"Intelligent Design" in Hebrew? - Evolution News & Views

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"Intelligent Design" in Hebrew?

In the Hebrew version of Wikipedia, the page on intelligent design translates ID with the phrase "tichnun tivoni," which means something like "intelligent planning." And so it's translated regularly too in Ha'aretz and other Israeli news sources. The Wiki page is well supplied with the usual distortions that you'd expect from Wikipedia in any language, but never mind that. The question of how to translate "intelligent design" into the language of the Bible is an interesting one. Is there an actual Biblical phrase that captures the idea?

In the journal Azure, published by the Shalem Center in Jerusalem, an essay on the "Secret of the Sabbath" indirectly suggests an answer. Rabbi Yosef Yitzhak Lifshitz reflects on the passage from the book of Exodus about the construction of the Tabernacle in the desert. Following the Exodus from Egypt, the Israelites were in the wilderness on their way to the land of Israel. Rather than having them construct a permanent Temple to worship in, God directed Moses to oversee the construction of a large movable tent for the same purpose. To carry out the work of designing the structure, God chose Betzalel and endowed him with "wisdom, understanding and knowledge...to perform all manner of workmanship" (35:31, 33).

The phrase given above as "workmanship," melechet machshevet, really means purposive creativity -- or, if you will, intelligent design. A helpful insight in the debate with theistic evolution advocates emerges from this observation.

As Rabbi Lifshitz explains, drawing on a long line of earlier commentators back to the Talmud and Midrash, the connection with the Sabbath goes as follows. When God gave the Sabbath to the Israelites, in the form of the Fourth Commandment, he was exceedingly sparing on the details of what actually constitutes the "work" (melachah) from which they were henceforth to rest on the Sabbath.

The Talmud records the steps through which the Jews derived that the forbidden Sabbath labors are in fact those acts of "workmanship" or intelligent design that went into building the Tabernacle. Based on a minute comparison of Biblical verses, the Midrash sees the Tabernacle as a kind of cosmos in miniature. By our pursuing our work on the six days of labor and abstaining from it on the seventh, the Sabbath prompts us to emulate God and thereby draw closer to him.

Rabbi Joseph B. Soloveitchik, the preeminent figure of 20th-century Jewish theology, defined the "image of God" that man bears in just these terms, referring to "man's inner charismatic endowment as a creative being. Man's likeness to God expresses itself in man's striving and ability to be a creator."

Rabbi Lifshiftz expands on Soloveitchik's understanding:

Through the will, man acts as one created in the divine image, capable of reaching beyond his natural abilities and fashioning the world according to his own lofty design. Through the counterpoise of restraint, man learns to recognize the consequences of his creation, to renew his appreciation for the sublime, and to adjust his designs accordingly
.And again:
[I]n his attempt to imprint his vision on nature and thereby give his materials form, [man] resembles his Creator in his ability to fashion reality in accordance with his designs.
It isn't just a vague and generic idea of work at issue here. In building the Tabernacle, the Israelites employed 39 categories of creativity, lovingly detailed in the Talmud in typical rabbinic fashion. Lifshitz identifies the "single fundamental principle" that draws all 39 together:
According to this principle, the obligation to refrain from work on the Sabbath refers precisely to that kind of creative effort which man is commanded to undertake during the week, in which he imitates his Creator through the application of the will...

[W]hat is most important about [these labors] is the particular quality they all share. The halachic [Jewish legal] literature calls this quality melechet machshevet, which may be loosely translated as "workmanship"

-- or, I'm suggesting, intelligent design.

We can learn about God's creativity in devising nature by reading out from the qualities of creativity that went into constructing the Tabernacle. Whatever qualities we find in one, we should expect to find in the other. One of those is purpose, intention, teleology, the projection of the design outward from the mind and into the world. Just as the Tabernacle is a designed artifact, reflecting intelligent purposive activity, so is the world of nature with its living creatures.

It's clear from the new book edited by Jay Richards, God and Evolution, that teleology lies at the heart of what separates intelligent design advocates from Darwin-defending theistic evolutionists. Did an intelligent being, God or otherwise, envision us and our world and call them into being through intelligent design, melechet machshevet, whatever you want to call it, or not?

In the concrete and practical terms of Jewish law, the distinctive medium through which the rabbinic mind expresses theological ideas, this comes through clearly. The definition of creative work includes intentionality. Following the Talmud (Baba Kamma 27b), Maimonides lays down this principle (Mishneh Torah, Hilchot Shabbat 1:5, 1:8). By definition, any act undertaken without intention, without a preconceived picture of the goal toward which the work is directed, would be excluded from the Biblical idea of "work." Simply starting up an evolutionary process and, without intending or directing its end, letting it spin out on its merry way -- as theistic evolutionists like Kenneth Miller assume God did -- doesn't count as "work."

If it's "work," whether our work on the Tabernacle or God's on and through nature, it must have been preceded by a design. In his own Talmudic commentary, the medieval sage Rashi defines this as work "that the mind's understanding considered and intended."

The rabbinic expectation that such a design would be reflected in the evidence of nature and science is a theme of my two chapters in Jay Richards's book. But this understanding wasn't limited to the rabbis of old. Lifshitz concludes his essay with a beautiful citation from the modern Jewish philosopher Franz Rosenzweig (1886-1929), explaining the Sabbath as the "symbol of revelation":

The Israelite soul looks into the apertures of nature and sees the light of God bursting from within it. The Israelite soul looks into the apertures of life and acknowledges its role, its mission, and its obligation.