Monday, October 09, 2006

Whither the Ass'n of Orthodox Jewish Scientists?

The next to last issue of Intercom (Winter 2006), flagship journal of the Association of Orthodox Jewish Scientists (AOJS), carried my answer to Rabbi Meyer Lubin's attack on evolutionary theory. It also carried Rabbi Lubin's reply and, most significantly, a question from one S.B. (pity that he would not use his full name - I wonder why) concerning the improbability of a world-wide flood. The editors of the journal asked for answers. I wrote in, answering Rabbi Lubin (again) and also answering S.B.
The next issue of Intercom just came out; it is not yet available online. My answer was not there. Well and good, but neither was any reply to S.B.'s very valid question. It is as if S.B. had been vaporized in some Orwellian nightmare. Instead, the editors trotted out a submission from 40 years ago by one Reuben E. Gross that adds virtually nothing to the discussion on evolution and does not begin to address the difficulties with the mabul. It is hard to escape the conclusion that the leadership of AOJS is afraid to tackle S.B.'s question. Again, I wonder why. YOOOOHOOOO. We are the AOJS. It is our stated mission to provide guidance to seekers like S.B., who might end up abandoning Jewish observance if their doubts are not addressed intelligently. If we ignore the S.B.'s among us, we will have lost our raison d'etre as an association of Orthodox Jewish scientists and we will soon lose the few academic scientists and science educators, myself included, that we still have. We might as well change our name to the Association of Orthodox Jewish Physicians and Health Care Professionals. Not that there is anything wrong with that, and AOJS is doing some very good work in the area of practical medical halakha, but we will no longer be the AOJS that I joined some thirty years ago.

Here is the unpubished letter I sent to Intercom in response to S.B.'s problem:

To the Editor:

Congratulations on the thought-provoking previous issue of Intercom. To answer Rabbi Lubin’s letter, the distinction between “Species A is descended from Species B” and “A and B share a common ancestor” is an important one. Humans and mice share a remote common ancestor with all mammals; humans and chimpanzees share a much more recent common ancestor. It is no more accurate to say that humans descended from mice than it is to say that mice descended from humans. The inferred common mammalian ancestor was certainly more rodent-like than human-like but was not a modern mouse – or rat or hamster. The cartoons to which Rabbi Lubin refers do, of course, show man evolving from nonhuman primates but, like all caricatures, they exaggerate and distort what actually happened. The fossil record does not support a gradual straightening of human posture; upright walking appears to be an all-or-none phenomenon. The “stooped” Neanderthal skeletons turned out to have suffered from arthritis (other finds suggest that Neanderthals cared for their sick and injured and buried their dead – how’s that for middot?). A closer approximation of reality would show successive human ancestors spending less time swinging from trees and knuckle-walking on the ground in the manner of chimpanzees and more time walking upright as the ratio of forearm length to height decreased. That the adaptation of the human skeleton to upright walking is not yet complete is evident in the spinal disc problems many of us experience as we grow older. That our very recent ancestors made a living pursuing big game with primitive weapons on the African savanna has tremendous implications for hinukh, as teenage yeshiva students increasingly present with obesity, high blood pressure, high cholesterol, impaired glucose tolerance and similar maladies previously seen only in middle age and later. Simply put, the human organism was not designed to be sedentary and we ignore the demands of our stone-age genes at our peril.
The book I cited at the end of my original letter, and that the Rabbinical Council of America cited in its recent statement, was an anthology containing the work of many different authors with different viewpoints. Most were accommodating of evolution, and some totally accepting of it. The Lubavitcher Rebbe’s letter offered a dissenting view, which seems to have become the party line in the haredi world. In 1976 there was greater tolerance in the Orthodox community than there is now; if such a book had appeared today doubtless it would be banned by Rabbi Elyashiv & Co. and burned in Lakewood.
The question posed by S.B. – actually a masterful exposition of the improbability of a worldwide flood as described in Parshat Noah - frames the issue in even starker terms. Ancient civilizations tend to be located in river valleys because, with apologies to Willie Sutton, that’s where the water is. Rivers flood from time to time, hence almost every culture has a flood story. There is evidence (Ryan, William and Walter Pitman, Noah’s Flood, Simon and Schuster, 2000) of a cataclysmic flood of the Mediterranean Sea northward as glaciers melted and sea levels rose 7500 years ago, creating the modern Black Sea and inundating nearby settled communities. Accounts of this catastrophe could have survived in the mythology of the peoples of the Tigris-Euphrates and been reduced to writing when writing was invented much later. The Torah has a higher purpose than to serve as a textbook of science and/or history. When it has a moral lesson to teach, it freely draws on the mythology current among the people to whom it was given, a people already rich in both oral and written tradition. When we read the accounts in the beginning of Sefer Bereshit, we should be asking ourselves what we can learn from them, and not bogging ourselves down in a futile quest to defend their historicity. This approach liberates Judaism from any particular picture of physical reality and allows us to accept the discoveries of modern science wherever they may lead. We thus have no religious differences with evolutionary theory; truth cannot contradict truth. We do have religious differences with the abuse of the theory for political and ideological purposes but that, says Chaucer, is another tale. Literalism in interpreting Torah is best left to the Karaites.
As an interesting aside, primates are unique among mammals in possessing the clavicle, or collar bone, one on each side of the body. These bones supported our arboreal ancestors, as they support modern chimpanzees, as they swung from one tree limb to the next. It recently came to light that a Polish peasant family had hidden some Jews in a barn during the Holocaust. The son strapped food to his back and swung from tree to tree to get from his house to the barn and bring the food to the Jews, so as not to leave tracks in the snow for the Germans to discover. I was teaching the skeleton to my classes when the story broke. As I remarked to my students, if we believe in God perhaps He made us primates so that those good people would be able to do what they did.


Zev Stern, Ph.D.


Anonymous Ariel Sokolovsky said...

The Torah has a higher purpose than to serve as a textbook of science and/or history. When it has a moral lesson to teach, it freely draws on the mythology current among the people to whom it was given, a people already rich in both oral and written tradition.
Wiothout addressing other issues involved.
I fail to understand why would anyone taught this way in his childhood would observe mitzvot of this same Torah that is suposedly based on a mixture of mythology and ancient Sabean and other superstitions.
Why would a Jew obey Torah taught this way anymore than a Catholic would obey the dictates of his religion if the information in these letters from Vatican
would be taught to him or her in the 1st grade .

Tue Nov 07, 08:18:00 PM EST  
Blogger Neandershort said...

The mythology is not the source of our beliefs; Torah is the Divine blueprint for human society. We accept that without proof, as we do the axioms of algebra. Truth claims of other religions are best left to their adherents; we do not accept them. Mythology is the literary device conveying the ideas, the lashon bnei adam comprehensible to the ordinary flesh-and-blood people who stood at Mt. Sinai with their traditions and their cultural background.
As for teaching such concepts to children, hakol l'fi buryo, teach them what they are capable of understanding. Like sex, the time to teach the difference between historical and literary-poetic truth is probably when they start asking questions, assuming they haven't been conditioned against asking questions. For me that came in seventh or eighth grade.

Fri Nov 17, 07:23:00 AM EST  
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