Rosh ha-Shanah comes this weekend, and although we won't be reading the creation story in Genesis (parashath Bereshith) until next month, it's not too early to start pondering the meaning of Creation and the role of G-d in the universe. After all, Rosh ha-Shanah is "the birthday of the world".
About a month ago, Richard Fernandez posted his essay A Reason to Believe at Pajamas Media. As anyone who reads this site knows, I'm a big admirer of Fernandez and a daily reader of The Belmont Club, but I found myself shaking my head when Fernandez cited Ann Coulter:
Ann Coulter claimed that “if a Martian landed in America and set out to determine the nation’s official state religion, he would have to conclude it is liberalism, while Christianity and Judaism are prohibited by law.” Liberalism, Coulter argues, is a religion in all but name with its own sacraments (abortion), holy writ (Roe v. Wade), martyrs (from Soviet spy Alger Hiss to cop-killer Mumia Abu-Jamal), clergy (public school teachers), churches (government schools,) and creation myth: Charles Darwin’s theory of evolution.
Fernandez adds somewhat lamely that "Coulter’s comparison is provocative, but fails in one essential respect: unlike “early revolutionary Communism”, liberalism is neither visionary enough nor sufficiently disciplined to qualify as a fighting faith."
A couple of thoughts.
First: If Ann Coulter is the only thing standing between us and islamist fascism, then G-d help us all.
Second: Note that Coulter's statement is not an argument - that is, a connected series of statements intended to establish a proposition - and Fernandez doesn't try to claim that it is. It is simply rhetoric, and I think it fails on a lot more than "one essential aspect".
I don't intend to expend a lot of energy arguing with Ann Coulter, but I do want to zero in on the implicit assumption that there's a fundamental dichotomy between "religion" (which, under this assumption, strictly implies a literalist, six-day scriptural belief in creation) and "secular science" (which dogmatically rejects any role of the Divine in the evolution of the universe and the Earth).
Rabbi Abraham Isaac Kook was one of the great religious leaders of the 19th and 20th centuries; he was Chief Rabbi of Jerusalem and of what was then "British Palestine", and a founder of what we now know as religious Zionism. His life was spent walking the highwire between intellect and spirituality, the religious and the secular, Israel and the nations. He is one of my personal heroes.
I am by no means qualified to interpret Rav Kook's teachings, but let me share this with you, from no less a source than Arutz Sheva:
The Torah does not come to negate scientific knowledge or theory. In fact, science can often expand our understanding of Torah ideas. Nonetheless, it must be noted that unlike religious truths, scientific knowledge is constantly being challenged and changed.
Rabbi Kook, in a series of letters that address the thrust of your question, gives us an encompassing approach to this issue.
Concerning the story of the world’s creation, Rabbi Kook writes:
“The Torah certainly obscures the meaning of the act of Creation and speaks in allegories and parables, for indeed everyone knows that the stories of Genesis are part of the Kabbalah. If all these narratives were taken literally, what secrets would there be? The Midrash states, ‘To reveal the power of the act of Creation to mankind is impossible, and therefore the text, In the beginning, is worded vaguely.' What is important about the act of Creation is what we learn in regard to the knowledge of G-d and the truly moral life.”[citation in original post]
The Zohar underscores the importance of this deeper understanding:
“Rabbi Shimon said, Alas for a man who regards the Torah as a book of mere tales and everyday matters…. The stories of the Torah are only the outer garments, and whoever looks upon those garments as the Torah itself, woe to that man for he will have no portion in the World To Come….Wine cannot be kept save in a jar – so too the Torah needs an outer garment. These are the stories and narratives, but it behooves us to penetrate beneath them.”[citation in original post]
Rabbi Kook continues:
“There is no contradiction whatsoever between the Torah and any of the world’s scientific knowledge. We do not have to accept theories as certainties, no matter how widely accepted, for they are like blossoms that fade. Very soon, scientific technology will be further developed, and all of today’s new theories will be derided and scorned, and the respected wisdom of our day will seem small-minded - but the word of G-d will remain forever.”[citation in original post]
Go to the link for the rest. For further reading, here's a discussion of the issue at an Orthodox Jewish site, Hirhurim:
R. Avraham Yitzhak Kook also wrote of the possibility of accepting the theory of evolution. In two letters published in Oros Ha-Kodesh (pp. 559, 565) and translated into English in Challenge, R. Kook discusses the matter:
The evolutionary way of thinking... has caused considerable upheaval among many people whose thought had been wont to run in certain regular, well-defined paths. Not so, however, for the select, hard-thinking few who have always seen a gradual, evolutionary development in the world's most intimate spiritual essence. For them it is not difficult to apply, by analogy, the same principle to the physical development of the visible world.
R. Kook goes on to say that those who are reluctant to accept evolution as a possibility have hesitations but "[t]hese hesitations have nothing to do with any difficulty in reconciling the verses of the Torah or other traditional texts with an evolutionary standpoint. Nothing is easier than this. Everyone knows that here, if anywhere, is the realm of parable, allegory and allusion."
There's much more at the link, and it's a fascinating and illuminating read.
I do not think the present conflict requires us to choose between one fundamentalism and another. Nor do I believe that we must choose between faith and reason. I would wholeheartedly agree with Richard Fernandez' main point, that we must find within us the strength and the wisdom to counter the terrorist enemy with something deeper and nobler. I would submit that the belief in an all-present Divinity, working eternally and unseen according to an unknowable plan, is a part of that something. So, too, is the belief that humankind are called to be co-creators with G-d - a belief that is deeply rooted in the Jewish tradition.
Best wishes for Rosh Hahannah. L'shanah tovah tekatvu ve' techatmu.