Monday, February 19, 2007

On Evolution: Rabbi Samson Raphael Hirsch, and Rabbi Joseph Elias in The Jewish Observer

Note: This letter was sent to The Jewish Observer for publication, but was not published.

January 2, 2007

Letters to the Editor
The Jewish Observer

To the Editor:

I am writing in response to Rabbi Joseph Elias' article and his subsequent response (in your September and December issues, respectively) regarding Rabbi Samson Raphael Hirsch's position on the theory of evolution, both of which I believe, with greatest respect, confuse two distinct issues.

Allow me first to clarify that I do not hold a strong personal position on whether the theory of evolution in any of its multitudinous versions is correct. I really don't care whether it turns out to be wholly true, partially true, or entirely false. I do strongly believe, however, that any conclusions on the matter ought to be drawn only after rigorous and thorough investigation, free of unnecessary dogmatic restraint and obscurantism, and with the exclusive purpose of discovering the truth. That stated, I shall proceed to Rabbi Elias' articles.

Rabbi Elias acknowledges Rabbi Hirsch's assertion that if ever evolution were to be accepted by the scientific community, "Judaism would be able to deal with it" (Dec. issue, p. 11, middle column). Rabbi Hirsch states thereby that there is no "Jewish" position on evolution; Torah is compatible with both the acceptance and the rejection of evolution. It necessarily follows that Torah study cannot tell us whether the theory is correct – that task falls to science.

Since the veracity of evolution is not a Torah question but a scientific one, surely (a) the experts on it will be scientists, not Torah scholars; and (b) in our day, the experts on it will be people familiar with the up-to-date scientific research. We would insist upon the same personal qualifications for every other scientific matter as well. Now, I would make the following two observations: (1) Rabbi Hirsch was not a scientist; (2) Rabbi Hirsch did not have at his disposal the last 120 years of scientific research – the broadest and deepest scientific research the world has ever seen. It follows that today, Rabbi Hirsch's scientific opinion on the veracity of evolution should be assigned little or no weight. Even if what he wrote on a scientific topic such as evolution is still considered true, we can know this only by the corroboration of his statements by modern scientists – not merely from the fact that he, an outdated scientific amateur (albeit a brilliant one), wrote it.

In light of the above, I am at a loss to understand the intent behind much of Rabbi Elias' two articles, which do not seem relevant to the topic of evolution in the modern context.

Rabbi Elias devotes considerable space to Rabbi Hirsch's discussion of species in his commentary on Genesis (Sept. issue: p. 42, title, and left and middle columns; p. 43, right column; Dec. issue: p. 10, middle and right columns). Though the commentary is of course a work of genius in its own right, I fail to see how it is relevant to a modern discussion about whether evolution is correct. Since Rabbi Hirsch believed that evolution was compatible with Torah (see above), he must not have felt that his interpretations of Genesis constituted a disproof of it – either because they did not contradict it, or because they were subject to modification in light of new information about it. His commentary thus reflects not a dogmatic position on evolution, but merely the scientific belief of an educated non-scientist of 124 years ago. While that belief is interesting for historical reasons, it is entirely inconclusive in a modern scientific discussion. Why is it quoted in an article that clearly focuses on what the modern Jew should think about evolution? It would seem to be irrelevant.

Rabbi Elias also discusses at length (Sept. issue: p. 43, all; Dec. issue: p. 11, middle and right columns) the numerous flaws and holes Rabbi Hirsch pointed out in evolutionary theory – some of which are still unresolved today. While the existence of these problems is significant, the fact that Rabbi Hirsch points them out is not. Unless I am mistaken, they are all problems that many other writers with greater and more current scientific knowledge than Rabbi Hirsch have discussed. Either they still present difficulties for evolutionary theory, or they do not. Again, Rabbi Hirsch wrote about these problems as a nineteenth-century scientific layman. Why should we assign weight (indeed, most of an article) to Rabbi Hirsch's presentation of information on this topic, when far more authoritative sources (both for and against evolution) are available?

I believe that, with greatest respect to Rabbi Elias, he conflates two distinct issues: Rabbi Hirsch's theological position on evolution, and his scientific beliefs about the same.

Theologically, Rabbi Hirsch was not opposed to evolution; that is clear and uncontested by Rabbi Elias. (It is also, based on what I have read, the principal point Rabbi Slifkin makes.)

Scientifically, as Rabbi Elias demonstrates, Rabbi Hirsch was strongly skeptical about the correctness of the evolutionary theory. Most of what Rabbi Elias quotes from Rabbi Hirsch serves to prove this assertion. However, there is no reason for Rabbi Hirsch's scientific views to be of especial interest to the modern Jew, given that all of his points are discussed, and either upheld or negated, by individuals better qualified for the task. (I believe the Observer has quoted such individuals in the past.)

Rabbi Hirsch also notes that many scientists may be motivated to advocate evolutionary theory despite its flaws, because without it there seems to be no choice but to recognize the existence and worldly interference of God, something they are loath to do. This point is still highly relevant today, and very much worth citing, but Rabbi Elias quotes it only at the very end of his two pieces; it is not the focus of his discussion. Hence my letter.

In sum, the bulk of Rabbi Elias' quotations of Rabbi Hirsch seem to be uninstructive for the modern Jew. Rabbi Hirsch's principal relevant statement is that which he made in his area of expertise – Torah: namely, that evolution is compatible with Torah, and that the Jew should let the scientific chips fall where they may, compensating, if necessary, for anti-theistic bias in the scientific community. Would Rabbi Elias not agree with this assessment?

(As a side point, I contest Rabbi Elias' understanding of Rabbi Hirsch's position regarding man's descent from the apes. Rabbi Hirsch writes ("The Educational Value of Judaism" – Collected Writings, Vol. VII, p. 264), "Even if this notion [evolution] were ever to gain complete acceptance by the scientific world, Jewish thought, unlike the reasoning of the high priest [Darwin?] of that notion, would nonetheless never summon us to revere a still extant representative of this primal form as the supposed ancestor of us all. Rather, Judaism in that case would call upon its adherents to give even greater reverence than ever before to the one, sole God Who, in His boundless creative wisdom and eternal omnipotence, needed to bring into existence no more than one single, amorphous nucleus and one single law of "adaptation and heredity" in order to bring forth, from what seemed chaos but was in fact a very definite order, the infinite variety of species we know today, each with its unique characteristics that sets [sic] it apart from all other creatures." Now, I do not have the benefit of being able to read the original German, but in my view this passage says merely that even if man is descended from the apes, it is solely to God, and not at all to primates (or amoebas) or natural laws, systems and processes – the so-called "Mother Nature" worshipped by so many in the scientific community – that we should give credit and reverence. I do not believe Rabbi Hirsch is negating the possibility of man's descent from apes.)

ברכה והצלחה בכל מעשי ידיכם.