The Origins of Life: A Jewish Perspective Rabbi Brad Hirschfield writes that Jewish tradition accepts the idea of multiple positions on complex issues and that there is much to learn even from claims judged to be incorrect. He finds room for both the Darwin's theory of evolution and intelligent design.
NPR logo The Origins of Life: A Jewish Perspective

The Origins of Life: A Jewish Perspective

The increasingly nasty debate between believers in Darwinian evolution and advocates for intelligent design theory hinges on the fact that most creationists relate to evolutionists as if they have no soul, and most evolutionists relate to the creationists as if they have no brain.

Since according to Jewish tradition we all possess both, this is where our discussion should begin -- no small feat in a culture in which the absolute obliteration of the other side's views is often the only basis for thinking that one's own position is correct.

Such thinking is totally inconsistent with the Jewish intellectual tradition of healthy debate, the acceptance of multiple positions on complex issues, and the awareness that even those claims judged to be incorrect still have a great deal to teach us. In fact, according to the Talmud, the views of the "losing side" in every debate are preserved precisely because they may, at some future point, be deemed to be correct. It is that intellectual modesty, sorely lacking on both sides of today's debate, which my tradition brings to its teachings about the divisive nature of the origin of life.

About the Author

Rabbi Brad Hirschfield is vice president of CLAL-The National Jewish Center for Learning and Leadership.

Jewish tradition teaches that God is the ground of all being and the ultimate source of all life. That said, both the positions of Darwinian evolution and those of the intelligent design theorists can fit with classical Jewish thought. The argument for the former bases itself on readings of the creation stories in Genesis as being non-literal with respect to time, i.e., the seven days of creation according to many rabbinic commentaries are understood as seven eons (the word "day" being a literary conceit helping the reader to comprehend the process), developmental in roughly the ways that Darwin describes, i.e., moving from less to increasingly complex forms of life, and guided by a process that supports the expansion of life in the most efficient and successful ways.

The argument for intelligent design is also easily made by reading the Genesis story as a literal account of the initial stages of the creation of all that is. This approach is driven by an understanding of God as more intimately involved with the ongoing processes of the world and all forms of life within it, the willingness to stand awe-struck before something of seemingly incomprehensible richness and complexity, and the ability to provide answers to life's questions that supply meaning beyond the mechanisms by which life proceeds.

How can a single religious tradition support both of these readings? It can do so in much the same way that the book of Genesis can include two distinct creation narratives. The Hebrew Bible and Jewish tradition recognize that each approach is a valid response to a different set of issues. Both evolution and intelligent design attempt to explain the origins of life and to understand how life takes new forms. But the first is primarily interested in understanding the mechanics, while the second is at least as driven by the desire to appreciate the presence of the creator of life.

That difference does not imply that one is more valid than the other, or even more accurate. It simply means that when each of them is taught, there should be full recognition of the different biases that each approach carries with it. While each of them is in fact a "theory," the meaning of that term is not applied equally by those who use it. Intelligent design theory is simply not testable in the way in which evolution theory is. More importantly, the proponents of evolution theory would be just as happy to find out that they are wrong, as to continue believing that they are right.

Excluding those Darwinians who understand their position to be a proof against the existence of a creator -- itself a kind of fundamentalist position -- the primary interest of evolutionary biology is the deepening of our understanding of life, regardless of the theological implications. The premise of intelligent design theory is that it can provide evidence that confirms the existence of a specific kind of creator. If it failed to do so, then not only would the theory be wrong, but the proponents of it would see themselves as having failed in their pursuit of knowledge and in their attempt to confirm what they already believe.

Jewish tradition has always made room for both of these impulses, the one that seeks confirmation of the purposefulness and meaningfulness of existence, and the one that challenges our very definitions of those terms. In fact, the only unacceptable position in this debate between the intelligent design folks and proponents of Darwin is the one that insists there is no room for both of these positions in our classrooms, homes, hearts and minds.