Teaching Evolution in Jewish Schools

Evolutionary biology thrives alongside serious engagement with the Genesis narrative.

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In American public culture, the science of evolution and the biblical creation story are constructed as opposing narratives of life's origins, and the classroom has become a battleground for this debate. Teachers and school boards have wrestled with which narratives to teach in public schools, in which settings, be it science or comparative religion.

In contrast, this issue has caused little controversy in Jewish education, where narratives of evolution and creation are, for the most part, able to co-exist.

Separate Spheres

Most Jewish schools strike a balance between evolution and the Torah's narrative. Some teach evolution and creation as separate ideas in different departments, as the Forward reported (January 20, 2006) of the nondenominational Hyman Brand Hebrew Academy of Overland Park, Kansas, which "teaches Genesis as part of its religious studies, and evolution in its college-preparatory science classes."

Nick Miller, chair of the science department at the pluralistic Charles E. Smith Jewish Day School in Rockville, Maryland, sees a distinct advantage to teaching evolution in the religious context of a Jewish school: "If I taught in a public school and a kid asked me, 'Do you believe in both of them?' I couldn't answer. Here I can." 

Although he does not devote a unit in biology classes to the subject, when Miller's students ask about whether one can believe in Torah and in evolution, he answers their questions. "The intent of the Torah," he suggests, "is not to be a science book but to reveal the mind of God to us." 

To Miller, trying to force one narrative into the framework of another is "intellectual-spiritual shatnez, yoking two different species of animal to a plow, an act of cruelty," undermining depth of thought in both religious and scientific systems.

Students in these Jewish schools can achieve what American public culture presents as an insurmountable challenge. "Very few students have issues combining their religious views and their scientific knowledge," reports Katerina Sherman, the science department chair at the Maimonides School in Brookline, Massachusetts. "They have separate compartments of their brain for separate subjects. The part for biology doesn't have cross-references" for Jewish studies.

An Overlapping Conversation

Josh Edelglass, a teacher at Prozdor (an after-school Jewish high school in Newton, Massachusetts), wants his students to learn to articulate their own understandings of evolution in a Jewish context. In a course called "But Did it Happen?" Edelglass asked his students to compare the timeline of creation in Genesis with scientific ideas of the beginning of the universe.

His students accepted the idea of evolution, but did not want to write off the first chapter of Genesis. They wrestled to fit the two together.

Edelglass's teaching in the after-school setting opens up new ways of thinking not only for the Jewish students in his classroom, but also for other public school students with whom they interact in their biology classrooms. Those students will be able to hear from their Jewish peers a kind of wrestling that does not require rejecting biology for the sake of religion or vice versa, but allows the narratives to be in dialogue for the enrichment of both.

From the Teachers

Even within a school, individual teachers vary in teaching evolution in relation to religious material. At Maimonides, an Orthodox high school, Sherman expects multiple approaches within her faculty. "Our faculty is very diverse, in religious and scientific backgrounds. We have disagreements on this issue, which is so politically charged that I don't feel comfortable imposing my opinions on faculty." 

Ronnie Perelis teaches evolution as the introductory human development component of ninth grade world history at Mayanot Yeshiva High School for Girls in Teaneck, New Jersey. He says he could not get away with telling students to ask their rabbis about any religious issues they would have with the material because of his own religious practice. "They saw that I daven [pray]," he said, "so this year I spent a week dealing with the connections between Judaism and evolution, to help resolve some of the apparent contradictions."

Perelis clarified for students that Torah is a text that teaches values and ideals, but not the physical principles of science. His students would ask, "Where is Avraham, Where is Adam" in the history of human development? "Neanderthals are not Avraham Avinu," Perelis explained, "Adam is when you have a neshama [soul]." Perelis's students bring religious questions to their conversation about human evolutionary biology; he is able to address their concerns with a blending of religious and scientific language.

Ultra-Orthodox Approaches

While faculty members at Jewish day schools broadly agree that evolution should be taught, some Haredi (ultra-Orthodox) schools would rather not address it. The current principal of such a school in Brooklyn, New York (who declined to be named in this article) said that they teach biology from secular textbooks, but teachers tell students that they should ignore the dates, since "everything is only since the world was created." They teach that "the way the world was created, maybe change is taking place. Things evolve, but we don't call it evolution." 

When teachers ask how they might explain seemingly contradictory narratives in the Torah and the biology textbook, they ask a rabbi, who looks to the Talmud for explanations.

Sophistication and Complexity

Most Jewish educators believe that serious engagement with the Genesis narrative need not be seen as contradicting evolution. Instead, educators in Jewish schools have the opportunity to act as resources and role models for articulating a religious life in the modern world by exposing some of their own questions and struggles.

Advocating for an approach that admits this complexity, Joel Wolowelsky, chairman of Advanced Placement studies at the Yeshiva of Flatbush in Brooklyn, New York, wrote in Ten-Da'at, a journal of Jewish education: "Lurking behind the would-be debate between Torah and evolution is either a shallow understanding of Torah or an unsophisticated appreciation of science--or both. Our students certainly deserve better."

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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.