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Evolution in the Torah

Posted By Obadiah Shoher On February 25, 2011 @ 6:37 pm In fundamentalist Judaism | 10 Comments

If there is one question central to Judaism, it is why parents tell their children the ridiculous stork tale. Sexual details aside, there is every reason to tell children that they have come from their mother’s womb. Such knowledge brings children closer to their mothers, while the stork story has the opposite effect, making the mother and father nothing more than foster parents. Yet, across nations and cultures parents tell their children that a stork has brought them, or that they were found in a cabbage, or similar nonsense. Why?

Concern for children’s morality is not the reason. Parents have been telling their children fake birth stories since long before the advent of sexual moralism. Nor is there any reason to believe that knowledge of having come from his mother’s womb would somehow affect a child’s psyche in the way that attending the birth procedure often negatively affects fathers.

It may be that there is an innate psychological tendency to dissociate oneself from the object of one’s benevolence. Such tendency manifests itself in charitable people, who are often reluctant to meet the beneficiaries of their charity. When the good we bestow on another is enormous by his standards but small by ours, we are not comfortable with his disproportionate gratitude. Reciprocity is so deeply built into us by social evolution that we resist its distortions: a good deed which is no trouble for us must not invoke too much gratitude. We tend to over-reciprocate when other do good things for us, but are uncomfortable with others doing the same; marketing companies exploit this trait by, for example, offering gifts and good-will discounts.

The stork tale is a parent’s subconscious way of dissociating themselves from the immense good they have done for their child, the act of bringing him to life. But what if they could not attribute the act to anyone else? Imagine a couple living alone on a completely lifeless island. Their child would not know a stork or a cabbage. Perhaps, the parents would simply distort the story of his birth. I have often seen people invent cynical reasons for their good deeds rather than admitting that they have done a good thing; they are uncomfortable with invoking reciprocal obligations.

It is also universal that children are told tales. Think of it: there is no conceivable reason to tell them obviously false stories which only set them up for a clash with reality. (Santa Claus does not exist!) Beautiful stories can be found in the real world―or close to it, as novelists do. People show no preference for outright tales over embellished reality: exercising their free choice, adults prefer novels to tales and action movies to cartoons. Perhaps parents tell untruthful tales to children to dissociate themselves from the real world and in so doing keep their children closer to themselves. In effect, the parents become a bridge between tales and reality, and therefore their children’s link to the real world.

Be it as it may, tales, and particularly invented birth―narratives, are a standard part of family relations. They are not lies, in the sense that they are not malicious distortions of truth. Parents tell tales as a temporary measure, and fully expect their children to discard the tales once they grow up.

Which brings us to the Bible. What would an honest account of the Creation look like, considering that it was given to Bronze-Age brutes? It would hardly contain the complex truth about DNA and humans evolving from hominids evolving from monkeys evolving from mammals evolving from reptiles and so on down to algae. Yet we do expect certain consistency with the facts. And there it is: heaven and earth were shaped, not created from nothing. After a major upheaval the chaos settled down, the dark sky brightened, and there was light. Pointedly, Genesis does not tell us that God created the living cells. Rather, he said, “Let the earth put out grass.” God created the laws of nature, and then nature developed on its own. So it is vaguely consistent with evolutionary theory that plants appeared before organisms. The waters produced fish, reptiles, and then birds―again, consistent with evolutionary order. Here, like in the first verse, God shaped them from something; they were not created. It is possible to see here a reference to the laws of nature which shape the organisms from one another. Mammals appeared still later, and man crowned the creation.

Clearly, the story could be made more truthful. Humans and other mammals are said to be “made” rather than “shaped” by God. There is no notion of one form of life evolving from another. Nothing is said about bacteria. But why must the biblical narratives be truthful at all? Our creed is that the Torah reflects―perhaps with minor editorials―the word of God. It does not follow that the Torah narratives must be literally true. Think of the tales you heard as a child: it is true that your parents told you falsehoods. If we allow that God recognizes truth, why should he not have a sense of humor or parental concern, leading him to tell us tales or parables instead of dry facts?

The Torah is about actions. It teaches us what to do. The commandments are literally true, and the rest is merely an illustration. Think of the Talmud as similar to a modern legal commentary: the laws are real, but the examples are often made up. We need not sacrifice evolution, history, or common sense to believe in the Torah.

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