Minister’s Forum: ‘Intelligent Design’versus science
November 15, 2005
Jews re-started the cycle of reading the Five Books of Moses in the last month, thus returning to Genesis, including the story of creation, as presented in the Hebrew Bible. These stories played significant roles in the formation of Western culture, even if Jewish interpretations of them have not.
“Intelligent Design” emerged from a non-Jewish interpretation of the first chapters of the book of Genesis. What is “Intelligent Design?”
Reading the book of Genesis, a lot of people seem committed to the idea that this accurately describes the creation of the universe, and thus, that the universe cannot be, as scientific theory holds, billions of years old.
This literalist reading of the text seems a little simplistic to me – Jews have been reading allegory and analogy into the Hebrew Bible for thousands of years. We can cope with the idea that this story of six days of creation is a metaphor for a more complicated and involved process of creation. Furthermore, even if we commit to the idea that this narrative is accurate, we can also cope with the idea that six days of time to the divine is very different than six days to us. Jews seldom find problems with science describing aspects of the world that our ancestors couldn’t comprehend. If the universe is different than its description in the language of the Hebrew Bible, our ancestors’ language, then the text may require some interpretation.
Intelligent Design proponents, however, don’t spend a lot of time targeting the whole issue of the creation of the universe, rather they argue with the theory of evolution. Their argument, summed up, seems to be that life and the universe are too complicated to have come about without the guidance of some higher power. Therefore the notion of evolution, as a mere “theory,” can be contested, and their own contesting ideas ought to be taught in science classes.
This is where we run into some disagreements – namely, the difference between belief and science.
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First, people seem to think that just because an idea is “only a theory” that it can be attacked. A theory, in science, is the best explanation we have found to date. Take the theory of gravity – ask a literal reader of the Bible if they are willing to argue with that (I don’t see any arguers with evolution advocating human flight). The theory of evolution is the best explanation that science has come up with to explain the emergence of life – and it takes a lot longer than 5,766 years (a Jewish calculation of our calendar from the start of Genesis).
Most importantly, Judaism never asks us to stop thinking about things, in favor of a blind faith, and, I reiterate, we can cope with complexity in the understanding of our texts. The world took billions of years to come into being, and women didn’t emerge from the body of men? These apparent inconsistencies are easy to explain – we have two creation stories in Genesis – one in the first chapter, and one, the Eden story, in the following chapters. Jews can spend hours just attempting to reconcile the two, and we end up with more explanations than the original two stories as well.
The upshot of all of this seems clear – science and a fundamentalist reading of the Hebrew Bible don’t mix well – let’s keep them separate.
-Jonathan Freirich is the rabbi of Temple Bat Yam in South Lake Tahoe and the Valley Regions Jewish Community.