Occasional reflections on Life, the World, and Mathematics

Jews and evolution


Salon has published an interesting interview with former Commonwealth Chief Rabbi of the soi-disant Orthodox Jonathan Sacks about his new book about the relationship between science and religion. The man who did as much as anyone in recent years to break down cooperation and mutual respect between Orthodox and progressive streams of Judaism in the UK has rediscovered the virtues of mutual respect and toleration since stepping down last year from his post as Orthodox Chief Rabbi. At least, he believes strongly that atheists should respect him more.

One particular exchange caught my attention:

Why do so few Jews take issue with the theory of evolution, while creationism is common among Christians?

I think Christians tended to think that religion and science were part of the same universe of discourse. So they assumed that the Bible was telling us scientific stuff, as well as moral and spiritual stuff. Whereas Jews don’t read the Bible that way.

It surprises me that the good Rabbi feels so confident accepting the premise of the question, that Orthodox Jews are hip to modern (i.e., post-medieval) science. It’s hard to believe that he has become so disengaged from the cause of Jewish education in Britain in the past year that he failed to note the scandal earlier this year, when a Jewish girls’ school in London (state-funded, natch!) was found to be removing questions from A-level biology exams “because they do not fit in with their beliefs.”

Fifty-two papers were altered by Yesodey Hatorah Senior Girls’ School to remove questions on evolution.

This being Britain, where everything is a sport, no one cared much at first about the children being taught bogus biology; they only cared about the game being fair:

The examinations body, OCR, says it was satisfied that the girls did not have an unfair advantage. It now plans to allow the practice, saying it has come to an agreement with the school to protect the future integrity of the exams.

On more mature reflection, the exam regulator Ofqual did decide that excising questions from exams would be deemed “malpractice”.

Until I read of this controversy, I would have felt confident agreeing with Lord Sacks that there is no Jewish tradition for rejecting scientific biology. Now I’m obviously not so sure. Perhaps this represents part of the harmonic convergence between Orthodox Jewry and American Evangelical Christianity — rather like the way they’ve come to a consensus on supporting Israel, even if the motives may be discordant — Jews wanting Israel as a place to live, Christians wanting it as a place to stage Armageddon.

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