While the compatibility of evolution and faith has never been a headlining issue in Jewish-American communities as it has in certain Christian-American communities, American Jews have nonetheless continually discussed the implications of Darwin’s legacy since the 1860s. This intersection, of Judaism and evolution, has begun to garner more scholarly attention over the past two decades (e.g. Swetlitz and Cantor 2006), alongside intensified investigations by historians of science into the dramatic changes regarding Christian engagement with evolution over the last century and a half (e.g. Numbers 2006). I decided to join this burgeoning field: in my own work, I traced American Jewish engagement with Darwinism from 1925 until the present, to see, among other things, if I could identify patterns regarding when upsurges of support for evolution appeared, and when expressions of antagonism came to the fore. What accounts for how people respond to evolution? And how has this, in American Jewish communities, changed over time?
In my research I focused in on one particular sub-group within American Judaism, often referred to as Modern Orthodoxy. This community offers an interesting and unique case study: its members believe that they are following the dictates of Jewish tradition faithfully and in an “orthodox” way, though they also engage fully in the “modern” world. They do not, for example, wear the garb of Hassidic groups; they do attend secular universities, and work in all sorts of professions. I wanted to explore how these various goals and pulls played out regarding their reception of evolution. Using 1925 as my starting point—the year the famous Scopes “monkey” trial took place in Tennessee—I began my project by telling the story of two prominent Modern Orthodox rabbis from New York City, Leo Jung and David de Sola Pool, each of whom wrote articles about evolution in the months that followed the trial, and did so with decidedly different perspectives. R. Jung seemed to question evolution at its core, while R. Pool warmly embraced evolution. Rabbis that had so much in common, and even served at pulpits just sixteen blocks apart from one another on Manhattan’s Upper West Side, somehow came out on different sides of the evolution debate.
This project had an element of family history to it: Modern Orthodox Judaism is the religious group in which I grew up and with which I am still very involved to this day. Moreover, the two congregations served by rabbis Jung and Pool are synagogues that I, living in Manhattan for the first twenty years of my life, have frequently attended. This personal element gave the historical question a more concrete sense: I knew how similar these places of worship were, and with some research I also found out how similar Rabbis Jung and Pool were. Both came from rabbinic families and had emigrated from England to the United States alone at young ages. Both received their rabbinical ordinations from the Hildesheimer Rabbinical Seminary in Berlin and received doctorates from secular universities. Both were leaders of Modern Orthodoxy for many decades of the 20th century; they worked together closely in groups such as the Orthodox Union and the Rabbinical Council of America. So what could have made the difference regarding Darwin?
Of course the answer has a number of levels to it. But I believe that two of the most important issues to understand are the difference between the views of the two men’s rabbinical predecessors regarding evolution, and how these views intersected with the lives of the rabbis’ respective communities.
R. Kaplan’s philosophy eventually provided the basis for Reconstructionist Judaism, and while this full-blown transformation would take decades, R. Kaplan began expressing his discomfort and disagreement with Modern Orthodoxy in the years preceding the Scopes trial.
Pool led the oldest Jewish congregation in the United States. In 1654, twenty-three Jewish refugees from Brazil established Shearith Israel, also known as the Spanish and Portuguese Synagogue, despite the protests of then Governor Peter Stuyvesant. Members of this congregation take pride in the service their forbearers provided the Jewish community as the only synagogue in New York City until 1825. R. Pool was called to lead the synagogue by his cousin Rabbi Henry Pereira Mendes in 1907. Historian of science Marc Swetlitz has shown that in the 1880s Rabbi Mendes belonged to a group of young traditionalists who were forerunners of Modern Orthodoxy. This group was comprised of men who were well-educated scientifically as well as religiously, and who came out in strong support of organic evolution, for instance, in the editorial pages of The American Hebrew. They actually used Darwinism in their polemics against the much more religiously liberal Reform movement, arguing that Reform Judaism, in its eagerness to reinvent the religion, violated Darwin’s principal of gradualism. R. Mendes and his colleagues suggested that the American traditionalist camp better reflected Darwinian understandings of gradual evolution applied to a tradition’s adaptation to contemporary environments. R. Pool, as well as many other young Modern Orthodox rabbis, followed suit seeing the embrace of evolution as in no way out of step with their religious sensibilities.
But while R. Pool was leading a congregation that boasted a long history of stable Modern Orthodox perspectives, Jung found himself in a radically different situation. Jung’s congregation, the Jewish Center, was established just seven years before the Scopes trial in 1918, and Jung became the synagogue’s second rabbi only four years later in 1922. The congregation and its founding rabbi, Mordecai Kaplan, had parted ways due to R. Kaplan’s expression of positions contrary to Modern Orthodox theology, such as his hesitations on the principle of divine revelation. As historians Jeffery Gurock and Jacob Schachter have shown in their book about Rabbi Kaplan, although he grew up within Modern Orthodoxy and played a key role in its leadership until the 1920s, R. Kaplan had in fact felt alienated from the theological positions of Modern Orthodoxy from the earliest years of his career. In his later autobiographical reminiscences, and even in his diary entries written before he took the helm of the Jewish Center, Kaplan explained that he viewed Judaism as a civilization, whose rites and rituals should continue because they have been practiced by generations of Jews, and not because they were divinely inspired. R. Kaplan’s biographer Mel Scult has argued that R. Kaplan emphasized “the import of biological and social evolution” in his view of religion, and that it was at Columbia in the early 1900s that R. Kaplan integrated the work of his advisor Franklin Giddings and philosopher Herbert Spencer into his own thought. R. Kaplan’s philosophy eventually provided the basis for Reconstructionist Judaism, and while this full-blown transformation would take decades, R. Kaplan began expressing his discomfort and disagreement with Modern Orthodoxy in the years preceding the Scopes trial.
As R. Kaplan was still affiliated with Modern Orthodoxy at the time, his radical theological notions stung other Modern Orthodox rabbis. Rabbi Bernard Drachman, a former professor of R. Kaplan’s at Jewish Theological Seminary and fellow Modern Orthodox pulpit rabbi at Manhattan’s Park East Synagogue, wrote a critique of R. Kaplan’s views in 1921, stating, “the cause of causes in producing a breakdown of religious sentiment and practice” is “the growth of a materialist and naturalistic concept of the universe.” He bemoaned not only R. Kaplan’s famous denial of “Divine Revelation,” but also R. Kaplan’s assault on God as “Creator.”
While these harsh critiques circulated, the Jewish Center recruited R. Jung, one of the rabbis who had fervently joined R. Kaplan’s critics, to replace him as the Center’s rabbi. According to R. Jung’s autobiography, when R. Kaplan left the Jewish Center in 1922 to start the Society for the Advancement of Judaism, half the Center’s congregation left with him, leaving the Center with a huge debt and mortgage. The rift split friendships and even families; R. Jung claimed that those who left with R. Kaplan depicted those who stayed as fanatical opponents of progress. For a number of years after the split, members of the two congregations continued to feel strong connections to one another, and even periodically considered merging the two synagogues. But as time passed, the gulf widened and the synagogues associated with different branches of Judaism.
Pool, in his rooted and stable Modern Orthodox community, was perpetuating a view that had already been put forward by his predecessor and mentor forty years earlier regarding the compatibility of Judaism with evolution.
As the shadow of R. Kaplan and his departure loomed large over the Jewish Center, we can see that Jung had none of the stability and peace that Pool experienced in his established and stable Manhattan congregation. To the contrary, Jung was at the eye of a storm, fighting for every congregant, and considered himself as a defender of a Modern Orthodoxy under fierce attack in the 1920s. While the defense against what he termed “Kaplanism” did not detract from Jung’s mission to display Orthodoxy’s sophistication and elegance, it may likely have made him more hesitant to embrace concepts that seemed radical in their adjustments to Jewish thought, especially those such as Darwinism, which Kaplan himself had placed at the center of his reconstruction of Judaism.
So the difference in perspective regarding evolution between Rabbis Jung and Pool that at first seemed so perplexing, now makes more sense with some of the context regarding the history of the two congregations at our disposal. Pool, in his rooted and stable Modern Orthodox community, was perpetuating a view that had already been put forward by his predecessor and mentor forty years earlier regarding the compatibility of Judaism with evolution. Jung, in the midst of a crisis brought on by his predecessor’s revolt against traditional Jewish theology, itself related to evolutionary concepts in the sociology of religion, expressed a rejectionist position towards evolution. In both of these cases the influence of context is crucial.
The small vignette described here, in addition to giving some historical information about Jewish receptions of evolution, also more generally reflects the recent “biographical turn” in science and religion studies. While in the past scholars used approaches that categorized positions on the interaction of science and religion into typological kinds—for instance harmony, conflict, dialogue or separation—these methods have more recently been criticized for not capturing the complexity that permeates almost all interactions between the multifaceted fields of science and religion. And if you are curious as to where the issue stands today in Modern Orthodoxy, the debate continues—but more on that in another piece…
Rachel S. A. Pear is currently a Postdoctoral Fellow at the University of Haifa, where she is researching the teaching of evolution in Israeli schools. For more on Rabbis Pool and Jung see her recently published article, “Differences Over Darwinism: American Orthodox Jewish Responses to Evolution in the 1920s” in Aleph: Historical Studies in Science and Judaism. Rachel can be reached at RachelSAPear@gmail.com.
Image from Flickr via Eric Gross