Author Archives: Emma Kippley-Ogman

Emma Kippley-Ogman

About Emma Kippley-Ogman

Emma Kippley-Ogman is a rabbinical student at Hebrew College Rabbinical School, having received a B.A. in history of science from Harvard University in 2003.

Judaism & Intelligent Design

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According to evolutionary theory, all life descends from common ancestry and continues to unfold in rich variation. Over billions of years, life evolves through random mutation, genetic recombination, and natural selection. As organisms change, the genetic changes that allow those organisms to survive in their environments are preserved and passed to subsequent generations in greater proportions.

Since its inception with Charles Darwin’s On the Origin of the Species in 1859, evolutionary theory has developed as scientists test, disprove, and rearticulate aspects of the theory. As scientists observe the evolution of bacterial resistance to antibiotics, for instance, they have arrived at new understandings of how genetic material can be transmitted across a population of the same generation.

Intelligent Design

In an August 2005 “On Language” column in the New York Times, William Safire traced the origins of the term “intelligent design” to an 1847 Scientific American journal article and a 1903 book by Ferdinand Canning Scott Schiller, in which he wrote, ”It will not be possible to rule out the supposition that the process of evolution may be guided by an intelligent design.” Ignored for nearly a century, the term resurfaced in the late 1980s as the catch phrase for an emerging movement to demonstrate divine involvement in human evolution.

Today the intelligent design movement is funded and promoted by the Center for Science and Culture (founded 1996) of a Seattle-based think tank called The Discovery Institute. The institute seeks to shift U.S. public culture away from what it calls the “scientific materialism” of evolutionary theory and towards a theistic understanding of existence by funding scientists who look for evidence of design in nature, assisting in the publication of books, textbooks, and articles that advance the idea, and urging public schools to “teach the controversy” over evolution in biology classrooms.

Although allied with more traditional creationists in their concern that evolutionary theory challenges narratives of divine involvement in human existence, the intelligent design movement does not contest common ancestry of living organisms or the age of the universe; it takes issue with the mechanism of evolution.

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Teaching Evolution in Jewish Schools

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In American public culture, the science of evolution and the biblical creation story are constructed as opposing narratives of life’s origins, and the classroom has become a battleground for this debate. Teachers and school boards have wrestled with which narratives to teach in public schools, in which settings, be it science or comparative religion.

In contrast, this issue has caused little controversy in Jewish education, where narratives of evolution and creation are, for the most part, able to co-exist.

Separate Spheres

Most Jewish schools strike a balance between evolution and the Torah’s narrative. Some teach evolution and creation as separate ideas in different departments, as the Forward reported (January 20, 2006) of the nondenominational Hyman Brand Hebrew Academy of Overland Park, Kansas, which "teaches Genesis as part of its religious studies, and evolution in its college-preparatory science classes."

Nick Miller, chair of the science department at the pluralistic Charles E. Smith Jewish Day School in Rockville, Maryland, sees a distinct advantage to teaching evolution in the religious context of a Jewish school: "If I taught in a public school and a kid asked me, ‘Do you believe in both of them?’ I couldn’t answer. Here I can." 

Although he does not devote a unit in biology classes to the subject, when Miller’s students ask about whether one can believe in Torah and in evolution, he answers their questions. "The intent of the Torah," he suggests, "is not to be a science book but to reveal the mind of God to us." 

To Miller, trying to force one narrative into the framework of another is "intellectual-spiritual shatnez, yoking two different species of animal to a plow, an act of cruelty," undermining depth of thought in both religious and scientific systems.

Students in these Jewish schools can achieve what American public culture presents as an insurmountable challenge. "Very few students have issues combining their religious views and their scientific knowledge," reports Katerina Sherman, the science department chair at the Maimonides School in Brookline, Massachusetts. "They have separate compartments of their brain for separate subjects. The part for biology doesn’t have cross-references" for Jewish studies.

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