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.

Thursday, August 24, 2006

Shofetim - Kohanim in Strange Places

This week's Parasha, Shofetim, discusses several mitsvot that pertain to the structure of Jewish society and government in the land of Israel. Included in this category are laws related to judges, jurisprudence and the authority of the courts, the monarchy, prophetic leadership, and military campaigns.

A closer examination of the Parasha reveals a fascinating pattern. Kohanim (Jewish priests) make several appearances throughout Shofetim, oftentimes for reasons that are difficult to understand. A few examples will illustrate what I mean:

"If a matter of judgment is hidden from shall come to the priests, the Levites, and to the judge who will be in those days, and you will seek, and they will tell you the matter of the judgment."

This mention of Kohanim is understandable, since a fundamental aspect of the priestly role is the teaching of Torah law. Similarly, the references to the gifts that are due to the Kohanim, and their exclusion from any inheritance in the land, are quite comprehensible. However, the following example is more difficult to explain:

"And it shall be, when he [the king] sits on his royal throne, he shall write for himself a copy of this Torah in a book, from before the priests, the Levites."

It should be obvious that all kosher Sifreh Torah are created equal. So why should the King specifically be commanded to copy from the Sefer Torah of the Kohanim, when any scroll should do? Two more examples of gratuitous employment of Kohanim can be identified in the Parasha. One is in the context of the army:

"And it shall be, when you draw close to battle, the priest shall approach and address the people. And he should say to them, 'Hear, O' Israel - You are approaching battle against your enemies today. Do not let your hearts soften; do not fear, panic or be broken in spirit before them. Because Hashem, your God, is the One Who goes out with you, to fight for you against your enemies and to save you."

Immediately after this verse, the Torah proceeds to describe the instructions delivered by the military officers to the soldiers. The question, of course, is - why must the Kohen get involved at all? Why can't the officers provide the men with the appropriate pep-talk?

A final instance is found in the context of the Eglah Arufa, the calf that is decapitated on the occasion of an unsolved homicide. After the elders of the closest city have performed the act of decapitation, we read:

"And the Kohanim, the sons of Levi, approach - for they are the ones Hashem, your God, has chosen to serve Him and to bless in the name of Hashem; and by they word should every dispute and plague be adjudicated...'Atone for your people Israel, that You have redeemed, and do not allow innocent blood to be shed amongst your people Israel'..."

Here again, we observe the Kohanim involved in a ritual that has little to do with their role as religious leaders. Although they are bidden to pronounce the prayer that concludes Parashat Shofetim, it is unclear why this prayer - in contradistinction to most others - must be recited by Kohanim and cannot be offered by the elders themselves.

Suffice it to say that Kohanim seem to be engaged in various aspects of Jewish communal life that lie outside of the bounds of their professional duties of Temple Service and Torah education. What is the reason that they are, so to speak, woven all throughout the fabric of Jewish society?

I would suggest that the dispersion of Kohanim throughout our Parasha is designed to teach us a fundamental lesson. Most communities are structured so as to satisfy the desires and interests of human beings, either individually or collectively. Since spirituality is only one of the many dimensions of the human personality, religion has a definite and circumscribed role within a given society. Even in countries where there is interplay between politics and religious doctrine, a constant tension exists between the two systems. Although the pragmatic, power-driven politician may join forces with the religious leader to accomplish a common goal, the fact remains that the values of the partners are fundamentally incompatible with one another.

Not so in the government of Israel as envisioned by the Torah. The entire Jewish people has a shared mission - to sanctify God's name in the world. Its political, military and social institutions must all be integrated with its spiritual purpose. The king of Israel is charged with the responsibility of studying and enforcing Torah law, not pursuing his own agenda of amassing wealth, women and power. The armies of Israel stand before God and prepare themselves to implement His will - war is not allowed to be used as an outlet of aggression or an expression of nationalistic egotism by the Jews. Finally, when the political leaders of Israel sin, they do not call a press conference and hire spin doctors to restore the public's confidence in them. Rather, they humble themselves before God, repent, and beseech Him for atonement.

The Kohanim, the religious teachers of the nation of Israel, bear the primary responsibility for the mitsvah of Kiddush Hashem on the communal level. It is their job to ensure that the Jewish people remain dedicated to the commandments and involved in the study of God's wisdom. It is their duty to inspire the members of Am Yisrael - its leaders and its laypersons - to draw closer to Hashem through learning and mitsvah performance, so that they achieve their objective of sanctifying Hashem's name in a consistent manner.

For this very reason, the Kohanim must have extensive contact with every department of the government of Israel. The King of Israel must consult with Kohanim to prepare his Torah scroll. The High Court of Israel should include members who are Kohanim. The soldiers of Israel must hear instructions directly from the mouth of a Kohen before engaging in any battle. When a murder occurs on the outskirts of a city, the elders of that city take responsibility for the tragedy and are forced to confront gaps in the spiritual leadership they have been providing. The Kohanim arrive at the scene, represent the elders in prayer and help them refocus their energies on the most basic aim of Torah politics - namely, increasing citizens' sensitivity to the value and sanctity of human life.

Simply stated, our Parasha emphasizes the uniqueness of the political institutions of Israel. Because the government of the Jewish people is designed to be a vehicle of Kiddush Hashem, every agency that makes up its structure - whether executive or legislative, military or judicial, local or national - must be fully aligned with that objective. The connection of these branches of government to the spiritual mission of Israel is accomplished through the involvement of the Kohanim, whom Hashem has designated to serve as His representatives, "for they are the ones Hashem, your God, has chosen to serve Him and to bless in the name of Hashem..."

Tuesday, August 22, 2006

The Authenticity of the Bible

Nowadays, many people question the value of studying the Bible in depth. Therefore, I thought it would be wise to open this blog with a few words on the authenticity of the Biblical tradition and its significance.

Before I begin, let me comment on what I will not do. I will not follow the path of some bloggers, websites and authors who selectively quote from archaeologists and scholars who endorse - in whole or in part - the traditional view of the history of Israel. I realize that, for every quotation I produce that I agree with, ten quotations can be adduced that contradict it. Of course, there are times when the use of quotations is appropriate. A beautiful quotation can provide insight, stimulate thought, fuel debate, or capture an idea in an especially striking manner. Empirical data must also be based upon reliable sources. However, offering citations to support arguments or interpretations is futile because no textual source is any more valuable than the fallible human opinion that it represents. Using scholarly citations as "proofs" can even be counterproductive because they shift the emphasis of a discussion from reality itself to what people say, feel or think about reality. Quotations have an allure to them, an air of officialness that seems to grant them more weight than they really deserve. In the end, discovering the truth is not about finding authorities who agree with us; rather, it is about using our reasoning powers, to the extent of our ability, to try and determine which viewpoints are closest to the truth.

Now, on to the Biblical tradition. Over three thousand years ago, the people of Israel emerged on the international scene as a curious group of iconoclasts - a nation fiercely opposed to idolatry, witchcraft and superstition, the mainstays of primitive worship, and whose leaders were themselves beholden to the Law. The religion of the Jews contrasted sharply, in both form and content, with all other religions of antiquity. In retrospect, we might say that Judaism was millennia ahead of its time. Furthermore, in addition to their unique theology and culture, the Jewish people laid claim to a remarkable history - a protracted enslavement in Egypt, followed by a miraculous liberation and the experience of an unprecedented mass revelation at Sinai.

Many moderns are tempted to dismiss the historical claims of the Bible as nothing more than mythological exaggerations, propaganda designed to give the Jews a sense of pride in their heritage or to win them the respect and admiration of the gentiles. Upon reflection, however, we can see that this perspective is flawed. For right beside the narrative of the Sinaitic revelation is a description of the grievous sin of the Golden Calf. And interwoven throughout the classic Exodus account are almost constant criticisms, rebukes and negative portrayals of the Jewish people. Even our greatest leaders are not immune to castigation - whether it be Moses, Aaron, Miriam or King David, all are scrutinized and their errors and weaknesses exposed. What nation would cling to a historical legacy such as this if it were fabricated? What leaders would perpetuate it if they did not believe in its authenticity?

Let us then examine the chain of Biblical prophets. Unlike the seers of other nations, the prophets of Israel are not agents of the state whose job it is to provide inspiring oracles and blessings to kings and generals. On the contrary, our Prophets fearlessly confront the monarchs of Judah and Israel, challenging their philosophical views, political decisions and personal standards of morality. Their mission is didactic in nature, bereft of mystical, magical or superstitious overtones.

The Jewish Prophets are distinguished not only by the character of their messages, but by their humility. No Prophet of Israel ever attempted to promulgate his own personal vision or doctrines, or to found a new religious movement. The Prophets of the Bible had one overarching, selfless goal (and thankless job) - namely, to return their people to the ancient Torah of Moses. They had no interest in the limelight, in proclaiming themselves new saviors or lawgivers. The prophetic call compelled them to address their brethren, to invoke the memory of Israel's miraculous origins and moral responsibilities, and to recall them to the spiritual legacy they had inherited from their ancestors. Isn't it reasonable to conclude that these great men and women believed sincerely in the message they were communicating?

Examined without prejudice, then, the Biblical canon of Israel reads as a seamless and brutally honest account of its history, law, and foibles. Despite the transparency of Jewish tradition, modern scholars have developed their own theories of the origins of Israel and its "secret" past. Without any documentary or archaeological evidence to support them, these theorists have put forth their own versions of the "real" story of Biblical times and of the process of composition, and in many cases alleged forgery, of Biblical texts.

The alternate versions of Israelite history seem to grow in number and complexity at an alarming rate as the years pass. Still, precious little consensus has been reached regarding even the most elementary details. Such a proliferation of opinions is typically a good indication of a paucity of straightforward, reliable empirical data. After all, if indisputable evidence were available to support one of the hypotheses, then competing viewpoints would have been abandoned by now and new viewpoints would no longer be forthcoming. The truth is that their is no end to the speculative reconstructions of ancient Jewish history precisely because they are nothing more than conjecture and unbridled "creative" interpretation of the limited range of "hard" facts at our disposal.

Advocates of the modern revisionist approach are willing to posit the occurrence of all kinds of remarkable events - such as the later composition of the Torah and its uncritical acceptance by the Jews (who, after all, should have surely wanted to discredit its portrayal of them and the expectations it placed upon them if they could have), the purposeful fabrication of the entire history of Israel, etc. - to account for the unique features of Israelite tradition. This is despite the fact that not one shred of real evidence can support any of their hypotheses.

Ironically, the very Biblical scholars who so confidently put forth these theories will discount the Biblical record of history based upon a lack of sufficient archaeological evidence. So, while they are content to proclaim their own unsubstantiated interpretations of ancient Jewish history and origins, they are unwilling to accept the version contained in the Bible because of a lack of corroborating evidence!

Consider the following: If drastic changes had indeed taken place in Jewish life - such as the "revelation" of the Bible by later prophets, or the invention of Israelite history after the fact - wouldn't some of this be mentioned in the Bible? If these important happenings were considered legitimate and justified at the time, why aren't they recorded in Tanach? On the other hand, if the changes were seen as the result of moral deficiency on the part of Israel - that is to say, if the prophets and priests claimed that the Jews neglectfully "forgot" about the Torah and the Exodus, and their leaders were now "reminding" them - shouldn't the Tanach inform us of this fact? These logistical problems do not deter the critics, who then lambaste traditionalists accept the Torah despite a lack of clear physical proof...

The fact is that the Tanach is the historical record that was maintained by the Jewish people for centuries, and that was, until recently, acknowledged to be accurate despite its "inconvenient" teachings. As such, I see no reason to apologize for my assumption that the Tanach represents a unique and authentic manifestation of God's wisdom as revealed to the Jewish people.

I invite you to join me as we explore its ideas together.

Monday, August 21, 2006


For many years now, I have been a student and teacher of the Tanach (Hebrew Bible). My experiences blogging on my Ask The Rabbi site deepened my appreciation of the value an exchange of ideas in the blogosphere can offer. As such, I felt that a new blog would be the ideal forum in which to present some of my thoughts on Tanach for public consumption, consideration and critique.