The Canadian Jewish News

November 9, 2006 18 Cheshvan, 5767

In the beginning: science, Genesis and the wondering Jew


Whether we read the tangled tales of our “founding family,” or the mystical account of the origins of morality in the Garden of Eden, Genesis has always been the most engaging and the most challenging of the Five Books of Moses. But no part of it has exercised more attention than the account of Creation described in its opening 34 verses.

Way back, I was comfortable in understanding Genesis – Bereshit – as a majestic, spiritual account of Creation, containing in its short texts infinite spiritual truths. It was not a literal account. In the mid-1960s I first encountered Lubavitch-Chabad Chassidim who argued that the world was exactly five-thousand-and-some years old, and that God created fossils. But no one I knew – including several Orthodox rabbis – took them seriously. It was an exotic sideshow to the Chabad “gig,” which we all loved, in its uncomplicated, pre-Messianic incarnation.

A little later on, I encountered the “Orthodox Jewish scientists,” who sought to demonstrate by elaborate interpretations that the text of the Bible did not contradict any scientific theory. It was noticeable that as the scientific theories changed, so did the explanations. While, again, the arguments were sometimes fascinating, I could never understand why they were necessary. But every year, I loved those few weeks in the fall when the New Year began with the reading of the powerful account of the beginnings of the world as we know it. I could listen to Bereshit being read from the Torah without being troubled.

I am still not troubled, but others are troubling me. For in today’s Orthodox community, there are strong and insistent voices saying that you have to believe the world is 5767 years old or you are a heretic, with all the exclusions that are implied. Whether you are meticulous in observing the commandments or not is no longer a sufficient yardstick.

As has been reported in these columns before, the books of Rabbi Natan Slifkin are at the centre of the current controversy. Rabbi Slifkin is a remarkable personality, a brilliant scholar and, as is increasingly evident, a very, very brave and principled young man (he is in his early 30s).

Fascinated with animals since his childhood, and despite the fact that he has no university education, he amassed huge expertise in and enthusiasm for any and every connection between the animal world and Jewish tradition (see his website, This seems to have led him to consider the question of evolution and the question of how to understand the biblical account of Creation from within a traditional framework. His published answers, firmly grounded within classic Jewish sources of impeccable Orthodoxy, nevertheless were not fashionable. The fact that he comes from within the “yeshiva world” itself seems to have particularly annoyed his detractors.

His rational but unfashionable views suggest that the struggle to “reconcile” science and Genesis is essentially superfluous. Since the biblical account of Creation is not, and was never meant to be, a literal historic or scientific account, the methodologies based on “science” or “history” are irrelevant to the Torah text. He goes one step further and embraces science as a wholly legitimate branch of knowledge, capable of illuminating our vision of the world in spiritual as well as utilitarian ways.

His new book, The Challenge of Creation (Yashar Books), a much-expanded and revised version of an earlier work, discusses three major issues – the overall relationship between science and religion, our understanding of Genesis and our understanding of evolution.

It is closely argued and well-written, and not without flashes of humour here and there. The first two chapters deal with the reciprocal relationship between the search for universal structure in the last 200 years of scientific theory, and monotheism. They are riveting – beautifully written and easy to understand.

Rabbi Slifkin goes on to deal with the grounds for conflict between scientific and religious systems and the limits (or otherwise) of religious enquiry. Part 2 of the book deals comprehensively with Jewish approaches to Creation. He surveys – patiently – each of the “literalist” defences of the biblical text – the previously mentioned “God created fossils” approach (first advanced by a 19th-century Anglican clergyman), the “previous worlds” approach, the popular “length of the day in Genesis” approach, and others.

He goes on to show, however, that the recognized boundaries of traditional Jewish belief have always included the legitimate option to regard the account of Creation in the Torah as a deeply spiritual but symbolic and not literal allegory. A secondary, but no less important argument, demonstrates that rabbis have always been ready to reconsider their beliefs according to the evidence or theories of different times and places. The validation of the ability to change, adapt and reinterpret has enabled Jews to encounter and respond to different challenges and cultural/philosophical currents in many different times and places.

Part 3 discusses evolution from a conceptual-theological point of view, surveys how Jews (and Christians) responded to Darwin, and shows – again – that a respectable group of impeccably Orthodox rabbis saw no problem in accepting the theory of evolution.

The Challenge of Creation is important for two reasons. The first is that it powerfully and rationally argues that to be Orthodox need not – indeed, must not – mean abandoning reason, nor need it mean rejecting science. That is – as indicated – a courageous statement in an Orthodox world that has been hurtling in the opposite direction for the last 30 years or so.

Rabbi Slifkin’s courage brought a firestorm down on his head. But his book is a powerful injection of calm common sense into an increasingly eccentric community. The small group of Orthodox who yearn to hear voices in Orthodoxy to whom we can relate – we feel like one of Rabbi Slifkin’s ecologically endangered species – owe Rabbi Slifkin a huge thank you.

The second, less immediately apparent reason, is that it is a practical complement to recent, and important, books by Menachem Kellner and Marc Shapiro, demonstrating that the parameters of Jewish definition have always been fixed by tests of practice, not tests of belief. Being Jewish was always about what you did, not what you thought. That idea sharply distinguished Judaism from most branches of Christianity, whose test of faith was belief, and it can only be conjectured whether those who want to reverse those parameters actually understand what damage they are doing. (Given the equally strong movement against the study of Jewish history in the same circles, it is entirely possible that they don’t.)

You may agree or disagree with Rabbi Slifkin. His book is the most intelligent and interesting I have read on the subject, although I do not share all of his beliefs or all of his approach. It is a remarkable achievement for a young scholar. But he is also making an important statement about the nature of discourse and the acceptable process of “machlokes l’shem shamayim – argument for the sake of Heaven” in the contemporary world. This civilized, respectful, erudite, well-argued, beautifully structured book is a revelation in a controversy that has been marked by crude and adversarial public mud-slinging. His opponents could learn major lessons from him in derech eretz, let alone in Torah.

Paul Shaviv is the director of education of the Anne and Max Tanenbaum Community Hebrew Academy of Toronto.