Why I Love Being An Orthodox Jew Who Believes In Evolution

It started with science, but it didn’t end there.

Evolution, specifically.

It was one of the questions that was rattling around in my mind for over a year, making me sick because I kept trying to avoid it.  That, Noah’s flood, and the age of the world. 

I was sick because I was trying with all my heart to internalize the words of my teacher who had echoed the overall Torah paradigm of the segment of Jews I had attached myself to: “Science may teach us things that are true, but Torah is Truth.”

In other words, science is transient, and so its truth changes and transforms over time, whereas Torah will always be True, from the day it was revealed to the world until today.

And so, it scared me that I had these thoughts about science and Torah, and times it seemed to me that science appeared to contradict so much of what I had learned.

At a certain point, it became too much and I had to face it.  And what I discovered was forms of Jewish belief that fit into the “orthodox” framework, something that I found so necessary to my view of reality, but that saw both the world itself (science being one aspect) and Torah as Truth.

Now, this may seem contradictory, this view that you can have texts, interpretations, and years of belief surrounding how, for example, the flood had destroyed the entire planet, and then science that seems to be in direct contradiction to that.  How can these coexist, without science trumping Torah?

I’ve always found the debate about evolution to be especially fascinating in this regard.  There is something about it that seems to get to the very heart of some sort of larger debate about the nature of reality.  People that get angry and heated about evolution on both sides seem to, on some level, be arguing about something much deeper but only have the words of science to guide them.

For myself, at least, the conflict is not so much between science and religion as two different philosophies about the way the world works: On one side, the belief that the world is built to, on all levels, evolve over time; on the other, the belief that the world itself does not change, but that its truth and beauty become more revealed over time.

Revelation is an incredibly beautiful and powerful idea: it implies, for example, that a person is inherently good even when he does bad.  His job is simply to reveal his good nature, not to evolve from someone bad into someone good.  This allows for us to change ourselves and the world in an incredibly empowered way: we do not fear failure for God created us and the world with an inherent beauty that do not to be changed or transformed but to simply be exposed for what they already are.

But there is a weakness to this idea as well.  It, for example, does not allow us to truly be partners in physical or spiritual reality: we are simply servants with a very specific (if also deep) job in the world.  It inevitably results in people with less access to revelation to be less empowered.  It implies that our generation does not have to be better than past generations, it simply needs to do more, to build on what they did.

These were all issues I secretly had with the Judaism I was practicing during that year of sickness.  I feel, in some deep part of myself, that this is the conflict truly being waged by those who do and don’t believe in evolution.

It was only when I accessed this new form of Judaism, taught to me by the likes of Rabbi Dr. Norman Lamm, author of Torah Umadda, and Rabbi Jonathan Sacks, author of The Great Partnership, that I started to see this split and why it ran so deep.

The scientific theory of evolution teaches us that the world was not created 6,000 years ago, but rather that the universe and earth itself took billions of years simply to evolve into what we see today, and that life is simply an extension of that evolution.

There are so many assumptions about reality that challenge the revelatory paradigm that I don’t think we see at first when we discuss evolution.  For example, an inherent assumption in this paradigm is that generations are, in a sense, better than the ones before them because they are part of the natural process that has led to the very creation of humanity, among all the other beautiful realities of the world.  It also does not assume that reality or truth are revealed to us, rather they are things we either discover or create on our own.

It is not hard to see why evolution vs. revelation is such a powerful debate when we look at it this way.  It seems to me that it is part of the reason there is such a clash between the Republican world and the Democratic one in America: one side believes (put very simply and without nuance) that the Founding Fathers had access to a special truth that we need to continually tap into and learn from.  Another believes that the main truth that they brought into the world of politics was that of a country that can evolve and change as it grows, one that must change as it grows.

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Is it any coincidence that so many on either side have the same split over evolution (going as deep as whether intelligent design should be taught at school)?  I personally don’t think it’s a coincidence.

What Rabbi Lamm and Sacks taught me was that there exists a third way.  One in which revelation and evolution can live in beautiful harmony.

The world itself seems to possess an aspect of both, if we allow ourselves to see it.  For example, the “fundamental physical constants” of the universe, the numbers that have to stay the way they are or the entire universe would cease to exist in the way it does.  But within this same world exists the ability for reality to change, grow, evolve, and adapt to itself.

Even the constitution seems to work this way.  There are the Bill of Rights and other aspects of our laws that do not change, and then there is our ability to evolve or change the law.  It is this combination of fixedness and change that has allowed us to end slavery, enable people besides white landowners to vote, among so many wonderful changes, while also allowing us to keep our inalienable rights such as free speech.

And then there is Judaism, which it seems to me to possess the same traits.  The fixed nature of the written Torah along with the evolution that the oral Torah has given us.

Now, the debate that still rages is how much of Torah is revelatory, if any, and how much is evolutionary, if any.

The words of Rabbis Lamm and Sacks, who both presented me with a world in which the two could exist in harmony, were so powerful I almost fell apart.  It was a truth that I was thirsty for, a truth that spoke on a very deep level about the conflicts I was having within myself.

My inner reality began to shift.  One which told me, “Science possess both Truth and evolves, and Torah is Truth but also evolves.”  Which then opened other doors: it created a world in which wordly, non-Jewish, values and realities can inform Torah. One in which even the person with the most revelatory experience of Torah is not perfect, and whose ideas must be scrutinized in the same way scientific studies are.

It also allowed me to hold so many beautiful ideas at once: one in which I am both inherently good but am also a partner with God in transforming myself and the world around me, not just trying to reveal what I have been taught to reveal.  One in which I believe our generation not only can, but has a responsibility, to be higher than past generations (while also understanding that without learning from them we never will).

This can be both beautiful and frustrating.  Fixed but also slippery.  With moments of mind-blowing harmony but also painful discord.

I think that’s part of why some people see this point of view as dangerous.  Because there is a risk involved: the risk of going “too far”.  The risk, for example, that one may end up simply not believing in Torah or even God.  Something that strikes fear into the hearts of countless orthodox Jews.  Of course, the other side of the coin is that many are fearful of going “too far” towards revelation, one which many judge to be fanatical.

I see this tension in so much of my life recently.  The way people have trouble comprehending that I have an untrimmed beard but also do not wear the traditional Hasidic outfit.  Or that I believe deeply that letters of my Rebbe can guide my life’s most momentous decisions but also do not believe his word is immutable.

But I’ve learned something recently, something that even after my beliefs “evolved” was quite difficult for me to truly internalize.  It is the incredible love I have for this tension.  This tension is scary, but only because throwing ourselves fully into the unknown, into being willing to risk everything in order to connect deeply to truth, will always be scary.  There is no life jacket, there is no raft, there is nothing to keep us perfectly steady except for our commitment to truth and to God.  There is no person we can point to and say, “He knows it all.”

But the flip side of this is that there are many people, almost everyone, that we can point to and say, “They know so much.”  There is no life raft, but there is a plane that can take us to heights we never imagined, over the clouds of our previously held beliefs.

I am so thankful I live in the age of evolution, not because I think its paradigm is flawless, but because it has caused those of us who believe to have to face that which we do not understand with a bravery we never needed to.  We live in an age where we no longer can fool ourselves into thinking the universe is small, with one earth at the center of it all.  We live in a vast ocean, both of physical reality and spiritual knowledge.

And for the first time in history, we have no choice but to come to terms with that.

I can’t wait to see where we go next.