This past Saturday, April 22nd, two worldwide conversations happened simultaneously. In honor of Earth Day, tens of thousands of people gathered in over 500 cities world-wide to March for Science. A sampling of the best signs according to Slate and others includes: “Science is Real, Denial is Deadly”, “I Can’t Believe I’m Marching for Facts”, and “Got the Plague? Me Neither. Thanks Science.”
While the crowds marched, Jews all over the globe also read Parashat Shemini – a section of Leviticus that some would say clashes with our contemporary sensibilities. Here is a sample of the Biblical material:
These are the living things which you may eat among all the beasts that are on the earth: Whatever parts the hoof and is cloven-footed and chews its cud among the animals you may eat. … the swine, which parts the hoof and is cloven-footed but does not chew the cud, it is unclean to you… anything in the seas or the rivers that has not fins and scales, of the swarming creatures in the waters … is an abomination to you… and these shall not be eaten, they are an abomination: the eagle, the vulture, the osprey… the hoopoe and the bat… (Leviticus 11:1-4, 7-10, 13-19.)
Reading Leviticus with an awareness of the other global conversation, this list becomes more than a bunch of arbitrary rules; instead it presents a snapshot of known species 2500 years ago; an early classification system. In a word — science. (A primitive and limited sort of science to be sure, but still, science). And yet, if we read the Levitical list as if it is meant to replace or compete with a modern scientific treatise on bio-diversity, we miss the point entirely.
Thinkers often oppose “science” and “religion” as if the two are in some inherent cosmic struggle. One cannot “believe in the Bible” and “accept the truth of science” at the same time. But to me that seems a deeply false dichotomy; a mistake which misunderstands both science and religion.
Religion and science may both seek the Truth in some sense, but they explore different arenas of human inquiry.
Science can help us to understand the microscopic makeup of our bodies and the cosmic movements of the stars. Science gives us reliable, evidence-based descriptions of our world that we can apply to build bridges and subways, engines and weapons, computers and medicines. Ignoring, denying or undermining scientific inquiry and scientific facts is foolish at best, and gravely reckless as a basis for public policy. I cannot believe that in 2017 there is a need to defend the very institution of truth and evidence based science but here we are. Onward marchers world-wide!
And yet, science is not all inherently good.
In fact, “good” is a category poorly captured by the scientific approach. Morality in general is not going to be “discovered” as a principle of the physical universe. We may be able to use social sciences to describe and predict human behavior, but that is different than the fundamental judgment call of whether or not a person’s actions are “good.”
This is where the Torah comes in. From the very beginning of Genesis, “goodness” is a basic building block of creation. Check out day three (Gen 1:9-13). This is not a truth claim about how long evolution unfolded in order to bring forth plants on the face of the earth. It’s a poetic description in an ancient text about a time before humanity. And it introduces something extremely significant into the mix. “God saw that it was good.” Goodness. A moral dimension. A value judgment.
Science by itself lacks this key ingredient.
Science by itself can make medicines. Science by itself can make weapons capable of destroying all life on the planet. Science is a tool, maybe the most powerful tool we have. We human beings are the ones wielding that tool. And we must discern together how to wield it for the good.
So what does Leviticus say about learning to use our science for the good?
Remember that ancient taxonomy of species and which ones we can eat? Without getting caught up in the details, I want to point out one overarching takeaway in the moral dimension.
Whatever animals make it to whatever lists, the whole system teaches us that there are rules about how human beings are meant to relate to the creatures of the earth. We are not allowed to consume endlessly, whatever we want, whenever we want. There is a moral dimension not only to how human beings treat each other, but also to how we relate to our planet and our fellow creatures.
Do we have the power to eat pigs and shrimp and bats and vultures and bugs? Well, some of us do. But Should we? That’s the question the Bible introduces. Should we? What Should we do or not do in order to maintain the “goodness” woven deep into the fabric of our world? We need more than science to answer this question.
Kohelet Rabbah, an ancient rabbinic text, tells a story of the first human being. After creating Adam in the Garden of Eden, God takes him on a walk and says, “See how good are My works… think about this. Do not destroy or corrupt my world, for if you destroy it, there is no one to come after you to set it right.”
Or as the organizers of the March for Science put it, “There is no “Planet B.”
As we humans continue to develop the gifts of both the intellect and the soul, may we be blessed with a deepening understanding of our world and a strong moral sensibility. May we be blessed to pursue not only what is possible, but also what is right. May our scientific advances help us to heal what we have damaged and protect what is precious, beautiful and good. And may we and our leaders also develop in the moral dimension, cultivating the integrity, courage, and love for future generations that it will take to face inconvenient scientific truths and place people and planet ahead of short term profit.