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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