Two Worldviews, One Unified Vision

By Feit, Carl | The World and I, February 2001 | Go to article overview

Two Worldviews, One Unified Vision


Feit, Carl, The World and I


From a Jewish scientist's perspective, we can enrich our lives by blending scientific genius for mastery over nature with profound religious insights into the nature of man and God.

Unquestionably, modern Western society has been enormously influenced by the scientific worldview. We have come to envision the universe as proscribed by mathematically based principles, and we believe that nature's most intimate secrets will ultimately yield to our conscientious probing. Our confidence in this outlook is buttressed by our track record of successful undertakings, such as the conquest of infectious diseases, the deciphering of the human genome, and the relative ease with which we step into space and the vast beyond. And as we score ever-accelerating technological breakthroughs, many of us see in the here-and-now world of our senses the totality of human experience.

For others, however, this is hardly a complete story. The outstanding public issues of the day point to the need to resolve moral quandaries, express internal values, and explore spiritual meanings. Solutions to such daunting problems as corruption, poverty, racism, and violence will not come with more powerful microscopes or particle accelerators but require a more powerful vision of what it means to be human. Knowing how to clone a human being does not help us decide whether we ought to do so.

Thus in the course of human history, both science and religion have provided important models to help us understand and relate to our universe. At times, the two worldviews have been at odds with each other, each jockeying for primary attention. At other times, they have worked hand in hand.

Some have noted that in certain historical eras, the commingling of two different civilizations provided fertile ground for cross-fertilization and creative expression. In my experience, the situation is similar in an individual's life. Having been raised in a traditional Orthodox Jewish household that also greatly valued general education, I benefited from a rich and rigorous exposure to Jewish texts and rituals and an excellent secular education. I grew up to love both the world of Jewish learning, particularly Talmudic studies, and the world of scientific investigation.

As an active member of the Jewish community, I am involved in studying and teaching our Scriptures. At the same time, my professional career is that of an immunologist engaged in research and teaching in the field of biology. The full coexistence of two rich but somewhat different worldviews can lead to creative interaction and mutual enrichment. By applying certain key concepts from my religious heritage to the world of my profession, I present some of the ways in which I see them interrelate and complement each other.

Jewish biblical anthropology

Jewish tradition teaches that the conflict between religious and secular worldviews is not a product of modernity, nor a mere phase through which we are currently passing. It is, rather, a reflection of the dual nature of what it means to be human. The roots of this conflict can be found in the biblical narrative of Genesis, which details the creation of humanity's progenitors: Adam and Eve.

The story of creation, analyzed in rabbinic sources throughout the ages, has recently been enriched by the insights of Rabbi Joseph Soloveitchik in his seminal essay, The Lonely Man of Faith. Careful reading of the beginning of Genesis reveals two accounts of the creation of humans--one in chapter 1, the other in chapter 2-- indicating that Adam was created with two timeless tendencies, subsequently passed on to all his progeny. Soloveitchik argues that they represent biblical man's multifaceted nature, which needs to be seen with a unified vision. Let us examine the relevant passages, which I translated from Hebrew texts.

Genesis 1:27--28: God (Elohim) created Adam in His image. In the image of God He created him; male and female He created them. …

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