5 million or 5 thousand? The difference is fundamental(ist)

10 04 2011

The Avshalom Cave - Beit Shemesh, Israel

hat’s a few zeroes?  Well, do the math.  Add a few zeroes to another few zeroes and you get zero.  The religious tensions in this holy land are just that: zero-sum.

Last week we took Tamar to spend Shabbat in Beit Shemesh where her best friend from her school in California is now living.  Her friend’s family is fairly Orthodox, while we are fairly Conservative, what they call here masorti or Traditionalist (in a Pluralist-Egalitarian bent).  Beit Shemesh, on the road to Jerusalem, is fast becoming a heredi (“Ultra-Orthodox”) enclave, where religion is taken very seriously, and not a few fundamentalist attitudes exist.

From Hannaton in the Galilee to Beit Shemesh is an hour and a half drive, which we gladly took so Tamar could reconnect with her friend.  But in Israel gas is a whopping $8.50 per gallon, so every time we drive any “long” distance we multi-task the trip.

Just outside Beit Shemesh is a gorgeous stalactite cave open to the public.  Tamar is fascinated by ancient pre-history, especially the origins of the universe and what secrets can be learned by studying nature.  It seemed like a great idea to show Tamar this cave just before dropping her off at her friend’s.  Little did we know that the expedition would turn into an education about the conflict between science and literalist religion.  But, I’m glad it did.

Getting to the cave from the park entrance is a fun challenge.  There is a walk of several hundred stairs down the gully to the cave entrance.  Along the way are descriptive signs telling of the cave’s history and highlights.  Here is one sign we came across:

TRANSLATION: “Scientists know that the formation of the stalactites began some XXXXXXXXX years ago.”

Clearly someone disagreed with what “scientists know” and focused his, or her, protest by scratching out the words “5 million” before the word “years.” Fortunately, the words were still somewhat visible.  Read on to the end…

his is an old battle between modern science and fundamentalist religion.  According to Jewish tradition God created the heavens and the earth in six days and rested on the seventh, which is the Shabbat (שבת).  Some streams of Judaism, like some Christian denominations, take this text literally and believe the world, and the entire universe, are only 5,700 +/-  years old.  Science, of course, dates the age of the earth to some 4.5 billion years, and the entire universe to about 15 billion years.  Non-literalist religions (Reform or Conservative Judaism and mainline Christian denominations) have reconciled the findings of science with the practice of their faiths: it is possible to find and worship a just, loving and compassionate God in a universe of unimaginable age.  Indeed, God’s wonders are all that much more magnificent in a 15 billion year old universe of infinite size.

Here in Israel the debate so familiar to Americans follows a very similar trajectory.  The etching out of the words “5 million” on the sign at the Beit Shemesh cave is but one example.

Oh, by the way, it is no coincidence that a family of maskilim (free-thinking enlightenment types) felt compelled to repair the fundamentalist affront to open thought, with the following result:

“5 million” returns to light

And with that, Tamar gained an important education in freedom of thought versus fundamentalist religious coercion.

 

Note to my readers: I apologize for my absence from blogging for several weeks.  I started ulpan, intensive Hebrew language course (what I call “Hebrew school”) in Haifa five days a week, and also the shipment of our household goods arrived two weeks ago.  We’ve been rather busy putting our house together, unpacking over 60 boxes.  We’ve come along nicely and I hope to be blogging more regularly again. Thank you!

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