Science and Religion
The Great Partnership
In this unit you can find resources and texts which explore the theme of “The Great Partnership” (the phrase Rabbi Sacks uses to describe the relationship between religion and science) in the thought of Rabbi Sacks. As well as texts from the writings of Rabbi Sacks, you can also find classic Jewish sources, other contemporary Jewish voices, and some broader secular texts to enrich the way you teach this concept in your classroom.
There are many resources provided here for the teacher to choose from when building a lesson or series of lessons on this topic (there are far too many to be included in one lesson only). If you only want to dedicate one lesson to the topic, then a suggested lesson-plan for a sixty-minute lesson is provided which can be used to explore the classic Jewish texts and initial writings of Rabbi Sacks only.
Age: The resources and lesson plan can be adapted by the educator to a wide range of ages, from middle school/key stage 3 (11 years old) upwards, but this unit is most appropriate for high-school aged students (15-18 years old).
Watch this seven-minute video with your students to explore in a visually engaging way Rabbi Sacks’ approach to the relationship between Religion and Science. You can play the video narrated by Rabbi Sacks in English, or for those interested, the YouTube version of this video contains subtitles in Chinese, French, German, Hebrew, Italian, Portuguese, Russian and Spanish.
Here is the transcript of Rabbi Sacks’ narration:
At various times in history, including now, people have thought that there was a conflict between religion and science. At the time of Galileo, when religion was the stronger of the two, religious belief was used to reject science. Today, when science is stronger, it is sometimes used to reject religion.
In fact, though, this whole idea is mistaken. Religion and science are completely different things, and neither negates the other. They are as unlike as poetry and prose, or song and speech, or a portrait of a person and an MRI scan.
The human mind is capable of doing two quite different things. One is the ability to break things down into their constituent parts and see how they mesh and interact. This is often called “left brain” thinking, and the best example is science. The other, often called “right brain thinking,” is the ability to join events together so that they tell a story, or to join people together so that they form relationships. The best example of this is religion.
To put it at its simplest: science takes things apart to see how they work. Religion puts things together to see what they mean. And we need them both, the way we need the two hemispheres of the brain.
Science is about explanation, religion is about interpretation. Science analyses, religion integrates. Science breaks things down to their component parts; religion binds people together in relationships of trust. Science tells us what is, religion tells us what ought to be. Science describes; religion inspires, beckons, calls.
Science practices detachment; religion is the art of attachment, self to self, soul to soul. Science sees the underlying order of the physical world. Religion hears the music beneath the noise. Science is the conquest of ignorance. Religion is the redemption of solitude.
One way of seeing the difference is to think about their relationship with time. Science looks for causes of events, and a cause always comes before its effect. How did the window break? Because I threw a stone at it. First came the throwing of the stone, then came the breaking of the window. Science looks back from effect to cause.
However, human action is always looking forward. Why did I throw the stone? Because I wanted to wake someone who was asleep to warn them that the building next door is on fire. An action always seeks to bring about something in the future.
And that’s where religion comes in as our deepest guide to the future: the promised land, the messianic age, the vision of the prophets we travel toward when we work for a world in which people finally recognise the image of God in the people not like them, and so bring an end to violence and war. Or sometimes it’s about eternal life and the destiny of the soul after death. Either way, religion isn’t about causes but about purposes.
Why then do we need science? Because we need to understand the world, if we are to honour God’s purposes within it. We need to understand disease if we are to cure it. We need to understand the causes of poverty if we are to alleviate it. We need to understand our destructive drives if we are to rise above them.
And why do we need religion? Because what gives human life its meaning and purpose. The universe is more than the result of an accidental fluctuation in the quantum field at the dawn of time. Human life is more than the unintended consequence of random genetic mutations blindly sifted by natural selection.
Just as there is something within us that is beyond the purely physical, so there is something within the universe – we call it the Divine presence – that is beyond the merely material. And just as God created the universe in love, justice and compassion, so He calls on us to create relationships of love, justice and compassion.
Or to put it another way: the difference between religion and science is the difference between the impersonal and the personal.
When you treat impersonal phenomena as if they were persons, the result is myth: light is from the sun god, rain from the sky god, natural disasters from battles between the gods, and so on. Science was born when people stopped telling stories about nature and instead observed it; in other words, when they relinquished myth.
And when you treat persons impersonally, as if they were objects, the result is dehumanisation: people categorised by colour, class or creed and treated differently as a result. The religion of the Bible was born when people stopped seeing people as useful or useless objects and began to see each individual as unique, sacrosanct, the image of God.
So we need both religion and science. Albert Einstein said it most famously: “Science without religion is lame. Religion without science is blind.”
We need both: science to understand the universe, and religion to guide our way within it, from the world as it is to the world as it ought to be: a world of peace, justice, compassion and love, when we, God’s creations, honour God, our Creator.
- Why at certain times have people thought that they had to choose between religion and science?
- What is the root of that conflict today?
- How is science an example of “left-brain” thinking?
- How is religion an example of “right-brain” thinking?
- What questions does science ask?
- What questions does religion ask?
- Which of these two approaches to understanding the world resonates more with you?
- How can these approaches complement each other?
- Why do we need science, according to Rabbi Sacks?
- What does religion give us that science cannot?
- Why do we need both religion and science?
From the Universal to the Particular in the Torah
- Bereishit 9:8-17
- Bereishit 17:1-7
- Why does God make a covenant with humanity through Noach?
- Why does the Torah tell us about it?
- Why does God make a specific particular covenant with Avraham?
- What do these two covenants have to do with Torah and chochmah (general wisdom)?
The Two Names of God
God has two names. In fact, He has many, but throughout the Hebrew Bible, two predominate: the four-letter name which, following Jewish custom, we will call Hashem (‘the name’), and the name Elokim. Why two names, and what is the difference between them?…
If we now look at the distribution of the two names within the Mosaic books, especially Genesis, we make an unexpected discovery. Even after God’s choice of, and covenant with, Abraham, the Torah takes it for granted that those outside the covenant may also encounter God. He reveals himself to them and speaks to them. They may even speak to him. They exhibit no surprise. They speak of God, not of Baal, Chemosh, Ra or any of the other deities of the Ancient Near East. In almost all cases, the word used is Elokim. Elokim is, as it were, common ground between the patriarchal family and its neighbours.
So, for example, when Abraham is forced by famine to go to the land of the Philistines, he fears that he may be killed for the sake of his wife Sarah, and says that she is his sister. She is duly taken into the harem of the king, Abimelech. God (Elokim) then appears to Abimelech at night in a dream and warns him that she is in fact married to Abraham. A dialogue about justice then ensues between God and the pagan king, who protests his innocence—not unlike the encounter between Abraham and God over the fate of Sodom.
Similarly, when Abraham negotiates to buy a plot of land in which to bury Sarah, the Hittites call him ‘a prince of God [Elokim] in our midst’. When Joseph is brought up from prison to interpret Pharaoh’s dreams, he says, ‘God [Elokim] will give Pharaoh the answer he desires,’ evidently assuming that Pharaoh will understand the word…
More dramatically, early in the book of Exodus we encounter the first recorded act of civil disobedience: the refusal of the midwives to obey Pharaoh’s command to kill every male Hebrew child. The text says that they ‘feared God [Elokim] and did not do what the king of Egypt had told them to do’ (Ex. 1:17). This is particularly interesting since, by a subtle ambiguity, the phrase describing them may mean either ‘the Hebrew midwives’ or ‘the midwives to the Hebrews’, leaving it unresolved as to whether they were Hebrew or Egyptian. The phrase yirat Elokim seems to refer to a universal moral sense, a ‘natural law’, presumed to be present in everyone unless corrupted.
The word Hashem is quite different. It almost invariably signals a closeness of relationship, and is used far more of the covenantal family. So, for example, whereas Joseph’s pharaoh understands and uses the word Elokim, the pharaoh to whom Moses speaks says defiantly: ‘Who is the Lord [Hashem], that I should obey him and let Israel go? I do not know the Lord [Hashem] and I will not let Israel go.’ (Ex. 5:2)
Consistent with this distinction, the covenant with Noah (Gen. 9:8–17) uses the word Elokim throughout. In the key communications of God with Abraham—the command to leave his family (12:1), the promise of the land (12:7) and of children (15:4–6), and the covenant (15:18; 17:1)—the name Hashem is used. The general contrast in Genesis is therefore not between monotheism and polytheism, or even between true worship and idolatry. It is between Elokim and Hashem, God as he appears to people in general, and the intimacy of his encounters with those he loves in particular.
So we have yet another duality. Elokim is universal, Hashem is particular. An Egyptian, a Philistine, a Hittite, someone who stands outside the covenant, can understand Elokim as the cause of causes, the supreme power. But Hashem, God’s proper name, the name by which he is called in intimate person-to-person relationship: that is not universal. It bespeaks closeness, singularity. This is the God of revelation and self-disclosure, the God of love who will one day say, ‘My child, my firstborn, Israel’ (Ex. 4:22)…
We can all encounter Elokim, Jew and non-Jew alike. That is common language shared by Abraham’s family and their contemporaries. Yet there is a another dimension to God altogether. The heroes of the Hebrew Bible do not encounter God merely as Dylan Thomas’ ‘force that through the green fuse drives the flower’, or as Matthew Arnold’s ‘the eternal not ourselves that makes for righteousness’. They meet him as personal presence, the One who hears our cry, notes our deeds, who calls to us and who listens when we call to him. That is Hashem, the God of revelation and particularity, the God of the priests who summons Israel to become a holy nation, and of the prophets who charges them with the work of righteousness and justice, love and compassion.
So in Genesis, the most universal of the Mosaic books, and the one in which the people outside the Abrahamic covenant are most prominent, the two names are evenly matched: Hashem appears 165 times, Elokim 188. But in Leviticus, the book of priesthood and holiness, Hashem appears 311 times, Elokim a mere 5. In the prophetic books from Isaiah to Malachi, Hashem appears 1,991 times, Elokim a mere 61.
So the universal/particular dichotomy that runs through Judaism finds an echo in the names of God. The God of creation, Elokim, is universal. The God of revelation, Hashem, is particular.Future Tense, pp. 214-219
- How do these two names of God relate to the two covenants presented above?
- What does this tell us about God and His relationship with other nations?
- How do they relate to the two types of knowledge: Torah and chochmah?
- Tehillim 104:24
- Mishlei 8:22
- Iyov 28:23-27
The Rabbis on Chochmah
- The bracha for knowledge in the Amidah
- Talmud Bavli, Shabbat 75a
- Midrash Eicha Rabbah 2:13
Torah is Israel’s Gift
- Devarim 4:8
- Tehillim 147:19-20
- What can we learn about universal chochmah from these sources?
- What can we learn about Torah wisdom from these sources?
- How do they differ? Do we need both?
The Universal and the Particular in the Torah
Judaism is built on a dual structure. It has a universal dimension and particularistic one, neither of which negates the other. God has a general relationship with all humanity and a particular relationship with the Children of Israel. Rabbi Akiva expressed this, simply and beautifully, in his statement in Ethics of the Fathers: ‘Beloved is humanity, for it was created in God’s image… Beloved are Israel for they are called God’s children.’ (3:14)Future Tense, pp. 211-212
- Why do you think the Torah begins with the “universals of the human condition”?
- What does it mean that the Torah is a “particular text”?
- What could this help us understand about the differences between Torah/religion and science?
Torah and Chochmah: Particular and Universal Knowledge
So we have a dual ontology, two modes of being. But Judaism also recognises a dual epistemology. There are two ways of knowing. One is called chochmah, ‘wisdom’, the other is Torah, ‘teaching, instruction, law, guidance’. The difference was stated clearly by the Sages: ‘If you are told that there is wisdom among the nations believe it. If you are told there is Torah among the nations, do not believe it.’Future Tense, p. 219
We can now state the difference between the two modes of knowledge. Chochmah is the truth we discover; Torah is the truth we inherit. Chochmah is the universal heritage of humankind; Torah is the specific heritage of Israel. Chochmah is what we attain by being in the image of God; Torah is what guides Jews as the people of God. Chochmah is acquired by seeing and reasoning; Torah is received by listening and responding.
Chochmah tells us what is; Torah tells us what ought to be. Chochmah is about facts; Torah is about commands. Chochmah yields descriptive, scientific laws; Torah yields prescriptive, behavioural laws. Chochmah is about creation; Torah is about revelation…
…We can now state the following. Chochmah has an honourable place within the Jewish worldview. It has religious dignity. It is the gift of God. It is available to everyone, because everyone is in the image of God. We can also hazard the following definition: chochmah is what allows us to understand the world as God’s work (science) and the human person as his image (the humanities).Future Tense, pp. 221-222
But there is a difference between wisdom and Torah. Wisdom tells us how the world is. Torah tells us how the world ought to be. Wisdom is about nature. Torah is about will. It is about human freedom and choice and the way we are called on to behave. Wisdom is about the world God makes. Torah is about the world God calls on us to make, honouring others as bearers of God’s image, exercising our freedom in such a way as not to rob others of theirs.The Great Partnership, p. 70
I want… to argue that we need both religion and science; that they are compatible and more than compatible. They are two essential perspectives that allow us to see the universe in its three-dimensional depth. The creative tension between the two is what keeps us sane, grounded in physical reality without losing our spiritual sensibility. It keeps us human and humane.
The story I am about to tell is about the human mind and its ability to do two quite different things. One is the ability to break things down into their constituent parts and see how they mesh and interact. The other is the ability to join things together so that they tell a story, and to join people together so that they form relationships. The best example of the first is science, of the second, religion.
Science takes things apart to see how they work. Religion puts things together to see what they mean. Without going into neuroscientific detail, the first is a predominantly left-brain activity, the second is associated with the right hemisphere.
Both are necessary, but they are very different. The left brain is good at sorting and analysing things. The right brain is good at forming relationships with people.The Great Partnership, pp. 2-3
- What does chochmah give us that Torah cannot?
- What does Torah give us that chochmah cannot?
- Why is it important to learn both?
To change the world, you have to understand the world
Maimonides articulated thirteen principles of faith. Rabbi Shimon ben Tzemach Duran reduced them to three, which Franz Rosenzweig called creation, revelation, and redemption. The relationship between God and the universe is creation: the work of God. Between God and humanity it is revelation: the word of God. When we apply revelation to creation, the word of God to the work of God, the result is redemption.
We can now define the difference between Elokim and Hashem. Elokim is God in creation. The entire creation narrative of Genesis 1:1-2:3 is constructed around the name Elokim. It is Elokim who made the universe and all it contains, Elokim who spoke and brought the world into being, Elokim who said, ‘Let us make man in our image after our likeness.’ Elokim is the God of space, the stars and the planets, the God of life and the human genome, the God of nature and science, the God of Newton and Einstein.
When it comes to revelation, the word the Torah uses is Hashem. It was Hashem who warned Cain against sin, who summoned Noah to enter the ark, who called to Abraham, telling him to leave his land, his birthplace, and his father’s house, Hashem who promised him children and a land, Hashem who spoke to Moses at the burning bush, who rescued his people from Egypt, who made a covenant with them at Mount Sinai, who gave them the Ten Commandments and the laws of life.Future Tense, pp. 217-218
Without Torah we cannot understand the Jewish story. But without chochmah we cannot understand the human story. As I put it above, there are three elements of Jewish faith: creation, revelation and redemption. Creation is God’s relationship with the universe. Revelation is God’s relationship with us. Redemption is what happens when we apply revelation to creation, when we apply God’s word to God’s world. We cannot apply Torah to the world unless we understand the world. Without an understanding of creation, we will fail to bring about redemption.Future Tense, p. 226
A Judaism divorced from society will be a Judaism unable to influence society. It will live and thrive and flourish behind high walls within its own defensive space, but it will not speak to those who wrestle with the very realities —poverty, disease, injustice, inequality and other assaults on human dignity—to which Torah was directed in the first place. At best, those who engage with the world and are at the same time faithful to Judaism will be divided personalities, unable to integrate the two halves of their being because Torah and chochmah are un-integrated in our time. They will suffer from the cerebral lesion I mentioned at the beginning of the chapter.
Creation and revelation have a single author. At the climax of Yom Kippur, in the last words of prayer, Jews say seven times: Hashem hu ha-Elokim, ‘the God of revelation is the God of creation’. Judaism is a sustained call to heal the rift between creation and revelation, between the world as it is and the world as it ought to be. To do that requires both Torah and wisdom.Future Tense, pp. 227-228
- What arguments are found here for encouraging not just Torah study, but also secular wisdom?
- How can studying both chochmah (creation) and Torah (revelation) lead to the redemption of the world?
- What does this mean for the education we give our children?
The Limits of Science
Science cannot, in and of itself, give an account of human dignity, because dignity is based on human freedom. Freedom is a concept that lies outside the scope of science. Science cannot locate freedom, because the scientific world is one of causal relationships. A stone is not free to fall or not to fall. Lightning does not choose when and where to strike. A scientific law links one physical phenomenon to another without the intervention of will and choice. To the extent that there is a science of human behaviour, there is an implicit denial of the freedom of human behaviour. That is precisely what Spinoza, Marx and Freud were arguing: that freedom is an illusion. But if freedom is an illusion, then so is the human dignity based on that freedom. Science cannot but deconsecrate the human person, thereby opening the gate to a possible desecration.
At this point, the voice of morality – the very voice that has been progressively weakened over the past fifty years – has to intervene, and explain explicitly what is unique about humankind, and what we must cultivate and protect in the coming years.Morality, p. 243
To be sure, the world of wisdom is a danger zone. All too rarely do scientists and humanists acknowledge the difference between fact and value, wisdom and culture. Perhaps, within the humanities, it is impossible to make a sharp separation between the two. Can we read Homer or Dante or Milton or T. S. Eliot without entering their mental world, their culture-saturated combination of fact and value, which may be incompatible with, subversive of or antagonistic towards the values to which Jews have been called?
Science can easily become scientism, the belief that what science measures is all there is. Materialism, determinism, behaviourism, Darwinism: these are all forms, not of science but of science-become-metaphor-and-myth, doctrines that lay claim to a truth far beyond the evidence on which they are based. So there is no risk-free encounter with wisdom. Even Maimonides, the greatest expert in Jewish law and life who ever entered the Elysian field of wisdom, was, in the view of many, too Platonic in his politics and too Aristotelian in his metaphysics.Future Tense, p. 228
- What are the dangers of only learning science?
- What are the dangers of only learning Torah?
- How do Torah and science complement each other?
- Does scientific knowledge contradict religious belief? (Templeton Prize)
- Does God Play Dice? (in conversation with Professor Aaron Ciechanover)
- Science vs. Religion – The Chief Rabbi’s BBC Rosh Hashanah programme (2012)
- Jewish Book Week 2012: Religion and Science (in conversation with mathematician Marcus du Sautoy)
- Jonathan Sacks and Richard Dawkins at BBC RE:Think festival (2012)
- Technology & Community: A Facebook Live discussion between Rabbi Sacks and Nicola Mendelsohn
Further articles from Rabbi Sacks exploring Torah and Science
- Where science and religion converge (Radio 4 Thought for the Day, 2016)
- Religion isn’t science and science isn’t religion (Radio 4 Thought for the Day, 2010)
- Even great science tells us nothing about God (The Times, 2010)
- Religion and science are twin beacons of humanity (Credo, 2007)
- Issues in Jewish Thought: Evolution
- The Stewardship Paradigm – A Thought for Tu BiShvat
- Epilogue: Letter to a Scientific Atheist, in The Great Partnership
Science speaks of causes but not purposes. It understands events caused by things in the past, but not acts and decisions motivated by a vision of the future.Celebrating Life, p. 3
I come from a religious tradition where we make a blessing over great scientists regardless of their views on religion.The Great Partnership, p. 1
Science takes things apart to see how they work. Religion puts things together to see what they mean.The Great Partnership, p. 2
Science is about explanation. Religion is about meaning. Science analyses, religion integrates. Science breaks things down to their component parts. Religion binds people together in relationships of trust. Science tells us what is. Religion tells us what ought to be. Science describes. Religion beckons, summons, calls. Science sees objects. Religion speaks to us as subjects. Science practices detachment. Religion is the art of attachment, self to self, soul to soul. Science sees the underlying order of the physical world. Religion hears the music beneath the noise. Science is the conquest of ignorance. Religion is the redemption of solitude.The Great Partnership, pp. 6-7
A civilisation that had space for science but not religion might achieve technological prowess. But it would not respect people in their specificity and particularity. It would quickly become inhuman and inhumane.The Great Partnership, pp. 55-56
If science is about the world that is, and religion is about the world that ought to be, then religion needs science because we cannot apply God’s will to the world if we do not understand the world. If we try to, the result will be magic or misplaced supernaturalism. We will rely on miracles – and the rabbis ruled, ‘Don’t rely on miracles.’ By the same token, science needs religion, or at the very least, some philosophical understanding of the human condition and our place within the universe, for each fresh item of knowledge and each new accession of power raises the question of how it should be used, and for that we need another way of thinking.The Great Partnership, p. 214
Religion and science, the heritages respectively of Jerusalem and Athens, products of the twin hemispheres of the human brain, must now join together to protect the world that had been entrusted to our safekeeping, honouring our covenant with nature and nature’s God, the God that is the music beneath the noise, the Being at the heart of being, whose still, small voice we can still hear if we learn to create a silence in the soul, the God who, whether or not we have faith in him, never loses faith in us.The Great Partnership, p. 291
What the secularists forgot is that Homo sapiens is the meaning-seeking animal. If there is one thing the great institutions of the modern world do not do, it is to provide meaning. Science tells us how but not why. Technology gives us power but cannot guide us as to how to use that power. The market gives us choices but leaves us uninstructed as to how to make those choices. The liberal democratic state gives us freedom to live as we choose but on principle refuses to guide us as to how to choose.Not in God’s Name, p. 14
- How do these contemporary Jewish thinkers approach the issues surrounding Torah and Science as fields of study?
- How does this compare to the approach of Rabbi Sacks?
- Do you think they conflict, compliment, or add to the approach of Rabbi Sacks?
Rabbi Norman Lamm
The study of metaphysics is, for Maimonides, the pinnacle of wisdom, for it leads to a true apperception of God insofar as it is given to man to understand Him. But there are many prerequisites to such study. In the Guide he tells us that we can obtain a knowledge of Him only through His deeds (rather than His essence) because they provide the evidence for His existence and inform us about Him both affirmatively and negatively; that is, what He is and what He is not. “It is thus necessary to examine all things according to their essence, to infer from each species” those truths that can assist us in solving metaphysical problems. Thus we must study the nature of numbers and geometry. Astronomy and physics help in comprehending the “relation between the world and Providence – as it is in reality, and not according to imagination.” Other disciplines, although not preparing the way for metaphysics directly, train us in the proper use of reason and this minimise confusion. Hence, the study of logic and various branches of mathematics is obligatory. In chapter 5 of his Introduction to Avot (Shemoneh Perakim), Maimonides adds the biological sciences and medicine to his list, and elsewhere he adds grammar and etymology.N. Lamm, Torah Umadda, Jerusalem: Koren Publishers, 2010 (Originally published in 1990) p. 68
Rabbi S. R. Hirsch
You speak of dogmas, dogmas of faith! In answer thereto, I would briefly say that Judaism enjoins six hundred and thirteen duties, but knows no dogmas.
The sublime truths which lie at its basis, it reveals as axioms, clearly intelligible to all who have ears to hear and minds to comprehend, and in this way opens a field for the broadest investigation and profoundest research into the essence and relations of all things to each other; it rouses us to the endeavour to understand the world, man, human history, and God’s plan operating therein.
In this effort personal study and thought, universal human experience and the Torah are to be alike utilised, for the latter is as real and actual a source of instruction as the two former.
True speculation does not consist, as many would-be thinkers suppose, in closing the eye and the ear to the world round about us and in constructing out of our own inner Ego a world to suit ourselves; true speculation takes nature, man, and history as facts, as the true basis of knowledge, and seeks in them instruction and wisdom; to these Judaism adds the Torah, as genuine a reality as heaven or earth. But it regards no speculation which does not lead to active, productive life as its ultimate goal; it points out the limits of our understanding and warns us against baseless reasoning, transcending the legitimate bounds of our intellectual capacity, however brilliantly put together and glitteringly logical it may appear to be, for all such intellectual pyrotechnics are, after all, but puerile sport, useful chiefly to still the conscientious scruples of a sensual nature, oblivious alike to the limitations and the ideals of humanity. To be sure, the Jewish spirit, in its most recent form, was chiefly devoted to abstract and abstruse speculation; a vivid consciousness of the real world was lacking, and therefore the object of study was not what it should chiefly have been, the attainment of knowledge of duty, for use in the world and in life.
Study became the end instead of the means, the subject of investigation became a matter of indifference, the dialectic subtleties thereof the chief concern; people studied Judaism but forgot to search for its principles in the pages of Scripture.
That method is, however, not truly Jewish; our great masters have always protested against it; many pages of the classic works of Jewish literature are filled with the objections of their authors to this false and perverted method. Bible and Talmud are to be studied with one sole object in view, to ascertain the life-duties which they inculcate, ללמוד וללמד לשמור ולעשות, “to learn and to teach — to observe and to do,” and every topic treated of in the Law should be viewed objectively or a comprehension thereof obtained from science.
There is no science which trains the mind to a broader and more practical view of things than does the Torah, pursued in this manner. That the Law, which lays down Reverence, Love, and Faithfulness as its three foundation-stones, does not cripple the heart, but that, when comprehended and assimilated to the mind, its fulfilment becomes a new power, a life from within, not a mere barren and external dwarf of existence, stimulating all the faculties to a freer development and a more intense use — you have already demonstrated by your adhesion.Rabbi S. R. Hirsch, The Nineteen Letters, Letter Fifteen
There is one other particular danger which is to be feared by a Jewish minority. It is what we would like to call a certain intellectual narrow-mindedness. This danger becomes especially acute the more closely a minority clings to its cause and the more anxious it is to preserve that cause.
However, precisely such complete dedication to its cause may easily lead the minority into intellectual one-sidedness. This may well stunt to a degree the development of the minority’s unique intellectual life…
It may reject all intellectual activity in any field outside its own as an offense against its own cause, as an inroad upon the devotion properly due to that cause and an infringement on its prerogatives…
Indeed, the minority may come to regard these ‘outside’ pursuits in themselves as the roots of the spiritual error which it deplores in the majority. Eventually it may reach the point where it may fearfully shun all intellectual endeavors other than those directly related to its own philosophy as an enemy of its cause and as a threat to the purity and loyalty of its adherents.Rabbi S. R. Hirsch, The Collected Writings of Rabbi Samson Raphael Hirsch (Feldheim, 1997), vol. iI, pp. 246–248.
Each body of thought has its own logic and is tied to others by a systematic relatedness… it follows that there is no such thing as a vain or useless thought; there is nothing without its proper place; for all emanate from the same source in the divine wisdom… As man grows in the scale of perfection, he draws from all ideas, his own and those of others, their kernel of eternity, logic and good which derives from the source of wisdom.Rabbi A. Y. Kook, Orot ha-Kodesh, vol. 1, (1920), p. 17
The reaching out for worldly knowledge to the extent possible is a necessity. If every student of the Torah cannot be expected to master all branches of knowledge, he can be expected to attain familiarity with the general state of culture in the world and its impact on life, so that he may discern the spirit of his generation and thus be enabled to nurture it and improve it.Rabbi A. Y. Kook, Eder ha-Yakar, pp. 128-9
From earliest times, we have experienced the transfer of the most sublime and holy concepts from the Jewish domain to the general arena. An example of propagation was the translation of the Torah into Greek. Two very different responses to this event emerged. In the Land of Israel, Jews were frightened – their world darkened. In contrast, Greek Jewry rejoiced. There were also instances of absorption. Various cultural influences, such as Greek culture and other foreign cultures that Jews confronted throughout their history, penetrated into our inner being. Here too, many Jewish circles responded to absorption with fear, while other Jews rejoiced.
When we look back on the previous generations, and reckon with hindsight, we realize that neither the fear nor the rejoicing was in vain. We gained in some areas and lost in others in our confrontation with foreign cultures. This much is clear. Regarding those circles that welcomed absorption and propagation joyously, with unmitigated optimism and with no trepidation, very few of their descendants remain with us today, participating in our difficult and holy task of rebuilding our land and resuscitating our people. For the vast majority of them have assimilated among the nations; they found themselves caught up in the waves of the “wealth of the sea” and the “riches of the nations” that have come to us.
Only from those who resided securely in our innermost fortresses, in the tents of Torah, enmeshed in the sanctity of the law, did emerge the truly creative Jews – that great portion of our nation who are loyal to its flag – who work tirelessly to build our great edifice. Among these were many who propagated and absorbed. They exported and imported ideas and values on the spiritual highway that mediates between Israel and the nations. Their attitude, however, towards this undertaking was never one of rejoicing only. Fear accompanied their joy as they confronted the vision of the “wealth of the sea” belonging to the “riches of the nations.”Rabbi A. Y. Kook, Inauguration speech to Hebrew University – Tradition 29
Gerald L. Schroeder
The thought that religion and science must be at odds is ill conceived. Current surveys consistently report that in Western countries most people (in excess of 70 percent) believe in some form of evolution and in a Divine Creator. Yet within this belief there lies the misperception that religion and science form a dichotomy rather than a duality: there is scientific truth and there is spiritual truth. And the two arise from intrinsically distinct sources, knowledge and intellect giving rise to the former; faith providing the basis for the latter…
This book accepts neither Bible nor science as being individually sufficient for a hungry mind seeking explanations of and purpose in life. In that sense, it is for sceptics and religious believers alike. These seemingly disparate sources of knowledge are combined as a single data base from which generalised conclusions are drawn. What appear to be diametrically opposed biblical and scientific descriptions of our human origins are actually identical realities but viewed from vastly different perspectives. Once these perspectives are identified, they coexist comfortably with all the rigorous science and traditional belief anyone could demand…
Science has given us a powerful tradition for the examination of life as we know it. Scientists are not always right, but they are very good about testing their own theories and correcting their mistakes. Their discoveries daily reveal wonders in the workings of our universe. The idea that scientific explanation of nature’s marvels detracts from the grandeur of creation is both absurd and ill-conceived. When understood in context, this knowledge can be a source of inspiration… But science has its limitations and the sceptic too must realise this. It can never speak to the purpose of life, the “why”.G. L. Schroeder, The Science of God, p. 2-3
These external sources were all referenced by Rabbi Sacks in his book, on Science and Religion, The Great Partnership:
I am not religious, but I place a high value on the religious experience of believers … I think that those who do not understand what it is to be religious, do not understand what human beings live by. That is why dry atheists seem to me blind and deaf to some forms of profound human experience, perhaps the inner life: It is like being aesthetically blind.Isaiah Berlin
To know an answer to the question, ‘What is the meaning of human life?’ means to be religious.Albert Einstein
The idea of life having a purpose stands and falls with the religious system.Sigmund Freud
To believe in God means to understand the question about the meaning of life. To believe in God means to see that the facts of the world are not the end of the matter. To believe in God means to see that life has a meaning.Ludwig Wittgenstein
When we have found all the mysteries and lost all the meaning, we will be alone, on an empty shore.Tom Stoppard
For this reason a higher culture must give to a man a double-brain, as it were two brain-ventricles, one for the perceptions of science, the other for those of non-science: lying beside one another, not confused together, separable, capable of being shut off: this is a demand of health.Nietzsche
Science investigates, religion interprets … Religion and science are two hemispheres of human thought.Martin Luther King, Jr
Man must at last wake out of his millenary dream and discover his total solitude, his fundamental isolation. He must realise that, like a gypsy, he lives on the boundary of an alien world, a world that is deaf to his music, and as indifferent to his hopes as it is to his sufferings or his crimes.Jacques Monod, Chance and Necessity: An Essay on the Natural Philosophy of Modern Biology, New York, Vintage, 1972, p. 160.
It is almost irresistible for humans to believe that we have some special relation to the universe, that human life is not just a more or less farcical outcome of a chain of accidents reaching back to the first three minutes, but that we were somehow built in from the beginning … It is very hard to realise that this is all just a tiny part of an overwhelmingly hostile universe … It is even harder to realise that this present universe has evolved from an unspeakably unfamiliar early condition, and faces a future extinction of endless cold or intolerable heat. The more the universe seems comprehensible, the more it seems pointlessSteven Weinberg, The First Three Minutes: A Modern View of the Origin of the Universe, New York, Basic, 1977, pp. 154–5.
That man is the product of causes which had no prevision of the end they were achieving; that his origin, his growth, his hopes and fears, his loves and his beliefs, are but the outcome of accidental collocations of atoms; that no fire, no heroism, no intensity of thought and feeling, can preserve an individual life beyond the grave; that all the labors of the ages, all the devotion, all the inspiration, all the noonday brightness of human genius, are destined to extinction in the vast death of the solar system, and that the whole temple of man’s achievement must inevitably be buried beneath the debris of a universe in ruins – all these things, if not quite beyond dispute, are yet so nearly certain that no philosophy which rejects them can hope to stand. Only within the scaffolding of these truths, only on the firm foundation of unyielding despair, can the soul’s salvation henceforth be safely built.‘A Free Man’s Worship’, in The Basic Writings of Bertrand Russell, London, Routledge Classics, 2009, p. 39.
The sense of the world must lie outside the world. In the world everything is as it is and happens as it does happen. In it there is no value – and if there were, it would be of no value. If there is a value which is of value, it must lie outside all happening and being-so. For all happening and being-so is accidental. What makes it non-accidental cannot lie in the world, for otherwise this would again be accidental. It must lie outside the worldLudwig Wittgenstein, Tractatus logico-philosophicus, London, 1922, 6.41.
The new paradigm must also lead to a renewed interest in and sympathy for religion in its broadest sense, as a means of expressing wonder at the ‘mysterium tremendum et fascinans’ of the natural world. It is not the least of the ironies of the New Genetics and the Decade of the Brain that they have vindicated the two main impetuses to religious belief – the non-material reality of the human soul and the beauty and diversity of the living world – while confounding the principle tenets of materialism: that Darwin’s ‘reason for everything’ explains the natural world and our origins, and that life can be ‘reduced’ to the chemical genes, the mind to the physical brainJames Le Fanu, Why Us?: How Science Rediscovered the Mystery of Ourselves, London, HarperPress, 2009, p. 258
The absence of God, when consistently upheld and thoroughly examined, spells the ruin of man in the sense that it demolishes or robs of meaning everything we have been used to think of as the essence of being human: the quest for truth, the distinction of good and evil, the claim to dignity, the claim to creating something that withstands the indifferent destructiveness of time.Leszek Kolakowski, Religion, London, Fontana, 1982, p. 215.
For science can only ascertain what is, but not what should be, and outside of its domain value judgments of all kinds remain necessary … representatives of science have often made an attempt to arrive at fundamental judgments with respect to values and ends on the basis of scientific method, and in this way have set themselves in opposition to religion. These conflicts have all sprung from fatal errorsAlbert Einstein, Out of My Later Years (Essays), New York, Philosophical Library, 1950, p. 25.
Because religion and science are the two most powerful forces in the world today, including especially the United States. If religion and science could be united on the common ground of biological conservation, the problem would soon be solved.Edward O. Wilson, The Creation: An Appeal to Save Live on Earth, New York, W. W. Norton & Co., 2006, p. 5.
But science can only be created by those who are thoroughly imbued with the aspiration toward truth and understanding. This source of feeling, however, springs from the sphere of religion. To this there also belongs the faith in the possibility that the regulations valid for the world of existence are rational, that is, comprehensible to reason. I cannot conceive of a genuine scientist without that profound faith. The situation may be expressed by an image: science without religion is lame, religion without science is blind.Albert Einstein, ‘Science, Philosophy and Religion: A Symposium’, Ideas and Opinions, New York, Bonanza Books, Crown Publishing Co., 1984, p. 46.
Suggested Lesson Plan on Science and Religion
The following lesson plan is a suggestion of how some of the resources contained in this unit could be incorporated into a 60-minute class period for a high-school age class. This will focus solely on one particular idea within the thought of Rabbi Sacks. There are many other themes found in this unit which would take more classroom time to explore with your students.
Download our 60-minute class for high-school age classes
Bet Nidrash on Science and Religion
Having completed your study of this topic, you may wish to embark with your students on a “Bet Nidrash” on the topic, a practical project based on what you have learned and discussed. The term “Bet Nidrash” is a play on the term Bet Midrash (study hall) replacing the word for study (Midrash) with the word Nidrash, which means “required” or an “imperative”. This suggests that one’s study should not be just for its own sake, but rather a means to an end, to improve oneself and the world around us. Rabbi Sacks’ philosophy and writings were always focused not on the theoretical, but on the deeply practical. He urged for the ideas he wrote about to be implemented outside the walls of the Bet Midrash, in the real world.
This unit would be a perfect hook for a program of inter-disciplinary project based learning which could involve a partnership between the Jewish studies and secular studies departments in your school. Using the assumptions of Rabbi Sacks here, that science explains the ‘how’ of the universe, and religion gives us a framework for understanding the ‘why’ of the universe, giving our lives and the universe meaning, find a joint project with the science (or humanities) departments to explore an issue, topic or problem that needs to be addressed.
The following quote should be the guiding inspiration for the project:
Chochmah is the truth we discover; Torah is the truth we inherit.
Chochmah is the universal heritage of humankind; Torah is the specific heritage of Israel.
Chochmah is what we attain by being in the image of God; Torah is what guides Jews as the people of God.
Chochmah is acquired by seeing and reasoning; Torah is received by listening and responding.
Chochmah tells us what is; Torah tells us what ought to be.
Chochmah is about facts; Torah is about commands.
Chochmah yields descriptive, scientific laws; Torah yields prescriptive, behavioural laws. Chochmah is about creation; Torah is about revelation…
Chochmah is what allows us to understand the world as God’s work (science) and the human person as his image (the humanities).
These projects could be an exhibition for the rest of the school community to enjoy, or a presentation using another media (such as video), an article in the school paper, or a debate for other students to watch.
- Is our school environmentally sustainable?
- What is the origin of the universe?
- How can we address the mental health epidemic of the 21st century?
- What would a fair system of taxation in our community look like?
- What political systems are compatible with Torah ethics?
- How important is it to have a separation of religion and state?