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Home » Archives » October 2005 » Rosh Hashanah Morning 5766 - Evolve Or Be Intelligent Designers

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Rosh Hashanah Morning 5766 - Evolve Or Be Intelligent Designers


We're all on the same page. We know the world wasn't created five thousand seven hundred and sixty six years ago today. That accounting is based on Seder Olam, a book written by second century sage Rabbi Yose bar Halafta, who sought to chronologize in time all the events of the Torah, from the creation of the world until the death of Moses. Even for Halafta, it was a contrivance for the purposes of having a unified calendar and way of counting time. It became a fiction Jews preserved for two thousand years. Modern Jews like you and I recognize the that the world is much older, billions of years older. In fact, paleontologists have proven that human beings walked the earth for at least 160,000 years, and before us, dinosaurs for 180 million years. Nevertheless, we find ways to preserve the sacredness of our Torah and its stories by understanding even its first words, the Creation myth, as true in their religious and moral value, not for being proof of a scientific fact. Listen to the eleventh century rabbi, Maimonides who wrote,

"Regarding the subject of the creation of the world in time...we could interpret [these texts] as figurative..." Maimonides, one of our greatest teachers, set a wonderful example for us by leaving open the gates to a non-literal interpretation of Torah. Maimonides, a doctor and scholar living almost a thousand years ago, advanced Judaism's receptivity to reason and the advances of science. And his precedent releases the modern Jew from any need to engage in the project of distorting scientific theory to fit a literal Biblical account of Creation. And yet, these attempts still persist around us-in the media, in school board hearings, and even in puerile Presidential Press conferences. Let's be honest: the idea that Intelligent Design is a parallel scientific theory which challenges Darwin's theory of evolution or deserves consideration in biology classes is simply literal Biblical Creationism dressed up in blue footed booby clothing. In a country that is thankfully still reticent to teach overtly religious doctrines in public schools, Intelligent Design proponents have instead tried to spread doubt and confusion among the public about the well accepted scientific foundations of evolution just to further their own faith based ideas. And recent polls show they are succeeding.

Only 35 percent of Americans believe that evolution is supported by evidence while another 35 percent believe it is not. And if Darwin's theory can't explain everything, then, in the words of our President, our national leader, "both sides ought to be properly taught." For those really interested in scientific inquiry, the problem is and always will be that while there is an enormous body of evidence that evolution happens through natural selection and other processes, Intelligent Design cannot be similarly proved. So while some might think that Intelligent Design, the idea that the complexity of creation necessitates a Creator, therefore God is scientific fact, we could just as easily conclude that Bobby Henderson's Flying Spaghetti Monster is the intelligent designer of life. Of course, then we could begin to practice Pastafarianism. Pastafarianism is plausible to propose but it is unprovable. Intelligent Design is also plausible to propose, but it is equally unprovable. Darwinism is plausible to propose, and it is provable. Maybe not down to the last nitty gritty, but there is a mass of evidence for it. Do both intelligent design and Darwinism belong in the same science class? Of course not. Science classes are not meant to teach unscientific principles.

We may believe the claim of Intelligent Designers that the complexity of the natural world implies God, but this is not science. I embrace it as faith. We embrace it as faith. Therefore, let's be clear: the public debate reflects discomfort by some religious people with the scientific theory of evolution because it creates in them an enormous crisis of faith. After all, if evolution accounts for the designing and creation of life, a task in the literal interpretation of scripture carried out by God alone, then fundamentalists are forced to wonder what God does and why bother with God at all? And if there is no God, has life any purpose at all? Moreover, if evolution proves that designing and creation happens slowly, accidentally and haphazardly, kal v'chomer, all the more so for the Biblical fundamentalists the account of an ordered, orderly six day creation out of chaos must go out the window. Leon Wiseltier recently wrote, "The mind may recoil from the possibility that all this sublimity came into being by accident, but it cannot on those grounds alone, rule the possibility out, unless it is concerned only to cure its own pain...Intelligent design is an expression of sentiment, not an exercise of reason. It is a psalm, not a proof." (The New Republic, 8/19/05)

So what Psalms are we, practitioners of modern Judaism, to try and compose for ourselves on this first day of the year 5766 as our tradition reckons time? The real question I believe that concerns all of us in this sanctuary is not whether intelligent design should be taught in the classroom. The answer to that question clearly must rest on the scientific veracity of the idea. And it has none. Classrooms are places to learn about what we can know about the world so that we can continue to produce the marvels of medicine and technology that so greatly enhance the quality of life. But when we walk into a sanctuary or a religious classroom, we seek not a description of the world and how it works, but an interpretation of it, so that we can go out into the world and inject meaning into all our experiences. When we find chance coincidence and slow change, we can invest them with purpose. When we find chaos, we can wrench from it value and apply it for something good. As people of faith, even if we knew all the laws of the universe, we might not know a thing about morality. The psalm we have to write and sing today and everyday is a psalm of faith that we can make our lives moral, purposeful and worthwhile.

Today's psalm inspires us to think beyond bundles of genes on the world's evolutionary chain to being awesome designers, crafters of our fate, co-creators in partnership with an unprovable God in open ended lives filled with choices.

For at least two thousand years of our great history, Judaism has affirmed that people are not slaves to our impulses and urges, that there is more to us than our physicality. We need no literal interpretation of the Torah, no absolute Sinaitic revelation to possess the crown of moral intelligence. With reason, allegory, Midrash, we can interpret Torah and choose our destiny. Again, listen to the sage words of Maimonides speaking to the Jewish people of his time: "Do not imagine that character is determined at birth. We have been given free will. Any person can become as righteous as Moses or as wicked as Jeroboam. We ourselves decide whether to make ourselves learned or ignorant, compassionate or cruel, generous or miserly. No one forces us, no one decides for us, no one drags us along one path or the other; we ourselves, by our own volition, choose our own way." (GOR Pg 7) I am simply echoing Maimonides' teaching.

We are all called to lead our lives with intelligent design, to be creators and crafters of worthy lives. To be pursuers of justice, to be loving and compassionate neighbors and friends, to create in our homes, our towns, our cities, our nations and our world opportunities for each and every individual to live in peace and harmony.

Of course, there are some things beyond our control; events that even the most intelligent of us are rendered impotent to prevent. As America and the world reels from our most catastrophic natural disasters, Katrina, Rita and the Asian Tsunami, we are reminded that there are moments in which human life is the toy of massive forces of nature, smashed as indifferently as we might stamp on a colony of ants. The spectacle of natural disaster fills us not only with pain and grief at the toll of misery, but with a sense of our insignificance in the world. It's tempting at times to take refuge in a kind of quiescent resignation common to some eastern religions. "In mighty natural phenomena," writes Alain de Boton, "lie reminders of all that we are powerless to change, of all that we must accept.

Glaciers, volcanoes, earthquakes and hurricanes stand as impressive symbols of what exceeds us...It is apparent from the heedless pounding of the oceans or the flight of comets across the night sky that there are forces entirely indifferent to our desires." [The Consolations of Philosophy]. But we Jews are not ever to be indifferent to or accept suffering, pain, or succumb to helplessness. We are taught that we have it in our power, if not to change the circumstances of catastrophe, to respond in righteous extraordinary ways. Surely, every one of us, living up to our best Jewish values, has found a way to offer some sustenance and at least tangible support to those whose lives have been utterly destroyed by the recent onslaughts of nature.

At such a hopeful season of the year, perhaps you too find it a little odd, that our liturgy speaks about, "Mi yamut, u'mi yichye, who will live and who will die, who shall perish by fire and who by water..." It is offensive to me and perhaps for all of us to read this prayer as if God literally chooses the way to dispose of sinners. We are all sinners and probably few of us believe that God is deciding at this season who is going to drown next year.

Here again, we must do what Jews have always done- to keep the gates of non-literal reading of scriptures and liturgies open- open to mystery, metaphor and spirituality, open to reason, to scientific evaluation, to interpretation. The rabbis who wrote the words of this liturgy wrestled with the same questions as we are- are we merely products of our God-given fate, our genes, the decrees written in a Book of Life, or does the power rest within us to be true intelligent designers, choosers of our destiny? Their answer is simple: U-teshuva u-tefila, u'tzedakah ma'avirin et roah hagezerah. Repentance, prayer and tzedakah temper the severity of the decree. Repentance, prayer and acts of charity and justice lessen the powerful forces of the catastrophes of life to overtake us and belittle us. Repentance, prayer and charity are the powerful ways in which we are able to respond to tragedy and design new outcomes for disasters. Fundamentalists in Judaism and Christianity have it all wrong with their intelligent design. It is not a science to be taught in public schools, or an absolute foundation necessary to believe in God. Intelligent design is an act of faith that we are called upon to reaffirm every year.

Intelligent design is the faith that we have in ourselves ultimately the creatures of a God we cannot see or touch or perhaps even know, but who invests us with power to choose between good and evil. Between truth and falsehood. Between fidelity and infidelity. Between love and commitment and hate and abandonment. Between concern and indifference. Between time well spent and time squandered in meaningless pursuits. Between being angels of peace and angels of death.

The Unetaneh Tokef begins, "Let us proclaim the holy power of this day." For God's sake, this day has holy power; to get us to look responsibly and realistically at the priorities of our society. And what are they? Environmental Pollution and moral pollution, squandering resources on questionable pursuits, letting people die in hurricane because they are poor and black while increasing the wealth of the rich and the white? What are the priorities of our society? Domination of peoples and natural resources so that our rich can become richer at the world's expense? What are the priorities of our society? Political graft, urban blight, promoting obesity, selling goods that bring harm?

And what has American society dreamt of being? A land of freedom, opportunity, civil liberty, equality, racial and religious harmony, purity, peace and shared prosperity. And you know what? We could be all those things. There is no force of nature, divine or otherwise, which can keep us from reaching the moon. And there is no closed end future, no Armageddon that could keep us from achieving our national dreams from being what they are to being what they could be. We could be intelligent designers of our society rather than finding ourselves the victims of sort of neglect that allowed for the ecological and engineering disrepair and the institutionalized class and race based poverty that enhanced Katrina's devastating power. We can be what we choose. And if we choose to take on the responsibility, we can be part of making real the holy and powerful the dreams of America.

And as long as we are talking about ourselves again, this day has holy power to get us to look at who we are personally. You and me. What do we really strive for with our lives, in that little bit of time between birth and death? Is our life mostly a striving after our daily bread, a quest for wealth and personal power.

Do we abuse our family, verbally, emotionally? Do we walk over our employees? Do we exploit other people's weaknesses for our own gain? Or do we use the holy power of days like this and Sabbaths of reflection to inspire us to think of ourselves as we would like to be- loving children, parents, and grandparents, active and involved in the lives of our family. People who think lots more about love than about lust. Gentle and kind, generous and supportive, honest. I don't have to enumerate all of the ways in which our liturgy of renewal and repentance reaches out to us, to give us hints of how we are and how we wish to be.

But the message we Jews have always taken from the liturgy and from this season is that there is a God, and that we have power, too. Power to choose and power to create our future. And with that great power of knowing that we can be intelligent designers and choose comes great responsibility, to be God's intelligent designers, of our world, of our nation, and of our personal lives. May God help us to fashion lives of faith and truth and love. May God help us to fashion a world of justice and of peace.

Shanah tovah tikateivu.


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