the rebbe and the wise little children

A friend and colleague posted this quote from Arthur Green on his blog and so, of course, I’ve struggled with it. Which is better than saying, yet again, that it pissed me off:

“We would understand the entire course of evolution from the simplest life forms millions of years ago, to the great complexity of the human brain (still only barely understood) and proceeding onward into the unknown future, to be a meaningful process. There is a One…and that One is Being itself, the constant in the endlessly changing evolutionary parade. Viewed from our end of the process, the search that leads to discovery of that One is our human quest for meaning. But turned around, seen from the perspective of the constantly evolving life energy, evolution can be seen as an ongoing process of revelation or self-manifestation. We discover; it reveals. […] Our task … is not to offer counterscientific explanations for the origin of life. Our task is to notice, to pay attention to, the incredible wonder of it all, and to find [the Eternal] in that moment of paying attention.” from Arthur Green, Radical Judaism

R was about 14 when she participated in that thoroughly non-Jewish (but keep ’em in the fold) institution known as Confirmation classes. It was another case where she begged me to force her to go, and I refused. Angrily, she signed herself up for the sole reason that maybe just maybe she would regret not having gone in some distant adulthood incarnation. I am happy to report, she has not yet reached that state of mind.

At that time, all the synagogues in the City formed a consortium so that the Jewish teens from all the various congregations could mix it up, study together, and be exposed to other (Jewish) points of view. She and her buddy found themselves, for the first time in their lives, in the clutches of rabid Orthodoxy (excuse the horrid pun). The rebbe expounding in front of them was passionate about Bireishit. Well, okay, so am I. But he was insisting that every word was to be taken literally.

Who did he think he was talking to? My kids’ hippy-dippy cousin who found himself in Jerusalem faced with an undeniable Truth he could cling to? No, these were sophisticated secular humanist kids raised to seek and weigh evidence, and to speak their mind if the evidence appears to be lacking.

“Don’t you believe in evolution?” wailed R’s incredulous buddy in his most obnoxious high-pitched tone. Well, you can imagine the rebbe’s response. (He railed against secular education).

I picked up the kids after their session and they were shaking with rage. How could such a wise man be so ignorant? When I heard their raging of course I wanted to complain to their Program Director. No, they insisted. It was important, they argued, that they be exposed to such ignorance. They would not have believed it really existed otherwise.

I remember when I was a kid and we were faced with what we thought was a fascistic pig-headed Hebrew School teacher, so unlike our own rational Reconstructionist rabbi (who gave us the proofs for the existence of God, and told us our homework was to go home and disprove them). No, this dictator demanded obeisance and strict adherence to his teachings. No argument, although we had been trained to argue. One afternoon when we couldn’t take it any more, we barricaded him in the school office and all took off to some activity we could freely argue over.

So. Arthur Green. The fallacies. His depiction of evolution is as if it is directional — a very 19th century view of from the simple to the complex. Evolution is not directional. It is not a progression leading ‘up’ to “the great complexity of the human brain.” In fact, it’s not about ‘us’ at all — except in the sense that it is us studying the process.

And then, without a blink of the eye, he baldly states, “There is a One …” (my italics). As if such a definitive statement makes it so. A statement rooted in the same capital T Truth of any Orthodoxy around the world. A knowing — without evidence — the dreaded F-word: faith. Can you feel me shudder? Ugh.

And takes it further, “and that One is Being itself.”

Which doesn’t mean anything at all. But I guess it sounds good. To somebody. Maybe to most people. But what on earth does it mean? And maybe it’s not meant to mean anything, but to feel right, feel comfortable or comforting, though I’m not sure why this nonsensical statement would or could bring comfort to anyone at all. And how did ‘revelation’ become a mechanism of evolution? My friend who posted it, should know better than find this comforting. Although perhaps in his struggle to explore Judaism, he posted the quote in order to enter the argument, play with the words, have at Arthur Green in some fun, dynamic way. In which case, I applaud.

My daughter used to write essays with sentences like that. When she was a kid.

“What does that mean?” I would inquire pointedly when she forced me to proof her essays at 1:00 AM.

“I don’t know,” she’d say. “But we have to write 6 pages (or whatever), and that sounded good.” And she’d watch me go ballistic. I had graded way too many of those space-fillers even then to let her get away with that.

“Each word, each sentence, has to mean something!” I would say. It has to serve your point, I’d say. You have to know why it’s there. Even if no one else knows why that word or sentence is there, you should know what role it plays in your argument.

She didn’t want to be in an argument, really (see the He-Man.Skeletor Debate). Although she was getting much better at it.

My anger with the rebbe and with Arthur Green as well, is not in their statements per se, but in the phrasing of their statements in such a way as to suppress the argument. How dare they shut the door to inquiring minds, whether of children or of men? (And yes, I said men. I don’t think either of them are speaking to women at all, but that’s another subject).

The classroom offers (or can offer) a place to inquire, debate, and wrestle with ideas. God forbid we hand our students (or our children) definitive inarguable Truths they cannot explore and question on their own.

The last part of Green’s quote I can live with. Although his very use of language goes against ‘scientific explanations for the origins of life.’ The part that does work (for scientists as well as ‘believers’) is ‘the incredible wonder of it all’ — and I’m okay too with ‘having a moment of paying attention.’ But evolution (with apologies to Arthur Green), has nothing to do with revelation.

It’s Friday. Good shabbes. Enjoy the contradictions.

About mira

Mira Z. Amiras is Professor of Comparative Religious Studies and founder of the Middle East Studies Program at San Jose State University. She is past-president of the Society for the Anthropology of Consciousness, and has served on the Executive Council of the American Anthropological Association. She is co-founder, with Ovid Jacob, of Beit Malkhut, a study group in Jewish sacred text. She's most attached to the creatures of her body and her household — first and foremost, her kids, of course: Michael and Rayna — and then the other folks large and small of various species, including Roshi and Vlad, a whole lot of hummingbirds, the old parrot who lives next door, and a beautiful garden that does what it will.
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3 Responses to the rebbe and the wise little children

  1. boyfromgoy says:

    I attempted to engage with the issues you raise here on my blog. It's only a beginning, and I feel like I'm talking in circles. It's a difficult conversation to have, for me, because I actually agree with everything you wrote here, so I had to work to understand why I was finding something meaningful and useful that was so obviously problematic for you.

    Here's the URL for the post:

    http://boyfromgoy.wordpress.com/2010/06/27/meaning-in-evolution/

  2. mira amiras says:

    yah, we're essentially in accord. but my quibbles are at your boyfromgoy site as well!

  3. Erin Vang says:

    I wish I had written this, or rather I wish I'd been able at countless occasions to write a version of this about countless Christian dogmatists posing as thinkers.

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