Charles Darwin once said that “The mystery of the beginning of all things is insoluble by us; and I for one must be content to remain an agnostic.” It is an acknowledgement by one of the greatest thinkers of all time that even the brightest among us, like Darwin, just don’t know everything.
Having recently seen a play, The Wider Earth, about Charles Darwin’s expedition to the Galapagos Islands, I was enchanted by this quote. Throughout the play, it was clear that Darwin was steeped in science but didn’t completely reject the notion of religion or God. He was able to appreciate the majesty of it and could hold that there could be multiple truths at once, neither completely negating the other. For me, these ideas have been relatively easy to hold together, despite how complex they really are.
One might ask: “Rabbi, how can you believe in the narrative of the Exodus if there is no ‘proof’?”
My answer is that the proof that I need isn’t steeped in the science of the plagues or the splitting of the sea, but rather, the proof that the Jewish people (our story, our traditions, our sense of purpose) have continued for thousands of years, and look back at the Exodus as our foundational text.
But this doesn’t mean I reject science. I believe deeply in science in order to understand our relationships, our health, and ambitions, our opportunities, and so much more. This is why I was so pleased with how our multi-layered science symposium, held in January at Sutton Place Synagogue, was executed. Through the voices of scientists, doctors, and a genealogist, in partnership with individuals whose expertise is their lived experience of becoming Jewish, those in attendance could see how science and genetics play a role – but not the only role – in determining what a Jewish community looks like.
Why is this important? In today’s climate, especially our political one, the muddy center, where we hold many view points (often in tension) is becoming a very lonely place to live (though I still try!). We are seeing extremes on both sides – the far right and the far left. We are seeing this both in the United States and Israel, and we have veered dangerously into areas where racist tendencies are being embraced. The fact that Otzma Yehudit (an outgrowth of the Kahanist political faction) was given a place on the slate for this month’s Israeli elections was quite disturbing. Fortunately, Jewish organizations, and many synagogues (from Reform to Modern Orthodox) have come out clearly against this, making clear that this is not a representation of Jewish values and doesn’t represent the Zionist dream.
It is ok for people to have disagreements – on politics, on faith, on religion, on leadership. But we need to understand how to be in dialogue with one another. Rabbi Hillel said, “If I am not for myself who will be for me, but if I am only for myself, what am I?” The ability to hold both of these truths (the values of particularism and universalism), just as we hold those of science and religion, are crucial at a time where people generally only speak to those with whom they already agree.
Over the next few months our congregation will continue to model how to uphold different ideas. Through our #SPSTalks and our Talmud Study, we will engage with these ideas. This is all a precursor to a wonderful program that I will offer next year called “Mahloket Matters: How to Disagree Constructively” created by the Pardes Institute.
Charles Darwin was one of the greatest scientists of all time. His theories on evolution changed the way we understand the interconnectedness of species in this world and the way we survive and thrive. We won’t all be Charles Darwin. But we can learn from not only his science, but his ability to not completely reject religion, in all aspects of life!
(This post is part of Sinai and Synapses’ project Scientists in Synagogues, a grass-roots program to offer Jews opportunities to explore the most interesting and pressing questions surrounding Judaism and science. Rabbi Rachel Ain is the rabbi at Sutton Place Synagogue in New York, NY).