(originally delivered on Oct. 17, 2009)
I have occasionally stated in public that a particular parashah is "my favorite." Well, I realized for the first time this week that I actually have several favorites. Qedoshim, in Vayiqra (Leviticus), is my favorite for interesting and relevant laws (it was also my Bar Mitzvah parashah). Beshallah, in Shemot (Exodus), is also a favorite, because of Shirat Hayam, the song sung by the Israelites after crossing the Sea of Reeds. I am somewhat partial to Vayishlah, because of the story of Jacob's wrestling with the angel, perhaps the most fitting metaphor for Jewish life. But the one that I most love for its commentary possibilities is clearly Bereshit. There is just so much there to talk about- the Big Questions - where did we come from? How did the world begin? And how did our ancestors respond to these questions?
Also particularly appealing about Bereshit is its challenge to the modern, thinking person. Today, most of us do not favor Biblical answers to the Big Questions. Scientific inquiry has long since put to rest any notion that the world was created in six days, 5770 years ago. Nonetheless, the following items about Creation as it is told in the Torah are indeed thought-provoking:
1. That there are, in fact, two creation stories found in the opening chapters of Genesis.
2. There is, in both stories, interplay between God and humans.
3. The themes of love, temptation, loss, and mortality are evident in Creation.
These are human stories, with so much interesting material, and so much wonderful commentary. They continue to inspire us.
As a scientific person and a thinking Jew, I have maintained an ongoing struggle with Bereshit (Genesis/Creation) for most of my life, much in the same way that Jacob wrestles with the aforementioned angel. (This is, of course, what makes us "Yisrael" - that we struggle with God and theological issues.)
An apocryphal story is told of a well-known scientist who once gave a public lecture on astronomy. He described how the earth orbits around the sun and how the sun, in turn, orbits around the center of a vast collection of stars called our galaxy. At the end of the lecture, a little old lady at the back of the room got up and said: "What you have told us is rubbish. The world is really a flat plate supported on the back of a giant turtle." The scientist gave a superior smile before replying, "What is the turtle standing on?" "You're very clever, young man, very clever", said the old lady. "But it's turtles all the way down!"
Now, we cannot see those turtles. But we do have before us two seemingly conflicting stories before us regarding the origin of the universe: that of Bereshit, and the theory that the scientific community has settled upon, that about 13.7 billion years ago, there was a "Big Bang," when all matter expanded outward in a spectacular explosion, the effects of which we can still measure today.
It is indeed tempting to try to resolve the two stories, to say that the first six days of Bereshit actually took 13.7 billion years, or something similar. But when you get down to the details, the scientific record tells a story that simply cannot be harmoniously reconciled with the first chapter of the Torah.
That does not say, however, that we must remove God from the picture.
When I was in graduate school in chemical engineering at Texas A&M University, which is truly the buckle of the Bible belt, I heard a lecture by a professor of mechanical engineering that was his “proof” of the existence of God. God is evident, said this professor, in the perfection of all of the physical constants of nature. For example, that water is most dense at a point above freezing, allowing sea creatures to have survived in otherwise frozen waters, and Planck's constant in quantum physics, the gravitational constant, and the speed of light – that all of these values are so precise, that they had to be exactly what they were, or life would never have appeared on Earth – this is the primary evidence of God's hand in nature.
Now this man was, like many professors at A&M, a deeply religious Christian, and I presume a reasonably objective scientist as well. His goal, of course, was reconciliation. However, I don't think that this prof's idea adequately responds to the question of Creation. Furthermore, I feel strongly that there is no need to reconcile science and the Torah. I will come back to this in a few minutes.
There is, however, a similar strain of Jewish thought that emerges in the medieval period, albeit not in response to the challenge of science. A certain medieval philosophy favored by some Jewish thinkers, known as Neo-Platonism, argued that our perceived perfection of the universe pointed to perfection of God, and, by contrast, IMperfection of humans. This philosophy appealed, in particular, to the courtier-rabbis of the Golden Age of Spain, in the 11th, 12th and 13th centuries, and came out in their works, like, for example, in a poem by Isaac Ibn Ghiyyat, an extended tribute to the lights in the sky, created on the 4th day of Creation. It contains the repeated refrain, "Ata asita et hashamayim." “You [God] created the Heavens.”
Here is an excerpt in translation, featuring the seven planets known in the 11th century CE:
"You made the glory of the seven moving stars in contrast to the seven spheres
Created before them, and fixed the stars in the spheres
On the fourth day, you hewed them from the light You created on the first day
On the day on which God created the earth and heaven.
You created the heavens."
There are 21 other stanzas about the various lights in the sky. Says Ibn Ghiyyat, the glory of Creation is reflected in heavenly perfection. Creation is perfect; the heavens are perfect; God is perfect. This is the doctrine of Neo-Platonism. And our goal as humans is to strive to achieve heavenly perfection, to ultimately return from the imperfect world of the flesh to rejoin the perfection of the heavenly God.
Now Neo-Platonism was not originally "Jewish"; rabbis and Jewish philosophers to whom NP appealed made it work with their Judaism. This is a good example that demonstrates that there has, historically, always been room in Judaism for outside ideas: philosophy, art, music, etc. As Conservative Jews, we are certainly open to this.
Likewise, our response to science is not to reject it or ignore it. If that were the case, I would have to go daven somewhere else. On the contrary, the principles of scientific inquiry, in some ways, produced the Conservative Movement. The 19th-c. German idea called "Die Wissenschaft des Judentums" – literally, the science of Judaism – came to study our holy literature and traditions from the perspective that Judaism could be taught and studied critically, using the methods of science.
However, I'd like to advocate for NOT trying to resolve science and the Torah in general, or the Big Bang Theory and Creation in particular, because really, they cannot be adequately resolved. Science tells us (for example) that Creation could NOT have happened 6,000 years ago, in six days. The Torah does.
I cannot deny science. Nor can I deny Judaism. Or, for that matter, God.
We could play games of trying to rectify one with the other, like the professor of mechanical engineering, but this exercise holds the promise of only limited success; ultimately, religious arguments boil down to faith. No matter how elaborate the proof, faith will always be the critical step. But rather, a higher goal is to understand that the authenticity of our religious tradition is not invalidated by scientific evidence that seems to contradict it.
As Orthodox rabbi Natan Slifkin writes, in his book entitled The Challenge of Creation,
“To some, the idea that “God makes the trees grow” has been rendered redundant by the idea that “biological processes, based on chemical and physical laws, make the trees grow.” But the truth is that in formulating scientific explanations for things, we have not removed God from the picture; instead, we have discovered a new picture for Him to have drawn.”
My solution: we should take both stories for what they are - different sets of lenses, or myths, arrived at through different paths. And I use the word “myth” not in its typical meaning of falsehood, but rather the way that Rabbi Neil Gillman of the Jewish Theological Seminary, the Conservative movement’s pre-eminent philosopher, uses it: that is, a myth is something that explains the information that we take in and helps us make sense of our world.
Thus we have before us in Creation two sets of myths.
One set is our Jewish national story, the Torah. It may not be factually, historically accurate, but it is still our story.
The other set is the collected body of knowledge acquired through scientific inquiry. It is a different story, a different set of myths. It redraws somewhat the lines of Creation and the functioning of the universe, as Rabbi Slifkin suggests. But it does not contradict God’s role in our lives.
God is eternal. So are the laws of physics. And we continue to discover more about each individually; they need not comment on each other.