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All Evolutionists are Atheists!? The Polemical Battle Underlying the Creation-Evolution Debate

It has virtually become a truism: religious practitioners believe that God created the world ex nihilo, while atheists put their money on the Big Bang – and subsequently evolution – for their own cosmogonic picture. This division, though, is no longer limited to the worlds of theology and physics alone. Today, the media, political parties, the Supreme Court and even public schools have joined the debate by also bifurcating into one of two camps: the God-fearing or the Godless. Consequently, as time passes and the propaganda multiplies, the chasm separating the two yawns farther apart making reconciliation less and less likely an option for two so myopic stances.

This insurmountable divide is all the more surprising when one notes how little the majority of both groups actually grasp of the pertinent arguments. Unfortunately, Isaac Asimov’s estimation that “[t]ens of millions of Americans, who neither know nor understand the actual arguments for – or even against – evolution, march in the army of the night with their Bibles held high,”[1] can be equally applied to hordes of evolutionists brandishing their favorite personal argument from evil. There can be no doubt that most atheists who fall before evolution’s supremacy cannot even enumerate Darwin’s most pivotal contributions to evolutionary biology or the humanities – let alone the five historical epochs the evolutionary theory rests upon. Similarly, as Asimov posits, their religious equivalents would be just as hard pressed to explicate a medieval exegete’s or a Church Father’s approach to a particular topic of the creation narrative. With few exceptions, most people simply recognize that their own position is true without troubling themselves with all the fine points or the facts of the issue.

The two sides, however, rest upon unequal grounds. Creationists – who for the most part garner their approach from the Bible – possess a plethora of available approaches in which to construe the Bible’s cosmological account when faced with practical difficulties.[2] Atheists, on the other hand, are to a great extent trapped by their own beliefs. What is the alternative to some form of evolutionism? – to believe the world is the product of a purposeful Creator – that is the exact notion they seek to exclude. By default, as the evolutionary theory is the only viable alternative to creationism and God, atheists side with the less God-infused approach.

Notwithstanding the transparent agendas present on both sides of the picket lines, we need not take for granted the necessity for such polarized factions and concise schisms. Today, we possess the proper philosophical and historiographic tools to question the necessity of the aforementioned truism. Is it truly necessary that atheists gravitate towards evolution instead of its alternative cosmological picture: creatio ex nihilo, or that creationist and evolutionist camps be consistently represented by theists and atheists respectively? Is it a historical accident that this correspondence became the case, or was there no other way for history to play itself out? While the apparent impetus that leads creationists and evolutionists to gravitate towards a respective cosmological camp is clear, the actual root of the argument lies much deeper than the issue of theism alone: many times, cosmology is just the face for much more serious concerns. Accordingly, we will scrutinize the philosophical and theo-political assumptions underlying the various methodologies employed by several religion traditions in their interpretation of the opening lines of the Genesis narrative. By doing so, a more-clear and accurate picture of the various camps’ motivations will materialize. Subsequently, we will show why evolution need not be equated with atheism.




Even though the Talmudic Sages may have already proffered an interpretation of a biblical verse, the medieval biblical exegetes (Rishonim) boasted a certain leeway in rendering a verse according to the p’shat (simple read) over its Talmudic treatment. This does not mean that some exegetes were not extremely reliant on the Talmud’s and Midrash’s exegesis, but, nonetheless, a Rishon could still accept, reject, or amend the Talmudic treatment of a verse to better fit with his own exegetical and philosophical underpinnings. Accordingly, along with the power to elucidate the Divine text, the traditional commentator bears the daunting task of wielding God’s stamp of truth with every penned word. Historically, this license has seen the Bible pass through the hands of Gnostics, neo-Platonists, mystics, rationalists and fundamentalists, without ever arriving at a clear consensus of who, if any, should be the true torch bearer.

With this in mind, we will analyze the staples of medieval biblical exegesis not to see what they said, but by reading between the lines, to see why they commented as they did. Generally, it is exceedingly difficult to uncover a commentator’s motives or underlying assumptions; to some, it is heresy to even intimate that the biblical exegete has any agenda. Accordingly, we will limit our examination of each exegete to his commentary on the Bible’s initial verses. By analyzing commentary on the same verses, the variance and disagreements between the exegetes itself will be telling of the specific methodology employed. And we shouldn’t let the simplicity of the King James translation induce us into thinking the first verses are noncomplex or monolithic; the array of following commentaries will make it evident that the Bible’s initial words are anything but obvious.

To start, we will first look at the most renowned of the medieval biblical commentators: R. Shlomo Yizhaqi (1040-1105). He suggests that the first two verses of the Bible are an introductory sentence for the rest of the Genesis narrative. He is forced to explain as such as the first word ‘בראשית’ – usually translated as ‘In the beginning’ – is actually a noun in the construct state. Hence, a better translation would be ‘In the beginning of.’ Because another noun does not follow ‘בראשית’ – as one would expect in the case of a noun in the construct state – R. Yizhaqi takes it for granted that the Bible has an implied word following the first word.[3] He, first and foremost, feels compelled to uphold the grammatical integrity of the verses, and thus interprets them as follows:

In the beginning of [creation], God created the Heavens and the earth when the earth was tohu and vohu and there was darkness…[4]


In this reconstruction of the opening verses, he inserts a noun into the narrative in order for the verse to read properly. Accordingly, the Bible does not inform the reader of the actual order of creation in its first two verses; they are simply prefatory to the rest of the Genesis narrative. R. Yizhaqi further buttresses his claim by pointing out that the Bible only later specifies that the Heavens were formed on the second day (so they could not have been created on the first day) and that the spirit of God seems to hover over the surface of the waters (even before they were ever officially created on the third day). R. Yizhaqi’s insistence on interpreting the Bible’s first word in line with the verse’s true grammatical structure forced him to: (1) assume the implied word ‘creation’ in the initial verse, (2) interpret the verse as an introductory sentence, and thereby keep a literal translation of the latter half of the verse (as actually referring to the Heavens and the earth) as well, (3) render the prefix vav (and) that precedes the second verse as a conjunction meaning ‘when,’ instead of its more common rendering as the connective ‘and,’ and last (4) accept the Talmud’s[5] assertion that the Heavens were constructed from fire and water. Accordingly, R. Yizhaqi is not swayed by any political or philosophical motives; what he believes to be the best read, the p’shat, is the final litmus test for him (in this case); his philosophy is formed and molded by the best read of the text.[6]

R. Abraham Ibn Ezra (1092-1167), who is renowned for his outstanding grammatical expertise, focuses instead on the diction of the verses at hand. Following suit with other Jewish neo-Platonists of his era, R. Ibn Ezra rejects the commonly accepted understanding of ‘בראשית’ as referring to creation ex nihilo for philological reasons. He cites verses 21 and 27 as defeaters for the thesis that ברא refers to creation ex nihilo, for those verses use the term ברא in a context that clearly indicates that the entity was not created ex nihilo. Bearing this in mind, R. Ibn Ezra concludes that the etymology of the first word in the Bible (ברא) refers not to ‘creating’ but to the ‘cutting’ or ‘setting boundaries’ of something that had already existed. Accordingly, he is able to justify the Neo-Platonists’ contention that an original matter existed for which God ‘cut’ or ‘set boundaries.’ Hence, the Bible itself lends support for R. Ibn Ezra’s neo-platonic understanding of the world’s beginnings.

Nachmanides (R. Moshe ben Nachman, 1194-1270) has a different agenda altogether. From the very start of his commentary on the Bible, he highlights that those who reject creatio ex nihilo reject the Torah of Moses.[7]

For there is a great need to begin the Torah with ‘In the beginning God created,’ for that is the basis of our faith, and someone who does not believe in it, but thinks that the world has existed eternally, he is a heretic in a fundamental, and has no connection to Torah at all.


All grammatical and lexicographical issues are secondary to the ultimate aim of the verse. To him, the opening verses can refer to nothing but creation ex nihilo. Only after this not-so-subtle proviso, he goes on to explain the opening verses of the Genesis narrative. He continues by differentiating between the verb (ברא) and two other similar meaning words: ‘formed’ (יצר) and ‘made’ (עשה). He explains that the cognate ברא exclusively indicates the creation of something from absolute nothingness (יש מעין), while the words ‘formed’ and ‘made’ are used to describe making something out of a pre-existing material – they never denote creatio ex nihilo[8] – even though, as R. Ibn Ezra observes, ברא is employed occasionally to mean ‘not creation ex nihilo.’

In line with his focus on creation ex nihilo, Nahmanides is forced to interpret the first verse in its colloquial non-literal sense ‘In the beginning,’ instead of R. Yizhaqi’s more precise translation of ‘In the beginning of.’ Owing to this understanding, Nachmanides explains the other two key terms of the verse “the Heavens and the earth” (השמים and הארץ) non-literally as well, given that the Bible proclaims the Heavens were created on the second day. Nahmanides understands that the usage of the two terms in the first verse designate the potential for all future stages of physical reality. In other words, God executed one act of creation; an infinitely small substance was first created and then it went through a kind of non-Darwinian evolution (a form of super evolution) with the hand of God directing the world’s formation and development. He explains the phrase “the Heavens and the earth” in light of his contemporary Greek knowledge. They correspond, first to the hyle matter, and subsequently, to the four primary elements. Far beyond the two explanations of the aforementioned medieval exegetes, Nahmanides is willing to completely undermine the literal sense[9] of the first verse in order to buttress his philosophical and scientific framework.

While we could end our Jewish exegetical section here, it seems only appropriate to conclude our study on the first verses of Genesis by looking towards the halakhic-philosophic giant of the medieval era: Maimonides (1138-1204). Though he never wrote a systematic commentary on the Bible, one can cull his opinion on many verses by reading his other works. He devotes much of the second book of the Guide for the Perplexed to the issue of creationism, so it would be impossible to put forth even a truncated analysis of his viewpoint. Instead, we will simply take note of the methodology he implemented when his contemporary science or Aristotelian logic contradicted the literal gist of a biblical text. In the Treatise on Resurrection,[10] published near the end of his life, he says that:

I believe every possible happening that is supported by a prophetic statement and do not strip it of its plain meaning. I fall back on interpreting a statement only when its literal sense is impossible, like the corporeality of God; the possible however remains as stated.


Unlike other medieval commentators, Maimonides always refrained from betting the farm on any specific interpretation. He would exclude the literal meaning of a text when it could be demonstrated logically to be false; obviously, the Divine text could not impart fallacious information. Consequently, by the story of creation, he says without hesitation:

All these assertions (about creation) are needed if the text of Scripture is taken in its external (literal) sense, even though it must not be taken as shall be explained[11] when we shall speak of it at length. You ought to memorize this notion. For it is a great wall that I have built around the Law: a wall that surrounds it warding off the stones of all those who project these missiles against it. (italics mine)[12]


While Nahmanides deems one heretical for rejecting the creatio ex nihilo position, Maimonides asserts that if someone could offer him a sound demonstration for the eternity of the world, he would have no problem fitting it into the words of the Bible, and would accept it without hesitation.[13] Maimonides emphatically proclaims Themistius’ rule that “That which exists does not conform to the various opinions, but rather the correct opinions conform to that which exists.”[14] In a similar vein, even R. Yehuda ha-Levi, the author of the Kuzari, who is more sympathetic to the viewpoint of Nahmanides, says:

If, after all, a believer in the Law finds himself compelled to admit an eternal matter and the existence of many worlds prior to this one, this would not impair his belief that this world was created at a certain epoch…[15]


Obviously, R. ha-Levi understood that a person must follow his own perception of truth. Similarly, Maimonides did not feel obliged to follow the literal sense of the Bible where it led him towards philosophically or scientifically inadmissible conclusions.

So, we have seen that the four aforementioned exegetes each present widely differing criteria (and methodologies) for interpreting the opening verses of the Genesis narrative. R. Yizhaqi focuses on the grammatical integrity of the verse, R. Ibn Ezra upon the diction, Nahmanides highlights his own philosophical and scientific underpinnings, and Maimonides accepts the literal understanding of the verse until it is contradicted by some demonstrated truth.




This bias in the exegetes’ interpretation of the Genesis narrative, especially prevalent in Nahmonides’ approach to the opening verses of Genesis, is equally evident in the Christian approach to creation. The Christian right of America, generally identified with the Evangelical or conservative Protestant movements, has promoted a take on creationism that is based on a hyper-literal reading of the Genesis account.[16] They have aligned themselves with the scientific creationist movement (or young-earth creationists) who believe that the world is less than 10,000 years old.

Much to the surprise of many, scientific creationists refrain from claiming that all of their insights into the creation and subsequent development of the world are explicitly stated in the Bible; rather, they piece together a cosmological picture based on the logical implications of a holistic read of the Bible, embracing modern science when it buttresses their argument. To be able to piece together such an integrated cosmological picture is obviously an exceedingly tough task, but to construct one that fits accurately with the suppositions of both archaeology and science is daunting. The much heralded former engineering professor-turned-anti-evolutionist, Henry M. Morris, has assembled such a picture, and has so effectively promoted its validity, that approximately forty percent of the American population regard Morris’ picture of creationism as correct. Of course, the fact that he has founded a journal, an institute for creation research, a college (Christian Heritage College) and has written over fifty books including his three-volume boxed set The Modern Creation Trilogy, may have helped a bit.

His basic assumption, identifiable with conservative Christians, is that the creation account in Genesis provides a:

“marvelous and accurate accounts of the actual events of the primal history of the universe,” that goes “far beyond those that science can determine,” while offering “an intellectually satisfying framework within which to interpret the facts that science can determine.”[17]


In other words, if one wants true scientific ratiocinations without all the fuss of the scientific method, one need look no farther than the Bible. Evolutionary theory, along with all other scientific notions that contradict the literal sense of the Bible should be disregarded, for who knows science better than God – the founder of the rules of science.

Within the ranks of scientific creationists, there are no secular thinkers or apologists for the “Word of God” in the Bible. The Bible is the most vital and central book that guides their lives and it contains nothing but truth. They are taught from the earliest days of their youth the Biblical stories and the centricity of Jesus Christ. But, one has to wonder why the Christian right has put so much effort into promoting their cosmological approach. Besides journals, a seemingly endless array of creationist books, and a college, they have even built a twenty-six million dollar Creation Museum in Petersburg, Kentucky – a 60,000 square foot museum built on five acres of flatland and designed by an ex-Universal Studios exhibit director that presents an alternative theory to that of evolution – and they plan on making several more in other American cities.

With this kind of high-tech hype, overwhelming media attention on the internet, and in the news, as well as the seemingly endless public school debates – the Scopes trial was over eighty years ago![18] – it would seem that this is the key issue that Protestants fight for in America. What Christian issue is given more prominence in the news than creationism? Ironically, as of late, the world is exposed to less “Jesus talk” and more creationism. However, we should wonder: is this issue truly the key issue between the conservatives and the rest of the world that Christians willing go into battle over – and if it is, then why? One would imagine that the notions of Jesus’ Messiahship, the notion of salvation or the Afterlife would be higher on the laundry list than promoting Old Testament creationism.

In order to understand the pivotal role that creationism must play in Christian theology, we will look towards the roots of the Protestant Reformation. Before the sixteenth century, many other groups splintered from the Church before Martin Luther (1483-1546) – an Augustinian monk and professor of theology at the University of Wittenberg – triggered the bifurcation of the Church. These revolutionary groups sought to reform the Church and its teachings, though never intended to disunite Christendom. Nonetheless, until the pope officially recognized certain splinter groups, they hung in limbo on the narrow stretch between orthodoxy and heresy.[19] Like the Waldenses of the 11th century,[20] the English cleric John Wycliffe (1328-84) and the Bohemian priest Jan Hus (1373-1415), these dissenters knew that there was something awry in the Church and its teachings, and aspired to repair it.

The hallmark of the Protestant Reformation, like the Karaites before them, was the importance placed on the primacy of Scripture – individualistic, subjective reading of the Bible, that recently has led to a hyper literalistic approach to reading the Old Testament. The root cause of Luther’s protestations was his own Church experiences in the 16th century. While the Church decided early on to reject the obligation to uphold most of the Biblical commandments and ritual cult, Luther pined over the fact that the modern incarnation of the Church simply replaced the old commandments with a litany of new commandments, sacraments and indulgences, none of which were clearly indicated in the New Testament. They rejected one set of laws, only to impose a whole other set – a set completely determined extra-biblically. Luther felt that the Catholic Church had missed the boat and was prescribing exactly that which Pauline Christianity came to wipe out.[21]

As Luther’s Protestant views came into focus, next to sola fide and sola gratia, stood sola scriptoria, the Scripture principle. With the primacy of Scripture as the fundamental principle upon which all Protestantism rests, it is clear why Christian conservatives put so much weight on the actual words of the creation narrative. In contrast to medieval Catholicism, which was content to interpret the Bible allegorically or spiritually, Luther insisted on the literal sense of Scripture. Accordingly, if the Protestant movement abstained from upholding the literal truth of any aspect of the Bible, then their whole argument against the Catholic Church would be completely undermined.[22] Hence it follows that in and of itself, the creation narrative may be relatively unimportant from a Christian perspective, for Jesus’ message would be true independent of which creation process God chose to implement. Nonetheless, the opening verses of the creation narrative must remain literally interpreted as it rides upon the coattails of other more significant Protestant theology that also must be interpreted literally.[23] For if one can challenge or undermine the Bible’s message or intent in one area, there is nothing to stop people from doing so in other areas. For once we allow even the points that are less important and non-crucial to be interpreted allegorically, symbolically, metaphorically, etc., then we open the Pandora’s Box that ends with the vindication of the Catholic Church, the sacraments, indulgences and its overwhelming authority.[24]




Unlike Conservative Christians, Catholics are in no way bound to the literal reading of the Old or New Testament. To the contrary, commentators within the Catholic world have produced countless interpretations of the Genesis narrative, from significantly different vantage points, and will continue construing the text based on the archeological, scientific and philosophical findings that arise in each generation.[25] The Church has not institutionalized an official way to read the Genesis narrative, and unless the Church actually deems some way to be heretical or to be officially binding, all may carry on producing their own stances on most of the Genesis account.

Far removed from this approach has been the Church’s stance on Darwinism as reflected in the positions of the various popes since the nineteenth century. The first pope to respond to Darwin’s theory propounded in Descent of Man was Pope Pious IX. He writes that Darwinism is:

a system which is so repugnant at once to history, to the tradition of all peoples, to exact science, to observed facts, and even to Reason herself, [it] would seem to need no refutation. Did not alienation from God and the leaning toward materialism, due to depravity, eagerly seek a support in all this tissue of fables.[26]


More recently, the official stance of the Catholic Church on the creation-evolution debate has been propounded by Pope John Paul II.[27] He begins his article Evolution and the Living God by acknowledging that “revelation, [the Holy writings] for its part, contains teachings concerning the nature and origins of humanity,” and continues, “We know, in fact, that truth cannot contradict truth.” Accordingly, one would assume that the past pope plans on giving revelation its fair shake against the conclusions of science; but, he never does. Instead, he quotes his predecessor, Pope Pius XII’s opinion found in Encyclical Humani generic “that there was no opposition between evolution and the doctrine of faith about humanity and human vocation, on condition that one did not lose sight of several indisputable facts.”[28]  Pope John Paul II claims that:

New knowledge leads us to the realization that evolution is more than a hypothesis. It is indeed remarkable that this theory has been progressively accepted by researchers, following a series of discoveries in various fields of knowledge. The convergence, neither sought nor fabricated, of the results of work that was conducted independently is in itself a significant argument in favor of this theory.[29]


Besides recounting that man is created in the image and likeness of God, Pope John Paul II does not deal with any other details of the Genesis narrative in this essay. For his purposes here, they are completely worthless. The importance of the Genesis narrative lies in the details involving man’s relationship to God; the rest – the vast majority of the narrative – need not worry the theologian or the scientist.

However, Pope John Paul II insists that theistic evolution[30] is acceptable only as long as it coincides with revelation. He says that

theories of evolution which, in accordance with the philosophies inspiring them, consider the mind as emerging from the forces of living matter, or as a mere epiphenomena of this matter, are incompatible with the truth about humanity.[31]


Thus, Pope John Paul II accepts the conclusions of scientists, but only as long as they do not contradict “revelation.” But what does Pope John Paul II mean by “revelation?” For those of the Jewish or Islamic faiths, revelation would denote either the Divine words recorded in the Tanakh or the Qur’an respectively. So we might be suckered into thinking that the Pope means to imply the messages found in the Old or New Testament by his usage of the word “revelation;” but really this is not the case. In truth, Pope John Paul II is unconcerned with the doctrines or dogmas put forth by the Holy writings.[32] Even his treatment of the man’s image and likeness of God stands upon the interpretation put forth by the conciliar Constitution Gaudium et spes that human beings are “the only creature on earth that God has wanted for its own sake.” Definitely an interesting and promising interpretation, but by no far stretch the only possible one. But from Pope John Paul II’s perspective, that is the main drive of Genesis narrative – the centricity of mankind before the Lord.

Not by a long shot was he, or his predecessor, the first Catholics to take the Genesis account, in part or in full, non-literally. This precedent was set as early on as the Early Church Fathers. Some of them thought that the opening verses of Genesis had important information about the physical world, as well as the spiritual world, but many of them subordinated the literal meaning of the text before their own philosophical outlook. For example, one would be hard pressed to find Origen’s (185-254) Platonic ideology including an apophatic God whose external self-manifestation is first revealed in the Logos[33] within a literal reading of the Bible. Similarly, though St. Augustine’s (354-430) famously exclaims “nothing is to be accepted save on the authority of Scripture, since that authority is greater than all the powers of the human mind,” his approach to Biblical exegesis in his The Literal Interpretation of Genesis can hardly be deemed literalistic. He says:

With the Scriptures it is a matter of treating about the faith. For that reason, as I have noted repeatedly, if anyone, not understanding the mode of divine eloquence, should find something about these matters [about the physical universe] in our books, or hear of the same from those books, of such a kind that it seems to be at variance with the perceptions of his own rational faculties, let him believe that these other things are in no way necessary to the admonitions or accounts or predictions of the Scriptures. In short, it must be said that our authors knew the truth about the nature of the skies, but it was not the intention of the Spirit of God, who spoke through them, to teach men anything that would not be of use to them for their salvation.[34]


Also, the Church Fathers Origen, Clement of Alexandria, Justin Martyr, St. Irenaeus of Lyons and many others put forth non-literal interpretations to several verses or even the whole of the Genesis account. It is as much part of the Church’s tradition to deal with verses as it sees fit as any of its other catecheses.

In order to understand this leeway of interpretation, we must first understand the foundation of the Church itself. The Church’s catechesis summarizes the primary details of Catholic belief including orthodox trinitarian Christianity, as well as the belief that Jesus set up the Church around the twelve apostles on earth before he died. They cite the Gospel According to Matthew as the source for Jesus’s appointments of the Church; the verse states: “And I say also unto thee, That thou art Peter, and upon this rock I will build my church; and the gates of hell shall not prevail against it.” While the present Pope is viewed as Peter’s (head of the Early Church) contemporaneous successor, bishops are the modern day successors to the apostles. This organization of the Church is kept from doctrinal error by the guidance of the Holy Spirit. The Sacred Magisterium infallibly teaches and interprets the truth of faith.[35] Accordingly, Catholics consider their philosophical viewpoints as produced by the Holy Spirit and the Church, for the most part, as infallible.

This fact is easy to see within the world of doctrinal beliefs, but it also holds true for Biblical exegesis. A surprising corroboration for this method of interpretation can be found very early on in the Gospel According to Matthew (subsequently referred to GAM) 2:23 which (possibly) quotes the verse from Isaiah 11:1 to prove that Jesus returned to Nazareth to fulfill the alleged prophecy from Isaiah: “He will be called a Nazorean.” First of all, this prophetic fulfillment is anything but: if the quotation’s source is Isaiah (11:1), the verse calls the Messiah a branch (נצר), while the verse from the GAM clearly is referring to the city Nazareth, which would have an altogether different Hebrew root (נזר).

Possibly, this prophetic fulfillment could be accounted for by transliterating the Hebrew letter zadi (צ) as a Greek zeta (ς).[36] Still, even in a transliterated text could account for the Matthean usage, it is hard to believe that this prophetic fulfillment would convince any of Jesus’ followers.[37] First, the city of Nazareth is not mentioned once in Tanakh, so there can be no prophetic fulfillments involving the famed city. Next, the GAM assumes that it was God who directed Joseph to Nazareth, yet this is not the case; the angel merely told Joseph to enter the land of Israel.[38] There is no evidence that Jesus’ family were directed or even intended to reach Nazareth. Last, and most importantly, no where in the prophetic writings, or any writing besides the GAM, does any one claim regarding the Messiah that “He will be called a Nazorean;” the Evangelist simply made it up. So what was the author of the GAM trying to accomplish by misrepresenting the Isaian prophecy?

This issue would present a crushing blow to the exegetical integrity of the New Testament if not for, as Goodwin[39] puts it, the “hermeneutic presupposition” (Divine Hermeneutic license) underlying New Testament exegesis.  By this, he means that the Church has the ability to construe a verse away from its original, intended or literal meaning in order to better fit with the Church’s theology or propaganda. Ellis explains:

In the use of the OT in the New, implicit Midrash appears in double entendre, in interpretive alterations of OT citations and in more elaborate forms. The first type involves a play on words. Thus Matthew 2:23 cites Jesus’ residence in Nazareth as a “fulfillment” of prophecies identifying the Messiah as Nazirite or a netzer.[40]

From this example, it is evident that already in the period of the writing of the New Testament, Evangelists assumed that they enjoyed the authority to construe the Old Testament to buttress their own theology, very much as the rabbis exploited a similar methodology through the use of Midrashic exegesis. With the exception of the early second century movement Marcionism – which rejected that the vengeful god of the Old Testament was identical with the loving god of the New Testament – the Old Testament was always a ripe source for the Evangelists to procure prophetic fulfillments, messianic ideology and pseudo-Jesus references. Just as these Old Testament construals were deemed by the Early Christian to be accurate and true in God’s eyes, analogously, the Catholic Church also feels that they may construe the Testaments however they see fit. The existence of the Church’s Divine right to authoritatively interpret the Bible might explain why it took so many centuries for the Church to encourage Bible study,[41] for the literal sense of the text does not convey Divine truth; rather, Divine truth rests solely within the authoritative interpretation of the Church. Therefore, some verses will be construed away from their obvious meaning, while others may be (seemingly) totally disregarded: accordingly, grace is not a free gift of God; it is gift to those who accept and follow the whim of the Church.

Now it is clear why the Catholic Church has accepted a version of evolution as their official cosmological picture. Above all, the Catholic Church stands for their own unflinching authority. Salvation is not attained through metaphysical speculation or individualistic spiritual development, but solely through accepting the Church’s pathway to heaven. This position parallels the stance taken by the Buddha, and since characterized by Theravada Buddhism in Southern Asia, towards metaphysical speculation. Malunkyaputta, a monk and student of the Buddha, was drawn towards abstruse cosmogonic speculation and decided to seek the truth from his master. The Buddha responded:

Well, Malunkyaputta, anyone who demands the elucidation of such futile questions which do not in any way tend to real spiritual progress and edification is like one who has been shot by an arrow and refuses to let the doctor pull it out and attend to the wound. If the weakened man were to say, “So long as I do not know who the man is who shot me… until then I will not allow the arrow to be pulled out or the wound to be attended to.” – that man, Malunkyaputta, will die without ever knowing all these details. A holy life, Malunkyaputta, does not depend on the dogma that the world is eternal or not eternal and so forth. Whether or not these things obtain, there still remain the problems of birth, old age, death, sorrow… all the grim facts of life – and for their extinction in the present life I am prescribing this Dhamma. Accordingly, bear it in mind that these questions which I have not elucidated… I have not elucidated purposely because these profit not, nor have they anything to do with the fundamentals of a holy life nor do they tend toward Supreme Wisdom, the Bliss of Nirvana.[42]


Just as the Buddha’s parable shows that Malunkyaputta may squander his life away by focusing on matters that do not lead one towards achieving the purpose of life or nirvana, so too, a good Catholic practitioner may miss the boat by speculating about metaphysical issues without the assistance of the Church’s authoritative positions. Really, the Church, like Buddha, places no emphasis on metaphysical notions that do not lead a person to observe the proper holy life as defined by their own respective dogmas. Whether the earth was created ex nihilo, or is eternal, or is the product of some five and a half billion years of evolution is religiously worthless; as long as one’s stance does not undermine the Church’s message and authority, any of the possibilities could be made to jive with the diction of the Bible; the Church’s Divine hermeneutic license ensures as much.

In the end, Pope John Paul II, as well as his predecessor, both accepted evolution simply because the science of the day supported it; the Bible does not really have any say in the debate. The Bible’s literal stance is no longer a viable option for interpreting the universe’s beginnings. Ernst Mayr explains that creationists believe that:

Everything in the world today is still as it was created. This was an entirely logical conclusion based on the known facts at the time the Bible was written. Some theologians, on the basis of the biblical genealogy, calculated that the world was quite recent, having been created in 4004 B.C., that is, about 6,000 years ago.[43]


But today, when creationism is not the logical choice, the Catholic Church feels no obligation to fall before the literal sense of the Bible. Evolution is accepted, not because it is the best read, but because Catholics are not truly interested in the best read. Indeed, there is no intended interpretation that we should discern on our own; there is only the canonical interpretation which the Church alone may define. Today, science is as accurate, if not a better source of the natural sciences as the Bible. In Catholicism, what matters is the hierarchal structure; knowledge of how the Bible said that God created the world is insignificant apart from the Church’s interpretation.




Before evolution was associated with atheistic schools of thought, Jewish commentators and world leaders had no fear or problems with the idea that the world is much older than six thousand years; to the contrary, many kabbalists and then contemporaneous rabbis thought the scientific findings of evolutionists supported the literal understanding of countless Midrashim and Aggadot. R. Israel Lipschutz of Danzig (1782-1860), who wrote one of the standard commentaries on the Mishnah entitled Tiferet Yisrael, says in a sermon he delivered in the spring of 1842:

And now my beloved brothers, see on what a sound basis our Torah stands. For this secret [of the world’s destruction and recreation] handed to us from our ancestors, revealed to us hundreds of years ago, can be found in nature in our own time in the clearest manner. The restless spirit of man, the desire to discover all mysteries, has [brought him to] dig and search the belly of the earth like a mole, as well as the highest of mountains, the Pyrenees  and Carpathian, and in the Cordilla mountains in [South] America, as well as the Himalayas, digging and searching until they found an awesome order of fossils, one on top of another at a hair’s distance, where one can assume that a word of catastrophe was caused through the His Divine hand, which sends fury through the land and causes it to tremble…They found in 1807 of their calendar, in Siberia, in the north of the earth under the permanent layer of ice, a mammoth elephant… Also the remains of fossilized sea creatures have been found within the highest mountains. From all this, we can see that all the Kabbalists have told us for so many years about the repeated destruction and renewal of the earth has found clear confirmation in our time.[44]


In a similar vein, R. Elijah Benamozegh (1822-1900) – who was a traditional Rabbi, philosopher and exegete of Italy – also makes use of evolution, but in a most surprising way. He asserts in Il Mio Credo (1877) that:

I believe, as science teaches, that animal forms appeared on the earth and evolved into more perfect beings… More and more perfect species have developed, one after the other, over the course of millions of years on the face of the earth. The most perfect form is Man. But will nature stop here? This would indeed be strange. Present humankind, as Renan says, will evolve into another, more prefect human being… All this is stated by Judaism, and is called the Resurrection.[45]


One can only speculate about how R. Lipschutz and R. Benamozegh would further integrate today’s evolutionary theories and concepts into their own Kabbalistic and philosophical outlooks. Nonetheless, we can see that, at least initially, the evolutionary theory was not looked on as a frightening idea sure to shake the core of Jewish beliefs.

However, one could make the case that this acceptance of modern science was only welcomed because it did not uproot any of their fundamentals of faith; had the scientists proffered conclusive evidence that for the validity of polytheism or that Zeus truly created the world, we could be sure that R. Lipschutz, R. Benamozegh and other Jewish theologians would surely censure such evidence and question the validity of the scientists’ findings. This is exactly how the late Lubavitcher scion, Rabbi Menachem Mendel Schneerson (1903-1994) acted,[46] along with most ultra-orthodox rabbis of the last fifty years in the face of evidence that the world is more than six thousand years old.

So, we must conclude, theologians are stuck upholding their tradition sometimes even against the pangs of science, but are atheists stuck upholding the evolutionary theory? We will observe that atheists are not actually stuck in the same corner as the theologian. Really, the evolutionist’s corner was self-made, and that corner, actually, is just an accident of history. To illustrate this point, we will turn to the infamous Dan Brown and his other novel, Angels and Demons.

The book’s beginning chapters describe how the Catholic priest physicist, Leonardo Vetra used the world’s largest particle accelerator to create anti-matter; in other words, he was able to simulate the Big Bang. He reasoned that his machine would render viable proof to the fact that God exists in that his machine works in the same way in which God originally acted in creating the universe. While the premise of this argument might seem tenuous at best, really, it is not one to be scoffed at. The medieval exegete-philosopher Gersonides (1288-1344) accepts a Platonic account of the universe’s origins based solely on the fact that it is a logical contradiction for new matter to be created. Hence, for him, not even God could create ex nihilo.

Let us take Brown’s fiction into the realm of reality. Let us imagine that scientists were able to create such a machine: so, within the normal rules of the physical world, it is the case that sometimes things are created ex nihilo as Vetra’s machine could. Because this machine works without the direct assistance of a deity, the scientific world would have produced an alternative to the first step of the evolutionary theory, i.e. the Big Bang; as of today, there is no alternative cosmological picture for atheists.[47] This being the case, Vetra’s machine would offer the atheistic community the alternative to evolution that they never had.

Given the possibility of a scientific alternative to theistic creationism before the theory of evolution was ever hypothesized, the world’s atheists would have happily joined the “creatio ex nihilo machine” bandwagon. That machine would offer the atheists an alternative approach – a scientific approach – to explain the world’s beginnings.[48] Therefore, creation ex nihilo would be an equally viable option for the atheistic scientific world (even though evolution would still be an option). Really, it is an historical accident that the evolutionary theory became the foundation of the atheist movement. The atheists’ stance is not a case of fact (evolution) flowing from the theology, but theology following fact. There is nothing whatsoever within atheistic dogma that forces one to side with evolution. Really, had the world played out differently, creation ex nihilo could have been associated with the God deniers, while evolution would be, at best, a competing theory.




As we have seen, the primary driving force behind Genesis exegesis, and possibly sectarian biblical commentaries in whole, is not so much what the verse says, as what the commentator thinks before ever penning a word. This point is highlighted by Rabbi Joseph Soloveitchik (1903-1991) in The Emergence of Ethical Man. He says:

I have always felt that due to some erroneous conception, we have actually misunderstood the Judaic anthropology and read into the Biblical text ideas which stem from alien sources. This feeling becomes more pronounced when we try to read the Bible not as an isolated literary text but as a manifestation of a grand tradition rooted in the very essence of our God-consciousness that transcends the bounds of the standardized and fixed text and fans out into every aspect of our existential experience.[49]


Nonetheless, R. Soloveitchik’s assertion should not be surprising, nor alarming. Most of the scholars who take the time to put forth integrated, well-thought out commentaries on the Bible, are those who are invested in its message and live according to its guidelines, as they interpret them. Therefore, of course they will interpret the Biblical narrative in line with the mores and values of their society. No matter what one’s religious orientation, and regardless of one’s acceptance of theism, we have seen that people will do what it takes to ensure that their own beliefs are manifest, not only in the physical world, but also in the Divinely inspired texts.


[1] Isaac Asimov from Science on Trial by Douglas Futuyama (New York: Pantheon Books, 1982), p. 175.

[2] For example, creatio ex nihilo, neo-Platonism, and allegorical positions (including apologist, accommodationalist, and scientific) are some of the valid approaches available to biblical exegetes.

[3] It is not uncommon for R. Yizhaqi to allow for implied words in the Bible. He proffers four other examples: Job 3:10; Isaiah 8:4, 46:10 and Amos 10:12.

[4] Rashi’s commentary on Genesis 1:1.

[5] BT Hagigah 12a.

[6] And, based on the grammatical nuances of the verse, he will accept the Midrash that best fits the exegetical issue he is addressing.

[7] Nachmonides commentary on Genesis 1:1; see also his commentary on Exodus 13:16 (D”H Ve’Atah Omer) and Leviticus 25:2 (D”H VeHene Ha-Yamim).

[8] He apologetically explains Ibn Ezra’s issue by claiming that the cognate (ברא) is employed by sea monsters to illustrate their immense size, not that they were actually created ex nihilo. He does not even try to explain the usage by mankind (probably because the intrinsic difference between man and the rest of creation is self evident.)

[9] According to Nachmanides, the whole verse is lav davqa – each word is not to be taken in its precise meaning.

[10] Treatise on Resurrection, from Crisis and Leadership: Epistles of Maimonides, trans. Abraham S. Halkin. and D. Hartman (Philadelphia, 1985), p. 228.

[11] See Maimonides, Guide for the Perplexed, (trans. Shlomo Pines, Uni. of Chicago Press, 1963), II, 30.

[12] Ibid., II, 17, p. 298

[13] See Ibid., I, 71, p. 179

[14] Ibid., I, 71, p.179

[15] Cuzari I 67

[16]  Some Evangelical Protestants take the “catastrophic approach” to creation. This approach (which parallels the modern Ultra-Orthodox understanding of creation first proposed by Kabbalists who interpolate the literal sense of the creation account with several Midrashim and Aggadot) hypothesizes that several worlds were created and destroyed on earth before the present epoch came into being. This approach, though, is exceedingly less common than the simple literal read of the Genesis account among Evangelicals. Furthermore, Protestants submit other approaches to creationism including the “gap theory” adopted rather early by Cyrus Ingerson Scofield (1843-1921) and the “day-age” theory, still agued today by Hugh Ross in his Fingerprint of God: Recent Scientific Discoveries Reveal the Unmistakable Identity of the Creator, 2nd ed. (Orange, California: Promise Publishing, 1991), and several other concordist approaches.

[17] Morris and Morris, Modern Creation Trilogy, 1:13/14.

[18] In 1925, the Tennessean high school teacher John Scopes was found guilty of violating the law against teaching evolution in the class room.

[19] This was the case regarding the Franciscan Order in 1210 and the Dominican Order in 1216.

[20] They were started by the European layman preacher Peter Waldo (d.1218) petitioning for a more literal reading of the New Testament

[21] Luther relied on the teachings of Paul that grace is a free gift of God and that faith alone justified a sinner to effectively call into question the Church’s whole ritualization of Jesus’ message. We do not intend to enter the debate whether Luther is begging the question by basing his interpretation of Christianity and critique of Roman Catholicism almost exclusively on Paul’s interpretation of Christianity.

[22] According to Luther, the super-structure of the medieval Catholic Church arose by departing from the literal sense of Scripture. He understood that the Bible itself is to provide the checks and balances; in fact, Luther and Calvin insisted on Scripture providing the foundations of a prophetic critique paralleling the prophetic rejection of the super-structure of pre-exilic Israel.

[23] For example, with no literal Fall or transmission of Adam’s curse to the rest of humankind, there is no necessity for Jesus’ death.

[24] Ironically, the hallmark of the Protestant movement, as well as the reason that there are more than ten thousand branches of Protestantism in America alone, is the freedom to interpret the Old and New Testament as one sees fit. Yet, when it comes to creationism, even though grammatically, philologically, and exegetically, there are other, of not better ways to read the text, many Protestants hold fast in their alleged literal reading of the text.

[25] In this way, the Catholic Church’s approach to exegesis closely parallels the method employed by the Jewish medieval exegetes, while the modern Protestant approach to exegesis exactly corresponds to contemporary right-wing Jewish commentaries in their censorship of non-literalism.

[26] Science on Trial by Douglas Futuyama (New York: Pantheon Books, 1982), p. 24, from Andrew Dickson White, A History of the Warfare of Science with Theology in Christendom, Vol. 1 (London: Macmillan, 1896; reprint ed., New York: Dover 1960).

[27] Evolution and the Living God, Pope John Paul II chapter 9, Peter’s Science and theology, pp. 149-152.

[28] Cf. Acta Apostolicae Sedis 42 (1950), pp. 575-6.

[29] The present pope, Pope Benedict XVI endorsed a similar statement when, in his pre-pope days as president of the Commission and head of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith in July 2004, said: “it is virtually certain that all living organisms have descended from this first organism.”

[30] The Church believes in some form of theistic teleological evolution.

[31] Pope John Paul II also wrote to the Pontifical Academy of Sciences on the subject of cosmology and how to interpret Genesis:

Cosmogony and cosmology have always aroused great interest among peoples and religions. The Bible itself speaks to us of the origin of the universe and its make-up, not in order to provide us with a scientific treatise, but in order to state the correct relationships of man with God and with the universe. Sacred Scripture wishes simply to declare that the world was created by God, and in order to teach this truth it expresses itself in the terms of the cosmology in use at the time of the writer. The Sacred Book likewise wishes to tell men that the world was not created as the seat of the gods, as was taught by other cosmogonies and cosmologies, but was rather created for the service of man and the glory of God. Any other teaching about the origin and make-up of the universe is alien to the intentions of the Bible, which does not wish to teach how heaven was made but how one goes to heaven (Pope John Paul II, October 3, 1981 to the Pontifical Academy of Science, “Cosmology and Fundamental Physics”).

[32] Obviously this is a statement that Paul would deny; nevertheless, in practive, what drives the Church is not the literal sense of the text. The Church always finds a way to interpret the Bible consistent with their beliefs.

[33] Origen says that “we have treated to the best of our ability in our notes upon Genesis, as well as in the foregoing pages, when we found fault with those who, taking the words in their apparent signification, said that the time of six days was occupied in the creation of the world” (Against Celus 6:60).

[34] See St. Augustine 2:9; also see 1:19–20, Chap. 19.

[35] The Magisterium is headed by the Pope who serves as the primus inter pares (first among equals) over the rest of the bishops.

[36] Similarly, when a ‘צ’ is transliterated into English, many times, an author will simply write a ‘Z’ with a dot under it. See BT Shabbat 117a where the word ‘בי נצרפי’ appears referring to the annex of a church.

[37] Charlesworth (Charlesworth, James H., & Weaver, Walter P. The Old and New Testaments. Valley Forge, PA: Trinity Press International, 1993) says “to many Christian readers, to say nothing of the Jewish reader, the NT’s interpretation of the Old appears to be exceedingly arbitrary,” (p. 209), and that’s putting it lightly.

[38] See GAM 2:20

[39] Goodwin, Mark J. (April 2005). Hosea and the “Son of the Living God” in Matthew 16:16.  Catholic Biblical Quarterly, 67 No. 2, pp. 265-283.

[40] p. 202, E. Earle Ellis in “How the New Testament Uses the Old” in New Testament Interpretation. Edited by I. H. Marshall. Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1978.

[41] At Vatican II, the council concluded that both clergy and laity were to continue making Bible study a central part of their lives. This only reinforced Pope Pius XII’s encouragement of scholars to study the Ancient Biblical languages for a better grasp of the original meaning of the text, in his 1943 encyclical letter Divino Afflante Spiritu.

[42] Majjhima Nikaya, I, 1966. Cited in Kenneth Morgan, ed., The Path of the Budda (New York, 1956), p. 18.

[43] Ernst Mayr, What Evolution Is, 2001, Basic Books, p. 4.

[44] Lipschutz, Rabbi Yisrael. Derush Ohr ha-Hayim in Teferet Yisrael, Danzig (1845) quoted from Raphael Shuchat’s article “Attitudes Towards Cosmogony and Evolution Among Rabbinic Thinkers in the Nineteenth and Early Twentieth Centuries: The Resurgence of the Doctrine of the Sabbatical Year” (pp. 15-48), from The Torah U-Madda Journal (2005). In many ways, the renowned R. Abraham Isaac Kook (1865-1935) put forth a similar approach to that of R. Lipschutz in regards to evolution.

[45] Benamozegh, R. Elijah. “Il Mio Credo” found in Teologia-Dogmatica E Apologetica, Liverno (1877) Vol. 1, pp. 276-77 quoted from Raphael Shuchat’s article “Attitudes Towards Cosmogony and Evolution Among Rabbinic Thinkers in the Nineteenth and Early Twentieth Centuries: The Resurgence of the Doctrine of the Sabbatical Year” (p. 29), from The Torah U-Madda Journal (2005).

[46] Rabbi Menachem Schneerson, Mind Over Matter, pp. 32-3, Jerusalem: Shamir, 2003, from R. Natan Slifkin’s The Science of Torah.

[47] Though, Bertrand Russell pointed out that, philosophically speaking, it is possible that the world was created but a moment ago, and hence there was no real historical beginning to the universe; nonetheless, atheists, for obvious reasons, would not quickly consent to that alternative.

[48] One might wonder how it is that that machine was able to work given that there was no physical existence, but this technical question would not faze the atheist. Just as s/he does not ask who initiated the Big Bang, so too, s/he would not be interested in who turned on the creation machine; the atheists could argue that sometimes stuff like that just happens, and if it did not, we would not be here to question it.

[49] Soloveitchik, Joseph B. The Emergence of Ethical Man (New York: Toras HaRav/Ktav 2005), p. 6, quoted from R. Natan Slifkin’s The Science of Creation.


Filed under Philosophy, Science

When Religion Contradicts Science: What to do, Chapter VI of the Handbook

Jewish theologians have never shied away from delving into contemporary science; on occasion, they even have a religious obligation to do so. When paskining (ruling) on a halakhic matter, it is incumbent upon the Poseik (religious authority) to be aware of all the ins and outs of the relevant and contemporary scientific data in order to evaluate all the pertinent pieces of information. For example, in order to decide whether and when it is forbidden to use electricity on the Shabbat, one must first understand what electricity is and how it works. In order to declare a person halakhicly dead and authorize someone to pull the plug, one must gain an expertise in human biology and medicine, besides an expertise in halakha.

This necessity for such virtuosity in scientific matters, on occasion, propelled the Jewish theologians to the forefront of certain scientific fields. It was not uncommon for a Jew to be known as the most excellent doctor, philosopher, mathematician or astronomer of his day. These Jewish professionals, raised on the wisdom of the Talmud from an early age, always had two authoritative sources of information available to them: religious and secular. While the Talmud provides both types of knowledge, to become the world leader in an area, the Sage had to also study secular books.

To the surprise of some, secular data sometimes takes precedence over the scientific facts supplied by the Talmud. But, how could this be? The Talmud is supposed to be the authoritative book of the true religion! Furthermore, this acceptance of non-Jewish conclusions could instigate a slippery slope that leads to disaster: where is the religious practitioner supposed to draw the line? Once we could reject scientific information in the Talmud, can we not also reject its halakhic information too? In recent years, this has caused the dissemination of three types of books within Orthodox Jewish circles.

(1)   Literalist books – These books will take the creation account and all of its details literally. This approach may add details into the Biblical account, but those details can never contradict the basic understanding of the text proffered by the Rabbis in the Talmud. This approach rejects all scientific conclusions that contradict the Torah or the Oral Law propounded in the Talmud. In truth, everything (including science, metaphysics, every event in the history of the world, etc.) can be found in the Torah, if you know how to look.

(2)   Metaphorical books – These books will take the creation completely metaphorically. All of the details in its account are meant to impart some psychological or philosophical notion about the place of mankind. There can be no arguments between science and Torah for the Torah is not a science book and, accordingly, does not proffer any scientific information. Those who do draw conclusions about science from the Torah are plainly making a false assumption about the nature of Torah. Not everything can be found in the Torah.

(3)   Accommodationalist books – These books are the happy medium between the two previous approaches. They will either bend the verse or the science to fit with their own understanding of an event. This approach, generally, will assume that the Torah puts forth facts of the world’s beginnings in its opening chapters, but only to those individuals qualified to understand the minutia of astrophysics. These books trust the Torah for science only so far as their science allows. This approach will take famous rabbinic dictums out of context, as well as Talmudic and Rishonic statements to fit its purpose.

Unfortunately, once can also divide the Jewish world into one of these three categories; but instead of passing judgment on any, in this chapter, we will evaluate to what degree a Jew must trust in the scientific assertions scientific of the Talmud. Also, we will look at the efforts so far to unite the Torah with science by looking at the scholarly (and not so scholarly) books on the relationship between science and religion.

This chapter will be broken into two parts:

1)      When should a religious Jew accept or disregard the scientific claims of the Torah and the Talmud based on the Sages?

2)      Why are so many books/people put into excommunication over these topics recently?

A Jewish Approach to Science

In this section, we will explore many halakhic authorities’ opinions about how much credence an Orthodox Jew should give to scientific statements in the Gemara and to the science of his own day. The following quotes are for the most part self explanatory, but when an explanation will help to elucidate the issue, one has been provided.

At the onset, though, one should be aware that traditional rabbis have expressed viewpoints that at times support, show ambivalence or even reject modern science. Those who reject scientific conclusions which run counter to the most obvious reading of the Talmud will often claim that nature has changed since the time of the Talmud, or that science today is incorrect. This approach to science, which presently represents the majority of fundamentalist rabbis, is an approach that one could find tremendous support for throughout rabbinic literature; this is no surprise. Accordingly, we will not explore this perspective any further at it runs counter to the purpose of this book which is to show a basic harmony between Torah ad science ; instead, we will focus on the rabbinic viewpoints which respect the opinion of modern science.


R. Yehuda HaNasi (2nd century)

The sages of the nations say, during the day the sun moves below the sky, and at night, below the ground. Rebbi said their words seem more correct than ours (the Sages) because in the day the springs are cold and at night they are warm (Pesachim 94B).

R. Shmuel bar Hofni HaGeon (9th century)

Haggadah is any interpretation which appears in the Talmud concerning a matter which is not a commandment. This is [called] Aggadah, and one need only learn from it that which seems logically correct. For you must know that whatever our Sages affirmed as being a commandment received from Moses our teacher, of blessed memory, which he in return received from the Almighty, one may not add thereto not remove therefrom. But that which the Sages interpreted, each one according to what occurred to him and what he saw fit in his mind, one learns what one finds acceptable form these interpretations and one need not rely on the rest (Mavo HaTalmud).


We are not required to accept the words of the Ancient ones (the Sages) if they contradict the intellect (commentary to I Samuel 28).


R. Sherirah Geon (10th century)

Our Rabbis were not physicians. They merely said what they observed among patients here and there. These are not commandments [to believe the Rabbis]. Therefore, do not rely on their cures… unless it was tested and definitely ascertained through skilled physicians that this remedy will not cause harm or endanger the patient (Otzar HaGeonim Gittin 68, 376).


R. Hai Geon (11th century)

You ought to know that the words of Aggadah are unlike the received tradition. Rather, each person expounds them as them as occurs to him, [while saying to himself] perhaps [my explanation is correct], or one can say [such an explanation], but not definitively. Therefore, one need not base oneself upon them (Aggadot).


R. Bahya ibn Pakuda (11th century)

Although tradition is the first thing that is taught to students, for that is what they need first, nevertheless, it would be half-hearted to rely exclusively on that tradition if one is capable of attaining certainty by way of rational argument (Intro to Duties of the Heart).


R. Moses ben Maimon – Maimonides (12th century)

1. Do not ask me that all that is mentioned on the subject of astronomy be compatible with the facts of the matter, because scholarly knowledge at that time (when the Talmud was written) was deficient. They (the Sages) did not speak of these matters as a tradition from the Prophets, but rather because they were the scholars of the generation in these matters, or because they learned them from the scholars of the era (Guide for the Perplexed 3:14).

2. That which exists does not conform to the various opinions, but rather the correct opinions conform to that which exists (Guide for the Perplexed 1:79).

3. I believe every possible happening that is supported by a prophetic statement and do not strip it of its plain meaning. I fall back on interpreting a statement only when its literal sense is impossible, like the corporeality of God; the possible however remains as stated (Treatise on Resurrection).

4. All these assertions (about creation) are needed if the text of Scripture is taken in its external (literal) sense, even though it must not be taken as shall be explained when we shall speak of it at length. You ought to memorize this notion. For it is a great wall that I have built around the Law, a wall that surrounds it warding off the stones of all those who project these missiles against it (Guide for the Perplexed chap. 17).

5. I know that you may search and find sayings of some individual Sages in the Talmud and Midrashim whose words appear to maintain that at the moment of a man’s birth, the stars will cause such and such to happen. Do not regard this as a difficulty, for… it is not proper to abandon matters of reason that have already been verified by proofs, shake loose of them, and depend on the words of a single one of the Sages from whom possibly the matter was hidden. Or there may be an allusion in the words; or they may have been said with a view to the times and the business before them…A man should never cast his reason behind him, for the eyes are set in front, not in back (Letter on Astrology).

Analysis: Maimonides offers three possible defenses (in his Letter on Astrology) to a Sages’ statement that contradicts science.

A.The sage might not have known the truth. The Sages were not infallible in philosophical and scientific matters; therefore it is possible that one individual Sage was wrong.


  • he statement was not meant to be taken literally. Throughout the Torah and the Talmud, we find countless statements that obviously were never meant to be taken literally. When the Torah states that God took out the Jews from Egypt with an “extended right hand,” does that mean that God has a physical right hand? When the Talmud tells an historical account, it does that mean that the event must have taken place exactly how the Talmud described. To claim such would relegate the Talmud to a simple history book, instead of a religious guide to life. (Se‘adya Gaon, R. Sherira Geon, R. Hai Geon, R. Hananel, R. Nissim, R. Isaac Alfasi, and R. Judah ha-Levi all upheld the principle אין סומכין על דברי אגדה – that Aggadata may be explained figuratively and could even be dismissed altogether.)

C.The Sage did not believe his own statement, yet some external factor deemed it necessary to teach the idea anyways for political or religious reasons; this is sometimes referred to as a “necessary belief.”

6. It is my intention in this chapter to draw your attention to the ways of research and belief. If anybody tells you in order to support his opinion that he is in possession of proof  and evidence and that he saw the thing with his own eyes, you have to doubt him, even if he is an authority accepted by great men, even if he is himself honest and virtuous. Inquire well into what he wants to prove to you. . Do not allow your senses to be confused by his research and innovations [stories]. Think well, search, examine, and try to understand [the ways of nature] which he claims to know. Do not allow yourself to be influenced by the sayings that something is obvious, whether a single man is saying so or whether it is a common opinion, for the desire of power leads men to shameful things, particularly in the case of divided opinions (Pirkei Moshe, the Medical Aphorisms of Maimonides).


The Destruction of Science

1. They (Kalam theologians) assert that when a man moves a pen, it is not the man who moves it; for the motion occurring in the pen is an accident created by God in the pen. Similarly the motion of the hand, which we think of as moving the pen, is an accident created by God in the moving of the hand. Only, God has instituted the habit that the motion of the hand is concomitant with the motion of the pen, without the hand exercising in any respect an influence on, or being causative in regard to, the motion of the pen.

2. If the above-mentioned doctrine were true, then all our scientific notions concerning the nature of the world would be destroyed. This is because it makes it such that everything is dependent upon the direct action of God at every instant. Because there is no assurance that He will choose to sustain that world at every moment the way He had chosen the moment before, all empirical data, all inductive logic and all assumptions based on prior information will be worthless. Even though there is no way to prove that this is not the case, Rambam believed that the concept of a fixed natural order in the sub-lunar world is the opinion of Judaism (Guide for the Perplexed 1:73).

3. If a boor is not content with having his doubts about this, so that neither view prevails, but chooses to adhere to the popular opinion, and finds fault with my view and damns me for thinking that the angels and the members of the world to come are separated from matter and free of it, I hold no grievance against him. I forgive him and freely admit my “fault.” There is no limit to the number of homilies that serve as refutations of my opinion, and I am not surprised. There are just as many biblical verses and even prophetic passages that refute me, since their simple meaning teaches that God is a body with eyes and ears. However, since the intellectual proofs and the incontrovertible deductions that rule this out are valid, it becomes clear, as the Sages say, that “the Torah speaks in the style of people.” …Those who presume that they are corporeal cannot appreciate these proofs (Essay on Resurrection 216).

4. Everyone knows that scholars are not expected to rehearse homilies and the curious tales of the sort that women tell one another in their condolence calls. What is wanted is their interpretation, and an exposition of their implied meaning, so that they conform to a rational position, or at least approximate it (Essay on Resurrection 218).

5. Everything that has been demonstrated does not increase in validity or become more certain because all the Sages agree on it, nor will its validity decrease because the whole world disagrees on it (Guide for the Perplexed 2:15).

R. Avraham ben HaRambam (13th century)

He who wishes to support a particular position and to exalt the person who said it and to accept his view without examination or understanding… as to whether it is true or not… Such… is forbidden both by Torah’s path (me-derech HaTorah) and by way of reason (me-derech ha-sechel). It is inappropriate from the perspective of reason, because [by doing so] he causes lack and deficiency in the reflection of what one should believe. And it is forbidden by the Torah’s path because he deviates from the way of truth and from the straight line… It does not matter whether one accepts that opinion as justifies without proof, or whether one believes he person who says it, honors him and claims that the truth is with him without any doubt because he is a great person… For all this is not proof, but is forbidden (Sefer HaMaspik Le-Ovedei Hashem).

One is not obligated, as a consequence of the greatness of the Sages of the Talmud… to accept their views in all their sayings in matters of medicine and natural science and astronomy… as we believe them in the interpretation of the Torah (Sefer HaMaspik Le-Ovedei Hashem).


R. Moses ben Nachman (13th century)

At the disputation between Nachmonides and the Christian clergy in 1263, one of the many lines of attack that Fray Pul utilizes to illustrate that the Messiah has already come is a literal understanding of Midrashim. Fray Pul contended that an Aggadah states that the Messiah was born on the same day that the Temple was destroyed. Nachmonides responds:

“Truly, I do not believe that the Messiah was born on the day of the [Temple’s] destruction. Either this homily is not true or it has another meaning, [which lies] among the secrets of the rabbis. Yet [even if] I would accept its literal meaning as you have expressed it, then it is a proof for my contention, for …” (Dispute in Barcelona 11)

When Nachmonides was faced with a Midrash that he found difficult to accept at face level, he offered three lines of attack towards Fray Pul:

  1. To deny the historical truth of the Midrash
  2. To assume that it has a deeper meaning that only a trained rabbi could decipher
  3. To repudiate the challenger’s position based on a literal interpretation of the Midrash

Many would find Nachmonides’ first contention hard to stomach, yet he further explains:

I said, even though, I do not believe in this, that passage would support my words. I shall now explain to you why I said I do not believe in this [passage]. You should know that we have three kinds of books. The first is the bible… The second is what is called the Talmud… We have a third book called Midrash meaning sermons. It is just as if the bishop would rise and deliver a sermon, and one of the listeners who the sermon pleased recorded it. With regard to this book [of sermons], if one believes in it, it is well and good; if one does not believe in it, he will not be harmed [spiritually]. We have Sages who wrote that the Messiah will not be born until the time near the end [of the exile], as which time he will come to redeem us from the exile. Therefore, I do not believe the statement of this book that he is born on the day of the destruction. We also call [the Midrash] the book of Haggadah, meaning Razionamiento. That is to say, it is nothing more than matters which one person tells another (15). KH308-9

Even though one should keep in mind that this statement was said at a tremendously unfair dispute between the dominant religion and its predecessor, one can still learn of the Ramban’s approach from it.

Interpretation of Problematic Verses and Midrashim

When one faces a problematic Midrash, one in which science, logic or common sense shows it to be unfounded, one must choose between two poles. On the one hand, one could reject all secular and logical claims that run contrary to revealed truth, or on the other hand, one could take a less anti-secular approach and interpret the Midrash accordingly. The Ramban employs a very interesting methodology in such cases. When the Greeks or modern science shows that the literal understanding of a verse is problematic, he first assumes the scientific point to be true, then informs the reader what the Torah or the Midrash really meant. Two examples will be offered, but countless others exist.

1. The verse (Genesis 2:17): And from the tree of knowledge of good and bad, you may not eat from it, for the day that you eat from it, you will die.

The problem: Adam was forbidden to eat from the tree. This implies that eating was something that he would normally do. The only reason one would have to eat is because his body needs nourishment. But once we admit that, then it is clear that Adam would have one day died. Accordingly, from mankind’s very inception, he was destined to die; the very composition of his body testifies to this fact. If this is true, then how could it be that God punished man with death, when he was already destined to die nonetheless?

Nachmonides’ comments:

He further states in (3:22) that one of the reasons that man is forbidden to eat from the tree of life is because the decree that he must die would then be nullified. Or according to the opinion that he was destined to die anyways, the possibility that someone’s sins would cause an earlier demise falls away.

His answer:  When the Torah said that he would die, it actually means that he will die sooner, as he was always destined to die. In other words, Nachmonides reinterprets the phrase away from its normative, most-obvious translation.

2. The verse (Genesis 9:12): And God said, ‘This is a sign of the covenant that I am giving between Myself and between all of you, and between every living creature that is with you, for all generations.

The problem: A cursory read of the Torah would seem to imply that the rainbow was a new creation; so before the covenant between God and Noach was forged, rainbows had not been created yet. Contrary to this belief, Greek scientists have shown that rainbows are a consequent of physical reality and should have always existed.

Nachmonides’ comments: “This is the sign of the covenant that I give.” It would seem from this sign that the rainbow which appears in the clouds is not part of the acts of creation, and only now did God create something new, to make a rainbow appear in the sky on a cloudy day… But we are compelled to believe the words of the Greeks, that the rainbow is the result of the sun’s rays passing through moist air, for in any container of water that is placed before the sun, there can be seen something that resembles a rainbow. And when we look again at the wording of the verse, we will understand it thus. For it says that “I have set my rainbow in the cloud,” and it did not say “I am setting it in the clouds”…

His answer: When one reads what the Torah says, he will come to the same conclusion as the Greeks. No where does it says that God created the rainbow at this junction in the world; rather, the rainbow always existed, but before the time of Noach, it did not act as a sign for mankind.

Rabbi Avraham ben HaRambam (again)

One who wishes to maintain a certain opinion and honor the one whom expresses it, and accept his opinion without examination and comprehension of this opinion and whether or not it is true – this is one of the worst attitudes, and it is proscribed both from the standpoint of the Torah and the standpoint of reason… We are not obligated… to defend them and uphold their opinion in all their statements regarding medicine, science and astronomy. (Ma’amar Odos Derashos Chazal).


Several years ago, Rabbi Natan Slifkin’s three books, Scienceof Torah, Mysterious Creatures, and The Camel, the Hare and the Hyraz, all books that will fall into our accommodationalist category, were deemed heretical and even forbidden, by a few, from being touched on the Sabbath (though they are all being reprinted). He made the mistake of taking positions in favor of modern science over traditional viewpoints and reinterpreting the Torah to fit with his assumptions. This bold decision to excommunicate his books was taken by several formidable Israeli rabbis and subsequently agreed to by many rabbis abroad. In the following we will examine what it is that these rabbis found so damaging to the foundations of Judaism.

What happened?

R. Natan Slifkin, also known as the “Zoo Rabbi” is both an ordained rabbi, as well as a trained zoologist. He decided to use his knowledge and love of animals for the benefit of Jews world wide. He wrote three books in English specifically designed to answer hard science questions that seem to oppose the teachings of the Torah.

Upon the publication of his third book, certain rabbis including Rabbi Michel Yehuda Lefkowitz, Rabbi Moshe Shapiro, Rabbi Yitchak Scheiner, Rabbi Elya Ber Wachtfogel (These rabbis are specifically listed because they wrote original criticisms of Rabbi Slifkin.) came out with an extremely strong voice against his books. The various claims against Rabbi Slifkin’s books include:

  • He believes the world to be millions of years old.
  1. He claims that Chazal can err in worldly matters.
  2. His books are full of heresy, misrepresentation of Chazal’s words and disparagement for the foundations of Emunah (faith).
  3. The publication and distribution of these books present a spiritual danger.

Rabbi Aharon Feldman, the Rosh Yeshiva of Ner Israel, argues that the two points that brought upon the ban were Slifkin’s approach to cosmology and his approach to the credibility of the Sages. On the first issue, he shows how R. Slifkin misapplied Talmudic principles and misinterpreted Rishonim. He offers the example of how R. Slifkin misuses the principle “There is no chronological order in the Torah” to reject the order of creation put forth by the Torah; R. Feldman argues that R. Slifkin rearranged the days of creation to fit better with evolutionary theory. No one can deny that R. Slifkin applied this principle in a way that no person before him ever had. But that in of itself is not blameworthy. Many great Sages have taken famous rabbinic phrases and applied them in ways or situations that they were never intended. For example, Maimonides famously employed the phrase “The Torah speaks in the language of man” and applied it to his anthropomorphic agenda. Also, the Hatam Sofer ironically reapplied the phrase “Hadash (new) is biblically forbidden” to include within the prohibition the creation of novel interpretations of the Torah, even though that interpretation itself was novel. No one would deny that R. Slifkin had an agenda in the writing of his book, a book which at the onset declares that it will show the creation account in Genesis and evolutionary theory could coexist.

On the second issue, R. Feldman’s comments are much in line with the approach that countless other Achronim have carved out before him: one must believe that Daas Torah are the authentic and authoritative spokesmen for traditional Judaism, and ipso facto, for God Himself; hence they unceasingly carry out the will of God on earth. Though this is not the place to argue the philosophical merit of such a point, it is worth noting that the Rishonim, of which we have analyzed earlier, did not believe in their own infallibility or supreme righteousness in the eyes of God. The Geonim and the Rishonim were willing to accept truth no matter where the source was. Maimonides says that if anyone could prove to him the world is eternal, he would accept it. Nachmonides discarded the traditional viewpoint about the inception of rainbows in favor of the Greek’s opinion. R. Hai Geon used to consult with the head of the Syrian church about biblical lexicography. The Jew would goto the Goy for Torah knowledge! Maimonides famously proclaims in his commentary on Ethics of Our Fathers called Shemoneh Perakim that one should accept truth no matter what its source.

R. Slifkin, relying on many authoritative sources, explains that the Rabbis in the past relied on others for their scientific knowledge and are fallible. In response, Rabbi Feldman explains that “although these [Torah] giants did indeed espouse this view, it is a minority opinion…”, and “we are enjoined to follow the majority opinion.” Really, there is no reason to believe that an opinion expressed by a minority should be rejected as long as it comes from a reliable source. Otherwise, world Jewry (the minority) are in trouble of their own religion forcing them to convert to Christianity (the majority) solely based on the numbers. Really, according to one approach, the biblical principle of “After the majority you should sway” does not apply to biblical interpretations; it is to be solely invoked when deciding halachic matters. In its most limited sense, according to Maimonides, it refers to the fact that a person must follow the rulings of the Great Sanhedrin in Jerusalem, not the rulings of individual rabbis, and not in matters of philosophy and science. Maimonides goes so far as to say that one may personally hold how ever he wishes when given a situation where Chazal did not rule on a non-halachic matter. He states in regards to the assertion that the generation of the deluge has no share in the world to come (Mishnah Sanhedrin 10:3) that “all arguments between the Sages that have no practical [halachic] consequent to the dispute, for they are only arguing reasoning (S’vara), there is no reason to rule like either of them.” Obviously, R. Feldman is not explaining the principle in line with Maimonides’ approach. Accordingly, we must assume that he is relying on the Sefer HaChinuch’s formulation of the principle in Mitzvah 495. He holds that this principle enjoins one to follow the greatest sage of his generation.

In this book, we have striven to focus on the approach of the Rishonim with the basic premise: they must have understood the true Jewish approach. If they didn’t understand Judaism, we have no hope, for they were the authentic interpreters and conveyors of our religion. Once we enter the sixteenth century, Judaism becomes so compartmentalized and differentiated that it would be wrong to say that any one figure epitomized Judaism and its values as did the Rishonim. Accordingly, we will look at only two more famous personalities to further our understanding.

Rabbi Moshe Shternbuch commenting on evolution states an opinion very much in line with R. Feldman’s approach:

I do not know whether all those who accept the view of the scientists – that the world is very ancient – are heretics. However I do know that only heretics have such views against our Sages – who are fully accepted by us. I want to note in addition that those who accept that the world is ancient also prefer to hear and accept the words of the scientists. Furthermore, these people mistakenly think that they have found support for their views amongst our traditional sources. In fact, however, we are obligated to always give precedent to Da’as Torah. These are the mainstream accepted views expressed in the Talmud as well as the writings of the great writings through the ages. Only those views which are widely accepted are valid – and not minority views that have been rejected or ignored. Only after we fully accept the Torah understanding of an issue, can we consider the words of the scientists and accept that which is compatible with the words of our sages.

In the end, one must decide whether what R. Slifkin did was so bad. Is presenting unsubstantiated information and rejecting Daas Torah’s conclusions about science enough to say that a book should be burnt and be declared heretical?

Do Not Stray after Your Heart

There is a prohibition of “straying after your heart.” Included in this prohibition, according to Rabbi Ya’akov Weinberg (as well as Rabbi Moshe Feinstein) is that it is forbidden to objectively compare Judaism against other religions. R. Weinberg shrewdly points out that this proscription is meaningless if someone already harbors a theological doubt. You cannot answer a person marred with doubts regarding Judaism’s fundamentals by telling him that Judaism prohibits harboring such doubts. The real prohibition of “Do not stray after your heart” is to put yourself into a position where the doubt can arise; once you have doubts, there is a religious obligation to deal with them.

Using R. Weinberg’s advice, we can understand what the great chasm that divides the two camps. The “Gedolim” feel that it is their God-given job to protect the Torah, their Mesorah, and their way of life. In our generation, and in the past, this has taken on the form of fundamentalism hallmarked by literalism towards the Torah, towards aggadah and laden with anti-secular polemics. Some of them argue that the every words of the Gemara is the word of God as given to Moshe at Har Sinai. Accordingly, the greatest lesson that they could impart to the next generation is a certain fortitude in their attitude towards Torah and the “other.”

But when someone is not raised in this fundamentalist way, under this umbrella of comfort and protection from heretical viewpoints, the philosophical Pandora’s box flies open, one has a religious obligation to eradicate ideas and thoughts that in any way undermine belief in the true religion. Whether science, math, astronomy, philology or biblical criticism is the key to unlocking one’s lost faith, the person must traverse this path to God. One cannot not just play the “Emunas Chachamim” (Belief in the Sages) or “Daas Torah” cards to questions that seriously undermine one’s faith. Labeling a Jew a “heretic,” “apikoris,” or “goy” for ideas that he reasonably accepts as true does not lead a lost soul back to Judaism; it only ensures that he will reject Judaism forever without fail.

Other Bans

Besides R. Slifkin’s books, some have tried to ban Professor Schroeder’s “Genesis and the Big Bang.” Upon the realization of the benefit and impact that Prof. Schroeder’s book could have on the Kiruv (outreach) movement, he was invited to lecture at Aish HaTorah (the world’s leading Kiruv movement). After hearing Prof. Schroeder’s compelling understanding of the creation narrative, in an effort to derail any possible debacles of the likes of the Slifkin affair, the Rabbis at Aish HaTorah felt that they should receive an official approbation from a Gadol HaDor (leading Sage). So before they officially associated with him, after Schroeder presented a lecture to all he senior staff and heads of Aish HaTorah, they arranged a meeting between Prof. Schroeder and the late R. Ya’akov Weinberg of Ner Israel. First, R. Weinberg asked is all the science material in his book and lectures were accurate, to which Prof. Schroeder assured him that the book went through scientific peer review at Bantam books before being published. Second, R. Weinberg insisted that this approach to creation never be taught in Yeshivas. R. Weinberg felt that even though this approach to creation is valid, it would be counter productive for Yeshiva students because it would diminish their Emunas Chachamim.

Similar to the Slifkin affair, some fundamentalists in Israel decided that Prof. Schroeder’s book really is heretical; therefore a Beit Din (court) was established to evaluate whether his book was truly heretical and forbidden for a Jew to read. In the end, no one on the court, nor the rabbis casting aspersions at his books, could point to the principle in faith that was being denied. R. Shternbuch, presiding over the case, unhappily agreed that Prof. Schroeder’s book did not uproot any of the fundamentals of belief.

From R. Weinberg, we can learn two important facts. One should ensure that the science he learns is true. Second, one has no religious obligation to uproot the simple faith of others. Non-creationist theories should only be imposed upon those that are in need of a Genesis theory that they can accept. To most Jews, the method that /god employed in creating the world is not especially interesting. The most important thing for a Jew is to know that the Torah is true. Without Torah, there are no rabbis, nor debates, nor bans.

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Filed under Philosophy, Rationalism, Science

Would Rambam Say the Ten Plagues Are Miracles?

Equipped with my very own Little Midrash Says as a child, I did not question that the ten plagues were extraordinarily miraculous. In fact, after existence itself, I think they might just be as miraculous as it gets. Don’t you?

We often like to point out little miracles all the time, because if God gives us a miracle, then He must love us. Rambam, however, insists that nature is a constant state of affairs1, and this is an important backbone for his worldview.


He therefore minimizes how often we say something is a miracle- which we might define as God’s disruptions to the natural order of things- and tells us that all miracles were actually planned and prepared to occur before there any laws of nature, that is, before creation. God sets a timer, the miracles occur and disrupt the natural order of things, and then everything goes back to normal2.

In fact, not only does he limit miracles to things that have been prepared since the Big Bang, but he seems intent on taking away as many of our miracles as possible!

This can be seen from his statement in the Treatise of Resurrection:

“Only in those cases when we are taught explicitly that a particular event is a miracle and there is absolutely no possibility of giving any other account of it, only then do we feel forced to admit that it is a miracle.”3

So two things need to happen for us to call something a miracle: We have to be taught clearly that it’s miraculous, and it needs to be impossible to explain it in a natural way. Otherwise, it’s just not a miracle.

So what does this mean for the plagues in particular?

Were we taught they were miracles? Yes. Is there “absolutely no possibility of giving any other account of it”?

Well, maybe.

If you take Nahum Sarna seriously- and I hasten to remind you that even Haym Soloveitchik respects him– then perhaps the plagues may be explained in a natural manner. In his “Exploring Exodus”4, which is well written and generally awesome, he gives natural explanations for the first nine plagues, which in his words “can all be explained within the context of the familiar vicissitudes of nature that imperil the Nile Valley…”.


He then begins to detail not only how the first nine plagues are natural occurrences, but how they each naturally caused the following plague! Now cause and affect, science fans, is nature at its very best5.

We will not go into detail here in regards to the natural explanation to each plague, but Dr. Sarna references a paper which explains the theory, and we are forced to ask if this qualifies as a “possibility” of a natural explanation. “Possible” is a pretty broad word, so my guess is yes, but you may know better than I.

At any rate, we then have nine non-miraculous occurrences, wondrous and providential as they were6. The tenth however, remains impossible to explain, and may be viewed as a miraculous plague against the Egyptians that was prepared before time.

To me this raises the question of free will versus God’s ability to see the future, but we’re not going to get into that here. At any rate, this isn’t so much a Dvar Torah, but a way to annoy your friends and family, I guess.

Do so at your own peril, and if you’re looking for a lesson, then perhaps end with “and therefore the natural order of things is truly important to Jewish theology!”

This lesson is always a winner at big meals.

Shabbat Shalom!

1“The world goes according to its custom” – BT Avoda Zara 54B

2Fox, in his superb Interpreting Maimonides (page 274) writes that “This view holds an obvious attraction for Maimonides. It preserves the order of nature, and for him this is of the highest intellectual and practical importance…Even the attested miracles are held by some sages to have been built into the order of the world at creation, and this too serves to reduce the effect of the breaks in the natural order resulting from active divine intervention.” This is based on the Guide 2:29.

3Treatise on Ressurrection. Cited and Translated by Marvin Fox in his Interpreting Maimonides, p..34. See also Guide for the Perplexed, 2:25., Eight Chapters, section 8.

4 p. 63-81

5 He even goes so far as to explain how they naturally would not have affected Goshen, in case anyone out there remembers to ask.

6Though of course providence is quite a complicated topic in Maimonidean thought.


Filed under Parshah, Rationalism

Spiritual Racism: The Jewish Response to Shas’ Prejudiced Ad

In light of the Shas party’s ridiculously prejudiced ad which insulted converts and the people involved in the conversion process in Israel, I thought I might post a beautiful Midrash which sums up the proper Jewish response to converts.

(Image: frame from the Shas campaign ad)

The truth is, there’s a certain prejudice that creeps among the Orthodox community, and every so often we hear of a ger (convert) who experiences what might be called a “spiritual racism”. This racism is basically the belief that a born Jew is better than someone who converted.

If anything, we would think that someone who joins the Jewish people should be treated with a great respect, since we can only imagine how difficult it is for a person to change his or her entire life and suddenly acquire a new God, many new commandments, privileges and challenges, and a new people.

Of course, this would be hard enough if a person joined a welcoming community, and it must be much worse when they periodically come up against a painful condescension from their Jewish brethren.

The Midrash, in the Soncino translation, goes as follows:

The Holy One, Blessed-be-He, greatly loves the proselytes. To what may this be compared? To a king who had a flock, which used to go out to the field and come in at evening. So it was each day.

Once, a stag came in with the flock. He associated with the goats and grazed with them. When the flock came in to the fold, he came in with them; when they went out to graze, he went out with them. The king was told ‘A certain stag has joined the flock, and is grazing with them every day. He goes out with them, and comes in with them.’

The king felt an affection for him. When he went out into the field, the king gave orders: ‘Let him have good pasture as he likes; no man shall beat him; be careful with him!’ When (the stag) came in with the flock a,so the king would tell them, ‘ Give him to drink!’ And he loved him very much.

The servants said to him: ‘Sovereign! You posses so many he-goats, you posses so many kids, and you never caution us about them; yet you give us instructions ever day about this stag!’

The king said to them: ‘The flock have no choice; whether they want or not, it is their nature to graze in the field all day and to come in at evening to sleep in the flock. The stags, however, sleep in the wilderness. It is not in their nature to come into placed inhabited by man. Shall we then not account it as a merit to this one which has left behind the whole of the broad, vast wilderness, the abode of all the beasts, and has come to stay in the courtyard?’

In like manner, ought we not to be grateful to the proselyte who has left behind him his family and his father’s house, aye, has left behind his people and all the other peoples of the world, and has chosen to comes to us?

Accordingly, He has provided him with special protection, for He exhorted Israel that they shall be very careful in relation to the proselytes so as not to do them hard; and indeed it says. “Love ye therefore the proselyte, etc.”…

-Bamidbar Rabba, 8:2

The view given here in the Midrash, that we should be grateful to the proselyte, is a far cry from the sad view that someone who is born Jewish has some inherent quality which makes her better than even someone who converts!

This view appears in our tradition, and not necessarily uncommonly, sad as that may be. It is a spiritual racism, as we said above, and the right way to relate to our converted brethren is to simply treat them as we do any other Jew, with the exception of 2 things we must do:

  1. We should express our gratitude to the people who have sacrificed to join us. We don’t know what it’s like, and we can’t put ourselves in their shoes. It must be hard, and the fact that they have joined us gives us strength by validating our goals and adding to our numbers, and helps us serve God better.
  2. We should be careful to give them some extra support once they join our communities, precisely because of the hardship involved not just in being Jewish when you once were not, but because the emotional journey and stresses involved must be tremendous.

What’s interesting to me is that spiritual racists may express these two sympathies with the exception of their prejudice, which must be very insulting and hurtful. I have heard cases of people who did not want their children to marry a convert, or even the child of a convert, and I can’t imagine the pain involved in being the person who is snubbed in this scenario.

It’s easy to see how this kind of behavior is contrary to the 36 times the Torah commands us regarding the proper treatment of gerim.

I’ll end with a quote from Rambam, because our blog needs Rambam like Epic Meal Time needs bacon. The quote is addressed to Obadia the proselyte, in a very famous letter:

“Do not consider your origin as inferior. While we are the descendants of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob, you derive form Him through whose word the world was created. As is said by Isaiah; “One shall say, I am the Lord’s, and another shall call himself by the name of Jacob”.


Filed under Miscellaneous

Are the Sefirot Heresy? Rashbash Takes On Kabbalah As We Know It

In the vein of my last post, where we discussed the surprising fact that some consider Kabbala to be “at odds” with the Torah, I thought I would point out the view of someone who does not, strictly speaking, oppose Kabbala, but does oppose the doctrine of the Sefirot as possibly heretical. This is the view of Rashbash, as we will see below.


To sum up the concept of Sefirot as succinctly as possible, we might just say that in their efforts to relate to the living God, many Kabbalists make statements about the nature of God, each according to their own unique schools of thought, which seem to imply that God has 10 “parts”1.

The problem that arises from saying God has different aspects present (even in a uniquely divine realm) is that it seems to contradict the idea that He is one and infinite, and therefore by definition does not have parts. (As we have mentioned, God’s unity is one of Rambam’s principles).

For this reason many people opposed the doctrine, and I’ll just bring the objections of Rashbash on the matter, in a non-perfect translation.

He begins by noting that Kabbala is an inherently secret tradition which is only passed on to the extremely wise, and then only by word of mouth. Therefore, anyone who publicizes kabbala is either making things up or violating the law to not publicize it. He then says regarding the Sefirot in particular:

“Furthermore, they don’t know what these ten Sefirot are; if they’re  descriptions, or names, or influences that emanate from God…”

In Rashbash’s opinion, these are the only plausible understandings for what the Sefirot may be. He then discusses each option.

If you say they are (just) names, then they (must not be) independent parts; but if they are independent entities then they are a multiplicity of parts, and if this is the case, the Christians claim there are three parts (to God), and these ones (publicizing Kabbalists) claim there are ten!

And if you say they are (descriptive) attributes, then why are these ones different than the other attributes which describe God? God taught Moses about 13, so why have they diminished from this number by 3?…And if Moses did not reach (the level to know the Sefirot), how could another reach (the level to know) them?

…And if you say they are influences…that is to say, angels…one who prays to them- if he says they are powers or influences- if this is the case, one who prays (to) and concentrates on them is a heretic, since anyone who prays to one of the angels is a heretic! And one who thinks (the Sefirot) are things unto themselves and different than God is a heretic!

And if you say they are attributes, they should tell us what difference there is from the other ones.”

He concludes with the following:

 ‘…students who have not learned enough, and who do not want to put in effort into legal topics, choose impatiently to glorify themselves with the knowledge of Kabbalah, in order to make themselves great before women and ignoramuses, and to take a crown for themselves with light words…and one who guards his soul will stay away from them.”

Harsh words, I think!

First of all, Rashbash’s general objection to publicly taught Kabbala is very interesting, since it makes us doubt whether the Kabbala that we hear of and are often taught in schools is the real deal. For that matter, it seems that Rashbash would be very uncomfortable in particular that the Sefirot are often referenced in the midst of Jewish education, and commonly feature in paintings and other works of art in Jewish homes and synagogues. But of course, his is not the only opinion on the matter.

At any rate, I just thought it was interesting that someone who was not opposed to Kabbala was so strongly opposed to one of its most famous and relatively standard doctrines.

What makes his opinion even more interesting is that Rashbash’s father was actually a noted Kabbalist, and likely subscribed to the doctrine of Sefirot. I have no idea if they discussed the matter, but i think that accusing your father of holding a possibly heretical idea is one of those things that cause a lot of tension at thanksgivings and bar mitzvas.

Anyway, if you are interested in the topic, you can see how many generations of rabbis treated the question of the Sefirot in Louis Jacobs’ “Theoogy in the Responsa”.

As a bonus, I’m including a picture of Peter Haas’ book, which I came across as I was looking for the Rashbash’s book of responsa. Needless to say, I did not read it.



1I cannot do the doctrine of the Sefirot justice, since it’s enormously complicated, so if you want to learn more I suggest the interesting discussions in Moshe Hallamish’s “Introduction to Kabbalah“, Scholem’s “Kaballah”,or his classic “Major Trends in Jewish Mysticism”.

The Sefirot, as I understand, are the mystic’s way to solve the problem of a distant God, the “Ein Sof”, who cannot be described or related to, since He is completely transcendent. Therefore, they explained God’s relation to the world (and apparently Himself) through the doctrine of Sefirot.

As Wikipedia puts it (succinctly), the Sefirot “are the 10 attributes/emanations in Kabbalah, through which Ein Sof (The Infinite) reveals himself and continuously creates both the physical realm and the chain of higher metaphysical realms (Seder hishtalshelus).”

In Scholem’s useful language, the Sefirot are a “realm of divinity, which underlies the world of our sense-data and which is present and active in all that exists.”


Filed under Kabbalah and Chassidus

Is Tanya Heresy? Rambam Wants to Kill Chabad.

Perusing my email from Lookjed, I notice that the topic is a very interesting one: “Is Kabbala at Odds with Torah?

Now, for most of us, Kabbala is something that is obviously a part of Torah. So how can it be “at odds” with Judaism?

Well, depending who you ask, Kabbala can definitely be at odds with Torah. For our example, we’ll focus on the example furnished by one commenter on the thread.

It comes from Chapter 2 of Tanya, where the Alter Rebbe states “ונפש השנית בישראל היא חלק אלוה ממעל ממש “, which can be translated (according to Chabad.Org) as “The second, uniquely Jewish, soul is truly “a part of G-d above.”

And here is the commentary from Chabad.Org on this statement:

 A part of G-d above”1 is a quotation from Scripture (Iyov 31:2). The Alter Rebbe adds the word “truly” to stress the literal meaning of these words. For, as is known,some verses employ hyperbolic language. For example, the verse describing “great and fortified cities reaching into the heavens” is clearly meant to be taken figuratively, not literally. In order that we should not interpret the phrase “a part of G-d above” in a similar manner, the Alter Rebbe adds the word “truly”, thus emphasizing that the Jewish soul is quite literally a part of G-d above.”

Now, when I saw this quoted, I thought this must be someone twisting the (perhaps risky) metaphor of the Alter Rebbe. But, in fact, it is from Chabad.Org, as we already noted. Why would anyone ever say our souls are part of God?

If God is infinite, He cannot have “parts”, and it must be our souls are all one, and are all God. Thus, we are God. That sounds heretical, right?

Indeed, according to Rambam, there is no question that this is heretical, and anyone who holds this opinion has to be hated and destroyed.

Let’s list which of Rambam’s 13 principles this statement contradicts:

First Principle – “…For unity and mastery are only God’s, since He is sufficient to Himself. All else, whether angels or celestials and whatever is in them or below them, needs Him to exist. This first fundamental principle is taught in the Biblical verse: “I am the Lord your God” (Ex. 20:2).”

From Tanya we learn that unity actually belongs to us as well, and that angels might be below God, but we’re not, since we are Him. Furthermore, God isn’t “your” God, unless He’s talking to Himself, which throws a whole new meaning on prophecy.

Second Principle – ”…God, rather, is uniquely one.”

According to this interpretation of Tanya, that means God is one…other than the fact that he is one with US, right?

Fifth Principle -Only He, blessed be He, is rightfully worshiped, magnified, and obeyed. One must not pray to anything beneath Him in existence: angels, stars, planets or elements, or anything composed of these.

Again, presumably we can pray to ourselves, since our souls are God. Indeed, if I’m not mistaken, Spinoza came to this conclusion about prayer after he decided that everything is God2, and he promptly decided that prayer is most likely haughty, since it is just God worshiping Himself.

We could go on, and I encourage you to investigate how impossibly large the gap is between Rambam and this statement in Tanya. I’m pretty sure Rambam would have had a conniption had he read it.

Now, as we noted before on this blog, you should be careful before you go around hating and destroying people who disagree with the 13 principles, since that category includes many more great rabbis and sages than you’d think.

Additionally, in the tradition of telling Rav Soloveitchik stories on Modern Orthodox blogs, I should mention that the Rav studied Tanya and had a deep and strong respect for Tanya and Chabad. Indeed, he learned it as a child and it is not uncommon to come across an idea from Tanya in his writings.

On a more personal note, I attended a Chabad school for 2 years in high school, and can personally testify to the total devotion to Torah and Mitzvot that my Chabad friends and their families have, and I hope that no one takes too harsh a view of this wonderful community.

In conclusion, I have no idea if Tanya is at odds with the Torah, but I do think that Rambam would be convinced that it is. (And have you seen the first chapter on souls? Rambam would have a field day with that!)

So what does that mean for us?

Well, I have no idea.

1This is not the correct translation. So odd!

2I can’t remember if he was a pantheist or a panentheist though, sorry.


Filed under Rationalism

A Response To Rabbi Sacks: Survival of the Religious

By Gene Matanky

Rabbi Jonathan Sacks recently wrote an article in the New York Times entitled “The Moral Animal”, in which he points to the evolutionary need for religion. Surprisingly, Sacks tells us, it is the evolution theory of Darwin which shows us the importance of religion and why it continues to survive.

According to evolutionary biology, although man gives his genes as an individual to the next generation, he can in fact only survive in the first place if he is part of a group that works together. The genes that allow man to become stronger as a member of a group are the genes that cause altruism and empathy, and allow people to bond and feel for each other.

As Rabbi Sacks writes, “A result is that we have two patterns of reaction in the brain, one focusing on potential danger to us as individuals, the other, located in the prefrontal cortex, taking a more considered view of the consequences of our actions for us and others. The first is immediate, instinctive and emotive. The second is reflective and rational. We are caught, in the psychologist Daniel Kahneman’s phrase, between thinking fast and slow.”

He continues to explain why religion is so vital to this process of both thinking fast and slow: “Religion binds individuals into groups through habits of altruism, creating relationships of trust strong enough to defeat destructive emotions.” Therefore, instead of evolution refuting the need for religion, it is actually its greatest supporter! Rabbi Sacks thus triumphantly concludes that “Religiosity as measured by church or synagogue attendance is…a better predictor of altruism than education, age, income, gender or race. Religion is the best antidote to the individualism of the consumer age. The idea that society can do without it flies in the face of history and, now, evolutionary biology.”

The Chief Rabbi has done a wonderful job defending religion in this article, but he has unfortunately let down those who want more than just religion; those who thirst for the Living God. His argument has marginalized religion as a necessary institution for the survival of mankind, and made it less than what it really is: a medium to experience the transcendent. Sadly, Rabbi Sacks’ religion may survive in the modern world, but only because he replaced what it stands for.

Religion is something that should bind us together as a community, as Rabbi Sacks writes, but that is not its main purpose; its main purpose is to be a bridge across the chasm which separates God and man. Religion allows us to be a voice of compassion not because it’s good for the survival of man, but because that is what God commands of us. God demands that we care for those on the periphery of society, but this is not for our selfish need of survival, but rather it is because He wills that we do not accept evil.

According to Sacks’ logic it doesn’t matter whether we are idol worshipers or monotheists, as long as it creates community. Our religion could command us to be racists, homophobic, or genocidal, but as long as we all are doing it together, a community is created, and that is what matters.

The prophets taught us that this is incorrect. They did not wage a war against the prophets of Baal because it was vital to the survival of mankind, but for the sake of the Living God. The worshipers of Baal also had a community, but that was not the problem with them, nor was it the solution.

Not only did the prophets attack the worshipers of Baal, but when the people of Israel went astray, Isaiah said:

“The multitude of your sacrifices– what are they to me?” says the LORD….”Stop bringing meaningless offerings! Your incense is detestable to me. New Moons, Sabbaths and convocations– I cannot bear your evil assemblies…Your hands are full of blood; wash and make yourselves clean. Take your evil deeds out of my sight! Stop doing wrong, Learn to do right! Seek justice, encourage the oppressed. Defend the cause of the fatherless, plead the case of the widow.”

The people were bound together as a community, and they had religion; but God doesn’t want any of this. He wants them to seek justice and righteousness.

I am not saying that this was Rabbi Sacks’ intention, but in my opinion, this is the effect. It is quite analogous to what Erich Fromm (a non-theist himself) had to say about a similar situation in the 1960’s: “The religious “renaissance” which we witness in these days is perhaps the worst blow monotheism has yet received. Is there any greater sacrilege than to speak of “the Man upstairs,” to teach to pray in order to make God your partner in business, to “sell” religion with the methods and appeals used to sell soap?”

It is my profound hope that the new atheists win out on this argument, and by doing so resurrect the Living God, so we are not simply left with nothing more than an evolutionary necessity.

Gene Matanky studies Jewish Thought in Bar Ilan University. He is also involved with מרק״ם and the Boger community of Midreshet Ein Prat.


Filed under Miscellaneous

Why the Modern Orthodox Should Suffer the Most

I’m currently in the middle of Rabbi Jonathan Sacks’ superb book ‘Future Tense’1, where he sets out a “vision for Jews and Judaism in the global Culture”. Of course, though he sets out to solve a practical problem, the Chief can’t do so without discussing Jewish theology and philosophy, which is nothing short of a joy to read.

Anyway, in a section entitled “Lowering the Bar” (page 65) he says the following, after noting that Jewish identity is a matter of a shared faith for all Jews:

“…surely to guarantee continuity, Judaism must be made as easy and undemanding as possible”, since then the most people will keep Judaism, as opposed to quitting because it is too difficult. However, Rabbi Lord Dr. Chief Best-Guy-Ever Rabbi Sacks has a very different conclusion. In fact, the more difficult the better, in his opinion, and the idea that the easier the better is “untrue and misconceived”.

In his experiences, Pesach and Yom Kippur, the two most difficult Jewish holidays are the ones most adhered to. Indeed, studies come out almost every year that confirm this.

Why is this? Rabbi Sacks quotes Leon Festinger, whose theory of cognitive dissonance explains that “we value the most what costs us the most.” More sacrifice means more commitment, and though it is true that historically Jews sacrificed for Judaism because they valued it, it is also true that they valued it because they sacrificed for it.

This actually reminds me of something that Yeshayahu Leibovitz was fond of saying: The people of Israel, who felt the hand of God when He took them from Egypt, and heard the voice of God when He spoke at Sinai, soon worshiped the golden calf. So too, the Judeans who heard the words of the prophets Jeremiah and Ezekiel continued to sin. In contrast, however, the Jews who were tortured throughout history readily sacrificed their lives rather than convert to another religion, which would have made their lives incomparably easier.

Why is this? Obviously a strong commitment to Judaism is greater even than hearing the voice of God.

So what does this mean for us?

Rabbi Sacks points out that the groups in different religions who have the most difficult form of religion are the ones who remain the most committed. Is Modern Orthodoxy this version?

Now, all of this is not to say that we should make our lives as difficult as possible so that we can feel more committed to Judaism. Therefore, we might say, let’s stop using electricity to power our lights at night, and instead have evening prayers by candle light. So let’s be clear, we are Modern Orthodox because we think it is right, and this will not depend on the answer to our question. It is not a mitzvah to suffer by any means, and we want to avoid confusion about this.

But, having asked the question, I still think we might say that Modern Orthodoxy is the most difficult version of Judaism, if it is understood in a certain sense.

For many, modern Orthodoxy is the Orthodox way of life for those who do not really wish to commit to traditional Orthodoxy. Perhaps because they do not want to give up on movies, or dunkin donuts, or working for a big pay check, they water down our religion -but not too much- so they may ensure that the next generation does not abandon Judaism.

In this sense, modern Orthodoxy is nothing other than a way to make our lives more convenient.

However, the founders of great Modern Orthodox institutions had nothing like this in mind, and there are many among us who still view Modern Orthodoxy as an ideal to be adhered to and striven for. And this is the most difficult form of Judaism in my opinion.

As opposed to saying we will water down Halakha, we affirm our commitment to it 100%. As opposed to denouncing the secular world completely we say we will take a nuanced approach to questions of faith, and philosophy, and art, and emotion. Living a life that questions and affirms while truly living according to our faith is to my mind much more difficult than simply practicing when it is convenient, or avoiding the modern world entirely.

A person who works with non-Jews either in science or fashion or education has to grapple with what someone different has to offer, and has to ask how this changes our view of ourselves and Judaism, of our relationship with God. To pray with the same fervor after asking if God truly answers prayer is more difficult than doing so without acknowledging that the question is valid.

Modern Orthodoxy is the ideal of searching and questioning while affirming 100%. I cannot imagine something that would require more of us than this.

1Hodder and Stoughton Ltd, 2009


Filed under Miscellaneous

Super Duper Science Rabbi? On the Relationship between Genetics and Torah

Dr. John D. Loike and Rabbi Moshe D. Tendler co-authored an article for the Torah U-Madda journal (“Molecular Genetics, Evolution, and Torah Principles,” The Torah U-Madda Journal 14: [2006] 173-92). The article can be viewed at this link:


Their expressed goal was to “approach the issue of how molecular genetics should be viewed within the perspective of Torah” (173). While the reader receives a clear, detailed introduction to both how the process of evolution works at the DNA level and to the molecular genetics revolution, a number of fatal flaws undermine the authors’ exposition of the relationship between science and Torah. As the authors’ method of relating Torah to science is indicative of an unsettling trend becoming ever more common in the field of science and religion, after we identify a few particular issues in their article, we will turn to the larger challenges that are specifically endemic to the authors’ approach.

In the section entitled Religious Principles and Themes in Molecular Genetics, the two authors show the “perspective of Torah” by “propos[ing] three examples that illustrate how specific ideas and themes in molecular genetics reinforce moral and religious values and principles” (184). We will focus on the latter two points. (1)

In their second example entitled ‘Individuality and yet community,’ the authors observe in the genetic world what social scientists, doctors and theologians have noticed elsewhere since time immemorial: that human beings enjoy individualistic and communal qualities that are intrinsically intertwined. Leaving aside that this fact is so obvious its clichéd, they go on to conclude that “[t]his idea raises complex questions about the treatment of other creatures” (185). I must admit that I was shocked by this conclusion, and was left wondering what exactly was “the complex questions” I was supposed to brood over, especially in light of the fact that the authors claimed earlier that they intend to “reinforce moral and religious values,” not that they would establish new ones. Given that the Mishneh Torah (Hilkhot Avadim 9:8), Rema (Oreḥ Ḥayyim 223:6), QiẒur Shulḥan Arukh (42:1) and countless other halakhic authorities have already incorporated the “proper” approach to animals in their writings, what was the mysterious point the reader was intended to grasp?

It appears that our authors intimate that “the complex questions” that the genetic similarities between humankind and the animal kingdom suggest lie beyond those already pasqined (ruled) issues throughout halakhic literature. (2) While it is not at all evident how this claim follows from the fact that we share genetic similarities with the animal kingdom – for example, atomically, we share similarities with most things in the universe! –  we have another reason to challenge such an approach: it does not coincide with Orthodox thinking. On the contrary, this approach would more closely fit in with the “Positive-Historical” approach sometimes connected to Conservative Judaism. The authors advocate redefining our relationship to animals based on extra halakhic considerations. While integrating modern scientific findings into the halakhic matrix is essential, legislating acceptable halakhic praxis based upon science based theology is wholly unacceptable.

In the authors’ next example entitled ‘Faith,’ they put forth a most shocking claim. The authors attempt to draw a parallel between the “randomness in DNA mutations” and the actions of God which “appear random.” While the authors posit a notion of ’emunah’ (faith) unknown in the classic Jewish sources – one that “bridge[s] the gap between knowledge and the unknown, so that we can persevere and progress in a world full of random events” – the most disconcerting point that escapes the authors’ attention is the subtle difference between the “randomness” proposed in the evolutionary theory and the appearance of randomness in our daily lives. (3)

While Jewish tradition ostensibly recognizes that the randomness occurring in our lives only appears that way, the processes of evolution are really random: unpredictable, non-teleological adaptive processes. Accordingly, the authors cannot employ the word ‘random’ to both ‘evolution’ and ‘faith’ equally when the word clearly connotes different things in the two cases. In order to observe exactly how the authors equivocate in their employment of the word ‘random,’ we will turn to the approach they espouse when dealing with the similarities between humans and the animal kingdom. As we mentioned in the last example, they explain that the similarities between humankind and animals exist also at the genetic level and that human genes exhibit a close affinity, not only to chimpanzees, but to worms and mice as well. But, almost as a disclaimer, they are quick to point out that:

…this does not conflict with the Genesis account. We may simply say that God, the architect of the world, in some way used the molecular biology of DNA as His blueprint in planning the physiological design of all His creatures. Does this mean that God created each species separately using a unified DNA codex, or did God allow speciation to occur by natural processes as proposes by the evolutionary theory? Some rabbinical authorities would insist upon the former theory while others would be wiling to embrace and maybe even insist upon the latter (178).

In the footnote appended to the final sentence of this quote, the authors lead us to believe that such luminaries as R. Samson Raphael Hirsch, R. David Zvi Hoffman and R. Abraham Isaac ha-Kohen Kook could espouse the latter theory today. But, in truth, one would draw the opposite conclusion from their writings. None of these rabbis would embrace, and certainly not insist upon the latter formulation of God’s influence in the world. This is because the latter theory – “that God allow[s] speciation to occur by natural processes as proposed by the evolutionary theory” – cannot mean anything but that God has no hand whatsoever in the events of the world. The reason the authors feel justified in putting this theory into the mouths of the abovementioned rabbis is because they fail to grasp the full impact of the phrase “natural processes.”

While the authors meticulously explicate many of the fine points of how evolution works at the DNA level in the opening sections of their article, they abstain from addressing how God could act in the worlds of evolution and DNA respectively. One reason for this lacuna is that the authors do not differentiate between evolution and theistic evolution. In light of this fact, we will momentarily digress in order to define and explain theistic evolution and why it is incompatible with any model which the authors propose. We will follow the categorical scheme developed by Ian Barbour (4) in which he enumerates three models of theistic evolution, all of which espouse a pseudo-naturalistic world in which God pulls the strings behind the scenes ensuring that the world proceeds according to a certain course.

Proponents of the first model advocate that God controls events that appear to be random. For the most part, this approach appeals to either Quantum Mechanics or Chaos theory for the mechanism of God’s interaction. They maintain that there is genuine randomness to nature (as Niels Bohr proved) found in microscopic systems (like atoms), yet God can interact in the world through this physically undetectable randomness. In other words, God influences the physical world at the subatomic level and controls events that appear to be random. As a result, God could (somehow) even control evolution ensuring His desired results.

The second model of theistic evolution is exemplified through the Anthropic Principle, which propounds that God designed the world, from the onset, with built-in potential, such that it was capable of self-organization and transformation. All the amazingly precise conditions that allow for human life to be sustained – the strength of gravity, the mass of a proton, the distance of the earth from the sun, the charge of an electron, etc. – were all fixed by God from the onset in order to ensure the production of life, in general, and the human race specifically. While this approach may at times slide into versions of functional deism, it does, nonetheless, create the necessary opening for a Divinely influenced physical universe.

Advocates of the third model maintain that God influences events without controlling them. This approach is associated with Alfred Whitehead’s model of “process thought” in which all physical events include three components: law, chance and God.

The problem, however, with all three of these models is that they are, by their very nature, teleological. When the aforementioned rabbis first encountered evolution in its nineteenth century guise, there was no inherent contradiction between evolution and teleology. Their contemporary scientists were unable to explain certain key points of evolution, and, for that reason, those rabbis were justified in positing a concordance between the two. But, as contemporary evolutionists have shown, evolution through natural selection no longer must appeal to orthogenesis or any other teleological explanations in order to account for the adaptations in living organisms; in other words, earlier scientists only tolerated such God infused approaches because they lacked the proper science to exclude them. Consequently, the god of the gaps was able to rear his wily head. But, today it is universally recognized by the scientific community that evolution is inherently anti-teleological and theological evolution is an oxymoron. It is no coincidence that Richard Dawkins parabolically refers to the naturalistic processes of evolution as the “blind watchmaker.” The moment one invokes God, metaphysical forces or energy (5) not only does one violate the founding principle of Occam’s razor, one ceases to be practicing science. Which is OK, as long as you know what you’re preaching is not science, or, at least, you refrain from trying to convince others that your claims are scientific. Which leads us full circle to the fatal flaw in the authors’ article: when one mixes theology with science without upholding the integrity (basic assumptions) of both fields, conclusions on both sides of the track are bound to be skewed.

In conclusion, the most destabilizing issue is the authors’ ambiguous employment of key terms and ideas. It allows them to make sweeping scientific and theological claims that, if they were forced to define the terms and arguments more concisely, they would necessarily recant. While this issue could be attributed to the fact that they are dealing with exceedingly complex issues in a limited space, their shortcomings are really indicative of a greater problem found specifically in science and religion pieces. The most obvious explanation for this field’s weakness is the inherent lack of objectivity on the part of scientists and theologians alike when dealing with the topic. Mediators of science and religion are expected, and counted on by their religious communities to broach a harmony between two seemingly incongruous topics. Sometimes they ram together two issues that have nothing to do with one another or from time to time they may pursue connections that are unmistakably absent, as is evident in this article. While this method may prove to be beneficial in philosophy, and – I should stress – could even lead to correct conclusions, it has no place in the world of science. So, while these authors, virtuosos in their respective fields, set out to glorify the Torah U-Madda approach by bringing their knowledge of science and love of Torah together,  regrettably, in the end, they merely watered down both to the point that neither science nor Torah were accurately communicated. (6)

1. It appears that the authors’ first example is simply a non-sequitur. The authors first quote the Talmud (Sanhedrin 38a) evincing that arrogance is an unwarranted trait for humans to entertain. Yet, immediately following this citation, they comment on “[t]he remarkable genetic similarities between human beings and animals” (185), contending that this aspect of genetics “teaches us that human beings have the propensity to behave like animals if they are not in possession of morals and values that give them true human dignity and enable them to realize their zelem Elokim” (185). While both of the authors’ points are clearly true, there is no obvious connection between these insights and their alleged Talmudic antecedent. While the Talmud highlights the importance of humility, the authors’ emphasize that we must overcome our animal instincts. This is not to suggest that the authors cannot find some connection between the two points, but it is not at all apparent to the reader what it might be. While this issue is not as egregious as the next examples, it is indicative of a larger problem found throughout this article that I will soon explain.

2. It seems to me that the authors’ are advocating some type of vegetarianism.

3. See also Carl Feit’s “Darwin and Drash: The Interplay of Torah and Biology,” The Torah U-Madda Journal 2: [1990] (25-36)

4.  Ian G. Barbour, Religion in an Age of Science (San Francisco: Harper and Row, 1990)

5. The authors refer to a mysterious “energy received from all the other creations” (181).

6. ‘Torah U-Madda,’ not ‘Torah im Madda’

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Filed under Rationalism

Equality Before God

I wrote this for Elana Sharp’s weekly Dvar Torah email list. Contact me if you’d like to be added.

In the beginning of Netzavim, we are given a list of the people “standing” before God, about to enter the covenant with Him. This list includes all elements of Jewish society, starting with “Your heads…every man in Israel:” and “Your children, your wives, and the stranger who lives in your midst…” (Deut. 29:9-10).

In sum, all of the people are present before God, “from your wood-choppers to your drawers of water”.

Now, isn’t that an odd way to summarize that everyone is present, to say from wood-choppers to drawers of water? Wouldn’t you say from the “heads of the people” to the drawers of water, or from the wood-choppers to the elders? Why does the Torah choose as examples two kinds of people who are most likely in the same rung of society, and a relatively low one at that!?

The answer is quite simple, and provides for us a great lesson in Judaism: Before God, there are no social classes, only servants who equally stand before Him.

Indeed, we are taught that all levels of society were present to enter the covenant, and that is important to note, so that we can understand that truly everyone was there. However, the Torah summarizes what “everyone” is for us: from the wood-choppers to the drawers of water, we are all equal before God, and “anyone” may be considered “everyone”.

This means that we each have the equal responsibility to serve God, and that no one may look to another level of society, higher or lower, to serve God for them. As individuals we are each obligated completely in this regard.

Of course, on the flip side, we see that we all receive equal credit for accepting the yoke of the Mitzvot upon ourselves, and we should not think that there will be someone else who has a greater standing before God than we do.

In this time of year, it is particularly relevant to remember that we are all standing before God, in a covenant with Him, so that we may focus on what is required of each of us.

Shabbat Shalom, and Shana Tova!


In Parshat Bea’alotekha a similar point is made, when Joshua runs to Moses and tells him that Eldad and Medad are prophesying in the camp (Num. 11:26-29). Joshua tells Moses “Kela’em”, which is translated variously as “stop them”, “imprison them” (Rashi), or “Kill them”. Moses, however, responds to his student “Are you jealous on my behalf? Would that all of the people would be prophets, and God would place His spirit on them!”

Not that Joshua was necessarily against the idea that all Jews should be prophets. Indeed, the traditional interpretation was that Eldad and Medad were prophesying that Moses was going to die and Joshua would take over, and this offended Joshua, who was jealous of the honor of his teacher. Presumably, we are taught this interpretation because the Rabbis assume that indeed, of course it would be good if all of the people would be prophets.



Filed under Parshah