Friday, September 27, 2013

Random Musing Before Shabbat–B’reisheet 5774–Toldot Adrian

Just two years ago, I wrote a musing entitled The Unified Field Theorem of the Twelve Steps. Nevertheless, I wanted to return to the same basic topic, which skirts around the intersection of science and religion. I started that musing with these words:

Science has no place explaining religion. Religion has no place explaining science. As someone with a foot in both of these camps, I'm going to completely ignore this conventional wisdom.

I’m going to do exactly that again. In that musing, which might be worth reading before (and even after)you tackle this one I focused on the Hebrew words

תֹהוּ וָבֹהוּ

tohu vavohu, formless and void, all jumbled up, or however you want to translate it. Perhaps this was the period scientists call inflation that happened micro-seconds after the big bang. I suggested in passing, that perhaps G”d was the much sought after “unified theory of everything.”

The wind blows, and here it is, Shabbat B’reisheet 5774. This is what I’ve been thinking of late. See if you can follow the thread as it meanders to and fro.

In 1874, Naphtali Lewy (aka HaLevi) wrote and had published a book entitled “Toldot Adam.” Writing in the Hebrew-style made fashionable for a maskilim, the leaders of philosophers of the haskalah, the (Jewish) enlightenment, he makes the case that Darwin’s newly proposed theory of evolution was in fact consistent with the Torah’s account of creation. Lewy noted subtleties and inherent problems in Hebrew translation, as well as later rabbinic writings (like Midrash Rabbah,) to bolster his case. He even sent a copy of the book to Darwin, along with a cover letter in Hebrew, which Darwin had translated. The letter exists to this day in the Darwin Collection of the Cambridge University Library.

I think many of us can understand why Napthali Lewy felt compelled to write Toldot Adam. I know that I certainly understand that desire to reconcile tradition with modern scientific knowledge. I don’t know that Lewy suceeds. The text is not easy reading, and I am not skilled enough to read it in it’s origisnal enlightenment-style Hebrew. Ancient Hebrew is able to express in just a few words thoughts and ideas that take far many more words in English. Lewy’s enlightenment Hebrew is hardly sparse. That style may be some of the most verbose Hebrew around.

It’s not easy to even slog through a translation. I’ve read through it a few times and I’m still struggling to follow his train of thought and reasoning at times. I’m not giving up, but I’m not sure I can quite get into his mindset, and I still struggle to get into the mindset of the rabbis who wrote the midrashim from which he draws. I am so fascinated by this attempt to reconcile Torah and science that I will keep trying. Especially now that I am also reading again from parashat B’reisheet.

You can find this particular translation of Toldot Adam online. This translation was done by Ardeshir Mehta at the request of Edward O. Dodson, a distinguished professor of evolutionary biology. It should be noted that Dodson was affiliated with and often wrote for the American Teilhard Association for the Future of Man. Pierre Teilhard de Chardin was a Jesuit priest who formed the basis for a modern form of spirituality that embraces evolution and science. Teilhard was a distinguished paleontologist who, like Lewy, sought to reconcile religious thought with scientific reality. Dodson, Teilhard, and Lewy alike should not be lumped in the same category as today’s pseudo-scientists embracing ideas like “intelligent design.”  While there may be some aspects of what looks like “intelligent design” in Toldot Adam and the writings of Teilhard, their purposes and intents were, at least for me, far less suspect. Teilhard’s philosophy placed evolution at the core of how humankind should interact with and relate to the natural world.

Follow the thread.

In many ways, modern liberal Judaisms have attempted a similar type of synthesis between sacred text and modern science. Approaches vary. Some simply reject text that is in direct conflict with scientific knowledge. Some pick and choose, glossing over the more troubling texts.  Reform Judaism encourages making informed choices. Reconstructionist Judaism suggests, in the words of Kaplan, that the past has a vote, not a veto. Conservative Judaism trods  a sometimes more difficult path, allowing wise rabbis and scholars to shape and reshape ancient words in manners they consider faithful, authentic, and reasonable.  Traditional, orthodox Judaisms do the same, though with what might appear to some as greater restrictions and less flexibility than one might find within more liberal circles. I have met people who believe, with perfect faith, that G”d made the world in seven(or six) days yet also believe everything that science says about the age of the earth and how it came into being are also true. They believe what the Torah says about Adam and Eve, yet also fully subscribe to what evolutionary biology says. (Shades of Tevye. They’re both right!)

All these understandings of Judaism have at least this much in common: science and reality are not to be ignored. Two millennia ago wise rabbis were already intellectually honest enough to understand the biblical stories of creation as allegory and not literal history. If you consider what we now know as scientific knowledge, many of our great rabbis, scholars, and philosophers were quite forward-thinking, even prescient. Judaism is not alone in this. Consider how many brilliant scientists also happened to be Jesuits.

I don’t have anywhere near the knowledge of Judaism and Torah, let alone evolutionary theory, to pen a tome like Toldot Adam. I am also wary of conflating and mixing science and religion. I neglected to mention earlier that I find Teilhard’s viewpoint extremely anthropocentric – with little “I am but dust and ashes” to counter the “for my sake the whole world was created.” In addition, Teilhard is sometimes regarded as the founder, if not the precursor, of new age spirituality. If you know me, you know that I look with admitted scorn upon that sort of mysticism and over-blending of science and religion. No pyramids, crystals, copper, yarn strings, channeling, and the like for me, though if that’s your thing, more power to you. I must also admit, however, that my desire to pursue things both scientific and religion can sometimes lead me down a primrose path. When I first encountered the whole “What the Bleep Do We Know?” thing, I found it intellectually appealing at first. I soon came to see that it really was pseudo-science. Yet I also know that scientific ideas like entanglement/spooky action at a distance, superpositioning, the uncertainty principle, wormholes, branes, strings, inflation, super-symmetry, quantum dynamics, loop quantum gravity, QCD, the Higgs boson etc. (and notice how I am carefully walking multiple sides of the physics debates) all have a certain mystical quality to them.

I cannot escape who I am – a person insatiably curious about both science and religion. When I encounter the creation stories in B’reisheet, I cannot help trying to find a way to reconcile them with I know about modern scientific knowledge. There are times when I envy our distant ancestors. It would have been far easier to be a person of faith with their limited knowledge and worldview (though again, I caution against selling their level of knowledge short – they may have been more aware than we think, and just unable to express it because the words and concepts didn’t exist yet. So they did the best they could with what they had.

I might even suggest that the existence of two seemingly different creation narratives here at the beginning of the Torah speaks to the fact that even our ancient ancestors were of more than one mind when it came to questions of human knowledge and human consciousness, and the realities and mysteries of the universe.

Just two years ago, I closed my musing this way:

Here's the thing for me. As fascinated and driven as I am to understand tohu vavohu, to discover that there really is a theory of everything, these are mere distractions from the real tasks before me. (Now I am NOT suggesting that science stop seeking answers, or that religion stop as well. There may very well turn out to be a theory of everything. G"d may or may not be a part of that ultimate theory, though we could get into a real semantic loop here.) So I intend to go about my life trying to change the things in the universe that I can change, not trying to change the things in the universe that I cannot change, and seeking from Judaism and science the wisdom to know the difference. (How's that for the ultimate conglomeration of science, theology-Jewish, Christian and otherwise, and the 12-steps?)

It seems that, like a driven leaf, my thoughts are different this year. Thus I am compelled, now, and always, to find my own “Toldot Adam.” To live in the liminal world between science and faith. As we begin anew the cycle of reading our Torah, what better time to dedicate myself to continued investigation on both fronts?

Shabbat Shalom,

©2013 (portions ©2011) by Adrian A. Durlester

Other musings on this parasha:

B'reishit 5773 - Mixing Metaphors
B'reishit 5772 - The Unified Field Theorem of the Twelve Steps
B'reishit 5771 - B'reishit Bara Anashim
B'reishit 5770 - One G"d, But Two Trees?
B'reishit 5769 - Do Fences Really Make Good Neighbors
B'reishit 5767-Many Beginnings
Bereshit 5766-Kol D'mei Akhikha
Bereshit 5765 (5760)-Failing to Understand-A Learning Experience
Bereshit 5764-Gd's Regrets
Bereshit 5762--The Essential Ingredient
Bereshit 5763--Striving to be Human
Bereshit 5761--Chava's Faith
Bereshit 5760-Failing to Understand


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