I was unaware of the depth of charedi fear of and disdain for science until I recently began examining the controversy surrounding Natan Slifkin. Slifkin is a charedi Rabbi who wrote a series of books looking at the interplay between Judaism and biology. Slifkin made three primary of arguments: First, he argued that the evidence for evolution was overwhelmimg. Second, he argued that belief in evolution was not incompatible with Judaism. Third, he argued that the Rabbis of the Talmud could be wrong about science. For the charedim, the second two points apparently caused far more concern than the first. In 2005, many of the Gedolim joined to issue a ruling in which Slifkin was labeled a heretic. Possession and reading of his books was banned.
The charedi rejection of science goes far beyond simple opposition to evolution. For example, I was recently disturbed to learn from a conversation with Slifkin that some major charedi Rabbis believe in spontaneous generation of small rodents. I had been aware that such beliefs had survived until the early 1900s, but I was shocked to find out that many prominent charedi rabbis still believe spontaneous generation of small creatures. The charedi attitude towards science is in many ways connected to a deep worry of persecution. Moshe Sternbuch, the current chief Rabbi of the Edah Charedis, a prominent organization of Israeli charedim, stated that scientists say the world is old because "they want to refute the words of our Sages and undermine the faith that exists amongst the Jewish people. Their main concern is to try to shake the faith in G-d — which has been accepted by us generation after generation."
For another example, see these videos of Rabbi Aharon Schechter in which Schechter gets actively angry at the thought of people trying to investigate evolution, the age of the earth and related questions:
This attitude, one of perceived persecution and anger, seems to stem from two sources: First the charedi worldview is very wrapped up in the history of persecution against Jews. Thus, the charedim see any modern event in that light. Second, the charedi worldview is profoundly self-centered. They assume that essentially everyone cares about what they are doing. Thus, if scientists come to a conclusion that clashes with standard charedi beliefs, the charedi infer that the scientists are trying to target them. In this regard, comparison between the charedi leaders and the leaders of fundamentalist Christianity today is not favorable to the charedim. While many evangelical Christians and fundamentalist Christians reject much science, it is rare for their leaders to claim that scientists are trying specifically to destroy their religion.
However, the anti-science beliefs discussed here are not held by just the charedim. The modern Orthodox also have serious problems with much of science. Alexander Nussbaum has examined modern Orthodox attitudes towards science (see his article in Skeptic as well as Nussbaum's article "Creationism and Geocentrism Among Orthodox Jewish Scientists." in the January-April set of Reports of the National Center for Science Education). Nussbaum found that even among orthodox Jews attending secular colleges, a large fraction reject much of biology, astronomy, geology and other branches of science. About three quarters of the respondents when asked about the age of the Earth, said that it was less than 7000 years old. The vast majority (around 90%) believed that all land animals descend from animals on Noah's ark. Possibly most disturbingly, around a quarter of the students believed that evolution was not only false, but that scientists were deliberately concealing this fact.
Nussbaum also found that undergraduates majoring in scientific areas were less likely to accept many aspects of basic science. Nussbaum proposed that:
It seems that the science majors and degree holders — precisely because they were more likely to be exposed to evolution — were subject to additional community influences not to be “taken in” by the “heresy” they would hear, and were even less accepting of evolution. And individuals with a science background from that community have the added responsibility to use their knowledge and standing to promote religious doctrine in scientific matters.
Presumably the science majors would respond that they are more involved in science and so are more able to see the terrible problems with vast swaths of modern science.
While I had seen Nussbaum's work many years ago, I had generally assumed that something was wrong with his work. While these anti-science viewpoints were not unknown among the Orthodox students when I was an undergraduate at Yale, these views were not as popular as they appeared to be in Nussbaum's study. However, I'm now a graduate student interacting with students at Boston University. Here it seems that the profile of the Orthodox beliefs fits Nussbaum's data much better. Indeed, I recently found myself in a situation with six Orthodox students in the room and five out of the six believed in a literal global flood. When a conversation ensued, one student was unwilling to say whether he believed or not some of the more interesting claims in the Talmud such as the aforementioned spontaneous generation or the existence of the phoenix. That may have been in part due to the student not wanting to discuss the matter, but the overall reaction still agrees strongly with Nussbaum.
Why are otherwise moderate theists so willing to disregard large sections of modern understanding of the world? There are a variety of factors at play. However, one factor that is worth considering is the Orthodox attitude towards Talmudic rabbis, Talmud, and associated midrashic texts. While in some respects Jewish willingness to look at associated commentary or to interpret verses using Oral Law allows for moderation and incorporation of new knowledge. That willingness can also backfire. In particular, for many Orthodox Jews, statements made by Talmudic rabbis are by nature intrinsically infallible. Thus, instead of using the Oral Law as a way of reconciling science and religion, it is used to add additional statements that must be taken as literally true. whether they are about mice arising from mud, or birds burning themselves to regenerate for another life.
So far, this anti-scientific attitude does have some limits. I'm not aware of any Orthodox Jews (regardless of type) who believe in a flat earth. But geocentrism does certainly exist among Orthodox Jews. Most disturbingly, however, is that these anti-science views seem to be becoming more common rather than less in the Orthodox world, especially in the charedi world. The charedi world is not disconnected from the rest of the Orthodox world. If the charedi world becomes more extreme, it will likely pull the rest of the Orthodox world in the same direction.
If Modern Orthodox Judaism is to be taken seriously as a reasonable religion, able to survive in the modern world, then these trends need to be countered by responsible Orthodox leadership.