The Faithful Should Rely on Science

Cristiano Banti's 1857 painting Galileo facing the Roman Inquisition

410 years ago Galileo Galilei rocked the world. The Roman Catholic Church declared Galileo a heretic by for his support of heliocentrism—professing that planets revolve around the sun, as opposed to the earth being the center of the solar system. How could Scripture suggest something contrary to what we scientifically observe? In that setting religion became the enemy of science. Galileo was sentenced to indefinite imprisonment and died under house arrest in 1642.

The way society has both changed and remained the same would astonish Galileo today. Perhaps most poignant right now is the reversal of that Galileo Affair, at least generally speaking. Religion and Science, at least in my eyes, need be the closest of allies—not enemies.

Our synagogues, churches, and mosques are closed indefinitely. As officials begin to loosen pandemic restrictions in some regions, many of these spiritual centers will remain closed. There are indeed those parishioners and congregants — as well as clergy — clamoring for their houses of worship to open. But if you dialogue with the sheltered clergy, their answers might dumbfound (and provide comfort to) Galileo Galilei. “We rely on the science,” they would say, “and we value the living.”

Faithful religionists of differing backgrounds are demanding and relying on science in response to the COVID-19 pandemic. I have not experienced a vocal majority shouting “don’t tell us what to believe.” It is my experience (and my hope that this expands) that science rules the day.

Even though the stay-at-home orders have become politically divisive, there are those both on the left and the right who believe that science is the only real indicator of how we can safely re-engage as a society. It is not about opinion or hunch—it is about scientific data, research, and fact. We look to our doctors and medical professionals as experts. My own congregation has a team of such experts with whom we regularly communicate to gauge our reopening timeline and plans.

Nevertheless, I did recently hear a devout religious person say, “I don’t need a mask, I don’t need distancing, God has my back.” I respect their theology, but I have a challenge with the application of their ideology. And, unfortunately, such is counter-intuitive, at least, to my faith background.

In Judaism, we learn of Rabbi Yannai’s teaching in the Babylonian Talmud: a person should never stand in a place of danger saying that God will perform a miracle for him, lest in the end God does not perform a miracle for him (Shabbat 32a).

We celebrate miracles. We do not rely on them. We have faith—but we rely on science.

Science, from the latin scire, denotes knowledge. It is not only a path of “knowing” in general, but also a path of knowing God. Science does not take us farther away from God; it brings us closer to God.

To be clear, I wholeheartedly believe in miracles—those miracles found in Scripture and those miracles that I witness regularly. But acting contrary to science is closing one’s eyes to the miraculous presence of God’s Hand in our world. Our understanding of how to save lives, how to stay safe, that is God’s presence all around us. Operating contrary to that is anathema.

And so here we are today praying for God to bless our scientists and our medical professionals with the capacity to save humanity, to heal us from this dreaded plague. We pray for knowledge. We pray for understanding. We pray for reason. And we pray for the general public – religious and non-religious alike – to trust in science, to turn to the scientists, and not the politicians or the faith leaders alone.

And then maybe Galileo’s soul can truly be healed and rest—and so can ours.

About the Author
Rabbi Avi Olitzky is a senior rabbi of Beth El Synagogue in St. Louis Park, Minnesota. He graduated from the Joint Program at Columbia University and the Jewish Theological Seminary in 2003 where he was awarded a BA in Sociology and a BA in Talmud and Rabbinics. Rabbi Olitzky went on to receive an MA in Midrash in October 2007 and his ordination as a rabbi from JTS in May 2008.
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