The children and their adult escorts have gathered beneath the long bony neck of Dippy the diplodocus, the giant replica skeleton which stands in the lobby of the Natural History Museum. Sunday morning cheder for these pupils from Belsize Square Synagogue is not going to be in class.
They have come for a special programme led by Nic Abery of LooktoLearn, who uses London museums and galleries for interactive Jewish education. “You are going to learn some Torah and you are going to learn some science,” she explains. “We’re going to learn them together.”
Her Genesis tour will try to show how the biblical account of creation can sit happily alongside modern ideas about the origins of the world. Even in the face of apparent contradiction: if plants depend on sunlight, for example, how could vegetation appear on the third day if the sun was created on the fourth day, as the Bible says?
“I think the Big Bang created the world, not God,” remarks seven-year-old Theo.
“Let’s see if we can bring God into the picture, and where He fits in,” Nic Abery says as she walks the children around the great cathedral of science. The Creation story is not to be read literally as an explanation of how the universe began but is a way to convey a spiritual belief in the relationship between God and man. While Belsize Square may be Progressive, she has also run Genesis for the Orthodox Immanuel College, in conjunction with the London School of Jewish Studies.
Most Jews would no more dispute the theory of evolution than they would the earth’s revolution around the sun. Emeritus Chief Rabbi Lord Sacks has stated that the story of Adam and Eve is simply a parable and there was no “first” human as such.
One source cited by Nic Abery in her worksheets is Rabbi Gedalyah Nadel (1923-2004) from the Charedi stronghold of Bnei Brak, who wrote: “As long as there is recognition of the divine will that functions in nature via spiritual forces, there is no need whatsoever to negate the description of events that scientific investigation presents today.”
The Manchester-born Rabbi Natan Slifkin, author of the Rationalist Judaism blog and books such as The Challenge of Creation, has observed: “It is a more sophisticated understanding of God to realise that His greatness is in working in a rational, ordered manner — via the remarkable laws of nature — rather than being some kind of cosmic magician zapping things into existence.”
But not all Orthodox rabbis regard evolution with equanimity. Faith has begun to clash more visibly with science in the education system.
Only recently, exam regulators put a stop to the practice adopted by some Charedi schools of covering up GCSE science questions they deemed unsuitable for pupils. The Department for Education has also brushed aside objections from the National Association of Jewish Orthodox Schools and from September evolution will become a compulsory subject in the national science curriculum for primary schools. The national curriculum is binding on most state schools (though not on free or independent schools).
Rabbi Shimon Winegarten, the leader of a congregation in Golders Green and principal of a number of strictly Orthodox schools, has stated that Darwin’s legacy is “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.”
Schools could simply decide to ignore parts of the curriculum they regard as problematic — although that could fall foul of Ofsted if inspectors resolve to take a tough line.
To many people, the government’s insistence on children receiving a rounded scientific education will seem entirely reasonable. The current inquiry into the alleged infiltration of political Islam in some British schools may also reinforce a desire to restrict the influence of religious conservatism within education as a whole (though there is no suggestion of political extremism within Jewish schools).
But a balance has to be struck between what the state considers in the interests of society and the rights of parents to bring up children as they wish. Perhaps there is room for a trade-off.
What is arguably more important than whether some state-aided, strictly Orthodox Jewish schools teach evolution or not is the general lack of secular education experienced by most Charedi boys within the independent Orthodox sector.
Regulation of independent schools could be tightened to ensure that all schools teach a core curriculum of maths, science, English and history. The authorities, meanwhile, might turn a blind eye to religious schools in the state system that choose to leave evolution out of science classes.
The state-aided Yesodey Hatorah Girls’ High School in Stamford Hill — which was at the centre of the controversy over censoring exam questions — has consistently produced good GCSE results and has one of the highest English Baccalaureate rates among Jewish schools (a level which requires double GCSE science).
Better science without evolution, than little or no science at all.