Evolution and the Jewish Revolution
This post starts with a general theological question and then steers toward current events. The theological question is Orthodox Judaism’s attitude toward Darwin’s Theory of Evolution.
As with many other religions, there is not a unified stance. Many Ultra-Orthodox rabbis repudiate all notions of evolution entirely, and further insist on a young earth (5767 years old in a few days). Among my group, the Religious Zionist branch (also known as the kippot srugot, those who wear crocheted skullcaps), the issue is considered of relatively little importance, and evolution, not to mention an old earth, is accepted with no problems. I bring justifications for that harmonizing stance from that point of view.
A literal reading of the Torah is warranted when the passage is a foundational absolute. For example, the view of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob as legendary figures is unacceptable, because that would mean the promises G-d made to them are also legendary. Most of the historical events of the Torah must be regarded as literal and accurate, for Judaism is a faith rooted in objective history and not floating upon subjective feelings. However, there are earlier sections of the Torah whose significance is in their lessons to us rather than in literal occurrence, so they can be taken to be figurative.
Protestant Christian young-earth creationists regard a young earth and literal Adam and Eve necessary, because they say the belief that there was no death before Adam and Eve ate of the forbidden fruit is foundational; even so, many other Protestant Christians get along fine with an old-earth view, and even with theistic evolution. For Orthodox Judaism the only aspect of the Genesis creation story that needs to be literal is G-d’s creatorhood: He exists literally and He created everything from nothing, and none of His creations is to be worshiped instead of or in addition to Him. But as for the rest—Adam and Eve, their descendants, Noah, his descendants, up to Abraham—here are lessons for humanity to learn rather than literal history. There is no need to believe in a literal Lemech in order to learn G-d’s lesson that technological progress is no guarantor of human morality. The Flood and the Ark tell us of G-d’s hatred of sin in general; later, historical passages of the Tanach show it in particular.
Now the obvious question to an Orthodox Jew who says literalism with regard to the first chapter of Genesis is not necessary would be: What about the Sabbath? G-d commands to keep the Sabbath, one day out of seven, because He created the world in six days and rested on the seventh (Exodus 20:7–10). If these were not literal 24-hour days, then why do Jews keep one 24-hour day out of six as holy day of rest?
It seems like a stumping argument. But then you get to something in the Genesis creation story that not only can’t, but actually mustn’t, be taken literally: G-d’s resting on the seventh day (Genesis 2:2). Do you take it literally that G-d, tired out after six days of creating the universe, took the seventh to lie down on a sofa and take a nap? Of course not. To attribute any human form or weakness to G-d is kfirah (unbelief). G-d did not tire out of six creation days, nor did He take a rest to replenish His energy on the seventh. The account of G-d taking a rest on the seventh day cannot be taken literally, so it must, like many other accounts in Genesis until Abraham, be taken as teaching for us: we are not to keep our mobile phones on, waiting for calls from work, during the Sabbath, as that is the slavery of Egypt; instead, we are to make it a day of absolute rest from creation of anything new, of total abandonment of all the worries of the rest of the week.
However, even if the origin of the Sabbath is not a literal cessation of G-d’s creation after six 24-hour days, the story is there to tell us that He keeps it. We may not know how, and perhaps the Kabbalah (which is forbidden except to Orthodox Jewish men from the age of 40 up, so don’t ask me about it) can shed some light on it, but we are assured that G-d keeps the Sabbath. Not because He needs to rest (the unbelieving anthropomorphism), but because He sets the example to His people. On that, and relevant a few days before Rosh Hashanah, I bring a citation of Rabbi Lazar from the Jerusalem Talmud, tractate Rosh Hashanah, page 7b:
“It is the world’s custom that a king of flesh and blood decrees a decree, [and] if he wants, he follows it, [or] if they want, others follow it. But the Holy One, Blessed Is He, is not so, but rather He decrees a decree and follows it first. What is the reason [for His saying in the Torah], ‘They shall therefore keep My charge, […] I am HaShem’ [Leviticus 22:9]? [In order to say] ‘I am He who kept the mitzvot of the Torah first’. Rabbi Simon said: it is written, ‘Thou shalt rise up before the hoary head, and honour the face of the old man, and thou shalt fear thy G-d: I am HaShem’, [in order to say] ‘I am He who followed [the law of] standing for the old man first’.”
Our G-d could do as He pleases, but He binds Himself by the same laws He has given us. The sages say He dons the tephillin (phylacteries); surely this cannot be taken in an anthropomorphic sense, yet it must be in some other, mysterious way. He was the first to keep the mitzvah of visiting the sick, when He visited Abraham when he was healing from his circumcision. He kept the mitzvah against slander and gossip when He refused to reveal to Joshua that Achan was the one who took the spoils of Jericho. And He keeps the Sabbath, no matter how long ago He created the world and how long He took to do so. Our G-d is the G-d of law. And that, gentle reader, is the revolution of Judaism.
We concede democracy to be a Greek invention; but it was only for elites, even in Athens’ heyday under Pericles. It was far better than neighboring Sparta, but it wasn’t the democracy of today. Today’s Western democracies have a value that the Athenian democracy did not: equality of all before the law, the absolute rule of law. They did not have it then, for the simple reason that it’s a Jewish concept, not a Greek one. Through the fusion of Greek democracy with the Jewish concept of the rule of law, we have Western civilization as we know it today.
It wasn’t a smooth ride: Europe had quite a few centuries to go until it became democratic. But then, the move from Athenian democracy to authoritarianism wasn’t, as devout secularist Bible-haters say, the result of the Christianization of Europe; it was Alexander of Macedon first, and then the Roman Empire, who annulled Pericles’ system of government. But the idea of Greek democracy lay in wait to be realized, and together with the Jewish concept of equality before the law, it spawned the precious civilization in which we live today—the civilization which so many on the Left are so intent on giving up for multiculturalism (inequality before the law) and, by that step, Islam, from which both Greek democracy and Jewish equality before the law are totally absent.
Islam comes in the name of “pure monotheism”. By that, however, it misses the Jewish point entirely: Islam reduces to a numerical message (“One deity, not many”) what Judaism brings as a package deal. Far less than complaints about the wrong number can be found in the Jewish Scriptures than descriptions of the abhorrent actions of polytheists—as well as, it is important to add, praise for those Gentiles who were righteous by their actions, such as Jethro and Dema ben Netina. It was not merely the worship of other gods that was abominable (that is what Islam would say), but the practices carried for that purpose: human sacrifice, temple prostitution and so on. But more, G-d sets another difference, a crucial difference, between Him and the pagan deities: He is faithful, while they are capricious. He keeps His promises, He is even bound to His own laws, while the pagan deities can lie, go back on their words and do anything of their current whim (and that is borne out by the writings of those believers, and not just by the Tanach, in case anyone should complain about testimonial unreliability). Our G-d is bound by His nature and words and laws, and is a G-d who sanctions reason as a way of coming to Him and worshiping Him. He lays forth His claims in a historically, intellectually contestable way, not hiding them in the recesses of one man’s subjective experiences.
Islam puts monotheism above all, but the god of Islam is, upon inspection, seen to be a throwback to the deities which the Torah proscribes: he is not bound by anything, and he has no connection with his human creation except as a king over his subjects. He gives laws, but he is not bound by them—to believe he is bound by his laws, or by anything else for that matter, is kufr (unbelief) in Islam. He transcends even reason, because it is unbelief to say that he is within any created, human box. He makes promises, but the Muslim lives with the thought that he can go back on his word any time, for he cannot be bound by any constraint, not even his own. And even in his own revelation to humanity, the Koran, he goes back on his word—abrogation of verses—countless times. Finally, his revelation cannot be taken to the court of historical debate, for only one man was witness to it—no way to refute the possibility of subjective experience on Mohammad’s part.
Islam, then, lends itself to Pharaoh-like rule—not to democracy, for it repudiates that Greek idea, and not to the rule of law with equality before the law, for its deity is claimed, by the Muslims themselves, to have given his law as part of his raw power. And there is, as we have recently seen, no prospect for reasoned debate with it, for any such debate would, sooner or later, strike the raw nerve-center of Islam, namely its foundation upon the testimony of one man. That, ultimately, is the reason for riots in response to any criticism, for the imams to incite their followers to rage in the Friday prayer speech after the mere news of cartoons or words taken out of their context.