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Rabbis Say the Darnedest Things

In the media, Catholicism is the religious tradition most frequently, and misleadingly, held up for approbation as having no problem reconciling Darwinism with theistic faith. The tradition next most often cited as Darwin-friendly is my own, Judaism. You can bet a new Rabbis' Letter in support of evolution will garner the usual uncomprehending applause.

Boasting 305 signatures so far, the letter holds that "It is possible to be inspired by the religious teachings of the Bible while not taking a literalist approach and while accepting the validity of science including the foundational concept of evolution."

The Open Letter Concerning Religion and Science From American Rabbis, as it's formally called, has already scored an admiring report in the Chicago Tribune, full of the standard confusions. The article, like the letter, implies that what's at stake in the Darwin debate is nothing more than a contest between simple-minded fundamentalist literalism, which Judaism indeed has always rejected, and science.

In the lead paragraph, Rabbi Gary Gerson is quoted, affirming evolution as a confirmation of his faith, demonstrating the "higher order" in "creation." "We as Jews every day praise God for the times and seasons and the order of being, and that perhaps is the greatest miracle of all."

First of all, what does God's ordering the "times and seasons" have to do with evolution? More fundamentally, Gerson and all the other signers of the Rabbis' Letter miss the point that it is the mechanism that Darwin proposed to explain how his tree of life developed that presents the really grave challenge to theistic faith.

God is understood by the Jewish and Christian traditions as the creator of our own world and all the life in it. What the work of creation entailed is a subject taken up by Jewish mysticism, kabbalah, a subject requiring the most intense erudition to begin to appreciate.

For his part, Darwin sought to explain how the various forms of life could have arisen, once the very first life was somehow seeded, without the need for divine interference. Natural selection and chance variation would do the entire job, he argued. As Darwin clarified in his Autobiography: "The old argument of design in nature...which formerly seemed to me so conclusive, fails, now that the law of natural selection has been discovered." Nothing could be clearer. Read even in the most metaphorical manner, Genesis depicts God as directing and approving each stage of the world's development: "And God saw every thing that he had made, and, behold, it was very good" (1:31). Darwin's theory obviates the need for such a creator.

The piece in the Tribune also cites a bogus legend that implies that Maimonides would approve of Darwinian evolution. The truth is quite to the contrary, as I've shown in Moment magazine and the Jerusalem Post.

Almost all the signers of the Rabbis' Letter are liberal clergy, from the Reform and Conservative denominations. Evidently, Orthodox rabbis mostly declined to sign or maybe they weren't asked. I'd like to think they were guided by the teachings of the German rabbi who inspired Modern Orthodoxy. Samson Raphael Hirsch in 1878 used the Biblical image of the idol Baal Peor, worshipped in the most grotesquely animalistic fashion (mixing defecation with sexual intercourse), to illustrate "the kind of Darwinism that revels in the conception of man sinking to the level of beast and stripping itself of its divine nobility, learns to consider itself just a 'higher' class of animal."

For a more historically informed perspective than you'll get in the Rabbis' Letters, a recent book from the University of Chicago Press is worthy consulting. In Jewish Tradition and the Challenge of Darwinism, edited by Geoffrey Cantor and Marc Swetlitz, the more interesting essays describe attempts by rabbis and other Jewish leaders to find an appropriate response to Darwin's materialism, from the mid-19th century to today. Some of the research will surprise readers who assume that Jews have always been friendly to evolution.

In his own essay in the book, Swetlitz presents the opinions of prominent and theologically liberal rabbis, representing the Reform and Conservative movements, who wrote and gave sermons during the 1950s and '60s, questioning natural selection as a mechanism sufficient to explain the development of life. In effect, they were premature advocates of intelligent design.