Navonim - The Ramblings of Garnel Ironheart

Navonim - The Ramblings of Garnel Ironheart
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Friday, 5 March 2010

Not A Necessary Conflict

Anyone holding a radical position which isn't very defensible will usually work overtime on delegitimizing his opponent's position.  A good offence is, after all, the best defence.
This is quite obvious when it comes to the issue of understand the process of evolution in the context of the Torah's narration of the creation of the world.  For folks on one side, there is only the literal reading of the Torah.  Aware or not of the weakness of this position, they spend great effort on constructing theories that sound, to outsiders, like they're completely absurd, such as the "ready made dinosaur bones" idea.  They then busily attack any who disagree as heretics who don't deserve a hearing for their ideas.
Their opponents on the skeptic/atheist side are no different.  If natural history is different than the Torah's narration, then the Torah must be wrong, there must be no God, chalilah, and everything can be explained by the randomness of evolution.  They then work on villifying religion as irrelevant or a source of all the wrongs in the world, despite all the evidence that it's not religion but rather the abuse of it that causes much of what is wrong out there.
But what both sides save their worst energy for is the middle ground, the group that says that there is no conflict between Torah and science.  For extremists at either end, this way of thinking is the real threat to their position.  Having staked out a "Things must be exactly the way I describe them" position, a working compromise that accomodates both concepts fully is a great threat.
However, this does not change the legitimacy of the middle ground, especially when it is the only position that can answer all the questions being asked without having to resort to dogmatic or scientifically incorrect statements.
This is why I was pleased to read Israeli Science and Technology Minister Daniel Hershkowitz' comments on the compatibility of evolution with the Torah:
Minister Hershkowitz was asked whether the Education Ministry's chief scientist's reservations regarding evolution are just cause to oust him from his post. As a rabbi and a scientist, Hershkowitz responded that there is no contradiction between religious faith and Darwinism and that the chief scientist's position need not be a pretext for his dismissal.
Hershkowitz elaborated: "First of all, we can observe that from the perspective of faith, there is no need to oppose Darwin's theory of evolution. Harav Kook already wrote about it: '…even if we were to learn that the order of Creation was in accordance with the evolution of the species, there still is no contradiction as we gauge through the simplicity of the Torah's verses, which are much more relevant to us than any other former knowledge with which we do not have a deep connection. The Torah certainly speaks obscurely of Creation…'"
According to Hershkowitz, "It is also worthwhile to read the book by Rabbi Yitzhak Shilat, 'The Teachings of Rabbi Gedalyah' (on the writings of Rabbi Gedalyah Nadel, the student of the Hazon Ish), that shows Ovadiah Sforno, who lived more than 300 years before Darwin, proves from textual verses that the creation of man in God's image is the end of a long process that started with a non-rational creature, which belonged to the category of animals, and progressed until he had human intellect alongside the physiological structure of man with which we are familiar."
As Rav Nosson Sliffkin has already (too) famously pointed out, there are plenty of significant authorites in Judiasm who have no difficulty with the concept of an old Earth and universe.  The attacks against his position have been typical, with accusations of "quote mining" from some and others claiming Rav Eliashiv, shlit"a, said something to the effect of "They could say it, we can't."  None of these rebuttals have been terribly convincing.  The opponents who accuse Rav Sliffkin of quote mining prove their position only by doing the exact same thing, only this time picking those commentators whose positions are favourable to them.  As for Rav Eliashiv's statement, if he indeed did say it, there is a simple reply: Maybe we can't say it, but we can read that they did say it and know about it.
On the other side, there are those for whom any whiff of legitimacy to religion is equally heretical from a secular point of view.  Raise questions about the holes in the theory of evolution and be prepared to face intellectual wrath equivalent to a Neturei Karta mob on a Sunday afternoon outing to burn down the local gas station.  Those who are willing to discuss evolution, take it for granted that some form of it can explain the development of life on Earth but wish to see it as a process directed and controlled by God are, for the skeptics/atheists, just another form of religious fanatic.
Look, there is no quesiton that there is ample evidence that evolution has directed the development of much of life on Earth.  Anyone who questions the legitimacy of natural selection can safely be laughed at.  Examples happening in real time, like the development of antibiotic-resistant bacteria and new viruse strains, abound.  It is simply not intelligent to declare that this process is not happening. 
On the other hand, do Darwin's theories explain everything about the current form of life on Earth?  No, they don't.  One quick and easy example is to look at the belief that men descended from monkeys.  In fact, there is now evidence of a common ancestor of both apes and man which points to separate evolutionary pathways, something inconceivable just a few years ago.  Needless to say, the famous "missing link" has already still not been found.  Proponents of evolution say that this is due to gaps in the fossil record and therefore can be assume to be present.  Possibly, but they have no evidence, just consistent theorizing to prove this.
Therefore a middle position understand that the Torah's account of creation is not meant to be understood in a literal sense and an embracing of the knowledge of science to help understand God's means for designing and running this world would be an emminently sensible position to take.  It removes conflict, allows for belief and an examination of the evidence, and presents the most plausible explanations to many difficulties. 
No wonder opponents on either side work so hard to destroy this middle ground.

10 comments:

David said...

"Therefore a middle position understand that the Torah's account of creation is not meant to be understood in a literal sense and an embracing of the knowledge of science to help understand God's means for designing and running this world would be an emminently sensible position to take."

Except that the idea that God (or Wotan, or Ra, or Shiva) created the world using forces and powers that are extranormal and not subject to the laws of science is, inherently, an unscientific theory. Now, "unscientific" is not the same as "false," but it is very much the same as "not the proper subject of scientific discussion."
Pretty much everyone believed that Adam and Eve lived about 6,000 years ago until science proved that it just could not have been so. It's nice that you've found a way to rationalize holding beliefs that you have chosen to hold independent of any evidence for or against them, but don't insist that it's a "middle ground."

You accept that the Torah was handed to an individual standing on a mountain, and that it's word-for-word the product of God, as opposed to a pastiche of different texts put together by people (a more likely explanation, as it doesn't involve magic). Which is to say that you're pretty much an extremist, too.

Garnel Ironheart said...

So accepting that God played and plays a role in history and creation while accepting scientific stability of that creation is extreme? Odd..

Shalmo said...

What David is saying is that this evolution is reconcilable with Torah movement reeks of ad hoc explanations.

If one reads the Torah naturally without presuppositions then you reach the obvious conclusion that the world is 6000 years old. Emphasis on this being the "natural" meaning of the Torah; the meaning we reach by letting the text explain itself without us making it say what we want it to say. That's exactly what the geneologies lead to.

If you are going to change what Judaism has claimed for 2000 years, because now science has shown that mice do NOT come from spontaneous generation, then essentially that is just ad hoc explanations.

And if you are willing to re-think the age of the universe then what about other things the Torah says?

Now that you have accepted evolution, then I wonder how long will it be before your views on Torah are no different than those of James Kugel?

You agree with the biological sciences, well how long will it take till you agree with the textual and archaeological sciences as well?

And when you do come to the same conclusion as James Kugel, that the DH is just impossible to ignore anymore; then what?

Just as with evolution, will you start preaching that yeah DH is true but it does not hamper us
from having a Judaism from God? Will the DH accepting people then become the new "middle-ground"?

The point is as time goes by, piece by peice, the natural meaning of the Torah is being chipped away and the frummies are forced to slowly slowly accept portions of what the other side says.

So how long will it take till you completely accept what the other side says? That the Torah is just not true, otherwise you wouldn't have to struggle so hard to explain it. If it was trully given by God then you would not need all these ad hoc explanations to hold on to your religion.

There certainly is a God. And there certainly is a gift of reason granted by him to us. And we can use that reason to lead all human affairs; whether politics, philosophy, or ethics. We don't need holy texts. And the fact that you have to reimagine jewish tradition every single time a contradiction with science arises, whether the age of the universe or Chazal's pseudo-science of spontaneous generation; shows that you also know we don't need holy texts to lead fruitful lives.

Dr Mike said...

Shalmo exhibits exactly what you're saying Garnel:
a) Set up an impossible-to-defend understanding of Judaism
b) Condemn the defenders.

No wonder you can't stand him.

Shalmo said...

Dr. Mike I am keeping Garnel honest. Without me he would become another Jacob Stein!

The Leader, Garnel Ironheart said...

I'm impressed Shalmo. I didn't know you could spell "honesty". You certainly no nothing about it.

David said...

"So accepting that God played and plays a role in history and creation while accepting scientific stability of that creation is extreme? Odd.."

Garnel, now you're just playing word games with me.

You have stated in the past that there could be no possible scientific evidence that would convince you that the Torah was not given by God. That, I would submit, comes fairly close to defining the word "extremist."

The Leader, Garnel Ironheart said...

David, I would submit that you are the extremist my post is describing. The effort you are putting into trying to prove that there can be no logical accomodation is frightful. What is the threat to you? And no, I don't want to hear about the "But that's because it isn't true!" stuff again.

David said...

Garnel,
First, "tu quoque" is a logical fallacy, not an argument.

Second, I'm not sure how my position can be viewed as extreme. I've looked at the evidence for and against the proposition in question, and have (with some regret) come down on the side opposite you. I may be wrong and, if shown to be so, I will change my opinion (after all, I have in the past).

You, on the other hand, have insisted that: a) you have evidence for your beliefs (which consists largely of reinterpreting the Torah to make it square with the evidence); and b) that, regardless of the evidence, you will continue to believe that the Torah is true. Thus, all of your so-called "logical accommodation" is neither logical nor an accommodation. It is merely a post-hoc rationalization of what you have already decided you will believe. And that, my friend, makes you an extremist.

SJ said...

Shalmo loves Garnel. Garnel loves Shalmo. XD