Teaching Evolution in Jewish Schools

Evolutionary biology thrives alongside serious engagement with the Genesis narrative.

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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.

An Overlapping Conversation

Josh Edelglass, a teacher at Prozdor (an after-school Jewish high school in Newton, Massachusetts), wants his students to learn to articulate their own understandings of evolution in a Jewish context. In a course called "But Did it Happen?" Edelglass asked his students to compare the timeline of creation in Genesis with scientific ideas of the beginning of the universe.

His students accepted the idea of evolution, but did not want to write off the first chapter of Genesis. They wrestled to fit the two together.

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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.