Jewish Perspectives

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Judaism is the most ancient of three Abrahamic religions (the other two being Christianity and Islam) that are distinct from other world religions in at least three respects: they are all strongly monotheistic; they claim divine or supernatural intervention (revelation) into the world through their historical founders in ways that are in tension with natural reason; and they place special authority on one or more written texts. Judaism (like Christianity) also has a close historical relation with modern science and technology; historians of science have argued that in its origins science was dependent on a view of the world as well ordered and subject to human investigation and control precisely in the ways presented by the Jewish revelation, and certainly Jewish scientists especially are disproportionately represented in the technical community. At the same time, science and technology have presented specific challenges to Jewish tradition and identity, the responses to which offer special contributions to more general discussions of science, technology, and ethics.

Approaches to Judaism

Individuals explain their adoption of a Jewish designation by their adherence in various degrees to one or more facets of the "Jewish way of life." Among the most important aspects are the beliefs that there is only one God; that the first five books of the Hebrew Scriptures (known as the Torah, containing 613 commandments and canonized between 700 and 200 b.c.e.) were handed down from God to Moses around 1500 b.c.e.; and that Jews should follow both the oral and written laws that have been handed down through the generations. These laws, which number in the thousands and whose varied selection or adoption accounts for the varieties of Judaism, are found in a number of tracts:

  • The Mishnah (the oral law handed down from Moses and put into writing in six volumes about 1800 years ago).
  • The Gemara, comprising commentaries on the Mishnah and other aspects of Jewish life and stories, found as part of the Talmud.
  • The Talmud (of which there are at least two versions: Babylonian, with about 2.5 million words, and Jerusalem, about one-eighth the size), which is a commentary on the Mishnah and Gemara; it was compiled and redacted (canonized) between 300 and 500 c.e.
  • The Midrash (also considered a part of the Talmud), a commentary on the first five books of the Old Testament.
  • The Kabala, a book that emphasizes the mystical relationships between humans, God, heaven and its inhabitants, and hell with its entourage.
  • The remaining thirty-four books of the English Old Testament, referred to as the Prophets and the Writings.
  • The Apocrypha, which contains the books that were left out of the Bible when the latter was canonized to include additional sections on the prophets and writings (a process that began with Ezra in 530 b.c.e. and continued until the fall of the second temple in 70 c.e.).
  • The Shulchan Auruch, a summary of the laws drawn up in the sixteenth century.
  • The Haggadah, a story of the Exodus of the Jews from Egypt in about 1450 b.c.e., whose formulation began in pre-temple times (1000 b.c.e.); put into its conventional form in the thirteenth century but still provides the basis of numerous modern variants.

In addition to belief in the holiness of the above writings and the requirement to follow all or a selection of the laws, Jews may also define themselves in relation to:

  • their descent from other Jews (in particular a Jewish mother, although in biblical times it is clear that patrilineal descent also pertained);
  • their conversion;
  • Jewish traditions such as those that pertain at rites of passage such as birth (plus penile circumcision in the event of a male child), confirmation as in a bar mitzvah for boys at thirteen and recently bat mitzvah for girls at twelve or thirteen, marriage, and death;
  • the annual calendar of religious events such as the New Year (Rosh Hashanah), Day of Atonement (Yom Kippur), Passover (Pesach), Festival of Lots (Purim), Festival of the Lights (Chanukah), and others;
  • culture defined in terms of types of food, cooking methods, respect for learning and education, charity, style of clothing, and modesty;
  • the acceptance of the rulings of a court of Rabbis referred to as a Beth Din;
  • the need to have at least ten men (a minyan—and recently, may count women) in order to have a fully competent prayer meeting;
  • the State of Israel, which is the country in the world where a persecuted Jew may seek succor without further fear of the pogroms or selective legislation that has been a characteristic of the history of most other countries;
  • or a membership in an internationally dispersed community that has a common history or treatment in the hands of a variety of host communities.

In structural terms, a Jew who seeks to follow the laws may refer to the literature cited above or consult a rabbi. There is an extensive correspondence extant that consists of individuals or communities asking for guidance from the most eminent rabbis of the day. The responsa that result constitute the norm for the behavior of the respondent. This worked well for ghettoized communities living in relatively static circumstances, but history since the mid-eighteenth century has been anything but static.

On the basis of which tenets an individual Jew adopts, he or she will associate (or not) with one or more of the recognized religious groups. These range from the ultra-orthodox (themselves divided into sects such as the Lubavich, Satmars, Aish, Chasidim, and Chaderim) who reject the opportunities of the modern world and generally do not permit their children to view television (although they may make use of the Internet for Midrashic discussions, with Web sites such as, to the Liberal Progressives with whom virtually anything goes. In between there are the Orthodox, Masorti, Conservative, Reform, and Liberal groupings.

Science, Technology, and Judaism

The European Enlightenment of the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries sowed the seeds of the modern world in which science and technology have changed both the way people think and the way they live. Beginning with the works of Francis Bacon (1561–1626), René Descartes (1596–1650), Isaac Newton (1642–1727), and others, the Enlightenment challenged the Jewish community as it did other religious groups. Those who were in occupations that brought them into contact with prominent business people, politicians, or royalty rapidly learned the language of the host country and became both educated and secular to differing degrees. In the late 1700s and early 1800s, Jews in Germany, Poland, Russia, Holland, France, and Austria set up schools where the medium of education was the national language and where Yiddish (or Jewish German) was in some cases outlawed for education and business transactions. At this time science was beginning to make a showing in these curricula, especially at the secondary level. As time advanced, science began to provide secular explanations of the biblical miracles, of the creation of the universe, of the creation of life, and of the creation and nature of humans and their relationships to the rest of the living world. Not only did science provide challenges to the intellect and belief system, but technology and engineering offered new ways of working, of traveling, of writing, and of doing business. How did Judaism and the Jews respond to these changes?

In the contemporary world, the Jewish people live either in Israel or outside Israel in the so-called Diaspora. In the early twenty-first century in Israel about one third of the Israelis are secular, another third are religious and follow the dictates of the laws with varying degrees of observance, while a middle third would acknowledge a belief in God and do not follow many of the laws in their day-to-day lives, but observe them during rites of passage or special occasions such as the reading of the Haggadah at Passover. Nevertheless, the secular government of Israel does not generally legislate on matters of a religious nature. While the government allows Jews a right of return to Israel, it has not so far made a legal definition of who is a Jew. The government does, however, require a religious marriage for official dealings; nevertheless, foreign civil marriages are recognized. Local authorities, however, may choose to operate transport systems on the Sabbath or may ban them as being contrary to religious laws that forbid travel on the Sabbath. Similarly, erotically suggestive advertisements may be banned by some localities while accepted in others. Work on the Sabbath is generally banned nationally, although particular industries may obtain special dispensations from the government. Those industries that are essential to the economy such as defense, food, and health care find it easy to obtain licenses to operate, as do industries that rely on continuous processes, an interruption to which will disrupt production with considerable economic loss.

The introduction of new technology has presented religiously disposed Israelis and Diaspora Jews with many concerns. This is because the laws as defined by that body of literature that is accepted as the Halakhah expressly forbid many of the applications that are made possible by contemporary machines and devices. There are four main areas where such concerns are expressed. The first relates to the observance of the laws pertaining to work on the Sabbath. A second concerns determinations as to whether certain food preparations are in compliance with the religious laws of kashruth—that is whether they are, or are not, kosher. This latter term derives from the biblical laws of what foods are allowable (Lev. 11:2–47); for example, it is allowable to eat meat from cloven hoofed animals that chew the cud but not shellfish, a calf may not be cooked in its mother's milk, and creatures that crawl on their bellies are forbidden. A third set of issues relate to health care and medicine. Finally, a fourth area of concern focuses on changes occurring in agriculture.

The fourth commandment requires Jews to keep the Sabbath holy and to do no work on that day. But what is work? This is often held to be activities of a constructive nature such as preparing food, making a tool or object, giving professional advice, teaching (but learning is acceptable), and doing anything that creates fire, such as making a spark whenever an electrical contact is made. Similar laws apply on holy days.

These prohibitions are managed in a number of ways. First, one may appeal to an overriding statement by God in the Torah (Deut. 30:19): Therefore choose life"; if work is effected in an effort to save life, it would be acceptable. Secondly, it is possible to employ a non-Jew to do the constructive work on the Sabbath, such as to make the fire, heat food, or run a factory. A third option is to use an automatic device such as an electrical timer switch. A battery of these switches may be programmed and used to effect the daily routine jobs that require electrical equipment (heating, lighting, cooking, communicating, elevators, and alarms). It is moot as to whether a modern computer can be used as part of this automation process or whether its use is proscribed because it is an instrument of writing.

To engage in more detail with those issues where a technological fix can obviate a religious prohibition, the Institute for Science and Halakhah was founded in Jerusalem. This body seeks to use sensor systems, robotics, computers, and information devices to loop around the traditional laws and accomplish ends that would otherwise have been forbidden. Its work is proving so successful that this independently-funded body has been adopted as an element of the national government.

Whether or not food is kosher is defined by the rabbis of the local jurisdiction or on appeal to a more respected rabbi with international stature. Clearly, because food is now purchased as pre-prepared items or is made as a composition in tins, it is difficult to know whether or not such material is kosher. While many food producers act under the supervision of the rabbinate, it is possible to produce kosher foods outside this restriction. A food ingredients list is helpful, but it does not specify the way the ingredients are produced in sufficient detail to satisfy a rabbi that non-kosher material was not been prepared with the same equipment and the washing process was effected with sufficient (and often excessive) thoroughness that it could be used for kosher manufacture.

In addition to pig insulin, pig heart valves are generally deemed acceptable for transplantation into observant Jews. As and when pigs are reared that are immunologically compatible with human immune systems, the transplantation of pig hearts, livers, lungs, kidneys, and other organs might also be deemed acceptable by the orthodox Jew.

However, there are medical issues in the area of abortion and in vitro fertilization that exercise the minds of those seeking ethical acceptance from a Judaic standpoint. Facing infertility, an orthodox Jewish couple could receive a dispensation from a rabbi for in vitro fertilization, even if this means creating extra embryos that are eventually killed. Abortion, however is generally forbidden unless the health of the mother is threatened. There are other issues that raise concern, such as blood transfusion: many religious people believe that a person's life is in the blood, and to accept another person's life (albeit in part) is not allowable (Lev. 17:13–15).

The relevant agricultural restriction is that it is forbidden to plant two different kinds of seed in the same field. From this standpoint, genetically manipulated seeds do not present a problem nor do trees that are grafted because the stock and the plant are of the same type. However, the production of hybrid plants that derive from clearly different stocks does cause difficulty and some religious kibbutzim (Israeli agricultural settlements) do not permit themselves the advantages that hybrid vigor provides.

Where science challenges religion most is in those areas that have to do with origins and miracles. Judaism seems to be able to ride the resulting intellectual issues with aplomb. It takes evolution in its stride by asserting that Darwin's ideas are but hypotheses; they have not been, nor can they be, proven. The account of creation in the Torah, however, is a truth as it was given to Moses by God and this constitutes the "gold standard" of knowledge. A mere hypothesis cannot seriously challenge such a truth. The miracles may be treated similarly. There may well be scientific explanations for some of the miracles. For example, the turning of the river Nile into blood by Moses may be explained by the emergence of a bloom of a euglenoid alga that has lost its chlorophyll and appears red by virtue of its red carotenoids. It yet remains possible that God performed the event to provide Pharaoh with evidence of his powers to effect miracles.

When it comes to metaphysical considerations such as the nature and origin of matter, Judaism relies on a belief in an all-powerful God who created all things. Theories of the big bang still leave dangling the origin of the matter that made the "bang" possible, or the process whereby all the matter in the universe was made in an unimaginably short time. The possibility of God creating other universes is not considered, although there is no reason to uphold the claim that humans (and maybe others) inhabit the only universe. Since the beginning of the twentieth century, humans have come close to understanding how an abiotic (lifeless) world some four billion years ago gave rise to a molecule that evidenced the properties of life. The story of the evolution of this notional entity to humans, is also well thought out. Nevertheless, those who profess a strict adherence to the literature and the codes of Judaism will not brook such thinkings because they adhere to the letters and words of Genesis.


SEE ALSO Arendt, Hannah;Holocaust;Virtue Ethics.


Ausubel, Nathan. (1964). The Book of Jewish Knowledge. New York: Crown Publishers.

Rohl, David M. (2002). The Lost Testament: From Eden to Exile: The Five-Thousand Year History of the People of the Bible. London: Century; New York: Random House.

Wigoder, Geoffrey, et al, ed. (1997). Encyclopedia Judaica, CD-ROM edition. Jerusalem: Keter Publishing House


Bible Gateway. Available at Contains fourteen searchable versions of the Bible.

Internet Sacred Text Archive. Available at Contains an English translation of the Babylonian Talmud and other texts as referred to in the article.

The Jewish Chronicle. Available at Weekly UK newspaper available internationally and on the Internet.

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Jewish Perspectives