In last week’s issue, we introduced the different methodologies for reconciling Torah and science. Specifically, we outlined Rav Moshe Meiselman’s approach that Torah can never be challenged by scientific theories. In this issue, we will discuss the theories of Rav Natan Slifkin, Dr. Gerald Schroeder, and Dr. Nathan Aviezer.
Rav Natan Slifkin – Approach Number Two
Rav Natan Slifkin’s approach to resolving contradictions between Torah and science has been summarized as follows:
“According to Rabbi Slifkin's approach to the reconciliation of Genesis and modern scientific theory, traditional Judaism mandates neither a literalistic approach to Biblical cosmology, nor a belief that Chazal are always correct about scientific matters. Views similar to these were accepted by some as within the realm of Orthodox Judaism.”
Rav Slifkin summarizes his views as follows:
“Genesis is best understood not as a scientific account but rather as a theological cosmology. As such, it presents a powerful worldview that has accomplished amazing objectives with mankind” (The Challenge of Creation pg. 344).
A primary source for Rav Slifkin’s approach is Rambam in his Moreh Nevuchim, where he boldly asserts that had Aristotle proven that the world is eternal, he would have interpreted the Torah allegorically, since it is impossible for the Torah to contradict reality (2:25). Rather, our literal interpretation of the Torah must be corrected if it does not correspond with demonstrable fact. Rambam emphatically insists that Torah passages which suggest that God is corporeal must be interpreted allegorically, since the corporeality of God contradicts fundamental logic (an infinite God cannot be restricted to a body).
Rav Slifkin’s second major source for his approach is a letter written by the great Rav Avraham Yitzchak HaKohein Kook (letter # 91), in which he applies the aforementioned Rambam and writes that if the theory of evolution were to be proven, he would reinterpret BeReishit Perek 1.
Rav Slifkin (pg.184-185) rejects the approaches of Professor Aviezer and Dr. Schroeder, arguing that modern scientific findings and the order of Creation presented in BeReishit Perek 1 are incompatible. He also believes that science has definitely proven its case in regards to creation and evolution. Rav Slifkin therefore treads boldly beyond Rambam’s claim and asserts that BeReishit Perek 1 should be understood as teaching invaluable lessons rather than the specific order of creation.
There has been highly significant pushback against Rav Slifkin’s approach. Had Rav Slifkin adopted a more cautious approach (like Rambam and Rav Kook), he likely would have been spared the severe criticism hurled in his direction. Caution is very much a necessity in such matters. After all, history proves that Rambam’s hesitation in regard to the eternality of the world was correct. In the 1960’s, as we have discussed before, strong evidence was discovered proving that the world began with a Big Bang. Thus, today virtually all scientists agree that the world had a beginning. This belief is in stark contradiction to scientists from the time of Aristotle and Plato until the 1960’s who believed that the world is eternal.
Ramban’s fiery criticism of Rambam’s interpretation of BeReishit Perek 18 should temper any assertion that a portion of the Torah should be interpreted allegorically. Rambam (Moreh Nevuchim 2:43) argues that the events described in the first half BeReishit Perek 18, namely the visit of three angels to Avraham Avinu and Sarah Imeinu, occurred only in a vision to Avraham Avinu.
Rambam arrives at this conclusion due to the difficulty regarding spiritual beings, in this case angels, assuming the appearance of human beings and eating food. Ramban rejects this approach in the strongest of terms, writing that “these words which contradict the Torah are forbidden to be heard, much less to be believed.” Ramban’s fierce rejection of Rambam’s allegorical interpretation should give anyone pause before conclusively asserting that contemporary science has proven the need to reinterpret the Torah in a non-literal manner.
Professor Aviezer and Dr. Schroeder
Many Orthodox Jews feel most comfortable embracing many scientific findings without compromising fidelity to the literal meaning of the Torah. Professor Aviezer and Dr. Schroeder allow us to have our proverbial cake and eat it too. The question is whether their interpretations are convincing. Additionally, what happens when the scientific consensus revises or even changes its theories? Must our interpretation of the Torah change as well to adjust to each new finding or adjustment to prior assertions?
Humility is a necessity when one addresses the conflict of Torah and science. Science is prone to change on the one hand, and we might not be interpreting the Torah correctly on the other hand. Thus, while one may have a preference for one of the three approaches we outlined, he should not rigidly rule out the other two approaches. When discussing this issue, whether with adults or youngsters, I present all three approaches, as one cannot be certain which of these three approaches is correct.
Moreover, one does not have to rigidly adhere to everything that any one of these authors presents. One may find it very worthwhile to adopt some of the conclusions of each of these three approaches, depending on the level of comfort and cogency one finds with the arguments of each of the authors. Whatever one’s perspective on this issue, it is undoubtedly in the best interest of lovers of Torah and science to be familiar with each of these works.
Postscript – Chazal Ahead of Their Time: Pi, The Five Species of Grain, Hemophilia, the Regenerative Property of the Liver, and the Dimensions of Noach’s Ark
Regardless of one’s evaluation of Rav Meiselman’s work, the book includes the following insights with which it is exceedingly worthwhile to be aware. Rav Meiselman (pg. 153-155) notes that Chazal (see Rambam, Peirush HaMishnayot, Eiruvin 1:5 and Tosafot HaRosh to Eiruvin 14a s.v Kol SheYeish BeHeikeifo) were aware that Pi is an irrational number (an irrational number is one that can be expressed neither as an integer nor as a proper fraction of two integers). This was not known to scholars other than Chazal until the eleventh century.
Rav Meiselman (pg. 155-157) also notes that Chazal (Pesachim 35a) insist that only five grains are capable of becoming Chameitz (leavened). These are wheat, barley, oats, rye and spelt. Rav Meiselman notes that “to this day no additional gluten-containing species (a grain can rise only if it contains gluten) have been found.”
He also notes that Chazal were way ahead of their time in recognizing that hemophilia is a hereditary condition and that its gene is passed on through the mother (Yevamot 64b). Similarly, he writes that Chazal were the first to recognize that a liver can regenerate itself (see Mishnah Chullin 3:2).
Rav Meiselman presents these examples to demonstrate that Chazal did not merely arrive at their conclusions based on the available knowledge of the time. Moreover, Rav Meiselman cites Rav Yehudah HaLeivi (Sefer HaKuzari 4:31), who writes that Chazal arrived at conclusions ahead of their time due to Hashgachah, the subtle intervention and support from Hashem.
Most remarkable, though, is Chazal’s statement regarding the dimensions of the Teivah (Noach’s ark). Rav Meiselman cites BeReishit Rabbah 31:10 which teaches the following:
“[It is written] ‘The length of the Teivah should be three hundred Amot (cubits), fifty Amot wide and thirty Amot high’ (BeReishit 6:15). Bar Chityah said….‘The Torah has taught us the way of the world – if one wishes to build a boat that will stand off shore (i.e is stable), one should make its width one-sixth of its length and its height one-tenth of its length.’”
Rav Meiselman cites contemporary studies which verify that a barge with the Teivah’s dimensions has optimal stability. He also notes that Chazal drew only one practical inference from the Teivah, despite the many technical considerations that must have gone into the making and operating of the Teivah. Moreover, Rav Meiselman notes that in the Babylonian flood story, the Ark constructed by the hero is described as a cube, a totally unseaworthy structure.
This fascinating information constitutes an important addition to the many layers of evidence of the divine authorship of the Torah that we among many others have outlined. It also supports Rabi Yehuda HaLeivi’s assertion that the Talmud and other classic rabbinic writings were written with Hashgachah, divine assistance and support.
 A source for Rambam may be found in Rabi Ya’akov’s reinterpretation of Shemot 20:12 and Devarim 22:7 in light of the terrible incident of a boy who followed his father’s directive to climb a tree and shew away the mother bird before taking the eggs, which was witnessed by Rabi Ya’akov’s grandfather, Elisha ben Avuyah (Kiddushin 39b). The boy died from an injury sustained when falling down the tree, despite having just fulfilled two of the Torah’s commandments for which the reward is long life. Rabi Ya’akov reinterpreted the promise of long life to refer to the next world rather than this world. The Gemara even concludes that had Elisha ben Avuyah interpreted the Pasuk in the same manner as did his grandson, he would not have abandoned his faith. Rambam may have concluded from this Gemara that where there appears to be a contradiction between Torah and reality, we must reinterpret the Torah.
 To BeReishit 18:1
 Even if one does not find the core arguments of Professor Aviezer and Dr. Schroeder to be compelling, he might find it worthwhile to read some of their other discussions regarding free will and the long life spans in the early chapters of Sefer BeReishit.
 As interpreted by Radal, a premier commentary to the Midrash.
 Such as S.W. Hong et. Al “Safety Investigation of Noah’s Ark in a Seaway,” CEN Technical Journal 8 (1) (1994): 26-36, written by staff members of the Korea Research Institute of Ships and Ocean Engineering.
 This contrast is an important addition to the many differences between the Torah and ancient Near Eastern literature. Such differences are compiled by Rav Amnon Bazak in his Ad HaYom Hazeh, chapter 7 (available in English at Yeshivat Har Etzion’s Virtual Beit Midrash, http://etzion.org.il/en/teacher/8095).