From time to time I am asked how religion and science intersect at Hillel. Many people believe that there must be an inherent tension between science and religion, as if one possesses the “right” answer about questions of the universe, and the other does not.
At Hillel, science and religion may intersect, but they do not conflict! They both enjoy prominence here, though in complementary ways, not as a contradiction. This is because, at the core of the matter, science and religion do not ask the same questions. From my perspective, their goals complement each other. Religion asks the ultimate questions about life, human existence, and purpose. Science is most interested in empirical evidence of what can be proven by observation or experiment. Science asks the what, how, and why questions. The overriding question that religion answers is one of existentialism, about the human condition, why we exist and how we act in life.
The first chapter of Sefer Beresheet (the Book of Genesis) describes how the earth was formed, and the creation of animal and human life. However, I do not look to the Torah to learn the age of the earth, or how long it took for various forms of life to evolve. That is a question for science. The purpose of the creation story in the Torah is to establish that God is the creator of all.
The creation story can be viewed as metaphor, the vehicle by which we understand God’s role in the universe. Similarly, we come to understand the concept of B’tzelem Elohim (Created in the image of God) from the creation story. It is the first time that the idea that every person is created in God’s image is introduced to mankind, and it is one of Judaism’s greatest gifts to the world. In other ancient traditions, only royalty was created in God’s image. Judaism shows, through Sefer Beresheet, that all people are sacred.
Today, in modern times, we as Jews, and citizens of the United States, continue to know that all individuals, created in the image of God, have worth, and it is our obligation to create a caring community. It is a founding doctrine of our nation, as the Declaration of Independence states, “they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness.” We hold these truths to be “self-evident,” and we have fought wars to protect this belief. It is clearly not the realm of science that led us to embrace this concept, just as the establishment of the age of the earth falls outside the realm of religion.
Science is concerned with the evolution of human beings. Religion attempts to answer the question, “Why were humans created at all?” I remember my philosophy professor, Rabbi Gordon Tucker, ending a year-long course of Jewish philosophy stating that the still-unanswered ultimate question is not, “Why is there evil in the world,” rather, “Why did God create us in the first place?” The pursuit of “ultimate meaning” is not a question of science.
Judaism teaches meaning and purpose, and instills faith-enacted and moral truths. I look to Judaism to learn about our collective memories through the stories in our tradition and the teachings of our rabbis. I seek to understand God’s relationship with us, and I seek to have a relationship with God, the Jewish people, and the land of Israel. Judaism teaches me how I should act and behave, how I should treat others and why. It guides my relationship with the rest of the world and with the earth. It provides moral, ethical and faith-based understanding of my existence – a search for meaning beyond myself! Science cannot help me in this quest.
I look to science to discover answers that will cure diseases, and to explain how the human body works, and how we evolved. I look to science to understand the structure of the universe, and how properties interrelate. I look to science for insight on creativity, new inventions, and discoveries that improve the human condition. This is beyond the realm of religion.
Simply put, science explores the way things work, while Judaism is concerned that we use things – from our bodies to technology to our natural resources – for good.
At Hillel, our students invest time in learning all they can from both science and our Jewish teachings. Both are crucial areas of study, and both help us lead full lives. It does not require a debate over which is “right.” In each realm, truth can be found.