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Dr. Elliot Dorff, Rabbi, Ph.D.
Rector, Sol & Anne Dorff Distinguished Service Professor in Philosophy
American Jewish University
Los Angeles, CA
Thoughts on Human Origins
Judaism asserts that God is Creator – indeed, as the morning liturgy asserts, that God renews creation each day -- but we do not know how God created the world originally or renews it now. In fact, the Bible includes at least three disparate descriptions of how that happened (Genesis 1:1-2:3; Genesis 2:4-25; Psalms 104). Furthermore, the Rabbis assert that “There are 70 faces to the Torah” (Numbers Rabbah 13:15-16) – that is, any verse in the Torah, including those about creation, can be interpreted in multiple ways. As a result, one central feature of the Jewish mode is open and vigorous questioning, and that historically has applied not only to the interpretation and application of classical Jewish texts but also to scientific research. That is because, as Samson Raphael Hirsch emphasized, God’s revelation occurs not only through the Bible but also through the world God created, and so both biblical interpretation and scientific research are important ways to know God, God’s universe, and what God wants of us. Thus the Jewish tradition has demonstrated enormous elasticity in interpreting its creation texts, and through the ages commentators have fit them to the latest scientific findings. I therefore understand this exhibit as a way to broaden my knowledge of how God created humans and the awe and gratitude that that should invoke in me.
Reflections on The Age of Humans (the Anthropocene)
In the earliest chapters of the Bible, Adam was put into the Garden of Eden “to till it and to preserve it” (Genesis 2:15). A later chapter of the Torah requires preserving fruit trees even in war (Deuteronomy 20:19-20), and the Rabbis of the Mishnaic and Talmudic eras and of the Middle Ages enacted a number of other laws to preserve the environment – this at a time when the human population and therefore the human impact on the earth were much smaller than they are now. Even so, one classical Rabbinic source has God saying this to Adam:
Look at My works! How beautiful and praiseworthy they are! Everything I made, I created for you. Be careful, though, that you do not spoil or destroy My world, for if you spoil it, there is nobody after you to fix it. (Kohelet Rabbah 7;13)
One very good collection of essays on Judaism and the environment is Arthur Waskow, ed., Torah of the Earth: Exploring 4,000 Years of Ecology in Jewish Thought (Woodstock, Vt: Jewish Lights, 2000), 2 volumes.
In our own time, these concerns become ever more urgent. We are finally learning as a human species that pollution spreads worldwide and that depleting the earth’s resources affects us all. Thus planning for supporting human beings on the earth now must be an international effort involving every country on earth in a cooperative effort, and no country may claim exemptions. When Cain asks God, “Am I my brother’s keeper?” (Genesis 4:9), the resounding “Yes” that is implied in answer to that question now affects not only our family and nation, but literally every creature on earth. The fact that God created the world for us, as the Bible and the Rabbinic source quoted above assert, means that we have a deep and wide responsibility to care for it.
This means, among other things, that we must make inexpensive and effective contraceptive devices available to anyone who wants to use them so that people who want to engage in sexual relations without producing children can do so. When I was a college student in the 1960s and there were three billion people on the planet, we were already then urged to adhere to Zero Population Growth; now that there are more than twice that number, we have an even greater duty to limit our procreation so that the poverty and illnesses that come with overpopulation can be avoided or at least diminished.
We need also to work aggressively with God as our partner to combat disease, starvation, prejudice, and war; our track record on this, however, has not been good. So we need to gain some humility in recognizing our interdependence with the rest of God’s creation. Our own welfare as a species as well as our fiduciary duty to God to preserve the Earth both require us to do much better than we have done so far in preserving our planet.