Whether we read the tangled tales of our “founding family,” or the mystical account of the origins of morality in the Garden of Eden, Genesis has always been the most engaging and the most challenging of the Five Books of Moses. But no part of it has exercised more attention than the account of Creation described in its opening 34 verses.
Way back, I was comfortable in understanding Genesis – Bereshit – as a majestic, spiritual account of Creation, containing in its short texts infinite spiritual truths. It was not a literal account. In the mid-1960s I first encountered Lubavitch-Chabad Chassidim who argued that the world was exactly five-thousand-and-some years old, and that God created fossils. But no one I knew – including several Orthodox rabbis – took them seriously. It was an exotic sideshow to the Chabad “gig,” which we all loved, in its uncomplicated, pre-Messianic incarnation.
A little later on, I encountered the “Orthodox Jewish scientists,” who sought to demonstrate by elaborate interpretations that the text of the Bible did not contradict any scientific theory. It was noticeable that as the scientific theories changed, so did the explanations. While, again, the arguments were sometimes fascinating, I could never understand why they were necessary. But every year, I loved those few weeks in the fall when the New Year began with the reading of the powerful account of the beginnings of the world as we know it. I could listen to Bereshit being read from the Torah without being troubled.
I am still not troubled, but others are troubling me. For in today’s Orthodox community, there are strong and insistent voices saying that you have to believe the world is 5767 years old or you are a heretic, with all the exclusions that are implied. Whether you are meticulous in observing the commandments or not is no longer a sufficient yardstick.…
The Challenge of Creation is important for two reasons.
The first is that it powerfully and rationally argues that to be Orthodox need not – indeed, must not – mean abandoning reason, nor need it mean rejecting science. That is – as indicated – a courageous statement in an Orthodox world that has been hurtling in the opposite direction for the last 30 years or so.
Rabbi Slifkin’s courage brought a firestorm down on his head. But his book is a powerful injection of calm common sense into an increasingly eccentric community. The small group of Orthodox who yearn to hear voices in Orthodoxy to whom we can relate – we feel like one of Rabbi Slifkin’s ecologically endangered species – owe Rabbi Slifkin a huge thank you.
The second, less immediately apparent reason, is that it is a practical complement to recent, and important, books by Menachem Kellner and Marc Shapiro, demonstrating that the parameters of Jewish definition have always been fixed by tests of practice, not tests of belief. Being Jewish was always about what you did, not what you thought. That idea sharply distinguished Judaism from most branches of Christianity, whose test of faith was belief, and it can only be conjectured whether those who want to reverse those parameters actually understand what damage they are doing. (Given the equally strong movement against the study of Jewish history in the same circles, it is entirely possible that they don’t.)
…This civilized, respectful, erudite, well-argued, beautifully structured book is a revelation in a controversy that has been marked by crude and adversarial public mud-slinging. His opponents could learn major lessons from him in derech eretz, let alone in Torah.