Rabbi Jonathan Gewirtz – Follow the Science (Sort of)

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Operation Inspiration

 

When looking for catchy titles that will pique readers’ interest, I occasionally happen across a phrase that gets hackles up and makes people very emotional, one way or the other. I believe that after the impact of the phrase, “Follow the Science,” as used by the government of the United States in regard to the Coronavirus pandemic, this is probably one of those times.

While the idea of paying attention to scientific analysis is a good one, it is never going to be completely sound to do so for several reasons. Science is not an entity unto itself, like a god with power to whom one must listen, though there have been those who treat science with an almost divine reverence. What science actually does is look at empirical evidence, that which can be determined using our senses and testing abilities, and then creating “best guesses” based on that.

Sometimes this can be very precise, like when figuring out things like the combustion point of book paper (451 degrees Fahrenheit) or the hardness of a diamond. Other times, it can be more of a shot in the dark (no vaccine pun intended) and it’s the best estimation of the scientists what would happen under certain conditions. In general, science should be viewed as a guidebook, not a lawbook.

Some people say not to question the science, but then, isn’t that exactly how you DO science? It’s about asking and answering and guessing and testing. If you have a decision to make, you use whatever tools you have at your disposal, but you know it isn’t iron-clad. I mean, “science” says a steak that’s medium rare is dangerous, but who wants to eat a piece of meat that’s been burned into a hunk of rubber? Studies show that more people are hurt in car accidents than by walking, but will we stop traveling because the science tells us to? We must balance life with science and figure out the right thing to do.

Why all this science-bashing you ask? Well, it’s not so much that I don’t like science, as I don’t like people forgetting about where the science came from. The way things work is a result of Hashem’s creation and He must be in every equation. Even if you believe A will happen, B might happen, and that wouldn’t be unrealistic because Hashem is the unknown variable in everything.

In Koheles, Shlomo Hamelech says, “The race is not always to the swift, nor the battle to the strongest…” While it may be true, science will tell you that’s the way to bet. You can expect the fastest runner to win the race, but if something happens and he doesn’t, you should be prepared for that too.

What really got me think about this was the posuk in Bechukosai which says, “Five of you will chase a hundred [enemies] and a hundred of you will chase ten thousand…” Scientifically-speaking, the numbers don’t add up. First of all, five against one hundred isn’t a fair fight, and even if you say each Jew was mightier than 20 of the enemies, when you get 100 Jews chasing 10,000 that number increases exponentially with no logical reason. But guess what? We’re not bound by science because Hashem isn’t.

What the Torah here is telling us is that regardless of what the science says, if we follow Hashem, toiling in His words and keeping the Torah and mitzvos with enthusiasm, we can see successful outcomes that science might not have been predicted. We are above science because nature is a construct of Hashem and if He chooses to take us from it, He has every right and ability to do so.

Many people have experienced miracles, close-calls, and coincidences. There have been recoveries from illnesses that had no chance of happening, and never-fail treatments that did. When following the science, we must make sure to keep the Master of the Universe in the discussion, even when it goes against science. Nothing we see is with 100% clarity or positivity. Remember, we’re just spectators here, watching developments but not making things happen.

If the science says that Bris Mila is bad, for example, as many people have argued, the mitzvah there tells us not to listen. Hashem Who created the science also created the mitzvah, and He knows what He’s doing. When we “question the science” there, we’re not really questioning it because it doesn’t matter what science says. Hashem is in charge and that is what guides us.

If the science says a person must eat on Yom Kippur, they are supposed to eat. It isn’t because the science cannot be defied, but because the Torah says to preserve life. Despite the mitzvah to fast on Yom Kippur, for the sick person, Chazal have taught us his mitzvah is to eat. Not because the “science” says so, but because the Almighty, Who created the Universe, nature, and the scientific method, does.

In general, I’m not a fan of people being “absolutely sure” of most things. When you are bound to a position that negates any other possibilities, you tend to bend the facts to meet your opinion. The thought that our human perceptions could be infallible borders on heresy, as if we were as all-knowing as Hashem. Instead, I suggest we follow what we see, hear, and believe to be true, but always remain open to the possibility that there are some facts we just didn’t gather, and yes, sometimes we ought not to “follow the science” – but always follow Hashem.

 

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