Darwin's Jews: Online Reader

Elijah Benamozegh



  1. Introduction
  2. Primary source: Em la-Mikra (Hebrew)
  3. Primary source: Matrix of Scripture (English translation)
  4. Select bibliography
  5. Discussion forum


1. Introduction ⇧ top

Elijah Benamozegh (1823–1900) was an erudite scholar even for the high standards of the open and well-integrated Italian Jewish scholarly tradition. As a rabbi and teacher of theology in its rabbinical school, he lived his life in Livorno (Leghorn), a flourishing cosmopolitan centre of Jewish culture that was entirely free from hostility towards Jews. Although an adversary of Moses Mendelssohn, he was undoubtedly influenced by the Jewish Enlightenment, the Haskalah, and sought in his own way to develop secular studies without doing violence to Jewish tradition. He had a particular fascination with Jewish-Gentile relations, which was the focus of his Morale juive et morale chrétienne [Jewish and Christian Ethics], a polemical yet civil work published in 1867, and a subject to which we will return. Despite a professional interest in Talmud and an abiding interest in Christian theology and Western philosophy, his first love was Jewish mysticism or kabbalah. Acutely aware how modern Jewish scholars dismissed kabbalah as superstition, Benamozegh spent a lifetime trying to demonstrate its worth and centrality to Judaism, most importantly in his magnum opus entitled Israël et l’humanité [Israel and Humanity], which was published posthumously in 1914. In arguing for the significance of Jewish mysticism, he used the term ‘Hebraism’, which for him encompassed the totality of Jewish religion, including not only the biblical and rabbinic teachings but also mysticism, which he regarded as its highest theological expression. His idiosyncratic teachings, and in particular his interest in non-Jewish sources, got him into trouble, and one of his biblical commentaries, Em la-Mikra [Matrix of Scripture], published 1862-65, was condemned as heretical by Orthodox authorities in Jerusalem and Damascus. Central to his thought was a kabbalistic vision of cosmic evolution, which featured strongly panentheistic overtones.[1]

Benamozegh’s theory of theistic evolution went well beyond the biological realm to encompass the evolution of the universe itself. Initially he rejected Darwin’s proposed mechanism of natural selection, which he appeared to misunderstand quite seriously. Due to an absence of references, it is not clear exactly which of Darwin’s works he had read, or when he had read them. Faur suggests that he might have come across Darwin as early as 1860.[2] His incorporation of French technical terms in his first work to tackle the subject (which is written in Hebrew) suggests that he had read the French edition published in 1862, and he would have had access to an Italian edition after 1864. In any case, what he was more interested in was the idea of a progressive concept of evolution, for which he drew upon his mystical interests. Over time, his views shifted to a much so that his earlier defensive reflections on biological evolution were transformed into a justification for a panentheistic theory of cosmic evolution, with implications not only for human evolution but for the development of religion itself.

With regard to Benamozegh's biblical commentary Em la-Mikra (1862-65), at no point was he disrespectful of the author of the Origin of Species, and any differences did not prevent him citing the authority of Darwin when convenient. Nevertheless, his own conception of a divinely directed model of evolution was undoubtedly anti-Darwinian. It was dependent upon a ‘force above other forces’ to ensure that beneficial characteristics would be inherited and a progressive trajectory established for a species according to its own internal spiritual essence or form. And while he allowed for the idea of variants within a species, he clearly rejected the idea that newer species had evolved from earlier species or their variants, highlighting the failure of evolutionary science to explain the origins of the ancestral species; it seemed self-evident to him that a ‘creative force’ was necessary to begin the process of evolution, even according to the evolutionists’ own account. In language redolent of a panentheistic conception of the divine, he suggested that the most plausible, least inconsistent explanation for understanding the phenomenon of life was that a supernatural force, at once beyond nature and one with it, was directly responsible for all species in their original forms. Thus in order to maintain a belief in divine creation, his theistic evolutionism focused on the increasing perfection of species and their variants, and rejected speciation by common descent; nor did he see any need to consider humans in this context.


[1] Panentheism can be defined as the idea that all is in God but that God is greater than all, that is, that God’s immanent presence in nature does not adequately delimit the reality of God. It can be contrasted with pantheism which is the idea that all is God and God is all, that is, that God is to be identified with the totality of nature.

[2] Faur notes that the journal in which Darwin was first mentioned in French was one which Benamozegh read: Auguste Laugel, "Nouvelle théorie d'histoire naturelle: L'Origine des Espèces," Revue des Deux-Mondes 26, no. 2 (1860). José Faur, "The Hebrew Species Concept and the Origin of Evolution: R. Benamozegh's Response to Darwin," Rassegna Mensile di Israel 63 (1997): 44.


2. Primary source (Hebrew) ⇧ top

Elijah Benamozegh, Em la-Mikra Vol. 5. Leghorn: Author, 1865. Folios 87a-88b. (7.8MB, PDF)


3. Primary source (English translation) ⇧ top

Elijah Benamozegh, Matrix of Scripture. Vol. 5. Leghorn: Author, 1865. Folio 87a.

“Thou shalt not plow with an ox and an ass together.” [Deut. 22,10]. It is clear that in the view of the Author of the Torah, animal species are intrinsically and permanently distinct from one another, each having its own origin from the time of creation; but what I see is that the new natural scientists, headed by Darwin, maintain that the species, and the variants among them, are not enduring and eternal, but, rather, evolved one from another. [The natural scientists] have established as a fundamental principle the continuity of the physical and psychological characteristics of a family that are inherited from parents to offspring and to the offspring’s offspring, as we can clearly observe. They maintain that this is what happened at the time of the creation of the species, that each and every characteristic that is permanent [i.e. inherited], was one that served to sustain a particular species, whereas the others that were not inherited from parent to offspring, disappeared forever. And this selection of what is permanent and what is not is called Natural Selection [Fr: Selection naturelle]. Although this view is quite new and has hardly been tested – who knows what its future outcome will be? – I should say that even if it is eventually confirmed to be true, the critics [of the Torah tradition] could not deny the reality of an internal rationale and cause, even if we do not know what it is, determining that certain traits and characteristics will survive [i.e. be inherited], leading to [the development of] an enduring and permanent species, while others do not endure and fail to result in a species. And this [internal rationale and cause] is what determines how traits and characteristics combine with some but not with others. It is agreed among scientists that the traits and characteristics [of a living creature] and its organic parts [Fr: Organiques] are related and that they interact with one another. This relationship, combining certain characteristics and isolating others, constitutes the inner spiritual type, also known as the species. And besides this, all the labours of Darwin and his followers will only succeed (if at all) to prove that many of the species that we now regard as distinct species in their own right, have been, over the course of the generations, no more than variants [Fr: Varietês] of other species, and that through the continuous changes from one generation to the next they have acquired their own distinct morphologies and names. Surely they [i.e. the Darwinians] will be unable to deny that at the time of creation there were already in existence species and [creaturely] natures that were different from each other, substantively and from their beginning, nor can they deny that those we refer to mistakenly as SPECIES emerged from them; and this being the case, there is no longer a contradiction between the view of Darwin and his colleagues and that of the Giver of the Torah.  I sense that, according to current thought, the foundations of the view of Darwin and his colleagues, namely, that the species are nothing more than forms and characteristics that evolve one from another, have already collapsed. The reason that these scientists hold such views is their lack of belief in the action of any force above the forces presently active among living things, which could instantaneously produce new creatures. This [belief in such action by a superior divine power] would effortlessly get them further along in their researches; and if they did succeed in proving that the majority of the species are nothing more than variations and strains from other species, they would still be compelled to acknowledge that in the beginning there existed a few species which did not develop from other species, but which gave rise [to all the other species]. But what caused these [ancestral species] to grow? What produced them and gave rise to them, if not that force, superior to the present forces of nature? And if it [i.e. the superior force] was capable of producing and creating one or two species, its capabilities would surely extend to creating a thousand thousands of species at once. This is almost certain, since, as it is well known, nature does not produce a highly active force capable of great variation for no purpose or for some nonsensical purpose. And how could we think that this creative force manifested its activities through nothing more than a few species, contrary to what is seen in all the rest of the forces in nature, which, through small actions, produce or maintain countless [generations of] species of plants and animals.


4. Select bibliography ⇧ top

Ben-Amozeg, Eliyahu. Em la-Mikra [Matrix of Scripture]. 5 vols. Leghorn: Author, 1862-65.

Benamozegh, Elia. Teologia dogmatica e apologetica, per Elia Benamozegh. Livorno: Tipografia di F. Vigo, 1877.

Benamozegh, Elie. Israël et l'humanité. Etude sur le problème de la religion universelle et sa solution. Paris: Ernest Leroux, 1914.

Benamozegh, Elie. Morale juive et morale chrétienne: examen comparatif suivi de quelques réflexions sur les principes de l’islamisme Paris: Michel Lévy frères, 1867.

Benamozegh, Elijah. Israel and Humanity. Translated by Maxwell Luria. New York: Paulist Press, 1995.

Faur, José. "The Hebrew Species Concept and the Origin of Evolution: R. Benamozegh's Response to Darwin." Rassegna Mensile di Israel 63, (1997): 43-66.

Guetta, Alessandro. "Benamozegh, Elijah ben Abraham." In Encyclopaedia Judaica, edited by Michael Berenbaum and Fred Skolnik, 317-318. Jerusalem: Keter Publishing, 2007.

Idel, Moshe. "Appendix: Kabbalah in Elijah Benamozegh's Thought." In Israel and Humanity. New York: Paulist Press, 1995.

Langton, Daniel. "Elijah Benamozegh and Evolutionary Theory: A Nineteenth Century Italian Kabbalist's Panentheistic Response to Darwin." European Journal of Jewish Studies 10, no. 2 (2016), forthcoming.

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