Commentary Magazine

The Loneliest Jews of All

The association of Orthodox Jewish Scientists (AOJS) is celebrating its twentieth anniversary this year. Since its inception in this country in 1948, it has grown to include branches in Israel and England, and chapters are now being organized in continental Europe as well. The organization is an umbrella for a variety of smaller groups, some with a fairly wide range of professional adherents, some composed wholly of members of a single discipline. Apparently, the only professional group that is not represented is the engineers. Since Orthodox engineers are known to exist, this might suggest that the Orthodox scientists are purists. However, when I attended the dinner of the annual meeting some months ago, I sat at a table with two physicians, a social worker, an accountant, and a sociologist. It would thus appear that the organization does not try to be exclusive (at least at its annual meeting). Indeed, the attendance of rather marginal scientists suggests that the AOJS enjoys prestige within the Orthodox community, as does the fact that routine organizational and paperwork problems are alleviated by the activity of a number of young women who are looking for Orthodox-Jewish-scientific husbands. The age range of the membership is wide. The two physicians at my table were father and son, and each in his own way seemed quite at home in the organization.

The annual meeting, a weekend affair, was held in Brooklyn, out-of-town visitors being put up by local members. The group attended religious services at what turned out to be a fairly middle-aged Young Israel of Flatbush. The Sabbath program featured an address by a dean of Yeshiva University on Judaism's answer to the alienated student, and a shiur (Talmud lesson) which focused on the question of when an idol is an idol. The shiur was competent enough, but no one examined its possible relevance to modern “idolatries,” including the idolatry of science. This problem, however, was touched upon the next day in a talk on “Science and Superstition” given by Dr. G. N. Schlesinger, professor of the philosophy of science at the University of North Carolina. Dr. Schlesinger discussed the enormous amount that scientists have to accept on faith if the scientific enterprise is to prosper. Cyril Domb, professor of theoretical physics at King's College, London gave the dinner address.


The purpose of the Association of Orthodox Jewish Scientists is partly social, partly promotional of research related to the technical problems of religious ritual and practice in the contemporary world, and partly missionary. The social need for such an organization is obvious. The American campus has been a cold place for the Orthodox Jew. He has been estranged not only from the Gentiles but also from many of his fellow Jews on the faculty whose self-image he has threatened by what they consider to be his “tribal peculiarities.” The “liberated” Jew is especially sensitive to such “peculiarities” when they crop up in the university—which he views as his secular church of the rationalist tradition. In this respect, research organizations and business firms with research-and-development departments have constituted a more congenial environment for the observant Jew.

Politically, too, non-academic institutions may be more comfortable for the Orthodox scientist, who tends to be more conservative than his non-Orthodox counterpart and much less likely to harbor any social-revolutionary dispositions. His political reflexes have been significantly influenced by his recognition of the fact that successful revolutions have always undermined Orthodoxy. In a sense, the basically apolitical attitude of the Orthodox scientist is a source of weakness for the AOJS; not being joiners, many Orthodox scientists do not even join the organization. And if they do, they tend jealously to defend the autonomy of the smaller professional groups. The national organization must therefore conduct its affairs with the greatest caution and can scarcely risk going out on any limbs. Recently, for example, there was controversy over whether the AOJS should take a stand on the abortion reform bill before the New York legislature. The question was whether to support the bill or to take no stand at all, and the final decision was in favor of the second alternative. This was not because there was any opposition to abortion reform within the organization, but because many members feared that a stand on a political issue would create a dangerous and ultimately divisive precedent. Might not the question of Vietnam come up next?

Apart from filling an obvious social need, the AOJS also encourages discussion of and research into halacha-related problems. Study groups are particularly popular among physicians, who concern themselves with birth control, euthanasia, drugs, and a host of ethico-religious problems raised by the practice of medicine. It comes as something of a surprise to discover that the organization has not actually initiated any research into problems such as those connected with ritual slaughter, contraception, or the Sabbath. Research of this kind has usually been conducted by unaffiliated Orthodox scientists, as, for example, the late Professor Bruno Kisch's work on ritual slaughter. But the AOJS does support the Israeli Institute for Halacha and Science. That Institute's discoveries have recently become somewhat problematical; in trying to eliminate the labor that has hitherto been necessary for carrying out essential services on the Sabbath, it has succeeded in developing devices that worry those who devised them. Apparently, an attempt to eliminate all human labor from power production on the Sabbath has culminated in inventions so successful, both scientifically and economically, that the inventors fear they may have defeated their own purpose. A host of inessential services may now be revived, the excuse being that no labor is needed to provide them. Indeed, one shudders to think of the revolutionary consequences for which the unfortunate Institute might be held responsible if it were to manage to obviate the need for labor altogether. After all, man is commanded not only to hallow the Sabbath but to work on the other six days.


The AOJS also performs a missionary function. It does not, however, direct its activities to the non-Orthodox Jewish scientific community, for which it entertains no hopes. Rather, it reaches out to the ultra-Orthodox, Hasidim and Mitnagdim alike, seeking to persuade them that the pursuit of science is compatible with the religious life of an Orthodox Jew. The organization urges Orthodox communities to encourage their children to obtain a higher education, and it warns them that withdrawal from the secular world will not solve their problems in the long run.

Such a position must seem astonishing to the majority of American Jews, who take the conflict between science and Orthodoxy for granted. For many of the Jewish immigrants around the turn of the century, uprooted and persecuted as they had been by various religious and national orthodoxies, a belief in science as the antithesis to all orthodoxies became almost an article of faith. A religious scientist therefore seemed to be a contradiction in terms. It is no accident that the early members of AOJS were Germans, for in Western Europe, where modern science developed, the incompatibility between religion and science did not seem so self-evident. There was a measure of conflict, to be sure, but the confrontation was gradual and science did not cause the culture shock it did in Eastern Europe, and does today in the non-occidental world. In fact, certain religious orthodoxies proved conducive to the development of modern science. According to the socilogist Robert K. Merton, it was not merely fortuitous that the leading figures of England's Royal Society, founded in 1662, were either divines or eminently religious men. The Puritans, a small minority in the country, constituted 62 per cent of the initial membership of the Society, and Merton believes that it was specifically Puritan values, with their emphasis on rationalism, empiricism, and earnest activity within the world, which made an empirically founded science seem commendable rather than reprehensible or at best acceptable on sufferance, as had been the case in the medieval period.

Even this is only part of the story, for it may be in the very nature of the Judaeo-Christian tradition to stimulate the scientific approach. In that tradition, revelation determines what is to be believed about things beyond this world; the world in which man lives, devoid of imminent divinity, thus becomes the only permissible object of man's action, speculation, or study. As Max Weber and others have pointed out, this state of affairs contrasts markedly with that obtaining in areas like Eastern Asia, where no “teaching authority” exists in metaphysical matters, and where, as a consequence, intellectual energies are channeled into an endless metaphysical quest—to the detriment of scientific or technological progress.

The Judaeo-Christian tradition, then, was uniquely suited to stimulate the sociological and scientific transformation of the world; narrowing the area of speculation concerning the divine, it enlarged the realm of terrestrial freedom. Of course, the term “Judaeo-Christian tradition” must be used cautiously in this respect, since Christianity, by abandoning many of Judaism's elaborate restrictions on man's use of the earth, went further than Judaism in sharpening the separation between the world and the divine.

The Church not only dismissed the ritual prohibitions and prescriptions of Judaism, but placed greater emphasis than Judaism had done on man's separation from the rest of nature. In Jewish thought, man is the steward of the world, but he holds the task in trust and incurs heavy obligations to the creatures he rules. He must act morally toward the creation; that is the essential notion behind such regulations in Judaism as those governing the proper treatment of animals, for example. The Protestant Reformation carried the Christian position one step further away from Judaism: it not only shut off intellectual effort in the area of systematic theology, but also focused divine concern so exclusively on man that the rest of creation became utterly neutral and hence subject to man's unrestricted manipulation.


Today, there are essentially two party positions on the relationship between science and religion. The friends of science draw up a list of incidents of the persecution of scientists: Galileo retracting his views under pressure of the Church, Bruno being burned at the stake in Rome, the fate of Servetus in Geneva. The friends of religion compile lists of their own, which stress the contribution of their churches to the preservation and advancement of knowledge. Both parties to the conflict tend to forget that the dispute has been primarily a jurisdictional one, and that the opposition to science arose not so much from antipathy toward the scientific enterprise as such, as from the fear that science was stepping beyond its proper bounds.

Thus when Bishop Virgilius of Salzburg was accused of heresy because he argued for the existence of the antipodes, it was because the Pope feared the religious implications of a round earth; one might have to assume that souls existed which were neither implicated in the fall nor redeemed by the sacrificial death of Christ. And when the Church condemned Galileo it directed itself not against the scientific content of his theory but, as Duhem and Poincaré have pointed out, against certain metaphysical assertions in conflict with dogma. Similarly, the Church did not turn against Copernicus but against Bruno, the “Copernican metaphysician.” The limitations which religion placed on scientific thought were certainly real, but the conflict was not inevitable and it was not due to the “very nature” either of science or of traditional religion.

There is, however, an essential conflict between science and modern “ideological religions.” Not only do the latter seal off metaphysics as effectively as any dogmatic church ever did, but they also provide an exclusive “teaching authority” for the things of this world. In countries like the Soviet Union there is therefore an inevitable tension between the “teaching authority” and science, for the latter is as dangerous as it is necessary—if only because of its contributions to national defense. In areas such as genetics and cultural geography, subject to especially strict ideological guidance, very little progress has been made—hence, the famed unevenness of Soviet science. During periods of “thaw,” Soviet scientists are at least able to complain about the situation. Thus A. N. Nesmaianov, the former president of the Soviet Academy of Sciences, was recently able to state in Literaturnaya Gazeta, “I do not see any connection between science and morality. . . . Morality varies not only from society to society but also from individual to individual. An honest merchant in bourgeois society could be considered an exploiter and a speculator in our society, but science, say mathematics, physics, and chemistry, is the same everywhere.” Tired defenders of orthodoxy like A. D. Alexandrov counter with the old dictum, “The unity of science and morality, the unity of the scientific explanation of the world and moral demand for its change is the alpha and omega of the Communist world view.”


The misinterpretation of the nature of religion has been one of the factors aggravating the dispute between religion and science. According to a whole series of 19th- and 20th-century theories, religion is really something other than what it purports to be: it is ethics, or primitive science, or an ideological “superstructure,” or a corollary to a social and psychological change. Such misinterpretations have, to be sure, helped religion preserve a certain respectability in the modern world, but they have also undermined the strength of religious institutions by making them seem obsolete.

For example, if religion is only primitive science, Comtean positivism was justified in throwing it out as a superseded stage of human development. If religion is really ethics in disguise, one may grant that it has played a vital part in preserving mankind from moral anarchy; but now that the “true nature” of religion is understood, is there any reason not to separate the ethical gold from the metaphysical dross? If religion is the product of certain social conditions, a change in those conditions may obviate the need for religion: the revolutionary proletariat no longer requires an opiate. Dogmas, rituals, and theologies all become obsolescences whose continued existence can only be explained by the theory of “culture lag.”

And yet, science may not have been nearly so influential in undermining religion as is commonly thought. After all, religious taboos were flouted by men long before science had shown that they could be flouted without any ensuing supernatural retribution. Max Scheler has pointed out that science does not displace religion, for it can only occupy an area which religion has already evacuated. “What threatens an established religion,” according to Scheler, “is not science, but the drying up of sources of the faith, the dying out of the living ethos. A ‘dead’ faith and a ‘dead’ ethos replace the ‘living’ faith and ethos, and either a new embryonic religious consciousness emerges or a new metaphysic capable of sweeping the masses displaces it.”

In Christianity as well as in Judaism, inner reasons were responsible for the death of faith in “religious authority.” “Science” has not filled the resulting gap, but various secular metaphysics have, and faith in science is one of them. As established revealed religions have lost their force, the old magic, which they once suppressed, has regained its power. A new primitivism arises, more pernicious than the old. The witch doctor knew there were limits to his power, while modern man believes he is capable of everything; what he cannot do yet, he will be able to do soon.


In seeking to understand the relationship between science and religion, it is essential to realize that the two do not address themselves to the same questions. Nor is religion the same as ethics, for it does not merely ask, “How shall I live?” It also asks, “Why should I live at all? What does life mean? Given the human situation, why should I not despair?” Because it raises these questions, religion is not identical with science and cannot be superseded by science. Religion deals with a world which formal scientific logic is incapable of handling. The world of our common human experience is more than a series of objects logically related. Moreover, its existence is a fact which cannot be deduced from anything prior, for the entities which compose it are not logical or scientific necessities. As the English theologian G. F. Wood has remarked, “The movement of actual trains filled with actual people out of Charing Cross Station in the evening is much more than an exercise in formal logic.”


An Orthodox Jewish scientist is not, then, so great an anomaly as he appears to be. In “buying” physics, he has not “bought” the metaphysics of the majority of scientists. It is not his intellectual position that is so difficult to maintain, but his social and political situation. He is lonely—hence the Association of Orthodox Jewish Scientists. For the genuine scientist in the organization—I exclude the various technocrats among the membership—there is a serious gap not only between himself and the rest of the scientific community but also between himself and the Orthodox Jewish community. To the Orthodox Jewish scientist, the world he investigates as a scientist is only a mask of reality, the surface texture of the divine creation. To hold such an attitude is to preclude all but the most superficial communication with most other scientists.

But the necessity for discriminating between the apparent and the real also carries over to the faith of the Orthodox scientist and makes his religious commitment a more complex allegiance than that of the pious cloak-and-suiter who does not share or understand his problems. An American rabbi is said to have asked a distinguished Orthodox scholar how he could have become a member of a society whose members were known for atheistic pronouncements. The scholar replied: “It is like this, rabbi. Those with whom I can pray, I cannot talk. Those with whom I can talk, I cannot pray.” Rabbi Joseph Soloveichik has written of the loneliness of the follower of halacha. The scientist who follows halacha is probably the loneliest Jew of all.

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