Can we learn to live with questions?
By: David Levin
Throughout history, the wisdom of Torah has often come into conflict with the wisdom of the secular, natural sciences. The fact is these two spheres of study appear to contradict each other in many, many ways. These contradictions are not new and neither are the approaches people have taken when confronted by these contradictions. Rather than discuss ways to approach specific contradictions, I’d like to discuss in general terms how to deal with these contradictions. Almost all people can be categorised into three categories in terms of their approach to dealing with contradictions between Torah and science:
1) Those who consider the Torah to be the absolute representation of truth and who, therefore, reject science, in part or entirely, as a result of any contradictions;
2) Those who consider the position of science to be primary and who, therefore, discard the Torah as a result of any contradictions; and
3) Those who ignore the issue altogether.
All of these approaches lack intellectual rigour in one way or another. It’s easy to see this in the case of the last approach – its adherents make no attempt to resolve the contradictory data before them. They simply do not engage the issue at all. However, in the case of the first two approaches, the lack of rigour stems from failing to notice that if one is to discard either Torah or science because it contradicts the other, one would also need to discard one’s primary choice because it also contradicts itself in many cases! Let me explain.
Any student of the Talmud or Torah in general cannot fail to notice that there are innumerable contradictions that arise. It is, however, the task of a student of the Torah to resolve these apparent contradictions and thereby arrive at a deeper understanding of the Torah. Among many others, the commentary of the Ba’alei Tosfos, the medieval students of the great yeshivos of France, Germany, and England, dedicates substantial effort to resolving apparent contradictions between various parts of the Talmud. These commentaries are classics and add immense depth to the study of Talmud.
Similarly, any student of natural sciences is aware of equally countless contradictions and areas that simply do not make any sense. However, it falls to the honest scientist to acknowledge these contradictions and attempt to resolve them. It is through these attempts that scientific breakthroughs often happen. This sentiment is captured in the statement of Isaac Asimov: “The most exciting phrase to hear in science, the one that heralds new discoveries, is not ‘Eureka!’ but ‘That’s funny…’”
In both of these areas, the resolution of apparent contradictions or difficult questions may be quick in some cases, but may take much longer in others. In some cases, the resolution may arrive only centuries or millennia later. By way of example, in the context of Torah, is the case of a rabbi who once noticed that a responsum of the great Rav Moshe Feinstein ztz”l was dated in excess of 40 years after the question was originally asked. When he asked Rav Moshe why he took so long to respond, he answered that it took him that long to work out his answer. An example in the case of science is that of the myriad problems of planetary orbits and epicycles that were resolved by Copernicus only after several millennia.
Fundamentally, it is difficult ever to allege that Torah and science actually contradict each other. Logically this is because in order to propose a contradiction between two facts or systems of knowledge, one needs to know each fact or system of knowledge completely, or at least very well. However, in the case of both Torah and science, we know woefully little about both. When it comes to Torah, insofar as it represents the infinite wisdom of Hashem, whatever we know is always an infinitesimally small proportion of the full truth. In the case of science, this notion was stated most poignantly by Einstein after he made his discoveries of relativity, arguably the greatest ever scientific innovation. He said that before the discovery of relativity, one understood as much as a person looking at the heavens through the window of his lounge. After the discovery of relativity, one understood as much as a person looking at the heavens from on the roof of his house. Clearly he felt that, despite the greatness of his discovery, there was much more still to discover.
Another reason that it is a poor decision to discard either Torah or science in favour of the other is that each one benefits hugely from the other. At its simplest, it is recognised that only those civilisations that were largely monotheistic developed science – all other civilisations developed only technology at best. This is because of the fundamental axiom that is required by monotheism: if a single Creator made the entire universe, then it stands to reason that everything in the universe would derive from a single, consistent system of scientific laws. Consequently, if one observes physical phenomena that appear to contradict each other, then one is compelled to reconcile them. On the other hand, insofar as one is polytheistic, one need not bother with such reconciliations; any contradictions could be explained away by the fact that the contradictory phenomena derive from the acts of different deities. This idea is expressed in the opening words of the Rambam’s Mishna Torah where he says: “The foundation of foundations and the pillar of wisdoms is to know that there is a first Existence and It provides existence to everything that exists.” Note that the Rambam does not say merely “the pillar of Torah”, but rather uses the broader term “pillar of wisdoms”. This would include all other wisdoms in requiring the knowledge of the first Existence upon which to build.
The similarities of Torah and the natural sciences and their mutually beneficial natures are, in fact, far from coincidental. In the introduction to his work translating the words of Euclid into Hebrew, Rabbi Baruch Schick of Shklov, a close disciple of the Vilna Gaon, states that when he visited the Gaon in Teves of 1778, he heard “from the holy mouth that to the extent that a person lacks knowledge of other (“secular”) wisdoms, he will lack 100 times more in his knowledge of Torah, because the Torah and (secular) wisdom are inextricably linked.” He also says that the Gaon charged him to translate as much of the sciences as he could into Hebrew in order to prevent non-Jews from seeing the Jews as ignorant of these sciences. To explain this position more fully, the teaching of the Zohar is instructive. The Zohar states, “When the Holy One, blessed be He, created the universe, he looked into the Torah and created the universe.” The Telshe Rosh Yehiva, Rav Mordechai Gifter ztz”l, explains that the Torah and the natural world have a similar relationship to that of a blueprint for a building and the corresponding building. To someone who is skilled at reading blueprints, he is able to determine what the properties of the house deriving from the blueprints will be. Conversely, someone with different skills would be able to reverse-engineer the blueprints of a building through careful consideration of the building. As a result, he uses this statement of the Zohar to explain the Mishna that says that “Avraham Avinu performed the entire Torah before it was given.” How was he able to observe any mitzvah before it was given? More difficult is how he could observe Pesach before the Jews had even entered Egypt. However, given that all of the mitzvos, including Pesach, are part of the Torah, they are discernible in the physical world and can be derived through careful study of the natural world.
As a result of this relationship, we see that Torah and the natural sciences are flip sides of the same coin, complements of each other. This is probably what the Vilna Gaon was getting at when he said that they “are inextricably linked”. Consequently, to the extent that the Torah is infinitely deep, so too we perceive, in our limited grasp of the physical universe, the natural sciences to be so as well. It also follows that one can deepen one’s understanding of either Torah or science by increasing one’s understanding of the complementary corpus of knowledge. Discarding either Torah or the natural sciences is an ironic tragedy, because in the interest of furthering one’s study of one’s chosen primary topic, one critically undermines that very endeavour by throwing away half of the data that one could constructively use.
And so, I believe that a more correct approach to dealing with contradictions between Torah and the natural sciences is not to excise either Torah or science. Rather we ought to appreciate that our knowledge of both Torah and science is woefully insignificant and we are nowhere near being able to assert that a contradiction exists with any clarity or certainty. As a result of this, any contradictions that arise can be seen as merely apparent contradictions (as opposed to real contradictions), which, with the passage of time and investment of effort, we may one day merit to see reconciled with Hashem’s help. In the meanwhile, we are forced to live with questions. However, as the Yiddish dictum goes “Fun a kashya shtarben mir nit” – one does not die from a question.