The controversy around creationism versus evolution versus intelligent design is a battle in which the Jewish tradition is perforce enmeshed. That is so because, underlying this debate is a set of truths and values related to the nature of the human being and the meaning of life, which we cannot avoid. However, we have procedural and substantive contributions to make to the discussion as it is developing within the general society.
It is not novel for a religious tradition to discover that a transmitted truth is challenged by new wisdom. By the tenth century of the Common Era, the Jewish jurist and philosopher, Saadiah Gaon had developed a way of thinking about such situations. He, as all other major Jewish philosophers, recognized that there were two sources of truth accessible to people, revelation and reason.
Revealed, discerned truth
Saadiah went so far as to ask why revelation was necessary if truth could be discovered by the application of human reason. He responds without denying the capacity of reason to yield truth. He suggests, in part, that God was not willing to wait out the slow, laborious process of discovery of truth through reason, but wanted humankind to have the benefit of certain truths as rapidly as possible – hence, He revealed that information.
Saadiah goes on to specifically ask what is to be done when the truths of revelation and reason are in conflict. The procedure he suggests is as valuable to us in modernity as it was in medieval times. When reason contradicts revelation, it is first necessary to reexamine the process by which the reasoned conclusion was arrived at. There might be some error discovered which, upon correction, would allow the revealed truth to stand at one with the truth by reason.
If that fails, and the contradiction remains, then it is necessary to re-examine the revealed texts to discern whether there might be an interpretation that would allow for the acceptance of the accuracy of the truth demonstrated by human wisdom.
If no such new understanding of the revealed text suggests itself, then one must to understand that error exists in one or the other side. While one will then continue to grant pride of traditional place to the understanding derived from revelation, the question will have to remain open until some new insight is able to bring the two sources of truth together.
Cultural continuity, intellectual honesty
Three underlying values of this approach are worth playing out explicitly. First, respect for received truths is essential in maintaining cultural continuity and the valuing of elders. This places a burden on new wisdom to demonstrate its accuracy in a fully persuasive manner before receiving the assent of the people.
On the other hand, received truths are viewed as fallible, despite their apparent origin in revealed texts. While the texts remain constant and fully true, particular interpretations can be supplanted by other understandings that are preferred precisely because they yield consistency with new rational knowledge.
Thirdly, in both religion and science, humility is essential when it comes to the assertion of truth claims. Human understanding of ultimate truth is imperfect. Human understanding of God, of His word, of His world and of the natural processes which He put into place for the governance of this world – are all limited.
We need, therefore, to be able to suspend judgment in the face of contradictions and to wait out the process of clarification through better-reasoned proofs or better interpretations.
Humility demands we not denigrate the conclusion of the Other in the face of such uncertainties. Humility demands that we recognize the common striving for truth, which motivates both the religious interpreter of revealed texts and the scientific interpreter of accessible facts. Humility demands that we not persist in teaching our position once it has been persuasively demonstrated to be false.
The Talmudic tradition recorded many suggested treatments and cures of diseases. By the Middle Ages it was clear that Talmudic medicine was simply not effective. The rabbinic scholars of Franco-Germany toyed with the proposition that human physiology had changed in the intervening centuries. Maimonides simply affirmed that the transmitted knowledge was limited by its time and place and should no longer be practiced.
The current anti-scientific climate makes a mockery of Judaism's constant search for truth. The very idea that rabbis might excommunicate people for teaching that the world is more than 5766 years old, or for supporting the truth of evolution, must be repudiated loudly and clearly.
The accumulation of incontrovertible evidence of the great antiquity of the earth has led to the broad rabbinic acceptance of the accuracy of an early interpretation of the word “day” in the Genesis story as meaning “an indeterminate period of time,” rather than “a day of twenty-four hours.”
There will always be some resistance to this approach from people who deny that reason is a valid source of truth. Also, from those whose misplaced loyalty to a particular understanding of a revealed text leads them to the rejection of otherwise established scientific truths.
But for most of us, the depth of our religious commitment and our openness to the process of scientific inquiry, go hand in hand as full partners in our lifelong quest for truth.
Rabbi Saul J. Berman is Director of Edah and teaches Jewish Law at Stern College and at Columbia University School of Law. This op-ed is offered as a resource of Edah.
Edah is the advocacy movement for a modern and relevant Orthodox Judaism