The question we will address here is not whether there are merits to the theory of evolution, or whether it is appropriate for an Orthodox Jew to adopt that theory. We will only discuss whether it is consistent with Orthodox beliefs, whether someone who believes in the theory of evolution is still within the bounds of Orthodoxy. As before, we will be making the case that even though there is debate on this matter, this is a matter of contemporary debate with scholars on both sides of the issue. For our purposes, we need only demonstrate that there are respected rabbis who adopt or do not object to the theory of evolution.
Over 130 years ago, R. Samson Raphael Hirsch offered his view on this matter. This is of great significance because R. Hirsch was a leader of the opposition to non-Orthodox movements and was very open and direct in his labeling of people and ideas as unacceptable (see volume 5 of his Collected Writings). R. Hirsch wrote:
This will never change, not even if the latest scientific notion that the genesis of all the multitudes of organic forms on earth can be traced back to one single, most primitive, primeval form of life should ever appear to be anything more than what it is today, a vague hypothesis still unsupported by fact. Even if this notion were ever to gain complete acceptance by the scientific world, Jewish thought, unlike the reasoning of the high priest of that notion, would nonetheless never summon us to revere a still extant representative of this primal form as the supposed ancestor of us all. Rather, Judaism in that case would call upon its adherents to give even greater reverence than ever before to the one, sole God Who, in His boundless creative wisdom and eternal omnipotence, needed to bring into existence no more than one single, amorphous nucleus and one single law of “adaptation and heredity” in order to bring forth, from what seemed chaos but was in fact a very definite order, the infinite variety of species we know today, each with its unique characteristics that sets it apart from all other creatures. (Collected Writings, vol. 7 pp. 263-264)
While not adopting the theory of evolution, R. Hirsch is clear that there is no theological problem with it and that Judaism would gladly adopt it were there sufficient scientific proof.
R. Avraham Yitzhak Kook also wrote of the possibility of accepting the theory of evolution. In two letters published in Oros Ha-Kodesh (pp. 559, 565) and translated into English in Challenge, R. Kook discusses the matter:
The evolutionary way of thinking… has caused considerable upheaval among many people whose thought had been wont to run in certain regular, well-defined paths. Not so, however, for the select, hard-thinking few who have always seen a gradual, evolutionary development in the world’s most intimate spiritual essence. For them it is not difficult to apply, by analogy, the same principle to the physical development of the visible world.
R. Kook goes on to say that those who are reluctant to accept evolution as a possibility have hesitations but “[t]hese hesitations have nothing to do with any difficulty in reconciling the verses of the Torah or other traditional texts with an evolutionary standpoint. Nothing is easier than this. Everyone knows that here, if anywhere, is the realm of parable, allegory and allusion.”
In Iggeros Ra’ayah (91, cited by R. Yitzchok Adlerstein in The Jewish Action Reader, p. 290), R. Kook writes, “[E]ven if it becomes apparent that life came into being through the evolution of one species from another, there is no contradiction [to the Torah].”
If not explicitly supporting evolution, R. Kook is being very clear that he has no theological objections to it.
One of the concepts of evolution that is most difficult to accept is that man, specifically Adam, is descended from lesser creatures. Can one say that Adam had humanoid, biological parents? This is, indeed, very difficult for me, personally, to accept. However, those much greater than I have made precisely that suggestion. In addition to the implicit acceptance of this concept by R. Hirsch and R. Kook above, there are explicit statements of this idea.
R. Menahem Kasher, in Torah Shelemah (Bereshis, ch. no. 738), quotes a responsum from the Geonim in which it is stated that Adam was first created as a speechless creature, like an animal, and only later was given speech. This could certainly be interpreted as a precedent for the claim that Adam was descended from humanoids. R. Kasher suggests that this is a matter of dispute between the Ramban and his student R. Bahya ben Asher, with the Ramban on the side of the Gaon’s responsum.
R. Kasher poses a question on the above position from Rosh HaShanah 11a, where the Gemara states that all of Creation was made fully mature. If that is the case, how could Adam have been initially created as a humanoid and only later made into a human? R. Kasher cites midrashim that disagree with this Gemara and leaves it at that. However, R. Yehuda Henkin offers a resolution to the question.
In his Hibah Yeseirah (Bereshis 1:26, printed in the back of Bnei Banim vol. 2), R. Henkin suggests that the Gemara was only referring to the end of the Creation period. At that point, the end of the sixth “day,” all of Creation was fully mature. Until that point, however, it is entirely possible that Adam was initially a humanoid and only later became a full human.
R. Henkin writes explicitly that Adam’s body was taken from creatures that preceded him and it was only his soul that was created ex nihilo. In other words, Adam evolved from lower creatures and became human when God created and implanted in him a human soul.
I have been told that R. Shimon Schwab makes a similar claim in his Ma’ayan Beis Ha-Sho’evah but was unable to find it myself. I am still awaiting a fax of the material to see it with my own eyes.
Dr. Gerald Schroeder, in his The Science of God (p. 127), writes:
When I was first struggling with the questions of our origins, I steeled my courage to ask the renowned biblical scholar, Rabbi Aharon Lichtenstein, if it was possible that Adam had an ancestor. Not knowing what to expect, I skirted the issue for a few awkward minutes. When I finally presented the question, his matter-of-fact reply almost bowled me over: “The text of Genesis and the ancient commentaries of Nahmanides on that text certainly [certainly, mind you!] leave the door open for that interpretation.”
It seems that R. Lichtenstein, whom I would label a talmudic scholar rather than a biblical scholar, accepts R. Kasher’s understanding of the Ramban and allows it to serve as a precedent for the idea that Adam was descended from lesser creatures. He certainly did not call it heresy. (Can anyone in Gush confirm this quote from R. Lichtenstein? Thank you.)
In an open letter, R. Ari Kahn relates the following about R. Shmuel Ya’akov Weinberg:
More recently, when Dr. Schroeder cites certain opinions regarding prehistoric man he has given me as his rabbinic source. A few months a go I received a phone call from a friend who would also be happy to be defined as someone
who lives in the zealous camp. He heard Dr. Schroeder speak and quote me, my friend was incredulous. I told him of the following conversation which I had with Rav Yaakov Weinberg on another occasion. I asked Rav Yaakov if it was kefira to say that Adam had parents. He responded by saying that as long as you can show a spiritual difference between Adam and those preceding him then in terms of Hashkafa this would be fine. I could not tell if Rav Yaakov Weinberg himself accepted this approach or merely thought it was hashkafically acceptable (I later heard from a very close talmid of Rav Yaakov that he heard Rav Yaakov suggest this 40 years ago and was comfortable with it).
In conclusion, is this idea mainstream? I don’t think so. Are there scholars who advocate it or at least do not consider it to be heresy? Definitely. Whether or not this is acceptable is clearly a matter of contemporary dispute.
UPDATE: Someone correctly pointed out in the comments that R. Moshe Tendler has written on the subject of evolution (The Torah U-Madda Journal article is not in vol. 4 and does not seem to be posted on the web). Here is what I found on the web, although I know he has written more on the subject:
The gedolei hador at the time of Darwin found little to criticize in the theory or its scientific findings…
Neither the age of the earth, the fossil finds of strange creatures nor the evolution of man, posed any “threat” to Torah truth as understood by the Tifereth Yisroel. Indeed, data from carbon dating lead/uranium, and other radioactive time clocks affirm the great age of the earth…
Did Hashem make this last world in six days and rested on the seventh, or was it six millennia? Either assumption can be correct….
The Talmudic literature refers to prior worlds and earlier men before the present world that is dated 5748 years from the birth of Adam and his wife Eve. Some of our great Torah sages accept this literally and see in it a concurrence with the scientific claim for a very ancient world. No one dare label such a belief heretical, even if personal family tradition is to accept that the world was created ex nihilo 5748 years ago.
Note that R. Tendler is the brother-in-law of R. David Feinstein, one of the signers of the ban. Boy, would I like to hear the conversation between them on this subject.