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Jewish Scopes Trial Sermon

Sermon by Rabbi Melanie Aron

Saturday, September 28, 2013

When the Reform movement began in Europe in the early 19th century, it was heavily influenced by the surrounding culture in which the Jews of that time lived. It was during the decades following the Napoleonic Wars. The restrictions under which the Jews in Europe had lived for 1,000 years were lifted, and Jews began to be welcomed into mainstream society.

The early Reformers took on the aesthetic preferences of European culture. The disorder of the Orthodox synagogue with people coming in and out and praying at their own pace, disturbed them. They wanted order and decorum. They wanted music that everyone sang together and brought the organ into the Reform Temple, an instrument used in churches of that time. Instruments had been used in the ancient Temple in Jerusalem, but not the pipe organ per se.

The early Reform leaders, a group of Jewish businessmen, saw their neighbors sitting in family pews at church services, and wanted to be able to sit with their wives and children as well. The early Reformers sought Jewish precedents for the changes they were making; last night I mentioned that the permission to pray in the vernacular, in the spoken language of the people, was found in the Talmud. But primarily, the changes were motivated by the new aesthetics of western society.

Still no one could mistake the Reform Temple for a non-Jewish institution. Its values and teachings, its theology and philosophy were entirely Jewish and it has continued to be an important force for the preservation of Judaism among Jews who are active participants in the surrounding culture of their societies.

Maddie and Jake have spoken to us about Judaism and Science and particularly about the issue of evolution and creationism. In that regard it is interesting to note that there was no Jewish equivalent to the Scopes trial, or at least not until the last five years.

At the time of the publication of Darwin’s Origin of the Species, in 1859, evolution was not viewed as a pressing issue. The prominent rabbis of the time, including such Orthodox giants as the Malbim and Rabbi Samson Raphael Hirsch, saw evolution as compatible with core Jewish beliefs. As one scholar of Judaism and science wrote: “As none of them accepted a simplistic literal interpretation of Torah, they did not oppose evolution because of any putative conflict with Genesis.”

One Orthodox scholar even wrote a book arguing that evolution and Torah Judaism are fully compatible and sent a copy of his book, Toldoth Adam, the Generations of Adam, to Darwin in 1876.

The later emergence of Social Darwinism which was used to support cruelty to the poor, racial anti-Semitism, and various triumphalist European ideologies including eventually Nazism, was another matter, but this was pseudo-science and not core to the scientific discussion of evolution.

Only in the first decade of the 21st century did we have our own Jewish Scopes Trial in the situation of a young ultra-Orthodox rabbi named Nissim Slifkin, known as the zoo rabbi for his books about animals in the Bible and Jewish tradition. He began publishing in the 1990’s and in 2004, several other Ultra-Orthodox rabbis condemned his books as heretical because of their support for evolution and the idea that the earth is millions of years old. He defended himself using Jewish sources including a statement in the Talmud that there were 974 generations before God created Adam, and that the first week of creation lasted for extremely long periods of time. He also quoted the important Spanish rabbi of the 11th century Rabbi Bachya ben Asher who based his work on the midrashic idea that there were time systems in the universe long before the spans of history that man is familiar with. According to Rabbi Asher’s calculation, based on the Kabbalah, the earth is billions of years old.

Quoting these and other scholars was to no avail and Slifkin was condemned by a group of Orthodox rabbis who had adopted the simplistic literal reading of Genesis, under the influence, I believe, of the fundamentalist Christians with whom they had found common political interests. How ironic that the assimilation of Christian ideas has had such a profound influence on a movement within Judaism which criticizes everyone else as assimilationists.

We have just celebrated the festival of booths, Succot, where the Succah itself, open to the elements, is a symbol of Jewish openness to outside influences. From our very beginnings Jewish culture has absorbed but also transformed that which it accepted from surrounding cultures. Yet even as we have absorbed elements from outside, in our core we have maintained Jewish beliefs and philosophy. We pray that all the movements in Judaism will maintain that balance and not lose sight of core Jewish values under the influence of prevailing cultural trends.

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