How can we explain apparent contradictions between facts in the Torah and scientific discoveries?
A. Contradictions between the Torah and Science
A topic that is often discussed is the compatibility of Torah and science – or, in a more precise definition, the apparent contradictions between facts that appear in the Torah and scientific discoveries. The basic assumption of such questions is that Torah and science are both geared to the same objective, or at least that they both address the same subjects. It is therefore important first of all to analyze this assumption, in order to decide if there is a real need to discuss “Torah” and “science” from a single viewpoint.
As an example, we will look at two well known apparent contradictions:
(1) Science claims that the age of the universe is billions of years, while the Torah claims that the world is less than six thousand years old.
(2) Evolutionary studies suggest that man was created from an ancient ancestor who was similar to a monkey, while the Torah claims that man was created from earth.
There are four prevalent methods to deal with these contradictions, and all four approaches are wrong.
The basic assumption of the first approach is that it has been proven to us that the Torah is the essense of truth. Therefore, when it contradicts the Torah science must be wrong. The conclusion of this approach is that the world is indeed about six thousand years old, and that man was indeed created from earth. Any scientific assumptions which lead to other conclusions must of necessity be wrong.
This approach can be found in some of the religious literature, both Jewish and non-Jewish. For example, the Christian church used this claim in order to reject ancient scientific theories. The scientific theory of Copernicus, who claimed that the earth moves around the sun, was rejected by the church because it contradicts an explicit verse in the book of Joshua: “Let the sun stand still in Givon” (10, 12). This verse clearly states that Joshua stopped the sun, and it means that the sun revolves around the earth and not the other way around.
The claim of the second approach is the opposite of the above: Since science has proven its claims, it is clear that the world is indeed billions of years old and that human beings did evolve from monkeys. The conclusion is that the Torah is not true. This approach was proposed by nineteenth century scientists and philosophers who are called “positivists.” They claimed that since science is the most accurate tool for discovering the truth, all the metaphysical questions that were asked by religious people and philosophers in past generations will be solved by scientific studies.
These first two approaches are similar in that they both assume there is theological significance to scientific methods. This leads to the conclusion that there is a definite contradiction between the Torah and science. It is therefore necessary to choose one approach as the truth, while the second one will be completely false.
The third approach is that there is no contradiction between the Torah and science, since science agrees with what is written in the Torah. Those who accept this approach claim that it is possible to show by scientific methods that the world is six thousand years old or that man was created from earth (or at least that such claims do not contradict the scientific method).
The fourth approach is the opposite of the third one. According to this, the Torah agrees with the claims of science. Those who follow this approach feel that the scientific claims that the world is billions of years old and that man descended from monkeys are true, but that there is no contradiction because sources exist in the Torah that accept these discoveries. For example, in the tractate of Eiruvin (18, a) it is written that Adam originally had a tail which was removed by the Holy One, Blessed be He. And in Midrash Rabba (3,7) it is written that the Holy One, Blessed be He, created many worlds and destroyed them.
The common denominator of these two approaches, as opposed to the first two, is that they both see the Torah and science as being in agreement.
B. A Mistaken Assumption
All four of the above approaches are based on the same basic assumption, that both science and the Torah have the intention of answering identical questions. Therefore, the question of the age of the world, as an example, is important both to men of the Torah and to scientists, and it is relevant to compare the answers given by the two methods in order to see if there is a contradiction or not. But an analysis of this basic assumption shows that it is not true. The realm of interest of science is very different from the realm of interest of the Torah: Science is involved in describing the real world and how it operates, and it mainly tries to answer such questions as: “What are the components of a material?” Or: “What laws does the material follow?” As opposed to this, the Torah is involved with the significance of reality from a moral point of view. It tries to answer such questions as: “What is the ultimate purpose of physical material?” Or: “How should a person act?” These are questions related to values and they are not scientific questions. The well known declaration, “Everything is included in the Torah,” is misleading if it is understood literally, since the Torah that we see in front of us does not really include everything. For example, it is not possible to learn science from the verses in the Torah, as can be seen from the fact that none of the sages of Israel ever learned science directly in this way.
Based on this insight, a fifth approach to our basic question was developed. This is the method of Yeshayahu Leibowitz, which separates completely between science and morality. Since the Torah is involved with morality and science is involved with nature, there can never be any contact between the two. There is thus no meaning to any combined discussion of the two subjects. Thus, the scientific claim that man descends from a monkey and the assertion of the Torah that man was created from earth are both correct. Science is describing the biological source of man, while the Torah describes the source of man from the point of view of ethics and values.
The problem with this approach is that it ignores the fact that both science and the Torah stem from the same source: The One who created science is the same One who gave the Torah. And this basic inherent unity should leave its imprint on both realms of interest.
C. The Approach of Rabbi Abraham Isaac Kook
In view of the above considerations, there is also a sixth approach, that of Rabbi Abraham Isaac Kook (the first Chief Rabbi of Eretz Yisrael and one of the greatest spiritual leaders of modern Judaism, 1865-1935). His approach is based on two basic principles:
(1) There is no connection between the Torah and science.
(2) There is a deep connection between the Torah and science.
These two principles seem at first glance to contradict each other, but the truth is that each one relates to the subject from a different perspective. With respect to normal scientific issues (such as physical facts or biological structures), the first principle is relevant – Torah and science are not connected. A proper understanding of these issues cannot be found in the Torah. Even when a statement about physical reality appears in the Torah, there is no intention of imparting scientific knowledge at a regular level. Rabbi Kook was preceded in this insight in the commentary on the Torah of Rabbi Isaac Arama, who rejected any attempts to relate the prohibitions of nonkosher food to health issues. He notes that if this were the only reason for the prohibitions, it would be best to study medicine and thus to arrive at the rules of proper eating, and there would not have been any need for the Torah.
On the other hand, there must be a deep relationship between the Torah and science simply due to the fact that the same G-d who created the world is also the One who gave the Torah. In addition, the Torah was given to human beings who live in the world that is the subject of scientific study. This is the background of the second principle above. And in fact the belief by the nation of Israel in the unique traits of G-d teaches us that He is present in everything – both in the Torah and in science. It is therefore clear that the Creator has a general intention which unites both the Torah and science. Some parts of this intention are revealed in the Torah and other parts are revealed in science.
D. The Will of G-d as Revealed through Science
A central example of the way the will of G-d is revealed through science is the Theory of Evolution. The masters of Kabbalah always described the spiritual development of the world as a gradual process, proceeding step by step. But this idea existed only in the minds of especially gifted people, while the common folks were convinced that the world appeared suddenly, as is written, “And G-d said, Let there be light, and there was light” (Genesis 1,3). But the Theory of Evolution, which introduced the concept of gradual progress to the general population, opened the way for the population as a whole to encounter the Divine spirit that is revealed in nature and in history. And all of this is true independently of the question of whether this thesis is scientifically valid, something which must be left to the researchers.
The Theory of Evolution encountered constant religious opposition. Some people used holy verses to explain their opposition, while others had a claim based on morality – that it is unthinkable that human beings might be descended from monkeys. But these responses are not strong enough. The verses in the Torah which describe creation should not be taken literally, because it is generally accepted that they have a mystical meaning. And the moral claim itself can be criticized by the fact that dust of the earth as a source for creation of man is really not much more prestigious than a monkey. Rabbi Kook explains that the real reason for the difficulty of many people to accept the concept of evolution is that they are not able to accept the idea that the Holy One, Blessed be He, acts through a process of gradual development. The proof of this statement can be seen from the fact that the people who oppose the concept of evolution are basically opposed to all advances that stem from natural development, and their reasons for all of their positions are the same. They are convinced that humanity will be redeemed suddenly and not in a gradual process.
E. The Sequence of Appearance of Scientific Discoveries
One other point should be noted. Since the Creator wants to reveal part of His will through science, there is a specific sequence of discovery that is a result of this Divine intention. Rabbi Kook brings an example of this sequence in one of his letters: Ancient man thought that he stood on a stable and flat world. If he had known that he was standing on a large ball that was constantly moving in space, he would have lost his spiritual balance. The Creator was therefore kind to mankind and hid the scientific truth about the earth, until man began to understand that scientific truth can be different from the way we sense things. Similarly, in ancient astronomy as it was determined by Claudius Ptolemy the earth stood at the center of the universe, which rotated around it. This idea was an expression (not necessarily a conscious one) of the supreme importance that man assigned to himself. This is the reason that the scholastic philosophy of the Middle Ages put mankind at the center of its world view. If man would have achieved a more modern approach to astronomy by that time – that the earth is merely a speck of dust in a huge universe – the result would have been a feeling of despair which would have led to degeneration of mankind and to a very low level of morality. But this fact was hidden from mankind so that the feeling that man stood at the center of the universe would lead him to accept a spiritual responsibility with respect to the creation. After a process of several hundred years when mankind developed concepts of morality and the fear of G-d which stemmed from these ideas, the time had come to reveal the infinity of the universe in order to establish new spiritual concepts, such as a feeling of humility.
F. The Concept of Scientific Unity is Rooted in Monotheism
Another realm which demonstrates the strong affinity between the Torah and science is the desire for universality. In the Torah of Moses, there is a basic assumption that the world is a revelation of a hidden universality: “Listen, Israel, our G-d is One” (Deuteronomy 6,4). While science does not explicitly accept “G-d is One” as a statement of universality, it can be seen that science aspires to find a single universal physical theory that will explain different phenomena. An example is the unified field theory. At this point of a desire for a universal approach, the Torah and science have a similar outlook.
It is possible that some aspects of scientific development were directly influenced by the Torah. Modern physics assumes that any natural law is valid everywhere in the universe. The ancient Greeks were not so sure that this is so. According to Aristotle’s approach to physics, some natural laws were true only on the earth, while the spheres (an Aristotelian term that refers to the orbits of the stars around the earth) are governed by other laws. When Albert Einstein was asked how we know that physical laws are universal, he replied, “It is an element of faith.” It can be assumed that the source for this faith is the Torah.