Abraham Isaac Kook on Evolution

How evolutionary theory supports a mystical worldview.

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It is evident here that Kook treats evolution as a philosophical theory, not a scientific one. The biological mechanisms of evolution do not interest him at all. Kook is willing to accept that humanity has its biological roots in wild beasts, but he conspicuously avoids elaborating on the details of biological evolution.

He ostensibly accepts the ideas inherent in the facts of evolution--that humans appeared on earth after other animals and possess a physiological, ethical, and intellectual inheritance from them. But Kook uses these facts to point to the progress exhibited by natural history (Ibid, II:543).

The theory of evolution, Darwin's or anyone else's, is no more than a fleeting theory that will undergo modifications, just like the cosmological theories of Ptolemy, Copernicus, and Galileo in the past, says Kook: "There is no contradiction whatsoever between the Torah and any of the world's scientific knowledge. We do not have to accept theories as certainties, no matter how widely accepted, for they are like blossoms that wither. Very soon, scientific knowledge will be further developed and all of today's new theories will be derided and scorned. ... But the word of God will endure forever." (Letters of Rav Kook, Letter 91.)

Evolution and Kabbalah

For Kook, evolution conforms to the secrets of Kabbalah. One of those secrets, contrary to Darwin's hypothesis, is that development has a direction and that the movement is progressing, albeit asymptotically, toward perfection. Not only did that sense of optimism challenge Darwin's denial of biological teleology in natural history; it also countered Arthur Schopenhauer's "blind will" in human history.

For Kook, the mystical monist, the lesson of evolution applies as much to human history as to natural history. Even the political theorist Moses Hess, whom Kook had read, applies notions of progressive biological evolution to human history: "History, like nature, will finally have her epoch of harmonious perfection .... There is a law of progress" (Hess, Rome and Jerusalem).

Now we can understand how progressive and purposeful biological evolution fits into Kook's worldview. Although it is certainly true that philosophies of progress, as espoused by European Naturphilosophen and Lamarckians, were standard European fare in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, Kook is on solid ground in his assertion that they are compatible with Jewish esoterism.

Kook merely points out that, in the theory of evolution, Western thought had finally caught up with the Kabbalah! Kook's embrace of evolutionary theory, progressive and directed, is consonant with his previously held monistic understanding of the unfolding of reality.

Shalom Rosenberg, who analyzed the texts in which Kook deals specifically with issues of science, has described his approach as a synthesis ("Introduction to the Thought of Rav Kook," 88-97). One element of Kook's synthesizing project involved making room for the partial truths of science within the larger framework of religious truth.

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Shai Cherry

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