Do you know who this is?” Rabbi Eliezer Zobin, the interim principal of Immanuel College, asks a roomful of Jewish studies teachers.
The photograph shows a man with a thick, straggly, white beard and a black hat. But he is not an Orthodox rabbi or a rabbi of any kind. He is one of the iconic figures of science, the Victorian architect of the theory of evolution, Charles Darwin.
By the time they reach their final year of Jewish primary school, what children learn in their science lessons conflicts with a literal understanding of the biblical story of Creation.
According to the national curriculum, Year 6 students 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”.
How Orthodox schools can respond to the challenge was one of the sessions at the annual conference for Jewish Studies primary teachers at the London School of Jewish Studies this week.
One traditional reaction had been to dismiss the science, Rabbi Zobin said. The last Lubavitcher Rebbe, Rabbi Menachem Mendel Schneerson, argued that man had been created fully formed and fossils already planted in the ground at the time of Creation.
But it was not a line of reasoning any of Rabbi Zobin’s audience seemed ready to accept. “Our children wouldn’t believe it,” said one teacher.
The children’s milieu was “the Big Bang theory, Stephen Hawking and Planet of the Apes movies,” said another.
Far from being a sceptic about science, Rabbi Zobin proved a true enthusiast who was keen to show how theories of evolution and the age of the universe could be reconciled with Torah teaching.
Quoting from Psalms, “How great are Thy works, Oh Lord, In wisdom Has Thou made them all,” he stressed the word hochmah, wisdom — commonly used of general knowledge.
Judaism treated scientific research with respect, he said. “There is spiritual value to be gained from understanding science”.
Rattling through such subjects as carbon dating, fossil formation, dendrochronology — dating through tree rings — or evolutionary adaptation, he demonstrated why scientific ideas should be taken seriously.
At one point, while explaining fossils, he pulled out an example from his pocket. “This isn’t a shark’s tooth in my hand. What you see is a cast of the original shark’s tooth.”
The idea that life in all its diversity branched out from a single source reinforced a monotheistic view of Creation, he argued, in contrast to pagan ideas of multiple gods.
In the biblical text, God’s commands to the waters to “swarm with living creatures” and to the earth to “bring forth the living creature after its kind” — rather than creating them directly Himself — could be interpreted to convey the idea of process in which life develops out of nature.
Scientific insights into the inter-relationship of life forms, Rabbi Zobin argued, could help instil awareness of the unity of Creation.