How does Judaism deal with the differences between scientific evidence of the beginning of the world and the account(s) in Bereishit?
According to the Rambam in the Guide of the Perplexed "Whenever it is possible to interpret the words of an individual in such a manner that they confirm to a being whose existence has been demonstrated, this is the conduct that is more fitting and most suitable for an equitable man of exellent nature."
Even though I'm certain this will be controversial, my answer is that there is no difference between Science and the accounts of Bereshit, we just need a better understanding of both. Below, is my understanding of Parshat Bereshit and the scientific theories that actually support it, in chronological order. I only posted through passuk 8 (day 2), because even though I have a lot more to say, it's time consuming. So I'll only keep going if there is interest.
Passages and Translations are copied from Chabad.org
Sections labeled "My interpretation" are how I think the passages could be read based on hebrew-wording, rabinic commentaries and scientific evidence. I think of it as an understanding of passage, not a translation.
Current Scientific Theory: We'll probably never know: All ideas concerning the very early universe (cosmogony^) are speculative. As of early 2010, no accelerator experiments probe energies of sufficient magnitude to provide any experimental insight into the behavior of matter at the energy levels that prevailed during this period.^
My interpretation: In the begining [of time], God created the Space and the Matter (including the space and matter that will become earth).
"Heavens" and "earth" are both words that are defined in later passages to mean our Atmosphere and planet Earth, however at this point, before their definitions are specified in passages 8 & 10, heavens refers to space within the universe and earth can refer to matter in general.
Current Scientific Theory: 13.9 billion years ago, time begins in our universe, Space rapidly inflated and was filled with a fluid matter.
The Big Bang is The instant in which the universe is thought to have begun rapidly inflating^ from an extremely high energy density^. The best available measurements suggest that the initial conditions occurred between 13.3 and 13.9 billion years ago.^
The Planck epoch, is the earliest period of time in the history of the universe, from zero to approximately 10−43 seconds (Planck time), during which, it is believed, quantum effects of gravity were significant. One could also say that it is the earliest moment in time, as the Planck time is perhaps the shortest possible interval of time, and the Planck epoch lasted only this brief instant.^ Little is known about this epoch, and different theories propose different scenarios.^
At approximately 10-32 (less than a quintillionth) seconds after the Big Bang the potential energy of the inflation field that had driven the inflation of the universe during the inflationary epoch was released, filling the universe with a dense, hot quark-gluon plasma^, an early phase of matter which behaves like a fluid^.
My interpretation: And the Matter (which includes the substance earth will be made from) was chaotic and not-formed, and there exists a dark-matter on the surface of the abyss [of our universe], and God's will (that will be carried out through the laws of nature) are impending over the surface of fluid [matter in the abyss].
Current Scientific Theory: A trillionth of a second after the big bang there is matter, but the elements were not formed yet. The universe has expanded and is filled with matter that behaves like a fluid. It's hypothesised that at this time dark matter constitutes a significant portion of the matter in the universe^.
From this point onwards the physics of the early universe is better understood, and less speculative.^ A trillionth of a second after the big bang, after cosmic inflation ends, the universe is filled with a visibly-colorless^ quark-gluon plasma or “quark soup”^. Experiments with the Relativistic Heavy Ion Collider have allowed physicists to determine that the quark–gluon plasma behaved more like a liquid than a gas^. Dark energy is present as a property of space itself, beginning immediately following the period of inflation.^
(It's interesting to note that God "programs" the universe using language.)
Current Scientific Theory: Ten seconds after the Big Bang, the energy of the universe is dominated by photons^. For 380,000 years, the remainder of the photon epoch, the universe contained a hot dense plasma of nuclei, electrons and photons.^
My interpretation: And God saw that it was good [to influence the light matter to continue to exist over the dark matter], and God separated between the light and the darkness (forming stars and galaxies that include our own sun earth and moon).
Why are the luminaries are mentioned again on day four instead of when they were created, on day one? It's not the Creation Story's goal to include every step in our universe's history, the story only mentions things that are new, that means the first time anything like them is created in our universe, or is uniquely new to Earth. Suns, moons and planets are abundant In our universe, the only thing uniquely new about the earth, sun, and moon when they formed was the way the moon stabalized earth's day and night. On day four however, there are more new traits. The atmosphere clears and the Sun's output increases. This makes the sun hot enough to heat the Earth and makes the Sun and Moon and stars visible in the sky for the first time.
Current Scientific Theory: 150 million years after the Big Bang, cold dark matter dominated, paving the way for gravitational collapse to amplify the tiny inhomogeneities left by cosmic inflation.^ Gravitational collapse is at the heart of structure formation in the universe.^ The first stars and quasars form from gravitational collapse. From this point on, most of the visible universe is composed of plasma.^
Some of the earliest galaxies can bee seen forming when the universe was only 500 million years old.^
Our Sun was formed about 4.57 billion years ago when a hydrogen molecular cloud collapsed.^ The infall of material, increase in rotational speed and the crush of gravity created an enormous amount of kinetic energy at the center.^ Most of the mass concentrated in the middle and began to heat up.^
Meanwhile, the rest of the disc began to break up into rings, with gravity causing matter to condense around dust particles. Small fragments collided to become larger fragments, including one collection about 150 million kilometers from the center: this would become the Earth.^
4.6 billion years ago, the Moon stabelized Earth's axis creating steady day and night. Without the moon to stabalize it, the earth would rotate about 3x as fast on a wobbly axis. "Vast tidal forces cause our moon to rapidly pull away... Our day lengthens from four hours to twenty-four".^
My interpretation: And God called the light (of the sun hitting planet Earth) day, and the darkness (on earth) He called night, and it was evening and it was morning (the earth's first stable rotation, with the sun and moon) marked one stage of God's creating.
At the End of Day 1, Earth, the Sun and Moon are all formed, and the Earth is Covered in Water.
Current Scientific Theory: As the planet cooled, clouds formed. Rain created the oceans. Recent evidence suggests the oceans may have begun forming as early as 4.4 Ga.^
The detrital zircon crystals dated to 4.4 Ga show evidence of having undergone contact with liquid water, considered as proof that the planet already had oceans or seas at that time.^ This requires the presence of an atmosphere.^
It is now believed that the Hadean surface was solid, temperate, and water covered.^ Earth hosted a similar mass of continental crust as the present day at 4.5-4.4 billion years.
As the output of the Sun was only 70% of the current amount, significant amounts of greenhouse gas in the atmosphere most likely prevented the surface water from freezing. Volcanic activity was intense and, without an ozone layer to hinder its entry, ultraviolet radiation flooded the surface.
My interpretation: And God said, "Let there be strengthened a metallic-canopy (surrounding earth, in space) in the midst of the water-(covered Earth), and let it be a separation between water (on earth) and water (in the atmosphere)."
The passage states that there is a solid dome encircling earth, but "since [the comentators saw] there is no solid dome encircling the earth, ...[they] say this refers to the atmosphere that encircles the world" (Artscroll).
However, today, we know of a "solid" dome encercling earth, that separated the water on earth from the being lost to space, Earth's magnetic field, without which, we wouldn't have the atmosphere. More so, the word expanse (רקיע - ra-keeya) contains an allusion to its metal nature, it's hebrew root (רקע - ro-kah) is the act of beating metal into thin plates.^
Current Scientific Theory: By 3.5 billion years ago, Earth's metalic core established a magnetic field, which prevents the atmosphere from being stripped away by the solar wind.^ Without the magnetic field, Earth could have lost almost all of its water to space,^ like mars did.^
Both water and a protective magnetic field are essential to the development of life on Earth as we know it.^
By 3.5 billion years ago, the Earth's magnetic field was established. The solar wind flux was about 100 times the value of the modern Sun, so the presence of the magnetic field helped prevent the planet's atmosphere from being stripped away, which is what likely happened to the atmosphere of Mars. However, the field strength was lower than at present and the magnetosphere was about half the modern radius.^
My interpretation: God now says the word "space" now refers to the atmosphere surrounding Earth, and it was a second stage of God's creating.
Current Scientific Theory: Earth is covered in water and the atmosphere is formed. It's possible the early earth was entirely covered with a cloudy atmosphere.
“When we think about the origin of life, there are two threads to follow,” says geophysicist John Tarduno. “One obviously is water. But you also have to have a magnetic field, because that protects the atmosphere from erosion and the complete removal of water.”^
Sikpping to Passage 11 to discuss evolution.
My interpretation: And God said "Let the it evolve from and be covered, the earth, with a covering (mat) of "individual-grassy-plant-life", 'reproducing-seed-cells' that produce 'seed-cell-offspring' (that grow within the parent); a "tree" (of) fruit, which forms fruits, into many species that will have its' seed-cell-offspring within itself on the land; and it was so.
Current Scientific Theory: The Earth naturally evolved mats of oxygen-producing "cyanobacteria", a photosynthetic, self-replicating cell, similar to prokaryotes (from the greek "karyon" for nut, hence seed or nucleus). They can grow individually, end-to-end in grass-like strands, branching-strands, or cluster into hollow balls. And larger self-replicating photosynthetic-eukaryotic cells that have their genetic material within a nucleus, within itself.
In the strictly modern sense, the name plant refers to the biological classification kingdom Plantae. However, other photosynthetic organisms, including protists, green algae, and cyanobacteria have evolutionary significance to modern plants. These other organisms provide clues to the evolution of all photosynthetic organisms. All of these organisms - plants, green algae, and the protists - are primary photosynthetic eukaryotic organisms.^
Scientists start the search for fossil evidence of plants with indirect evidence for their presence, the evidence of photosynthesis in the geological record. The evidence for photosynthesis in the rock record is varied, but primary evidence comes from around 3 billion years ago, in rock records and fossil evidence of cyanobacteria, photosynthesizing prokaryotic organisms.^
According to endosymbiotic theory, "chloroplasts", the phtosynthetic cells within plant-leaves and algae have evolved from cyanobacterial ancestors via endosymbiosis (one organism taking another within itself).^
'Stromatolites' of fossiled mats of oxygen-producing "cyanobacteria" have been found from 2.8 billion years ago, possibly as old as 3.5 billion years ago.^ The presence of biomarkers called 'steranes' in Australian shales indicates that eukaryotes were present 2.7 billion years ago.^ Current phylogentic evidence suggests that the last universal common ancestor lived during the early Archean eon, perhaps roughly 3.5 Ga or earlier.^
Multicellularity first appeared in cyanobacteria. Cyanobacteria is a large and varied group of bacteria which possess chlorophyll a and which carry out photosynthesis in the presence of light and air with concomitant production of oxygen. Various patterns of cell organization exist, ranging from single-celled to differentiated multicellular forms with branching patterns.^
The answer is, at the heart, there is broad consensus among the Rishonim that when necessary one may depart from the "literal" meaning (apparent intent, peshat) of the Torah text (though even then there are limits).
We are left with a few things to work out:
Chazal say “אֵין מִקְרָא יוֹצֵא מִידֵי פְּשׁוּטוֹ”, a verse doesn't depart from it's plain/apparent meaning" (Yevamos 24a,etc.) Contrary to the assertion of some there is no basis to argue that this principle is limited to halachic texts, and a vast array of meforshim cite it or allude to it in the commentaries on the Torah. Midrashic meanings (and so forth) are additional implications of the Torah which do not negate the peshat.
I have seen it argued that Bereshis doesn't have a peshat, while I think this deserves more research on my part it seems less than compelling. Indeed in addressing a hypothetical allegorization of Bereshis Rav Saadia Goan objects
(It is an interesting phenomenon when people take midrashim about the universe being ancient (etc.) literal, while taking the "literal" peshat of the Chumash non-literally.)
Rav Saadiah Gaon writes,
Nevertheless he concedes that under certain circumstances on may, out of necessity, turn aside from the literal meaning of the text. For our discussion the most relevant reason to depart from the peshat is when it conflicts with our own observations (Emunos v’Deos 7:2).
The Gaon's language strongly suggest to me that he requires demonstrative (deductive) proof to justify departing from the peshat.
For the Rambam the simple meaning can be exchanged when doing so produces a better picture but not otherwise:
The Rashba (Chidushei HaRashba, Perushei HaHagados on Bava Basra 74:b) seems to take a pretty liberal attitude about allegorical interpretation of the Torah text when confronted with difficulty. On the other hand he is more expansive in his definition of when such interpretation isn't possible at all. While according to Saadia Gaon and the Rambam the rejection of fundamental principles would prevent one from adopting a non-literal approach (to simplify the issue a bit) the Rashba limits such interpretations whenever there is a conflict with an accepted/received tradition on an issue.
Sof kol Sof, there is basis when needed to interpret scripture contrary to its simple meaning but one must do so with caution. It is not appropriate to dismiss the literal meaning lightly as if there is no issue.
The terms עֶרֶב and בקֶר (evening and morning) suggests to me that the Torah means "day" in the normal sense and Chagiga 12a lists the length of day and night as among that which was created on the first day.
Additionally we have the Gemara: “R. Yehoshua ben Levi said: All creatures of the creation were brought into being with their full stature, their full capacities, and their full beauty” (Rosh HaShanah 11a). Regarding this the Rambam wrote, “Note this likewise, for it includes a principle fully established” (Guide 2:30, page 216). This Chazal suggests a straightforward understanding of the Creation account. To me, however, this highlights an approach on how to come to terms with the conflict between science and B'reshis.
When we speak of age we think of it in terms of the passage of time. When we are discussing the age of the Universe in a scientific sense, however, our calculations are not based on observing a clock, but on physical characteristics resulting from age. Our measurements are not direct, they are by inference albeit strong enough to be compelling under normal circumstances.
The problem is that Creation ex nehilo, יש מעין, isn't normal circumstances. If one were to look at the creatures described in B'reshis, which R. Yehoshua ben Levi called in "full stature" we rightly assume based on their physical characteristics that they had achieved a certain "age" even though they were moments old. While the Gemara in Rosh Hashannah discusses biological creation, the same could be inferred about any physical phenomenon in Creation. There is simply no way for something to be created from nothing while lacking characteristics we would associate with prior existence in any potential universe which would operate similar to ours.
To reject the literal meaning of the text based on apparent age prior to creation is to reject it based on phenomenon we would/should expect based on that very text, to deny it because of observations implicit within in. In other words, it is essentially rejecting creation ex nehilo of Gan Eden a priori. (This is not to argue that one has reason to accept the creation account, that is a different issue, and in this context I assume we are taking for granted that Hashem gave the Torah. Rather I am simply arguing that this conflict isn't sufficient reason to doubt that Hashem gave the Torah).
Once apparent age is a factor, it does not seem to me to be a stretch to assume that the Creator would align such apparent age to conform with the rules He made for the Universe to operate (science/teva) even though He chose to create it via supernatural means.
Many object that this is deceptive. It is certainly no more deceptive that creating the world one way and then telling us (in the Torah) it was done an entirely other way without any indication that the account is allegorical/metaphorical etc. Nor is it any more deceptive than creating the world in such a way that it can be understood as happened through random chance and the blind forces of nature.
The truth is it is not deceptive because Hashem has revealed to us in His Torah how He created the world, and as we have argued, that account implicitly accounts for prior age anyways.
At the same time, it does provide an alternative (although not a better alternative) way to account for the existence of the Universe. This is an essential ingredient for fully free will in an era when we have a clearer understanding of scientific principles. If there were no way to at least plausibly explain the worlds existence without resort to a supernatural Creation six thousand years ago free will would be hindered (albeit not destroyed). This is, after all, the paradox of nature. On the one hand revealing God as the Creator, the Master of the Mansion, on the other hand concealing Him to allow for free will (remember that the root of עולם, universe, is עלם, conceal/hide). Man may choose to draw incorrect conclusions but..“'Write,' replied He; 'whoever wishes to err may err.'" (Genesis Rabbah, VIII.8, p. 59. (Soncino Midrash Rabbah).
With the possibility to understand the conflict as not a true contradiction the justification to reject the peshat/plain meaning is not clear. I'm not going to argue, personally, that it is not permissible but it is not the "דבר פשוט" it is often made out to be (no pun intended).
There is still more to be said on this but to do full justice is a much larger project, here are some links which explore these issues a little more:
Challenge edited by Cyril Domb and Aryeh Carmell has an extensive (and I think varied) set of articles and source texts on this subject. I'm reading it now, so I can't say more about the book yet, but it's worth a read.
Remember that Science isn't a be-all and end-all. If one looked at a tree on day 5, for example, it would have rings. According to science, it could be 100 years old, but still really be two days old. The world could have been created looking 14 billion years old.
I don't think there is a definitive answer but I'll give you my short version.
I'm afraid the question is a non-starter.
according to Bereishis the world along with time/space and all the laws of physics and everything else we consider "logical" was created miraculously from absolutely nothing by an infinite Being.
science tries to stretch its neck out as far as it can using the current system of logic/physical laws to try to peer out into what is eternal and hence infinite and hence beyond the realm of science.
the Rambam expressed this dilema as follows (found this in Marpe Lenefesh commentary to shaar yichud end ch.6 in http://dafyomireview.com/article.php?docid=398):
"The Rambam in part 2 chapter 17 of the Moray Nevuchim, brought a very powerful analogy against the heretics who believe in kadmus (that the world existed eternally), and he said that all of their proofs and logic are only from the nature which exists in the world after the Creator has already created them in perfect form from all angles as they are now, and how can we possibly bring a proof from this as to how it was before it was created and brought to existence from nothing: "the analogy of this is to a child who was born in a deserted island, and then his mother died, and this orphan never saw a female. When he grew up and matured intellectually, he asked his father how a man was formed. His father answered him 'each person among us, came to be and was formed in the belly of a female, who is of our kind, like us, of such and such form, and the man was in her belly, small, and his body was closed. And he grew there slowly, slowly for fixed months until the time he was forced to go out from her belly through an opening which opened for him. Afterwards he grew until he became big in his limbs, senses, and intellect, as you see now. The orphan started to deny all of this, and built proofs against all these true things, saying that "they are impossible and are lies, because how is it conceivable that a live man can breathe through his nostrils inside a container which is closed on all sides, and it appears impossible that one cannot live for any time without breathing, or if one cannot excrete the waste of his food, he will die a painful death, and how could his mouth be shut and his navel open, and his eyes closed and his limbs constricted together for such a long time, and when he comes out of there, all of his limbs and his eyes should be complete". This is a clear proof that the formation of man could not have occurred in this way, even though it is truly so."
He ends off: "contemplate this analogy and test it, and you will find the two matters to be identical, and that we are of these who pursue Moshe Rabeinu, peace be unto him, and Avraham avinu, we believe the world came to be in such and such a way, and it was such and such, and it was created such and such, and afterwards Aristotle came to refute our words, and he brought proofs from the laws of this nature, which are complete and with us, here in the present, but which are not comparable to what existed at the time of creation, for this was after absolute non-existence..."
ADDITION: The Big Bang theory is really just a form Aristotle's view that the universe always existed, since since a thing cannot make itself (Shaar Yichud), either it existed previously in a different form or an eternal Being created it. Since science rules out the latter, then according to science it must be that it always existed in some form.
Therefore, either you accept the world was created by God in which case the world was created miraculously and there is no need to reconcile anything with science. Or the world always existed and there is no God, ch''v, and therefore the Torah view which speaks of a miraculous creation is irrelevant. Either way the question is a non-starter.
I'm going to try and give a brief direction or method rather than an answer.
First step - understand the science well. That is, not just what the theories said, but how well founded they are, what assumptions they make, what is proven, what is assumed, the historical developments of those theories, etc.
Second step - understand the Chumash well. That is to say, not just a general understanding of the story, but a detailed, as deep as possible understanding including the various themes of the story, the grammar and meaning of different words and phrases, the various readings of the Rishonim and Achronim (i.e., Rashi, Ibn Ezra, Ramban, Rambam, Malbim, Rav Hirsch, Netziv, etc.), etc.
Third step - note those areas where science and Torah agrees and those where they disagree. For instance, the Big Bang theory works well with the first pasuk, the Cambrian Explosion works well with aspects of the 5th day (although not necessarily with all aspects), etc. The age of the universe is obviously an example an area of disagreement.
Fourth step - determine whether or not the areas of disagreement are well founded -- is the scientific theory in question well established enough to warrant worrying about it.
Fifth step - if the theory seems well established try and see if an honest interpretation is possible from your understanding of the pasukim. At the same time, note other serious attempts by those who are qualified to deal with the contradiction (both those who seek to reconcile the science with the Torah and those who argue that the challenge is not a serious challenge).
Sixth step - if you can't find an answer, be patient - not all questions can be answered at any given moment in time.
I would recommend you some books elucidating the Jewish conception of these topics.
This book deals with an examining of the relationship between Torah and the natural world. It's pretty good.
b) In the Beginning: Biblical Creation and Science by Nathan Aviezer. Also see from the same author Fossils and Faith: Understanding Torah and Science
The author by citing chazal harmonize the opening verses of Genesis with modern science. A must read book.
c) Genesis and the Big Bang: The Discovery Of Harmony Between Modern Science And The Bible by Gerald Schroeder
The physicist Gerald Schroeder introduce jewish and scientific insights helping to bridge the gap between science and the Torah in a very knowledgeable way.
d) Torah, Chazal & Science, by Rabbi Moshe Meiselman
An overview on Masorah and Science showing how amazing integration are between them. An interesting food for thought.
d) Kabbalah and the Age of the Universe Paperback by Aryeh Kaplan
An examination of the age of the universe as discussed in Kabbalistic works. Worthwhile reading.
I hope this helps you in some way