Teaching Evolution in Jewish Schools

Evolutionary biology thrives alongside serious engagement with the Genesis narrative.

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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.

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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.