Evolution, Roy Moore, science and Torah

Roy Moore holds many views that are adversative to normative American values.

While he is not alone in espousing such beliefs, the prominence he gained outside Alabama over the last few months makes him their most potent national champion.

Perhaps the most dangerous of his views are those he holds toward science, as witness his blistering attacks over the years on the teaching of the theory of evolution in our schools, which he sees as a direct cause of all that is wrong with America. This is especially true when it comes to mass shootings and other violent behavior. “They’re acting like animals because we’ve taught them they come from animals,” Moore once said.

Moore’s newfound prominence on the national stage may very well, then, be the catalyst that reawakens the efforts of fundamentalist Christians, who equate teaching evolution with promoting a godless society because it undermines the Bible’s authority.

One would think that Jewish spokespeople, not Christian ones, would be the primary battleground for defending God’s word against the “heresies” of godless science, since Genesis 1 was a Jewish text long before it was a Christian one. Yet this is not the case.

Judaism, in fact, never has been wedded to the literalness of every word in the Torah. “The Shechinah [the Spirit of the Lord] never descended to earth, nor did Moses or Elijah ever ascend to heaven [even though it is so stated in the Bible],” declared the mishnaic sage Rabbi Yosi. (See the Babylonian Talmud tractate Sukkah 5a.)

Put another way, while we do accept the literal truth of what the Torah says about creation and other matters, we do not accept the literalness of the words and images the Torah uses to express that truth. In the case of creation, for example, while we accept that God created the universe in a blazing moment of light and the earth in five days that followed, we admit that we do not understand what a “day” means in this context, or what is even meant by “created.”

We also accept that there are concepts that go beyond human understanding and that the Torah, which is meant to be a human document, had to express those thoughts in a way we could understand them.

Writing 1,000 years after Rabbi Yosi’s declaration, Maimonides, the Rambam, considered belief in the literalness of the words to be a form of heresy. (See his Mishneh Torah, the Laws of Repentance, 3:7.)

Now, it could be argued that such other great commentators as Rashi and Nachmanides (the Ramban) did believe in the absolute literalness of every word, but that is wrong. They concluded that often, what the text says and what it really says are two different things; to them, there is a “hidden text” that can only begin to be accessed through an understanding of kabalah.

If we accept that the Torah is written in “the language of humankind,” we also must admit that portions of the Torah are written in metaphor.

Keeping this in mind, then, let us look at some of what Genesis 1 actually says (as opposed to what so many people blindly accept that it says), to better understand how words can convey literal truth without themselves being literally true.

Critical to this is an understanding of the opening sequence — Genesis 1:1-3. Accurately translated, the text says that the only thing God created on Day One is something called “light,” although it is not light as we understand the term because that does not emerge until Day Four.

Not only is this light the focus of the “first day” (which itself uniquely focuses on the universe, not on earth, as does the rest of the chapter), but it is written outside the pattern of the other five days, which makes it stand out even more (“first day,” for example, rather than “Day One,” or “let there be…and there was,” rather than “let the x bring forth…and it was so, the x brought forth”). This suggests that this “light,” in fact, is the light of creation itself; it is the creative force from which all else will emerge (as, indeed, ancient commentators noted).

Science refers to this “light” as the Big Bang.

The earth that soon came to be (Day Two) was at times gaseous and at times liquid, until it began to solidify partially. In other words, the earth was a liquid mass, just as Genesis 1:5-8 says it was.

A more perfect fit between Genesis and science seems to follow on Day Three: “And God said, ‘Let the waters under the sky be gathered together into one place, and let the dry land appear.’ And it was so.”

That means there was one piece of land surrounded by water. Not until Sir Francis Bacon in the 16th century did anyone seriously suggest the world’s land masses were once united. Not until the meteorologist Alfred Wegener in 1912 did any scientist put forth a comprehensive hypothesis for the so-called continental drift theory. And not until the satellite photography of the 1960s was there sufficient visual evidence to make a case for the theory being fact. And yet, this is what Genesis says was the case.

Now that you know how this is done, read the entire chapter on your own. Note, for example, that life first emerges from the water, just as evolutionary theory asserts; that creation itself is progressive, going from one stage to another. Note that the word “create” appears at the beginning, but does not appear again until that momentous Day Five when God said, “Let the waters bring forth life,” and that it appears again with the creation of human beings. In other words, “create” in Chapter 1 is used as a sign that something uniquely new has been added.

Note, too, that there is an absence to time references, other than “it was evening, it was morning, the x day.” God says, “let the earth bring forth vegetation,” but there is nothing in the text to suggest the earth did so in an unnatural way, or that anything sprang forth immediately after God spoke. “Let there be light and there was light” suggests immediacy. “Let the x bring forth y” suggests the beginning of a natural process.

This is a superficial look at the very complicated question of how the universe came to be, but Roy Moore and those for whom he is becoming their voice have no interest in even such a superficial look. Science, they say, is evil; evolution proves it; and teaching evolution leads to chaos and violent crime.

They (and we) would be better off reading the text the way our sages and commentators have understood it for over two millennia. Science, in fact, confirms a 4,000-year-old text that contains material that, frankly, only God could have put there.

About the Author
Shammai Engelmayer is rabbi emeritus of Congregation Beth Israel of the Palisades. He hosts adult Jewish education classes twice each week on Zoom, and his weekly “Keep the Faith” podcast may be heard on Apple Podcasts, iHeart Radio, and Stitcher, among other sites. Information on his classes and podcast is available at www.shammai.org.
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