The Branches of Orthodox Judaism
Non-Jews, and even most Jews, use the term Jew to denote ethnicity, not religion. An ethnic Jew can thus have no religious orientation or can even practice Buddhism or Wicca. Leaving aside “cultural Jews,” who practice no discernible religion, almost 90 percent of organized Jewish religion falls under the Reform or Conservative labels. These denominations largely accept all of modern science, including evolution, and to a greater (Reform) or lesser (Conservative) extent accept higher criticism of the Torah. Not coincidently, these denominations have elevated tolerance to a defining religious principle and support human rights, including the rights of women and gays.
A little more than 10 percent of religious Jewry is Orthodox. Though Orthodoxy has many variants, all Orthodox Jews believe that God gave both the written Torah (the books of Moses) and the oral Torah (the Talmud) word for word to Moses at Sinai. All Orthodoxy accepts the supremacy of Halacha (religious law), which includes keeping kosher, observing the prohibitions of the Sabbath, and maintaining the separation of males and females and such rituals as the laws of “family purity” that involve the “impurity” of women. Orthodoxy used to be divided roughly into “modern” or “right-wing.” But with the great move to the right over the last thirty years, “modern Orthodox” values are largely extinct; Jews who would once have been labeled modern Orthodox are more likely to associate with so-called centrist Orthodoxy. (For example, Yeshiva University, which used to be known as the flagship of modern Orthodoxy, now labels itself centrist Orthodox). But even centrist Orthodoxy is rapidly adapting ultra-Orthodox views as the distinctions among Orthodox Jews fade.
The current distinctions can best be summarized as follows:
Science and the Modern Orthodox
In 2006, I surveyed Orthodox Jewish students attending a public college and found that the sample of 176 Orthodox Jewish students expressed almost complete denial of evolution and other central tenets of modern science, despite being among the minority of Orthodox who expose themselves in any degree to mainstream science. In fact, Orthodox Jewish students who were science majors appeared even less accepting of mainstream science than those who were not science majors. But these participants were typically of undergraduate age and so raised after Orthodoxy’s great move to the right. If one surveyed modern/centrist Orthodox Jews of all ages, would the results be different?
|Group||Attitude Toward Secular Higher Education for Income Purposes||Attitude Toward Exposure to Secular Culture|
|Permitted—but continuous study of Talmud required for males||Permitted with certain restrictions (i.e., erotica or heresy prohibited)|
|Centrist/Right-wing Orthodoxy||Restricted (i.e., to certain areas or “kosher” colleges)||Limited and censored|
Prominent Orthodox scientists and scientific organizations have lent their credentials and prestige to efforts at demonstrating how recent “scientific developments” show the collapse of evolution and of the notion that the universe is billions of years old. Their campaigns assert that such concepts as a six-day special creation and a 5,770-year-old universe are both religiously and scientifically unassailable. How successful have these efforts been? A survey was conducted to answer this question.
A few years ago, I attended a lecture at a modern Orthodox synagogue (one of the increasingly few that identify themselves as such) titled a “Symposium on Torah and Science.” The speaker was a medical doctor. He and the thirty or so audience members displayed the classic modern Orthodox look: normal casual dress and smallish yarmulkes with no black suits, black hats, beards, or side curls.
The physician’s lecture included the following claims:
- Micro-evolution is only change in response to environmental conditions within a species and is limited by boundaries within a species.
- Macro-evolution is impossible, and there is no evidence, fossil or molecular, for it.
- There are absolutely no intermediate forms in the fossil record; quite the contrary, the fossil record shows fully formed species suddenly appearing.
Based on the final claim above, the physician asserted that no biologist or paleontologist believed in Darwinian evolution any longer! In fact, he claimed, concepts like punctuated equilibrium and fossil evidence fully corroborated the creation account in Genesis, which showed six distinct classes of life, each appearing fully formed during six distinct eras or days of creation.
When the floor was opened to questions, I inquired: Surely the esteemed physician did not believe that all half-million known species of beetles were created separately but were one baramin, the category according to which special creation was supposedly organized, thus limiting how many animals had to be on Noah’s ark? He agreed that this was possible. I next asked: Did he think that perhaps dinosaurs and salamanders belonged to one baramin? He replied that he could not say! After this talk, a rabbi gave a concluding lecture on how everything concerning science that medieval sages had written in the Talmud had proven to be true.
This lecture was no isolated incident but one of several such events organized precisely for the most modern of Orthodox, who may possibly have been exposed to uncensored science. It was evident that the medical doctor’s talk was pre-packaged. A standard line among Orthodox Jewish scientists is that there are no intermediate forms in the fossil record. A conspicuous example is the claim by Lee Spetner, who once informed a conference of Orthodox Jewish scientists that the “only” transitional fossil ever found, Archaeopteryx, had been proven a fake. This remarkable “finding” was documented by Moshe Trop in a 1983 article in no lesser a journal than Creation Research Society Quarterly.
Secular Education among Modern/Centrist Orthodox
So-called secular education under Orthodox Jewish auspices has just two purposes:
- To shield students from forbidden knowledge, uncensored literature, and the outside world—and for male students, to minimize secular education time to maximize the time available for study of the Talmud.
- To convince the outside world that Orthodox students are receiving a good, secular, mainstream education so that their degrees will be respected.
In order to maintain the second purpose, when addressing the wider public, Orthodox educators and scientists have tended to use misleading language, for example claiming that they accept evolution because they accept micro-evolution (not the nonsense of flies becoming people). Or they claim that evolution (if there was any evidence for it, which there isn’t) is compatible with the Torah. At worst, they simply lie. One spokesman for a right-wing educational organization, knowing only that I was a psychologist doing research, told me on the phone that of course his institution teaches evolution. He abandoned this position when I mentioned to him that I had attended an Orthodox Jewish high school and
so knew that not to be true.
The Orthodox Jewish educational system has always transmitted two different messages. One is the supposed truth of the Torah, presented to parents and students; the other was a more modern message presented to outsiders to protect the perceived quality of the system’s “secular” approach. The fear Orthodox Jewish educators had—and some still have—is that to deny evolution openly before outsiders will cast their teaching in a bad light. But the recent popularity of so-called intelligent design theory, implying a newly acquired “scientific respectability” for open denial of evolution, combined with resurgent Orthodoxy’s move toward the right, has worked to change that. Many Orthodox Jewish scientists are now proud to dispense with evolution in very public ways. Consider the following quote from Rabbi Doctor Moshe Tendler, former biology department chair and the most prominent professor in that discipline at Yeshiva University, answering a question as to how a Torah-observant biology teacher should teach the origin and diversity of species: “Students can be told that five thousand seven hundred and sixty six years ago G-d spoke to Adam, who had a lady with him, Mrs. Eve. They had children. These children begat, begat, begat, and there was a Flood, and G-d gave us a Torah” (available at www.borhatorah.org/home/conference/paneldiscussion.html).
In an effort to measure scientific awareness among modern or centrist Orthodox Jews, I administered surveys at functions held at modern or centrist Orthodox synagogues, each time with the permission of the rabbi in charge.
Demographic questions dealt with the participants’ highest attained degree, whether or not they held a science degree and, of course, whether they considered themselves to be Orthodox. That the participants were largely from the most modern segments of Orthodoxy can be seen by their reported levels of education. Of the ninety participants, seventy-six (84.4 percent) had at least a college degree; forty-seven (61.8 percent) held a master’s degree or higher. Most of the fourteen without a college degree were still in college.
As noted above, the Orthodox can be distinguished from ultra-Orthodox by their attitudes on whether college education is permissible. Our participants, including both males and females, had extraordinarily rich secular educations, indicating that they were clearly not ultra-Orthodox and in fact that they occupied the leftmost segment of the Orthodox continuum. This was corroborated by this author’s personal observations of their manner of dress.
Below are the survey questions as they were presented to the participants, followed by their responses.
Demographic Survey Questions
1. I consider myself:
|Orthodox 90||Conservative 0||Reform 0|
(Participants who did not label themselves Orthodox were removed from the sample in order to gauge opinion among self-labeled Orthodox.)
2. My highest attained degree is:
|High School 14||Undergraduate 29||Graduate 47|
3. I have a science degree.
|True 24||False 64|
Survey Questions Concerning Beliefs
1. The sun revolves around the earth.
|True 16||False 73|
2. Scientists know that evolution has been discredited but are deliberately lying.
|True 22||False 63|
3. Statisticians have proved that the first cell could not arise by chance and evolution could not occur.
|True 46||False 35
(see Figure 1)
couldn’t arise, evolution could not occur.
4. The age of the universe is:
|About 15 billion
(see Figure 2)
5. Human beings evolved from apes.
|True 8||False 82
(see Figure 3)
6. All languages descended from Hebrew, which was spoken universally until about 4,000 years ago.
|True 40||False 47|
Not all surveys included the following two items, resulting in lower totals:
7. Current species descend from the created kinds on Noah’s ark.
|True 28||False 8|
8. Evolution correctly explains the origin of life.
|True 3||False 32|
My previous finding, that those with science degrees would be more rejecting of evolution and other scientific facts than those without such degrees, was replicated. I interpret this as an indication that those Orthodox with science degrees perceive themselves as more likely to have been exposed to apikursus (or heresy) and hence had a greater need for vigilance to purge themselves of that heresy. Responses to two critical questions are divided between those persons holding scientific degrees and undergraduates majoring in science.
Evolution correctly explains the origin of life.
|Science majors||0 (0%)||13 (100%)|
|Non-science majors||3 (14%)||19 (86%)|
(science degree vs. no science degree).
Human beings evolved from apes:
|Science majors||1 (4%)||23 (96%)|
|Non-science majors||7 (11%)||57 (89%)|
Amazingly, twenty-three of twenty-four holders of science degrees do not accept evolution! (See Figure 4.) While conducting this survey among college students, I was told by a participant majoring in biology that she was advised to read books by Orthodox Jewish scientists to counter what she would hear in class.
The survey shows that even in the most modern segments of current Orthodox Judaism, there is no acceptance of evolution but rather considerable acceptance of a universe less than six thousand years old. Orthodox Jews, especially Orthodox Jewish scientists, no longer see any need to even pretend to bend “the immutable truths” of the Torah to accommodate the “ever-changing theories” of science.
The move to the right in the Orthodox community, combined with developments outside the community that heighten the perceived acceptability of anti-evolutionary positions, make it more acceptable than ever to deny the findings of empirical science. Relevant developments include the rise of creationism and intelligent design theories and the trendy left-wing view that science is “just a social construct” and “the Western cultural myth.” Evolution—and even such (one might think) noncontroversial stances as heliocentrism—are thus regarded as social constructs promoted by “Darwinian fundamentalists” and atheists, positions that must be combated because of the devastation they wreak upon society. Such views receive accidental support from the increasing sense among Jewish academics that they are unwelcome, evidenced (to their minds) by repeated calls for boycotts of Israel from the academic Left. Thus, some Jewish intellectuals have retreated to a world of their own fundamentalism. Indeed, dozens of Jewish scientists who hold impeccable scientific credentials from the former Soviet Union but suffered anti-Semitism there now fully accept the pre-scientific view of a 5,770-year-old geocentric universe promulgated by such sects as Chabad-Lubavitch.
In his lecture “What Shall We Tell the Children,” secularist thinker Nicholas Humphrey eloquently argued that parents do not have the right to mutilate the minds of their children any more than they have the right to mutilate their bodies. But he was totally, and tragically, wrong on one point. Humphrey asserted: “Conversions from superstition to science have been and are everyday events…. By contrast, conversions from science back to superstition are virtually unknown…. I doubt there has ever been a case, for example…of someone who has once understood the power of Darwinian theory going back to preferring the story of Genesis.” Quite the contrary, I could point out to Humphrey numerous Orthodox Jewish scientists who hold legitimate degrees and have enjoyed distinguished careers who did just that as a result of outreach programs now popular throughout even the left wing (if one can use this term) of Orthodoxy.
Among respondents to my survey, “only” 18 percent embraced geocentrism, the doctrine that Earth is the center of the universe. But geocentrism is making a comeback in the Orthodox Jewish community. Many modern Orthodox Jews don’t know that they should be geocentrists and will ridicule the notion until they hear a rabbi or an Orthodox Jewish physicist describe it as a required belief and scientifically unassailable. One increasingly prevalent claim is that the theory of relativity proves geocentrism!
A major influence has been the late Rabbi Menachem Mendel Schneerson, the Lubavitcher Rebbe, who heaped shame on those who claimed to be Orthodox yet quailed from declaring the truth of geocentricism only because of “what non-Jews and non-religious Jews would think” (see www.torahscience.org/torahsci/rebbeletter.html). The Lubavitcher Rebbe, now accepted by some Orthodox Jews as the Messiah, wrote: “It is my firm belief that the sun revolves around the earth, as I have also declared publicly on various occasions and in discussion with professors specializing in this field of science” (see www.meaningfullife.com/spiritual/nature/Revolution_of_the_Planets.php).
Evolution has always posed a problem for Orthodox Judaism and Orthodox Jewish scientists. Everything taught at an Orthodox school, at any level from kindergarten to college, passes through the filter of Halacha. In the truncated hours available for general studies in Orthodox yeshivas, biology as well other subjects are taught from photostatted notes or from textbooks with offending material crossed out or simply razor-bladed out. In many cases, the topic of evolution is simply skipped—not a difficult feat when one considers that even a centrist Orthodox high school may only offer ten to twelve hours of general studies each week. During that narrow window everything secular—reading, writing, and arithmetic, if you will—must be taught. Such matters as creationism and the infallibility of the Torah and the sages, right down to the doctrine that feelings come (literally) from the heart not the brain, are taught by the rabbis during the forty-plus hours of religious studies each week.
The Association of Orthodox Jewish Scientists, with over 1,500 members, is the voice of Orthodox Jewish scientists. The Fall 2005 issue of its publication, Intercom, featured an article titled “Evolution Is Not a Theory.” One highlight: “Evolution is not ‘only a theory’”; it is a hypothesis and not more. And according to the rules of logic, the opposite of any hypothesis is as valid as its original statement.” The article asserted that supposed proofs for evolution were pictures of animal and human embryos side by side that were doctored frauds (a favorite claim among Christian creationists) and that the theory of evolution asserted that Neanderthals were our ancestors. So much the worse for secular scientists who never made this claim: “So modern man is not a child of these creatures, and if these were not our daddies, then primates were not our granddaddies.” Such sophisms are not even close to the most elegant—though still vacuous—claims of intelligent design proponents; the Intercom article’s discernible purpose seems to be to proclaim that rabbinical authorities are the sole reliable arbiters of science.
The journal B’Or Ha’Torah, a Journal of Torah and Science, is peer-reviewed by leading Orthodox Jewish academicians. Let us examine a few articles from a recent issue. Yaacov (Jack) Hanoka, PhD in physics, offers an article titled “Dating the Earth” that debunks accepted techniques for dating rocks and fossils. An article titled “Monkeying Around with Hominid Evolution” concludes that “Whatever valid evidence there is for the Cro-Magnons and the Neanderthals could be explained by assuming that they were human like us and that they died during the flood of Noah.” The previously mentioned Lee Spetner, PhD in physics, observes in an article titled “Teaching Evolution in Jewish Schools” that “[students] should be taught that [evolution] is wrong and why it is wrong scientifically.” Perhaps Moshe Tendler’s article, “Rabbinic Silence: Intelligent Design,” is of the greatest interest due to his position at Yeshiva University. Tendler starts by observing that “Our mandate is to apply halakhic certitude to every question.” He then writes, “Runn
ing for the 2005 presidential elections of the American Association for the Advancement of Science, David Baltimore…said ‘Raising children who do not know that life and our planet evolved over 4.5 billion years of change and development hamstrings them from participating in modern life.’ I didn’t vote for him because of that.”
A Cheap Tuxedo Can Be the Ideal Suit
Most of us are familiar with the quip that “intelligent design is creationism in a cheap tuxedo,” coined by Leonard Krishtalka of the Natural History Museum at the University of Kansas. But a cheap tuxedo has advantages. You need not have to pay the price (of being branded a heretic because you accept evolution) but still get admitted to the black tie party (of scientific respectability). A cheap tuxedo is actually a modern Orthodox scientist’s perfect garment. When Orthodox Jewish scientists disingenuously claim that “evolution is largely no problem in the Orthodox world,” they mean that thanks to such advocates of intelligent design as William A. Dembski, Michael J. Behe, Phillip E. Johnson, and others, evolution can be seen in some quarters as no longer accepted by science. Consequently, rejecting evolution need no longer be seen as unscientific. One very well-educated and very modern Orthodox Jew told me, “Even the Gentile scientists no longer accept evolution.” Intelligent design has been literally a godsend for Orthodox Jewish educators and scientists.
Agreement and Cross-Pollination between Orthodox Jewish Educators and Fundamentalist Christians
As early as 1983, the conservative Christian Creation Magazine lauded the efforts of the previously mentioned Moshe Trop, professor in the department of life sciences at Bar-Ilan University, Israel’s Orthodox university, to replace evolution with creationism in Israeli schools. But a more recent development is the growing cooperation between Orthodox Jewish educators and Christian evangelicals on the promotion of intelligent design theory. In this pursuit, both sides gain: evangelicals get to say that rejection of evolution is not a Christian monopoly, while Orthodox Jews get to say that “even Gentile scientists reject evolution.” David Klinghoffer, a senior fellow at the Discovery Institute, has documented his becoming a baal teshuva, literally a master of repentance: a non-Orthodox Jew who becomes Orthodox. Discovery Institute senior fellow George Gilder spoke on intelligent design at Bar-Ilan (see www.idthefuture.com/2007/08/information_theory_george_gild.html), while Jonathan Rosenblum spoke at the Discovery Institute (see www.idthefuture.com/2007/08/deniable_darwin_jonathan_rosen.html). Rosenblum’s talk was publicized by the Discovery Institute as “Is Darwin Kosher? Discovery Institute Hosts Orthodox Jew who says ‘No!’” (see www.evolutionnews.org/2007/07/discovery_institute_hosts_orth.html#more).
Jonathan (known in Orthodox circles as “Yonason”) Rosenblum went from Yale Law School to become a leading Israeli Orthodox columnist and spokesman for Orthodox values campaigning against gay rights, evolution, and the rights of non-Orthodox Jews in Israel. He is known for his writing in Hamodia, the leading right-wing Orthodox publication in Israel that bans all photographs of women, even when they are wrapped head to toe in conformance with halacha, and even baby girls, claiming that they are unacceptably immodest and cause lust.
Professor Herman Branover, who is a major Israeli scientific figure in magnetohydrodynamics and actively promotes the required scientific beliefs of the Lubavitcher movement (see below), is an organizer of a biennial conference on science and the Torah. William Dembski was a featured speaker at the 2005 conference. He was the first non-Jewish (indeed the first non-Orthodox Jewish speaker) ever to appear. On his Web site, he commented:
I felt very much at home with the Lubavitchers…. These are well-educated, thoughtful people with a great stake in not letting a materialistic view of science steamroller their religious faith…. As they enter the battle on the side of ID, it will be much more difficult for critics of ID to characterize it as a purely “Christian thing.”
Lubavitch/Chabad is the largest, most dominant, and fastest-growing sect in Orthodox Judaism. Its curious scientific ideas are becoming the norm in mainstream Orthodox Judaism, and its required scientific beliefs include the following:
- The universe is precisely 5,770 years old, no more, no less.
- The earth occupies a central position, with the sun orbiting it.
- Fossils were created with the earth during the six days of creation.
- The generation that built the tower of Babel was turned into monkeys and apes; today’s monkeys and apes descend from them.
- Abiogenesis is true: some species of mice form from the earth, and lice form from sweat, not through sexual reproduction.
- Because of Eve’s sin, women are ritually impure; menstruation is their punishment, and during it they must be isolated from men.
- The moon was once as bright as the sun. On the second day of creation, the moon complained to God that it should be larger, so it was reduced in brightness as punishment.
- The Lubavitcher Rebbe is the greatest scientist who ever lived, and his pronouncements in matters of science are infallible. (For a rational critique see Mark Perakh’s “Challenging the Challenge” at www.talkreason.org.)
In exemplars of Orthodox Jewish “science” such as these, Dembski and his colleagues in the intelligent design movement have found their true scientific peers.
We are easily taken in by people who possess Western degrees and commensurate skill in language, often assuming that they possess Western values when they do not and wrongly assuming that scientists with genuine scientific credentials necessarily accept scientific views. Orthodox Jewish scientists, always suspect in their community, feel increasing pressure—if they wish to remain in that community—to exploit their degrees to promote prescientific beliefs. The role and influence of the increasingly traditionalist Orthodox Jewish community as a reservoir of such beliefs and as an ally of other anti-evolution constituencies should not be underestimated.
- Fishkoff, S. The Rebbe’s Army: Inside the World of Chabad-Lubavitch. Berlin: Schocken, 2003.
- Lubin, M. “Evolution Is Not a Theory.” AOJS Intercom 25, No. 3, May, 2005.
- Nussbaum, A. “Orthodox Jews and Science: An Empirical Study of Their Attitudes Toward Evolution, the Fossil Record, and Modern Geology.” Skeptic 12, No. 3 (2006):29–35.
- Trop, M. “Is the Archaeopteryx a fake?” Creation Research Society Quarterly 20, No. 2 (1983):121–22.