When my daughter was in second grade, she learned about the Big Bang theory, the most comprehensive model for how the universe as we know it came into being. We were walking home together from school one day not long after, and she said to me, “Abba, I’m not going to be Jewish when I grow up.”
My interest piqued, I raised an eyebrow. “Oh, really? Why not?”
“Because if the Big Bang happened, then the Torah can’t be true.”
“Hm. And why is that?”
“Because that means that God didn’t create the world in six days and rest on the seventh.”
She was 7 years old at the time. I had rather optimistically figured that this moment would not arrive for another decade, at least. So I tried to fumble my way through an amusingly abstract answer (for a second-grader) about holding two stories in our head at the same time, about living Jewishly with feet firmly placed in both the secular world and the religious context, about how science and the Torah answer two different questions: one the “How?” and the other the “Why?” I reassured her that it would be okay to accept the Big Bang and still be Jewish, and that perhaps someday this would all make sense. She listened politely, and then changed the subject.
Rabbi Isaac Luria, the 16th-century kabbalist who lived in Tzfat and created a branch of Jewish mysticism known to us as Lurianic Kabbalah, did not limit Judaism to what was between the covers of ancient books. He explained the image of the menorah, the seven-branched candelabrum described in the opening verses of Parshat Beha’alotecha, as standing for six branches of secular learning, plus the one center stalk as symbolizing the light of the Torah. Science and faith are not mutually exclusive rivals which vie for our hearts and minds. Rather, they sit comfortably together on the menorah, in close quarters, illuminating and complementing each other.
The origins of both the Reform and Conservative movements lay in the 19th-century movement known as das wissenschaft des Judentums, the “science of Judaism.” When the scientific tools of archaeology and source criticism and comparative Semitics and so forth enabled our forebears to interpret Judaism in a new light, that did not harm our tradition.
Rather, they strengthened it. Our tradition teaches us that there are shivim panim l’Torah, 70 faces to the Torah; if we throw in all the contemporary perspectives, there are a whole lot more. And it is precisely Judaism’s willingness to address and incorporate new perspectives that has enabled it to survive the last two millennia, through exile and dispersion and genocide.
My daughter, now completing fifth grade, seems to be less concerned now with the supposed challenge to the Torah raised by science; as a former chemical engineer, I occupy a Jewish space in which the contemporary academic disciplines only shed more light on what it means to be Jewish and a citizen of the 21st century. As Rabbi Isaac Luria suggested, if we continue to raise the light of Torah a wee bit higher, our lives are only further enlightened by both secular learning and the ongoing Jewish story.
We need not fear the challenge of modernity; on the contrary, we should embrace it, while maintaining our commitment to learning and teaching and fulfilling the holy opportunities of Jewish life. PJC
Rabbi Seth Adelson is senior rabbi at Congregation Beth Shalom. This column is a service of the Greater Pittsburgh Rabbinic Association.