בְּרֵאשִׁ֖ית בָּרָ֣א אֱלֹהִ֑ים אֵ֥ת הַשָּׁמַ֖יִם וְאֵ֥ת הָאָֽרֶץ׃
“When G-d created heaven and earth.” These are the first words of this week’s parsha, the week of Simchas Toyreh.
One of the most common questions I receive as a student studying to become a rabbi is: “So… do you believe Earth was created in 7 days?”
I usually avoid answering the question because of its divisive nature. The wealth of knowledge shouldn’t be read as completely transparent in the Tanakh; literal interpretations would be dangerous.
Growing up in the 1990s, the great debate over creation seemed present everywhere. On television, within political debates, classrooms, and even in households. The issue has become so decisive and politicized, it has ended teachers’, politicians’, and even theologians’ careers.
This debate is not something that ended in the 90s, nor did it begin there. Every generation is faced with a similar quest to challenge authority, belief, and faith. Some things never change. However, I was in for a bit of a shock when I moved to Cincinnati at how divisive the issue had become.
Right across the river from me in Kentucky stands the Creation Museum. The Creation Museum is a 27-million dollar museum that houses exhibits depicting dinosaurs and humans living together, as well as a life-size replica of Noah’s ark.
Shortly after moving to Cincinnati and learning of the Creation Museum, while observing the fast of Tisha Baav, I tuned into a video made by Aaron Alexander, associate dean at the Ziegler Rabbinical School of Los Angeles and Rabbi of Adas Israel Congregation in Washington D.C. In his video, he cited the many reasons given in the Talmud regarding why the Beis HaMigdash has been destroyed.
One reason stuck out over the rest. In Bava Metzia 30b, Rabbi Yohanan says:
דאמר ר' יוחנן לא חרבה ירושלים אלא על שדנו בה דין תורה אלא דיני דמגיזתא לדיינו אלא אימא שהעמידו דיניהם על דין תורה
That “Jerusalem was destroyed because they judged people in accordance with the law—strictly, and without mercy or understanding.”
דיני דמגיזתא לדיינו
Rabbi Yohanan is challenged here with: “Should they rather have adjudicated cases on the basis of arbitrary decisions?”
Wouldn’t you want Torah law to be read authentically?
Rabbi Yohanam goes on to state,
אלא אימא שהעמידו דיניהם על דין תורה ולא עבדו לפנים משורת הדין:
Rather, they established their rulings on the basis of the Torah law and did not go beyond the letter of the law.
Rabbi Yohanan suggests here that the word of the law, of Toyreh, could be lost if judged completely on literal and rigid translations. It would be fanaticism to rely completely on the words.
I believe the explanation used in the Talmud for the destruction of the first and second Temples may shed some light into how we should read creation. Reading the Toyreh on a purely literal level, and being so commit to the narrative to pour 27 million dollars into a museum is fanaticism. The creation story doesn’t need life-size replicas or confusing images of humans riding dinosaurs. These exhibits are distracting everyone from many of the important ethical lessons found in the Bible. Furthermore, just as fixating on Toyreh law divided the people of Israel in antiquity, fixating on the literary resources of creation divides us today. The museum has actually driven the divide and the public discourse on creationism vs. evolution to new heights in the area.
Believing in or doubting creation must not impact what lies beneath the surface of the texts, which are the important moral and ethical lessons that serve as the bedrock of the Jewish experience. This is what we must decide to fix our attention to. But just as in antiquity the struggle with fanaticism lives on. Some things never change.