Darwin's Jews: Online Reader

Emil G. Hirsch



  1. Introduction
  2. Primary source: 'The Doctrine of Evolution and Judaism'
  3. Extracts from other writings
  4. Select bibliography
  5. Discussion forum


1. Introduction ⇧ top 

Emil G. Hirsch (1851-1923) was one of the most influential proponents of radical Reform Judaism in the States from the 1880s until the 1920s; in fact he preferred the term ‘Reformed Judaism’ as a way of signaling the complete break with the past. Born in Luxemburg, he was the son of a prominent Reform rabbi, and married the daughter of another, David Einhorn; he received a broad education at the University of Pennsylvania, at Leipzig and at the Hochschule in Berlin. In addition to his role as a communal rabbi in Chicago, where he eventually settled, he established the Reform Advocate in 1891, which he edited until his death, and he was professor of Rabbinic Literature and Philosophy at the University of Chicago from 1892. Hirsch’s liberal religious perspective was characterized by an optimism concerning social progress and the perfectibility of humankind, and by a lifelong interest in comparative religion. He regarded ethics rather than theology as primary to religion and he was highly sympathetic to the contemporary (Christian) Social Gospel movement that regarded religion as a tool for the improvement of societal inequality. His theology was eclectic to the extent that it might be described as inconsistent; as one commentator observed, at different times Hirsch espoused radical humanism, personalistic theism, and pantheism.

Hirsch wrote about evolution throughout his career, with early articles in the Jewish press in the early 1880s leading to a very public clash with Orthodox Jewish critics, but his key works were published sermons. In the first, Darwin and Darwinism, published as a pamphlet in 1883, he set out the theological rationale for theistic evolutionism. The second, entitled ‘The Doctrine of Evolution and Judaism’, was published in a collection of sermons in 1903. Here he covered previous ground including the evolutionary development of religion, the analogy of Darwinism and Reform Judaism, and the necessary implications for Genesis. But most striking was his attempt to shift the discussion of evolutionary biology and the development of religion to a more wide-ranging discussion about cosmic order and purpose. According to Hirsch, evolution was ‘the open sesame’ for ‘the doors guarding the secrets of nature’s methods and the mysteries of thought’. The theory was ‘a unifying principle’, which alone could explain the history and development of language, of religion, of civilizations and empires, and even of morality. In this work he also hinted at a panentheistic theology and suggested that the telos of evolution had something to do with the emergence of morality and even of religion.


2. Primary Source ⇧ top

Emil G. Hirsch, "The Doctrine of Evolution and Judaism." In Some Modern Problems and Their Bearing on Judaism. Reform Advocate Library, 25-46. Chicago: Bloch & Newman, 1903.

If there be one concept that may be said to be central to modern thinking, that distinction without question belongs to the notion, evolution. In all departments of human searching it is invoked as the one idea which throwing light on the processes running through the ages that are past holds the power to illumine the forward untrodden path of days still to be. Regarded by the more conservative students as a working hypotheses it has been canonised by the more hasty and superficial camp followers as the final key to all riddles and the absolute, infallible solvent of all perplexities. To it, so runs the confident claim of these dazzled devotees, all previous formulae by which groping men in the eras of sightless striving for truth, vainly endeavoured to bring order into the wonderful and bewildering chaos of phenomena, must yield the rank of the long expected autocratic ruler from whose decree no appeal is possible. According to them, this charmed combination of syllables, “evolution,” is the Open Sesame at the mere mention of which the doors guarding the secret of nature’s methods and the mysteries of thought and the motives of conduct forget their time-hoary distrust and jealousy of man and are compelled to admit him into the laboratory where stars are equipped with brilliancy and worlds of fashion or undone. It alone possesses the gift to uncurtain the cradle of language and [26] religion. It alone is conversant with the alphabets in which the sequence of civilisations and succession of empires write their records.

It were foolish to assert that this unifying principle has not been of potent help in reading connection and interrelations into the maze of nature’s seeming caprices. That it has aided as well to point out limitations and laws toning down the instances of human arrogance altogether too prone to dream of unrestricted liberties and emphasising dependence where the clearer insight finds warrant alone for tethered interdependence and pointed alternative, is surely established. The year when Darwin published his “The Origin of Species” is distinguished among the dates marking a turning point in the thoughts of the race. Not that the fundamental contention of the great naturalist had been without predecessors. His own philosophy were enough to discredit form the very outset such assumption of parthenogenesis in favour of his main idea. Two years previously Spencer had given the inattentive world work entitled “Progress: Its Laws and Cause,” which may be said to have developed the theory of evolution. But many decades before, Darwin’s grandfather had worked along similar lines and that Goethe had more than a poetic forethought of the fundamentals involved is now generally conceded by all competent to give testimony in the case. Among the system builders of the 17th-century Descartes and perhaps Spinoza may justly be classed among the forerunners of this our latter day’s dominant notion. At all events Larmarck and his countrymen Treviranus in the early days of the 19th century each independently had propounded the principal thesis of the doctrine. Yea, [27] overleaping the gap of the dividing millennia there is good ground for hailing as the first expander that obscure Greek thinker Heraclitus who taught his disciples to view life in nature as a continuous process, an unbroken succession of waves in constant flux.

The date of the doctrine offers another illustration of the significant truth which religious poetry has garbed in the relation established between Elijah and the Messiah. Before the advent [of the Messiah] the crier in the desert is charged with heralding the days of the fulfilment. Yet, they are few to heed his words.  As the sun about to mount the chariot of his victory sends out torchbearers to announce the glad hour of his triumph coming, so does truth bidding the supreme moment of its rise command the service of outriders that before its own bursting forth in irresistible power proclaimed the impending passing of the night. That Darwin caught the ear of his generation while his predecessors preached to no purpose was due to a happy combination of circumstances. The bold daring of the German idealists to master the mysteries of being and becoming had weaned the world from trusting in the efficacy of speculation to reveal the truth. Though Hegel and before him Herder had caught a foregleam of the thoughts so eagerly accepted when Darwin ventured to give them verbal statement, their seeming and perhaps real indifference to facts had after a brief carnival of intoxication sobered the world from all metaphysical extravagances. The cry had instead gone up for painstaking consulting of nature’s ways and the generation following immediately upon those that had revelled in the flying fancies of dialectics were content by sheer force of reaction to register disjointed data [28] without presuming to construe from them a theory to explain the universe. But the human mind is so constituted that it will not rest satisfied with detached facts. It craves for the comprehensive formula that promises to unify the “disjecta membra.” The quest for the geistige Bund, as Goethe puts it, is after all of persistent importunity and will not be disowned. Thus with the swing of the pendulum back to the poll of constructive interest in metaphysical problems Darwin found the well-prepared to the announcement of the word furnishing the one key to every lock. His credentials entitling him to confidence were above suspicion. He had not disdained to sit patiently at the feet of nature. He had served many a year of courtship. He had succeeded in lifting the curtain from off her countenance – a privilege given to none but to those among her suitors that by devotion both rare and profound have won their way into her very heart. What Darwin reported did not seem to be constructions of his own intellect but the very intimacies entrusted to him by his mistress herself. He was not one of the discredited system builders reading into the universe the figments of their imagination. His was a humble record of discoveries painfully reached by persistent observation. Thus he combined all the gifts so highly prized by the temperament of the day. He was acquainted with details and yet his announcement met the reawakened appetite for constructive generalisation.

His proclamation was the signal for needless alarm in church and synagogue on the one hand, for premature peons of victory in the camp of religions archenemies [on the other hand]. That the apprehensions felt by the defenders of God’s orders were groundless has come to be clearly seen. Not [29] so clearly has it come to be understood among our most intimate enemies that their shout of triumph lacks reasonableness. I dare say more than occasionally have we met men pretending to be abreast of the best thought of the day who still have to learn that the doctrine of evolution has not weakened the pillars upon which religion has reared her Temples. Antediluvian obsessions are not exclusively the bane of the religiously orthodox. There is also an orthodoxy of irreligion as arrant and brainless as ever asserted itself within the church. The Rip Van Winkles are not altogether on our side of the house. Time was when what has rightly been denominated the materialism of “beer and cheese” held forth as the last word of all philosophy and exponent of all liberalism. Among the high priests of this cult the hypothesis of evolution was acclaimed the undoer of every religious conviction. That Buchner and his Kraft and Stoff have been rejected by the genuine men of science the Bourbons of this school have still to grasp. It is strange, yet it is a fact, this species of materialism is represented largely by men of what the Germans dub “Halbbildung,” and nowhere so unconcernedly than among would-be liberal Jews. In cooperation of this observation I may be permitted to call attention to the confusion widely relevant in the midst of us which makes it possible for men to be crowned arch liberals for no other reason than that they are exponents of the doctrine of evolution. Many pulpits is aureoled in glory simply because its occupant has in season and out of season injected into his wonderful effusions the jargon of the evolution terminology. Acceptance of evolution is no proof of liberalism in the popular misappropriation of the term. My [30] friends, the “beer and cheese” materialists should have a care to parade their cheap trappings in evidence of their up-to-date-ness. For if one thing be well established it is that genuine honest science has long since outgrown the vagaries of Buechnerism, if ever Buechner had standing among the genuine profits of science. That force and matter explain nothing but themselves call for explanation is patent. Can one tell what matter be or what energy be? Self-created matter is as great a riddle to the human reason as self-created mind. Characteristic in this connection with the anecdote of the man who when asked to define his favourite terms, matter and force, replied: “matter? Never mind. Mind? No matter.” I make bold to suggest to these antediluvian fossils of exploded vulgar materialism to cogitate as profoundly as the Titanic intellectual permit Goethe’s lines:

“Denn eben wo Begriffe fehlen
Da stellt ein Wort zur rechten Zeit sich ein.

Mit Worten laesst sich trefflich streiten
Mit Worten ein System bereiten,
An Worte laesst sich trefflich glauben,
Von einem Wort laesst sich kein Iota rauben.”

What in sober reality does the theory of evolution through light on? Certainly not on the mystery of the beginnings. Granted that the first link in the chain of becoming is connected with the last link the query is not answered whence came the first link. Its appearance is still an unexplained riddle. Nor is it true that nowhere in this chain there appear missing links. Competent authorities, men of distinguished ranking among original investigators in the several departments of the natural sciences have often avowed this. Haeckel’s [31] endeavour to bridge every gap makes heavy drafts on human credulity. He is as dogmatic as ever was Ulema of the Mosque or Confessor of the church. His latest pronounciamento on the riddles of the world may deceive the “general reader” by the brilliancy of its style. It has not the leaders of thought. His Monism assumes what it pretends to prove. This is been the verdict on his ambitious book not merely of the orthodox who might be suspected of prejudice but of reasoners of such capacity as Paulsen and others. Huxley and Tyndall were more modest as was that great German physiologist Dubois-Reymond and that distinguished scientist Virchow. That the beginning of all things is not accounted for by the theory of evolution is admitted by Darwin himself who, even in the last edition of his “Origin of Species,” did not find himself moved to modify the statement of the first in which he intimates his belief “that life may have been originally breathed by the Creator into few forms or one.” How from the inorganic the organic may have sprung, how from the unconscious the conscious may have developed, evolution has failed to reveal. All appeal to cerebral chemistry does not meet the issue. Evolution that is forced to concede that notwithstanding its main contentions mystery still calls for faith, that there is need and room for the introduction of an energy which religious faith and reasoning philosophy have always posited.

But again evolution always presupposes involution. Nothing may be in the result which is not potentially present in the impulse. The universe of which we are a part is certainly a cosmos. Beauty and order are the outcome of that process which has culminated in [32] the present forms of life and interaction. Therefore the very first germ and impulse must have been so organised that order and beauty had to be the final outcome. Will one deny that this has been the result? Then the very basis is taken from under all scientific thought, every physical law assumes the orderliness of the universe. Every generalisation to which the inductions of the chemist lead are dependent on the previous assumption that law and order and harmony are dominant in the action and the interactions of the elements. This beauty and harmony and orderliness must therefore have been involved from the very first in the constitution of things. This aspect of the problem once more reveals that the theory of evolution demands and presupposes the very metaphysical and religious concepts with which faith and idealistic philosophy have always operated and which they leave predicated of the nature of things. Whatever postulates, then, theologians have based on this aspect of the Universe stands in its foundations are untouched by the theory of evolution.

This of course must be conceded, the doctrine that the evolving ascent of life is regulated by natural selection which operates as a process of elimination by which only those are enabled to survive that know how to adapt themselves to their environments and thus to overcome the hostile influence of circumstance is not compatible with the theory of design as generally presented the older textbooks. For our purpose it is immaterial at this point to investigate whether the effect attributed by Darwin to natural selection has now the endorsement of competent naturalists. This is indeed a point where the more recent investigators seem to part company with the illustrious founder of [33] the school. Still even should the constructions of Darwin be found to be sound and those of others, Weissman, for instance, have to be rejected, the main ideas of teleology are not impugned. It viewed the Godhead altogether too much in the guise of a human workman. One who is at home in the literature of Jewish theology needs not be told that throughout Jewish thought the effort is dominant to de-anthropomorphidate the concept of the Deity. Hence the care of the earlier translators of the Bible to substitute for the human symbols in the original Hebrew such terms as remove the picture of God beyond the lower range of human passion or experience. The arguments filling the works of our mediaeval philosophers concerning the attributes of the Godhead point in the same direction and even superficial acquaintance with their positions suffices to verify the claim that above all things these sturdy men of thought and faith were anxious to emphasise the line of demarcation between the divine and human, many among them going to great lengths to emphasise that even the unity of God is essentially other than what is connoted by the numeral in human speech. The theory of evolution now which puts an end to the imputation of humanlike design to the Deity strikes a note in harmony with the central apprehension of Jewish theology. Evolution reveals that life runs on through a process of interdependence. Whatever lives, lives to another and for another. Thus a new and deeper teleology or theory of purpose is suggested. There is in this long succession of evolving and enlarging life nothing but has an influence upon another. This truth may also [34] be formulated as follows: there is nothing that lives but serves an ulterior purpose. Moreover as through this interaction of one upon the other, be it through natural selection or otherwise, the sum of life has steadily increased and the quality-of-life has even so invariably been rendered more profound one is justified in construing from this undoubted fact which is indeed pivotal to the whole hypothesis, the postulate that life was from the beginning so dowered and all the intermediate forms of life so organised as to bring about this result. Plan and purpose are thus not eliminated by this theory. The contrary is the case. Life because tending from below are always to the higher - and this view prevails in the ultimate outcome even if the curve shows also the downward lines indicative of degenerations - is by the very implications and assumptions of the hypothesis necessarily held as under the law of adaptation of means to ends, these ends being the realisation of ever full measure of life. Thus with greater insistence than did any of the other theories does the evolutionary philosophy read purpose into the essence of things.

In notes clearer than ever were entoned by human tongue does the philosophy of evolution confirm 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. If throughout all visible form one energy is manifest and in all material shape one substance is apparent, the conclusion is all the better assured which holds this essentially one world [35] of life to be the thought of one all embracing and all underlying creative directive mind. For, mark you well, the profounder unity which this hypothesis has established in multiplicity of worlds and organisms is again incompatible only with the tenets of those theologies that would persist in interpreting the divine in terms of human limitations. I, for my part, believe to be justified in my assurance that Judaism rightly apprehended posits God not as often it is said to do as an absolutely transcendental One. Our God is the soul of the Universe. He is not that God to use Goethe’s words “Der nur von aussen stiesse.” Spinozism and Judaism are by no means at opposite poles. Monism as generally understood may perhaps wear the appearance of denying mind. Yet spiritual monism which regards matter as an expression of mind and the visible world as the symbol of underlying mentality has had its exponents whose main theses coincide indeed with the conceptions of Judaism as I find it understood by its own master-thinkers. Certainly the sum must include all that the component factors possess. If at any one point in the line of evolution mind appears, mind necessarily must be postulated as one of the involutions. Now, mind does appear. The conclusion based upon this fact stands whether mind be regarded as function of brain substance – which explanation, as has been observed previously, still awaits convincing proof – or it be held to be an energy which works through nerve and cerebral chemistry but cannot be said to be identical therewith not being a product but rather the producer. For if mind at a certain stage of life’s development is the result, that result must have been already infolded in the first germ. Thus from the very beginning mind [36] was enwrapped in the world process. And therefore this very first germ must itself have had its source in the mind or otherwise its potentiality could not have been such as to lead up to mind. Self-created mind is not a more unthinkable proposition than is self-existing matter. But from the point of view of reason whatever difficulties may be involved in spiritual monism greater reasonableness pleads in favour of this idealism and can be adduced in defence of the opposite materialistic construction. Within our own experience we observe the phenomenon of creation through mind. The architect creates the Parthenon, the sculptor the Zeus of the Olympic Temple. Mason and menial merely carry out the creation which always antedates and proceeds realisation in brick or marble. It may be that the human mind is dependent upon brain action. But this does not prove that mind as such is under all circumstances conditioned similarly. Ideal monism which never is in conflict with the true implications of ethical monotheism has been endowed with the strongest supports by the philosophy of evolution. They who are acquainted with the positions taken in their own peculiar way by the Rabbinical interpreters of the story of creation will remember that the pre-existence of the Torah is assumed as God’s instrument of creation. Platonic idealism was in this manner cloaked in the vocabulary of Jewish theology. The distance between this attitude and that suggested by the more modern reasoning on the basis of evolution is not very great. That many among the mediaeval thinkers claimed wide latitude in explaining the opening chapter of Genesis is beyond doubt. These profound reasoners found no difficulty in harmonising their assumptions of the eternity of [37] matter with their belief in the God of their religious consciousness. We have the good right to follow the precedent set. Evolution indeed does controvert the literal acceptance of the Biblical account. As a poetic conception the stately sections of Genesis describing how upon the Divine summons abyss retreated and darkness took to flight and order and beauty leaped into majestic impressiveness; how earth was wreathed in flower garlands and the firmament kindled into glory; how life and speech burst forth into joy and beast and man rose to bask in the sunshine of the day and to marvel at the splendour of the constellations setting the heavens to mark the procession of the seasons -  have no peers in the literature of the world. But this poetry is robbed of its sweet aroma when its phraseology is pressed into service to curb the curiosity of the scientific mind. Inconsequential to our religious consciousness is the method which creation followed in giving forms to the divine impulse. That Creation is revelation of purposed power of mind is the cardinal tenet of the Jewish faith. This, evolution has not obscured. The new philosophy has merely substituted another theory for a less comprehensive mechanical one. The “what” of creation is not touched by the modern interpretation even if the new “how” has been given its vocabulary. Read by the light of the modern doctrine the heavens still declare the glory of God. The morning stars still sing together. The grand Hallelujah chorus rises an anthem of praise to the Creator from dale and dell, from sea and surf, and the mountains and meads still witness to a will supremely in all and underlying all. Yea, in a much profounder sense than the old thought was capable of expressing rings out from the new the [38] proclamation that “in the beginning was the word,” that by the word of God were the heavens made and the depths took on shape at his bidding. Atheism may extract no comfort from the recent expositions of the theory of evolution. The greatest physicist of modern days, Lord Kelvin, has not scrupled to confess that his researches would be suspended like the coffin of Muhammad in mid-air without the supporting constructions of the metaphysicians and theologians.

But this doctrine of evolution is popularly confounded with agnostic conclusions. Let us for the nonce forget the contradictions involved in the contentions of Spencer that God is unknowable. Let us for argument’s sake overlook that the range of religion is not confined to speculative inferences from the theory of knowledge. Let it be granted that conditioned as our mind is we cannot arrive at a full comprehension of the Deity’s being. This the Jew certainly has no cause to deny. If Jewish theology is marked by one conviction more than by another it is that final [sic: finite?] mind cannot grasp the contents of the infinite. Maimonides already cautioned his contemporaries against affirming of the deity more than existence. Negative attributes therefore are the implications he reads into the descriptions current to express the contents of the God-idea. Agnosticism which is in itself a great advance beyond and away from arrogant and dogmatic atheism is a healthy reaction also against the all too confident presumption of some orders of theologians to know the ways of God. Modesty becomes us indeed in the presence of the awful realisation of the mystery and might and majesty of the Godhead. Our catechisms have sinned grievously in this respect. The harm they have done is beyond [39] computation. Many of their authors have indeed imitated the methods of the Bertillion system in vogue in the registration of criminals. Such intimacy cannot but lead to the proclaiming of what shall remain beyond desecration. Mountains of phraseology are impotent to illumine the thoughts which in its very nature transcends human analogies. In the words of my sainted father and teacher, we can express only what God is for us, never what He is in Himself. We are unable to pierce the cloud in which the Divine is shrouded. We should never forget that our symbols are reflections of our mental limitations. In this sense they’re useful. But as unconditioned values they are open to serious objections. If evolutionary reasoning teaches us the duty of modesty when we attempt to express what is ineffable, its beneficent influence entitles it to a hearty welcome.

But does not this theory dethrone man? What becomes of man’s geocentric perhaps cosmocentric position? Wallace, who was among the first prophets of the new dispensation, has recently shown that even this prerogative of man is safe, however strenuously the conclusions of the evolutionary hypotheses may be urged. After all such enquiry is purely academic. Man is not concerned in the problems lying beyond the sphere of his own duties and responsibilities. Whether in the cosmos he be central or not, what boot [sic] to know this? Of importance alone it is for man to feel that placed as he is in this world he is charged with obligations. Evolution makes it all the plainer that with the advent of man a new order of life was inaugurated foreshadowed only dimly in those forms of life that preceded him in the tenure of the planet. The struggle for existence in his case became the contest for moral existence. The [40] survival of the fittest was lifted into a new potency by the demonstration which evolution itself furnishes that the fittest among men is the morally strongest. Brute force yields to mental sagacity and this in turn is unsceptered by powers that make for righteousness. But is not conscience itself the result of an evolutionary process? Certainly. But this does not rob conscience of its supremacy. If conscience is the slow accretion of the experience of the race covering millennia this shows merely that human life to be human was from the first so organised as to adapt itself in ever greater measure to the moral law. This moral law is the condition under which alone the human can survive and perform its part in the universe. Responsibility has assumed a new sacramental value by the impressive realisation of the truth that the now living affect the unborn generations for good or evil. If conscience and morality are exponents of the social nature of man and its actions are rooted in the social consciousness the sanctities of the moral life are for all that not removed. Why is it that the social interdependence is a concomitant of the human life? Simply because human life implies a wider range of relations than those covered by egotism. To be human one must be moral and the stronger one’s morality the deeper one’s humanity. Whatever evolution evolves must be considered as involved in the plan of life. As evolution has culminated in man who to be man must live his life under the moral law, the moral law must be the highest expression of the reality of life. Thus morality and all it implies rests on the securest foundation spread for its solemn upholding by the very theory said by superficial minds to undermine it. Nor has evolution accounted for the rise and potency [41] of great individuals. The evolutionary interpretation of history fails to explain why certain men and minds are capacitated to read more truly the arcana of the human soul than others of their own day. The mechanical theory of revelation which contracts the outpouring of the divine both locally and temporally indeed has to be abandoned. But not the sublimer conception which regards the great original minds of the race as the vehicles of the creative thought of God. Genius always riddles the formulae which would have environment and heredity furnish the equation of power. There is more to character than what surrounding and descent combine to account for. There is an original element in its assertive strength. The Prophet moves along altitudes of vision and insight exceeding the reach of prenatal and local influences. Evolution becomes personal when man appears. It runs on through men. We cannot sit idly by with folded arms and trusting evolution to lift ourselves up to a higher plane. We must be up and doing. Thus both through the rise of the great men of original leadership and light, and through the prerequisite activity of men the run of the evolutionary process is modified and conditioned. This shows that man is more than the sum of ancestors and cotemporaries. He is indeed the image of God. This fundamental proposition of Judaism which claims for man an exceptional assignment in the sweep of created things and beings, is not weakened by the constructions of the new philosophy.

If philosophy by the very insistences of the new doctrine really appears trestled all the more strongly, what about religion? Evolution has renewed the credentials of religion. If what is, is because in the course of [42] evolving life it came, all that is, came in correspondence with the inexorable demands of life. Now religion did appear and did assert itself in the life of man. It, therefore, must have answered a need of his. It must correspond to an element in his composition. Religion is, like language, a universally human phenomenon. Wherever men have been, their altars have arisen. This fact, in the light of evolutionary doctrine, at once must silence the at one time so very popular assertion of the rationalists that religion was a benevolent or malevolent invention of crafty priests or well-meaning lovers of their kind. Let the occasional Beer and Cheese materialist indulge in this antiquated and exploded theory to his heart’s content. He is discredited by the better and newer knowledge of this age. No adherent of evolutionary philosophy will countenance his empty protest that religion is an intrigue of designing priests or a deception palmed off upon credulous, ignorant peoples by well intending leaders. No religion but answered a need of the human soul. This does not necessitate the assumption that all religions are of interchangeable worth. As languages differ in the range of their possibilities to serve the ends of pushing thought, and as the thought again to which they would lend expression is not of equally strong fibre or delicate woof, so also do religions differ in quality and atmosphere. Some were dowered with the strength to develop; others lacked this gift. Some peoples were so situated or so guided in time that theirs became a deeper insight into the relations of the individual to society, and of humanity to the meaning of the universe. Others found their function in other contributions to the stock of human and humanising ideas. Evolution, in accentuating this [43] distinction, confirms the claim of Israel to be the people of the book. For the nation of the prophets, Israel, in opposition to the cults by which it was surrounded learned to conceive of religion as a solemn proclamation of the dignity and the divinity of human life to be made holy because the central source of the All-Life was conceived as the Holy One, and to feel that the nation itself was to be the pattern people in whose institutions and ambitions the ideals of holiness were to become real, and to whose devotion to these ideals the whole of the human family was to be weaned of its unholiness and won for the nobler purposes of human power and possessions. The mission of Israel has been given a new bearing by this view of the evolution of religion. Religion has been shown to be the very flower of the Israelitish genius, as well as the duty laid on Israel in consequence of the Law which the evolutionary hypothesis must invoke that descent conditions duty. Judaism, indeed, has all no quarrel with this philosophy. The originality of the Prophets is set forth by its cannons all the more markedly. And the power of that religion is made all the more patent by the invocation of the assumption that only the fittest survives. Israel has survived, and that under conditions which made for destruction and dissolution. Numbers and strength were not in favour of its continuing among the energies of the struggling race. Israel had a dower of force in its religion. That religion fostered energetic morality. Armoured in this Israel could and did resist the furious onslaughts of its innumerable and implacable enemies. The survival of the Jew and Judaism, according to the very propositions of the new doctrine, testifies to the excellence of the religion of Israel.

[44] We of the Reform school have found in the theory of evolution warrant for our particular contentions. Judaism itself has been an evolution. Not being a dogmatic creed, but rather in the spirit of Deuteronomy, a philosophy of practical responsibilities, a religion of the deed, a life under the consecration of the passion to justice, righteousness and love (Micah), Judaism is more than Bible, Talmud, or any of the books that slow accretions and growing deposits of centuries monument rather one of its many phases than contain the full content of its inexhausted possibilities. Talmudism was a development out of Biblical Judaism, and marks an advance in many respects beyond it. Our own Judaism again is not a return to an anterior type, but a development out of all preceding types. But central to all Judaism is the thought that man and God are at one, and that it is Israel’s task to bring to flower in life this unity of man and God. This fundamental concept of our latest Judaism emphasises in new expressions, drawing the warrant for this procedure from the very Law of Judaism, which posits tradition that is growth - and growth implies both assimilation and elimination, as well as a recombination of old elements and the introduction of new forces - as its vital insistence. The past, as the source of power and inspiration; the present, as the field of action and the domain of influence; the future, as the hope for still wider accomplishments, lay on the Reform Jew obligations, which he will not shirk. Knowing that progress has been the secret of Judaism’s vitality, the Reform Jew conversant with the law regulating in all things this pushing on for a fuller life, would either be disloyal to his past, for that would, according to the very law of progress, cut the roots from [45] underneath them. He would not be false to the living present, that would waste his energy. Nor would he be blind to his obligations to the future, for would one carry forward the tendency of life he must acknowledge the dominion of the conviction that his attitude and activity in the now affect the possibilities of those that are to come after him. In this manner the philosophy of evolution has become a potent force in the ambitions and assertions of the Reform Jew.

One word in conclusion. Judaism has always has been a convinced exponent of the doctrine of the remnant. It is not difficult to translate that doctrine into the terms of the formula of the survival of the fittest. In the experiments that God carries on in his laboratory, commonly described as history, selection is indeed the dominant force. The remnant covers the few that are selected in the process which history brings to bear upon human affairs. But by clinching this theory of the remnant, to which in its own experience is a telling commentary, Judaism once more protests that the method of human selection is not hinging on brutal power, but on moral force. As in this particular instance, so in all of its teachings, Judaism is in real accord with the tenable discoveries and contentions of the philosophy of evolution. Mind, Morality, Conscience, Religion - Israel’s duty and destiny in the economy of mankind - man’s regal distinctions - all these fundamentals of Israel’s proclamations - the theory of evolution has only confirmed. In accepting it we may have to rewrite the biography of our planet - the story of the stars. We may have to read as poetry description in old literature which many have regarded a sober prose. But none of the pillars of God’s Temple totters. None of [46] the duties laid on man is robbed of its solemnities. None of the hopes that fill his bosom is dispelled. Responsibility appears written in large sacred syllables across all that is. Unity is proclaimed by heaven and earth in a chorus of joy never before melodied. Judaism stands fourth, if it ever did, commissioned to protest against all that makes for the brutalising of man and the desecration of his life. Not a religion of salvation, it still holds the credentials by its apprehension of the verities which read the divine into the human, to the post of the prophetic confidence that the ages are under the intention of bringing to triumph justice, and that in the fullness of time that Power, not ourselves, which makes for righteousness will work a glorious Messianic consummation on earth. Evolution is to be dreaded as little by us as was Platonism by Philo, Aristotelianism by Maimonides. The rhythm of Judaism’s own progress beats in even measure with the thought of this theory.


3. Extracts from other writings ⇧ top


One sphere alone seems disinclined to apply the idea of evolution. In religion the spirit of former days seems, as yet, to loiter… Can, however, the central idea of our age not be made profitable in this field as well? Religion is often thought to be a Pallas Athene, the daughter of divine parentage, springing fully armoured from the head of its progenitor… The researches of modern time have, however, proven that religion itself, in the form in which we have it, is the outcome of a long process of evolution... It may give us courage to persevere in our work… We may learn that Reform is not arbitrary. Evolution follows an inherent law. Only such reforms will stand, as are in keeping with the tendency of the historical channel. It is true, we cannot, if religion is the outgrowth of religion, presume to build a permanent sanctuary. [As the Israelites in the desert] so do we worship in a tabernacle, ready to move forward from station to station. Yet the ark of the covenant, the consciousness of our historical mission, must be shielded by our shrine. [Emil G. Hirsch, "Evolution in Religion," The Jewish Advance, 6 May 1881, 5.] 

We have organized life of a lower order and of a higher, the latter virtually comprising all the former, is but actually often dropping this or that tool which the earlier life needed. Man’s arm is akin to the bird’s wing, the fish’s instrument of locomotion, and yet is not the same. So it is with Judaism. It is an organism, which from the rudimentary grew into the more complex, but which in this growth does merely virtually hold all that ever belonged to any of the stages of the process, without actually repeating at every stage all the antecedent forms and formations. This characteristic of the historical is frequently overlooked. [Emil G. Hirsch, "Historical Judaism," Jewish Reformer, 5 March 1886, 8.]


The discoveries of Geologists were the forerunners of the theories of the Biologists… The Science of our Earth located the beginnings of the process of growth, of the things that are at almost inconceivably distant periods… The tongue of the black diamond has been made to disclose the secrets of mother earth to the young science. “Not six thousands years ago” says it, “have I been imbedded and encompassed in solar fire.” [Darwin and Darwinism: A Discourse Delivered before the Chicago Sinai Congregation (Chicago: Occident, 1883), 4.]

With the letters of the biblical Genesis it cannot be harmonized; but in the spirit it may. One idea is certainly positive in said first chapter: That there is a creator and his constructive and guiding hand is universally apparent in the great machinery of nature, and does not Darwin, in any wise deny this… Before him lies spread the flowery carpet of nature; he takes up the golden threads of which it is woven, explains the wonderful combinations and interweavings… Does he, however, deny the master, who weaves at this invisible loom, whose never ceasing shuttle flies to and fro? Certainly not! [‘to the chagrin of the “mire philosophers” who deport themselves as though they owned exclusively all science’]… [D]espite the clamor and noise of materialists we must not conceive the evolution process as one purely mechanical… The process of nature consummates itself through innermost force, and working outwardly. It is a dynamic and spiritual procedure. Where then is the abyss that lies between Darwin and religion? [Ibid., 6]

[T]he new theory has rendered it impossible for us… to look into the hidden plans of God. Nor should we grumble at that! No greater abuse was practiced than with the world “design.” They forgot the old prophetic admonition “My thoughts are not your thoughts, my ways are not your ways.”… Darwinism successfully supplants this arrogance. If it was taught heretofore that the eye was created for the sun, now the reverse is taught, that the sun creates the eye. If it were heretofore believed that an all wise creator gave swiftness to the Roe so that he might outrun his enemies, we know today that thousands perished in the “struggle for existence” beset on all sides with fear and danger until that species acquired the ability to baffle, in being hunted down, its ravenous enemies. There can therefore be no “design” thought of. Yet in a higher sense it may be!... A thousand generations must perish, so that another may be enabled to exist! Where do we find the divine harmony [of natural theology?], demands the low charlatan?... This is the divine in the “world” process, the law, that the single and the individual are present to serve the whole; that Life means self-denial, that it exacts selfless devotion to the interests, the aims of the “All.” To suffer, battle and deny one’s self is the price of our existence, its reward the thought that the totality of man advances, elevates itself, and acquires “healing through our wounds.” [Ibid., 7]

The struggle for existence, the conquering of the strongest, selection and heredity, have become household words; but even now wrong deductions are drawn from them. Is it brute force which conquers? Such is the belief of thousands [of social darwinians] who rise to-day to upset the old regulations of society!... thus they pound with clenched fists, forgetting, that the spirit in man is by far the strongest. Others again assert that morality, moral freedom, and responsibility are nursery tales, and that selfish calculations were morality… Oh! Those that speak thus, little understand the deep import of Darwinism. Moral sacrifice (resignation) to the ends of the whole [of humankind] is but the cardinal law of the “to be”!... [M]an’s freedom consists of this, that he above his surrounding may elevate himself; to subdue his inborn impulses, and subordinate himself in his freewill to divine laws, which without our aid regulates the course of worlds!... And beside the husky voice of class hatred today, the screech owls cry of race hatred is heard despite Darwin… all these despite their common descendency [sic] from the prehistoric “Ape.” [Ibid., 9,10]

[For those who call for a new religion] has Darwin uselessly written. Evolution, not new forms is the material law… Religion is the tree of life; the higher this tree is to thrive, the deeper his roots must sink into the soil. The treasure which we have inherited, we should enrich… then may we be within the bounds of the great work of evolution. [Ibid., 10]


4. Select bibliography ⇧ top

Hirsch, Emil G. Darwin and Darwinism: A Discourse Delivered before the Chicago Sinai Congregation.  Chicago: Occident, 1883.

Hirsch, Emil G. "The Doctrine of Evolution and Judaism." In Some Modern Problems and Their Bearing on Judaism. Reform Advocate Library, 25-46. Chicago: Bloch & Newman, 1903.

Hirsch, Emil G. "Ethics, Biblical and Modern." In Jewish Encyclopedia, edited by Isadore Singer, 245-47, 55-58. New York: Funk and Wagnalls Company, 1901-1906.

Hirsch, Emil G. "Evolution." In Jewish Encyclopedia, edited by Isadore Singer, 281-82. New York: Funk and Wagnalls Company, 1901-1906.

Hirsch, Emil G. "Evolution in Religion." The Jewish Advance, 6 May 1881, 5.

Hirsch, Emil G. "Historical Judaism." Jewish Reformer, 5 March 1886, 8-9.

Hirsch, Emil G. "Where Does God Dwell?" The Reform Advocate, 1897, 73.

Levi, Gerson B. "Biographical Introduction." In My Religion, edited by Emil G. Hirsch, 11-23. New York: Macmillan, 1925.

Martin, Bernard. "The Religious Philosophy of Emil G. Hirsch." In Critical Studies in American Jewish History, edited by Jacob R. Marcus, 186-201. Cincinnati, OH: KTAV, 1952.

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