved in alchemy, possibly from its earliest phases. And they were seriously interested in medicine already in Talmudic times, demonstrated by the Talmud itself, and by Sefer ha-Refu’ot which is attributed to Asaf ha-Rofe, or in English, Asaf the Doctor.
In the late Persian period, around 450-to-400 BCE, Jews for the first time became interested in producing scientific models of the natural world’s workings. The approach to nature displayed in the Enochic Book of the Heavenly Luminaries is unprecedented in Jewish literature. It seems to mark a turning-point in Jewish intellectual history — the emergence, for the first time, of what might properly be called a scientific attitude, which within society back then was radically new, all the way through the Middle Ages.
“The result, in the twentieth century, has been some of the greatest achievements of scientific thought,” Ben-Dov and Sanders wrote. “From Enoch to Einstein is a long and tortuous road. At times the traces are scuffed and the track almost disappears. But it looks like a road which the historian of Judaism could and should map along the whole of its length.”
So we can see that critical thinking — an essential aspect of science — is deeply rooted in Jewish tradition, thought, and culture. Plus, as Albert Einstein famously said:
“Science without religion is lame. Religion without science is blind.”
Rabbi Sacks added: “One way or another, there is a kinship, a substantial coexistence between the world of science and the world of religion.”
Hence why the understanding of Judaism and science is one of integration in Ian Barbour’s four modes of relationship between the two. Professor Hoffmann echoed this sentiment, saying:
“... the middle ground is just there, to be found in the jigsaw puzzle pieces, the richness and complexity of human beings and the world. That middle ground is reached if one respects all the ways that human beings have devised for trying to understand this world.”
Inside the Science of Judaism
So now we know what Judaism says about science. But what does science say about Judaism? Here are seven thought-starters: