As Jews we are in the year 5766. Our daily calendars are set to 2006, based on the birth of Jesus Christ. But if we were to go by geological time, the beginning of the world would have to go back at least 3.6 billion years.
The scientific universe is not the world of the Bible, created by the divine fiat––“And God said.” For the scientist, the universe evolved from a randomly conjoined combination of carbon, oxygen, and potassium molecules. According to Charles Darwin, you and I were not designed by divine election but by natural selection. Clearly, The Origin of the Species is not Bereshit. Yet, this distinction between Scripture and science has never been viewed in Judaism as a contradiction, but rather as a different way of understanding, of describing, of thinking about the world.
The Midrash Rabbah 3:7 refers to “previous time systems and pre-existent worlds.” The world was created and recreated. In his commentary on Genesis 1:1, the great 11th-century commentator Rashi insists that Genesis does not set out to give a complete account of creation. The verses with which the Torah begins, he explains, “tell us nothing at all about the chronological sequence of creation.”
Sometimes the rabbis even deferred to Gentile sources on matters pertaining to science. In considering a rabbinic debate on the calendar and the movement of the moon and stars, the Talmud concludes that the words of the Gentile sages are preferable to the words of the Jewish sages.” (Peshachium 94b). We follow the Gentile sages, Rabbi Rabi said, [because in matters of astronomy they are superior to us. Truth is truth whatever its origin.
Given this tradition of distinguishing between religion and science, the Jewish world was not shaken by Darwinism. In contrast, the Church fathers felt compelled to choose between the truth of Darwin or the truth of God’s testament—either/or.
So it was in past centuries as well.
Because of his teaching of the Copernican heliocentric theory, the Italian philosopher Giordno Bruno was declared a heretic and burned alive in 1600 by order of the Church. And Galileo (died 1642) was persecuted because of his teachings on astronomy. There is no parallel in Jewish history of such cases. The synagogue never produced a librorium prohititorum—an index of books that under severe penalty cannot be read or studied.
One of the great rabbinic enthusiasts of evolution, the first Chief Rabbi of Palestine, Abraham Isaac Kook, said, “Evolution sheds light on all the ways of God. All existence evolves and ascends. The doctrine of evolution that is presently gaining acceptance in the world has a greater affinity with the secret teachings of the Kabbalah than all other philosophies” (in Kook’s Lights of Holiness).
Our sages were not bound by the fundamentalist literalism that can reduce religion to absurdity. Take vayomer Elohim—“And God said, “Let there be light.” Read literally, it becomes laughable. If there was no one present in the unformed, void, and chaos of the universe, to whom was God speaking? The sages of the Talmud and the Midrash realized that the term “And God said” is repeated ten times in the biblical accounting of the creation of the universe––an emphasis meant to teach something other than a literal accounting of God’s repetitive method of communication. In all other cosmogonies of creation—Greek, Mesopotamian, Babylonian—the world is created by bloody warfare between titan gods, by collusions and conspiracies among Gaia and Uranus, Marduk and Tiamat. In the biblical view, the world did not come into being with wars between contending deities; the God of Israel created the world with words alone. So, too, we should learn to sustain the world with the word, not the sword. To this day, in our morning prayers one of the first prayers we recite is Baruch sheamar vhayah ha-olam, blessed is the one who spoke and there was a world.
What rescued Judaism from a rigid, fundamentalist literalism? The brilliant 19th-century talmudist Rabbi Naphtali Zvi Yehuda Berlin pointed to an answer in his commentary on Deuteronomy 32:44: ”And Moses came and spoke all the words of this song in the ears of the people.” According to Rabbi Berlin, shirah (song) refers to the Torah—that the whole Torah possesses the essential character of poetry, not literal prose. To comprehend Torah you have to understand symbols, parables, metaphors, and allegories. Torah is art, a spiritual interpretation of life, not a mechanical record of facts––more like a love sonnet than a legal contract.
Science is concerned with facts. The Torah is concerned with values. The Torah is concerned with “what ought to be.” Science is concerned with “what is.” Torah is morally driven. Science is morally neutral; it can instruct people how to build bombs or how to build hospitals. It tells you “how,” not “what for.” And because science is morally neutral it is morally malleable; it can be made to justify healing or greed, selflessness or selfishness. Science can tell us how to produce Penicillin or Zyclon B, to save life or to end life. That is why we who are guided by the moral precepts of Torah need to ask: To what end is this knowledge being gathered? To what end technology? Who will profit? How will it affect our society? Science needs the conscience of Torah.
When science is treated like Torah, we invite idolatry. Consider what some social scientists made out of Darwin’s description of nature as a wilderness in which only the fittest survive. The philosopher Herbert Spencer argued that Darwin’s description of the “survival of the fittest” should inform us on how to structure our society--political policy should emulate nature’s course. Spencer explained: “What happens to a sow when it has a runt in the litter? She eats it. What happens to a mutilated baby chick? The mother hen pecks it to death. What happens when wolves go on a hunt and one of them is wounded or maimed? The wolf pack abandons him. And what do we do in our society? We ignore Darwin. We do not follow the wisdom of nature. We do not allow the fittest to survive. Instead, contrary to the natural laws of nature, we build hospitals for the sick, asylums for imbeciles, [and] create a welfare society that drains our treasury. We institute poor laws, we support the incompetent [and] the impotent with welfare, we drain ourselves with taxes.” In short, Spencer concluded, contrary to nature, we support “the survival of the unfittest.”
Spencer religionized Darwin. This is not science; it is scientism, and is precisely such an illicit conversion of facts into values that Judaism rejects.
Contrary to social Darwinism, Judasim calls upon us to imitate God, not nature; to soften the coarseness, elevate the fallen, straighten the spine of the weak, remove the toxicity of the water, and engage in research to free those crippled with illness.
It is noteworthy that in the current debate regarding permitting the use of federal funds for medical research with stem cells taken from human embryos, contrary to the judgment of many Church leaders, rabbis across the board—Orthodox, Conservative, Reform, and Reconstructionist--all judge such therapy as a great mitzvah. The scientific use of stem cells genetically identical with the cells of the sick recipient holds out joyful promise for people living under the shadow of Alzheimer’s, liver failure, diabetes, spinal cord injuries, and more. Rare is a rabbi who would argue that such scientific interpretation runs counter to God’s will, that humans are playing God.
At the end of the movie Inherit the Wind, the camera focuses on two books, Darwin’s Origin of the Species and the Bible. The secular attorney Clarence Darrow places the two books side-by-side. It is a Jewish response. God is one and truth is one. But the purpose of these two books are different.
Consider two descriptions of the same event: A blind man is operated on by an internationally known ophthalmologist. The ophthalmologist focuses on the diagnosis, the detailed protocol, the physiology of the eye, the surgical instruments employed in the operation. It is the language of science–– exact, precise, detailed, literal.
The second description is that of the blind man who was given sight. He describes the operation in terms of excitement, exultation, and gratitude. He recounts with awe the first time he gazed upon his newborn child and the first time he beheld the rising of the sun.
Both descriptions refer to the same event. Which of them is true? Both are true.
Science is not Torah. Torah is not science.
* This document, or any portion thereof, may not be reproduced without the written permission of the author.