Science and religion: A Halakhic resolution

Prior to modernity, there was no perceived conflict between science and religion. Religious explanations for natural phenomena were not questioned because there were no viable alternatives. This was due to the lack of a theoretical framework and the absence of tools to measure events like earthquakes, regional changes in temperature and rainfall, or movement of the celestial bodies. However, with the advent of the Enlightenment and the Francis Bacon’s introduction of the scientific method to establish truths about the world based on the evaluation of valid empirical data, suddenly a gap emerged between how religious traditions and scientific discovery accounted for the natural world. The scientific method was perceived as a mortal threat to the integrity of religious institutions and was rejected by defenders of their faith.

Judaism has been no exception to this problem (Jonathan Sacks. The great partnership: Science, religion, and the search for meaning. Schocken, New York, 2011) The discoveries of science – geological evidence about the age of the Earth, biological data about the origin of species and genetic variation, astronomical observations of the planets and stars – were analyzed in the context of the Biblical description of events like the first chapter in Bereishit, chapter 10 in Yehoshua. The place of miracles within the stable natural order provoked extensive philosophical debate. The resulting cognitive dissonance generated when comparing Biblical texts and scientific journals remains inadequately resolved for many traditional Jews.

There have been a number of attempts to alleviate this intellectual conflict. A good point of departure is Stephen Jay Goud’s well-known notion that it is a mistake to mix science and religion (Gould SJ. Nonoverlapping magisterial, Natural history, 1977, 16-22). They are two distinct and immiscible “magesteria.” Science has a defined structure. It builds on accepted hypotheses to explain the world around us. It collects data to better understand phenomena, tests the prevailing hypothesis, and formulates new models and theories that fit the observational data better and foster a more accurate explanation and greater understanding of the natural world around us. Religion in contrast is directed at phenomena that do not lend themselves to valid and calibrated external measurements. It attends to a different category of questions – the why rather than the what and how. It does not depend on data-based proofs but on existential experience. When expressed this way, there is no intersection between science and religion. Each domain has independent value, but they do not talk to one another or influence the other.

Another approach is to attempt to reconcile any perceived disparities between science and religion in order to preserve the meaningfulness of the Torah without compromising the integrity of scientific findings and prevailing hypotheses. Nathan Aviezer is a prominent proponent of his approach, best exemplified by his effort to demonstrate how the description of Day One in Bereishit 1 aligns well with cosmological theories of the Big Bang (Aviezer N. When Torah and science collide. Tradition 2009;42:27-39)

A third analytical method, the overlay approach, is offered by the Rambam. His point of departure is the conclusive validity of scientific “demonstrations,” the later a technical term for established proofs. A thoughtful reader of the Tanach overlays the current scientific explanation of nature on top of the text. If there is a discordance, absent a scientific demonstration, then the text should be accepted at face value. In contrast, if the text is in conflict with demonstrated scientific truth then the text is reinterpreted and read figuratively or allegorically. In this naturalizing approach to the Bible, science is an intellectual tool to confirm the veracity of the Torah and eliminate any perceived conflicts. These three solutions either totally separate the scientific and religious readings of the text or try to harmonize the two through a scientific lens.

Taking stock to this point, the problems that arise at the interface between religion and science focus on monumental questions that confront men and women as they interact with the world around — the age of the world, the nature of creation, the  origin of life. But halakhic Judaism can survive without paying any attention to these problems. Leave aside the Rambam’s thirteen principles and assert that he was a small minority, possibly of one, in demanding belief in several of these cosmic issues as articles of faith (Kellner M. Must a Jew believe anything? Littman, Portland OR, 1999). Halakha is constructed around our quotidian activities in families, at home, at work and in the community. Is there a persistent conflict between science and religion in this more mundane space?

I would answer in the affirmative. This topic has been percolating just beneath the surface for the last 2 years as communities struggle to understand why traditional observant, God-fearing Jews are dismissing the epidemiological data and refusing to routinely take the COVID vaccine. For me, it emerges in a much more ordinary context — when I am informed in a matter-of-fact way over Shabbat lunch that people are not eating strawberries in their fruit salad or broccoli as a side dish on Shabbat. The reason offered is that they cannot examine the fruit and vegetables as carefully as they would on a weekday to make sure there are no tiny “invisible” bugs crawling over the food. You need sophisticated imaging tools to find these disqualifying contaminants and vigorous mechanical techniques to remove them, all products of scientific advancement. Under these circumstances what prevails – religious tradition that fruits and vegetables are intrinsically and incontrovertibly kosher or modern science that they need a sophisticated examination before they are deemed edible by the observant?

To answer this question, I would propose another way to configure the relationship between science and religion. Instead of placing them alongside one another as non-overlapping domains or superimposing one on top of the other, I suggest placing science entirely within but not encompassing the global religious framework. The picture that emerges is comparable to a panentheistic relationship between God and nature, in which nature is embedded within but does not fully encompass the divine. The premise is that science provides an independent perspective, but it only pertains to a subset of religious concerns.

Within halakha, is there a specific subcategory of mitzvot or Jewish religious practices in which science should be applied with the highest priority and another for which it should be viewed as important but less critical? I think there is an accepted division in Jewish law that could be utilized to make this distinction. I propose that the distinction between halakhot bein adam l’chavero (BALC) and bein adam l’makom (BALM) provides a feasible criterion to identify when to apply science knowledge to religious praxis.

These two broad categories constitute an established axis that the Rabbis defined along which they sorted the mitzvot and which had operational consequences. It is an aspect of halakha that is especially relevant during the lead up to Yami Noraim and we take stock and seek atonement for our misdeeds. The Rabbis articulated clear-cut differences in the impact of sins BALC versus BALM and codified different requirements and practical steps to achieve repentance for violations in the two categories. I suggest that we should apply scientific knowledge with the utmost stringency in our analysis and implementation of mitzvot BALC but less urgently in our deliberation and assessment of mitzvot BALM. We should take the full benefit of scientific advances in the mitzvot we perform during our interactions with one another. There is no divine need for the same degree of this intellectual enhancement when commandments are targeted vertically.

The halakha as articulated by the Rambam in the Mishneh Torah would support this distinction in our reliance on scientific knowledge in fulfilling the mitzvot. In the laws of Shabbat (Laws of Shabbat, Chapter 2, Mishna 1), the Rambam asserts that one should rely upon the assessment by available medical experts about the nature of a sick person’s illness to determine whether it is permissible to implement procedures that violate the prohibitions on work in order to save the person’s life. Similarly, in laws about Yom Kippur, we solicit the input of physicians in deciding whether to feed someone who claims that they are suffering inordinate duress while fasting on Yom Kippur (Laws of Rest on the Tenth of Tishrei, Chapter 2, Mishna 8). In contrast, when the Rambam delineates the somatic characteristics that define an animal as a treifah, he clearly states that the list of 70 items articulated by the Rabbis is complete and sacrosanct. This is the case even if veterinary science would define other fatal anatomic conditions or develop therapies that can salvage the life of an animal impacted by one of the 70 items on the list (Laws of Ritual Slaughter, Chapter 10, Mishna 12). In the first two instances — mitzvot BALC — we are enjoined to apply the highest available scientific standards when defining the course of action. In contrast, in the third circumstance, we are instructed to ignore the science. Defining whether an animal is kosher or not is a mitzvah BALM and under these circumstances science has considerably less sway in deciding the law.

I suggest that this approach can be thoughtfully expanded when dealing with other mitzvot. To be sure, science in the world of halakha generally translates to medicine and issues of health and well-being. Based on this, there is strong scientific justification to acknowledge the public health advantages of vaccinations and to require the immunization against prevalent and emerging infectious diseases once the medical evidence documents a favorable benefit:risk ratio.

We are commanded to build a barrier on the roof of our homes to prevent personal injury to people who visit us and might sunbathe on the roof. Under these circumstances, I would suggest that we should require people to use the safest and cost-effective materials devised by modern technology and not to ignore advances in engineering. This too is a mitzvah BALC and materials science can advance and improve the scope and value of the mandated action.

In contrast, when addressing the physical dimensions required to accomplish the legally valid fulfillment of mitzvot such as the amount of matza that needs to be eaten at the seder or the allowable gap between the walls and the roof of the sukkah, I would not require state-of-the-art instrumentation to verify that reasonable approximations are adequate. Like these shiurim, eating bug-free fruits and vegetables are mitzvot BALM and, under these circumstances, I would not require people to pull out a microscope to examine the food or set up a high-quality filtration system to eliminate contaminants. I would gently wash the strawberries with water and eat them just the way Rabbi Yehuda HaNasi did 2,000 years ago. In contrast, I would utilize the most sophisticated technology to detect minimal residual disease in oncology patients to determine the efficacy of treatment and to guide clinical and halakhic decisions about medical care and return to pre-illness normal life. This is a concern BALC, and the quality of the data will impact on the quality of mitzva performance, namely healing the sick.

Science and religion provide two fundamental perspectives that work to make the world a better place to live in. They are not identical or complementary or in opposition to one another. Rather, they are tools of human creativity  that can be applied to improve us as people and how we live. The halakha has the scope and breadth to incorporate both to benefit of our relationships with one another and with God. It provides a framework to accomplish this with minimal conflict.

About the Author
Chaim Trachtman is originally from Philadelphia. He is a pediatric nephrologist and is Adjunct Professor of Pediatrics at the University of Michigan and founder of RenalStrategies LLC. He retired from clinical practice at NYU Grossman School of Medicine where he was Professor of Pediatrics and chief of the division of nephrology. He is the PI for both NIH- and industry-sponsored observational cohort studies and clinical trials for patients with kidney disease. He is a board member of Yeshivat Maharat and Darkhei Noam. He edited a book entitled "Women and Men in Communal prayer (Ktav/JOFA)" that discusses partnership minyanim. His wife is the current President of AMIT and he has three daughters and six grandchildren.