Orthodox Jews in S. Florida join debate on evolution vs. intelligent design
By James D. Davis
December 12, 2005
Evangelical Christians aren’t the only ones making evolution and intelligent design a cause cÃƒÂ©lÃƒÂ¨bre: Leading Orthodox Jews have the topic in their sights as well — some of them gathering for a three-day conference this week in South Florida.
At least two area Jewish groups have booked heavy hitters to discuss the issues this month. And, they say, Jews have a stake in the outcome.
Intelligent design holds that some structures of life — such as blood clotting or the flagella of some microbes — are so complex, they could not have developed without a purposeful designer.
“This is one of the cutting-edge issues of the culture wars,” said religion professor Nathan Katz of Florida International University, a co-organizer of the conference. “The basic question is: Is God there?”
Cutting-edge and far-reaching, if you count courts and schools. Broward’s teachers are considering two biology textbooks that give at least a nod to intelligent design. And a judge in Georgia ordered comments on the concept removed from books there.
Starting Tuesday at FIU’s North Miami campus, the International Conference on Torah & Science will muster 30 experts from the United States, Israel, Canada and South Africa. Their specialties are as varied as Kabbalah and solar research. They’ll cover topics as diverse as food production and religious law.
But the main focus will come Wednesday with a keynote address by William A. Dembski, a champion of intelligent design and the first evangelical Christian ever to address the conference. Dembski, of Southern Baptist Theological Seminary, will share the dais with three Jewish experts who will look at various facets of evolution.
Ask Rabbi Sholom Lipskar, one of the conference organizers, about the topic, and he sounds much like a conservative Christian.
“The moral and ethical morass today — hate among nations, juvenile delinquency, drug addiction, family breakdown — comes from people not believing there is a higher authority that owns and directs the world,” said Lipskar, of The Shul of Bal Harbour. “But when we look to purpose and meaning, a superior authority, things fall into place, socially and spiritually.”
Lipskar met head-on the suggestions by some that intelligent design is meant as a “back door” to putting religion in schools. “It’s not a back door, it’s a front door!” he said. “But the objective is not to make people religious. It’s to make them understand that the world was put into place by an intelligent being. We are not random chemical reactions.”
However, there’s room for shades of opinion at the conference. Biologist Eduardo Zeiger of UCLA believes that Jews don’t need to promote intelligent design. And although cancer researcher Lee Spetner of Israel wrote an anti-evolution book titled Not by Chance, he has said intelligent design shouldn’t be taught in public schools.
Orthodox Jewish involvement in the issue seems to be a trend whose time has come. On Dec. 1 in Hollywood, Aish HaTorah hosted Israeli-American scientist Gerald Schroeder, who compared intelligent design with Darwinism.
“This is a fundamental American issue for anyone who takes God and the Bible seriously,” said Rabbi Tzvi Nightingale, director of Aish South Florida. “And Jews have a significant, meaningful perspective.”
The idea of intelligent design overlaps that of the better-known creationism, which insists that God directly created life. Believers in intelligent design have more latitude; some believe in theistic evolution, saying God directed the development of life.
“Opponents say it’s creationism in nice clothes, but it’s not married to the Bible in any way,” said Katz, founder of FIU’s Center for the Study of Spirituality. “It’s just as compatible with Hinduism.”
Some experts are trying to work out middle positions that respect both science and scripture. Gerald Schroeder, the Aish speaker, reads Genesis symbolically, saying that human bodies evolved from prehuman hominids, but the human soul was created instantaneously.
“Intelligence is manifested in the world; it didn’t develop randomly,” he said in a recent interview. “But we don’t know how the metaphysical interacts with the physical — how the Creator works in creation.”
In talking up intelligent design, though, Orthodox Jews are on the other side of the aisle from their mainline brethren.
The American Jewish Committee filed a friend-of-court brief in a case involving Cobb County, Ga., which put stickers on science textbooks warning students that evolution is “a theory, not a fact.” A federal judge this year had the stickers removed, but Cobb has appealed.
“I think intelligent design is a theory of convenience, an attempt to open a second front in public schools,” said William Gralnick, director of AJC’s regional office in Boca Raton. “But I don’t think it has legs. It won’t catch on.”
Rabbi Anthony Fratello of Temple Shaarei Shalom in Boynton Beach agrees. “Everybody knows that this debate is about injecting religion into the study of science,” he said. “And I don’t believe they belong together. Science is about the hows of things. Philosophy and religion are about the whys.
“I believe firmly in God, and I believe that evolution is a fact. And I don’t find anything contradictory in that.”
However, Leon Weissberg, the top educator for the Jewish Federation of South Palm Beach County, favors a “free marketplace of ideas” in the classroom.
“If you include only one side, you clearly preclude the other,” said Weissberg, executive director for the Jewish Education Commission, who emphasized that he was speaking only for himself. “In a free marketplace, the ideas will balance out.”
Rather than fight it out in courts, Gerald Schroeder, the Aish speaker, said science classes should emphasize basic points of agreement — such as that the world was created, and that the Big Bang condensed energy into matter.
“Who cares about how a fish became a frog?” he said. “What about the way light beams became us? If you teach the wonder, everyone will see something beyond the physical world.”
James D. Davis can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or 954-356-4730.