Rabbi Avi Shafran on Intelligent Design


Hot off the presses (of this month’s Jewish Observer) is Rabbi Avi Shafran’s take on the Intelligent Design controversy. Some of his arguments you may have seen here before, but much else is new. Since the JO has no web site, this is a true Cross-Currents exclusive.

For the record, I’ve only skimmed it thus far, and don’t always agree with him — but I thought his consideration of the topic was worth republishing for a broader audience.


The “Intelligent Design” Controversy And Why It Matters

Rabbi Avi Shafran

It might not seem at first thought that the raging debate over whether American public schools should teach “intelligent design” could have anything to do with a seeming contradiction in the Rambam’s writings. But second thoughts are often worthwhile.

In the Mishneh Torah, the Rambam’s encyclopedic compendium of halacha, the mitzvah of ahavas Hashem [loving G-d] is described as follows:

And what is the way toward love of Hashem and fear of Him? When a person contemplates [Hashem’s] great and wondrous acts and creations, and perceives in them His indescribable and infinite wisdom, immediately he loves and praises and extols and experiences a great desire to know Hashem Who is great…

Yet, in the Sefer Hamitzvos, the Rambam’s enumeration of all of the Torah’s commandments, the way to fulfill the imperative to love Hashem is rendered as follows:

…we should think about and contemplate His mitzvos and statements and actions, until we attain [an understanding of] Him, and experience an ultimate pleasure in that attainment…

Is “the way toward love of Hashem” to contemplate His universe, or His Torah?

Unintelligent Reaction

“Intelligent design” is the contention, actively promoted of late by some, that there are features of the universe and the biosphere that evidence a directed cause rather than the undirected randomness that is the foundational credo of evolution theory. When some public schools attempted to include “intelligent design” in their biology curricula, the scientific establishment reacted in a way that was remarkable, and remarkably telling.

A veritable genus of scientists and academics not only vociferously defended the evolution-exclusive academic status quo, but exhibited (and continues to exhibit) a striking amount of anger, cynicism and derision, hardly what one would expect from men of science — or, for that matter, from anyone truly secure in his convictions.

An article this past fall in The Washington Post accurately described “so many scientists and others” as “practically apoplectic” over one school board’s efforts to add intelligent design to its biology curriculum. And a University of Kansas professor wrote that a course describing intelligent design as “mythology” would be a “nice slap in [religious conservatives’] big, fat face.” (He later apologized.)

Stranger still, the outraged avatars of “evolution only” education have revealed themselves to be entirely at odds with the very essence of the scientific method, the spirit of free inquiry: they are opposing the presentation of an alternate point of view.

What all the umbrage and inconsistency might signify, though, is frustration, over something that some small, stubborn part of the protestors’ minds may realize. For, although the grumblers say they want religion out of the classroom, precisely the opposite is true. They want the classroom to promote, alone and unchallenged, their own faith: the religion of Randomness.

Spoiled Soup

Like many 50-somethings, I remember being informed in grade school of the imminent solution to the mystery of life on earth.

Triumphantly, teachers described an experiment conducted by two researchers, Stanley Miller and Harold Urey, in which molecules believed to represent components of the early Earth’s atmosphere were induced by electricity to form some of the amino acids that are themselves components of proteins necessary for life.

Soon enough, we were told, scientists would coax further artificial formation of primordial materials, proteins themselves, no doubt, and even, eventually, actual life – some single-celled organism like the one from which we ourselves (our teachers dutifully explained) were surely descended.

A half-century later, however, we are left with nothing – not even a pitiful protein – beyond Miller-Urey’s original results. And even that experiment is now discredited by scientists as having gotten the original atmospheric soup all wrong.

As the colloquialism goes: Whatever.

HaKodosh Boruch Hu has permitted science to uncover many secrets of nature. But the Miller-Urey memory is an important reminder of how every generation’s scientific establishment is convinced it has a handle as well on the Big Questions. And of how scholars once worshipped are now viewed as having possessed more hubris than wisdom. It is a thought well worth thinking these days.

Survival of the Fittest, Arrival of the First

No one denies that species, over time, tend to retain traits that serve them well, and to lose others that don’t. Bacteria, for instance, whose DNA provides them resistance to certain antibiotics will emerge from a succession of generations in larger numbers than their less endowed comrades and, eventually, may edge them out of existence entirely. In nature, as in history (with one noteworthy exception), it is the physically strong who survive.

But that sort of natural occurrence, the disappearance over time of genetic characteristics or lines that cannot compete, is one thing. The appearance of a new species from an existing one, or even the appearance of an entirely new trait within a species – things contemporary science insists have happened literally millions of times – have never been witnessed. There isn’t necessarily anything in the Torah that precludes them from happening, or being made to happen artificially through genetic manipulation. But the solemn conviction that such things have not only occurred but countless times, and by chance, remains a large leap of, well, faith. Which is why “evolution” is rightly called a theory (and might better still be called a religion).

Scientists, to be sure, protest that billions of years are necessary for chance mutations of DNA, the assumed engine of Neo-Darwinism, to work their accidental magic. A lovely scenario, to be sure, but one whose hallowing of chance rejects the concept of a Creator, the central credo of Judaism.

It also ignores the question of how the first living organism might have emerged from inert matter. Spontaneous generation is generally ridiculed by science, yet precisely such an inexplicable happening is presumed by the priests of Randomness to have occurred – by utter chance – to jump-start the process of evolution.

And with all due respect to Drs. Urey and Miller, while much manipulation of living things has been wrought in the lab, the presumed creation of a living thing from a nonliving one has never been reproduced.

And speaking of reproduction, the first creature’s ability to bring forth a next generation (and beyond), would have had to have been among the first living thing’s talents. Without that ability, the organism would have amounted to nothing more than an astonishing but decidedly one-time occurrence – a hopeless dead-end. No DNA, after all, no future. And so, a package of complex genetic material, too, would have had to have been part of the unbelievably lucky alpha-amoeba.

Yet, precisely such a scenario, a miracle born of sheer randomness, is what the scientific establishment today affirms as a matter of deep conviction. And to doubt it is to be branded a heretic by the reigning Church of Chance.

Clear Lens, Clear View

To understand the current societal debate, it helps to realize that there are really only two possible perspectives regarding the universe: that In The Beginning there was either chance, or there was purpose. Neither of those diametric positions is truly evidence-based; both precede any weighing of observations. But embracing evolutionary theory’s essence requires no less a leap of faith (and, arguably, more of one) than affirming nature by Divine design.

Our belief as Jews, of course, is founded on the latter contention, and, as a result, on the conviction that there is a purpose to the world we inhabit, and to the lives we live within it.

Science deals only with what can be seen or touched or measured. But truth encompasses considerably more. And what ultimately counts is truth.

Which brings us to the seeming contradiction in the Rambam. The two apparently different approaches to the mitzvah of ahavas Hashem may not be two approaches at all. As Rav Mordechai Gifter, zt”l, explained it, one might be describing the view; the other, the lens. [FOOTNOTE #1]

Before one can perceive HaKodosh Baruch Hu’s grandeur in the astounding magnificence of His creation – which path leads to love of its Source – one must first approach the universe as something other than a random accident, as something containing meaning. And the way to attain that foundational, vital recognition is to meditate… on mitzvos.

Why? Perhaps the answer is because doing so raises the issue of right and wrong, forcing a person to confront a choice: whether to view the very notion of good and evil as an illusion, an adaptive evolutionary strategy that has presumably provided human beings with some cold biological advantage – or whether to accept that our innate conviction that some human actions are right and others wrong reflects a deeper reality. The game is zero-sum. Either there is no meaningful mandate for human beings; or there is. And if there is, there must be a Mandator.

And those who conclude that the human species, unlike mushrooms or manatees, has the power to choose to do good or bad, terms that can have meaning only if there is purpose in creation, must reject Randomness as a false god.

Thus prepared, they can peer through the clear lens of that understanding at the intricate, wondrous world around us, and embark on the path to ahavas Hashem.

Hows and Whys

An unfortunate side-effect of our affirmation of purpose in creation at a time of controversy is the assumption made by some that we believing Jews share some other groups’ broader skepticism of science. But while Torah-faithful Jews reject the blind worship of science, we do not regard science as an enemy. Quite the contrary, not only do we seek to learn what we might from Hashem’s creation, but – as we have seen – the Rambam deems meditation on nature to be no less than “the way” (note the definite article) to attainment of ahavas Hashem.

Nor is “Biblical literalism” a Jewish approach. Many are the p’sukim [verses] that do not mean what a simple reading would yield; the Torah Shebe’al Peh [Oral Torah], we know, is the key to the true meaning of the Torah’s words. What is more, there are multiple levels of deeper meanings inaccessible to most of us. The words of Breishis and the Midrashim thereon hide infinitely more than they reveal. It is clear that the Torah describes the creation of the universe as the willful act of HaKodosh Boruch Hu, and describes creation as having unfolded in stages. But details are hardly provided.

Those facts have led some to conclude that contemporary science’s position on the origin of species need not be rejected. Hashem, after all, does not make Himself obviously apparent in His cosmos; He could certainly have set in motion a universe sufficient to the task of producing life in all its variety, entirely through G-d-seeded laws of nature, including the law of probability.

The “how” of the appearance of species, after all, is not clearly articulated in the Torah; and the time differential between what the Torah relates and what appears the case from astonomy and geology has been addressed in a number of ways. (See, for instance, Rav Shimon Schwab in his essay “How Old Is The Universe?” (Challenge: Torah Views on Science and its Problems, Feldheim 1976) and, lihavdil bein chaim li’chaim and bein godol likoton, my own treatment of the topic in “Great Expectations” (The Jewish Observer, September 2003) [FOOTNOTE #2]

So – those would-be resolvers contend – the idea of evolution of one species from another one might in fact be shoehorned into the text of the Torah. [FOOTNOTE #3]

But the emergence of a new life-form from an old one has never been seen or made to happen. And so, even if it brings us ridicule from those who assume our position less thoughtful than it is, we Torah-faithful Jews have no reason to assume that what the Torah seems to say about the creation of species is anything other than true in a literal, or near-literal, sense. And since the idea of evolution has, willy-nilly, been inextricably wed to the notion of a Creator-less universe, we do well to be very cautious with speculation.

Who Cares?

Some of us may see little practical reason for any concern on our part about the current “intelligent design” controversy. That is understandable. After all, we don’t, so to speak, have a monkey in this race. We know what we believe, and we educate our children accordingly.

But let us not forget how many precious Jewish souls, sadly. are entrusted to the American public school system. These are our relatives, parts of Klal Yisroel; we may not abandon them to purveyors of the notion that chance rules the universe.

And in truth, here, even the education of non-Jewish American youth must concern us.

Because declaring the notion of a Creator off-limits in public schools not only squanders an opportunity to expose American young people to the idea of G-d, it subtly but effectively indoctrinates them into the religion of Randomness. And that is no minor matter.

For if a child comes to accept the idea that humanity’s roots lie in pure chance, there can be no more meaning to good and bad actions than to good or bad weather; no more import to right and wrong than to right and left. We humans remain, to him, nothing but evolved animals, our peacemakers and warmongers alike. To be sure, rationales might be conceived for establishing societal norms, but social contracts are practical tools, not moral imperatives; they are, in the end, artificial. Only an acknowledgement of the Creator can impart true meaning to human life, placing it on a plane above that of mosquitoes.

In the religion of Randomness, the only law is that of the jungle. It is a faith in which there can be no claim that a thieving, cheating, serial murdering cannibal is any less commendable a member of the species than a selfless, generous, hard-working scholar. In fact, the former may well have an evolutionary advantage.

Put simply, there is simply no philosophically sound way of holding simultaneously in one’s head both the conviction that we are mere evolved animals and the conviction that we are something qualitatively different. And no way to avoid the fact that when schoolchildren are taught biology, if they are taught to embrace the one, they are being taught to shun the other.

American schools and courts might well choose to continue to define science in the most narrow terms, and to interpret the U.S. Constitution as banning from the public school science classroom the philosophical idea of a directed creation of life. But we fool ourselves if we imagine that inducting young people into the Church of Chance is any less a conditioning of young people than presenting them the opportunity to contemplate the Creator.

And we are fooled even further if we miss the dire societal danger posed by the entrenchment of the former faith.


1) Rav Mordechai Pogramansky, zt”l, invoked a poignant parable: A refined, wealthy visitor to a city is shown a series of beautiful works of art in a museum but reacts to each with disdain, claiming to see only messy canvases. Finally, a member of his entourage hits upon the idea of cleaning the fellow’s eyeglasses.

2) In fact, it could well be argued that the question is entirely moot in light [no pun intended] of the fact that science itself, since Einstein, has banished time from the throne of objective existence to the roiling sea of relativity.

3) The Rambam does write (Moreh Nevuchim, 2: 25) that even some seemingly fundamental philosophical convictions need not be considered inherently sacrosanct to Jewish belief. Should incontrovertible physical evidence to the contrary be discovered, he explains, then p’sukim seeming to indicate otherwise would simply have to be understood figuratively, like p’sukim that refer to Hashem, chalilah, as having physical form.

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9 years 9 months ago

I find it a little bit unbelievable that Rabbi’s posting on this website feel perfectly comfortable challenging Ph.D. scientists posting here. We always demand that there be some respect shown to our Rabbinical leaders who we assume know what they are talking about when they talk about Torah, but there doesn’t seem to be the same deference given to the scientists who post here.

Seth Gordon
9 years 9 months ago

Seth, you are expressing a grave lack of familiarity with the theory of Intelligent Design—not as promoted by Dover creationists, but the real thing.

The Dover trial had extensive expert testimony from Michael Behe, one of the two names that I have seen most associated with “Intelligent Design” in the news. If that’s not “the real thing”, then the ID theorists who do represent “the real thing” need a bigger PR budget.

Sir Francis Crick, the discoverer of DNA, proposed a theory of Intelligent Design with no reference to religion. Do you also think he was proposing a “religious doctrine thinly disguised as a scientific theory?”

Googling “crick intelligent design” gives me references to “directed panspermia”, a theory propounded by Crick that the first microbes arrived on Earth from space and everything else evolved from there. It also gives me this quote from a 1994 book by Crick: “The age of the earth is now established beyond any reasonable doubt as very great, yet in the United States millions of Fundamentalists still stoutly defend the naive view that it is relatively short, an opinion deduced from reading the Christian Bible too literally. They also usually deny that animals and plants have evolved and changed radically over such long periods, although this is equally well established. This gives one little confidence that what they have to say about the process of natural selection is likely to be unbiased, since their views are predetermined by a slavish adherence to religious dogmas.”

Seth Gordon
9 years 9 months ago

The only people Rabbi Shafran accused of having a religion of randomness are those who responded to ID with cynicism and derision rather than rational arguments. The cynicism was, says Rabbi Shafran, motivated by the typical defensiveness of a fundamentalist whose faith is challenged.

Suppose a Reform rabbi gave a speech in which he argued that same-sex marriage is just as valid in Jewish religious law as a marriage between a man and a woman, and bolstered his argument with copious quotes from the Talmud and medieval rabbis. Some Orthodox rabbis–perhaps Rabbi Menken would be one of them–would respond by taking the time to look up every citation, demonstrate how it was being misinterpreted, and lay out rational arguments for the contrary view. Others would simply roll their eyes and respond with, well, cynicism and derision.

So, too, with Intelligent Design. As others have pointed out on this forum–and as a Republican-appointed judge decided after a long trial with copious expert testimony from both sides–Intelligent Design is not a scientific theory, but a religious doctrine thinly disguised as a scientific theory. If you have questions about the scientific justification for evolution, see the Talk.Origins archive that I linked to above. If you believe that Jews should, as a matter of faith, believe that God did not work through the mechanisms of evolution to create life on earth, that’s your philosophy and I am not qualified to argue against it.

But to push forth a parody of science as “science”, and then claim that scientists who sneer at the misrepresentation have “the typical defensiveness of a fundamentalist whose faith is challenged”–it’s like the joke about the boy who kills his parents and asks the court for mercy because he’s an orphan. Or, as Carl Sagan put it: “They laughed at Galileo. They laughed at Einstein. But they also laughed at Bozo the Clown.”