Sciences of What and the Science of Who

By Georges Hansel

In Judaism, reason and revelation are closer than you might think.


In the Shulhan Aruch, the code of law that governs traditional Jewish life, the following is found among the laws governing the recitation of blessings:
One who sees a Jewish hacham [usually translated as “Sage”] says: “Blessed is he who gives of his wisdom (hochma) to those who fear him.”
One who sees a non-Jewish hacham who is a scholar of worldly knowledge, says: “Blessed is he who gives of his wisdom (hochma) to a being of flesh and blood.”1
We may note that the same Hebrew word, hacham, is used to describe both the man of learning who devotes his life to the natural sciences and the rabbinic Sage, as he has come to be known, who devotes his life to studying and understanding the depths of the Tora. Similarly, both the knowledge acquired by the study of Tora and worldly knowledge, which is to say the sciences, are designated by the same word, hochma. The aim of this study is to shed light on this analogy. In the first part, I will analyze the attitude of Jewish tradition towards science; in the second, I will explore the manner in which knowledge that derives from the Tora is also understood to be science—and what, therefore, is its place as science in the body of all knowledge.
The talmudic Sages had before them an example of an exact science. Already in antiquity, the field of astronomy had reached a high level of development. The Greeks and Chaldeans observed the movements of the stars with great precision, and they were able to make accurate predictions. It is therefore only natural that the Talmud’s approach to science was formulated, first and foremost, with respect to astronomy.
First question: Does scientific knowledge have value in itself? Or, alternatively, are its value and importance derived solely from its practical applications? One unambiguous answer is offered in the Talmud, in the tractate Shabbat:
Rabbi Shimon ben Pazi says: He who is able to make calculations of astronomy and does not do it, of him it is said: “But they regard not the work of the Lord, nor consider his handiwork.”2
The primary meaning of the verse cited from Isaiah has no connection with astronomy. This becomes clear as soon as the verse is read in its proper context:
Woe unto them that rise up early in the morning, that they may follow strong drink; that continue until night, till wine inflame them! And the viol, and the harp, the drum, and pipe, and wine, are in their feasts. But they regard not the work of the Lord, nor consider his handiwork.3
The prophet Isaiah was unconcerned with astronomy; rather, he was describing the life of sensual pleasure of the men of his time, and reproached them for drinking themselves into a stupor without reflecting on the deeper meaning of things. It was not Rabbi Shimon ben Pazi’s aim to explain this primary, obvious meaning of the verse, but rather to add another dimension to it. In the simple reading, contemplation of the works of the Eternal is a religious idea. Rabbi Shimon ben Pazi gave it new meaning: Contemplating the works of the Eternal leads one, by definition, to embrace the scientific vision of the world, the vision of rigorous, mathematical laws hidden from the world of the senses. Conversely, knowledge of those laws, through which man is able to bring natural phenomena under his control, takes on an intrinsic value which goes beyond its utility. The scientific approach is a true perspective on reality; “a vision of the works of the Eternal.”
This initial observation raises a new question: Is science merely a way of seeing things, merely an approach to the knowable world, or does it also have a theoretical value? Is it also a model of thinking? The following passage clarifies matters:
Rabbi Shmuel bar Nahmani said in the name of Rabbi Yohanan: From where do we know that one is obligated to make calculations of astronomy? As it is said: “Keep therefore and do them; for this is your wisdom and your understanding in the eyes of the nations.”4 What is wisdom (hochma) and understanding (bina) in the eyes of the nations? It is astronomy.5
Here again the verse cited is given a different meaning than its simple reading yields in context. The passage from which it is taken discusses not astronomy but the laws of the Tora:
Behold, I have taught you statutes and judgments, even as the Lord my God commanded me as you should do so in the land where you go to possess it. Keep therefore and do them, for this is your wisdom and your understanding in the eyes of the nations.6
The distortion that Rabbi Shmuel bar Nahmani adds to the simple reading of the text suggests that in his view, astronomy, like the laws of Tora, may be understood as hochma and bina, wisdom and understanding. Astronomy is itself of value in the general realm of knowledge. Science is not merely a preferred relationship with the knowable world, as we have already established. Now its value as a theoretical activity is also acknowledged. Astronomy is a hochma, a wisdom, an extension of the knowledge we receive through the Tora.
In the same interpretive act, Rabbi Shmuel bar Nahmani asserts that the Jewish people should not limit its intellectual horizons only to knowledge of Tora. The latter must necessarily be completed through scientific activity. It is a necessary condition for the Jewish people to be a light unto the world. The belief that the study and practice of Tora can by itself earn the Jewish people the esteem of other peoples is an illusion. We may note in passing that, generally speaking, the obligation under discussion has in fact been put into practice, and as a result, the role of Jewish people in the development of the sciences has been significant indeed.
We turn now to a question of an epistemological nature: When science produces truth, should we accord it an absolute value or only a relative value? Is it tainted with doubt simply because of its non-revelatory origin? When reason and human experience are properly channeled, is it possible for them to attain the status of undisputed truth?
The texts cited above might be enough to suggest an affirmative answer. But an important passage by Maimonides removes all doubt. In the Mishneh Tora, after laying down the rules for calculation of the Jewish calendar, Maimonides writes as follows:
The reason for all these calculations, the way all of this was known and can be proven, constitutes the science of astronomy and of geometry, about which the Greek scholars wrote numerous books which are now in the hands of our Sages. But the books written by the Israelite scholars from the tribe of Issachar during the time of the prophets have not come down to us. However, given that all these things can be demonstrated by flawless proof that no one can contest, we are not concerned about who the author was, whether he be a prophet or a foreign scholar. For anything whose rationale is clear and whose truth can be demonstrated by indisputable proof, we do not rely on the man who said it or who taught it, but on its proof and its reasoning.7
For Maimonides, human reason and experience constitute sources of authentic truth, with the proviso that they are to be used with caution. If the reason for the phenomenon seems clear and if the theoretical or experimental proofs are indisputable, one must believe what the scientist says. There is no reason to hide behind a veil of skepticism in order to minimize its value. Evidence and proof are sufficient to indicate authentic truth.

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