When Science and Torah Conflict
(Initial post: With thanks to R’ Eli Turkel for providing some of the sources and all of the motivation for this post.
(Dec 21st: Significantly expanded to include sources I dug up for further discussion with R’ Zvi Lampel, who I thank as well.)
Obviously (I hope), the scenario described in the subject line of this post can’t happen. There is only one truth — even if we might have conflicting experiences within it — and thus science and Torah can’t conflict. E.g. Rabbi Yehudah haLevi writes (Kuzari 1:67):
חלילה לאל מהיות דבר התורה סותר עדות דבר הנראה עין בעין או דבר שהוכח במופת שכלי
G-d forbid there would be anything in the Torah which contradicts the testimony of something eyewitnesses or proven intellectually.
And similarly the Rambam (Moreh Nevuchim 2:25) compares why it is okay to say that anthropomorphic descriptions of G-d, such as “yad chazaqah — strong hand”, “vayeired Hashem — and Hashem went down” (as though He were within space) are idiomatic, but he did not take this approach to Creation. After all, Aristotle taught the eternity of the universe, so why didn’t the Rambam reinterpret the first chapter or two of Bereishis idiomatically or allegorically to conform?
We do not reject the Eternity of the Universe, because certain passages in Scripture confirm the Creation; for such passages are not more numerous than those in which God is represented as a corporeal being; nor is it impossible or difficult to find for them a suitable interpretation. We might have explained them in the same manner as we did in respect to the Incorporeality of God. We should perhaps have had an easier task in showing that the Scriptural passages referred to are in harmony with the theory of the Eternity of the Universe if we accepted the latter, than we had in explaining the anthropomorphisms in the Bible when we rejected the idea that God is corporeal. For two reasons, however, we have not done so, and have not accepted the Eternity of the Universe. First, the Incorporeality of God has been demonstrated by proof: those passages in the Bible, which in their literal sense contain statements that can be refuted by proof, must and can be interpreted otherwise. But the Eternity of the Universe has not been proved; a mere argument in favour of a certain theory is not sufficient reason for rejecting the literal meaning of a Biblical text, and explaining it figuratively, when the opposite theory can be supported by an equally good argument.
Secondly, our belief in the Incorporeality of God is not contrary to any of the fundamental principles of our religion: it is not contrary to the words of any prophet. Only ignorant people believe that it is contrary to the teaching of Scripture: but we have shown that this is not the case: on the contrary, Scripture teaches the Incorporeality of God….
The Rambam thus gives two criteria — (1) that the philosophy be a solid proof, which he shows in the previous 10 chapters the argument for eternity is not, and (2) that the conclusion not defy “any of the fundamental principles of our religion… the words of any prophet.” But an actual conflict, in which a philosophical proof does contradict a Jewish teaching? Impossible.
You may have noticed a logical jump I made there. The Rambam discusses “fundamental principles” and prophecy. Why did I generalize that to “Jewish teaching” in general? It is clear from other instances in the second section of the Moreh Nevuchim that the Rambam sees the meaning of prophecy to be prophecy as Chazal understood it, and not just a blank-slate read of the text of Tanakh.
For example, when discussing the celestial spheres in chapter 5:
The opinion of Aristotle, that the spheres are capable of comprehension and conception, is in accordance with the words of our prophets and our theologians or Sages.
Chapter 11, on metaphysics and ontology, the Rambam defines this same criterion as being “anything taught by our Prophets or by our Sages”:
In the same manner the creative act of the Almighty in giving existence to pure Intelligences endows the first of them with the power of giving existence to another, and so on, down to the Active Intellect, the lowest of the purely spiritual beings. Besides producing other Intelligences, each Intelligence gives existence to one of the spheres, from the highest down to the lowest, which is the sphere of the moon. After the latter follows this transient world, i.e., the materia prima, and all that has been formed of it. In this manner the elements receive certain properties from each sphere, and a succession of genesis and destruction is produced.
We have already mentioned that these theories are not opposed to anything taught by our Prophets or by our Sages….
In discussing the other end of eternity, chapter 27’s discussion of whether the universe will end, again mention of our sages as to what is the Torah’s teaching:
There remains only the question as to what the prophets and our Sages say on this point; whether they affirm that the world will certainly come to an end, or not.
And in ch. 47 the Rambam points out that one shouldn’t take hyporbole in Tanakh too literally — again citing Chazal for justification.
Returning back to our primary example, his rejection of Aristotle’s argument for the eternity of the universe, let’s look at the very next chapter (26):
… But let us premise two general observations.
First, the account given in Scripture of the Creation is not, as is generally believed, intended to be in all its parts literal. For if this were the case, wise men would not have kept its explanation secret, and our Sages would not have employed figurative speech [in treating of the Creation] in order to hide its true meaning, nor would they have objected to discuss it in the presence of the common people. The literal meaning of the words might lead us to conceive corrupt ideas and to form false opinions about God, or even entirely to abandon and reject the principles of our Faith. …
Assuming the description of creation (as opposed to the fact of creation as a whole0 is allegorical is fine because Chazal did so, and being literal would lead to heresy. Continuing:
Secondly, the prophets employ homonymous terms and use words which are not meant to be understood in their ordinary signification, but are only used because of some other meaning which they admit, e.g., “a rod of an almond-tree (shaked),” because of the words which follow, “for I will hasten (shaked)” (Jer. i. 11, 12), as will be shown in the chapter on Prophecy….
The first obsercation is that our sages understood these first chapters of Chumash to include allegory. The second observation is that prophets used idiomatic expression, and in fact homonymity due to idiom is a strong undercurrent of the prophetic process.
We see that when the Rambam speaks of prophesy, and in particular in section 2 of the Guide and its discussion of prophesy and philosophy/science describing the same truths, he is speaking of how the ideas enter the mesorah, but not to the exclusion of the mesoretic transmission and development of those ideas.
So, in the case of incorporeality, the Rambam shows how our mesorah endorses his philosophical interpretation, and therefore the literal read bows to what is logically and mesoretically compelling. And in the case of eternity, the mesorah does not allow for the possibility, and the philosophy isn’t compelling, so there it’s the philosophy that bows.
Notice that within this model, the question isn’t literal vs. figurative readings of Tankh, but whether one has permission to go beyond a mesoretically supported reading. And there the answer is no — because the situation of compelling philosophy contradicting all mesoretically supported readings would never arise.
As I see it, the often-asked question, “Would the Rambam have found a new interpretation of the Torah if the philosophy was sound?” is meaningless — the Rambam denies the the possibility of that happening. We would never require a new interpretation in response to real proofs, as the hypothetical — a solid proof of something which doesn’t fit the Torah as our mesorah explains it — cannot occur.
Note how the Rambam concludes the chapter. Freidlander’s translation:
If, on the other hand, Aristotle had a proof for his theory, the whole teaching of Scripture would be rejected, and we should be forced to other opinions. I have thus shown that all depends on this question. Note it.
R’ Yosef al-Qafeh (“Kapach”) renders it:
כי אילו הוכח החידוש, ואפילו לפי השקפת אפלטון, היה נופל כל מה שהעזו בו הפילוסופים נגדנו.
וכן אילו נתקיימה להם הוכחה על הקדמות כפי השקפת אריסטו, הייתה נופלת כל התורה ויעבור הדבר להשקפות אחרות.
הנה ביארתי לך שכל הענק תלוי בחקירה זו דעהו.
כמו כן אילו התאפשרה להם הוכחה מופתית לקדמות על-פי שיטת אריסטו, התורה כולה היתה מתבטלת, והיו מתקבלות דעות אחרות. הבהרתי לך אפוא שהדבר כולו תלוי בבעיה זאת. דע זאת אפוא.
I could only find Ibn Tibbon in PDF, pg 68. So rather than manually type in yet another translation, let me just note he also has “tipol haTorah bikhlalah” (the entire Torah would fall). You would have to take another hashkafah (Kapach) or religion (Schwartz). If Artisto had a solid proof to the eternity of the universe, he would reject “the whole teaching of Scripture”. “All depends on it.” Not just reinterpret the one pereq or two, but it would be a proof against Torah, and Torah would be demonstrated as wrong.
Reinterpreting something allegorically because of non-Torah arguments isn’t on the table. Either things work mesoretically, or we disproved prophecy as understood by the Oral Torah, and the whole enterprise of Yahadus would be undone. Since that is an absurdity, the Rambam concludes with a Reductio ad absurdum.