“Bore u-Manhig le-Kol ha-Beru’im:” Theistic Evolution in Modern Orthodox Discourse

BY: Jerry Karp.

Much ink has been spilled (not always reflecting forethought and design[i]) on the issue of the place of evolutionary theory within Jewish thought.  Every Orthodox Jewish student living in the twenty-first century has been educated regarding the contradiction between the Torah and the theory of evolution and has been told either to reject evolution summarily or to accept that God created the world via evolution.  The current trend is generally that those in the ultra-Orthodox community believe that evolution is completely untrue, while those in the Modern Orthodox world believe that the Torah can accommodate the possibility of the emergence of life via evolution.[ii] Discussions of Torah and evolution often center on interpreting the first chapter of Bereshit in light of modern cosmological and evolutionary theory, or explaining how later Talmudic and midrashic sources, as well as the positions of Rishonim and Aharonim, support the notion that the world is more than 6,000 years old or the possibility that man could have descended from other animals.[iii]

I wish, therefore, to focus on a question which has, to my knowledge, not been the exclusive subject of any exposition on evolution and Torah.[iv] Torah u-Madda proponents almost dogmatically assert that evolution can be reconciled with Torah and that God directed the process of evolution.  But that position requires further explanation.  How did God direct evolution?

This question may initially seem to be a simple one, but I think that it is one that requires careful consideration.  The term “theistic evolution,” referring to evolution under God’s control,[v] is somewhat oxymoronic.  The modern synthetic theory of evolution, comprised of Darwin’s original theory coupled with more modern innovations in molecular biology, proposes not only that all species have evolved from less advanced forms of life, but also that the mechanism of this transmutation is natural selection.  Random mutations occur in an organism’s genes, and if these random mutations produce an organism which is better able to succeed in its environment, that organism will be more likely to pass on this mutated gene, along with its phenotypic advantages, to the next generation.  Over the course of billions of years, this process will eventually result in more advanced and complex organisms, eventually leading to the diversity that we observe today.[vi]

This explanation automatically presents a problem for those who believe in God’s creation and providence.[vii] According to the evolutionary theory, evolution progressed independently on the basis of random mutations.  There is no need for the intervening hand of God.  What exactly, then, did God do in the process of evolution?

One option which has been suggested (though it seems to be unpopular) is that evolution indeed progressed via the random mutations leading to natural selection, as evolutionary theory suggests.  God’s involvement in creation, then, was in the initial stage: creating the system that would eventually develop automatically into a diverse biosphere.  God created the universe,[viii] as well as the rules of mathematics and biology which would eventually, on the basis of probability alone, lead to evolution through natural selection.  This notion would not be immediately obvious to us, since we do not associate the concept of “creation” with mathematical and physical laws; we often think that God, as it were, acts outside the realm of what we consider “logical.”  However, if we truly believe that God has created everything, He must also have created the notion of logic itself, and with it the logical physical and biological laws.  Thus, according to this theory, God indeed created the world through evolution: He created the system which then operated independently.

One early author who subscribes to this notion is R. Samson Raphael Hirsch.[ix] At the time of his writing, the theory of evolution was in its early stages.  R. Hirsch states that he has no reason to assume that the theory of evolution or the scientific age of the universe is accurate.  However, he states that if evolution were eventually shown to be true, he would not find this discouraging, but inspiring:

“… Judaism in that case would call upon its adherents to give even greater reverence than ever before to the one, sole God Who, in His boundless creative wisdom and eternal omnipotence, needed to bring into existence no more than one single, amorphous nucleus and one single law of ‘adaptation and heredity’ in order to bring forth, from what seemed chaos but was in fact a very definite order, the infinite variety of species we know today, each with its unique characteristics that sets it apart from all other creatures.”[x]

More recently, this approach can be found in a brief essay by Reuben E. Gross:

“Assuming that the Darwinists have correctly described the mechanism of creation […] all they have done is to dis-establish [sic] the Creator as mechanistic-mason carpenter of a static world, but at the same time they have unwittingly re-established Him as an engineer-architect, kiv’yochol, of a self-adjusting, dynamic world and the Creator or legislator of the fitness standards and rules of adaptability. […] In other words, the question now is not who put the molecules together, but Who so designed the Universe that this combination (generally described as protoplasm) uniquely acts and reacts in a manner known as life.”[xi]

It seems, however, that many are uncomfortable with this approach (and, indeed, most of the authors who have written about evolution and Judaism do not adopt this understanding).  Perhaps this is because of the inherent discomfort in suggesting that God created the universe instantaneously and then withdrew from it, similar to a deistic conception of God.[xii] Of course, one might argue that, even according to the story in Bereshit, God eventually stopped creating the world; in fact, perhaps ironically for those who are disturbed by this view, the fact that God created the world and then rested is explicitly stated.[xiii]

A second view regarding the harmonization of divine creation and evolution is that God created the world through evolution, which does not really proceed via random natural selection.  Evolution did occur, but the process did not take place randomly; rather, God made a decision at every branching point along the way.  In a sense, though, proponents of this theory do not technically believe in evolution as it is generally understood, since the modern synthetic theory of evolution includes the mechanism of natural selection.  Indeed, part of the attractiveness of evolutionary theory is that it provides a scientific mechanism to account for the diversity of life; stripping evolution of this mechanism might defeat the benefit of proposing it in the first place.  One might counter that God wished to create the world in a way that would appear scientific, such that He would not obviously violate the laws of nature which we now understand.

In this vein, Dr. Carl Feit suggests that natural selection only appears random, but that no event really is random: “When a biologist speaks of random mutation, he does not really mean that those changes that occur are completely uncaused and arbitrary, but rather that since we do not know all the details of what occurs, we refer to it by the statistics of randomness.”[xiv] Dr. Judah Landa similarly writes that “[e]volution is anything but a random process.  Every step of the way is supposed to be guided by the laws of nature, particularly those that relate to the behavior of atoms, molecules and subatomic particles.”[xv]

A fundamentally similar explanation is based on quantum mechanics.  According to the theory of quantum mechanics, at the microscopic level (i.e. when dealing with particles as small as electrons), the universe is not deterministic.  At any instant, the location of an electron cannot be determined based on its previous location.  Rather, there are numerous locations where the electron might be found, with each location in space having a certain probability of the electron being there.  All of these locations are possible, even though some are more likely than others, and they are all considered within the bounds of nature.[xvi] Thus, God could control the process of evolution and simultaneously make it seem random through the laws of quantum mechanics.  Since at any instant the electrons of a molecule could be in any one of numerous locations, God chose the ones which would eventually lead to the macroscopic changes which comprised evolution.  However, since all of these eventualities were indeed possible, and there was no reason to predict that one would happen and not another, the process appears to us to be random and unpredictable.  In reality, though, the process is being controlled (at the electronic level) by God.

Of course, this approach to theistic evolution undermines the advantage of postulating natural selection in the first place.  Scientists understand that more advanced, complex forms of life developed because completely random mutations occurred, and those that were most favorable were propagated and passed down to future generations, thus leading to diversification and increased complexity of life.  In other words, the advent of man in the evolutionary process was a relatively favorable, but not the only favorable, outcome; had other random mutations occurred, those mutations would have propagated, perhaps eventually leading to a completely different advanced species.  Religious thinkers and scientists who have adopted this second stream believe that only man could have developed since he is the telos of evolution, and every minute molecular motion involved in the evolutionary process was controlled and chosen by God in an attempt to create the specific world which we inhabit.

A final explanation of theistic evolution is a sort of hybrid between the first two positions, though it is conceptually more similar to the second approach.  It is adopted by, among others, Dr. Nathan Aviezer, a physicist[xvii] at Bar-Ilan University.  Aviezer contends that generally life is “left alone” by God, perhaps with some mutations occurring.  However, at some major points in evolutionary history, such as the advent of man, God intervened and caused a major evolutionary step to occur.[xviii] Aviezer’s position is based on Niles Eldredge and Stephen Jay Gould’s version of evolutionary theory, called punctuated equilibrium, which suggests that evolutionary change happened in quick spurts over the course of evolutionary history, while most of life’s history was marked by long periods of stasis with no evolution.[xix] Thus, Aviezer posits, the natural course of life would have been stasis, while God intervened at some points to create evolutionary change.  Aviezer maintains that Darwin was correct that evolution occurred but incorrect about its mechanism.

This explanation, like the second, holds that for evolutionary change to occur, it must be directed by God.  As opposed to the first explanation, these last two streams of thought hold that evolution is a miracle of sorts.  Every time a new species developed, God had explicitly created it at that moment.  According to the first approach, however, evolutionary change is no different from any other aspect of the universe.  The basic question at hand, evoking the famous debate between Rambam and Ramban,[xx] is whether evolution is a miracle or an integral part of nature.

I believe that this discussion highlights the clear fact that when we say that “God directed evolution,” we do not all agree on what this means.  It is time we understand what we mean when we make well-intentioned but ambiguous pronouncements.  Clarification of our positions on theistic evolution can only lead us to greater appreciation for God’s creation.

Jerry Karp is a senior at YC majoring in Physics and Mathematics.

[i] Cf. Rabbeinu Bahya, “Sha’ar ha-Yihud,” in Hovot ha-Levavot.

[ii] As is often the case, the fact that Modern Orthodox Jews are willing to accept that evolution could be true is sometimes ignored, and all Orthodox Jews are sometimes lumped together as anti-evolutionists.  Thankfully, the distinction between Modern Orthodox and ultra-Orthodox Jews in this regard seems to have been well-established overall.  Some notable exceptions persist, however.  As an example, Ian Barbour writes that “Reform and Conservative Judaism, the Catholic church, and most of the mainline Protestant denominations today maintain that we do not have to choose between cosmology and creation” (Religion and Science: Historical and Contemporary Issues [San Francisco: HarperCollins, 1997], p. 203).

In a more egregious example, Alexander Nussbaum presented in an article in the magazine Skeptic the sweeping generalization that “Orthodox Jewish scientists, even those with legitimate degrees from prestigious universities accept the inerrancy of Torah and Chazal, condemn evolution, and proclaim the superiority of the truths of Torah over secular science.”  He then cites the works of Rabbi Dr. M. D. Tendler, Dr. Gerald Schroeder, Dr. Nathan Aviezer, Dr. Lee Spetner and Dr. Herman Branover, all of which, he claims, suggest that evolution is false (“Orthodox Jews and Science: An Empirical Study of their Attitudes Toward Evolution, the Fossil Record, and Modern Geology,” Skeptic 12,3, available at: http://www.skeptic.com/the_magazine/featured_articles/v12n03_orthodox_judaism_and_evolution.html).  While the last two of these authors (Spetner and Branover) indeed proclaim categorically that evolution is untrue, the first three authors say no such thing.  All of them are willing to accept the theory of evolution to some extent, although not necessarily the theory of natural selection.

Nussbaum also notes that the Association of Orthodox Jewish Scientists sponsored Aryeh Carmell and Cyril Domb (eds.), Challenge: Torah Views on Science and Its Problems (New York: Association of Orthodox Jewish Scientists, 1976), which, he claims, “promotes creationism.”  This is only partially true: most of the articles in the collection do argue that evolution is false, but at least one (“On Creation and Evolution” by Reuben E. Gross, see n. 11 below) argues that evolution may be true, and moreover, the “AOJS Students’ Questions Panel,” a 30-page discussion of the issues regarding evolution and Torah, is willing to accommodate such a belief as well.  It is also important to point out that this book was published in 1976, when many Orthodox Jewish scientists were not willing to believe in theistic evolution. This attitude seems, however, to have changed in the last 35 years; indeed, the AOJS has since featured numerous speakers at their annual conventions who have discussed theistic evolution.

Nussbaum’s piece in Skeptic paints Orthodox Jews as uneducated idiots and Orthodox Jewish scientists as backward-thinking dogmatists.  While it seems to me that Nussbaum’s piece, rather than those who are quoted in it, constituted a massive hillul Hashem, this only emphasizes how important it is for the Modern Orthodox Jewish community to educate its students effectively on what it believes regarding theistic evolution, as well as to clearly communicate its views in print.

[iii] I wish to point out here that we should be careful to distinguish between accommodating Torah and evolution and accommodating Torah and cosmology.  Evolution is the theory that explains how life on Earth became as diverse as it is today; cosmology explains the history of the universe and how it became the way it is today.  It seems that most Modern Orthodox Jews, even those who are opposed to the theory of evolution, are willing to accept the fact that the world is billions of years old.  It has become cliché to explain that “a day (as described in the Bereshit creation story) might actually not be 24 hours.”  I believe that harmonizing the scientific age of the universe with the Torah’s account of creation is the easiest problem with which a God-fearing scientist must contend.  Yet, my experience suggests that it is the problem which Jews spend the most time discussing.  As an example, when I took an introductory biology class with Dr. Carl Feit in Yeshiva College, he devoted a week to explaining how evolution could be accommodated within a Torah viewpoint.  However, the bulk of this time was actually spent explaining how, indeed, a day could be longer than 24 hours.  (For a summary of the sources which Dr. Feit presents in this series of classes, see Carl Feit, “Modern Orthodoxy and Evolution: The Models of Rabbi J. B. Soloveitchik and Rabbi A. I. Kook,” in Geoffrey Cantor and Marc Swetlitz (eds.), Jewish Tradition and the Challenge of Darwinism [Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2006], pp. 208-224.)  In retrospect, I assume that Dr. Feit focuses on these issues since they are the ones which students assume are most theologically troubling.

[iv] Rabbi Lawrence Troster actually discusses the conflict between belief in divine creation and natural selection in “The Order of Creation and the Emerging God: Evolution and Divine Action in the Natural World,” in Jewish Tradition and the Challenge of Darwinism, pp. 225-246.  However, he discusses this in the larger context of religious problems created by evolution, and he does not include the range of Jewish views which I am discussing here.

[v] The term “theistic evolution” is to be contrasted with “intelligent design,” which has nothing to do with evolution.  Intelligent design proposes that the form of the universe demonstrates an inherent design which must have been fashioned by an intelligent Creator (the word “God” is generally not used, in order that the theory might sound scientific).  Evolution is not a part of this design.  Theistic evolution proposes that evolution occurred and can be discussed solely in the realm of science, without resorting to religious notions such as a Creator, but that it can be understood in the realm of religion as being the result of a divine hand.

[vi] One semantic issue that should be better clarified in essays on this topic is what is included in the term “evolution.”  In his essay in Tradition 29,1 (1994), Baruch Sterman quotes Michael Ruse (Taking Darwin Seriously: A Naturalistic Approach to Philosophy [New York: Prometheus Books, 1998]), who distinguishes the fact of evolution from the path of evolution, the former referring to the idea that species evolved into other species and the latter referring to the mechanism of natural selection.  Usually, the term “evolution” is assumed to include both the fact and the path of evolution, but many Jewish writers who support evolution do not agree with the mechanism of natural selection.  I will discuss this position later in this article, but when I use the term “evolution” in this paragraph and later, I will be including natural selection.

[vii] Note that I will not be discussing the problems the theory of evolution creates in biblical interpretation.

[viii] As noted before, I am not discussing issues of cosmology, but I suspect that those who adopt this position would believe that the universe was created via the Big Bang.

[ix] There is a plethora of writing on the subject of evolution and creation, and I have certainly not read everything that has been written.  I attempted to read major works on evolution from within our community, with an eye toward the parts of those works which discuss the question at hand.

[x] R. Samson Raphael Hirsch, The Collected Writings of Rabbi Samson Raphael Hirsch, vol. 7 (New York: Feldheim Publishers, 1997), p. 264.

[xi] Reuben E.  Gross, “On Creation and Evolution,” in Challenge: Torah Views on Science and Its Problems, pp. 236-239.

[xii] There is also the issue of harmonizing this approach with the account in Bereshit which suggests that God created the world through a direct process.

[xiii] Here I am grateful to Yehoshua Blumenkopf, with whom I had an interesting discussion on this point.

[xiv] Carl Feit, “Darwin and Derash: The Interplay of Torah and Biology,” in The Torah u-Madda Journal 2 (1990): 25-36, at p. 30.

[xv] Judah Landa, Torah and Science (Hoboken, NJ: Ktav, 1991), p. 293.

[xvi] This concept has been employed in general and Jewish philosophy to explain many concepts related to divine providence and free will.  See Reuven Rand’s article in this issue of Kol Hamevaser.

[xvii] It is noteworthy that in this article, I have cited a total of one biologist (Dr. Feit).  In my research to prepare this article, I found that the vast majority of Jewish scientists claiming expertise either on how to accommodate evolution and creation or on how to disprove the possibility of evolution are physicists or mathematicians, not biologists.  It is simply amazing that so many physicists have proclaimed themselves experts on the theory of evolution, even though it has almost nothing to do with physics, any more than any other biological process has to do with physics.  While I value the efforts of the physicists who have attempted to explain evolution in light of the Torah, I am particularly troubled by those physicists and mathematicians who have decided, with absolutely no academic degree in biology whatsoever, that evolution is impossible.  I am not the first to notice this and be offended by it.  Baruch Sterman aptly writes:

“A physicist would not countenance a biologist’s flippant rejection of Maxwell’s equations or Einstein’s explanation of the photoelectric effect, two scientific descriptions of optical phenomena universally accepted within physics, even though the simultaneous acceptance of those two theories ostensibly leads to the paradoxical description of light as both wave and particle. […] A brusque dismissal of the widely accepted views of modern biologists is likewise not warranted, especially by someone who is not an authority in the field.  The derision of evolution as high school or popular science, when graduate courses in evolutionary biology are offered in virtually every university, is misplaced.” (Baruch Sterman, “Judaism and Darwinian Evolution,” Tradition 29,1 [1994]: 48-75)

[xviii] Nathan Aviezer, In the Beginning: Biblical Creation and Science (Jersey City, NJ: Ktav, 2009), p. 57.

[xix] Aviezer suggests that most scientists believe that punctuated equilibrium, and not gradualism (the theory that evolution is constantly occurring gradually) is correct.  I believe that this is not necessarily the consensus of the scientific community, although there is a significant percentage of scientists who do not agree with punctuated equilibrium.

[xx] See Rambam, Moreh Nevukhim II:29 and Ramban to Shemot 13:16.