Sunday, July 1, 2007

Is Darwin Kosher?: Orthodox Jewish Views of Evolution

There is a fascinating article in the Wall Street Journal that explains why many (but not all) Orthodox Jews have little difficulty accepting evolution (in contrast to their fundamentalist Christian counterparts:

Prof. Feit [an ordained rabbi and Talmudic scholar as well as chairman of the science division at Yeshiva College] says that in nearly a quarter-century of teaching introductory biology, he has always taught evolution--supported by traditional Jewish source material--and that "there has never been a blip on the radar here." His assessment echoes the official line of the Modern Orthodox rabbinical association, which states that evolution is entirely consistent with Judaism.

The seeming ease with which this branch of Judaism has embraced science can in large part be credited to the towering intellectual legacy of Moses Maimonides. In his 12th-century masterpiece, "Guide to the Perplexed," Maimonides opened the door to a Judaism unfettered by a literal reading of religious texts. For many Jews the persuasive case for evolution does indeed amount to a crisis of faith, but the Maimonidean precedent of figurative interpretation provides a framework within which conflicts arising between Torah and science can be argued away. To be sure, some arguments are more compelling than others (and a great many are not compelling at all). But in contrast to many observant Christians, there is a greater willingness of these believers to live with such inconsistencies.

This practice has long been on display even in the more rigid Orthodox precincts of the Jewish world, where many prominent rabbis were quick to reconcile the Torah with the truths of science. "It is the power of the Torah that all theories can be included," wrote one Montreal-based Orthodox rabbi in the summer of 1925, at the time of the Scopes trial. A few years earlier, Rabbi Abraham Isaac Kook, chief rabbi of pre-state Palestine, assured his followers that evolution, "more so than all other philosophical theories, conforms to the kabbalistic secrets of the world."

There are exceptions to this view, but even orthodox Jews who reject evolution do so for reasons that go beyond Genesis. "Whereas Christian creationism is based on a literal reading of the Bible, most Orthodox Jews who reject evolution tend to do so because they find it incompatible not only with the Torah, but with other Jewish texts and centuries of rabbinic commentary."

The article highlights thw work of Rabbi Natan Slifkin, an "ultra-Orthodox Israeli scholar and science writer" who strongly supports evolution and rejects both creationism and Intelligent Design:

Rabbi Slifkin does not consider Darwin a threat to his faith. Relying heavily on Maimonides he argues not only that there is no incompatibility between traditional Jewish faith and the laws of nature, but that a full understanding of one depends on a full understanding of the other. "Appreciating the role and rule of natural law is an essential prerequisite to appreciating the role and rule of the spiritual law of Torah," Rabbi Slifkin writes in "The Science of Torah." "To be sure, we have scientific explanations for phenomena. But this does not paint G-d out of the picture. On the contrary--it presents a new picture, that of the body of scientific law, for Him to have paintedd."

To Rabbi Slifkin, God set the scientific process in motion. Yet he sharply dismisses the claims of intelligent-design advocates like Michael Behe as "wrong and dangerous." He thinks it "strange" that such people feel compelled to "find gaps in biology in order to give God something to o." After all, "Man's physical ancestry in the animal kingdom has no bearing on his unique spiritual nature. Whether our physical bodies originate from mud or monkey, our fundamental identity does not relate to either."

Read it all here.

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