Thursday, August 31, 2006

The Challenge of Creation - New Slifkin Book

Last week, I had the opportunity to pick up Rabbi Natan Slifkin's new book, The Challenge of Creation. In it, Rabbi Slifkin explores the possibility of reconciling scientific evidence concerning the age of the Universe and the evolution of human life with the account of Creation we find in Genesis. There is much to admire in both the form and the content of the work. Moving beyond the details of its arguments, however, The Challenge of Creation is, above all, a powerful testimony to the remarkable courage, honesty and sincerity of its author.

Slifkin notes that religious Jews who are faced with the apparent contradictions between the Bible and modern scientific theories generally respond in one of two ways. The first of these is to deny the veracity or legitimacy of the scientific evidence and to uphold the literal meaning of the Torah. The other is to reinterpret the description presented in Genesis such that it correlates with current scientific understanding.

Rabbi Slifkin is unwilling to compromise his intellectual integrity by accepting either of these approaches to the problem. Instead, he argues passionately and convincingly for an allegorical rather than literal interpretation of Genesis. He explains that the reason why the Torah seems incompatible with science is because the Torah is a work of theology and morality, not a physics textbook. The Torah's presentation of the origin of the Universe is not designed to offer us specific information about the how, when and what of Creation; rather, its objective is to provide us with a God-centered perspective on the world and our place within it. In this sense, contra very popular authors like Gerald Schroeder, Rabbi Slifkin rejects the whole premise that Genesis should even be expected to be consistent with what scientists tell us about Creation.

Rabbi Slifkin draws ample support for his view from the words of the Rambam in the Guide for the Perplexed, as well as several other classical and contemporary authorities. Given the current intellectual climate in the religious Jewish community, the controversy that has surrounded this interpretation is not at all surprising. However, contrary to the claims of his critics, Rabbi Slifkin does anything but denigrate the Torah or the Sages. The Talmud itself explicitly states that profound secrets are hidden beneath the surface of the Account of Creation, and Rabbi Slifkin takes their claim quite seriously. It is those who insist upon accepting the text of Genesis at face value, simplistically and literally, who are guilty of ignoring the words of our Rabbis.

Furthermore, Rabbi Slifkin's works are filled with quotations from Torah authorities who would have either endorsed or at least seriously considered his interpretations. If anything, the solutions he offers have the potential to reveal a depth and sophistication implicit in the Torah that might otherwise have gone unnoticed. Rabbi Slifkin's commitment to demonstrating the Torah's profundity, relevance and timelessness is what motivates him to delve into its hidden teachings and to share them with us. Only an individual with profound respect for the holiness of Torah, the wisdom of our Sages and the value of secular knowledge could have written The Challenge of Creation. In my opinion, its publication should have been celebrated by Jewish communities worldwide as an occasion of tremendous Kiddush Hashem.

For all of its strengths, though, The Challenge of Creation exhibits a couple of significant weaknesses as well. First of all, I experienced it as moderately disappointing and anticlimactic. In the beginning of the book, Rabbi Slifkin surveys a wealth of scientific evidence, dismisses alternative theories of "concordance" between the Torah and science, and lays the groundwork for an allegorical approach to Genesis. During this process, my anticipation steadily increased as I awaited the revelation of a new and improved answer to the conundrums presented. Unfortunately, the answer that Rabbi Slifkin offers, though intriguing, is not nearly as well-developed as his analysis and critique of other views on the issue.

For example, after adducing support for the idea that the "days" in Genesis are not sequentially ordered time periods but instead point to the spiritual or conceptual structure of Creation, Rabbi Slifkin gives a few examples of what this might mean and then basically stops. Not much time is invested in considering the complex implications of this interpretation or in dealing with the difficulties it may involve. Several major questions are left unanswered, such as why the Torah would describe Creation as occurring over six consecutive days if, in fact, its purpose is to present a "hierarchy" of existence and not a cosmogony.

In a similar vein,, once he has introduced and justified an allegorical take on the Garden of Eden narrative, Rabbi Slifkin concludes his treatment of the subject rather hastily. He informs us that Adam and Eve may be prototypes of the human being and that the story of the serpent and the "Fall of Man" may be a metaphoric depiction of the human condition and its conflict-ridden nature rather than a depiction of an historical event involving two specific human beings. Again, this perspective has the potential to deepen our appreciation of the story, and is indeed developed further by some of the commentaries on Rambam's Guide. However, it also generates a wealth of hermeneutical problems, such as the difficulty of determining at what point the Genesis narrative suddenly "becomes literal." After all, Adam and Eve have children, their children have children...this leads to Noah, and then to Abraham, etc. So clearly, on some level, it would seem that Adam and Eve were real historical personalities and yet, according to the current scientific understanding, it is impossible to suggest that all of humanity descended from a single ancestor 5766 years ago. Rabbi Slifkin devotes a few paragraphs to some of these issues, tossing out a couple of suggestions, but no solid approach to the text of Genesis emerges from his musings. His contribution to the resolution of these difficulties is not nearly as comprehensive or insightful as his effort to prove that an allegorical interpretation of some kind is acceptable and necessary.

In summary, I found The Challenge of Creation to be a terrific stimulus for further exploration of the relationship of science to Torah. Indeed, it opened my eyes to several facets of the subject that I had never before considered so deeply. Although many of the ideas in the book require more extensive development and refinement, the fundamental approach that Rabbi Slifkin adopts is both enlightening and encouraging and is definitely worthy of serious study.

Epilogue: My Own Thoughts

Reading The Challenge of Creation inspired me to return to the study of Genesis and to attempt to tie up some of the "loose ends" that come along with an allegorical rendering of the text. This led me to two tentative interpretations that I'd like to present here and hopefully, in the future, to develop more fully. I ask you in advance to excuse the relative choppiness of the following presentation. These ideas are admittedly "works in progress" that I am offering as general suggestions rather than final conclusions.

Six Days of Creation

Interpreting the six days of creation in Genesis as a metaphor yields one major problem: Why is the text worded the way it is, i.e., as the passage of discrete units called "days", with evenings and mornings?

In the discussion of the interpretation of the word "days" in Genesis, it is somewhat surprising that no one points to a fascinating verse in the first segment, "And God called the light 'day', and the darkness He called 'night' - and it was evening, and it was morning, one day." This clearly indicates that the terms "night" and "day" throughout the narrative refer not to the rotation of the Earth, but to the "light" and "darkness" created on the first day.

What does it mean for God to "call" something that already has a name (ex., light) by another name (ex., day)? Following the Midrash and several other commentators (especially Ralbag), light is the metaphysical wisdom manifest in Creation, whereas darkness refers to the material Universe that is permeated by that wisdom. When God calls light "day", this may indicate that He is placing His pure wisdom in a form where it can become intelligible to us - that is, He is preparing it to be expressed through a material base. When God calls darkness "night", this may be a reference to primordial matter, which is unintelligible to us by itself, but will soon become recognizable as that which manifests His wisdom - in other words, through its contrast with "day."

Thus, the metaphor of "and it was evening, and it was morning", could be interpreted as segments of raw material (evening) becoming "illuminated" (morning) through the lawful order God imposed upon them. The emergence of each "day" signifies the creation of another facet of the material Universe through which human beings can perceive the "light", and can distinguish between light and darkness (this is reminiscent of the Havdala prayers on Saturday night, as well as the first blessing before Shema in the morning). This fits perfectly with the notion that Genesis is not chronological, but "philosophical" in its character. However, it is couched in metaphor that conceals its profound meaning because "the Torah speaks in the language of man". Even our Sages cautioned against revealing the secrets of the account of Creation, implying that the relationship between the text and the "reality" is not nearly as simple as it appears to the Biblical literalist.

Evolution and the Dawn of Civilization

As appealing as a metaphoric interpretation of the Adam and Eve story might be, it generates two key difficulties:

1 - When does the narrative of the Torah become literal? If we don't grant real existence to Adam and Eve, how to we explain the origins of Noah, Abraham, and the unfolding of the entire drama of Genesis?

2 - If we accept the notion that man evolved, and that Adam, the first "fully developed" human being, emerged on the scene only 5766 years ago, how do we understand the fact that civilization seems to have existed in some parts of the world for far longer than that? We cannot claim that only descendants of Adam are human, because this would lead to the absurd conclusion that a large percentage of the human race today is not "human" by the Torah's standard. Obviously, we all have souls - so where did they come from?

Contrary to some modern apologists, I would suggest that the concept of Adam as the first man is not a reference to the fact that he was the first humanoid to possess a rational soul, i.e., the first homo sapien. Instead, I believe that the Torah is working with a definition of "human" that is even more subtle and nuanced than we generally assume. A human being is distinguished not only by his potential or abilities - his soul - but through his relationship with God. Although there were other homo sapiens before Adam - this is alluded to even in the Torah, as Gerald Schroeder has pointed out in his books - he was the first to recognize God, to perceive the Divine source of Creation and to orient himself to the world in light of it. This made him the first complete human, because he actualized his inner capacity to grasp the most crucial metaphysical truth and to seek to understand its ramifications.

This explanation dovetails nicely with the statement "Yisrael keruyim Adam", that only the Jews are described as "Adam"; that is, because their lifestyle is rooted in and revolves around their knowledge of Hashem, they represent the ideal toward which human "evolution" propels us.

The narrative of the Garden may be a real depiction of Adam Harishon and Eve's personal struggles, while simultaneously acting as a prototype for what all other emergent humans must eventually undergo. Specifically, the story captures the internal conflicts a human being with consciousness of God experiences - caught between his instincts and egotistical strivings on one side, and his yearning for truth on the other, he presents as a complex and delicate creature - and explains why God saw fit to incorporate so much pain and frustration into human existence. Awareness of our mortality, combined with the constant challenges that we must negotiate throughout life, keep us humble and remind us that we must use our time and resources for transcendent and genuinely meaningful purposes. Primitive man - that is, pre-metaphysically-speculative man - is, due to his unreflective posture, oblivious and thus immune to the conflicts addressed in Genesis.

With this, we can understand why the Torah never discusses the ancient homo sapiens who had evolved in tandem with Adam. Inasmuch as the Torah is a book designed to help humanity understand God's wisdom and live by it, it only records the history of individuals and societies who lived in a framework of God-awareness, as it were. Civilizations who had not yet achieved any such understanding do not come under the purview of the Torah or of Divine Providence. The communities the Torah discusses may not have been the only civilizations in existence, but they were the only ones significant in the Torah's perspective because they had descended from Adam Harishon, the first Knower.

While it is true that even the descendants of Adam became corrupt and strayed after idolatry, there was always a vestige of his initial breakthrough left in society. Our Sages' references to the Yeshiva of Shem and Ever, which would have existed from the times of Noah until the conclusion of the era of the Patriarchs, certainly appear to bear out this contention. It is quite possible that the effects of Adam and Eve's awareness of God reverberated throughout the generations in some form, albeit diluted in various ways through the passage of time. We observe similar phenomena today, where, even in devoutly secular and atheistic cultures, the teachings of traditional religion continue to exert a silent influence on public policy and private conscience.

I realize that many of these ideas are quite speculative and have not yet been fully worked through. However, I felt that it would be beneficial to share some thoughts on these topics which, at the very least, might stimulate further discussion, clarification and debate.


Yehuda said...

Thus, the metaphor of "and it was evening, and it was morning", could be interpreted as segments of raw material (evening) becoming "illuminated" (morning) through the lawful order God imposed upon them.

There is also the question of why the Torah says, "It was evening and it was morning (one, second...) day". There is of course the question of why the day starts in the evening (against when our intuition tells us a "day" begins). But if the "day" begins with the evening it should end at sunset. Why does the Torah give the elements of evening and morning. I believe your approach solves this problem. It is interesting that the seventh day does not have the familiar refrain of "and it was evening...". It is only stated that "G' completed on the seventh day...". I believe your approach solves this problem as well.

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