Evolution: Jewish views

Jews during the classical rabbinic era believed that God completed the creation of the world close to 6,000 years ago.  This view is based on a chronology developed in a midrash, Seder Olam, which was based on a literal reading of the Book of Genesis. This midrash is attributed to the Tanna Yose ben Halafta, and covers history from the creation of the universe to the construction of the Second Temple in Jerusalem.

Most modern rabbis accept scientific evidence showing that Earth is much older, and that life as we know it today did not always exist. Rabbis who had this view often based their conclusions on verses in the Talmud or in the midrash. For example:

The Midrash says: God created many worlds but was not satisfied, and left the world he was satisfied with.
Rabbi Moshe Ben Nachman (1194–1270) writes: In the first day God created the energy (כח) “matter” (חומר) of all things, and then he was finished with the main creation. After that God created all other things from that energy.
Some midrashim state that the “first week” of Creation lasted for extremely long periods of time. See Anafim on Rabbenu Bachya’s Sefer Ikkarim 2:18; and Midrash Bereshit Rabbah 9.

Genesis, Tanakh (The Hebrew Bible)

Genesis is the first book of the Bible, in Judaism and Christianity. Biblical scholars and many clergy note that Genesis contains two creation stories:

Genesis 1:1-2:3, sets out the seven days of creation:

Day 1: Creation of the heavens, earth, light, day and night.

Day 2: Creation of the the dome (sky) that separates the waters on earth, from the waters above the sky.

Day 3: dry land and vegetation.

Day 4: stars, moon, sun.

Day 5: water creatures and birds.

Day 6: Creation of land animals; humankind (both male and female). The number of humans created is not specified. God here gives to people “every plant yielding seed that is upon the face of all the earth, and every tree with seed in its fruit; you shall have them for food” (Gen 1:29) – no prohibitions.

Day 7: God rested, and blessed this day.


Genesis 2:4-25. The second creation story

Here, individual days are not specified. And the sequence is different:
The Earth and heavens are created first; no rain yet, but a spring would well up and water the ground.

From dust, man was created (not woman yet)

The Garden of Eden – man is put here; the garden includes the tree of life and the tree of knowledge of good and evil.

God tells man to till and keep the garden of Eden, but not to eat of the tree of knowledge of good and evil. Woman has not entered the scene yet – man is alone.

God notices that Man is alone, so God first creates animals and birds, and Man names them. But still there was no helper as partner for the man. So God makes Man fall asleep, pulls out a rib, and makes Woman. The story of original sin then ensues.

In the first Biblical creation story, all of creation is good. In the second story, even the garden of Eden is not a place of relaxed enjoyment, but a place of work (Gen 2:15), and a place where something is off-limits (Gen 2:16-17).


Medieval era

In his commentary on the Torah, Rabbi Bahya ben Asher (11th century, Spain) concludes that there were many time systems occurring in the universe long before the spans of history that man is familiar with. Based on the Kabbalah he calculates that the Earth is billions of years old.

Medieval philosophical rationalists, such as Maimonides and Gersonides held that not every statement in Genesis is meant literally.  In this view, one was obligated to understand Torah in a way that was compatible with the findings of science. Maimonides, one of the great rabbis of the Middle Ages, wrote that if science proved a point that contradicted the Bible, then we would be obligated to reinterpret the Bible in accord with science!

For example, in discussing Aristotle’s view that the universe had existed eternally (without beginning) Maimonides argued that there was no convincing proof one way or the other, so that one was free to accept the Biblical view that the universe had come into being at a definite time; but if Aristotle’s position is ever proved scientifically then we would be obligated to reinterpret Genesis accordingly.

Nahmanides’ disciple, Rabbi Isaac of Akko, a prominent Kabbalist of 13th-century, held that the Universe is about 15 billion years old. According to the tradition of Shmitot, Genesis talks openly only about the current epoch, while the information about the previous cosmic cycles is hidden in the esoteric reading of the text.

A literal interpretation of the biblical Creation story among classic rabbinic commentators is uncommon. Thus Bible commentator Abraham Ibn Ezra (11th Century) wrote,

If there appears something in the Torah which contradicts reason…then here one should seek for the solution in a figurative interpretation…the narrative of the tree of knowledge of good and evil, for instance, can only be understood in a figurative sense.

Post-1800 Kabbalistic views

Rabbi Eliyahu Benamozegh, an Italian Kabbalist, wrote that were evolution to become a mainstay of scientific theory, it would not contradict the Torah as long as one understood it as having been guided by God.

Rabbi Israel Lipschitz of Danzig (19th century) gave a famous lecture on Torah and paleontology, which is printed in the Yachin u-Boaz edition of the Mishnah, after Massechet Sanhedrin. He writes that Kabbalistic texts teach that the world has gone through many cycles of history, each lasting for many tens of thousands of years. He links these teachings to findings about geology from European, American and Asian geologists, and from findings from paleontologists. He discusses the wooly mammoth discovered in 1807 Siberia, Russia, and the remains of several then-famous dinosaur skeletons recently unearthed. Finding no contradiction between this and Jewish teachings, he states “From all this, we can see that all the Kabbalists have told us for so many centuries about the fourfold destruction and renewal of the Earth has found its clearest possible confirmation in our time.”

When scientists first developed the theory of evolution, this idea was seized upon by Rabbis such as Naftali Zvi Yehuda Berlin, known as the Netziv, who saw Kabbalah as a way to resolve the differences between traditional readings of the Bible and modern day scientific findings. He proposed that the ancient fossils of dinosaurs were the remains of beings that perished in the previous “worlds” described in midrash[15] and in some Kabbalistic texts. This was the view held by Rabbi Aryeh Kaplan (1934–1983).

Late 19th century Orthodox view of evolution

In the late 1880s, Rabbi Samson Raphael Hirsch wrote that while he did not endorse the idea of common descent (that all life developed from one common organism), even if science ever did prove the factuality of Evolution, it would not pose a threat to Orthodox Judaism’s beliefs. He posited that belief in Evolution could instead cause one to be more reverent of God by understanding His wonders (a master plan for the universe).

This will never change, not even if the latest scientific notion that the genesis of all the multitudes of organic forms on earth can be traced back to one single, most primitive, primeval form of life should ever appear to be anything more than what it is today, a vague hypothesis still unsupported by fact. Even if this notion were ever to gain complete acceptance by the scientific world, Jewish thought, unlike the reasoning of the high priest of that notion, would nonetheless never summon us to revere a still extant representative of this primal form as the supposed ancestor of us all. Rather, Judaism in that case would call upon its adherents to give even greater reverence than ever before to the one, sole God Who, in His boundless creative wisdom and eternal omnipotence, needed to bring into existence no more than one single, amorphous nucleus and one single law of “adaptation and heredity” in order to bring forth, from what seemed chaos but was in fact a very definite order, the infinite variety of species we know today, each with its unique characteristics that sets it apart from all other creatures. (Collected Writings, vol. 7 pp. 263-264)

By the early to mid-1900s, the majority of Conservative Judaism and Reform Judaism came to accept the existence of evolution as a scientific fact. They interpreted Genesis and related Jewish teachings in light of this fact.

Modern-day Orthodox Jewish views

The Rabbinical Council of America (RCA) has “maintained that evolutionary theory, properly understood, is not incompatible with belief in a Divine Creator, nor with the first 2 chapters of Genesis.” Prominent Orthodox rabbis who have affirmed that the world is older, and that life has evolved over time include Israel Lipschitz, Sholom Mordechai Schwadron (the MaHaRSHaM) (1835–1911), Zvi Hirsch Chajes (1805–1855) and Abraham Isaac Kook (1865–1935). These rabbis proposed their own versions of theistic evolution, in which the world is older, and that life does evolve over time in accord with natural law, painting natural law as the process by which God drives the world.

Many scientists and academics in the Modern Orthodox community have written works to bridge Orthodox Jewish theology and the findings of modern science. One of the most prominent is Gerald Schroeder, an MIT trained physicist.  His work has received approbations from a number of Orthodox rabbinic authorities. Other physicists writing on this topic include Alvin Radkowsky, Nathan Aviezer, Herman Branover, Cyril Domb, Aryeh Kaplan and Yehuda (Leo) Levi.

Various popular Orthodox works attempt to reconcile traditional Jewish texts with modern scientific findings concerning evolution, the age of the earth and the age of the Universe; these include:

  • Nathan Aviezer: In the Beginning, Biblical Creation and Science; Fossils and Faith: Understanding Torah and Science
  • Aryeh Carmell and Cyril Domb, ed.: Challenge: Torah Views on Science and Its Problems
  • Daniel E. Friedmann: The Genesis One Code: Demonstrates a clear alignment between the times of key events described in the Genesis with those derived from scientific observation. and The Broken Gift: Harmonizing the Biblical and scientific accounts of human origins
  • Aryeh Kaplan: Immortality, Resurrection and the Age of the Universe: A Kabbalistic View
  • Yehuda Levi: Torah and Science – Their Interplay in the World Scheme
  • Jonathan Sacks: The Great Partnership: God, Science and the Search For Meaning
  • Gerald Schroeder: Genesis and the Big Bang: The Discovery of Harmony Between Modern Science and the Bible; The Science of God
  • Natan Slifkin: The Challenge of Creation


Conservative/Masorti Jewish views

Conservative Judaism embraces science as a way to learn about the world, and like Orthodox and Reform Judaism, has not found the theory of evolution a challenge to traditional Jewish theology. The Conservative Jewish movement has not yet developed one official response to the subject, but a broad array of views has converged. Conservative Jews teach that God created the universe and is responsible for the creation of life within it, but proclaims no mandatory teachings about how this occurs.

Many Conservative Rabbis embrace the term theistic evolution, and reject the term intelligent design. Conservative rabbis who use the term intelligent design in their sermons often distinguish their views from the Christian use of the term. Like most in the scientific community, they understand “intelligent design” to be a technique by Christians to insert religion into public schools, as admitted in the Intelligent design movement‘s “wedge strategy“.

Conservative Judaism strongly supports the use of science as the proper way to learn about the physical world in which we live, and thus encourages its adherents to find a way to understand evolution in a way that does not contradict the findings of scientific research. The tension between accepting God’s role in the world and the findings of science, however, is not resolved, and a wide array of views exists. Some mainstream examples of Conservative Jewish thought are as follows:

Professor Ismar Schorsch, former chancellor of the Jewish Theological Seminary of America, writes that:

The Torah’s story of creation is not intended as a scientific treatise, worthy of equal time with Darwin’s theory of evolution in the curriculum of our public schools. The notes it strikes in its sparse and majestic narrative offer us an orientation to the Torah’s entire religious worldview and value system. Creation is taken up first not because the subject has chronological priority but rather to ground basic religious beliefs in the very nature of things. And I would argue that their power is quite independent of the scientific context in which they were first enunciated.

Rabbi David J. Fine, who has authorized official responsa for the Conservative movement’s Committee on Jewish Law and Standards, expresses a common Conservative Jewish view on the subject:

Conservative Judaism has always been premised on the total embrace of critical inquiry and science. More than being compatible with Conservative Judaism, I would say that it is a mitzvah to learn about the world and the way it works to the best of our abilities, since that is to marvel with awe at God’s handiwork. To not do so is sinful.
But here’s where the real question lies. Did God create the world, or not? Is it God’s handiwork? Many of the people who accept evolution, even many scientists, believe in what is called “theistic evolution,” that is, that behind the billions of years of cosmic and biological evolution, there is room for belief in a creator, God, who set everything into motion, and who stands outside the universe as the cause and reason for life. The difference between that and “intelligent design” is subtle yet significant. Believing scientists claim that belief in God is not incompatible with studying evolution since science looks only for the natural explanations for phenomena. The proponents of intelligent design, on the other hand, deny the ability to explain life on earth through solely natural explanations. That difference, while subtle, is determinative.
David J. Fine, Intelligent Design

Rabbi Michael Schwab writes:

…the Jewish view on the first set of questions is much closer to the picture painted by adherents to intelligent design than to those who are strict Darwinians. Judaism, as a religion, and certainly Conservative Judaism, sees creation as a purposeful process directed by God, however each individual defines the Divine. This is clearly in consonance with the theory of Intelligent Design. What Darwin sees as random, we see as the miraculous and natural unfolding of God’s subtle and beautiful plan.
…However, as unlikely as it may seem, this does not mean for one moment that Judaism’s view rejects wholesale the veracity of Darwin’s theory. In fact, I believe that it is easy to incorporate Darwin and Intelligent design into a meaningful conception of how we humans came into being…
We have frameworks built into our system to integrate the findings of science into our religious and theological beliefs. That is because we believe that the natural world, and the way it works, was created by God and therefore its workings must be consistent with our religious beliefs.
…One of the most well known ways our tradition has been able to hold onto both the scientific theory of evolution as well as the concept of a purposeful creation was by reading the creation story in Genesis in a more allegorical sense. One famous medieval commentary proclaims that the days of creation, as outlined in the book of Bereshit, could be seen as representative of the stages of creation and not literal 24 hour periods. Thus each Biblical day could have accounted for thousands or even millions of years. In that way the progression according to both evolution and the Torah remains essentially the same: first the elements were created, then the waters, the plants, the animals, and finally us. Therefore, Genesis and Darwin can both be right in a factual analysis even while we acknowledge that our attitudes towards these shared facts are shaped much more strongly by the Torah – we agree how the process unfolded but disagree that it was random.
Parshat Noah — November 4, 2005, How Did We Get Here? Michael Schwab

The claim that evolution is purposeful is in conflict with modern day evolutionary theory.[citation needed] The precise way in which God inserts design is not specified by Schwab or other rabbis.

Rabbi Lawrence Troster is a critic of positions such as this. He holds that much of Judaism (and other religions) have not successfully created a theology which allows for the role of God in the world and yet is also fully compatible with modern day evolutionary theory. Troster maintains that the solution to resolving the tension between classical theology and modern science can be found in process theology, such as in the writings of Hans Jonas, whose view of an evolving God within process philosophy contains no inherent contradictions between theism and scientific naturalism.

Lecture God after Darwin: Evolution and the Order of Creation October 21, 2004, Lishmah, New York City, Larry Troster

In a paper on Judaism and environmentalism, Troster writes:

Jonas is the only Jewish philosopher who has fully integrated philosophy, science, theology and environmental ethics. He maintained that humans have a special place in Creation, manifest in the concept that humans are created in the image of God. His philosophy is very similar to that of Alfred North Whitehead, who believed that God is not static but dynamic, in a continual process of becoming as the universe evolves.
From Apologetics to New Spirituality: Trends in Jewish Environmental Theology, Lawrence Troster


The text above comes from an early version (2005) of the Wikipedia article on ‘Jewish views of evolution’, much of which was written or edited by Robert Kaiser. Later versions were subject to editing wars between religious fundamentalists, and well-intentioned but not well-trained students. As such, the organization and focus of the article became lost amidst endless edit wars and censorship.  What is presented here has been edited with an eye towards academic honesty and linguistic clarity.


Ultra-Orthodox (Haredi) & Modern Orthodox opposition to Evolution

Nearly all ultra-Orthodox Jews , and many Modern Orthodox Jews, do not accept evolution, and many believe that the Earth is 6,000 years old.

A recent scientific study in Skeptic Magazine showed that many Orthodox Jews modern enough to attend university, nonetheless oppose evolutionary theory. It found that those with an educational background in the sciences were actually more likely to reject evolutionary theory, than those without any prior scientific background. This was an interview with 176 Orthodox Jewish students who sat at the kosher area of a New York City public college cafeteria. It was interpreted as showing general disbelief in basic scientific facts about nature and a rejection of evolution. It concluded that the Orthodox Jewish students, though modern enough to attend a secular public university, get their scientific information not from their professors but from their religious beliefs and from Orthodox Jewish scientists who in turn conform to the beliefs of their religious authorities.

The study’s findings suggest that hostility towards evolutionary theory is at least as common among Orthodox Jews as it is among other religious groups more typically associated with hostility towards evolutionary theory, such as fundamentalist Christian Protestants.
Rabbi Moshe Feinstein (1895-1986), one of the most important decisors or Jewish law in 20th century Orthodoxy,  “ruled that the reading of an evolutionary textbook was absolutely forbidden and that belief in evolution is so great a heresy that even being exposed to it was forbidden.8 If the textbook was absolutely required for other purposes, Feinstein ruled that the specific pages containing references to evolution had to be torn out and thrown away. Indeed, many yeshivas do just that. ” – Feinstein, M. 1959. Iggerot Moshe, Yoreh Deah. Brooklyn, NY: Balshon Press.

The Orthodox Union regularly publishes creationist materials, including the book Human Intelligence Gone Ape by Josh Greenberger, which by its own description “disproves the theory of evolution in more ways than one. It shows how evolution is genetically impossible.”9 The Orthodox Union also put out A Science and Torah Reader, which declared evolution incompatible with Orthodoxy and scientifically invalid.10

In the Summer 5760 issue of the OU official journal, Jewish Action, there was an article entitled “Genesis, Cosmology and Evolution” that contains all the standard creationist arguments, such as “Darwinism elicits a dogmatic view of evidence,” “Darwinists circumvent or disregard evidence and logic,” “irreducibly complex biochemical systems,” and “Genesis’ creation story is scientifically accurate.”11

Orthodox Jews & Science An Empirical Study of their Attitudes Toward Evolution, the Fossil Record, and Modern Geology by Alexander Nussbaum.

The Slifkin Affair

While Orthodox Jewish scientists garner community praise for using their secular scientific status to promote the scientific validity of Torah, and are obligated to do so, even that enterprise necessitates prudence. Orthodox Jewish scientists require and seek the imprimatur of the great living rabbis for their works. But with the ever-increasing shift to the right, what was acceptable yesterday may be Kefirah (or kfirah, rejection-heresy) today. To be declared a Kofer, or a heretic, means excommunication and social ruin.

Ironically, it was apologetics written by Orthodox Jewish scientists (which spoke about six time periods of creation as a means of sidestepping the issue of the age of the universe while also debunking evolution) that led to almost all the living Rabbonim (great Rabbis) to recently declare in that any Jew who believes the universe is older than 5,766 years is a Kofer. Some Orthodox scientists have even had to state that the universe was created to look older as a test of faith but is actually only 5,766 years old.

Rabbi Nosson Slifkin, formerly Talmud instructor at a leading Ultra-orthodox yeshiva, gained fame as the “Zoo Rabbi” for his interest in the wildlife mentioned in the Torah, and his writing of numerous nature books from the Orthodox perspective. However, last year a committee of 23 of the leading Rabbonim declared his works banned and put him in cherem (or herem), which means the total exclusion from the Orthodox Jewish community, and the highest possible ecclesiastical punishment. The ban read, in part, “He believes the world is millions of years old — all nonsense! — and many other things that should not be heard and certainly not believed.”12


From the same article:

The Association of Orthodox Jewish Scientists14 whose telling motto is “Science in the service of Torah,” published a book entitled Challenge: Torah Views on Science,15 which promotes creationism.

Rabbi Dr. Moses Tendler, former chair of the Yeshiva University biology department, in a 1987 article entitled “Evolution, A Theory that Failed to Evolve,” wrote “The [fossil] record … reveals that species remained unchanged … There are no transitional forms! … There is no theory of evolution to attack or defend in 1987 … To sum up: In 1987 there is not one piece of scientific evidence for macroevolution or the development of one species from another.”16

Rabbi Avigdor Miller, a highly revered American Haredi Rabbi of the Lithuanian Yeshivah Tradition, who was also highly respected in Hasidic communities such as Satmar, was strongly opposed to the theory of evolution, and wrote strong polemics against evolution in several of his books, as well as speaking about this subject often in his popular lectures, taking a Creationist position. Several selections from his books on this subject were collected in a pamphlet he published in 1995 called “The Universe Testifies”.

Rabbi Menachem Mendel Schneerson, the late Rebbe of the worldwide movement of Chabad Lubavtich Hasidism, was avidly opposed to evolution, and his following remains largely committed to that position, though individual Chabad Hasidim may hold different views.

Related resources

The Creation/Evolution Continuum
December 7th, 2000, by Eugenie C. Scott
The National Center for Science Education

Many — if not most — Americans think of the creation and evolution controversy as a dichotomy with “creationists” on one side, and “evolutionists” on the other. This assumption all too often leads to the unfortunate conclusion that because creationists are believers in God, that evolutionists must be atheists. The true situation is much more complicated: creationism comes in many forms, and not all of them reject evolution.

It is highly desirable to move people away from this inaccurate dichotomy. A simple classroom exercise, the Creationism/Evolution Continuum, has been used successfully by middle and high school teachers as well as university professors to illustrate the many intermediate positions between the extremes. It can be scaled up or down in detail, depending on the educational level of the students and the time available to the teacher or professor.

What is critical, however, is that any teacher using this exercise in a public school be acutely aware that the purpose of the lesson is to illustrate to students the factual error of the dichotomy they (probably) came to class with. The purpose is not to change the students’ religious views. I cannot stress this too clearly: public schools must be religiously neutral. It is unconstitutional to promote or denigrate religion in the public schools – although it is legal to teach about religion, which is all the Creation/Evolution Continuum is intended to do. A teacher cannot legally promote religion, but can and should descriptively educate students about the variety of religious views relevant to this controversy. It would be unethical as well as illegal to tell students that any particular position on the continuum is religiously superior to another. However, it is not unethical nor illegal to distinguish between fact claims made by holders of certain views on the continuum (such as Young-Earth Creationist views of a 6,000 year old Earth) and the standard scientific consensus on such views (in this case, that the Earth is billions of years old).

With this caveat in mind, then, teachers are encouraged to use the continuum exercise to educate students away from an erroneous dichotomous view of the relationship of creationism to evolution….

One thought on “Evolution: Jewish views

  1. tillerofthesoil

    Nice blog. There is also Rav Yehudah Ashlag’s articulation of the Great Chain of Being:

    “To prepare His creatures to attain this exalted rung, the blessed Holy One desired to act on them in a sequence of four rungs, one הַמִתְפַּתֵחַוֹת (hamitpateḥot), evolving, from the other, called דוֹמֵם צוֹמֵחַ חַי מִדָּבָר (domeh, tsomeaḥ, ḥai, midavar), mineral, vegetable, animal, human [lit., dumb, growing, living, speaking]. These are, in fact, the four phases of the desire to receive, by which the upper worlds are divided. For although the majority of the desire is in the fourth phase of the desire to receive, it is impossible for the fourth phase to appear at once, but by its preceding three phases, in which, and through which, it gradually מִתְפַּתֵחַת (mitpateḥat), unfurls, and appears, until it is fully completed in the form of phase four [cf. Rabbi Yosef Albo, Sefer ha-Iqqarim 3:1-2]” (Ba’al ha-Sullam, Rav Yehudah Ashlag, Introduction to the Book of Zohar, 34).




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