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Rabbinic Judaism and science

Before I begin, I would like to point out that, for those of you who donít know, the following is written by someone satisfying the following two conditions

  • Professional existence is in the sciences
  • Religious outlook consists of various shades of Judaism.
  • So what I write will reflect both of those conditions. I was planning to write a piece on religion and science, but I realised that I have very little idea about how any other religion deals with change and the world around them, so I figured I can probably write a stronger piece drawing examples this way. People are welcome to chip in with how they see their religions adapting to change.

    As with any scientific work, assumptions must be made, and it is important to list these. Some may seem fairly obvious and wonít be stated, while others should be but are neglected because weíre only human. So I suppose to show the underlying assumptions, I will begin by describing how I see science as working in the ideal case, and similarly for Rabbinic Judaism.

    First of all, a science is something which relates observation to model to prediction to observation for verification. If the prediction doesnít match the observation, then the model is wrong (of course there are various shades, where the observation might be working under conditions which were assumed not to occur, and this requires a reworking of the model for those conditions).

    To give an example of this, letís say Iím observing a game of basketball where all the successful shots are made from close range. I might then make a model which says that every time the ball goes in the basket, the team gets two points. Now letís say I watch a game where some of the successful shots are made from outside the three-point line. Before I see the shots, I make the prediction that if the shot is successful it will score two points. When I see some of the shots are worth three points, then I can either ascribe it to experimental error (a score is worth 2+/- 50%) or I can investigate the effect of distance, and findÖ

    The second thing about science is that work doesnít appear out of a vacuum. If I come up with a new theory, it doesnít have to just agree with the set of observations I have made, it has to agree with the entire literature that precedes it (to a reasonable order of approximation). Einsteinís theories werenít hailed as great because they only explained new phenomena, but because they also satisfied all previous applicable results and, where they deviated, they gave an improved performance. And he had bad hair, so he must have known what he was talking about.

    Notice how I kept the politics out of science? Iím about to do the same for Judaism. One other comment, though, is that no theory is hailed as universal in its time. Because no theory explains the entire world we perceive, people will always have contrary theories, and time and opinion will gradually dictate which theory is accepted. Unfortunately, this isnít always the best one. But thatís politics. As a scientist, Newton played politics very well (his science wasnít bad either, by the way). (His political career, on the other hand, consisted of asking for a window to be opened. It would be a stretch to say that he provided a breath of fresh air in parliament).

    Now on to the assumptions for the way I see Rabbinic Judaism working. Rabbinic Judaism is a process whereby Rabbis alter and adapt an enhance the body of religious laws to make it relevant to the contemporary society. More importantly than for scientists, they must also reference their work particularly to a heavy body of literature which has preceded it.

    And, again, I will ignore the politics which can surround how a Rabbi will reach a verdict and attempt to alter the rules.

    Now, Iíd like to introduce a quote from my Rabbi. "We are not required to believe in absurdities." That is, if something is demonstrably false, we are not required to believe in. We donít have to take miracles literally. Particularly, as a non-Orthodox Jew, I do not believe that God literally provided tofu for the Israelites, but that the text refers to being satisfied with food as sustenance, and only wanting more if you are in a position to obtain it. Personally, for anyone who has seen me eat, Iíll take on the all-you-can-eat quail challenge. Anyway, the text thatís come before must be taken within textual context and within social context, and the stories donít need to be taken literally. They are there for what they teach about how to make the world a better place, not because we should fall on our faces everytime we see a burning bush.

    As with every religion, Judaism must adapt to the introduction of new phenomena. Sometimes the attitude will be permissive, sometimes it will be ambivalent and sometimes it will be prohibitive. "Is it right to buy a Chrysler?" is not as straightforward a question as it might sound. The introduction of cars into society had a significant impact. Should an opinion be made that it is acceptable, but only fuel efficient ones? Should it be open slather? Should they be prohibited because they will encourage people to move out of the community? etc.

    To take a situation where religion must feed off a changing science, letís imagine there is a highly addictive drug which makes the user feel happy. Letís say that, when it becomes available, it is thought that it has health benefits (did people really think that sucking on a lit cigarette was healthy?) then the question as to whether it should be permitted or not is not trivial. Now letís say, 50 years down the track, after it had been permitted, it turns out that, rather than having health benefits, it is extremely harmful. Banning it is not a trivial proposition, because there are large numbers of people who are already addicted (with sanction to do so).

    Personally, I believe that sanctity of life arguments mean that ALL religions should ban adherents from commencing smoking or increasing consumption. Iíll believe it happens when I see it.

    As another example, letís take abortion. Letís say that abortion was initially prohibited, and was understood to be prohibited, because ancient coat-hangers werenít safe for the pregnant woman (too far?). Further, letís assume that, when relatively successful techniques are discovered, it is deemed permissible to perform an abortion when the womanís life is in danger. What then happens if a perfectly safe technique is invented? Do we say that abortion is permissible? Do we loosen the restrictions? Do we keep the requirements unchanged? These questions must all be answered based on the literature. Rabbis arenít free to just make up stuff out of a vacuum, because then it wonít be adopted, no matter how sensible.

    Ok, so we have that scientific advances cause social change which requires religion to adapt. No big revelations there. (I hope no one is looking in my posts for revelations.) But what happens when religion and science clash over one of religionís big ticket items?

    The big ones are, of course, where we came from, and where WE came from. Universe-creation and human-creation. Iím assuming that most of my readers have a passing familiarity with both the basic biblical treatment and the phrases ďBig BangĒ and ďDarwinian evolutionĒ

    The bible doesnít really take them seriously. It starts with them because it has to say something, and then it moves on and forgets about it. While there are frequent later references to important stuff, like the end of slavery (the exodus), apart from Day of Rest references (which is the main moral message out of it) it is largely ignored subsequently.

    I donít know how Judaism has *officially* responded to proof that creation didnít occur 6000 years ago, or, for that matter, how it has responded to evolution. If anyone is reading and has some good sources, I would love to hear about it. I will, also, at this time, point out that this will be one of those posts where I will put up pretty much any responses, providing they address the topic at hand.

    But when science is able to prove that biblical descriptions did not literally occur, this does present a serious challenge to religion, which can respond in one of two ways. It can try to destroy science (can anyone say Galileo? Besides Queen?). This is where I would love the input of an American who has actually been able to witness this first-hand. Or it can explain how the message is the important thing. How it is there to tell us how to live our lives as better people and make the world a better place, not how it is there to tell us that it has all the answers. The answers do not matter. If it something with a hypothesis we canít test, then the hypothesis is a waste of time. Something purely there so that philosophers can put food on the table. After all, philosophers are people too, and need to eat.

    But these issues donít just come up once in a blue moon. On smaller scales, they are constantly happening. So we see that, not only does science provide situations where religion must adapt and respond, it can also challenge religionís authority. I will also state here, that a large part of the views on responses to science contradicting creation have been adapted from my Rabbiís views and statements. Particularly the view that you canít take it literally and that the message is the inspired part. I will also give a shameless cross-link to the important parts as metaphor which I see coming out of early Genesis.

    So far we have everything going one way. Science impacts religion. How does religion impact science? Well, religion can provide an ethical basis for where science should head. Do we perform stem-cell research? What if it would save lives? Do we perform tests on animals? How should we allocate research funding? Should we focus on life-sciences which may help individuals, applied sciences which may improve the world we live in or fundamental sciences which generate huge knowledge gains which can drastically transform the world we live in? Where should our priorities lie? This is the job of religion, because religionís job is guiding us in the ethical decisions to make a better society. Because science, like the universe, is amoral, it cannot make ethical decisions, and requires a moral code from an external source to provide this.

    The other important thing is that religion must not bear false witness. Holding up a book which has been transcribed over millennia is not sufficient excuse for shouting down contrary theories. Particularly when they have some real evidence. Nor is trying to adapt scientific understanding to fit into stories such as the creation myth an intellectually honest thing to do. Well, if we fit a time dilation in here, and we say that light travels this fast, and we say that the creation of land from the sea refers to the formation of planetsÖthen we are bullshitting and doing ourselves a disservices from both the scientific perspective and the religious one.

    So, in conclusion, Rabbinic Judaism and scientific method are both very closely linked, and have probably both learnt plenty off each other. Science presents new and exciting challenges to society which religion must respond to. Religion must promote the ethical message, which science cannot do, and science must honestly and objectively increase knowledge, which religion must accept.

    And the program I have been running has finished, so I can now get back to work.

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