Rabbi Nosson Slifkin
Was life on earth created instantaneously by G-d, or did it evolve naturally over millions of years?
In the ongoing ferocious battles between creationists and evolutionists, the latter recently scored a point when Kansas school officials restored the theory of evolution to statewide curriculum.
Creationists, meanwhile, are enjoying a surge of power with their new image as "Intelligent Design Theorists." In Michigan, the House of Representatives has introduced legislation to put intelligent design on an equal basis with evolution. Backers of intelligent design organized university-sanctioned conferences at Yale and Baylor last year. The Discovery Institute, a Seattle-based research institute that promotes conservative causes, organized a briefing on intelligent design last year on Capitol Hill for prominent members of Congress.
The theory of intelligent design posits that there are aspects of biology which cannot be accounted for by a natural explanation, and that these gaps in scientific theory prove that the world was designed by a Creator. Intelligent design proponents base themselves on far more substantial scientific evidence than Christian fundamentalists, who advocate a young earth and special creation.
Evolutionists, on the other hand, claim that these gaps do not exist or will soon be filled. They regard scientific theory as sufficient to explain most, if not yet all, natural phenomena. The evolutionists conclude ipso facto that there is no need to resort to invoking a Creator. Even those, like Stephen Jay Gould, who pay lip service to the equal value of religion, still marginalize it as an emotional experience devoid of factual basis.
The tragedy of this debate is that many well-meaning laypeople assume that they have to side fully with one group or the other. This is a mistake, because the philosophies of both positions are critically flawed.
The scientific enterprise itself is rooted in Judaism. Professor Paul Davies, a renowned physicist, writes: "The Jews conceived of G-d as the Lawgiver. This G-d, being independent of, and separate from, His creation, imposed laws upon the physical universe from without." It never occurred to pagans to look for regularities in nature.
Judaism always believed in perceiving G-d through studying the natural world. This never meant "there is no scientific explanation for phenomena." Rather, it meant understanding that G-d was the One who decreed the laws of science in the first place. (Miracles are traditionally considered a last resort, something to shake people into realizing to look beyond the laws of nature for their source. Jews perceive G-d primarily in His role as lawmaker, not lawbreaker.)
After a while, however, science forgot its roots. Giddy with its newfound ability to provide explanations for the mechanisms of natural phenomena, science forgot to ask who made these mechanisms. Only recently, with the success of science in discovering the extraordinary degree of order and unity inherent in nature, have some scientists begun to ask where these laws came from.
Einstein wrote to a colleague:
"You find it surprising that I think of the comprehensibility of the world... as a miracle or eternal mystery. But surely, a priori, one should expect the world to be chaotic, not to be grasped by thought in any way... Even if the axioms of the theory are posited by man, the success of such a procedure supposes in the objective world a high degree of order, which we are in no way entitled to expect a priori. Therein lies the 'miracle' which becomes more and more evident as our knowledge develops. And here is the weak point of positivists and professional atheists, who feel happy because they think that they have pre empted not only the world of the divine but also of the miraculous."
To be sure, we have scientific explanations for phenomena. But this does not paint G-d out of the picture. On the contrary -- it presents a new picture, that of the body of scientific law, for Him to have painted. Scientific laws are remarkable in their universality, symmetry, simplicity, and fortuitousness in producing a world that can sustain intelligent life.
Our grasp of the remarkable rationality of the universe is reaching its climax with the quest for a "Theory of Everything," an encapsulation of all the laws of nature into a simple and single unit. Professor John Barrow notes:
"The fact that such a unification is even sought tells us something important about our expectations regarding the Universe. Our monotheistic traditions reinforce the assumption that the Universe is at root a unity, that it is not governed by different legislation in different places."
Science and monotheism go hand-in-hand.
NO LAW WITHOUT A LAWGIVER
The discovery of scientific explanations was rooted in Judaism, is predicated by Judaism, and is hoped for by Judaism. The Mishnah states: "If there is no Torah, then there is no derech eretz; if there is no derech eretz, then there is no Torah." Derech eretz has been translated in different ways, but Rabbi Yerucham Levovitz explains it to refer to natural law. Appreciating the role and rule of natural law is an essential prerequisite to appreciating the role and rule of the spiritual law of Torah.
The specifics of the various theories of evolution may or may not be correct. But it is irrelevant. Sooner or later, a viable theory to explain the formation of life will be found, just as we found theories to explain the motion of the planets and the patterns of rainfall. We can predict this, because we know that G-d works through a system of natural law. Not because, Heaven forbid, He has to, but because He chooses to. The creationists who look for G-d in miraculous events are committing a grave error. G-d's fingerprints are to be found in natural law as much as they are in supernatural law.
Rabbi Samson Raphael Hirsch, pre-eminent Jewish thinker of the 19th century, explains:
"Judaism is most anxious to make its adherents aware that all the phenomena of nature are subject to certain unchanging laws. Since Judaism itself is a system of laws through and through, it attaches a profound ethical value to the study of the natural sciences. Judaism considers it vitally important for its adherents to become aware that their entire universe is governed by well-defined laws, that every creature on earth becomes what it is only within the framework of fixed laws, and that every force in nature can operate only within specified limits.
Not by his whims of the moment but only by his own detailed knowledge of, and regard for, these laws can man make nature serve his purposes. Man himself, then, can exercise power only if he, in turn, obeys the laws set down for him and for his world."
Unlike those known as "creationists," Jews accept that science works. But unlike many scientists, we look deeper. For while it is praiseworthy to look for laws in nature, we should never disregard the Lawmaker. If and when evolutionary theory is perfected, it should, states Rabbi Hirsch, cause us to:
"give even greater reverence than ever before to the one, sole G-d 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."
Rabbi Nosson Slifkin lectures on Judaism and the natural world at Ohr Somayach institutions and at zoos worldwide. His website is http://www.zootorah.com.
This essay is adapted from Rabbi Nosson Slifkin's newest book, The Science of Torah, which discusses the laws of science, the creation of the universe, and the development of life. It can be purchased from your local Jewish bookstore or online from http://www.feldheim.com.