Creation and Evolution: Toward a Methodology of Addressing Challenges to Faith
BY: Ariel Caplan
“The conflict between ‘religion’ and ‘evolution’ has outlived its usefulness and it is high time it was allowed a quiet demise. […] We must learn to lose our fear of evolution.”[i]
The acceptance of evolution as the best explanation for the diversification of biological beings has been hotly debated, in terms of both fact and educational practice, since the publication of Charles Darwin’s The Origin of Species in 1859. In the United States, the war continues in personal, communal, and legal settings. While rational arguments are often advanced, the underlying motivation behind the arguments is clear: those opposing the acceptance and teaching of evolution have almost invariably concluded that it is false because it contradicts the Creation story offered by the Torah, the fundamental source of religious insight on the topic of the origins of life for the most powerful and populous religions in the country.
The believing Jew cannot close his or her eyes and ears to the issue, for at least two reasons. One is practical. Namely, evolution is prevalent in many parts of daily life. Anyone who has taken antibiotics for a ten-day period, received an annual flu shot, or interacted with a domesticated or selectively bred animal or plant has encountered firsthand the products of evolution. Any attempt to reject evolutionary theory must either explain the emergence of new forms of life in some other way or else risk undermining much of modern medicine and agriculture.[ii]
The second consideration is educational. In the current educational model of yeshivah day schools, students are taught the story of Creation at a young age, generally according to a strictly literal reading of the Torah, perhaps with some slight additions from Midrashim. Simultaneously, they are surrounded by museums and media which assume that the universe is billions of years old, and that all beings stem from lower life forms; these ideas are eventually presented as facts in high school Biology classes, if not earlier. The contradiction between the competing histories is given at best scant attention; at worst, it is ignored entirely. Students often walk away either rejecting a fundamental unifying theme in Biology or, incomparably worse, losing respect for Torah as a source of any sort of truth.
The first issue is, I believe, less pressing, as realistically one can act as if something is true, even if he or she does not actually believe it to be so. For example, the Israeli zealots who banned yogurt featuring pictures of dinosaurs (which they assume cannot have existed, despite modern scientific claims)[iii] presumably still take their medications as prescribed by doctors. However, the educational issue is more severe, particularly for anyone who believes in serious engagement with both Torah and secular studies. Unless we create a science-free enclave, we cannot shield our children from evolution, nor do we necessarily want to do so. Hiding the Torah’s Creation narrative is an obvious impossibility. So we must tackle the contradiction of histories head-on.
How this is to be done is a serious question, and it is one which extends far beyond the local issue. Each of us deals with various challenges to our faith: the Orthodox biologist worries about evolution and the post-Flood presence of flora and fauna in the Americas and Australia; the frum physicist is troubled by the Big Bang Theory and mechanistic determinism; the religious textually-adept and academically-inclined literati fret over Biblical Criticism; the historian wonders about the lack of evidence for specific biblical events; the humanist will be torn by the classic question of why bad things happen to good people; etc.[iv] This obviously constitutes no more than a partial list, but it reflects an uncomfortable truth that we must acknowledge for the benefit of our own spiritual health: religious belief does not come easily, and many objections can be raised against the fundamentals of our faith. Since challenges to faith are so numerous, it is essential to develop a methodology for handling questions. Therefore, I would like to survey the responses that the Jewish world has developed to the problem of evolution and Creation and, through this analysis, bring to light fruitful points of contemplation that can be used in other situations, whether we find the answers satisfying in the local context or not. To that end, I have selected a representative sample,[v] each representing a category of responses that are offered, so as to clarify the overall picture that emerges. I can only hope that the principles developed herein will aid the reader in developing his or her own methodology for personal, interpersonal, parental, and educational use.
Attitude 1: Rejectionism
The two approaches outlined in this section are, in a sense, at opposite ends of the spectrum, though they both take one historical reconstruction as true and find a way to invalidate the other.
The first approach, offered by R. Avigdor Miller in several books, accepts the Torah as literal truth and rejects as false any apparent contradiction thereto. In rancorous rhetorical style, R. Miller spends one chapter of Sing, You Righteous dismantling the scientific establishment and portraying scientists as a group characterized by an “effort to ignore the Creator.”[vi] Capitalizing on cases where scientists committed crimes, R. Miller insists that scientists “disbelieve in Free Will and the concomitant concept of right and wrong.”[vii] In the following chapter, R. Miller objects to scientific methods of dating the universe and the fossils which have been found. He also points to highly-trumpeted scientific evidence which was later found to be questionable or even falsified. R. Miller concludes that “evolution has become a religion” accepted to excuse refusing “to acknowledge the open evidence that the Creator made the Universe.”[viii] As proof against evolution, R. Miller notes the existence of biological systems that seem irreducibly complex and could not have evolved through random mutations. Hence, R. Miller confidently asserts, “Just as the teachings of Aristotle, which formerly were considered the acme of scientific knowledge, have been revealed as worthless, so will the theories of evolution and of the age of the world someday be revealed as rubbish.”[ix]
R. Miller’s declarations are more than questionable. Regarding his accusations of the un-Godliness of the scientific community, we may cite a 2007 poll indicating that among natural scientists, 33% believe in a higher power.[x] While atheists and agnostics dominate, believers certainly form a significant percentage of the scientific community. Regarding his objections to the methods used, it is difficult to see anything more than overzealous rhetoric in R. Miller’s arguments. As for the lack of evidence, we may well note that new studies have brought the ball firmly into evolution’s court. Modern molecular biology techniques have shown that organisms can be hierarchically classified based on both coding and non-coding sections of DNA in a manner consistent with evolutionary theory. Other techniques, new and old, have similarly been brought to bear to provide ever-stronger evidence for evolution.[xi]
All this said, perhaps the greatest objection to R. Miller’s approach is that it makes Torah seem ridiculous and outdated. As more evidence is adduced, adherents of R. Miller’s position must seriously question whether sticking to their guns on this issue might be at best unproductive, and at worst a hillul Hashem (desecration of God’s Name).
The opposite approach is taken by RIETS Rosh Yeshivah R. Jeremy Wieder in a lecture entitled, “Non-Literal Interpretation of Scripture in the Jewish Tradition.”[xii] R. Wieder states that we can accept the Torah’s presentation of Creation as non-historical truth, meaning that it is meant to convey moral lessons rather than a factual account of the origins of the world. Of course, without proper backing in intellectual Jewish history, this view would be unacceptable. However, R. Wieder does provide such support in the form of several comments from the Geonic and Rishonic periods, including citations from R. Sa’adya Ga’on’s Emunot ve-De’ot,[xiii] Rambam’s Moreh ha-Nevukhim,[xiv] and a teshuvah of Rashba.[xv] Each source establishes that its author would be willing to explain verses non-literally to accord with modern knowledge or observations if the new explanation would not contradict Halakhah or fundamentals of faith.[xvi]
R. Wieder’s interpretation and application of sources leaves much room for argument. The major problem is that the sources cited refer to non-literal interpretation of verses, not outright rejection of verses as telling a story that never happened. For example, Rambam makes it clear that the question is whether to interpret verses literally or as allusions to the real truth, similar to the interpretation of anthropomorphisms as metaphorical. This is a far cry from assuming that a story is told for pedagogic purposes but is not, in any sense, a reflection of history. The jump is not completely illogical, but the hiddush (innovation) entailed in going this far is readily apparent.[xvii]
Attitude 2: Revisionism
This section, like the last, will outline two approaches that are opposite in direction. The common denominator is that each explanation accepts both sides as having valid a basis, but revises one of the sides to bring it in line with the other.
The first approach is that of the late Lubavitcher Rebbe, expressed in a letter sent to a scientifically-inclined questioner in 1961.[xviii] Much of the letter rings with R. Miller’s skepticism; the Rebbe boldly states, “If you are still troubled by the theory of evolution, I can tell you without fear of contradiction that it has not a shred of evidence to support it.” However, there is a unique element introduced in the Rebbe’s treatment. Noting that evidence for evolution is based on extrapolation (not interpolation) from a brief (on an evolutionary time-scale) period of observation and ignores potential external influences, the Rebbe argues that, on scientific grounds, there are fundamental problems with the theory. The Rebbe also offers two explanations for the existence of fossils: either they were formed recently in unknown extreme circumstances, or “G-d created ready fossils […] without any evolutionary process.” Anticipating the question of why God would bother creating fossils, the Rebbe counters that “The question, Why create a fossil? is no more valid than the question, Why create an atom?”
Certainly, the Rebbe is unwilling to accept the consensus of the scientific community. Significantly, however, he does not malign scientists or accuse them of immoral motivations. In fact, he indicates respect for the scientific method and acknowledges that “[s]cience cannot operate except by accepting certain working theories or hypotheses, even if they cannot be verified.” Even his objections work within the framework of science. Hence, the Rebbe’s approach is best described as an attempt to accept the literal understanding of the Torah and, while accepting the scientific evidence as valid, revise its interpretation to match the Torah view.[xix]
The Rebbe’s reasoning is questionable. As mentioned above, the last half-century has seen abundant new evidence for evolution. As for the Rebbe’s point regarding fossils, we might easily respond that the fossil record is too complex to have been produced by a small set of cataclysmic events, and the question of why God would create a fossil is indeed valid. While the existence of an atom is logical, representing part of the complexity of the world, fossils are marks of history, which would seem to be meaningless if they were to represent a history that never happened.
The second approach is advanced by a set of scientists who differ in their exact formulations but are united in their overall stance that the Torah does not contradict scientific theories regarding the age of the universe or the origin of species. Based on the sources mentioned above (regarding R. Wieder’s approach) which address the issue of non-literal interpretation of verses, this group explains the Torah’s account of Creation in a manner which accords with scientific theory, neatly avoiding the problem of entirely rejecting the historical relevance of the story.
The interpretations offered are varied, but they draw support from a few significant sources within the Jewish tradition which suggest that the Creation story specifically is not meant to be taken literally.[xx] Several Midrashim explicitly reference a time before the six days of Creation. Bereshit Rabbah cites R. Yehudah bar Simon’s assertion that there was a time before the first day, as well as R. Abbahu’s extension that God created and destroyed worlds during that period.[xxi] We also find R. Simon bar Marta’s reference to “the dating of the world” going back to the sixth day of Creation and “another dating system” for that which came before it.[xxii] Later, in the Rishonic period, we find Ramban’s comments to Bereshit 1:3, where he first indicates that the world was created in six literal days, but then states that the days represent Kabbalistic Sefirot.[xxiii] Another source, the Otsar ha-Hayyim of R. Yitshak de-min Akko, implies a calculation approximating the age of the universe at over fifteen billion years.[xxiv] Somewhat recently, there is the Derush Or ha-Hayyim by R. Yisrael Lifschitz (author of Tif’eret Yisrael[xxv]), which draws upon many of these sources and, citing fossil evidence, concludes that the Kabbalistic approach of an extended Creation has been vindicated.
Two problems, though not devastating, present themselves regarding this approach. The first is that it relies heavily on one Kabbalistic opinion and a small selection of vague Midrashim, which is a most unusual approach to understanding Tanakh. The second is that the theories advanced by this group are often marked by either bad science, bad theology, or both. Without getting into specifics, certain approaches seem strained at best, and unfaithful to one or both sides at worst.
Attitude 3: Separation of Spheres
This section and the next constitute two interpretations of a pair of statements by R. Joseph B. Soloveitchik, so we will begin by citing both, to allow the reader to draw his or her own conclusions. The first, concerning evolution alone, appears in The Emergence of Ethical Man:
“Indeed, one of the most annoying scientific facts which the modern homo religiosus encounters and tries vainly to harmonize with his belief is the so-called theory of evolution. In our daily jargon, we call this antinomy ‘evolution versus creation.’ The phrase does not exactly reflect the crux of the controversy, for the question does not revolve around divine creation and mechanistic evolution as such. We could find a solution of some kind to this controversy. What in fact is theoretically irreconcilable is the concept of man as the bearer of the divine image with the equaling of man and animal-plant existences.”[xxvi]
The Rav indicates his confidence that an answer might be found, but is more troubled by the philosophical implications of the emergence of man through an evolutionary process.
The second quotation is from The Lonely Man of Faith:
“I have never been seriously troubled by the problem of the Biblical doctrine of creation vis-à-vis the scientific story of evolution at both the cosmic and organic levels, nor have I been perturbed by the confrontation of the mechanistic interpretation of the human mind with the Biblical spiritual concept of man. I have not been perplexed by the impossibility of fitting the mystery of revelation into the framework of historical empiricism. Moreover, I have not even been troubled by the theories of Biblical criticism […] However, while theoretical oppositions and dichotomies have never tormented my thoughts, I could not shake off the disquieting feeling that the practical role of the man of faith within modern society is a very difficult […] one.”[xxvii]
Here, the Rav lists evolution among various challenges to faith which do not bother him. Clearly, the Rav felt that evolution is not a bothersome problem. Generally, the Rav seems to have grouped evolution with other philosophical challenges to faith and consigned them all to a back burner. What must be explained, however, is why he did so.
The first explanation I have seen, paralleling the work of Stephen Jay Gould, claims that the various issues mentioned in The Lonely Man of Faith are not problematic for the Rav because they are abstract and philosophical rather than practical.[xxviii] In the case of evolution and Creation, no practical contradiction exists, since science is a method of empirical analysis of reality while religion teaches us about God’s interaction with the world and the purpose of Creation. Hence, the two represent separate spheres which need not interact or be reconciled.
The problem with this attitude is articulated beautifully by Dr. Carl Feit, if perhaps unintentionally:
“The notion that Torah and science are entirely distinct enterprises is only true on a superficial level. In fact, the Torah does recognize the validity and importance of the kind of empirical evidence required by scientific methodology […] Halakhah takes into account the results of empirical evidence as a means of determining truth.”[xxix]
Dr. Feit cites sources within Hazal to prove his point, but it seems relatively straightforward: if the Torah tells me one thing, and I can observe another, a problem exists. Halakhah relies on empirically determined truths, and science is a systematic method of determining such truths. Hence, I personally find this reading difficult at best.
Attitude 4: Transcendence
R. Michael Rosensweig offers a different reading of the Rav, which unifies the points made in The Lonely Man of Faith.[xxx] Essentially, R. Rosensweig asserts, the Rav felt that challenges to Torah may be worth investigation but should not engender a crisis of faith. After all, we only need to know that there is an answer; the exact formulation of the answer is less critical, as any solution will allow us to accept the Torah as true and proceed as servants of God. Hence, argues R. Rosensweig, if we are confident that there is indeed an answer, the question becomes purely academic. The Rav, whose emunah (faith) convinced him that answers could be found, was less troubled by the issues, since they receded, for him, into the realm of theoretical questions. Hence, the Rav chose to focus on issues of practice and purpose, which impact real life far more severely, and about which he could speak far more effectively and authoritatively.
I have found precedent for this approach in earlier sources and in the Rav’s own philosophy. In Hilkhot Teshuvah, Rambam raises the problem of divine foreknowledge contradicting free will and immediately admits that “the answer to this question is lengthier than the land and wider than the sea,”[xxxi] incomprehensible to mere mortals. He then offers just a hint of an answer by distinguishing God’s knowledge from that of humans. Ra’avad sums up Rambam’s approach: “He began with queries and objections, and left the matter as a question, and returned it to [blind] faith!”[xxxii] Far earlier than Rambam is Sefer Iyyov, which mainly addresses the issue of seeming divine injustices and ultimately reaches no clear conclusion. The Rav himself, considering the problem in Kol Dodi Dofek, asserts that rational consideration is futile: “Certainly, the testimony of the Torah that the cosmos is very good is true. However, this affirmation may be made only from the infinite perspective of the creator. Finite man, with his partial vision, cannot uncover the absolute good in the cosmos.”[xxxiii] We are finite beings incapable of appreciating a sufficiently complex answer. Hence, argues the Rav, one will only find comfort by attempting to create meaning within suffering and then growing through it.[xxxiv]
This approach is (to my mind) defensible and widely applicable and would not disrespect or distort either Torah or external sources of truth, so I find it personally most beneficial. It allows me to comfortably work with evolutionary principles in the laboratory without being troubled by evolution’s theological implications. Although I find all the answers given to be unsound, unconvincing, or troubling, I am confident that an answer exists – likely one beyond my own comprehension – because I have sufficient reason to believe in the truth of Torah. However, I recognize that many are unwilling to live with unanswered questions, and it is to them that the other sections of this essay are addressed.
I have attempted to present a representative spectrum of approaches that Orthodox Jewish thinkers have taken to address the apparent contradiction between scientific evolutionary theory and the Torah’s account of Creation. I hope it is clear that there are many perspectives on the issue, and it would be intellectually dishonest to present one as absolute truth to the exclusion of others. Educationally, I will comment that I have been more drawn to different answers at various times, and I suspect students would similarly benefit from exposure to multiple explanations.
More significantly, this analysis could serve as a paradigm for approaches which might prove valid in addressing challenges to faith from empirical evidence. Even an approach that is useless regarding evolution might be valuable in another context. In other words, the particular applications may be incorrect, but the instincts behind these approaches are certainly valuable: we must readily question our perceptions of both the Torah’s perspective and the implications of external sources of knowledge; not all sources of information are equally reliable; we need to be able to put each issue in its place. In the long run, a larger arsenal of theological weaponry can only benefit us.
Finally, as noted early on, there is an endless supply of theological challenges, and the believing Jew needs a systematic approach for handling them. This approach can draw upon any combination of the ideas presented, as well as any I have neglected to mention. However, any method will fail unless it is coupled with the positive pursuit of reasons to believe, whether they are rational, emotional, experiential, or otherwise.[xxxv] This dual occupation can only make us better ma’aminim (believers), educators, and ovedei Hashem (servants of God).
Ariel Caplan is a senior in YC majoring in Biology and is a Staff Writer for Kol Hamevaser.
[i] AOJS Students’ Questions Panel, “Actual and Possible Attitudes to Evolution within Orthodox Judaism,” in Aryeh Carmell and Cyril Domb (eds.), Challenge: Torah Views on Science and its Problems ( New York: Association of Orthodox Jewish Scientists, 1976), pp. 254-285, at p. 268.
[ii] I realize that some have justified these phenomena while rejecting evolution by distinguishing between macroevolution (the evolution of new species) and microevolution (essentially anything short of macroevolution). The distinction seems artificial to me, and I will not deal with it, but it may be useful to others.
[iii] Ari L. Goldman, “Religions Notes,” The New York Times (August 14, 1993), available at: http://www.nytimes.com/1993/08/14/us/religion-notes.html?pagewanted=2.
[iv] I personally find it both fascinating and unjustifiable that this question bothers people far more than the question of why good things happen to bad people.
[v] I state this to clarify that the selection was made in order to expose the reader to the variety of approaches that exist, and should not imply comparisons between people or an assertion that these are the greatest theologians of our generation or of the previous generation. Certain noteworthy approaches have been simply omitted for the sake of simplicity and (relative) brevity.
[vi] Avigdor Miller, Sing, You Righteous: A Jewish Seeker’s Ideology (Israel Bookshop Publications, 2006).
[vii] Ibid., p. 60.
[viii] Ibid., p. 113.
[ix] Ibid., p. 191.
[x] Elaine Howard Ecklund and Christopher P. Scheitle, “Religion among Academic Scientists: Distinctions, Disciplines, and Demographics,” Social Problems 54,2 (2007): 289-307, at p. 296.
[xi] The situation might best be described by a passing comment I once heard from a Yeshiva College Biology professor, who said that evolutionary scientists should be grateful to the deniers who have forced them to consistently come up with ever tighter proofs for evolution.
[xii] Jeremy Wieder, “Non-Literal Interpretation of Scripture in Jewish Tradition,” YUTorah Online (November 5, 2006), available at: http://www.yutorah.org/lectures/lecture.cfm/716561/Rabbi_Jeremy_Wieder/Non_Literal_Interpretation_of_Scripture_in_Jewish_Tradition#.
[xiii] R. Sa’adya Ga’on, Emunot ve-De’ot, ma’amar 7, ot “alef.”
[xiv] Rambam, Moreh ha-Nevukhim II:25.
[xv] Teshuvot ha-Rashba 1:9.
[xvi] Rashba also includes a requirement that no tradition of interpretation be violated.
[xvii] The idea of a story being invented to teach values, but not expressed as a tall tale, also leads to very troubling conclusions: it implies that God could not manage to convey the same messages either directly, through true stories, or in clearly defined allegories, and that God intentionally convinces the masses of falsehood just to make an ethical point.
[xviii] Menachem Mendel Schneerson, “The Age of the Universe,” Chabad.org: Ideas and Beliefs (December 25, 1961), available at: http://www.chabad.org/library/article_cdo/aid/435111/jewish/The-Age-of-the-Universe.htm.
[xix] It is true that R. Miller offers many arguments which indicate familiarity with science. However, an important distinction must be made. The Rebbe accepts the scientific findings as valid, but goes on to reinterpret them. R. Miller, however, insists on rejecting the findings themselves. For example, whereas the Rebbe explains why fossils seem old, R. Miller claims that we have no reason at all to think that the fossils are old.
[xx] The sources cited here are a sampling of those presented by Dr. Carl Feit in his YC Biology class. Different members of this camp will, of course, cite different sources.
[xxi] Bereshit Rabbah 3:7.
[xxii] Ibid. 9:14 (all translations are the author’s).
[xxiii] Also see Ramban’s comments to Bereshit 1:1, in which he interprets the entire Creation story based on Kabbalistic concepts.
[xxiv] R. Yitshak de-min Akko, Otsar ha-Hayyim, pp. 86b-87b.
[xxv] This short work can be found in some editions of Yakhin u-Bo’az Mishnayot after Masekhet Sanhedrin.
[xxvi] Joseph B. Soloveitchik, The Emergence of Ethical Man, ed. by Michael S. Berger (Jersey City, NJ: Ktav, 2005), pp. 4-5.
[xxvii] Idem, The Lonely Man of Faith (New York: Doubleday, 2006), p. 7.
[xxviii] The source of this explanation preferred not to be quoted.
[xxix] Carl Feit, “Darwin and Derash: The Interplay of Torah and Biology,” The Torah u-Madda Journal 2 (1990): 25-36, at pp. 26-27.
[xxx] Based on a personal conversation with R. Rosensweig.
[xxxi] Rambam, Mishneh Torah, Hilkhot Teshuvah 5:5 (translation is the author’s).
[xxxii] Ra’avad ad loc. (translation is the author’s).
[xxxiii] Joseph B. Soloveitchik, Fate and Destiny: From the Holocaust to the State of Israel, transl. by Lawrence Kaplan (Hoboken, NJ: Ktav, 2000), pp. 5-6.
[xxxiv] Ibid., pp. 8-9.
[xxxv] For an enlightening discussion of this point, see Soloveitchik, The Lonely Man of Faith, p. 49, n. 1.