Sermon given October 16, 1998, by Rabbi Barry H. Block
Jewish people are known for an irritating tendency to answer each question with another question. Rabbis are worst of all. Some answers, though, can be even more annoying than another question. For example, I am often asked whether this or that story in the Torah is true. Those who study with me regularly have stopped asking questions like that, because they can already anticipate my frustrating response. “Yes,” I’ll say, “of course it’s true. It’s in the Torah. On the other hand, it’s probably not historically accurate.”
So it is with creation, the central focus of this week’s Torah portion. This biblical account of creation is true, which is not to say that it is historically accurate. Ever since Charles Darwin first taught his theory of evolution, some religious people have been threatened by that scientific discovery. If evolution happened like the scientists teach us; if the universe began with a “Big Bang,” billions of years ago; if single-cell organisms evolved into more complex plant and animal life, and eventually into humans; well, then, creation did not take place as described in Genesis.
Some religious people have branded evolution a “godless doctrine.” They have tried to ban its teaching in our public schools. Failing that, they have insisted that so-called “creation science,” supporting the Genesis tales, be offered as an alternative theory in science classes. Efforts of this nature continue to this day, and are particularly concerning in our own state, since the Texas Board of Education could fall completely into the hands of the religious right, if we’re not careful.
One could call these fundamentalists “medieval,” if that were not such an insult to our rabbis who actually lived in the Middle Ages. Let’s go back to the twelfth century, 800 years ago, to Maimonides, regarded by all Jews as the greatest Jewish teacher since Moses. He cautioned us not to take the Bible too literally. God is God, totally unlike any human being, completely different from any being we can even imagine. God does not act as we act. God does not create a planet as we would manufacture a shirt or build a house. God’s ways are utterly mysterious. The Torah does not even attempt to tell us how God does things. Such an undertaking would be utterly futile. Instead, the Torah offers allegories, metaphors, and stories that are intended to help human beings derive moral lessons from God’s actions. To suggest otherwise is to argue that God’s acts of creation are limited to the descriptions of the first two chapters of Genesis. Now that is blasphemy. God’s true creative power is much greater than anything that could possibly be committed to pen and paper.
Does the religious fundamentalist really wish to suggest that God would be incapable of establishing laws of nature that today’s scientists are only beginning to understand? Does the religious right believe God to be so limited as to be unable to create the universe in a “big bang?”
At the same time, some secularists foolishly suggest that evolution and big bang theories are sufficient to explain the origins of the universe. Do they presume to know the source of the matter that “banged?” Can science ever truly determine how the laws of nature came to be?
The Torah does not answer all of these questions. That failing, though, doesn’t make it a poor science book. The Bible never was intended as a historical or scientific document. Instead, Torah is the supreme religious tool for understanding the universe, humanity, and our relationship to one another. Therefore, biblical creation should be taught in homes and houses of worship. There, its teachings can be interpreted appropriately, according to each family’s faith. The Bible has no place in the public school science class. Only scientists can teach us how the world came to be. Genesis tells us why.
“In the beginning of God’s creating the heaven and the Earth, the Earth was unformed and void.” God begins to establish order, where previously there had been none. God gives the universe direction. God establishes the laws of nature.
Pagans of old and scientific extremists of today would have us worship the universe itself, as though matter created itself, as though natural laws defined their own properties. Science needs Genesis, to remind it of creation’s ultimate source. In fact, Genesis supports the claims of science, for it endorses the idea that the universe does possess order. At the same time, religious people need science, if we wish to be modern, enlightened people who know something about how the world works.
The six days of creation, described in Genesis’ first chapter, identify an order in which elements and living beings came to be. To a great extent, creation proceeds from lower forms to higher, reaching a climax in the creation of humanity. This order is not entirely unlike the one discovered by Darwin. Science, though, is unequipped to teach us the moral significance of that order. Torah makes it very clear.
We human beings are “to have dominion over the Earth.” Yes, we are of a higher order of creation, superior to other living beings. And yet, that superiority does not give us the right to do with the world as we please, irrespective of the needs of other species. We have an eternal responsibility as stewards of the Earth. We must care for each form of life created before us. The creation story reminds us that we did not make the plants and animals, nor the Earth itself. Therefore, we have no right to destroy them. And yet, the rest of creation is ours to use, during our lifetimes, to enhance existence.
And God says, “let us make humankind in our image.” To whom is God speaking? Among other theories, the rabbis teach that God is speaking to the animals, whom God had just created. God’s plan is to create human beings jointly with the animals. The resulting creation would share attributes of both animals and God. Indeed, we human beings are animals, in body. At the same time, we are endowed with the image of God, the breath of the Divine, giving us the capacity to strive toward holiness.
And yet, religious fundamentalists are insulted by scientists’ claim that we are animals, descendants of other animals. If that theory is heretical, though, the ancient rabbis, and perhaps the Bible itself, are guilty of blasphemy.
At the same time, if scientists insist that humans are merely animals, they, too, are wrong. No big bang theory can explain consciousness; no scientist can account for love; no evolutionary theory can quantify our quest for God.
Torah teaches that the entire human family descends from only one human being. On the sixth day, God is said to have created one person, male and female. The rabbis tell us that God created us this way so that no person should ever claim greater lineage than another. None of us is pedigreed, and none a commoner. We are all equal in the sight of God.
Perhaps, on closer examination, science teaches us the same lesson, though in a different way. The entire universe, consisting of all the mass and matter existing to this very day, was once confined to a space smaller than the head of a pin. Everything that would ever exist, everything that we are, was once one thing, infinitesimally small. If we all came from that one tiny thing, can any being truly claim prouder ancestry than another? We may learn this religious lesson, equality in the sight of God, from science itself.
In the selection we read from Genesis tonight, God breathes life into the first human being, turning dust into humanity. That breath of life is the essence of personhood, the human soul. When our lives end, the dust, our bodies, return to the Earth. But what becomes of that breath, of the soul, of the essence that makes us human?
Science is unable to address this question. Genesis, therefore, does not contradict science, when it teaches us that something of us is Eternal, outside of nature, not at all made of dust. Our bodies decay, according to scientific processes. One day, scientists tell us, even the universe itself will cease to be. The breath of God, though, can not be explained by any scientific theory. Our souls can never die.
Yes, science must be taught in our schools. God has created matter and natural laws in such a way that human beings possess curiosity to understand how our universe works, and how it has evolved into its current state. God has made possible the wisdom and the learning that have found their way into text books, that knowledge may increase in this world.
And yet, if we only ask, “what is historically accurate,” we will only read books of science. We will never learn about the purpose of human life. We will never explore our place in the universe. We will never come to terms with our own eternal lives. We shall live and die without purpose, without everlasting hope.
Thus did God give us a Torah of truth. May we study it, and from Torah gain its own unique wisdom and learning. With Torah, may we live with understanding of our place in creation. With Torah, may we have the confidence to seek learning wherever it is found, especially in the teachings of science. With Torah, may we live with faith.