Judaism’s problems with evolution

We tend to think that opposition within the Abrahamic religions to the teaching of evolution and sex education in schools is driven by Christians and Muslims, and that the Jewish religion is more flexible in its ability to interpret its scriptures and thus has no problems with either.

My first realization that this was not true was when I was hired over a decade ago to evaluate to the science curriculum at the Jewish day schools in the Cleveland area and suggest ways that it could be improved. In order to learn what they did, I visited the various schools and talked to the science teachers and administrators and looked at the textbooks and curriculum they used.

The schools run by the Reform branch of Judaism seemed to have few major problems with those topics and seemed to take an attitude similar to what one finds in liberal Christian circles. But the Orthodox schools, and to a lesser extent the Conservative ones, were conflicted. In addition to the problem of high turnover because many of their teachers were part-timers who left when they got better paying jobs or their spouses moved, the schools had serious problems with the ‘controversial’ nature of some of the science material.

The teachers told me that when it was time to teach evolution, they would not do it themselves but would call in the resident rabbi so that he could teach a ‘kosher version’ (my phrase, not theirs) of the material that did not contravene rabbinical doctrine. What I found most startling was looking at the science textbooks and finding that they had some pages stapled together. When I asked why, the head of one school told me that she personally had to go through all the science textbooks and do this in order to hide pages that dealt with controversial material so that students would not see images or content that was objectionable. To her credit, she seemed kind of embarrassed at having to admit this.

It turns out that this is a problem in the Israeli education system as well. I had not realized that in that country, evolution was not required to be taught in schools but was an optional subject. That policy has changed just recently but it will be taught in an ambivalent way, using language that will be familiar to those in the US who went through the evolution wars with its “It’s only a theory!” and “Teach the controversy!” nonsense.

You might think that up until now, all of Israel’s public high school students studied evolution, and that its study had only been only optional for younger students – but that isn’t true.

Evolution was an optional part of high school the biology curriculum and, just like with middle school students, most high school students were never taught it.

But now all that will apparently change.

Professor Nava Ben-Zvi,, the chairwoman of the professional advisory committee – which has several Zionist Orthodox members – expressed both the need to teach evolution while at the same couching that need in way that presents evolution almost as an unproved theory rather than the empirically-based fact-supported science that it actually is – an indication of how prominent Dark Ages religion and Dark Ages science still is in a country that ironically was founded largely by secular Jews who had rejected that religion and its superstitions. [My italics-MS]

So Israeli science education policies in these areas seem to be actually more regressive than what we have in US public schools.

It is not possible to have a god-based religion that does not have problems with at least some aspects of science, which reflects the fundamental incompatibility between science and religion. This is because at some level, god-based religions have to believe in the existence of the supernatural and this is anathema to science because you just cannot reconcile science with the existence of supernatural forces. The only way to avoid open conflict is for religions to abandon doctrines that obviously conflict with science but religions are only willing to go so far in doing so. After that they pretend that the deeper and irreconcilable conflicts do not exist.


  1. colnago80 says

    According to the attached link, individuals taking advanced biology courses were taught evolution. It was not part of the general curriculum, presumably including introductory biology courses.

    It should be noted, however, that the evolution of Homo sapiens will be conspicuously omitted.


  2. anat says

    Re: Israeli schools: In my days (early 1980s) students who studied biology at the advanced level -- those who prepared to take the 5 unit matriculation exam (roughly equivalent to the AP exam in the USA) were required to study evolution. Students who studied biology at lower levels were not, though I know some teachers introduced the topic at lower levels too.

  3. anat says

    colnago80, in elementary school, my 4th grade history textbook, of all places, discussed human evolution, in the context of prehistory and the emergence of early civilizations.

  4. anat says

    Mano, I am very surprised about the Conservative schools. I would have thought that Ken Miller style theistic evolution would have worked well for them (and many of the Modern Orthodox).

  5. colnago80 says

    Re anat @ #4

    I would point out to you that Ken Miller specifically rejects the description of himself as a theistic evolutionist (he left a comment on Larry Moran’s blog several years ago stating this). He describes himself as one who accepts methodological naturalism without reservation and at the same time is a philosophical theist. Unlike many atheist evolutionists, such as Moran, he does not conflate methodological naturalism with philosophical naturalism. In this regard, his non-conflationist position agrees with that of atheist philosopher Barbara Forrest who also testified at the Dover trial. One of the videos I ofter link to in such discussions was taken from a presentation he made shortly after the Dover trial at Case-Western Reserve no less where he describes the strong evidence for human/chimp common ancestor provided by the observation of 2 Telomeres in the middle of human chromosome 2 caused by the fusion of ape chromosomes 12 and 13.

  6. AsqJames says

    Two schools in England (at least one of them a Jewish girls school) redacted questions in GCSE* exam papers last summer. This came to light in March this year and, after an initially wobbly response, the relevant agency have made clear that such actions should be treated as malpractice.

    Which is obviously good as far as it goes, but I haven’t seen anyone aside from the National Secular Society point out that this kind of thing is an inevitable result of the expansion of state-funded faith schools begun under Labour and continued (and accelerated) by the coalition. We’ve had nearly two decades of politicians encouraging the ever-tighter entwining of education and religion, and this (and the sex-segregation in the muslim school in Derby and the alleged “Trojan Horse” plot** in Birmingham) are the result.

    * GCSEs are national qualifications usually taken at age 16 which are important for children’s access to higher education/employment opportunities.

    ** Yes I know the letter was a fake and there was probably no actual “plot” as such. I’m not sure we should be comforted by the thought that people don’t actually need to organise and plan before fairly hardline muslim ideology can become so embedded in the state education system. It’s like saying “don’t worry about the hurricane heading this way, it’s not planning to wreck your home and kill your family!”

  7. anat says

    Thanks for the correction regarding Miller, colnago80. Still, I think supporters of theistic evolution should be OK with a secular textbook that presents the scientific consensus about evolution, as long as it doesn’t say explicitly that no deity had anything to do with it. After all, they are OK with history textbooks that just describe what happened, without adding that X event was in accordance with God’s plan or that Y happened to punish people who were in rebellion against God. So as long as a religious group agrees with scientists that life on earth is several billions of years old and that species evolve slowly such that a population of one species may have, after enough generations, offspring that form a population of a different species I don’t see what their problem might be with a science textbook. It is different for people who don’t accept the facts.

  8. readysf says

    One of the big areas of fiction is that Israel is somehow pristine and pure. In schools Israeli children are taught to hate Palestinians and “Arabs” as they are called.

    The old testament is full of bigotry, and Maimonedes instructed the practice of trickery and deception as a way to get your way.

    All religion has this “us” versus “them”. Jews have been particularly good at becoming eternal victims, and deflecting focus to others.

  9. colnago80 says

    Re readysf @ #8

    Jews have been particularly good at becoming eternal victims, and deflecting focus to others.

    So Jews have deliberately encouraged themselves to become victims? I suppose they enticed Frankenberger into murdering them for some obscure reason. They must be a population of masochists.

    In schools Israeli children are taught to hate Palestinians and “Arabs” as they are called.

    Would you care to provide a respectable source for this accusation, respectable being something other then Counterpunch or Stormfront. Actually, you have it backwards. It’s the Palestinian textbooks that stir up antisemitism. It’s the Arab world that publishes and distributes the well known Czarist forgery, Protocols of Zion.

  10. colnago80 says

    Re readysf @ #8

    No question that the Hebrew bible is a nasty piece of work, as are portions of the Christian bible (Book of Revelations anyone) and the Quran. To quote Judge Jones in another context, they deserve to be deposited on the ash heap of history.

  11. readysf says

    Re colnago#9

    Some references below to hate taught by Israeli Jews, towards Palestinians. They can’t even face the people whose land they are stealing and call them Palestinians, they are “Arabs”. Racism is endemic in Israel and getting worse. Everyone sees this, everyone knows, and hasbara is dead. The pro Israel thing to do now is to support and practice BDS.

    As far as the culture of victimhood, it is visible everywhere….Jews are taught to be hysterical about the Holocaust 60 years ago, but oblivious to the vicious cruelty they are inflicting right now, on the Palestinians.

    Read “The Holocaust Industry” by Norman Finkelstein (a Holocaust survivor) about the crude tactics used by the Jewish establishment to “monetize” the Holocaust…even as the few actual remaining survivors languish in poverty.


  12. colnago80 says

    Re readysf

    The Guardian is second only to the BBC as the leading Israel bashing “news” outlet in Britain Their Middle East coverage is so tilted toward the Arab side that it is worthless.

    According to the Economist, the textbooks in the West Bank and the Gaza Strip are even worse then the textbooks in Israel. And of course, Arabic translations of the Czarist forgery, Protocols of Zion are available en mass in the Arab World. Of course, I suspect that readysf probably thinks that it’s 100% correct and accurate.

    Norman Finkelstein is a self hating Jew who wants to kick the Jews out of Israel. I wouldn’t believe him if he said the Sun would rise in the East tomorrow, without actually observing it.

  13. readysf says

    Colnago #12

    I sympathize with your dogmatism. Unshaken by facts! I see why so many other commentators believe that responding to you is a waste of time.

    The sad thing is that your Israel will suffer as a result, and its quest to symbolize victimhood will become a self-fulfilling prophecy.

    Americans have been jerked around by the fabricated peace process for years. The Palestinians face ethnic cleansing under our very eyes, and this is evil. Americans are trusting, but not very forgiving.

    An economic boycott of Israel seems to be the only way to send a message. The BDS movement is gaining momentum, and Israel will be further exposed.

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