A little something for those who’ve asked, “Rabbi, are we going to hear all about your sabbatical during the Holiday?” I assume that at least a few of you asked hopefully rather than fearfully.
From my journal:
Monday August 1. Albany, New York to Columbus, Ohio.
Today was a water day. For the first three hours of the drive, we traversed New York on the Governor Thomas E. Dewey Thruway. The Thruway skirts with the path of the Erie Canal, and there are several points along the way where travelers can see the canal, straight as an arrow, slicing the landscape just to the north of the Mohawk River. “Clinton’s Big Ditch,” as the canal was dubbed during its infancy, was the project of an earlier New York Governor, determined to advance his state’s place in the new Republic, and to leave his mark on the stage of history. I can’t help but wonder if Dewey had a bit of gubernatorial one-upmanship in mind when he put his name on the road that takes eighteen-wheelers across New York State, relegating the canal to irrelevancy.
Lunch on the grass at Niagara Falls State Park took looking at water to a whole new level. The thundering falls throw a mist for miles, and cool the air even on a hot August day. Their magnitude mocks Governors Clinton and Dewey, who will no doubt be forgotten long before the falls work their way back to the mouth of Lake Erie. Malchutcha malchut kol olamim. “Your dominion, O God, is truly forever and ever.”
Dinner on Lake Erie was the best of all. Geneva-on-the-Lake, Ohio has a lovely municipal park, and we arrived at a perfect time of day for picnicking and burning a bit of energy. As the sun set into the lake’s horizon and the waves lapped at the shore, I snapped a few pictures to capture the moment, and then skipped rocks – perfect skipping rocks worn flat and smooth by water and time – with Helaine, Simona, and Esther. Memshalt’cha b’chol dor vador. God governs us, from one generation to the next.
A painted sky, stars in the east….and 200 miles to get to a bed. Baruch ata adonai, oseh ma’aseh v’reishit. Blessed are You, Eternal One: You are the One who Created it all, in the beginning.
End of entry.
The blessing ordained by our Rabbis to be recited upon seeing the wonders of nature is a statement of faith. I believe it, and so I say it. As I say it reverently – that is, with awe and humility – my faith and my humanity may grow. And I happen to believe this is a pretty good way to live.
I believe that God Created the Universe. For me, that statement is shorthand for something like, “I believe that Something more subtle and vast than even the most perceptive human mind can grasp is beating at the heart of all that we can see. The strongest radiotelescopes, the most powerful electron microscopes, the fastest superconducting supercolliders may take us to the edge of understanding, but in the end we are left with hopes and dreams, and not with hard answers.”
That a “Something” created all we see and beats at the heart of it all is not a new idea, of course. The existence of a Creator God is an elemental piece of many of the world’s religions – though not all of them – and people have been trying to prove God’s existence using an argument called the “Argument from Design” or the “teleological argument” for millennia. Boiled down to its basics, the Argument from Design posits that the world is irreducibly complex, and that the complexity implies an Intelligence created it. That Intelligence is God.
My little journal entry might be considered a variation on that argument: if the Erie Canal – a straight line of water crossing the rolling hills of Western New York – implies the existence of civil engineers, surveyors, ditch-diggers and one very determined Governor – then certainly Niagara Falls and Lake Erie – engineering on a grand scale, bringing water from the heartland to the ocean, filling a role in the grand cycle of evaporation, condensation, and precipitation that makes for life on earth – certainly Niagara Falls and Lake Erie imply a Governor on a whole different level!
The “Designer” has been in the news these days, as a court case in Pennsylvania is exploring the permissibility of bringing “Intelligent Design” to the public school classroom. Under legal challenge is this statement, which the Dover School Board has mandated be read by teachers before they teach the theory of evolution:
The Pennsylvania Academic Standards require students to learn about Darwin’s theory of evolution and eventually to take a standardized test of which evolution is a part.
Because Darwin’s theory is a theory, it continues to be tested as new evidence is discovered. The theory is not a fact. Gaps in the theory exist for which there is no evidence. A theory is defined as a well-tested explanation that unifies a broad range of observations.
Intelligent design is an explanation of the origin of life that differs from Darwin’s view. The reference book, “Of Pandas and People,” is available for students who might be interested in gaining an understanding of what intelligent design actually involves.
With respect to any theory, students are encouraged to keep an open mind. The school leaves the discussion of the origins of life to individual students and their families. As a standards-driven district, class instruction focuses upon preparing students to achieve proficiency on standards-based assessments.
If I were a scientist, I’d be up in arms about ID, and many scientists are. Expert witnesses have testified in the Dover case, explaining that the theory of evolution has stood up to the rigors of peer review, experimentation, refinement over time, and enjoys a broad consensus among scientists.
But I’m a Rabbi, a religious person, who sees evidence of a Designer in the world around me and who invokes God as Creator of the Universe in my summer travelogue, of all places. I sound like a pretty good candidate for an ally of the Intelligent Design movement, don’t I?
Well, let me answer that question through the lens of reverence. If you heard last night’s d’var torah, you remember that reverence is awe made manifest, and it comes from humility. I see a great deal of reverence around this debate; most of it is exhibited by scientists and by theologians who oppose Intelligent Design in the public school classroom.
I was particularly taken with the section of Paul Woodruff’s book on Reverence in which he acknowledges the possibility that a person’s reverence may be true even when her beliefs are false. He offers the example of two people: a believing Unitarian and a believing Presbyterian. Both may be reverent, but as they have a basic disagreement about the number of “persons” in the godhead, both cannot be correct. This is true all the more so when it comes to evaluating faith claims across boundaries such as the one that separates Judaism from Christianity. But it is possible to respect each other – not merely tolerate each other, but respect each other – because we recognize in each other’s expressions of faith, true Reverence.
I think what Woodruff says about reverence and belief works just as well in reverse. Woodruff writes, “I may call your reverence true even when your beliefs are false.” I submit that your reverence may be false, even when your beliefs are true. Intelligent Design’s advocates and its funding sources worry me, and the whole thing fails to pass my “reverence smell test.” I am in agreement with the conventional wisdom that Intelligent Design as it has been popularized by such outfits as the Discovery Institute is nothing more than an effort to chip away at a theory of our origins that runs counter to that put forward in the opening chapters of Genesis. Whatever its merits as philosophy or theology, it stinks as politics.
Where does Intelligent Design belong? In a college-level philosophy class, where students can study the Argument from Design to their hearts’ content. It belongs in a fundamentalist church or the private school connected with that church – they should live and be well! And it belongs in a Rosh Hashanah sermon in a Reform synagogue, where it introduces the reading of those very words from Genesis: Bereishit bara elohim – “In the beginning God created…”
This morning, we’ll be reading from the first chapter of the Torah. We’ll read it reverently, but we’ll read it without the sort of literalism that befuddles some of its readers in other communities. Though last night we proclaimed this the start of year five thousand, seven hundred sixty-six, we know that the faith claim is not a claim of fact. Please turn off your cell phones before the service begins; do not turn off your brains.
The best way to read Genesis Chapter one is as a poem. It is a poem about our place in the universe, and it is a poem about the Sabbath. It’s been suggested that, more than anything else, it’s a poem about how to remain connected to God even when you’ve been exiled from your ancestral homeland.
It’s been said that every poem ever written begins with the same words, though they are implied rather than expressed. “I invite you to enter with me a world in which…”
Our B’nai Mitzvah since last Rosh Hashanah will join me on the bima now for the aliyah to the Torah. Joining them are some of the boys who went into the Gila Wilderness last June as part of Rocky Mountain Chai and spent six days in the wonders of God’s creation. Mimi Lait and Sue Bendalin will read the translation.
The translation that Mimi and Sue will read won’t be the same translation as you find in your prayer books. I invite you to close your books, open your hearts, and enter with us a world in which “God is about to create heaven and earth.”