Why evolution is not our hot button issue

Why evolution is not our hot button issue

The anti-evolutionists are at it again and this time, they think they have come up with a winning strategy. Rather than teach alternative theories (creationism or intelligent design, for example), they are now pushing for new laws that would force schools to teach "the scientific strengths and weaknesses of Darwinian theory."

Bills to do just that are in various stages of development — one may say they are evolving — in Alabama, Florida, Louisiana, Michigan, Missouri, and South Carolina.

In Texas, the "strength and weaknesses" language actually has been on the books for more than ‘0 years, but only now may be put into force. The state board of education, seven of whose 15 members believe in intelligent design, is spending the next month trying to figure out how. If it succeeds in finding a way that will pass muster with the courts, it will be a victory for fundamentalist Christians who equate teaching the science of creation with promoting a godless society by undermining the Bible’s authority.

One would think that Jewish schools would be the primary battleground for defending God’s word against the "heresies" of godless science, since Genesis 1, the first chapter of Bereisheet, was a Jewish text long before it was a Christian one. Yet this is not the case. In some yeshivot, the issue is simply irrelevant; in other yeshivot and in day schools, the attitude is that since God created science, there can be no conflict.

Behind this attitude exists another one that would drive fundamentalist Christians up a wall: Judaism has never been wedded to the literalness of every word in the Torah. "The Shechina [the Spirit of the Lord] never descended to earth, nor did Moses or Elijah ever ascend to heaven [even though it is so stated in the Bible]," declares Rabbi Yosi in the Babylonian Talmud tractate Sukkah 5a.

Do not misunderstand me: We do accept the literal truth of what the Torah says about creation and other matters; it is the words and images the Torah uses to express that truth that is in doubt. In other words, using creation as an example, while we accept that God created the world in six days, we also accept the fact that we do not understand what "day" means or what is actually meant by "created."

We also accept the fact that there are concepts that go beyond human understanding and that the Torah, which is meant to be a document for humans to understand, had to express those concepts in a way that we could understand.

The great commentator Maimonides, writing 1,000 years after Rabbi Yosi’s declaration, considered belief in the literalness of the words to be a form of heresy.

Particularly irksome to the Rambam, as Maimonides is also known, was the insistence of some that God has a physical form merely because the Torah talks of His pointing fingers and outstretched arms and of His speaking, presumably through a mouth. To the Rambam, these are obvious metaphors. He codifies this in his Mishnah Torah: The Laws of the Fundamentals of the Torah 1:7, where he states as a positive commandment the requirement to know (not merely to believe) that God has no form of any kind.

As he explains in MT Fundamentals 1:9, the anthropomorphic terms used to describe God and His actions are expressions "adapted to the mental capacity of the majority of humankind…, [because] God’s essence as it really is, the human mind does not understand and is incapable of grasping or investigating…."

The Rambam even made this the second and third of his 13 articles of faith: "To believe that God is one, the cause of all oneness. He is … not one in the sense that a simple body is — numerically one, but still infinitely divisible. God, rather, is uniquely one….To believe that He is incorporeal, that His unity is in no way physical, either potentially so or actually so. None of the attributes of matter — motion, say, or rest — can be ascribed to Him. They cannot refer to Him accidentally or essentially…. Whenever Scripture describes Him in such corporeal terms as ‘walking,’ ‘standing,’ ‘sitting,’ ‘speaking,’ and the like, it speaks metaphorically." [See "Chelek," the Rambam’s essay to Chapter 10 of BT Sanhedrin.]

In The Laws of Repentance, 3:7, he goes so far as to state that anyone who does not accept this is a heretic.

Now, it could be argued that such other great commentators as Rashi and Nachmanides (a/k/a the Ramban) believed in the absolute literalness of every word, but that is wrong. They believed, rather, that often, what the text says and what it really says are two different things; that there is a "hidden text" lurking amid the words of the plain text.

Hidden texts aside, the plain text makes quite clear how God, the Creator, went about creating:

"And God said, ‘Let the earth generate plants, vegetation that produces seed, fruit trees, each making fruit of its own kind, which has its seed in it, on the earth.’ And it was so: The earth brought out plants, vegetation that produces seeds of its own kind, and trees that make fruit that each has seeds of its own kind in it." (See Genesis 1:11-1′.)

Notice what God does here: Nothing! God "says" (by whatever means God communicates His thoughts) and nature goes to work doing what comes naturally. There is not even a concept of instantaneous fulfillment here. Nature does what nature does in the time it takes nature to do it naturally.

Does the first chapter of Genesis tell us how creation happened? Yes, but not in terms that will satisfy a scientist. Then again, Genesis was not written to satisfy a scientist.

Does Genesis contradict science? No. Science tells us, as best it can, what the technical aspects were of creation, but not in ways that will satisfy the theologian. Then again, science does not exist to satisfy the theologian.

Put another way, we Jews are secure enough in our faith in God as the creator of all things to recognize that one of those things — science — is just another way God communicates with us.

And that is why the continuing battles against evolution do not have counterparts in Jewish schools.

Shammai Engelmayer is rabbi of the Conservative synagogue Temple Israel Community Center in Cliffside Park and an instructor in the UJA-Federation-sponsored Florence Melton Adult Mini-School of the Hebrew University. He is the editor of Judaism: A Journal of Jewish Life and Thought.