Orthodox anger over plan for compulsory evolution lessons

Government plans to make the teaching of evolution compulsory in UK state primary schools have caused consternation within the Orthodox educational world.

The National Association of Jewish Orthodox Schools (Najos), which represents most Orthodox schools in the country, said that it was “very concerned” about the proposals, which were part of a draft national curriculum published for consultation last week.

Rabbi Shimon Winegarten, who is principal of several Najos schools, declared that evolution was “against our belief. Moreover, the theory of evolution is just that — theory; unproven, with unexplained gaping gaps. It is too difficult to explain all that to primary school children.”

Rabbis, he said, were “not in favour of this theory becoming mandatory primary school teaching” within the Orthodox sector.

The national curriculum is binding on most state-aided schools, including religious schools, although not on the new style of free schools.

According to the draft proposals, year 4 pupils (aged eight to nine) should be taught to recognise “that living things have changed over time and that fossils provide information about living things that inhabited the earth millions of years ago”.

It is also suggested that they could take a look at Charles Darwin’s work.

Rabbi Jonathan Guttentag, chairman of Najos, said: “The challenge presented by the theory of evolution to traditional understanding of the Creation of the world is against the major principles of our faith.”

Orthodox Jewish schools, he said, would look for “the appropriate exemptions from mandatory requirements in accordance with the principles of freedom of religion and conscience”.

Najos executive director Jonathan Rabson said that it would seek “an audience at the highest level” to register its concerns.

Mill Hill United Synagogue’s Rabbi Yitzchak Schochet also attacked the government proposals, saying that the authorities “argue against teaching creationism in the classroom and then advocate teaching evolution. I find that blatant double standards and is just another secular assault on religious teachings”.

Attitudes to evolution and scientific ideas vary, however, across the Orthodox world. The Hertz Chumash, once the standard for United Synagogue communities which was published in the 1930s, believed that there was “nothing inherently un-Jewish” about evolution, which reflected “the activity of a supreme, directing Intelligence”.

Chief Rabbi Lord Sacks, in a TV discussion with Darwinist Richard Dawkins, last year observed: “Adam and Eve is clearly a parable because there was no first human…”

Rabbi Harvey Belovski, of Golders Green United Synagogue and founding principal of the new Rimon free school, an Orthodox Jewish primary, said that he would have “no problem” with evolution being “taught carefully” in a science class there.

Last updated: 6:45pm, February 14 2013