Reconciling Torah and Science – an Introduction – Part One by Rabbi Chaim Jachter



A few years ago, we presented the approach of Dr. Gerald Schroeder to reconcile the apparent contradictions between Torah and science. I find Dr. Schroeder’s approach to be most satisfying, since it does not force us to choose between our loyalty to Torah belief in its traditional sense on the one hand, and the respect we accord to many of the findings of science on the other hand. However, it is vital to clarify and set forth  that Dr. Schroeder is not the only voice regarding this issue. In fact, there are, broadly speaking, three distinct approaches to resolving apparent contradictions between Torah and science.

The Three Orthodox Approaches to Reconcile Differences between Torah and Science

Many Orthodox Jews argue that since we know that the Torah is of divine origin, all necessary information regarding Creation is provided by the Torah; therefore, scientific endeavors regarding the origin and development of the world are superfluous and irrelevant. Moreover, this approach argues that science changes with time, as theories that have been accepted for many centuries are commonly disproven, and then the new theories are ultimately rejected as well[1]. Rav Ovadia Yosef (Teshuvot Yabia Omer 10: Yoreh Dei’ah 24) strongly advocates this approach. Rav Yosef argues that the same approach is to be taken regarding the teachings of Chazal: “We certainly should not deviate from what Chazal established in all of their assertions. This is because the spirit of Hashem informed their words.” Rav Yosef cites Teshuvot Rivash (number 347) as a precedent of this far reaching assertion.

On the other hand, some Orthodox Jews accept many scientific theories such as evolution and the Big Bang as extremely well supported and highly unlikely to be disproven. Moreover, these Orthodox Jews believe that the Torah’s account of Creation and the current consensus of the scientific community are irreconcilable. This approach argues for a non-literal understanding of BeReishit chapter 1. Rav Natan Slifkin is the most enthusiastic supporter of this approach, which he presents in many of his works, especially The Challenge of Creation.

Dr. Schroeder, along with Dr. Nathan Aviezer of Bar Ilan University, is a leading proponent of adopting a middle approach which argues that Torah and modern science are indeed compatible. Dr. Schroeder’s primary works are Genesis and the Big Bang and The Science of God, and Professor Aviezer’s works are In the Beginning and Fossils and Faith[2]. Each of these books is well worth reading.

We will now proceed to outline the basic arguments of these schools of thought. We will conclude that although this author’s strong preference is for Dr. Schroeder’s approach, it is very worthwhile to study the writings of each of these schools of thought, and it is recommended for everyone to take into account the advantages and disadvantages of each.

Rav Moshe Meiselman – Approach Number One

Rav Moshe Meiselman has written a most impressive, extensive[3] and rich work entitled Torah, Chazal and Science. Rav Meiselman is eminently qualified to write such a work, as he is a Torah scholar of the first rank and he has a doctorate in mathematics from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology.

Rav Meiselman vigorously argues for adopting the approach he presents from Rav Yosef Dov Soloveitchik (pg. 693-721), that inquiry regarding the origin of the universe (cosmology) is beyond the legitimate sphere of inquiry of science. Rav Meiselman’s approach is summarized[4] as follows: All unqualified scientific statements of the Talmudic sages were divinely inspired and are therefore immutable. "All of Chazal’s (the Talmudic sages') definitive statements are to be taken as absolute fact [even] outside the realm of halakhah (Jewish law)." The flip side of this thesis, and another major theme of the book, is that modern science is transitory and unreliable compared to the divine wisdom of Chazal.

Rav Gil Student[5] adds that “Rav Meiselman addresses issues such as evolution, the age of the universe and the Sages’ knowledge of science. He eloquently presents a conservative approach, denouncing as unacceptable a revisionist reading or a rejection of traditional texts. It includes comprehensive and informed arguments for rejecting science when it conflicts with religion.[6]

Even if one does not adopt every nuance of Rav Meiselman’s monumental work, it is worthwhile to glean three fundamentally important points from it. First, it is important to exercise caution in regard to scientific theory. While a wholesale rejection may not be necessary, a wholesale embrace is also unwise. Second, we must be wary of what Rav Meiselman calls a “cavalier allegorization of Torah and Chazal.”

The most important lesson to be gleaned from Rav Meiselman’s work is the confidence one should have in Torah and Chazal, and that ultimately, however the challenges are resolved, not a single scientific fact disproves Torah or Chazal.

Two important caveats should be made with regard to Rav Meiselman’s monumental work. With regard to his presentation of  Rav Soloveitchik’s views regarding evolution and cosmology, it is important to note that a different approach of Rav Soloveitchik is presented in The Emergence of Ethical Man, which was published by MeOtzar HoRav based on Rav Soloveitchik’s original lecture notes and the guidance of Rav Aharon Lichtenstein, the son-in-law and leading student of Rav Soloveitchik[7].

The other caveat is with regards to Rav Meiselman’s categorical rejection of the position of Rabbeinu Avraham, the son of Rambam, who famously asserts[8] that Chazal occasionally relied on their contemporary science which was sometimes incorrect. Rav Student documents that this approach is cited as valid  by many contemporary mainstream figures such as Rav Yaakov Ariel, Rav Shlomo Aviner, Rav Chaim David HaLevi and Rav Shaul Yisraeli[9].

Rav Ovadia Yosef (in the aforementioned response) articulates a compromise approach to the position of Rabbeinu Avraham. Rav Yosef argues that although the majority of authorities do not adopt the approach of Rabbeinu Avraham, one who espouses the view of Rabbeinu Avraham (even in our time) should not be dismissed as a heretic.


Next week, we will God willing continue our discussion regarding the reconciliation of Torah and Science by presenting the approaches of Rav Natan Slifkin, Dr. Gerald Schroeder, and Dr. Nathan Aviezer.

[1]Maharal (Netivot Olam Netiv HaTorah, chapter 14) is most celebrated for advancing this argument.

[2] Professor Aviezer has also helped produce a highly informative and entertaining animated video presenting his ideas, which “stars” Rambam, Darwin, Einstein and an observant teenager. The teenager takes a voyage back to the time of Creation and collaboratively the “stars” reconcile the Torah’s account of Creation with modern science. The video is targeted to high school students (in English and Hebrew versions) but may be enjoyed by people of all ages.

[3] This book is nearly nine hundred pages long and is jam-packed with rich information and analysis.

[4] At

[5] Rav Student’s review of Rav Meiselman’s work appears in “Jewish Action” of the winter of 2014. Rav Student persuasively compares the current Rav Meiselman-Rav Slifkin debate regarding Evolution and Creation to the classic debate concerning the apparent contradiction between Chazal’s assertions and Copernicus’ assertion that the earth revolves around the sun. Rav Student’s conclusion regarding the Torah approach to Copernicus is instructive:

“Despite some holdouts, the late Lubavitcher Rebbe, Rabbi Menachem Mendel Schneerson, most prominent among them, even Chareidi scholars adopted the heliocentric model. Whether it is the force of evidence or long-standing persistence, the Copernican model has prevailed and revelation has been reinterpreted. Today, few would contend that the Bible and Talmud prevent Jews from believing that the Earth revolves around the sun. Rather, we interpret those seemingly problematic passages differently or, aside from those in the Bible, reject their scientific assumptions.”

Overall, Rav Student makes some cogent critiques of some of Rav Meiselman’s assertions, as does Dr. Aviezer in his review of Rav Meiselman’s work, printed in “Hakirah,” Volume 17.

[6] Rav Meiselman, though, does not summarily dismiss science in the manner of Rav Ovadia Yosef in the aforementioned response. For instance, in chapter 22 Rav Meiselman presents a very learned (of both Torah and scientific sources) explanation of Shabbat 107b, where Chazal seem to espouse a belief in spontaneous generation, which the scientific community has virtually unanimously rejected since the late nineteenth century. Rav Meiselman’s work genuinely grapples with this and other seeming contradictions and constitutes a significant contribution to Torah literature.

[7] It is hardly surprising to discover changes in Rav Soloveitchik’s thinking. Every student of Rav Soloveitchik knows that he was an exceedingly fluid thinker who would constantly revise his thinking.

[8] In a letter published in the introductory section of the Ein Ya’akov.

[9] Rav Michael Taubes relates that Rav Aharon Lichtenstein told a gathering of Yeshivat Har Etzion students that there is nothing objectionable about saying that Chazal based their medical and scientific rulings on the best information available at the time (i.e. the approach of Rabbeinu Avraham). This author similarly heard Rav Lichtenstein say that it is best to avoid killing lice on Shabbat and Yom Tov in light of modern science’s rejection of spontaneous generation.

The debate surrounding Rabbeinu Avraham’s assertion might hinge on two approaches in Ramban (to Devarim 17:11) to the famous teaching (Sifrei 155, cited by Rashi ad loc. s.v. Yamin USemol) that we must follow Chazal “even if they say that right is left or left is right.” Ramban at first explains that this principle is intended to avoid a chaotic situation if the central authority is not accepted (see, for example, the dramatic story of Rabi Yehoshua’s argument that Rabban Gamliel erred regarding the date on which he established Rosh Chodesh [Rosh HaShanah 25a]). Subsequently, though, Ramban articulates a second approach, namely that Hashem intervenes and prevents Chazal from making errors.

Reconciling Torah and Science – an Introduction – Part Two by Rabbi Chaim Jachter

Emunah – an Introduction – Part Three by Rabbi Chaim Jachter