Monday, July 7, 2008

Torah & evolution

Last night I had the privilege of attending a lecture by the Rev. Michael Dowd, the author of Thank God for Evolution: How the Marriage of Science and Religion Will Transform Your Life and Our World. He's a Protestant minister who has given up pulpit work in order to lecture and teach full-time on this subject.

It's beyond my capacity to reduce his message to a paragraph or two, but I'll say that he's speaking to the large group of people who want to believe in both science and religion. I say "believe" even though Jewish tradition does not emphasize faith—which our tradition largely takes for granted—and belief is not exactly the question for us anyway. The truth content of science doesn't depend on an individual's belief in it, and some of us who are engaged with the religious dimension of Judaism value it for reasons other than straightforward belief.

In other words, his audience isn't the extremists of secular society who hew exclusively to science and find no merit at all in religion, nor is it religious fundamentalists who proclaim the literal truth of Scripture and insist that any science that differs from it is simply wrong. It's for those of us who, in the language of Jewish tradition, will say, "You are right—and you are right."

His basic message, that science and religion express the same truths but frame them in different kinds of language, finds Jewish expression in the religious naturalism taught by Rabbi Mordecai Kaplan, who is usually cited as the founder of Reconstructionist Judaism. (We should remember that he remained a faculty member of the Jewish Theological Seminary for all of his career; I think that his original goal was to shake up Conservative Judaism.)

And in fact, Reconstructionist Judaism has become especially attractive to well-educated Jews who fully accept contemporary science and feel a need to reconcile it with their spiritual needs. Many other modern Jews deal with this either by keeping science and religion entirely separate, or by just ignoring the conflict.

As I grow older, I am more and more drawn to Reconstructionist thinking, but as an educator I've seen the difficulties it presents in teaching children. The problem is that it's based on a sophisticated form of reasoning that we d0n't expect children to comprehend. Years ago I had an interview for a job as education director at a Reconstructionist congregation, and I still remember the looks of horror on the faces of the search committee members when I said off-handedly that children should learn Torah. Their idea was that children needed to be insulated from the Torah until they were old enough (and educated enough, probably with a Ph.D. degree) to understand it properly.

But I still believe that children should learn Torah, even though all but the youngest students will ask questions that we, as teachers, are uncomfortable in answering. When a sixth-grade class, studying parashat Noach, asks me whether the flood story is true (by the way, they never ask whether the creation stories are true), I answer that the Torah is not a science book, and not really a history book, either.

I also tell them that there is some evidence of a massive flood in ancient times and that many other cultures also have flood narratives. But I don't use these ideas to attempt to persuade students of the truth of the Torah narrative. If anything, rather the contrary: I focus on the reasons that many cultures might have found a flood narrative valuable enough to preserve.

The idea that the Torah expresses truths in poetic language (Dowd calls this "night language," the language of dreams and visions) is one that sixth-graders can begin to understand. Leading students toward this understanding ought to be a central goal of Torah study beginning at about this age level. I've written more about this in commentaries on parashot Va'era and Bo.

I'm grateful to the First Baptist Church in Painted Post and its minister, Rev. Gary McCaslin, for sponsoring the lecture. If you have the opportunity hear Rev. Dowd speak, I recommend that you attend. Most of his lectures are presented by churches, especially Unitarian Universalist fellowships; his lecture schedule is on his website.

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