Kingdom of Priests

Kingdom of Priests

Why Intelligent Design is Jewish

In responding to Christianity, Jews historically have objected that the other faith gives too human a picture of God. Needless to say, as a Jew I’d have to agree. Yet nowadays from many Jews I find much less strenuous objection to spiritual ideas that picture God in a “refined supernaturalist” way, as William James put it, where He is reduced to little more than a vague vaporous abstraction, practically irrelevant to physical reality down here on earth. 
Ironically, James observed that in his time, more than a century ago, Christianity itself was already heading in a perilously “refined” direction: “Odd evolution from the God of David’s psalms!” The trend persists in liberal churches, as in liberal Jewish groups.
This whole issue comes up in my work all the time. It is one problem with theistic evolution, as I wrote yesterday. Jews tend to be far more alarmed by intelligent design (ID), which as a kind of “crass supernaturalism” (James’s phrase, with which he also adorned himself) poses no such difficulty. Some of my fellow Jews are not shy about letting me know they think, in my association with ID, I’m guilty of something bordering almost on disloyalty to Judaism. If I identified with theistic evolution, that would be OK. Is this an authentically Jewish response from them? Obviously, I don’t think so. I will tell you why.
Did you ever wonder why the Hebrew Bible takes the risky strategy of using rampant anthropomorphism in describing God?
Here’s a classic case where God’s actions are humanized in a startling manner: “And they heard the voice of the Lord God walking in the garden in the cool of the day: and Adam and his wife hid themselves from the presence of the Lord God amongst the trees of the garden” (Genesis 3:8).
Huh? God takes leisurely strolls in the park? Yet Scripture also warns: “God is not a man, that he should lie; neither the son of man, that he should repent” (Numbers 23:19). So what’s up with that?


Commenting on one anthropomorphism in the Noah narrative, where God speaks “unto His heart” (Genesis 8:21), Rabbi S.R. Hirsch offers a surprising comment: 

The danger of getting some corporeal conception of God is by far not so great as that of volatizing [that is, vaporizing] Him to a vague, obscure, metaphysical idea. It is much more important to be convinced of the personality of God, and His intimate relations to every man on earth, than to speculate on the transcendental conceptions of infinity, incorporeality, etc., which have almost as little to do with the morality of our lives as algebraic ciphers.

In depicting God, the Bible was faced with a dilemma. Humanize Him too much, and people may be misled in one direction. God then becomes not only a personality but a human person. That can’t be. Yet take the opposite tack, refining and abstracting Him, and we may be misled in the other direction. God then becomes refined out of existence, or at least out of any condition where He is relevant to our most intimate and personal lives.
Interestingly, recognizing the lesser of two dangers, the Hebrew Bible doesn’t opt for a compromise between the two. It totally rejects abstraction. So does the Talmud. Everything is disarmingly concrete. God interacts with creation in terms that sometimes shock us with their anthropomorphism. Rav Hirsch, I think, explains why.
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posted May 20, 2009 at 10:42 am

I think its a good point to bring up the issue of how anthropomorphic God really is. In the Torah, God/El/Elohim/YHWH Elohainu is variously fickle, abstract, fearful or human-like. These different moods for God can be reasonably well connected to the different authors that contributed to the Torah over different periods of time during Israel’s history related to the Documentary Hypothesis. They simply had not made up their mind on God’s attributes. God as tetragrammaton or Hashem seems pretty abstract to me, daring not to even form a name or mental image of Him.
Apart from this issue, I agree that a plain reading of the Hebrew Bible would force you into an ID-based mindset. However, this simply doesn’t square with what we know today as a product of scholarship and science.

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Glen Davidson

posted May 20, 2009 at 11:55 am

While I can’t speak for Jews, I suspect that many would reject ID as being Jewish because most are opposed to evidence-free pseudoscience. That, and the fact that the Enlightenment generally improved the lot of Jews in Europe, while theistic impositions on science accompanied, and were related to, theistic persecution of Jews.
Until Judaism is comfortable with opposing demonstrable empirical truths, Intelligent Design cannot, in general, be Jewish.
Glen Davidson

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Your Name

posted May 20, 2009 at 3:03 pm

“Did you ever wonder why the Hebrew Bible takes the risky strategy of using rampant anthropomorphism in describing God?”
I wouldn’t exactly call it a strategy. When a child thinks of God as an old man with a big beard up in the sky…is that a strategy?

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Tim Lehmann

posted May 20, 2009 at 3:40 pm

In the Torah, does it not say?
??????? ??? ????? ?? ?????? ??? ????
Correct me if I’m wrong, but this should answer the question. I translate that to say that God created everything. As a Christian I believe that Jesus (Messiah) as the Word of God was the instrument of this creation, but that in no way denies the fact that God created all that there is. I love to study the mechanisms of creation, and I’m open to debate on a number of theories, as long as you don’t try to deny That God created the heavens and the earth. On that point the Bible (Whether it’s the Christian Old Testament or the Jewish Torah) is very clear.

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Joshua Berman

posted May 20, 2009 at 3:56 pm

David’s right – The Torah seeks a middle path between total abstraction and full anthropomorphism. You can see this in terms of the design, and focal point of the Temple. In the ancient world, the graven image of the god stood at the center of the temple (=full anthropomorphism). In an Isalmic mosque, there is no focal point – there isn’t any furnishing at all (=total abstraction). In the Temple of the Torah – there certainly is a focal point – the ark in the holy of holies, which contains the very physical, tablets of the covenant, writen by the finger of God. But of course, the tablets are a record of God’s word and will – thus we have a combination of somethng physical and anthropomorphic (God’s handwriting), and yet quite abstract (His will and word).

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David Klinghoffer

posted May 20, 2009 at 4:53 pm

Tim, I’m impressed you were able to use a Hebrew font in a Bnet comment box! I didn’t know that was possible. I sympathize with the gist of what you’re saying here but keep in mind that the Bible wasn’t meant to be read as you’d simply open up and read this morning’s newspaper. The text is deeply cryptic, and the more you study it in Hebrew, the more you’ll find that. For example, the first word you cite in your comment, the first word in the whole Bible, is a grammatical anomaly. It’s in construct form, literally “In the beginning of..,” meaning you expect it to be followed by a noun. But it’s followed by a verb, “he created.” In the beginning of WHAT? For answers to questions like that, which crop up and multiply in almost every verse in the Torah, you need an explanatory tradition of the kind Judaism offers.

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David Klinghoffer

posted May 20, 2009 at 4:56 pm

BTW, I applaud the mini-trend in this thread toward the use of full and I assume real names. May it continue in the blog as a whole!

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posted May 21, 2009 at 9:29 pm

I’m not sure what this article has to do with Intelligent Design, which the Christian Right is using as a wedge issue to try to get Christian theology to replace science education in secular schools in the US, the UK, and elsewhere.
**of course** G-d created the universe. That’s no reason to reject the scientific process by which we learn about this wonderful universe we have been given.
In the 19th century many people thought that the idea of other planets revolving around the Sun slighted G-d’s creation of our planet. We laugh at that quaint idea now… but how is so-called Intelligent Design any different?

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posted May 23, 2009 at 5:41 pm

Aliza, you’ve been misinformed about the nature of intelligent design, which prevents understanding the connection.
Intelligent Design itself doesn’t take a theological position. Those at the Discovery Institute, a major voice for ID, even discourage the idea of forcing ID into school textbooks. They know it must first earn its place on a scientific basis. So the idea they are trying to use ID to get Christian theology into science textbooks has no connection to what they are doing. If you want to truly understand a position, it is important to be willing to hear from those who will explain it accurately.
“The theory of intelligent design holds that certain features of the universe and of living things are best explained by an intelligent cause, not an undirected process such as natural selection.” (More at
From a scientific standpoint, it is necessary for science to be able to make a distinction between features that are satisfactorily explained by directed causes and those that are not. For example, if undirected causes cannot satisfactorily account for the origin of symbolic information in living things, that is something that empirically grounded science must come to grips with, whatever one’s theology or philosophy.
Consequently, there is nothing about realizing that science must distinguish directed and undirected causes that is contrary to a Jewish perspective. Science that is driven by empirical observations cannot perpetually close its eyes to the dependency of symbolic information on intelligent causation, even if this is unwelcome for those committed to philosophical materialism.

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posted May 23, 2009 at 5:54 pm

p.s. Sorry, I meant to write “From a scientific standpoint, it is necessary for science to be able to make a distinction between features that are satisfactorily explained by undirected causes and those that are not.”
The distinction is important. If something can be explained satisfactorily by combinations of undirected law and chance, that takes precedence. It is only when undirected causes do not provide an adequate explanation that science is in a position to infer that directed causes are indicated for a feature.
Dr. William Dembski’s explanatory filter is one way of expressing this priority.
To the point of the article, the idea of being able to scientifically recognize not only the abilities and properties, but also the limitations of mindless matter and energy is not in conflict with a Jewish perspective. As long as we think matter can do anything at all, we do not understand matter. We cannot understand what it is apart from gaining an understanding of what it is not.

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