God, Science, and the Jews: Does Science Conflict with the Bible?

Shabbat
Bo
5777 – February 3-4, 2017
by Dr. Gary Heiligman, PhD

Introduction

  • That science and the Bible are in conflict is a very popular notion

  • As a result many Christians (and a few Jews) seem predisposed to disregard science because “scripture proves it is wrong.”

  • In any event, science can be corrected, but scripture cannot–
    right?

    Well, before we get into the detailed answer a look at demographics shows that the popular conception is wrong.  In fact, …

Most scientists believe in God

I found the following statistic quoted by many who want to highlight the conflict
between science and religion.

  • According to one study, 93% of Members of the National Academy of Science are “atheists”.

  • Really?  REALLY? I know a lot of scientists and engineers, and while there are some atheists there are an awful lot of religious people too:  Catholics,
    Protestants, Mormons, Jews, Orthodox Christians, and others.  So whence comes
    this statistic?

In 1998, a questionnaire was sent out to 1000 members of the NAS.  The first
question in the survey was:

1. I believe in a God in intellectual and effective communication with humankind, i.e., a God to whom one might pray in expectation of receiving an answer. By “answer”, I mean more than the subjective psychological effects of
prayer.

Not unsurprisingly, only 7% of NAS respondents answered “yes” to this first
question.  Later questions in the survey apparently went into more subtle
distinction, but you get the basic idea.  The question was asked in such a way
that only “believers” in a supernatural god– one that acts outside of science,
would answer “yes” (Source: Larson EJ, Witham L. “Leading scientists still
reject God”. Nature 1998 Jul; 394:313.  For a fuller discussion of the problems
with this survey, see https://ncse.com/library-resource/do-scientists-really-reject-god.)

So… what fraction of scientists really are atheists?  The Pew Research Center
studied “Scientists and belief” in 2009 <http://www.pewforum.org/2009/11/05/scientists-and-belief/>.

  • No surprise:  17% of scientists identify as “atheist” (vs. 2% of the
    public).

  • No surprise:  11% of scientists identify as “agnostic” (vs. 2% of the
    public).

  • No surprise: 52% of scientists say they believe in God or a universal power or
    spirit, whereas 41% say they believe in neither (vs.95% / 4% of the
    public).

  • Big surprise:  There is no historical trend in belief.

    • In 1914, 42% of scientists said they believed in a personal God

    • in 1996, this number was virtually the same (40%) when asked the exact same
      question.

There is a strong social component here as well, with the numbers varying
significantly depending on age (66% of 18-34 year old scientists believe in God
vs. 46% of 65+ year old) and field of study (41% chemists believe in God vs. 29%
of physicists and astronomers).

And finally, what about Jewish scientists?  8% of scientists identify as Jewish (vs.
2% of the public*).  In fact, “Jewish” is the only category of religion that is
over-represented amongst scientists in the Pew survey of religious affiliation.
For comparison only 4% of scientists identify as evangelical Protestant (vs. 28%
of the public). –

* – The fraction of Americans who identify themselves as Jewish has not changed
significantly from (1.7% to 1.9%) in the interval between 2007 and 2015,
according to the Pew Center <http://www.pewforum.org/2015/05/12/americas-changing-religious-landscape/>.   Among organized religions Jewish affiliation is still the most common other than Christianity, exceeding Muslim (0.9%), Buddhist (0.7%) and Hindu (0.7%).

So, having shown that there are lots of religious scientists, what do they do
about…

Unbelieveable statements in the Bible

Here are two examples.

Balaam’s ass, Num. 22

28 And the Lord opened the mouth of the ass, and she said unto Balaam, What have I done unto thee, that thou hast smitten me these three times?

29 And Balaam said unto the ass, Because thou hast mocked me: I would there were a sword in mine hand, for now would I kill thee.

30 And the ass said unto Balaam, Am not I thine ass, upon which thou hast ridden ever since I was thine unto this day? was I ever wont to do so unto thee? and he said, Nay.

The plague of darkness, Ex. 10 (this week’s parasha)


21 And the LORD said unto Moses, Stretch out thine hand toward heaven, that there may be darkness over the land of Egypt, even darkness which may be
felt.

22  And Moses stretched forth his hand toward heaven; and there was a thick darkness in all the land of Egypt three days:

23 They saw not one another, neither rose any from his place for three days: but
all the children of Israel had light in their dwellings.

This seems impossible… so how are we to understand these passages?  Well, one way to do it is to search for scientific explanations for Biblical narratives that
violate common sense.

Should we use science to “prove” statements in the Bible?

This is a popular and highly remunerative cottage industry.  Here is one example from the UK newspaper The Telegraph from 2010:

Scientific explanations for the plagues and the splitting of the sea

http://www.telegraph.co.uk/news/science/science-news/7530678/Biblical-plagues-really-happened-say-scientists.html

Biblical plagues really happened say scientist.

The Biblical plagues that devastated Ancient Egypt in the Old Testament were the result of global warming and a volcanic eruption, scientists have claimed.

Researchers believe they have found evidence of real natural disasters on which the ten plagues of Egypt, which led to Moses freeing the Israelites from slavery in the Book of Exodus in the Bible, were based.

But rather than explaining them as the wrathful act of a vengeful God, the
scientists claim the plagues can be attributed to a chain of natural phenomena
triggered by changes in the climate and environmental disasters that happened
hundreds of miles away….

…Professor Augusto Magini, a paleoclimatologist at Heidelberg University’s institute for environmental physics, said: “Pharaoh Rameses II reigned during a very favourable climatic period.  “There was plenty of rain and his country flourished. However, this wet period only lasted a few decades. After Rameses’ reign, the climate curve goes sharply downwards.  “There is a dry period which would certainly have had serious consequences.”…

…Dr Stephan Pflugmacher, a biologist at the Leibniz Institute for Water Ecology and Inland Fisheries in Berlin, believes this description could have been the result of a toxic fresh water algae.  He said the bacterium, known as Burgundy Blood algae or Oscillatoria rubescens, is known to have existed 3,000 years ago and still causes similar effects today….
…One of the biggest volcanic eruptions in human history occurred when Thera, a
volcano that was part of the Mediterranean islands of Santorini, just north of
Crete, exploded around 3,500 year ago, spewing billions of tons of volcanic ash
into the atmosphere….
…The cause of the final plague, the death of the first borns of Egypt, has been
suggested as being caused by a fungus that may have poisoned the grain supplies, of which male first born would have had first pickings and so been first to fall victim….

But Dr Robert Miller, associate professor of the Old Testament, from the Catholic
University of America, said: “I’m reluctant to come up with natural causes for
all of the plagues.

The problem with the naturalistic explanations, is that they lose the whole
point.  “And the whole point was that you didn’t come out of Egypt by natural causes, you came out by the hand of God.”

The problems with scientific “proofs”

  • Scientific explanations divert our attention from the spiritual
    meaning

So, do we just take the Bible on faith?  How do we Jews approach events like the
plagues and the splitting of the Red Sea?

Classic Torah approach to passages that contradict common sense

Judaism expects us to use our brains

The daily amidah prayer, immediately after the kedushah
says the following:  “You favor humanity with perception (da’at)
and teach humankind understanding (binah).

Grant to us perception, understanding and intellect (haskayl).
Blessed are you, Adonai, Grantor of perception.

Ibn Ezra

If there appears something in the Torah which contradicts reason…then here one should seek for the solution in a figurative interpretation…the narrative of the tree of knowledge of good and evil, for instance, can only be understood in a
figurative sense. —
Abraham ibn Ezra, 11th century

Maimonides

(Wikipedia)
if science and Torah were misaligned, it was either because science was not
understood or the Torah was misinterpreted. Maimonides argued that if science
proved a point that did not contradict any fundamentals of faith, then the
finding should be accepted and scripture should be interpreted accordingly.
[Guide for the Perplexed, 2:25]

OK, so let’s reconsider the two cases of unbelieveable biblical statements and apply a little perception, understanding and intellect.

Balaam reconsidered

Last Friday night our golden retriever Joy expressed extraordinary interest in the
leftover bones from the meal.  I told my wife, “Joy says that she knows what to
do with that” and, indeed, she did…

How unlikely is it that Balaam’s ass, whom he had ridden for years, “spoke” as
plainly to Balaam as my dog spoke to me last Friday night?  Balaam’s ass sensed
instinctively that he was going in the wrong direction and doing the wrong
thing.  One just imagines her looking up at him after she has lain down and
“saying” to him:  “Why have you beaten me these three times?”  Only the most
unimaginative literal interpretation leaves us with a “scientific”
problem.

And besides,

The spiritual aspect comes first

You all have heard the Rabbi’s discussion on the Balaam story, how God makes a
prophet of an ass and an ass of a prophet.

This all comes to a head when we consider…

Jewish views on creation

RCA statement

During the brouhaha over “intelligent design”, the Rabbinical Council of America, one of the foremost bodies of orthodox rabbis, issued the following
statement.

Dec  27, 2005 — In light of the ongoing public controversy about Evolution,
Creationism and Intelligent Design, the RCA notes that significant Jewish
authorities have maintained that evolutionary theory, properly understood, is
not incompatible with belief in a Divine Creator, nor with the first 2 chapters
of Genesis.

There are authentic, respected voices in the Jewish community that take a literalist position with regard to these issues; at the same time, Judaism has a history of diverse approaches to the understanding of the biblical account of creation. As Rabbi Joseph Hertz wrote, “While the fact of creation has to this day remained the first of the articles of the Jewish creed, there is no uniform and binding belief as to the manner of creation, i.e. as to the process whereby the universe came into existence. The manner of the Divine creative activity is presented in varying forms and under differing metaphors by Prophet, Psalmist and Sage; by the Rabbis in Talmudic times, as well as by our medieval Jewish thinkers.” Some refer to the Midrash (Koheleth Rabbah 3:13) which speaks of God “developing and destroying many worlds” before our current epoch. Others explain that the word “yom” in Biblical Hebrew, usually translated as “day,” can also refer to an undefined period of time, as in Isaiah 11:10-11. Maimonides stated that “what the Torah writes about the Account of Creation is not all to be taken literally, as believed by the masses” (Guide to the Perplexed II:29), and recent Rabbinic leaders who have discussed the topic of creation, such as Rabbi Samson Raphael Hirsch and Rabbi Abraham Isaac Kook, saw no difficulty in explaining Genesis as a theological text rather than a scientific account.

Judaism affirms the idea that God is the Creator of the Universe and the Being
responsible for the presence of human beings in this world.

Nonetheless, there have long been different schools of thought within Judaism regarding the extent of divine intervention in natural processes. One respected view was expressed by Maimonides who wrote that “we should endeavor to integrate the Torah with rational thought, affirming that events take place in accordance with the natural order wherever possible.” (Letter to the Jews of Yemen) All schools concur that God is the ultimate cause and that humanity was an intended end result of Creation.

For us, these fundamental beliefs do not rest on the purported weaknesses of
Evolutionary Theory, and cannot be undermined by the elimination of gaps in
scientific knowledge.

Judaism has always preferred to see science and Torah as two aspects of the “Mind of God” (to borrow Stephen Hawking’s phrase) that are ultimately unitary in the reality given to us by the Creator. As the Zohar says (Genesis 134a): “istakel
be-‘oraita u-vara ‘alma,” God looked into the Torah and used it as His blueprint
for creating the Universe. Qq

You will note that the “God of the gaps” is not a Jewish concept.  Which brings us
to this week’s Torah portion…

Parashat Bo, Exodus 10:1−13:16

Synopsis

  • God sends the plagues of locusts and darkness upon Egypt and forewarns Moses about the final plague, the death of every Egyptian firstborn. Pharaoh still does not let the Israelites leave Egypt. (10:1-11:10)

  • God commands Moses and Aaron regarding the Passover festival. (12:1-27)

  • God enacts the final plague, striking down all the firstborn in the land of Egypt
    except those of the House of Israel. Pharaoh now allows the Israelites to leave.
    (12:29-42)

  • Speaking to Moses and Aaron, God repeats the commandments about Passover.
    (12:43-13:16)

The spiritual aspects of this week’s parsha

The last three plagues are all characterized by darkness:  the locusts darkened the sky and covered the earth, the darkness lasted for three days, and the death of the firstborn occurred at night.  Why was darkness so critical that it deserved
a plague of its own?

One standard explanation is that this darkness was not just physical but also
spiritual.  They saw not one another.  Absent any scientific explanation, this statement alone describes the moral problem that made Egypt an unsuitable place for the Jews.  The story of slavery begins with the Egyptians not seeing the Israelites as humans like them… and by this point the Egyptians could not even see each other as human.

Conclusion

So:  Does science conflict with the Bible?  No.  Scientific reasoning may conflict
with literal interpretations of the Bible.  But when it does Judaism expects us
to use our common sense, our reasoning ability, and the sophisticated techniques
of both scientific inquiry and Torah study to understand what the Torah is
really teaching and extract greater wisdom from it.

Shabbat Shalom.

February 20th, 2017 by