Kingdom of Priests

Recently I was part of a group from the Discovery Institute that went down to Los Angeles to make presentations about issues relating to Darwinism and intelligent design to groups of rabbis in the area. Our efforts bore fruit in several forms. Stephen Meyer and Richard Sternberg were invited to teach seminars on intelligent design at three prominent Orthodox Jewish high schools (YULA boys high school, YULA girls high school, and Shalhevet), to great acclaim. Meyer spoke about some of the material from his new book, Signature in the Cell: DNA and the Evidence for Intelligent Design (HarperOne), which the Times Literary Supplement has now recognized as a “book of the year.” I had the opportunity to talk to a group of rabbis and put before them my frustration at the Jewish community’s resistance to thinking critically about what’s at stake in the Darwin debate. Mathematician David Berlinski and biologist Jonathan Wells spoke to the same group, very effectively, and Berlinski met privately with other religious leaders, as I did.

One tangible and gratifying result was our success in changing the mind of one L.A. rabbi whom I’ve liked and respected very much for many years, and whom I admire even more now.
Rabbi Yitzchok Adlerstein is a well known and highly regarded writer and teacher at the Simon Wiesenthal Center who also serves as a professor of Jewish law and ethics at Loyola Law School. His most recent book is an outstandingly lucid translation and adaptation of the Maharal’s Be’er Hagolah. We’ve occasionally clashed in online forums. He had been consistent in rejecting intelligent design as a subject worthy of the Jewish community’s sympathy or commitment — until he met David Berlinski and Steve Meyer. On his group blog, Cross-Currents, Rabbi Adlerstein has now written an eloquent  and thoughtful exploration of his thinking on the subject. In a nutshell, the take-home message is: 

For the majority of Jews today who are not theologians, I am beginning to see a place in the Orthodox world for some of the thinking and the materials associated with ID.

His analysis is not a simple one and so you should read it for yourself here and here. I think it’s fair to say that for himself, as an individual, he still sees no problem with Darwinian evolution as he understands it (which is not the way most Darwinian biologists do). However, he recognizes now the value for Jews in general of understanding the debate between Darwin and ID. He sees the latter’s primary importance as undermining arrogant scientism and clarifying the serious challenges that Darwinism still faces, 150 years after the Origin of Species first appeared, in explaining life’s origins and development:

[I]t will be important to show that there is smugness — indeed a religious faith — in the ability of the prevailing theory to ultimately address major issues. It will help show our children that those who mock faith are themselves people of great faith — in a different system.

He would like to see the debate explored in Jewish high schools.
What exactly turned him around on the issue? 

Rabbi Adlerstein’s “Ah hah!” moment came in a conversation with Steve Meyer. Steve in turn was recounting the “Ah hah!”-type realization that another prominent clergyman, Fr. Richard John Neuhaus, had thanks to biochemist and ID theorist Michael Behe.

Dr. Meyer instantly grasped [my, i.e. Rabbi Adlerstein’s, pragmatic objections to ID], and dealt with them one at a time. He left his deepest impression upon me with an anecdote:

Ten years ago, Dr. Michael Behe (author of Darwin’s Black Box; often associated with irreducible complexity) met with Father Richard John Neuhaus in the offices of the magazine the latter founded, First Things. Behe was looking for allies, and approached Fr. Neuhaus, one of America’s most respected Catholic thinkers. Neuhaus listened, and finally was not able to contain himself. “Michael! You are a true believer! You have studied some theology. Why would you need any of this?” With great economy of expression, Neuhaus telescoped all my reservations in one exclamation. The true believer need not fear evolution, nor look for the inexplicable as the “place” where G-d resides. Nor need he fear the depredations of evolution on our sense of specialness, and hence on our commitment to a set of moral expectations. The true believer will find G-d in all things, comprehended or not. He will find his moral signposts in the revealed word of G-d.

Behe was equally effective. “You are right, Father. But millions of people are not theologians. To them, if the scientists can explain everything, they will listen to the scientists, not to those who speak of G-d.” Neuhaus accepted the point, and in the decade before he died, he moved in the direction of greater friendliness towards ID, publishing four articles about it.

Rabbi Adlerstein’s is not exactly my way of thinking. For myself, I don’t see any way that is both theologically and scientifically feasible to reconcile Judaism with Darwinism. Either God shaped and designed life with a purpose that He imagined from the beginning, or He didn’t. Classical Jewish thinkers of the past have prompted us to expect to find evidence of design in nature, and warned of the danger of relying on faith without confronting and understanding that evidence. But leave that aside. I believe what Rabbi Adlerstein is saying here is that even if there were a path open to such a reconciliation, the sophistication or perhaps the abstruseness of it would place the path out of the reach of most Jews. Which constitutes a problem for educators and leaders, who are charged with inspiring faith.
Christians, of course, face the very same difficulty. Theological arguments for “theistic evolution” tend to be incomprehensibly arcane.
Since it’s what he calls the “God-consciousness” of the Jewish people that rightly concerns Rabbi Adlerstein, his own ability, as a theologian, to make the reconciliation becomes sort of beside the point. He wisely grants the value, then, of acquainting Jewish students and laymen with the scientific critique of Darwinism and its scientific alternative, namely intelligent design. One hopes that other Jewish educators will prove to be as open-minded, and open to rethinking past beliefs, as Yitzchok Adlerstein.
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