International Society for Science & Religion - Library Project

Jewish Tradition and the Challenge of Darwinism

edited by Geoffrey Cantor , Marc Swetlitz

Introductory Essay by Noah J. Efron

Jewish Tradition and the Challenge of Darwinism is a pioneering book that does just what a pioneering book should. It offers a wealth of material about its subject while making clear that much research on the subject remains undone. The book covers 150 years, canvassing Jews in dozens of countries, speaking tens of languages, embracing a plentitude of religious sensibilities. In the face of this abundance, the editors take a falcon’s eye view: now hovering far above their subject, providing thoughtful overview, and now swooping close to illuminate fine texture.

Jewish Tradition and the Challenge of Darwinism contains three diverse parts. The first – “Historical Perspectives on Jewish Reponses to Evolution” – includes three essays: Geoffrey Cantor’s investigation of attitudes towards Darwinism of late-19th century English Jews, Marc Swetlitz’ study of the attitudes of progressive (non-orthodox) American rabbis, and Ira Robinson’s examination of North American Orthodox responses to evolution. The three essays compliment one another. Comparing Swetlitz’ essay with Robinson’s, one learns how the differing sensibilities of different Jewish denominations produced different challenges when it came to Darwinism. Add Cantor’s essay to the mix and one sees the importance of national context: American Jews reacted to Darwin quite differently than English Jews. Of course, much remains to be said along these lines. There is a story to be told as well about the reactions of Sefaradi intellectuals to Darwinism (the book considers only Ashkenazim), as well as Jews in France, Italy, the Soviet Union, Germany and other places.

Germany does figure importantly, from a different point-of-view, in the second part of the book: “Social Uses of Evolution: Anti-Semitism, Racism and Zionism.” Here Richard Weikart argues controversially that evolution was embraced by German anti-Semites as a prop for their prejudice, a practice culminating in Nazi Germany. In his essay on Austrian-Jewish physician Ignaz Zollschan, Paul Weindling illustrates the complex intertwine of biology, race theory and Jewish identity during the first half of the 20th century. In the remarkable final essay of the section, Raphael Falk describes the profound place biological race theory and eugenics found in Zionist ideology until the Second World War.

The book’s final part – “Evolution and Contemporary Judaism” – is the least cohesive. Here Shai Cherry reviews the popular writing of three Modern Orthodox physicists whom Cherry sees (perhaps mistakenly) as “fundamentalist” in their attitudes towards Darwinian evolution. In a very different vein, Rena Selya canvasses Orthodox private schools in the United States, and finds little opposition to (and growing acceptance of) evolution in high school curricula. In a lovely review of two leading modern Orthodox intellectuals, Carl Feit inventories the ample intellectual resources available for Orthodox Jews seeking to embrace Darwin without feeling that they have compromised their religion. In contrast, Lawrence Troster argues in the volume’s final essay that Darwinism renders impossible a notion of divine action that has long been traditional among Jews. About all these issues, much remains to be said.

But this is hardly a criticism. Jewish Tradition and the Challenge of Darwinism provides an superb introduction, covering great swatches of a subject so large that it will be joined, in time, by dozens of scholarly monographs adding detail to the picture it has sketched. That this pioneering single volume takes us so far, while spurring us to go farther still, is a tribute to its editors.