The Study of Nature
By Nachum Danzig
As members of a scientifically educated society, we must ask ourselves the question: What theological basis should we use to relate to the natural world? Can we derive truths about the Torah and G-d from scientific study of nature or is science at best irrelevant to our understanding of G-d or at worst is science misleading?
The central event of Sefer Shmot, it is safe to say, is the Exodus from Egypt. For many rishonim the miraculous character of the Exodus demonstrates that G-d controls nature and is free to act as He wishes even in contradiction to nature. From this we learn that G-d governs the world and has not abandoned it to chance as the non-believer claims, “G-d has forsaken the land.” Ezekiel 8:12. For these rishonim the miracles of the Exodus prove
G-d’s existence and providence.
Such authorities as Yahudah Halevi in Sefer Hakuzari, (1) R”an in his drashot, (2) Hasdai Crescas and Ramban all derive this fundamental principle of hashgacha pratit, G-d’s individual providence, from the Exodus. For example Hasdai Crescas writes in his introduction to Ohr Hashem:
” ‘I am the Lord your G-d…’ Behold, the word “G-d” (power) [elohut] means that He is free to act
on all existence. And according to this ‘…who took you out of Egypt.’ is a proof to this belief.
That is, that from here we derive that G-d is
free to act as he pleases, and all of creation is in his hand as clay in the hand of the potter.” (3)
By witnessing a miracle, we discover the true nature of G-d, and that is, that he is able to act with complete freedom and is not
bound by any rules, not even the rules of nature.
Ramban goes even further by extrapolating from the open miracles of Exodus that, in fact, all the minor events of life are also directly the result of G-d’s will and do not merely follow laws of nature. Thus, open miracles show G-d’s constant hand in human existence and His presence in the every facet and event in the Universe. Ramban does not hold that G-d set up the laws of nature to govern the world, but, in fact, every seemingly natural event in the world is a unique desire of G-d. A blade of grass does not grow if G-d does not explicitly will it. The seemingly natural events of the world are in reality purely the result of
the will of G-d in every instance. Every natural occurrence is in reality what the Ramban calls a ‘hidden miracle’.
“And from the great and well-known miracles a man comes to admit to hidden miracles which are the foundation of the whole Torah. A person has no portion in the Torah of Moshe Rabeinu unless he believes that all our matters and
circumstances are miracles and they do not follow nature or the general custom of the world …rather, if one does mitzvot he will succeed due to the reward he merits …” (4)
If G-d sometimes wills to contravene nature’s supposed laws, then there must also be a will not to contravene them when events follow natural law. Thus, the Exodus is the proof that ultimately, all the events of man are directly under Divine providence and their appearance to follow natural laws is merely an illusion.
Opposition to this opinion is found chiefly in Rambam’s writings. In Hilchot Yesodei Hatorah he writes that we do not
believe in Moshe because of the miracles wrought though his hands. Rather we believe in Moshe's authenticity only because the Jewish
people experienced prophecy themselves along with Moshe at Sinai. (5)
Except for the miraculous events of the Sinaitic revelation which did prove Moshe's status as a prophet,
Rambam does not seem to see in miracles any proof to G-d’s existence or providence and
does not derive any theological principles from them.
Instead, he sees the miracles in a purely pragmatic light. The miracles only occurred
to help the Jewish people out of difficulties.
Going one step further, the Rambam believes that an important way to understanding G-d is through the
scientific study of the nature order:
“I have already let you know that there exists nothing except G-d, may He be exalted, and this existent world and that there is no possible inference proving His existence, may He be exalted, except those deriving from this existent [the Universe] taken as a whole and from its details. Accordingly, it necessarily behooves one to consider this existent as it is and to derive premises from what is perceived in nature. For this reason it follows that you should know its perceptible form and nature, and then it will be possible to make an inference from it [the Universe] with regard to what is other than it [G-d].” (6)
Rambam not only considers natural laws as real, but as the basis for understanding G-d. Through the study of nature we come to a better understanding of G-d and come closer to Him. Nature is an expression of G-d, thus natural science is the “Divine Science”. If anything is misleading, it is miracles for they seem to deny the consistency of the Divinely ordained natural laws.
Miracles seem to show change and inconsistency in G-d Himself. In order to maintain the immutability of G-d and his will and his natural
laws, Rambam resorts to postulating that miracles were pre-programmed into nature from the beginning of creation,
and actually do not represent any change in G-d's will since the miracles were always destined to occur.
Miracles also follow rules.(6.1)
The Babylonian Talmud (Sanhedrin 91b) brings and interesting anecdote involving Rabbi Yehuda HaNasi and Antoninus (probably Marcus
Aurelius Antoninus Augustus) which can serve as a support to the Rambam. Antoninus asks Rebbi 'Why does the sun rise in the
east and set in the west (Rashi: Let it set again in the east!)? To this Rabbi answers 'So that it might give homage
(by bowing down) to its creator
(who resides in the west). Not settling for this answer, Antoninus persists, "Let it bow down right at midday
(Rashi: Just as people bow down to a king when they are still far from the king)? Rebbi explains that were it to
do that it would cause problems for laborers and travelers who would be caught off guard by the sudden darkness at midday.
It is better that it should gradually get darker so the workers and travelers will know when to prepare for night.
This story illustrates an important concept. G-d could have created a world lacking predictability, a
world where one moment the sun is high in the sky and the next moment it has already set and darkness has enveloped the land.
But this world would be a difficult one to live in. G-d wants man to be able to look at the world around him
and to know when it will get dark, or for that matter we could add, when will the sun rise, when will winter arrive and
all sorts of other facts about nature that follow natural laws and can therefore be predicted.
Had G-d created a world where events occurred randomly, man would not be able to learn from nature.
But G-d created a world of order so that man may learn from that order.
Natural science is, according to the Rambam, the avenue for the expression of G-d’s providence. It is through
nature that we may see G-d at work. G-d directs nature by setting into motion a series of natural causes.
For example, by saying G-d causes the snow to fall on Mount Hermon, we do not
deny the natural character of this event, we only assert
that ultimately G-d is the driving force behind nature.
This idea is central to Rambam’s conception of providence:
"As regards the immediate causes of things produced… the prophets omitted them and ascribed the production
directly to G-d and use such phrases as G-d has done it. … According to this hypothesis and theory accepted, it is G-d that gave …natural properties to everything… it can consequently be said regarding everything which is produced by any of
these causes, that G-d commanded that it should be made, or said that it should be so." (7)
We have seen that both Ramban and Rambam learn about G-d from the physical world. Ramban learns from the exceptions to the rules of nature that there is no natural law and only G-d’s volition. Rambam learns from G-d’s adherence to natural law that natural science is a Divine science. Ramban sees the seemingly natural order of the world as an illusion which may mislead us about G-d. In truth, he posits, all events are the result of the direct and individual will of G-d.
On the other hand, Rambam sees the natural order as the direct expression of the Divine will.
Through scientific study of nature, we come to a deeper awareness of G-d since it is His laws we are studying.
Perhaps the Rambam would look at the truly impressive events of everyday life, like the birth of a child and say, “
Is there any better proof of
G-d’s existence and providence than this?” Thus,
Rambam has a deep appreciation for the world around him. It is the expression of G-d.
According to Rambam, if the Exodus does not teach us about G-d's providence over man, what does it teach us?
In two places Rambam, quoting Sifra, (8) states that the Exodus obliges us to follow the Law of the Torah.
In Mishneh Torah, (9) and similarly in Sefer HaMitzvot, (10) Rambam writes:
“Any one who rejects the laws of ‘fair weights’ it is as if he rejects the Exodus from Egypt, for it is the
origin of all mitzvot. Anyone who accepts the laws of ‘fair weights’ admits to the Exodus from Egypt for it is the source
of all the commandments.”
The wonders and miracles of the Exodus show G-d's special concern for the Jewish people and that He will even subvert his own Natural Laws for our sake. Gratitude obliges us to follow his Commandments.
Nachum Danzig is a JCT alumnus and teaches in the
one-year overseas program for English speakers
1. HaKuzari 1:83.
2. Derashot HaRan I s.v.Ukhemo Shehayah (p.19 in Feldman Ed.).
3. Ohr Hashem, Shlomo Fischer Ed., p. 11.
4. Ramban, End of Shemot 13:16.
5. Mishneh Torah Laws of the Foundations of the Torah 8.
6. The Guide of the Perplexed, 1:71, End, S. Pines Ed.
6.1. Rambam's Introduction to Pirke Avot, Chapter 8
7. Op.Cit. 2:48, End.
8. Sifra, Kedoshim chap. 8:10.
9. Mishneh Torah, Laws of Stealing.. 7:12.
10. Sefer Hamitzvot, pos. 208.