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Ten Questions on Evolution and Judaism

A Jewish view on Evolution.
Man and Monkey at Jerusalem's Biblical Zoo.

Man and Monkey at Jerusalem's Biblical Zoo.
Photo Credit: Kobi Gideon / FLASH90

“Heresy!” An uproar erupted in parts of Israel yesterday when the Education Ministry announced that evolution will be taught to seventh through ninth grade pupils across the state education system, including in national-religious schools. Evolution is feared by many as being heretical. But is this really the case?

Here are ten questions about evolution and Judaism, along with brief answers. 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. Rav 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 schools accommodate evolution? Isn’t it 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.

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 ’67 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.

About the Author: Rabbi Natan Slifkin is the author of several works on the interface between Judaism and the natural sciences. Later this year he is publishing The Torah Encyclopedia of the Animal Kingdom, and he is currently developing a Biblical Museum of Natural History to be located in the Beit Shemesh region. Rabbi Slifkin's website is www.zootorah.com and he also runs a popular blog at www.rationalistjudaism.com.


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148 Responses to “Ten Questions on Evolution and Judaism”

  1. His views are exactly what I’ve always felt on the topic.

  2. So if there were years or millenia between each “day” of creation, the trees and plants survived centuries or millenia without the sun? Makes sense.

  3. Thanks for posting this … I will read it later … Bound to be interesting !!

  4. And the award for first ignorant post goes to…

    Danny’El Sarmiento Ben Yehudim

    Rather than posting a well thought counter-argument, young Danny opted for snarkiness. Offering no real thought, he threw together a series of words that have almost nothing to do with the article!
    Let’s here it for DANNY!

  5. Archie is that a personal attack? Shows who you worship.. Not the God of Israel.

    And speaking of ignorance, it’s “hear” not “here”. What’s it like down in momma’s basement?

  6. Archie is that a personal attack? Shows who you worship.. Not the God of Israel.

    And speaking of ignorance, it’s “hear” not “here”. What’s it like down in momma’s basement?

  7. Archie is that a personal attack? Shows who you worship.. Not the God of Israel.

    And speaking of ignorance, it’s “hear” not “here”. What’s it like down in momma’s basement?

  8. Man’s wisdom is foolishness to God.

  9. Man’s wisdom is foolishness to God.

  10. Man’s wisdom is foolishness to God.

  11. Sobriety Jon says:

    After watching the film ‘God is not dead’ is like a fresh inspiration.evolution was merely a theory.a theory may be subjective and particular

  12. Good article and allows us to not be associated with the typical “creationists” that left me very uncomfortable with. I’ve studied “evolution” from a child (my first Scholastic Book spoke of it–and scared my mom ;-)) and have been in just the mindset of the article for all these years while also being religious.

  13. Good article and allows us to not be associated with the typical “creationists” that left me very uncomfortable with. I’ve studied “evolution” from a child (my first Scholastic Book spoke of it–and scared my mom ;-)) and have been in just the mindset of the article for all these years while also being religious.

  14. check out a book by Gerald Schroeder, called the ” Genesis and the Big Bang”. Excellent explanations.

  15. Karen Bryant says:

    God will have the last word on this.

  16. Since God could speak and cause the world to form, is it not possible that he also chose to use evolution’s process to create all things on earth; we would still be a creation of God from the earth. Consider this: if evolution were not a part of God’s plan, where did the word or science for it come from and why would He allow such strong evidence of it? I believe God created me, but, I don’t discount His choice in which he may have done it. Denying this as a possibility, is denying God’s ability to be creative. It matters not how we came to be, but that we believe that we are a creation of God, as all things are, from the beginning.

  17. Verona John says:

    원숭같은..딤승들도 사람라고..진짜사람들를 죽이는 딤승들의 과정!

  18. Carl Brandon says:

    God means what he says and says what He means….When the finite tell the infinite how things should be it strikes me as foolishness.

  19. whatever it is we are here. we have deal with our lives. we’re yids. we have Torah. millions of years or minutes. time passes.

  20. Hay ! I am Jewish and did not come from no Monkey ! Darwin is a drugged up moron !

  21. Lize Bartsch says:

    You have a serious theological problem putting death before the fall into sin. G-d’s sovereign power and command is at stake. He said, Do NOT eat of that tree or else you die!! Death came after rebellion and disobedience. Also it is a retarded god who cannot create it right the first time but needs a process of death to try and try again. Also THERE IS NO SUCH THING AS A SIMPLE UNCOMPLICATED CELL, OR LIFE FORM, ALL LIFE FORMS ARE STAGGERINGLY COMPLEX – EVEN A SINGLE CELL!!!

  22. Lize Bartsch says:

    What would you do with half a washing machine or half a micro wave??? Half a thing is useless. Everything in nature is inter connected. Did the flowers wait a 1000 years for the bees to turn up to pollenate them???

  23. Lize Bartsch says:

    Why are there all over the planet trees petrified upside down oven dozens of strata which are each supposed to represent millions of years??? Why are their huge clams fossilized on top of high mountains? Why do many mountain ranges have soft W shaped curves in their strata – it is because they formed during the flood while the mud was still soft and then hardened. Why are their fossil graveyards of dinosaurs and other creatures together like you would find in a Tsunami – lots of bodies buried quickly together not one by one as things die of old age. All this and many more questions are answered in the CMI FB page and website – Creation Ministries International.

  24. Lize Bartsch says:

    Scientists know that the planets and stars in the universe are moving all the time away from each other, this is not a problem if the earth is only a few thousand years old, but billions or even millions of years ago the sun would have been on top of the earth!!! If the sun moves further away from the earth half a meter per year you could add up how close it was 10 million years ago!!!

  25. Jonathan, a thousand years are like yesterday…. Or like a day, if you will…. Now think of six days of creation and on the seventh day He rested. Now if ever thousand years can be applied to one day of creation…. The first day of creation is equal to 1000 years, the second day is equal to 1000 years, etc…. Then since it seems we're getting close to the end of the 6th 1000th year mark, maybe we can start looking forward to the 1000 years of rest… The lion shall lie down with the lamb, etc… Think about it. If you want to try to say that evolution is true because 1000 is equal to one day…. That's a far stretch if you try to apply billions of years to that passage.

    Jeff, if you look at the 'evidence' I think you'll find that most for evolution is put out there with a bias flare to it. The sun…. Big mass of energy that is shrinking at a constant rate. If you add billions of years of constant shrinkage that would've happened to the sun, you would have a massive sun that would've been so big that it would've encompassed the earth. One simple fact that throws the lies of evolution to the dirt. There is a lot more facts on line for a six day creation if you are brave enough, and don't let your emotions and pride dictate your decisions. Respectfully, rich

  26. Dan Silagi says:

    I never said he was.

  27. Bobby James says:

    You don't have to be a Rabbi to understand the Torah.

  28. Bobby James says:

    The glory of the One who gave the Torah to Moses is indeed worthy. Evolutionary teachings have no place in the Truth of creation revealed by the Creator.

  29. Arthur C. Hurwitz You should've said: "Rabbinical Judaism". You are probably aware of the Torah Judaism of the Eretz Israel, are you not? The one that our forefathers practiced until the Rabbinical Judaism has taken over?

  30. Bobby James It is clear that you are entirely ignorant about the discussion of this matter in the Jewish learning tradition. Judaism has never taken any part of the Bible literally, ever…. That is a fundamentalist Christian obsession….

  31. Dan Silagi says:

    That may be true, but today's ultra-orthodox rabbinical retards sure aren't. They're no better than their fundamentalist Christian and Islamic counterparts.

  32. Dan Silagi says:

    The behavior of mankind, in such mundane matters as breeding dogs, prove that evolution exists, and that the process can be vastly sped up by creating the conditions which lead to change.

  33. Dan Silagi says:

    If God did not want mankind to leave the Garden of Eden, He wouldn't have created the conditions for temptation, starting with planting the Tree of Knowledge. I guess God wanted mankind to be as dumb as a stalk of asparagus, but created in His image.

    To me, this is Exhbit B that the Bible is allegorical. Exhibit A is that the universe is 13.8 billion years old, not 5,775 1/2.

  34. Lize Bartsch says:

    Genesis 3 tells the whole account of how Adam and Eve sinned against God the first time and the punishment for their disobedience. Satan, who spoke to Eve twisting the Word of God, was by then already in rebellion against God's authority (wanting to have God's position Isaiah 14, but the office was not available – there is only one self existing God, the rest of us had a beginning) along with one third of the angelic world who voted for his political party. He came stealthily just like he does today to get someone to watch porn for the first time of start smoking,etc. Satan is the god of SELF and that is what we see in the world today, no one wants to live sacrificially anymore but live for hedonistic pleasures regardless the high cost of destroying what God created so perfectly. You cannot wash your clothes in an oven or bake a cake in a washing machine, it was not designed for that.
    God created with a purpose but He wanted mankind to have a free will, not love Him preprogrammed like a robot. Even today most of our suffering is because of the fact that God honors other people's free will even when they make bad choices. This should not make us bitter but trust Him to protect us and love those regardless because they might also one day turn to God for salvation.
    According to Christianity the Lord Jesus Christ was sent as an atonement for our sins so that anyone who turns to Him for salvation are set free from sin and bondage and the eternal punishment for sin (to be forever banned from God's presence to a place where neither He nor His benefits are – light, color, grace, food, animals, trees, etc ) and given a new heart after the stony rebellious heart is taken out. I would anytime convert to Judaism (which is to me the best of all religions in the world) but I cannot deny the fact that God saved me and changed me completely after I prayed that prayer surrendering my life to Him, He gave me also a hunger and thirst for Him Word and opened it up to me, while before I thought the Word was boring afterward I could not stop reading it until today many years later. He is real His creation is real and awesome, and His offer to man is real or I am a lunatic, take your pic.

  35. Dan Silagi: If they are or are not "no better than their fundamentalist Christian and Islamic counterparts" is a different question and I really don't want to "go there." But all of them would agree that reading the Bible without the Rabbinic commentaries is irrelevant and even misleading. Judaism does not consider the Bible as a stand alone text which should be understood as having religious meaning via a literal understanding of the text without commentaries. Do some research to confirm this… Moreover, there is no definitive view of the age of the world or the origins of life which negates scientific findings. Yes, there are people who do believe that the world is 5,000 years old and created in six literal days, but there have always been other authorities which have offered alternative views, not merely in the modern period but throughout the post-Temple era, that is to say the last 2,000 years.

  36. Michael Felgin This point is debatable, but also irrelevant. When I write "Judaism," I mean the Jewish religion as it it practiced today, which some would describe as "Rabbinical Judaism."

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