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Monkey Talk in a Biblical Key

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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posted January 26, 2006 at 2:28 pm

I have heard some argue that if “a day is like a thousand years and a thousand years is as a day” then it took 7000 years to create this world? None of us were there in the begining and none of us will ever be there in the begining. Unless one see the simple intracacies of daily life, one cannot see the simple miracles. Let the Darwinist go their way and let the Creationists go theirs. You cannot change the others minds, not without proving the other wrong. Without concrete evidence that proves beyond a shadow of doubt, each are believing, by some sort of faith, that theirs is the correct truth. I believe we are “One Step From Sinai”, but I can’t prove it, just like Darwinist can neither prove where the elephant came from (the elephant is the only animal that has four knees)nor can they explain why an ants poison most resembles that of a rattle snake, but nowhere near that of a wasp or bee (the ants poison is closest to a reptile, instead of its cousins).

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posted January 27, 2006 at 11:09 am

” 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!! “ Oy, what a big boo-boo! Shame on you Rabbi! But then one could look at it this way: When the Scientists grandchildren look at their grandfather, they too see someone who is on step closer to Sinai – and when the Rabbi’s grandchildren look at their grandfather they also see someone who is one step closer to monkey. Honestly – I have never understood the controversy between Religion and Science. I solved it for myself many years ago, when I was a young fundamentalist (notice how some of us actually EVOLVE over the course of a lifetime?) – I say: Torah tells us Who and Why – Science tells us How, When, What and some times Where. I don’t see the controversy.

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posted January 27, 2006 at 1:09 pm

Good thought, Dov. I’m with you. I’ve always felt that it could well have been Hashem who put evolution into place and in motion Since so much of Torah is metaphor and allegory, and G-d practically comanded us to study it, discuss it and interpret it, how can anyone honestly think they have the one correct literal interpretation of its words?

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posted January 27, 2006 at 3:31 pm

Can they add a Trotskyist rabbi to this blog? It’s well and good to have three Marxists representing a supposed diversity of Jewish opinion but some of us are a bit more hard-core and feel unrepresented.

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posted January 28, 2006 at 5:27 pm

As a Christian who understands that mankind will never begin to even minimally comprehend God’s Creation, I am forever saddened when man’s controlling efforts [among them science and religion] prove their utter ignorance by pointing accusatory fingers [in a 360 degree arc] only concerned with relieving themselves from accountability. Why doesn’t anyone ever ask of these arbiteurs of morality and intelligence: “What are you going to say in your defense when standing before God…other than beg for forgiveness?” You’d think in 8000 years, minds “so exalted” would learn the basics of common sense.

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posted January 29, 2006 at 3:47 pm

I agree with Dov, too. I want my child to learn to think critically, to question…learning about scientific theories and how they were arrived exposes my child to a thought process that he can learn. There are holes in the evolution theory that can be identified by applying the same thought process as the one that developed the theory in the first place. Why wouldn’t I want him to learn that? And why can’t he apply that same process to religious beliefs? How many children have been lost to other belief systems because this “brain skill” wasn’t developed? Doesn’t it glorify The One Who Created Us when we use the tools He blessed us with? A God who would punish me for using the mind He gave me is beyond my imagination.

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posted January 30, 2006 at 9:09 pm

Elizabeth, you’re right. I strongly feel that evolution and religion need not be mutually exclusive. I also feel that G-d does indeed want us to use our brains and to think!

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posted February 2, 2006 at 12:12 am

I just want to say that science is not necessarily always right (obviously.) But this really must be recognized in full when believing in a religious creed… I belive scientists have recently found “small” humans in fossil remains etc. Thus it is very possible that science might soon conclude that people don’t derive from the same ancestor as monkeys. The issue when looking at science and religion (which I am by no means saying can’t coexist) is that you have to allow disagreeance amongst the two. Thus a Rabbi can disagree with the monkey aspect of evolutionary theory, yet still be perfectly fine with other scientific advances that do actual good like cure disease, ail ills, and other such scientific benefits. Many times scientists (though when confronted claim that science is constantly changing) appear bent on stating something religious is wrong, yet it can be they are (in a particular instant) the ones who are reallly. Sorry this was poorly worded :)

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posted February 2, 2006 at 1:25 am

I think what the Cardinal objected to (according to his Beliefnet interview) is the scientific hauteur towards religion; that they know for sure that matter, and only matter, makes up the world, and that God couldn’t be involved. I believe in evolution but think he has a good point. God bless!

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posted February 2, 2006 at 1:21 pm

This is an EXCELLENT article. After visiting Israel several times and interacting with my friends there, I understand Rabbi Stern’s objectives and opinions. Moshe gave us the history in written form. It’s enough for me and it’s apparently enough for Rabbi Stern. I am glad my children know and understand how the world came into being through the power of HaShem decreeing such. Because of their cemented belief, they have not fallen prey to the wicked teachings, articles, and textbooks they are presented with in their schools. My children also take a stand in a peaceful way to protest such wickedness. May HaShem be glorified by the young ones who love and believe what He says is truth.

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posted February 3, 2006 at 2:11 am

I like your point about Bibliolatry. Jewish tradition says of Torah “turn it and turn it, for everything is in it,” and teaches that every taste of Torah has seventy faces; if this is so, then surely tying the text to a single literal meaning is a limitation of God’s infinite speech which we should not condone.

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posted February 6, 2006 at 6:13 pm

B”H It’s sad that we can’t learn from our history. Our Torah is the very fabric of our life, and our Sages are the very fabric of our wisdom and knowledge. True, there’s no discrepancy between science and Torah when politics are left out, but politics DO play a part in our current discussion, since it’s “politically correct” to embrace Darwinism and to reject Mesorah. FOr thousands of years Jews sacrificed their lives for the belief in Torah Judiasm as the Rabbis taught it, and now we’re ready to chuck it into the garbage for being “politically correct.” The Lubavitcher Rebbe concusively proved that Darwin was wrong and anyone who is not clear on how to resolve the conflict can read his letters on this subject…Yossel

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posted June 22, 2006 at 5:38 am

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