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B'reishit 5782 - Scientific Inquiry and Knowing God

Friday, October 1, 2021

According to its website, the Creation Museum in Peterson, Kentucky, “shows why God’s infallible Word, rather than man’s faulty assumptions, is the place to begin if we want to make sense of our world.” In 75,000 square feet, including a movie theater, planetarium, nature trails, and 150 well-funded exhi bits, this Evangelical Christian museum strives to disprove evolution through a show of staunch faith.

A thousand years ago, long before the Creationist-Evolutionist debate, 12th-century Jewish-Spanish commentator Ibn Ezra argued for evolution through his reading of God’s infallible Word. In his commentary, Ibn Ezra speaks of the tohu va-vohu - the chaos and void - that existed at the beginning of Creation in terms similar to the primordial soup that predated life, or perhaps earlier, the condensed heat that predated the Big Bang. When God says, “Let the earth sprout forth grass,” Ibn Ezra explains that God is not creating the grass out of nothing; rather, God had already created laws and structures in our planet so that grass could begin to exist. In modern parlance, God had already created the laws of physics. With, “let there be lights in the expanse of the sky to separate day from night,” God is not creating new structures, but rather, allowing long-existing celestial bodies to be seen in the sky on this Earth. And when the Torah calls our first human ha-adam, “the” Adam, Ibn Ezra hints that we may not be speaking about God forming one human being at all, but rather, about humankind coming into being as a collective. Why else would we have that definite noun prefix before Adam? For Ibn Ezra, the Torah points to a world that was created from pre-existing elements, with laws clearly defined by God, and with life that came into being over time, following those laws.

We come from a tradition of loving God through better knowing God and God’s world. We cannot perform so many of our mitzvot without knowledge of that world - we cannot save lives without understanding the biology inherent in human anatomy, the chemistry inherent in medical treatment, and the physics needed for engineering new medical technology. We ignore everything the Torah teaches us about the consequences of defiling our land if we ignore the reality of climate change. The reasons the Jewish people constitute roughly 20% of Nobel laureates go beyond the cultural and into the religious and theological. For our entire Jewish history, we have embraced scientific inquiry as a means towards knowing God, and thus, loving God. By exploring the intricate, complex, beautiful laws inherent in God’s creation, we express our fascination with our Creator. By both adding to and referencing scientific inquiry up to this point, we strive to travel further away from “man’s faulty assumptions,” and deeper into the meaning and intent of, as the Creation Museum says, “God’s infallible Word.”

Of course, the Creation story also warns us of the limits of scientific inquiry. When Adam and Eve disobey God to eat from the tree of Knowledge of Good and Evil, they are punished with difficulty in harvest and pain in childbirth. There are limits to the good of scientific inquiry, when it is pursued in ways contrary to God’s command. We violate tza’ar ba’alei hayim when we engage in unnecessary animal testing. Any employer, even one in academia or research, violates the command not to oppress a worker when an employee, perhaps an assistant or the janitorial staff, is underpaid for their efforts. And scientific inquiry is still breaking Shabbat if it involves writing or building on a Friday night or a Saturday. As Ibn Ezra demonstrates, learning Torah can enhance and inspire our understanding of the world around us, and at the same time, learning about the world around us can enhance and inspire our understanding of the God who created and creates all of this.

Each morning, when we wrap tefillin, we recite God’s words through the prophet Hosea: 

וְאֵרַשְׂתִּ֥יךְ לִ֖י לְעוֹלָ֑ם וְאֵרַשְׂתִּ֥יךְ לִי֙ בְּצֶ֣דֶק וּבְמִשְׁפָּ֔ט וּבְחֶ֖סֶד וּֽבְרַחֲמִֽים׃ וְאֵרַשְׂתִּ֥יךְ לִ֖י בֶּאֱמוּנָ֑ה וְיָדַ֖עַתְּ אֶת ה׳׃

And I will espouse you forever, and I will espouse you with righteousness and justice, and with goodness and mercy, and I will espouse you with faithfulness, and you shall know Adonai (Hosea 2:21-22).

The climax of love of God, according to God Godself, is knowledge of God. In relationship with God, we are reminded of the righteousness and justice that are the goals of our reading and our debate. In relationship with God, we are reminded of the importance of goodness and mercy, even in the pursuit of truth. And in relationship with God, we are reminded of the awe that inspires us to research and to learn. As we strive towards Godliness - towards being holy, because God is holy - we must dig deeper into the laws and rules that God set forth not just in our holy books, but in our natural world as well. And then, we return to our books, to the Torah we begin again today, to remind us of why we pursue this human urge to inquire, in the first place. Shabbat Shalom. 

Mon, January 17 2022 15 Shevat 5782