Shiur #09: Summary of the issue of Religion and Science

  • Rav Itamar Eldar

     This lecture is an appendix to the previous lecture and does not deal directly with the thought of R. YehudaHalevi. In this lecture, I wish to broaden the canvas beyond the teachings of Rihal and examine various approaches and attitudes toward the crossing paths of science and religion. Anyone who wishes to enjoy a week's break from this lecture series – this is the opportunity!


     It is precisely in light of Rihal's skepticism regarding rational speculation, as well as the weak connection on the practical level, though strong on the fundamental level, between science and religion, that tension arises between the two, tension that has accompanied human civilization for thousands of years.


     I wish to present a wide spectrum of opinions from one extreme to the other on this issue.


Rav Sa'adya Gaon


     We saw in previous lectures the approach of Rav Sa'adya Gaon, an approach that can certainly be identified as "extreme" with respect to the honorable place that it gives the intellect and science within the world of religion.


     As we saw, RavSa'adya creates an absolute identification between science and philosophy, on the one hand, and religious belief, on the other.[1] According to him, one can reach true religious faith by way of rational analysis and the intellectual process. I shall cite once again a central passage on this matter:


Having concluded now what we thought fit to append to our first statement, it behooves us to give an account of the bases of truth and the vouchers of certainty which are the source of all knowledge and the mainspring of all cognition. Discoursing about them in keeping with the aim of this book, we declare that there are three [such] bases. The first consists of the knowledge gained by [direct] observation. The second is composed of the intuition of the intellect. The third comprises that knowledge which is inferred by logical necessity. (Emunot Ve-de'ot, Introduction, 5)


     As was stated earlier, these words are based on two exceedingly important fundamental assumptions:


1)    Science is theoretically capable of reaching absolute truths with respect to theological matters.

2)    A person who uses his intellectual tools in the proper manner will succeed in exhausting scientific knowledge and reach the truth.


As we saw earlier, RavSa'adya was so convinced of the truth of these two assumptions that he raised an objection against his own position in light of them: if these assumptions are true, why  do we need the Torah and tradition? We discussed this matter at length in Lecture no. 6.


This understanding encourages a person to investigate, to try to understand, and to harness all scientific knowledge to serve his world of religious belief. It gives objective validity to the scientific world, and as such it can meaningfully be harnessed to support the principles of religious faith.


The believer must show and prove how every scientific discovery proves the truth of his faith. If he encounters a scientific or philosophical fact that undermines a religious doctrine, there is presumably some lapse in this scientific fact, a lapse that is found in the fact itself and touches upon all of science. This is the course Rav Sa'adya takes in his book when he rejects any scientific fact or argument that appears to contradict the Torah. He proceeds step by step with scientific tools to demonstrate, using scientific terminology, that the "fact" in question is indeed wrong.[2]


R. YehudaHalevi


     Rihal  challenges the solid foundation built by RavSa'adya. Rihal, as we saw, raises doubts about science's ability to prove the truths of religion. Thus, Rihal disagrees with both of RavSa'adya's assumptions. Science is incapable of proving the truth of religious belief with any degree of certainty, and so a person can certainly not use science to prove his faith.


     As we saw, Rihal is not trying to abandon reason and logic in favor of faith, and he himself states this explicitly in two different places.


     Rihal continues to maintain, as did RavSa'adya, that the only standard by which to examine these issues is that of the intellect. Rational proof establishes absolute truth, and there is nothing in the Torah that is contradicted by rational proof.


     Like RavSa'adya, R.YehudaHalevi identifies religious belief with rational proof, but according to Rihal there are hardly any rational proofs in theological matters, and it is here that Rihal and RavSa'adya part company.


     According to Rihal, the level of science and philosophy is too low to serve as the rational proof that would necessitate our dealing with the contradictions to which they give rise. Rihal's reliance on tradition and revelation does not stem from his preferring them to reason, but rather from the weakness of scientific tools in reaching the full truth regarding these issues.


     Rihal, as stated, takes the first step by raising doubt about the world of science – doubt that fundamentally frees us from the need to reconcile the conclusions of science with the principles of Judaism.


     It is important to emphasize, specifically against the backdrop of the next approaches to be presented, that we are not dealing here with an existentialist outlook that shifts the focus from reason to experience and therefore ignores reason. Rather, what we have here is an outlook that casts doubt on reason's ability to speak in absolute terms on these issues.


RavYosef Soloveitchik


     RavSoloveitchik addresses the relationship between experience and rational cognition in one of his notes:


The trouble with all rational demonstration of the existence of God, with which the history of philosophy abounds, consists in their being exactly what they were meant to be by those who formulated them: abstract logical demonstrations divorced from the living primal experiences in which these demonstrations are rooted. For instance, the cosmic experience was transformed into a cosmological proof, the ontic experience into an ontological proof, et cetera. Instead of stating that the most elementary existential awareness as a subjective "I exist" and an objective "the world around me exists" awareness is unattainable as long as the ultimate reality of God is not part of this awareness, the theologians engaged in formal postulating and deducing in an experiential vacuum. Because of this, they exposed themselves to Hume's and Kant's biting criticism that logical categories are applicable only within the limits of the human scientific experience.

Does the loving bride in the embrace of her beloved ask for proof that he is alive and real? Must the prayerful soul clinging in passionate love and ecstasy to her Beloved demonstrate that He exists? So asked SorenKierkegaard sarcastically when told that Anselm of Canterbury, the father of the very abstract and complex ontological proof, spent many days in prayer and supplication that he be presented with rational evidence of the existence of God.

Maimonides' term leida ["to know"] (Yesode ha-Torah 1:1) transcends the bounds of the abstract logos and passes over into the realm of the boundless intimate and impassioned experience where postulate and deduction, discursive knowledge and intuitive thinking, conception and perception, subject and object, are one. Only in paragraph five, after the aboriginal experience of God had been established by him as a firm reality (in paragraph one), does he introduce the Aristotelian cosmological proof of the unmoved mover. (The Lonely Man of Faith, p. 32, note)


     In these words (it is not my intention to analyze RavSoloveitchik's thought in general, but only this passage), RavSoloveitchik challenges the various logical proofs that have been proposed for the existence of God. But as opposed to R.YehudaHalevi, RavSoloveitchik does not do this because of their logical-scientific weakness. He does not at all address the logical credibility of these rational proofs. The weakness of logical proofs, as understood by RavSoloveitchik, lies in the fact that they are cut off from the experience of life.


     In the preceding paragraph, RavSoloveitchik wrote:


When God is apprehended in reality it is an experience; when God is comprehended through reality it is just an intellectual performance. (ibid.)


     It is possible to continue this line of thought and say that in the first instance man encounters God, whereas in the second instance he learns about him.


     When man encounters some situation, he does not need logical proof for its very existence. We saw above (as cited by RavSoloveitchik) the sarcastic words of the existentialist Kierkegaard regarding Anselm's desperate yearning for rational proof for the existence of God. Does a bride in her beloved's embrace ask for proof of his existence? So too "the prayerful soul clinging in passionate love and ecstasy to God" needs no proof of His existence. The certainty of God's existence looks at man from every slit in the world, and instead of turning to Him in a living experiential encounter, man looks for Him in abstract worlds void of all substance.


     According to this approach, as according to the approach of Rihal, a person will not try to prove the existence of God with scientific proofs, nor will he try to disprove scientific facts that contradict His existence or His Torah.[3] The reason, however, is not science's limited ability to reach perfect scientific conclusions, as argued by Rihal, but rather its irrelevance in the context of a living experiential encounter. According to this approach, one need not point out science's transience or  thatthe basic nature of scientific proofs is that they are given to refutation, for these points adopt the scientific terminology that is so foreign to it. Here, clear priority is given to the spiritual experience over reason and intellect.


     What does a person with this approach do with the world of science? Several possibilities are available to him.


     The first possibility is division into levels. This is the way that RavSoloveitchik understood the Rambam. After a person establishes the fundamental experience as a solid foundation and as certain reality, he can move on to the more alienated stage – the cognitive-rational stage.


     Besides the analysis that is necessary to establish whether this indeed is the Rambam's position, this approach leaves us with a serious question regarding the necessity of the second stage. Is the experience of the bridegroom's embrace with his bride transient, leaving behind a vacuum in which the bride finds it necessary to prove that her beloved exists? Does this mean that the experience of encounter with God cannot permanently fill the spiritual void, and that in moments of retreat, a person must move on to the rational level? In the absence of such assumptions, the question arises – what room is there for Aristotelian proofs, and what do they add to the total encounter so eloquently described by RavSoloveitchik?


The second possibility is a dichotomous division. A story is told about a famous Jewish thinker and philosopher who was asked whether he believed that Bil'am's ass opened its mouth and spoke. His answer was that when he reads the story as part of the Shabbat Torah reading, he believes it. Here we have a radical dichotomous approach that allows room both for the experiential, faith-based encounter, into which a person does not allow the intellect and scientific truths to enter, and for life in which intellectual cognition constitutes the sole standard for faith and knowledge.


When such a person sits in the synagogue wrapped in his talit, the scientific world does not exist for him. No cognitions, no assumptions, and no scientific or rational idea can undermine the living, experiential, and faith-based encounter of the believer with his God. He will not allow facts to confuse him or for a moment cool the burning fire of love and intimacy between him and His God.


On the other hand, when he sits on his academic chair surrounded by scholarly scientific literature, he does not allow his religious beliefs to prevent him from investigating, developing, and deepening his scientific knowledge, regardless of any preconceived religious notion.


It seems to me that this position is open to two piercing questions:


1)   Is such a dichotomy really possible? In other words, when a person sits in a synagogue, can he totally disregard all that he had done earlier? A scientist who had a total religious experience, which contradicts the scientific truths that he is currently investigating – can he truly ignore his experience in absolute fashion?


2)   Is this dichotomy between synagogue and academia, i.e., the time that he wears his religious persona and the time that he wears his scientific persona, appropriate? This question is valid both in the scientific realm and certainly in the religious realm. Doesn't religious faith demand from man totality, not only in the intensity of his experience, but also in its scope? Does not this outlook turn religion from a total outlook on the world and a lifestyle, to a matter of ritual, ceremony, and folklore and to a religion that is practiced exclusively in the synagogue?


There is a third possibility, and it seems to me that it follows most directly from the existentialist outlook presented by RavYosefSoloveitchik. This stance truly and absolutely gives up on the scientific world, as we shall see in the next approach.[4]


RavNachman of Breslov


     RavNachman of Breslov systematically follows this third approach, which absolutely rejects the value of the scientific world in favor of the living, religious encounter. I wish to present one representative example from his writings:


He said that it says in a certain book that the proof that is cited in philosophical books that one must engage in rational investigation, from the verse (Devarim 4:39), "Know therefore this day, and consider it in your heart," i.e., that one must know Him, blessed be He, on the basis of rational investigation – this explanation is from the Karaite sect who explain the verse in this manner, that one must know Him, blessed be He, through rational investigation. But this is not the truth, for in truth the most important thing is to know Him, blessed be He, exclusively by way of perfect faith, for it is precisely in this manner that one later merits to knowledge and great comprehension of His exalted nature, blessed be His name. (Sichot Ha-Ran 217)


     The knowledge and comprehension that results from the innocent religious encounter about which RavNachman speaks is not the intellectual second level that RavSoloveitchik attributed to the Rambam. According to RavNachman, one does not move to the intellectual level, but for different reasons than those of RavSoloveitchik, and which are slightly reminiscent of the position of Rihal.


RavNachman maintains that, on the one hand, the intellect represents man's superior level, his scientific achievements, his ability to understand. On the other hand, it is also his greatest deficiency, especially when it is directed at attaining abstract values above human nature.


RavNachman sees scientific knowledge as symbolizing the fact that man is suspended in time and place. The modern assumption that every scientific statement stands firm until it is refuted, which recognizes the objection that lies in wait for every scientific achievement, follows from the understanding that every scientific achievement or argument reflects the scientific knowledge of a particular time. RavNachman maintains that choosing science, which reflects man's dependence on time and place, as a tool to know the Divine, who is is above time and place,  means giving up from the outset all possibility of achieving that knowledge.


RavNachman waives on the intellect not because of the relevance and authenticity of religious experience, but because adopting an intellectual position fixes a person from the very outset on his present tools of comprehension. On the other hand, waiving these tools gives a person a chance to encounter something that is greater and more exalted than anything comprehended thus far through scientific tools.


RavNachman maintains that the comprehension of Divine matters that a person can reach by way of existential tools is immeasurably greater than the comprehension that he can reach by way of scientific and philosophical tools.


Rav Kook


     Rav Kook's writings express an ambivalent attitude toward science.[5]   On the one hand, Rav Kook is aware of the limitations of science and that it can only partially expose and reveal reality. In order to fill in the missing parts of the picture, one must cling to Divine knowledge. Rav Kook maintains that science exposes only the exoteric and revealed aspects of reality, which in fact encompasses much more.


     Rav Kook, therefore, attaches great value to scientific development as it is, based on the recognition that in the end, despite all its development, it will be evident that a wide expanse remains that cannot be reached. It is in that expanse that the holy enters and illuminates all the scientific ideas in a different light.[6]


     Since Rav Kook sees scientific development as a process that comes to expose and reveal reality, one that will only be completed when it unites with the holy, Rav Kook is not frightened by scientific knowledge that contradicts the world of religious faith. This is because he maintains that as long as the picture has not yet been completed, scientific conclusions should not be viewed as final, but rather as partial revelations that expose more and more things. It is certainly possible that at a stage when matters have been exposed only partially, the picture will be distorted and will not properly reflect the whole truth.


     Rav Kook never rejects the intellect as a tool to be used for the comprehension of Divine matters. Rav Kook assumes that all of man's faculties and all of reality can be used to reveal and expose God, who is concealed behind them. Accordingly, Rav Kook views the scientific process in a positive light, and perforce he sees it as part of the world's progress toward full revelation of God in this world.


     Rav Kook points to the danger inherent in the intellect;[7]  it gives man the feeling that "my power and the might of my hand have gotten me this wealth." As we saw in the first lectures, intellectual cognition can lead a person to haughty arrogance and give him the feeling that he is the judge who affirms or denies the truth of all matters. Rav Kook is well aware of this danger, but he maintains that if a person recognizes that the voice of God is found in every thing and in every cognition, a person can overcome this danger. He can then attain the higher level, where through his intellect he will reach a true revelation of God and rational investigation will not be a stumbling block for him, but rather an aid.


     Rav Kook's methodic approach follows from this outlook. His inclination is to directly confront scientific outlooks, to analyze them in detail, to refine them, and to draw from them the true contents concealed within them. These contents serve the objective of building a perfect scientific-spiritual edifice; the scientific ideas served as faithful agents to bring these contents into the world.


     A striking example of this is Rav Kook's understanding of Darwinism.[8] Rav Kook demonstrates how Darwinism, more than anything that came before it, strengthens the idea of providence. He shows how evolutionary theory introduces ideas that advance the religious outlook in a most significant way.[9]


     Rav Kook applies this approach to other ideas that at first glance seem to be total heresy, from which a person must run like from a fire; upon closer examination, however, they conceal Divine light that the "Man of Light" (author of "Orot") succeeds to expose.


(Translated by DavidStrauss)





[1] Rav Kafih, in his translation of and notes to Rav Sa'adya's Emunot Ve-de'ot (introduction, note 95), notes this identification.

[2] Many books and articles have been written over the generations in order to scientifically refute arguments that contradict Jewish tradition or to demonstrate how other scientific arguments prove and strengthen that tradition. A recent book of this sort, Bereishit Bara, tries to show how the most modern scientific theories about how the world came into being correspond in a most amazing way to the description of creation in the book of Bereishit.

All such works are based on the assumption that the world of science can prove the truths of tradition, and that these proofs strengthen tradition in a considerable manner.

[3] It seems that this approach is not limited to the existence of God, but can be applied to all that follows from His existence – Torah, mitzvot and religious ideas.

[4] A clear distinction must be made between those who ignore the world of science owing to their fear of being exposed to and influenced by it or those who invalidated the scientific method for some reason and those who ignore this world because of total dedication to another dimension of man – the existential and experiential dimension.

[5] See Ma'amarei Ra'aya, p. 401.

[6] Ibid., p. 406.

[7] See Orot Ha-kodesh I, Ma'alot Ha-nevu'a 92.

[8] See Orot Ha-kodesh II, Hit'alut Ha-olam 24).

[9] Elsewhere (Iggerot Ha-Ra'aya, no. 134), Rav Kook reconciles apparent contradictions between the Torah and science by arguing that the words of the Torah have a deeper inner meaning, and therefore the contradictions between science and the plain sense of the Torah are of no consequence. But in the continuation of that very passage, he returns to the argument presented in the body of this article.