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The Rabbi at the Scopes Trial

Clergy people and other religious folks straining to put their faith's seal of approval on Darwin, BioLogos-style, may seem like a very contemporary sign of our own times. Actually there's nothing new about it at all.

I was looking over a collection of archival photos on the website of the interesting and effective new film Alleged, which seeks to do historical justice to the Scopes Trial in a way that the famously fictionalized Inherit the Wind does not. One photo caught my eye: Two men standing outside with a large poster-board sign with words and phrases from the Bible, all printed in Hebrew. The nattily dressed fellow on the right is gesturing at the first phrase in Genesis as the other man looks interestedly on. See the photo here.

Turns out the guy on the right is Rabbi Herman Rosenwasser of San Francisco. According to Edward Larson (Summer of the Gods), Rosenwasser, a 46-year-old Hungarian-born Reform rabbi and freelance linguist then between congregational jobs, "appeared in Dayton uninvited but quickly impressed defense counsel." I'll bet he did. Rabbi Rosenwasser did not in the end testify before the jury but his sage wisdom was read out to the court by ACLU lawyer Arthur Hays. The rabbi's assignment? To demonstrate that if only you read the Bible in its original Hebrew it becomes perfectly clear that there is "no conflict with the theory of evolution." You can find his original statement here.

The problem is that what the rabbi says is all either irrelevant or bogus. He talks about how the King James Bible falls short in its translation, which is true but could be said of any rendition of Scriptural Hebrew into another language. Getting down to brass tacks, the rabbi testifies about the meaning of the word Adam, apparently keeping in mind that the Tennessee statute that was in play at the Scopes trial forbade teaching not evolution per se but the evolution of man from animals:

In the first chapter of Genesis, the word "Adam" is used. The word Adam means a living organism containing blood. If we are descended from Adam we are descended from a lower order -- a living, purely [a missing word here] organism containing blood. If that is a lower order of animal, then Genesis itself teaches that man is descended from a lower order of animals.
You could say a lot about the various concepts that, through the connection suggested by their related Hebrew consonantal roots, the word Adam is intended to call up in the reader's mind. It suggests earth -- though whether earth, adamah, is derived from adam, human being, or vice versa is open to question. It's related to adom, or red, which has similarly provoked much speculation, but also to other words for "footstool" and "seal." Man is the preeminent seal by which God's creativity is recognized in the world. (See Rabbi S.R. Hirsch's notes on Genesis 1:26 in his Torah Commentary.)

But you don't have to know any Hebrew to understand that Rabbi Rosenwasser in the passage above is just making things up, telling his ACLU handlers what they want to hear. Even if Adam means "red" and "red" means "blood," getting from there to common descent and man's genealogical origin among the beasts requires a wild leap of imaginative pseudo-linguistics. Maybe man really does have an animal pedigree but nothing in Genesis remotely suggests it.

Why does it matter, 86 years later? Because this was then and remains today the role that clergy are called on to play -- expected to play -- in the campaign to win over public opinion on behalf of Darwinian theory. The more things change, the more they stay the same.

I don't doubt Rabbi Rosenwasser's sincerity but there does seem to be a psychological dynamic at work, evident in case after case, where religious spokesmen do a sort of unconscious deal with their Darwinist sponsors. "You lionize us," go the terms of this unstated agreement. "In return, we'll say what you want, but just don't anyone think for a moment about whether it makes any sense or not."