“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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