Reports of the National Center for Science Education

Review: Jewish Tradition and the Challenge of Darwinism

Jewish Tradition and the Challenge of Darwinism
edited by Geoffrey Cantor and Marc Swetlitz
Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2006. 240 pages
Reviewed by
Oren Harman
Wherever one turns these days – from television interviews, to radio debates, to courtroom dramas, to the limitless bounds of the printed press – the ongoing saga of humankind's grappling with the implications of science for the meaning of faith seems ever-present. In particular, the debate between evolutionists and the latest incarnation of creationists has suffused the consciousness of many Americans and awakened their political sensibilities. When considering the clash of science and religion in modern times, what is perhaps not always consciously internalized and made explicit is the extent to which descriptions in the English language of this battleground are restricted to the Christian encounter with Darwinism, to the exclusion of other faiths. We should not be surprised by this fact, since the current battle over the teaching of evolution is being waged, almost exclusively, by evangelical Christians, and since the English-speaking world is primarily Christian. Historical scholarship, too, has been skewed towards the reception of Darwinism in a Christian context; after all, it was in Anglican England that Darwin's ideas were first formed and disseminated.

How refreshing, then, to encounter a treatment of the challenge of Darwinism to the Jewish faith, in a new collection of essays edited by Geoffrey Cantor and Marc Swetlitz, following an academic conference on the subject in March 2004 at Arizona State University. Very little has been written about Jewish responses to Darwinism until now, and although the collection of essays is somewhat idiosyncratic and far from comprehensive, it is a hopeful beginning of a welcome expansion and broadening of scholarship on the challenges posed to religious thinking by Darwinian evolution, both past and present.

What is perhaps unique to the cases explored in Jewish Tradition and the Challenge of Darwinism is the extent to which the encounter of Judaism with evolutionary thought has been molded by the relationship between Jewish and Christian communities on the one hand, and the dynamics operating within the various Jewish factions on the other. The reality of assimilation and the fear that it would be encouraged or broadened by secular scientific thinking has played an important historical role in the reception of Darwinism in Jewish communities; no less so, however, has the internal divide and political dynamic among Orthodox, Conservative, Reform, and Reconstruction Judaism been reflected in each group's unique attitudes towards the idea of evolution and its moral and practical consequences. From outright rejections of Darwinism espoused by biblical literalists, through attempts of modern-Orthodox scientists to explain how the Bible accords with modern-day interpretations of nature and her ways; from Kabbalah-inspired hermeneutics, to "practical fundamentalism" (see the interesting chapter by Ira Robinson), Jewish responses to Darwinism have reflected the need of the various communities to define themselves both with an eye inward and a glance towards the outer world. The responses have been quite varied and creative; often, they have been surprising. Rabbis AI Kook and JB Soloveitchik, for example, two of the giants of early-to-mid–20th–century Orthodox Judaism in Palestine and in the United States, respectively, both embraced evolutionary thought based on their readings of canonical, normative Jewish texts and exegeses. In contrast, Rabbi Abraham Geiger, a leading 19th–century figure in the ostensibly more progressive and less theologically rigid Reform Movement, rejected Darwinism vehemently.

Jewish responses to evolution have themselves evolved as a function of the internal and external politics of religion and state: The relatively comfortable, assimilated Jews of Victorian England espoused publicly in the Jewish Chronicle in 1875 the view that: "[t]here is only one theology in existence which is not antagonistic to science," gratifyingly (and somewhat conceitedly) setting themselves apart from Christian creationists; one hundred years later, the assimilation-fearful leading American ultra-Orthodox rabbi, Moshe Feinstein, on the other hand, hesitated little in calling his throngs of followers to "tear out those pages from the textbooks" which do not accord with a literal reading of the Bible. Perhaps most striking was the encounter of Jewish nationalism with the fruits of modern science: Rafi Falk shows in his chapter how a number of prominent Zionists conceived of their political enterprise in terms of safeguarding a Jewish race rapidly degenerating in a biologically untenable Diaspora. While it might be somewhat incongruous to read the great Jewish national poet Chaim Nachman Bialik bellowing, "I too, like Hitler, believe in the power of the blood idea," it may perhaps not be all that surprising considering how, as Richard Weikart shows in his chapter, late–19th-century anti-Semites adapted their social Darwinism to argue for racial competition, and, eventually and tragically, racial extermination: Racially-sensitive Zionists simply took the anti-Semites' arguments and turned them on their head; if the Jews were weak and sickly, it was because they lacked a national homeland where they could work the land, outbreed amongst their scattered diasporas, and regain once again their racial strength. What provided justification for Jewish national dreams, such men believed, was the racial unity of all Jews the world over.

With further chapters on the teaching of evolution in modern-Orthodox high schools in the US today, and on various attempts of accommodating evolutionary thought with religious creationist belief, Jewish Tradition and the Challenge of Darwinism will present the reader used to encountering the debates in an exclusively Christian context with an interesting counterpoint. Both the similarities and unique aspects of Christian and Jewish responses to Darwinism are instructive. It will be a much-welcomed result if this collection not only spurs further research into Jewish encounters with modern science and evolution, but also research into the encounters of other religions and systems of faith with modern science and evolution. As always, Darwinism can teach us much about the natural world; our own reactions to its powerful ideas can teach us no less about ourselves.

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