From Rabbi Johanna Hershenson

Just recently I watched a documentary on either Netflix or Hulu called Doubting Darwin. It juxtaposed Darwin's own journey into formulating ideas about evolution that would shake the foundation of Christianity with voices of the 45% of Americans who believe in Genesis rather than science.

45% of Americans believe or prefer to believe in religion rather than science.

These 45% of Americans aren't simply claiming a spiritual life - I value a spiritual life rather highly - they reject science as an assortment of so-called theories.

There is no indication in rabbinic texts that the rabbis or the ancient authors of the Torah believed the texts they passed down to us are meant to be taken literally. Truth often transcends fact and observation. Truth often underlies what captures our attention either for better or for worse.

Maimonides, wrote in the middle ages, that the language of Torah is multivalent, that is, means different things to different people in different times and places. The right meaning emerges through an organic, democratic process - we find rabbis who speak to our sense of reason and the theologies we can accept.

Determining that the words of Torah, the first five books of the bible, are to be taken in at their surface meaning diminishes the power inherited traditions can have in our lives here and now. To reject what can be empirically and mathematically demonstrated in favor of faith in words that defy reason as a badge of honor is silly. It's like using ancient tools to accomplish today's tasks.

The gift of an inherited tradition is that we, the receivers of the gift, enter the game of life further down the game board than the generation/s that preceded us. We don't have to start at start. We get an edge. The challenge is learn how to use the inherited tradition as an edge, as a tool that can move us forward in our own evolutionary process than could our parents.

It is up to us to do something with the information, tradition, rituals, and ideas we inherit. What is the teaching? The message? How can this piece of information or ritual enrich my experience here and now?

As American Jews our understanding of Israel is woefully similar to our understanding of Judaism. We aren't sure what we want to pass down to our kids and grandkids, but we can't help but want them to have something.

It is not always easy to relate to the image of the early pioneers from Russia and Poland and the region who turned from white collar training to pushing their sleeves up and getting dirty. Yesterday's heroic Irgun and Stern Gang ambushes against the British Mandate would be called terrorism today. The occupation of territories and the challenge of managing local inhabitants who are reasonably dissatisfied with the nearly 60 year stalemate has worn our attention spans thin. A rabbinic court having say over matters of personal status in our lives like who we can and can't marry or where we can be buried after we die is a totally foreign concept to us.

The truth is that Israel is what we remember and even more so isn't at all the perceptions we've taken for granted. The overwhelming demographic among Jews in Israel is nonreligious. Religious Jews comprise some 20% of the Jewish population and that number includes progressive religious Jews like Reform and Conservative. Jewish holidays are celebrated traditionally among that 20% but as days off for family and recreation for the other 80%! Yes visiting antiquities in Israel is awesome. But take a look at Israel's innovations: harvesting water, technologies, medicine, film and literature, etc.

The real gift Israel and Zionism has given the Jewish people is not the David and Goliath battle that pervades any reference to Israel in our culture... The real gift is normalcy and access to anything that interests us as Jews. Zionism sends off bells and whistles warning of nationalism and inherent racism to many people on the planet. It doesn't refer to a simple acknowledgement that the Jewish people have a rightful home in Eretz Yisrael like we'd like to think it does. And yet I believe Zionism is why I can go camping, trail running or hiking, and even four wheeling. Zionism is why my husband, a nice Jewish boy, can also ride a motorcycle. Zionism renewed the Jewish people with a tribal sense of self, (where I come from,) and courage to access all that history denied us: physical strength and sport, innovative prowess in science and math, connection to land and hard labor, art and music.

Of course I support the state of Israel's right to exist and importance to Jews as a refuge and a homeland. I also recognize the displacement and intimidation of local people, Palestinians, that cannot be justified by religious right to the land of our ancestors. What Zionism gives to the Jewish people and how Israel behaves as a democratic, Western nation in the middle of an Arab world are two distinctly different truths that must coexist. Shared history and cultural mythology point to one truth. Values and the laws intended to manifest those values point to another truth. The intersection of these truths can be confusing, but in my opinion are not unlike gaining spiritual wisdom or comfort/insight from the Book of Genesis and simultaneously gaining knowledge from scientific evidence for how the physical world as we know it came into being and impacts our existence.

Belief isn't a crap shoot in a casino or a back alley. Belief in something is about trust rooted in historic patterns and what we know to be consistently true. Evidence has always been a part of belief in Jewish discourse. We do not betray or abandon our beliefs when we find them challenged or when we find that they are works in progress that we refine over time and appear differently than they did when we started.

In our efforts to build a more connected Temple Beth Tikvah community, we could all stand to ponder our personal relationship with concepts like belief and truth. Don't hesitate to share with me if you feel so moved, This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it..

~~ Rabbi Hershenson's office hours are by appointment. If you would like to set up an appointment, please contact her by email at: This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it., or by phone at 541-213-9880.