11 Kislev 5777 / Dec. 11, 2016
Can a thousand monkeys banging on a thousand keyboards over a period of a thousand years produce a single Shakespearean sonnet? The experiment has never been attempted, but in a sense it’s already happened – about 150 times. Numerouus other great works have also graced our souls, that is if you stretch the period over a million years.
We used to be apes, until the miracle of evolution produced the species our tradition calls the “crown of creation.” And from our early days of cave drawings, through the spectacle of hieroglyphs and divine writ, we monkeys have produced more than our share of classics.
When Darwin posited his theory of evolution, people of faith crowed with indignation. Our wrath was particularly focused on a social mutation of Darwinism – rightly considering sinful the prospect that the survival of the fittest ought to govern our polities. Railing against the increased economic injustices over the early period of the last century, people of faith said that a Godly society ought to secure the inalienable rights endowed by our Creator. Life is no accident, they said, but rather a great miracle we dare not waste.
I agree completely, with one exception: I do not believe evolution was an accident at all, but rather a miraculous creation enabling our planet to grow into the place the Psalmist extolled in saying “how varied are your works O Lord!” In order to believe in the miracle of evolution, we need to expand our definition of miracles. We tend to define miracles in terms of our own perception, as indicated in Exodus 15: “The Israelites saw the Egyptians dead at the shore of the sea (after being on the wrong end of the now-unparted Sea of Reeds). Then the Israelites saw the great power that God wielded in Egypt.” A sudden rush of an east wind at the perfect time enabled our ancestors to cross on dry land, and the reversal of that wind blocked Pharaoh’s chariots from following them. It was intense, it was sudden, and its timing was perfect. This is a miracle.
But this is not our tradition’s definition of a miracle. Miracles are not episodic, but rather constant. Three times daily in our liturgy, we extol “Your miracles that are every day with us, and the wonders and goodnesses that every moment is among us.” That includes the millions of cells that are born each moment, the ability to wake up each morning after a long slumber, the capacity for love and sacrifice. Miracles are constant. What’s needed is a keen mindfulness that sensitizes us to it.
And every now and then, in response to a changing environment, an organism is born with a mutation that enables it to effectively adapt to those changes. That, perhaps, is the greatest miracle of all.
Are we capable of moral evolution? Our tradition is ambivalent. Our Sages say that the gift of prophecy disappeared because our collective level of holiness was diminished. But the generation of the desert was hardly morally evolved, and we lost two Holy Temples because of strife and injustice. Furthermore, we long for a messianic era, for which we work and believe we come ever closer.
In geopolitics, the jury is still out. The modern period has witnessed the birth of true democracy as well as the capacity to destroy ourselves through nuclear war and devastating climate change. Many people of faith continue to decry Darwinism while embracing the Randian social mutation of same. It’s difficult to tell. But that’s exactly why I chose the profession I chose. I intend to put my infinitesimal thumb on the scale of moral evolution, in the fantastical hope that my dream (which the Sages call 1/60th of prophecy) of a just and peaceful world will come to pass. And I dream of cultivating spiritual communities to that very end. Will you join me? If you’re reading this, you already have. Shavua Tov.