Thursday, 26 November 2009

On Evolution



This Sunday, 10am – 4pm at the London Jewish Cultural Centre, a number of my Masorti colleagues will be engaging with evolution. It is part of the celebration of 150 years since the publication of Origin of the Species.


I’m sorry I won’t be able to be there (wedding season), not least since I love the book which changed the way I looked at the world when I first encountered it as a teen. I’ve always loved reading up on evolution; Richard Jay Gould, Steven Jones, Matt Ridley, even Richard Dawkins (well at least early Dawkins), have all helped me understand better life’s richness and my place among those with whom I share this planet.


And what of the furore? What of the Scopes Monkey Trial, the spat between the contemporary Richard Dawkins’ acolytes and the Creationists? I admit to feeling nonplussed. Of course if one takes a literalist interpretation of the Bible, then our holiest of texts can look foolish when compared to a twenty-first century scientific work, but Rabbinic Jews have never confused a love of and belief in Torah with a literalist blinkers.


This is Rav Kook, d. 1935 engaging with the question of why the Bible details creation as occurring over six days.

‘Creation, by definition is outside our frame of thought. If time exists only as a mode of our thoughts, then the act of creation is necessarily non-temporal; 'above time.' [But] since creation does not take place in time we must ask why the Torah describes it as taking six days. The answer is that the Torah wishes to teach us a lesson in relative values. Everything has value only in relation to its spiritual content.’ (cited in Slifkin, Challenge of Creation).


Or how about this, from Maimonedes explaining why so much early Rabbinic astronomy is revealed as errant when viewed from the perspective of his time.

Don’t ask me to reconcile all that they [the Sages] have said on astronomy

with the facts as they are. The sciences at that time were deficient, and their

statements on these matters are not based on prophetic tradition but on

what was available to them at that time.’ (Guide to the Perplexed II, 14)


Rabbinic Judaism reads neither the Torah nor the Talmud as a scientific textbook. Proving the Bible falls short as a matter of scientific record is akin to proving Pele’s failings as a concert pianist or Elgar’s lack of composure on the football pitch. We ought instead to be grappling with the truths we learn from science and seeking to test them ethically and morally. How can we use what we know about genetics to eradicate Tay-Sachs, how can we encourage use of selective breeding to increase yield and minimise disease, where are the limits in terms of the sorts of interventions into animal and human genomes that we should limit, even if we could manipulate human lives in ever more dramatic ways…


The conference on Sunday will engage with issues around heresy, time, tradition, revelation and education. The keynote lecture will be given by Prof Geoffrey Cantor of Leeds University author of Jewish Tradition and the Challenge of Darwinism. It should be an excellent event.

For more information


Shabbat shalom


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