Evolution 'Weekend' - Devar Torah on Religion & Science

    Devar Torah (Word of Torah)

    Parashat Mishpatim

    27 Shevat 5769 / 20-21 February 2009

    Rabbi Joe Blair

    Shabbat Service Commemorating Evolution ‘Weekend’ 2009


    The Torah (five books of Moses) portion we have just read for this week is a combined reading, taken from the reading known as Mishpatim (Ex. 21:1-24:18), along with the reading of an excerpt taken from Ki Tisa (Ex. 30:11-16). The first section is the continuation of the reading of the Torah in the standard cycle beginning at Simchat Torah (Rejoicing in the Law), while the second section is a special additional reading to acknowledge that this is Shabbat Shekalim (the Sabbath on which we recall the per capita tax for maintenance of the Temple).

    The weekly portion, Mishpatim, is a continuation of the narrative that began last week in weekly portion Yitro (Ex. 18:1-20:23), in which the people have all witnessed the revelation of G-d, and they have received and accepted the Aseret Hadibrot (the ten sayings, sometimes called the ten commandments). They have been overawed by encountering G-d, and have asked Moses to speak to G-d on their behalf. 

    We begin our reading this week with the people still gathered at the foot of Mount Sinai ten weeks after they have fled from Egypt. Moses is still conversing with G-d for the people, and is being given a summation of the laws that G-d commands the Hebrews to follow. Moses hears and writes it down for the people, then, as G-d instructs, Moses goes up on the mountain into the cloud of fire to be given the Tablets and to learn the full contents of the commandments.

                Reading these two sections together as a whole, we find that G-d is giving Moses the information on how the people are to live in a shorter form, having Moses deliver that information, then having Moses ascend to learn the full scope of the instruction (Torah) and how to interpret and apply the laws contained in it. This section is sometimes referred to as the Sefer Habrit – the book of the covenant – setting out the rules and regulations for how to live (in an abbreviated form). This is enough for some purposes; but the full version is coming along shortly. If I just want to know what to do this minute in the normal course of events, the short form is adequate. If, however, I want to know what about in the case of a person in a space ship passing a plutoid who encounters a previously unknown type of animal…. Then, I would need to look to the full version and use the techniques given for how to apply these rules in new and unusual situations. In short, I would need to use the correct method or tool to find the answer. We always need to find and use the right tools to approach questions of import. 

                Not very long ago, after I had concluded telling the class the outline of the exciting story of the parting of the reed sea (not ‘Red,’ as it is so often mis-stated) to one of the younger classes in the religious school, one of the young boys in the class came up to me afterwards, and in a very earnest way, asked me, “Did that really happen?”

                That young boy voiced a question that so many ask. They aren’t as direct, or as clear, and they add in all sorts of presuppositions and assumptions, but at the bottom of it all, they are asking the same thing, and for much the same reasons.

                That is the question that led to the creation of the science of archeology. That is also the question that led to the development of many religious beliefs in the world. The question is common, but the tools selected to try to answer make a difference.

                It seems to me, in fact, that this is the question that is at the heart of the divide in approach between those who seek a literal reading of the Scriptural text , and those who interpret it. These positions in many instances have come to be framed in the light of science versus religion.  

                I think that this framing is a mistaken idea. It is not one or the other; rather these are two different approaches, two sets of tools to try to examine the world around us. Human nature being what it is, when someone has a hammer, everything they see is a nail!  That way lie a lot of smashed fingers, and not many answers!

    The issues, when approached from each of these perspectives, present different aspects. For the religiously focused, there is a nut and bolt, and the tool needed to make it work is a wrench. In that way of thinking, the bolt is how things are, the nut is how they came to be that way, and the wrench is G-d. The goal is find and accept an explanation for what it is, and why it is as it is.

    For the scientifically minded, there is a wood screw, and the tool needed is an appropriate Phillips head screwdriver. The screw is the observed world, and the screwdriver is the series of theories and experiments used to try to take the screw out of the wood. The goal is to take it all apart and see what makes it tick by eliminating all the possible explanations one by one until there is nothing else that can explain what is.

    Insisting on using the tools that the other approach needs leads only to frustration and failure, and criticizing the other for using different tools is nothing but foolish.

    To argue with science as a valid methodology for not being a religious approach is no more sensible than arguing with the screwdriver for not being a wrench, and vice versa. To my mind, the two approaches are compatible and congruent. As a Jew, I see no difficulty in believing in G-d, the Creator, and also in applying the scientific method to tease out more information about the world around us, the very world that G-d created! There is no need to select one or the other. Such a formulation is pointlessly divisive. If you prefer one approach or the other, that is fine; but that does not negate the other as a valid approach, when it is used for the appropriate inquiries. 

    More: to dogmatically and stubbornly cling to one or the other – either one - is to minimize the wonder of G-d. For example, when science seeks to dismiss the marvelous, miraculous events of this world as ‘just’ normal, it does damage to all of us as human beings who are privileged to see G-d’s handiwork in the everyday miracles of the growth of a seed into a plant that then buds and flowers, or the birth of a child with a unique, individual personality. At the same time, for the religious to scoff and jeer at the scientific approach as godless and faithless is equally an affront and belittling of G-d, because it was G-d that created mankind with the intellect and the tool making ability, coupled with the urge to explore and understand that led to the scientific method and approach.

    Admittedly, I am primarily one who approaches things from a religious perspective, so the examples I am using presuppose that approach. That said, I have absolutely no problem with science, or approaching an examination of things in that fashion.  As a Jew and a religious person, I am comfortable with the understanding that all knowledge is ultimately from G-d. Science is one of the ways to approach knowledge, and in that way learn more about G-d and the world that G-d has created.

    Coming back to that young boy, the right answer for him was not to answer, but rather to turn the question around, and to ask him, “What do you think?” He paused, thought, and then told me, “I think people think so, but maybe it was all pretend.” He then ran off towards some of his friends. He used the tool that fit for him, and the answer he found worked for him. By giving him the freedom to answer for himself now, he has the power to revisit that question through his life, and to come to different conclusions.

    As he, and we, grow and mature and change in our lives, we move back and forth between different approaches, and reach different answers at different moments. For me, this too, is part of the everyday miracle of life. We are not trapped in one view or one approach. We have the ability to find the tool that works for us and continually to find fresh insights into the nature of the world, ourselves, and G-d. To limit ourselves to one view is to put blinders on and to miss part of the marvel that is the world that G-d has made.

    Shabbat shalom.