October 11, 2010
Scriptures, Science and a Sephardic Rabbi
“Therefore the Almighty commenced the Holy Scriptures with the description of the Creation, that is, with Physical Science…”—Maimonides, Guide for the Perplexed, Introduction
“Our religion is not hostile to real science. That which is demonstrated, we accept with joy; but vain philosophy, human theory, and mere speculations of men, we do not accept nor do we adopt anything contrary to divine revelation or to good common sense.” – 1910 First Presidency Christmas message
The Jewish tradition doesn’t interpret scripture literally, but it sure loves science. Those two principles formed the basis of last week’s “Torah on Tuesdays” lecture delivered by Rabbi Daniel Bouskila, Director of Special Projects at the Sephardic Educational Center in Los Angeles. I think that it’s important for everyone to study the Torah with a rabbi whenever possible, and I will be learning from Rabbi Bouskila this semester. Given the erudition and passion on display at Congregation Magen David last Tuesday, it will be time well spent.
Regular readers of my blog know that public programs promoting Jewish knowledge and values are precisely what I believe more Jewish leaders should be offering around the world. Rabbi Bouskila’s free lectures on Jewish interpretations of the great stories in Genesis have the potential to do far more for the promotion of Jews and Judaism than the redundant conferences and lectures on the dangers of radical Islam that somehow manage to capture the attention (and dollars) of many wealthy Jews in this city. In a perfect Jewish community, Rabbi Bouskila would speak before thousands each week and anti-Islam speakers would have trouble paying their rent.
My Orthodox friends always claim to interpret scripture literally, so I was a little surprised to hear the rabbi claim that literal interpretation is incompatible with rabbinic Jewish tradition. I now know that when an Orthodox rabbi is asked to interpret scripture, he doesn’t simply look at the verse and come to a conclusion. Instead, he consults commentaries like the Talmud and the Shulchan Aruch before issuing an opinion. In some cases the rabbinic rulings based on these commentaries can run contrary to the original biblical language, as in the well-known case of biblical sanction of eye-for-an-eye punishment being interpreted by rabbis to essentially prohibit such punishment. Knowing how this dynamic works allows me to more easily understand how halachic pluralism (the acceptance of more than one interpretation as valid) is possible in Judaism.
By way of contrast, Mormons have five books of scripture and modern prophets, but no official commentaries. If our non-biblical scriptures and/or prophetic revelations contradict or elaborate on Bible stories, the former are considered authoritative. For this reason, Mormons believe that Moses did not die (Deuteronomy 34:5 says he did), that Pharaoh hardened his own heart (instead of God hardening his heart as stated in Exodus 4:21 and elsewhere), that it repented Noah, not God, that He had made man on the earth (Genesis 6:6), and that Noah spent a great deal of time preaching to his contemporaries and calling them to repentance (no mention of this in the Torah, which depicts Noah as being exclusively concerned with the welfare of his immediate family).
I was happy to learn that all Jewish movements, including Orthodoxy, embrace science. Rabbi Bouskila proudly listed the concepts that his daughter would be studying this year in her biology class at a Modern Orthodox day school, and they included evolution and the scientific method. Jews have always valued learning, both religious and secular. In this they are similar to Mormons, whose church-sponsored universities produce graduates in biology, physics, chemistry and other sciences. Indeed, the church’s second-ranking official is the son of a prominent theoretical chemist who received the prestigious Wolf Prize in Chemistry and headed the Association for the Advancement of Science. Church members are actively encouraged to seek God’s guidance as they learn both secular and religious subjects. As a result, devout Mormons can be found on all sides of the debates surrounding stem cell research, evolution, capital punishment, and many other controversial issues on which the LDS Church has not taken an official position.
This week we will study the story of Adam and Eve, the topic of a recent Jewish-Mormon theological dialogue in Santa Monica. I look forward to reading what the Jewish commentaries have to say about earth’s first couple. I also look forward to learning from a rabbi who believes that Judaism has a relevant religious message for the world today, and who is willing to invite the public to hear it. Shavua tov.