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 Jewish Chronicle - - JUDAISM -

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

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