The recent announcement that the theory of evolution would be taught in Israeli middle schools, both general and religious, generated furious opposition and shouts of “heresy” and worse in certain circles. I felt as if we were having an Israeli version of the infamous Scopes Monkey Trial in the US in the ’20s, or the Catholic Church’s trial of Galileo for declaring the earth was not the center of the universe.
But there is no reason why religious Jews should echo this fear of the medieval church, or of modern-day fundamentalist Christians. Judaism is not and never has been a fundamentalist religion. While holding the Torah sacred, we have never insisted on a literalist interpretation of it.
The Sages themselves, even those who taught that every word and every letter came directly from God, nevertheless – or perhaps just because of that belief – were able to interpret it in ways that were in accord with their beliefs. This is obvious to any one who has ever read midrash or medieval commentaries.
For example, the Torah states, “…in six days the Lord made heaven and earth, and on the seventh day He ceased from work and rested” (Exodus 31:17). The ancient Tannaitic commentary on Exodus, the Mekhilta of Rabbi Ishmael, asks, “But can God be tired? Rather, God permitted it to be written about Himself that, as it were, God created the world in six days and rested on the seventh, in order to teach us that if it says that One who is never tired rested, how much more must a human being rest!” (Mekhilta Bahodesh 7).
Obviously, the rabbis in the second century did not take the story of creation literally; rather they believed it was there in order to teach us how we ourselves are to act.
Maimonides, for whom belief in the Divinity of the Torah was one of the 13 principles of faith, nevertheless could say that if he found some theory of creation to be scientifically true, he would have no difficulty in reconciling it to the Torah text. He also stated that some ideas in the Torah, such as sacrifices, were there not because they represented God’s ideal, but because they were needed by people at that specific time in history.
Modern biblical studies that compare the stories of creation in the Torah to those of other ancient religions have demonstrated beyond doubt that the Torah was propounding new and revolutionary concepts which were intended to refute the pagan stories. Even if we believe these stories to have been written under Divine guidance, they could hardly have presented scientific theories that have been discovered only thousands of years later, and would have been incomprehensible to people at that time.
Furthermore, the early stories in the Torah are not there to teach facts, but to teach religious truths and basic ethical ideals. Genesis is important for asserting that the world is the creation of the One Merciful God, and not the result of battles among deities and monsters. The creation of Adam is there to teach us, as the rabbis themselves stated, that all human beings are equal and that no race or people is superior because of superior ancestry.
The idea of creation in God’s image is not a scientific fact, but a belief in the ultimate value of human life.
When I want to know scientific facts I turn to science, but when I want to know values and religious truths I turn to the Torah and its interpreters.
That Darwin was an atheist is not important when I want to understand the evolution of the species, any more than Einstein’s beliefs or lack thereof matters if I want to learn physics.
It was Rabbi Abraham Isaac Kook who wrote, “How shall man obtain a conception of the majesty of the Divine…? Through the expansion of his scientific faculties…” We have nothing to fear from evolution, and everything to fear from failure to open the minds of our youth to science and the search for truth.
The concept that God is the force behind all creation, which religious studies in school, at home and in the synagogue can inculcate, will then rest upon a firm basis.
The writer, former president of the International Rabbinical Assembly, is a two-time winner of the National Book Award. His latest book is The Torah Revolution (Jewish Lights).