Darwin's Jews: Online Reader

Abraham Isaac Kook



  1. Introduction
  2. Primary source: Li-Nevuchei Ha-Dor (Hebrew)
  3. Primary source: For the Perplexed of This Generation (English translation)
  4. Select bibliography
  5. Discussion forum


1. Introduction ⇧ top

Abraham Isaac Kook (1865-1935) was the first Ashkenazic Chief Rabbi of Israel, a position he held during the pre-State Mandate period 1919-1935, and the most influential leader of religious Zionism at that time. Strictly speaking, Kook was not primarily interested in biological evolutionary theory and certainly not Darwinian natural selection despite the fact that he is probably the Jewish religious authority best known for having engaged positively with evolution. Rather than the directionless, chance-driven theory of natural selection, Kook’s interest in evolutionary theory was actually as a philosophical theory of progress. According to most commentators on Kook, he approached the subject through the prism of a mystical conception of ascent in an attempt to maintain the integrity of Jewish tradition in the face of the challenges of modernity. He sought to reassure anxious co-religionists that evolutionary theory posed no threat to Judaism but rather conformed to existing kabbalistic teachings about cosmic evolution and a progressive world. To achieve this end, Kook attempted to present mystical and scientific understandings of evolution as complementary to each other. 

In Kook's collection of essays, Orot Ha-Teshuvah or Lights of Penitence first published in 1925, he suggested that if one properly understood the fundamental teaching of both Judaism and evolutionary theory from a mystical perspective, one could readily reconcile the two. Those who regarded the idea of evolution as antagonistic to Jewish religion were, in his view, ignorant of some of Judaism’s deeper teachings and therefore unnecessarily despondent about evolution’s widespread success. Like many before and since, Kook understood evolutionary theory in narrowly progressive terms, and saw life developing with a pronounced upwards trajectory, ever improving. As such, he saw parallels to the old Lurianic conception of a broken cosmos in which the divine fragments are strewn across the world and seeking to find their way back to perfect union in the godhead. This mystical conception of evolution is the one most often associated with Kook.

It is interesting, then, that the earliest direct reference Kook made to evolution made no reference to mysticism. It can be found in Li-Nevuchei Ha-Dor or For the Perplexed of this Generation, written around 1900. In this work he rejected the idea that evolution challenged religion, and suggested rather that an understanding of the time and complexity of evolution would only increase our admiration and appreciation of God’s creation of species. For him, the lawful nature of the universe, whether one is discussing the birth of stars or of babies, pointed to a divine cause; and if the science told us that the evolution of the cosmos and of life itself took millions upon millions of years to achieve, then this only added to the glory of the creator. It is also clear that at that early stage of his thought, Kook located biological evolution within a tradition of Western natural philosophy, with which, he implied, the faithful Jew should familiarize himself. It is noteworthy that his articulation of theistic evolution was utterly free of any suspicion of the science of evolution and even alluded explicitly to Darwin and to the idea of deep time, that is, to a geological conception of time rather than a biblical one.


2. Primary source (Hebrew) ⇧ top

Abraham Isaac Kook, Li-Nevuchei Ha-Dor. Unpublished manuscript c.1900. (0.2MB, PDF)


3. Primary source (English translation) ⇧ top

Abraham Isaac Kook, For the Perplexed of this Generation. Unpublished manuscript c.1900. Selected excerpts.

[p.10] There are matters which it would be proper not to investigate because they are of the mysteries of the world. And when those of limited understanding see those things in books and do not plumb their depths, they become corrupted in their characters and their faith. Indeed, since in our generation many writers have cast off the yoke of true instruction and have spoken with much pride about things that are of divine concern, we are obliged to clarify, in accordance with the truth of the Torah, the fundamental causes that make frivolous people reverse the order of things, and to show where they are in error, even though this necessity will compel us to explain matters which it would be best to keep concealed and to leave exclusively to wise men whose sound understanding and judgement comes from their knowledge [of Torah].

The great questions of whether the world is new or ancient, and all the theological questions derived from them, have risen again in our day, and the [scientific] enquirers have begun to turn towards such questions in a way that, at first glance, appears to be in opposition to the foundations of faith. It is obvious that despite these [scientific] enquiries offering no proof at all and being nothing but conjecture, such conjecture is nonetheless sufficient to destroy the faith in the hearts of those people who have not the means with which to acquire the knowledge and discernment of faith. And since it will become clear to anyone who examines the matter in depth that, even according to the ways of the new hypotheses, there is nothing that impairs the foundations of the faith, but that, on the contrary, it is possible to establish, in accordance with them [i.e. the foundation of the faith and the new hypotheses], new interpretations [of Torah] regarding certain matters of deep knowledge that are themselves not new. Therefore it is my view that as such things become clear, many hearts will be freed from any agitation of the mind.

The great age [of the world], according to the crude understanding of the ancient philosophers, was a stumbling block to the faithful of Israel. The view that the world with all its creatures has been and exists without any possibility of change, and that there are no signs nor wonders nor any change in [human] behaviour, since all the world’s laws in every detail are always and totally determined, is why Maimonides argued at length that [p.11] Aristotle had failed to offer a solid foundation for this thesis. And since it is doubtful, we go back to the tradition [kabbalah], for it is good for us to be the disciples of Moses and Abraham, especially as the view of the earth as more recent agrees with the ways of ethics [musar] and the paths of justice [tzedek], which is also an indication and a proof and an axiomatic truth of any view. Indeed, the ancient [earth] view in this particular form has long ago ceased and disappeared, and the courses of evolution and the transformation of all that is created appear to us so clearly and indisputably through the latest scientific enquiries that anyone who said today that the world of living things and of man has been [as it is] from the very beginning, would be regarded as a deceiver and a foolish man and as not a part of the civilised community.

The new [evolutionary and cosmological] theories say that we see before us worlds [in our universe] in an on-going process of being improved, from the nothingness of the nothingness [“without form”, Gen. 1:2] towards total perfection and completeness. This being the case, we have no road down which we can turn aside [Num. 20:17] from accepting that this is the case with respect to our world. And to say that the whole world and everything in it came into being all at once, or that it has ever been thus, cannot be countenanced by wisdom nor by experience. Whether physical matter [and the world as such] is ancient or not, says the Khazar, does not challenge the foundations of the faith, because our Torah has never concerned itself with the creation in anything other than its form [i.e. not its matter] (although that this is not the view of several of the great sages of Israel). Evolution that occurs with great gradualness, over milliards of years, is what agitates the hearts of the small-minded. They think that evolution is a reason to deny the existence of the living God, but they are greatly mistaken. The knowledge of God is built solely upon the knowledge of unity [of reality]. When we see the great creation and how it is arranged according to laws of wisdom, and the ways of all living things in their bodies and minds and intelligence and how all is arranged in a single system, then we recognize the great Spirit present here, which gives life to everything and makes all possible. And if the ways of wisdom compel us to acknowledge that this came to pass through evolution over myriads of myriad of years, then we feel the utmost wonder at how great and exalted is God the Eternal, for whom working constantly over myriads of years to produce a desired end are to be reckoned as naught or an instant.

[p.12] Whether God’s law is expressed and fulfilled through free will or determinism is something the sages of all generations have debated. For some it appears that if we admit determinism, then there is no Torah or commandment [mitzvot]. According to the latest investigations, [scientific] theory does indeed tend towards determinism. Even so, it is useful and proper to understand that determinism does not contradict the Torah, except when it is limited to the mechanical laws of nature. But when this [sense of compulsion or determinism] is extended [to include all reality], such as all the rules of justice and evil and righteousness and wickedness, and all the developments that improve the moral resolve of human beings – [when it is understood ] that these, too, are [part of] the totality of universal reality, and that these, too, were established by the very same power that underpins the universal laws of the foundations of reality – then we shall fully acquire the profound understanding that, to the true Presence, the Eternal, we may attribute neither free well no compulsion, since He is above such restrictions. Indeed, it is said of Him: Present [matzu’i] or Being [hoveh]. And since the laws of justice are found at the source of reality, and since the laws of justice demand obligations that are incapable of being interpreted except in the presence of a general will for justice and righteousness, it must be that this law is present through compulsion [i.e. determinism] by the perfect Present One, and therefore the will [i.e. free-will], too, may and must be present.

In the absence of acknowledgement of and gratitude for God’s existence, the spirit of man would remain without glory and splendour. Therefore it is impossible for reality in general to lack that same perfection, which cannot be claimed unless there is free will attending to the welfare of all creatures.

Our meaning in saying “[free] will by the law of God, may He be exalted”, is that it is fit and proper that, through knowledge of God, those qualities will attract us that are fit and proper to have originated from One who acts through [free] will – whose qualities are awe and love and faith and trust, which build human happiness – and it is according to them that God, may He be exalted, is revealed to us as One who acts through [free] will. Therefore we know with certainty that when we speak and think in accordance with the impressions that the divine design of free will must make on us by his law, may He be blessed, and we base all our actions and all the feelings of our hearts on this, then we are following the way of truth. But if we speak and think the opposite, and also set the direction of our intellects and feelings and actions so as to align with the idea of necessity [i.e. strict determinism], this is of the ways of darkness. [p.13] For regarding anything, we are unable to know anything except in its relationship to us, and we can grasp no more. Even in terms of tangible things, we comprehend colours according to the form they generate as a picture [experienced as] our sense of sight; and we comprehend the soft, the hard, the warm, the cold, the light, the heavy, according to what is sensible to us. But do we have any way of describing how all these things are in their own essence? Therefore, it will be understood that the foundation of the knowledge of God’s truth correlates to the extent to which He is present in our minds, and anyone sowing confusion in this regard is both in error and causing error.

[p.14] Chapter 5

That the Torah story of creation is not [to be understood only] according to its plain meaning, but that it has allegorical depths, has already been argued by Maimonides. In any case, this [plain meaning] is not a fundamental principle of Torah. He [Maimonides] has said that if he had had proof of [the world’s] antiquity, he would have explained the writings of the newness [of the world] in the same manner that he explained the writings of the manifestation of God [in the world, that is, by allegory]. Indeed, elsewhere he said that our rejection of [the idea of the world’s unchanging] great age is due not only to the plain reading of the verses, but also due to the contradiction presented by the essential teachings the Torah. [The idea of the world’s unchanging] great age excludes all notions of miracle and change in the normal order of things, and so the pillar upon which rests the foundation of religion might cease to be, God forbid. Yet here it should be clearly understood that the ways of the new [scientific] enquiries, whose contentions are limited to evolution [and not Torah], do not constitute any negation whatsoever of the foundations of the Torah, nor of the writings about creation. If, for example, the critic says that since the physical stuff of the earth has evolved over myriads of years then he does not see the hand of God here; and if he further contends: why this length of time, and why did creation not come into existence instantaneously? We would answer him regarding this with good sense and wisdom, that [the idea of] evolution and the gradual progress in the organization of reality have never problematized our knowledge of God, but that they have rather brought us closer to Him with love and an uplifted soul. We see the causes and effects [of evolution and gradual progress] in action before our eyes each day. And since we see that they function with a marvellous order and with much wisdom and grace and compassion, we recognise [in them] the One who accomplishes, who gives life to all, and who is the living God, and the source of all wisdom and support, grace and mercy. What is the difference between the evolution of the starry spheres and the worlds over myriads of years, and the evolution of the fetus within its mother over months? And yet we understand that ‘Wondrous are Your deeds and my soul surely knows... that I was created in a secret place [and] formed in the very bottom of the earth, Your eyes have seen my unformed substance and in Your book all shall be written’ [Ps. 139:14-15]. All the more so if we consider the processes of evolution through which the organic parts [p.15] have risen from basic elements to the state of being in a perfect human being, alive and intelligent and also righteous and just and great in strength and glory. Behold, the age is long and the [evolutionary] process is slow, and it is precisely this that testifies to us the power of God, as these processes move towards a righteous goal. And it is plain to all those with knowledge of Torah, that the time of creation has not been explained in the Torah except in relatively unimportant way. Our Sages of blessed memory have said in Midrash Rabba: ‘it is impossible to reveal the deeds of creation to flesh and blood, therefore the verse said with concealed meaning, “In the beginning God created”’. The heart of the matter is that the Torah does not refer to anything other than that which concerns our earth, and, even then, it is concerned to bring about a better understanding of morality, which concerns improving man’s ways, both his social behaviour and his inner emotions.

When we consider [the history of] the creation of our earth from the point where the Torah begins to recount it, we will find that it was without order, and, due to the thick profusion of heavy mists and vapours, it was full of water and darkness. And the first stage was that these mists became slightly less thick, to the extent that some light broke through, but the air was not sufficiently clear for the luminaries to be observed through it. Therefore, only light was created, as regards our earth, and the actual luminaries are not reckoned to have been created so far as [the biblical account of] our earth is concerned; if a human being had stood on it at that time, he would not have realised that there were luminaries. Morning and evening did indeed take place, however, due to the rotation of the earth, and following this, the air became worthy of the name “firmament”, although the humidity was very great above the atmosphere, and could have been perceived if a human being had stood upon the earth at that time. And following that: the gathering of the waters of the earth to one place and the development of [plant] growth. And then: the refining of the air to the extent of allowing the luminaries to be seen clearly, and for human intellectual development so that they could appreciate the motion of the heavenly lights. And only then did the air become fit for living things, and there were created the flying animals that fly where the air is sufficiently fine, and the fish, for which the purity of the air was not so important. Subsequently, when the air was finally purified, it became suitable for the creation of the animals that move on the earth, and of man. Now, is it not written in the Torah “and God made on the first day”, “and God made on the second day”, etc, but the [creative] deeds were staged [p.16] in a correct and gradual order, and for every division it mentions “and the evening and the morning with the first day”, “the second day”, etc, which is the same to us whether we interpret ‘the deed’ to refer to a full day of 24 hours, or whether the Torah conceals how much time was given for each improvement. What should be understood is that all was arranged according to an order and an intention and preparation that is conducive for the divine purposes of wisdom and justice, [namely], towards [the goal of] human perfection. The seventh day being dedicated to remembrance of creation [ma’aseh bereshit], the six overall divisions can be regarded as six actual days. There is no difficulty [in understanding it either way] from the writings, nor from the obligation to observe the Sabbath, since this is for the purpose of addressing man’s interior world.

But even if we go further in interpreting as an allegory the creation of man, his placement in the Garden of Eden, the giving of the names and the constructing of the rib, there is nothing here in opposition to the foundational truths of the Torah, if the meaning is that, after man developed his high degree of consciousness, his feelings began to develop towards goodness and justice and also towards kindness and beauty, and that he found earth to be a paradise, and that through his own nature and inner feeling, he became conscious of the relationship between himself and his Creator. His mind found itself in accordance with his inner consciousness – which also grew most vigorously in correlation with the strength of his natural soul [nefesh], which had not become unclean through being preoccupied with material needs – and he rightly cleaved to the instinctive knowledge that led him not to stir up his passions too much. And, in fact, this was revealed to him, in accordance with the purity of his natural soul; this moral knowledge accorded closely with [the views of] his intellect and with the full strength of the power of his imagination – for it is in both of them [i.e. inner consciousness and intellect] becoming perfected together, that the prophecy is found. Therefore, as soon as the relationship between him and his Creator, who instructed him in the ways of goodness, awoke and stirred, the word of God was revealed to him: “of every tree of the garden thou mayest freely eat” [Gen. 2:16]. Only of one tree, the tree of the knowledge of good and evil, in which he discerned instinctively the power to increase the excitement of his desires and to leave behind his natural peace, [only] from this came the stumbling block of doubting peace and [doubting that] the guide pointed to the righteous way, and [a desire] to test evil to see if it might not be evil, and to turn away from evil only after becoming aware through knowledge and feeling that it was indeed evil. And from this have followed all the historical developments that have [p.17] taught man the knowledge of evil in the full depth of its bitterness. But how many evil things shall he suffer as a result, unfathomably, which were not necessary in the state of natural peace to which he was prepared, to know only goodness[?] At this point, man started to feel a need for a relationship between himself and his Creator, in a manner intimately connected with the need to protect the purity of his nature, and he had not yet attained to the notion of family life, nor correct relationship with the rest of the animals. After that, his perception developed to the extent of understanding the relationship of the rest of the animals, “and whatsoever Adam called every living creature, that was the name thereof” [Gen. 2:19], and to becoming conscious of his superiority over them. Then he began to feel the need for family life, “but for Adam there was not found an helpmeet for him” [Gen. 2:20]. While absorbed in contemplation, a deep sleep fell over him, and he saw in a vision that the woman who was with him had been taken from his ribs. The basis of family life is to recognise that only through the two of them can the [familial] edifice be achieved; it is not for the purpose of being only “a help” for the benefit of one alone, but for the completion of both. And this he grasped through the impression made upon him through the vision in his sleep. Since that point, that individual began to become conscious of the value of family life in its purity. Indeed, their natural state and close relationship with the animals brought them to an understanding of the animals’ behaviour; and the animals, too, especially the more subtle, understood that man could be influenced. Therefore the serpent, wishing to cause him harm, began, in accordance with its nature, to excite feelings of desire in the heart of woman for the fruit of that tree, and breached the wall of peace, and, initially, desire overpowered the wish for natural peace, and from this came about all of life’s conflicts. In the state of peace, there is need for neither toil nor the effects of suffering in order to strengthen morality, because truth, justice and the knowledge of God are self-evident and simple notions for anyone who has not breached the wall of natural peace in his soul, and thus neither illness nor death would have been required. The body might have continued to serve the soul until that time when its allotted task was completed, and would then have left it in joy [p.18] and gladness; or, the state of peace and the purity of natural life, both spiritual and physical, would have brought about the absence of any separation of spirit and body. There would certainly be no human overcrowding. With the abundance brought about by gradual improvement, new ways would be discovered to settle the many stars and numberless worlds. Love of one’s children would have come [naturally] through reason, which would not need to be aided by labour pains, as is the nature of every thing that becomes precious through the hardship involved in its attainment. Indeed, when the state of peace was disturbed, the human powers began to break out beyond their boundaries, following the desire for pleasure rather than for natural peace. Then they recognised their nakedness, and began to feel remorse with all its anguish. And the strong feeling and the power of natural reason, which was still alive, together with the imaginative power which was not yet dimmed, meant that prophecy [or direct communication with God] was easily possible; and if, through their natural feeling, they made themselves coverings [Gen. 3:7], it was to hide themselves from the Voice of God. At that point the distance between the animals and man was established, for he [man] removed himself from them to a great distance by leaving the peace of nature in which they still exist. And hatred for the species of the snake became embedded in man’s mind, to its detriment and to that of the animals, [for before] when man was close to them he had elevated them. And it became necessary for the state of women to change, so as to restrict the increase in the disturbance of peace by the desire for ephemeral pleasure, and it became necessary for the burden of life to be very heavy, and with death – also necessary – to put an end, at any rate, to this unnatural state. And through their increase in knowledge and consciousness, God made them coats of skins by His hand [Gen. 4:21], and by that act the rupture started to heal. But this road of healing was to be very long, and laden with very great suffering.

Now, this transition was undertaken by one species of all the living creatures, in that it improved itself in such a manner that it became worthy of being called a human being. And these spiritual reasons caused a great breach to be made between him and the other living things. And this individual is historic man, whose history the Torah recounts from this point onwards with total accuracy. Therefore, the new [scientific] enquiries, even those which follow Darwin’s view, although it is only conjecture, do not contradict at all any part whatsoever of the Torah. The essence of the Torah is only that we recognise that all the great changes – since [p.19] they are arranged with wisdom and are orientated towards grace and compassion – are made with knowledge and wisdom, and issue from the source of life and perfection and divine wisdom, which drives the entire process of gradual progression. But it is not possible in any way for anything to be absent that is necessary for the most complete, perfect progression, which is the progression of man’s soul [ruach] and his perfect consciousness, until his return to his natural peace and his Garden of Eden, but in a yet more perfect way, and Eden not yet seen by the eye of any man. And all has been prepared in advance, [that is,] the power of the soul [nefesh] and the preparation for prophecy, and the possibility of miracles at their appropriate time, for every age in accordance with the need to perfect the human soul and life. And it is only through lack of understanding that the perplexed of our generation think that the theory of evolution according to Kant, Laplace, and Darwin, and other scholars of this time, will bring with it the destruction of the Torah, God forbid. Our holy Torah, in its entirety, with all its historical traditions and teachings [kabbalah] will not be shaken in the slightest by any criticism. And if rational discernment confirms the truth of those [evolutionary] hypotheses, and all the more so if they produce decisive proof, it will only help in elucidating aspects of the story of creation found in the Torah in terms compatible with reason. But the historical truth and the knowledge of God, and with it the duty to observe the entire Torah in every detail, will not be obliged to change even slightly due to the impact of the new knowledge and enquiries. On the contrary, they will widen knowledge still further, and expand the concepts of the knowledge of God and love for Him and awe of Him, and will increase the desire to follow goodness and justice which are the ways of God, with great benefit.

To sum up, even though the theory of the most recent philosophers and researchers does not yet represent an unavoidable challenge, [yet,] this generation is turning towards their theories, which appear to be valid according to certain recent experiments and proofs, and they [the theories] have already succeeded in destroying the faith of Torah in the hearts of erring youngsters, and of all the people with similar weakness of understanding and lack of proper discernment. Therefore it is our duty to explain that, even were all these scientific researches to be confirmed, they would have nothing to do with the roots or the branches of the Torah, but only offer comments that clarified the mysterious section [parshah] about creation [ma’aseh bereshit], for our Sages have already said: ‘to reveal the power of creation to flesh and blood is not possible, therefore the verse concealed the meaning of “In the beginning [p.20] God created”’. And the kabbalists in particular have explained, relying on the words of the midrash, that ‘the Holy One, blessed be He, has constructed worlds and destroyed them, because creation has gone through a number of cycles before arriving at its present state; but the real point is only to acquire enlightenment, because justice and righteousness are placed in man’s hand and he must choose. In the totality of the riches of reality can be found all the necessary means for achieving man’s perfection. And the ways of perfecting human righteousness are the supreme goal of reality, which is continually being built in accordance with all ways of life, and with the progress of history in general, and the history of the people of Israel in particular.


4. Select bibliography ⇧ top

Bergman, Samuel Higo. "On Reality in God." In Essays on the Thought and Philosophy of Rabbi Kook, edited by Ezra Gellman. New York: Cornwall Books, 1991.

Cherry, Michael Shai. "Creation, Evolution and Jewish Thought." Doctoral thesis, Brandeis University, 2001.

Cherry, Shai. "Three Twentieth-Century Jewish Responses to Evolutionary Theory." Aleph 3, (2003): 247-290.

Kook, Abraham Isaac. "Li-Nevuchei Ha-Dor [for the Perplexed of This Generation]." http://kavvanah.files.wordpress.com/2010/05/kook-nevuchai.pdf, c.1900, 2010.

Kook, Abraham Isaac. Orot Ha-Kodesh [Lights of Holiness]. Jerusalem: Mossad Ha-Rav Kook, 1938, 1985.

Kook, Abraham Isaac. Orot Ha-Teshuvah [Lights of Penitence]. Jerusalem: Mossad Ha-Rav Kook, 1925, 1985.

Kook, Abraham Isaac. Shemonah Kevatzim [Eight Notebooks]. 2 vols. Jerusalem: n.p., c.1910, 2004.

Kook, Abraham Isaac. "Talele Orot [Fragments of Light]." Takhemoni 1, (1910).

Kook, Abraham Isaac, and Ben Zion Bokser. Abraham Isaac Kook: The Lights of Penitence, Lights of Holiness, the Moral Principles, Essays, Letters and Poems. London: SPCK, 1979.

Kook, Abraham Isaac. The Essential Writings of Abraham Isaac Kook. New York: Amity House, 1988.

Kook, Abraham Isaac, and Tzvi Yehudah Kook, eds. Letters of Rav Kook [Hebrew]. Jerusalem: Mossad Ha-Rav Kook, 1967.

Kook, Abraham Isaac, and Boaz Ofen, eds. Kevatzim Mi-Ktav Yad Kadsho [Notebooks Written by His Holy Hand, C.1904]. Jerusalem: Makhon le-Hotzaat Ginzei ha-Reayah, 2006.

Langton, Daniel. "Abraham Isaac Kook's Account of 'Creative Evolution': A Response to Modernity for the Sake of Zion." Melilah: Manchester Journal of Jewish Studies 10 (2013): 1-11.

Ross, Tamar. "What Would Rav Kook Have to Say About the State of Israel Today?" In Rabbi Abraham Isaak Kook and Jewish Spirituality, edited by Lawrence J Kaplan and David Shatz. New York, London: New York University Press, 1995.

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