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9.2 Judaism and Evolution

Jewish views on evolution include a continuum of views about evolution, creationism, and the origin of life. Some Jewish denominations accept theistic evolution.

9.2.1 Classical rabbinic teachings

The vast majority of classical Rabbis hold that God created the world close to 6,000 years ago, and created Adam and Eve from clay. This view is based on a chronology developed in a midrash, Seder Olam, which was based on a literal reading of the book of Genesis. Although it is known that a literal approach is not always needed when interpreting the Torah, there is a split over which parts are literal.

Most modern rabbis believe that the world is older, and that life as we know it today did not always exist. Such a view is needed to accept well-supported scientific theories, such as the theory of evolution. Rabbis who had this view based their conclusions on verses in the Talmud or in the midrash. For example:

  • Talmud Chaggiga 13b-14a states that there were 974 generations before God created Adam.
  • Some midrashim state that the “first week” of Creation lasted for extremely long periods of time.
  • In Psalms it says “A thousand years is like a day in Your sight” (Psalm 90:4)

9.2.2  Medieval rabbinic teachings

Some medieval philosophical rationalists, such as Maimonides and Gersonides held that not every statement in Genesis is meant literally. In this view, one was obligated to understand Torah in a way that was compatible with the findings of science. Maimonides, one of the great Rabbis of the Middle Ages, wrote that if science and Torah were misaligned, it was either because science was not understood or the Torah was misinterpreted. Maimonides argued that if science proved a point that did not contradict any fundamentals of faith, then the finding should be accepted and scripture should be interpreted accordingly.

Nahmanides pointed out in his commentary to Genesis several non-sequiturs stemming from a literal translation of the Bible’s account of Creation, and stated that the account actually symbolically refers to spiritual concepts. He quoted the Mishnah in Tractate Chagigah which states that the actual meaning of the Creation account, mystical in nature, was traditionally transmitted from teachers to advanced scholars in a private setting. Nahmanide’ disciple, Rabbi Isaac of Akko, a prominent Kabbalist of 13th-century, held, that the Universe is about 15 billion year old -strikingly close to the modern scientific calculations.

One of several notable exceptions may be the Tosafist commentary on Tractate Rosh Hashanah, where there seems to be an allusion to the age of creation according to a literal reading of Genesis. The non-literal approach is accepted by many as a possible approach within Modern Orthodox Judaism and some segments of Haredi Judaism.

9.2.3 Jewish views in reaction to Darwin

With the advent of Charles Darwin’s evolutionary theory, the Jewish community found itself engaged in a discussion of Jewish principles of faith and modern scientific findings.

9.2.4 Kabbalistic views of compatibility

In his commentary on the Torah, Rabbi Bahya ben Asher (11th century, Spain) concludes that there were many time systems occurring in the universe long before the spans of history that man is familiar with. Based on the Kabbalah he calculates that the Earth is billions of years old.

Rabbi Eliyahu Benamozegh, an Italian Kabbalist, wrote that were evolution to become a mainstay of scientific theory, it would not contradict the Torah as long as one understood it as having been guided by God.

Rabbi Israel Lipschitz of Danzig (19th century) wrote that Kabbalistic texts teach that the world has gone through many cycles of history, each lasting for many tens of thousands of years.

When scientists first developed the theory of evolution, this idea was seized upon by Rabbis such as Naftali Zvi Yehuda Berlin, known as the Netziv, who saw Kabbalah as a way to resolve the differences between traditional readings of the Bible and modern day scientific findings. He proposed that the ancient fossils of dinosaurs were the remains of beings that perished in the previous “worlds” described in some Kabbalistic texts. This was the view held by Rabbi Aryeh Kaplan (1934-1983).

9.2.5 Late 19th century Orthodox view of evolution

In the late 1880s, Rabbi Samson Raphael Hirsch wrote that while he did not endorse the idea of common descent (that all life developed from one common organism), even if science ever did prove the factuality of Evolution, it would not pose a threat to Orthodox Judaism’s beliefs.

By the early to mid 1900s, the majority of Conservative Judaism and Reform Judaism came to accept the existence of evolution as a scientific fact. They interpreted Genesis and related Jewish teachings in light of this fact.

9.2.6 Modern day Orthodox Jewish views

The Rabbinical Council of America (RCA) has “maintained that evolutionary theory, properly understood, is not incompatible with belief in a Divine Creator, or with the first 2 chapters of Genesis.”

Prominent Orthodox rabbis who have affirmed that the world is older, and that life has evolved over time, include Aryeh Kaplan (1934-1983), Israel Lipschitz, Sholom Mordechai Schwadron (the MaHaRSHaM) (1835-1911), Zvi Hirsch Chajes (1805-1855) and Rabbi Natan Slifkin. These rabbis proposed their own versions of theistic evolution, in which the world is older, and that life does evolve over time in accord with natural law, painting natural law as the process by which God drives the world.

Gerald Schroeder, an Israeli physicist, has written a number of articles and popular books attempting to reconcile Jewish theology with modern scientific findings that the world is billions of years old and that life has evolved over time.

Whereas the original contributors to the theory of evolution perhaps espoused atheistic or agnostic beliefs, there is no reason to claim that evolutionary theory is any more of a conflict with Judaism than the scientific explanations of rainfall or genetic inheritance. The fact that Judaism does not contest the scientific basis for rainfall supports the assertion that opposition to evolution is not based on theology nearly as much as it is on politics.

9.2.7 Modern day Conservative Jewish views

Conservative Judaism embraces science as a way to learn about God’s creation, and like Orthodox and Reform Judaism, has found the theory of evolution a challenge to traditional Jewish theology. The Conservative Jewish movement has not yet developed one official response to the subject. Conservative Jews teach that God created the universe and is responsible for the creation of life within it, but proclaims no mandatory teachings about how this occurs at any level.

Many Conservative Rabbis embrace the term theistic evolution, and most reject the term “Intelligent Design.” Conservative rabbis who use the term Intelligent Design in their sermons often distinguish their views from the Christian fundamentalist use of this term.

In contrast to fundamentalist views, Conservative Judaism strongly supports the use of science as the proper way to learn about the physical world in which we live. The tension between accepting God’s role in the world and the findings of science, however, is not resolved.

Rabbi Lawrence Troster holds that much of Judaism (and other religions) have not successfully created a theology which allows for the role of God in the world and yet is also fully compatible with modern day evolutionary theory.

9.2.8 Jewish opposition to Darwinian Theory

While most of the Jewish world has declared that there is no conflict between science and Judaism, some Haredi rabbis have remained staunchly opposed to certain teachings in evolutionary theory. They express an openness to multiple interpretations of Genesis, through Jewish oral tradition and Jewish mysticism. They are open to evolutionary theory in biology, except where they perceive that it is in conflict with the Torah’s account of creation.

Rabbi Menachem Mendel Schneerson, the last rebbe of the worldwide movement of Lubavticher or Chabad Hasidism, was avidly opposed to evolution, and his tremendous following remains largely committed to that position, though individual Chabad Hasidim may hold different views.

Rabbi Avi Shafran, a spokesman for Agudath Israel is an opponent of Darwinian evolutionary theory. Shafran is careful to distinguish the Jewish perspective from that of Christian fundamentalism. Shafran also rejects the literalism of Christian fundamentalism.

9.2.9 Moshe Feinstein

Rabbi Moshe Feinstein (1895-1986), a Haredi posek who was known for his opposition to evolution, was one of the most famed Orthodox rabbis and decisors of Jewish Law for the ultra-Orthodox community. Rabbi Feinstein ruled that the reading of an evolutionary textbook is unequivocally forbidden, because belief in evolutionary history is tantamount to apikorsus (Hebrew, heresy). Feinstein believes that there is an essential difference between animals and humans that evolution does not uphold.

9.2.10 Slifkin affair

In 2004-2005, three popular books by Rabbi Natan Slifkin were banned by a group of Haredi rabbinic authorities on the grounds that they were heretical. Known to his admirers as the “Zoo Rabbi,” Nosson Slifkin was the author of “The Torah Universe”, a series of books on science and religion that were widely read in Orthodox communities until they were suddenly banned.

9.2.11 Jewish reactions to Intelligent Design

The movement for Intelligent Design claims that an intelligent creator is responsible for the origin of life and of humankind. Its proponents claim that their hypothesis is a scientific theory that challenges the Darwinian view of evolution and its modern synthesis. Jewish theologians, organizations, and activists, have maintained that Intelligent Design is not valid science, that it is a religious concept. Although some have expressed support for a theistic interpretation of evolution, they have generally rejected the tenets of the Intelligent Design movement itself. Jewish organizations in the United States have been steadfast in their opposition to the teaching of Intelligent Design in public schools, charging that to do so would violate the separation of church and state.