Monday, June 8, 2020

Frum Science Textbooks

Are school textbooks threatening to Judaism? Well, that depends on which approach to Judaism you take. In my high school in Manchester, which did secular studies to an extremely high level, there was nevertheless no standard class in biology (though I'm not sure if the problem was evolution, or reproduction, or both).

Threats to Judaism are perceived by some in English literature, along with sex education and gender studies. But the most widely perceived problem is that with science. Teaching about the antiquity of the universe, and especially the evolution of life, is seen as heretical.

Of course, for those who adopt Rambam's rationalist approach to Judaism, while there may be several areas in which modern knowledge and values may pose a serious threat to Judaism, the antiquity of the universe and the evolution of life are certainly not in that category. In my book The Challenge Of Creation, I explain in detail why not only is evolution not a threat to Judaism, but is actually consistent with fundamental Torah concepts. And this book has been well received in many Jewish schools; some schools even order it in bulk for their students.

But what about for those who refuse to accept the rationalist approach? A new phenomenon in American Orthodoxy is the production of alternatives to school textbooks. One such enterprise recently caught my eye. Fundamentals Of Life Science, by Rabbi Yaakov Lubin, has rabbinic endorsements from Rav Aharon Feldman, Rabbi Shmuel Yaakov Klein of Torah U'Mesorah, and others. I would like to make a few critical comments about this work - and then explain why these flaws may actually be beneficial.

Fundamentals Of Life Science is a basic biology textbook, but with two key differences. One is that it does not teach anything about the history of life on earth or about evolution - the most basic organizing principle of biology. But it doesn't merely neglect to teach evolution; there are numerous comments, scattered throughout, which indirectly try to negate it. And on page 78, the book actively claims that there is no such thing as vestigial organs (or "junk" DNA), saying that such "foolish speculations" would directly contradict the pasuk of "Kulam b'chachma asisa - You have made them all with wisdom". (In my book The Challenge Of Creation, on the other hand, I explain how there are indeed many vestigial organs, and rather than challenging Kulam b'chachma asisa, the process of descent with modification attests to a very profound form of chachma.)

The second novel aspect of Fundamentals Of Life Science is that it is liberally sprinkled with hashkafic perspectives. Some of these are valuable spiritual insights - such as the discussion on p. 54 about how the semipermeable cell, which only allows appropriate substances to enter and exit, should serve as a lesson on how we should be careful with our bodies as a whole regarding what enters and exits our mouths. Others are inspirational messages about appreciating all the wonders of the natural world, as revealed by science (though some of these appear to be intended to negate evolution). And yet others (see pp. 121 and 163) are baseless claims about Chazal having supernatural knowledge of the natural world (see my monograph Sod Hashem Liyreyav for a discussion of how this has been distorted far beyond anything claimed in the Gemara), and knowing things long before science caught up.

One section, in the section introducing the scientific method, was somewhat bizarre:
HaRav Aharon Feldman, shlita, adds that the scientific method is the method by which many discoveries were made by science. All problems are solved by applying reasoning to them. The Gemara is the best example of the way reasoning is used. The method of the Gemara is to (1) pose a question; (2) seek sources for an answer; (3) if no sources are found, to pose a hypothesis as a possible solution; (4) to discard illogical solutions until reaching the correct one...
The scientific method is the method through which science uses experimentation to discover solutions. As in Gemara, there are four stages to this method: (1) to ask a question; (2) to do research; (3) to pose a hypothesis; and (4) to experiment until a solution is found. 
This comparison between the Gemara and the scientific method is tenuous at best. Furthermore, it glosses over the crucial difference between traditional religion and science (one that is problem even for rationalist Judaism): in Gemara, if something is attributed to a sufficiently revered source, it is sacrosanct. In science, on the other hand, there is nothing that is not open to question and being tested.

So, given that this book purporting to teach science and biology actually tries to negate the foundational principles of biology, and to encourage people to attribute scientific authority to sages rather than to scientists, why did I write that these flaws may be beneficial?

I'll explain why. Despite the book's attempts to undermine some important aspects of science and factual reality, as a textbook on biology it nevertheless can't help but teach lots of valuable material and inspire people with an appreciation for science. In addition, because Chazal were much less charedi than modern yeshivish people, the author cannot help but endorse things which go against the yeshivish approach. For example, on p. 27, the book notes that Rabbi Shimon engaged in various experiments in order to empirically prove or disprove matters that the sages were discussing. So the author, apparently oblivious to the fact that elsewhere he claims that the sages had the superior ability to extract wisdom from divine sources rather than scientific investigation, is showing here that the Sages themselves did not have such recourse and engaged in experimentation!

So is the net effect of such a book positive or negative? The answer to this largely depends on who is reading it. If it's being used in a school that would otherwise use regular biology textbooks (with suitable theological discussion), then the book is problematic. But if it's being used in a school which would otherwise not have any biology classes at all, then the net effect is probably beneficial. If such a book had been available when I was growing up in England, maybe my school would have taught biology, and I would have benefited tremendously.

The website for Fundamentals Of Life Science has a page which lists dozens of schools that make use of it. I'm not familiar with any of them, but looking at their names and locations, one can make educated guesses as to what kind of schools they are. Some of them look like schools which probably wouldn't teach science with any respect, if at all, were it not for a book like this, and so the book is beneficial for them. But others are clearly schools which cater to students from a broad range of backgrounds, who will be continuing to college. For such students, it is a big mistake to teach them biology without evolution. And this is another example of the problem in schools having principals and educators that are not in hashkafic synchronization with the students. 

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49 comments:

  1. The first 60 seconds of the website's video, cites Rambam Hilchos Yesodei haTorah and Chovos haLevovos Shaar HaBechina as being the foundation of what their project is "all about."
    The idea, says the lecturer, is to help children have "emuna peshuta."

    The idea of helping build emuna, based on the approaches of Rambam and Shaar HaBechina is certainly praiseworthy, but I find it curious that he would call this approach "emmuna peshuta."
    I'm sure that the lecturer has an explanation, but I would have thought that both the Rambam and Chovos haLevavos (especially Shaar HaBechina) would have called their approach the opposite of "emmuna peshuta."

    Perhaps the lecturer, in his enthusiasm, misspoke?

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    1. Emuna peshuta is not philosophy based but plain wonderment. Unless one gets involved with statistical issues.

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    2. Sorry, should have read: Bechina is not philosophy based but plain wonderment. Unless one gets involved with statistical issues.

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    3. Right. So, it's a misrepresentation to associate mere wonderment (which is great!) with Rambam and Shaar HaBechina.

      I would say that the authors' approach to science is likely similar -- it's not about teaching science, but about fostering wonderment (emuna pshuta).

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  2. the point of the scientific method was to get past the errors of the empirical method, which tells us that the sun goes around the earth (that's what we see) and reveal that the earth goes around the sun. the use of measuring tools produces a result that's called objective knowledge. its a specific kind of knowing of the world.
    the slightly hidden side of this was the avoidance of what was called írrational knowledge, which basically meant the occult. early scientists were anxious to avoid the suspicion that they were engaging in witchcraft because of the church.
    and the big problem is reductionism, that the only kind of knowledge that exists is scientific, and that all phenomenon can be reduced to the physical. this is a direct conflict with religious philosophy. for example, are emotions in the brain or are they in the irrational soul? this conflict is not noticeable when you are building a nuclear reactor or flying a plane, but in medicine it is glaringly obvious if you care to look.

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  3. It has been many years since I studied philosophy of science, but I think the last stage of what they describe as the "Scientific Method" is false.

    The quote you brought from the books says "(3) to pose a hypothesis; and (4) to experiment until a solution is found."

    I think step (4) should be "run experiments to try to disprove the hypothesis, the more failed attempts to disprove the hypothesis, the more likely it is that the hypothesis has truth to it"

    I am sure that there is a better way to word it, but the scientific method isn't about proving anything (which is almost impossible), it is about trying to disprove assumptions about the way the world works.

    If I drop an object 1000 times and it falls to the floor each time, that doesn't prove gravity, if however I am able to drop it once and it does NOT fall to the floor (in an conditions which can be recreated), that would challenge the theory (or law) of gravity.

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    1. There's a little more than that. One of the key ideas is to make precise quantitative predictions. Then if the actual result falls within your measurement error, you can be much more confident that your model is telling you something about the world. But yes, when mercury orbit didn't quite fit the Newtonian predicted curve, that was a signal that there was something missing from the model.

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    2. I am a scientist. I can give you a very very long list of things that have been proven to be true through scientific investigations.

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  4. Regarding "סוד ה' ליראיו", in Daf Yomi recently, Shabbos daf 89a, the gemara proves that the Malach HaMaves aggreed that Moshe Rabenu should get the Torah, by the fact that he knew that Ketores can stop a plague. The gemars says, "אי לאו דאמר ליה, מי הוה ידע" and Rashi points out that that fact is not mentioned in the Torah itself. It seems clear that, even regarding Moshe himself, there was no carte blanche to say sod Hashem l'yereiav.

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  5. I you look in "Karina d'Igrassa' (R' Yaakobv Kanievsky aka the Steipler) you will see the teshuva aimed at opponents of Rabbi Rabinowitz. The problem was biology. It would have been pretty much at the time you were in school.

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  6. Regarding the following: "in Gemara, if something is attributed to a sufficiently revered source, it is sacrosanct".
    Strictly speaking, you are right. However everything is relative.

    Base of science is reproducible experimentations. If an experimentation is consistently reproducible, or a fact is is consistently observable, by the scientists community, it is taken for "sacrosanct" and becomes a basis for a theory. In contrary, Judaism is based on tradition that can not be recreated or re-tested. If a person known as a reliable one says "I have a tradition about so-and-so", and other reliable persons confirm that or, at least, don't deny that, there is nothing available for re-testing, therefore the witnesses is taken for the attested fact. But, anyway, Gemara always does its best not to merely rely on the tradition but look for confirmation among the Bible verses, nature facts or, at least, verify that this portion of the tradition is fairly consistent with other portions.

    In the same time, if you compare Gemara with "scientific books" of Medieval Age, or even, our Jewish Kabbala-based works, you will notice the astonishing difference. There is no or almost no logic, no attempts to seriously look for any proof. They are based on principle "love me or leave me".

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  7. "Threat to Judaism", or religion generally, is a trope of the atheist left. They imagine themselves as enlightened, and consequently what reason can there be for anyone to differ, except perforce that he's "afraid" of what he will see.

    Such nonsense. Here-today gone-tomorrow doctrines pose no threat to Judaism. You really believe "gender studies" poses a problem to the religion that has shaped our entire civilization? Get serious. A Jewish school is not a public forum. It has no need to teach fad tachings at odd with its fundamentals, anymore than an atheist school has a responsibility to teach the Kuzari.

    Contrast this with the left wing of secular society today, as exemplified by the New York Times. Their news has been ridiculously slanted for decades, and their opinion pages weren't much better, but they used to at least have a token dissenting point of view in the Op-Ed section, No more. Today they refuse to even print OPINIONS that challenge their leftist dogma. A newspaper IS a public forum. They ARE, in fact, afraid to have their biases challenged. Traditional Judaism is looking better and better every day.

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    1. "You really believe "gender studies" poses a problem to the religion that has shaped our entire civilization?"

      Didn't Galileo Galilei posed a threat to the Church which also shaped the West and entire civilization(s)?

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    2. DF, you are correct that the "War" between Religion and Science began on the atheist side, but that does not mean that legitimate issues have not been raised. People do go off-the-derech for science questions - as has been documented in letters to RNS thanking him for enabling them to remain frum despite not chucking out science.

      Anyway, Darwinism seems here-today-and-hanging-around-for 150-years...

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    3. Turk, he and other astronomers posed a threat to a specific point of church doctrine, not to the entire religion.

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    4. The NYT just published an opinion piece by a conservative Republican US Senator that basically called for military rule in the US. That kind of leftist dogma does indeed need to be challenged.

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  8. Just a question, not really connected to the post above: Where can I find Rabbi Slifkin's explanation justifying maintaining halachos, without accepting Chazal’s factual assessments which they based the halocho on?

    Thanks,
    Naftoly

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    1. There are two realities at play here, physical reality and legal reality. To use an example from secular law think about the age of majority. At 17 years and 364 days you are not allowed to vote, serve in the military, purchase firearms, etc. because you are not considered mature enough to do so. Tomorrow you can do all these things. Even though once day makes almost no difference in the physical reality of the situation, it makes all the difference in the world when looking at the legal reality. Chazal have the absolute ability to create legal reality. It doesn't matter that lice don't spontaneously generate. You are allowed to kill lice on shabbos because Chazal say so. That their reasoning does not correspond to the real world is irrelevant.

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    2. Here's R' Dessler's explanation, from Sefer Menuchat Ahava

      והלום הראוני להרב מכתב מאליהו (הגר"א דסלר זצ"ל המשגיח דישיבת פוניבז' ומגדולי המוסר בדור שלפנינו) ח"ד (עמודים 355 – 356) בהערה 4 מהעורך שכתב ז"ל: ראיתי לרשום כאן מה ששמעתי בפירוש מפי קדשו של אדמו"ר (הגר"אא דסלר) זצ"ל כשנשאל על אודות דינים אחדים שהטעמים שניתנו להם אינם לפי המציאות שנתגלה במחקר הטבעי בדורות האחרונים והרי הם עתה בגדר מה שהגמ' שואלת בכמה מקומות "והא קחזינן דלאו הכי הוא". שלוש דוגמאות נידונו אז. ...

      ...

      ואמר אדמו"ר זצ"ל שבאלו וכיוצא באלו לעולם אין הדין משתנה אף שלכאורה הטעם אינו מובן לנו, אלא יש לאחוז בדין בשתי ידים בין לחומרא בין לקולא (ודלא כדברי הר"י למפרונטי ז"ל בפחד יצחק. (ערך צידה אסורה) שרצה להחמיר שלא להרוג כינה בשבת כיון שנתברר בזמנו בלי שום ספק שכינים פרים ורבים ע"י זכר ונקבה ככל שאר בעלי חיים. ע"ש). והטעם אמר אדמו"ר זצ"ל כי את ההלכה ידעו חז"ל בקבלה מדורי דורות, וגם ידעו מן הנסיון למשל שדרוסת החתול עלולה יותר למות מאשר דרוסת הכלב, ושהמים הנשאבים מן המעיינות בבוקר חמים יותר. אבל בענין ההסברים הטבעיים לא ההסבר מחייב את הדין אלא ההיפך, הדין מחייב את ההסבר, והטעם המוזכר בגמ' אינו הטעם היחידי האפשרי בענין, ואם לפעמים נתנו הסברים שהם לפי ידיעת הטבע שבימיהם, חובה עלינו לחפש הסברים אחרים שבהם יתקיים הדין על מכונו לפי ידיעות הטבע שבימינו. כך שמעתי מפי קדשו זצ"ל. עכ"ל.

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    3. That's very interesting, thanks.

      But I think it's obvious that R' Dessler's explanation would only apply to some הלכות. There are clearly many הלכות which were based on סברא and not מסורה. And I don't know how we could know what a specific הלכה was based on. R' Dessler seems to hold that the assumption is that it comes from a מסורה. But sometimes it is clear in the גמרא that it is a סברא.

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    4. Naftoly, if you're still there i'll write an additional approach which i think RNS agrees with.

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    5. I'm still here. Please do, thanks.

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    6. מבואר במפרשים גבי תנור עכנאי שהבת קול גילתה שדעת ר"א היא האמת לאמיתו ואעפ"כ הלכה כחכמים כי ההלכה נמשכת רק אחר השגת החכמים לפי מה שמעיינים בתורה. ואפילו בתנור עכנאי שהחכמים שמעו את הבת קול וא"כ הם עצמם הכירו שנטו מן האמת האמיתית אעפ"כ הי׳ אסור להם לפסוק כפי האמת האמיתי.
      ומכאן דוגמא ברורה שבתנאים מסויימים יכולה ההלכה לנטות מן האמת האמיתי ואסור לילך אחר האמת אלא הולכים אחר ההלכה.

      וא"כ יתכן גם בכללי הוראה אחרים שחייבים למשך אחריהם אפילו נגד האמת לאמיתו. והנה אחד מן הכללים הוא חתימת הש"ס ואם למשל הורה וחתם הש"ס שמותר להרוג כינה בשבת כי אינה פו"ר י"ל שכן תשאר ההלכה אפילו אם האמת לאמיתו מצד המציאות הוא שכן פו"ר, וכן כל כיוצא בזה.

      (והנה הנ"ל הוא ההיפך מהסברה של נשתנה הטבע כי לפי הנ"ל ההלכה נשארת כמ"ש בש"ס אע"פ שיש קושיא מהמציאות אבל הסברה דנשתנה הטבע קובעת ההלכה נגד מ"ש בש"ס בטענה שהש"ס פסק רק לפי המציאות שבזמנם אבל בזמננו שיש מציאות חדשה גם בעלי הש"ס היו מסכימים להלכה אחרת. והנה יש להסתבך בזה מאד שאם מוצאים מציאות שלא כהש"ס נתחייב לעקור ההלכה, ולכאורה נמצאו כה"ג, אבל לסברה הראשונה הנ"ל אין לנו אלא לקבל דבריהם.)

      ---

      "But I think it's obvious that R' Dessler's explanation would only apply to some הלכות. There are clearly many הלכות which were based on סברא and not מסורה."
      What are examples of this?

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    7. Thanks for that. (Are you quoting someone?)

      "But I think it's obvious that R' Dessler's explanation would only apply to some הלכות. There are clearly many הלכות which were based on סברא and not מסורה."
      What are examples of this?

      Anywhere there is a machlokes, and they explain their sevaros.

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  9. Rabbi Feldman totally distorts the scientific method in his description quoted here. The experiment is meant to answer whether the hypothesis is confirmed or excluded (and if excluded, subsequently discarded). There is no sacrosanct hypothesis. Unlike in Gemara and Torah study where pesukim, or mishnayot, or psakim, are sacrosanct and thus you are laboring to find a "solution" to the quandary or uncertainty at hand to uphold the precedent of the pasuk, the mishna, the psak, or whatever the case may be. It is a different type of learning that involves a concept akin to legal precedent. Biology and the scientific method doesn't operate that way. The only "precedent" that can exist is where something has been (reproducibly) demonstrated.

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  10. Yes, I agree with the rabbi. It is necessary to teach wrong science to the masses (indeed, the vast majority of frum Jews) since real science would threaten their long-standing beliefs or shake their faith. The Rambam understood this eight-hundred years ago because he felt the need to help people. Thus, the Rambam wrote many essential truths, or what the Greek Plato called “noble lies.” Noble, because while untrue, they helped people.

    Such, for example, is the belief that G-d becomes angry when people sin. Since Rambam felt that G-d does not have human emotions (anthropopathism), the Bible relied on many “essential truths.” This helped monitor human behavior.

    Another example is the Muslim ibn Tufayl who wrote in his parable “Hai ibn Yaqzan” that the vast majority of religious people cannot handle the truth and are threatened by it. Others include Spinoza, Benjamin Franklin, and Aristotle, all of whom felt that these “necessary truths” helped stabilize society. This tradition sadly ended during the Enlightenment when philosophers wrongly believed that humans were now capable of handling the truth.

    Thus, I think it is important to teach "necessary beliefs" to the masses and true beliefs to individuals who can handle the theory of evolution and not feel threatened.

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    1. Enough of this patriarchal nonsense. Who are you (I don't mean you literally) to decide what people do and don't learn.

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    2. "real science would threaten their long-standing beliefs or shake their faith"

      If that is the case then maybe their beliefs or faith aren't worth holding on to.

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    3. Good point. But yet again, people rather be lied to than know the truth.

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  11. I think the conflict between Torah and Science is very deep. Taken as epistemologies, they are incompatible. First, and perhaps most important, they are at odds about the exact definition of Truth. In Torah, it is an absolute concept and in Science, it is merely an approximation, a moving target. Second, what is considered to be evidence is another major conflict. Science can't accept almost anything written in Torah as evidence because, according to its rules, it can't be verified. Third, as mentioned above, arguments from authority are considered false in Science but are relied on quite frequently in Torah. In short, they are so incompatible, their rules are so different, that any debates between Torah and Science are meaningless because they can't even agree on the ground rules of such a debate. Each works in its own context, in its own environment but each has its limits. The trick is, I think, to recognize those limits and don't force either one to move beyond their limits. I don't have a problem talking as if the world is just shy of 6,000 years old in shule but when I'm discussing cosmology, I use a much larger number because in that context, the larger number works better. Is there some way to reconcile these differences? I don't know but until some genius figures out how to do it, I'll just use whichever Truth works best for the situation and leave it at that.

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    1. No, 6000 year universe is not a truth, it's a lie. It didn't start out that way. It was an understanding. That understanding has been proven false. Perpetuating a falsehood is a lie that helps nobody and hinders many.

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    2. I would venture to say that Peleg's point only holds true if you read Torah as Science and Science as Torah...

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    3. Let's be honest, it's the plain meaning.

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    4. @mb, "Perpetuating a falsehood is a lie that helps nobody and hinders many."

      Sometimes the opposite is true- TRUTH helps nobody and hinders many. Rambam discusses "necessary truths". Let people do what works for them, whether actually true or actually false, as long as they don't attack those for whom it doesn't work.

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  12. "And yet others (see pp. 121 and 163) are baseless claims about Chazal having supernatural knowledge of the natural world"

    "baseless"? aren't there many rishonim that maintain that hazal had supernatural knowledge eg. Rashba

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    1. He means that in his view these claims don't hold water.

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    2. Does that automatically make it not baseless?

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  13. There's some scientific method at the beginning of Sefer Daniel.

    Also, I hope you're not implying that hashkafic insights, even if good, have a place here.

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    1. I have actually used Daniel 1 a number of times as the first example of a controlled study in humans. I think that the next one was in the 18th century.

      An interesting question is why Chazal ignored this biblical example and resorted instead to anecdotes and traditions.

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  14. "In science, on the other hand, there is nothing that is not open to question and being tested." -- Welllll, I can think of ^one^ Theory (with a capital T) that is not really open to question (your job may be in jeopardy if you do, though you can surely question *aspects* of the Theory with only some risk to your job), and much of it cannot be reproduced.

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    1. Well, obviously it's not so much theory as dogma, not that anyone would admit that. I can think of two, race and gender. In the latter there is actually a *lack* of any theory, and in the former there is madness. You better be as rich as JK Rowling before you utter a peep about that one.

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    2. There have been a lot of scientific dogmas that ended up being discarded.

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  15. Gemera involves legal reasoning which is different from both mathematical and scientific reasoning.

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  16. This comparison between the Gemara and the scientific method is tenuous at best. Furthermore, it glosses over the crucial difference between traditional religion and science (one that is problem even for rationalist Judaism): in Gemara, if something is attributed to a sufficiently revered source, it is sacrosanct. In science, on the other hand, there is nothing that is not open to question and being tested.

    But R. Hirsch, in a relatively famous footnote in the eighteenth of his nineteen letters, also compares the study of nature (science) with the study of Torah, glossing over the obvious differences. Rambam too, in his letter to Marseilles/Montpellier, lumps scientific/observed/[perceived-by-the-5-senses] and Torah/received axioms together:

    דעו רבותי שאין ראוי לו לאדם להאמין אלא באחד משלשה דברים הראשון ... והשני דבר שישיגנו האדם באחד מהחמש הרגשות כגון שידע ויראה שזה שחור וזה אדום וכיוצא בזה בראית עינו או שיטעום שזה מר וזה מתוק או שימשש שזה חם וזה קר או שישמע שזה קול צלול וזה קול הברה או שיריח שזה ריח באוש וזה ריח ערב וכיוצא באלו והשלישי דבר שיקבל אותו האדם מן הנביאים עליהם השלום ומן הצדיקים

    וצריך האדם שהוא בעל דעה לחלק בדעתו גם במחשבתו כל הדברים שהוא מאמין בהם ויאמר שזה האמנתי בו מפני הקבלה וזה האמנתי בו מפני ההרגשה ….

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    1. Herman Wouk a"h isn't exactly an authority on these matters, but he concludes this article
      https://ohr.edu/explore_judaism/daf_yomi/2093

      Now this method of text interpretation is sometimes derogatorily referred to as Talmudic quibbling or pilpul. In truth, it is nothing but the application of the scientific method to the study of texts.

      I vaguely remember being once in Ohr Sameach and they had that Wouk article displayed prominently in a very large frame on one of the walls.

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  17. In a number of essays. Rabbi Rabinovitch z"l, also compares scientific method and Torah (although from a different angle).
    Perhaps it would be worthwhile to investigate in which ways the methods are the same, and in which ways they are different (much as biology, physics, cosmology and psychology share certain features of method and differ on others.)

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    1. Rabbi Dr. Rabinovitch z'tz'l wrote his doctoral dissertation on how Chazal and Rishinom made use of probability and statistical inferential methodology that would not be used by secular scientists until modern times. The work was published in book form.

      Delete

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