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שלום ספירו, מונטריאול, תשס"ג

In light of the recent front-page coverage of a leading scientist's efforts to implement a mandatory course of evolutionary biology at the secondary school level, it seems worthwhile to examine the halachic reasons for which the Hebrew Academy (headquarters of KTM) does not currently offer such instruction as part of its comprehensive natural sciences curriculum.

Assuredly, biology is a most salutary discipline for the Jew to master. After all, studying the natural sciences promotes the fulfillment of 2 Mitzvot d'Oraita: love and fear of the Almighty (Rambam, Hilchot Yesodei HaTorah 2:2). Moreover, an appreciation of biology in particular is necessary for the proper recitation of the "asher yatzar" benediction (Shulchan Arukh O.C. 6:1). Furthermore, the application of the life sciences to the practice of healthcare satisfies 6 further sacrosanct biblical imperatives: Exodus 21:19, Leviticus 18:5, 19:16, 19:18 & 25:36, and Deuteronomy 22:2.

If biology is so prized a discipline, then so must be evolution – a central pillar of the life sciences. It is indisputable that organisms adapt to the environment via natural selection, as is evident for instance, by the development of antibiotic-resistant bacteria and antiretroviral-resistant HIV. Further indisputable is the fact that the same DNA which encodes the blueprint for simple organisms also encodes the blueprint for higher organisms (including human beings) with exquisitely minor variations, demonstrating that evolution need not be limited to microbes. Hence, one might expect on the basis of the foregoing that Halacha would welcome the study of evolution with open arms.

Nevertheless, Rabbi Moshe Feinstein (Shu"t Iggerot Moshe Y.D. 3:73) rules that the reading of an evolutionary textbook is unequivocally forbidden, because belief in evolutionary history is tantamount to heresy. If the textbook is indispensable for other purposes, Rav Moshe directs that those pages containing references to evolution be torn out and discarded.

Evidently, in order to understand this halachic decision, one must distinguish between matters of science and history. Evolution that we can observe and measure with our senses is certainly part of the science curriculum that ought to be encouraged. But to extrapolate backwards in time on the basis of circumstantial evidence to so absurd an extent as to supplant the account of the creation of life given by the Torah with that of unverifiable human speculation is not a question of science but rather a revision of history. A Jew is duty-bound to accept the entire contents of the Torah as the Word of the Creator received at Mt. Sinai. (Sanhedrin 99a; Rif 19a, Rosh 11:3, & Rambam, Hilchot Teshuvah 8:3) Hence, in constructing his view of history, the Jew must believe the Torah's account, and not entertain the heretical suggestion that other historians than the Omniscient One Himself have better insight into events of the past.

Likewise, Shu"t Mishneh Halachot (2:35) rules that evolutionary history is heresy. He points out that Sabbath observance is expressly designed as a declaration that the Eternal created the universe in 6 twenty-four hour periods and rested on the seventh. Just as public Sabbath desecration places the desecrator outside the pale of Judaism for it constitutes a repudiation of the 6-day creation, so too does the belief in evolutionary biology. [It must be added, however, that there have been commentaries who did not understand the “days” of Creation as consisting of 24 hours intervals, but rather as certain dimensions in time, for “a thousand years are like one day to You” (Tehillim 80:4).]

Having determined that the pursuit of Darwinian analysis is apostatical in nature, the conclusion that it be excluded from a Jew's scholastic program appears inescapable, pursuant to Yoreh De'ah 246:4.

Indeed, a cogent argument may be formulated that Noahides should not study evolutionary history either. The Babylonian Talmud in Chullin 92b identifies one of the thirty sub-categories of the 7 commandment Noahide Code to be a provision "that they honor the Torah". The Ram"a MiPano regards this as a subcategory of the interdiction against blasphemy (see Encyclopedia Talmudica, s.v. "Ben Noach"), for honoring the divine word is a most logical corollary of the requirement to respect the divine name. Belief in the truth of the Torah's contents seems to be a sine qua non of any such honor.

The fact that Yoma 29b compares a Kohen who prematurely arranges the showbread upon the Table on a weekday to a monkey is entirely unthreatening to our conclusion. The sages evidently appreciated that monkeys have been endowed with several skills that appear human-like in nature, but did not insinuate any preposterous blood relationship between the primate on the one hand and the ensouled descendant of Adam on the other. Truly, this is the very point the Talmud is making by its zoological simile: since the Kohen's bizarre actions resemble those of a monkey, his placing of the showbread is, exceptionally, inconsequential (as opposed to the actions of a human being, which do enjoy full legal significance, humans having no relationship whatsoever to other species).

Although Halacha may forbid the study of evolutionary history, it is certainly appropriate to pursue evolutionary *science*. That is, one may (and, indeed, as a thinking explorer, should) recognize that subsequent to the week of Creation, life species do evolve. It is also helpful to remember that all organisms are created with a similar biochemical recipe, and are interconnected through a highly complex set of ecological dependencies. This information is useful in planning effective drug strategies, protecting the ecosystem, promoting healthy nutrition and developing new medical cures. Evolutionary education, with this modified and constructive focus, might indeed be suitable for scholastic consumption. [Rav Abraham Kook even saw some positive elements in Darwin’s theory regarding the ”survival of the fittest”, since, in his eyes, it expressed the spiritual idea of the constant elevation of Creation.]

In any event, make no mistake: a mensch is a mensch (as distinct from an animal), and Halacha demands that we live by that understanding. Unquestionably, it takes formidable strength of spirit for today's Jew to espouse and uphold this value while absorbing the wisdom of the biological sciences, in contradistinction to the contemporary academic culture. But it is precisely in anticipation of such uncomfortable situations that Yehudah ben Teimah directs us to emulate the animals, as divorced from our ancestral pedigree as they may actually be: "Be as bold as a leopard, light as an eagle, swift as a deer and heroic as a lion, to champion the Will of your Father in Heaven."

 

 

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moshe, 6/16/2003 6:29:41 AM
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