The latest post on Rationalist Judaism is by Rabbi Dr. Seth Kadish. It discusses the prevalent attitude amongst chareidim that popular science books which contain information contrary to the Torah’s depiction of nature should not be brought into a Jewish home (or used as textbooks in Jewish schools). As Rabbi Kadish points out, the “problematic” ideas relate to examples such as “natural history” - a euphemism for the evolutionary paradigm of life - and “dinosaurs”. (Note: In truth, dinosaurs pose no problem at all to the Torah’s depiction of animal life. Unfortunately the constant dissemination of evolutionary dogma in popular media outlets has resulted in the wholesale acceptance of the academic view regarding the age of these fabulous beasts of antiquity.) On its face such an attitude seems reasonable, indeed, prudent. After all, why confuse children (or adults) with ostensibly contradictory information? There is plenty of scientific material out there to discuss. Why should popular science books be expected to broach subjects that raise the type of issues such books are not equipped to deal with?
Rabbi Kadish disagrees. Unfortunately, the way he portrays the chareidi attitude (“sanitized science” and “censored Torah”) is highly misleading. He writes as follows:
…there is also a completely different way to approach the issue… there will always still be some deeper and more nuanced problems, which are far more difficult to deal with, and for which there may not be satisfactory solutions. For these questions the answer is not censorship but honesty…
This comment is bizarre. In Rabbi Kadish’s story, a chareidi father wants to insure that the “book of “questions and answers” about nature and the world around us, beautifully illustrated with vivid color pictures” is free of evolutionary dogma. Rabbi Kadish’s response to this is that “honesty” dictates that we should not censor such material from the book. Honesty? What’s so honest about including unproven theories regarding processes which have never been seen and which supposedly occurred millions of years ago, in a book which deals with questions and answers about the facts of nature as we currently see them?
Rabbi Kadish goes on to write as follows:
Neither sanitized science nor censored Torah is the answer. Rather, they are both the very root of the problem. Sanitized science is a sin against God's gift to us of the human mind, and against any true appreciation of the wondrous universe that He made. But censored Torah is even more frightening and dangerous, because when the study of God's Torah is limited to those opinions which are deemed acceptable in a certain community at a certain time, or according to certain rabbis who are deemed gedolim, the result will be not just hyper-inflated contradictions between Torah and science but something far worse: a perversion of the Torah itself and thus of God's will for Israel.
This paragraph is so egregious in its presentation of the chareidi approach that it is difficult to figure out just where to start. Let’s begin with “sanitized science”. As we’ve noted several times on this blog, there are two distinct branches of science. There is operational/technological science and there is origin-based science. The former is not contested by chareidi Jews. It is not filtered, censored, or “sanitized”. Operational science is a product of empirical observation combined with extensive experimentation under controlled conditions. Its findings are submitted to peer-review for verification and duplication under a variety of conditions. Only then are their conclusions granted acceptance into the general knowledge-base of science. This branch of science does not contradict the depictions of nature in the Torah and in fact is practiced by chareidi doctors, chemists, biologists, engineers and a host of other similar professions.
On the other hand, origin-based science is not subject to the above-noted scientific methodology. On the contrary, it deals with far-fetched theories about events that were never seen or recorded, cannot be tested, and often-times contradict the evidence! The practitioners of origin-based science attempt to capitalize on the proven successes of operational science by extending its authority to their own theories and for the most part they have been successful. But those familiar with the philosophy of science understand that this “extension of authority” is not scientific in nature. It is a product of the materialist philosophy which characterizes the worldview of the elitist academic establishment. Origin-based science is not science; it is scientism. It’s primary mandate is to explain the existence of all of the phenomena of the universe in exclusively materialistic terms. As such, it frequently provides explanations that are entirely unsupported by the evidence and on many occasions, actually contradict the evidence!
The following paragraph by the eminent Harvard biologist Richard Lewontin says it beautifully:
Our willingness to accept scientific claims that are against common sense is the key to an understanding of the real struggle between science and the supernatural. We take the side of science in spite of the patent absurdity of some of its constructs, in spite of its failure to fulfill many of its extravagant promises of health and life, in spite of the tolerance of the scientific community for unsubstantiated just-so stories, because we have a prior commitment, a commitment to materialism. It is not that the methods and institutions of science somehow compel us to accept a material explanation of the phenomenal world, but, on the contrary, that we are forced by our a priori adherence to material causes to create an apparatus of investigation and a set of concepts that produce material explanations, no matter how counter-intuitive, no matter how mystifying to the uninitiated. Moreover, that materialism is absolute, for we cannot allow a Divine Foot in the door. The eminent Kant scholar Lewis Beck used to say that anyone who could believe in God could believe in anything. To appeal to an omnipotent deity is to allow that at any moment the regularities of nature may be ruptured, that miracles may happen.
Rabbi Kadish’s approach to “dealing with the problems” is a result of his unquestioning faith in the dogma of scientism. Ergo, his misguided attempt at promoting “honesty” in popular science books. Unfortunately, both he and Rabbi Slifkin suffer from the same malady. But this is not the end. There is something even worse. This approach leads Rabbi Kadish to the ultimate affront: the claim that eliminating subjects like “natural history” from science textbooks amounts to “a sin against God's gift to us of the human mind, and against any true appreciation of the wondrous universe that He made”. This accusation is so outrageously false it boggles the mind! The truth is exactly the opposite. The very foundation of the theories of “natural history” is that life developed by unguided material processes. These theories block “any true appreciation of the wondrous universe that He made” by definition! Unfortunately Rabbi Kadish, like Rabbi Slifkin, is blinded by the consensus opinion of the academic community and is therefore compelled to adopt approaches that compromise the truth of our mesora in a misguided attempt to align the Torah with the philosophies of the scientific community.
As far as Rabbi Kadish’s allegation that censoring science books amounts to “censored Torah” and is “dangerous” because it “is limited to those opinions which are deemed acceptable in a certain community at a certain time”, I beg to differ. I have compiled a list of opinions on ma’aseh bereishis spanning the entire history of the Jewish nation and our mesora is unanimous! A recent, rapid, meta-natural creation was “deemed acceptable” in every community at every time! Only in the past 150 years or so was this opinion questioned and only by a handful of individuals. They comprise a tiny fraction of our gedoley Torah (Rabbi Slifkin lists three or four at most) and as such their opinions in this particular matter are not relevant.
Rabbi Kadish writes:
Serious questions about Torah and science are nothing new. In every generation mankind tries anew to understand both itself and the universe around it, and this continuing search reveals new truths. At the very same time, men of Torah in every generation—who are themselves also men of truth—honestly strive to understand anew both God's Torah and the world around them using the best tools available to them. This dual engagement not only forces them to meet deep and important challenges head on, but also has the potential to enrich their understanding of mankind, of the universe, and of the Torah itself.
I agree fully with this statement. To wrap up this post I will mention something I heard from my Rebbi in line with this idea. The Michaber (Orach Chaim Siman 6:1) has a long sif explaining the kavanos behind the beracha of Asher Yatzar. My Rebbi claims that advances in medical science have rendered this sif all but irrelevant. The wonders of the human body as understood by medical science today are so incredibly spectacular that one can no longer content himself with the kavanos of the Michaber. His descriptions are kindergarten talk in comparison to what we can appreciate today of Hashem’s Wisdom and Kindliness.