Do Not Debase Science: Don’t Call On It To Settle Your Ancient, Provincial, Medieval Disputes

Richard Feynman:

One day, two or three of the young rabbis came to me and said, “We realize that we can’t study to be rabbis in the modern world without knowing something about science, so we’d like to ask you some questions.”
Of course there are thousands of places to find out about science, and Columbia University was right near there, but I wanted to know what kinds of questions they were interested in.
They said, “Well, for instance, is electricity fire?”
“No,” I said, “but… what is the problem?”
They said, “In the Talmud it says you’re not supposed to make fire on a Saturday, so our question is, can we use electrical things on Saturdays?”
I was shocked. They weren’t interested in science at all! The only way science was influencing their lives was so they might be able to interpret better the Talmud! They weren’t interested in the world outside, in natural phenomena; they were only interested in resolving some question brought up in the Talmud.

Finally I tried to assure the rabbinical students that the electrical spark that was bothering them when they pushed the elevator buttons was not fire. I said, “Electricity is not fire. It’s not a chemical process, as fire is.”
“Oh?” they said.
“Of course, there’s electricity in amongst the atoms in a fire.”
“Aha!” they said.
“And in every other phenomenon that occurs in the world.”
I even proposed a practical solution for eliminating the spark.
“If that’s what’s bothering you, you can put a condensor across the switch, so the electricity will go on and off without any spark whatsoever- anywhere.” But for some reason, they didn’t like that idea either.
It really was a disappointment. Here they are, slowly coming to life, only to better interpret the Talmud. Imagine! In modern times like this, guys are studying to go into society and do something- to be a rabbi- and the only way they think that science might be interesting is because their ancient, provincial, medieval problems are being confounded slightly by some new phenomena…
They didn’t understand technology; they didn’t understand their time.


  1. Little children do this. They look for a loophole of any sort to get what they want, or to get out of an obligation, without ever considering the original purpose of the rule, which is often a commonsense intent that no one would follow if you relied on their common sense.

    Bedtime is because you need enough sleep to get through the next day, kids. You are supposed to rest on the Sabbath because too much work will wear you out. Making fire was once a lot of work. Now it’s not, but people get caught up in the literal and lose the common sense.

  2. If only people would stop following laws made specifically to suit archaic societies, the world would be a much better place.

    The stupid, it BURNS

  3. People and governments have utilized science to develop biological weapons, flamethrowers, the atom bomb, etc., and this guy is mad that two orthodox Jews are utilizing it to interpret the Talmud? Sounds to me like this guy needs to get his priorities straightened out.

    The bottom line is science is always going to be used by people to progress their own agendas. And frankly, two Jews concerned with whether they can use electricity on the Sabbath is the least of our problems.

  4. And religion is very useful in finding reasons to use them.

    That statement is a bit unfounded, as no major war since the 18th Century has had religion as the primary motivating factor.

  5. Ben,

    You’re entire argument is unfounded. You’re complaining about an anecdote that Feynman is sharing about his college years as an entire argument?

    Sounds to me like you need to do some research about “this guy”. (FYI Feynman is one of the most thought out and personable physicists of all time. Weird that you’re complaining about one story of him)

  6. I’m not doubting his accomplishments by any means, and you’re right, I don’t know much about him (other than his role in the Manhattan project).

    I just feel that in the general scheme of things, how Orthodox Jews use science to support their own beliefs (whether “archaic” or not) in their own communities seems of minimal critical concern, especially when compared to how nations, the military industry, etc. utilize science.

    And for all I know, Feynman DID discuss these things, and I very well might agree with him, but my critique is on this anecdote, not his complete body of work.

    For me, each person has the natural prerogative to live as they wish and believe what they want, as long as it doesn’t infringe on the rights of others to do the same. Are we to criticize the the Amish community as well for living “behind the times”?

  7. Ben,

    Well said. It seemed that you were taking a simple story that he was talking about (and I believe it’s from his wonderful book, Surely You’re Joking Mr. Feynman) and then making an argument that he was trivializing more important issues.

    Of course, one could say that he was discussing the problem of all religion that it has nothing to do with logic and thought and everything to do with tradition and he was using this as a small example.

    But that aside, I have to take issue with this.

    For me, each person has the natural prerogative to live as they wish and believe what they want, as long as it doesn’t infringe on the rights of others to do the same.

    About two posts below this, Chris has linked to an orthodox Jewish couple that is suing another family for having motion detecting lights which they believe they are not allowed to trip because of their superstition. So it’s not others attacking them for their beliefs, but they’re attacking others. I’m assuming this is why Chris posted this poignant anecdote by one of the most important scientists of our time.

  8. Yes, I read that article a few days ago. I assure you I think it is as ridiculous as you do. Actually, the difference between this story and the Feynman’s supports my previous statement, insofar as the Orthodox couple is infringing upon the rights of others, while the Rabbis-in-training are not (at least to my knowledge).

    Also, I’m not sure what you mean by the “logic and thought” absent in religion. If by this you mean logic as it applies to the scientific process, than I agree. But every system of human thought, whether biology, philosophy, theology, architecture, economics, etc. each has its own exclusive architecture of rules and conventions. In short, there is not one system of logic that can explain all modes of human thought.

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