Darwin and the Jews

I’m not sure the first time I heard that there was a serious conflict between science and religion. But I do remember one day in 5th grade when our rabbi mentioned the subject in Hebrew School. “The challenge is to keep your faith strong while you are studying evolution.”

It has never felt spiritually or intellectually challenging to believe passionately in both science and faith. The notion that science and religion are somehow diametrically opposed does not make any sense to me.  Pursuing truth occurs on all different planes of being.

The beauty of our tradition is that it does not demand that we silently swallow large doses of dogma. We’re supposed to ask questions. We’re supposed to challenge the status quo. Torah commentary begins with questions. We read our Bible stories as kids, but too often we don’t build the bridge from tales and myth to Jewish belief and practice. We don’t develop a sophisticated understanding of how to read Torah as adults. By age five we hear that Eve came from Adam’s rib; by age eight we know there’s no way that’s true. But we haven’t explicitly said to our 4th graders and our older students, “The Torah is mythos, stories we’ve told to our generations about the world and our ancestors and God.” Of course the book of Genesis isn’t scientific fact. It’s not meant to be fact! It’s all about imagery and metaphor and poetry. It’s about an idealized world and an idealized God still in development in the eyes of our earliest Jewish ancestors. A story doesn’t need to be true to be real…

The 207th anniversary of Charles Darwin’s birth is coming up on Sunday, Feb. 12. And I plan to celebrate by proclaiming his genius and his theological wrestling. Nothing about Darwin threatens Judaism. We live in a world of hard science and deep soulful spirituality. We need both to understand the world.

Science and religion are human endeavors to face the mysterious Universe in which we live. That essential question, “Why am I here?” can be answered by science and religion without contradiction or conflict. Both can be used to shed light on the unknown. Both can become weapons of intolerance and hatred.

The choice is ours: to honor our traditions and to honor the truest trajectory of science, or to scoff and belittle one at the expense of the other. We need Genesis and Darwin, cosmology and kabbalah, evolution and the Eternal.

Happy Birthday, Charles Darwin. Shabbat Shalom.


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