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October 1, 2013 / conservadox

Dvar Torah- Noah

When the flood began, “the wellsprings of the great deep … and the flooodgates of the heavens were opened.” (Gen. 7:11).  Scharfstein notes that according to the Vilna Gaon (interpreting the Zohar’s midrash* on this passage) one must study science in order to understand the Torah.

But what happens when science appears to contradict the narratives of Genesis? The Vilna Gaon’s latter-day spiritual heirs have gone in two very different directions.  The haredi wing of Judaism has adopted a strategy of denial  (for excample, favoring young-earth creationism over evolution) while modern Orthodox thinkers such as Samson Raphael Hirsch and Rav Kook were willing to reinterpret Genesis to be consistent with the dominant scientific views of the past couple of centuries (e.g. evolution).

The flood is an example of this apparent science vs. Torah conflict as well.  If read literally, the Genesis narrative suggests a worldwide flood that literally wiped out all animal life  But the absence of archaeological evidence of such a flood suggests a smaller catastrophe.  By contrast, however, that if you interpret “the earth” figuratively as “Noah’s world/neighborhood/village” the flood account pretty much makes sense (leaving aside the oversized life spans).

It seems to me that the nonliteral interpretation of the Torah is more consistent with Jewish tradition; our halacha is not based on literal interpretation of the Bible, but on the Bible as modified by the Mishnah, Talmud, and 1500 years of interpretation of the latter documents.  For example, the Torah says that you can’t boil a baby goat or sheep in its mother’s milk, but the halacha prohibits cooking any meat and any milk together.

(PS R. Natan Slifkin has lots of links on the flood and science here).

Another issue involving the relationship between science and Torah is climate change.   After the flood, God tells Noah that God “will never again send a flood to destroy the earth.” (Gen. 9:11).  Some (mostly Christian) fundamentalists interpret this to mean that climate change is not dangerous because God won’t destroy the earth.  But unfortunately, there is a wide range of possible outcomes between “destroying the earth” and “nothing bad happening”, including the destruction of humanity,  Even if you assume that “destroying the earth” should be read as “destroying humanity” (which seems to be the sort of nonliteral interpretation that fundamentalists should reject anyhow), there is STILL a wide range of outcomes that are not QUITE as bad as destroying humanity but still pretty bad (see, e.g, the Shoah).

*The full Zohar quote is:  ‘After six hundred years of the sixth thousand there will be opened the gates of wisdom above and the fountains of wisdom below, and the world will make preparations to enter on the seventh thousand as man makes preparations on the sixth day of the week, when the sun is about to set. As a mnemonic to this we take the verse, “In the six hundredth year of Noah’s life… all the fountains of the great deep were broken up

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