Tuesday, August 13, 2013

Who wins: Torah or Science?

The question "Who wins: Torah or Science?" contains an underlying error. It rests on the familiar but false assumption that the Torah says something. In fact, the Torah says nothing. The talking is done by people, and when the people talk about Torah what they do is called "interpreting."

Now, of course all interpretations are not created equal, But what can't be denied is that there exists a plurality of Torah interpretations that are generally accepted by the Orthodox Jewish community as legitimate. Some of us call that collection of legitimate interpretations "authentic" or "Torah True."

Many of us first encounter these "authentic"  interpretations without realizing that they are interpretations. For instance, almost all of use were taught that Rivka is three years old when she marries Yitzchak and this was presented to us as a historical fact. In reality, Torah interpreters deduced Rivka's age based on their interpretation of various verses. Some interpreters concluded that she was three; others concluded that she was 13, or even older on her marriage day. Because we have no extra-biblical information about Rivka - a diary, for example, or a marriage license - the truth is unknowable. All we have are the competing interpretations (and by the way I can't say this too often: Its a disgrace and embarrassment that school teachers never teach the controversy, instead choosing to present one particular interpretation as if it was a true, universally accepted fact.)

Let's say an intrepid archaeologist were to uncover a set of artifacts that were unquestionably Rivka's. And let's say that those relics clearly and incontrovertibly demonstrated that she was 13 years old on her wedding day (as taught by Tosfot et al). How would Judaism respond? Would we continue to teach that she married at age three, or would we embrace Tosfot's equally valid, but less famous interpretation?

In the realm of science, something like this has happened many times. Once, wise man believed in a geocentric universe and this was reflected in Torah teachings that put the earth at the center of creation. After Copernicus, some Torah authorities resisted, but gradually, gradually, as the evidence became insurmountable, they came around. Now, any verse that suggests the sun moves is read differently. Instead of reading those verses in light of Ptolmy, we read them in light of Copernicus.  Interpretations of verses that suggested the sun moves, were replaced with interpretations which acknowledge that the sun never moves.


This is only the most famous example of a Torah interpretation reconciling itself to science, but there are many others. A favorite of mine relates to an interpretation of Exodus 16:20, a verse that tells us that leftover maan became wormy and then, afterwards, became rotten.

According to the science of the ancient world this is backwards: First food goes bad, and then worms spontaneously generated from the putrid food. Both Rashi and Ramban catch this, and both of them reinterpret the verse in light of what they understand to be the scientific reality.  Today, we aren't bothered by this because we're relying on a different set of scientific facts, and we read and interpret the verse in light of those facts


Before Copernicus everyone read verses about the sun moving as if that was the reality - because they thought the sun actually moved. After Copernicus, no one had to officially decide to reinterpret the verses. It just became obvious. Because its incontrovertible fact that the sun doesn't move, it was also incontrovertible fact that those verses couldn't be read to mean that the sun was moving. 

Or to say it more correctly, before Copernicus we all were wearing one set of goggles, so we read the verses one way. After Copernicus we all had on a different set of goggles so we read the verses differently. 

Now, those of us who have studied evolution are not wearing the same pair of goggles, anymore. The evidence for evolution is that strong. Its that insurmountable. So those of us who are aware of the facts of evolution have no choice but to read verses related to creation differently. This is unavoidable because of the goggles we wear, the goggles that become impossible to take off once we become aware of insurmountable facts.

So, who wins: Torah or Science? Science of course. But it isn't Torah that is being defeated. Torah endures. All that's lost is a particular interpretation. And because the facts tell us that the defeated interpretation was false, what's the real damage?

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