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Who are the real fundamentalists?

Of the thousands of Torah-commentary nuggets emanating from the pen of Rashi (1040-1105), his very first question stands out: Why does the Book of Bereishit exist at all! After all, the Torah is meant to be a book of instruction and teaching. Why not just begin with the first commandment devolving upon Israel as a people, namely, to calculate the months and the festivals?

Rashi’s answer? We have to know how to respond to those who challenge our right to the land of Israel. This we can effectively do only by proclaiming that there is a G-D in the world who allocates destinies and that the destiny He ultimately assigned to the descendants of Jacob, as related in the pages of the book of Bereishit, is the Land of Israel.

But, as anyone acquainted with the terse style of Rashi knows, it is vital not only to grasp what Rashi says but also the profundities of what he does not say.

Rashi could have said that the reason the Torah begins with Genesis is to refute those who challenge the account of Creation in six days, so that the Jew will be able to point to the beginning of the Torah and expound confidently upon how the world was created.

But Rashi does not say this. Rather he declares in effect, in his ensuing comment, the very opposite. The first verse of Genesis does not mean “In the beginning, G-D created the heavens and the earth”. Startling, but true. Such a statement would present a theological abstraction not in keeping with the principle that ‘the Torah speaks in a language accessible to man’. Declares Rashi emphatically: “the opening verse of the Torah is not there to teach the order of creation!”.  Bereishit bara Elokim  means “in the beginning of G-D’s creative process” prior to which remains a Divine mystery.

Rambam (1135-1204) spells this out for us. In his landmark code of law the Mishneh Torah he states that “Creation is an area of study not to be expounded in public… since not everyone has the breadth of knowledge necessary to grasp the clear explanations of these matters in a complete manner”. In other words, where the mysteries of creation are concerned, it is far better for the average individual to simply say eini yode’a, I do not know.

There is a great irony about the ongoing debate, particularly pervasive in the USA, on the theory of evolution versus the theory of Intelligent Design (ID) and whether to allow (!) the teaching of the latter in schools. The proponents of ID demand the evolutionists acknowledge they don’t have answers to the question of how it is that the universe has symmetry, structure and design. The evolutionists retort that it is inappropriate to teach this within the realm of science because such teaching is “unscientific”.

Yet these same evolutionists refuse to acknowledge that the concept of the first living cell coming about accidentally is also unscientific, indeed is nonsense. The odds of creating one DNA chain accidentally is 10-to-the-power-of-40,000 to one, a statistical absurdity.

The simple question I wish to pose is: who are the real dogmatic fundamentalists? The Jewish sages who concede that the precise way the world came into being is an eternal mystery not given to easy explanation? Or the evolutionists who insist they have all the scientific answers?

We hear a lot about religious fundamentalism; indeed the two words are used inseparably so that one would imagine you have to be religious to be a fundamentalist and vice-versa! Orthodox Judaism has falsely been labelled with that vile word by its detractors. To the contrary, what we have is evolutionist fundamentalism at work. Unexpectedly the secular humanists are found to be the dogmatists while the Torah Sages are revealed as the humble seekers after truth.

Rashi’s trenchant opening comment on the Torah advises us on a concrete, historical level what to answer our detractors. On an abstract, cosmological level, however, it tells us that sometimes it’s OK to say:  I don’t have all the answers! Do you?”

About the Author
Rabbi Chaim Ingram is the author of five books on Judaism. He is a senior tutor for the Sydney Beth Din and the non-resident rabbi of the Adelaide Hebrew Congregation