Religious and Scientific Instruction on Evolution and Origins in Israeli Schools


Source: Religious Education


With more investigation into the reception of evolution in non-Christian majority cultures, and the increased awareness that anti-evolution sentiment is a global phenomenon, new educational resources are being developed to meet newly understood needs. This article explores the situation in Israel regarding conceptions of the compatibility of evolution and religion, as well as the educational initiatives being developed to advance dialogue. Included in the article are data from a study in a Jewish, Muslim and Christian school regarding stakeholders’ views on evolution, as well as insights from the first professional development course for Israeli teachers on “Evolution and Faith.”

Insights from teaching “Evolution and Faith”

Beginning in 2014, we presented seminars for teachers and students on the topic of Jewish perspectives on evolution (described in part in Pear et al., 2015), in which we presented the views of three prominent 20th century Orthodox rabbis, two who wrote positively about the compatibility of evolution and Judaism (Rabbis Kook and Soloveitchik), one who wrote negatively (Rabbi Schneerson). In 2017, the three of us expanded our seminar into an on-line course that we have co-taught to in-service teachers for continuing education credit through Herzog College, including some information on addition perspectives, mostly supportive of the compatibility of evolution and Judaism, such as Rabbi Jonathan Sacks (b. 1948), Rabbi Gadaliah Nadel (1923-2004), and Yeshiyahu Leibowitz (1903-1994). Through feedback from participants, as well as a forum with graduates of the course, we have identified areas in which teachers have felt the course was effective in empowering them to grapple with the subject of evolution with their students, as well as areas in which they still feel they are struggling.

For instance, teachers relayed that the course provided them with enough information that they could relay to students that there was no one religious or Jewish perspective on evolution, moving their students from an absolutist to a multiplist view of the issue. However, the next anticipated stage of the process, the move from a multiplist to an evaluative perspective, was much more difficult. The teachers in fact felt that sometimes bringing the students a variety of views led them to a “post-modern malaise” of indifferent relativism where anyone could say anything– because how could we judge one view as better in any way than another? When students saw perspectives on evolution as similar to “I like vanilla and you like chocolate”, then it became a less interesting subject to them because what did it matter what the arguments were for any position? Therefore, while many teachers liked presenting a spectrum and variety of rabbinic views on evolution, they still craved assistance in how to share the material with their students in a way that precipitated a positive plethora of choices for identification, understanding, and challenge rather than another object of choice overload. The lack of motivation identified by teachers leading to dismissal rather than in engagement in processing multiple views clearly does not only relate to evolution and Judaism, but this could provide a good case study for further investigation of a broader issue.

A second element also problematized the approach that we had been using from another angle. While we had been aware in the past that many students experienced relief after being exposed to pro-evolution religious perspectives because they no longer felt compelled to make the false choice between science and religion, teachers now also reported that sometimes students responded to the pro-evolution positions presented negatively as being “apologetics” or over accommodationalist. Some students praised the anti-evolution perspective as having a sheen of religious authenticity and independence, an apparent holdover from the elements Dajani mentioned as having caused an antievolution bias in religious communities. What can be done to illustrate that standing up to the hegemony of science by declaring a rejectionist view toward evolution was not necessarily the prouder religious approach? While we are still pondering how to respond to this issue most effectively, it too struck as a symptom of a larger concern facing society today. Contrarian views can seem to be speaking truth to power, standing up for the underrepresented opinion, and taking the bolder, braver, less charted path–- perhaps especially to adolescents and young adults. How can we make reconciliatory approaches seem as honest, strong, appealing and deriving from an authentic religious perspective as rejectionist ones? This is a new understanding we are still working on.

A third response related to teachers who only felt comfortable presenting one or two of the positions described in the course because they did not feel at ease teaching their students a position that they did not agree with. This ranged from teachers who only wanted to teach a pro-evolution perspective but were comfortable teaching a number of such positions, to those who only had one pro-evolution position that they felt they could relay, along with an antievolution position. Additional permutations were also present, such as teachers who had difficulty with anything other than a strict separation model in which science and religion are understood as two worlds and “never the twain meet.” In the seminar, course and forum, as co-lecturers we have the advantage of having three different voices to use for giving over different positions. A teacher in a school can also sometimes invite a colleague to join her/him, such as a religious studies teacher inviting a science teacher, but s/he also sometimes has to be alone in the classroom. Helping teachers navigate this challenge, of which views they can give voice to and how, is again an issue that goes beyond evolution, but this instantiation offers a good opportunity for exploration as both a test case and in its own right.

A secular teacher raised a fourth interesting issue we had not yet encountered. Most of the teachers who took the course were religious and wanted to the learn how to present evolution in a religious environment that could be antagonistic to evolution. This teacher faced a different dilemma. He was fascinated by the religious responses to evolution, especially the rabbis who embraced evolution and presented theistic evolutionary perspectives on questions such as the religious concept of humans being created in the image of God along with acceptance of evolution. This teacher was worried, however, that other teachers in his secular school would accuse him of hadata [religious coercion] because he would be introducing religious concepts in connection to the secular space of science as a teacher of Jewish culture in the school. He anticipated that he would need many preparatory sessions with fellow teachers as well as students to introduce them to the figures and concepts that he wanted to discuss, as hadata is an extremely heated issue currently regarding the Israeli public sphere including schools. This too seems like an important issue to focus on, because as much as we would like to work toward a religious environment that is open to evolution, we would also like to be part of working toward spaces in sciences classes and elsewhere that are open toward religion.


Pear, R. S. A., M. Klein, and D. Berger. 2015. “Report from the Field: A Pilot Project on the Teaching of Jewish Views of Evolution in Israel.” International Journal of Jewish Education Research 25 (8):59–66

Updated: Jun. 15, 2020