Skeptic is a science magazine, and as such we only deal with non-scientific issues when they come into contact with science. Foremost in this category, in our culture during the past decade, is the intersection of science and religion; in fact, science and religion studies have become something of a cottage industry in academia, with conferences, journals, magazines, and books on the subject being generated at a prodigious rate. Our primary focus in this area has been on evolution and creationism, most notably Intelligent Design creationism. Related to that in vol. 12, no. 3 of Skeptic is an article reporting for the first time the results of a study on the attitudes of Orthodox Jewish college students on the theory of evolution. Although one might expect skepticism of evolution to be found in this cohort, we were surprised by just how skeptical Orthodox Jewish college students were — not just about the theory of evolution, but about most aspects of science. For details, read on … and pass along this article to your friends and colleagues and encourage them to subscribe to Skeptic and eSkeptic.
Denial of evolution is a defining characteristic of education in Orthodox Judaism. But what does the most modern segment of Orthodox Judaism — the small number of students permitted to go to a public university and be exposed to non-censored scientific knowledge — believe about evolution and other scientific issues? The sample of 176 Orthodox Jewish students surveyed showed almost complete denial of evolution and other central tenets of modern science (such as the age of the universe); the survey also revealed that these students received their scientific beliefs not from their college science courses, but from rabbinical authorities, or from Orthodox Jewish scientists, who in turn propagate the anti-science views of rabbinical authorities. Perhaps the most surprising result of the survey was that the Orthodox Jewish students who were science majors were even less accepting of mainstream science than those who were not science majors.
Ultra-orthodox Jews have always forbidden members to get a secular education. Modern and Centrist Orthodox Jews are allowed a secular education only for reasons of parnasa, to make a living. In the last couple of decades two phenomena have interacted to shape Centrist Orthodoxy’s relationship with secular education. First the entire Orthodox spectrum has moved radically to the right. Modern Orthodoxy is in tremendous decline, the name itself becoming a term of disdain for those not “really religious,” i.e. “modern.” Centrist Orthodoxy is rapidly adapting Ultra-orthodox outlooks as the distinctions between them are fading. The entire community is being polarized over the issue of who is the most religious. The second development influencing the relationship between Orthodox groups is an increase in the need for college and advanced degrees in order to get a prestigious or high paying job. This has led to the creation of colleges and other educational institutions where courses are taught by Orthodox professors who shield the Bnei Torah (the sons or followers of Torah) in order for them to obtain degrees while avoiding forbidden practices and knowledge, such as sitting in the same room with members of the opposite sex, or taking courses in which sex or “heretical” philosophies are discussed. As we shall see, however, even those Orthodox Jewish students who attend public universities are insulated from evolution and other “heresies.”
There is little available information on what Orthodox Jews think about evolution and other issues related to science and religion, and what little is available is of limited accuracy. There are a number of reasons for this. Scientists tend to view the rejection of evolution as a fundamentalist Protestant phenomenon, and those interested in the issue have often talked to Conservative or Reform Rabbis who accept evolution. But the Conservative and Reform movements are not even considered Judaism by Orthodox Jews.1 (It should be noted that while the Reform and Conservative movements tend to accept evolution, “intelligent design” is making inroads here, and there is a strain in left-liberal Judaism that looks askance at evolution as incompatible with its Marxist sympathies.)
Orthodox children go only to Orthodox yeshivas for elementary through high school education, so the community tends not to pay attention to or raise issues about what is taught in public schools. Also, Orthodox rabbis and scientists tend to insist that Orthodox Judaism is not fundamentalist. In part this is done to get outsiders to assume that Orthodox Jews are theistic evolutionists along the lines of contemporary Catholics. But strictly speaking they are telling the truth when they insist Orthodox Judaism is not “Fundamentalist” because, indeed, Orthodox Judaism believes that the Bible must be interpreted. But this interpretation is not done in the light of modern science, nor are individuals permitted to have their own opinions. Orthodox Judaism believes that the interpretation of the “written” Bible is done by the application of the “oral” Bible, originally dictated by God to Moses on Sinai and then passed down orally until it was written down by Chazal, or the great sages (“Chazal” is an acronym, which stands for “Our Sages of blessed memory”). Their writings are considered authoritative, sacred, and infallible. As a Torah Internet site succinctly put it, “The words of our Sages are part of the Oral Law, which is Divine and beyond the realm of flaws in human behavior.”2
Students who sat at the kosher area of a New York City public college cafeteria were surveyed about their attitudes on evolution and other scientific issues (Figures 1–12). Only the answers of participants listing themselves as Orthodox Jews in the survey were retained in the results below. Participation in the survey was entirely voluntary and no compensation was given. Potential participants were informed of this both verbally and in writing. Participant anonymity was maintained, as no names were recorded. The survey was done through the psychology department with the permission of the college’s institutional review board. Participants were given contact information for the experimenter, myself, and the chair of the psychology department in case they had any questions or ethical concerns.
Although the subjects were all Orthodox Jewish college students, the orthodox continuum is partially defined by attitudes on how much college education is permissible. Those on the extreme right of the orthodoxy continuum hold that no college education is permissible, while those slightly more liberal hold that vocational courses are permissible, if taken under Orthodox auspices. Further, Orthodox Jewish males are required to study Talmud all their lives, and those of college age usually go to a Yeshiva Gedola for all day studies, so even if they were allowed to attend college it would be only part time at night. The participants for this study were recruited from those dining in the kosher cafeteria between 12–3 p.m. The survey thus only included females who were allowed to be exposed to secular influences, and males who were not in Yeshiva Gedola; that is, these were fulltime day students who were not only allowed to attend college, but were allowed to attend a secular public college. This makes the findings below even more dramatic.
Since all non-Orthodox Jewish participants were eliminated from the analysis, the sample size was 176 Orthodox Jewish students, with the following breakdown for highest degree attained: High School–121, Undergraduate–48, Graduate–6, with 51 either holding a science degree or majoring in a science area.
Figures 1 and 2 present the results of the main questions pertaining to evolution. As can be seen in Figure 1, the statement “Evolution correctly explains the origin of life” produced 14 true responses and 156 false responses, and as can be seen in Figure 2, only 11 respondents answered true to “Human beings evolved from apes,” while 163 answered false. These two results alone are dramatic and unsettling, but as will be seen below, they do not represent the end of the rejection of mainstream science on the part of the respondents.
Two other items involving evolution were the statement “Scientists know that evolution has been discredited but are deliberately lying,” for which 47 answered true and 118 answered false (Figure 3), and the statement “Statisticians have proved that the first cell could not arise by chance and evolution could not occur,” for which 84 answered true and 81 answered false.
Only 45 of 168 respondents answered that “The age of the universe is” about 15 billion years old, as opposed to about 7,000 years (Figure 4). Taken with the results of the evolution items, this means that about 94% of the respondents are creationists and 73% believe that the Universe is only a few thousand years old!
The bulk of the respondents also accepted the rest of the Genesis narrative. Figure 5 shows that 159 answered true to the statement “Current land animals descend from those on Noah’s ark,” while only 16 answered false. The respondents were about evenly split on the statement “Hebrew was spoken universally until 4,000 years ago” (Figure 6). Figure 7 contains the results to beliefs about dinosaurs and humans coexisting. The belief that dinosaurs never existed and fossils were created as a test of faith is promoted by the Orthodox establishment. It was still a minority position here (about 18%), but this is still a strong showing for a relatively new dogma to “unchanging” Orthodox Judaism.
Of particular interest was the item “Which is true? The Sun revolves around the Earth [or] the Earth revolves around the Sun (Figure 8). Only 22 of 173 answered that the Sun revolves around the Earth. Geocentrism is fast returning as a centrist Orthodox belief, so the paucity of geocentrists among these college students is a strong indication of their (relatively) modern Orthodox status. It is my guess that if this survey is repeated in a few years on a similar “modern” Orthodox sample the percentage of geocentrists will be much higher.
Effects of Science Education on Science Attitudes
Could the general disbelief in basic scientific facts about nature by participants be a result of lack of science education? Would those with a science degree or science major be more accepting of scientific findings? Participants were asked whether or not they had a science degree or were majoring in an area of science. Responses on the items were separately tabulated on the basis of whether the participant was a science major or not.
Figure 9 contains the responses for the statement “Human beings evolved from apes.” For non-science majors the results were 10 true and 111 false, while for science majors it was 1 true and 49 false. Thus while only 8% of non-science majors answered true, for science majors it dropped to 2% answering true.
Figure 10 contains the results for the statement “Evolution correctly explains the origin of life” according to the student’s status as a science major, or a non-science major. Again the story is the same. For non-science majors 13 answered true and 107 answered false, for science majors 1 answered true and 48 answered false.
Science majors were likewise less accepting of a 15 billion-year old universe: 42 of 50 (84%) said the universe was about 7,000 years old, while 80 of 116 (69%) of non-science majors said the universe was about 7,000 years old (Figure 11). Science majors were also slightly more likely to agree with the statement “Scientists know that evolution has been discredited but are deliberately lying,” with 16 of 48 science majors answering true (33%), and 31 of 115 non-science majors answering true (27%) (Figure 12).
Examine again the responses of science majors — only one in 50 accepted evolution. It seems that the science majors and degree holders — precisely because they were more likely to be exposed to evolution — were subject to additional community influences not to be “taken in” by the “heresy” they would hear, and were even less accepting of evolution. And individuals with a science background from that community have the added responsibility to use their knowledge and standing to promote religious doctrine in scientific matters. While conducting the survey I was told by one participant who was currently majoring in biology that she was advised to read books by Orthodox Jewish scientists, such as Aviezer, Schroeder and Spetner (see below).
In this community evolution is only brought up in order to disparage it, so if an Orthodox school ever allows evolution to be discussed, it is only to inoculate its students against what they may be exposed to outside of yeshiva. In fact, I have come across students from Orthodox schools that barely cover any secular subject matter who have been taught that there are no intermediate forms, that Archaeopteryx is a fraud like Piltdown man, and that paleontologist Stephen Jay Gould had to propose punctuated equilibrium because there was no evidence in the fossil record for evolution, and so on.3
The results of the survey may seem disconcerting, even for skeptics accustomed to creationists’ views of evolution. Even more startling is the fact that the sample was from the most modern group of Orthodox Jews — those that allow attendance at a secular college. However, it would be more surprising if they accepted mainstream science over dogma, considering the social norms of the entire spectrum of Orthodox Judaism, which are extremely stringent and far removed from the mainstream. A few examples of these beliefs are: that women are ritually unclean; that a man must not touch any woman (including shaking hands); that a man may touch even his own wife for only half of each month; and that the visible hair of a married woman is considered to be unacceptable nudity.4 Given the extremism of forcing of women to cover themselves from head to toe, and the total removal of women from the world of men (beginning at birth), the results of the survey are more understandable.
Why Orthodox Judaism Cannot Accept Evolution
By definition Jews who accept evolution are not Orthodox. Up until about 25 years ago there were fledgling attempts to reconfigure evolution to fit within a modern Orthodox framework, and there was some acceptance of the idea that a biblical year meant a vast time span. But with the extreme move to the right in the Orthodox community, and with ever more stringent observance constantly demanded, evolution is light years beyond the pale — 5,766 light years to be exact, which is the age of the universe according to Orthodox Judaism. Conformity to Orthodox views now demands fidelity on issues such as the dirt (or mud) mouse — the great sages wrote about the existence of a mouse that forms directly from the earth, created by God to show that he can and will raise the dead from the earth they are buried in (this is one of the 13 great principles that must be accepted with “total faith”). The great sages wrote that lice form directly from sweat. Current Orthodox Jewish scientists have found themselves under rabbinical bans for daring to rely on secular science instead of the great sages.
The problem of accommodating evolution within a yeshiva curriculum, or within Orthodox Judaism, is as follows: can it accept that 5,766 years is not the time that has passed since the creation of the Universe? Can Orthodoxy accept that Hebrew was not the first language, created even before the creation of man? Can Orthodoxy accept that Noah’s Ark was just a myth? Can Orthodoxy accept that the Bible itself evolved? The answer to all of these questions is “no.” In fact, doubting that the Torah was dictated by God word for word to Moses on Sinai is the ultimate in heresy, and not doubted by even the most modern Orthodox Jews.5
Conservative Judaism accepts the views listed above — exactly what the Orthodox consider heresy. Orthodoxy currently makes believing that creation occurred 5,766 years ago a litmus test of faith, and works to keep out “the Copernican heresy.” One can thus question whether the unfettered pursuit of science has any place in Orthodox Judaism or can exist in any academic institution under its auspices.
Evolution and Halacha
Every aspect, indeed every second, of an Orthodox Jew’s life is controlled by Halacha, or “the law.” There is even a Halacha as to the order in which shoes must be put on! And as stated by an article in the Yeshiva University newspaper, “Halacha legislates every aspect of a Jew’s life, and speech and thought are no exception.”6 As one person noted after breaking free of the Orthodox community and buying his first clothes based on personal preference instead of Halacha, “For the first time I felt I didn’t belong to the collective. That I didn’t belong to the rabbis. I’m a human being who dresses the way he wants to.”7
Rav Moshe Feinstein (1895-1986) was the world’s leading Halachic authority who ruled that the reading of an evolutionary textbook was absolutely forbidden and that belief in evolution is so great a heresy that even being exposed to it was forbidden.8 If the textbook was absolutely required for other purposes, Feinstein ruled that the specific pages containing references to evolution had to be torn out and thrown away. Indeed, many yeshivas do just that.
The Orthodox Union is responsible for determining kasruth, the quality of being kosher, or which food products are permissible for Orthodox Jews to eat. Orthodox Jews look for the OU seal on packaged food products. But kasruth means much more than just permissible food, it signifies the total range of what is permissible for Orthodox Jews — what is permissible to wear, how it is permissible to act, what it is permissible to think. And the OU has branded evolution as not kosher.
The Orthodox Union regularly publishes creationist materials, including the book Human Intelligence Gone Ape by Josh Greenberger, which by its own description “disproves the theory of evolution in more ways than one. It shows how evolution is genetically impossible.”9 The Orthodox Union also put out A Science and Torah Reader, which declared evolution incompatible with Orthodoxy and scientifically invalid.10
In the Summer 5760 issue of the OU official journal, Jewish Action, there was an article entitled “Genesis, Cosmology and Evolution” that contains all the standard creationist arguments, such as “Darwinism elicits a dogmatic view of evidence,” “Darwinists circumvent or disregard evidence and logic,” “irreducibly complex biochemical systems,” and “Genesis’ creation story is scientifically accurate.”11
Kefirah and the Orthodox Jewish Scientist
While Orthodox Jewish scientists garner community praise for using their secular scientific status to promote the scientific validity of Torah, and are obligated to do so, even that enterprise necessitates prudence. Orthodox Jewish scientists require and seek the imprimatur of the great living rabbis for their works. But with the ever-increasing shift to the right, what was acceptable yesterday may be Kefirah (or kfirah, rejection-heresy) today. To be declared a Kofer, or a heretic, means excommunication and social ruin.
Ironically, it was apologetics written by Orthodox Jewish scientists (which spoke about six time periods of creation as a means of sidestepping the issue of the age of the universe while also debunking evolution) that led to almost all the living Rabbonim (great Rabbis) to recently declare in that any Jew who believes the universe is older than 5,766 years is a Kofer. Some Orthodox scientists have even had to state that the universe was created to look older as a test of faith but is actually only 5,766 years old.
Rabbi Nosson Slifkin, formerly Talmud instructor at a leading Ultra-orthodox yeshiva, gained fame as the “Zoo Rabbi” for his interest in the wildlife mentioned in the Torah, and his writing of numerous nature books from the Orthodox perspective. However, last year a committee of 23 of the leading Rabbonim declared his works banned and put him in cherem (or herem), which means the total exclusion from the Orthodox Jewish community, and the highest possible ecclesiastical punishment. The ban read, in part, “He believes the world is millions of years old — all nonsense! — and many other things that should not be heard and certainly not believed.”12
The Intellectual Background
Orthodox Jewish scientists, even those with legitimate degrees from prestigious universities accept the inerrancy of Torah and Chazal, condemn evolution, and proclaim the superiority of the truths of Torah over secular science.13 The Association of Orthodox Jewish Scientists14 whose telling motto is “Science in the service of Torah,” published a book entitled Challenge: Torah Views on Science,15 which promotes creationism.
Rabbi Dr. Moses Tendler, former chair of the Yeshiva University biology department, in a 1987 article entitled “Evolution, A Theory that Failed to Evolve,” wrote “The [fossil] record … reveals that species remained unchanged … There are no transitional forms! … There is no theory of evolution to attack or defend in 1987 … To sum up: In 1987 there is not one piece of scientific evidence for macroevolution or the development of one species from another.”16
Gerald (Yaakov) Schroeder, former consultant for the U.S. Atomic Energy Commission, earned a Ph.D. in Nuclear Physics and Earth and Planetary Sciences from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology where he taught physics. In 2001 Dr. Schroeder wrote that the only proof for evolution that the Natural History Museum in London could come up with was “pink daisies evolving into blue daisies, little dogs evolving into big dogs … they could not come up with one single morphological change clearly recorded in the fossil record,” and that while “the math in this totally secular text clearly states that evolution via random mutations has a very weak chance of producing significant changes in morphology,” “the difficulty of displacing Darwinian evolution, even though the theory fails to describe reality … [is due only to] a world so steeped in the physicality of materialism.”17
Professor Nathan Aviezer, a Professor of Physics and a Research Professor of the Royal Society of London and the author of more than a hundred physics papers, penned a book in 2001 entitled Fossils and Faith in which he dismisses evolution and paleontology: “One stands in awe at the welter of confusion and mystery that abounds in evolutionary biology.” In the chapter entitled “Misreading the Fossils,” in which Aviezer endlessly harps on Piltdown Man as central to paleontology, he writes: “One naturally assumes that the fossil evidence and its interpretation, the science of paleontology, have been presented by serious scientists who are objective in their pursuit of knowledge and apply accepted standards of scientific rigor. In this chapter, we shall see that nothing would be further from the truth.”18 Nevertheless, Aviezer accepts the 900-year life spans of biblical figures as being literally true!
Dr. Lee Spetner is noted for his book Not by Chance! Shattering the Modern Theory of Evolution.19 Ever since Spetner proclaimed Archaeopteryx to be a deliberate fraud in front of a conference of Orthodox Jewish scientists in 1980,20 this notion has become a staple of Orthodox Jewish scientists’ attack on evolution.21
Herman (Yirmiyahu) Branover, head of the Center for Magneto-hydrodynamic Studies at Ben-Gurion University and editor of B’Or HaTorah, a journal at the forefront of the Orthodoxy’s return to geocentrism,22 writes “People make a big deal about evolution without knowing that evolution is dead. Nobody who is serious speaks about evolution. It is only those who have ideological motives or who make their living from evolution that stick to it.” And: “As the Rebbe Melech HaMosiach stresses … we can be modern and adhere to modern physics and Einstein’s theory and accept that the Earth is standing still in the center of the Universe.” And: “The Rebbe Melech HaMosiach’s words on these matters [allowed us] to accept without fear or apologetics the idea that the earth is standing still.”23 And: “nowadays, science itself recognizes the truth of Maimonides statement that the Earth is stationary.”24
Finally, a good summary of the mindset of Orthodox Jewish scientists is provided by physicist Dr. Naftali Berg, who wrote: “All scientific theories by definition are tentative. They are not absolute. Our job [as scientists] is to investigate those theories that are consistent with Torah.”25
This survey seems to indicate that the Orthodox Jewish participants — students of a secular public university — get their scientific information not from their professors but from their religious beliefs and from Orthodox Jewish scientists who in turn conform to the beliefs of their religious authorities.
Science has bettered the life of all, yet it and the worldview that produced it is in danger of extinction in certain parts of today’s world. Where ideology trumps science, no other rights exist either. Scientific ethics is an important issue. But scientific ethics must include fidelity to the findings of empirical science. Those who use legitimate scientific degrees to teach religious doctrine as science violate those ethics. Religious freedom is a right, but academic integrity is a responsibility, and academic respectability must be earned.
This paper was based in part on a poster presentation at the American Psychological Association’s 113th annual convention, August 20, 2005.
- According to the National Jewish Population Survey 2000/2001, about 10% of American Jews are Orthodox.
- www.jewishanswers.com/learning/women/responses3.html, last accessed July 28, 2005.
- Eidensohn, David. 2005. “Why Was Evolutionist Stephen Jay Gould a ‘Hero’ of an Orthodox Jew?” Archived on Concerned Women for America: www.cwfa.org/main.asp, last accessed July 28, 2005.
- A Yeshiva University Dean received publicity for equating the religious status of women with “parrots and monkeys.” “Rabbinically Incorrect,” Jewish Week, 7/30/2004.
- Schimmel, S. 1996. The Tenacity of Unreasonable Beliefs in Modern Orthodox Jews: A Psychological Analysis. Paper presented at the American Academy of Religion meeting, New Orleans, November 24, 1996.
- Robinson, Avi. 2002. “The Culture of Limitations.” The Commentator, Vol. 67, Issue 4, November 10.
- Rotem, Tamar. 2005. “Secular at Last.” Available at www.haaretzdaily.com, last accessed July 28, 2005.
- Feinstein, M. 1959. Iggerot Moshe, Yoreh Deah. Brooklyn, NY: Balshon Press. “Iggerot” means letters. This is a compilation of Halachic decisions Rabbi Feinstein made in response to queries.
- Greenberger, Josh. 1990. Human Intelligence Gone Ape. Orthodox Union National Conference of Synagogue Youth.
- Kornreich, Y. (Ed.) 1970. A Science and Torah Reader. Orthodox Union National Center for Synagogue Youth.
- Goldberg, H. 5760, 2000. “Genesis, Cosmology, and Evolution.” Jewish Action 60:4, Summer.
- Ginsberg, Johanna. 2005. “An Animal-Loving Rabbi Seeks to Reconcile Science and Torah.” New Jersey Jewish News. Archived at: www.njjewishnews.com, last accessed July 28, 2005.
- Nussbaum, A. 2002. “Creationism and Geocentrism Among Orthodox Jewish Scientists.” Reports of the National Center for Science Education, Jan–Apr 2002, 38–43.
- The Association of Orthodox Jewish Scientists is largest organization of its type with over 1500 members. Its website is www.aojs.org. Dr. Avi Rabinowitz, a Ph.D. in theoretical physics from New York University, who defended geocentrism in “Geocentrism” in B’Or‑Ha’Torah Volume 5E 1986 spoke at its convention in August 19–21, 2005. See Rabinowitz’s article, Egocentrism & Geocentrism; Human Significance & Existential Despair; Fundamentalism and Skepticalism
- Carmell, A. and C. Domb. (eds). 1976. Challenge: Torah Views on Science. New York: Association of Orthodox Jewish Scientists/ Feldheim Publishers.
- Tendler, M.D. 1987. “Evolution: A Theory that Failed to Evolve.” Ten Da’at, vol. 2,1, 3-6. Archived at: www.lookstein.org/articles/evolutionary_theory.htm, last accessed July 29, 2005.
- Schroeder, G. L. 2001. The Hidden Face of God. New York: Free Press, pp. 91, 120, 107.
- Aviezer, N. 2001. Fossils and Faith. Understanding Torah and Science. Hoboken, NJ: Ktav Publishing House, Inc., pp. 217, 179.
- Spetner, L. 1997. Not By Chance! Shattering The Modern Theory of Evolution. New York: The Judaica Press.
- See review of “Not by Chance,” by Gert Korthof, archived at: http://home.wxs.nl/~gkorthof/kortho36.htm, last accessed July 29, 2005.
- Trop, M. 1983. “Is the Archaeopteryx a Fake?,” Creation Research Society Quarterly, 20, 2, September, pp. 121–122.
- B’Or HaTorah, means “In the light of Torah,” Amiel Rossow’s cleverly titled review, B’Tsel HaTorah, “In the shade of the Torah.” Archived at: www.talkreason.org/index.cfm, last accessed July 29, 2005. One of the articles reviewed is Avi Rabinowitz’s And God Said, ‘Let there have been a Big Bang.’
- Interview with Professor Yirmiyahu Branover on science and the era of the Moshiach, at the 4th conference on Mosiach and Science. Archived at: www.ryal.org, last accessed Feb. 27, 2004. Melech HaHosiach, meaning “King Messiah,” is Menachem Schneerson, the Lubavitcher Rebbe.
- Banover, Y. 2002. “If Science has already done Teshuva [repentance].” Archived at: www.moshiach.net/archives/71ar1_71.htm, last accessed Jan 22, 2002.
- Silman, S. 2002. “Moshiah and Science,” The Voice of Moshiach, 5763 (11/08/02).
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