Rabbi Prof. Aryeh Frimer: Using Science to Plumb the Depths of Torah

“I’d rather live with a good question than a bad answer” is a popular maxim widely attributed by Google to Aryeh Frimer, the Ethel and David Resnick Professor of Active Oxygen Chemistry and former Chemistry Department chairman at Bar-Ilan, though Elie Wiesel actually said it—paraphrasing Maimonides.  Nevertheless, the quote embodies a guiding principle in Professor Frimer’s work.  He is a scientist and a rabbi who tries to understand the universe from the perspective of both.

Also a faculty member at the Nano Medicine Center of the Institute of Nanotechnology and Advanced Materials (BINA), Prof. Frimer completed his PhD at Harvard and became a post-doctoral fellow at the Weizmann Institute of Science before joining Bar-Ilan in 1975.  Later on, he served as a Senior Research Fellow at NASA’s Glenn Research Center in Ohio.  He has published over 130 scientific articles, reviews, and books on active oxygen chemistry, a field focusing on ways of activating oxygen to react quickly.

In his rabbinic life, Rabbi Frimer has lectured for officer training courses of the IDF, and internationally on various aspects of Jewish tradition and Halakhah, most notably on Religious Zionism and the status of women in Jewish Law.

“I have always had a double love: religious and secular studies,” says Rabbi Prof. Frimer, for whom these seemingly disparate realms fit together seamlessly. He still takes his cue from Maimonides, who also said that any Jew who has an opportunity to study science should do so, he employs one to elucidate the other. 

“Maimonides believed that science fosters a profound appreciation for the wonders of God’s universe.  I feel that intimately.  I find that my scientific training gives me a sense of wonder about the universe that the average person lacks, and that it allows me to understand Torah on a level that other people don’t,” he says. 

However, the Torah is not a science book, he is quick to point out.  “Science takes into consideration only those things that are measurable, and God is not measurable.”  Rather, he says the Torah teaches that God works as much as possible within the rules of Nature, which He created. This gives wide berth to understanding miracles and other events in the Bible that may not seem understandable.

Still, there are many questions that need answers.

“But, that’s okay,” he says.  “The Passover Hagaddah teaches us that Judaism is about asking the questions.  It also teaches us to live with questions in the absence of good answers.  And, as Elie Wiesel put it, I’d rather live with a good question than a bad answer.”

For a lecture by Prof. Frimer about scientific insights into the Torah click here.
For more on Rabbi Prof. Frimer click here.