Wednesday, August 27, 2008

Science and Torah in the Jewish Press, Again

From this week's Letters To The Editor (Jewish Press):

The debate over evolution that emerges every so often in the Jewish Press is fascinating. There are two issues I have always had with supporters of evolution, and I hope they can resolve them for me.

One, supporters of evolution claim the world is billions of years old and that human beings, rather than being spontaneously created by God, gradually evolved. If you accept this, then many parts of Genesis cannot be taken literally. This includes the stories of Adam and Eve, Noah, and the Flood. And if you concede that these stories are allegorical, it is difficult to say where the allegories end and the historical account begins. There needs to be a logical explanation of why Abraham should be any more real than his figurative ancestors.

A second issue concerns the role of faith and reason in this debate. For the evolutionists, what would happen if no great rabbis in the past supported your position?

Imagine that rabbis like the Rambam and Rav Hirsch were squarely against a non-literal interpretation of the Bible. Would you still believe in evolution and its hundreds of years of accumulated scientific evidence? Or would you suppress your reason in favor of remaining a religious Jew?

Neither approach should appeal to people who consider themselves both rational and religious. If you accept reason over God, even hypothetically, you cannot claim to still be religious, since God is no longer supreme. Rather, the next issue of Biblical Archeological Review will decide what you believe.

And if you choose to remain religious, what is the value in knowing the two approaches are currently compatible? In the end, reason will have to be sacrificed for the sake of your faith. If not by evolution, then by biblical criticism or some other field of study.

Once you admit you are willing to give up reason, you are effectively saying, like your opponents, that in order to be religious you have to drink the Kool-Aid. The fact that your flavor happens to be a little more diluted does not make it any easier to swallow.

It seems to me that attempting to reconcile reason and religion is like that old proverb about trying to dance at two different weddings at the same time. It is a wonderful idea, but in the end you finally have to make a choice.

Mordechai Silberstein
Brooklyn, NY

Dear Mr.* Silberstein,

Your first question is certainly a valid one. One can certainly make the mistake of going too far and allegorizing the entire Torah. Your right that there needs to be some logical explanation as to why one part should be taken literally and the other not. However, before I address that point, I feel the need to point out that even if one lacks a logical explanation, that does not negate the fact that the first parts of Genesis might be true only in the allegorical sense. In other words, a failure to explain a distinction between the two sections does not mean that the distinction does not exist... any more than the failure to explain nuclear fission fusion until recently doesn't mean it hasn't been happening in the stellar cores for (at least) the last few thousand years.

That being said, I think that when you look at events listed in Tanach, you will generally find that they fall into three broad categories: those for which there is external evidence that it occurred as literally described, those for which there is no evidence one way or the others, and those for which there is physical evidence *against* it happening as literally described. Things that fall into the first category tend to occur later in Tanach -- the destruction of the Beis HaMikdash, the existence of the Davidic dynasty, etc. Things in the second category tend to fall out earlier -- David himself, the earlier Shoftim, etc., the Avos (Patriarchs) themselves fall into this category. The last category tends to include items that are in the earliest part of Genesis -- the story of Creation and the Flood. By examining the physical evidence, you can easily conclude that the earth and humanity have been around longer than 5768 years. You can also easily conclude that a world wide flood, as described in Parshas Noach, could not have happened literally as described. In other words, there is physical evidence (and quite a bit of it) *against* a literal reading of these verses. One could easily postulate that events for which there is physical evidence that they could not have occurred as described should not be taken literally, whereas for events in the other two categories, we can state that they could have or did happen as literally described.

Your second point (regarding the fact that Rabbis in the past have not accepted evolution/cosmology, etc.) is a red herring. One could easily state that the Rambam (since you bring him up) was simply not aware of the evidence. In the lack of evidence to the contrary, I, too, would probably believe in a literal six day Creation. However, I have access to evidence that the Rambam did not. Lest you think that I'm committing some form of heresy by stating that the Rambam may have been deficient in some sort of knowledge, I advise you to open up your Mishneh Torah to the third chapter of Hilchos Yisodei HaTorah where the Rambam provides an entire astronomical scheme which has since been proven wrong. He states that the planets and stars are attached to glass spheres with no empty space (!) between them. He states that the Earth is 40 times the size of the moon, but that is not true by any reasonable measure. He also states that the sun is about 170 times the size of the Earth, but this calculation, too, is incorrect. In other words, do I have to believe these things despite their being physical evidence to the contrary because the Rambam (and many others) believed them to be? The answer is no -- the Rambam did not have access to modern observatories to be able to tell that his measurements were wrong. He could not know that the stars and planets aren't attached to glass spheres because he did not have the technology to find the evidence that it isn't true. The same could easily apply to evolution and cosmology. Since they lacked the evidence that such things could not have literally happened, they were fine with taking a literal approach. Now, however, that we have physical evidence to the contrary, we can (and perhaps must) state that these chapters of Beraishis cannot be taken literally.

You ask the following question:

Imagine that rabbis like the Rambam and Rav Hirsch were squarely against a non-literal interpretation of the Bible. Would you still believe in evolution and its hundreds of years of accumulated scientific evidence? Or would you suppress your reason in favor of remaining a religious Jew?

But what you fail to consider is a third possibility: that perhaps the Rambam would agree with us if he were living today. Perhaps if they had access to today's information, they, too, might agree that evolution occurred. Unless you are going to postulate that the Rambam (and other Gedolim) knew everything and could not possibly be misinformed, ignorant of science or mistaken, then you have to account for the possibility that, if the evidence were available in their day, they might looked at it and concluded that yes, the Flood could not have occurred as literally described.

Your conclusion also seems to have a false dichotomy. You seem to indicate that one must allow literalism to triumph over evidence (or reason, as you put it) since, if not, the person who relies on evidence will eventually have to discard his belief since he will undoubtedly uncover some evidence someday that will disprove the entire religion. But once again, you are failing to allow for a third possibility: the possibility that not everything in Tanach *has* to be read literally, the possibility that allegorical interpretation is allowed**, and the possibility that perhaps, just perhaps, the evidence is correct and that God wants us to use our brains in evaluating it and draw reasonable inferences from it. If not, let me ask you the question in reverse: if you put the Chumash before reason, then what do you do when you find something that incontrovertibly contradicts what the Chumash says? What do you do when you see places that have been inhabited continuously for over four thousand years (in contradiction to the literal reading of the Flood story)? What do you do when genetic studies (the very same genetic studies, mind you, that were celebrated in the Jewish world showing that most Kohanim today descend from one person 3000 years ago) show that it is impossible for us to have all had one common ancestor at the time of the Mabul? What do you do when physical evidence in the earth itself clearly shows it to be older than 5700+ years? Do you just plug your ears and go "la la la I'm not listening?" Or do you think that it's possible, just possible, that perhaps the Torah wasn't speaking literally. If the former, then I respectfully ask just whom is not acting rationally.

Yours truly,

The Wolf


* I do not, in any way, intend to demean Mr. Silberberg. If he has, in fact, earned the honorific "Rabbi," then I would be happy to use that greeting instead. His letter does not indicate one way or the other.

** Of course it's allowed. Or does he think that God's hand was literally seen by the Sea? Does he literally think that Eve is the mother of *all life*? Does he think thatGod's voice literally walked in the Garden?

15 comments:

Mike S. said...

1) Stellar cores are powered by nuclear fusion, not nuclear fission.

2) The idea that literal interpretation of Chumash must be abandoned when it conflicts with observational data has a long and honorable history in Torah; it goes back at least to R. Sa'adya Gaon (Emunot V'deot (ch. 7 IIRC.)) One might reasonably ask according to R. Sa'adya Gaon, exactly how strong and how direct these observations must be. Surely we are correct not to revise our understanding of Chumash with each new issue of Physical review, Nature or even Biblical Archeology Review.

3) How far can we push it without abandoning Torah? Suppose some advanced technology will let us detect footprints thousands of years old, and we try to find a mountain that can plausibly be har Sinai where 2 million or so people gathered, and find conclusively that there isn't one. Do we abandon belief in a literal Matan Torah? Do we stop observing mitzvot? Do we assume without any scientific evidence that there is some undetected flaw in the measurement? Do we assume that a miracle we haven't been told about wiped out the evidence? I guess my first reaction would be to pick the last option, but that is not according to reason, and it would be a real trial for me.

Even if the letter is problematic, at some level the question of how far one can go in reconciling Torah and science, and what to do if and when they clash irreconcilably is a valid one. I confess to have some difficulty even with the Flood; if you want to read it non-literally what is the function of all the specific dates? I am happy to accept that I don't know the answer here and move on, but at some point one has to become more uncomfortable. certainly if the absense of scientific evidence for Yetziat Mitzraim and Matan Torah ever becomes good evidence of I would not be able to accept my inability to reconcile Scripture with observational science as easily as I do with the Flood story.

Mike S. said...

"evidence of I" should read "evidence of absense I"

BrooklynWolf said...

1. D'oh! And I knew that too!

2. I was thinking of mention R. Sa'adya, but decided that the letter was getting long enough as it was. :)

3. Your last point is an excellent one. I don't know exactly where that line is either. Indeed, a number of years back, I had a conversation with a friend regarding whether or not the historicity of a seminal event in a religion invalidates it if it's proven false. We were speaking in terms of the Crucifixion and Resurrection of Jesus, but it just as equally applies to Mattan Torah.

The Wolf

Rich Perkins said...

regarding the portion of the letter about the Rambam . . .

I really don't get the hangup that some OJ have about the impossibility that a godol could be wrong. They really seem to believe that these guys are infallible. Just because the Rambam has had his science proven wrong doesn't make him less of a godol. it just makes him human and possible of erring.

It's like the argument I had with a frummie once about the possibility that some of the opinions and statements in the gemarah are just dead wrong. Even in cases where two rabbanim are arguing diametrically opposing opinions he refused to admit that it is possible one of them was wrong.

http://frustratedorthojew.blogspot.com/

ProfK said...

"Do we assume without any scientific evidence that there is some undetected flaw in the measurement? Do we assume that a miracle we haven't been told about wiped out the evidence?"

Or do we assume the archaeologist's creed to be true: an absence of evidence is not evidence of absence. Just as we have discovered things in our time that were not known to the ancients, we should assume that others in the future will consider us the ancients and will discover things that our science was too "primitive" to discover.

aml said...

Nice post Wolf.

Mordechai Silberstein said...

Thanks for the response.

I didn't write anything about the rambam accepting or rejecting
evolution or what he knew exactly or whether he can make mistakes. I
don't believe he knew anymore than the science at the time.

I just question how people who support the view of evolution, I do
support that view by the way, deal with it. Many imply that it is just
an argument about the first few verses of the bible but its more than
that. My first point is that you have to be willing to say that large
sections are allegorical and I wanted to know how people deal with it.
Your view is that parts in early genesis may be allegorical and other
parts may be real who knows. This is the logical answer, but I just
want to know how many people who believe in evolution are willing to
say you know adam, noah, abraham may have never existed or could be a
old legend based on some truth.I don't mean to say that you have to
believe it is literal but I think if you accept evolution then you
should think out the logical conclusion.

My second point is the fact that in this debate you hear two things
one the evidence for evolution and two how don't worry there are
rabbis who support you. My question was what would they do if they had
only the scientific evidence and no religious support.

Your answer is to get around it by saying that if they were only alive
today they would agree with me. To me it is not really a third way but
basically choosing rationalism. If something does not fit then you can
dismiss it and say they would agree with you if they were alive today.
Take biblical criticism for example. You read James Kugel and you
think he is correct. can you say if the Rambam was alive he would
agree with me and therefore I am still religious. If so, then all
other branches of judaism are equally valid since they all claim to
belong to the third way.

I guess what I am asking is under your way of looking at the world
what would be out of bounds? And if there is something why?

My main issue is with people who believe in evolution today but if
they had no rabbinic support would reject it just as vehemently as they now support it. My point is if something seems correct it should
be correct whether some rabbi approves it or not. Most supporters of evolution will reject biblical criticism out of hand because it does
not conform to their beliefs my point is they are just as irrational as their opponents.

Baal Devarim said...

Mordechai:
"Most supporters of evolution will reject biblical criticism out of hand because it does
not conform to their beliefs my point is they are just as irrational as their opponents.
"

You are absolutely correct. I also wonder about people who vehemently proclaim the irrationality of those who deny evolution and yet, when it comes to other, more problematic (to Orthodoxy) areas of modern study, use the same irrational modes of thought to reconcile religion with reality (as we know it). Not very intellectually honest.

Why is denying the obvious (to practically all modern unbiased experts) origin of the Torah, the ahistoric nature of yetzias mitzraim and the seminal Sinai event, and the evolution of rabbinic Judaism a rational thing to do, while questioning evolution because you feel it denies a fundamental tenet of faith remains highly irrational?

Of course, you may chose to live an Orthodox lifestyle for any reason you deem fit and chose to reconcile the irreconcilable in any way that works for you. But harping on the irrationality of denying modern study while your own world view seemingly requires the same (albeit in different areas) doesn't make for a very cohesive argument.

mlevin said...

1. For some reason I have no problem with believing both scientific and biblical accounts of creation. Here's why. According to the script G-d created trees. That means trees were created already aged, with rings and roots going deep into the ground; uprooted rocks and etc.

Talking to any botanist will tell you that if you placed a fifty year old tree into the ground it will quickly shrivel up and die. Trees can’t live by water alone. They need nutrients, soil, bacteria and other life forms to sustain their existence. (we know other life forms were created the following day)

So, what is soil? Soil is a mixture of rotted plants, dead bugs, decomposed animals and poop. So, back to our tree, before it was created there was a need to create soil first. That means creation of dead/decomposed plants, animals, bugs. Ok, that’s easy, right? But what about poop? Poop is food that was digested and expelled from a body. So, before creating trees G-d had to create decomposed plants, dead animals and digested food…

Genesis doesn’t explain how G-d created Trees (and everything they need for survival) only that trees were created. The way I see it, there is no conflict. Genesis is written as a VERY brief summary of what happened. If we take everything into account earth does look old, people and animals do look evolved, but it was all part of the intricate creation. Because otherwise we [all earth’s life forms] wouldn’t be able to survive pass creation.

2. Matan Torah is a base to Judaism. If you could disprove it, then I see no reason for being frum. You could still claim to being Jewish, as a part of a group of people with similar back ground, but there is no point to observing Judaism.

eli a. said...

>>>>> The idea that literal interpretation of Chumash must be abandoned when it conflicts with observational data has a long and honorable history in Torah;

are you not aware that the sages long ago abondonned the requirement to stick to literal rading of the Torah.

all those "adjusted" laws like eye-for-an eye, head tefillin between the eyes, etc.
so why not also for historical legends.

Anonymous said...

I would like to hear a response to this by Brooklyn Wolf:

Your answer is to get around it by saying that if they were only alive today they would agree with me. To me it is not really a third way but basically choosing rationalism. If something does not fit then you can dismiss it and say they would agree with you if they were alive today.
Take biblical criticism for example. You read James Kugel and you think he is correct. can you say if the Rambam was alive he would agree with me and therefore I am still religious. If so, then all other branches of judaism are equally valid since they all claim to belong to the third way.

Baruch said...

Anon,
It's not polite to come two weeks after a comment thread is over & then throw in a comment asking the poster to clarify something.

Email him or something.

Anonymous said...

I'll check back with follow-up comment feature to see if he responds.
I didn't ask for clarification. I asked that the comment thread continue on its own course. It's Wolf's turn to respond.

Baruch said...

I asked that the comment thread continue on its own course.
Two....weeks...later...oh, whatever, I give up.

Undercover Kofer said...

Rav Hirsch did not preclude belief in evolution: http://www.rationalistjudaism.com/2010/10/wisdom-of-rav-hirsch.html