April 16, 2024
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April 16, 2024
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Ideas are important. We value learning, scholarship, and a reasoned approach to life. Underlying these values is the pursuit of ideas — ideas about the universe, about God and man, and ideas about how best to live our lives. Among our greatest heroes are the men and women who have advanced civilization by promoting groundbreaking scientific, religious, and moral ideas.

Ideas matter to all thinking people; they are especially important to us as traditional Jews. Our tradition, at its core, is a set of moral and religious ideas. Religious cultures are generally conservative. They resist change, especially with respect to ideas and values. Still, even within conservative societies, religious ideas themselves change over time (e.g., the emergence of Hasidism and the Musar Movement).

The wide range of ideas available in the marketplace — especially today, in our open, information-saturated society — is both a gift and a challenge. When traditional and modern ideas collide, religious people are often deeply troubled, unsure how the new and inherited ideas can coexist. This is by no means a new or uniquely Jewish problem. For example, after Galileo’s observations demonstrated that the earth orbits the sun, rather than the reverse, many great religious minds — both Christian and Jewish — rejected this radical idea as heresy and as a violation of common sense. After all, Galileo’s detractors objected, the Book of Joshua states that “the sun stood still” at Gibeon. And if the earth rotates on its axis so rapidly, why do we not all fly off its surface into space? Two conflicting ideas — the (literal) biblical view of the universe, and the sun-centered model of Copernicus and Galileo — may seem easily reconcilable today, but in the seventeenth century they were competing truths. The discoveries of the last century have only provided deeper challenges to traditional religious ideas.

Such conflicts have tended to subside over time. New theories gain acceptance slowly as supporting evidence grows and becomes irrefutable. In the twenty-first century, few rational people would argue that the sun and the stars orbit the earth every twenty-four hours (though a sefer published last year does just that). At some point, conservative religious communities manage to adjust their thinking to accommodate new realities. As a new idea turns into fact, tradition finds a way to live with it, even if takes centuries (In Galileo’s case, it took the Catholic Church 359 years to acknowledge its error).

Compared to the heliocentric structure of the solar system, recent scientific ideas appear even more threatening to tradition, and continue to face strident resistance by conservative elements of various religions. Evolution and the age of the universe belong to this category (see Rabbi Natan Slifkin’s published books and his outstanding Rationalist Judaism blog).

The effort to reconcile traditional Judaism with modern ideas has a long history. Eight hundred years ago, Maimonides insisted that the Bible is flexible enough, through interpretation, to be compatible with science. In fact, Maimonides carried his adherence to scientific truth well beyond exegesis into the realm of halakhah. In the Mishneh Torah, he systematically omitted or reinterpreted numerous Talmudic halakhot which were based on demonology, astrology, and other superstitions (see Marc B. Shapiro’s Studies in Maimonides and His Interpreters for a comprehensive list).

Maimonides’ ideology was anchored in both reason and tradition; he assumed that reason was one with the Torah. Rather than rejecting controversial ideas as enemies of Torah, he viewed Jewish tradition in light of the best ideas of his time.

In recent years, an opposite trend has appeared within segments of Orthodoxy: To dig in, resist the march of modern scientific ideas (some of which are fact), and fall back on a false notion of absolute tradition. Some examples:

The suggestion that evolution does not contradict creation is met with book banning and ostracism.

Despite medical evidence to the contrary, metzizah be-peh is not only deemed safe, it is defended as a Principle of Faith.

Segulah-peddlers, faith healers, and other charlatans are revered as saints.

A rising voice within our community demands that unsettling ideas be suppressed even at the expense of reason. For some of us, anti-rationalism has become the battle cry of frumkeit.

The interaction of traditional and modern ideas often generates repulsive forces. But it also creates an opportunity, if we channel those forces into positive intellectual, moral, and religious growth. When faced with intellectual conflict, the traditional Jewish community requires more, not less, rationalism and clear thinking. Such a commitment will only enhance our tradition.

In the struggle over ideas that has always been central to Jewish culture, we would all do well to embrace the divine gift of reason, rather than abandon it on the battlefield in retreat.

David S. Zinberg is a Teaneck resident. His blog is RealiaJudaica.

By David S. Zinberg

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