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.

And Dr Yehudah Schwartz:

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.

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27 Responses

  1. Bob Miller says:

    We appear to have some Jews, self-identified and recognized by others as Orthodox, who do not take our Mesorah to be rock-solid-true in the Rambam’s sense, or at least believe the Mesorah can be reinterpreted to fit an agenda. Is their Orthodoxy a delusion, as it seems to be?

  2. micha says:

    AISI, not that my opinion matters much, there are two things that can make a person unOrthodox:

    1- They do not believe in the 13 iqarim, at least in the loose sense that we find them in Ani Maamin and Yigdal. (Most of us do not believe all of them in the way the Rambam originally intended. Otherwise, much of Qabbalah would have been a non-starter.)

    2- They believe in something that undermines their fealty to halakhah. Not that they are lenient or violate halakhah in some way, but that their beliefs undermine the edifice, the very definition of what halakhah is and how it’s made.

    What you suggest doesn’t violate #1, so regardless of what we think of their correctness, we aren’t talking one of the halachic categories of heresy. However, we are getting to the heart of #2. I’m in no hurry to drum movements out of the “orthodoxy” label, so let’s worry about it once we see their beliefs undermine halakhah wholesale. I fear it will, some say having a Chazanit for Qabbalas Shabbos or a Maharat (temporarily: Rabbah) already did, but I don’t see this as something that will necessarily spread to other areas and progress to further and further rulings. One can make special excuses for these cases.

    But let’s put it this way… I would be disappointed if that’s where my child ended up.


    PS: Keep your eyes open; after some email discussion which pushed me to find more sources, I intend to re-post this in an expanded form and/or write a sequel.

  3. Chaim says:

    How do you explain 2:16, where he says that only becuase kadmut is not proven, we rely on prophecy? Also, even in 2:25, he says that the best thinkers are still working on the question of kadmut vs. creation, which implies that the question is still open.

    • micha says:

      In this post I discussed primarily the Rambam’s second criterion for when philosophy would influence one’s understanding of Torah — that it not contradict the revealed knowledge (the nevi’im as understood by our sages). I also discussed the Rambam’s idea that it’s impossible for one criterion to be met without the other; because there is only one Truth, it’s impossible to have a solid philosophical proof for something non-mesoretic, and it’s impossible for mesorah to assert something that is philosophically or scientifically disproven.

      In 2:16 he discusses qadmus in terms of the first criterion, but that is consistent with the formulation he gives in 2:25.

  4. To sharpen Bab Miller’s question:
    Do you think that someone who questions the dependability of Chazal and Mesorah to accurately interpret prophecy, and wants to analyze Tanach from a different perspective (ie. academic/historical) is flirting with #2?

    • micha says:

      I am suggesting that anyone who finds a new peshat because he thinks that the Oral Torah didn’t succeed in preserving the message of the nevu’ah would be violating the way the Rambam describes that second criterion across the rest of this section of the Moreh. I think that’s beyond just calling it “flirting with”, but outright violating.

      At some point I intend to discuss the Ramban and the Ohr haChaim who sometimes find new peshatim in Tanakh because of internal problems between Chazal’s peshat and other points made within Torah sheBaal Peh.

      As a short prelude, I believe this is what the Ohr haChaim means when he invokes “the Torah has 70 facets” to justify doing so. If another concept in Torah sheBaal Peh conflicts with a mesoretic peshat, the logical conclusion is that two panim of the Torah are in machloqes. It’s therefore within “the rules of the game” to suggest how that other paneh, the other side of the machloqes, would possibly extend to explaining this pasuq.

      • micha says:

        Before anyone comes with the lynch rope… I’m not saying that violating this criterion violates any of the iqarim, nor that one must agree with the Rambam (although I happen to on this point). I’m saying the Rambam would call it bad exegesis — not calling anyone a heretic.

  5. But they do make one who violates the criterion “Non-Orthodox”. Meaning they are outside the community of Jewish believers.
    I believe the Rambam says this state of being placed outside the community of Klal Yisrael is itself essentially the end-game of violating the ikkarim as well.
    So there’s no practical difference between violating these criterion and the ikkarim.

  6. micha says:


    What’s your basis for asserting that “they”, which I presume means the people in my last two comments, “anyone who finds a new peshat because he thinks that the Oral Torah didn’t succeed in preserving the message of the nevu’ah” is “violat[ing] the criterion ‘Non-Orthodox’. Meaning they are outside the community of Jewish believers.” The Rambam explicitly reduces that definition to 13 points of faith. Are you arguing that accepting Chazal’s parshanus is included in one of them? Then make that argument rather than presuming 95% of your conclusion.


  7. David Waxman says:

    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.

    It seems to me that rejecting objective modern physical evidence is also absurd, and I am therefore left with a choice of absurdities.

    • micha says:

      I think you missed what I was saying the Rambam was using an ad absurdum to prove. Not that one should choose Torah over physical evidence, but that a real conflict never occurs. If one thinks the two conflict, and sees no resolution, one can use this ad absurdum to know a resolution exists, and therefore shelve the question for later.

      What’s relevant for today’s mileau is that the Rambam does not consider finding new interpretations that contradict all of those one can find in the Oral Torah (whether explicit or a conclusion necessitated by something transmitted within Oral Torah) as a possible resolution.

  8. rmpearlman says:

    ‘The factual modern evidence’ ie the natural observations understood in maximum available context align with a universe about 5,776 years old and falsify any deep time dependent scientific hypotheses.
    one issue is the deep time doctrine dogma is so entrenched in consensus science that the actuality is out of the box being considered.
    keep in mind the leading edge science is not based on the current con consensus.
    incredulity of the masses does not rule out a hypothesis.
    see The Moshe Emes Torah and Science alignment series.

    • micha says:

      1- That site only has outlines, not real content.

      2- I really hope your emunah doesn’t rest on denying science. Because some day you could well end up with huge questions you are unprepared to answer.

      3- Belief in a young universe goes against the vast majority rishonim. Requiring such belief would require finding a rishon who does; I haven’t found one. Literalism about a story the mishnah tells us cannot be understood by human beings?

      • rmpearlman says:

        Hi R’ Micha,
        trust all is well,
        i have much more than an outline that explain why 5,776 years aligns with the scientific actuality and why billions or even millions of year do not align with the best leading edge science.
        The Torah does not stray far from the plain meaning except qualified by Chazal.
        So you think a few Rishonim knew something everyone before them was ignorant of?
        If anything a few Rishonim were open to holding by ‘the expert scientists’.
        So now that the best science backs ID and YeC and The Torah ID /YeC narrative and timeline there is no reason to hold by the ignorant (by today’s standards as we benefit from cumulative knowledge) scientists the Rishonim may have relied on.
        Outside of Kabbalah which i am ignorant of, i am not so sure any Rishonim really did agree to deep time assertions.
        The current scientific consensus is premised on heretical assumptions and i hold blind faith/reliance on that deep time doctrine dogma is a type of Avodah Zorah 🙂
        have a good Shabbos, r

        • micha says:

          No, I think no one assumed Maaseh Bereishis to the best any human can understand the chumash was a literal description of the history of how the world came to be. I mean, we do have a mishnah that says as much.

          Rashi talks about everything being created “at once”, the Rambam in the Moreh does as well, while the Ramban talks about time between Bereishis 1:1 and 1:2, and according to Michtav meiEliyahu, also asserts that the 6 days are also the 6,000 years of history because even time itself is something we don’t understand. (R Dessler also says that the scientific age is an equally valid perception of the duration of creation, but hashkafically reflects an overly physicalist worldview. In other words, correct technically, but comes from a counter-productive perspective.) The Medrash Rabba talks about worlds before this one, not “just” qabbalah.

          I would therefore turn the question around… Name any baal mesorah before the Enlightenment caused a Counter Reformation in the 19th century, for that matter, anyone before the 20th century CE, who DID assert (1) the universe is young, and (2) one is obligated to believe that it’s young. I haven’t found one.

          And therefore I think insisting on this modern chiddush as a iqar emunah is creating unnecessary problems for oneself.

          (Much the way people insist that not believing in universal hashgachah peratis makes one a heretic, not realize that would include every rishon. And there I have the Lubavitcher Rebbe and lbl”ch the Sifsei Chaim saying the idea dates to the 18th cent, not my own meager research.)

          The only thing we can assert about the dating of maaseh bereishis is its end, not its duration.

          • rmpearlman says:

            Hi Rav Micha,
            when Rashi say’s by Joseph looking for his brothers the scripture does not depart far from the simple text (except where qualified by Chazal) he did not say except for Maaseh Bereishis.
            i hold there was no time before the initial singularity.
            my issue is not with those who are OK with deep time if that aligns with what they think based on the current understanding that is what the factual evidence is , those who qualify deep time with relativity, or a universe 5,776 years old (even thought that is sort of like fence sitting) but with those who exclude publicly as a valid alternative the 5,776 ex-nihlo position.
            to me this is blind faith in deep time doctrine based on assumptions (such as uniformitarian assumptions unless proven otherwise.., that we do not occupy a special place in the universe (see the Copernican principle much of modern cosmology was based on) ..some who hold natural means only so they can not consider a designer/creator that we know exists (Hashem) so they can spend lifetimes barking up the wrong trees, spinning their wheels, why should we rely on that popular western school of science?
            best regards, r

          • micha says:

            I didn’t say that the pasuq has no peshat, I said it has no peshat a human being can understand. This is maaseh bereishis, after all. Do you expect to take the peshat of maaseh hamerkavah that way it reads to us humans as well? Admittedly, it rules out us learning it bederekh hapeshat anyway, the difference is “only” philosophical. In principle, the words not only relay the metaphysics of creation, to the Author (and perhaps some of the angels, perhaps not), they describe the physical history.

          • rmpearlman says:

            Hi R’ Micha,
            yes while the Torah is the blueprint and owners manual, it is not here to teach us how to create nuclear bombs or universes from nothing, but it does teach up Hashem created the universe from nothing.
            The factual science is catching up with what we knew to begin with from Torah, so we can appreciate this facts as well as the other 13 Principles of Maimonides.
            If the leading edge science falsifies all deep time dependent scientific hypotheses, as i feel the empirical evidence of cosmological redshift of distant starlight has, why is that a problem?

          • rmpearlman says:

            i apologize for the typos and poor grammar, but time pressed and not sure how to go back and edit, even if time and ability permit 🙂

          • micha says:

            I pointed to to procedurally problems I have with your motive:

            1- One’s emunah shouldn’t rest on a need to have an objective proof. (a) Because it’s not about facts, but having a connection to the Creator and (b) because our exposure to our mesorah should be confincing enough for proofs not to be a big deal. (Rav Yochanan went as far as questioning the emunah of a student who demanded his own experimental evidence.)

            2- The Torah shebe’al peh points away from requiring science to align with my reading of Bereishis 1. So why all this effort to try? If the science is on the verge of being replaced by a new one, that’s an issue for scientists, not hashkafah.

          • rmpearlman says:

            Hi R’ Micha,
            I agree science is limited, so no point in trying to rely on it to prove/disprove the Torah testimony for those of us who know that fact.
            There are many who do not know that fact yet, but are sincere and have been indoctrinated with deep time doctrine dogma so reject the Torah testimony and covenants as binding.
            If the science (the highest probability explanation of the natural phenomena based on the maximum available context back the Torah narrative and timeline, so when we point out that the natural observations (science ) attest to Hashem and Torah testimony how is that different than when we say Hashmayim Misaprim Kevodoh .. ?
            also would you not appreciate Shabbos more if creation wek Shabbos was preceded by 6 days of 24 hours each and you understood the science behind that Torah?

          • micha says:

            Science is limited in scope. It’s job is to teach you about the empirical universe. It can enable you to read someone else’s DNA, but it won’t help you know them in a manner that replaces years of marriage.

            I am saying something very different than you are.

            You also are repeating something about the week of creation you have yet to find me a Torah sheBa’al Peh source for — that the “creation week Shabbos was preceded by 6 days of 24 hours”. I gave you sources that deny the idea, albeit not exact mar’eh meqomos. (Rashi: 2:4; Ramban 1:1, 1:4; Moreh vol I, ch. 30). Why do you feel a need to talk me into an idea Rashi, the Rambam and the Ramban didn’t hold of? Are we Qaraim now?

            However, science’s biggest limitation in its own domain is that it can really only rule out theories, or inductively gain confidence in a theory it fails to disprove.

            (Which is how we get to the rise of “scientism”, an epistemology in which theories that aren’t falsifiable are ruled out of consideration because they would require some other kind of verification. So if it’s not empirical, or not repeatable, or not falsifiable for some other reason, rather than saying “I cannot know using my tools”, they assume “false”.)

          • rmpearlman says:

            Hi R’ Micha,
            Rashi Gen. 2:4 Hashem created all physical matter on day one (then organized it over the first 6 days) is consistent w/ each Yom being 24 hours each. So certainly should not preclude the universe being 5,776 years old. let me abbreviate this as the YeC hypothesis most consistent w/ Torah.. and when i use YeC that is the timeline I am talking about, with no time dilation subsequent to day 4.
            I hold there is only one historic actuality.
            So we can say either the universe is less than 6,000 years old or it is greater than 6,000 years old.
            My cosmological redshift hypothesis is testable and falsifiable.
            To the extent it is the scientific probability it renders invalid (falsifies) all deep time dependent scientific hypotheses.

            As per where Ramban says how Hashem created, perhaps meaning how Hashem created Yesh main ( ex–Nihlo ), to be consistent you would also have to reject any deep time narrative if you want to reject a literal 6 day narrative. Have you ever said the universe appears to be over 5,777 years old?
            if you do not want to discuss the science of how old, dfo not even say that .
            but as soon as someone comes and says the universe is older than 5,776 years old we can answer the skeptics, and put them on notice they do not even own the mantle of science, as the scientific probability is ID>YeC> a 6 literal day creation 5,776 years ago 🙂
            have a good Shabbos, r

          • rmpearlman says:

            Ramban says, meaning how Hashem did __Yesh MiYain?_________ is beyond human investigation.

      • rmpearlman says:

        FYI here are a few books already published. ‘Distant Starlight..’ review edition is in the edit mode as while the premise holds up, i want to improve the presentation and address a few of the peer review concerns.

        ‘The Moshe Emes’ Torah and Science alignment series:

        The Torah Discovery Chronology: ‘Abraham until the Exodus’ http://amzn.com/1523418109

        ‘Distant Starlight and the Age, Formation and Structure of the Universe’
        kindle: http://www.amazon.com/dp/B0181C4Q1W
        paperback: http://www.amazon.com/dp/1519262205

        The Pearlman SPIRAL vs Standard free cosmology model info-graphic:

        ‘The Recent Complex Creation Framework (RCCF)’ six principles:
        Kindle: http://www.amazon.com/gp/product/B015VJ2ZRA
        Paperback: http://www.amazon.com/gp/product/1512041815

        Roger M. Pearlman
        Torah Discovery Institute
        20681 W. Valley Blvd.
        Tehachapi CA. 93561


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