Reform Judaism and Darwin: How Engaging with Evolutionary Theory shaped American Jewish Religion

Research output: Book/ReportBookpeer-review

6 Downloads (Pure)


European and North American Jews from across the religious spectrum had, like their Christian counterparts, long been familiar with the general idea of evolution before Darwin’s Origins of Species (1859). Many had found in the transmutation of species a useful analogy to spiritual or religious development. But Darwin provoked a sea-change, such that a good number felt obliged to establish oppositional, alternative, synthetic, or complimentary models relating Jewish religion to his theory of natural selection. These responses to what is undoubtedly one of the most important and influential ideas in the modern world fall broadly into several contexts, one of which is the historical development of progressive forms of Judaism, whose proponents have consistently claimed since the early nineteenth-century that they seek to reconcile Jewish religion with the best of contemporary scientific thought. Ironically, most studies of Reform or Liberal Judaism have tended to ignore the engagement of reformers with the science of evolution, which was arguably the scientific idea that drew the most sustained interest.
This book examines a range of leading nineteenth- and early twentieth-century American progressive Jewish thinkers, with the primary focus being rabbis Kohler, Wise, Hirsch, Krauskopf, and Hahn, although many others are covered. Key themes are the widespread commitment to universal evolutionism, that is, the application of biological evolutionary theory to other realms (e.g. history, religion, cosmic), and the particular fascination with the evolution of ethical systems within human societies, bearing in mind mankind’s bestial origins and the new challenges for understanding religious authority and revelation. It is argued that Reform Jewish discussions about the nature of God have been more profoundly shaped by engagement with evolutionary theory than has been recognized before, and that evolutionary thought provides the key framework for understanding Reform Judaism itself. The precise nature of Jewish Reform engagement with Christian proponents of theistic evolution, such Beecher and Fiske, are important, as are their interest in alternative evolutionists to Darwin, such as Spencer and Haeckel.
Original languageEnglish
Place of PublicationBerlin
Publisherde Gruyter, Walter GmbH & Co
Number of pages138
ISBN (Electronic)978-3-11-066122-4
ISBN (Print)978-3-11-065913-9
Publication statusPublished - 22 Jul 2019

Publication series

NameStudia Judaica


  • Darwin
  • religion-science
  • evolution-creationism
  • Reform Judaism
  • American Judaism


Dive into the research topics of 'Reform Judaism and Darwin: How Engaging with Evolutionary Theory shaped American Jewish Religion'. Together they form a unique fingerprint.

Cite this