Navonim - The Ramblings of Garnel Ironheart

Navonim - The Ramblings of Garnel Ironheart

Sunday, 11 November 2007

On Science and Halachah

Further to a previous post on the age of the universe, I would like to explore the reason for the tension between Halachah and science that has been brought to the fore as a result of recent arguments on the subject.

There is a fundamental difference between how the two systems work. Consider how science develops and evolves over time. Theories are adopted, tested and either accepted or rejected. An accepted theory can remain in vogue for a very long time only to then be discarded when new facts come to light. For example, time was always held to be absolute in terms of how it passed in the universe. Albert Einstein was the first to discover that time is, in fact, relative depending on how fast an object is moving through space. Another example is the electron, once held to be the smallest particle in the universe. Now there are a whole series of subatomic particles that have been proven to exist.

Halachah, on the other hand, works in an opposite fashion. Because all Jewish law is based on the original revelation at Sinai, all subsequent laws that develop over time and circumstances must be consistent with previous legal standards and precedents. One never finds a situation in halachah where a posek disposes of a major halachic principle because he's figured out a different one to replace it. New ways of approaching a subject may be suggested, new understandings of a phenomenon may change the way it's dealt with but the original laws maintain their position in the canon. We accept this as part of the evolution of our Divine revelation and the underlying infallibility of Torah.

From the above, it is easy to see where the tension between science and halachah comes from. Essential to the halachic system is the concept of kavod haTorah and one honours Torah by honouring our sages throughout the centuries. Honouring the sages means accepting their legal pronouncements and not suggesting, Heaven forbid, that anything they believed was irrelevant or must be changed to suit "modern times". Again, this is a non-negotiable part of Jewish belief.

However, in science, a different system of historic honouring is in place. There is a split between the scientist and his science. Thus, to use medicine as an example, most medical knowledge espoused by Galen, Hippocrates, even recent luminaries like William Osler, is not considered obsolete. The treatment of heart attacks and heart failure has changed radically over the last twenty years, let alone the last century sothat if anyone were to try and approach such an event with the theories and treatments espoused by the leading minds of medicine from 100 years ago, he would be laughed out of the hospital.

Yet this does not diminish the respect a physician should feel for past leaders in the field of medicine. Yes, their understanding of science was dated by today's standards but recognition remains that in their day and age their brilliance and knowledge was important for medicine to develop.

The problem is that within the halachic system, this split does not seem to exist. Within the halachic system, this is understandable. Ours sages were knowledgeable on a level we cannot comprehend. Their understanding cannot be questioned simply because we cannot first reach their level of Torah knowledge in order to raise that doubt. On the other hand, questioning whether a tanna or amora was right about a non-halachic issue such as science and the age of the world, is taken as a similar affront even though the matter at hand does not have anything to do with the legal structure of Judaism.

(Quick example - the sages postulated about the spontaneous generation of life, the most germaine example being their belief that lice come from sweat, something no one believes nowadays)

And again, saying that our holy sages' comprehension of science is outdated does not diminish their holiness or the respect we must pay them. In their day their understanding of science and natural history was certainly what was deemed to be accurate at the time, just as today's scientists describe natural phenomenon according to the knowledge of our time. No rational person holds that we have learned all we can about God's universe and that "inviolable rules" will not be changed in the coming decades or centuries. That doesn't diminish from the importance of these scientists and it certainly doesn't diminish the importance, holiness and intelligence of our sages.

One might go even further and suggest that the same sages who held that the sun revolved around the Earth, were they to come back to life today, would quickly absorb current astronomical knowledge and decide that, indeed, it's the Earth that revolves around the sun instead of vice versa. That is not a criticism of what they said but an acknowledgement that they sought truth in halachah and science, the former in their knowledge of the Oral Torah, and the latter through the theories and understandings of their times. And while the Torah has not, does not, and will not change and thus their positions in that area remain absolute, the theories and understandings of our times have changes over the last 2000 years requiring us to adjust what we think of science and similar matters.

In conclusion, we honour our Sages not by ignoring the reality around us but by trying to understand it the best we can and with the same sense of honest inquiry that our Sages used in their day.

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