God in Nature or the Lord of the Universe?: The Encounter of Judaism and Science from Hellenistic Times to the Present

By G, David | Shofar, Summer 2004 | Go to article overview

God in Nature or the Lord of the Universe?: The Encounter of Judaism and Science from Hellenistic Times to the Present


G, David, Shofar


ABSTRACT. Like all vital religious systems, Judaism has had to come to terms with the latest discoveries and advances in science and technology. Three times in the last 2500 years from the birth of a true scientific approach to the universe in the Greek cities on the eastern shore of the Aegean Sea until the present, Judaism has faced a challenge from rational and scientific thought. Hellenistic science and philosophy were deeply alluring to many Jews, and consequently the authors of the Talmud placed biblical law on a new rational base, and even incorporated Greek terms in their writing. In medieval Muslim Spain -- the Spain of the three faiths -- Jewish thinkers, and especially Moses Maimonides, again sought to integrate Greek rationalism and science with Judaism. The rebirth of scientific thought in western Europe that began about four centuries ago has presented the most serious scientific challenge of all time to traditional Jewish beliefs and religious practices. Though no overall philosophy that would integrate science and Judaism has yet appeared, several Jewish thinkers have already tackled this problem, and Albert Einstein, the greatest scientist of the twentieth century, has laid down the guidelines for such a philosophy.

The most serious contemporary philosophical challenge to Judaism does not stem from other religions, including Christianity, but from modern science, which excludes all but natural material explanations for all phenomena in the universe. Indeed, the philosophy of science presents a most serious challenge to all non-Jewish religious systems as well as to Judaism. This remains true even though a movement has recently developed to integrate religious faith and the philosophy of science. Even when a particular phenomenon appears to have a non-material cause, most scientists insist that eventually a natural rational cause for it will be found. History has indeed shown that many occurrences which were once thought to have been caused by spiritual beings had, in fact, rational natural causes. Contrary to what many Jews and non-Jews believe, Judaism has, throughout its long history, sought to come to terms with -- even incorporate -- the latest scientific advances and discoveries. Three times in the last 2500 years Judaism has faced a serious challenge from scientific and rational thought, each more serious than the previous one, and each time Jewish thinkers created a pattern of thought that integrated traditional Jewish beliefs and scientific thought. But exactly when and how was this accomplished? What problems did the rise and development of scientific thought present to traditional Judaism? This is the first and most important problem in any investigation of the relationship between science and Judaism.

Judaism maintains that there is an essential and unknowable divine mystery in the universe, a mystery that no man can penetrate. This the Hebrew Bible makes clear in the story of Moses' encounter with the burning bush in the desert of Sinai. But most scientists believe that everything that occurs in the universe can be understood in rational material terms. Much of the controversy between modern science and the Judeo-Christian tradition centers on the first book of the Bible, Genesis, which describes the creation of the world and the origins of mankind. Indeed, a legal battle is now raging in the United States between those who want the biblical account of the origins of mankind and the world taught in tax-supported schools, and those opposed to this as a violation of the constitutional principle of the separation of church and state. Fundamentalist Protestants are in the forefront of those who want creationism taught in the public schools.

Though a majority of American Jewry does not take a fundamentalist approach to the Hebrew Bible, Judaism is, in some ways, more challenged by the rise of modern science than is Christianity. Judaism shares with Christianity the belief that God summoned the world into existence by divine fiat, and though God can be found in the world that He created, He is apart from and is not identical with it. …

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