The Chief Rabbi’s evolutionary secrets
Some passing comments in the Chief Rabbi’s new book raise questions about the authorship of the Bible and evolution. Simon Rocker takes a look
THE SECRET of the Twelve sounds like the title of one of those religious thrillers made fashionable by The Da Vinci Code. In fact, it is a phrase drawn from the world of biblical commentary and in particular, from one of its greatest exponents. In a gloss on Deuteronomy, the 12th-century Ibn Ezra writes: “If you understand the secret of the twelve… you will know the truth.” This is an allusion to the concluding 12 verses of the Torah about the death of Moses, which has posed a conundrum for some commentators: if the Torah was transmitted by God to Moses, then how could Moses have written about his own death? Ibn Ezra’s cryptic comments, according to some interpreters, suggest that he believes that these verses — as well as a number of others in the Torah — were added after Moses. But such controversial thoughts could be the subject of only veiled hints, rather than spelt out.
A few days ago I was contacted by a reader who thought he had detected what you might call a “Secret” moment in the Chief Rabbi’s new book, The Home We Build Together. Sir Jonathan’s attack on multiculturalism as socially divisive has already caused a stir in some circles and the arguments will no doubt continue to rumble on in the book pages of journals and newspapers.
Butthebook’smainthesis is not what caught this reader’s attention: instead, it was a particular phrase that he spotted in an extract from the book, which appeared in The Times. The relevant passage runs:
“The authors of the Bible were among the first historians. Two-thirds of the books of the Bible are historical. Yet biblical Hebrew has no word for history. In its place, the Bible uses a significantly different word: Zakhor, ‘remember’. It appears no less than 169 times in the Bible. Above all, there is the reiterated refrain: ‘Remember that you were slaves in Egypt.’”
What struck my correspondent were the words, “the authors of the Bible”. Do they not imply that the Chief Rabbi believes the Torah was, at least, in part a work of human composition?
The Chief Rabbi’s writings have landed him in hot water before, most notably with his book The Dignity of Difference, an appeal for religious tolerance published five years ago. He was forced to amend it after an outcry from other Orthodox rabbis who accused him of suggesting that other religions possessed revealed truths apart from the Torah.
But on this occasion, the phrase “authors of the Bible” looks fairly innocuous. Almost certainly, the Chief Rabbi was thinking of books such as Kings or Chronicles, without including the Five Books of Moses. So far there has been no harrumphing from the sages of Gateshead or Stamford Hill.
One curiosity, however, does lurk within the passage. If you add up the “historical books” of the Bible — Joshua, Judges, Samuel,Kings,alongwith Daniel, Ezra, Nehemiah, Esther, Chronicles — they do not amount to two-thirds of the canon. You only come near that figure if you include the Torah books. So a secular reader ignorant of Orthodox doctrine might assume that the Chief Rabbi believed there was a human hand behind all of the Bible. Nonetheless, a clinching argument against such an interpretation is that the text was vetted by the London Beth Din and they would hardly have let through anything theologically contentious (the registrar and dayanim are thanked in the book’s acknowledgments).
There is another passage in the book worth mentioning for a different reason. “The faultline between groups is not, as it has so often been thought, an inexorable fact of human nature, hardwired into our genes,” the Chief Rabbi writes. “We do indeed feel hostile to the outsider, the other, the stranger, the alien. That is written into our evolutionary psychology, and it will surface whenever it is given the chance…”
Evolutionary psychology is a modern discipline which traces the development of the human mind to our ancestors’ struggles for survival. Today, many Orthodox rabbis believe that evolutionary theory is compatible with the story of creation in Genesis. But consider this.
In the original edition of The Dignity of Difference, the Chief Rabbi could at one point write: “The sense of belonging goes back to prehistory, to the huntergatherer stage in the evolution of mankind, when homo sapiens first emerged. Being part of the group was essential to life itself. Outside it, surrounded by predators, the individual could not survive. Some of our deepest, genetically encoded instincts go back to that time…”
By the second, revised edition, this has been rewritten as: “The sense of belonging goes back to the dawn of humanity, when being part of the group was essential to life itself. Outside it, surrounded by predators, the individual could not survive. Some of our deepest instincts go back to that time…” The explicit reference to evolution has gone.
Why the mention of evolution is admissible in the latest book, but was cut from Dignity mark two, is an intriguing question. But then evolution is still a potential minefield: remember the Zoo Rabbi, Manchester-born Natan Slifkin and the ban on some of his books by several of the world’s leading strictly Orthodox rabbis.
It is one thing vaguely to agree that Genesis and evolution are reconcilable. It is another to produce a systematic account which details how scientific and religious teachings can sit happily together. Evolution sets off a chain of queries. Does the biblical figure of Adam represent the first human being with the consciousness to perceive God? But if he is the product of evolution, then it is less plausible that he is immortal, which means reading the story of the Tree of Life partly as fable. And if one part of the Torah may be read as poetic rather than literal truth, then why not other parts?
All in all, social policy seems safer terrain for rabbis, especially Chief Rabbis, than theology.
We evolved as highly intelligent beings, some Orthodox scholars now accept