The Jewish Response to the Theory of Evolution

By: Ari Adler

The question of how to proceed when science and Torah seem to be in conflict is not new among rabbinic figures. Over the centuries, various strategies have been used to provide what is, in the views of each individual rabbinic authority, the proper approach when this occurs, whether it be reconciliation, dismissal of one or the other, or “multiple truths.” Generally, the trend has been to accept the new science and an explanation to uphold the Torah. Charles Darwin’s Theory of Evolution and its modern variants, however, provide a particularly troubling confrontation with Torah. Rabbinic figures are oftentimes more reluctant to accept this theory than, for example, the law of biogenesis or a heliocentric universe.

            The theory can be divided into two parts: the theory of descent, also called the fact of evolution, and the theory of natural selection. The theory of descent is usually considered the bigger “problem” in terms of its relationship with Torah. The theory of descent is that all organisms evolved from a single organism. The process of variation that results in divergence of species is the theory of natural selection: that an organism with mutations beneficial for its environment has an advantage in reproduction, and those with harmful mutations will eventually die out. This has also been referred to as “survival of the fittest.”[i] Over time, this theory has been reformulated to what is referred to as “Neo-Darwinism,” namely, that the mutations were sudden, large mutations, and that the species changed over a shorter period.[ii] Most often, issues raised against the theory of evolution specifically address the fact of evolution, i.e. the theory of descent. These issues can be termed the theological conflict, the exegetical conflict, and the ethical conflict.[iii]

The Conflicts Explained

The first issue to which attention has been called is the theological conflict: the lack of an Intelligent Designer suggested by the theory. According to the theory of evolution, biodiversity can be explained by mutations and survival of the fittest, i.e. random chance. The world seems to no longer require a Creator, and God becomes irrelevant to the origin of life. This issue is handled by virtually every Jewish thinker who has grappled with evolution. It is also believed by many scientists that it is possible to explain the world without God using the theory of evolution.[iv] Darwin himself has written that if the theory would not be able to satisfactorily explain the universe without believing in God, he would reject it (though he later accepted the existence of God within the framework of evolution.[v]).[vi]

            The second conflict is the difficulty in explaining the beginning of Genesis according to the theory of descent. This is the exegetical conflict. The Torah appears to be very clear that all life came into being on the third, fifth, and sixth days of creation, and that man was created, not from primeval primates, but from the dust of the earth. Where does that leave room for a slow, gradual process of evolution from a single ancestral species? This objection assumes that the Torah, whether by default or in its intent, is giving a physical description of creation. If this is the case, scientific findings by man cannot be truer than a description given by God.[vii]

            A very specific element of this concern is the fact that the Torah states that each species was created lemino—according to its kind. The simple understanding of this indicates that each species was created distinctly, and did not emerge from a common ancestor.[viii]

            Finally, a concern that some have brought forth is the morality conflict: a world where all life can be traced to a common ancestor and where humans and animals are regarded by nature as the same can become a world in which humans are on the level of animals. They are therefore no longer subject to moral laws over and above the animals. This was recognized by Charles Darwin himself,[ix] as well as by other scientists.[x] Understandably, this is troubling to followers of the Torah, who place a high focus on human moral responsibility. Opponents of evolution such as Yoram Bogacz have therefore described the theory of evolution in such terms as a “morally bankrupt, corrosive spiritual poison that undermines the foundations of human society.”[xi] This idea may also be construed as a slippery slope argument—namely, one who grasps the theory of evolution will no longer see a reason for morality.

Rejection of the Theory

One of the ways to solve the conflict is to reject the idea that science requires a belief in random evolution. There were many attempts by Orthodox scientists and rabbis to point out the holes in evolutionary theory and to dismiss it, either wholly or partially, on a scientific basis. The criticism often launched against the theory is that it is not scientifically provable and the evidence makes it unlikely that mutations caused evolution of organisms. Binyamin Fain, through this method, declared the theory evolution a non-scientific theory, but a “metaphysical theory.”[xii] Avraham Hasofer also uses this approach, and explains why the theory is popular despite the “evidence against it,” pointing to the comfort the theory provides for atheists and the peer pressure in the scientific community to accept the theory.

            The strategy of scientifically dispelling the theory seems to be the one most often used and given the most publicity in the Orthodox world.[xiii] It is also the position of Rabbi Avi Shafran, the Director of Public Affairs for Agudath Israel of America, who called belief in evolution “the religion of Randomness and Meaninglessness.”[xiv]

            Many Jewish thinkers object to dismissing the theory, however. If a theory accepted by the consensus of biologists could be rejected by the non-scientific community, scientific discovery in general would lose legitimacy. Rabbi Joel Wolowelsky advises Jewish educators to “put to rest the idea that evolutionary biology is any less a science than chemistry or physics.”[xv] Baruch Sterman goes at length to point out the problems of theologians with little scientific background trying to dismantle a mainstream scientific theory under scientific terms.[xvi] Sterman believes that the reason that scientific laypeople feel adequately equipped to argue with scientists is because evolution is a theory that is easily explained: “an amateur would be more willing to attack a theory like evolution, whose basic jargon he can comprehend, than one like quantum chromodynamics, of which he probably has never heard.”[xvii]

Efforts at Reconciliation: The Theological Conflict

Despite the definiteness with which opposition to the theory is expressed, especially by more recent rabbinic authorities, it is not a universal sentiment of Orthodox Judaism that the theory is inadmissible by Torah standards. In fact, Raphael Shuchat claims that the mainstream Orthodox approach until the second half of the twentieth century was to accept the theory as long as it is accepted by science.[xviii] Two wide-known examples of defenders of the theory among rabbinic figures are Rabbi Samson Raphael Hirsch and Rabbi Avraham Yitzchak Kook.[xix]

            Rabbi Hirsch held the view that although the theory was (at the time) not acceptable on a scientific basis, it would be acceptable from the Torah viewpoint.[xx] In discussing the question of Torah and science, he points out a number of purely scientific objections to the theory, but then states:

This will never change, not even if the latest scientific notion that the genesis of all the multitude of organic forms on earth can be traced back to one single, most primitive, primeval form of life should ever appear to be anything more than what it is today, a vague hypothesis still unsupported by fact. Even if this notion were ever to gain complete acceptance by the scientific world, Jewish thought, unlike the reasoning of the high priest of that notion, would nonetheless never summon us to revere a still extant representative of this primal form as the supposed ancestor of us all.[xxi]

            In the paragraph he offers a viable approach to accepting the theory in its entirety while recognizing an Intelligent Designer. We see clearly that although Rabbi Hirsch did not accept the theory, his objection was purely scientific in nature, and not dogmatic. Had evidence existed during his lifetime similar to what we have today, he might have accepted the theory even on scientific grounds.[xxii] Nevertheless, arguments have arisen as to the proper understanding of Rabbi Hirsch’s words. There are those who claim that Rabbi Hirsch does support the dismissal of evolutionary theory on religious grounds. Rabbi Chaim Dov Keller, in a discussion on evolution, quotes Rabbi Hirsch’s advice not to adopt a new science too hastily. Rabbi Keller does not make any reference to the above-quoted passage.[xxiii] Rabbi Shelomo Danziger relates how, claiming to be acting in the spirit of Rabbi Hirsch’s ideology of Torah having priority over science, he removed his children from biology class for the time that they were to be taught evolution by an irreligious teacher, so that Rabbi Danziger could teach it to them himself and explain how it is a false and impossible theory.[xxiv] Rabbi Hirsch’s words do not seem to mandate this.[xxv]

            The most debated conservative formulation of Rabbi Hirsch’s opinion is that of Rabbi Joseph Elias, in an article in The Jewish Observer entitled “Rabbi Samson Raphael Hirsch and Evolution—The View from His Commentary: Setting the Record Straight on a Widely Publicized Interpretation.” According to Rabbi Elias, Rabbi Hirsch only allowed for the acceptance of the theory of evolution on religious grounds if it can be proven incontrovertibly to be true, and that the theory provides room for a Creator. As others have pointed out, Rabbi Hirsch states clearly that the existence of the Creator is not dependent on scientific allowance, and scientific fact is not tied to the allowance of a “god of the gaps”. Rather, a world fully explained by known scientific principles still would leave room for an acknowledgment of the Divine.[xxvi]

            Rabbi Kook indicates his tolerance for and even support of the theory of evolution (albeit not Darwin’s formulation[xxvii]) in a number of places. In two of his letters he emphasizes that the theory does not pose a threat to our understanding of Genesis because the Torah’s message is not history, but the secrets contained within.[xxviii] In Igrot HaKodesh, he embraces the theory enthusiastically, pointing to Kabbalistic sources that may refer to a sort of advancement in creation from simple to complex. He also points to moral benefits of the theory, that the world can be seen as one whose natural tendency is to become more advanced.[xxix]

            Another popular approach is to simply consider evolution’s seeming randomness to be an act of God as any other—“theistic evolution.” As for the origin of life, perhaps God created the species with different DNA but all under the overarching rules of DNA, or perhaps the law of biogenesis is correct, and all species evolved, under the direction of God, from simpler organisms. In any event, the complexity of the universe and the unlikelihood of evolution would point to an Intelligent Designer in the process. The random element is not a denial of God, but a proof for His existence.[xxx] While this approach has been criticized by some as inauthentic,[xxxi] it remains a common method of reconciliation. Notable examples of this approach include those employed by Nathan Aviezer, Lee Spetner, and Rabbi Isidore Epstein.[xxxii]

            Judah Landa is unsatisfied with this approach. While many Orthodox scientists have considered the historical evolution of species to be so unlikely that an Intelligent Designer is self-evident, Landa pulls apart these claims, which he calls the “’spill the ink, get a book’ argument.” In Landa’s view, the fact that the world exists in all its complexity does not prove unequivocally the existence of an Intelligent Designer. He distinguishes between the analogy to spilling ink and getting a book, and spilling ink and getting a meaningful inkblot. The latter, he says, is unlikely but possible. It does not immediately point to an intelligent creator. He considers the world to be more analogous to an inkblot than a book because of gaps and imperfections in the universe.[xxxiii]

Efforts at Reconciliation: The Exegetical Conflict

Attempts have been made to interpret the beginning of Genesis in a way that accounts for the theory of evolution. Among these was Rabbi Meir Loeb Wisser (Malbim) in his commentary on Genesis where he interprets the acts of creation of living organisms as beginnings of ongoing processes that would continue naturally.[xxxiv] Rabbi J. H. Hertz, as well, sees no problem in reconciling the Biblical account with evolution.[xxxv] Some take issue with Rabbi Hertz’s willingness to interpret the Torah in seemingly far-fetched ways in order to downplay the miraculous aspects of Creation.[xxxvi]

            Professor Nathan Aviezer points out a textual hint to evolution in the Creation account. Whereas the creation of the land animals and birds are described with the word vayya’as, “and He made,” the creation of the sea creatures uses the term vayyivra, “and He created.” The latter implies a new creation[xxxvii] while the former may refer to a natural progression from one into the other. This may conform to the literal meaning of the text, as well.[xxxviii]

            Similarly, Rabbi Aryeh Kaplan pointed to a discrepancy between the accounts of the third, fifth, and sixth days of creation, on which the plants and animals were created, and the accounts of the other days. The expressions used by God to bring forth the plants and animals are not yehi, “let it be,” but other expressions such as totsei, “let it bring out,” or yishretsu, “may it [lit. them] swarm.” This, too, suggests an instruction to begin a process, as opposed to a sudden creation.[xxxix]

            The word lemino can also be explained according to the theory of evolution. Rabbi Hirsch, in the same article in which he discusses evolution, says that lemino simply means that organisms will pass traits onto their descendants, from one generation to the next. It has no bearing on whether species will change over the generations.[xl]

            Rabbi Isidore Epstein, among others, points out that the Torah’s description of the process of creation is a progression from simple to complex, similar to the progression described by the theory of descent. Furthermore, the general order of the progression of living organisms is the same as that described by the theory: vegetables first, then animals, and then man as the climax. The only conflict that remains, claims Rabbi Epstein, is the difference in specific chronology, an issue that can be dealt with in similar ways as questions regarding the age of the universe. These have been dealt with over the centuries.[xli]

            The opponents of evolution take issue with the interpretation of the Torah to account for evolution. It seems to fly in the face of the Torah, forcing the reader to ignore the simple understanding and “force” the truth of Torah by reinterpreting it rather than rejecting science. For this reason, they are unsatisfied with explanations that the “days” of creation were really much longer periods. Additionally, the order of creation in the Torah is not exactly the same as the order given by Darwin— for example, the Torah speaks of land reptiles being created after birds.[xlii]

            Due to the multitude of opinions expressing support for accepting science, the Rabbinical Council of America released a statement in 2005, proclaiming that it is within Orthodox thought to allow for the scientific theory of evolution and that it poses no contradiction with the Torah.[xliii]

Efforts at Reconciliation: The Morality Conflict

Some have approached the moral question differently from Bogacz. The modern theory of evolution, with its genetic components, has enabled scientists to advance medicine and biology by understanding genetics and humans’ similarity to the animal kingdom, and the difference that came about as a result of evolutionary process, and why.[xliv] Whereas many objectors were concerned that acceptance of the theory would necessarily lead to moral degeneration, but in reality, the opposite has taken place. From this perspective, the result of a mindset of evolution is not one of degeneration, “Descent of Man,” as Darwin titled his work, but one of advancement.

Conclusion

Today, there continues to be a difference in opinion regarding the acceptability of the theory of evolution. The opponents feel very strongly about the issue, because it has more far-reaching consequences than other questions of science and Torah. This is not simply a question of rabbinic infallibility, but the possibility of casting doubt in the truth of the Torah. Its moral implications also frighten many. On the other hand, the implications of rejecting scientific theory in the face of dogma also have dangerous consequences, and so others are hesitant to cast it aside. Additionally, there is precedent for compartmentalizing Torah and science. This issue may touch upon previous questions of Torah versus science, and reconciliation will be possible, or it may continue to be a raging battle.

Ari Adler is a senior at Yeshiva College


[i]     Lee Spetner, Not By Chance! (New York, NY: The Judaica Press Inc., 1997), 11–13.

[ii]    Chaim Dov Keller, “Evolution versus Intelligent Design – a Torah Perspective,” The Jewish Observer 39 (2006), 10.

[iii]   A fourth, related issue is the discrepancy between scientific chronology and the simple understanding of the Torah’s and Midrash’s chronology. This issue is much larger in scope, as it pertains to much more than the theory of evolution and the question emerged well before Darwin, and therefore it will not be dealt with here.

[iv]   Yoram Bogacz, “Random and Undirected,” Torah Explorer, 29 April 2013. Accessed 16 June 2013.

[v]    Darwin Correspondence Project, Commentary on a letter from Charles Kingsley to Darwin. Accessed 21 June 2013.

[vi]   Charles Darwin, letter to Charles Lyell (1859). Accessed 16 June 2013.

[vii]  Keller, “Torah Perspective,” 13.

[viii] Ibid., 17.

[ix]   See Darwin, Descent of Man, chap. III and XXI. Accessed 7 June 2013.

[x]    For example, biologist William Provine, biologist Jerry Coyne, and David Baggett, all quoted in Bogacz, “Darwinism and Morality,” Torah Explorer, 13 May 2013.

[xi]   Ibid.

[xii]  Binyamin Fain, Dallut haKefirah (Jerusalem, Israel: Mossad Harav Kook, 2010), 120–123.

[xiii] See, for example, several chapters about the theory of evolution in Yaakov Kornreich (ed.), Torah uMadda` (New York, NY: Shorashim, 1970), 31–70, and Rafael Falk, “Evoluẓiyah: Motar HaḤayyim min haDomem – Ayin,” in Leah Mazor (ed.), Beri’at ha`Olam (Jerusalem, Israel: Magnus, 1990), 37–50, and Menachem Mendel Schneerson, “Theories of Evolution,” in Mind over Matter, comp., Joseph Ginsburg and Herman Branover, trans. Arnie Gotfryd (Jerusalem, Israel: SHAMIR, 2003), 54–97. In the last, see specifically pp. 33–36.

[xiv] Ira Robinson, “American Jewish Views of Evolution and Intelligent Design,” Modern Judaism 27 (2007), 182. Accessed 17 June 2013.

[xv]  Joel Wolowelsky, “Teaching Evolution in Yeshiva High School,” 1997. Accessed 17 June 2013.

[xvi] Baruch Sterman, “Judaism and Darwinian Evolution,” Tradition 29 (1994), 48–75.

[xvii]         Ibid., 50–51.

[xviii]        Raphael Shuchat, “R. Isaac Halevi Herzog’s Attitude to Evolution and His Correspondence with Immanual Velikovsky,” The Torah U-Madda Journal 15 (2009), 154. Accessed on 10 June 2013.

[xix] As both of these figures lived before the general acceptance of Darwinism in the scientific community, their unwillingness to accept Darwin’s formulation of the theory should not be taken as an ideological rejection.

[xx]  This is under the assumption that the theory does not affect Jewish learning and observance. Shai Cherry’s understanding (“Judaism, Darwinism, and the Typology of Suffering,” Zygon 46 (2011), 321; accessed 13 June 2013), that Rabbi Hirsch advocated “slow and incremental change” to Jewish practice in the spirit of evolution, is obviously incorrect.

[xxi] Samson Raphael Hirsch, “The Educational Value of Judaism,” in The Collected Writings (New York, NY: Philipp Feldheim Inc., 1992), 263–264.

[xxii]         This belief is also held by Rabbi Nosson Slifkin, as seen in Nosson Slifkin, The Science of Torah (Southfield, MI: Targum Press, 2001), 104.

[xxiii]        Keller, “Torah Perspective,” 21.

[xxiv]        Shelomo Danziger, “Rav S. R. Hirsch – His Torah Im Derekh Erets Ideology,” in Tsvi Tif’arto – The World of Hirschian Teachings, ed. Elliot Bondi (New York, NY: Feldheim Publishers, 2008), 162.

[xxv]         However, if the irreligious teacher had tried to convince the students of the lack of a Creator, then even Rabbi Hirsch might have approved of Rabbi Danziger’s choice.

[xxvi]        Natan Slifkin, letter to The Jewish Observer, 2006. Accessed 18 June 2013.

[xxvii]       Shai Cherry, “Three Twentieth-Century Jewish Responses to Evolutionary Theory,” Aleph 3 (2003), 261. Accessed on 10 June 2013.

[xxviii]
                Abraham Isaac Kook, Igrot Ra’ayah 1:91 and 1:134.

[xxix]

      Kook, Orot HaKodesh, Ma’amar Ḥamishi §19–21.

[xxx]         John Loike and Moshe Tendler, “Molecular Genetics, Evolution, and Torah Principles,” The Torah U-Madda Journal 14 (2007), 178–179. Accessed on 10 June 2013.

[xxxi]        Such as Bogacz, “Random.”

[xxxii]       See Lee Spetner, “The Evolutionary Doctrine” and “Information Theory Considerations of Organic Evolution,” in Science in the Light of Torah, Herman Branover, ed. (Northvale, NJ: Jason Aronson Inc., 1994), and Spetner’s book, Not By Chance! (New York, NY: The Judaica Press, Inc., 1997), and Nathan Aviezer, In the Beginning: Biblical Creation and Science (Hoboken, NJ: Ktav Publishing House Inc., 1990), 51–93, and Isidore Epstein, The Faith of Judaism (London, UK: Novello & Co., 1954), 194–204.

[xxxiii]      Judah Landa, Torah and Science (Hoboken, NJ: Ktav Publishing House, 1991), 291–296.

[xxxiv]      Robinson, “Views,” 180. See Malbim, Genesis 1:20.

[xxxv]       J.H. Hertz, “The Science of Creation,” Pentateuch and Haftorahs (London, England: Soncino Press, 1990), 194–195.

[xxxvi]      Keller, “Torah Perspective,” 15.

[xxxvii]     Cf. Numbers 16:30.

[xxxviii]    Nathan Aviezer, In the Beginning: Biblical Creation and Science (Hoboken, NJ: Ktav Publishing, 1990), 60

[xxxix]      Quoted in Slifkin, Science of Torah, 168–169.

[xl]   Hirsch, “Educational Value,” 264.

[xli]  Epstein, Faith, 201–202.

[xlii] Keller, “Torah Perspective,” 14–16.

[xliii]          Rabbinical Council of America, “Creation, Evolution, and Intelligent Design” (2005). Accessed 18 June 2013.

[xliv]         Loike and Tendler, “Principles,” 180-183.

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