Virtual Talmud

When I was studying in Yeshiva, I heard the following sad but telling story about one of the great American rabbis of the twentieth century:

The rabbi took a plane trip across the country with his extended family. After boarding his flight and getting himself settled into his seat, he turned to the person sitting next to him and introduced himself. The passenger responded by telling the rabbi that he was a scientist and was on his way to a conference to study the origins of man. The rabbi said that he traveling with his family and was going on a vacation were he would have the opportunity to study and learn with his grandchildren.

Over the course of the flight, the two men continued to engage each other in conversation, arguing the world and everything beyond its borders. Every 15 minutes or so they would be interrupted, however, by one of the rabbi’s grandchildren, who were sitting at the other end of the plane. One by one, each would gently ask, “Zaidee [grandfather] can I help you? Is there anything you need?

Finally, as the plane was preparing to land, the scientist looked at the rabbi and exclaimed, “Rabbi, how is it that your grandchildren have so much respect for you? I am lucky if my grandkids call me once a week. Yours come visit you every few minutes!!”

The rabbi then turned to the bewildered gentleman and, pausing for effect, explained, “You see, when my grandchildren see me, they see someone who is one step closer to Sinai. When your grandchildren see you, all they look at is someone one step closer to a monkey!!”

This pathetic story–originally told to me with the hope of demonstrating the so-called “brilliance” of this rabbi– highlights everything wrong with much of religion’s relationship to science and scripture. (By the way, for a good overview of the different positions on this issue, see Religious Responses to Evolution.)

For whatever reason, it seems that it has become en vogue for rabbis, ministers, and priests to see the biblical word as fixed, literal, and dead. Although there has never been a weekly headline that an American clergyman/women could not fit into the biblical word for their Saturday or Sunday sermon, for many when it comes to Darwin all such homiletics and interpretive magic vanishes.

There is great irony in encountering the Bible as an interpretively dead text. Those who espouse such a perspective have not only diminished the relevance and reach of its all encompassing narrative but have actually created what has so famously been termed“bibliolotry.”

Bibliolotry is when the Bible is made into an absolute fixed text whose word is immovable and acts as an end in and of itself. When religious figures say that evolution is incompatible with a worldview rooted in the Bible, they mock the whole enterprise of exegesis and the dynamic nature of interpretation.

Every reader of sacred text makes interpretive decisions. No reading of the Bible is pure, unmediated, or authentic. We all bring to the texts our own ethical, communal, individual, spiritual, and historical baggage. Perhaps no better example of such interpretive behavior is the recent re-examination of the issue expressed by Cardinal Christoph Schönborn in an op-ed in The New York Times. In contrast to earlier, more modest church proclamations, the cardinal, in an age of increasing worldwide religious fundamentalism, now suggests that evolution is incompatible with Church doctrine and the biblical creation narrative.

Schönborn is not alone in his zeal to make the literal biblical story into a dogma for America. Although rich with a multiplicity of interpretive options, many in the Orthodox Jewish community have come to support such a position and have argued that the literal biblical word should be presented alongside the scientific theory of evolution. (See, for example, the Orthodox Union’s position and the comments of Rabbi Avi Shafran).

What’s most disturbing about so many religious figures who embrace the creationsim argument is that they act as though Jesus and the entire Shulchan Aruch [compendium of Jewish law] can be found obviously and clearly from a simple reading of the biblical text.

It’s sad that the only things that can bring together Jew, Protestant, and Catholic seem to be those issues that pit religion against civilization and culture. To be sure, there are serious moral and ethical questions posed by evolution. But hiding behind a so-called “authentic” reading of the biblical text and claims to Sinai instead of seriously confronting and grappling with the challenges only cheapens God’s word and makes those who take it seriously sound like monkeys.

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