Reconciling Science and Religion
If I were to ask you if you thought Orthodox Jewish belief supports only a literal interpretation of the creation story in the Torah, you might be inclined to say yes. After all, don't Orthodox Jews believe that the Torah is an accurate historical account dictated by G-d to Moshe Rabbeinu/Moses our Teacher on Har Sinai/Mt. Sinai?
I have a news flash for you-- one that is from over ten years ago. In December of 2005, the RCA (Rabbinical Council of America) which is often seen as representing the Modern Orthodox movement issued a statement titled "Creation, Evolution, and Intelligent Design."
According to the organization's website the statement was issued "in response to the public debate over Intelligent Design and Scientific theory....clarifying its view on this matter as it relates to Torah Judaism, and the biblical account of creation."
The statement affirms that belief in G-d and the Torah is not incompatible with evolutionary theory properly understood. The position piece explains that there is a diversity of interpretations among great sages available to inform how we understand the creation story today. To quote from the statement directly:
Some refer to the Midrash (Koheleth Rabbah 3:13) which speaks of God "developing and destroying many worlds" before our current epoch.
Others explain that the word "yom" in Biblical Hebrew, usually translated as "day," can also refer to an undefined period of time, as in Isaiah 11:10-11. Maimonides stated that "what the Torah writes about the Account of Creation is not all to be taken literally, as believed by the masses" (Guide to the Perplexed II:29), and recent Rabbinic leaders who have discussed the topic of creation, such as Rabbi Samson Raphael Hirsch and Rabbi Abraham Isaac Kook, saw no difficulty in explaining Genesis as a theological text, rather than a scientific account.
I would be remiss in not mentioning that the Orthodox world is a wide one with many different streams, organizations, philosophies, and beliefs. The Lubavitcher Rebbe, Menachem Mendel Schneersohn z"l, famously wrote for example, that the world was fully created with fossils and bones buried deep within it.
It's important to recognize, as the RCA statement points out, that there is a large range of Jewish belief on the matter.
I remember clearly when my 4 year old daughter asked if G-d really and truly made Adam out of soil, formed him into a man, and blew a soul in through his nostrils.
I explained that we don't actually know what happened, but what we do know is that each one of us is a descendant of Adam, and because Adam's soul is made of G-d's breath, that means that each one of us has a bit of G-d's breath within us. And that is the important part after all, isn't it?
In this time of division in our country and in our world, of great partisanship, of the right and the left drifting further and further apart, it seems that sometimes we are all living in our own echo-chambers.
I thought it was refreshing to come across this statement and remember that often times we have more in common than we realize, even on the most unlikely of topics.
The most important thing we have in common though, is we each have a bit of G-d's breath within us.
I have explored one of the oldest biblical Names as really a way of seeing the world. Moses heard that Name, “YHWH,” at the Burning Bush... The Name never had vowels, and so was not “Yahweh,” nor ”Yahovah.” If one tries to pronounce it, what comes is simply a Breath.
Its brilliance as a Name of God is that It alone, Breathing alone, is “spoken” in every human tongue. All the myriad names of God have breath as their root and nurture. And not only human languages but also every grass and tree, every frog and leopard. The interbreathing of oxygen and CO2 between animals and vegetation is what keeps all Earthly life alive.
As the Siddur teaches, “Nishmat kol chai tivarekh et-shimcha, YHWH elohenu” — The Breath of all life praises your Name, Yahhhh our God,” because the Name is the Breath of all life.
In that phrase, “our God” does not mean the Jews’ God, nor the humans’ God, but the God of all living, breathing beings…
And in our era, when the entire web of life on Earth is threatened by the insistence of some human Carbon Pharaohs on choking us with more CO2 than all the trees and grasses can transmute to oxygen, what we call the “climate crisis” is a crisis in the very Name of God.
Naming God as “the Interbreathing Spirit of the word, Ruach Ha’Olam” is to see each being as unique, all interwoven into Echad, the One…
BTW--The statement from the RCA is one of four texts included in the Melton School of Adult Jewish Learning's lesson on "Creation" found in the "Purposes of Jewish Living" curriculum. For a listing of all the Fall Classes offered through CAJE’s Department of Adult Learning, please click here.