Why the Bible Is Immune To Scientific Criticism

by Shlomo Moshe Scheinman


Sometimes the Bible Prefers to Present the Subjective Outlook of Man Rather Than the Absolute Objective Reality

One of the fundamental beliefs of Judaism is that G-d does not have a body. According to Rambam (Maimonides) one who denies this belief has no portion in the World to Come (Hilchot Teshuva, chapter 3). Raavad agrees with Rambam that G-d has no body, but comments (to Hilchot Teshuva 3:7) that in his opinion, people who wrongly interpret Scripture and therefore believe that G-d has a body, will not lose their portion in the World to Come over this error.

Rabbi Yisrael Meir Kagan, known popularly as the Chafetz Chaim (in Sefer Mitzvot Hakatzar, Mitzvah 2:} sums up the Jewish view about G-d in the following way.
“It is a positive precept to attribute to the G-d, may he be blessed, an absolute state of being one; to believe with complete faith that he is one without any partner…
One must believe with complete faith that he is simple with the utmost state of being one and an absolute unity and has no body, nor will the factors that affect  the body affect him, nor will occurrences of the body occur to him, and there is no second to him and outside of him, there is no L-rd; and we are obligated to believe this principle of faith at all times and at all moments and the commandment is a requirement both for males and females”.

Given this strong Jewish belief that G-d has no body and factors that affect the body do not affect him, nor do occurrences of the body occur to him, it is surprising that many verses of the Bible if interpreted literally imply otherwise.

Maharal of Prague, in his book, Tifferet Yisrael chapter 33, solves this difficulty in such a way that will also begin to remove our “Scientific Problems” with the Torah (the first 5 books of the Bible). Regarding the verse, “And G-d descended on Mount Sinai” (Shmot/Exodus 19:20), and similar verses he explains, that this is talking from the perspective of a person, for thus was G-d subjectively perceived through man’s perspective as though he was descending from Heaven upon the Mountain. And therefore since since man thus perceived him, even though by objective reality, this was not indeed true, scripture will ascribe G-d as descending on the mountain. In other words Maharal is saying that although G-d did not really move from one position to another, Scripture ascribed movement to G-d at Sinai because that’s how things looked from a man’s perspective, who was experiencing the revelation.

Maharal in the same chapter of Tifferet Yisrael provides other examples, where G-d is described not by his true objective essence in the Bible, but rather by the way man perceives him. He brings what the Talmud (Sotah 48a) comments on  the Biblical verse where the Psalmist asks of G-d, “Awake, why do you sleep?” (Tehillim/Psalms 44:24). The Talmud poses a rhetorical question, “and is there sleep before the Holy One Blessed be He? Rather in the hour that Israel is not doing the will of the Omnipresent it appears to be as if, there is sleep associated with him (lit. before him). Behold it is called sleep, from the perspective of those experiencing G-d’s involvement (or seemingly lack of involvement) with the world at that period of time.

Other examples brought by Maharal are from the Midrash (Yalkut Yitro 286): “Rabbi Chiya Bar Ami said, according to each activity and each word did he appear to them. On the Red (or Reed) Sea, he appeared as a warrior engaged in battle and at Sinai, as a scribe who is teaching Torah and in the days of Shlomo (Solomon) according to their actions, his appearance was like Levanon (the name of a high quality forest area), excellent as Cedar Trees; while he appeared to them in the days of Daniel as an old man that was teaching Torah”. Behold it has become clarified to you that G-d, may he be blessed, is present (subjectively) in accordance to those that receive him and therefore when those present are due to obtain some great loss, such as what took place in the generation of the flood, it was stated, “and it grieved him at his heart” (Bereshit/Genesis 6:6). Or in the opposite way, when those that are present obtain perfection, G-d appears to them as happy, as it is stated, “Let G-d rejoice in his works” (Tehillim/Psalms 104:31).

Not just when describing G-d, does the Bible often prefer to present a subjective human view of events instead of the objective reality. The Talmud (Tamid 29a) specifically points to 2 Biblical verses that portray an exaggerated, subjective human view of reality, rather than an objective view. Namely, Dvarim/Deuteronomy 1:28, which states: “the cities are great and fortified up to heaven” and Melachim/Kings 1:40 which states: “so that the earth was split with the sound of them”.  And for those that need a more explicit source of my explanation for the Talmud see Rashi’s commentary to  Melachim/Kings 1:40 where he makes a similar claim to the one I raised above.

Similarly, when G-d started the Biblical flood in Breishit/Genesis 7:11, “the windows of heaven were opened”. Ibn Ezra, notes this term was also used by a man, who was skeptical of the prophet’s prediction of the complete end of a situation of starvation within the next day in II Melachim/Kings 7:2 and Ibn Ezra understood that both verses are not describing objective reality, but rather the subjective terminology that people use to describe the event.

Where Do We Draw the Line Concerning What Portions of the Bible Should Be Taken Literally and Which Portions are to Be More Loosely Interpreted?

Rabbi Saadia Gaon (born in Jewish year 4642 or  secular year 882) , who is most famous for defending Judaism against the breakaway Karaite sect, wrote an article in his book, Emunot Ve’deot defending the doctrine of the resurrection of the dead. In that article, he provides the four situations, where we don’t interpret the Bible according to the most literal meaning of the words. Outside these four situations we do.

The first of these four situations, is when the Bible says something that we know from observation that it can not be taken literally. The example, he gives is the Biblical verse in Breishit/Genesis 3:20 “And the man called his wife’s name, Chava (Eve) because she was the mother of all that live”. Rabbi Saadia Gaon comments that we know from observation that she was not the mother of oxen and donkeys. Therefore the term “all that live” has to be understood not in accordance to a literal translation of the words.

The second of these four situations, is if the Bible says something that we know on an intellectual level that it can not be true, if taken literally. The third of these four situations is when we have a clear rabbinical tradition, not to interpret the text literally and the fourth of these four situations is when two verses say contradictory statements, then we reinterpret the more ambiguous verse in light of the verse that makes a more uncompromising statement. For more details about situations 2 -4, see Maamar/article 7 in Emunot Ve’deot.

Based on the Guidelines of Rabbi Saadia Gaon, the Rabbis of the Ancient Past Would be Obligated to Believe that the Sun Revolves Around the Earth While In Modern Times We Are Obligated to Believe That the Earth Rotates and Revolves Around the Sun

According to the observations and scientific beliefs of the ancient world, and I am including the scientists of the non-Jewish world, it was once believed in the distant past that the Sun and even the planets revolve around the Earth. This being so, given the principles of Rabbi Saadia Gaon, that only in 4 types of situations do we offer a non-literal interpretation of the Biblical verse it was only natural to conclude that the Sun revolves around the Earth, for the literal interpretation implies this viewpoint. For example, in the book of Yehoshua/Joshua, 10:12 the prophet decreed: “Sun stand still in Givon and moon in the valley of Ayalon”. Similarly, in Yishayahu/Isaiah 38:8 the Bible describes another miracle: “So the Sun returned ten degrees, by which it had gone down on the dial”. And likewise in Kohelet (Ecclesiastes) chapter 1 we learn: “The Sun also rises and the Sun goes down, and hastens to it place where it rises again”.

Now however, by modern scientific observations, we know without a doubt, that it is the Earth that revolves around the Sun and it is the Earth’s rotation that causes the change between day and night. Therefore, using Rabbi Saadia’s Gaon’s principles of Biblical interpretation, we are now required to state, that in the Biblical verses I cited above, the Bible is referring to how the Sun subjectively looks to one who is viewing it by eyesight from the Earth and the Bible is not talking about the literal objective reality.

What is the Talmudic Precedent That We Must Change Our Outlook on the World Based on Firm Scientific Evidence?

In Tractate Pesachim 94b, an argument is recorded between the wise men of Israel and the wise men of the Gentiles, concerning where does the Sun go to, during the night time. Scientific evidence is then brought by Rebbe to support the view of the wise men of the Gentiles and Rebbe (Rabbi Yehuda Ha’nassi, who arranged the basic framework of the Mishna) concludes it appears that the wise men of the Gentiles, have a more legitimate view, than our view.

We learn from this story several important lessons.

1 Rebbe (who lived about a century after the destruction of the 2nd Temple) admitted that not everything the wise men of Israel believed, about how the world operates, had to be correct.

2 Rebbe was willing to consider, scientific evidence in order to prove what is the more legitimate understanding of how the world operates.

3 Both sides in the dispute, that is to say, even the wise men of the Gentiles that were debating the wise men of Israel, had a Geocentric View, that is to say that the movement of the Sun in some way around the Earth, is responsible for Day and Night.

Rabbi Avraham the son of Rambam (who lived about 1000 years after Rebbe), sums up the story of the dispute about the position of the Sun during the night in his introduction to the Agadot, which appears as part of the introductions to Ein Yaakov, in the following way.

When the non-Jews, such as in the above dispute, bring evidence, but not overwhelming evidence for their viewpoint, we will simply say like Rebbe that it appears as if they are correct. But we will only be willing to say the more radical statement that Jewish Law now must conform to their view, if they bring overwhelming support and not just weak support for their viewpoints.

According to Rambam Knowing The Correct Facts About Astronomy and Similar Fields of Science Aids a Person to Love, Praise and Glorify G-d

Rambam (Maimonides) father of Rabbi Avraham, that I quoted a paragraph above, wrote his famous, set of books, Mishna Torah, which at least attempted to list all the laws of the Torah to their finest detail. He surprisingly devotes chapters 3 and 4 of his large work to the scientific beliefs that were popular in his days, in both the Jewish World and Non-Jewish world, regarding astronomy and the makeup of matter. On certain points of astronomy, he states outright, that he doesn’t agree with the scientific conclusions about astronomy of the earlier (Talmudic) sages, (see Moreh Nevuchim, part 3, chapter 14), claiming that their knowledge in this field did not come from a prophetic tradition, but was based on the faulty science of their times. A claim that we unfortunately know to be true today of the ancient Greek scientific ideas that Rambam promoted in his writings. However, in defense of Rambam’s honor, I should point out, that Rambam made it clear in Moreh Nevuchim, that he would be open to change his opinions on science issues, given sufficient proof and he wasn’t absolutely sure that his some of his science views reflected the objective reality (see part 3, chapter 14, & part 2 chapter 24).

Many scholars, are puzzled why Rambam put these “science” ideas in his book of laws. In an article (written in Hebrew) by Yitzchak Isaac and Alexander Klein, on the web site of Daat, of Michlelet Herzog, they explained, Rambam digressed to talk about these topics based on the principle that Rambam himself wrote about, in chapter 2, law 2 (Hilchot Yesodei Torah) of his Mishna Torah.
What is the way to love of him and fear of Him? In the hour when a person contemplates His wondrous and great deeds and creations and sees through them His infinite and boundless wisdom, he will immediately love, praise, and glorify [Him], yearning with tremendous desire to know [G-d’s] great name, as David stated: “My soul thirsts for the L-rd, for the living G-d” [Tehillim/Psalms 42:3].  When he ponders upon these same matters, he will immediately recoil in awe and fear, recognizing how he is a tiny, lowly, and dark creature, standing with his flimsy, limited, wisdom before He who is of perfect knowledge, as David stated: “When I see Your heavens, the work of Your fingers… [I wonder] what is man that You should recall Him” [Tehillim/Psalms 8:4-5].  Based on these concepts, I will explain major principles regarding the deeds of the Master of the worlds to provide an opening for a person of understanding to  love G-d, as our Sages said regarding love: “In this manner, you will recognize He who spoke and [thus,] brought the world into being.”

Why Does the Bible Not Openly Reveal Scientific Secrets?

Rabbi Kook, the chief Rabbi during the period of British Mandate Palestine, answered in Igrote Haraaya (Vol. 1, letter 91), that certain scientific truths would be too frightening for primitive society to deal with. So therefore they are held back until the world has matured to the point of being able to accept them.

I believe however, there is a much simpler answer. For thousands of years, non-Jewish cultures have believed in incorrect scientific theories. And if the Bible had revealed objective scientific reality, many Jews of weak commitment and potential converts would have been pushed away from Judaism, believing it to be “unscientific”.

Rabbi Eliyahu of Vilna, Known as the Gaon of Vilna Praised the Study of Science For the Sake of the Advancement of the Knowledge of Torah and the Sanctification of G-d’s Name and Contended That the Messiah Will Show How Objective Scientific Reality Is Actually Encoded Into the Torah

Rabbi Yisrael (Israel) of Shklov , a leading disciple of the Vilna Gaon, stated in the introduction to his book, Pe’at Hashulchan,”Thus he (the Gaon of Vilna) stated, all wisdoms are needed for the Torah and are included within it”.  Rabbi Yisrael (Israel) also claimed that the Gaon knew them all to their utmost, and “he mentioned them: the wisdom of Algebra, trigonometry (lit. triangles) and the musical wisdoms”.

Similarly, another disciple of the Vilna Gaon , wrote concerning the Gaon’s views on science (Kol Hator, chapter 5, pages 123,124 in the reprinted 5754 edition by Y. Rivlin, which contains material left out of some older editions): “It was like a pearl in his mouth, that to the measure that a man lacks in his knowledge of the powers (or potentials) of the forces of nature, he will lack 100 portions in the wisdom of Torah and to the measure where he achievesby investigation of the powers (or potentials) of nature, there will be added to him 100 gates of wisdom in the wisdom of Torah”. …

“The study of the wisdoms derived from nature, for the purpose of acquiring the wisdom of Torah will be beneficial and very useful for raising the power  (lit. the horn) of Torah and strengthening the love of the Torah and the fear of Heaven in the entire house of Israel and will also sanctify the name of G-d and the stature of Israel in the eyes of all the inhabitants of the civilized world and those that dwell on the earth”…

‘Even from his early youth, our Rabbi the Vilna Gaon began to become interested in and learned the investigation of the powers and the potentials of nature and he learned them to their utmost and with great investigation he found all of them contained within the secrets of Torah and the Sages, which their fundamental basis emanates from the secret of the letters and the vowel signs. It is known that our Rabbi composed, several compositions on the rules of Biblical grammar, also in order to better understand the secrets of Torah; and he would say that all that they have revealed and are revealing by scientific investigations on the ways of nature, are just a drop from the ocean of what is hidden away in the wisdom of Torah that in the future will be revealed with the advent of the Torah of the Messiah of our righteousness; nevertheless it is also bit by bit revealed during the footsteps of Messiah to special individuals”.

In a similar vein, another disciple of the Vilna Gaon, Rabbi Baruch Shik of Shklov, who made a Hebrew translation to Euclid’s book on Geometry (Sefer Uklidos [The Hague, 1780 ~Jewish Year 5540]) wrote  during the lifetime of the Vilna Gaon, in the introduction of his book:

“When I was in the illustrious city of Vilna in the presence of the Rav (Rabbi), the light, the great Gaon, my master and teacher, the light of the eyes of the exile, the renowned pious one (may Hashem protect and save him) Rav Eliyahu, in the month of Tevet 5538 [January 1778], I heard from his holy mouth that according to what a person is lacking in knowledge of the “other wisdoms,” correspondingly he will be lacking one hundred portions in the wisdom of the Torah, because the Torah and the ‘other wisdoms’ are inextricably linked together …”

It Is Beyond the Focus of this Article to Provide Guidelines, Under What Conditions is the Learning of Science Beneficial and Under What Conditions Is It Actually Harmful

In case of doubt you should ask an Orthodox Rabbi who has a Vilna Gaon ideology.

Rabbi Moshe Tzuriels’ Comments on this Article

“I read your article concerning the so-called disparity between Torah lore verses scientific data and I see great value in your clarification of the issue.
The essential point is that our sages never came to teach the sciences per se. So says the Maharal in “Be’er haGolah” page 106. So too claims Ramchal in his
Ma-amar Al haAggadot, and the science talk of our Sages was a parable so to teach deeper moral or Kabbalah points. We see certainly that not one of the Rishonim or latter day Poskim teach us to comply with any of the tens of medical points of advice, mentioned in the Talmud. This in so since they knew that these were not to be taken at face value”.


For additional articles that try to reconcile, belief in G-d, with the modern world and for additional articles on the Vilna Gaon, go to: https://vilnagaon.org/

© 2012 [ 5772 in the Jewish Calendar] All Rights Reserved.