Abraham Isaac Kook on Evolution

How evolutionary theory supports a mystical worldview.

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Reprinted with permission from "Three Twentieth-Century Jewish Responses to Evolutionary Theory," Aleph: Historical Studies in Science and Judaism, 2003 (Hebrew University of Jerusalem).

For many, Rabbi Abraham Isaac Kook is closely associated with the concept of evolution. Popular and academic treatments of his thought, as well as anthologies of his writings, consistently highlight his embrace of the principles, if not the details, of evolutionary theory.

There is, indeed, a strong correspondence between certain non-Darwinian evolutionary theories and Kook's own sense of the progressive unfolding of reality. Yet nowhere does Kook directly cite Darwin or any other biologist. Although it is true that evolutionary ideas permeated his thinking, he wrote very little about biological evolution.

Kook began writing on evolution in the first decade of the twentieth century, long before the Modern Synthesis of the 1940s and before Darwin's mechanism of natural selection was largely accepted within the scientific community.

Moving Toward Greater Perfection

Kook discusses evolution in the section of Orot Hakodesh entitled "The Ascending Development." From the title, it is already obvious that Kook believes that development has a direction. The world is moving toward greater perfection, even though there may be temporary setbacks.

Although Kook focuses on development and the process of perfection, he is careful to distinguish his theology from the philosophy of Henri Bergson, which is predicated solely on the dynamic process of becoming, to the exclusion of any notion of perfect, static being.

Kook tethers the dynamic creativity of Bergson to the static, ultimate reality pointed to by Benedict Spinoza. The metaphysical telos (goal) of the process of becoming is rooted in divine being. Kook's concept of static and divine Being, for which he uses the kabbalistic term Ein Sof, is the ground for his cherished goal of progress. As Yosef Ben Shlomo has commented: Rabbi Kook's argument against Bergson is that without a transcendent Being, i.e., absolute perfection above and beyond betterment, there is no goal toward which the world strives. For Kook, the Ein Sof is the telos of creation.

Ascendancy and the Divine Element

Once the metaphysical ground has been prepared for a discussion of change and becoming, Kook offers his most famous comments on evolution:

"The theory of evolution (hitpattehut) is increasingly conquering the world at this time, and, more so than all other philosophical theories, conforms to the kabbalistic secrets of the world. Evolution, which proceeds on a path of ascendancy, provides an optimistic foundation for the world. How is it possible to despair at a time when we see that everything evolves and ascends? When we penetrate the inner meaning of ascending evolution, we find in it the divine element shining with absolute brilliance. It is precisely the Ein Sof in actu which manages to bring to realization that which is Ein Sof in potentia." (Kook, Orot Hakodesh II:537)

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Shai Cherry

Shai Cherry, Ph.D. is an Assistant Professor of Jewish Thought at Vanderbilt University.