Over the course of six days, I plan to post the six parts of my “Handbook for the Creation-Evolution Debate.” Working on college campuses, I find that this topic is one of the more challenging ones for Jewish students. This Handbook is meant to help those students overcome that issue.
These chapters, will be: “Introduction,” “Arguments for Creationism,” “Arguments for Evolution,” “Rebuttals,” “The Approach of the Rishonim (medieval exegetes),” and last “What happened to Slifkin?”
When I was an adjunct professor of religion at Florida International University, all walks of religion (or lack thereof) passed through my doors. With an awareness that religion class need not, and should not be relegated to lecturing on history alone, in my introductory course, I tried including issues directly relevant to the lives of my students. My fascination with the interplay between science and religion had led me to devote two classes a semester solely to that topic. One of the days is spent on various topics: neurotheology, bioethical issues, genetic determinism, etc., but the other, I devote solely to the creation-evolution debate. At first, I pit two groups of students against each other to debate whether creationism should be taught along side evolution in public schools. I specifically choose students that passionately support their position. While the two groups are discussing their arguments and counter-arguments outside the room, I quickly identify the key issues for the class, so they will be aware of what to look for in the arguments they are about to hear.
The primary goal of the debate is to show the class that most people, sadly, don’t know what they’re talking about. While creationists believe it is their religious obligation to believe such, evolutionists believes that only God-loving fundamentalists are blind enough to still accept creationism. However, when you get down to the details of the respective arguments, there is usually more name-calling than substance. As a religion adjunct, I did not feel compelled to undermine or support the beliefs of either party: they both have legitimate positions. So, I educate. I put forth the arguments in favor of both positions and let the student decide for themselves. At least then, they will be in a position to make an educated decision.
In my personal life, I take a similar route. Instead of arguing for the validity of either side, I’m more interested in ascertaining why other people believe what they do. On one occasion, a midst a casual conversation with an old friend, out of nowhere, our conversation turned into a heated debate over this very issue. He, being trained in engineering and biology, boldly spurt out that evolution is more than a theory – it’s a well known fact – and the Torah’s account of creation is not only outdated and silly, but to say it bluntly, it’s wrong. The fact that he came to this conclusion was not surprising to me at all; really, I can’t blame him. He grew up in a Modern Orthodox home where Torah matters always took a backseat to business concerns and enlightened values. If his Western mind, trained in philosophy and science, determines that evolution is true, and by default, that creationism is false, what should we expect of him – to deny his mind! Should he reject his extensive background in philosophy and the sciences, the facts that form the cornerstone of the very way in which he thinks, perceives and interprets the world, or should he reject his juvenile conception of the Torah’s account of Genesis he received as a child? The choice was easy for my friend.
For the most part, people are taught creationism from a very young age, and though they hear mention of the creation account from time to time over the course of the year, rarely are the concepts reflected upon at any serious level. As opposed to the sciences, where a collegiate student is expected to acquire a profound grasp of the deeper echelons of the subject matter, mastery of the Biblical creation story is not included within the corpus of vital religious studies. Religious Jews are likely to feel unsympathetic to the necessity of a mature understanding of this topic. People feel that the Torah’s first chapters are so esoteric and abstract that abstinence is the only saintly approach – much like traditional Jews are expected to excuse themselves from mystical texts like the Zohar or Sefer Yetzirah. Many feel that these texts are beyond the ken of the common Jew and are only meant to be studied by “those Kabbalistic Jews living in Tzfat.” So what happens? People do not study the first two chapters of the Torah at any advanced level and never progress beyond the understanding of a 13 year old, at best.
The Rishonim, medieval exegetes, did not feel that one should refrain from studying the creation account. On the contrary, they believed that cosmogony, physics and, for the matter, all fields of science were inextricably intertwined: one could never understand the intimate workings of the Divine hand in nature without a deep appreciation for Genesis. Accordingly, not only was it imperative to know every aspect and nuance of the Torah’s creation narrative, but every other pertinent piece of information was also taken into account: whether Kabbalah, science or philosophy. To be lacking in familiarity with creation would manifest itself as a lacking of knowledge of God Himself. Yet, if you were to ask your local religious engineer or astro-physicist for Ibn Ezra’s or Nachmonides’ take on creation, you more often than not will find that even educated people do not know the opinions of our Rishonim. They do not know the staples of Jewish interpretation of Genesis. They do not know how traditional Jews would answer hard questions from geologists or philosophers. They simply assume that evolutionists would win in a debate with a Jewish theologian, independent of what the Jewish theologian would preach. Science would reign supreme over theology in any open forum.
If a religious professional were posed a difficulty in the Torah’s account of Genesis or questioned about the Jewish approach to evolution, most likely there would be no cogent response. What answers could be given? It is highly unlikely that one would be in a position to give an educated answer. How many have really gone through the training or done the research to give the proper reply? While one might be familiar with some of the basic arguments evolutionists propose, the intricacies have always been left for the scholars who tell people how to think and feel on these matters and the Torah itself. So where does that leave us today? We live in a world of religious minded Jews, coming from traditional homes, who reject the Torah’s account of creation without bothering to check out the Jewish take on it, and accept evolutionary arguments which they haven’t quite gotten around to checking out either.
But even a more dangerous road has been paved which threatens the very heart of the Jewish community. The Orthodox world, in general, accepts Maimonides’ thirteen principles of faith as the hallmark for defining the necessary beliefs that are Jew must subscribe to in order to be viewed as someone part of the Jewish community. Those who do not believe in any one of the thirteen principles are excluded from the congregation of Israel as well as from its joint fate. Even though the belief in creationism is not one of Maimonides’ principles, the belief in the truth of the Torah is. Because the aforementioned college-educated Jews view the Torah’s alleged position on evolution, the Big Bang or Darwinism as uninformed and wrong, they not only ignore the Torah’s true stance, but preach a heretical viewpoint. It is one thing to harbor reservations about a complicated set of verses, but to allow one’s own ignorance to burgeon heretical attitudes by rejecting the truth of the Torah is to throw away the boat because of a corroded plank. This sacrilegious viewpoint is not the product of a well thought out understanding of all of the intricacies of the debate between the creationists and the evolutionists, but rather a conclusion deduced by an inexpert mind.
In the past, the world’s Jewry need not fall to heresy given philosophical dilemmas of this sort. The advanced layman could posit that he does not understand the gamut of divine matters and fall before the authority of the Rabbi. He could do this because he knew that, despite their differences, he could take refuge in the positions of the clergy. But, as the religious right became more and more encapsulated within a fixed and strict religious dogma, with less freedom of expression and flexibility of thought, these laymen lost the impetus and ability to find solace within the right’s preaching or sermons. They no longer can look towards the accepted Gedolei HaDor (religious leaders of the generation) for those Rabbis no longer speak for the layman’s religious practices, let alone his/her beliefs. They’re forced to tread the seas of heresy without a religious leader to follow, and what happens? What should we expect of a herd without a shepherd? Without leadership, strong direction or the values of truth leading the way, our engineers, biologists and modern thinkers are forced to reject the juvenile and undeveloped theory of “right” Judaism in place of something, to say it simply, more grand.
We live in a misinformed world, where prejudices and biases are more often than not the strongest arguments of all. While people’s hearts search for guidance, their minds take hold of what is available and plausible. People search for truth more desperately today than ever before, but the truth out there isn’t flowing from the same waters that their parents drank from. They’re forced, against their will and expertise, to make exceptionally tough decisions about their beliefs in Torah values and religiosity as a whole. It is the intention of the following chapters to remedy this debacle: to create an informed public about both sides of the creation/evolution debate, to present our Rishonim’s interpretation of Genesis, and to obviate the possibility that some misconstrual or compartmentalization of religion lay the foundations for heresy.
I hope you enjoy the next five posts over the next five days.