Moment Magazine

Evolution, Perplexed

Jennie Rothenberg

On the rough-and-tumble playground of modern ideas, science and religion have had to be pried apart time and again like unruly children. Whenever they meet, there seems to be trouble. Religion taunts science, drowning out reasoned arguments with quotations from scripture. Science bullies religion, shoving aside faith to make room for mechanical laws. The late biologist Stephen Jay Gould tried to play peacemaker in his 1999 book Rock of Ages:

"I do not see how science and religion could be unified… but I also do not understand why the two enterprises should experience any conflict. Science tries to document the factual character of the natural world…. Religion, on the other hand, operates in the equally important, but utterly different, realm of human purposes, meanings, and values…. To cite the old clich?s, science gets the age of rocks and religion the rock of ages."

Like many tidy solutions, Gould’s paradigm works well for people who agree with it, but it offers little consolation to those who need it most. No one who sees the Bible as divine revelation can divorce the God who separated the primeval waters from the power that brings in the daily tides. When these true believers confront layers of ancient fossils and light from billion-year-old galaxies, they face an agonizing choice: dismiss Genesis as primitive mythology, or turn a blind eye to science.

Few writers have addressed the science-religion divide more earnestly than Natan Slifkin and Michael Ruse, authors of two new and very different books on the subject. Five years ago, Slifkin, an Orthodox rabbi and a self-trained zoologist then in his mid-20s, wrote The Science of Torah, a book about evolution and cosmology specifically for Orthodox Jewish readers. His defense of Darwin, and his scrutiny of ultra-Orthodoxy’s scientific worldview, upset a handful of influential rabbis who signed a fiercely controversial ban against three of his works. “These books present a spiritual danger,” the ban declared, “and I fear that people will be adversely influenced by them. I therefore declare that these books should be distanced and it is forbidden to read, own, or distribute them.” (For the full story of the ban by this reviewer, see the October 2005 issue of Moment online at

To his credit, Slifkin responded not by retracting his ideas but by republishing them in a vastly expanded form. The new version of The Science of Torah, boldly titled The Challenge of Creation, features a starkly illuminated photograph of a dinosaur skeleton on its book jacket. In certain Jewish circles, where teachers distrust paleontology so thoroughly that they have been known to confiscate Barney the Dinosaur toys, the skeleton alone will frighten away prospective readers, and that is exactly why Slifkin put it there. Such people, he warns in an introductory note, “are not the intended audience of this book and they are advised not to read it.”

It’s rare to see an author turning people away from his own book, but Slifkin’s traverses an intellectual minefield in which anyone who strays from his path is likely to step on something explosive. Take, for instance, a new chapter entitled “Dinosaurs and Sea Monsters.” Slifkin considers a popular notion that Genesis describes these ancient reptiles: “And God created the great taninim.” He rejects this idea on several levels, from the linguistic to the zoological, and concludes that hunting for dinosaurs in the Torah is a waste of time:

"The Torah makes no mention of kangaroos or penguins, since they did not live in the same part of the world as the Jewish People and would therefore have been unfamiliar to them. Nor does it mention bacteria, which were invisible to ancient man. By the same token, it does not mention creatures that became extinct millions of years ago. We should not be trying to understand Torah as National Geographic."

This sort of reasoning has gotten Slifkin into trouble in the past, but it would be a mistake to call him a liberal thinker. He is a traditional, Shabbat-observant Jew who abandons literalism only when absolutely necessary. Elsewhere in the text, Slifkin struggles to find a scientific explanation for the parting of the Red Sea, and he draws a firm, protective line around the Torah commandments—the laws of cleanliness and observance that have baffled many less-stringent Jews. “Tragically,” he writes, “history shows many who have taken non-literal understandings of the Torah too far. There were people who allegorized the commandments, and allegorized narrative portions in such a way as to fundamentally undermine Judaism.”

This tension between logic and belief runs throughout The Challenge of Creation, and it is a large part of the book’s appeal. Countless authors have tried to reason with Darwin’s religious opponents, giving them every reason to accept evolution and a billions-of-years-old universe. But these writers have tended to approach the issue as secular thinkers, not as devout believers.

Michael Ruse, a self-declared agnostic, is a case in point. A philosophy professor at Florida State University, Ruse has authored nearly a dozen books with titles like The Evolution-Creation Struggle and Can a Darwinian Be a Christian? His latest book, Darwinism and Its Discontents, addresses a broader audience, taking secular skeptics under its umbrella. In a dozen dense and detailed chapters, Ruse explains the science behind Darwin’s theories and reasons with Marxist philosophers who believe that “Darwinism reflects and justifies the grossest sins in our society.”

After arguing with intellectuals for 275 pages, Ruse turns to biblical fundamentalists with the exasperation of secularists everywhere. “One is tempted,” he writes, “to let Christians—or believers of any kind—fend for themselves. If they want to accept Darwinism, then it is there to be accepted. If they want to reject it on religious grounds, then that is their option. But many are genuinely puzzled and concerned, and would like an answer.”

Ruse does his best to make evolution theologically palatable for people of faith, always Darwin’s fiercest opponents. Genesis, he suggests, should be read as the story of how God created the “seeds of life,” seeds that would sprout into an ever-evolving creation. When it comes to original sin, he asks religious readers to “relate sin itself to our biological nature” as organisms with both hereditary strengths and weaknesses. On the subject of free will, he theorizes that humans evolved to have decision-making power, and that this is what sets mankind apart from lower beings.

Ruse’s solutions are intelligent and imaginative, but they are not the musings of a man of faith. What makes Slifkin’s book so potent is that he has personally grappled with the issues he raises: one can imagine him lying awake at night, brooding over the gulf between science and scripture, the words of various rabbis swirling through his head. The result is a clear-eyed vision of the natural sciences as seen through the lens of Jewish tradition.

Slifkin does not take the same road some other Orthodox scholars have taken, inventing far-fetched theories that explain scientific phenomena in Bible-centered ways. He does not suggest, as some do, that time sped up during creation, allowing processes that usually take billions of years to occur in just six days. He rejects the popular theory that during the great flood, dinosaur bones sank deep within the earth, giving the false impression that these enormous creatures died out millions of years ago. He dismantles other similar notions—that the world was created to look old, that the first day was really billions of years long, that other worlds had risen and fallen by the time the Genesis story began.

His own approach is more sophisticated. First, Slifkin manages to show that Judaism’s greatest sages have interpreted the Torah non-literally when a certain verse clashed with perception or reason. The Talmud singled out the creation story in particular, alluding to “secret” knowledge in the first chapter of Genesis and instructing rabbis to teach the creation story in one-on-one sessions. Commenting on this teaching, Maimonides wrote that the Torah’s opening verses “are only transmitted from one individual to another with great care, for the masses understand very little of them.” Some scholars, such as the 14th-century rabbi Levi ben Gershon, held that the entire beginning of the Torah was allegorical: “The ‘Garden’ alludes to the material intellect…. And the snake alludes to the power of the imagination…. ‘And God called to the man’—is by way of allegory.”

After presenting all the scientific evidence for evolution, Slifkin returns to the Torah, pointing out that the six days of creation cannot be understood as a chronological sequence. Instead, he asks readers to see them as a spiritual hierarchy. On the first three days, God divides darkness from light, sea from sky, and finally land from sea. The movement, as Slifkin points out, is from abstraction to concreteness, unity to diversity. On the last three days, God revisits each of these three realms and populates it, creating heavenly bodies to orbit through light and darkness, fish and fowl to glide through sea and sky, and land mammals to cover the earth. The crowning glory of all of this is the story of Adam, which Slifkin reads as “the archetypical nature of man and his life here in this world, rather than a historical account of a particular person’s life.”

All of this might seem suspiciously similar to what Gould had in mind when he urged readers to get facts from science and meaning from religion. But Slifkin denounces Gould’s approach: “Gould claims to grant equal importance to evolution and religion, but his definition of religion is deeply offensive…. We define religion as an objective reality rooted in a real God. Gould defines religion as nothing more than individual beliefs about moral direction.” At the same time, Slifkin urges readers not to err in the other direction and look for a God who disrupts the order of the empirical world. He rejects so-called intelligent design theory because it looks for a “designer” who meddles in nature instead of working within elegant laws that He Himself created. “The ID movement, in its usual manifestation, is no friend to Judaism,” he writes. “It denies the role of God in 99 percent of the universe, relegating Him to being little more than the designer of bacterial flagella and blood-clotting systems.”

As a “theistic Darwinian evolutionist,” Slifkin has carved out a lonely niche for himself. Secular readers might have trouble with some of his more traditional thinking, and biblical literalists will continue to take offense at his allegorical readings of Genesis. But his intended audience—religious Jews facing crises of faith—will be hard-pressed to find a more carefully crafted book of ideas. Unlike Ruse, whose books confront an ever-growing audience of naysayers, Slifkin seems content for now to address a single, vulnerable sliver of the population. As he writes in his introduction, quoting from Maimonides’ Guide for the Perplexed:

“When I have a difficult subject before me—when I find the road narrow, and can see no other way of teaching a well-established truth except by pleasing one intelligent man and displeasing ten thousand fools—I prefer to address myself to the one man, and to take no notice whatever of the condemnation of the multitude; I prefer to extricate that intelligent man from his embarrassment and show him the cause of his perplexity, so that he may attain perfection and be at peace.”

Jennie Rothenberg is a former senior editor of Moment and is currently associate editor of The Atlantic Monthly Online