Jewish Tradition and the Challenge of Darwinism (2008)

Here are some highlights from this 2008 book:

* The theory of evolution has provided a profound intellectual challenge to religion over the past century and a half. Yet most studies of the impact and significance of evolution for religion have focused on just one religion, Christianity, and more specifically on Protestantism.

* What was so novel about Darwin’s book? First, Darwin possessed an impressive reputation as a naturalist and, far from offering a hasty speculation, he underpinned his case for evolution with a wealth of research and information gleaned from many naturalists all over the world. He also applied his theory to help explain observations in such diverse fields as taxonomy, morphology, embryology, animal behavior, geology, palaeontology, and biogeography. Second, he proposed an innovative and controversial mechanism for evolution-the evolution of species by natural selection. Put simply, Darwin postulated that individuals in any species exhibit diversity in a range of characteristics, many of which are inherited, and that these individuals compete with each other for the scarce resources needed to survive and reproduce. If certain characteristics provide individuals with an advantage in that competition, then those characteristics are more likely to be passed to the next generation, and the species will evolve. For example, if there is insufficient food for all the members of a population of sparrows, they will compete over this limited resource. If some sparrows possess an advantage over others-perhaps the faster-flying sparrows have greater access to food then the faster are more likely to survive than the slower. And if the biological basis for the characteristic of speed is passed on to successive generations, we can envisage the speed of our hypothetical population increasing over a number of generations. Thus the species is transformed.

* While Darwin’s theory was not the first to postulate evolution, it needs to be distinguished from the view that evolution is teleological-that species develop linearly towards a predetermined, final form. Rather, Darwin envisaged evolution like a branching tree, with some branches splitting and others terminating. These correspond respectively to the diversification of species and to extinction. Moreover, how an actual species evolves depends on contingent local factors, such as the availability of food and the presence of predators. This dimension of Darwin’s theory had important theological implications, for it was understood by Darwin and many theologians to challenge notions of a providential God whose care and benevolence extended to each individual in creation. Darwin’s theory also challenged the argument from design, especially widespread in the writings of British and American Christian clergy in the nineteenth century. If we look at any part of the natural world, impressive evidence for its design can usually be found. A flower, for example, displays design in the symmetry of its petals and in the functioning of its reproductive cycle. Such signs of design, it was argued, must be the result of a divine designer. The physical world thus justifies the notion not just of a Creator, but of a super intelligent Creator who made every species for a purpose and fitted each species into an overall plan. Then came Darwin’s theory. As some commentators noted, evolution evokes an even more impressive image of God, since he did not have to create each species separately but rather possessed the intelligence to create a system in which species progressively evolved. However, others viewed evolution very differently since if species evolve unaided, then the notion of a designer God was undermined. Indeed, Darwin’s theory was widely understood as being conducive to atheism, as it appears to dispense with a providential God.6

The centrality of competition in the process of natural selection also raised a host of problems. Nature was a battleground: nature “red in tooth and claw:’ to use Tennyson’s famous phrase.? The need for many members of a species population to die so that the most fit could survive might seem to naturalize death and destruction. How could the evil at the heart of the natural world be reconciled with the traditional view ofa benevolent God? The ethical implications of evolution also entered political thought, since if competition is natural, then the domination of the weak by the strong is implicitly justified. Darwin’s theory could thus be seen to rationalize cruelty and-by implication-such systems as exploitative capitalism. But, argued some, it could equally legitimate the necessity for all classes to work together in order to maximize the fitness, and therefore the survival, of society as a whole. Thus social Darwinism-the application of evolution to society as theory and/or policy-has been deployed by writers from across the political spectrum to provide “scientific” justification for their views about human society.

* Darwin’s theory was generally warmly welcomed in Germany, where its main popularizer in the late 1860s was Ernst Haeckel. Although socialists and communists were quick to exploit the theory in their antireligious polemics, it also attracted more conservative and nationalistic writers. Particularly after Germany’s defeat in the First World War, provoking a rising tide of nationalism, Darwin’s theory became increasingly aligned with reactionary groups, like the Nazis, who argued the superiority of the Aryan race-being the most highly evolved-and the inferiority of other races, including Jews, blacks, and Gypsies. This transposition of evolution to the politics of race helped to justify anti-Semitism, and by the 1920S and ’30S many scientists and doctors used their authority to advocate the racial and eugenicist policies of the Nazis. After Hitler came to power in 1933 a law was passed that led to the sterilization of some 400,000 people who possessed various (allegedly) heritable diseases: that they could not reproduce would, it was thought, result in the genetic improvement of the German population. A few years later the same rationale led to the institutionally sanctioned killing of large numbers of the physically and mentally disabled. The way was paved for the mass murder of Jews, Gypsies, and other “undesirables” in the extermination camps.

* Given the ostensible link between Darwinism, genetics, and the Holocaust, many present-day evolutionists publicly distance themselves from eugenics and from any attempt to recruit evolutionary science for political purposes. Yet mention of Darwin’s theory sometimes evokes its association in the public mind-especially the Jewish mind-with the Holocaust. Moreover, although it is widely known that the German racial hygienists deployed sterilization, it should be remembered that similar programs were pursued elsewhere, including most of the Eastern European countries, three provinces in Canada, and thirty states in the U.S. 11

The other significant shadow that lies across the recent history of Darwinism is the determined opposition by fundamentalist Christians. Although many committed Christians had earlier rejected evolution on religious grounds, antievolutionism became a major religious and political movement in America only in the 192os. The First World War raised uncomfortable moral issues about the nature of humankind and increased the sense in Southern states that they were being eclipsed socially, economically, and intellectually by the North. Antievolution became a rallying point for conservative Christians, especially those associated with the fundamentalist movement. At the same time William Jennings Bryan grasped the potential of antievolutionism as a populist political platform, becoming the central figure in the 1925 Scopes trial that focused on the freedom of a community with strong religious commitments to choose whether Darwinian evolution should be taught in its schools. Although many of the arguments went against Bryan, Scopes was found guilty of teaching evolution in violation of legislation recently passed by the state of Tennessee.12

* Recently the scientific credentials of creationism have been extended by a resurgence of the argument that Darwin’s theory is inadequate for explaining the full diversity and complexity of life, which can be understood only as the outcome of an intelligent design. Much discussion has focused on such complex biological systems as the flagella that propel bacterial cells. In this instance the proponents of Intelligent Design, such as Michael Behe, have argued that the flagellum could not have evolved by numerous slight modifications to the system, since if any of its component parts had been completely formed the whole system would not have functioned properly. Opponents have been quick to argue that the flagellum is not an”irreducibly complex” system and that the analogies exploited by Behe are false. While this may appear to be a disagreement among biologists, it is attracting a vast amount o fpublic attention, especially in America, since Intelligent Design is portrayed as opposed to evolutionary naturalism and is widely perceived as supporting creationism. As with creationism, increasingly vigorous voices are now calling for Intelligent Design to be taught in schools.13 The significance of the above developments is twofold for appreciating Jewish attitudes to evolution. First, Christian opposition to evolution, especially visible in America, has been used as a rhetorical target by both Orthodox and progressive Jews who argue for Judaism’s greater openness to evolutionary ideas. At the same time, there has been a resurgence of fundamentalism not only within Christianity, but also within both Judaism and Islam.14 This development has certainly influenced attitudes towards evolution among certain Jewish communities, although the extent to which these Jews share the antievolutionary attitudes of Christian fundamentalists remains to be fully explored.

* Throughout the early modern period, Jews lived primarily in closed, self governing communities and their intellectual life revolved primarily around the study of halakhah (Jewish law) and kabbalah (Jewish mysticism). There were important exceptions, such as Spinoza and a small number ofJews who studied at European universities, especially at the medical school at the University of Padua. In addition, historians have demonstrated thatduring this period Jews were more aware of and interested in secular learning than has previously been acknowledged. While most Jews had little interaction with nonJews and with non-Jewish cultures, several leading rabbinic authorities in halakhah and kabbalah exhibited a keen interest in the natural sciences.18

The impetus for Jews to engage with science is typically traced to two factors, although there are debates about their relationship and relative importance. The first is the haskalah, a movement begun by Jewish intellectuals in mid-eighteenth century Europe inspired by Enlightenment ideals. Maskilim (the followers of the haskalah, the most famous being the German philosopher Moses Mendelssohn [1729-86]) advocated secular studies both as a way to modernize Judaism and as a way to enter mainstream European society. For example, in England a few maskilim avidly accepted the Newtonian system of ideas, while Emanuel Mendes da Costa (1717-91), who served as clerk of the Royal Society of London, became a leading authority on shells and fossils. 19 The second factor was the emancipation of Jews, which started in France in 1791, when they were granted virtually the full rights of citizenship. This created new opportunities for study and work, including participation in fields of science that required university-level education.

* In the German-speaking countries, three movements emerged by the mid-nineteenth century that had a profound impact on modern Jewish life: Reform, neo-Orthodoxy (precursor of today’s Modern Orthodoxy), and Positive-Historical Judaism (precursor of today’s Conservative Jewish movement in America).All three sought an accommodation with modern life, and all valued secular learning-in education, as career choices, and as resources for furthering Jewish life and thought-but in different ways. Reform was the most accommodating, neo-Orthodoxy the least.

* By the time Darwin’s Origin of Species was published in 1859, Jewish religious life had diversified greatly. Intra-Jewish rivalry, while always a factor in Jewish communal life, intensified, and new concerns about assimilation and conversion to Christianity grew rapidly as emancipation spread throughout Europe. In this context, evolution was one among many secular ideas that Jewish thinkers needed to address, but it does not appear to have been among the most pressing.

* The rise of the Nazis in Germany and the ensuing destruction of European Jewry had a profound impact both directly and indirectly on Jewish life and thought and on discussions about evolution. The concept of “race” became discredited among biologists and social scientists-Jews playing leading roles in that effort-and social and cultural explanations became prominent in the social sciences, where Jews continued to work in large numbers. Interest in human heredity continued, using new tools in human and population genetics. In Israel this research was part of an ongoing public debate, stimulated by the influx of immigrants from many countries, about the origin of the Jewish people.26 The Holocaust also transformed the demography of world Jewry. The United States and Israel became leading centers for Jewish life and thought. Immigrant rabbis, philosophers, and theologians brought with them new ideas about religion, shaped by existentialism and phenomenology, which challenged the Enlightenment legacy of the primacy of reason and science. The increasing awareness of the enormous challenge that the Holocaust posed to Enlightenment ideas, and the increasing role that the State of Israel played in Jewish thought, provided fertile ground for the growth of these new intellectual currents. With these predominant foci, most rabbis and theologians paid little attention to science, including evolution, except for the issues raised by biomedical ethics. Only in the last decade of the twentieth century did some rabbis and Jewish intellectuals rekindle an interest in Judaism’s relationship to science, including evolution, fueled in large part by a renewed interest in kabbalah throughout the Jewish world.27

* recent attempts by Christian fundamentalists to introduce Intelligent Design into public school science curricula have focused the wider American Jewish community’s attention on evolution. Particularly significant was the high-profile case in Dover, Pennsylvania, held in the autumn of 2005, at which parents successfully challenged the requirement that a statement be read in biology classes informing students to avoid committing themselves to Darwin’s theory and advising them to read up on Intelligent Design. This case attracted much publicity in the American Jewish press and motivated dozens of rabbis to deliver sermons, many given on Rosh Hashanah, on the issues it raised. Most rabbis and Jewish commentators applauded the judge’s subsequent decision that the school district’s actions violated the separation of church and state, and they reaffirmed the view that a naturalistic scientific explanation for the evolution of life is compatible with Jewish faith. Yet these views have not gone unchallenged. Because of growing diversity of opinion within American Jewry over government support for religion, an increasing number of rabbis and community leaders have expressed support for the teaching of Intelligent Design in public schools. Moreover, rabbis ranging from ultra-Orthodox through to Renewal are becoming progressively more concerned that the naturalistic assumptions underpinning evolutionary theory, and modern science more broadly, are conducive to secularism and so threaten Jewish faith. Thus the current controversies over evolution are exposing the broader social, political, and theological divisions within the Jewish community.31

* a relative absence of social barriers enabled eighteenth- and nineteenth-century English Jews to achieve a high degree of assimilation, compared with their coreligionists in most European countries.6 While a small and prosperous Jewish social elite existed, other sections of the mid-Victorian Anglo-Jewish community were becoming increasingly prosperous, and many upwardly mobile Jews were entering the middle classes. They manifested a growing sense of social integration, often sending their sons to such traditional public schools as St. Paul’s or to academically innovative establishments like University College School. An increasing number of Jewish students attended universities, especially University College London and the University of Cambridge. More Jews moved into the professions, resulting in 1891 in the formation of a society for Jewish professionals, the Maccabreans, which soon attracted over two hundred members. English Jews manifested a profound sense of Englishness and participated increasingly in the social and political life of the nation, sharing in its prosperity and sense of progress as technology and the British empire flourished. Modeling themselves on their Christian neighbors, they were-to use Englander’s phrase-Anglicized, but not Anglican.

* Yet despite its alignment with English mores, Anglo-Jewry experienced many social tensions. Although vituperation in England was far less intense than in most other European countries, Anglo-Jewry was nevertheless subjected to a stream of anti-Semitic propaganda and to the blandishments of the conversion societies.9 In popular literature Jews were often portrayed as morally and intellectually inferior to Christians. The Jew was caricatured as greedy and obsessed with making money; as one visitor to Houndsditch (the main Jewish area) in 1867 noted: the “organs of vision” of the Jew were thought to be “directed mammonward.” The Jew, he continued, was “but a low-flying and lumbering, albeit an industrious and copiously perspiring, bird, … satisfied to burrow in muck and grow smugly sleek on such scraps and offal as the world and his wife overlooked, or, knowing the existence of, despised:’Io Jews were frequently portrayed as uneducated and therefore incapable of pursuing demanding subjects such as science and medicine. Indeed, as one earlier writer noted, the Jew was the antithesis of the cultured Englishman who, among other attributes, appreciated the natural world.II This anti-Semite thus portrayed the pursuit of science as alien to Jews.

Until the mid-186os or possibly later, the community’s contribution to science and literature was indeed minimal. Moreover, although a handful of Jewish scholars, mostly trained in Germany, had contributed to Hebrew and Jewish studies, the general level of religious learning was shamefully low. Jews’ College (founded 1853), which trained students for the rabbinate, attracted little support from the community, and the number of students was small. A Jewish day school associated with the college was opened in 1855 but was forced to close in 1879 owing to low enrollment. Faced with the community’s poor showing in both secular and religious studies its leaders strove to challenge anti-Semitic claims that Jews were intellectually deficient by amply demonstrating any success achieved by Jews in literature and science. Thus while chastising the community for its general failure to excel in secular subjects, the Jewish press publicized the achievements of those who had gained distinction in science, medicine, and other areas.

* Prior to midcentury, the majority of Christian writers had unequivocally proclaimed that science was not only compatible with Christianity but also strengthened religious belief.

* Victorian Jewish writers did not criticize science-or, more specifically, the theory of evolution for encouraging the philosophy of materialism. For these Victorian Jews, the material world was God’s creation, as specified in Torah, and there was no compelling reason to consider the world as anything other than material. Rarely was the soul or its immortality discussed in the Jewish press.

* Another indicator ofAnglo-Jewry’s lack of reflection on the soul is the brevity of Michael Friedlander’s discussion of the subject in his The Jewish Religion (1891).

* This book, he claimed, provided an explication of traditional religious principles. While the second half of this five-hundred-page work was devoted to the duties of the observant Jew, the first half contained Friedlander’s commentary on Maimonides’ thirteen principles of faith. The thirteenth-((The belief in the revival of the dead, or the immortality of the soul”-was the only place where he addressed the existence of the soul. Although Friedlander cited Saadia Gaon, Maimonides, and Judah Halevi in support of the soul’s immortality, he pointed out that this doctrine was notto be found in the Torah. Indeed, he seemed rather uncomfortable in discussing the topic, which he passed over quickly, admitting that we can form only a hazy notion of the resurrection of the dead.22 In contrast to Friedlander’s cursory examination, the soul and its immortality underpinned the doctrines of salvation and the afterlife that were central for nineteenth-century Christians, especially evangelicals. Contemporary Christian periodicals overflowed with references to the soul. Materialism was seen as heretical and a profound threat to Christianity, whereas Anglo-Jewish writers appear not to have been disturbed by a materialistic view of the world.

* The second topic concerns design arguments, which featured prominently in Christian works of natural theology, most famously in Paley’s Natural Theology (1802) and in several of the Bridgewater Treatises. Although evangelicals and High Churchmen tended to accord design arguments less centrality than did other Christians, such arguments were very frequently deployed in nineteenth-century Christian periodicals, in sermons, and in a wide array of scientific books. By contrast, Jewish writers of the period very rarely utilized arguments from design.

* The very noticeable contrast between the prevalence of design arguments in writings by Christians and their absence in works by English Jews invites analysis. There are several possible causes. First, for Jews the Torah and other sacred books take precedence over any other theological source. Thus nineteenth century Jews, like many evangelical Christians, would have felt no need to deploy design arguments in order to justify the existence and attributes of God. Moreover, such biblical passages as “The heavens declare the glory of God, and the firmament sheweth his handywork” (Psalm 19:2) assert that the world is designed, and therefore Jews need not look to nature for signs of design.25 Second, while British Christians frequently appealed to the two book analogy-which views nature as God’s other”book” and thereby legitimates design arguments-this analogy and the associated way of thinking about nature were almost totally absent from Jewish works.26 Finally, the Anglo-Jewish community was principally urban and had no tradition of nature study; hence appeals to natural phenomena were unlikely to prove attractive to most readers whose experience of natural history and of other observational sciences was severely limited.27

* Although Christians continued to use design arguments after the Origin of Species was published, their apologetic functions were severely compromised. As John Hedley Brooke has noted, after the Origin, the “image of God as artisan or mechanic … took a beating:’

* This strategy of arguing for the coherence between Judaism and science, especially evolution, forms the central plank of what I shall call the standard Anglo-Jewish response, since it was articulated by the majority of Jewish writers from about the mid 1860s until at least the early 1890s. They emphasized that Jews experienced no difficulty encompassing recent developments in science, since science and Judaism are compatible. “Judaism;’ wrote one commentator, “has nothing to fear from the advancement of Science, but everything to gain:’3

* the assurance that science and Judaism were aligned was laced with criticism of Christianity.

* In 1992, Rabbi Arthur Green, then president of the Reconstructionist Rabbinical College, lamented that Jews were now convinced that the ((origin of species-and of the universe itself” is to be “explained by scientists rather than theologians.” Reflecting upon Jewish thought in the twentieth century, Green wrote that Jewish theologians had “largely abandoned Creation as a theological issue” and saw “no value” in defending «ancient Jewish views on Creation:’ While he dismissed literal interpretations of Genesis, Green forcefully maintained that God was involved in the origin of the universe and of species. And he urged Jewish thinkers to once again make the ongoing creation of the cosmos and of life a central theological concern and to explore how science and religion could be made relevant to one another.

* The legal, cultural, and theological debates generated by William Jennings Bryan and Protestant fundamentalists in the early 1920s, culminating in the 1925 Scopes trial, attracted the serious attention of leading Reform rabbis, both in sermons and as leaders of the Central Conference of American Rabbis (CCAR). These rabbis viewed the controversy over evolution in the context of their broader concern that Protestant fundamentalists intended to crush freedom of thought, stifle scientific inquiry, and undermine liberal political and social values. President Abram Simon proclaimed at the 1925 CCAR annual convention that his agenda was to preserve the “progressive spirit of all departments of human culture.”

* In the late 1920S and ’30s, Reform rabbis continued to discuss evolution, but now with new concerns about growing secularism, both inside and outside the Jewish community. Some claimed that the synagogue was “being invaded by secularism.” Secular Yiddish and Hebrew organizations expanded, while religious education and practice declined. Throughout America, Marxism and socialism expanded their Jewish following.8 Reform rabbis were also disturbed to find that Clarence Darrow, a staunch defender of progressive social and political values, had taken to the lecture circuit proclaiming that evolution and religion were incompatible.

* Conservative rabbis in the 1920S and ’30S engaged evolution less frequently than did their Reform contemporaries. They focused on topics related to Jewish law, while virtually ignoring general theological issues.

* According to Kaplan, Friedrich Nietzsche was responsible for transforming Darwin’s theory into the social “doctrine of natural selection” that ultimately led to the emergence of Nazi ideology and the destruction that followed.

* Gordis was concerned about the growing explanatory power of natural selection and the materialist view of evolution that had been popularized by Simpson. To weaken the explanatory power of natural selection Gordis gleaned from scientific sources several features of life’s evolution that he believed could not be explained by natural selection: for example, evolution involves an immense amount of change in a relatively short geological time; the emergence of “something new and unexpected” at each evolutionary stage; the “simultaneous change” of many parts as humans became bipedal; and, according to fossil evidence, «a steady progress in one direction” or «orthogenesis” in many lineages.

* Despite the apparent divorce between science and religion in the 1980s, evolutionary ideas again reentered Jewish theology as part ofa renewed interest in Jewish mysticism, especially kabbalah.

* In the summer of 1925, the world’s attention was focused on the so-called Monkey Trial in Tennessee, which debated the truth as well as the propriety of teaching the theory of evolution. In Montreal, an immigrant Orthodox rabbi, Hirsh Cohen, wrote to his daughter and son-in-law voicing his opinion: “[Regarding] the Darrow-Bryan dispute, as long as it is in theory, one can agree with whatever position one thinks right and still remain a believer in the divinity of the Bible. It is the power of the Torah that all theories can be included. When Alexander von Humboldt and other natural scientists discovered that in the earth there are rock formations that were much, much older than our Torah’s chronology allows for, the sages of the Torah were not shocked, and they realized that this way of thinking was long known to the sages of the Talmud and the kabbalists … that our present world is not the first.2 ••• However, as I said, this is only in theory. Practically, I am a fundamentalist. Our great rabbi, Maimonides, philosophized in his Guide of the Perplexed in many matters theoretically. But when in his Yad ha-lJazakah3 he dealt with practical things, he was altogether different.”

* Here Rabbi Cohen underscored the idea that the halakhic (legal) aspects of Judaism were to be taken literally, whereas aggadic (nonlegal) opinions of the rabbis were open to interpretation. As we will see, Cohen’s use of this distinction foreshadows some of the problems and strategies adopted by Orthodox Jews in the twentieth century as they contended with the theory of evolution and its implications. Cohen may have encountered “fundamentalist” in popular media presentations of the contemporary public debate over evolution, but he then used the word idiosyncratically in applying the term “practical fundamentalist” to someone who accepts the Torah’s legal system as true and valid, whether or not that person also accepts literally the Torah’s account of Creation. Many of the Orthodox Jews discussed in this chapter share this “practical fundamentalism” while distancing themselves from Christian fundamentalism.

* four basic strategies adopted by Jewish thinkers [regarding Greek philosophy]. Faced by what they considered to be an irreconcilable conflict, some Jews remained loyal to Torah and rejected outright Aristotelian philosophy as subversive and dangerous. This first stance might be termed the “rejection of science.” Thus, while the Torah asserted that God had created the universe, Aristotelian philosophers claimed that the universe was eternal and they thus dispensed with a Creator. Rejectionists simply dismissed such claims and cautioned other Jews to avoid the secular sciences.8 Other Jews sought to reconcile the truth of Torah with that of science. This second strategy was founded on the belief that the Torah, when correctly understood and interpreted, makes identical claims to science.

* However, there were occasions when integration could not be accomplished and medieval Jewish thinkers then adopted a third strategy. This was to insist that Greek science and philosophy were fallible.

* The fourth strategy was to approach-and transcend-science by means of kabbalah.

* In confronting the clash between Torah Judaism and the theory of evolution, many twentieth-century Orthodox Jews are primarily concerned that if evolution were accepted uncritically, Torah would be deemed not only irrelevant but false. Orthodox Jews perceived three critical issues. Their primary concern has been to refute the view that the theory of evolution makes God irrelevant. As the Israeli microbiologist Morris Goldman stated, “God is irrelevant in the Darwinian evolutionary scheme and that is what is wrong with it for a Jew.”16 Likewise, Rabbi David Gottlieb, who abandoned the pursuit of academic philosophy to teach at the Ohr Somayach Yeshiva, argued that by accepting the theory of evolution Jews are conceding to atheism and “are giving up the whole of life as evidence for God:’ The second issue was morality, because the theory of evolution is seen as “an egregious blueprint for secular humanism [a] blueprint [that] dismantles social order by tacitly approving a) the abandonment of the Almighty as a moral authority, and b) the intentionally inevitable pursuit of cutthroat behavior:’18 Finally, the theory of evolution challenges the concept of man as a “qualitatively different creation.”19 With these significant issues at stake, Orthodox rabbis, scientists, and laypeople have responded to the theory of evolution by employing exegetical and apologetic strategies very similar to those used by medieval Jewish thinkers who confronted the challenge of Greek philosophy and science.

Orthodox Jews can be classified on the basis of their accommodation to secular education and culture. Among those who reluctantly accept the secular education of their children only because of state or national standards and requirements, the “rejection of science” strategy is particularly evident when it comes to those aspects of science that are viewed as incompatible with Torah. Thus one of the most prominent Orthodox rabbinical figures of the past generation, Moshe Feinstein, suggested the following solution when addressing the problem of the presentation of the theory of evolution and the related issue ofthe age ofthe universe in secular textbooks:

“Textbooks of secular studies that contain matters of heresy [kefirah] with respect to the creation ofthe world are certainly books of sectarianism [minut] that are forbidden to be taught. It is necessary to see to it that the secular studies teachers do not teach from them to students. Ifit is not possible to obtain other books, it is necessary to tear out those pages from the textbooks.”21

Indeed, some Jewish schools, particularly ultra-Orthodox ones, follow this advice and tear out textbook pages dealing with the theory of evolution.22 Twentieth-century Orthodox attitudes to education are summarized by Gerald Schroeder, an Orthodox Jewish scientist whose writings will be discussed below:

“My son … had been taught to relate to the Bible in its most literal sense, and so for him, and for many of his teachers, the age of the universe is exactly the age derived from the generations as they are listed in the Bible. For them, the cosmological estimate of the age of the universe, some 15 billion years, is a preposterous fiction.”23

This rejectionist strategy also has implications outside the realm of education. For example, there have been protests by ultra-Orthodox Jews against an Israeli company, Tara Dairy, for its use of images of dinosaurs in an advertising campaign.

* Although those who reject evolution because of its incompatibility with Torah appear to be adopting a position identical to that of many Christian fundamentalists, it is important to note that Orthodox Jews, whether or not they treat the theory of evolution or the related issue of the age of the universe as “a preposterous fiction;’ are united in their opposition to Christian creationism. Although there are some points that Orthodox Jews and Christian creationists might agree upon-for example, that the Hebrew Bible was revealed by God-these Jews clearly want to distance themselves from the Christian fundamentalists.26 The main reason for this attitude is that creationism is based on the King James Bible and not on traditional Jewish texts, which incorporate the cumulative perspectives obtained from traditional Torah commentaries.27 Fundamentalism and creationism have been decried by Orthodox Jews as “nonsense”28 and “a grave error:’29 Another Orthodox writer described as “frightening” any suggestion that Orthodox Judaism might be aligned with Christian fundamentalism.30 Orthodox critics of creationism would agree with American Jewish philosopher Norbert Samuelson’s opinion that “even when read literally, these revered [biblical] texts do not say what Christian ‘creationists’ say that they mean.”31 The antagonism of the Orthodox toward fundamentalists may also be attributed in part to the specifically Christian nature of the Creation Research Society, which, after some debate, required its members to acknowledge Jesus Christ as their savior.

* Unlike Feinstein, some Orthodox Jews do not wish to ignore or suppress discussion of the theory of evolution within their community, bur rather seek to engage evolution with arguments. Moreover, in having to contest the theory at a time when it is generally accepted by the scientific community, they also have to respond to critics like author A. N. Wilson who claim that they are crackpots.33 Thus Rabbi Aharon Lichtenstein, a leading thinker in the contemporary Modern Orthodox camp, states that:

“confronted by evident contradiction [between Torah and science], one would …initially strive to ascertain whether it is apparent or real …whether indeed the methodology of madda [science] does inevitably lead to a given conclusion, and … whether … Torah can be interpreted … so as to avert a collision.”34

Following Lichtenstein’s advice to test the conclusions of science, a number of writers have sought to demonstrate defects in the scientific argument for evolution. Some of the arguments against the scientific basis of the theory of evolution are fairly technical in nature, while others are more popular and rhetorical. This strategy is likely to appeal to a wide public, for critics of evolution are riding a wave of skepticism…

* A related concern of many Orthodox thinkers is that science is constantly in flux and offers an incomplete understanding of reality, whereas the Torah is unchangeable and perfect. Thus Elliot Pines has stated that the Torah

“is written by G-d, and as such it is a complete description of reality. Science[‘s] … subject matter is … not reality but a man-made model of reality…. The Torah, though packaged in a finite form, is Reality in all its infinity. Science is a model of Reality, and as such, despite delusions of grandeur, is as finite as the brain of Man. No matter how far it progresses, even if perfected within its limitations, it reflects an approximation to an infinitesimal speck of reality . . . all objective conflicts between Torah and Science, arise from this intrinsic fact.”42

Finally, some Orthodox critics have accused science of being unscientific because it is subjective and dogmatic.43 These criticisms have been applied specifically to evolution, which is widely portrayed as deviating from the standards of”objective” science.44 Orthodox critics have charged evolution with not being “rigorous science:’45 and lacking a”well-formulated hypothesis:’ Likewise the theory has been characterized as “an example of unrestrained speculation…’46

Schroeder claims that the theory of evolution in its current form is not a true scientific theory, but “merely a description of the (punctuated’ jumps in the fossil record:’47 He also attempts to discredit the theory on the grounds that “all calculations of probability say no to the assumption of randomness being the driving force behind life’s development:’48 Such technical critiques of evolution are read and digested by rabbis, who disseminate these views to Orthodox audiences in their sermons and publications. A good example of a popular, rhetorical treatment of these themes, informed by a reading of some of the Orthodox scientists mentioned above, is that of Rabbi Avigdor Miller, prolific author, public speaker, and past director of a yeshiva in Flatbush:

“We see the yad Hashem [hand of God] in nature In a book of molecular biology, there are six thousand entries in the index two entries on evolution’ and the writer said in his preface, one of the purposes of biology is to teach people the principle of evolution, and in the entire book nothing is mentioned. Two places! In these two places it doesn’t say any proof for evolution.49 It just said it evolved. How could it evolve? It’s so complicated, and if one of the elements is missing, and there are hundreds of elements, precise arrangements that had to be mathematically exactly correct.”

* In contrast to those Orthodox Jewish scientists and rabbis who oppose evolution, a few have adopted integrationist strategies. While they do not closely follow the medieval rationalist project as exemplified by Saadia, they do subscribe to the medieval notion that the Torah can be integrated with science. One example is Judah Landa, whose Torah and Science! contains a sustained polemic against Orthodox Jews who “motivated by considerations other than science … persist in a stubborn refusal to accept the tower of “scientific evidence.”52 He argues that scientific research is an activity suitable for Orthodox Jews and that its conclusions cannot be contradicted by Torah. According to Landa, those Orthodox fundamentalists who oppose science are mistaken in their adamant refusal to admit that traditional rabbinic interpretations could possibly be wrong. In adopting this attitude they continue to search for baseless objections to the powerful evidence:’53 By contrast, Landa accepts the findings of science and assumes that if the medieval rabbis were alive today, they “would see fit to reconcile their interpretation of the six days and the entire story of creation with the evidence…”

* Less radical in tone, but equally opposed to those Orthodox Jews who reject the scientific consensus on the theory of evolution is the electrical engineer and physicist Baruch Sterman, who decries the “lack of willingness within the Jewish intellectual community to face Darwinism in an open minded fashion”56 and criticizes the antievolutionist views of such prominent Orthodox scientists as electrical engineer Leo Levi and physicists Herman Branover and Nathan Aviezer. Finally, in an article published in 1990, Yeshiva University biology professor Carl Feit agreed that evolution is “central to the whole enterprise of biology today:’ having withstood “one hundred years of the most intense analysis:’ There is, he wrote, “no alternative … theory to explain the phenomena with which it deals:’57 Feit has adopted a nonfundamentalist, nonliteral interpretation of Torah,58 similar to that formulated by medieval scholars such as Maimonides. The Torah, he claims, may allow for the existence of several, even mutually exclusive truths:’ just as halakhah (Jewish law) allows for the notion of multiple truths, each truth being judged according to its own criteria.

* The majority of Orthodox Jews who have sought to avoid a direct confrontation with science have not, however, pursued an integrationist strategy. Rather, they have sought to transcend the problem by using concepts derived from rabbinic aggadah (nonlegal arguments) in general and kabbalah in particular.60 This stance can be readily seen in the argument of Susan Schneider, who is associated with the Torah Science Foundation:
Tradition teaches that the entire creation chapter did actually happen and in a physical sense, but on an entirely different level than what we now know as the physical plane.61
Pursuing a similar line of thought, Rabbi Dovid Brown has written: “Our point … is not, however, to refute the theory of evolution in order to justify our belief in the divine creation of the universe. As the descendants of those who stood at Har [Mount] Sinai and accepted the Torah, we do not need the assent of secular intellectuals to maintain our faith….However Chazal [the ancient rabbinic authorities] tell us … “Falsehood cannot exist without some admixture of truth. What element of truth is there in this falsehood?”62
Similarly, Elliot Pines, drawing on kabbalistic concepts, asserts that “our universe is a simulation.”

* The controversial “zoo rabbi;’ Nosson Slifkin, likewise grounds his model of evolution, as of Torah and the universe in general, on the kabbalistically tinged Hebrew term hishtalshelut-“the sense of the gradual unfolding of fundamental patterns from simple unity to complex multiplicity.”72

* In 1978 the AOJS Students’ Questions Panel expressed the conviction that “the conflict between ‘religion’ and’evolution’ has outlived its usefulness and it was high time it was allowed a quiet demise.”73 Nonetheless, at the beginning of the twenty-first century, the argument among people who consider themselves Orthodox Jews over the validity of the theory of evolution continues with no sign of closure. All the strategies for dealing with the issue described above have contemporary advocates. In large measure, this is due to a combination of the diversity of opinion among Orthodox Jews with respect to the validity of “secular” science with the absence of a generally accepted process within Orthodox Jewry to resolve ideological or doctrinal issues. It is, however, possible to identify some significant changes in attitudes towards evolution during the last half of the twentieth century.

First of all, one can detect a shift of opinion away from a focus on scientific arguments against the theory of evolution. In a 1998 article about the AOJS, journalist Judy Siegel-Itzkovich quoted the founder of AOJS, Elmer Offenbacher, who stated that”in the old days, the matter of evolution vs. religion was a hot topic; some people were obsessed by it.” He added that religious scientists had gradually accepted that there was no real conflict between the two.74 This perceived relative decline in the intensity of the issue among Orthodox Jewish scientists parallels the decline in the AOJS itself, from a membership of nearly two thousand in the early 1960s to about eight hundred in the late 1990S. In part this decline reflects the security felt by the increasing number of Orthodox Jews who pursue scientific careers, while at the same time assigning their scientific and religious activities to separate domains.

* Another change is the significant growth of interest in the”transcendence of science” strategy grounded in kabbala. One key factor is the increasing level of “haredization”-the tendency towards ultra-Orthodox ideologies-within contemporary Orthodox Jewry.76 Most Haredim tend to ignore science, but those who do take it seriously often opt for a mystical reconciliation of Torah and science. Moreover, in recent decades, kabbalistic explanations of the world have become ubiquitous, enthusiastically accepted by many Jews and non-Jews alike.

* Finally, it is important to place Orthodox discussions of evolution in the context of outreach activities aimed at non-Orthodox Jews, which has been an important dynamic element within the Orthodox community.79 For those firmly within the ultra-Orthodox camp, where any conflict between Torah and science is decided in favor of Torah, arguments about evolution are not that important. Similarly, arguments about evolution are not important for those Orthodox Jews who accept modern science and reinterpret Torah to various degrees to accommodate scientific results. Rather, the audience for those refutations and explanations of evolution detailed in this article consists principally of ba’alei teshuvah (Jews from non-Orthodox backgrounds who have recently become Orthodox)80 and those who are seeking to draw non-Orthodox Jews into the Orthodoxfold.81 Thus many of the publications cited in this paper aimed at ba’alei teshuvah or potential ba’alei teshuvah who might find Orthodoxy more attractive if the seeming contradictions between their conception of Judaic belief and scientific theory could be resolved. As Slitkin states when discussing the age of the universe, “[T]he scientific evidence for an old universe is …so vast and overwhelming that it is rather unwise to simply wave it away (and the effects on Jewish outreach efforts are disastrous):’82 Thus, ultimately, the issue of the relationship between Torah and the theory of evolution within Orthodox Judaism is connected to the way Orthodoxy is presented to those Jews who are not born Orthodox but are in the process of coming to accept the ideas and ideology of Orthodox Judaism.

* Many scholars have explained how social Darwinism underpinned Hitler’s militarism and racism by showing that Hitler’s doctrine of racial struggle and his policy of racial extermination were largely shaped by social Darwinist racial thought, which was prominent among early twentieth-century German scientists and physicians.! In their analyses of the period historians have generally defined “social Darwinism” as the program to apply Darwinian principles to human society, while insisting that humans are subject to an inexorable struggle for existence. Indeed, social Darwinists exulted in the beneficence arising from human rivalry, even when it resulted in the death of the losers, since it would promote biological progress for the human species. By the term “social Darwinist racism” is meant the struggle for existence between human races that yields biological advance, while ultimately resulting in the extermination of the “inferior” races. This does not mean that all social Darwinist racists promoted the extermination of inferior races, although most conceived of the European imperialists as biologically, culturally, and intellectually superior to the aboriginal peoples being decimated by them. We should also remember that not all Darwinists embraced social Darwinism or racism, since neither was a necessary concomitant of the scientific theory of evolution. However, like the vast majority of their European contemporaries, most leading Darwinists in the late nineteenth century maintained ideas of inequality between the races and believed that racial struggle resulting in the extermination of some races played an integral role in the progressive selectionist process leading to biological improvement.

The social Darwinist influence on Hitler’s-and other Germans’-antiSemitism is not straightforward, since Darwinism and anti-Semitism are not necessarily connected. No necessary inference can be drawn from Darwinism to the status of Jews, and some Darwinian biologists, such as Arnold Dodel, a botanist at the University of Zurich in the late nineteenth century, staunchly opposed anti-Semitism on biological grounds.3 Many Jewish scientists and thinkers, especially those with secular leanings, adopted Darwinism with alacrity. The prominent Zionist author Max Nordau, for example, considered Darwinism an integral component of his scientific worldview, and he constructed an ethical philosophy based on Darwinian theory.4

* Jews in Germany and elsewhere in Europe endured centuries of hostility and persecution from the Christian majority-including stereotyping, discrimination, and pogroms. Yet Christian anti-Semites generally accorded Jews a limited amount of toleration; usually their goal was conversion, which would give Jews the same social and legal status as Christians. Many scholars have noted the late nineteenth century shift from traditional forms of Christian anti-Semitism to secular racial anti-Semitism.6 Although the new racial anti-Semitism of the nineteenth century retained many of the longstanding Jewish stereotypes, such as their alleged immorality, it closed the door to assimilation, since Jews could not discard their immoral character, which was now grounded in their biological essence. The only solution was to get rid of the Jews.

* Darwin himself believed that human races were unequal and were locked in a human struggle for existence. Even though he opposed slavery and at times expressed sympathy for those of other races in his Beagle journal, he also expressed the view that the “varieties of man act on each other, in the same way as different species of animals-the stronger always extirpate the weaker.”l0 Later in life he wrote to a colleague that the “more civilised so called Caucasian races have beaten the Turkish hollow in the struggle for existence. Looking to the world at no very distant date, what an endless number of the lower races will have been eliminated by the higher civilised races throughout the world.” He articulated this same principle in The Descent of Man, claiming, “At some future period, not very distant as measured by centuries, the civilised races of man will almost certainly exterminate and replace throughout the world the savage races.”

* Another leading Darwinist to emphasize the sharp racial distinction between Germans and Jews was the physician Ludwig Buchner, a famous scientific materialist who did more than anyone except Haeckel to popularize Darwinian theory in late nineteenth-century Germany. Buchner, like Darwin and Haeckel, believed that a wide variety of character traits-such as loyalty, diligence, thrift, laziness, greed, and deceit-were hereditary. In Die Macht der Vererbung (1882, The Power of Heredity), he argued that the moral character of nations and races is primarily hereditary, not cultural. Education and training cannot make a significant change in such character, and Buchner claimed that the constancy of the Jewish race proves the slow nature of such change. When Buchner specifically discussed the hereditary character of the Jews, he asserted that they were disposed to be merchants.

* Neither Jews nor Germans were morally responsible for the struggle between them, since it was a product of inescapable biological laws. Further, he advised his fellow Germans not to hate the Jews, just as they do not hate individual enemy soldiers in wars: “The struggle between peoples (Volkerkampj) must be fought without hatred against the individuals, who are compelled to attack, as well as to defend themselves.”

* Not all eugenicists embraced anti-Semitism. Some leading figures in the eugenics movement, such as Alfred Grotjahn and Felix von Luschan, were philo-Semitic. I have found no evidence that Schallmayer, a leading figure in the eugenics movement, was anti-Semitic, and he certainly opposed Nordic racism. Further, quite a few Jewish physicians, feminists, and sexual reformers embraced eugenics. As John Efron has demonstrated, leading Jewish anthropologists even embraced scientific racism in various guises in the early twentieth century, though they tried to use it to combat anti-Semitism.43 In examining the prevalence of biological racism among Zionists, J. Doron has even surprisingly suggested that there “can be no doubt that many German speaking Zionists esteemed as ‘authorities’ race ideologists like Gobineau, Chamberlain, Schemann, Wilser, Woltmann, Driesmans, Fischer, and Gunther.”44

* the highest criterion for morality was the extent to which an action contributed to the preservation of the species. Whatever promoted the health and vitality of the highest members of the species was thus moral. He explained: “Morality and ethics arise from the law of preservation of the species, of the race. Whatever ensures the future of the species, whatever is suitable to elevate the race (Geschlecht) to ever higher stages of physical and mental perfection, that is moral.”

* By [1938] British officialdom had liberalized the admission of refugees, much to the consternation of the Anglo-Jewish establishment, which advocated restrictive admissions policies.

* at a press conference at the Hebrew University in 1934, the poet Chaim Nachman Bialik (1873-1934) bluntly asserted his Jewish identity: “I too, like Hitler, believe in the power of the blood idea.”

About Luke Ford

I've written five books (see My work has been followed by the New York Times, the Los Angeles Times, and 60 Minutes. I teach Alexander Technique in Beverly Hills (
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