Friday, December 28, 2012

Darwin and the Future of Religion - Vayehi 5773

When I was in Israel a few weeks back, I was shopping for Hebrew-language children’s books for my kids, and I found something curious: a book about Charles Darwin and his theory of evolution. The level seemed a bit too high for my five-year-old daughter, but I couldn’t resist. I bought it.

After thinking about this a little more deeply, buyer’s remorse set in: I realized that this book might create an unintended consequence. As a proud alumna of our Beth HaGan nursery school and, well, the daughter of a rabbi who likes to read Hebrew Bible stories to his kids, my daughter not only wears her faith proudly, but will also talk your ear off about all of the wonderful things that God does for us. She is certain that God created the world and all of its creatures in six days and rested on the seventh. Will introducing her to another, potentially conflicting idea at such a tender age confuse her? Will she merely accept this as another story that can comfortably live alongside the opening chapters of Bereshit? Will she reject one or the other, and will this jeopardize her chances of getting into Harvard, or worse, JTS?

In any case, we have not yet read it. But I am nonetheless cautiously looking forward to the conversation that we will one day have.

Of course, the discourse about the role of religion in modern life is not only ongoing, but perhaps getting louder. We are all in some sense still struggling to respond to modernity, a process that began (at least in Jewish life) two and a half centuries ago, when Moses Mendelssohn succeeded in joining the intellectual elite of Berlin while maintaining his Jewish identity and practice. Meanwhile, there has been what amounts to an inadvertent series of op-ed pieces in the New York Times about religion and modernity, perhaps featured because December is the time of the year that Americans are most likely to be thinking about religious involvement. Each of them merits individual discussion, but I wanted to address them in the context of this morning’s Torah reading.

Today in Parashat Vayehi, we read about Jacob’s deathbed blessings and curses given to his twelve sons (we’ll talk another day about why his daughter Dinah is not mentioned). As is typical of end-of-life scenes in the Tanakh (like that of Moses at the end of Devarim, or our haftarah today, which took place at the end of King David’s life), Jacob’s pronouncements look backward and forward, referencing stories elsewhere in the Torah (even to events that have not yet taken place according to the Torah’s chronology) and making what seem to be predictions about the future for each son’s tribe. (Biblical scholars actually see this passage as having been written in a different place and time, probably much older than the surrounding text, and co-opted here as Jacob’s words. Hence Jacob’s seeming foreknowledge of where the tribes dwell in Israel and who is scattered among whom.)

But here is the curious thing. Jacob is the only patriarch to die in Egypt, in what we today refer to as the diaspora. He himself has been in Egypt for seventeen years, and he does not know for how long his children and grandchildren and great-grandchildren will be there. He makes his sons promise that they will bury him with Abraham and Isaac in the Cave of Makhpelah in Hebron, but does not insist that they stay there. He seems to be quietly comfortable with the knowledge that someday they will return to the land that was promised to all three patriarchs, that someday their exile will end, and his descendants will take up residence in a land that is now occupied by Canaanites and Philistines and Hivites and Jebusites and so forth. He is not worried that his son Joseph is married to the daughter of an Egyptian priest; all the more so, he adopts Joseph’s Egyptian-born children Menashe and Ephraim as his own, declaring that (Genesis 48:20):
בְּךָ יְבָרֵךְ יִשְׂרָאֵל לֵאמֹר, יְשִׂמְךָ אֱלֹהִים כְּאֶפְרַיִם וְכִמְנַשֶּׁה
By you shall Israel invoke invoke blessings, saying, God make you like Ephraim and Menashe.
These are, of course, the words we still invoke each Friday night when we bless our own children today.  Jacob, taking the long view, is not concerned about his family’s future, their identity as members of his clan or issues of intermarriage and assimilation.

Ladies and gentlemen, there are times when it is very easy to worry about the future of Judaism, or indeed religious practice in general. As you have heard me say many times in this space, the fastest growing religion in America is “None.” There are those in the more “fundamentalist” sphere (of all of the Western religious traditions) that believe that this is merely a symptom of the gradual tearing down of religious authority to which Spinoza and Darwin and Marx and many others have arguably contributed. We are now reaping what we have sown, they say. 

But my concern is not the decline of religion due to active denial or apparent contradiction between the principles of religion in modern life. My concern is indifference - the vast numbers of people who pass through these doors every year and are not only untouched by the richness of their own tradition, but are also gradually finding themselves alienated by Judaism through their own non-involvement. The threat is not Darwin, ladies and gentlemen, but a dearth of inspiring moments: words, prayer, feelings, music, and communal togetherness.

But these recent pieces in the Times have struck a hopeful chord. The first, one that I discussed last week when I substituted for Rabbi Stecker at his bi-weekly “Jews and the News” class, is by an evangelical pastor, John Dickerson, about the decline of evangelical Christianity. While reading Rev. Dickerson’s piece, I experienced a strong sense of what psychologists call counter-transference: the phenomena that he describes (declining membership, fewer young people involved, decreased political power of their adherents due to smaller numbers) mimic patterns in non-Orthodox Judaism. His conclusion is that evangelicals must focus on their core principles, and that a movement in disarray has hope for building.

The second op-ed of interest was written by University of North Carolina history professor Molly Worthen about the apparent growth and power of secularism. She points to a recent poll by the Pew Research Center showing that the “nonesof America are now 20% of the population, up from 16% just five years ago. Dr. Worthen cites religious Christian activists who pointed to this study as evidence that the foundations of our society are crumbling.

But Dr. Worthen also gives us a historical reality check, noting that despite the apparently declining interest in religion, that there have always been a fair share of what we today call the “unaffiliated”. Even in traditional America, where the French sociological tourist Alexis de Tocqueville found in the 18th century an open market of religious ideas that led to greater religious commitment than in Europe, regular church attendance before the Civil War “probably never exceeded 30 percent.”

Meanwhile, Rabbi Jonathan Sacks, the Chief Rabbi of the largest Jewish organization of the British Commonwealth, wrote a wonderful essay about the continuing value of religion today. He cites similar statistics about declining religious involvement in Britain and the U.S., and then observes the following:

The irony is that many of the new atheists are followers of Charles Darwin. We are what we are, they say, because it has allowed us to survive and pass on our genes to the next generation. Our biological and cultural makeup constitutes our “adaptive fitness.” Yet religion is the greatest survivor of them all. Superpowers tend to last a century; the great faiths last millenniums [sic].”
Like Dr. Worthen, Rabbi Sacks also points to the invaluable research of sociologist Robert Putnam, author of the essential works Bowling Alone and American Grace. Putnam concludes that while “social capital,” the glue that binds us all together in society, is on the decline, religious communities are still supplying social capital in spades.

Mr. Putnam’s research showed that frequent church- or synagogue-goers were more likely to give money to charity, do volunteer work, help the homeless, donate blood, help a neighbor with housework, spend time with someone who was feeling depressed, offer a seat to a stranger or help someone find a job. Religiosity as measured by church or synagogue attendance is, he found, a better predictor of altruism than education, age, income, gender or race.”
Rabbi Sacks offers this as proof that not only will religion survive the Darwinian forces of natural selection, but that it will serve as a bulwark against the creeping individualism that the information age seems to have hastened. Rituals, prayer, study of traditional texts, and so forth build trust, empathy, and foundations of a healthy, cooperative society.

What these articles all point to, and particularly that of Rabbi Sacks, is that religious tradition will always have a certain appeal, and that the mere fact that we are still here a century and a half after Darwin published On the Origin of Species testifies to this. Of course we have to work hard to do what we do better, and there may in fact be even leaner years on the horizon. But, like Jacob, we know that not only will we continue to offer inspiration in the future, we will do so in all the resplendent complexity that the modern Jewish world offers: many choices, many approaches, many points of view. And that’s a good thing.

I recall a trenchant discussion from when I was in rabbinical school. I was in Talmud class with Dr. David Kraemer, who is also the librarian of the JTS Library, one of the finest collections of Jewish books and documents in the world. We had taken a slight diversion from discussing some of the finer points of hilkhot Sukkah, the laws related to fulfilling the mitzvot of the festival of Sukkot, to talk about why it was OK for Jewish kids to collect candy on Halloween. Judaism has never lived in a vacuum, he reminded us, borrowing ideas and holidays and rituals and music from surrounding cultures. Halloween, or for that matter Christmas, are no more threats to Judaism and Jewish culture than Israeli supermarkets that sell pork products. We will continue regardless; we will continue to be, as was promised to Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob, as “numerous as the stars of heaven and the sands on the seashore” (Genesis 22:17). Our concern should only be to continue to try to reach people through all of the means at our disposal, traditional and not-so. 

In short, the message of the day (with a nod to science fiction writer and staunch atheist Douglas Adams) is this: Don’t panic. Judaism, including liberal variants such as ours, will soldier on and continue to offer inspiration to those who seek it. Our task is to, just as Rev. Dickerson suggests, focus on the essentials of our faith, and let the forces of natural selection do the rest.
Shabbat shalom.

Rabbi Seth Adelson
(Originally delivered at Temple Israel of Great Neck, Shabbat morning, December 29, 2012.)

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