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Ask the Aish Rabbi a Question

Recent Questions:

Evolution – Who Cares?

There’s so much talk about whether God created the world or whether it evolved by chance. But I’m wondering: What difference does it make how this all came about anyhow?

The Aish Rabbi Replies:

The difference is simple yet profound: If world is accident, then we are, too. And if we’re an accident, then there's no purpose to our creation. Life is random, not meaningful.

If we are just a random collection of molecules, should we have any more respect for a human being than we do for a dog? Should we save a drowning dog or a drowning stranger? Is it acceptable to label a race of people sub-human and to enslave or kill them all? And what difference does it ultimately make anyhow?!

The Torah says that God blew into Adam a spiritual soul (Genesis 2:7). Man is not just a smart monkey. Man is a qualitatively different creation. This "spiritual consciousness" separates man from all other creatures, enabling us to sanctify life and get close to God.

Maimonides writes: "As long as you are occupied with the mathematical sciences and the technique of logic, you belong to those who walk around the palace in search of the gate. When you complete your study of the natural sciences and then get a grasp of the metaphysics, you enter into the inner courtyard and are in the same house as [God the King]."

It matters because the essence of life is that we have a higher purpose, more than just consuming hamburgers and fashion and iPods. Those things can be useful tools to get us where we want to go, but we have to know where to go!

Evolution and the Bible

Darwin seems to be well-accepted scientific fact. But given the Creation account in the Bible, is it reasonable to assume that Moses missed evolution?

The Aish Rabbi Replies:

The Bible is well aware of evolution, although it is not very interested in the details of the process. All of animal evolution gets a mere seven sentences (Genesis 1:20-26). Genesis tells us that simple aquatic animals were followed by land animals, mammals, and finally humans.

That is also what the fossil record tells us, albeit with much more detail than these few biblical verses provide. The Bible makes no claims as to what drove the development of life, and science has yet to provide the answer.

In paleontology's record of evolution, first came the discovery that life appeared on Earth almost 4 billion years ago, immediately after the molten globe had cooled sufficiently for liquid water to form. This contradicted totally the theory of gradual evolution over billions of years in some nutrient-rich pool. The rapid origin of life remains a mystery.

Then we learned that some 550 million years ago, in what is known as the Cambrian explosion, animals with optically perfect eyes, gills, limbs with joints, mouths and intestines burst upon the fossil scene – with nary a clue in older fossils as to how they evolved. It is no wonder that Darwin, in his "Origin of the Species," repeatedly implored his readers (seven times by my count) to ignore the fossil record if they were to understand his theory.

The overwhelming weight of evidence tells us that something exotic certainly happened to produce life as we know it. Historically one of the most compelling arguments regarding the existence of God comes from the precision design found in nature. Design implies a designer, and Darwin’s proposal that evolution could have occurred without a Designer (by means of natural selection through random mutations) changed things.

On the verse, "Consider the days of old, the years of the many generations (Deut. 32:7)," the 13th century scholar Nachmanides explains that “Consider the days of old” refers to the Six Days of Creation and “The years of the many generations” refers to the time from Adam forward." Many leading rabbis who lived centuries before Darwin understood that when Adam appeared on the scene, the universe might have already been much older. Most notably, this is the opinion attributed to Rabbi Nechunia Ben Hakana who lived some 2,000 years ago, which is quoted by many mainstream, medieval commentators such as Rabbenu Bechaya, the Recanti, Tzioni, and the Sefer HaChinuch. Rabbi Yitzhak M’Acco, a student of Nachmanides, suggested based on kabbalistic calculations that the universe is thousands of millions of years old.

With regard to humans arriving on the scene, the Talmud (Chagiga 13b) states clearly that there were 974 generations prior to Adam. The famous Tifferes Yisrael commentary to the Mishnah wrote in 1842 (prior to publication of Darwin’s Origin of Species): “In my opinion, the prehistoric men whose remains have been discovered in our time and who lived long before Adam are identical with the 974 pre-Adamite generations referred to in the Talmud, and lived in the epoch immediately before our own.”

Of course, the key point where Torah and evolutionists diverge is on the question of “accident versus design.” Evolutionists say that life happened by accident; Judaism says that God made it happen.

What is the possibility that life and all the wonders of nature accidentally occurred?

According to Dr. I. Prigogine, recipient of two Nobel prizes in chemistry: "The statistical probability that organic structures and the most precisely harmonized reactions that typify living organisms would be generated by accident is zero."

Sir Fred Hoyle, the distinguished astronomer, writes: "No matter how large the environment one considers, life cannot have had a random beginning. Troops of monkeys thundering away at random on typewriters could not produce the works of Shakespeare — for the practical reason that the whole observable universe is not large enough to contain the necessary monkey hordes, the necessary typewriters, and certainly the waste paper baskets for the deposition of wrong attempts. The same is true for living material."

Believers in evolution must accept the idea that in thousands of examples throughout nature, two independent lines of mutations occurred in the same random way at each of 500 steps of development. With one million potential choices at each step (and even if only 100 of the 500 choices needed to be the same), the odds against success would be one in 10 to the 600th power. And this is only for one simple transition! For a complicated organ such as a wing or a kidney or an eye, the probability against such an accident would increase by the billions.

Darwin himself wrote in Origin of Species: "...If it could be demonstrated that any complex organ existed which could not possibly have been formed by numerous, successive, slight modifications — my theory would absolutely break down..."

Consider the Bombardier Beetle, a little bug equipped with a chamber of hydroginine and a second chamber of hydrogen peroxide. When combined, these two chemicals are explosive. But a mechanism inside the beetle keeps them separate. Yet when provoked by an enemy, the beetle heats the chemicals to the boiling point and squeezes them into a combustion chamber like igniting a rocket engine. The explosive material streams out of the beetle at a rate of 1,000 pulses per second. (Pulses, rather than a continuous stream, give the beetle a chance to cool itself.) The poisonous fuel is expelled through a nozzle which, much like the turret of a tank, can rotate in any direction, under the legs or over the back. The enemy is poisoned, the beetle is saved!

Could this all possibly have evolved by slow, steady, infinitesimally small Darwinian mutations? Which came first: the hydroginine or the hydrogen peroxide? One without the other is useless.

Which came first: the chemicals, or the independent chambers separating them? One without the other is useless.

Which came first: the chemicals, or the shooting mechanism? One without the other is useless.

The human eye is another example of coordinated evolution. In a private letter, Darwin expressed anxiety over what he called "organs of extreme perfection," and admitted that "the eye, to this day, gives me a cold shudder." (Life and Letters of Charles Darwin, London, 1888, Vol. 2, p. 273)

So there are many assumptions made in the name of science. From my perspective, the Torah tradition is the most purely rational approach.

To learn more, read:

• "The Science of God" by Dr. Gerald Schroeder (Free Press)

• "Permission to Believe" by Lawrence Keleman (Feldheim Pub.)

Torah versus Science

I don't understand all the fuss about certain school districts approving a mix of "evolution versus creation" in the classroom. I have undertaken extensive research of the natural world in light of the biblical account, and my conclusion is there need be no contradiction whatsoever. So what's the big fuss?

The Aish Rabbi Replies:

To answer your question, I turned to Dr. Gerald Schroeder, a nuclear physicist who served on the staff of MIT and as a member of the U.S. Atomic Energy Commission, and who now lectures frequently at Aish Jerusalem. Here's what he said:

If I had to assign chief blame for the ongoing struggle between science and religion and the resulting erosion of biblical credibility, it would be to the leaders of organized religion. Since Nicolaus Copernicus had the audacity to suggest that the sun, not Earth, was the center of our solar system, their knee-jerk reaction to scientific discovery has been to deny its validity. Yet what does the position of the earth have to do with belief in a Creator of the universe or the validity of the Bible?! Nowhere does the text claim that Earth is central to anything. In fact, the very first sentence of the Bible – "In the beginning God created the heavens and the earth" (Genesis 1:1) – places the heavens before Earth. As scientific data demonstrating the sun's centrality accumulated, the Church was forced into embarrassed retreat. And today, the popular perception remains that science had proven the Bible wrong. Where in reality, the claim of Earth's centrality had nothing to do with the Bible.

Similarly, Kepler's discovery of the elliptical orbit of the planets did not sit well with the religious establishment. They said circles are perfect geometric shapes, ellipses are defective. And they said an infinitely powerful God would be expected to produce perfect orbits. Of course, the Bible doesn't teach that a circle is better than an ellipse! Yet the Church condemned Kepler's discovery.

Then Charles Darwin appeared on the scene. The thought that life in general (and humans in particular) had developed from lower life forms was simply unacceptable to the Church. The concept of evolution was condemned as heretical, notwithstanding the fact that Darwin in the closing lines of his book attributed the entire evolutionary flow of life to "its several powers having been originally breathed by the Creator in a few [life] forms or into one." Nonetheless, the gauntlet of heresy had been thrown down.

Judaism views this whole issue much differently.

The medieval philosopher Maimonides wrote that conflicts between science and the Bible arise from either a lack of scientific knowledge or a defective understanding of the Bible. Our Sages always viewed Torah knowledge in light of prevailing scientific theory. In fact, Jewish law states:

"Only wise and understanding men are to be appointed to the Sanhedrin. They must be experts in Torah law, with a wide breadth of knowledge. They must also know secular subjects like medicine, mathematics, astrology and astronomy." (Maimonides – Sanhedrin ch. 2)

So where does the problem lie? Often, acknowledged experts in science assume that although scientific research requires diligent intellectual effort, biblical wisdom can be attained through a simple reading of the Bible.

Yet such a strange and poetic text is not to be read literally. Two millennia ago, long before paleontologists discovered fossils of dinosaurs and cavemen, long before data from the Hubble and Keck telescopes hinted at a multibillion-year-old universe, the Talmud (Chagiga 12b) stated explicitly that the opening chapter of Genesis, all 31 verses, is presented in a manner that intentionally conceals information. Furthermore, Moses, on the day of his death, exhorted the people three times to read the Bible as a text having within it a subtext harboring multiple meanings (Deut. 31:19, 30; 32:44).

From a Jewish perspective, the conflict over teaching science in schools is ironic. Maimonides wrote that science is one of the primary paths to knowing God, and for that reason the Bible commences with a description of the Creation. Throughout the Bible, knowledge of God is compared with the wonders of nature, as stated so well in Psalms (19:2): "The heavens tell of God's glory, and the sky declares his handiwork."

The first step in a rapprochement between science and Bible is for each camp to understand the other. Distancing the Bible from a few misplaced theological shibboleths will do wonders in furthering this mutual understanding.

Arnold Penzias, who was awarded the Nobel Prize for his research on the Big Bang, once remarked: "What we see marking the flight of galaxies with our telescopes, Maimonides saw from his metaphysical view."

To learn more, read Dr. Schroeder's book, "The Science of God" (Free Press).

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