Abraham Isaac Kook on Evolution

How evolutionary theory supports a mystical worldview.

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Like earlier mystics, Kook sought to integrate a devalued science into his worldview.  Orot Hakodesh opens with a salvo aimed squarely at secular science: "Religious wisdom ranks higher than all other sciences in this: religious wisdom transforms the will and the spiritual attributes of its learners, drawing them to the supernal heights on which its concern is focused .... All secular sciences lack this capacity because they cannot, by themselves, engender anything new." (Orot Hakodesh I:1.)

Kook and Biblical Criticism

Among those secular sciences was the relatively new field of biblical criticism. Kook adroitly navigates the minefield of the creation narrative. Rather than attempting to read science into Genesis, he separates Torah from science. In a 1905 letter to Moshe Seidel, Kook articulates his position on the relationship between the creation narrative of Genesis and modern science:

"Even if it were clear to us that the order of creation was through the evolution of the species, there would still be no contradiction. We calculate time according to the literal sense of the biblical verses, which is far more relevant to us than is ancient history .... The Torah obviously obscures the account of creation and speaks in allusions and parables. Everyone knows that the account of creation is part of the secrets of the Torah. And if all these statements were taken literally, what secrets would there be? ... The essence [of the Genesis narrative] is the knowledge of God and the truly moral life." (Letters of Rav Kook, Letter 91.)

Kook treats the Genesis material somewhat differently than had earlier Jewish theologians. Many European rabbis had attempted to read science into the biblical story of creation. They claimed that science helps us read the Bible and understand certain cosmogonic and cosmological midrashim. Others argued that the Torah is a guide for moral behavior, not a scientific text. Kook synthesizes the two approaches.

On the one hand, Genesis does provide an account of the creation of the universe and its description is not wrong; but that description is opaque. "Everyone knows," Kook wrote, that creation is a secret of the Torah (See also Orot Hakodesh II:542).  He refuses to belittle the Bible by reading the science of the day into the eternal Torah.

Esoteric vs. Exoteric

The Torah contains a "contracted" version of the esoteric account of creation.  As Rosenberg has observed: "The contraction of the esoteric into the exoteric, according to Kook, is the resolution to the problem of the relation between Torah and science" (Shalom Rosenberg, "Introduction to the Thought of Rav Kook," 91). The esoteric Torah will be known only at the end of days; meanwhile, nothing in the exoteric Torah can contradict science, because the exoteric Torah does not contain intelligible scientific or philosophic information.

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Shai Cherry

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