Science and religion have always been contentious dance partners. For thousands of years each has tried to grasp at the truth of reality, often stepping on the toes of the other. As the dance sways through history, each partner has learned slowly how to lead and be led by the other. From Aristotle’s first foray into the experience of the natural world, to Copernicus’s conclusions that the earth itself is hurtling through the universe, each built his ideas upon the idea that as the world unfolds before us, it can be understood just for what it is – and nothing more. Theologians like Fuerbach, Tillich, Heschel and others, take the lead from science and our natural experiences of our lives and argue that it is through our experience, not despite it, that we can come to inuit there is more to existence than forces such as gravity and friction. What of wonder and the sublime? What of love and fear? What of meaning, culture and purpose? As in any great dance where it appears as though a partner is moving backward while another is pushing forward, you might assume that this is a ritualized fight for dominance, but if you see the whole pattern of intimacy, the back and forth and the breath of the dancers upon each other’s necks, something else emerges – a partnership that waltzes towards truth.
This is never more clear to me than in this week’s double Torah portion, Tazria-Metzora. In this section of Leviticus the priest who is endowed with the authority of the community confronts the viscera of the failing human body. “When a person has a swelling, rash or discoloration of their skin, and it develops into a scaly infection on their body, it shall be reported to Aaron or one of the priests.” (Lev. 13:2) The priest makes an examination of the wound, quarantines the sick, and then facilitates their reintegration into the community. (Lev. 14:1)
In this time of pandemic these texts are particularly poignant. It is so easy to look upon these ancient words and think they are primitive and naive. In the dance between religion and science, where religion has gone wrong in the dance is when too much is freighted onto the natural world. The rabbis of the tradition did indeed overstep, looking at the phenomena of discoloration; many rabbis have concluded that the physical sickness is a punishment for the sin of slanderous speech, famously writing, “By speaking malicious speech he separated between husband and wife and between one person and another; therefore he is punished with leprosy.” (T.B. Arakhin 16b) While there are metaphoric parallels between the viral nature of a disease and that of false rumors, religion, including my own, is wrong to associate sickness with punishment. What we know now because of science is that sickness just happens; it is part of the consequence of living in a world with finitude where things like viruses and bacteria bump into living tissue. The truth we grasp here is that illness is not your fault and it’s not God’s fault. There must be another path forward.
Where science has overstepped is when the information gleaned from the natural world through experimentation undervalues the creative and expressive processes set forth within us. Just because a disease exists, does that mean it must be cured? On what basis can a scientist say that we have a greater right to exist than a virus or bacteria? There is something deeper within life that affords value to the experience of living and flourishing. Science describes only one facet of life. Just ask a loved one with a family member in the hospital. Is it enough that the body breathes and the heart beats to consider extraordinary measures to save a person? The quality of one’s life matters, both their past life, their present, and their future. Science can give us data, but it cannot give us value.
When you take a step back and focus not on each other, these partners pushing and pulling across the floor, you see that we need both expressions of life to complete the dance. The priest in the Torah does not judge the sick person, but only responds to them by remedying them, and bringing them back in. There is no trace of judgement, only a response in love. It is in this very book, Leviticus, that the Torah commands us to preserve life. “These are the mitzvot which one shall do and live by them,” to which the Rabbis add: “and not die by them.” (Lev.18:5, Rashi ad locum) Forming the maxim of pikuach nefesh or saving a soul, a command so strong that it exempts those helping others from all other commandments. The value for preserving life, for healing others is not found in simple data collection. It is derived from the spirit, a sense of wonder and a duty to morality.
We need both science and spirit. Science gives us the information of what is; religion gives us the values of what to do with what is. How tepid a life would be, if music were just math, and dance just the choreographed movements of muscle and sinew. Just ask a dancer what the steps are to a dance and they can tell you what moves to make on which beat. Then ask them what the experience of dancing is like and watch as their soul takes flight.
Stay safe, stay home, stay loving.