By Rabbi Shai Cherry
More than 20 years ago, I wrote my doctoral dissertation on Jewish responses to Darwinism. What I discovered is how little Judaism needed to adjust to accommodate biological evolution.
Given the blatant contradictions between Genesis and evolution, that’s fascinating. The later innovations by our rabbis, for reasons of theology, not science, created such compatibility.
Let’s begin with divine providence — the claim that God controls all events.
Pirkei Avot asks the question, “Who is mighty?” Their answer is “the one who controls his impulses.” Since God is almighty, God exercises maximal restraint. The Talmud makes this argument in the context of the destruction of the Temple and the Babylonian exile (Yoma 69b). God “allows” power politics to unfold without divine intervention.
By the Middle Ages, what earlier rabbis had seen as the virtue of divine self-restraint was understood by both philosophers and mystics as a necessary byproduct of creation.
In the refrain of Genesis, God reviews each day’s products and pronounces them ki tov. The 17th-century commentator Shlomo Ephraim of Lunschitz (Kli Yakar) translates ki tov as “potentially good.” “Had human beings not been created, all previous creation would have been in vain.” There was no guarantee we humans would be created — Stephen Jay Gould called this radical contingency.
The Talmud’s story about a mistaken invitation to a banquet that resulted in the Temple’s destruction pointedly omits any mention of God. The consequences of innocently confusing Kamtza and Bar Kamtza were catastrophic. The rabbis, too, acknowledged how easily history might have turned out differently.
Another aspect of Darwinism is that creation is ongoing. Genesis, however, says that on the seventh day God ceased from all work of creation (Genesis 2:2). Nevertheless, our prayer book, which is as close to Jewish theological doctrine as we get, has God renewing creation daily.
The commitment to continuous creation is the rabbinic counterpart to continuous revelation through Torah study. God operates in earth’s history parallel to how God operates in Jewish history.
Evolution is called the transmutation of species. Genesis, however, could not be more explicit that each species was created “according to its kind.” Rather than accept the plain sense of the text, the rabbis imagine that each day’s creation is like the ripening fruit of a seed planted “in the beginning.”
In other words, for the rabbis, creation was instantaneous — just like the giving of both the written Torah and the oral Torah at Mount Sinai that subsequently unfurled throughout Jewish history. For the rabbis, instantaneous revelation at Sinai justified their distinctive interpretations of the written Torah through the oral Torah which they exclusively possessed.
One of the oddities of Genesis is that the sun does not break through until day four — calling into question how long those non-solar days were! On the sixth day, for the first time, God partners up. “Let us make …”
Although the early rabbis offered several interpretations for the plural, by the Middle Ages it was largely accepted that God spoke to what had already been created. Thus, as early as the Midrash of Genesis Rabbah (fifth century), rabbis understood that we humans were a coproduction of the animal kingdom and God.
Genesis did not scoop Darwin. Genesis is not interested in what we call science.
Nevertheless, the theologies that emerged after the destruction of the Temple to address our suffering despite our conviction of God’s ongoing concern are compatible with God’s presence in evolutionary history. That’s not how Young Earth Creationists read Genesis, but it is more honest and more inspiring.
Rabbi Shai Cherry, rabbi of Congregation Adath Jeshurun in Elkins Park, is the author of “Coherent Judaism: Constructive Theology, Creation, and Halakhah” and “Torah through Time: Understanding Bible Commentary from the Rabbinic Period to Modern Times” and a featured lecturer for The Great Courses’ “Introduction to Judaism.” The Board of Rabbis of Greater Philadelphia is proud to provide diverse perspectives on Torah commentary for the Jewish Exponent. The opinions expressed in this column are the author’s own and do not reflect the view of the Board of Rabbis.