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Evolution of Sabbath Sermon

Sermon by Rabbi Melanie Aron

Feburary 12, 2016

Why have over 13,000 clergy signed up for Evolution Sabbath, including over 500 rabbis? Are you surprised that so many feel the need to defend their acceptance of evolutionary biology while remaining tied to their religious communities, be they Catholic or mainline Protestant, Buddhist or Quaker? Anecdotally scanning through the list by state, I noticed that many of these clergy are from the south and Midwest, from places like Texas where we think of the battle over evolution continuing to rage in the schools. Perhaps though we should not be so smug-- the clergy come from 48 of the 50 states, blue and red, including California.

As recently as 2011, studies showed that 40% of Americans opposed teaching evolution alone, without Creationism or Intelligent Design. Only 28% of high school science teachers present evidence of evolution, while 13% teach creationism or intelligent design. 60% of high school teachers reported trying to avoid teaching evolution, except as was required for standardized tests, so as to avoid controversy. This may in part explain why 30% of Americans still believe that global warming during the last 40 years is not real nor supported by solid evidence.


Over 90 years after the famous Scopes Trial (1925), evolution remains controversial in the United States. To some extent this is because evolution is poorly understood, but more significantly it is because of evolution’s role as a litmus test, a signifier of other allegiances and beliefs.

Within Jewish circles, evolution has not been as controversial perhaps because our faith has never depended on a literal reading of the first chapter of Genesis. Though evolution is not accepted by some of the most extreme Orthodox today, throughout  history Jewish thinkers have long approached the opening chapters of the Bible metaphorically. Written to oppose the pagan belief in a multiplicity of gods, what was important about Genesis was its insistence that there was a unified pattern and order to the dynamic process by which the world unfolds. Jewish commentators have asked interesting questions of the text, as for example what was the light created on the first day, if the sun and the moon and stars weren’t created until day four? Further, for two thousand years the suggestion has been made that the days of creation were not 24 hours long. The story of Adam and Eve was important for what it taught us about the unity of humankind, “one human being was created first, so that no one should say their ancestor was greater”, not about biology.

The stories at the beginning of Genesis taught us about life and death, about the challenge of maturity and leaving one’s home.  How literally could the Torah be meant to be understood, if it doesn’t take itself literally.  As any 11 year old can exclaim triumphantly, why should Cain be worried about people finding him and killing him, when his family was supposed to be the only people on earth.

Dr. Sara Helms Cahan, a Jewishly involved professor of Zoology from the University of Vermont puts it together in this way: “It has never been much of a stretch for an explicitly historical religious tradition to extend that history a few billion years farther back.”

Orthodox Judaism has found various way of reconciling the belief in God with evolution. As contemporary Orthodox Rabbi Natan Slifkin, also a zoologist explains: “Who is the better engineer? The Engineer who make ten robots or the engineer who creates a program, that is the laws of nature, to make the robots. “

Samson Raphael Hirsch, who lived from 1808-1880, was witness to the controversies around evolution in western society. He believed that there were different spheres for religion and science and though not enthusiastic about evolution, did view it as compatible with Jewish theology. He notes that Jewish theology had endured through other transitions in scientific understandings.  

He wrote: Whether scientists hold with the Ptolemaic or Copernican vantage point is a matter of total indifference to the purely moral objectives of Judaism, Judaism has never made a credo of these or similar notions.”

Further, writing about the result of the acceptance of evolutionary science:

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. This would be nothing else but the actualization of the law of le-mino, the “law of species” with which God began His work of creation.”

IN the current political climate, it is important to state that as a religious group, we embrace evolution and science, and that our theology sees expanding human knowledge as a gift of God and not an act of rebellion. Supporting science has important implications for public policy both in the priority we give to responding to global climate change and in other areas including vaccination.

We are dependent upon science for our health and wellbeing. But theologically the more interesting issues of religion and science to me don’t relate to evolution but to the understanding of human freedom in making choices and to our relationship with other species.

Behavioral economics, with its probing of the constraints on human rationality and decision making, poses at least as much of a challenge to the Jewish concept of freedom and responsibility as evolutionary biology. Religious responsibility rests on the assumption that we are creatures who make free choices. If we are not choosing as freely as we think we are, what are the implications for our notions of personhood .

Similarly it is not so much the idea that we and apes have a common ancestor that is challenging to the Jewish concept of the human being, as the developing understanding that some of the traits we understood to be uniquely human like fairness, kindness, and self-sacrifice exist in animal species. Where does that leave the unique role of humans? Through the ages Judaism has focused on the uniqueness of humans, little less than the angels, created in the image of God in a way that other living things were not.

If we are not as different as other species our sense of our unique role in the cosmos and  of the obligations we have to other living beings may have to change.

I wonder if, in the years to come, a stress on the continuity of life forms may come to inform our ethics. This would be different from some of the teachings of earlier periods of Judaism, but it would be a change that could be absorbed into Judaism, a part of the continuous development and unfolding of Jewish thought.  Maimonides, physician and philosopher, took the “new science” of his age, looked at the Bible in new ways, and understood it in light of the new discoveries of his time. Judaism has never said, science conflicts with a teaching of our religious tradition, let us abandon science. Rather the Jewish view has been- all true knowledge is one, we must ask how can we understand our religious tradition in light of these new discoveries in science. That is where we have stood as Jews and as members of the Reform movement,  and why science has never been the enemy of Jewish theology.


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