Posted on | July 10, 2006 | By Rabbi David Schallheim | 10 Comments
Something stuck in my head from 32 years ago, amazingly enough. The professor of my undergraduate biology course prefaced his remarks about biological adaptations by saying: “We don’t ask the teleological why.” Not being attuned to religious issues at the time, I didn’t give much thought to his point.
However, when I entered a Baal Teshuvah Yeshivah four years later I was astounded to find intelligent, well-educated people who challenged naturalism and its principal brainchild, evolution.
The teleological argument for the existence of God, inferring a Designer from the complexity of biological entities, is currently touted as intelligent design, although its proponents would be quick to assert that intelligent design is not creationism.
The only argument for God’s existence in the entire Talmudic literature is the argument from design:
A heretic came to Rabbi Akiva: “Who created the world?” he asked.
Rabbi Akiva answered, “The Holy One.”
The heretic challenged Rabbi Akiva: “Show me proof.”
Rabbi Akiva began by asking: “What is that you are wearing?”
“A piece of clothing,” the heretic replied.
“And who made it?” Rabbi Akiva continued.
“The weaver,” he replied.
“Show me proof!” Rabbi Akiva demanded.
The quote continues, but at this point it is important to note that Rabbi Akiva did not answer the heretic’s challenge for proof! He seemed to be returning the challenge: “You are challenging me to prove something to you, try and prove something to me.” No doubt, an intellectual giant as great as Rabbi Akiva could twist any argument the heretic could make into a pretzel. The point is clear, if you do not want to accept a certain conclusion, no arguments or proofs in the world will ever convince you.
Then Rabbi Akiva spoke to his students: “Just as a garment testifies upon a weaver, and a door testifies upon a carpenter, and a house testifies upon a builder, so too the world testifies that the Holy One created it. (Midrash Temurah in Midrash Aggados Bereishis).
Looking at the complexity of the universe and the living organisms it contains leads us to conclude there must be a Designer behind it all. Rav Elchonon Wasserman writes that every human being should instantly reach this intuitively obvious conclusion were it not for accepting the “bribe” of arrogance and physical desires, a bias known in psychology as cognitive dissonance.
This is why Rabbi Akiva presented the argument from design to his students but not to the heretic. We have to remove the bias of our physical desires and previously held conceptions, and come as students with a sense of openness to hear another point of view. Then we will be able to recognize truth when we hear it.
As baalei teshuvah, we can be especially sensitive to the need for openness and for accepting the truth when we hear it. Cognitive dissonance is part of the human condition, and we have to struggle with it no matter what color of the religious spectrum we are in. It is no wonder that Rabbi Akiva, given his background, would be the one to teach us this.
For an in-depth treatment of this concept in regards to the argument from design, see: http://www.2001principle.net/