Sunday, September 30, 2007

In the Beginning - an unscientific poll

This coming Shabbat is Shabbat Bereshit, and some rabbis utilize it to deliver drashot on Torah and evolution, either for or against. If your rabbi avails himself of the opportunity, please check in, i.e. write a comment, and tell us if he was pro or anti, as well as any pearls of wisdom or ignorance that stick in your mind. If your rabbi puts you to sleep, "You have the right to remain silent. . . ."

Here is a transcribed (by the rabbi) drasha delivered on Shabbat Bereshit about ten years ago in Kingsway Jewish Center by Rabbi Milton Polin (since retired and living in Israel), former President of the Rabbinical Council of America:

The Science of Creation -- A Jewish View
Rabbi Milton H. Polin

After seeing Cecil B. DeMille’s "The Ten Commandments," a young man noted, "Seeing that movie gave me new faith in God." I told him, "Read "the Book;" it's even better." This Shabbat, as we begin to read "the Book" anew, we can find new insights.
For example, one current controversy in American education is whether to teach science according to the Biblical account of Creation or Darwinian theory. Ostensibly, our yeshivot are immune to this controversy since the Torah's cosmology must, by definition, be absolutely true. Yet, taking the story of Creation literally, as the Creationists do, does an injustice both to the wisdom of our Rabbis and to science as it ought to be taught.
Rabbinic literature contains several statements that give a far more sophisticated view of Creation than the Creationists believe. Hopefully, our yeshivot include this information in their teaching of science and do not leave our young people with the view that the God's Torah does not meet the challenges of contemporary science.
Chazal were not closed to "scientific findings." For example, how does the sun "circle the earth?" According to the Talmud, our Sages changed their mind. "The Sages of Israel maintain: the sun travels beneath the sky by day and above the sky by night; while the wise men of the nations of the world maintain: it travels beneath the sky by day and below the earth at night. Said Rabbi: And their view is preferable to ours…" (Pesachim 94b). It is remarkable that our Rabbis were willing to accept the opinion of the non-Jewish scholars when they recognized that it was closer to the truth.
Another example: Which came first, fish or fowl? The Rabbis explained why the requirements of shechitah differ from cattle to fowl to fish. The gemara (Chulin 27b) brings the following claim: Cattle were created out of the dry earth and are rendered fit by cutting both organs; fish were created out of the water and are rendered fit without any ritual slaughtering; birds were created out of the alluvial mud and are therefore rendered fit by the cutting of one organ. R. Samuel of Cappadocia said: You can prove this from
the fact that birds have scales on their legs like the scales of fishes."
Finally--and these are but a few examples --R. Yehudah, commenting on, "and man became a living being" (Bereishit 2:7), tells us, "This teaches that He [God] provided him [man] with a tail, like an animal, but subsequently removed it from him for the sake of his dignity." (Bereshit Rabbah 14,10)
Does this mean that the Torah and/or our Rabbis support Darwin's Theory of Evolution? Not at all. It simply means that our Rabbis were aware of scientific clues in the Torah that explain how God created the world. Similarly, Traditional Jews need not fear scientific investigation, but should search for answers to its questions.
So, too, our yeshivot must address such issues as the age of the universe and the existence of dinosaurs, issues which will and do trouble our children. There is no reason to teach children that Creation began only 5761 years ago or that dinosaurs never existed, ideas that they will reject as they grow older.
As the knowledge of science unfolds, new questions will always arise, but ultimately there cannot be unreconcilable conflicts between true science and the Torah since God created the universe and wrote the Torah. For this reason we must study science to understand the universe and thereby contribute to our knowledge of Torah. Likewise, we must study the Torah and the rabbinic commentaries not only as a record of the authentic tradition and the knowledge of past generations but also for the insights they contain on scientific questions.

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Anonymous Anonymous said...

"Does this mean that the Torah and/or our Rabbis support Darwin's Theory of Evolution? Not at all. It simply means that our Rabbis were aware of scientific clues in the Torah that explain how God created the world."

That's hilarious. He was the president of the RCA??

Tue Oct 02, 03:05:00 PM EDT  
Blogger Zev Stern said...

This was from a transcript prepared after the drasha. Rabbi Polin seldom delivered a drasha from a prepared text, so some garbling is to be expected.
As I understood him and others, if we find "clues" to scientific matters in Torah, well and good. But that's beside the point. Torah is not supposed to teach us how the world works; it's our job to find out how it works (v'khivshuha). Torah came to teach us how to live in the world.

Tue Oct 02, 08:57:00 PM EDT  
Blogger Mighty Garnel Ironheart said...

First of all, the Torah is not meant to be a science text book or a history text books. It is meant to deliver unto us the Word of God and as such those parts of history or science that are relevant to that end are included in it and those parts that aren't are omitted.

Having said that, there is nothing in the first chapter of Bereshis that contradicts what science understands to be the natural history of the universe. A careful reading, along with the commentaries of Rav Shimshon Rafael Hirsch and the Malbim, along with remembering that the Torah was written to speak to people 3500 years ago as well as us, doesn't bring up any contradicitions.

Consider: In the first verse, God creates Shamayim and Aretz. Then later on day 2-3 He creates them again. What gives?

Day 1's Shamayim and Aretz are not literally Heaven and Earth but rather energy and matter, the two things the Big Bang created. The second Shamayim is the ether of outer space, separate from the surface of the Earth by the Rakia, the atmosphere. The second Eretz is indeed the Earth.

The six days weren't 24 hour days. After all, the heavenly bodies don't become visible to the surface of the Earth until Day 4. So who knows how many billions of years it took?

Similarly, in Parshas Noach, we are told that time stopped functioning as we understand it while the Flood covered the Earth. So Noach's year in the ark was really how long?

With some open mindededness one can see that the Torah doesn't not contradict what scientists now say is fact. If anything, you now have to ask: if the Torah was written by men (as the kofrim like to say) how did they get the history of evolution so right way back then?

Sun Oct 07, 06:23:00 AM EDT  
Blogger Zev Stern said...

You know that and I know that. But many others live in their own ghetto walls, shut off from reality, alienating some of our best and brightest and holding Torah up to the world's ridicule. For an example of that ridicule, click here .

Mon Oct 08, 11:41:00 PM EDT  
Blogger Jeff Eyges said...

Over the holidays, I attended a d'var Torah given by a Harvard-educated rabbi from YU, who affirmed his belief that the universe was created 6,000 years ago. It wasn't his main point; he just mentioned it in passing. Still, it upset me terribly.

The non-Orthodox denominations have sacrificed a great deal in terms of "spirituality" (a much over-used word today, I know). The Hareidim retain the fervor of their ancestors - but their world view is an anachronism. The Modern Orthodox are caught in between, in the unenviable position of defining themselves in opposition to those on either side. Increasingly, MO is being absorbed into the Hareidi sub-culture. Those on the right are becoming indistinguishable from the Hareidim. I don't know that there is a centrism any more. Harry Maryles defines himself as a "centrist" - but, a couple of generations ago, he would have been seen as right wing. The progressive Modern Orthodox - Avi Weiss, Yitz and Blu Greenberg - find themselves under constant attack from the frum police.

Other than, perhaps, a nostalgic longing for a romanticized past that probably never really existed - I honestly don't know what it is we're struggling to preserve.

Wed Oct 10, 02:32:00 PM EDT  
Blogger Zev Stern said...

I know the type; I wonder what his major was at Harvard. Sounds like a waste of a Harvard education.
Then there's this "Dr. Yaakov Stern" (no relation to me) who writes letters in the Jewish Press. One wonders what he got his doctorate in. Meanwhile, people like Rabbi Slifkin and ourselves find ourselves marginalized on the left simply because we stayed put while the rest of the Orthodox community moved to the right. It's like Alice in Wonderland.

Fri Oct 12, 02:02:00 AM EDT  
Blogger Jeff Eyges said...

Yeah, I've come across Stern; I just saw a letter he wrote to the Jewish Press about their Slifkin article. I don’t know anything about his background. There’s a Yaakov Stern with a PhD who’s in Neuroscience at Columbia, but I can’t think it’s him.

I’m friendly with an Orthodox rabbi, who grew up frum. His father was an MO pulpit rabbi, but he sent his sons to a Hareidi yeshiva. My friend teaches now at Hebrew College, which describes itself as “post-denominational”. There are women in the rabbinical program, and he’s fine with that. He and his wife are quite traditional in their own practice and beliefs, but they’re warm and open, having friends from other denominations and some who don’t practice at all. This is the way it used to be, before the war. People forget (and, increasingly, are unaware) that YU and JTS used to share faculty.

In the Christian arena, there are quite a few ministers who use the title “PhD”. They used to get them from Christian schools, but there’s been a tremendous increase in recent years in the number of evangelicals and fundamentalists attending secular institutions of higher learning, including Ivy League schools. It’s a significant phenomenon up here in the Boston area; the Globe ran an article about it a few years ago. I don’t know what the corresponding figures are in the Jewish world. I don’t think too many Hareidim are attending Ivy League and other top-tier colleges, but I'd imagine there’s probably a decent percentage of right-wing MO. The YU rabbi I mentioned is in his forties, or perhaps fifty-ish. I suppose he isn’t Hareidi, but he’s black hat. His father, also an Orthodox rabbi and from a Chassidische background, taught at Harvard. Which leads me to your point – you’re right, people like you didn’t change. Orthodoxy did.

The thing that slays me about this Slifkin business is that it’s all so unnecessary, even if one wants to insist (which I certainly don’t!) that the rabbis of previous eras were correct in all of their statements, including those concerning cosmology. There are source materials of accepted authority within the tradition indicating a universe of vast age, previous generations before Adam, etc. Aryeh Kaplan wrote a book entitled Immortality, resurrection, and the age of the universe: a kabbalistic view, in which he dealt with some of these issues. It was endorsed by the Association of Orthodox Scientists – of which I believe you’ve said you’re a member? No one would question Rabbi Kaplan’s frum credentials – yet no one ever mentions this.

Fri Oct 12, 11:11:00 AM EDT  
Blogger Zev Stern said...

I've been a member of the AOJS since the mid-70s and I don't like the direction it's taking. It's in bed with the "intelligent design" crackpots and doesn't seem to care about what that's doing to its reputation as a scientific society.

Sat Oct 13, 10:27:00 PM EDT  

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