Letter from Rabbi Menachem Mendel Schneersohn, the Lubavitcher Rebbe to a member of the Association of Orthodox Jewish Scientists, 19711
By the Grace of G-d
Association of Orthodox Jewish Scientists
New York, NY 10011
Although I don’t know you personally, I am taking the liberty of writing to you, having just received the ____ with your article in it. I find myself in the agreement of some points brought out in your article, which encourages me in the hope that as Editor and influential member of your Association you may be able to give new impetus to the Association and its members, and, especially, help clear up once and for all certain misconceptions which—as it seems to me—are still troubling some orthodox Jewish scientists.
Specifically, I find it incomprehensible and regrettable that some of our orthodox scientists still evince an apologetic attitude vis-à-vis science and certain scientific theories. This is evident also in some articles in the present ____ and I have seen it also in personal discussions with some genuinely frum [observant] scientists.
To put it bluntly, some orthodox scientists seem to be ashamed to declare openly their adherence to such basic tenets of the Torah as, e.g. that G-d created Adam and Chava, or the possibility of a miracle (Ness) in the present day and age, as a Ness is defined in Torah, namely, an occurrence in defiance of the (so-called) laws of nature. When I asked them, squarely, how do they reconcile this lack of conviction in basic Torah-matters with what every believing Jew believes and professes, the answer was that they have managed to ‘departmentalize’ their day—Tefila [prayer] and Torah, etc., being one ‘department,’ science—another.
Needless to say, such an attitude is untenable. For, when a Jew declares daily, Hashem hu ha’elokim, ein od milvado [G-d is the Lord, there is nothing but Him], it is plainly meant that this is the whole day, not part of the day. Moreover, a scientist with such a split personality is a contradiction also to the concept of Hashem ehod [G-d is one], as the Hazal [sages] interprets ‘ehod’—aleph, hes, dales—that aleph, i.e. alupho shel olom, rules not only in the seven heavens but also on earth (hes – ‘eight’), and in all the four directions (dales)2 (SeMaG, quoted in Beis Yosef, Tur Orach Haim, par. 61).
As for the matter of miracles, as it affects the daily life, the Torah view is clear: It rules that “one should not rely on a miracle,” but at the same time it requires every Jew to be permeated with complete faith that G-d acts through nature, and also ‘above’ nature. This is also the plain meaning of the posuk [verse]: “And G-d, your G-d, will bless you in all that you do”. It is necessary to do (not to rely on miracles), yet ultimately the blessing comes from G-d. To think otherwise would also be contradictory to the three daily Tefilos [prayers]. The blessings of Shemone-esrai [prayer of 18 blessings] are clearly based on the conviction that G-d can interfere with nature, e.g. heal the sick and bless the crops, etc., even where the natural factors are unfavorable. Unless one believes in G-d’s omnipotence and personal interest in every individual’s daily life, there is no sense in praying to Him, and asking Him, for His blessings.
Of course, when a Jew finds himself in an environment of non-believers, it is difficult to be different and face possible ridicule. But this too has already been forewarned by the Shulhan Aruch3. At the beginning of the very first volume, the Shulhan Aruch lays down the basic principle for the fulfillment of all the four volumes: “And let him not be ashamed in the face of men who may scoff at him in his service to G-d.”
What is even more surprising—and as yet I have not received any answer from those with whom I had occasion to speak on the matter—is that the said apologetic attitude is completely out of harmony with the view of contemporary science. If a century ago, when scientists still spoke in terms of absolute truths, it was understandable why a person who wished to adhere to his faith might have been embarrassed to challenge ‘scientific’ claims, this is no longer the case in our day and age. Contemporary science no longer lays claim to absolutes; the principle of probability now reigns supreme, even in practical science as applied in common daily experiences. Certainly in such realms as the origin of the universe, the origin of life on earth, and the origin of the species, where the theories are based on speculative extrapolation, and even more so in the realm of pure science, where everything is based on assumed premises (If we assume that, etc. then it follows, etc.) – scientists clearly do not deal with certainties.
Need one remind our orthodox Jewish scientists, who still feel embarrassed about some ‘old-fashioned’ Torah truths, in the face of scientific hypotheses, that Heisenberg’s ‘principle of indeterminacy’ has finally done away with the traditional scientific notion that cause and effect are mechanically linked, so that it is now quite unscientific to hold that one event is an inevitable consequence of another, but only most probable? The 19th century dogmatic, mechanistic, and deterministic attitude of science is gone. The modern scientist no longer expects to find Truth in science. The current and universally accepted view of science itself is that science must reconcile itself to the idea that whatever progress it makes, it will always deal with probabilities; not with certainties or absolutes.
Needless to say, it is not my intention to belittle science, applied or speculative, and especially for quite another reason. For, as a matter of fact, the Torah bestows upon science—in certain areas at least—a validity much greater then contemporary science itself claims. The Halacha [Jewish Law] accepts scientific findings, in many instances, not as possible or probable, but as certain and true. There is surely no need to elaborate to you on this.
In the light of what has been said above, there is no basis whatsoever for any religious Jewish scientist to be embarrassed, since modern science cannot legitimately (and I mean ‘legitimately’ even from the viewpoint of science itself) challenge Torah from Sinai.
It follows that there is no need whatever—however well-intentioned—to attempt to reinterpret passages in the Torah in order to reconcile them with scientific theory, not to mention ‘reinterpretations’ which do violence to the letter and meaning of the Torah. Thus, for example, the attempt to ‘reinterpret’ the text of the first section of Breishis4 to the effect that it speaks of periods or eons, rather than ordinary days, or to apply indiscriminately the dictum the ‘the Torah speaks in the language of man,’ etc., is not only uncalled for, but it means tampering with the Mitzvah [commandment] of Shabbos itself, which ‘balances’ all the Torah. For, if one takes the words “one day” out of their context and plain meaning, one ipso facto abrogates the whole idea of Shabbos as the ‘seventh day’ stated in the same context. The whole idea of Shabbos observance is based on the clear and unequivocal statement in the Torah: “For in six days G-d made heaven and earth, and on the seventh day He ceased from work and rested”—days, not periods.
Such attempts at reinterpreting the Torah are, of course, the outmoded legacy of the 19th century and before, when in the face of the dogmatic and deterministic view of science prevailing at the time, a whole apologetic literature was created by well-meaning religious advocates and certain Rabbis, who saw no other way of preserving the Torah heritage in their ‘enlightened’ communities except through tenuous and spurious reinterpretations of certain passages of the Torah in order to accommodate them to the prevailing world outlook. No doubt they knew inwardly that they were suggesting interpretations in Torah which were at variance with Toras Emes[the infallible Torah]. But, at least, they felt they had no alternative. It was conceivable, in those days, that if one approached a student who dabbled in science and told him that according to the Torah-hashkofo [Torah outlook], the sun revolves around the earth, he might well repudiate Torah altogether. So, in an effort to encourage the student to put on Teffilin [ritual prayer boxes], the well-meaning Rabbi did not mind conceding that the earth revolved around the sun. But surely there is no longer any justification whatever to perpetuate this ‘inferiority complex!’ Certainly there is no basis for holding on to views which have come down in outdated elementary and high school textbooks on science.
This matter of the sun and the earth is a further case in point. To declare categorically in the name of science, that the earth revolves around the sun, and not vise versa, is, as noted above, turning the scientific clock back to the 19th century and Medieval science. It is also at variance with the theory of relativity, which has likewise been universally accepted. Science now declares—as categorically as it is permissible for contemporary science—that where two bodies in space are in relative motion, it is scientifically impossible to determine which is at rest and which in motion.
It is very saddening to think that those who should be the champions of the Torah-hashkofo and its advocates, especially among Jewish youth in general and academic youth in particular, are timid or even ashamed to expostulate it. This is all the more regrettable precisely in this day and age, after science had finally come out of its Medieval wrappings, and accepted the Heisenberg principle of uncertainty, etc., etc. which makes it so easy for an orthodox Jewish scientist to espouse the Torah-hashkofo boldly and forcefully, without fear of contradiction. Yet some Jewish scientists have not yet managed to free themselves from the fetters of the 19th century approach and inferiority complex. Surely the time is ripe for a reassessment as to where they stand.
I trust that you will use you good influence to the end that the articles appearing in the future issues of ______ be permeated with the Torah-hashkofo, and that the same approach should be reflected in all public lectures and private discussions. By closely adhering to the Torah, Toras Emes, one can rest assured of walking the path of truth, and truth does not admit compromise. I sincerely hope that you will take up this matter with your colleagues, and ‘words coming from the heart, enter the heart,’ especially a Jewish heart, and find a ready response in terms of action, for the essential thing is the deed.
May I conclude on a note, which is of course in no way meant as a disparagement, that every Jew engaged in any scientific field will be characterized as a ‘truly believing Jew and also a scientist,’ rather than as a ‘scientist, and also a believing Jew.’
Wishing you and all your colleagues a
Kesivo vahasimo toivo [a good inscription and sealing (for the New Year)] and much Hatzloho [success] in all above,
1. This letter was found as part of the archive of Rabbi Nissan Mindel and will be published in the forthcoming Sparks of Chassidus: For Young and Old (New York: Kehot Publication Society, Nissan Mindel Publications).
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2. Our sages teach that one of the meanings of the word one (ehod,) in the idiom 'G-d is one' (Hashem ehod,) stems from the meaning (literal or numerical) of each of the 3 letters in the word itself: the first letter aleph (), is literally spelled out aleph () and means 'the exalted One of the world'; the second letter hes () has a numerical value of 8 and hints to the seven firmaments and the earth; the third, and final letter dales () has a numerical value of 4 and hints to the 4 corners of the earth.
Thus the complete teaching is that when a Jew recites the Shema Yisroel (), the basic declaration of belief in the unity of G-d, he should keep in mind that G-d's unity is everywhere, in all the firmaments (spiritual worlds) and in all corners of the world (physical world).
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3. The most widely accepted codification of Jewish Law, compiled in the 16th century by Rabbi Joseph Karo in Safed, Israel.
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4. The book of Genesis; specifically the creation story in Genesis ch. 1.
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