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Judaism: Judaism and Evolution

Jewish views on evolution include 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 covers history from the creation of the universe to the construction of the Second Temple in Jerusalem. This chronology is widely accepted among most 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 and the Midrash. For example:

  • Talmud Chaggiga 13b-14a states that there were 974 generations before God created Adam.
  • Some midrashim state that the "first week" of Creation lasted for extremely long periods of time.

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 the 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-sequiturs 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 in 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 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 the universe).

This will never change, not even if the latest scientific notion that the genesis of all the multitudes of organic forms on earth can be traced back to one single, most primitive, primeval form of life should ever appear to be anything more than what it is today, a vague hypothesis still unsupported by fact. Even if this notion were ever to gain complete acceptance by the scientific world, Jewish thought, unlike the reasoning of the high priest of that notion, would nonetheless never summon us to revere a still extant representative of this primal form as the supposed ancestor of us all. Rather, Judaism, in that case, would call upon its adherents to give even greater reverence than ever before to the one, sole God Who, in His boundless creative wisdom and eternal omnipotence, needed to bring into existence no more than one single, amorphous nucleus and one single law of "adaptation and heredity" in order to bring forth, from what seemed chaos but was in fact a very definite order, the infinite variety of species we know today, each with its unique characteristics that sets it apart from all other creatures. (Collected Writings, vol. 7 pp. 263-264).

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 holds 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 approbation 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:

The Torah’s story of creation is not intended as a scientific treatise worthy of equal time with Darwin’s theory of evolution in the curriculum of our public schools. The notes it strikes in its sparse and majestic narrative offer us an orientation to the Torah’s entire religious worldview and value system. Creation is taken up first not because the subject has chronological priority but rather to ground basic religious beliefs in the very nature of things. And I would argue that their power is quite independent of the scientific context in which they were first enunciated.

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:

Conservative Judaism has always been premised on the total embrace of critical inquiry and science. More than being compatible with Conservative Judaism, I would say that it is a mitzvah to learn about the world and the way it works to the best of our abilities since that is to marvel with awe at God’s handiwork. To not do so is sinful.
 But here’s where the real question lies. Did God create the world or not? Is it God’s handiwork? Many of the people who accept evolution, even many scientists, believe in what is called "theistic evolution," that is, that behind the billions of years of cosmic and biological evolution, there is room for belief in a creator, God, who set everything into motion, and who stands outside the universe as the cause and reason for life. The difference between that and "intelligent design" is subtle yet significant. Believing scientists claim that belief in God is not incompatible with studying evolution since science looks only for the natural explanations for phenomena. The proponents of intelligent design, on the other hand, deny the ability to explain life on Earth through solely natural explanations. That difference, while subtle, is determinative.
 David J. Fine, Intelligent Design

Rabbi Michael Schwab writes:

...the Jewish view on the first set of questions is much closer to the picture painted by adherents to intelligent design than to those who are strict Darwinians. Judaism, as a religion, and certainly Conservative Judaism, sees creation as a purposeful process directed by God. However, each individual defines the Divine. This is clearly in consonance with the theory of Intelligent Design. What Darwin sees as random, we see as the miraculous and natural unfolding of God’s subtle and beautiful plan.
...However, as unlikely as it may seem, this does not mean for one moment that Judaism’s view rejects wholesale the veracity of Darwin’s theory. In fact, I believe that it is easy to incorporate Darwin and Intelligent design into a meaningful conception of how we humans came into being...
We have frameworks built into our system to integrate the findings of science into our religious and theological beliefs. That is because we believe that the natural world, and the way it works, was created by God and therefore its workings must be consistent with our religious beliefs.
...One of the most well-known ways our tradition has been able to hold onto both the scientific theory of evolution as well as the concept of a purposeful creation was by reading the creation story in Genesis in a more allegorical sense. One famous medieval commentary proclaims that the days of creation, as outlined in the book of Bereshit, could be seen as representative of the stages of creation and not literal 24 hour periods. Thus each Biblical day could have accounted for thousands or even millions of years. In that way, the progression according to both evolution and the Torah remains essentially the same: first the elements were created, then the waters, the plants, the animals, and finally us. Therefore, Genesis and Darwin can both be right in a factual analysis even while we acknowledge that our attitudes towards these shared facts are shaped much more strongly by the Torah – we agree how the process unfolded but disagree that it was random.
 Parshat Noah -- November 4, 2005, How Did We Get Here? Michael Schwab

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 that 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.

Lecture God after Darwin: Evolution and the Order of Creation October 21, 2004, Lishmah, New York City, Larry Troster

In a paper on Judaism and environmentalism, Troster writes:

Jonas is the only Jewish philosopher who has fully integrated philosophy, science, theology and environmental ethics. He maintained that humans have a special place in Creation, manifest in the concept that humans are created in the image of God. His philosophy is very similar to that of Alfred North Whitehead, who believed that God is not static but dynamic, in a continual process of becoming as the universe evolves.
From Apologetics to New Spirituality: Trends in Jewish Environmental Theology, Lawrence Trost

Source: Jewish views on evolution, Wikipedia.