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Notes from Limmud 2006

Torah vs Science—A Personal Interpretation of the Garden of Eden Story

Benjamin Gerber

[These notes are excerpted from a talk on "Torah vs Science—Must We Choose?". I went along with misgivings, which turned out to be justified: the speaker was not a scientist, and most of what he had to say did not hold up to scrutiny. Some of the nitpicking came from Nathan Aviezer, who said his talk later during Limmud would address these issues. However, I saw in the handbook the following for one of his talks:

The Torah assertion that the universe was created for the benefit of mankind has recently been confirmed scientifically. (This phenomenon is called the Anthropic Principle.) Scientists have discovered that the universe appears to have been specially designed to permit the existence of human beings. Professor Nathan Aviezer gives many remarkable examples of the Anthropic Principle and explains why this principle is very important for the believing person.

This completely—if not wilfully—turns the Anthropic Principle on its head. So I didn't go to his talk, and decided I wasn't going to go to anything like that again in the future. Even if it does hold up scientifically, sooner or later the science is going to move on—as it always does—and the nice explanation will no longer hold.

Anyhow, whilst most of Benjy's talk—IMNSHO—did not hold up to scrutiny, there was one part of it I rather liked. As with the rest of the talk, if he had presented it as a personal exegesis rather than a grand attempt to reconcile science and Genesis, I—and possibly the other audience members—would have taken to it more kindly.]

According to the Jewish calendar, we are currently in the 5767th year since Creation. In the second chapter of Genesis we read the following:

Genesis 2 בראשית ב
These are the generations of the heavens and of the earth when they were created, on the day the LORD God made the earth and the heavens. Now no plant of the field had yet appeared in the earth, and no herb of the field was yet sprouting: for the LORD God had not caused it to rain upon the earth, and there were no humans to till the soil. But there went up a mist from the earth, and watered the whole face of the ground. Then the LORD God formed the human of the dust of the ground, and breathed into his nostrils the spirit of life; and the human became a living soul. The LORD God planted a garden eastward in Eden; put there the human He had formed. Then the LORD God caused to sprout from the earth every tree pleasant to the sight and good for food; the tree of life inside the garden, and the tree of knowledge of good and evil. אלה תולדות השמים והארץ בהבראם ביום עשות יהוה אלהים ארץ ושמים׃ וכל שיח השדה טרם יהיה בארץ וכל עשב השדה טרם יצמח כי לא המטיר יהוה אלהים על הארץ ואדם אין לעבד את האדמה׃ ואד יעלה מן הארץ והשקה את כל פני האדמה׃ וייצר יהוה אלהים את האדם עפר מן האדמה ויפח באפיו נשמת חיים ויהי האדם לנפש חיה׃ ויטע יהוה אלהים גן בעדן מקדם וישם שם את האדם אשר יצר׃ ויצמח יהוה אלהים מן האדמה כל עץ נחמד למראה וטוב למאכל ועץ החיים בתוך הגן ועץ הדעת טוב ורע׃

Now humans have actually been around for in the order of one hundred thousand years... but [to give a bit of a gross generalisation] civilisation is only six thousand years old. What the second chapter of Genesis is describing is actually the dawn of human awareness.

[Yes yes yes, I know, this can be argued against on so many grounds; but that's not the point here. The point is that at some stage in mankind's history, H. sap. did go from being non-self-aware to being self-aware.]

What the speaker infers from G-d making Man in G-d's image is free will. Where does this choice come in? The speaker proposes that G-d did not know if the human that G-d had created was a creature of free will. What G-d was trying to create on the sixth day was a creature that could say no. G-d wanted real feedback, and someone to talk to who could say "no, we don't want to pray to you."

Gan Eden does not exist on Earth. It is a laboratory that G-d developed to see if these beings have the ability to distinguish between right and wrong. G-d takes a man and puts him in this laboratory. One thing that supports this is that the Tree of Knowledge is placed in the middle of the garden! G-d walked away from the garden knowing full well an intelligent creature would be unable to resist the temptation. Succumbing to it after being told not to constituted proof we had free will. Until then there was no proof that we had any free will at all.

Once we have proven we have free will, we don't need the Garden of Eden any more; we can resume normal life. That said, G-d still needs to reprove us, because no parent is going to be pleased with a child disobeying orders; but in another way it is a step forward, because it represents a new development.

What was the fruit on the tree? One opinion (based on Biblical passages) is wheat. Only once we have developed agriculture do we start developing as a species. (Because it allowed the possibility of an elite who are not spending their time sustaining themselves and can do other things.)

Jewish learning notes index

Date: 2007-02-10 10:07 pm (UTC)
liv: cartoon of me with long plait, teapot and purple outfit (teeeeeeeeea)
From: [personal profile] liv
Jewish geography: I know Benjy, he is a member of the community here (his dad is one of the chazzanim). He's a really lovely guy, though I can see why his approach to Judaism wouldn't appeal to you. I would classify it as mythopoietic. He often gives drashes like this, where he comes up with a rather novel interpretation of a Torah passage, but it's based in homiletics, not a rigourous presentation of either the real world facts or of rabbinics. He's really good with the teenagers though, really impressive.

Date: 2007-02-10 10:26 pm (UTC)
From: [identity profile] lethargic-man.livejournal.com
Jewish geography: I know Benjy, he is a member of the community here (his dad is one of the chazzanim).

Yes, his name badge said he was from Sweden; I was going to ask him if he knew you, but I got confused since I'm sure I know him from somewhere else; Assif, I think. Maybe he's over here and occasionally and attends Assif when he does?

He often gives drashes like this, where he comes up with a rather novel interpretation of a Torah passage, but it's based in homiletics, not a rigourous presentation of either the real world facts or of rabbinics.

I'm afraid he got quite a bit of a savaging at the hands of the audience.

Date: 2007-02-11 12:28 pm (UTC)
From: [identity profile] curious-reader.livejournal.com
I still wonder if we are rather an accident. We do so many bad things with our free choice and often did not even notice before it is too late what we actually did e.g. polluting the air, causing global warming etc.

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