Here we are again: parashat Bereshit, the Genesis story. Hang on, folks. The world is about to be created all over again!
For more than a century now, Jews have not known quite what to do about creation. Genesis 1 is a lovely story. We enjoy reading it, even chanting aloud, “There was evening and there was morning, the first day… the second day,” and so on. The story leads up to Shabbat, and we retell the last part of it each Friday night as we raise our cup of wine to sanctify the seventh day. “Heaven and earth were finished, they and all their hosts.”
Of course, most of us don’t believe this story, not in a literal sense, and not even in the sense that each day represents a different era of planetary development. Still, our relationship to this story is one of affection, loyalty and rootedness. It might even be called faith, but it can hardly be characterized as belief. Modern Jews are not Scopes Trial types; we believe in science and progress. We respect university education, and that includes evolutionary biology, geology and all the other sciences that contradict the Genesis narrative.
But then what do we believe about our origins, how we humans got here, and the implications of that question for understanding who we are and how we are to live? Did it all come about just by random happenstance of natural selection? Is our consciousness nothing more than blood, tissue and brain synapses? Or is there some mystery about the process before which we stand in awe and wonder, a dimension of existence that continues to elude us, whispering “I will be what I will be” (Exodus 3:14) every time we think we’ve got it all classified, labeled and explained away?
For much of the 20th century, these questions didn’t seem to make much difference. Fundamentalist Christians were on the ramparts over Darwin, but were joined by very few Jews. If we did ask theological questions in that century, they were mostly about providence (How could God have let this happen?), revelation (Did God really give the Torah?) and authority (If not, why we should we follow it?)
But in the 21st century, creation leaps right back into its classical place (see the works of Maimonides and the book of the Zohar) as the greatest of all theological issues. The most urgent item on our collective human agenda in this century is changing the way we relate to the natural world of which we are a part. Unless we transform our rapacious patterns of interacting with the environment, we humans will simply not survive. Those of us who read the environmental scientists know that, but we have not yet internalized it. We have barely made a dent in convincing our political leadership to move this issue to the forefront of their agendas.
How can we possibly go about effecting this change in human attitudes? We can hope to do so only by entering into the mythic structures of our self-understanding, the way we humans see ourselves and the world around us. It is urgent that we re-create a sense of the sacred in the way we see our place in the world. We need, in other words, to use the great power of religious language — including elements of our ancient origin stories — to awaken our collective human conscience before it is too late. But we need to do so in a way that complements, rather than contradicts, the contemporary scientific discourse.
Evolution itself, the great journey from the earliest and simplest forms of life to the vast complexity of the human brain, can become “the greatest story ever told” if we narrate it through the eyes of awe and wonder. Telling that tale, as we can these days, in ways that stimulate both the physical senses and the poetic imagination, will help to crack open the doorway to an old/new sense of two things that we Jews have always understood well: partnership and obligation. In the ancient language of tradition, we are God’s partners in the ongoing making of the universe. We feel ourselves addressed by a God who makes demands of us, instructing us on the right way to live.
Do we need to be believers in order to participate in this work? Not in the old tale, and not necessarily even in the old religious language. But the work does require faith in the possibility of a renewed approach to the sacredness of life, an awareness of the divine presence within all that is. We turn back to tradition, as we open our holy book once again, to give ear and open our hearts to the living spirit that dwells within it. Our task is to find new words, new vessels for that old wine of deep spiritual awareness, words that can awaken minds formed in our scientific age and help us to transform our ways of living while there is still time.
Dr. Arthur Green, rector of Hebrew College’s Rabbinical School, is recognized as one of the world’s preeminent authorities on Jewish thought and spirituality. In addition to his Rabbinical School role, he serves as Irving Brudnick Professor of Philosophy and Religion and is Professor Emeritus at Brandeis University. Previously, he taught at the University of Pennsylvania and the Reconstructionist Rabbinical College, where he served as dean and president from 1984 to 1993. A prolific author, his most recent books are Radical Judaism (Yale, 2009) and a revised edition of his Jewish vocabulary These Are the Words (Jewish Lights, 2012).
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