Torah and Science

  • Rav Chaim Navon

Theological Issues In Sefer Bereishit

Yeshivat Har Etzion



LECTURE #3: Torah and Science

By Rav Chaim Navon

The opening chapter of Bereshit describes the creation of the universe. In this lecture, we shall examine the degree to which this description should be viewed as a precise scientific account of the events. This question arises wherever there is a clash between the plain sense of Scripture and modern scientific findings.

Many people are troubled by the real or imagined contradictions between the Torah and science. In this lecture, we shall discuss some of the principal approaches that have been proposed to deal with these questions. We shall focus on the tension between the plain sense of the Torah and the natural sciences (and to a certain degree, history as well) with respect to the credibility of the factual assertions appearing in the Torah. Obviously, this is only one small element of the wider question of the conflict between the Torah and science. Truth be told, this conflict is no longer a "hot topic"; over the course of the twentieth century, religious thinkers have successfully formulated satisfying answers to these questions, so that, generally speaking, believing Jews no longer find them disconcerting. Nonetheless, we are dealing here with an important issue that deserves careful treatment, both because these questions can still at times be unsettling, and because the answers to these questions can teach us basic principles regarding both the Torah as well as science.

Skepticism about the Claims of Science

The first approach to this issue tries to raise doubts about the certainty of the claims of science. There are extremists who scornfully reject science outright. But it is difficult for us to identify with them, because in our daily lives we rely on science: we use a microwave oven without fear that it will explode. While science cannot provide us with certainty of a hundred per cent, it is possible to distinguish between baseless theories and accepted positions that are close to certain. It is difficult to accept the argument that science has no reliable foundation whatsoever.

There are those who put forward a different argument: they distinguish between science's ability to explain the present and its ability to reconstruct the past. The Lubavitcher Rebbe, Rabbi Menachem Mendel Schneersohn, argued that the attempt to reconstruct the past is not at all scientific, in that the results cannot be tested in a laboratory. Owing to the impossibility of reconstructing the precise conditions of the universe in the ancient past, any conjecture about life in that time is frivolous speculation:

Basically, the "problem" has its roots in a misconception of the scientific method or, simply, of what science is. We must distinguish between empirical or experimental science dealing with, and confined to, describing and classifying observable phenomena, and speculative "science", dealing with unknown phenomena, sometimes phenomena that cannot be duplicated in the laboratory…

In view of the unknown conditions which existed in "prehistoric" times, conditions of atmospheric pressures, temperatures, radioactivity, unknown catalyzers, etc., as already mentioned, that is to say, conditions which could have caused reactions and changes of an entirely different nature and tempo from those known under the present-day orderly processes of nature, one cannot exclude the possibility that dinosaurs existed 5722 years ago, and became fossilized under terrific natural cataclysms in the course of a few years rather than in millions of years, since we have no conceivable measurements or criteria of calculations under those unknown conditions. (Rabbi M. M. Schneersohn of Lubavitch, Iggerot Kodesh)

Yet others have based their argument regarding the limits of science on a philosophical position concerning the nature of science. According to certain philosophers of science, science does not pretend to tell us what is actually happening in the universe; it merely offers a parallel model that generates results identical to those found in the real world. This position already finds support in the words of Rambam regarding the science of astronomy (Guide of the Perplexed, II, chap. 11). Many modern scientists and philosophers endorse this view, including the important philosopher and mathematician, Bertrand Russell.[1]

Russell argues that no man has ever seen an atom. We assume the existence of atoms as an abstract logical construct, which allows us to make certain calculations regarding the universe. The world behaves as if it were made up of atoms; but it is impossible to know whether they actually exist. Basing themselves on this proposition, there are those who have argued that there is no room to speak of a contradiction between science and religion, for science does not pretend to tell us what is really happening in the universe.[2]

This argument, however, seems to be a slightly exaggerated application. Even if we say that an atom or an electron is merely an abstraction, it is difficult to put forward the same argument about the age of the universe. Moreover, science may not be able to unequivocally confirm a particular proposition regarding the real world, but it stands to reason that it can at least rule out certain theories about the universe.

The Lubavitcher Rebbe proposed an additional argument, different in its details, but also giving expression to the limits of science:

Even assuming that the period of time which the Torah allows for the age of the world is definitely too short for fossilization (although I do not see how one can be so categorical), we can still readily accept the possibility that God created ready fossils, bones or skeletons (for reasons best known to Him), just as He could create ready living organisms, a complete man, and such ready products as oil, coal or diamonds, without any evolutionary process. (Rabbi M. M. Schneersohn of Lubavitch, Iggerot Kodesh)

The Lubavitcher Rebbe suggests that God may have created the world with dinosaur bones already buried in its depths. It is difficult to refute such an argument, though it leaves a bad taste in our mouth regarding the way God operates in the world.

Interpreting the Assertions of Religion

A second approach takes the opposite stand: It does not reexamine the validity of the assertions of science, but rather our understanding of the pronouncements of religion. The Torah is certainly absolute truth. But have we really understood the Torah properly? A classic example of this approach may be found in what Rambam writes regarding the question of the eternity of the world. Aristotle maintained that the world is eternal, that is, it was never created. Rambam was in doubt about the issue. In the course of his discussion, Rambam relates to the question of how to deal with the plain sense of the biblical passages:

Know that our shunning the affirmation of the eternity of the world is not due to a text figuring in the Torah according to which the world has been produced in time. For the texts indicating that the world has been produced in time are not more numerous than those indicating that the deity is a body. Nor are the gates of figurative interpretation shut in our faces or impossible of access to us regarding the subject of the creation of the world in time. For we could interpret them as figurative, as we have done when denying His corporeality. Perhaps this would even be much easier to do: we should be very well able to give a figurative interpretation of those texts and to affirm as true the eternity of the world, just as we have given a figurative interpretation of those other texts and have denied that He, may He be exalted, is a body. (Rambam, Guide of the Perplexed, II, chap. 25)

Rambam states that he would have no problem interpreting Scripture not in its literal sense, if our scientific or philosophical knowledge would require that. The fact is that the Torah speaks of God's "burning nose," anyet we do't infer from this that God has a nose. Rambam explains that he does not accept the eternity of the world because there is no philosophical proof for the assumption, and because from a religious perspective the position of Aristotle is problematic; but not because of the plain sense of Scripture.

We find another example in Ramban's comments regarding the rainbow. Ramban writes that according to the plain sense of Scripture, God created the rainbow only after the Flood. Since, however, the scientists say that a rainbow is a natural phenomenon, we must understand that the Torah means to say that the natural phenomenon of the rainbow, which existed since creation, became endowed with new meaning following the Flood (Ramban, commentary to Bereshit 9:12).

Many in our generation have followed this path, attempting to reinterpret the biblical verses so that they fit in with modern science. One of the first to do so in our period was Rabbi Israel Lipschutz, author of the Tiferet Yisrael commentary to the Mishna:

In 1807, in Siberia, in the northernmost tip of the world, under the dreadful ice that is always there, an enormous elephant was found, about three or four times as big as those found today, the bones of which are now housed in a museum in St. Petersburg… And we already knew of the bones of a gigantic animal found in the depths of the ground in America near the city of Baltimore, seventeen feet long, and eleven feet tall from its forefeet to its shoulders, and nine feet from its hind feet to its back. The bones of this animal were also found in the depths of the ground in Europe, scattered about one here and one there, and they called this species of animal "mammoth"…

From all this it is clear that everything that the kabbalists have told us for hundreds of years, that the world had already once existed and was then destroyed, and then it was reestablished four more times, and that each time the world appeared in a more perfect state than before – now in our time it has all become clear in truth and righteousness. And would you believe, my brothers, that this wonderful secret is clearly written in the first section of our holy Torah… (Rabbi Israel Lipschutz, Derush Or ha-Chayyim)[3]

Rabbi Lipschutz brings the bones of the dinosaurs and the mammoth as proof to the argument that the creation story should not be understood literally. Rather, God created worlds and then destroyed them, the dinosaur and mammoth bones being remnants of those ancient worlds.[4]

We can bring another example from a book written by the physicist, Prof. Nathan Aviezer:

A statement must be made at the outset about biblical chronology - the six days of creation. Any attempt to correlate the biblical text with scientific knowledge must necessarily understand the term "day" to mean a phase of a period in the development in the world, rather than a time interval of twenty-four hours. This idea is, of course, not new. The sages of the Talmud long ago called attention to the fact that one cannot speak of a "day" or of "evening and morning" in the usual sense if there is neither sun nor moon in the sky… There is no consensus of traditional opinions about the definition of "Day" in the Seven Days of the Beginning… The view adopted in the present book is that the six days of creation do not refer to a time interval of 144 hours, but rather to six specific phases in the development of the universe – from the initial creation to the appearance of man. (Nathan Aviezer, In the Beginning… Biblical Creation and Science, pp. 1-2)

When he comes to explain the first chapter of Bereshit in accordance with modern science, Prof. Aviezer asserts that the verses should not be taken in their literal sense. The word "day" should not be understood as a time interval of twenty-four hours, but as a phase in the development of the universe.

Distinguishing Between the Two Realms

A third approach makes no attempt to reinterpret the Torah or to raise doubts about the validity of science. Rather, it argues that the Torah and science relate to two entirely different realms. Science generates facts, religion teaches us values and commandments. Therefore, a priori, there can be no clash between them. When science tries to teach us values, it is overstepping its boundaries; and when religion appears to be teaching us facts, there must be some misunderstanding.

Galileo had raised a similar argument. Galileo, as we recall, advocated the view of Copernicus that the earth revolves around the sun, and not the reverse. His opponents countered that according to the plain sense of Scripture it is the earth that is at rest and the sun that moves (e.g., "Sun, stand still upon Giv'on" - Yehoshua 10:12). Galileo argued that Scripture teaches us nothing about scientific matters:

Take into consideration, O theologians, who wish to connect matters of faith to scientific questions. You expose yourselves to the danger that in the end anyone who believes that the sun moves will be declared a heretic; in the end, that is, when it will be proven in scientific or logical manner that the earth moves and the sun stands in its place. (Galileo, Dialogue)

Galileo warns his opponents: If you don't sever the connection between science and religion, the day will come that my theory will be proven correct, and you will be burnt at the stake. The sole solution lies in the recognition that we are dealing with two entirely different realms.

This is also what Rabbi Avraham Yitzchak Kook writes:

Regarding the number of years since creation in relation to the geological calculations of our day… In truth, however, we do not need any of this. For even if it would become clear to us that the world came into being by way of the evolution of the species, still there would be no contradiction, for our count follows the plain sense of the biblical verses, which is far more relevant to us than knowledge about the past, which carries little value for us. Without question, the Torah concealed much about creation, speaking in allusions and parables. For everyone knows that the creation story is included among the secrets of the Torah, and if everything followed the plain sense [of the verses], what secret would there be here?… The main thing is what arises from the entire story – knowing God and [living] a truly moral life. God, who provides in measure even the spirit that falls upon the prophets, arranged that when these great ideas would enter these images, man could draw from them, with great effort, all that is most beneficial and elevating for them. (Rabbi A.Y. Kook, Iggerot Ra'ayah, I, letter 91, p. 105)

There is no need to be upset by the theory of evolution. Though it may appear to contradict the plain sense of Scripture, the verses do not pretend to teach us science, but rather spiritual ideas. It is for this reason that God did not formulate the Torah with scientific precision, but in such a manner that allows most easily for the inculcation of such ideas. What is the primary message of the creation story? Presumably, that God rules over nature and should not be identified with it (negation of pantheism). Elsewhere, Rabbi Kook adds the following:

I find myself obligated to arouse your pure spirit about the ideas put forward by recent studies, which for the most part contradict the plain sense of the words of the Torah. My opinion on this matter is that anyone with straightforward thinking should know that, while there are no proven truths in any of these new studies, we are under no obligation to refute or oppose them. For this is not at all the essence of the Torah to teach us simple facts or events that once transpired. The main thing is the content, the inner meaning… (Rabbi A.Y. Kook, Iggerot Ra'ayah, I, letter 134, p. 164)

In the continuation of the passage, Rav Kook establishes an important educatioreligious principle that also has ramifications beyond the narrow topic of science and religion:

This is a great principle in the war of ideas. Any idea that comes to contradict something in the Torah, the first thing that we must do is not necessarily to refute it, but rather to build the palace of Torah above it. In that we become elevated, and through that elevation, the ideas reveal themselves, so that afterwards, when we are free of all pressure, we can fight against them with full confidence. (Ibid.)

This rule was not observed, for example, by the Catholic Church, which fiercely fought against Galileo and was eventually defeated. It is preferable to demonstrate from the outset that even if the exceptional opinion turns out to be correct, the Torah will not suffer as a result.

According to the position presented here, there is no conflict between Torah and science, for the Torah does not pretend to provide us with scientific information. This position is relevant not only to the apparent contradictions between the Torah and the natural sciences, but also to the contradictions between the plain sense of Scripture and our knowledge of history, in the spirit of what Chazal said: "Iyyov never existed and had never been created." Much ink has been spilled over the camels that are mentioned in Scripture. The book of Bereshit describes our patriarchs riding camels. Scholars and Rabbis have been arguing for decades whether or not camels had already been domesticated in the patriarchal period. According to the position presented here, the question is totally irrelevant. Perhaps the patriarchs never really rode on camels, but on donkeys or on oxen or on winged horses, or perhaps they traveled on foot. Who cares? God, for various reasons connected to the Torah's influence upon the generation in which it had been given and upon later generations, preferred to write that the patriarchs rode on camels. Within Scripture's internal historical system, this is not an anachronistic failing. The comparison with real history is out of place, for we are talking about two entirely different systems, which do not presume to parallel each other.

Dr. Yisrael Rosenson brings another example that is relevant to the present discussion. Rosenson relates to the objection raised by biblical scholars against the story of the fall of the walls of Jericho, the truth of which archeology has been unable to verify. Scripture's objective, argues Rosenson, is not to provide a precise historical description of Jericho's fortifications. Scripture's aim here is to portray a nomadic people standing outside a settled and fortified city, and to describe their experiences and feelings:

From this perspective, it is not the "archeological" presence of the wall that is important, and it makes no difference whether we are dealing with an actual wall or with a city that was protected in some other manner. The point is that the wall symbolizes the significant urban settlement that faced the nomadic people. (Y. Rosenson, Al Atar 7 (2000), p. 144)[5]

We are not dealing here with a "lie," God forbid, just as the creation story in Bereshit is not a "lie," even according to Rav Kook who maintains that it may not correspond precisely to the events that actually transpired. The Torah never claimed to mirror historical reality with any degree of exactitude; it expects its students to read it after they have already mastered its historical background. According to those who advocate this approach, God never meant to give us the impression that the biblical stories reflect historical reality. When both the author and the reader understand that the Torah does not reflect historical reality, there is no room to talk of a "lie." The key point is that the Torah and science, including historical science, are two separate realms, the objectives of which are entirely different, so that there cannot be any contradiction between them.

Prof. Mordecai Breuer, in a famous article, applies this approach to the world of Chazal. Breuer argues that we should not be troubled by the discrepancies between rabbinic chronology and the generally accepted scientific chronology. Chazal were not historians, and never aspired to provide us with true and precise historical information:

The purpose of the historical assertions of Chazal is not to provide us with historical and chronological information, but only to open our eyes so that they may see God's providence over the ways of the world and the nations. (Prof. Mordechai Breuer, "Hora'at ha-Historiya ve-Emunat Chakhamim," Shema'atin 36-37 [1973], p. 54)[6]

It was Prof. Yeshayahu Lebowitz who took this approach to the extreme. Rabbi Kook argued that the Torah's aim is to teach us not facts, but spiritual lessons. Leibowitz went even further, arguing that the Torah's objective is far narrower – to teach us the mitzvot. According to him, the demarcation between the realms of science and religion is much sharper.[7]

It is important to understand that the total demarcation between science and religion effects not only our understanding of the nature of religion, but also our understanding of the nature of science. Just as religion does not deal with simple factual pronouncements, so too science does not deal with moral, ethical, or spiritual assertions:

Over the course of the generations, scientists have argued that there is no connection between science and morality… What is better – man or a bacterium? Clearly, this question is meaningless in the eyes of science. The bacterium that causes tuberculosis is no better nor any worse than man. Science is incapable of asking: Is this "good" or "bad"? (Prof. Aharon Katzir, Be-Kur ha-Mahapekha ha-Mada'it, p. 59)


[1] Bertrand Russell, Mysticism and Logic, p. 123.

[2] See, for example, Pierre Duhem, The Structure of Physical Theory, p. 176.

[3] Printed in Mishnayot Yakhin u-Bo'az, following tractate Sanhedrin.

[4] It should be noted that it was primarily for kabbalistic reasons that Rabbi Lipschutz was attracted to the idea of the repeated creation and destruction of the world; the scientific consideration is brought only as additional support.

[5] In his important article, Rosenson stresses a point that differs slightly from the focus of our discussion. He relates primarily to the tension between the historical and literary aspects of Scripture. The two discussions, however, touch upon each other and are intimately connected.

[6] See also Rabbi Ya'akov Medan's sharp critique, "Mavo le-Ma'amaro shel Ch. Chefetz," Megadim 14 (5751), pp. 69-71. See also in this context Rabbi Yitzchak Hutner, Pachad Yitzchak, Iggerot u-Khetavim, pp. 50-52, whose position is similar to that of Prof. Breuer.

[7] Yeshayahu Leibowitz, Yahadut, Am Yehudi u-Medinat Yisra'el, p. 342.

(Translated by David Strauss)