History, Religion, Science

Darwin and the Rabbis: some nineteenth century Jewish responses to Darwinian evolution

Charles Darwin – picture from Wikimedia Commons

It often seems as if we, in the twenty-first century, have inherited a certain idea about how Charles Darwin’s evolutionary theory was received in the nineteenth century. Prevalent among the popular narratives is the idea that the institutions of ‘religion’, particularly the Church, and the institutions of ‘science’, the societies of the men of science, went head to head. Because they had to. And science won. Because it was bound to. Scientific reasoning triumphed over religious dogma. This over-simplified and inaccurate summary of events comes down to us through the filters of several politically motivated historical accounts, key among them John William Draper’s 1874 polemic against Catholicism, The History of the Conflict between Religion and Science, and, later, in 1896, The History of the Warfare of Science with Theology in Christendom, by Andrew Dickson White. This historiographical tradition is known as the ‘conflict thesis’. What both of these works have in common, of course, is their focus on, and opposition to, Christianity, and specifically Catholicism. This article is based on an essay I wrote as a final year undergraduate; knowing that the popular view was already shaky when focusing solely on Christian interactions with the sciences, I wanted to investigate how it fared when the religion under analysis was not Christianity, but Judaism.

I decided to look at some rabbinical writings on Darwin and evolution from the period. I chose to employ Professor Ira Robinson’s model of the four different ways in which Jewish authorities have historically interacted with secular knowledge which could be seen to challenge Torah Judaism, specifically science and philosophy. The first category of interaction is simple rejection: the truth of the Torah is reaffirmed and the opposing doctrine denied, because the Torah is true and therefore anything which appears to contradict it must by definition be false. Secondly, integration: the alternative evidence is reconciled within the existing framework of Jewish tradition, abandoning neither. Whereas the first category will often be grounded on a very literal reading of the Torah text, the second category will tend to employ metaphor to understand certain passages. Thirdly, Jewish authorities critique a problematic hypothesis on its own grounds, finding flaws with specific details, if not the entire theory, and challenge its proponents to defend or alter it accordingly. Finally, Jewish mystics from the sixteenth-century onwards have attempted to transcend science by finding evidence from Kabbalah, the Jewish mystical teachings, which they use to argue that Judaism has believed something akin to the problematic doctrine for far longer than the contemporary scientific or philosophical authorities. This approach subordinates science to Kabbalah, and uses science to confirm divine wisdom.

I wanted to ignore the first approach, as it is not a constructive engagement with secular knowledge, and focus on the others. I find the Biblical literalism which it relies upon to be theologically problematic; there is a strong tradition from ancient Torah commentators that certain passages are not to be understood literally. The three other categories are all relevant to late nineteenth-century Jewish discussions of Darwin, but underlying the different responses are different socio-economic and political circumstances. Four rabbis, Samson Raphael Hirsch, Elijah Benamozegh, Hermann Adler and Abraham Isaac Kook, will each be discussed in chronological order, providing fascinating insights into Jewish attitudes towards evolution, and towards science in general, during this period.

Samson Raphael Hirsch – picture from Wikipedia

First of all, Samson Raphael Hirsch (1808-1888) was a key figure in the emergence of the German neo-Orthothox movement, and fought against the growing Reform movement. Hirsch recognised that some aspects of Judaism required revising to prevent Jews from gravitating away from traditional Orthodox philosophies and towards Reform alternatives. His theological stance of Torah im Derech Eretz– Torah Judaism with, although not merely equal to, and never subservient to, the way of the secular world – allowed a place for science in Judaism. Hirsch’s priority was always Torah, but some engagement with the secular world, always guided by Torah ethics, was desirable. His approach to science in general was sceptical; although he would accept it, he was careful to highlight its flaws, and never accepted scientific theories before they had been substantiated. He pointed out that scientific theories are subject to change and revision in the light of new evidence. Writing in the late 1880s, Hirsch argued that, even if evolution through natural selection gained the complete support of scientists, it would not be problematic for Judaism. Rather, it would require Jews to have even more reverence for God who, instead of creating a multitude of species, had brought the current diversity of life into being simply by creating one life-form and one law of adaptation.

This falls within Robinson’s second category of interaction, the integration of science and Torah. However, there was also a methodological criticism of the science of evolution; Hirsch was careful to emphasise that evolution was not universally accepted – and he was correct – and as a scientific theory had not been conclusively proven. Indeed, he described evolution as “a vague hypothesis still unsupported by fact”, and criticised proponents of the theory for engaging in a primitive ancestor worship as a result of discovering the common descent of all life from a “primal form”. Hirsch noted, though, that although the ancient Sages had speculated about the natural world, they never made their ideas compulsory articles of faith for Jews in general; his specific example was the multitude of estimates of the age of the world given in ancient sources. He believed that such views were irrelevant to the moral foundations of Judaism, and even less relevant for the acceptance of God as the creator of the world. In the same vein, Hirsch did not wholly endorse evolution, but did not leave Judaism with an embarrassing apologia to make should evolution be proven at some point in the future. In this way, Hirsch encouraged integration of evolution and Jewish theology through the separation of religion and science more generally.

Elijah Benemozegh – picture from Wikipedia

Elijah Benamozegh (1822-1900), an Italian rabbi, was well rooted in his native land and did not feel threatened by science; instead he sought to demonstrate similarities between Judaism and science. He believed that geological discoveries provided palaeontological evidence for old traditions rooted in the Midrashim, ancient texts of the oral tradition, which claimed that God had created and destroyed many worlds before this one. The scholar Raphael Shuchat has argued that this particular tradition, called the Doctrine of the Sabbatical Worlds, had lain dormant since the sixteenth-century. Seemingly, though, it was remembered when new scientific evidence began to emerge which postulated a long Earth history. Benamozegh was not the only rabbi to utilise it when considering geological evidence; it was also employed by Rabbi Yisrael Lipshutz in Germany, Rabbi Sholom Mordechai Schwadron in Poland and Rabbi Naftali Zvi Yehuda Berlin, of the Volozhin yeshiva.

Benamozegh’s treatment of evolution was optimistic and enthusiastic. His advocacy of the Doctrine of the Sabbatical Worlds removed all obstacles with regards to time; he also used it as evidence of progression more generally in Judaism, and this led easily to the progression of species. Benamozegh considered that the process of evolution was not only the mechanism by which humankind had developed, but could also be the mechanism which would facilitate further development towards a more spiritual being. However, although evolution might be Darwinian, the specific process did not concern Benamozegh; evolution occurred “either as [Georges] Cuvier said, by revolutions and cataclysms, or by a slow evolutionary process, like the opinion of the modernist [Charles] Lyell, or [Charles] Darwin”.

For Benamozegh, the important aspect of evolution was progression. His conception, though, appears to have been quite linear and teleological, as he saw that “[m]ore and more perfect species have developed, one after the other”, and that “[t]he most perfect form is Man.” This is closer to Lamarckism than it is to Darwinism. Benamozegh was not engaging here with the more traditionally contentious part of Darwinism as Hirsch did, namely natural selection and the survival of the fittest. Benamozegh seems to be an archetypal respondent in Robinson’s integration category, but he also used the kabbalistic Doctrine of the Sabbatical Worlds to transcend recent scientific discoveries, and prove the fundamentally divine nature of ancient Jewish wisdom. However, in ignoring the specifically novel features of Darwinian evolution such as natural selection and the survival of the fittest, he may have been conflating different ideas about evolution, or simply avoiding that which was too problematic for him to address.

Hermann Adler – picture from Wikipedia

Hermann Adler (1839-1911) was the son of the first Chief Rabbi of Great Britain, and later Chief Rabbi himself, and was extensively educated at universities at home and in Europe. He seems to have agreed with and accepted the science of Darwinian evolution, but in a sermon given in 1882, he criticised the theory on moral grounds, claiming that it provided scientific justification for violence and cruelty. Engaging directly with natural selection and its subsidiary implication, the survival of the fittest, he asserted that the theory vindicated blotting out the weak and simple in favour of the strong and gifted. Evidence of Adler’s attitude to science more generally can be inferred from another lecture, given in 1869 at Jews’ College, in which he sought to demonstrate that many recent scientific discoveries had been pre-empted in ancient times, as evidenced by references in the Talmud. One example he gave was the discovery of Halley’s Comet by Rabbi Joshua in the first-century CE. In December 1877 he spoke at the Jewish Working Men’s Club in Aldgate about evidence of advanced scientific practice in the Talmud, especially in the field of astronomy.

Adler was receptive to science in general, but he incorporated both criticism and transcendence into his approach. Whilst he may not have employed kabbalistic sources to bolster ancient Jewish wisdom or subordinate science, his intention was to prove the efficacy of ancient Jewish knowledge, and thus reduce science to a pursuit which was merely rediscovering ancient Jewish wisdom. Unlike Benamozegh, who passed over the opportunity to engage with Darwin more specifically, Adler’s criticisms were aimed at the moral weakness of Darwinism. He asserted that religion must be allowed to provide a balance to the competition implied by strict adherence to the philosophy of the survival of the fittest, and the morally corrupt behaviour which could result from the misunderstanding or misapplication of natural selection. His response to evolution was one of cautious integration, and Judaism, or religion more generally, needed to provide men of science and the wider population with a vital moral compass.

Abraham Isaac Kook – picture from Wikipedia

Finally, Abraham Isaac Kook (1865-1935) was originally from Latvia, but settled in Palestine where he became the first Ashkenazi Chief Rabbi in 1919. Similarly to Hirsch, Kook believed that Jews should learn secular sciences in order to enrich their understanding of the world and the Torah, and he thus attempted to create working syntheses between Judaism and the modern sciences. Kook employed the same kabbalistic doctrine of the Sabbatical Worlds as Benamozegh did, and this allowed sufficient time for evolution. He felt no need to refute evolution, and in fact believed that the concept of evolution was very similar to ideas in Kabbalah. It is unclear whether this was in reference to Darwinism specifically or evolution more generally. Nevertheless, Kook asserted that both the physical and the spiritual world undergo progression, advancing through stages, and, as this entails a process of evolution in both worlds, “no step in the gradually unfolding pattern is ever left vacant”. This would imply that evolution as a process was a concept already mandated by Judaism. Kook explained that, kabbalistically, the spiritual worlds which preceded our own were created by a series of emanations; they developed and progressed from previous stages, and thus it made sense for the physical world to incorporate a corresponding mechanism.

Kook felt that those who had problems reconciling evolution and Judaism were actually only having problems accepting that the Torah contained parables, allegories and allusion. Other than this, he argued, there was no inherent contradiction. Elsewhere, Kook took kabbalistic doctrines which implied that there had been other humans apart from Adam, and interpreted them as precursors to modern humans; this allowed for the development and evolution of man in earlier epochs before Adam. However, he asserted, the Torah is only interested in the end result, modern humans. Kook explained the absence of evolution in the Torah by noting how, when an order is given by a king to build a structure, x, scripture does not always list those who are actually building, or the methods they use, but only that the command was given by the king, and thus that the king built x. Therefore, the omission of a description of the process of evolution from the creation story in Genesis did not necessarily imply that the process by which God had created life, and ultimately humans, had not been evolutionary. Similarly to Hirsch, Kook pointed out that evolution was only a theory, and was thus still liable to being falsified, no matter how well corroborated it may be. Similarly to Benamozegh, Kook seems to have espoused a linear view of evolution, in which progress was not random, but rather tended towards a goal, specifically, humans. Through such heavy reliance on Kabbalah to explain the convergence of science and Judaism, Kook appears the archetypal advocate of Robinson’s fourth category of interaction, that of transcendence.

Each of these four responses to evolution can be attributed to different socio-economic and political factors. Hirsch was writing during the rise of the German Reform movement, and he feared that some radical reformers may, as in Britain, have used Darwinism against traditional Orthodoxy. Thus Hirsch was cautious, but keen to consider evolution nonetheless. Benamozegh, in Italy, did not have to temper his response with such caution, and was much more enthusiastic about evolution in general. Adler in Britain was contending with an influx of traditionally Orthodox immigrants from Eastern Europe as well as the existing population of assimilated Anglo-Jewry. He also had to confront antisemitism by proving the efficacy of ancient Jewish wisdom. Thus, his response covered a broader combination of Robinson’s three categories in order to appeal to a broader audience; as a figure of national Jewish significance, he may have felt the need to incorporate as many diverse elements into his response as possible in the country where debates about Darwin were most prominent. Kook wrote from a position of massive influence on the Jewish population of Palestine, a growing community experiencing massive immigration from Eastern Europe during his time in office; thus, like Adler, Kook may also have engaged with evolution on behalf of a wide audience.

Although all four of these rabbis discussed evolution, Darwinism was seldom mentioned specifically. It is unclear, and thus unlikely, that any of them actually read Darwin’s work. However, the general theme appears to be that, whilst these rabbis had no inherent difficulties reconciling the notion of progress with Jewish ideas about creation and the natural world, the idea of change through completely random selection was, understandably, more problematic. This premise seems to have been rejected in favour of a process which could be attributed, directly or indirectly, to God guiding the development of species in order to eventually create humans through the implementation of and adherence to natural laws. Indeed, Kook and Benamozegh viewed evolution not just as teleological, but also as a linear process, closer to the older, Lamarckian conception. This may be linked to their common tendency to attempt to transcend science through their use of kabbalistic sources.

That rabbis were willing to engage with Darwinism is not surprising; as Judaism does not require specific believes about the natural world, other than the faith that it was created by God, attitudes towards science can afford to vary. I believe this sits outside of Robinson’s four categories, providing a fifth approach which might rightly be termed a ‘separation’ approach. I believe Hirsch can be seen as an early proponent of this approach, and there are hints of it in Adler’s attitudes as well. Such a response to the question of ‘science’ and ‘religion’ has also been promoted recently by the current British Chief Rabbi, Lord Jonathan Sacks, in his book The Great Partnership, which describes the methods and aims of science and religion as different and complimentary. It is certain that interactions between religious and scientific people have never been as simple and clear cut as the conflict thesis would lead us to believe. Indeed, the historical categories of a ‘scientific person’ and a ‘religious person’ have never been mutually exclusive.

A more nuanced historical analysis reveals, in short, that although many religious Christians opposed Darwin’s theory, some men of science also raised pressing objections from the scientific sphere. Likewise, there were Christians who enthusiastically accepted Darwin’s particular flavour of evolutionary theory as evidence of the power and wisdom of God, who had created things with the capacity to recreate themselves. Looking at Jewish responses to Darwin at the end of the nineteenth century makes this picture richer and more detailed still. A broad range of interactions between scientific and religious ideas becomes apparent, providing evidence which allows us to move beyond the naïve notion that ‘science’ and ‘religion’ are in constant, inevitable competition, and that one day only the fittest will survive.

The following sources were useful while compiling this article, and might provide interesting further reading:

  • Cantor, Geoffrey, ‘Anglo-Jewish Responses to Evolution’, in Cantor, Geoffrey and Swetlitz, Marc (Eds.), Jewish Tradition and the Challenge of Darwinism (The University of Chicago Press, 2006)
  • Cantor, Geoffrey, Quakers, Jews and Science: Religious Responses to Modernity and the Sciences in Britain, 1650-1900 (Oxford University Press, 2005)
  • Carmell, Aryeh and Domb, Cyril (Eds.), Challenge: Torah Views on Science and its Problems (Feldheim Publishers, 1988)
  • Feit, Carl, ‘Modern Orthodoxy and Evolution: The Models of Rabbi J. B. Soloveitchik and Rabbi A. I. Kook‘, in Cantor, Geoffrey and Swetlitz, Marc (Eds.), Jewish Tradition and the Challenge of Darwinism (The University of Chicago Press, 2006)
  • Levi, Leo, ‘The Torah and the Sciences‘, in Gluckman, Eliyahu and Erlbach, Erich, et. al. (Eds.), The Living Hirscian Legacy: Essays on ‘Torah Im Derech Eretz’ and the Contemporary Hirschian Kehilla (Feldheim Publishers, Ltd., 1988)
  • Robinson, Ira, ‘“Practically, I am a Fundamentalist”: Twentieth-Century Orthodox Jews Contend with Evolution and its Implications‘, in Cantor, Geoffrey and Swetlitz, Marc (Eds.), Jewish Tradition and the Challenge of Darwinism (The University of Chicago Press, 2006)
  • Shuchat, Raphael, ‘Attitudes Towards Cosmogeny and Evolution Among Rabbinic Thinkers in the Nineteenth and Twentieth Centuries: The Resurgence of the Doctrine of the Sabbatical Years‘, in Torah u-Madda Journal 13 (2005)


9 thoughts on “Darwin and the Rabbis: some nineteenth century Jewish responses to Darwinian evolution

  1. I’m very pleased to say that this article has been linked to from The Broadside (http://thebroadside.org/category/bulletins/histscimedtech/), an online resource compiling history articles from across the interwebs.

    If you have come here from there, thanks for clicking through, and I hope you enjoy reading my article (comments and feedback greatly appreciated)!

    If you haven’t, and are interested in history, and the history of science, technology and medicine more specifically, I recommend you have a look!

    Posted by Michael Kay | 26 March, 2012, 3:51 pm
    • Didn’t M. Shai Cherry write a dissertation on Jewish responses to Darwin?

      Posted by yb | 27 March, 2012, 3:57 pm
      • Hi, although Cherry wrote a chapter in the Cantor and Swetlitz volume which I have referenced above, I have not read his doctoral thesis. The chapter was specifically about the more recent 20th century approaches of writers such as Natan Aviezer and Gerald Schroeder, so although I have read it, and found it very interesting (especially having heard Aviezer speak a couple of times), it was not relevant to the theme of this article and I have not referenced it here.

        A quick search shows me that his thesis was indeed called ‘Creation, Evolution and Jewish Thought’, from Brandeis University in 2001. I don’t know if this concerns 19th century responses, although if so I would certainly be very interested to read it. As I noted above, this was originally an undergraduate essay, and unfortunately I did not have much scope to go into more than a brief overview of the topic.

        Thanks for reading!

        Posted by Michael Kay | 27 March, 2012, 4:37 pm
  2. I think the dissertation involves earlier figures

    Posted by yb | 27 March, 2012, 8:25 pm
  3. It is very important that we make a distinction between the vague and general term “evolution” from a more specific term “Darwinism”. Evolution simply means “change over time”, while Darwinism proposes that evolution happens through natural selection acting on random variation. As Daniel Dennett — a foremost advocate of Darwinism — has noted, acceptance of Darwinism means understanding that if we were to play the tape of evolutionary development back to the beginning and let it run forward again, there would be no guarantee or expectation that the outcome would be as it has been — the development of humans. There are those who regard themselves as proponents of theistic evolution, which attempts to meld a belief in a creative God with the scientific evidence for evolution, but strictly speaking, theistic evolution is not Darwinism and really can’t be reconciled with Darwinism. So, for example, the comment that “Kook seems to have espoused a linear view of evolution, in which progress was not random, but rather tended towards a goal, specifically, humans” does not really put Kook in the fourth category with respect to Darwinism, but rather makes him out to be a proponent of theistic evolution.

    In fact, Kook’s response is also consistent with some who hold an Intelligent Design perspective, in that those who advocate for ID make room for the possibility that a creative intelligence set up the means through which the complexity of biological development manifested through an unfolding evolutionary process. Given that ID is often pitted against Darwinism as two opposing opposites, we really haven’t learned how the rabbis engaged Darwinism as much as how they engaged the notion of something other than the literal creation story.

    Posted by Robert Berkowitz | 28 March, 2012, 1:13 pm
    • Hi Robert, thanks for reading and commenting. You’re absolutely right about the necessary distinction between ‘evolution’ and ‘Darwinism’, and as I have said, many of the responses I look at did not address Darwinian evolution directly. Indeed, Darwin’s had not been the first evolutionary theory, although it was supported by more empirical evidence than previous ideas. Other evolutionary theories had been promoted by, for example, the French naturalist Jean-Baptiste Lamarck at the beginning of the nineteenth-century, the Scottish publisher Robert Chambers in the mid-nineteenth century, and, even further back, Darwin’s own grandfather, Erasmus Darwin, in the late eighteenth century.

      The rabbis I discuss here, however, were certainly writing about evolution because of its post-Darwinian popularity. They did think they were addressing Darwin, although, as I have stated, their ideas, especially Kook’s, often appear to hold more in common with Lamarckism, which did posit a more teleological, linear view of evolutionary change (and which did experience a resurgence in popularity towards the end of the 19th century when the Darwinian model of evolution was being seriously called into question). I don’t believe many, if any, of the rabbis I have discussed actually read Darwin’s works. Although these may not all be direct engagements with natural selection, this is interesting historical evidence for the ways in which the Jewish community encountered Darwinism, possibly not always fully understanding it.

      The thrust of my argument in this article was to demonstrate a section of the variety of responses to Darwin and evolution at the end of the 19th century, providing an alternative to the naive conflict thesis which has long been discredited by academics, but which seems to persist in other circles. Thus, although I have made it clear that we would not recognise all of these responses as relating to Darwinism as we now understand it, nevertheless these rabbinical opinions, of which I present admittedly only an overview, provide an interesting window onto the ways in which 19th century Jewish communities would have thought about Darwin.

      I hope you enjoyed the article, thanks again!

      Posted by Michael Kay | 28 March, 2012, 1:41 pm
  4. I’m very pleased to say that this article has been included in ‘The Giant’s Shoulders’, a monthly list of new history of science blog posts: http://drvitelli.typepad.com/providentia/2012/04/giants-shoulders-46.html

    If you have come here from there, thanks for clicking through, and I hope you enjoy reading my article (comments and feedback greatly appreciated)!

    If you haven’t, and are interested in the history of science, I recommend you have a look!

    Posted by Michael Kay | 24 April, 2012, 5:53 pm


  1. Pingback: darwin: throwing the dice at blind chance | Madame Pickwick Art Blog - 10 December, 2012

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