Rabbi Shafran Responds


Rabbi Shafran sent me the following response to the comments on his article. I was pleased enough to get clearance from him to reprint a Jewish Observer article online (as compared to his Am Echad pieces). That he would respond to the comments is a pleasant surprise, and is probably about as close as Agudath Israel will come to engaging the blogosphere.

Thank you to all those who have sent in such well-thought-out, reasoned comments. I think it says a great deal that you helped create a high level of dialogue which a non-blogging-writer (and one with many demands on his time outside our little niche here) felt comfortable joining.

First and foremost, let me thank all of you who cared enough to both read my Jewish Observer article, which Rabbi Menken was kind enough to post on Cross-Currents, and to comment on it. The reason I write articles is largely to elicit such thoughtful responses, and I want you to know that your reactions, positive and negative alike, are deeply appreciated.

Due to the constraints on my time (and the experience of spending dozens of hours going back-and-forth on Moment’s reader feedback post-board after my article on the Conservative movement several years ago), I seldom enter discussions about things I have written. I felt, though, that the topic of teleology, and the philosophical idea’s social ramifications, are so important at this point in history that I wanted to at least comment on the remarks offered thus far. I don’t foresee that I will be able to engage in an ongoing discussion, but thought that I would at least acknowledge everyone’s reactions with my own to them.

I thank Rivka W. for her kind word and note. I believe, though, that terminologies like “mutation” and “speciation” are used much too fluidly. I have seen references to “new traits” like the ones she alludes to, and even some of the studies that Seth Gordon cites, and have been unimpressed with them as demonstrations that truly new traits or species have ever been brought about. When, for instance, viruses are said to “mutate” it seems that what has occurred is essentially the exchange of genetic material from different strains or different viruses. That, to my admittedly common sense, is the microcosmic equivalent of mating a horse and a donkey and “creating” a mule (that mules are infertile is of no import here). Obviously, traits, even among higher species, are “mixed and matched” constantly through genetic interaction. What I intended by a new trait or species was something on the order of a worm being induced to grow wings. The engine of evolution (at least of its beginnings) is said to be radiation-caused mutation. When irradiating any species results in a beneficial mutation in the organism’s DNA (without killing the organism in the process), I will be impressed. And when doing so results in a clearly new organism (which evolution theory posits has happened millions of times without human intervention), I will be more impressed still.

I apologize to Mr. Gordon if any of my words can in fact be construed as “telling” him that he believes in a religion of Randomness. I tried to make clear that I was referring to what is in essence a political camp – the ardent secularists who I believe are using evolution theory as a means of indoctrination young people to reject the idea of a Creator. I further wrote explicitly that there are those within the believing Jewish community who see no contradiction between the concept of evolution and the concept of a Creator Who set it in motion. While I do not subscribe to that approach (out of reason, not biblical literalism), I did not say, or mean to imply, that those who hold it are ipso facto believers in “Randomness” (i.e. G-dlessness). I thank Rabbi Menken for noting that fact (and others) on my behalf.

I understand Boruch’s point (like Seth Gordon’s in his later posting), although I disagree with it. I would like to see the word “science” defined more broadly (as it was defined, in fact, for many hundreds of years), to incorporate bigger questions and less tangible realities that what can be seen or touched or measured. Of course, needless to say, this is an argument with two sides. But I would like to tell Seth Gordon that asserting that the word “science” is being defined too sharply, is not “push[ing] forth a parody of science as “science.” And to assure Boruch that it is not the “Intelligent Design” curriculum per se that I champion, but rather the inclusion of the philosophical idea (once part of any study of nature) of the possibility of a Creator. So Boruch reads me right when he suggests that my ire is with teaching evolution from an atheist stance. Perhaps I should have made that clearer in my article.

I would note much the same to 1.5 opinions, who (which?) points out that laws of randomness need not preclude the idea of G-d. Indeed. But Randomness as the religion being taught schoolchildren today is intended, and presented in a way, to do precisely that. So it is not that I am “limiting” Hashem, only trying to get mention of Him in public schools. I respect the opinion of those who, for any of a number of reasons, feel that is a misguided goal; but I feel otherwise (as I believe many Gedolim do as well).

My thanks to Sam Broder for sharing Dr. Parks’ admission. And to Seth Gordon for the wonderful Sagan quote (although Sagan is a veritable poster-child for how science is used to disparage religion).

Thanks too to Dr. Hall for his cogent and interesting comments. I won’t belabor the point about ostensibly witnessed speciation “consistent with what evolutionary biology would predict” beyond pointing out the obvious: that such “speciation” is also consistent with what Mendelian genetics would predict.

I respect Dr. Hall’s credentials, but do feel that Shmuel is correct about the existence, at least at the quantum level, of true randomness. (Much of the confusion in science these days, I believe, is a result of the great – perhaps inevitable – specialization of science-niches; if we had someone today who could claim mastery of disparate scientific fields, I think we would benefit greatly from his or her view on many matters). In any event, that is all beside the point. When I used the word “random” or “chance” what I meant, clearly, was without any guidance by a Creator. If one chooses to accept evolution as a law of nature like any other, created by Hashem, I do not feel that that itself constitutes apikorsus (although championing such a belief with derision for those who choose otherwise – which includes many, if not all, Gedolei Torah – might well constitute the other definition of apikorsus, lack of respect for Torah-scholars).

I take issue, though, with Dr. Hall’s defense of the delegitimation of unpopular points of view. Of course Holocaust denial can be discussed; it should be. And evidence mustered to counter it. Likewise, a discussion of whether Torah is divine is a perfectly legitimate one (even if it might not belong in a yeshiva classroom). And bringing up questions like how life began, including the concept of a divine Creator, to my lights, should not be verboten in a science classroom.

As to the incompatibility of holding that we are “mere animals” and that “we are qualitatively different,” I do not implicate Dr. Hall or others like him as self-contradictory. The operative word in my sentence is “mere” – meaning “nothing more than.” That latter belief may not be Dr. Hall’s, but it is the upshot of what American public school children are being taught. So Dr. Hall and I are not in any major disagreement. But I don’t think there is any way to make a convincing case for why “being human carries with it certain ethical mandates” – which he acknowledges would be a healthy topic for the public school classroom – without invoking the idea of G-d.

Again, my thanks to all, especially to Rabbi Menken for fostering the discussion.

Avi Shafran

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8 Responses

  1. Jonathan says:

    JZ: consider the following excerpt from the Dover ID ruling, p. 64; Can you really claim, with any objectivity, that evolutionary biology is “pseudo-science” in the same sense that ID is?

    4. Whether ID is Science
    After a searching review of the record and applicable caselaw, we find that
    while ID arguments may be true, a proposition on which the Court takes no
    position, ID is not science. We find that ID fails on three different levels, any one
    of which is sufficient to preclude a determination that ID is science. They are: (1)
    ID violates the centuries-old ground rules of science by invoking and permitting
    supernatural causation; (2) the argument of irreducible complexity, central to ID,
    employs the same flawed and illogical contrived dualism that doomed creation
    science in the 1980’s; and (3) ID’s negative attacks on evolution have been refuted
    by the scientific community. As we will discuss in more detail below, it is
    additionally important to note that ID has failed to gain acceptance in the scientific
    community, it has not generated peer-reviewed publications, nor has it been the
    subject of testing and research.

  2. JZ says:

    Jonathan- You write that you “dread the day when some charlatans invent a theologically-driven pseudo-theory for my own field.” Well, that day already arrived. Standard classroom instruction now includes the pseudo-theory of Darwinian evolution.

  3. Jonathan says:

    Rabbi Shafran,

    I assume you have read the Dover ID ruling, but I will link to it just in case. I think the interesting part starts around p. 18. Many of your arguments were attempted by ID proponents, and did not stand up in court.

    As a researcher myself, I dread the day when some charlatans invent a theologically-driven pseudo-theory for my own field. I absolutely agree with Charlie Hall – science is a profession that relies on factual evidence. There is right, there is wrong, and there is vague claims that *sound* scientific but can *never* be disproven (e.g., ID). The last has no place in the science classroom — except as an example of what is *not* science.

    Thank you for writing about this important issue.

  4. Charles B. Hall says:

    I would like to thank Rabbi Shafran for his thoughtful reply to my comment. I second his point about the impact of the ‘great – perhaps inevitable – specialization of science-niches’; the overwhelming amount of material that a scientist-in-training must learn about his/her own field, the limited amount of time available for training, and the demand to become a productive investigator early in ones career are some of the factors that contribute to this problem. In a similar vein, Rabbi Menken commented elsewhere that few biologists have good training in quantitative methods; that is indeed true but has been changing for the better in the past few years as the need for them has been increasing dramatically with the success of molecular biology, genetics, and proteomics.

    Add to this the very small number of scientists with extensive Torah knowledge and wisdom, (and similarly, the few torah giants with extensive training in science) and there are truly very few of us who really can speak authoritatively here. I am not one of those persons; while my scientific training is a bit broader than most because of the interdiciplinary nature of my own field, I came to Judaism late in life and don’t have extensive Torah knowledge. Rabbi Dr. Moshe Tendler, at the Association of Orthodox Jewish Scientists meeting last August, spoke about the need for more scientists who are also “ben Torahs”. If our community can indeed develop more scientists with extensive Torah knowledge and wisdom (naturally including appreciation and respect for our mesorah), as well as more rabbis with extensive scientific knowledge, I think that we will as a community come to realize that there is no conflict between science and Torah, and that this will lead to greater acceptance of traditional Judaism by the still too large majority of our fellow Jews who remain estranged.

    That said, I do not believe that this requires compromise in either direction. Rabbi Shafran makes the point that “discussion of whether Torah is divine…might not belong in a yeshiva classroom” and I think the opponents of teaching ID in science classes (including myself) would like to make the same distinction for their classrooms. A not widely understood point is that there is a very fundamental difference between science and Torah in that the former is subject ultimately to empirical verification and the latter is not. This places natural limits to the things for which science can make statements, limits which I suspect may be better understood by good scientists than by overly enthusiastic laypeople who are too quick to apply supposedly scientific results inappropriately (for example, to questions such as the existence of God, which is not something within the scientific domain). On the other hand, one should not take a post-modernist relativist view that treats any opinion as inherently of equal validity. Such an argument has great potential to sway much of the American public because of its apparent fairness, but is particularly incompatible with Judaism, which teaches that there *are* true absolutes.

    Thank you for the opportunity to engage in this forum.

  5. Avi Shafran says:

    Although I resolved to not burden this board with my becoming an ongoing part of the discussion, I would like to make one last comment. I am disturbed by what seems a lack of objectivity in Seth Gordon’s description of Professor Behe’s definition of a scientific theory; in his reference to assertions of the Intelligent Design movement as “tactics”; and in his misleading citation of a study of insects.

    Professor Behe simply testified that even theories that will not in the end stand the test of experiment remain valid theories until they are disproven. He certainly did not endorse astrology as science. He pointedly added that: “Under my definition, scientific theory is a proposed explanation which points to physical data and logical inferences.” Obviously, astrology (at least as we know it today) does not meet those criteria. (Whether ID does or not is arguable; but that is no reason to disparage Behe’s point of view.)

    As to the “essay laying out the evidence that termites evolved from cockroaches,” the evidence in the paper is no more compelling than “evidence” that birds evolved from fish, or men from apes. If one subscribes as a matter of conviction to evolution, then of course such similarities are claimed as “proofs.” But if one does not, they are anything but. They fit, in other words, both Darwinist and creationist worldviews. That the biosphere is made up of myriad creatures, many of whom have characteristics in common with others is hardly hot news.

    Once again, when a researcher bombards a population of termites and finds cockroaches (or even proto-cockroaches) among them, while even that would fall short as a “proof” of evolution, I will nevertheless be impressed.

    As to the “tactics” employed by opponents of Darwinism, the pejorative can just as easily be applied to the assertions of Darwinists. Waving like a flag every bit of evidence that species have similarities (or that they retain or lose characteristics over the course of generations) does not add anything meaningful to the discussion of whether mutation and random forces may have been the mechanisms for the variety of species.

    Avi Shafran

  6. Seth Gordon says:

    I thank Rabbi Shafran for his clarification and accept his apology. I cannot oblige him by providing “a worm being induced to grow wings”, but he might be interested in this essay laying out the evidence that termites evolved from cockroaches.

    One of the tactics of the Intelligent Design movement is an attempt to broaden the definition of “science”; Prof. Behe, on cross-examination in the Dover trial, admitted that his definition of “science” that encompassed ID would also include astrology. I beg Rabbi Shafran not to go along with this redefinition.

    The methodology of science is based on the simple assumption that the natural world operates according to a fixed pattern, so that the things we have learned about the past can be applied to predict what will happen in the future, and the things we learn about one place can be used to predict what we will find in other places. We can use this methodology to help us answer all sorts of questions, like “Where should I drill to find oil?” or “Will this drug alleviate the symptoms of AIDS?”

    Obviously, the methodology of science cannot answer every question, and for some situations, the underlying assumption breaks down. (The giving of the Torah, for example, was a singular event in human history, and therefore we cannot use the scientific method to learn anything about or from it.) But that is a reason to teach other methodologies, not a reason to redefine “science”.

  7. shmuel says:

    In public schools there is no need to teach ID in science class. What there is a need to teach is that evolutionary theory has numerous problems with it which make many question its cogency.

  8. Harry Maryles says:

    I read the article by Rabbi Shafran and pretty much agreed with what he had to say on the matter. But I disagreed with the conclusion in one sense. Intelligent Design which is a euphemism for God should not be part of a science course in a secular school. Science is the study of facts not beliefs. In that sense, I agree that Atheism does not belong in a classroom either. And many a scientist injects his atheism into his teaching. This DOES need to be countered but not in a science classroom. Evolution should be looked at as a possible process of the development of the species. The cause of that process whether it is complete randomness or guided by God is beyond the scope of science. For those interested, my blog, Emes Ve-Emunah, contains a more in depth exposition of my views.