Can Science Illuminate Torah?

Image: Planet earth cradled in leaves. Art by geralt/pixabay.

With the coming of Emancipation in the 18th and 19th centuries in the West, Jews could go to university and study the sciences, and it is small surprise that some of what they learned there seemed to be in conflict with the stories in Torah. Over time, we came to understand that science offered one kind of understanding about the world: the answers to the questions “what?” and “how?” Religion offered a different kind of understanding, an exploration of meaning.

The Reform Movement altered the liturgy to eliminate some of the things that the early Reformers saw as superstition. One of the most striking changes in the siddur, the prayer book, was the elimination of a section of the Shema, a section from this week’s Torah portion:

13 So if you faithfully obey the commands I am giving you today—to love the Lord your God and to serve him with all your heart and with all your soul— 14 then I will send rain on your land in its season, both autumn and spring rains, so that you may gather in your grain, new wine and olive oil. 15 I will provide grass in the fields for your cattle, and you will eat and be satisfied.

16 Be careful, or you will be enticed to turn away and worship other gods and bow down to them. 17 Then the Lord’s anger will burn against you, and he will shut up the heavens so that it will not rain and the ground will yield no produce, and you will soon perish from the good land the Lord is giving you. – Deuteronomy 11:13-17

The thinking at the time was that the weather is predictable by scientific means. Therefore it did not seem true to say that God would to use the weather to reward good behavior and punish bad behavior. Thus this part of the Shema was dropped from the Reform prayer book.

History moves on, and over time we’ve learned more science.  Nowadays most scientists agree that human actions have affected the earth’s ecology in ways that threaten human survival. Lo and behold, many of the actions in question might be forbidden by the mitzvah of bal tashchit (ball tahsh-KHEET.)

Bal tashchit means “do not destroy” and it comes from Deuteronomy:

When you lay siege to a city for a long time, fighting against it to capture it, do not destroy its trees by putting an ax to them, because you can eat their fruit. Do not cut them down. Are the trees people, that you should besiege them? However, you may cut down trees that you know are not fruit trees and use them to build siege works until the city at war with you falls. – Deuteronomy 20:19-20

Over the centuries the sages expanded the original prohibition against destroying fruit trees in wartime to include the tearing of garments and waste of any kind. This expansion is neatly summed up by the Alter Rebbe in the 18th century:

Just as one must be careful with his body so as not to destroy it or ruin it or harm it, so too one needs to be careful with his property so as not to destroy or ruin or harm it. Anyone who smashes utensils or tears clothing or breaks down a building or clogs a well or destroys food or drinks, or spoils them or throws out money – and likewise one who ruins any other thing which his fit for human beings to make use of – he transgresses against a Torah prohibition, as it is stated, “Do not destroy its trees” – Shulchan Aruch haRav, by Shneur Zalman of Liadi, also known as the Alter Rebbe.

The behaviors that science tells us are at the root of climate change are behaviors forbidden by bal tashkeit: the waste of the environment, especially trees, the “lungs of the earth.” Carbon dioxide and other waste from industrial processes poison our air, our water, and our food chain. While politicians argue about who’s to blame and who should pay for change, the clock is ticking. The melting of the ice cap means that the atoll islands of the Pacific such as Kiribati and the Maldives face inundation and the relocation of entire populations. Business Insider published a group of videos asking the question, “What would Earth look like if all the ice melted?”

So while science and liberal Judaism agree that there is no “old man in the sky” doling out rewards and punishments for sin via the weather, Deuteronomy 11 has taken on new significance. A new reading of the passage might run something like:

“If you faithfully observe the commandments, you will prosper in a world in which weather is predictable and stable. But if you disobey the commandments and lay waste to the planet, don’t be surprised when the earth and its systems turn upon you. They will rain destruction on your cities. You will choke on unclean air, and you will suffer from hunger and thirst that cannot be satisfied.”

Whatever our theology, whether God is a Being who orchestrates all of this or a Unity underlying all Creation, it doesn’t really matter. If we do not learn the lessons of bal tashchit, we’re going to be very sorry indeed.