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Evolution Does Not Bother Me Either

March 11, 2015

Teaching an Advanced Placement Biology course is possibly one of the more fun endeavors I have tried in recent years. Last week we started learning about Darwin and Evolutionary Theory, and I introduced the material with the section from Maimonides I posted earlier. Then, I pointed out that as we have seen, the evolution discussed in the textbooks is not about monkeys becoming people and actually about the gradual change in living beings’ genes over the course of many generations, a well-documented and now obvious phenomenon that also serves as the basis for modern immunology, epidemiology, and genetics, sciences that are saving lives and enriching others every single day.

We also learned about the great rabbis who were learned in all aspects of God’s wisdom and not just the especially holy wisdom contained within the volumes of the Talmud, who, like Rabbi Soloveichik, were not bothered by the ideas of modern evolutionary theory.

And then, afterwards, I thought to myself, why would any thinking individual be bothered by such things? What sets them off? Why are there both a reactionary Christian movement and a Jewish movement against teaching about such things in schools? What’s their problem anyway?

If you would say that the idea of a universe younger than 6,000 years contradicts the plain meaning of the Bible, then you are very late to the game already. You need to catch up, pronto.

A more serous issue is the halacha involved. The Torah prohibits a number of mixtures, or kilayim:

No combining milk and meat.

No combining wool and linen and garments.

No planting two different species of seeds together.

No grafting fruit tress.

No crossbreeding animals.

No using multiple species to pull a plow together.

My students were familiar with the reason for these commandments as offered by the Sefer Hamitzwoth and others, which, conveniently, was mentioned by their textbook:

Judeo-Christian culture reinforced this idea with a literal interpretation of the biblical book of Genesis, which holds that species were individually designed by a divine creator. The idea that all living species are unchanging in form and inhabit an Earth that is only about 6,000 years old dominated the intellectual and cultural climate of the Western world for centuries.

More so, here we have a number of commandments which seem to be based on this supposition, and that therefore there is something intrinsically wrong with seeking to play God, to blur the lines between His distinct creations, or Heaven forfend, to create new ones ourselves. All living species are to remain unchanged. 

The answer:

When we discuss the issue of ta’amei hamitzwoth, the reasons for the commandments, we have to keep in mind that

1. For some commandments, the actual reason is explicitly included in the text, e.g., to remember that we were emancipated from slavery in Egypt.

2. For most commandments, though, the Torah has no given reason.

3. What ever reasons for those commandments we could possibly postulate, it does not matter in practice, because we could be wrong. No one should ever dare to be so confident in his knowledge of the reason for the commandments, lest he come to sin. The sages say that this was Solomon’s mistake. (Sanhedrin 21b):

R. Isaac also said: Why were the reasons of [some] Biblical laws not revealed? — Because in two verses reasons were revealed, and they caused the greatest in the world to stumble. Thus it is written: “[The king] shall not multiply wives to himself,” whereon Solomon said, “I will multiply wives yet not let my heart be perverted.” Yet we read, “When Solomon was old, his wives turned away his heart.” Again it is written: “He shall not multiply to himself horses;” concerning which Solomon said, “I will multiply them, but will not cause [Israel] to return [to Egypt].” Yet we read: “And a chariot came up and went out of Egypt for six hundred sheqels of silver.”

4. Maimonides felt that one should still try as hard as possible to discern the reasons for the commandments (Laws of Trespass, 8:8): 

It is appropriate for a person to meditate on the judgments of the holy Torah and know their ultimate purpose according to his capacity. If he cannot find a reason or a motivating rationale for a practice, he should not regard it lightly. Nor should he break through to ascend to God, lest God burst forth against him. One’s thoughts concerning them should not be like his thoughts concerning other ordinary matters.

5. Maimonides, in his guide, points out that huqqim are not what people really think they are (3:26):

As Theologians are divided on the question whether the actions of God are the result of His wisdom, or only of His will without being intended for any purpose whatever, so they are also divided as regards the object of the commandments which God gave us. Some of them hold that the commandments have no object at all; and are only dictated by the will of God. Others are of opinion that all commandments and prohibitions are dictated by His wisdom and serve a certain aim; consequently there is a reason for each one of the precepts: they are enjoined because they are useful. All of us, the common people as well as the scholars, believe that there is a reason for every precept, although there are commandments the reason of which is unknown to us, and in which the ways of God’s wisdom are incomprehensible… But our Sages generally do not think that such precepts have no cause whatever, and serve no purpose; for this would lead us to assume that God’s actions are purposeless. On the contrary, they hold that even these ordinances have a cause, and are certainly intended for some use, although it is not known to us; owing either to the deficiency of our knowledge or the weakness of our intellect. Consequently, there is a cause for every commandment: every positive or negative precept serves a useful object; in some cases the usefulness is evident, e.g., the prohibition of murder and theft; in others the usefulness is not so evident, e.g., the prohibition of enjoying the fruit of a tree in the first three years… You certainly know the famous saying that Solomon knew the reason for all commandments except that of the “red heifer.” Our Sages also said that God concealed the causes of commandments, lest people should despise them, as Solomon did in respect to three commandments, the reason for which is clearly stated.

6. Maimonides, after studying the ancient pagan practices, realized that many of our positive and negative commandments are actually in reaction to what the idolaters did: they worshipped this way and that, so those ways were expressly forbidden. One imagines that he would have had a field day with all of the information we have uncovered concerning the ancient Egyptian and Canaanite cultures that sheds light on even more facets of our Torah.

7. Concerning kilayim specifically, he points out that mixing species was part of idolatrous practice way back when. Priests would specifically wear garments of these mixtures, and farmers would specifically mix species because they thought that such practices would appease the gods, and so forth.

8. Considering we have seen that, contrary to the assumptions of other early authorities, the overwhelming majority of species have been perpetually and naturally changing and interbreeding, and that not only does the process continue today, we very much have it in our power to meddle in this process to our benefit, such acts would not objectively have been forbidden by the Mosaic code had they not been such a significant part of idolatrous practice way back when.

This is similar to the setting up of a matzeva, a pillar for worship, an act done by our forefathers, but that became “hated by the Lord thy God,” and therefore forbidden specifically because it was a favored form of worship for the heathens.

On the contrary, our expanded knowledge of the working of God’s miraculous creation and its capacity to adapt and evolve has shown us that Maimonides’s school of thought of concerning the reasons for this body of prohibitions is probably the correct one, and that from a halachic perspective, we should not be bothered by the modern theory of evolution. Nor for that matter, should we have religious objections to genetic research and modification, etc. as long as we avoid only that which the Torah and sages forbade. 

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