Wednesday, July 02, 2008

Is There a Conflict Between Torah and Science?

What is Torah? Is it just the corpus that we customarily refer to as such, Tanach, Mishna, Gemara (Bavli and Yerushalmi) and the commentaries on them followed by the Possekim and their writings? Is that “Torah” an independent kind of knowledge that creates its own reality? Or is Torah a fully integrated system of Halacha, Kiyum Mitzvot, science, philosophy and a way of life and thinking? If we were to ask this question and poll Bnei Yeshivot in Lakewood, Bnei Brak and Yerushalaim, the majority would answer that it is the former. They will say that learning Torah is limited to Gemara, Rishonim, Acharonim and Halacha while science and all general knowledge of the world we live in is “secular”, relative and questionably true. There will be nuances in the exact understanding but generally, the argument will be that whatever Chazal say about the world and its science, verbatim as they say it without any interpretation, is how the world is. When confronted by contradicting empirical evidence, the assumption is that the data is wrong and Chazal knew better or that we are dealing with two different universes or existences, the physical here and now and the “spiritual” which is the “real” existence. Attempting to reconcile Chazal with reality by reinterpreting them or when that is impossible, assuming that they were telling us a philosophical idea based on the knowledge of their time which needs to be rethought and adapted to our current understanding, is considered blasphemy and Kefirah.

I believe that this position is a distortion of what Torah is and is at the root of most ills of our contemporary frum society. It puts people in a state of mind where the Torah and Halachot they learn and their way of life are at odds. We have to live in a physical world that operates on scientific principles which to these poor people are anathema. They therefore build a wall between these two worlds, they become schizophrenic and we therefore witness religious people who do not see that Torah is a way of life. To them all religion is a ritual that has nothing to do with how they live and operate in the outside world. They are two separate and different universes. Mashgichim in Yeshivot and Rabbanim in the community preach, focus on the symptoms which they cannot avoid seeing and reacting to, knowing instinctively that there is something wrong in the behavior of their flock but they themselves do not see the real problem. How many times have we heard the pronouncement that Torah and Yisrael are above or outside nature – Lema’alah min hateva? As long as they will educate, insisting on this flawed understanding of what Torah teaches, they are missing the point and misleading one or more generations. Without integrating the two worlds, seeing them as one, the malady will persist.

I was following a private email list discussion on the subject of the Torah Umaddah (TuM), Torah Im Derech Eretz (TIDE) and Chareidi philosophies, and one of the participants, Dr. Noam Stadlan, made the following extremely lucid and clear statement about what Torah is that I believe needs to be publicized. I post it here with his permission.

I am sorry to say that I had to take a lot of TUMS when I read the discussion [on the thread by one member] of TuM. Nature is Hashem's way of making His world understandable to man. Without the laws of nature (and by definition the science that is necessary to explicate, understand, and apply those laws), we would not know that the apple that fell down off the tree yesterday will still fall down off the tree today, and tomorrow, etc. There would not be any dependable consistency in the world.

There is no inconsistency in believing in evolution to some extent [I am not sure why limit it by “to some extent” – DG] and also in Orthodox Jewish dogma. TuM means believing that there is intrinsic value to science, art, literature, and to many other fields of human endeavor. That understanding the laws of nature is a way to understand HKBH, because He created those laws. TuM mean believing that Torah and nature are all part of what Hashem created, and there do not have to be inconsistencies or conflicts. We may look at nature differently than Chachmei haTalmud, but if they had modern science, they also would look at nature differently than they recorded in Shas. … is finding conflicts where TuM does not find them. This is not a 'science first' approach. It is a belief that they do not conflict, and if they seem to conflict, it is because we do not know enough to realize they do not. It does not mean that we throw out the science, or throw out the belief. We can wait for more information. As they say, no one ever died from a kasha.

The Rambam in Hilchot Yesodei Hatorah (second Perek I think) discusses how to achieve belief in God, and he begins not by recommending Talmud Torah, but by looking at the world. He could be thought of as a TuM kind of person. He studied science, astronomy, philosophy, and tried to apply what he knew of nature. He realized there was value in all of that, to the point he incorporated it in his approach to Yddishkeit. (Obviously Aristotle and Moslem philosophers are prominent influences. Platonic astronomy figures prominently in Hilchot Yesodei Hatorah as well as discussions of spheres, etc)

Finally, if one is viewing TuM, it makes no sense to look at a population of people who barely know the term, much less have an idea of what it means and stands for. Being Modern Orthodox does not automatically mean that one is an advocate of Torah Umaddah. One can be Modern Orthodox and not really have a thought-out philosophy (like me not too long ago). One can legitimately be concerned that a philosophy is not retained by a community, or is not propagated, but the reality is that those who think about TuM, and are advocates of TuM, are likely to produce children who are TuMnicks.

On the other hand, those who are MO in practice but do not think deeply about the philosophy behind their actions, are probably less likely to produce practicing children. Lumping every MO person into the TuM category just because it may be the closest to what he or she practice is not an accurate way of measuring the success or failure of the philosophy.”

Dr. Stadlan has presented what to me is a most lucid description of what Torah and Avodah means. Torah is everything we know about God, starting from His Mitzvot to His world and the existence He gave us. It is the goal of Yddishkeit to integrate all this information, knowledge and actions and use it to worship God – Avodat Hashem – by emulating His ways.


  1. Didn't have enough time to read the whole post but doesn't Targum answer this question when he translates the verse of those who abandon God as those who abandon the Torah. (In Joshua.)

    I think his translate on this was a product of its times but still applicable today. What I mean there were many sects who believed they were with God even after they abandoned the Torah. He translated the verse in such a way to explain its true meaning. This translate is most definitely applicable today for such fools such as Dona International.

  2. So when R' Chanina ben Dosa says that it makes no difference to him whether there is oil or water in a lamp, it will light in either case, and any scientist will tell you that there is no way this can be true within the context of the laws of nature, how do you explain the contradiction without resorting to the answer that certain people are lma'alah min hateva, i.e. not bound exclusively by laws of nature?
    I think you are stting up a straw man - why don't you give some examples from seforim (not internet nonsense) of what you think to be the mistaken idea of l'ma'aleh min hateva is and lets discuss those examples.

  3. R. Chaim,

    I am surprised, We are not talking about Ma'amarei Chazal in Aggadetot but about whether there can be a lema'aleh min hateva event in our own current reality. I say there cannot. Period no matter who or what.

    Now as to chazal- I am also convinced that they are not out to tell us ma'asei nissim especially nissim without a purpose other than satisfy even a great man like R, Chanina needs. Each aggadeta and story has to be analyzed and the underlying chochma discovered. Many have tried their hand at it from rambam to rashba, maharal and so on. None took them kifshutam. But I will try to address some as I come across them.

  4. Lets not forget what thee Rambam says on this matter in his letter on astrology. It is only right for a person to accept as trustworthy something on the basis of at least one of three things. 1) Observation. This is bitter and this is sweet. This is green and this is red. 2) Reason. 3) Prophets and righteous men.

    The Rambam is not a TuM. I have seen the most absurd things called science. They are base nor on observation or reason. The Rambam would not except such things. For example he did not except the absurd idea of eternal matter. This was on the basis of reason not prophecy. The TuM would not accept such an idea only on the basis of the prophet.

    The TuM is an example of the Rambam's idea of "the simple believes everything."

    Correct me if I am wrong. I am only a child talking haughty.

  5. Thanks to Rav Guttmann for the very kind words.

    1. The emphasis of the story of Rav Chanina ben Dosa(Ta'anit 25a- my daughter made a siyyum on the massechet for her bat mitzvah) is on the words that follow- He who makes the oil burn can also make vinegar burn. It is a statement of the omnipotence of God, or, more exactly, how the laws of nature do not apply to God. God can create situations that are the norm for him that appear as miracles to us. The fact that miracles can occur for human beings does not make the human beings 'lemala min hateva.' It is only that God has intervened on their behalf. The laws of nature still apply, but an exception can by made by God if he wishes. This of course can lead to a discussion of whether miracles are(preplanned by God) coincidences within nature or supra natural occurances. Either way, the laws of nature are the baseline. (as an aside, the statement that God is 'above nature' can only make sense when there is such as thing as 'nature'- otherwise there is nothing to use as a comparison)

    2. If something is called 'science', and is not based on observation or reason, then it is being called science erroneously, and is not really science. The problem is not with the concept of science, but with something beling labelled as science that really isn't.