International Society for Science & Religion - Library Project

Jewish Faith and Modern Science: On the Death and Rebirth of Jewish Philosophy

by Norbert M. Samuelson

Introductory Essay by Geoffrey Cantor

This unusual and thought-provoking contribution to the literature on science and religion is the work of a leading Jewish philosopher who holds the Grossman Chair of Jewish Studies at Arizona State University. Samuelson’s central argument is that Jewish philosophy has rendered itself ineffective by failing to move beyond the medieval understanding of the universe and thereby ignoring developments in the sciences, especially aspects of modern science that pertain to religion. Moreover, Samuelson argues, if Jewish philosophy is to revive, it will require a radical reconfiguration drawing extensively on the sciences.

In the first half of the book Samuelson criticises modern Jewish thinking from many perspectives. One of the key issues underpinning his argument is that, in contrast to the Hellenistic period when Jewish intellectual culture was shaped by rabbis and their commentaries, scientists have now become the custodians of knowledge. A gulf has thus been created between religious and scientific thought resulting in a mismatch that renders much theology obsolete. For example, the traditional notion of divine providence is incompatible with the quantum theoretical view that individual events are governed by statistics. Likewise, the universe as described by quantum theory is devoid of moral values and thus stands in opposition to the purposive nature of God’s creation.

Among the other modern academic disciplines that Samuelson claims have not been adequately appreciated by Jewish philosophy are developments in logic, linguistics, and psychology, especially evolutionary psychology. He also offers thoughtful criticisms of the way Jewish thinkers have conceptualised the Jewish people and Jewish history. For example, Samuelson responds to the views of certain Jews and of anti-Semites who have both claimed that Jews constitute a distinct race. In contrast to their rather simplistic notions of race, Samuelson offers a sophisticated analysis in which he shows that there are important senses in which Jews can be described as a race yet that, in other respects, they are not a race. 

The second part contains some suggestions about how Jewish philosophy could be rescued from its present blind alley. Here Samuelson addresses three traditional areas of theology – creation, redemption, and revelation – focusing his analysis on a series of questions that demand discussion. For example, under the first of these three headings Samuelson asks “What is the relation of God to space-time, given that space and time are [according to relativity theory] inseparable?” [128] In discussing redemption, he argues the need to construct “a new affirmation of the reality of God” [165] and to rethink our “commitment to preserving human nature and restricting moral responsibility exclusively to human life forms” [180]. In the third section he raises a number of issues about the historical and archaeological evidence for events recorded in the Torah, and concludes by casting doubt upon its historical veracity.

Samuelson’s answers to these questions are always provocative and encourage the reader to appreciate the power of his arguments. Although he explicitly challenges Jewish philosophers to radically reframe their work in the light of modern science, Samuelson has identified a number of seminal issues that need to be addressed by thinkers and educators of all religious traditions.