Our biblical story of creation is stirring, and poetic, but is it true? If we want to know about the creation of the universe, we are not likely to open the Hebrew Bible; instead , we would probably look to science. In plain language, the scientific versions are factual; the biblical account is not.
In 1925, John Thomas Scopes was arrested for teaching the theory of evolution in Dayton, Tennessee. William Jennings Bryan led the attack, claiming that the Bible was the true Teaching about the creation.
A couple of years ago, a neighborhood science teacher asked if I believed that the Genesis account of creation was true? I answered, yes. Great, he said. Would I like to speak to his class about my understanding of creation? This modern-day John Scopes thought he was inviting a modern-day William Jennings Bryan to reenact the classic duel.
However, I told the class that while I believed the Genesis account of creation to be true, I also believed the scientific theory of evolution to be true. My response was greeted by puzzlement on the part of twenty-five eighth graders and disappointment on the part of their teacher. I went on to explain that science is one of humanity's great truth traditions, and religion is another. The two have threatened each other since well before the theories of Charles Darwin were formulated. But they needn't be engaged in such a heated rivalry because their goals are so different.
Science can help us understand how the world was created, but it can't tell us why it was created. And religion has no business telling us how the world was created, but we desperately need it to help us understand why we're here.
Genesis doesn't discuss the survival of the fittest, but, as you well know, the Darwin's scientific creation story does. That story's operative principle of the survival of the fittest became known as Social Darwinism, which taught that only the truly gifted deserve to survive. It is unfortunate that this teaching has become an axiom of modern life.
In contrast, our Jewish tradition has always taught that we are responsible for the survival of the least fit: the orphan, the poor, the lonely, and the stranger, to name just a few. And in Genesis 1:27 we are told that every single human being is divinely gifted and deserving of dignity.
The opening of Genesis tells about the creation by God of a universe of harmony, balance, and beauty, formed from soupy chaos, tohu vavohu. It is the most profound story we know, and it reminds us why we are here. It sets forth our work, and our challenge. But is the story true?
Regretfully I must admit that the story is not true, or at least not yet. When will it be true? When we accept our responsibility as God's partners in creating the world described in Genesis.
In that book, we read 469 measured words about God's creation of a harmonious, ordered, and interdependent universe. Can those words literally remake our world? Can any words have that much power?
In only 272 words, Lincoln's Gettysburg Address broadened the scope of the Civil War by stating the larger philosophical declaration that "all men are created equal." Not everyone-Northerner or Southerner, black or white-believed that "proposition" to be true.
Speaking for only three minutes that day, Mr. Lincoln "revolutionized" the revolution, giving people a new way to view the past that would change their future irrevocably.
So what makes us think that our quaint, poetic creation story is untrue? Only our lack of imagination and commitment.
At the time of this writing in 1997, Richard Jacobs was senior rabbi at Westchester Reform Temple, Scarsdale, New York.
Just a few weeks ago, we observed Rosh HaShanah, traditionally considered the birthday of the world. This week's Torah portion, B'reishit, recounts that event for us in two versions. The first is found in Genesis 1:1-31 and 2:1-3. The text describes each day's creation with a growing sense of excitement, reaching its peak on the sixth day with the creation of humankind, male and female. The reader senses God's delight and joy in this work of creation. In a paraphrase of the text, God blesses them (male and female) saying, "Look at what I (God) have done for you! I have given you this most amazing gift. Be fertile and increase; fill the earth and master it; and rule over all living things. All that grows shall be yours to eat. This magnificence is for you." On the seventh day, Shabbat, God completes creation and takes a well-deserved rest.
The midrash on this event inserts a note of caution. On a walk with God, Adam is shown both the visible and hidden beauties of nature. God speaks to Adam saying: "Look well, Adam; all this immensity was created for your sake alone. Be careful; do not destroy anything, for after you there will be no one to repair what you have undone." (Kohelet Rabbah 7:13, as retold in Messengers of God: Biblical Portraits & Legends by Elie Wiesel, p. 9)
While the midrash states that the world was created for the sake of Adam, tradition also tells us that the world was created for the sake of each one of us. Each of us must see himself/herself as the first human being in creation.
Consider the following:
- What does it mean to you that the earth was created for you?
- What responsibilities and tasks does that imply?
- Is being a master of the earth compatible with being its caretaker?
- Psalm 24 reminds us that, "the earth is God's and all that it holds, the world and its inhabitants." If God is the Owner, so to speak, what is our role?
- How have you contributed to the repair and upkeep of the world?
If Rosh HaShanah celebrates the birthday of the world and Parashat B'reishit recounts it, take this opportunity to give the world a birthday present. Here are five gifts you can give the earth:
- Place live plants in homes, offices, and schools. This adds oxygen and beauty to the environment.
- Use durable cloth bags when shopping instead of paper or plastic ones.
- Combine errands, making fewer car trips. This reduces emissions into the air.
- Arrange with your local utility for an energy audit of your home to determine where and how you can save energy.
- Educate yourself on the needs of the environment. Use the resources in your public library or browse the Internet. Choose a cause and become an active participant on its behalf.
May we take to heart the message of the midrash and choose actions that preserve the visible and hidden beauties of the earth. Vayehi chein, "And it was so."
For further reading: To Till and Tend: A Guide to Jewish Environmental Study and Action, (Coalition on the Environment and Jewish Life, NY, NY 10016).
At the time of this writing in 1997, Barbara Binder Kadden was the regional educator for the Northern California and Pacific Northwest Councils of the UAHC.
B’reishit, Genesis 1:1-6:8
The Torah: A Modern Commentary, pp. 18-55; Revised Edition, pp. 17-50;
The Torah: A Women's Commentary, pp. 3-34