Judaism, Contemporary Issues in Science and Religion

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Judaism, Contemporary Issues in Science and Religion

Although the pace of the scientific inquiry has increased tremendously since 1800 and the hegemony with which scientific veracities shape culture has surely increased as well, for religious systems, texts, and communities, the challenges and questions posed by science are classic ones. Science as a theory and practice makes several claims: that the natural world has order, laws, and causality; that such order can be apprehended and explained by human beings; and that the manipulation of the nameable, quantifiable, and discernable elements of that natural and tangible world can be achieved to organize human social and cultural life.

Science and ethics in Judaism: discernment and discourse

In Jewish thought and tradition, this search for understanding, the discernment of order, and the reordering of the natural world are not only achievable, but a divinely commanded part of a larger imperative to heal and to repair the world. For Jewish philosophers, the freely entered Covenant that assigns these tasks to an elected people is what makes ethical norms possible (Hartman 1985). However, moral norms cannot be established without reference to a complex legal system that draws on centuries of case law and textual interpretation. For over two centuries, this system has been applied in reflection on the dilemmas of science and of modernity. Science, in particular natural science, has been wholeheartedly embraced as allowing the fullest understanding of the events and cases in the world in which the community practices its religion.

Unlike faith traditions that reify the natural world as essentially sacred and unchangeable, Jewish thought affirms the human ability to alter the natural world, seeing in this alteration the ability to create justice and healing as acts of faith and obligation. The relationship between Jewish thought and scientific understanding varies over different historical periods. In fact, the intellectual attention of Jewish tradition had been largely focused on the moral and social task rather than the actual achievements of science until well into the Enlightenment (H. Levine 1972; Samuelson 2001).

The structure of Jewish ethics and Halachah

Jewish ethical norms are established via a legal system called Halachah. (The root of this word in Hebrew is related to the word "to walk"; the same root is also found in Islamic law or sharia. ) Bounded by this system of religio-legal behavior, the individual Jew, once past the age of thirteen (twelve for women), is responsible for the performance of mitzvot or divine commandments of activity and response to God and to the community. There are 613 such commandments in the traditional reckoning, a metaphorical number that stands for the completeness of obligation. Many commandments are concerned with the daily details of ritual and familial life, many are employed in the service of civil codes, and others set the perimeters of response to newly arising dilemmas, such as how to regard cloning, nuclear fission, and space travel. At stake in the system is not only whether the intended act is regarded as a prohibited, permissible, or exemplary activity, but how the activity ought to be carried out, using what criteria for assessment. Jewish ethics is a complex negotiation with procedural questions and substantive ones.

The first procedural question that the system of Jewish ethics addresses is the problem of how to achieve good ends in a nonteleological system. Judaism answers this in a way that is the unique hallmark of the method; it is a method that, while based in law, draws on a variety of sources both to create the cases for the law and to resist and query its assumptions. The basic procedure for the evaluation of norms is the mode of argumentationcommentary, debate, and discussion. Essentially casuistic, the halachic system uses the encounter with the Torah text, and the encounter with the other's encounter with the text, to create a continuous discursive community. Cases are raised to illustrate points of law and then to illustrate alternate interpretations of the law. Narrative, in a variety of literary forms (metaphor, allegory, historical reference, intertextual mirroring) called aggadah, are embedded in the text. While the details of the aggadah did not create binding laws, the form was used to grapple with and embellish the discussion of the details of the Halachah. The casuistic account attempts to decipher the particular and specific human ways the principle has been, or theoretically could be, applied. In fact, it is essential to remember that much of the case law turns on elaborate constructs that never happened, or could never be expected to happen, as well as actual cases that arose in community practice.

Judaism is both a deontological and a casuistic system, rooted in rules, duties, and normative conduct and concerned with motive and process. But it is unlike a purely deontological system because the real world, and the context and outcome of each case, count in their assessment. Judaism is a modified casuistic deontology. Consequences, once enacted, are reexamined and debated. The real world matters: knowledge of precedence, historicity, the tactile, and the theoretical all count in this system. Human reason is needed both to negotiate the system and to interpret intelligently the sensory natural world. Talmudic methodology was argument structured by text, history, and community. These three elements, and the use of reason to decipher them, modify the deontological method of Jewish ethics. It was deontological because it assumed Torah law as motivational, commanded, central, and binding; it was casuistic because it was also inductive and case (context) modified.

The central claim of Jewish ethics is that truth is found in the house of discursive studythe bet midrash. Such a public discourse is created when Jews argue, face to face, about the meaning and relevance of the narrative, symbols, and referents. Embedded in the problem are issues of context, causation, agency, norm, and assessment. Each of these issues must be addressed by whomever is describing whatever methodology of ethics they use, with the assumption that methodology in ethics involves not only a general theory of morality, authority, and value, but also "middle axioms," or the middle ground between general principles and the details of policy. James Childress and John Macquarrie, however, consider this a "misleading term" in the Westminster Dictionary of Christian Ethics (1967). Perhaps a better description would be a coinage: "middle processes." Methodology in any integral ethical system must address both the why and the how of a "right act" if it is to have coherency and if it can be used in the human hands and heart of the world, and Jewish ethics is no exception. Jewish ethics presumes public choices; it assumes community, human sociability, and embodied dailiness, and that ordinary human acts have a weight and meaning that ought to be the subject of urgent discourse.

A central question: Is there an ethics independent of Halachah?

The idea that rules and laws form the base of the system can be agreed on, yet the methodology of argumentation creates nuances of interpretation. Since about the mid-nineteenth century, four branches of Judaism have developed. All acknowledge the role of Halachah, but each gives it different weight in the setting of normative standards for their tradition. For the Orthodox Jew, Halachah is interpreted by his or her rabbi, who then consults with leading scholars if the issue is difficult, and that decision is considered halachically binding. For the Conservative Jew, Halachah has a strong voice in the determination of din ( Judgment) by the rabbinic community. The Conservative minhag (custom) is determined by the community. Jewish law is then integrated with insights from the social sciences and Western philosophic norms in making a decision. For Reform Jews, the individual is autonomously responsible for his or her own choices, in light of the "tradition" and the primary ethical stance of the tradition. This entry will describe the traditional or halachically grounded position, although it is crucial to remember that among Jews there is considerable variance. It is arguable that, even for Jews not bound by its restraint, Halachah wields a strong methodological influence.

The central procedural question for all branches of Judaism stands in tension with the praxis. For example, the dilemma of the achievement of justice is not resolved, and the quest itself proves key to opening the method. The multivocity of the form itself insists on the questioning of the solidity of the text: To name as definitive one personal interpretation is a violation of the Talmudic method. For many of the proof texts there are countervailing premises and correspondent inimitable truths, and rabbinic decisors who defend differing positions.

Marvin Fox, writing in Modern Jewish Ethics, Theory, and Practice (1975), one of the central works in English on this topic, argued that the halachic system itself includes an accountability to a variety of sources. His insight was that the basic method incorporates science, philosophy, and natural reality into the traditional texts. The rabbis used exegesis and interpretation as the most important device to reconcile the basic and sacred text with the reality of exile, change, and science. Fox further noted that the incorporation of "external to Sinitic" sources was always a part of the discourse. He argued that Maimonides (c. 11351204) assumes math, astronomy, and "speculative realities" are better known by the Arabic world than by the rabbinic sages and that Jews need to "accept truth from any source." Fox noted Judah HaNasi's confession that, in some arguments, the Gentile sages "vanquished the sages of Israel." This was cited in the tradition as a case of how best evidence and best argument from whatever source ought to prevail.

Saadya Gaon made this point, according to Fox, even more forcefully by insisting that reason existed both prior to and after Sinai. Further, Fox noted that interpretation has always varied widely, even at the heart of basic texts (like the Moses story, the Ruth story, the view of the Nazarite vow, and the problem of creation itself). Additionally, he pointed to the flexibility of the aggadah as indicative of the freedom at the heart of Jewish method itself. Fox reminded us that tradition has each Jew at Sinai now and for eternal generations and noted the rabbinic Midrash that says each Jew hears the revelation through his or her own body and experience.

Rabbi Joseph Soleveitchik, the late leading contemporary halachist, wrote extensively regarding the relationship between the method of ethical discernment and the scientific method itself, finding in physics a way of understanding the structure of human understanding. He argued that physics and the theory of relativity teach that truth can be viewed from many perspectives, and that the universe is not a Newtonian machine, but a complex of related happenings. One's perspective, then, will determine the "true" view of the object. One can see a stream and note its beauty, its physical properties, or its ritual use, for example. All are "real" views of the same phenomena. Further, Soleveitchik understood that human perception is a function of the truth that each person perceives, as each person individually views the "real" from the perspective of a particular and chosen order. What is seen as actual is a chosen fact pattern based on a system of value and belief. Soleveitchik posited the notion that to be religious or to be scientific, while they may represent radically different worldviews, was not only to value the world differently, but to experience and to see the phenomena of the world differently as well. That notion was entirely consistent with the concept of truth understood as "plural truth," and it served to explain how specific events could be seen as miracles or a function of the events of the causative natural world.

Science: the epistemic questions

Scientific inquiry is based on the application of human observation and human reasoning to events in the observable world. As such, it might seem that science offers a primal threat to faith traditions due to the unseen and unprovable truth claims of faith. However, Jewish tradition has long been able to incorporate secular knowledge from medicine and science into ethical norms. New insights are evaluated as cases to be compared to historically precedential ones. Scientific insights and achievements can thus be incorporated. Hence, post-Darwinian writings reinterpreted the "six days of Creation" as occurring in "six periods," or six divine "days," and electricity became legally bound by the rules of the Sabbath by understanding it as a form of "fire-making." "Science" or secular knowledge in general was often used to represent "a vehicle for a certain cluster of liberal, democratic values" argued as central to Western, or American values, a metaphor for the use of objectivity, impartiality, and civic order (Holliger). The methods of science, the use of clinical trials and controls and the use of animal models were also strongly embraced by Jews. In general, Judaism makes the assumption that the order of nature is accessible to human reason, and that nature, while offering some suggestive models for human behavior, is not the source of moral authority.

While social conditions, exclusion from the developing academy, constraints on employment, and isolation in European ghettos left Jewish intellectuals behind in the development of science in the early modern period, the nineteenth and twentieth centuries were marked by an enthusiastic embrace of and a mastery of many fields of scientific inquiry.

Science: substantive questions

Astronomy and cosmology dominated early reflections in Jewish thought because of the importance in calculations of calendar holidays, and, as Hillel Levine notes, because of the rabbinic attention to time rather than space after the destruction of the Second Temple (Levine, p 856). Levine further remarks that Jews, in their capacity as traders between different Jewish communities, acted as interpreters of the insights from Islamic and renaissance Christian civilizations. Medicine, as a commanded obligation of Jewish communities, was often a venue for investigation in science. Jewish physicians were often called upon to assume the relatively high-risk activity of caring for the sick, in part because they had a access to the large armamentarium of knowledge. Scientific discovery came later to the large Jewish community. A complex interest in kabbalistic beliefs and rituals, a renewed emphasis on spirituality, and compelling disputes about how to resist persecution and about how to engage modernity politically or communally, dominated Jewish views on the "new science" of the Enlightenment in the sixteenth through the eighteenth centuries. To the extent that science was posited as opposed to faith, it was regarded in traditional communities as suspect. It is Levine's contention that Jews in that period did not view science as "universally valid, but simply as the source of religious persecution in a new key" (p. 860).

But the search for the truth grounds moral reasoning. By the nineteenth century, the truth claims of science had been well established. Descriptive science such as the cataloging of species, germ theory, and the use of instruments of observation were eagerly taken on by the Jewish intelligentsia. In the twentieth century, Jewish commentators turned their attention to the problems of intervention, prevention, and cure, as well as the search for origins. Finding little to prohibit basic research, and reasoning from principles that stressed stewardship and ordering of the natural world, Jews were easily able to reconcile new discoveries, supporting the sense not only that the natural world was knowable, but that it ought to be. It should be mentioned here, of course, that Nobel Prizes in the sciences and medicine have been won by Jews in numbers far greater then their presence in the world population.

Halachah, too, has advanced to address new science. Science disrupts categories of being. An essential premise of the method is that events are best understood by disassembly into knowable partsever smaller, ever more essential. For a halachic system, this offers an opportunity to renegotiate the borders of permissibility at each component piece, commodity, or event. Modern halachic authorities such as Orthodox rabbi Faitel Levine openly struggle with the challenge that new science brings to a textual tradition governed by law. Levine, a traditional rabbinic poskim (a rabbi to whom specific legal questions are directed) specializing in new technology, writes in Halacha, Medical Science, and Technology (1987): "Once reality was relatively constant, unchanging . . . in the objective world in which halachah operates . . . But things have changed. In today's world, reality itself is undergoing repeated, fundamental changes. Objects which have little in common with traditional objects are constantly produced . . . consequently, our contemporary world in evading the control of traditional terms and concepts. But Torah is eternal!"

Recent controversies in the field of reproductive health and genetic medicine have often dominated the debate between religious communities and scientific investigators. In these debates one can see how the concern for healing, the obligation to repair the world, and the view that human life is fully ensouled only in developmental stages, rather than at the moment of conception, has allowed for a robust acceptance of basic research in biological sciences.

The acts of practice in traditional Judaism revolved around two centralities. The first is study of text, and the second is commanded acts that create a just society. Central to Jewish texts is the recognition of the as yet unredeemed quality of the worldeven the natural world as understood by science. Just as circumcision is one mark of the covenant, a mark of a human response to birth, and a refinement of the natural world, so too is the notion that advanced scientific inquiry is a part of tikkun olam, the mandate to be an active partner in the world's repair and perfection. In the world of suffering and injustice, much, although not all, of clinical and business scientific research can be understood as an opportunity to address this injustice. This justice consideration is made actual by a support for science, medical advance, and the freedom of inquiry, all ways that human work to perfect the world can be fully embraced. While texts warn of the possibility of hubris, and there are many texts that teach of the danger of confusing the quest for learning with the temptation to control, the struggle to understand and to interpret the covenantal relationship includes extending the duty to heal. In this way, Jewish thought has long turned to science as a critical way to lay the groundwork for the study and the repair of the world.

See also Judaism; Judaism, History of Science and Religion, Medieval Period; Judaism, History of Science and Religion, Modern Period


childress, james, and macquarrie, john, eds. the westminster dictionary of christian ethics. philadelphia: westminster press, 1967.

fox, marvin, ed. modern jewish ethics, theory, and practice. columbus: ohio state university press, 1975.

holliger, david. science, jews, and secular culture: studies in mid-twentieth century american intellectual history. princeton, n.j.: princeton university press, 1995.

levine, faitel. halacha, medical science, and technology: perspectives on contemporary halacha issues. new york: maznaim, 1987.

levine, hillel. "science." in contemporary jewish religious thought, ed. arthur a. cohen and paul mendes-flor. new york: free press, 1972.

samuelson, norbert m. "rethinking ethics in the light of jewish thought and the life sciences." journal of religious ethics 20, no. 2 (2001): 209234.

soleveitchik, joseph b. the halakhic mind: an essay on jewish tradition and modern thought. new york: seth press, 1986.

laurie zoloth

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