In the conclusion of Genesis and the Big Bluff, I mentioned one school, ostensibly committed to Torah ideals, which (to my knowledge) accepted the new biology curriculum without any consultations with Torah sages. Furthermore, after initially agreeing to have the Biology & אמונה audio-visual series presented to the biology students, the school reneged, on the basis that there was insufficient time for this.
The email below was sent to me by a parent at the school as a result of these events. It was not written in response to Genesis and the Big Bluff.
Email from Concerned Parent
Concerning the “Hashkafic” issue I raised with you earlier, I would like to hear your understanding on the matter. How would Darwinian Evolution impact my Emunah or my practice of Halacha? I don’t see where Darwinian Evolution is contrary to the 13 Principles of Faith or the Shulchan Aruch. What is the core problem with Evolution from a Torah (not scientific) perspective? The angle you took in confronting Evolution in your presentations is a scientific one, but if the problem you have with Evolution is scientific then you should make a presentation challenging Homeopathy as well, simply because it has a far greater נפקא מינה in terms of my life style. (By the way I once asked Hagaon Harav Moshe Shternbuch Shlit’a about if there’s anything problematic Halachically about taking homeopathic medicine if it is unscientific and he answered that there is no problem with it at all.) But if the problem with Evolution is עיקרי אמונה (as you said in previous e-mails), then you must deal with those head-on. These are the issues I would want to teach my kids at school, not the scientific veracity of Evolution. I am more concerned about teaching my kids at school about the truth of Torah as it is, not about the truth of science and whether it fits in or not. I believe that most “frum” people (I hate that word) have a knee-jerk reaction to Evolution, in a similar fashion that most scientists have towards religion. I really want to hear your views on these matters.
Dear Concerned Parent,
I would like to address each of your points, but not necessarily in order. Let us begin with the scientific aspects. You wrote:
These are the issues I would want to teach my kids at school, not the scientific veracity of Evolution. I am more concerned about teaching my kids at school about the truth of Torah as it is, not about the truth of science and whether it fits in or not.
Jewish parents have always tried to isolate their children from the most corrosive external influences. This is more difficult today than it has ever been. Even in מאה שערים, it is probably impossible to completely shield one’s children from undesirable influences. As a parent at “Torah High School”, I think that you are well-aware that teenagers at the school have enormous access to outside sources of information. They will be aware, for example, of the publication of books such as The God Delusion by arch-atheist and Darwinian biologist Richard Dawkins; they will hear about the latest extravagant claims periodically made after the discovery of this jaw or that femur. Of course, if they are biology students, they will be exposed to Darwinian evolution directly. The textbook they use will either ignore or skim over any scientific objections to the theory, and leave the students with the impression that it is infallible.
It is unrealistic to wish to teach students at “Torah High School” the truth of Torah as it is, not about the truth of science and whether it fits in or not. These issues necessarily confront students with issues of עיקרי אמונה in ways that homeopathy, for example, does not.
Evolutionary theory1 is the cornerstone of modern Western thought. It influences everything from economics to parenting and politics2. Unfortunately, it will not suffice to teach the truth of Torah as it is at a school such as “Torah High School”. The students will absorb information about current scientific paradigms from other sources (National Geographic magazine and David Attenborough documentaries come to mind). These sources invariably present the material in ways that distort and exaggerate their scientific merit. It is for this reason that some of the modules in the Biology & אמונה seminar focus on the scientific aspects of Darwinian evolution.
Darwinian evolution is very much antithetical to עיקרי אמונה. Here is a representative statement, from a respected biologist and vocal participant in this debate, Dr. Jerry Coyne of the University of Chicago (and author of Why Evolution is True):
But any injection of teleology into evolutionary biology violates precisely the great advance of Darwin’s theory: to explain the appearance of design by a purely materialistic process — no deity required.
This is how the vast majority of biologists who are committed to evolution understand the term. It is a process which supposedly explains all of life – butterflies, oak trees, blue whales and human beings – as the result of an unintelligent, unguided, purposeless process. Those who are proponents of theistic evolution – whereby a Creator either engineers the laws of nature to ultimately produce humans, or else interferes in the process of evolution periodically – are a tiny fringe3. This is evident in, for example, research published by Professor William Provine (American Scientist, August 2007) in which 95% of the polled biologists professed atheism.
The tone of your email suggests that you are sympathetic to the concept of reconciling an evolutionary process with a Torah outlook. If this is indeed your position, then I would like to pose the following question: What motivates you to reconcile evolution with Torah? I assume that you are not inclined to try to reconcile Torah with Geosyncline theory or the theory of the ether. That is because there is no sense in trying to reconcile Torah with obsolete ideas4. Any attempt to reconcile an evolutionary process with Torah presupposes that you find the former to be so compelling that you are forced to find some way to merge the two. How then can you just brush the scientific modules of the Biology & אמונה seminar aside? Surely, one has to examine the scientific aspects of evolutionary theory very carefully in order to ascertain whether it really is compelling in the first place! This is especially important given that the history of science is littered with scientific paradigms – some of which were antithetical to Torah – which turned out to be totally wrong. Would you have wished to be one of those who tried to reconcile the Torah account of creation with the paradigm among cosmologists, demolished only forty years ago, that the universe is eternal, never having been created5?
This is the point of the scientific modules of the Biology & אמונה seminar. They demonstrate that there are numerous fundamental weaknesses in Darwinian evolution. The evidence presented for the theory is extremely shoddy, and would not be tolerated in any other scientific discipline. This is not surprising – the entire enterprise is a fig leaf for a materialistic philosophy. This is sometimes admitted by leading members of the scientific community. Here is a famous statement made by Richard Lewontin, Professor of Zoology at Harvard University6:
Our willingness to accept scientific claims that are against common sense is the key to an understanding of the real struggle between science and the supernatural. We take the side of science in spite of the patent absurdity of some of its constructs… in spite of the tolerance of the scientific community for just-so stories, because we have a prior commitment, a commitment to materialism.
In summary: The first step in attempting to reconcile the Torah with any other system is to ask whether there is a need in the first place to do so. In this case, it is done by looking at some of the scientific aspects of the debate.
You write: How would Darwinian Evolution impact my Emunah or my practice of Halacha? I don’t see where Darwinian Evolution is contrary to the 13 Principles of Faith or the Shulchan Aruch. What is the core problem with Evolution from a Torah (not scientific) perspective?
Evolution is in principle inconsistent with the Torah because Torah sources maintain that life, together with the entire current system of nature, was brought into being by meta-natural Divine action. The process lasted a predetermined length of time and was then finalised. That account disqualifies all naturalistic theories of the origin and development of life and the universe. It is the naturalistic content of these theories, over and above the particulars (age of the universe, mechanisms of development), that is fundamentally at odds with the Torah.
Shabbos (שבת) is a commemoration of creation7. There was an initial, meta-natural creation period during which the laws of nature were themselves in the process of formation. Creation was concluded on the seventh day when natural law as we know it became permanent. When we recite kiddush (קידוש) we testify to this fact, as described in the Decalogue8:
כִּי שֵׁשֶׁת יָמִים עָשָׂה ה’ אֶת הַשָּׁמַיִם וְאֶת הָאָרֶץ אֶת הַיָּם וְאֶת כָּל אֲשֶׁר בָּם וַיָּנַח בַּיּוֹם הַשְּׁבִיעִי עַל כֵּן בֵּרַךְ ה’ אֶת יוֹם הַשַּׁבָּת וַיְקַדְּשֵׁהוּ
A person who believes that life and the known universe originated and developed naturalistically demolishes the inherent distinction between the creation period and the currently-operative system of nature, violates the meaning of Shabbos, and renders the commandment of remembering it (זָכוֹר אֶת יוֹם הַשַּׁבָּת לְקַדְּשׁוֹ) null and void.
Another relevant point: Let us imagine that the current consensus among historians is that the Children of Israel, after leaving Egypt, travelled to China, where they lived for two hundred years, before making their way to the Holy Land. Is such a thesis contrary to the thirteen principles of faith? Not directly. But it does contradict a vast body of information in the Torah literature. A notion can be antithetical to Torah even without directly violating one of the thirteen principles of the רמב”ם. Thus, חז”ל teach that a person who
מגלה פנים בתורה שלא כהלכה loses his share in the World-to-Come, even when his position is not a violation of the thirteen principles. And שלא כהלכה does not mean not according to the law – הלכה here means appropriate or true. Certain notions can constitute כפירה indirectly, by implied rejection of the authority of the chain of tradition.
The Torah is not infinitely plastic. It is true that on some topics, its opinions may be obscure or even inscrutable, but on many others, there is a wealth of information which gives a clear view of what can fit into the rubric Torah. Some pertinent examples of concepts that are incompatible with Torah are Jews for J, homosexuality, and the animal rights movement (animal rights, not the notion that we have obligations towards animals which include a certain degree of compassion). Does belief that animals have rights directly violate any of the thirteen principles of faith? Would it impinge on your practise of הלכה? Is it contrary to any specific section of שלחן ערוך? The answer to all of these questions is No, but such a position would still be highly problematic.
I believe that most “frum” people (I hate that word) have a knee-jerk reaction to Evolution, in a similar fashion that most scientists have towards religion.
Sometimes the masses get it right. You could make the same statement vis-à-vis Jews for J (i.e. Most “frum” people have a knee-jerk reaction to Jews for J) and you would have to concede that the majority is right in this case. You (as opposed to the masses) reject Jews for J not because of some visceral dislike. It is because you have studied the relevant sources and you are aware of the illusion of compatibility between Judaism and Jews for J. The same is true of all the Talmudic scholars that I know who have studied the subject of evolution. This includes Rabbi Dovid Gottlieb, Rabbi Akiva Tatz and Rabbi Moshe Meiselman. None of them could remotely be described as people with knee-jerk reactions to anything. As for me, I have studied this topic for almost twenty years. What is more, I was a firm believer in the veracity of Darwinian evolution well into my university education. My opposition is the consequence of careful study of both the scientific and Torah sources over the better part of two decades.