Insightful Jewish Interpretation of the Pentateuch: SBL Panel Discussion of Shai Held, The Heart of Torah

Rabbi Shai Held is Dean and Chair of Jewish Thought at the Hadar Institute, an ecumenical egalitarian study center in New York City that he helped found in 2006, along with Rabbis Elie Kaunfer and Ethan Tucker.

My initial introduction to Shai Held was in January 2015 when he contacted me to discuss the imago Dei in Genesis 1, in preparation for a public lecture he was going to give on human dignity and police violence against African Americans. He had read my book The Liberating Image and wanted to clarify some aspects of the interpretation. We first communicated by email, then had a telephone conversation on the topic.

Since then I have attended the Hadar Institute (previously called Mechon Hadar) for two of their annual Executive Seminars and I wrote an initial blog about my experience.

Middleton with Rabbis Elie Kaunfer and Shai Held at Hadar, July 2016

Shai Held (son of Ugaritic scholar Moshe Held) has written an in-depth study of the theology of Abraham Heschel (Abraham Joshua Heschel: The Call of Transcendence) that explores the complexity of his thought. This is his published dissertation, written under the supervision of Jon D. Levenson at Harvard.

Held’s latest publication is The Heart of Torah, 2 vols. (Jewish Publication Society, 2017). This is a compilation of short theological-ethical essays on selected passages from the weekly Torah portion in the Jewish lectionary cycle. Volume 1 covers texts in Genesis and Exodus, while volume 2 covers texts in Leviticus to Deuteronomy.

I (along with approximately 7,000 others) subscribed to receiving these essays every week by email; and I have been profoundly moved by Held’s insights. So when I found out that the essays would be published in a two-volume collection, I contacted a number of Christian biblical scholars to join me in writing endorsements for the publication.

I have also organized a panel discussion on The Heart of Torah at the Society of Biblical Literature annual meeting in San Diego this coming November. The panel will consist of both Jewish and Christian biblical scholars, who will share their responses to the book and its project. 

Although the exact date and time has not yet been set, this is the lineup of presenters.

Presiding:

  • J. Richard Middleton, Northeastern Seminary at Roberts Wesleyan College

Participants:

  • Ellen Davis, Duke Divinity School
  • David Frankel, Schechter Institute of Jewish Studies
  • S. Tamar Kamionkowski, Reconstructionist Rabbinical College
  • Jacqueline Lapsley, Princeton Theological Seminary
  • Dennis Olson, Princeton Theological Seminary
  • Marvin Sweeney, Claremont School of Theology

Response:

  • Shai Held, The Hadar Institute

This panel discussion is jointly sponsored by the Theology of the Hebrew Scriptures program unit and the National Association of Professors of Hebrew.

Here is a newspaper article (The Times of Israel, September 2017) on Shai Held’s combination of Jewish piety and social ethics

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Trusting the Bible and Accepting Evolution—Call me Crazy!

I just returned from Cornell University, where I gave a joint-presentation entitled “Origins, Self, and Soul” with Praveen Sethupathy, a Christian geneticist on the faculty of Cornell.

Our presentation, which addressed biblical and evolutionary perspectives on human origins and identity, was co-sponsored by Chesterton House, a Christian study center near the Cornell campus, and the Cornell Graduate Christian Fellowship.

The implicit question we addressed was whether it is possible to be a faithful Christian and accept an evolutionary account of human origins.

Whereas Praveen brought a scientist’s perspective, my portion of the presentation focused on what the Bible tells us about human commonality with animals and about what it means to be created in God’s image, which is usually taken as something unique to humans.

I wasn’t able to cover very much in the twenty minutes allotted to me.

However, those twenty minutes were part of longer presentation that I have given on the topic of the Bible and evolution, which covered a larger scope.

The last time I gave the full presentation was in May 2018, when I participated in a conference sponsored by the Canadian Scientific and Christian Affiliation (CSCA), held at Trinity Western University, in Langley, BC.

I was one of six plenary presenters. The presenters all came from different disciplines and addressed aspects of the intersection of faith and the sciences.

Can We Believe the Bible and Accept Evolution?

As the biblical scholar of the lot, my talk focused on biblical themes. Given the nature of the conference (and my interest in the faith-science interface on matters of origins), I attempted to relate the biblical themes of human distinctiveness and the origin of evil to what the sciences are telling us about our evolutionary origins.

I began by highlighting a number of tensions that Christians have perceived between the Bible and an evolutionary account of human origins. Then I suggested that these tensions are not necessary, but have to do with the way in which we read the Bible.

So I engaged in some serious Bible study.

My talk was videotaped and astutely edited together with my PowerPoint slides. The entire talk (with slides) can be viewed here.

Part 1: Human Distinctiveness

In part 1 of the talk, I addressed how the Bible understands the commonality of humans with other animals (in a variety of creation texts from Genesis, Job, and the Psalms), which suggests that we shouldn’t have an aversion to the idea of common descent. Then I explored the Bible’s teaching about humanity as the image of God (found in Genesis 1:26–28 and related texts). I speculated how the human calling to image God might be related to what science is telling us about human origins.

Part 2: The Origin of Evil

In part 2 of the talk, I focused on the portrayal of the origin of evil in Genesis 2–3, probing the way in which this portrayal is true to human experience and represents a profound phenomenology of temptation and sin. Then I picked up on my earlier speculation about the image of God and evolutionary origins, and added a suggestion for how human evil could have entered the evolutionary process.

I thus did what many Christians claim it is impossible. I attempted to affirm both an evolutionary account of human origins and the biblical teaching on human distinctiveness and a historical fall.

Call me crazy. But I respect God’s revelation in Scripture and God’s revelation in creation, which can be studied by science. I can’t deny either.

In fact, I believe that God is revealed—and glorified—in the evolutionary complexity of the biological world.

Insightful Devotional: “Called to Indwell the Earth”

At the conference we had a wonderful devotional one morning given by Patrick Franklin, current vice-president of the Canadian Scientific and Christian Affiliation, and newly appointed associate professor of theology at Tyndale Seminary, in Toronto.

You can watch Patrick Franklin’s talk here.

Recordings of Other Talks at the Conference

You can see the entire conference schedule of keynote speakers and breakout sessions here.

All the keynote talks and some of the breakout sessions were recorded. You can find links to them here.

 

Origins, Self, & the Soul (Cornell University, September 21, 2018)

I’ll be joining with biology professor Dr. Praveen Sethupathy to give a public lecture at Cornell University on Friday, September 21, 2018.

Having done joint-presentations on similar topics in the past, we have found that our perspectives are helpfully complementary.

The lecture, entitled “Origins, Self, & the Soul,”  is sponsored by Chesterton House, a Christian study center near the Cornell campus, and is part of their Friday Conversation series.

The event is co-sponsored by the Cornell Graduate Christian Fellowship and by BioLogos, an organization of orthodox Christians who take seriously both the biblical revelation of God as Creator and the science of evolution. Both Praveen and I are members of BioLogos Voices, and often write and speak on behalf of the organization.

Here is the Chesterton House summary of the September 21 event:

Join us for a Friday Conversation with Dr. Praveen Sethupathy and Dr. Richard Middleton. What better way to engage the historic conversation between science and faith than to feature thoughtful, renowned scholarsone a scientist and the other a theologian. Listen and join in as they discuss and examine the study of genetics and human origins from scientific and theological perspectives, exploring the implications for human identity as the image of God.

The event will be held in the Rhodes-Rawlings Auditorium in Klarman Hall, Cornell University, Ithaca, NY, at 5:00 pm on Friday, September 21, 2018.

Focus of the Joint-Lecture

Having presented with Praveen Sethupathy before, I expect that he will recount in a wonderful way his own journey of faith in relation to science and will explore ways in which scientists have attempted (and failed) to isolate what is distinctively humans about us. His suggestion is that we need to attend to what the Bible says about human distinctiveness, namely, that we are made in God’s image (imago Dei).

For my part, I will focus first on what the Bible says about the similarity or kinship of humans with the non-human and then explore the meaning of the imago Dei as the distinctive human vocation or calling, concluding with some (tentative) thoughts on how this might relate to the current scientific picture of human origins.

Both Praveen and I are committed, orthodox Christians, who take seriously the biblical teaching about what it means to be human and what science is telling us about our evolutionary history. We don’t think there is a necessary conflict between them.

Our presentation (sure to be controversial) will be followed by at least half-an-hour for open discussion, accompanied by free pizza for all.

If you are in the area, please join us on the evening of September 21 for this important discussion.

Praveen Sethupathy Bio

Praveen Sethupathy is an Associate Professor of Biomedical Sciences at Cornell University. He received his BA degree from Cornell and his PhD in Genomics from the University of Pennsylvania.

After completing a post-doctoral fellowship at the National Human Genome Research Institute under the mentorship of Dr. Francis Collins, he moved in 2011 to the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill as an Assistant Professor in the Department of Genetics. In 2017, he returned to Cornell University as an Associate Professor.

Praveen has authored over 70 publications, and has served as a reviewer for over 30 different journals. Recent honors include a faculty merit award for outstanding teaching and mentoring. He lives in Ithaca, NY with his wife and three children.

If You Need Directions

For directions to Cornell, including a campus map, click here.

For more information, including directions to the location of the lecture (the Rhodes-Rawlings Auditorium in Klarman Hall), you can email Chesterton House.

Chesterton House link for the event.

BioLogos link for the event.