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Friday, March 8, 2013

Judaism and the War on Science

No stream of Judaism opposes science research and teaching. Not even the most traditional rabbis would say, as did United States Representative Paul Broun, that evolution and embryology are “lies straight from the pit of hell.”

Rep. Broun represents a district in Georgia. He’s not an uneducated simpleton: he holds an M.D. degree from the Medical College of Georgia. He ran unopposed for reelection in 2012—there were 4,000 write-in votes for Charles Darwin—and plans to run for the Senate in 2014.

To be clear, there are rabbis who speak against evolution, including Rabbi Yisroel Lau, the Chief Ashkenazi Rabbi of Israel. Their view, however, is a minority opinion even among Orthodox rabbis. Most accept all of modern science even if it appears to conflict with the Torah.

One reason they can do so is that we have believed for centuries that not everything in the Hebrew Scriptures needs to be taken literally. The opposition to overly literal interpretations dates back at least to the work of Rabbi Moshe ben Maimon (called Maimonides or the Rambam) in the twelfth century.

Nevertheless, not all Jewish day schools teach science adequately. There is no problem in day schools affiliated with Reform, Conservative, or modern Orthodox Judaism, but some of the ultra-Orthodox day schools teach little or no science.

It’s also a problem in Israel, where a parallel system of “religious” schools receives government funding. In 2010, university students protested the funding, and one of the issues was the absence of science in the curricula of those schools.

The case helps us to understand why some ultra-Orthodox schools in the United States teach so little science. According to Noah Efron, a professor at Bar Ilan University, they don’t believe that science is wrong. They just believe that it’s unnecessary.

Some of the Jewish day schools in America that don’t teach much science don’t teach much of any secular subject. In yeshivot, all secular subjects are typically lumped together as “english” (not capitalized) and tend to be considered unimportant even if sufficient time (at least three hours per day) is allocated for them. Some schools, however, teach much less than that, as little as four hours per week and perhaps none after the eighth grade. 

These schools are failing to meet the New York State requirements, but enforcement is weak. It falls to the local public schools to monitor secular education in private and religious schools. In New York City and Rockland County, both lack of resources and fear of political reprisals make that ineffective.

It’s no wonder that Kiryas Joel, in Rockland County, has the highest poverty rate in New York. And it can’t be good for any of us if significant numbers of Jews grow up without secular education.

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