Lecture #25a: Letter 91 - Torah and Scientific Theories

  • Rav Tamir Granot


By Rav Tamir Granot


Shiur #25a:

Letter 91 – Torah and Scientific Theories



Letter 91 deals with scientific theories about the formation of the universe and how the world as we know it came into being. Specifically, Rav Kook addresses the scientific view that the world is several billion years old and the theory of evolution, which explains the development of species in the natural world from the inanimate until the complex creatures we see around us.


It is important to note that a hundred years ago, when the letter was written, the scientific world had not arrived at any convincing answer, other than Darwin's hypothesis, as to how the world as we know it began. The theory of evolution was greeted in the religious world – especially the Christian world – as an atheistic teaching, since it proposed a manner of the world's creation that did not assume any transcendental will and was based on the assumption that our natural world can be understood purely on the basis of its internal processes. Darwin's theory that man was a descendant of apes likewise contradicted the foundations of the religious perception of man – a perception that regarded man as fundamentally different from other natural creations, and therefore maintained that he must have been created separately (and obviously by God).


It was only in the mid-twentieth century that the "Big Bang" theory was proposed to explain the starting point of the universe. This theory changed, to a considerable extent, the attitude of the religious world towards modern science; we shall presently try to understand why this is so.


Various Responses to the Torah-Science Conflict


Let us now turn to Rav Kook's words. We shall start by summarizing the points in his letter, which deal with the question on several different levels:


1.           Concerning the age of the universe: On the theoretical level, our tradition does include certain views that accord with the scientific position (such as the teaching that God builds worlds and destroys them);[1] according to these views, the chronology set forth in Sefer Bereishit and in Seder Olam are not a record of the years of existence of the universe, but rather the years of existence of just one "age," one civilization.


2.           Concerning the descent of man, the Zohar contains a tradition of mortals who preceded Adam and whose appearance was not like that of man as we know him. Fossils with evidence of earlier forms of man may therefore accord with this tradition, even while the assumption that mankind as we know it actually developed from these forms need not be adopted.


3.           Even if we accept the theory of the development of man, it occupies a completely different realm from the literal text in the Torah, which is the basis for our year-count. The purpose of the story of Creation is to give us an awareness of God and His moral vision for the world, rather than scientific information. Scientific statements provide factual information; Torah statements provide normative instruction, even when they are formulated as scientific facts.


4.           Further to the previous point, Rav Kook adds that the pseudo-scientific theories presented in the Torah are actually images of reality – perhaps we might even say “legends” – conveyed in abbreviated and simplified form, in keeping with the ability of mankind to receive them and within an historical context.


5.           Scientific theories are only hypotheses, and both the theory of evolution and other scientific theories should therefore be treated with caution. Human experience has shown that scientific positions that had been regarded as absolute have turned out to be mistaken; therefore, science should, at the very least, present its postulations with some degree of humility.


6.             It is possible for the teachings of the Torah and the theory of evolution to exist side by side if we assume that the description of Creation in the Torah is presented in abbreviated form, its purpose being merely to attribute the creation to the Creator, rather than to describe the actual processes by means of which this occurred. According to this understanding, a description such as, "The Lord created man…" actually means that God brought about lengthy, complex processes, by the end of which mankind as we know it had come into being.


It seems that Rav Kook enlists the entire arsenal of responses that he has at his disposal; his words contain something of almost everything that has been said on the matter by other thinkers, Jews and non-Jews alike. In his book Torah U-Madda, Prof. Shalom Rosenberg presents a typology of responses to the conflict between religion and science, which is useful in analyzing Rav Kook's words:


1.           The negative approach negates the scientific approach, whether on the theoretical level (i.e., on principle) or on the level of the substance of the argument, by claiming that scientific theories are not proven or by pointing out the selective nature of any given scientific theory. This approach was represented in the last generation by the Lubavitcher Rebbe (Iggerot Kodesh, kovetz 1, 5762), who emphasized the jumps and the lack of accuracy in scientific logic. This view is reflected in response 5 above.


2.           The exegetical approach interprets the biblical text, and religious tradition in general, in such a way as to accord with scientific discoveries. This approach is propounded by the Rambam on the theoretical level (see his introduction to Moreh Nevukhim, as well as II:25). In our generation, this approach is supported mainly by religious scientists (Prof. Nathan Aviezer, Prof. A. Frankel, Dr. Aharon Bart in his popular work Dorenu Mul She'elot Ha-Netzach, and others). This approach is reflected in responses 1, 2, and 6 above.


3.           The separatist approach argues that there is no contradiction between Torah and science because science is always "descriptive," while Torah is always "prescriptive" (i.e., commanding). The discussion of "how" has nothing to do with the question of "why" or "for what purpose." This approach, which is emphasized here (see section 3 below) as well as in Rav Kook’s Eder Ha-Yakar, was faithfully represented in the previous generation by Prof. Yeshayahu Leibowitz:


The Torah does not supply informative material about the world and about nature… The first verse in the Torah cannot have any meaning attributed to it other than the important announcement of the world's standing before God… The idea that the Divine Presence descended upon Mount Sinai in order to fulfill the role of a physics or biology teacher is truly laughable…  (Y. Leibowitz, Ha-Mada Ve-Dat Yisrael).


            It is important to note that the parallel between the approach of Prof. Leibowita and the words of Rav Kook here pertains to the literal level of the text. According to what Rav Kook writes, the literal text has meaning only as expressing a moral statement or the principle of knowledge of God; it does not have meaning as a scientific fact.


Rav Kook's Complex Position


Why does Rav Kook enlist arguments representing such varied positions? Is he simply "shooting in all directions"? I believe that he is not, and that these different positions may be held simultaneously. How is this so?


First of all, a cautious approach towards scientific theories – even if we do not go so far as to reject them out of hand – is certainly desirable, since these theories do unquestionably change and are replaced as our research and knowledge expands. Rav Kook's response no. 5, representing the negative approach, therefore makes sense even in light of his other responses.


More difficult is the reconciliation between the separatist approach and the exegetical approach, which seem to be mutually exclusive and fundamentally contradictory. The former views scientific statements and Torah statements as existing on two different levels, or in two different dimensions, and hence claims that they cannot contradict one another. The latter treats them on the same level, and proposes that our tradition be interpreted in such a way as to accord with the scientific approach!


The answer to this problem leads us to what I regard as the crux of Rav Kook's "chiddush," which has no source in any other approach – the distinction between the "peshat," the literal level of the text, and the more profound levels of religious meaning. On the literal level, the separatist view is appropriate. The story of Creation, as it appears in the text, has no intention of conveying a scientific truth; its only purpose is to serve as a platform for instruction, to set the moral and religious basis for man's existence in the world, by both highlighting man's important status in Creation and teaching the imperative of obeying God's command. On the deeper, more inward levels, in contrast, the textual descriptions contain profound message as to how the world came into being and of the meaning of human existence and of history. On these levels, it may be that the exegetical approach is more effective, since it allows us to expose new levels, previously unknown to us, concerning God's revelation and manifestation in the world.


Here, Rav Kook adds a principle which is of immense importance in dealing with this problem. He argues that God's revelation is not completely open (as one might have thought) in conveying information about the world to us. God limits His revelation; the Torah and prophecy, which mediate God's revelation, convey the truth only in a manner that the people of each age are able to absorb and use as a strong basis for their moral and religious world.


But revelation, in the direct sense, is not the only source of knowledge about reality, and a scientific consciousness is also a foundation for a moral and religious world-view. As an example, Rav Kook cites the fundamental astronomical question concerning the central point of the movement of the stars. As we know, in the ancient world it was believed that Earth was at the center of the universe and the sun and stars moved around it. More advanced scientific study, starting with Copernicus, showed that in fact this was not the case. This was not a purely scientific issue; as stated, our knowledge also creates a moral consciousness. Judaism, explains Rav Kook, has always fought to promote the message of man's greatness, his importance, and his responsibility for the world. Had mankind started out on this moral struggle with the picture of the world which we have today – a tiny planet located somewhere in a sea of immense galaxies – then our world, and man within it, would have been perceived as insignificant.


A clear expression of the connection between the scientific perspective and one's moral worldview can be found in Rav Sa'adia Gaon's Emunot Ve-De'ot. His philosophy of man is built on the assumption that earth is the center of the universe and that man is the center of Creation:


I preface my remarks by saying that when we behold the multiplicity of creations, we need not be confounded by the question of which of them constitutes the goal [of Creation], for there is a natural principle by means of which it becomes clear to us which is the purpose of all of these creations. When we examine the matter, we find that the purpose is man. The principle is that nature and experience place that which is most prized at the center of things which are not so highly prized… Once we have seen that this principle applies to many things, and we also see that the earth is in the middle of the heavens, with the spheres surrounding it on all sides, then it becomes clear to us that the thing which is the purpose of Creation exists on earth. Then we proceed to examine all parts of the earth and we find that the dust and water are inanimate, and we find that the animals are not rational, such that only man remains; thus, it becomes clear to us that he is unquestionably the intended purpose [of Creation].  (Beginning of Treatise IV)


The knowledge that this picture of the world was incorrect would have undermined our most fundamental perceptions of ourselves and our place.


How, then, were these fundamental perceptions not shaken by the shattering of the classical picture of the world and the knowledge that we have today? Why did these discoveries not lead to a moral decline? First, because the concept of the centrality of man, his intellect, and his power of choice, as taught by Judaism, had already been internalized. Second, because the scientific discoveries were accompanied by the development of human technological power, which reinforced man's sense of capability and importance. The necessary conclusion to be drawn from this analysis is that the scientific discoveries of our times are directed and adapted to the moral and religious vessels at the disposal of mankind in general, and Am Yisrael in particular, in the modern era.


What arises from the above discussion is that the theory of evolution, and, in our view the "Big Bang" theory as well, both of which are widely accepted in the scientific world today, are apparently the spectacles through which we are meant to observe the world. However, there is also another conclusion to be drawn – that our moral and religious consciousness must be built on the basis of these scientific theories.


Rav Kook's message is a dialectical one, and its different responses are mutually complementary. On the one hand, scientific truth must be regarded within an historical context, because it, too, is a mode of revelation, and revelation is always "tzimtzum"[2] – contraction or constriction – in keeping with the capacity of the vessels receiving it. Hence, humility and skepticism with regard to absolute scientific truth arise not only from epistemological or meta-scientific considerations, but also from the understanding that scientific truths are revealed, exchanged, and replaced depending on their moral and religious context. On the other hand, for the very same reason, it is proper to give full credit to modern scientific theories, such as the theory of evolution, because they are the particular manner in which we are able, in our times, to observe our world – on both the private, individual and public, general levels – and we must therefore build our world-view on their basis.


(to be continued)


Translated by Kaeren Fish

[1]  In the realm of Kabbala, this idea is interpreted as referring to the upper worlds, the initial levels of reality. Here, we treat the word "worlds" in its simple sense, meaning ages.

[2]  According to Kabbala, the sefira of speech is Malkhut, which embodies the principle of “tzimtzum.”