Design Fundamentals

We have heard a lot of discussion recently about the teaching of “Intelligent Design” in the science departments of our schools.

A colleague recently asked:

In my continuing exploration of the left/right culture skirmishes, I discovered that I think I believe in "Intelligent Design" theory, which I have recently discovered is considered soft creationism by Darwinists. (I am still studying the issue).

He continued:

Whenever I would explain that I believe in God and evolution, I would state that I believe that the formation of the morally and spiritually reflective human being was an act of God. I have held that while evolution (perhaps guided by God) brought our species to a certain point, it was God's act and will that the human being with the soul, an image and likeness of God, came about, not "natural selection." I never considered this "creationist", as I thought that meant a total rejection of Darwin and evolutionary thought.

I wonder what other liberal Jewish rabbis, scholars, educators and leaders think, who have reflected on this issue. I would assume that none of us accepts a biblical literalist position, but are some of us "soft creationists"? Are many of us "hard Darwinists" -- believing that natural selection only accounts for the creation of the human being, in the moral and spiritual sense? I know there are many scientists who are very spiritual and believe in God, but are not biblical fundamentalists. Does anyone know where such people fall in the Intelligent Design debate? Any notable Jewish characters?

I asked in reply:

Can we make a distinction between the politically charged proper noun phrase “Intelligent Design” and the simple concept (lowercase) “intelligent design”?

(You know, like, I used a bit of intelligent design when I wrote this, and I think there might be some intelligent design in the way in which the cosmos functions, but I'm not so sure that I would call that "Intelligent Design”.)

A fun exercise to learn how loaded the proper noun phrase is, is a simple Google check (which I won't put you through tonight):

The Skeptic's Dictionary: intelligent design

The Talk.Origins Archive: intelligent design

I spoke about a variant of this idea (not the debate, the idea) last year at Yom Kippur. It seems that, if not “design” at least the ability to learn is built into all aspects of life. You may recall, I mentioned that over twenty years ago I had read a book called Biblical Games. The book dealt with an application of "Games Theory" to the "decisions" God makes about the creation. This has nothing to do with intelligent design, but, stresses the “built in” nature of and value placed on “free will” and “meaning” which plays such an important part in the world (and is essential for Yom Kippur to have any meaning).

My colleague also wondered, then, could I distinguish between

"meaning created within the life form developed"

(that is, it sort of just happened that we have “grown into meaning”)


"meaning created because of divine purpose"

(that is “God created us with meaning”).

I replied that I don't know how to, nor why I must distinguish between them. Are we “designed intelligently” by an “Intelligent Designer” or is there “simply” an “intelligent design” that emerges from our development?

These are wonderful questions that I want to explore with you today. But, what is happening now with “Intelligent Design” is different. Intelligent Design is a political trick to introduce Christianity into our public schools.

The current struggle dates back to a school board meeting in Dover, Pennsylvania. There a board member named William Buckingham challenged those present to trace their roots back to a monkey. He then suggested that a more appropriate textbook than the one under discussion would include biblical theories of creation. When asked whether this might offend those of other faiths, Buckingham replied with the false assertion: "This country wasn't founded on Muslim beliefs or evolution. This country was founded on Christianity and our students should be taught as such." At another time Buckingham also asserted that: "Nowhere in the Constitution does it call for a separation of church and state." I'll deal with this issue tomorrow.

Amazingly enough, only in 1968, in a case called Epperson v. Arkansas which was upheld by the Supreme court was it finally made legal to teach evolution anywhere in the United States.

However, today, that's not my subject. We'll explore that a bit tomorrow. Rather, I want to share with you how intelligently I believe the world is designed.

For over thirty years, my brother and I have each had empty frames hanging (either somewhere against a wall or suspended in an open area) where we live/work. We move them around, purposefully reframing the world we encounter. One of the joys of my rabbinate has been the annual course I teach in the Introduction to Judaism program. I explain to the gathered group at the beginning of each year's course that I love teaching the class because they (my students) help me reframe my approach to what being Jewish is. In the class I deal with the question that faces us tonight. I do not respond to the specific question in one lesson (I don't know that it has ever been expressed as a single question). It's a bit hard to compress my response to my colleague's question into a "yes-and/or-no" answer.

Let's begin with the Shema. After all we all (presume to) know the Shema.

Hold that thought.

I'm not a mathematician, but, there is a metaphor in here that helps, as we discuss "infinite" a bit:

Hold that thought.

The Whole Is Greater Than The Sum Of Its Parts (micro... and allow it to build to the Macro...)

Hold that thought.

I climb on my chair to do what I can to grasp a bit of the light that gets emitted from the fixture on the ceiling.

So, it's all one pulsating --breathing, self-conscious-- cosmos.

The most important Jewish holiday beside Shabbat (at least according to us rabbis) is Shavuot. It tells us (at least we rabbis posit - I'll express it first in non-theological terminology so as not to frighten):

  1. We (the finite) are part of the Infinite.

    Now, you might accuse me of anthropomorphizing, but, I'm not. I'm simply following through with the logic.

  2. Because the finite has (self-)consciousness and the whole consists at least of the sum of its parts, the infinite has (self-)consciousness.

  3. The "Infinite", the "that which is greater than the sum of its parts", is aware of the finite.

  4. The infinite communicates with the finite. (Now, that may be a leap of logic, but, the ability to communicate is built into the finite, and, therefore part of the infinite.)

  5. The "fact" that the infinite communicates with the finite, indicates that the infinite "cares" about the finite. (That's one step of logic beyond the preceding statement, but, once again, "caring" is built into the finite, and, therefore part of the infinite. And, communication is a core aspect of caring. The "fact" of communicating is an "act" of caring.)

  6. What gets "communicated"?

The ancient rabbis discussed this at length. They said that when Moses was on Mt. Sinai God gave the Torah, But then they asked what part of Torah was the most important so that giving that would have been sufficient?

Well of course, they answered: the Ten Commandments. Because from them all other rules derive

What part of the Ten Commandments?

The first one where God says “I am Adonai your God”. Because if we accept that Adonai is God, all other wisdom derives.

Is it possible to say that only one portion of that statement is enough? They asked.

And, the answer is yes! Simply the word “I” (in Hebrew: anokhi). Because all God has to do is say I, and the rest is obvious: If you hear That Which Is Beyond The Sum Of All The Parts Of The Cosmos say “anokhi”, that would be enough to convince you of all else that follows.

But, the ancient rabbis continued.

All God truly needed to say was the first letter of the word anokhi. All God needed to say was the aleph:


This awareness of the breath of the cosmos is the gift of Torah that the Infinite has given us.

Paraphrasing the words of my teacher Ellis Rivkin:

"God so loves the world, and the Jewish people, that God gives the world, through the Jewish people, the two-fold Torah, that, whoever should integrate its way into his or her life becomes one with the life- and annual-cycle of the Jewish (an-undying) people thereby achieving meaning in their life."

But, I'm glad to have the ability to continue to re-frame and design our collective future intelligently. In that way, yes, God is deeply imbedded in the intelligent design of the cosmos.

Thank God.

©Mark Hurvitz