Religion & Beliefs

The Evolution of Jews… and Evolution

This article in the Chicago Tribune has got me thinking… about religion and books.  Religion and science. Religion and secular ideas… Those wearied by the current feuding between partisans of science and devotees of religion can take heart from an … Read More

By / April 30, 2007

This article in the Chicago Tribune has got me thinking… about religion and books.  Religion and science. Religion and secular ideas…

Those wearied by the current feuding between partisans of science and devotees of religion can take heart from an exhibit at the Loyola University Museum of Art. It shows there is a happy ending for some stories—or at least, for some chapters of some stories. The exhibit showcases books that were once on the Index Librorum Prohibitorum, the Roman Catholic Church's list of works forbidden to the faithful lest they lead readers down the road of heresy.

The story touches (among other things) on the relationship between the printed word and the development of religion, on Luther (I'll be talking about him more later) and how the spread of printed matter forced Christianity to open up, mutate, etc. 

And that's interesting, but it's not what I'm thinking about today.  What I'm thinking about is Judaism and science…. evolution in particular.

And about how interesting it is that a religion with such a literal tradition, a belief in the Torah as the word of God, has found ways (even within that literal tradition) to embrace scientific discoveries and theories that refute the simplest interpretations of the Torah. 

Because, perhaps, we have such a tradition of dialogue, debate as philosophical process, verbal combat as a tool to moving forward.    We aren't historically afraid of complicated solutions to hard questions.

Of course, we aren't talkiing here about Reform or Conservative Jews. They all buy the evolution bit, and they have for nearly a century.  But I want to take a minute to talk about how Orthodox Judaism has developed a comfort with evolution, despite the presence of important Haredi Rabbis who have fought evolution tooth and nail.

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 attributed to the Tanna Yose ben Halafta, and covers history from the creation of the universe to the construction of the Second Temple in Jerusalem. Today, this chronology is not as widely accepted in Orthodox Judaism as it was in the past. Orthodox Jews are split on the matter of a literal approach to Genesis, but most of them do not hold that a literal approach is necessary.

I think it's important that we all, as Jews, remember that we have our own fundametalist views.  That we have a tradition as obstinate (in ways) as Christianity. That we too have banned books and feared secular discoveries…  I think often we sit in our coccoon of humanist tendancy and pat our Jewish selves on the back for being "advanced" and "sane" as a religion.

But I also think it's good to know the facts. To read up on how we HAVE stretched our Jewish brains for thousands of years to accomodate hard ideas.  To be proud that the in-fighting we've undergone on how to exchange ideas with the non-Jewish world has never splintered us completely.

Further reading:

The Official Position: From the Rabbinical Council of America Intelligent Design From Cross Currents (I enjoyed this a lot… got me thinking about chance and purpose) Ari Kahn on Evolution in the Torah From Aish The future of Jewish Evolutionary Theories From Shamash