Three world-shattering books were published in England in 1859 – Charles Darwin’s “Origin of Species”, JS Mill’s “On Liberty” and Karl Marx’s “Critique of Personal Economy”. Each aroused immense controversy.
The Jewish community took very little interest, especially, strangely, in Darwin’s book, which one might have thought would have been seen as a frontal attack on the Bible. But there was a lack of trained “secular” minds in Anglo-Jewry, perhaps because Jews had little access to the universities.
The challenges represented by the three books were considered “way out”, and Jews were more concerned with their own causes, especially their political emancipation.
Probably the only member of the Jewish ministry who had scientific interests was Rev. (later Sir) Philip Magnus of the Reform Synagogue, who turned before long to a career in education and became a Member of Parliament.
Decades later Darwin was carefully assessed by Jewish thinkers including Rav Kook, and in recent years a powerful analysis was penned by Chief Rabbi Jonathan Sacks.
It is not so much Darwin as such, or the versions and critiques of his theory in particular, which we will look at, but the conceptual question of the relationship between science and religion.
There are views that say there is no relationship between them: they are two separate worlds and nothing more has to be said.
Another view is that they are and will always be in conflict, even though here and there one side can make a concession to the other.
I believe that there is an intrinsic relationship and it is claiming too much to argue that the Torah is not a book of science and cannot be expected to be one.
In terms of scientific detail it is true that the Torah does not give the sort of information which the scientific literature does. But it does lay down principles which must be considered scientific, with one proviso – that whatever the data, dates and details, it is God who is in charge – “In the beginning, God” (Gen. 1:1).
What are the principles advanced by the Torah?
It is one world and the same rules apply everywhere. It is an ordered world and everything is connected. It is a historical world and things had a cause. It is an enduring world and it will continue to function. It is a structured world ranging from the simplest phenomena to the most complex.
It is a varied world amenable to study by man, its most sophisticated creature. Man himself is a subject of study: psychology is as much a science as biology.
Of course, religion has views as to why things are as they are and what man is meant to do with them and this is the Torah’s chief priority; there is science in the Torah but the Torah has its own angle on its material.