Tuesday, December 19, 2006

R' Soloveitchik on Torah and Science

Krum as a bagel
It has been noted that R’ Soloveitchik didn't spend much energy addressing the conflicts between Torah and science. For example, his statement regarding evolution is hopelessly vague.

His essay “Catharsis” sheds at least some light on his view of the issue. The essay is based in part on the Midrash that describes the purpose of the Torah as "litzaref," to purge, his creations. RYBS describes this "purging" or "catharsis” as part of a dialectical process:

The Torah wants man, who is bold and adventurous in his quest for opportunities, to act heroically, and at the final moment, when it appears to him that victory is within reach, to stop short turn around and retreat.

RYBS explains how this concept is expressed with respect to our desires, our emotions and intellect. In the first two categories he gives concrete examples of where halacha requires us to retreat. With respect to human desire (the "aesthetic-hedonistic realm"), the example is the couple on their wedding night:

"Bride and bridegroom are young, physically strong and passionately in love with each other. Both have patiently waited for this rendezvous to take place. Just one more step and their love would have been fulfilled, a vision realized. Suddenly the bride and groom make a movement of recoil. He, gallantly, like a chivalrous knight, exhibits paradoxical heroism. He takes his own defeat. There is no glamor attached to his withdrawal. The latter is not a spectacular gesture, since there are no witnesses to admire and laud him. The heroic act did not take place in the presence of jubilating crowds; no bards will sing of these two modest, humble young people. It happened in the sheltered privacy of their home, in the stillness of the night. The young man, like Jacob of old, makes an about-face; he retreats at the moment when fulfilment seems assured."

In the emotional realm, RYBS gives the example of the laws of mourning. According to halacha, shiva is interrupted by a holiday. The halacha requires a person to suspend his mourning and replace it with happiness.

RYBS also talks about catharsis in the realm of the intellectual. If RYBS believed that the science of the Torah was infallible, whether with respect to the manner of creation or the scientific pronouncements of Chazal, than RYBS could have easily cited this as an example of catharsis: the scientist is obligated to search out the truth but if it conflicts with a gemara, he must retreat and be "mivatel his daas." But no. Rather, RYBS affirms the importance of free inquiry:

When I speak of cognitive withdrawal and self-negation, I do no mean to suggest that the scientist should conduct his inquiry without throughness or inconclusively. On thte contrary every schoilar is guided intiuiotively by an ethical norm, which tells him to search the truth assiduously and to rest until he has it wihtinm his reach. Cognitive withdrawal is related not to the scientific inquiry as a logical operation…

Instead, according to RYBS, catharsis in the intellectual realm means that the scientist must understand the limits of science, namely, that science does not give answers to the fundamental questions of existence, human consciousness and values. While this may put some limits on scientific inquiry (e.g., neuroscience’s attempt to identify a purely biological process for explaining consciousness), these limits come from the broad premises of religion rather than specific maamarei chazal or passages in the Torah.

Of course, I am reading between the lines. And we certainly don't know how RYBS dealt with the conflicts between Science and Torah. But one gets the sense that for him it just wasn't a kasha to begin with.

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