Evolution is rated by many as being antithetical to Judaism. This is one reason why at the Biblical Museum of Natural History, we do not present any exhibits or signage relating to evolution or to the antiquity of the universe. Any such exhibits, aside from being irrelevant to the museum’s core topic of biblical natural history, would alienate many of our visitors. (See “The Skeleton In My Closet” for a fuller discussion of the museum’s philosophy regarding our exhibits.)
But is it necessarily the case that evolution is heretical? While many rabbinic authorities insist that this is the case, here are ten questions and answers about evolution and Judaism from a Maimonidean/ Hirschian perspective. This does not substitute for the detailed discussion that this topic requires; it is merely intended as an introduction.
1) Evolution is alleged to have taken place over millions of years. But doesn’t the Torah teach that the universe was created just a few thousand years ago?
There is a strong (albeit not universal) tradition in Judaism that “the account of creation is not all to be taken literally,” to quote Maimonides. Rabbi Dovid Tzvi Hoffman (1843-1921), a member of Agudath Israel’s Council of Torah Sages, suggested that the Six Days of Creation were lengthy eras rather than 24-hour periods. Maimonides himself, as the commentaries on the Guide to the Perplexed reveal, was of the view that the Six Days represent a conceptual rather than historical account of creation.
2) Why should anyone accommodate evolution? Isn’t evolution just a theory, not a fact?
“Evolution” is a confusing term, because it covers two very different concepts. One is common ancestry, the concept that all animal life arose from a common ancestor – simple organisms gave rise to fish, fish to amphibians, amphibians to reptiles, reptiles to birds and mammals (without getting into how that could have happened). This is supported by a wealth of converging evidence along with testable predictions. Common ancestry is considered by all scientists (except certain deeply religious ones) to be as well-established as many other historical facts, and is thus often referred to as “the fact of evolution.” It is of immense benefit in understanding the natural world – for example, it tells us why whales and bats share anatomical similarities with mammals, despite their superficial resemblance to fish and birds.
Pictured here is the skeleton of a bat. Note the five-fingered hands, as also seen in the skeleton of whales, such as the extinct whale, Ambulocetus, pictured above. Whales also need to surface to breathe, unlike fish.
The second and very different aspect of evolution is the mechanism via which one species changes into another. This is called the “theory” of evolution. It is, however, important to bear in mind that the word “theory” has a very different meaning in science than in everyday conversational English. It does not refer to wild speculation, but rather to an explanatory mechanism. Most, though not all, biologists believe that random mutations, coupled with natural selection, broadly suffice to explain this mechanism. The issue is, however, of zero religious significance, as we shall explain in the answer to the next question.
3) How can we accept scientific explanations for how animal life came about? It was God who made everything!
We have a science of meteorology, but that does not stop us from saying that God “makes the wind blow and the rain fall.” We have a science of medicine, but this does not stop us from saying that God “heals the sick.” We have documented history of the process involved in winning the Six Day War, but this does not stop us from talking about God’s miraculous hand. God can work through meteorology, through medicine, through history, and through developmental biology. This is why it makes no difference if the neo-Darwinian explanation of the mechanism for evolution is true or not.
4) Doesn’t the Torah say that animals and man were created from the ground, not from earlier creatures?
Indeed it does. But what does that mean? The blessing recited over bread is “Blessed are You… Who brings bread out of the ground.” But what actually happens is that God created wheat, which man sows, nature grows, and man transforms into bread. Yet the blessing simplifies this in describing God as bringing bread out of the ground. By the same token, the description of God bringing animal life out of the ground can refer to His creating the raw material of nature and the natural processes that lead to the formation of animal life.
In any case, it is widely accepted today that we do not learn science from the literal meaning of Scripture – after all, Scripture describes the sky as a dome, the hare as bringing up its cud, and the kidneys and heart as housing one’s mind. All these descriptions were interpreted literally by classical rabbinic authorities, and yet almost all recent Torah scholars interpret them non-literally.
5) Doesn’t the notion of randomness in evolution contradict with the idea of a purposeful creation directed by God?
Judaism has always acknowledged that there are events which, in the physical world, appear to be random and happenstance. But it maintains that this does not rule out God’s role behind the scenes. Indeed, this is the entire message of the Purim story! As it states in Scripture, “When the lot is cast in the lap, its entire verdict has been decided by God” (Proverbs 16:33).
6) Doesn’t the Biblical concept of man being created in the image of God contradict the notion that man comes from animals?
Absolutely not! Classical Judaism has long maintained that man is not qualitatively different from animals in his physical aspects. Man’s unique identity is in his spiritual soul, not in his physical body and most certainly not in his physical origins. The great medieval Torah scholars stated that man was created physically as an animal, but was given the spiritual potential to rise beyond that level. The Mishnah notes that on an individual level, we all come from a “putrid drop (of semen),” which is even less than an animal; yet we are defined not by what we come from, but rather by what we become.
7) Don’t most rabbis state that evolution is heresy?
Very few leading rabbis have studied the science or have ever given the matter serious thought (and many are not operating from the rationalist perspective that is the legacy of Maimonides and the great Torah scholars of Spain). The few rationalist-oriented rabbis who did study the topic, such as Rabbi Avraham Yitzchak Kook, Rabbi Yosef Dov Soloveitchik, Rabbi Gedalyah Nadel (a leading disciple of Chazon Ish) and Rabbi Aryeh Carmell, concluded that evolution is compatible with Judaism. Rabbi Samson Raphael Hirsch was personally skeptical of evolution but saw no theological problem with it: “…If this notion were ever to gain complete acceptance by the scientific world… 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.” (“The Educational Value of Judaism,” in Collected Writings, vol. VII, p. 264)
8) Doesn’t evolution go against tradition?
No more so than the notion of the earth orbiting the sun. That was also rejected by many leading rabbis from the era of Copernicus through today. Yet most religious Jews have managed to come to terms with it. The same is true of evolution, which has become widely accepted by religious Jews with a strong background in science and/or rationalist Jewish theology.
9) But aren’t there many secular evolutionists who use evolution to try to attack religious principles?
Yes, unfortunately there are. But this is an abuse of science; it doesn’t reflect on the science of evolution itself. This, however, is why it is important for anyone teaching evolution to understand it properly.
10) You didn’t answer all my questions and objections!
Of course not. Evolution is an immensely complicated topic, to which it is impossible to do justice in a brief article. For a very detailed discussion, please see The Challenge Of Creation by museum director Rabbi Dr. Natan Slifkin, available at the museum, at Jewish bookstores, and at the museum’s website, www.BiblicalNaturalHistory.org.