While fundamentalist Christians were gearing up for the new theological battleground of evolution in the late 19th century, Reform Jews were also engaging intensively with the subject, but in a completely different way. Not only were they interested in gaining deep knowledge of the science, they also saw the topic as a gateway into unusual topics, such as immortality and panentheism.
Daniel R. Langton, PhD is Professor of the History of Jewish-Christian Relations in the department of Religions & Theology at the University of Manchester, England. He and Rabbi Mitelman met at Clal’s LEAP Program, run in partnership with the Herbert D. Katz Center for Advanced Judaic Studies at the University of Pennsylvania. Daniel holds a PhD in History from the University of Southampton at the Parkes Institute for Jewish/Non-Jewish Relations.
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Welcome, everyone. My name is Rabbi Geoff Mitelman. I’m the founding director of Sinai and Synapses, and I’m thrilled to be sitting here with Daniel Langton, who is currently in the UK. I had the opportunity to learn with him through a project called LEAP, Leveraging Academics and Professionals, through Clal and the Katz Center at the University of Pennsylvania. And Daniel’s been doing some really interesting work that really struck me – as somebody, for me, who is a Reform rabbi, a proud product of the Reform movement, somebody who’s passionate about Judaism and science – Daniel has been doing some really interesting work about the way that Darwinian thinking influenced Reform Judaism. And it totally made sense, but I don’t know anything about it, so I would love to hear a little bit about the work that you’re doing, and what you’ve seen as the way Darwin’s thinking has influenced the largest Jewish movement right now.
Daniel Langton: Right, right. So it’s not an unusual idea to think that Reform Jews are thinking in evolutionary terms. What I think is different is that it is Darwin that they’re engaging with. It shouldn’t be a surprise. We know that Reform Jews in the late 19th century are thinking about how to engage with the best thought that’s around, and with scientific thought, and it should be that [way]. But if you look at studies of, you know, histories of Reform Judaism, very often the focus on very different, you know, power struggles, or the rise of biblical criticism
Geoff Mitelman: Or liturgy, the liturgy changes –
Daniel Langton: Exactly, exactly, whereas, there are a number of thinkers, key thinkers as people like Isaac Mayer Wise, Kaufmann Kohler, Emil Hirsch, Joseph Krauskopf, these are people writing between 1870’s and 1920’s, and they are writing big pieces on evolutionary theory. You know, Isaac Mayer Wise is doing a book which is based on a series of public lectures, and it’s called “The Cosmic God,” and it is hugely engaged with the science of evolution. And Joseph Krauskopf, in 1887, is going to write a book on Evolution and Judaism. They’re not tinkering with it, it’s not some kind of analogy or metaphor, it’s – they’re engaged with the science. And they’re trying to figure out the science.
Geoff Mitelman: And is it– Reform Judaism, as its almost definition, is evolving. It is Reform Judaism. One of my pet peeves is when people call it “reformed Judaism.” It’s always evolving, it’s always changing. Is that influence, is that name, Reform Judaism influenced by the idea that Darwin proposed, that things change and evolve and grow?
Daniel Langton: Right, but I mean, don’t forget that the idea that things evolve or things develop over time – you didn’t have to wait for Darwin for this. There were people thinking about religion developing over time well before. It’s a particularly American phenomenon. It’s not something that’s very important. Abraham Geiger, in Germany, didn’t like evolutionary theory, biological evolutionary theory, he was suspicious of it. Whereas you got a real embracing off it’s, a real engaging with it, people writing substantial pieces about it.
So – and then I think the way to think about it is – there is an interest in evolution in a variety of different spheres. You can think about it – in American Reform Judaism, you can think about it as a kind of conceptual framework that makes sense of a variety of different things. There is – they themselves are saying it’s important. So Kaufmann Kohler will say something like “The problem of how to reconcile evolutionist and creationist views, perspectives,” is, as he puts it, “probably the most significant problem facing modern theology.” Why is he saying that? You know, you’ve got to take that seriously.
Or if you’re thinking of things like – it’s not just the biology that they’re engaged with, they’re linking that to Biblical criticism, which is a kind of – it’s looking at the texts and seeing how ideas evolved over time, very often. The religions themselves seem to evolve and develop over time, and this kind of progress in morality. So all of these are kind of ways of thinking about development and progress that are there in the background. And then some scholars have said – and then they mention evolutionary theory.
But I just think, when you look at the substantive engagement they have with the theories themselves – what’s right about Darwin, what’s wrong about Darwin – I don’t think you can say it’s just a useful way of reinforcing views that they already had about progress more generally.
Geoff Mitelman: How did the early Reform Jewish community think about evolution in comparison or contrast with the other religious communities, because there was all this conversation about “what is this going to mean for us theologically”? Were they more comfortable with Darwin than other religious organizations, or were they less comfortable? Were they in a political/cultural sphere that we need to explore?
Daniel Langton: Yeah, so there are lots of other things going on, of course. You know, you’ve got the rise of Zionism, you’ve got questions of assimilation. If you look at something like the Jewish Chronicle, which is an English-speaking Jewish weekly newspaper from the 1840’s onwards, you can trace the kind of things people are getting interested and upset about in Britain (this is a British [paper]). And it’s a good way of establishing more generally popular views. And evolution is portrayed there by Orthodox and Reform alike as rational, right, it’s an example of the kind of science that’s going on around. And they’re looking around and saying “compared to the Christians, who appear to have some problems with this, we don’t have a problem with this.” You know, “this is an example of where we’re not committed to literal readings of the Bible.”
Now, plenty of Christians are not offering literal readings of the Bible. But the few that are are getting picked up as, you know, one could compare oneself with it, and say “we come out looking, as ever, we’re the more rational.” And that’s true of Orthodoxy as well. In the early stages, Orthodox Jewish writers are also saying “there’s no problem here.”
Geoff Mitelman: So were there challenges that Darwinian thought brought to Reform Judaism or was it much more easily integrated in? And if so, what were some of the bumping-up points?
Daniel Langton: You’re right, so there were problems. It’s not dissimilar to what goes on in the Christian engagement with evolutionary theory. So you have – certain aspects of Darwinism are problematic. So evolution is not a problem – that seems to fit the paradigm of the way Reform thinks about itself anyway – but if you think it’s chance-driven, if you think there’s an awful lot of wastage, that most organisms are not going to reach maturity, through disease or predation – if you think that, so – chance driven, the kind of wastage, the apparent cruelty, the competition that would that seem to characterize Darwinian theory, that’s problematic. So someone like Isaac Mayer Wise will say, “Evolution is all about homo brutalism.” Yes, it’s an unpleasant way of looking at the world. But he didn’t have any problems offering his own theistic form of evolution.
Some of the others are going to be much more attending to those aspects of Darwinism. But you know, it’s tough for a theistic evolutionist. It’s tough for someone that wants to reconcile themselves with evolution. If they think nature – if they have a kind of natural-theology approach to life, they’re going to look at this and say “we can look at nature, and we can see how harmonious and ordered and beautiful the the world is.” Darwin comes along and messes that up. And therefore there are some problems. So very often, they will talk in terms of “Darwinism,” when really they mean “evolution.” But nevertheless, Darwin himself is always regarded very highly by them. No one attacks him as a thinker.
Geoff Mitelman: Well they – I think, I wonder, if that’s in large part – and I think if I’m remembering correctly, in the Pittsburgh Platform, they talk about the embrace of science, and Jews even now today – “let’s start with the science.” The science is telling us what the world is going to be. We’ve got to reform, we’ve got to change based on what the science says. We can’t be saying “Well, clearly the Bible is literally true, and so let’s figure out how we can match that.” It’s “look, if this is what the evidence is saying, we’ve got to be able to respond to that.” And I wonder, did that help influence some of the writings of the Pittsburgh and the Columbus Platforms in the late 1800’s, early 1900s?
Daniel Langton: Right. I mean some scholars would say it’s the other way round – that you get a spike of interest in the 1870’s, and again around 1885 onwards, 1870’s because in 1871 you have the Descent of Man by Darwin, and so there’s a spike of interest there, in theory. And also there’s, you know, the 1885 Pittsburgh Platform. You’re right, it says “we hold that the modern discoveries of scientific researches in the domain of nature and history, are not antagonistic to the doctrines of Judaism, the Bible reflecting the primitive ideas of its own age.” And that kind of set it up nicely, and might well have spiked an interest at that time. But I can tell you that these thinkers are writing too much, too much about evolution for it just to be a particular – a slight interest, a marginal, tangential interest.
Geoff Mitelman: And how much of this is because – there’s always a tension between the rabbis and the congregants. So how much of this engagement, this evolution, is because they’re big thinkers and they want to grapple with this, and how much of it is because the communities are really concerned about these kinds of questions, and they need their rabbi to talk about it?
Daniel Langton: Yes, well I think in the sense that you want your rabbi, your Reform rabbi, to be articulate, you want him to be educated, you want to be part of the wider world, and I think that’s acceptable, and they like this. So I think the Isaac Mayer Wise lecture series [was] – according to him, very well attended, and I had no reason to believe – no reason not to think so. There’s an interest in – Darwinism and evolutionary theory in general, generally, is really important in the late 19th century. I mean, people are saying “this is the paradigm,” in the way that we now think about computing, or other paradigms one might point to. And so I think there is – there’s a wide and there’s a broader interest in it, no problem at all. It’s a kind of thing that will appear in something like the weekly Jewish Chronicle.
But there’s no doubt that the American Reform rabbis I’ve looked at are reading each other. And you find this in a variety of areas. You suddenly get a spike in people thinking, writing and giving sermons about the Apostle Paul. It doesn’t seem to have come from anywhere, other than – one of them starts, the other ones read it and write their own response. And you get a little network that generates this kind of interest. And so there’s a bit of that, there’s no doubt about it. But I think it’s a topic that does capture the imagination, and has a wider popular appeal.
Geoff Mitelman: Were there any sermons or writings that really surprised you, or – either because they were so forward thinking, or because they were so regressive – like, “really, this is what a Reform rabbi was thinking!?” Are there any texts that really –
Daniel Langton: There were – there were a number of sermons and writings that I was surprised at. One of the things I was surprised at is how important immortality is in these writings about evolutionary thinking. It’s not what you’d predict. A set of sermons or a chapter or a pamphlet on evolutional Darwinism, you’re thinking they’re going to be talking about ideas like cruelty, competition, chance, providence, these kind of ideas. And again and again, the idea of immortality comes up.
And there’s a couple of people who will push it in strange directions. So Joseph Krauskopf effectively says that we can think of – that we can see, we can understand, a life beyond the grave, in evolutionary terms. And so, almost in the same breath that he’s talking about Darwinism, we can say the next stage, the transformation, is a spiritual one, is one where we move on to a different plane. It’s not something that works, or doesn’t seem to be terribly coherent to me, but it was possible to do that.
Another area where I was very surprised, a theme that seemed to come up again and again, was panentheism. So pantheism, as your listeners will be familiar with an a religion and science context, is a kind of equivalence of nature and God. And panentheism is the – it’s almost the same, that you have got – nature is contained within the divinity, the divine. And this is a very, very important theme in these Reform Jewish thinkers’ writings.
And I’ll give an example. Krauskopf will write, for example. “According to our definitions, God is the finitely conceivable ultimate, the cause of all and the cause in all the universal life the all pervading all controlling all directing power supreme, the creator of the universe and the governor of the same. According to a eternal in a beautiful laws by him created, all existence is part of his existence, all life is part of his life, all intelligence is part of his intelligence, all evolution, all progress, is part of his plan.”
And others – Emil Hirsch – will say something like “in notes clearer than were ever entoned by human tongue does the philosophy of evolution confirm the essential verity of Judaism’s insistent protest and proclamation that God is one. This theory reads unity in all that is and has been – stars and stones, planets and pebbles, sun and sod, rock and river, leaf and lichen, are spun of the same trade. Thus the universe is one soul, One spelled large… Our God is the soul of the universe.”
And so this equivalence of God and nature comes out again and again, especially in terms of the laws of nature. There is an equivalence of the divine and the laws of nature very often. There’s interesting, surprising emphases.
Geoff Mitelman: And you know, as you’re talking about Panentheism and the way that the theology has developed in Reform Judaism over decades, I’m wondering how much – of which came first, was it the”here’s what the scientific knowledge is talking about” this as particularly in that in the 1700’s, 1800’s, 1900’s more scientific knowledge was coming, and science was becoming that the real source of truth rather than religion. Or how much was “this was the theology and now we’re going to find the science to fit into it”?
Daniel Langton: Right, because they will occasionally make references to Spinoza, or sometimes to Christian thinkers, who make similar claims. But I don’t think it is just a case of “the science is just brought in to justify it.” There are arguments – there are long, tortured, tenuous arguments, which try and make the case that that you have with that panentheistic that the way to think about God is to look at nature. It is a kind of natural theology. It’s just that the God that you end up with is a depersonalized equivalence of – not the will to do good, but the will to evolve. And that seems to be that seems to come out again and again. So if you have them over, you’re having a cappuccino conversation, a conversation with – they would be justifying their view of thinking about God with the evolution.
And t one way to test this is to say “are they writing panentheistically before they’re writing about the biology?” And in most cases, in Krauskopf or Emil Hirsch, the panentheistic stuff is coming out in the context of – primarily in terms of the biology, discussing the biology. So you’ve got that, that’s the gold standard, right, you’re looking for – is there a theology, is that theology shifted by their engagement with biology? And it seems to me perfectly reasonable to read it that way.
Geoff Mitelman: And that’s, I mean, that’s fascinating. I mean, my experience in the Jewish community too – a line that we often say is “the challenge in the Jewish world is not getting Jews excited about science, it’s about getting Jews excited about Judaism.” And it sounds like even the Reform rabbis, the only Reform rabbis, they’re engaged in the theology, they’re engaged in the religious texts, but also partially maybe because they are the most educated people in that community, so they need to be the communicators of the latest knowledge, the latest news, the latest information. They have to be versed and accurate in whatever is happening in the world at that time.
Daniel Langton: That’s right. And they often presented this way, you know, that they don’t want people to be worried. That these are – very often, the discussions of sermons or writings that are made about evolution are in the context of the wider fears of the inroads made by atheism, materialistic philosophies, skepticism, and that evolution is understood, at that time, to be a battlefield for this area. And the Reform rabbis are trying to tread that line between saying “we’re not going to be reactionary against this, you know, this is good science, good theory,” except “but don’t need to worry about it threatening your faith.” It can be reconciled.
Geoff Mitelman: And I think in a lot of the more right-wing Christian communities, one reason that there is a rejection of evolution is they see a direct line of – “evolution leads to pure materialism – we’re just stuff – leads to atheism, leads to nihilism.” And they don’t even want to – because that’s so scary, they don’t even go to this first part of it.
Daniel Langton: There’s a slippery-slope side, angle to the argument. And that, I think, is exactly what they’re trying to head off. They’re saying, you know, don’t fear this, this is not something that’s going to – that you need to end up abandoning your faith. It’s entirely possible, and in fact, very often, they’re arguing, the scientists are in need of recognizing, that there are gaps in the theory very often, and these gaps require one to posit some influence from the divine.
Geoff Mitelman: Now, were they working at all with any more liberal Christian denominations? Obviously, it became a battleground about fundamentalism and science versus faith a little bit later, but it also sounds like there were multiple people who were trying to say “we can integrate this, this does not have to be a threat.” Clearly the Reform rabbis were thinking in this way. Were there other religious thinkers in the more liberal Christian traditions that were thinking in the same kind of way, and do they work with them at all?
Daniel Langton: Yeah, that’s right, yes. So one of the things I’ve done in my studies – I’ve looked at the networks that are around, and if you look at the footnotes of the people that are writing, the rabbis that are writing this stuff, and they are, there are a number of Christian writers that they will cite. And they don’t have to be, you know, fully liberal, you know, radically liberal thinkers. You have people like Beecher, or Jonathan Fisk, these are people who are either religious Christian, or philosophers, more.
So you have both theologians and philosophers that they will engage with, and that they will cite in their texts. And that there’s no – the way it’s presented is more – “This is not a form of knowledge or theory which we need to be worried about, the best Christian thinkers out there are thinking in these terms. The best philosophers out there are thinking in these terms.” So there is a little bit of shoring up of authority, a readiness to say, “this is not an idiosyncratic position we’re holding.”
Geoff Mitelman: And that is a direct line even into today, of trying to think of how can we integrate in science in Judaism.
If people wanted to read more of your work or study this a little bit more, whether that’s religion and science, or Darwinian thinking in Reform Judaism, are there resources, are there papers, or books of yours, that people could look at?
Daniel Langton: Yes. I’ve written a little book, which is not yet published, on the Reform Jewish engagement with evolutionary theory. But it’s part of a wider project, where I’m looking at evolutionary Jewish engagement more generally with evolutionary theory, whether that’s Zionists, Jewish eugenicists, there are Jewish mystics, we have Orthodox thinkers more generally, and so there’s a wide range of Jewish thinkers who have been drawn to this particular subject, and there are other materials out there as well, although off the top of my head I need to check them up.
Geoff Mitelman: There’s a lot out there, so –
Daniel Langton: Geoffrey Cantor has edited a lovely volume called something like “The Challenge of Darwinism for Judaism.” And it’s a series of essays, from a variety of different people on the subject, a wide gamut of positions, including popular views from the late 19th century. But it’s an area which is, I think, really rich for investigation, because evolution is a kind of paradigmatic way of thinking about science. It’s a battleground for ideology. It’s a way in which the Jewish thinker can compare themselves to other kinds of Jews, and to the Christian and the wider society. So it’s a rich way of looking at modern Jewish identity, I think.
Geoff Mitelman: It’s fascinating, and it also allows the more liberal branches of Judaism to be able to say “we don’t have to reject this, but it does help us understand why it is such a pitched battle.” So, Daniel, thank you for taking some time to learn with us, and it was great to meet you at the Katz Center through the LEAP program at CLAL, and I hope we get to have many more conversations.