As a member of Temple Israel Center of White Plains, I have been in Rabbi Gordon Tucker’s theology class for about ten years. In that time, we have studied a large number of ancient and contemporary visions of the Bible, God, and religion. During the same time, I have also been reading a number of lay-level astronomy and quantum science books. And it has sparked for me some new ways of thinking about the relationship between religion and science.
There is a rich debate about our existence, and our relationship to God, within the religious realm alone. One book, Revelation & Authority: Sinai in Jewish Scripture and Tradition, by Benjamin D. Sommer (2015), sets out the viewpoints of a variety of mainstream Jewish sages about how much of the Torah (the first five books of the Old Testament) was given at Mount Sinai. These viewpoints vary from those who believe God dictated every word of the Torah, to those who think it was just the Ten Commandments, to those who believe God was more just a brooding omnipresence at Mount Sinai—with a multitude of possible timelines for all these events.
At one point, Rabbi Tucker challenged us with the question, “Would it matter if God dictated less than the entire Torah word-for-word at Mount Sinai, or taught it over 40 days while Moses was up on Mount Sinai, or over the 40 years that the Israelites were in the desert, or over 120 years, or whether there is continuous revelation, would the Torah be any less sacred and authoritative to us?” And the resounding answer from the class was “It shouldn’t.”
At the same time, I was reading The Fabric of the Cosmos: Space, Time, and the Texture of Reality, by Brian Greene (2004). There, he summarizes the history of the theory of relativity, as well as various quantum theories, including the seemingly counterintuitive models of reality posed by superstring and quantum loop gravity theories. At times, he waxes awed in spiritual language about the order, and yet the mystery, of the science that he faces. Surely, he does not believe the world was created in six days, 6,000 years ago.
What struck me then was that I did not find the two books incompatible or troubling.
It continues to surprise me how common it is to assume that science and religion should be judged by a common framework and set of truth propositions. That is what sets up the false dichotomy that artificially forces them into conflict. Other disciplines are not rigidly compared with science in this way. No one asks, for example, “Do science and poetry conflict?”
If the poet says, “Human life is like a bowl of cherries,” people don’t refute it with a statement like “Scientists can prove with repeatable experiments that human life is not like a bowl of cherries.” The fact that the statement is a false scientific fact does not detract from its profound truth, reality, and insight. The point of poetry is that it offers its own view of reality, with its own set of rules. Human life is like a bowl of cherries in that life comes in a variety of separate experiences, of different shapes and colors. Some are sweet, some have turned sour, some are ripe, some not yet ripe, some are rotten. Even the sweet ones have an inedible pit, but what we do with that pit—break our teeth on it, plant it, or throw it out—affects our future and the future of others. This poetic view has helped me incorporate the meaning of the bitter ones, along with the overwhelming sweetness and texture of the sublime ones, making meaning out of the variety of experiences from my childhood, my marriage, raising my children, the jobs I have won and lost, and my place in the world.
Religious truths and scientific accuracy
Like poetry, religious truths can be profound and life changing, because of—not in spite of—their scientific accuracy. In Part II, Chapter XV of “The Guide for the Perplexed,” Maimonides sees no conflict between science, wherever it may lead, and his religious beliefs. After he spends much time explaining the theory that God created the universe out of nothing and at a given point of time in the narrative of Genesis, he then unexpectedly, and famously, says that even if science were to prove that the universe were eternal (or even preceded God), that would not negate Genesis or his faith: “If, however, we accepted the Eternity of the Universe . . . and assumed, with Plato, that the heavens are likewise transient, we should not be in opposition to the fundamental principles of our religion.”
Religion and science each have their own proof system. Religious truths have proved their strength because of their resonance across different personalities, geographies, genders, ages, and cultures; and because the same words have resonated with others, hundreds (and sometimes thousands) of years ago, in the same ways or in changing ways, but in ways that bring continuing meaning and purpose to our lives. Scientific truths are proved (and must also stand the test of time): by the reproducibility of the results of experiments or observations done across a variety of observers, in terms of different personalities, geographies, genders, ages, and cultures, or because they can be derived by logical deduction from the results of such experiments or observations.
What relationship do scientific and religious truths have to each other when they are held simultaneously? Do they complement each other or clash? Each has its own purpose.
Religious truths are there to teach moral lessons and the reason and purpose of the world around us. This allows us to form a community with those around us with a shared vision of why, and of what, God may be. This, in turn, connects us with generations of those who came before us, and we have faith it will resonate with generations long after us. Scientific truths teach us how things are, how they came to be, how the forces and matter around us influence us, how we can influence them, and how we can predict, manipulate, and use them. These may seem very different, until you consider that this knowledge has shown us the profound unity and stability of the forces and matter in our universe.
In Rabbi Tucker’s class, we read the words of Ahad Ha’am (an influential Israeli author in the first part of the 20th Century), this time in a discussion about whether it matters if Moses actually existed. And his words help us live with both religious and scientific truths:
“[N]ot every archeological truth is a historic truth. Did Moses really exist? Did his life and actions really correspond to what has been handed down to us? There are many questions like this but in my heart I wipe them away in an instant with a short and simple answer: This Moses, this man of the ancient past . . . is of no concern to anybody but the [scholars] . . . For me, we have another Moses, whose image is fixed in the hearts of our people from generation to generation and whose influence in our national life has never ceased, from the days of old to the present” (translation from “Rabbi Akiva,” by Barry W. Holtz ).
Whether the events in the Bible actually occurred, and even if they never occurred as stated there, their image is fixed in our hearts, and their influence in our lives never ceases. Both science and religion, together, become part of our transcendent culture, understanding, and inheritance.
(This article originally posted at Scientists in Synagogues, a Templeton-funded program exploring questions surrounding Judaism and science. Scientists in Synagogues is a project of Sinai and Synapses, which “bridges the religious and scientific worlds, offering people a worldview that is scientifically grounded and spiritually uplifting.” Reprinted with permission.)