God did not descend on Sinai 3,300 years ago to give us a biology lesson, nor did He intend to give us a history lesson.
If my science textbook and my Torah are intrinsically the same, then one of them is superfluous. And because I refuse to believe that my academic textbooks are superfluous and I refuse to believe that my Torah is superfluous, then each one must be coming to teach me something different.
It is the purpose of Torah to teach us one thing and one thing only: theology. Theology is a fancy word for how God relates to us and how we relate to God. The Torah’s theology takes the form of law, lore, narrative, poetry and history, but it is still “only” theology.
The account of Creation as given in Genesis is true, but it is not a fact. It is true in the lesson it teaches us. Many people have a hard time understanding that. They believe that every story in the Torah is a historical fact, which serves only to limit Torah into just one small sliver of reality. The ability to free Torah from the historical facts is what makes the Torah eternal. It enlarges Torah and gives it more possibilities.
When I tell my children that cheaters never prosper or that honesty is always the best policy, I am not relaying facts. The facts are quite the opposite; cheaters tend to prosper, and honesty is usually not the best policy. (We do not want to live in a world of brutal honesty. It would destroy us emotionally.) But when I teach that cheaters never prosper, I am giving over an essential truth, even if it is not a fact.
When a man proposes marriage to a woman and pledges that he loves her with all his heart, he is not conveying a fact. It is not even an exaggeration of a fact. We do not love with our hearts at all; we love with a few cells in our brains. But at the moment of the proposal, the essential information that is needed is the truth of his declaration of wholehearted love. The Torah employs the same pedagogical method.
If I were to bake a chocolate cake and tell people I made the cake, I would not be lying. But the truth is that my statement is a gross oversimplification of the hundreds of processes and thousands of people involved in growing the wheat, harvesting the cocoa beans, sugar and eggs. It does not take into account the people who made the mixers, bowls, and ovens that were essential to baking the cake.
The descriptions in Genesis, too, are gross oversimplifications that serve the theology that God created the world. God said “Let there be light!” and it was so. Science tells us how it was made so.
What’s strange is that these same people, if asked whether God has an arm or feet or eyes, would mock the suggestion that God possesses any physical form. But when you point out to them that the Bible clearly states that God took us out of Egypt with “an outstretched arm and strong hand,” they are quick to explain that that is not literal but an anthropomorphism.
To maintain the six days of Creation of a 6,000-year-old world as a literal fact is to put your head in the sand and deny all of science. The science that put a man on the moon, created antibiotics, and allows heart transplants is the same science that tells us that the universe is close to 14 billion years old, and the earth is about four billion years old. It teaches us that human beings evolved over millions of years, and that this is how all life in the universe came to be.
Everything we know in biology, zoology, geology, astronomy and physics supports these conclusions. To advocate that science knows what it is talking about enough for one to step onto an airplane and fly over the ocean but doesn’t know what it is talking about when it comes to the age of the earth is preposterous and disingenuous.
One of the things I love best about Judaism is that it demands no abdication of the mind. There is no parallel to the Christian Credo quia absurdum, “I believe because it is absurd.” It is okay to reinterpret our Judaism in light of scientific discoveries. This does not lessen the weight of Torah but strengthens it.
WHY, THEN, does the Torah not tell us the facts of Creation? The answer is that until very recently we weren’t able to handle the information. Some of you reading this now still can’t handle it.
When children ask as to where do babies come from, we give them a general sense of the facts but obscure the graphic details. The reason we do this is that we fear that early exposure of children to the facts of sex can be harmful to them. Even though the facts of sex are some of the most important pieces of information one can have. This information is so vital that the future of the human race is dependent on getting those facts right; still we deflect till a later period of time in the child’s development.
Had it been made known to us that we humans are in fact naked apes that crawled out of the animal kingdom, we never would have developed the morality we needed to become the human beings we are today.
To have the confidence to be in a relationship with God, we humans needed a narrative that stressed the specialness and otherness of man over the rest of creation. Darwin’s On the Origin of Species allows us to have a deeper understanding of who we really are and thus have a deeper understanding of our relationship with God. ■
The writer holds a doctorate in Jewish philosophy and teaches in post-high-school yeshivot and midrashot in Jerusalem.