Sunday, October 03, 2004

Parsha Bereishit: Science vs. Scripture?

Parsha for Shabbat, Saturday, October 9, 2004:

Parsha Bereishit [Bereishit (“Genesis”), Ch. 1, verse 1 - Ch. 6, verse 8]


Everyone knows this verse, even if they know nothing else about the Bible. “In the beginning, God created the Heaven and the Earth.” Or, as the original Hebrew should be translated, “When God began to create heaven and earth.”

Bereishit” (“created” in Hebrew, the book known in English as "Genesis") is the story of how everything came to be. “When God began to create heaven and earth--the earth being unformed and void, with darkness over the surface of the deep and a wind from God sweeping over the water--God said, "Let there be light"; and there was light. God saw that the light was good, and God separated the light from the darkness. God called the light Day, and the darkness He called Night. And there was evening and there was morning, a first day.” (From the Jewish Publication Society translation.)

What are we to make of this? Specifically, I mean, those of us trained in history and science, who know perfectly well that God did no such thing? That back when light first came into being – the Big Bang, the Earth was not “unformed and void,” the Earth did not exist? Are we to surrender our intellectual faculties, the knowledge slowly gathered over centuries and millennia, all because a few ancient Hebrews thousands of years ago wrote down a nice fairy tale about Creation? Before telescopes, before spectroscopes, before even prisms.

The Torah is an amazing story about how my people, our people, Am Yisroel (the peole Israel), all people, came to be. Its history can be debated, its archaeology can be explored, its morals can be argued back and forth, its meaning can be examined unto the most abstruse threads of significance. But it is not, as many liberal Jews have agreed, a science textbook. It does not replace our evolving understanding of physics.

I do not understand the extreme resistance some “believers” put up when science contradicts what they think they believe. My understanding of Judaism is not in the least threatened by my understanding of science. It does not depend on the literal truth of the creation story in Bereishit.

In any case, when science contradicts Scripture, sooner or later Scripture must bow and give way, either gracefully or otherwise. Always been this way and always will. Scripture has no choice; it can’t make any counter-arguments. The story of creation in Bereishit is an argument based on faith, not knowledge. But no matter how much a true believer wants to claim otherwise, in the face of scientific evidence to the contrary, he cannot claim to really know that the Genesis story is correct. A scientist, however, can make the claim that what he knows, he really knows.

And there’s really no contradiction. Bereishit says God loves us and shows that by creating us. Isn’t that enough? Do the particulars, the details of howreally matter that much? The heart of the matter remains.


(Note: all citations from Eitz Chayim ("Tree of Life"), the official Chumash (printed version of the Torah) of the Conservative Movement (copyright 2001 by the Rabbinical Assembly; Hebrew text, based on Biblia Hebraica Stuttgarensia, copyright 1999 by The Jewish Publication Society; English translation copyright 1985, 1999 by The Jewish Publication Society).

(Except as otherwise specifically noted and referenced, all commentaries are mine.)

3 Comments:

Blogger Rachel said...

I've also seen a lovely translation (Everett Fox, if memory serves, though I'm not at home & don't have my bookshelves in front of me) which begins, "As God was beginning to create the heavens and the earth..." There's also once which begins, "In a beginning, God created..." which is intriguing to me but which doesn't work quite as well as the Fox one.

To my mind, the opening lines of parashat Bereshit can teach us a metaphorical way to look at creation. The first thing God creates is light; if we read that as metaphorical light, then we see that God's first priority is wisdom. God begins by creating the light of insight, the light of knowledge, the light of spirit. I think that tells us something about what our own priorities should be: that rather than having lives which are tohu-vavohu, unformed and void, we should strive to speak light into being.

So there's no reason for Bereshit to conflict with current understandings of physics, because they're two completely different kinds of narratives.

October 4, 2004 at 6:21 AM  
Blogger TNB said...

Obviously, I agree with you about the two different narratives. Equally obviously, many people disagree and persist/insist on taking Bereishit as a literal description of the creation of the universe. I came to active Judaism rather late, after a lifetime of interest in science and history, so a literal interpretation was never in the cards. For some people, though, accepting that the universe is 12 billion (or 15 billion or 20 billion) years old, that the earth is 4.6 billion years old, and that mankind evolved to its present form over many millions of years is somehow threatening to their very sense of self, their very sense of security in the world. I can't allay those fears; all I can do is point out what I think is a massive misinterpretation of the idea that God created Man in his image.

What, I ask, is God's "image"? Does God even have an image? The Jewish perspective on God is that God exists outside of time and space, that God is greater than we can understand, and that what we say about God speaks more about us than it does about God. God has no gender, God has no physical form, God is One and God is All. Even the words Jews use to speak about God express this sense that we can't really begin to know God. The words: "El," "Elohim," "Adonai," "Ya," "Shaddai," "HaMakom," "Hashem," "HaKadosh Barukh Hu" - these are words we need to use because words are all we have. (Unless you're a mystic and into Kaballah.)

My point is, God has no image! Certainly not as the word is used among humans. How, then, can God have created us in an image He does not have? Surely what the Bible means is, God created us in his moral image, to thirst and hunger to take after God and to become holy (or as holy as humans can).

And if that's the case, then why could we not be evolving to become more and more like God? If that's the case, our physical evolution could be a side effect of the time it is taking us to become more and more like God morally.

I fully understand that this argument will not persuade anyone who thinks that evolution is an affront to the idea that God created us 6000 years ago or however short the time period they insist upon. And to be honest I do not truly believe that God "created us" at all, at least not in anything remotely resembling a literal sense. But it's a way of looking at it that may get around the idea of us looking like God.

October 5, 2004 at 10:28 AM  
Blogger NoTONoEagles said...

Help Mommy, there are Liberals! underneath my bed!!! (No, seriously, that's the name of the book...) Don't believe me? The dang thing's on Amazon, not some hippie-press bullcrap ;) Anyway, thought you might enjoy, pinko ;)

November 8, 2005 at 8:43 AM  

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