During the late 1950’s my parents became close friends of Sir Monty and Lady Miriam Finniston, then the Director of the Government research centre at Harwell, near where we lived on the banks of the Thames at Wallingford.
Monty was one of the top scientists in Britain at the time and ended up as the head of British Steel. Naturally a friendship between a major scientist and a rabbi involved theological discussions and the question of the age of the Universe was one of them. My father took the view, that I do today, that science is one kind of process and religion is another and the two are neither mutually exclusive nor necessarily contradictory but ideally complementary.
Inevitably the issue arose of why it was thought necessary to believe that the world was some 5,700 years old when all the scientific information led to the conclusion that it was millions of years old. My father’s position was that it as not necessary to believe anything about the world other than that the Almighty created it and was essential to its continuity. But the method of creation and indeed the time scale were open to interpretation and opinions based as much on close reading of biblical and talmudic texts as science. As a result of their discussions my father wrote a letter to the Lubavitcher Rebbe asking his opinion. My father was convinced that the Rebbe, whom he admired greatly and who had briefly studied engineering at the Sorbonne, would come down forcefully on his side in favour of a creative approach.
I well recall his dismay when the Rebbe’s reply came back attacking the arrogance and certainty of science and arguing that all the scientific evidence was flawed and if tradition had sanctified a date then we were bound to go with it. Nevertheless my father sprang to his defence and argued that a religious leader coming from the Ultra Orthodox camp probably needed both to reinforce his core constituency in its battle with the secular world and indeed to ensure his own position within it. Besides, public statements were very different to private ones and this letter was one that would be widely circulated, as indeed it was.
A few years ago Monty’s widow Miriam gave me a faded copy of Monty’s response to the Rebbe’s critique of the scientific method which. Towards the ends of his reply he says this
‘If you ask me why I do not accept the biblical account of creation which includes the age of the earth as factual it is not because I want to be inventive and original as the Rabbi suggests ( page 3) but because there is a body of factual evidence which allows for a rational and logical interpretation granted certain rational assumptions. These assumptions may turn out to be wrong, but since the conclusions deriving from them at present create a self consistent picture, albeit leaving numerous questions unanswered, I am prepared to accept them until proven false. The biblical explanation makes no such appeal in the context of the known facts and on the contrary actually conflicts with observed evidence….I do not believe that if I reject the biblical age of the universe I reject religion per se. Religion to me means the establishment of a relationship between man and God and man and man. Neither of these essential and unique features of religion seem to me to depend upon the blind acceptance of the age of the world as apparently quoted in the bible.’
This all came back to me when this past week I was shown a similar article to the Rebbe’s by Rav Shternboch, the senior Rabbi of the Edah Charedis, arguably the holiest rabbinical authority around. His essential argument is that science cannot in any way contradict religion and if there appears to be such a contradiction, science must be wrong.
Here is a man of immense knowledge and intellect, of saintliness and authority. His statement seems almost wilfully to ignore the essential issue of the nature of the scientific method. And like the Rebbe I can only assume he was writing for his constituency and in a protective mode. Besides the original was written in Hebrew for a charedi audience. He assumes that all scientists who use an empirical method are anti religious heretics who challenge God and believe that man is no more than ape. In other words he sets up a straw man version of science to demolish just as much as the opponents of religion do for their part. And I ask myself why a man whom I admire should do this. Here are some of his words (in translation)
By asserting that the world was created millions of years ago and that it developed very gradually, they are trying to make our holy Torah compatible with the views of scientists that everything that occurs is the result of mechanical natural processes…these scientists, while they obviously have to admit to the fact of Creation — they want to minimize the role of miracle and maximize the role of nature. This is entirely to minimize the acknowledgment of G-d’s power and to move instead in the direction of heresy.
I find it sad that all scientists should be tarred with the brush of apostasy and anti religious bias. It does rather remind me of the Church’s response to Gallileo. Even more worrying is this attack on honest doubt or the one who genuinely tries to comprehend
Consequently a person who casts doubts on this accepted tradition — even if he is widely respected person by the Jewish people — must be carefully investigated. This is because is possible that he might have doubts concerning the foundation principles of faith — like the academic scholars. It has already become established by the rulings of the great rabbis throughout the generations, that if a person has doubts concerning faith — he is to be considered as a non-believer. That is the halacha.
But having reservations or questioning is not the same as casting doubt. To accept modern scientific methods of healing that contradict Talmudic traditions is not to question religion , surely!
He then goes on to invest rabbis with the sort of authority over thought that would have denied Maimonides the right to use Aristotelian ideas in his Giude to the Perplexed. Indeed it puts him in the camp of those who sought to ban his works altogether.
Only those views which have been widely accepted are valid and not minority views that have been rejected or ignored. Only after we fully accept the Torah understanding of an issue, can we consider the words of the scientists and accept that which is compatible with the words of our sages — according to what has been traditionally accepted.
Not only but one must not even read other opinions.
Furthermore having scientific writings in your house, that are incompatible with the Torah, violates the prohibition (Deuteronomy 4:26): “Do not bring disgusting things in your house.” Simple calculations from the Bible concerning the generations from Adam lead to the clear conclusion that the world is less than 6,000 years old.Having such heretical scientific books in the home causes much troubles to those who possess them and it is obligated to get rid of them. Furthermore the author of such unacceptabl scientific writings must retract such views and subordinate himself to the authority of the rabbis.One wonders who he had in mind.
Maimonides in his introduction to the last chapter of Sanhedrin says that one should not take the sayings of the rabbis at face value, either to accept them or to ridicule them. One needs to understand what is behind the statements that often sound improbable. And I believe the same applies both to the Lubavitcher Rebbe and ( to distinguish between the living and the living. sic. ) Rav Shternboch.
Here are men who manifestly have accepted the scientific method in many areas of life. Otherwise they would not have used electricity or the combustion engine or modern medicine. But what they object to is the scientific agenda. Because early scientists did indeed challenge religious authority they assume that all scientists will. Their critique of the scientific agenda is reflected in this point made by Rav Shternboc
The obvious truth is that the order and nature of creation is concealed. This attitude is the reason why today there are astounding advances in science such as space travel and many other things that we benefit in our daily lives — while at the same time many suffer from terrible illnesses. This has lead to behaviour which has resulted in the HIV-Aids epidemic. There are other illnesses which have been caused by the lack of satisfaction and meaning in life. The negative consequence of not being guided by the Torah, is that man is totally dominated by his lusts like the animals and he is even worse.
In this he stands together with Christian and Muslim leaders who reject the freedoms and abuses of modern societies that do indeed seem to put scientific discovery over and above moral, ethical behaviour. But that is to condemn science for the abuses of some scientists, which is the same as condemning religion because some religious people are corrupt. I agree a totally materialist scientific outlook on life is a challenge to and the antithesis of a religious way of life, But it is not necessarily so.Similarly doubt falls into different categories, benign and honest versus destructive and negative. That after all is the lesson of the four sons who ask four similar but differently nuanced questions at the Seder Table.
Behind this rejectionism is also a post Holocaust element that sees Western values and indeed scientific materialism as responsible for everything that went wrong in the last century for us Jews (just as it does for many current Muslims). If science and culture could produce Nazi homunculi there must be something inherently corrupt in them. And I have some sympathy with this critique particularly as one sees the corruptions and distortions of the media and intellectual fashions and hypocrisies. But to condemn an ideological or libertarian agenda is not the same as condemning a neutral method.
I also believe this has a lot to do with authority, command and control. Whenever any religious position has been challenged, over the years the response as always been to withdraw into ones shell, to put up the barriers and resort to a siege mentality. This has in one way served us well. This was why the first Lubavitcher Rebbe preferred the agonies the Czar imposed on the Jews of Russia to the freedoms Napoleon offered. Or why the Chatam Sofer’s response to Reform was to oppose any change or innovation. And this works and has worked well for some, even for many. But it alienates enough who one want to keep within the camp of Judaism for it be a dangerous and a double edged sword and one that should only be used with extreme caution and certainly not wielded loosely and wildly to make scientists and honest seekers feel they have no place in the Torah world.
So after you have danced and drunk and enjoyed Simchat Torah, you will read the first chapters of Genesis and no doubt come to your own conclusions.
Visit Rabbi Jeremy Rosen on the web: www.JeremyRosen.com