Saturday, February 13, 2010

Torah and Evolution, part 2

Today was Evolution Shabbat in many synagogues, and tomorrow will be Evolution Sunday in churches. Evolution Weekend is the weekend nearest Charles Darwin's birthday (Feb. 12). The Evolution Weekend web site states:
Evolution Weekend is an opportunity for serious discussion and reflection on the relationship between religion and science. One important goal is to elevate the quality of the discussion on this critical topic - to move beyond sound bites. A second critical goal is to demonstrate that religious people from many faiths and locations understand that evolution is sound science and poses no problems for their faith. Finally, as with The Clergy Letters themselves, which have now been signed by more than 13,000 members of the clergy in the United States, Evolution Weekend makes it clear that those claiming that people must choose between religion and science are creating a false dichotomy.
It's an outgrowth of the Clergy Letter Project, in which (as of Friday) 467 rabbis and more than 12,000 Christian clergy had subscribed to letters opposing attempts on any religious grounds to limit the teaching of evolution in public-school science classes.

I had the privilege of speaking about it this morning at Congregation Shomray Hadath. In truth, the idea of opposing the teaching of evolution on the grounds of a conflict with Torah is just about unknown in Judaism, even in Orthodox circles: almost no Jewish adults in North America reject science. A problem does occur from time to time in science classes in Orthodox day schools, but it largely reflects the immaturity of the students.

I said that, in workshops for teachers, I sometimes ask participants to write down the answers to two questions:
  1. Do you believe that we should teach the creation story in Genesis, chapter 1, to children?
  2. Do you believe that it represents scientific truth?
As a rule, everyone answers "yes" to #1 and "no" to #2, and most do not see any problem with the split.

Religious Jews who "believe in" both evolution and Torah deal with it in various ways:
  • Some see Torah and science as occupying different spheres of knowledge. They try to keep them separate and generally manage to ignore any apparent conflict.
  • Some see the apparent conflict as demonstrating the limits of human knowledge, an approach dating back to Maimonides, who taught that if science and religion appear to conflict, it is only because our understanding of them is as yet insufficient.
  • Many, probably the largest number in the liberal streams of Judaism, interpret parts of the Torah as metaphor and myth. This is the approach that Reform rabbis took in the Pittsburgh Platform (1885), which states, "We hold that the modern discoveries of scientific researches in the domain of nature and history are not antagonistic to the doctrines of Judaism, the Bible reflecting the primitive ideas of its own age, and at times clothing its conception of divine Providence and Justice dealing with men in miraculous narratives."
In reality, it is not necessary for anyone to "believe in" either evolution or Torah. The theory of evolution is either correct or it is not, regardless of what any of us believes. (Opponents sometimes want schools to teach that it is "only a theory," but any scientist will say that it is the theory that best describes the data that exist.)

Similarly, Torah exists regardless of whether one "believes in" it and regardless of what anyone believes about it. The question for us is what we make of it.


Zealots might say that the bulk of American Jewry is able to cope with the difference between the creation story in Genesis 1 and what science tells us because most of us do not believe very much in God or Torah to begin with. I disagree with this, and side with the scholars who wryly observe that true faith does not require ratification by a committee of biologists.


It is easier for Jews than for Protestants because faith is really not central to Judaism as most of us know it. We do not have any concept of "justification by faith alone" (in that terminology, Judaism emphasizes justification by works), nor do we have any mandatory confession of faith. And we are not preoccupied with salvation; even on Yom Kippur, no rabbi calls out, "Come forward and be saved!"


The most elegant response is the one presented by Rev. Michael Dowd in his book
Thank God for Evolution, about which I've written before. He argues that the Bible and science are not in conflict at all, but are telling the same story. They use different language; he calls them "day language" (the language of science and mundane reality) and "night language" (the language of dreams, poetry, and myth).

They also have different goals. The creation stories in Genesis (chapters 1 and 2) orient us, the People of Israel, to our place and role in the world, and it should come as no surprise that nations who view their places and roles differently should have different creation stories. We want to teach the story from chapter 1 to children because it depicts a universe in which God is control and has a plan, and the plan works as it should. Chapter 2 is less orderly; there's a lot of blundering. It explains to adults why the world in which we live is such a mess.
We are seeing a continued and growing attack on the teaching of science in public schools, by political conservatives and religious fundamentalists who lobby state education departments, especially that of Texas—if a textbook cannot achieve adoption by the Texas authorities, it will probably never be published—to weaken the teaching of evolution. These demands include warning students that it is only a theory and presenting other theories, regardless of the fact that the other theories have no scientific support and amount to the teaching of religion.

Sometimes I even imagine a time in the future when we will need to send our students to Jewish day schools, not only in order to teach them Hebrew, Jewish life, and Jewish history, but also to teach them science. (And to protect them from fundamentalist Christian indoctrination in the guise of science.)


The version of the Clergy Letter for rabbis is
here, and the list of rabbis who have signed it follows the letter.



Friday, February 12, 2010

It takes a shtetl

It takes a shtetl to raise a Jewish child.

No, that’s not quite right. Although the shtetl experience had significant effects on Jewish thought, it is not central to Jewish life today.

Few of us would willingly trade the freedoms of twenty-first-century America for the forced closeness of an isolated village in eastern Europe. But it does take a community to raise a Jewish child. This is not to say that one can’t be Jewish in isolation, such as when required by schooling, work, or military service. What it means is that to be a Jew is to be part of a worldwide Jewish community that cannot be defined by either religion or ethnicity alone.

Thus, not all Jews are religious, nor are all religious Jews religious in the same way. Our religious practices show a range of ethnic and philosophical differences. Nor are our ethnic customs all the same. Think about Jewish food: what is Jewish food? Sefardim such as Moroccan Jews knew nothing about bagels until they saw them in Ashkenazi bakeries in Israel or North America, but they eat rice during Passover. There are Jews who don’t like gefilte fish!

About a decade ago I taught an eighth-grade class on Jewish family history. The idea was that family history was the gateway to more general Jewish history. Jewish food was one illustration: whatever we think of as “Jewish food” is the typical food of the region of the world from which our families came, perhaps adapted to make it kosher. (Russian borscht might contain both meat and sour cream; in French cooking, à la juive, Jewish style, means fried in oil instead of pork fat.) By the late 1990s this was lost on students, because family food had become either mainstream American food, or the latest foodie craze—that year, Thai. So if family food is Jewish food, Thai food was Jewish.

Furthermore, our Jewish community, especially in America, is becoming progressively more diverse. It includes Jews by birth who are religious and who are not religious, and Jews by choice and other family members who participate voluntarily in the life of the community.

Young children do not think in global terms, and identification with a worldwide community is not automatic. For a very young child, the world is defined by home and family, and gradually expands to include the neighborhood, the school, and the temple or synagogue. As it expands, the child learns to be part of a community that is one step larger than the family, but still familiar and safe.

As the child matures, the connections of those communities to larger ones can become meaningful. This meaning develops through the family’s participation in their Jewish community.

Once children are of school age, religious school (Hebrew school) is the most obvious manifestation of Jewish community, because children spend three to five hours a week in Hebrew school. But school is not the only form of Jewish community, and it’s a somewhat artificial one, focused on specific kinds of learning. School can’t represent all the facets of a Jewish community. For example, the tzedakah component of our school curriculum can’t convey the experience of those who work together at the Community Kitchen on the first Thursday of every month. Our prayer curriculum doesn’t convey the bonding that occurs during a worship service. School parties don’t fully represent the experience of social events in our two congregations.

So I encourage the families of our religious-school children to participate as fully in the life of the Jewish community as they are able. That includes not only worship services—our most frequent community event—but also mitzvah projects, book discussions, social events, concerts and films, or even fund raising, and to bring their children whenever it’s feasible.