The problem of the relationship between religion and science – or, to be more precise, religion and human knowledge – is an ancient Jewish issue. For over 2,000 years, it has been surfacing in various ways, but the crux of it has always remained the same. It is difficult to find a complete solution for it, because its details are so numerous and belong to so many spheres of life, that the mere presentation of the question – even without dealing with the solution – is a major feat. However, it seems that at the outset, we should not deal at all with specific questions, because there simply is no need for that. So many of these questions have changed: questions became answers, and vice versa. Therefore, if we devote our attention to specifics, we may soon find out that neither the questions nor the answers have any value. So we must first deal with the general problem, and only then go to the secondary issues, as the circumstances may require. Take, for example, the monumental work of Maimonides, who dealt extensively with issues of religion and science, worked out numerous contradictions and answered many questions: with all the admiration to his great achievement, our generation cannot be assisted by his writings in solving our problems. Maimonides did indeed succeed in reconciling the Torah with Aristotelian philosophy and Medieval science, but in our generation there is not much use for his philosophical explanations, let alone his scientific knowledge. He wasted so much effort on specific issues, which has turned out to be quite worthless. Maimonides should have, instead, outlined a general way for comparing religion with science, and not with the specific scientific knowledge of a specific era. Of course, at his time no one could have guessed that science can change and contradict its former knowledge; but at any rate it is obvious that there is not much point in working on the details of specific problems: a general approach is what is needed.
Religion and science are two separate areas of knowledge. Religion imbibes from super-human sources, whereas the source for human knowledge – philosophy, science, etc. – is human. These two types of knowledge often turn to different directions – religion does not touch upon science, and vice versa. But even in ancient times, there were some overlapping areas in which there were both religious and scientific concepts. It is not at all necessary that religious and human knowledge should reach different conclusions, but it is quite probable. And indeed, there have always been differences, both subtle and major, between religion and science. The existence of such differences has always been a serious problem for religious people, who tried to erase them as much as possible. All the attempts to nullify the differences have one thing in common: they are forced and artificial, and awkward both religiously and scientifically.
This double-edged awkwardness of the attempts to reconcile between religion and science has made many of those who are bothered by such issues join the crowd of naïve people who do not have any questions or doubts, and in the modern era there are many ostensibly logical reasons to support such a position. Why should science and religion clash in the first place? It is true that at the moment, they reach different conclusions; but experience has shown that scientific knowledge is rapidly changing, whereas religion is stable, and there is no point in comparing something that is in a state of constant mutation with something stable and unchanging. What is the point of doubting something in the Torah because of a scientific fact, which is sure to soon be revealed worthless? When science reaches perfection, when it will be able to solve these problems – and at this point, they always add: if such problems will still exist at that point, with the certainty that they will not exist – then it will be possible to delve into the science-Torah relationship.
This, of course, means evading the issue; but such evasion does not solve anything. Theoretically one may of course claim that it is impossible to rely on the constantly changing science, but this nevertheless does not solve the problem of what to do if, in the end, the conclusions of the perfect science will differ from what is written in the Torah.
At any rate, this theoretical issue does not touch upon the true root of the befuddlement, and is therefore but a straw for a drowning person. The root of the matter is not in the existence of two different opinions on one and the same thing, and that by accident one of the opinions comes from a religious source, and the other from a human source. When there are only two opinions of one kind, no one who is a believer, or holds a certain opinion, will doubt the fact that some people don't think or hold the same beliefs as he. No Jew thinks that there is any danger to his faith in the fact that the ancient Greeks believed that the world was created not by God, but by a medley of gods; this is treated by the Jew with total equanimity. However, the relationship between science and religion is a totally different matter. Had these two areas been of equal value, then one could have asked the naïve question: why does science put religion in doubt? It could just as well have been the other way around! But this is not the case: even for people who are not definitely religious, religion does not contradict science, whereas even for people who are complete believers, the science-religion relations are a true problem.
The reason is that science seems to us to be standing on a very firm basis. It is based on verifiable facts and certain extrapolations (at least at the time) and well-based theories. The scientific construct seems certain and looks like the only real possibility which cannot be contradicted. Of course, things that seem unshakable may, with time, turn out to be far from certain; but at the time, the scientific construct seemed eternally firm and positively true. Thus, even the most ardent believer will consider the science-religion issue as a problem that must be solved. Even if he is certain of the truthfulness of the super-human knowledge, he will still have to ask: what is wrong with religion? And if he doesn't find this out, he will be left not with a question about religion, but with a question mark. On the other hand, even if a person makes a faulty scientific consideration, because he erred in his scientific logic, he is still certain that the scientific construct is firm and unshakable. A person who has not had a Divine experience, or whose faith is ridden with doubts, has difficulties and qualms in adhering to his faith, whereas the scientific path seems safe and open to everyone who wishes to take it. Clearly, as long as science has not reached the stage of perfect certainty (will it ever?), it will be impossible for it to cast complete doubt on religion. But for the ordinary person science equals certainty, for which he can get plenty of proof, whereas religion, after all, is not seen in the same light, and there is always room in it for doubts and questions. Therefore, even if it is possible to somehow evade the theoretical issue, the psychological aspect remains – namely, the fact that scientific certainty seems to contradict religious faith; after all, the question always remains: the Torah says so and so, while science says otherwise.
This clash between science and religion exists on three levels: philosophically, in the natural sciences, and in Bible criticism. Philosophically, there are philosophical hypotheses or conclusions that stand in contradiction to the basic tenets of faith; for instance: the philosophical assumption that the universe has always existed, modern scientific determinism, or various doubts and questions about God's existence, etc. Another area of problems is the clash between the findings of the natural sciences and the Torah. The Bible states a certain fact which geology, archeology, history, physics, chemistry etc. seem to contradict. The third problematic area is Bible criticism, which dissects the biblical text, plays around with it and amends it, and thus demolishes our ability to rely on it.
Philosophy was the main issue in dealing with the science-religion debate in the Middle Ages. Nowadays, however, this is completely invalid. Only when there is one philosophy can one question religion on a philosophical basis; but today, after generations of philosophers have demolished all the philosophical principles and axioms, when even logic itself is doubted, no philosophical question is of any value. Bible criticism, too, has no real significance for the science-religion issue. Although Bible criticism does raise some worthwhile questions, the proof or contradictions – true or false – which it brings are not unequivocal; they are based on certain pseudo-philosophical or scientific hypotheses, which are not the only way possible.
After all, a critical approach that analyses a prophet's words on the basis of the assumption that a prophet cannot possibly foretell the future, such criticism is inherently faulty. This criticism, that analyses the Torah and dates it a few centuries later, is based on the assumption that the Torah is not true. If there really was the parting of the Reed Sea and the Revelation on Mt. Sinai – which for "philosophic" or whatever other reasons these critics find unacceptable – then the entire Bible criticism crumbles down. In a Divinely given Torah, there is no place to the kinds of answers that Bible critics give. Our Sages noticed most of the difficulties that Bible critics point to, but their faith in the Torah brought them to conclusions that are just as necessary as those of the Bible criticism – namely, the halachic Midrash. Of course, a person can always reject the premise of Divine Torah and reach his own conclusions, but the assumption that the Torah was written by a few priests, and its conclusion that Bible criticism is preferable to the assumption that the Torah is Divine, is by no means stronger than the premise that the Torah is Divine.
The main problems in the science-Torah issue begin when we shift from the humanities to the natural sciences. In the humanities, both the philosophical and the literary hypotheses are based on premises which one can take or leave, and therefore any construction based on them can be refuted. This is not, however, the case with the natural sciences, which are based on experiments and have a measure of certainty and objectivity. Natural sciences touch upon religion in two main areas: in the logic behind Halachic decisions, and in the Holy Scriptures. In many cases, the reasons that halachic decisors bring for certain halachic decisions are scientifically wrong, and the question naturally arises: how should we conduct ourselves? Should we act according to the reason behind the halachah, which has been proven wrong – or according to the halachah itself, and revoke the faulty reason? This question is not directly related to the science-religion debate because it is not a philosophical but a practical question, and in practicality we must take into account the opinion that the reason cited in the books is not necessarily the most fundamental and true reason, nor is it the motive behind the halachic decision; rather, it is an attempt to find a reason for an existing halachah.
The greatest difficulties are in the sphere of contradictions between science (that is, natural sciences) and the religion. The contradictions between science and post Torah religious texts are not a religious problem, because there is no reason to assume that even a very great person can know everything, and this does not at all diminish from his religious greatness or personal sanctity. Therefore there is no problem about the contradictions between science and the Talmud, for instance. This is not the case, however, with the Torah: something Divine must be true – or else it is not Divine.
We are all aware of the contradictions between science and the Torah in a number of fields, especially geology, archeology and ancient history. The contradictions are numerous and fundamental, and most religious people come up with feeble answers which are nothing but cowardly evasions of the issue. On the one hand, these ordinary excuses are based on casting doubts on science (pointing to contradictions that prove nothing, or showing how tortuous the path of science is, while ignoring the overall scientific progress). In addition, they often make use of the assumption (which has no basis whatsoever) that in previous generations, things were different, the only proof for which is what is written in the Bible. These two kinds of answers are mere evasions because they both do not address the issues but only wait for the "perfect science" – which might turn out to be quite inconsistent with the Torah. In addition, there is quite a number of questions that these answers are not good for. For example: the fact that the Euphrates and Tigris rivers have no common source, and that the river of Pishon river (even if it is not the Nile) which flows all around Kush (even if it is near India) is not even near that region, and that there is also no Eden around those areas, cannot be explained away by saying that science does not know everything. In other words: seeking shelter in ignorance does not pay, especially since often, this shelter turns out to be quite unsafe and rather exposed. After all, the main issue is psychological; it is easy to convince a yeshiva student of the flimsiness of geology – but a student of geology will not be so easily convinved by that.
On the other hand, however, the issue cannot be solved by declaring that the Story of Creation, for instance, is mere legend. It is impossible to consider the Torah only half-holy: either it is Divine, and in that case it is totally true, or it is man-made, and in that case can be wrong both on Divine and on natural matters.
The science-religion debate, then, is a religious problem, and must therefore be solved like any other issue – namely, out of religion itself; any other kind of solution is a fraud, it is baseless. The answer must come from a thorough investigation of religious understanding, without any tendentiousness. The Divine origin of the Torah is a basic tenet of Judaism. But despite the fact that it is a basic tenet, few people really look into its inner content and its implications. Stating that the entire Torah is Divine means that not only the ideas in the Torah are Divine, but also each verse, and even every single letter; "the entire Torah is the names of the Holy One, Blessed be He" (Nachmanides, in his introduction to his commentary to the Torah). Thus, the verse "Hear, O Israel" is not more important than the verse "And Timna was the concubine," nor is the verse "I am the Lord your God" more important from "and the sons of Ham are Kush and Mitzrayim." Of course, one must not compare the idea expressed in the verse "Hear O Israel" with that expressed in the verse "and the sons of Ham" etc.; but in terms of their Divine value, they are completely equal, because each and every letter in the Torah is a Divine revelation, and every vowel and sign is a tremendous Divine illumination. The letters of the Torah are the basis and the foundation of the Torah, and they come in various orders that hint to different things; thus they fall into verses, and the verses into paragraphs, etc. – thus revealing some of their inner content. The main part of the Torah, then, is its hidden content, which is what explains the significance of every word and letter: they are all names of the Almighty.
In addition to the inner content there is also the external content of the Torah – the Pshat, or literal level, which also needs to be understood. In principle, the literal level is only secondary to the inner content of the Torah. It is a random creation, just like it may happen that the letters that make up a certain mathematical formula will also form a word – which will have nothing to do with the formula, of course. On the other hand, though, the Torah is not a random creation, and even though the literal level of the Torah is not the entire significance of the Torah, it is certainly a part of it. Because there is nothing random about the divine Torah; even its secondary forms are premeditated.
The literal level is not intended to reveal truths: its purpose is to be the simple, external expression of the spirit of the Torah, to teach and to educate. The overt, simple way of education is through the commandments: the Torah simply points out what are the good deeds, what can and should be done and what must not be done, what are the practical ways of reaching perfection and what takes us away from perfection. But just as there are overt directions in the Torah – through the positive and negative commandments – ther are other things that are taught through stories. The Torah stories should not be taken literally: rather, we should try to grasp their inner content and see them as hints to loftier things. At this point one may ask: why, then, should we give an allegorical interpretation only to the stories, and not also to the commandments? This question was already raised by our Sages, who answered it saying: the aim of the Torah is to teach and direct us, and through learning the Torah we should understand and receive directions for our way therefore, whatever we can understand as a commandment and a direction, we must take literally. For instance: the verse "and they shall be for frontlets between your eyes" (Deuteronomy 6:8) can be interpreted also as a metaphor; but since it can be implemented in practice, we must do what it says. This is not the case, however, with the verse "circumcise the foreskin of your hearts" (Deuteronomy 10:16), which cannot be implemented literally, and therefore we interpret it metaphorically. Similarly, about the verse "the cities are
great and fortified in heaven" (Deuteronomy 1:28), our Sages say: "The Torah says absurd things" (divrei havai). The question whether the Torah stories are true also in the literal sense has no religious significance. The facts that are recounted in the Torah do not pertain to any external reality, and their historic truthfulness is of no religious relevance. From a religious point of view, there is no difference whether the world has been existing some 6,000 years or more. The Torah story has a meaning – overt or covert; the numbers of years that people lived hints to something and have some sort of inner logic. There is an inner significance to the fact recounted in the Torah that the name of the person who discovered metal fusion was Tuval Cain, and that he was a descendant of Cain. However, in terms of the inner meaning there is no difference whether such a person did indeed exist. The Torah stories indicate as many of the commandments that can be extracted from them ( For instance: the four-headed letter ש in the phylacteries are deducted from the side comment "he should write her a bill of divorcement" (Deuteronomy 24:1); the commandment to "multiply and be fruitful" (Genesis 1:28) is given as a blessing and not as a commandment; etc.
Generally speaking, the Torah stories serve only as sources for understanding, for instance, the fathers of the nation as role models, both positively and negatively, and the fact that they do not have to be understood literally does not prove that they are wrong, just as it does not prove that they are right. This issue is religiously irrelevant, because this is not their point, just as it is irrelevant whether case of the poor man's lamb in the prophet Nathan's allegory actually existed in reality or not (see II Samuel, chapter 12). The Torah is not a historic document, just as it is not the actual tale of the story of Creation. Its sole purpose is to teach and to educate. It therefore should be seen not as a history book, but rather as a historic tale that has a certain orientation and aim. The flow of events is not necessarily how things were, but rather how they should have been. Surely, many problems would have been avoided had Scripture said: "any similarity to real people and actual events is entirely coincidental"…
One simple example can illustrate that there really is no other way of understanding the Torah stories. Take, for example, the list of the Kings of Edom in the Book of Genesis (36:31 ff). The believer, who cannot simply accept the premise that the author, out of some strange eagerness for historic facts, inserted into his book any list he could put his hands on, must understand the significance of these verses. For the religious person, the fact that such kings reigned is not sufficient reason for including them in the Torah; he must assume that they have additional meaning – e.g., that they allude to the "breaking of the vessels" in the world of tohu, and the like; he must also assume that this information is essential, and that without it, the book would be lacking. Therefore the names of those people are necessary for the Torah, regardless of whether such people actually existed or not; that is a question for archeologists.
Thus, the science-religion debate is completely resolved. There is no connection between human science and the Torah stories. It may turn out that the Torah stories are completely true, or only allegorically true, but either way it would only be a random connection. The Torah stories are not legends: they are allegories and hints, some overt and some covert, and are all there in order to instruct man. The literal understanding of the Torah is not the factual meaning, but the inner significance of the stories. Therefore, all the great Jewish sages have always warned against studying the Torah as a history book, and emphasized the need to seek its inner meaning. This is, in fact, the basis for all the a-historical interpretations of the Torah: the commentators did not want to relate what happened, but what we are to learn from what happened. On the literal level, then, there is absolutely no connection between science and religion. So that now, having resolved the weighty contradiction between science and religion, it will be possible to reach a new, deeper and more inner connection, based on a different understanding of science, that will bring about the complete unification of science and religion.