«Jewish Observer»
March 2002
5762 Nisan

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Unfortunately, we are all mortal. Therefore, it is not surprising that in their declining years when people are too weak to pursue pleasures (success, money, sex, alcohol, etc.) they often turn to religious texts in order to find the answer to the question about the sense of life (THEIR LIFE). When the answer is found there comes an outburst of emotions - people haven't wasted their lifetime, they have not suffered or hoped in vain. At this moment people often undergo strange transformations: an atheist all of a sudden stands frequenting a synagogue / church / mosque (i.e. "a temple"), a physicist gives lectures on God's mercy, a mathematician unites a treatise on the Talmud, trying to prove that the methods of thinking of learned Talmudists are similar to the methods of modern science. The desire of some "scientists-believers" to synthesize holy texts and the "fruit" of their professional activities is quite understandable. Yet, questions suggest themselves: What is the Talmudic thinking? And what are the methods of modern science?

To begin with, let us clarify what is the Talmud. Strictly speaking the Talmud is the second after Tonakhah most important monumental collection of texts that are sacred for every Jew. We may say that it consists of the Mishnah, the Gem and rabbinical commentaries on them added later.

Some researches point out that the Talmud is "basically incomplete" and ahistorical. No, of course, nobody doubts the fact that the Talmud is complete as a text - it was completed as early as in the V century. It is just considered that "...every day and every hour opens up in it (The Talmud) new themes and gives rise to new views" (8, 244). In other words, the Talmud is a kind of matrix that as a text is open to new interpretations. We would like to point out an important thing. Talmudists did not look for the Truth (since it was given!) - they - developed halakha using special rules and methods. In their turn, the Talmudists' decisions were equaled to commandments. Yet, we should bear in mind that any decision as well as any exegesis has to be consistent to this or that degree with religious doctrines. If they are not, they are nothing but heresy. This is typical of any religion. Even in spite of its dynamic character Talmudic thinking cannot IN PRINCIPLE, go beyond its obvious limitations (of course, for a disinterested observer). And what about "science"?

Not so long ago scientists believed in "rational methods" based on "firm" and "unchangeable" principles that guided research (in this aspect religious and scientific doctrines are very much alike!). But the history of science has shown that the above-mentioned "methods" often proved wrong when they encountered real research results. Sooner or later any norm has been or may be replaced by another norm due to certain circumstances. The world is diverse, it can be seen and described in different ways. Once one thinker said, "here are no facts - there are interpretations". The so called "pure facts" or "objective truths" are myths, they are always based on one or another vision of the world. And this is normal. Moreover, it is important for scientific progress. As Paul Feyerabend, the father of the "anarchic theory of knowledge", said, "ANYTHING GOES" in science. In other words, any method can be used to prove certain truths (it reminds me of the painfully familiar saying "The aim justifies the means"). In their time the Copernican revolution or the advances of the contemporary atomic theory became firmly established because some scientists decided NOT TO LIMIT themselves by methodological norms or because such norms were BROKEN unconsciously. What if learned Talmudists attempted to free themselves of the norms of Judaism. A "scandal"! Although there have been precedents. But were the liberated thinkers considered Talmudists by their fellow-tribesmen?

The thinking of some contemporary scientists to lay "the scientific foundation" for holy texts (as if science is a greater authority for the Jews than the Torah or the Talmud) has a psychological explanation. It is even useful from the point of view of enlarging the vocabulary of ordinary citizens. But from the point of view of the Jewish tradition such a task, at the minimum, is ill-grounded.

Strictly speaking, the talks about "the scientific validity" are a symptom of the inferiority complex some Jews have. Such talks would be justified, if modern science really posed a menace to Jewish religious doctrines (let us remember that Jewish theology appeared just when Judaism had to preserve its identity in face of Pagan philosophy and the growing influence of Christianity), but we hope that the era of militant atheism is over ... No religious thinking (Talmudic thinking is not an exception), no matter how progressive and non-dogmatic it is, can doubt the foundation of its own religion. Religion and skepticism are mutually exclusive notions. But TRULY SCIENTIFIC RESEARCH allows asking any questions and suggesting any theories. Any scientific theory is a hypothesis that has been partially confirmed. Verification may prove it false any moment. No scientific "truth" is protected from such a danger. Even basic statements are relative as there always exists a potential opportunity of reinterpreting them completely in a new context. "Cognition is a growing ocean of contradictory alternatives where many separate theories, fairy tales or myths are part of one entity, stimulating one another for more elaborate development; thanks to this competitive process they all contribute to the development of our consciousness" (7, 162). These words of Feyerabend could belong to learned Talmudists. But is this a solid enough basis for concluding that the methodology of contemporary science and the character of Talmudic thinking are similar?

On the other hand, maybe, our image of contemporary science is false? Maybe, E.Mah was right when he wrote at the beginning of the XX century that science had turned into a church? And what if it is T.Kun who is right and the methods, used in practice by scientists are a very long way from the ideal of self-criticism, realized through systematic verifications; science uses every opportunity to evade contradictions, shuffling and reinterpreting contradictory "facts" indefinitely; and the so-called scientific paradigm is a lens through which every observation is let into the world? In this case we can agree with Professor Steinzalts, "...the Talmud and modern science have many similar features"... Who knows, - everything is permissible!


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