One of the challenges that comes with being Jewish in America (among the many blessings) is our societal standard for what “religious” means. (For the moment, I’ll set aside the question for whether that’s a good term for practicing Jews. It’s not.) In the larger culture, prominent individuals and groups associated with being influenced by religious texts seem to take them overly literally or use them to ignore inconvenient knowledge.
You can probably guess I’m not a fan of this approach. The Jewish tradition has long included, among its many voices, an expansive view on the world. A hint can be found this week, when in Parshat Va’eira, Moses tells Pharaoh that the plague of hail will be “unlike what has been in Egypt from the time it was founded until now” (Exodus 9:18). Why does God interrupt the plague speech for a historical aside? The commentator Abarbanel (who lived in Spain around the time of the Inquisition) says this is to remind us that Egypt was, before settlement, underwater, and that remnants of fish can be found buried there (9:13, 10). Abarbanel seems to be bringing in real-world evidence, here a version of what we would call the fossil record, to explain the Torah. If the fossil record was good enough to help understand the Torah in the 15th century, it could hardly be discounted in the 21st.
When we read the Torah’s story as our own, we place ourselves in a context of the generations of our people who have built lives of meaning with Torah. When we look to scientific and historical knowledge to increase the meaning and depth of our lives, we are not stepping outside of the Jewish tradition or being less “religious” than those who stress faith in tradition over science. We are blessed with a tradition that asks us to integrate all the knowledge we can find, and by making sure we embrace diverse sources of knowledge and inspiration, we continue to forge fresh paths in our sacred tradition.