Judaism & Intelligent Design

Jewish scientists and leaders weigh in on the debate about intelligent design in the American public sphere.

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Natan Slifkin, an Orthodox rabbi and author of The Challenge of Creation: Judaism's Encounter with Science, Cosmology, and Evolution, profoundly disagrees with Klinghoffer and Shafran. His book and his teaching (about animals, earning him the title "Zoo Rabbi") outline evolutionary theory for Jews who struggle to reconcile biblical and rabbinic narratives of human origins with scientific understandings.

Slifkin distinguishes between the many varieties of theistic evolution and the claim of intelligent design proponents that the movement offers scientific proof for a divine hand in evolution. Slifkin understands evolution as set in motion by a Creator who placed the first atom of matter into the universe along with a set of laws so intricate that they would bring about the complexity of life as we know it. He reads intelligent design as a threat rather than an asset to Jewish faith: "The danger of intelligent design theory is that it risks forming a "God-of-the-gaps"--a creator who is invoked to account for phenomena that science cannot explain, but whose existence is unnecessary if science is eventually able to explain such phenomena in naturalistic terms."

Slifkin has called intelligent design "no friend to Judaism," and wonders if, in fact, the movement's ideology limits God's ability to create: "Was He incapable of designing laws that could accomplish all His objectives and therefore had to interfere to bring about the results that He wanted?"

Slifkin argues that "Postulating the intelligent design of organisms means postulating the unintelligent design of natural laws." He reads evolutionary theory as offering an opening for faith in God as a more powerful creator.

Intelligent Design on Trial

Regardless of their theological views on the origins of the universe, Jewish groups that advocate for freedom of speech and religion in U.S. public schools oppose the intelligent design movement.

In a fall 2005 trial (Kitzmiller v. Dover Area School District et al.), parents of high school students in Dover, PA accused the school board of instituting religion in the public school when it tried to force biology teachers to teach intelligent design as an alternative scientific theory to evolution. The Jewish Social Policy Action Network, the Jewish Council for Public Affairs, and the Jewish Alliance for Law and Social Action filed an amicus brief in that case, expressing concern in particular at the Discovery Institute's intent to, as these groups saw it, impose a particular religious world view on U.S. public culture with the introduction of intelligent design in biology classrooms.

Judge John E. Jones III ruled in that case that teaching intelligent design in a public school would violate the separation of church and state, and argued further that "the writings of leading ID proponents reveal that the designer postulated by their argument is the God of Christianity."

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Emma Kippley-Ogman

Emma Kippley-Ogman is a rabbinical student at Hebrew College Rabbinical School, having received a B.A. in history of science from Harvard University in 2003.