Orthodox Jews have almost a sixth sense for feeling out of place. Many of us know this experience: On a visit to an unfamiliar city, you head into a restaurant that you have been assured is strictly kosher. On entering, you look around at the crowd of diners, expecting to see identifiably religious Jews — men wearing kippot — but there are none. Uneasy, you ask to see the establishment’s kosher certification. Maybe the place is no longer under rabbinic supervision? Maybe you’re in the wrong restaurant altogether. The manager produces a piece of paper with a rabbi’s name on it, which looks legitimate. And yet…something doesn’t sit right.
If there are no frum Jews there, could it really be kosher? That is a question I’m often asked by other Jews of all stripes, if not in exactly those words, about what I do in my professional life. And what is that? Do I work as a pork butcher? As the door attendant at a radical Muslim mosque? No, I’m a senior fellow at a think tank, the Discovery Institute, well known for supporting research in intelligent design — the scientific critique of and alternative to Darwinian evolution.
At first glance, you might think nothing could be more Jewish. Very shortly Jews around the world will be celebrating a new yearly cycle of Torah readings, beginning with Genesis, the parsha of Bereishit, narrating God’s creation of the world. Like Shabbat, which similarly recalls the primordial sequence of divine creativity, studying Bereishit again is a time to re-center ourselves as Jews on a truth that today is widely forgotten or denied.
That truth is that we live in a world bearing testimony to purposeful design. The very idea is under widespread, influential attack from Darwinists who insist overwhelming scientific evidence demonstrates that life originated and developed as the product of blind, churning, purposeless natural forces. Answering the challenge is a scientific pursuit, but it has spiritual implications as well, just as Darwinism has its own implications that rule out purpose, meaning or design in life’s history.
Many Jews, however, including many on the more liberal end of the Orthodox spectrum, see intelligent design as a purely Christian undertaking, with no support from Jewish tradition. The Wall Street Journal has promoted as a representative Jewish view that of Yeshiva University biologist Carl Feit “who is an ordained rabbi and Talmudic scholar…. Prof. Feit says that in nearly a quarter-century of teaching introductory biology, he has always taught evolution — supported by traditional Jewish source material — and that ‘there has never been a blip on the radar here.’ His assessment echoes the official line of the Modern Orthodox rabbinical association, which states that evolution is entirely consistent with Judaism.”
If you read the entry about me on Wikipedia, which I could never succeed in editing for accuracy because some anonymous Internet user would just change it right back, you will find it insinuated that I’m guilty of ethnic treason if not outright heresy. The entry quotes as authoritative a person whom I won’t name here but who is a writer and self-identified Orthodox Jew. He is cited as “charging,” as if it were a crime, “that Klinghoffer is paid to promote his ideas by his employer, the Discovery Institute, which [the writer] identifies as a Christian think tank that is funded by organizations that seek to promote a ‘Christian-friendly world view.'”
Imagine that. Paid by his employer. What a scandal!
Anyway, there you have it. Advocating an open attitude to finding scientific evidence of design in nature is a Christian, not a Jewish, undertaking. In a front-page news article in the New York Times, reporter Jodi Wilgoren falsely characterized the Discovery Institute as a “fundamentalist Christian” organization. The newspaper later had to publish a retraction. Intelligent design is “the hot new rebranding of Christian creationism,” as New York magazine puts it — missing the fact that between pseudo-scientific creationism and intelligent design there yawns a wide gap in thought, perspective, and intellectual credibility. For myself, I am rebuked as a “Christophile,” as one obsessive Jewish commenter on my Beliefnet blog puts it.
What is the reality? On one hand, other Discovery Institute fellows include author and radio host Michael Medved, an Orthodox Jew, and mathematician David Berlinski, a Jewish agnostic. When a popular theatrical documentary film on the suppression of intelligent design on university campuses came out last year — Expelled: No Intelligence Allowed, narrated by lawyer and comedian Ben Stein — there was a memorable scene where Berlinski, Stein, and Orthodox Israeli physicist Gerald Schroeder (with a kippah) were shown touring the ruins of the Berlin Wall, a symbol of Darwinism’s authoritarian tyranny in the academic world. They were the three Darwin-doubting Jewish musketeers.
After seeing the movie, a colleague of mine half-joked, “I didn’t realize intelligent design was such a Jewish enterprise.” I savored the comment.
On the other hand, when you get out into the wider world, Jewish hostility or indifference to everything I do remains very much the rule. There’s no denying that conservative Christians for the most part understand what’s at stake in the Darwin debate. They appreciate the scientists and writers in the intelligent-design movement. Jews, whether secular or religious, do not. In many Jewish minds, there is an instinctive distrust of anything well regarded by Christians. If Christians like it, it’s got to be treif. If Christians think there’s scientific evidence of design in nature, then a Jew must believe the opposite, that there is no such evidence.
Even from the Haredi community, I regret to say, I’ve noticed little interest in or understanding of the issue. These fervently religious Jews seem to assume that since we already know God made the world, there is, in a scientific vein, hardly anything else worth saying. We have the Torah. Why do we need science?
We need it because the Torah itself instructs us that this is a subject of which we can’t afford to be ignorant. The Mishnah in Pirke Avot urges us to “Know how to answer an Apikoros” — a heretic or literally an Epicurean. Rabbi Yehudah Ha’Levi and Ibn Ezra, among other authorities, explicitly define the term as a follower of the ancient Greek philosopher Epicurus who denied the existence or detectability of design in nature.
Perhaps they were secretly closet Evangelical Christians, suborned by the Discovery Institute. Don’t forget to add other rabbinic greats, Rambam, Rabbeinu Bachya, Moshe Chaim Luzzatto, and Samson Raphael Hirsch, who similarly saw nature as the unfolding scientific evidence of God’s purpose in the world, to the list of crypto-Christians.
The deeper truth is that, in a sense, Christianity has defined certain Jewish attitudes for centuries. In his terrific new book Why Are Jews Liberals?, Norman Podhoretz traces the phenomenon of Jewish liberalism back to the Enlightenment. From ancient times to the Middle Ages, the Church had been the Jews’ great tormentor. Then came the Enlightenment philosophers who tirelessly attacked Christian teaching, while indulging in an equally spiteful anti-Semitism. Somehow the idea got lodged in the Jewish brain that “The enemy of my enemy is my friend.” Meanwhile Christians especially in America came to reject old beliefs about Jews and Judaism, even embracing what can only be called philo-Semitism. Yet from then on, and down to today, any idea that corrodes Christian faith, as Darwinism does, was greeted by many Jews as a friend, even if it corrodes faith in Torah to no less a degree.
The upcoming Shabbat of Bereishit is the perfect opportunity to rethink these ideas, along with the broader, practical priorities of our Jewish community. How many frum Jews today, following the advice of Pirke Avot, could intelligently answer the challenge of a Darwinist? How many are troubled that they could not? How many in the Modern Orthodox community would simply crumple, declaring preemptive surrender to Darwinian evolution? What a shame that on this point, so crucial to a Torah worldview, we have allowed Christians to take the lead.
When we stand up in our homes on Friday night to say Kiddush in testimony to God’s intelligent design of the heavens and the earth, when we read the opening chapters of Genesis the next day, there could hardly be a more powerful time to meditate on our calling as God’s witnesses not only to ourselves and our families but to the world. That world, I promise you, is waiting for us to add our voices to the most important public debate of our time.