World of the Sages: What's wrong with evolution?

Fortunately for Judaism, the great Sages of the past were not fundamentalists.

Evolution 88 (photo credit: )
Evolution 88
(photo credit: )
When I walked into a well-known religious high school in Jerusalem and saw a time-chart on the wall giving important dates in history, I was a bit taken aback to see that it began with "Creation of the world - 5766 years ago." The creation of the world, the development of humankind and all of modern science, geology and evolution was simply ignored. The US has recently been undergoing a series of court cases, referendums and public debates on the question of teaching evolution in schools, with the Christian fundamentalist right doing its best to either eliminate the teaching of evolution or requiring that it be taught as only one theory along with what is being termed "creationism." Evidently, the famous Snopes trial accomplished little or nothing on this question. Is Judaism really as fundamentalistic as all that? Must we take the Bible so literally that we cannot today admit that 5766 is an interesting figure based on calculations of Biblical stories but is not the real date of the creation of the world? Do we still insist that the Biblical account of six days of creation is a scientific account? Can we not find a way to admit that actually there are even two accounts of creation in the Torah, one in each of the first two chapters, and that they differ from one another? Why is it so difficult to read the Bible as poetry rather than as science? Fortunately for Judaism, the great Sages of the past were not fundamentalists. They often departed from a literalist reading of the Torah. That's what midrash is all about. For example, take the Torah's statement that God rested on the seventh day (Genesis 1:3). The Sages asked, "Does God really work that He needs to rest?" And they answered that God neither works nor rests, but that this was written in the Torah in order to emphasize that we must rest on the Sabbath day (Mekhilta Bahodesh 7). Indeed, much that is in the Torah must be read in that way and understood as teaching us certain things rather than as asserting scientific fact. To return to the problem of evolution, yes, it contradicts the literal story of creation, but is it necessarily an antithesis to belief in God as the Creator of the world and all that is in it? HaRav Kook did not think so. He often referred to evolution positively in his writings. Here are a few samples: "Evolution, which proceeds on the course of improvement, offers us the basis of optimism in the world. How can we despair when we realize that everything evolves and improves? In probing the inner meaning of evolution toward an improved state, we find here an explanation of the divine concepts with absolute clarity… Evolution sheds light on all the ways of God. All existence evolves and ascends… As a person rises in knowledge and understanding, in the study of Torah and in the cultivation of good attributes, in his intellectual and moral propensities, he marches forward toward the future. Automatically the doctrine of evolution works on him to set him on the right course and to strengthen his moral senses… "The relationship of the doctrine of evolution - in all its ramifications - to Judaism and its fundamental concepts in our time is similar to the ancient confrontation of the teachings about the eternity of the universe with Judaism in the time of the spiritual polemic with the Greeks. Here we need to follow resolutely the scientific method of Maimonides, although the methods of reasoning have changed with the changing times. "With all the scientific defects in the theory of evolution, which is presently at the inception of its development and in its early stages, let us take courage to base the triumphant affirmation of Judaism on the basis of its assumptions, which, on the face of it, seem so antagonistic to us… We shall endeavor to establish our spiritual position, not on the basis of any particular philosophy or on the basis of a commitment to some particular ideal, but through the fusion of all the idealistic forces, each now operative in isolation, integrating them into a comprehensive ensemble… This fusion carries the new light to its highest level of service to life and of eternal creativity (translation: Ben Zion Bokser). HaRav Kook, unlike all too many contemporary religious leaders, was open to the world, to modern thought and to modern science. He believed that all the resources of the human mind should be used in order to understand the world and to help us reach higher realms of sanctity. He did not fear evolution or any other theory, any more than Maimonides feared the scientific ideas of his day, but sought to integrate them into Judaism and to use them to promote greater holiness in our lives. For the believing Jew, the divine creative force can be found at work in evolution as easily as in the Biblical account of creation. There is wonder in the ways of evolution, and wonder in a universe that is eons old and not merely 5766 years old. The more we learn about life, its origins and the universe, the greater the wonder and the deeper our faith in the existence of a Creator. The writer is the head of the Rabbinical Court of the Masorti Movement and the Rabbinical Assembly of Israel.