An Edah Editorial
By Rabbi Saul Berman
How To Think About Controversies in Religion Science
By Rabbi Saul Berman
The controversy around creationism versus evolution versus
intelligent design is a battle in which the Jewish tradition is perforce enmeshed.
That is so because, underlying this debate is a set of truths and values related
to the nature of the human being and the meaning of life, which we cannot avoid.
However, we have procedural and substantive contributions to make to the discussion
as it is developing within the general society.
It is not novel for a religious tradition to discover that
a transmitted truth is challenged by new wisdom. By the tenth century of the
Common Era, the Jewish jurist and philosopher, Saadiah Gaon had developed a
way of thinking about such situations. He, as all other major Jewish philosophers,
recognized that there were two sources of truth accessible to people, revelation
Saadiah went so far as to ask why revelation was necessary
if truth could be discovered by the application of human reason. He responds
without denying the capacity of reason to yield truth. He suggests, in part,
that God was not willing to wait out the slow, laborious process of discovery
of truth through reason, but wanted humankind to have the benefit of certain
truths as rapidly as possible hence, He revealed that information.
Saadiah goes on to specifically ask what is to be done when
the truths of revelation and reason are in conflict. The procedure he suggests
is as valuable to us in modernity as it was in medieval times. When reason contradicts
revelation, it is first necessary to reexamine the process by which the reasoned
conclusion was arrived at. There might be some error discovered which, upon
correction, would allow the revealed truth to stand at one with the truth by
If that fails, and the contradiction remains, then it is necessary
to re-examine the revealed texts to discern whether there might be an interpretation
that would allow for the acceptance of the accuracy of the truth demonstrated
by human wisdom.
If no such new understanding of the revealed text suggests
itself, then one needs to understand that error exists in one or the other side.
While one will then continue to grant pride of traditional place to the understanding
derived from revelation, the question will have to remain open until some new
insight is able to bring the two sources of truth together.
Three underlying values of this approach are worth playing
out explicitly. First, respect for received truths is essential in maintaining
cultural continuity and the valuing of elders. This places a burden on new wisdom
to demonstrate its accuracy in a fully persuasive manner before receiving the
assent of the people.
On the other hand, received truths are viewed as fallible,
despite their apparent origin in revealed texts. While the texts remain constant
and fully true, particular interpretations can be supplanted by other understandings
that are preferred precisely because they yield consistency with new rational
Thirdly, in both religion and science, humility is essential
when it comes to the assertion of truth claims. Human understanding of ultimate
truth is imperfect. Human understanding of God, of His Word, of His world and
of the natural processes which He put into place for the governance of this
world are all limited. We need therefore to be able to suspend judgment
in the face of contradictions and to wait out the process of clarification through
better-reasoned proofs or better interpretations.
Humility demands that we not denigrate the conclusion of the
other in the face of such uncertainties. Humility demands that we recognize
the common striving for truth, which motivates both the religious interpreter
of revealed texts and the scientific interpreter of accessible facts. Humility
demands that we not persist in teaching our position once it has been persuasively
demonstrated to be false.
The Talmudic tradition recorded many suggested treatments and
cures of diseases. By the Middle Ages it was clear that Talmudic medicine was
simply not effective. The Rabbinic scholars of Franco-Germany toyed with the
proposition that human physiology had changed in the intervening centuries.
Maimonides simply affirmed that the transmitted knowledge was limited by its
time and place and should no longer be practiced.
The current anti-scientific climate makes a mockery of Judaism's
constant search for truth. The very idea that rabbis might put people in herem
for teaching that the world is more than 5766 years old, or for supporting the
truth of evolution, must be repudiated loudly and clearly. The accumulation
of incontrovertible evidence of the great antiquity of the earth has led to
the broad Rabbinic acceptance of the accuracy of an early interpretation of
the word day in the Genesis story as meaning an indeterminate
period of time, rather than a day of twenty-four hours.
There will always be some resistance to this approach from
people who deny that reason is a valid source of truth. Also, from those whose
misplaced loyalty to a particular understanding of a revealed text leads them
to the rejection of otherwise established scientific truths. But for most of
us, the depth of our religious commitment and our openness to the process of
scientific inquiry, go hand in hand as full partners in our lifelong quest for
Rabbi Saul J. Berman is Director of Edah and teaches Jewish
Law at Stern College and at Columbia University School of Law.