Author of "Embracing Auschwitz" and "Mensch•Marks: Life Lessons of a Human Rabbi - Wisdom for Untethered Times." Winner of the Rockower Award, the highest honor in Jewish journalism and 2019 Religion News Association Award for Excellence in Commentary. Musings of a rabbi, journalist, father, husband, poodle-owner, Red Sox fan and self-proclaimed mensch, taken from essays, columns, sermons and thin air. Writes regularly in the New York Jewish Week and Times of Israel.
Friday, October 9, 2015
Genesis and Evolution: Perfectly Imperfect Together
Genesis and Evolution: Perfectly Imperfect Together
I’m a fan of the website Religious Tolerance.org. I found there this chart, which points out the apparent conflicts between Genesis and evolutionary theory. It points out the many discrepancies between the first creation story (derived from the Bible) and evolutionary theory (derived from astronomical observations, the fossil records, radiometric dating of rocks, etc.):
The differences, while substantial, do nothing to shake my belief that the two narratives are complementary. Note that I said “complementary,” not compatible. Yes, we can go as far as to say that days in Genesis might well have been measured in eons rather than hours. And yes, there is a stunning symmetry in the fact that humans are the last beings created in both accounts. And yes, the Big Bang can be said to echo the starting point of Genesis. But the Torah account never was and never will be intended to describe scientific fact.
It’s a shame that both in this country and Israel, reactionary and literalist forces have made this such a controversy, when, as I see it, Genesis and evolution can easily co-exist as complementary rather than conflicting stories.
Given the newest discoveries in DNA research, Darwin’s theories on evolution have now been nearly universally accepted by the scientific community. Even Pope Benedict gave it his “hechsher.” The evidence of our evolutionary ancestry is written all over the human genome. Intelligent Design has been discredited – notably in trials in Pennsylvania and Ohio. But that doesn’t mean God is out of the picture.
There are those who are very concerned that accepting Darwin’s notion that humanity is an accident of nature would be a bad thing for morality. They claim that if you teach kids that they are evolved from apes they are going to behave like murderous animals.
Prof Kenneth Miller, a biologist at Brown and bestselling author, disagrees with the Creationists on evolution’s role on morality. The core of the Creationists’ argument is that evolution is driven by mistakes. And it’s true that evolution is driven by mutation. “But imagine an organism that never made these mistakes,” Miller says. “We think of mistakes as being bad, but if you have no mistakes, you have no mutation, you have no evolution. What’s going to happen to an organism that replicates its DNA perfectly every time? It’s not going to survive. So by what standard are we calling these mistakes?”
In evolution, perfection is the road to extinction. The path to survival is the path of growth, of change, of shattered patterns.
Maybe evolution is not a mistake of nature, Miller suggests. Maybe it is, in effect, the “design” of nature, the way nature is supposed to work. Somehow, and we don’t know how, something happened that drove that first amphibian to take a big gulp of air and climb ashore. Somehow, at some point, something drove that first bird to flap its wings and soar. Somehow, at some point, a pair of chromosomes melded together – we know which ones they are – marking the evolution from ape to human. Maybe it was random, maybe it wasn’t, but either way, one can easily fit a model of God into this scenario, not a God who micromanages every detail of the universe, but who created a process of flow and change that we call evolution, which reflects the will of the Creator.
One could easily make the claim that evolution is simply teshuvah writ large. Just as we make mistakes and grow from them, so does DNA. So does the universe. So does God.
I think Einstein would agree. The universe, like Judaism, has a bias for change.
Even God has evolved, at least our conception of God; it’s shifted dramatically from the warrior sky God of the Bible to the Rabbis’ concept of ha-Rachaman – the womb-like embodiment of love (which is also, by the way a Muslim name for God). Maimonides looked to reasoned Aristotelian thought for his God, while the Kabbalists added a sense of balance, of yin and yang, to their mystical eroticism. Arthur Green writes, “The Oneness of God, for the Kabbalists, is dynamic and flowing rather than static and unmoved.” God is flowing, emanating, unfolding, and so is Creation.
God is, in fact, breath itself – the life force embodied in breath. We actually have a prayer that says just that. Nishmat Kol Chai tevarech et shimcha Adonai Eloheynu. All who breathe praise You. To breathe is to testify to the march of life, the gift of constantly becoming, constantly growing. Even God’s very name mimics the act of breathing. Yod-Hey-Vav-Hey. Pronounce it and you get the sound of breath. It’s no accident. God is found in that flow of life, in the process of change, and we are created in God’s image. Kol Haneshama t’halelya halleluyah says Psalm 150. The mere act of breathing is a prayer.
Conservative columnist Charles Krauthammer wrote the following after a trial where the Kansas Board of Education tried to impose anti-evolution curricula on classrooms – and lost.
“How ridiculous to make evolution the enemy of God. What could be more elegant, more simple, more brilliant, more economical, more creative, indeed more divine than a planet with millions of life forms, distinct and yet interactive, all ultimately derived from accumulated variations in a single double-stranded molecule, pliable and fecund enough to give us mollusks and mice, Newton and Einstein? Even if it did give us the Kansas State Board of Education, too.
The God I believe in is a God of change. Our lives are governed not by stagnancy but by flow. The only constant is change, and we need to adapt, constantly adapt to it. We need to Grow with the Flow. Like nature itself, we are not perfect. We make mistakes. But perfection is the road to extinction. When we become perfect someday, we’ll all have become robots. Perfection is not a goal to aim for; it is an illusion to dispel.
Evolution, therefore, is completely compatible with Jewish sensibilities and belief. And Genesis provides us with crucial lessons on growth, change and…how we have all evolved from day one.