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Daniel Langton on How Darwin Influenced Early Reform Judaism


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. 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 Or liturgy, the liturgy changes – 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. 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? 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. 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? 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.” 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? 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. 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? 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. 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? 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. 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 – 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. 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 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. 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. 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. 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. 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. 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? 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.” 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? 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. There’s a lot out there, so – 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. 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.

Otis Rodgers

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