Torah For Today! This week: Neanderthals?
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Torah For Today! This week: Neanderthals?

Rabbi Abel serves takes a topical issue and applies an Orthodox response

Ariel Abel is rabbi of the Liverpool Old Hebrew Congregation

Scientists in France this week discovered hundreds of fossilised footprints belonging to a single group of Neanderthals, who are said to have lived 80,000 years ago. So, what does the Torah say about this?

Although creation is measured in days, and mankind appears on the sixth day, only the most diehard literalists will insist that we are the only humanoid species who have ever lived.

The Midrash speaks of 80 generations who lived before the Adam who was our ancestor, and they were made extinct.

As to the expression of the passage of time in human history in tens of thousands of years, this appears in the Book of Psalms. “For a thousand years are in Your sight as a passing day and a night-watch”.

This prayer, uttered by its composer – “Moses, man of God” – speaks of time in terms exponential to our own.

The Neanderthals whose footprints have been found on a beach in Normandy were found alongside tools and cooking remnants typical of that period.  Scientific evidence is significant in Jewish law, in that it changes any presumptions we have received as truth previously.

Therefore, even if a literal approach to Scripture shuts off prehistory, scientific observation of our environment requires of us to reappraise what we know and what we think we know.  Maimonides was of the view that if we find out new information about the world, we must adjust, as the rabbis of old only knew as much as that which had been found in their time.

How does the life and disappearance of Neanderthals affect us now? The Midrash states that the reason for the disappearance of the 80 pre-Adam generations was because their conduct was displeasing to Him.  We might therefore be fortunate to exist – but we must also deserve to.

υ Rabbi Abel serves Liverpool Old Hebrew Congregation and is padre to Merseyside Army Cadet Force

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