Darwin is no problem for Jews

Rav Kook, who was to become the chief rabbi of prestate Palestine, saw no need to disprove evolution.

rav kook 88 (photo credit: )
rav kook 88
(photo credit: )
David Klinghoffer, the syndicated columnist, wonders why the Jewish community hasn't joined the struggle against Darwin. He asserts high theological stakes: If it cannot be proven that the origin of life is a scientific impossibility, then Judaism cannot be believed. Klinghoffer seems unaware that an Orthodox Jewish response to Darwin was offered a century ago by Rabbi Abraham Isaac Kook. Rav Kook, who was to become the chief rabbi of prestate Palestine, saw no need to disprove evolution. Indeed, he saw Darwin's theory as pointing to "the unfolding of the spiritual dimension of existence, which does not show a hiatus of a single wasted step." The problem raised by evolution, said Rav Kook, was based on its conflict with the religious views of the masses, not on the inner truth of Judaism. "For this," he wrote, "there is need of great illumination, which is to penetrate all strata of society, until it reaches with its agreeable harmonization even the simplest circles of the masses" (Orot Hakodesh II 556-560). Rav Kook's faith-filled response to science contrasts with that of Klinghoffer and his colleagues in the Intelligent Design movement, desperately seeking God at the final line of the scientific enterprise. It is a challenging search, in part because our understanding of biochemistry and molecular genetics has deepened in recent years. Whether Klinghoffer likes it or not, we are simply understanding more about how the world works. That is why Intelligent Design is ridiculed for worshiping a "God of the gaps," a deity whose existence is found in the failure of scientists to fully explain every natural phenomenon. The majesty of such a God decreases with every new scientific study. Certainly the Catholic Church did itself no favors when it placed its theological bets against the astronomical discoveries of Copernicus and Galileo. The Church, like Klinghoffer, would have done well to follow the path of Maimonides, who opposed his contemporaries who preached the eternity of the world simply because "the theory has not been proved" (Guide II 25), while allowing that were it to be proved, it would not contradict the core Jewish beliefs. (Maimonides‚ willingness to interpret the Torah figuratively places him at odds with today's haredi Creationists, who insist the world is less than 6,000 years old and ban dinosaurs from their classrooms.) The true beauty of Rav Kook's approach, however, is not its pragmatism but its piety. He believes that God is the premise, not the conclusion. His God is not ascertained in scientific arguments but through perception and faith. In marked contrast to Klinghoffer's fear, Rav Kook reacted to those who postulate a purely physical world with equanimity, regarding "this childish construction as one which fashions the outer shell of life while not knowing how to build life itself" (Igrot I 44). Rav Kook explicitly rejects the very moral logic of seeking God through the scientific means: "We do not base our faith in God on an inference from the existence of the world, or the character of the world, but on inner sensibility, on our disposition for the divine (ibid.)." Rav Kook's perspective, for all its poetic majesty, is self-evident for any Jew who takes the prayerbook seriously. In the morning, when we praise God for "mercifully shining light on the Earth and those who dwell on it," we are not claiming that physics is inadequate to explain the sunrise. Rather, we see the nuclear furnace 93 million miles away as a reflection of God. The next line tells us a key fact for a believing Jew: God constantly renews the work of creation. Our prayerbook does not deny any materialistic mechanism to the sunrise, be it the chariot of Apollo or the laws of gravity. It asserts only that the rising of the sun reflects God's will, constancy and love. We believe that God maintains each spinning electron not because we can think of no better explanation for physics but because that is our core belief about God. And our belief in God does not preclude our working to examine and understand the workings of His world as fully as is possible. In fact, for Rav Kook the developing conception of science is important because it fosters a developing conception of God. Conversely, Rav Kook would argue that atheism among evolutionary theorists is not a sign that something is wrong with the structure of biological science, but rather as a sign that something is wrong with religion. Rav Kook would argue that Klinghoffer should not be toiling in the journals of biological research, but should be seeking to penetrate the inner meaning of Torah's mystical core: "In general this is an important principle in the conflict of ideas, that when an idea comes to negate some teaching in the Torah, we must not, to begin with, reject it, but build the edifice of the Torah above it, and thereby we ascend higher, and through this ascent, the ideas are clarified" (Igrot I 124). Klinghoffer is right in one respect: As a key architect of our modern world, Darwin presents a challenge to religion. But the real challenge we religious Jews face is not to destroy what Darwin built but to build what Rav Kook envisioned, a living religion as dazzling in its way as Darwinian science is in its way. The writer is editorial director of the Ben Yehuda Press, which recently reprinted The Essential Writings of Abraham Isaac Kook, translated and edited by Rabbi Ben Zion Bokser. This essay was disseminated by Edah, an advocacy movement for a modern and relevant Orthodox Judaism.