Science in Christian Perspective


Toldot Adam: A Little-Known Chapter
in the History of Darwinism

Edward O. Dodson

Department of Biology
University of Ottawa 
Ottawa, Ontario, Canada K1N 6N5

From: Perspectives on Science and Christian Faith 52 (March 2000): 47-54.

In his autobiography, Darwin mentioned an essay in Hebrew which showed that his theory of evolution "is contained in the Old Testament." Naphtali Halevi (or Lewy) argued in Toldot Adam that Hebrew word choices in the Torah favored evolution, as did some passages in the Midrash Rabbah and the Talmud. Although his argument is not entirely convincing, he proposed interesting alternative interpretations of many biblical texts. Collectively, they suggest that the supposed irreconcilable contradictions between evolution and biblical creation are exaggerated because of an inadequate understanding of the Hebrew text.

Charles Darwin wrote of the reception of The Origin of Species that "even an essay in Hebrew has appeared on it, showing that the theory is contained in the Old Testament!"1 Darwin did not cite the essay, which has remained obscure and untranslated.2 In the voluminous literature on the apparent conflict between Genesis and evolution, this essay has rarely if ever been cited, yet it is evidently germane to the subject.

In 1876, Naphtali Lewy sent Darwin a copy of his book, Toldot Adam, and a covering letter, both in Hebrew. As Darwin could not read Hebrew, he asked Henry Bradshaw, librarian at Cambridge University, to have the letter translated.3

This incident is one of the few contacts Darwin had with nineteenth century Jewry, then leaving the ghettos for integration into the intellectual, political, and social life of Europe. Lewy hoped to lead his people to the security of a new Promised Land of scientific modernity, protected from assimilation by the link that he believed he had demonstrated between the Torah of divine revelation and the torah (theory) of Darwinian evolution. Thus, this incident offers an illuminating glimpse of the interaction of religion, social conditions, and scientific perspectives.

The Author and his Background

On the title page and on the letter of 1878,4 the author's name is given as Naphtali Lewy, but on the translation of the letter of 1876, it is given as "Naphtali Hallevi [i.e., the Levite]." In Toldot Adam, he referred to his father as "Pinchas Ze'ev Halewy." Finally, Kressel cites him as "Naftali Halevi."5 Halevi will be used below.

Halevi was born in Kolo, Poland, on September 12, 1840. His father was an important man in the Jewish community, a dayan (judge) of the Jewish court. The young Naphtali pursued Judaic studies (Torah, Talmud, and Hebrew) under the tutelage of his father and several rabbis of the Auerbach family, among them Rabbi Meir Auerbach, who later settled in Palestine and became a prominent rabbi in Jerusalem. Subsequently, Halevi went to Posen (Poznan) for secular studies, including science and modern languages. There, he was a student of Rabbi Solomon Platzner.

From 1860 to 1867, Halevi lived in Radom, Poland, where he tutored the children of a rich family. He was also a successful merchant, but toward the end of his years in Radom, he lost his fortune. In 1877, he moved to England, where he ventured into publishing newspapers: first The Londoner Israelite in Yiddish, then Hakeren (The Vineyard) in Hebrew. But both soon failed. He then returned to commerce and was sufficiently successful that he was able to retire and devote his last years to scholarship, particularly to Judaic studies. He wrote prolifically in German, English, Yiddish, and Hebrew. He died in Southport, near Manchester, on May 25, 1894.

Halevi wrote in maskil Hebrew, a dialect of the Maskilim, advocates of the Jewish Enlightenment (see below). Over the centuries, Hebrew had become significantly different from that of biblical times. Maskil Hebrew was at once an attempt to restore biblical Hebrew and a first step toward modern Hebrew. Halevi's style was florid and verbose. Although Hebrew is a concise language, requiring only about a third as many words as does English to express the same idea, Halevi wrote very long, involved sentences, the beginning and end of which may be only tenuously related. Second, he quoted the Bible extensively. His 1876 letter to Darwin was less than one page in Hebrew, yet in so short a space there were no fewer than nineteen biblical quotations! One was a single word from a verse that otherwise had no relevance to his message. A final characteristic of Halevi's style was adulation of science and especially of Darwin, whom he addressed as "... the Lord, the Prince, who 'stands for an ensign of the people' (Isa. 11:10), the Investigator of the generation, the 'bright son of the morning' (Isa. 14:12), Charles Darwin, may he long live!"

In 1868, Ha-Shahar (The Dawn) was first issued in Vienna. Over the next sixteen years, twelve volumes were published. In 1874, they published Halevi's essay, "Toldot Adam," which was also privately published as a book. The journal editor stated in Vol. 1 that Ha-Shahar would promote Haskalah, the Hebrew language, Jewish nationalism, and Jewish colonization of Eretz Israel, the land of Israel.

Some comments on Haskalah are necessary. The word means enlightenment. Haskalah was an extension to the Jewish community of the Enlightenment movement in European philosophy. Previously, European Jews had been confined to ghettos.6

They were not citizens of the countries in which they lived; indeed, citizenship was considered inconsistent with the messianic faith that one day the Messiah would lead all Jews in a triumphant return to the Holy Land. Although Jews were not admitted to the universities, Jewish communities maintained their own schools, in which the curriculum centered on the Torah (the Pentateuch), the Talmud, and the Hebrew language. The language of prayer was always Hebrew, while the social language was Yiddish, written in Hebrew characters. Yiddish is based on Middle High German, but it includes many Semitic words, both Hebrew and Aramaic. Commonly, Jews did not speak the language of the surrounding population. They had their own courts. The law often specified professions forbidden for Jews, but even where this was not the case, they were usually restricted to commerce and finance. Thus, Jewish communities were highly isolated.

Against this background, the Enlightenment saw reason as the most important attribute of humanity and the bond among humans. Since Jews shared this characteristic, they should have been welcomed to share in the intellectual life of the Enlightenment. Haskalah, the Jewish Enlightenment, sought to break down the barriers and bring Jews fully into the intellectual life of Europe. G. E. Lessing, a German philosopher and man of letters, wrote much in support of the integration of the Jews, and he highly valued the friendship of Moses Mendelssohn (1729-1786), the father and hero of Haskalah. With N. H. Wessely, Mendelssohn and others advocated schools based on the principles of Haskalah. Such schools emphasized modern languages, science, and other secular subjects, as well as traditional Judaic subjects.

All of this had political and social consequences. In 1782, Emperor Joseph II issued the Edict of Tolerance, which repealed the anti-Jewish laws of the Holy Roman Empire. It opened all trades and professions to Jews, and it offered them great educational opportunities. It was the first of a series of acts that in time achieved political integration of the Jewish communities of Europe.

Halevi himself tried to walk a fine line between Haskalah
and orthodoxy, a difficult feat. While emphasizing his roots in orthodoxy, he advocated ideas that were more congenial to the Maskilim.

Mendelssohn and Wessely believed that it was feasible to combine devout Judaism with participation in the intellectual life of the Enlightenment. Not all Jews agreed. Many believed that those who had one foot in each culture would soon compromise their Jewish faith and observance. Their concerns were confirmed when some of the Maskilim asked for the inclusion of some prayers in German, and for other changes in the Jewish service to accommodate the spirit of the times. When Wessely published his proposals for education of Jewish youth, Rabbi Moses Sofer replied in sorrow and indignation:

... But now insignificant foxes have risen up ... men who do not submit to the yoke of heaven ... nullify the covenant ... through devious schemes ... they have added to and deleted from the text of prayers ... and significantly the majority of their prayers are in ... German. He who repudiates the oral law ... is classed with atheists ... these men neither anticipate nor believe ... the words of our prophets concerning the building of the Third Temple and the coming of the Messiah ... communal prayer in a language other than the Holy Tongue is completely reprehensible ...7

Mendes-Flohr and Reinharz rank Sofer among the milder of the traditionalists who protested against the reforms.

For a century, Haskalah was a major factor in the development of Jewish culture. It resulted in the division of Judaism into orthodox, conservative, and reform branches. It culminated in the intellectual, social, and political integration of Jews that characterizes much of the Western world today. In short, it prepared the way for the role of the Jews in today's society.

Sofer saw Haskalah as a threat to the integrity of Jewish worship, but an even greater danger was assimilation. It was this that most aroused the antipathy of Jewish traditionalists. It is noteworthy that most of the children and grandchildren of Moses Mendelssohn (including his grandson, Felix, the great composer) became Christians. Halevi himself tried to walk a fine line between Haskalah and orthodoxy, a difficult feat. While emphasizing his roots in orthodoxy, he advocated ideas that were more congenial to the Maskilim.

Toldot Adam

"The purpose of this inquiry is to show the meaning of creation according to our great teacher, Moses."8 Halevi believed that evolution was adumbrated in the Torah, hence he devoted much of his essay to an analysis of the Torah and to commentaries on it in the Midrash Rabbah (Jewish treatises on the Torah and other books of the Bible, written between the fourth and twelfth centuries A.D.).

In 1876, Halevi wrote in his letter to Darwin that his purpose was:

to teach the children of my people, the seed of Jacob, the Torah (instruction) which thou hast given ... and when my people perceive that thy view has by no means "gone astray" (Num. 5:12) from the Torah of God, they will hold thy name in the highest reverence and at the same time "glorify the God of Israel" (Isa. 29:23).

To paraphrase, he believed that he had shown harmony between the Torah and the Darwinian theory of evolution. In the conclusion of Toldot Adam, he wrote:

Among the youth ... who hold the theory of Darwinism, I have seen those who do not praise the faith of the Creator, and who believe only in materialism, and do not know that ... Darwinism only broadens the limits of creation, and it ascribes high attainment to the sublime Creator ...9

Finally, Halevi sought to show that the harmony of the Torah of God and the torah of evolution should strengthen faith in the Creator and protect his people against assimilation.

The title, Toldot Adam, may be a play on words. The annual liturgical readings of the Torah are divided into weekly portions, one of which begins "Aileh toledoth10 Noah," or "these are the generations of Noah." Halevi may have inferred that he had now carried this back to Adam!

Of the six chapters of the essay, the first three comprise a long introduction. Chapters two and three introduce the scientific method, largely with astronomical and physical examples. Halevi then concludes that humankind is the most essential part of nature, because without humans, nature would not know its own existence.

Halevi's thesis can be considered in three great phases: (1) physicochemical evolution, by which the physical universe was developed, culminating in the origin of life; (2) biological evolution, generating the enormous variety of life, culminating in the origin of humans; and (3) psychosocial evolution of humankind.

Physicochemical Evolution

Halevi saw the evolution of the physical universe in terms of dok, a Hebrew word that is not readily translated. It means fineness, thinness, or curtain; poetically, the heavens. The word is not used in Genesis, but only in Isa. 40:22, "He stretcheth out the heavens like a curtain (dok) ..." A related Hebrew root, davak, means sticking together. Halevi visualized a primitive universe of extremely dispersed matter gradually drawn together by gravity, then adhering together to form the heavenly bodies.

Halevi visualized a primitive universe of extremely 
dispersed matter gradually drawn together by gravity, 
then adhering together to form the heavenly bodies.

"God created the heavens and the earth, and the earth was void and empty, and darkness was upon the face of the deep; and the spirit of God moved over the waters" (Gen. 1:1-2). The Torah portrays the world at first as a ball of gas, which became liquid, then cooled and formed a solid crust. All of this is encompassed in the words tohu and bohu, translated as "void and empty" in the Douai version and as "without form and void" in the King James version. Scholars do not agree on the correct meaning of these words. Halevi believed that waters meant primitive matter collectively, while bohu indicated solidification of the crust. The earth, the other planets, and the stars all float in space, which the Torah calls tehom, usually translated as "deep" or "abyss." Halevi used torah to mean theory. Did he thereby try to strengthen his theory by relating it to the Torah, the divine law? Perhaps. He loved a play on words. His dok cosmology is clever, but the absence of the word from Genesis weakens his argument; it contrasts strongly with modern big bang cosmology.

Biological Evolution

Halevi touched on the history of life very lightly in a summary that was inadequate, even in 1874. He believed that animals were derived from plants because fossil plants "hundreds of millions of years older than animals" were known, and because plants like Volvox have chlorophyll, yet are mobile like animals. Also animals like corals are predators, although fixed in the environment, suggesting transition from plant to animal. He observed progression from simple to complex invertebrates, and finally to mammals and humans.

Halevi believed that the Torah hinted at vast expanses of time before plants existed. Terem is usually translated as "before," but he says that it is vague and may designate long periods, even geological ages. In Gen. 2:5, "And every plant of the field before (terem) it was in the earth, and every herb of the field before (terem) it grew; for the Lord God had not caused it to rain upon the earth, and there was not a man to till the ground," Halevi saw the evolution of the entire plant kingdom and the geological ages required! Rashi, however, emphasized that terem here meant "not yet," so that the verse should read, "and every plant of the field had not yet grown ...11 Could Halevi's interpretation be maintained with Rashi's reading of terem? The translator believes that the indefiniteness of terem still permits Halevi's interpretation.

Halevi thought that "there went up a mist from the earth, and watered the whole face of the ground" (Gen. 2:6) meant that nature carpeted the earth with plants. Since plants use carbon dioxide, release oxygen, and fix nitrogen, they prepare the habitat for animals and humans, and train them to evolve. Thus, plants act as the natural mother of humans. Halevi thought that the Torah suggested all of this by the "mist that went up from the earth." He found this interpretation confirmed in the Midrash.

Neanderthal remains were first found in 1848, and Cro-Magnon remains at Les Eyzies in 1868, but Halevi mentioned neither. He did write about skeletons found in Danish kitchen middens and in the Mississippi delta, for both of which he accepted dates of 30,000 years B.P. Such antiquity helped him to accept an evolutionary origin of humans.

When the Torah speaks of the actions (ma'aseh) of the Lord, it means transformation, variation, or the emergence of species by the laws of nature. Moses wrote: "Bara Elohim la'asot," translated "God created and made" in the King James version, but "God created to make" would be more accurate. The words were carefully chosen, for la'asot and ma'aseh are derived from the same root. What science calls transformation, the Torah calls yatsor, as in Gen. 2:7, "The Lord formed man ...," that is, he gave changed form to pre-existing matter (cheres, clay or matter). "Shall the work (yotsar) say to him that made it (yotser) 'Thou madest me not?'" In German, this suggests formen or bilden (to give form to something). From this root, we find "tsiyur charsei tsirim," "makers of idols"; "nahafchu tsirai 'alai" (Dan. 10:16), "my sorrows are turning upon me"; and "neither is there any rock (tsur12) like our God" (1 Sam. 2:2), which our ancestors explained as "neither is there any artist (tsayyar) like our God, who draws a picture within a picture." These phrases suggest progressive change, especially if, as Halevi believed, the words for form, picture, sorrow, and rock all have the same root. This has been disputed because Hebrew roots normally have three letters, while some of these words have only two. Nonetheless, the same consonants are repeated, and to Halevi this suggested relationship. The translator found the argument persuasive in Hebrew, but not in English, for the roots are unrelated.

Halevi was confident that Jews of biblical times
understood that the
nefesh chayyah of newly created humans was
that of an animal.

Halevi noted that all scientific authorities derive Homo sapiens from apes, and between the lines of the Talmud, he found that humans resemble apes in body and in sin. "And man became a living soul" (nefesh chayyah, [Gen. 2:7]). Commenting on this verse in the Midrash, Rabbi Yehuda said that God made humans a tail, then took it away because of his honor. (Embryos of all primates develop a tail, but the tails of humans and great apes are resorbed before birth.) Halevi considered the tail to be a hallmark of animal origin. He returned repeatedly to the phrase nefesh chayyah, translated as "living soul," but he stressed that chayyah alone usually refers to lower animals. He was confident that Jews of biblical times understood that the nefesh chayyah of newly created humans was that of an animal.

Psychosocial Evolution of Humankind

The newly created nefesh chayyah lived like other animals for thousands of generations. "Our Torah does not count this time, but in it, a thousand years are as one day ... It is a cornerstone of our article that all that was created in six days needed further work--even man."Lewy, "13 What we call instinct, the Torah calls nefesh chayyah. It is the source of obligatory will, not of free will. The root nefesh is found in several verses. Gen. 23:8, "im yesh nafsheichem," is translated as "if it be in your mind," and Deut. 21:11, "veshalachta la-nafshah," is translated as "and hast a desire unto her." In these verses, the root means "will." Isa. 5:14, "herchiva She'ol nafshah," is translated as "hell hath enlarged herself." Soul (nefesh) without knowledge is instinct. Thus, nefesh chayyah means that humans were like animals, without choice or free will. Halevi found this confirmed in the Midrash Rabbah (chap. 14).

For Halevi, migration was a key process of evolution because it exposed organisms to new selective forces. This led to "perfection," a common idea among nineteenth century advocates of evolution. He found a suggestion in Gen. 2:8 that humans originated far to the east, then migrated to Eden. The garden was flowing with rivers, ever the ferries for plant migration, thus making the garden truly Eden (delight). Halevi believed that the phrase, "And the Lord God took man" (Gen. 2:5), was understood in biblical times in terms of migration. Isa. 14:2, "And the people shall take them and bring them to their place (lekishah)" clearly refers to transferring people from place to place. Num. 33:11, "I took thee to curse mine enemies," similarly means, "I took thee from thy place and brought thee here ..." Therefore, Halevi found migration to be important both in biblical history and in human evolution.

"And He put him in the Garden of Eden to dress it and keep it" (more literally, "to work it and guard it") (Gen. 2:15). This phrase hides the struggle for survival. In Eden humans were enemies to the animals that were already there. The struggle for life includes interdependencies, as predator and prey. Growth of a species is limited by the scarcity of food and by predators. The struggle for existence taught humans how to succeed and to leave descendants in Eden. Necessity and competition brought them knowledge and understanding. They had to work the garden and guard it against competitors.

The Torah treats the knowledge of the sources of food as the first gift to primitive humans: "Of every tree of the garden thou shalt eat." But this gift to the nefesh chayyah was conditional: "But of the tree of knowledge of good and evil thou shalt not eat. For in what day soever thou shalt eat of it, thou shalt die the death" (Gen. 2:17). As long as humans were only nefesh chayyah, they were protected from the knowledge of death. After they disobeyed, they knew that they must die. God commanded; humans did not listen (or obey: sham'a may mean either). The Torah attributes all acts of nature directly to God. If the commanding voice is instinct as humans emerged to a life of understanding, then they turned their back on instinct and made a free choice. To the Lawgiver, this is "the fall of man"; to the philosopher, it is the beginning of moral life. Humans now knew that death hunts them down. They might have been happier without this knowledge, which diminished the sense of success of this nefesh chayyah that had lived in the land for thousands of years.

For Halevi, migration was
a key process of evolution 
because it exposed organisms to new selective forces.

The origin of language was very important in human evolution. Halevi found it mentioned in Gen. 2:19, "... He brought them to Adam to see what he would call them; and whatsoever Adam called every living thing, that was the name thereof." Halevi discussed the origin of language at length, largely in terms of onomatopoeia, with many examples from Hebrew and German. Beyond that, his hypotheses are no longer tenable.

Finally, Halevi turned to the origin of marriage and the family. Primitively, women were more abundant that men (perhaps even more so than today), so several women, called helpers or help- meets ('ezer ke-negdo, literally, helper against him, which rings true in Hebrew but not in English), joined one man and demanded shelter. In return, they offered him tenderness, repose, and lovemaking. Adam did not consciously choose a mate. Our Torah, ascribing all acts of nature to God, says: "And the Lord God caused a deep sleep to fall upon Adam" (literally, "the man"). The lust that caused that sleep is hidden in the Divine Presence. In the Midrash Rabbah (chap. 17), the word for women is tsla'ot (plural of tsela', rib), alluding to the formation of Eve from one of Adam's ribs. According to this Midrash text, tsela' is a synonym for woman. Continuing in Genesis, "He took one of his ribs (i.e., one of his women) and closed up the flesh thereof." Thus, Adam chose one woman to be his mate. There is a play on words here in Hebrew that is impossible in English.

The Torah may favor multiplication of savage humans in the primitive world, but from among thousands, one couple gave rise to perfected (evolved?) humankind. At first, man did not recognize the child of that marriage as his as well as hers. Attainment of that knowledge is another important step in evolution. The verb to build also means to have sons. In Hebrew, it consists of three letters: bet-nun-he. Here in Genesis, the word has two letters, bet-nun. Son consists of the same two letters, so there is again a play on words that is lost in English. Ibaneh (Gen. 15:2) has the same root, as do ben and bat (son and daughter). Seeing the sons built from his wife and himself, he exclaimed, "Bone of my bone! Flesh of my flesh!" From now on, 'ezer and tsela' are not words for his mate. Man (ish) and woman (ishshah) are united in marriage (ishshut). Again, there is a subtle play on words, all based on the same root, that is not possible in English.

The Midrash Rabbah (chap. 18) comments on the word vayyiben in Gen. 2:22, "And he built ..." God built in Eve chambers so that she could conceive children, and he taught her to understand (binah, from the same root as vayyiben). Verse 24 says, "Therefore shall a man leave his father and his mother, and cleave unto his wife, and they shall be one flesh." This means that they shall cleave to the place where both form one flesh, wrote the Midrash author. In the final verse, "they were both naked, and were not ashamed." Boshet can mean either "shame" or "the pubic area."

Halevi ended his essay with some generalities, a quotation of the final paragraph from The Origin of Species, and a plea for toleration of his ideas, which, although they may sound strange to those whose education was traditional, are offered for the benefit of his people. For a range of Jewish reactions to Darwinism, see Cohen,14 Dubin,15 and Swetlitz.16

Evaluation and Conclusions

Translation tends to lose the subtleties and inferences of the original language. In every language, there are idioms that cannot be exactly translated into other languages. In the Bible in particular, because it is presented as the inspired Word of God, specific word choices from a group of near synonyms may have profound importance for interpretation. Rabbi Sofer wrote that "our sages of blessed memory said that the world was created in Hebrew." Accordingly, subtleties of Old Testament texts may be hidden from those who cannot read Hebrew. Similarly, the New Testament is most meaningful to those who read it in Greek.

Halevi's argument depends upon the subtleties of Hebrew vocabulary, for he believed that some of the word choices in the Torah were favorable to evolutionary interpretation. Because he was profoundly convinced of the truth of modern science and especially of Darwinism, and because he was committed to the Torah as the Word of God, he believed that we could render due honor to Moses, who transmitted the Torah, only if we admit that the words of the Torah were indeed chosen to adumbrate evolution.

Halevi's argument depends upon the subtleties of Hebrew vocabulary ...

Physicochemical evolution Halevi envisioned in terms of dok, tohu, and bohu. The tenuous gas (dok) of primitive space (tehom) first condensed to form a liquid ball, then a solid crust of earth (tohu and bohu). Difficulties with this scheme, which was plausible in 1874, include the absence of the word dok from Genesis and doubts about the exact meanings of tohu and bohu.

Halevi's treatment of biological evolution was inadequate even in his day. For the most part, he did not attempt to find it in the Torah, except for the hint of plant evolution in Gen. 2:5. He assumed that phylogeny was so well attested by science that it must be accepted as true. He found hints of the derivation of humans from apes in the Talmud and Midrash. In the latter, he found the statement that a human was first given a tail, then it was taken away "because of his honor." Embryology supports the fact, if not the explanation. Halevi considered the tail to be a direct link to lower animals.

Perhaps Halevi's most emphatic point is the designation of the newly created human as nefesh chayyah, and he emphasized that chayyah unmodified means a lower animal. He concluded that the phrase inferred origin from animal forbears, and he found this confirmed in the Midrash. Another emphatic point is the distinction between bri'ah and yotsar, both of which are translated as "to create." Creation ex nihilo, as in Gen. 1:1, is always bri'ah, whereas creation from previously existing materials is yotsar. In Gen. 1:27 and 2:7, yotsar is used for the creation of Adam (the man). Taking this with nefesh chayyah, Halevi concluded that the pre-existing material from which God made Adam was a lower primate. However, bri'ah is used for the creation of humans in Gen. 5:1-2, so there is some overlap in word choice. Traditionally, exegetes had held that yotsar was used because humans were molded from inanimate matter. In contrast, Halevi argued that the sacred text favored living intermediates between inanimate matter and humans, that is, evolution of Homo sapiens.

Halevi treated psychosocial evolution in great detail. His ideas on the origin of free will and moral life, on the relationships between the sexes, and on the origin of marriage and the family are interesting and original. Some of them may even be right!

Halevi's major argument, however, is that word choices in the Torah were planned to suggest evolution, or at least to harmonize with it, when, thousands of years after Moses, knowledge of evolution and the origin of species would be gained. Did he make this point successfully? My translator, who looks at the question from the viewpoint of a linguist, found Halevi's argument persuasive in Hebrew, but not in English, because words that share roots in Hebrew are usually unrelated in English.

Halevi had unbounded enthusiasm for his theory, his torah, and such enthusiasm may dull the edge of critical thinking. He made the most of every possible evolutionary inference in the words of Torah, but at times he made more than is actually there. As a lifelong student of evolution and a practicing Catholic, I would have been pleased if I had found his argument convincing that evolution was, indeed, "contained in the Old Testament." I regretfully conclude that Halevi failed to demonstrate this. He did, however, suggest interesting alternative interpretations of the Hebrew text of the Torah. In some passages, the subtleties of the Hebrew word choices do, indeed, seem to support his thesis. Collectively, these show that Genesis and evolution may not be mutually exclusive, a conclusion shared by many others on other grounds.


Toldot Adam, a long essay in Hebrew by Naphtali Halevi (or Lewy), is the one that Darwin mentioned in his autobiography as "showing that the theory (i.e., evolution) is contained in the Old Testament!" Halevi's argument is based on inferences of specific word choices in the Hebrew text of the Torah, with supplementary evidence from the Midrash Rabbah, and limited evidence from the Talmud. While his argument is not conclusive, he did propose interesting alternative interpretations of many biblical texts. Collectively, they suggest that supposed irreconcilable contradictions between evolution and the account of creation in Genesis may be exaggerated because of inadequate understanding of the Hebrew text.



I am indebted to many people for help in this research: to P. J. Gautrey, until 1989 responsible for the Darwin Collection of the Cambridge University Library, for copies of Halevi's letters to Darwin; to his successor, A. J. Perkins, for much valuable supplementary information; to Dr. Saul Wischnitzer for help in locating Toldot Adam, and for extensive help with the Hebrew text; to Carla Hagstrom, Head of the Reference Department of the University of Toronto Library, for a xerox copy of Toldot Adam; to Dr. David C. Dodson for a xerox of Toldot Adam from the Harvard Library; to the University of Ottawa Research Services and its Director, Dr. Jean Farrell, for a grant for translation; to Adreshir Mehta for an excellent translation and for many valuable notes on the Hebrew text; and to Dr. Donald J. Weinshank for an interesting suggestion about the title of Toldot Adam. Finally, Professor Lois Dubin of Smith College read the entire manuscript and offered many valuable suggestions for revision. Many of the merits of this paper derive from her good help, while its defects are my own.


Xerox copies of the Hebrew text of Toldot Adam and its translation have been given to the Darwin Collection of the Cambridge University Library; the Library of the University of Ottawa; the Center for Judaic Studies of Boston University; and to Dr. Sid Leiman, Department of Judaic Studies, Brooklyn College, SUNY. A copy of the translation also has been given to the University of Toronto Library.

Finally, I am no longer alone in my interest in Toldot Adam. Dr. Ralph Colp and Dr. David Kohn, of Columbia University, have also had the paper translated and are preparing a study of it. Also, I have given a copy of the translation to Dr. Marc Swetlitz, of the Department of the History of Science, University of Oklahoma, for his research on the Jewish response to Darwinism. If all of these researches are published, and I hope that they will be, then this long obscured chapter in the history of Darwinism may finally become well known and understood.


1Charles R. Darwin, The Life and Letters of Charles Darwin: Including an Autobiographical Chapter. Edited by his son, Francis Darwin. (London: John Murray, 1897); and ------, The Autobiography of Charles Darwin. Edited by his granddaughter, Lady Nora Barlow (New York: W. W. Norton, 1958).

2Naphtali Lewy, "Toldot Adam," Ha-Shahar 6 (1874): 3-60. This essay was also privately published as a book.

3The book is no longer in Darwin's library, but the letter, translated by a "learned rabbi" whose identity is unknown, is in the Darwin collection of the Cambridge University Library. The letter was published by Francis Darwin (Francis Darwin, ed., More Letters of Charles Darwin, vol. 1 [London: John Murray, 1903]. See especially letter 277, pp. 365-66) and summarized by Burkhardt and Smith (F. Burkhardt and S. Smith, eds., A Calendar of the Correspondence of Charles Darwin, 1821-1882 [New York: Garland Publishing Co., 1985]. See especially letters 10430 and 11509). Lewy wrote a second, unrelated letter to Darwin in German, and this was also summarized by Burkhardt and Smith. These letters made it possible to trace the place (Vienna) and the journal of publication, Ha-Shahar.

4I obtained a copy of the essay from Ha-Shahar and had it translated into English. The Hebrew title page is followed by one in German that translates as "The origin and development of man. Studies on the biblical account of creation."

5Getzel Kressel, Lexicon of Modern Hebrew Literature (Tel Aviv, 1967). See article on Halevi.

6Jacob Katz, Out of the Ghetto: The Social Background of Jewish Emancipation, 1770-1870 (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1973).

7P. R. Mendes-Flohr and J. Reinharz, eds., The Jew in the Modern World. A Documentary History (New York: Oxford University Press). This work contains about 250 original documents in English translation.

8Lewy, "Toldot Adam."


10This word is transliterated in several different ways: toldot, toldoth, toledot, and toledoth.

11"Rashi (Rabbi Shlomo ben Isaac, 1040-1105) was a French rabbi who is described in the Encyclopedia Judaica as the greatest commentator on the Torah and other sacred literature. See articles in this encyclopedia on Ha-Shahar, Haskalah, Moses Mendelssohn, and Rashi.

12Tsur (rock) is used as a synonym for God in Hebrew. This played an important role in the founding of modern Israel. The writers of the Declaration of Independence included both observant Jews and atheists. The latter wanted no mention of God in the document, while the former wanted full acknowledgment of the Jewish religious heritage. They compromised by using Tsur.

13Toldot Adam."

14Naomi Cohen, The challenges of Darwinism and biblical criticism to American Judaism, Modern Judaism 4:2 (1984): 121-57.

15Lois Dubin, "Pe'er Ha-adam of Vittorio Hayim Castiglioni: an Italian chapter in the history of the Jewish response to Darwin." In Jewish Studies 14 (1995): 87-101. Yakov Rabkin and Ira Robinson, editors.

16Marc Swetlitz, "American Jewish Responses to Darwin and Evolutionary Theory, 1860-1890," in Disseminating Darwinism: The Role of Place, Race, Religion, and Gender, ed. Ronald L. Numbers and John Stenhouse (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2000), 204-46.