Teaching Evolution in Yeshivah High Schools

  • by: Joel B. Wolowelsky
  • Submitted on October 17, 2004

This article originally appeared in Ten Da’at, vol. 10, 1, 1997. Appears here with permission.

Some yeshivah educators find troublesome the section on evolution taught in the regular biology course required for a high school diploma. Convinced that evolutionary biology contradicts basic Torah assumptions, they either omit the section completely continuing a pattern of, say, eliminating all books on dinosaurs from the lower school library and sometimes going so far as to cut out the chapter on evolution from the textbook or they advise their students that what they are learning in biology is but a flimsy “theory” not worthy of serious concern.

As educators who value the teaching of science as part of the halakhic mandate to “fill the earth and conquer it,” we should recognize these approaches as both bad hashkafa and worse science. Carl Feit1 and Baruch Sterman2 have recently written about this topic, and we need not fully recapitulate here their cogent arguments. There are, however, a few points worth making clear for educators thinking through this topic.

First, we should put to rest the idea that evolutionary biology is any less a science than chemistry or physics. This discipline follows the same procedures as all other sciences: making observations, devising theories that explain these phenomena and predict future observations, and refining and changing the theories when contradictory observations are discovered. All sciences do this. Students who graduate from high school thinking that theories in chemistry or physics are modified less frequently have gotten a poor science education. Our students should routinely expect their own children’s high school science textbooks be it biology, chemistry, or physics to look radically different than their own. Part of scientific training is to learn how to make use of contemporary theories while understanding that they will in the end be adjusted.

Why then should we be teaching any scientific material that we know will have to be modified later on? For the same reason that we teach (should we, indeed, say “lehavdil”?) Talmud in high school or elementary school. Students who thought they had understood the daf will eventually discover when they learn through Tosafot and eventually other Rishonim that they had missed many important points and that their notion of many fundamental concepts will have to be reformulated. That’s what good education is all about. We work with our current understanding of the issues, realize that no matter how much we know we are missing some important parts, and move on to a better understanding of the subject. The alternative is ignorance.

Second, we should admit that evolutionary biology draws many of its conclusions from the other scientific disciplines. For example, dating fossils depends in part on physics and chemistry. If we cannot rely on these results in this area, we should similarly ignore conclusions drawn in other disciplines (like medicine) that rely on the same scientific theories. We are quite thankfully unwilling to do this. Indeed, we are unwilling to reject the conclusions of evolutionary biology itself in our everyday life or else we would, for example, dismiss warnings that indiscriminately taking antibiotics will allow the evolution of resistant strains. We cannot pretend that evolutionary theory is nonsense when in reality we rely on its basic assumptions (albeit, perhaps unconsciously) in making every-day and sometimes crucial decisions in our lives.

Certainly we should not be bothered by “the time-line” associated with evolutionary biology. Dinosaurs lived millions of years ago, we are told, but we know from the Torah that the world is only some six thousand years old. Some people are so upset by this would-be contradiction that they resist a visit to the Museum of Natural History (or, as was the case in Israel recently, refuse kashrut supervision to dairy products that used a dinosaur as a publicity logo); or pretend that the dinosaur whose skeleton fills the room was contemporaneous with human society; or insist that the fossils were put in the earth by a God wanting to test the faith of the Jewish people. These options are simply not available to people who take science seriously.

But, of course, the Torah tells us only that human civilization is some six thousand years old. We need not review here the various arguments and proof texts that the six “days” of creation were not the days that we experience ourselves. The biblical text itself makes that obvious: there cannot be a contemporary-like dawn or evening before there is a sun and moon. The Torah is clearly describing various stages in the development of the world as we know it. Just as we take yeshivah elementary school students to the zoo to see the marvels of God’s creations around the world (and offer an opportunity to say the berakha “meshane haberiyot”), so too should we take them to the museum to see the dramatic remains of the animals He created in the era before He decided to create humans.

We do not mean to suggest by this that the first chapter of the Torah is some scientific theory in disguise. Some would have us believe that we need only understand the specific phrases used in the first chapter of the Torah and presto! we have the Big Bang Theory or whatever. All of these books will seem a bit quaint decades from now when the Big Bang Theory or some other inevitably-modified scientific theory has been reformulated beyond recognition. The Torah is an eternal book of truth; as such it cannot be a science textbook. The messages of the first two chapters are hashkafic in content, not scientific. The first of these messages is dramatic although for healthy reasons somewhat unimpressive to us. The second is directed to contemporary man.

The leading hashkafic issue is the rejection of the worldview of the pagans who saw the world at the mercy of uncontrollable and unethical forces personified as their gods. The Torah dismisses with the back of its hand such a heathen world-view, presenting a creation evolving effortlessly, directed by an omnipotent and ethical God Who, like a sculptor, reveals and unfolds the diffuse potential in His creation; shamayim, for example, gives way to rakia which, in turn, gives way to specific points of light. “Detail is drawn out of chaos in a continuous process of refinement, making finer and finer distinctions, one after another.3 We are so far removed from the pagan world-view known all too well to the Jews who received the Torah that we miss the revolutionary message, one far more important than any science lesson.

The second message in the Torah’s creation story is directed against a different paganism, scientific paganism, which posits that everything proceeds randomly from one step to another. Here there is indeed a message for contemporary man.

Evolutionary biologists posit a randomness in the processes associated with evolutionary theory. It was in addition to natural selection chance mutations, lucky environmental opportunities, and so on which moved nature through the evolutionary tree, we are told. God played no part in it. This is a very serious matter, but it too is a false issue in confronting evolutionary biology. That is because it is a general problem of confronting science.

A doctor, for example, has a simple explanation for a person’s returning to good health. He or she might well be frum, but the explanation comes in terms of bacteria, viruses, T-cells, etc. Indeed, that is how we want our doctors to think in treating us. Should they suggest that it is teshuva and not some medication that will turn the tide, we would probably look elsewhere even if we ourselves trusted in the power of teshuva and planned to say hagomel upon returning to good health.

There is nothing surprising or hypocritical about this. As the Rav, Rabbi Joseph B. Soloveitchik, remarked, “Modern science has emerged victorious from its encounter with nature because it sacrificed qualitative-metaphysical speculation for the sake of a functional duplication of reality and substituted the quantus for the qualis question.”4 As religious people, we see God behind every natural phenomenon. But if we want to master the universe, we must put that insight aside for the sake of the scientific discussion. We must, for example, seek the electronic bond that holds particles together even though we know that ultimately it is the divine will which actually prevents the world from falling apart. Scientific laws merely describe the regularities and processes which govern nature; they do not explain how or why such regularities and processes exist.

If we want to understand the world of biology, we have to appreciate the scientific mechanism of evolution, even if we are prepared to say “meshane haberiyot” in recognition of God’s hidden guiding hand. There is no arguing the theological point, only accepting or rejecting it. But we should not fool ourselves into thinking that it any more problematic to confront this issue in biology than it is in chemistry or physics.

The Rav’s Lonely Man of Faith can serve us well here in explaining to our students the religious imperative compelling us to view the world from different perspectives. Adam-the-first, the human whose creation is detailed in the first chapter of the Torah, confronts the world in terms of its universal, impersonal, immutable laws. Adam-the-second, the human prototype described in the second chapter of the Torah, is overwhelmed by God and His nature, submitting to it and trying to find his place in its world. He seeks cathartic redemption rather than the dignity that Adam-the-first associates with fulfilling God’s mandate to “fill the world and conquer it.” Both Adams are contained in the Adam in Eden. In the Rav’s formulation, there is no reconciling this basic dichotomy in man. Indeed, human creativity comes as result of the dialectic generated in moving back and forth between these two poles of human existence. Sometimes we must view the world as an Adam-the-first and sometimes as an Adam-the-second. Alone, neither gives us a full picture of the world and human’s place in it.

There are, however, two issues that we should be prepared to confront and challenge. Both are common errors and, strangely, they contradict each other. The first is Social Darwinism, the belief that the higher one is on the evolutionary tree the greater the value of the being. Primates are more important than fish; twentieth-century people are more moral than those who lived in the fourteenth century. We need not belabor the point that this social doctrine is a misapplication of evolutionary science; it should, however, be disavowed in the biology classroom as bad science and bad sociology.

The second is the obverse side of the coin, the belief that man is not qualitatively different from the animals because he too is but another branch on the evolutionary tree. Here we do have a contradiction between the biblical and scientific texts.

Some people find it repulsive to think that man “descended from the apes.” After all, the Bible tells us that God formed man from the dust of the earth and breathed into him the breath of life. But God forbid (so to speak) that we should have a mental image of God physically molding earth into the form of a person! We have here a simple statement that God formed (yatsar rather than bara) man from existing insignificant matter (afar min ha-adama) and infused in him an aspect of Godliness. The Torah is not making a physical statement, insisting that the insignificant base was dirt rather than pre-human sapiens. It is rather making a metaphysical statement, insisting on humans’ uniqueness and their spiritual position above the animals.

It is only humans into whom God has breathed the breath of life. Better stated, animals became human only when God breathed in them His divine breath. That is why we can perform medical experiments on animals, for example, but not on people. For us, humans and animals differ fundamentally on the metaphysical level, not the physical plane. This is a theological rather than scientific statement, one that has nothing to do with, say, the exclusivity of human’s ability to communicate. Evolutionary biologists have nothing to say on it one way or another.

We have no trouble saying that humans came from dust and will return to dust. So too should we feel comfortable in saying that the shell that houses the human soul came from some animal form and, if we do not pay attention to their souls and the Torah which guides them, we can be left only with the animal shell. Anyone familiar with the history of the second half of the twentieth century should easily acknowledge this.

There is no contradiction between good science and Torah hashkafa, although there is an incompatibility between bad science and distorted hashkafa. Like Rabbi Soloveitchik, we should be able to say that we “have never been seriously troubled by the problem of the Biblical doctrine of creation vis-a-vis the scientific doctrine of creation at both the cosmic and organic levels.5 Indeed, lurking behind the would-be debate between Torah and evolution is either a shallow understanding of Torah or an unsophisticated appreciation of science or both. Our students certainly deserve better.

1Carl Feit, “Darwin and Drash: The Interplay of Torah and Biology,” Torah u-Maddah Journal, vol. 2, 1990, pp. 25-36.

2Baruch Sterman, “Judaism and Darwinian Evolution,” Tradition, 29:1, Fall 1994, pp. 48-75.

3 Feit, p. 33.

4R. Joseph B. Soloveitchik, The Lonely Man of Faith (New York: Doubleday, 1992) p. 13. [Reprinted from Tradition, 7:2, Summer 1965.]

5Ibid., p. 7.

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