Science and Torah – Some Common Ground

Science and Torah – Some Common Ground

This post was inspired by a Shabbat event in which Rabbi Mordecai Becher came to Aish Chaim in Bala Cynwyd, PA to discuss science and torah with the congregation.

“Science takes things apart to see how they work. Religion puts things together to see what they mean.” (Rabbi Jonathan Sacks, The Great Partnership).

People strive for a sense of unity. Whether it is love of sports (fans joining together), love of music (notes in synchrony), or love of food (ingredients combined), we seek out unity and completeness. Chazal tell us that the reason for this behavior is that the human soul is constantly seeks out its Source. Like the shema we say twice a day: “Hear, O’ Israel, the Lord is our G-d, the Lord is One” (Deuteronomy 6:4)—that Hashem is the most complete and ultimate unity. Finding the joy in discovering the Source is like the joy a child feels when she notices ever greater details in a painting. The desire to link seemingly disparate items or concepts together and define a unifying structure is also at the root of science: to propose a theory or algorithm linking phenomena A, B, C, and D — connecting the dots — gives scientists great joy. Two theories representing this tendency toward unification include the Grand Unifying Theory (GUT) and the Theory of Everything (TOE)—theoretical models in particle physics that attempt to unify the electromagnetic, weak, and strong forces (GUT), as well as gravitational force (TOE).

Analogously, the Babylonian Talmud states that the owner of an ox that causes damage once or twice (shor tam) pays only half the value of the damaged item but pays full price at the third time as the “goring ox” (shor ha’muad) is a legal presumption (chazakah; Bava Batra 28a). The general rule in Torah is that providing a single explanation for three separate events is preferable to providing three distinct explanations, like in Occam’s Razor, where no more assumptions in explaining a matter should be made than are necessary. Both principles serve to reduce pluralities. If we understand the unity in the world, that will help in advance greater understanding of the world. “The foundation of foundation and the pillar of all wisdom is to know that there is One G-d” (Rambam). By contrast, ancient pagans worshiped multiple gods and believed that distinct events emanate from different sources, and consequently worshiped these sources. It is not a coincidence that the Age of Science began in monotheistic societies. It is also why halachic decisors (poskim) seek advice from doctors and scientists when making complex decisions relevant to those issues in the modern era.

Many Jewish sages were also men of science. The Vilna Gaon stated that one’s Torah would be deficient without a deep understanding of science and math and exhorted his students to study these subjects. Rambam and Ramban were physicians, Sforno was an architect, and the Ralbag was a mathematician and astronomer. Interestingly, sites of interest on the moon are named after Jewish sages who practiced astronomy (Ralbag, Rashi, Rambam). In fact, it is a mitzvah incumbent upon a person to calculate astronomical seasons and the movement of constellations, and one should shun a person who knows astronomy who refuses to share his knowledge (Shabbat 75a). Teaching astronomy to the public removes the mysterious hold that pagan priests with astronomical knowledge had over the masses. The Spanish-Jewish astronomer Abraham Zacuto developed state-of-the-art navigation innovations (predicting future lunar and solar eclipses) were used by Christopher Columbus and Vasco de Gama when they traveled to the New World.

Einstein once said that “The eternal mystery of the world is its comprehensibility… The fact that it is comprehensible is a miracle” (Physics and Reality, 1936). The universe didn’t have to be created that way, with all its complexities. Mathematician Morris Kline said about mathematics that the human mind was able to see patterns in the world and able to formulate and put them into algorithms in a way that we can then predict and manipulate events, even on microscopic and subatomic levels. Max Planck stated that science supplied mankind with the idea that everything is connected, a central point of Judaism as well. Without the ideas of harmony, oneness, and logic in the state of nature, the field of science could not be possible. Additionally, small moral actions—what Rabbi Jonathan Sacks called “moral ecology” — have massive global impacts, comparable to the Butterfly Effect in the physical world (the flapping of a butterfly’s wings in Brazil set off a tornado in Texas) due to Interconnectivity of things.

Biologist Richard Dawkins asks “Why do people believe in G-d?” He answers that it’s because they couldn’t understand the rainbow phenomena observed, so they invented G-d, but today we understand the physics behind the formation of a rainbow, so there is no wonder for modern people (Dawkins, Unweaving the Rainbow). Ancient Greeks also believed that only what they saw with their own eyes was real. By contrast, Jews believe that what we see is only a fraction of world’s reality”—a revelation of what lurks beneath the surface, just like science. We are often so focused on the skin-layer of the world that we forget about the spiritual world underneath.

(This post is part of Sinai and Synapses’ project Scientists in Synagogues, a grass-roots program to offer Jews opportunities to explore the most interesting and pressing questions surrounding Judaism and science. David Keleti is a Clinical Proposal Writer in a Medicaid managed-care organization, and a member of Aish Chaim in Bala Cynwyd, PA).

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