Jewish views on evolution includes a continuum of views about evolution, creationism, and the origin of life. Some Jewish denominations accept evolutionary creationism (theistic evolution).
Classical Rabbinic Teachings
The vast majority of classical Rabbis hold that God created the world close to 6,000 years ago, and created Adam and Eve from clay. This view is based on a chronology developed in a midrash, Seder Olam, which was based on a literal reading of the book of Genesis. It is considered to have been written by the Tanna Yose ben Halafta, and cover history from the creation of the universe to the construction of the Second Temple in Jerusalem. This chronology is widely accepted among most of Orthodox Judaism today.
A small minority of classical rabbis believed that the world is older, and that life as we know it today did not always exist. Rabbis who had this view based their conclusions on verses in the Talmud the midrash. For example:
Medieval Rabbinic Teachings
Some medieval philosophical rationalists, such as Maimonides held that it was not required to read Genesis literally. In this view, one was obligated to understand Torah in a way that was compatible with the findings of science. Indeed, Maimonides, one of the great rabbis of the Middle Ages, wrote that if science and Torah were misaligned, it was either because science was not understood or the Torah was misinterpreted. Maimonides argued that if science proved a point, then the finding should be accepted and scripture should be interpreted accordingly. Rabbi Yitzchak of Akko (a 12th-century student of Maimonides, agreed with this view.
Even Nahmanides, often critical of the rationalist views of Maimonides, pointed out (in his commentary to Genesis) several non-sequiters stemming from a literal translation of the Bible's account of Creation, and stated that the account actually symbolically refers to spiritual concepts. He quoted the Mishnah in Tractate Chagigah which states that the actual meaning of the Creation account, mystical in nature, was traditionally transmitted from teachers to advanced scholars in a private setting.
A literal interpretation of the biblical Creation story among classic rabbinic commentators is uncommon (yet there is universal agreement regarding the literal understanding of the time of the creation of Adam). One of several notable exceptions may be the Tosafist commentary on Tractate Rosh Hashanah, where there seems to be an allusion to the age of creation according to a literal reading of Genesis. The non-literal approach is accepted by many as a possible approach within Modern Orthodox Judaism and some segments of Haredi Judaism.
Jewish Views in Reaction to Darwin
With the advent of Charles Darwin's evolutionary theory, the Jewish community found itself engaged in a discussion of Jewish principles of faith and modern scientific findings.
Post-1800 Kabbalistic Views of Compatibility
In his commentary on the Torah, Rabbi Bahya ben Asher (11th century, Spain) concludes that there were many time systems occurring in the universe long before the spans of history that man is familiar with. Based on the Kabbalah he calculates that the Earth is billions of years old.
Rabbi Israel Lipschitz of Danzig (1800s) gave a famous lecture on Torah and paleontology, which is printed in the Yachin u-Boaz edition of the Mishnah, after Massechet Sanhedrin. He writes that Kabbalistic texts teach that the world has gone through many cycles of history, each lasting for many tens of thousands of years. He links these teachings to findings about geology from European, American and Asian geologists, and from findings from paleontologists. He discusses the wooly mammoth discovered in 1807 Siberia, Russia, and the remains of several then-famous dinosaur skeletons recently unearthed. Finding no contradiction between this and Jewish teachings, he states "From all this, we can see that all the Kabbalists have told us for so many centuries about the fourfold destruction and renewal of the Earth has found its clearest possible confirmation in our time."
When scientists first developed the theory of evolution, this idea was seized upon by rabbis such as Naftali Zvi Yehuda Berlin, known as the Netziv, who saw Kabbalah as a way to resolve the differences between traditional readings of the Bible and modern day scientific findings. He proposed that the ancient fossils of dinosaurs were the remains of beings that perished in the previous "worlds" described in some Kabbalistic texts. This today is the view of Rabbi Aryeh Kaplan.
Late 1800s Orthodox View of Evolution
In the late 1880s, Rabbi Samson Raphael Hirsch, an influential leader in the early opposition to non-Orthodox forms of Judaism, wrote that he while he did not endorse the idea of common descent (that all life developed from one common , even if science ever did prove the factuality of Evolution, it would not pose a threat to Orthodox Judaism's beliefs. He posited that belief in Evolution could instead cause one to be more reverent of God by understanding His wonders (a master plan for theuniverse).
By the early to mid 1900s, the majority of Conservative Judaism and Reform Judaism came to accept the existence of evolution as a scientific fact. They interpreted Genesis and related Jewish teachings in light of this fact.
Modern Day Orthodox Jewish Views
The RCA notes that significant Jewish authorities have maintained that evolutionary theory, properly understood, is not incompatible with belief in a Divine Creator, nor with the first 2 chapters of Genesis.
One can find an array of Orthodox views on the age of the universe, the age of the earth, and views on evolution, in Challenge: Torah Views on Science and Its Problems edited by Aryeh Carmell and Cyril Domb, and in Gerald Schroeder's Genesis and the Big Bang. These works attempt to reconcile traditional Jewish texts with modern scientific findings concerning evolution, the age of the earth and the age of the Universe.
Prominent Orthodox rabbis who affirm that the world is older, and that life has evolved over time, include Aryeh Kaplan, Israel Lipschitz, Sholom Mordechai Schwadron (the MaHaRSHaM), Zvi Hirsch Chajes. To be sure, these rabbis do not accept the views of atheists, such as Richard Dawkins, who hold that evolution has no room at all for God. Rather, each rabbi taking this position proposes their own understanding of theistic evolution, in which the world is older, and that life does evolve over time in accord with natural law, yet also holding that God has a role in this process.
One of the most prominent writers on this subject in the Orthodox Jewish community is Gerald Schroeder, an Israeli physicist. He has written a number of articles and popular books attempting to reconcile Jewish theology with modern scientific findings that the world is billions of years old and that life has evolved over time. (Genesis and the Big Bang: The Discovery of Harmony Between Modern Science and the Bible) His work has received approbations from a number of Orthodox rabbinic authorities.
Some of Orthodox Judaism offers significant resistance to the idea of evolution, with many Orthodox rabbis developing rejections of evolution that exactly paralleled the rejections in the Christian community. Orthodox Jews who reject evolution held that the scientists were mistaken, were heretics, or were being deliberately misled by God.
As recently as 2005, Rabbi Natan Slifkin, popularly known as the "zoo rabbi", for his writings about animals in Jewish thought, had his books about animals and evolution banned.
Modern Day Conservative Jewish Views
Conservative Judaism embraces science as a way to learn about God's creation, and like Orthodox and Reform Judaism, has found the theory of evolution a challenge to traditional Jewish theology. The Conservative Jewish movement has not yet developed one official response to the subject, but a broad array of views has converged. Conservative Jews teach that God created the universe and is responsible for the creation of life within it, but proclaims no mandatory teachings about how this occurs at any level.
Many Conservative rabbis embrace the term theistic evolution, and most reject the term intelligent design. Conservative rabbis who use the term intelligent design in their sermons often distinguish their views from the Christian fundamentalist use of this term. Like most in the scientific community, they understand "intelligent design" to be a technique by fundamentalist Christians to insert religion into public schools and to attack science, as admitted in the Intelligent Design movement's wedge strategy position papers.
In contrast to fundamentalist views, Conservative Judaism strongly supports the use of science as the proper way to learn about the physical world in which we live, and thus encourages its adherents to find a way to understand evolution in a way that does not contradict the findings of peer-reviewed scientific research. The tension between accepting God's role in the world and the findings of science, however, is not resolved, and a wide array of views exists. Some mainstream examples of Conservative Jewish thought are as follows:
Professor Ismar Schorsch, chancellor of the Jewish Theological Seminary of America, writes that:
Rabbi David J. Fine, who has authorized official responsa for the Conservative movement's Committee on Jewish Law and Standards, expresses a common Conservative Jewish view on the subject:
Rabbi Michael Schwab writes:
Denying that evolution is totally random is a denial of modern day evolutionary theory. The precise way in which God inserts design is not specified by Schwab or other rabbis.
Rabbi Larry Troster is a critic of positions such as this; he holds that much of Judaism (and other religions) have not successfully created a theology which allows for the role of God in the world and yet is also fully compatible with modern day evolutionary theory. Troster holds that the solution to resolving the tension between classical theology and modern science can be found in process theology, such as in the writings of Hans Jonas, whose view of an evolving God within process philosophy contains no inherent contradictions between theism and scientific naturalism.
In a paper on Judaism and enviromentalism, Troster writes: