The Jewish tradition embraces a very positive approach toward secular wisdom. The Talmud even transforms a mundane encounter with a wise gentile into a religious experience: “On seeing one of the sages of the nations of the world, one makes the following blessing: ‘Blessed are you, Lord our God, King of the universe, who has given of His wisdom to mortal human beings,” (Berachot 58a). The leading scientists of our age have fully embraced evolution as a given, yet for some reason, a literalist approach toward the Creation story is embraced by some rabbis today.
We are overdue in responsibly making the moral case for evolution in a religious framework. A secular person may be making evolution into a form of idol when they claim that evolution is the ultimate reason that we are what we are. Religious people, on the other hand, can view evolution as a tool of G-d rather than our primary cause. Science has a very important descriptive value where as religion can have a very significant prescriptive value. We can embrace the tools and wisdom of science to fulfill our religious mandate to repair the world.
First, we must demonstrate why evolution is an acceptable Jewish theory to embrace. I would suggest that there are three approaches to making the case for evolution: 1. Textual 2. Existential 3. Moral
Firstly, Maimonides, the great medieval Jewish thinker and doctor, makes the case for the textual ambiguity of the creation story:
“Now, on the one hand, the subject of creation is very important, but on the other hand, our ability to understand these concepts is very limited. Therefore, G-d described these profound concepts, which His Divine wisdom found necessary to communicate to us, using allegories, metaphors, and imagery. The sages put it succinctly, ‘It is impossible to communicate to man the stupendous immensity of the creation of the universe. Therefore, the Torah simply says, In the beginning, G-d created the heavens and the earth (Genesis 1:1). But they pointed out that the subject is a deep mystery, as Solomon said, ‘It is elusive and exceedingly deep; who can discover it?’ (Ecclesiastes 7:24). It has been outlined in metaphors so that the masses can understand it according to their mental capacity, while the educated take it in a different sense,” (Guide for the Perplexed, Introduction).
Further, Rabbi Avraham Yitzchak HaCohen Kook, the first Chief Rabbi of Israel, explained the in the early 20th century:
“These hesitations (in accepting an evolutionary view of the development of life) have nothing to do with any difficulty in reconciling the verses of Torah or other traditional texts with an evolutionary standpoint. Nothing is easier than this. Everyone knows that here, if anywhere, is the realm of parable, allegory, and allusion. In these most profound matters people are willing to accept that the true meaning lies on the mystical plane, far above what is apparent to the superficial eye,” (Orot Ha’Kodesh, 559).
Further, Rav Kook explains that we must not be afraid to bring external truths into Jewish thought and belief. “And in general, this is an important rule in the struggle of ideas: we should not immediately refute any idea which comes to contradict anything in Torah, but rather we should build the palace of Torah above it; in so doing we are exalted by the Torah, and through this exaltation the ideas are revealed, and thereafter, when not pressured by anything, we can confidently also struggle against it,” (Iggrot Ha-Re’iyah 134, 163-164).
Along these lines, Rabbi Chaim Seidler-Feller, the Executive Director at the UCLA Hillel, recently argued that it may be a chillul Hashem (desecration of the Name of God) to read the creation story in the Torah literally. He claimed that this makes religion look silly and the wisest scholars of our time will think we’re ridiculous thus desecrating our G-d and the value of religion.
There is also an existential case to be made. Why is evolution such a hot topic that drives everyone to have a strong opinion? We are ultimately trying to figure out who we are. Who is man? We look toward our beginnings but on a deeper level we are not only searching for the origin of man but for the destiny of humankind, an answer to “who can man become?”
The Talmud itself couldn’t be more explicit when it states “There were 974 generations before Adam,” (Shabbat 88b). Quite simply, the Midrash explains that there were other manlike creations in existence before Adam. At a certain point, man was elevated to exist in the “image of G-d” and this is the moment of Adam HaRishon. This is the first human imbued with a certain level of spiritual dignity and responsibility. This moment when G-d breathed a soul into man creating a human awareness of the self and of the Divine is where the spiritual distinction was made between man and animal.
Rabbi Nissim ben Reuven, the great 14th century Spanish Talmudic scholar, suggested that all creation evolved from one substance:
“At the beginning of creation, a unified substance was created for everything under the lunar sphere….this was because the will of G-d was to continue the nature of existence according to the possibilities, and not to create many things ex nihilo, since it is possible to make one substance that includes everything….the creation of two substances in the lower world ex nihilo would be without benefit; it suffices to have this wondrous and necessary origin.”
In addition to evolution being an acceptable theory in Jewish thought, it also offers great potential for assisting the construction of our moral thought.
First we are commanded by the Torah to remember, protect, and love the stranger since we were strangers. Can this apply to animals? Perhaps we must remember, protect, and love the animals since we were once animals as well.
Secondly, the fact that God created a world that lacked humans for millions of years reminds us that animals have inherent value and are created for their own sake. God does not create without purpose. The Ibn Kaspi, the 14th century Jewish theologian from Provence, says it best “In our pride we foolishly imagine that there is no kinship between us and rest of the animal world…It was only after the flood that the consumption of meat became widespread which is tantamount to eating our parent, since it is nearest to our substance,” (Devarim 22:6). He explains that we should view animals as our parents, our spiritual ancestors in a sense.
Even further, the Hasidic masters, teach that man is still made up of a Godly soul and an animal soul (Tanya). While we have evolved beyond the animal world, we maintain our history and an essence which it is spiritually dangerous to ignore.
I must acknowledge that on a religious level, the veracity of the creation story is so engrained in my consciousness and it continues to speak to me very deeply. Whereas science suggests that we naturally progress, religion reminds us that we must actively work to bring about progress. But scientifically and logically, evolution must be embraced. Even further, evolution reminds us of our Jewish and human responsibilities.
At the core of Jewish theology is the notion that we are progressing towards a messianic era. The goal of Jewish life is to move society to a more just and holy state. We have been progressing for millions of years and our role is to embrace the nature in which the Divine has placed us and also to transcend nature to further progress in the world.
At a Jewish wedding, we recite a blessing thanking God for creating man (“yotzer ha’adam). This blessing is in the present, not the past, since G-d continues to create us. James Flynn, the great scientist in New Zealand, has shown that evolution continues as IQ has increased by an average of three points per decade during the 20th century. In addition to learning more, we continue to find medical cures, expand our technological reach, and solve age old problems. The Divine hand in partnership with humanity moves society forward. In the 21st century, we must be more sophisticated in how we read our sacred texts to guide us to leading a path to great human progress.
Yet while we must discover our origins, Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel reminds us that our priority is to discover our destiny:
“Man in search of self-understanding is not motivated by a desire to classify himself zoologically or to find his place within the animal kingdom. His search, his being puzzled at himself is above all an act of dissociation and disengagement from sheer being, animal or otherwise. The search for self-understanding is a search for authenticity of essence, a search for genuineness not to be found in anonymity, commonness, and unremitting connaturally, thus any doctrine that describes man as an animal with a distinguishing attribute tends to obscure the problem which we seek to understand. Man is a peculiar being trying to understand his uniqueness. What he seeks to understand is not his animality but is humanity. He is not in search of his origin; he is in search of his destiny. The way man has come to be what he is illumines neither his immediate situation nor his ultimate destination. The gulf between the human and the nonhuman can be grasped only in human terms. Even the derivation of the human from the nonhuman is a human problem. Thus, pointing to the origin of man throws us back to the question: what do we mean by man, whose origin we try to explore?” (Who is Man, page 22).
To actualize our short lived human experience, we must seek out our origin and our destiny. When we are informed by all wisdom of the world that helps us understood our holy Torah and the meaning of our existence, we can then fulfill our responsibilities most fully.
Rabbi Shmuly Yanklowitz is the Founder & President of Uri L’Tzedek, the Director of Jewish Life and the Senior Jewish Educator at the UCLA Hillel, and a 6th year doctoral student at Columbia University in Moral Psychology & Epistemology. Rav Shmuly’s book “Jewish Ethics & Social Justice: A Guide for the 21st Century” will be coming out in early 2012.