Toldot 5772 — Judaism and Evolution

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No, this is not a post about whether you can believe in both Judaism and evolution.  The answer to that one is obvious — of course, there are many Jews who believe in evolution.  The first Chief Rabbi of Palestine, Abraham Isaac Kook, said that evolution accords perfectly with the ideas of Kabbalah, that the world is progressing and evolving to higher and higher levels.

Rather, what this post will explore is the question of why would Judaism exist if you view it through a scientific, evolutionary lens?  Is there some evolutionary value to religion in general and Judaism in particular?  In other words is religion “adaptive” somehow?

This week’s Torah portion, Toldot, opens with a major life cycle event: a birth.  Actually, two births, a pair of twins.  The story begins with the birth of Jacob and his brother Esau.  A birth that came after years of praying, as the mother, Rebecca, was barren for years.

It turns out that a few of the rituals we have in Judaism that are connected to birth appear to have some evolutionary value.  

Last week I attended a conference on Judaism and Evolution that was organized by my friend Rabbi Paul Shrell-Fox at Machon Schechter in Jerusalem (I’m proud to serve on the board of the Schechter Rabbinical School there…).   Professor Melvin Konner put forth the interesting proposition that niddah and brit milah have adaptive value and that could be a reason those rituals endure.  You can read an article in YNET that goes into more detail on the topic here.

The basic argument is that niddah (the rituals of “family purity”), which regulate when couples have sexual relations, work in a fashion that in general will see the couple having relations when the woman is at peak fertility. This can, of course, be a problem for women who have “non-standard” cycles — rabbis have had to make halachic rulings about the permissibility of straying from the standard cycle if needed for fertility reasons.  And brit milah, circumcision, has many health benefits; the American Academy of Pediatrics seems to favor routine circumcision for health reasons, although they stopped short of a strong recommendation.

OK, so there are a few rituals that can clearly seem to be “adaptive,” that have value from an evolutionary perspective.  But what about other rituals?  Keeping the Sabbath?  A kosher diet? One can try to argue in favor of health benefits for those two, but they are very debatable.  Then we have other commandments that clearly seem to have no explicit value, such as shaatnez.  It’s hard to see the direct evolutionary value in avoiding wearing wool and linen together.

Ah…but there is a way they are adaptive.  All of those religious rituals, including the ones that are pretty obscure, serve to foster group cohesion.  If you follow those rituals, you are bound more closely to others who follow them as well.  And, interestingly, the more difficult the rituals, the stronger the bond.  It’s like joining an elite club.  

And being part of an elite club has definite survival value.  The members take care of each other.  They help each other find work, they provide support for each other in difficult financial or emotional times.  Being part of a strong group like that also makes a male a more desirable mate — he has access to the resources of a larger group.  So we can explain that even obscure commandments can be adaptive in some sense.

But what do we do with that knowledge?  There are those who might say it takes the “magic” out of religion to think that it’s simply scientifically shown that such behavior is adaptive in an evolutionary sense.  Seems to take God out of the picture.

I, on the other hand, would say that seeing that Judaism and all of our quaint rituals are adaptive simply proves that Rambam (Maimonides, the great 12th century rabbi) was right.

Rambam said that you should obey the commandments because they are good for you.  God is like a loving parent, giving you instructions.  You might not understand why, but He loves you and would only tell you to do things that are good for you. 

So science says Rambam was right: doing the commandments has evolutionary value.  It really is good for you!

Shabbat shalom…and as I’m posting this on American Thanksgiving, remember to be thankful for the many blessings in your life…

Reb Barry

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