International Society for Science & Religion - Library Project

Judaism and Science: A Historical Introduction (Greenwood Guides to Science and Religion)

by Noah J. Efron

Introductory Essay by Geoffrey Cantor

This volume provides the reader with a unique overview of the historical interrelations between Judaism and science that is both informative and student-friendly. Efron begins by asking whether the Old Testament contains a viable view of the physical world. He then proceeds to demonstrate that, although there are a few passages that address such issues, it is not possible to reconstruct from the text the ancient Israelites’ world-view in adequate detail. However, the rabbis who compiled the Talmud during the first centuries of the Christian Era are shown to have displayed a wide range of attitudes towards scientific and medical knowledge that has also informed subsequent discussion.

A major focus of the book is the flowering of science and medicine among educated Jews during the medieval period, greatly aided by the creative cross-fertilization of ideas with Christians and Muslims, principally in the Iberian peninsula and Provence. Creative writers such as Abraham ibn Ezra, Maimonides, Nahmonides, and Gersonides initiated their individual responses to such issues as Aristotelianism and astrology, but collectively stressed the need for Jews to engage the sciences. They envisaged little conflict between science and Judaism.

Efron’s welcome chapter on the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries demonstrates that, although Jews were subject to considerable privations, such as the expulsions from the Iberian peninsula, nonetheless centres of scientific learning continued to flourish. For example, science was pursued in Prague – particularly at the court of Rudolf II – and in the medical school at the University of Padua, which, eschewing religious restrictions, attracted significant numbers of Jewish students.

Although Efron unfortunately pays little attention to the nineteenth century, his chapter on the twentieth century is highly informative. He discusses the extensive participation of Jews in American science and the important place accorded to science in Israel. First he charts the large number of second- and third-generation Jewish immigrants to America who achieved social advance through careers in science in tandem with the expansion of the university system. Although some universities discriminated against Jews, the modernist and meritocratic ethos of science was attractive to many Jews as a means of transcending their Jewish roots and moving into the wider American society, with the added bonus of providing opportunities for acquiring an international reputation.

Efron also offers insights into the important role that science has played in Israeli history. From the time of Theodor Herzl and the early Zionists it was believed that the future Jewish State would be dependent on science. Agricultural research centres and universities, such as the Haifa Technical Institute, were soon founded. Science and technology cohered well with Zionism’s progressivist values, and since its founding in 1948 Israel has been one of the most scientifically advanced countries.

In discussing Jewish participation in science Efron cautions against the assertions that Jews possess an innate ability to succeed in science or that there is a connection between science and the traditional dialectical method employed by students of Talmud. Instead he insists that the story of the Jewish engagement with science should be understood in historical terms that reflect the many different local contexts in which Jews have lived.