35

How does Judaism deal with the differences between scientific evidence of the beginning of the world and the account(s) in Bereishit?

13 Answers 13

33
+50

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 excellent 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, rabbinic commentaries and scientific evidence. I think of it as an understanding of passage, not a translation.


Pre-Torah

"What happened, happened." - Chagigah 16a

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.^

:א) בְּרֵאשִׁית בָּרָא אֱ־לֹהִים אֵת הַשָּׁמַיִם וְאֵת הָאָרֶץ

1: In the beginning of God's creation of the heavens and the earth.

My interpretation: In the beginning [of time], God created the Space and the Matter (including the space and matter that will become earth).

  • "In the beginning" refers to the beginning of time --the first, indivisible moment, before which time did not exist. (Soforno)

  • "In the beginning, Elokim created heavens and earth," the meaning is that in the first instant of creation all of heaven and earth were contained in a single point without dimension or form (Nachmanides)^

  • Heavens and Earth: "The basic substance from which He then fashioned the universe as we know it" (Artscroll)

"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^.

:ב) וְהָאָרֶץ הָיְתָה תֹהוּ וָבֹהוּ וְחֹשֶׁךְ עַל פְּנֵי תְהוֹם וְרוּחַ אֱ־לֹהִים מְרַחֶפֶת עַל פְּנֵי הַמָּיִם

2: Now the earth was astonishingly empty, and darkness was on the face of the deep, and the spirit of God was hovering over the face of the water.

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.^

:ג) וַיֹּאמֶר אֱ־לֹהִים יְהִי אוֹר וַיְהִי אוֹר

3: And God said, "Let there be light," and there was light.

(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.^

:ד) וַיַּרְא אֱ־לֹהִים אֶת הָאוֹר כִּי טוֹב וַיַּבְדֵּל אֱ־לֹהִים בֵּין הָאוֹר וּבֵין הַחֹשֶׁךְ

4: And God saw the light that it was good, and God separated between the light and between the darkness.

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 stabilized 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 stabilized Earth's axis creating steady day and night. Without the moon to stabilize 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".^

:ה) וַיִּקְרָא אֱ־לֹהִים לָאוֹר יוֹם וְלַחֹשֶׁךְ קָרָא לָיְלָה וַיְהִי עֶרֶב וַיְהִי בֹקֶר יוֹם אֶחָד

5: And God called the light day, and the darkness He called night, and it was evening and it was morning, one day.

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.

:ז) וַיַּעַשׂ אֱ־לֹהִים אֶת הָרָקִיעַ וַיַּבְדֵּל בֵּין הַמַּיִם אֲשֶׁר מִתַּחַת לָרָקִיעַ וּבֵין הַמַּיִם אֲשֶׁר מֵעַל לָרָקִיעַ וַיְהִי כֵן

7: And God made the expanse and it separated between the water that was below the expanse and the water that was above the expanse, and it was so.

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 commentators 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 encircling 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, its 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 metallic 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.^

:ח) וַיִּקְרָא אֱ־לֹהִים לָרָקִיעַ שָׁמָיִם וַיְהִי עֶרֶב וַיְהִי בֹקֶר יוֹם שֵׁנִי

8: And God called the expanse Heaven, and it was evening, and it was morning, a second day.

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.


יא) וַיֹּאמֶר אֱ־לֹהִים תַּדְשֵׁא הָאָרֶץ דֶּשֶׁא עֵשֶׂב מַזְרִיעַ זֶרַע עֵץ פְּרִי עֹשֶׂה פְּרִי לְמִינוֹ אֲשֶׁר זַרְעוֹ בוֹ עַל הָאָרֶץ :וַיְהִי כֵן

11: And God said, "Let the earth sprout vegetation, seed yielding herbs and fruit trees producing fruit according to its kind in which its seed is found, on the earth," and it was so.

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.

  • The Ibn Ezra says that the "earth use[s] its inherent power", meaning that life came from a natural force that the earth has.
  • Rashi says "all products of heaven and earth were actually created from the first day and required only to be brought forth."

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 photosynthetic 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 phylogenetic 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.^

  • 2
    Are the sun, moon, and stars "set in" the Earth's magnetic field? – A L Sep 17 '13 at 22:00
  • Been a while since I did this so I'll have to look up the source, but I think it's Rambam who says that the "Rakea-Hashamayim" in passuk 14-17, is distinct from "Rakea" in earlier passukim. He says this because the "Rakea" in passuk 7 is re-named "Shamayim" in passuk 8. – zaq Sep 29 '13 at 1:40
  • (Also on Rakea, from my notes on passukim 14-17: the Ibn Ezra says that in passuk 15 the luminaries became visible in the sky. -- Theoretical models of the Sun's development suggest that 3.8 to 2.5 billion years ago, during the Archean period, the Sun was only about 75% as bright as it is today.^ – zaq Sep 29 '13 at 1:41
  • ... 2.4ga The sun output visibly increases, and the atmospheric composition changed to be oxygen rich, from photosynthesis. It's hypothesized that until this point, the earth was completely covered in clouds.The natural evolution of the Sun made it progressively more luminous during the Archaean and Proterozoic eons; the Sun's luminosity increases 6% every billion years. As a result, the Earth began to receive more heat from the Sun in the Proterozoic eon.^ ) – zaq Sep 29 '13 at 1:42
  • 1
    +50, this is amazing. – Scimonster Dec 30 '14 at 20:31
15

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:

  1. How do we define necessary?
  2. Does our difficulty rise to the level of "necessary"?
  3. Does departing from the "literal" meaning result in asserting beliefs which are mutually exclusive with fundamental Jewish beliefs (i.e. is it heresy)?
  4. And perhaps, Who gets to determine whether the "necessary" threshold has been reached.

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

The result of the application of such a method of interpretation would be that there would not be an item left of the entire story of the creation that would not have been divested of its literal meaning, which is the creation and origination of things. (The Book of Beliefs and Opinions, Yale, page 425).

(It is an interesting phenomenon when people take midrashim about the universe being ancient (etc.) literally, while taking the "literal" peshat of the Chumash non-literally.)

Rav Saadiah Gaon writes,

We, the congregation of Israelites, accept in its literal sense and its universally recognized meaning whatever is recorded in the books of God and have been transmitted to us (The Book of Beliefs and Opinions, Yale page 415).

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:

A mere argument in favour of a certain theory is not sufficient reason for rejecting the literal meaning of a biblical text, and explaining it figuratively, when the opposite theory can be supported by an equally good argument. (Guide to the Perplexed, Yale, page 199)

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 Chagigah 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 nihilo, 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 nihilo 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:

  • Great foundation-laying! I'm looking forward to the rest of your analysis. – Isaac Moses Apr 8 '10 at 16:17
  • 2
    By the way, if you claim, when you're done, to have produced the definitive answer to the question, don't expect to collect 50,000 points. I'll just plead "asmachta lo kanya." :) – Isaac Moses Apr 8 '10 at 19:39
  • I claimed to have the definitive answer before I even started, I think pressed hard enough everyone will agree with my initial sentence. I'll happily settle for 25k :) – Yirmeyahu Apr 9 '10 at 4:27
  • Interesting. However, it doesn't account for the fact that we have dinosaur fossils, and other fossils of extinct species that existed well before 6,000 years ago. Their existence makes no sense according to this approach. – user6618 Feb 26 '15 at 21:07
  • It is an interesting phenomenon when people take midrashim about the universe being ancient (etc.) literally, while taking the "literal" peshat of the Chumash non-literally. Actually it is perfectly understandable, as Midrashim tend to interpret Scripture in a manner contrary to the simple meaning of the text. Accordingly one either maintains the simple reading of the text and interprets the Midrash non-literally, or vice-versa. – mevaqesh Feb 4 '16 at 5:05
7

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.

  • 3
    Do you have any sources for this view? This answer also, may be theologically comforting but difficult philosophically, as one could argue the same about a year ago, yesterday or one moment ago. Without any treatment of reality as having continuity, all time becomes meaningless. – Bas613 Oct 12 '10 at 3:55
  • 2
    All the animals were created as adults. In general you would be right. In general we go after our senses, but that is only because the Torah says to do so (like it says "a farmer believes and plants", that if he didn't believe, how would he know that his plants would grow?) It is also similar to the idea that "How do we know that the sun would rise tomorrow? From "Yom Valayla lo Yashvosu". All the more so in the past. – Joe Shmoe Oct 12 '10 at 20:39
  • 1
    look at Omphalos by Philip Henry Gosse and Slifkin's the Challenge of Creation. – Matthew Miller Nov 16 '10 at 23:36
  • In the interest of pedantry, scientists do not believe the Earth is 14 billion years old, but rather the universe. The Earth itself is believed to be 4.54 billion years old - en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Age_of_the_Earth – Scott Mitchell May 31 '11 at 3:32
  • 2
    What does it even mean then to be two days old, if you have exactly the same properties as a 100 year old? – Double AA Jul 30 '12 at 6:49
6

I don't think there is a definitive answer but I'll give you my short version.

  1. Our sages have long said that the story of creation is not to be considered literal but to give mankind an understanding of our position in the world and that we owe our existence to G-d. Beyond that, the rest is up to lots of explanation and is considered to be part of the "Sod" or hidden elements of the Torah.
  2. One example of explanations that were given hundreds of years before science came up with the "Big Bang": The Ramban (if I recall correctly it was him) on his explanation of the Torah says regarding creation, that there was only one act of creation of something from nothing and all the rest of creation was created from that initial creation. He compares that initial creation to a particle the size of a mustard seed. Perhaps the smallest size particle he could conceive of in his time. Amazing Stuff.
  3. The above example, and a lot of what I can continue to say on the topic I learned from an excellent book that I highly recommend on the topic: "Genesis and the Big Bang: The Discovery Of Harmony Between Modern Science And The Bible" by Dr. Gerald Schroeder" Amazon Link
  4. It has only been in the past generation that some of our more right wing rabbis have started to say that if you don't believe that the world was created in 7 days as we know it today then you are a heretic... They are just trying to keep pace with their zealous Christian counterparts and should be ignored because there is plenty written to the contrary before them.
  • Catholics are not known for zealously adhering to the literal meaning of the text. – Yirmeyahu Apr 8 '10 at 14:52
  • 1
    @Yirmeyahu: Just the opposite: Catholics are quite open to evolution and modern cosmology -- they are not fundamentalist at all. I assume you are confusing Catholics with certain modern fundamentalist Protestant groups. – Curiouser Sep 6 '11 at 5:10
  • @Curiouser -- The text was revised (and not by the author) just prior to your comment and long after mine, it originally said Catholic rather than Christian. – Yirmeyahu Dec 26 '13 at 3:57
3

I would recommend you some books elucidating the Jewish conception of these topics.

a) The Science of Torah: The Reflection of Torah in the Laws of Science, the Creation of the Universe and the Development of Life, by Nosson Slifkin

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

  • 1
    I would highly recommend The Challenge of Creation also by Rav Slifkin — what I think to be one of the best treatments of these issues. – WhoKnows Dec 26 '14 at 2:37
  • Consider summarising the points from these works that address the question. – mevaqesh Sep 10 '17 at 14:16
3

Here is a list of roughly 6 approaches in Jewish Thought to the question of scientific theories of origin (Big Bang Theory, Inflation, Geology, Evolution, etc...) and the Torah's depiction of creation. I am certain there are others I haven't encountered.

1) Rejection of scientific conclusions.

Theories change over time. Rather than worry about a contradiction between current theory and the Torah, one can simply wait without concern as science slowly converges to the Torah’s truth.

After all, in the last century theory has gone from Aristotle’s eternal universe to acknowledging that it has a beginning. Compared to that, current difference are small.

This is the basic approach taken by R’ Avigdor Miller.

2) History as a backdrop.

As one opinion in the Gemara has it, Adam was created as a fully mature man of 20, and trees were created fully grown, etc… The Lubavitcher Rebbe zt”l concludes that this opinion would hold that the universe as a whole was formed with a history consistent with a natural, scientific, progression.

One may then ask why Hashem chose to create a world that has an artificial age. Or perhaps not: Can one understand why G-d chooses to do anything?

Personally, I have a different problem with this position. How does one ascribe a time to creation? It can’t be on the Creator’s clock, since He Exists outside of time. Therefor, when we speak of “when” creation happened, we mean the beginning of the universe’s timeline. So then how could we talk about G-d creating the universe at some point in the middle of the line, allowing history to go in both directions — past and future — from that point?

Note about the previous two answers:As far as I can tell, it seems that an insistence on the Torah giving literal history with it being roughly 5,769 years since ex nihilo, became more popular after the scientific challenges of the past two centuries, not less. As though we dug in our heels in the face of so many rejecting the Torah for a blind acceptance of the zeitgeist and the importance it gives scientific research.

3) Conflict resolution.

As suggested by Rabbi Yaakov “Gerald” Shroeder, invoking relativity or whatnot to show that 15 billion years can be 5758 years in another frame of reference. Perhaps relativity justifies the differences between frames of reference. The “birds” of day 5 are actually dinosaurs, which are most similar biologically to birds of any thing living today. Creation of the sun on day 4 is actually about the sky clearing to the point the sun could be seen on earth, etc…

As can be seen from my treatment, I don’t consider this opinion fair to either the Torah or the scientific data. Yet, many popular books have come out in the past two years promoting this kind of position. Perhaps someone else can do it justice.

[The next two paragraphs are minor paraphrases of material R’ Gil Student wrote for his Hirhurim blog.]

On the other hand, however Bereishis 1 is understood, there is a poetry to the idea. In Collected Writings VII pp 363-264, R’ Samson Raphael Hirsch rejects an insistence on literalism, common to both of the previous approaches, and waxes poetic about the greater display of Divine Wisdom a natural unfolding would suggest. Similarly, Rav Kook makes the same point in Orot haQodesh 91.

R. Menahem Kasher, in Torah Shelemah (Bereshis, ch. no. 738), quotes a responsum from the Geonim in which it is stated that Adam was first created as a speechless creature, like an animal, and only later was given speech. This could certainly be interpreted as a precedent for the claim that Adam was descended from humanoids. R. Kasher suggests that this is a matter of dispute between the Ramban and his student R. Bahya ben Asher, with the Ramban on the side of the Gaon’s responsum. In his Hibah Yeseirah (Bereshis 1:26, printed in the back of Bnei Banim vol. 2), R. Henkin writes explicitly that Adam’s body was taken from creatures that preceded him and it was only his soul that was created ex nihilo. In other words, Adam evolved from lower creatures and became human when God created and implanted in him a human soul.

4) Multiple creation times.

This is the approach of the Tif’eres Yisrael. He cites an opinion of taanaim and Rabbi Avohu (Qoheles Rabba 3:14.1), that Hashem created worlds and destroyed them before this one. Dinosaur bones and starlight are legacies of these earlier worlds. The Tif’eres Yisrael did not say anything about evolution, just that this earlier time explains what the fossils are fossils of. In Techeiles Mordechai, R’ Shalom Mordechai Schwadron speaks laudably of the Tif’eres Yisrael’s resolution.

In Gen 1:1, G-d creates ex nihilo (matter from nothing). Then, before verse 2, these other worlds (in this opinion, epochs) rose and fell. Then, there was “chaos and emptiness” from which our world emerged. The universe as a whole, even the planet, can therefor be older than 5758 years.

Since current theory is that the world started as a singularity — IOW, not within the purview of science, it is all a matter of faith if the ex nihilo was with the intent of the Creator or not.

Rabbi Aryeh Kaplan quotes R’ Yitzchaq meiAkko (a student of the Ramban) who concludes from the Zohar that the first creation was 15.8 billion years ago — the age astronomers and physicists seemed to be converging on in the 1980s and 1990s, given multiple ways of measuring the age. It is unclear that this is truly the intent of R’ Yitzchaq meiAkko, but that’s Rabbi Kaplan’s take. The original lecture to AOJS, which is more complete and persuasive than the mention in his NCSY book, is available on line. This is built on an idea discussed by Rabbeinu Bachya and numerous other kabbalistically inclined rishonim, that of our world being one of a cycle of shemittos, so that there is history and time before our universe.

5) Rejection of a literal read of the Torah.

This is much easier, halachically, than it sounds, as there is a long tradition, including the Rambam and the Vilna Gaon, teaching that Genesis 1&2 actually convey deeper truths via metaphor. The gemara, after all, limits the number of students (to 2) that one may teach the secrets of the Act of Creation — so clearly we can’t just take the text at face value.

Another commonly cited proof for non-literalness is that the word “day” precedes the creation of the sun. Therefor, it can’t be used, at least in this narrative, to mean our 24 hour period.

The Rambam takes “day” to mean a stage in the causal chain, not a reference to time altogether. See The Rambam on Time During Creation.)

6) Creation is so alien to human experience that we don’t have a comparison for it.

The Maharal (intro to Gevuros Hashem) is of this opinion. Therefore prophecy, which is transmitted by visions, cannot describe it. (The World to Come is similarly explained. This is why it only appears in Tanach as “your days will be prolonged”. Continued existence we can understand. The rest of the details, no.)

However, creation is also so alien that we can not understand it by extrapolation, either. In general, the Talmud teaches that “wisdom is greater than prophecy”. The Maharal explains that this is because the power of extrapolation and deduction takes you further than just what can be presented metaphorically in visions. In this case, though, creation is beyond wisdom as well — which is why the Talmud limits the forum where it can be studied.

The Maharal's conclusion is that the Torah can’t provide us with a comprehensible history AND that science must be wrong.

R’ Dessler (vol. II) ascribes a similar opinion to the Ramban, at least with regard to time during creation. That the days of creation were both literal days of seconds, minutes and hours, but also the subsequence six millenia. Not that they represent or parallel the subsequent millenia, but they are literally the millenia themselves. These two perspectives appear to contradict, but only because of limitations of how humans perceive time ever since eating from the tree of knowledge. (A longer description of Rav Dessler’s opinion can be found at Rav Dessler’s Approach to Creation.)

In the two last opinions, the presumption must be that Genesis 1 and 2 teach some deeper truths about reality. Either because that’s the only meaning of the text, or because all we can understand from the text are partial truths that don’t quite add up to a whole picture. In either case, without having a metaphor, there would be little reason for its inclusion in the Torah.

The Maharal explains some of the symbolism of the number 7 later in Gevuros Hashem. The seventh should be made holy even without the creation story, so it is possible the details of the story are made to describe this point.

One can also see a pattern: light, sky-and-sea, earth; repeated twice. First Hashem created light. On day four, He created the stars, moon and sun — the sources of light. Second, He separated sky from the sea. On day 5, He created those who live in the sky and the sea — the birds and the fish. Third, Hashem made the seas converge to show land. On day six, the animals and people inhabited the land.

What is important to us as Jews is not what actually happened, that is, whether G-d used natural or miraculous means to create the universe. Rather, to take the lessons of creation, or the lessons encoded into the story of creation, and live them.

  • 1
    My own preferences lay toward the end of this list. After all no.s 5 and 6 only differ in whether hypothetically Bereishis 1 has literal meaning that is beyond human understanding or is pure allegory. In either case, the only accessible meaning is an allegorical one. And the first two... I am not sure there was ANY rishon who believed in a young universe. (Maybe the Rambam, but then he didn't take Bereishis 1 literally anyway...) – Micha Berger Apr 29 at 21:47
  • First approach makes zero sense! Yes science does evolve much like any other academic subject e.g. medicine and biology etc. Does it make sense to say that Doctors are not trustworthy because they are constantly changing their minds. An emphatic No! Trial and error is the way we humans advance in any field. At the same time the core ideas of medicine are not subject to change, but are certain and rest on solid ground. Same thing goes for science, core ideas of geology are not subject to change and have been proven many times over. – Bach Jul 18 at 14:03
  • So to say that eventually geologists will come back and admit that the world is only 6000 years old like the Torah seems to say, is utter stupidity and most irrational approach to resolve the problem of Torah and science. – Bach Jul 18 at 14:03
  • @Bach - I believe RAMiller's point doesn't require saying the geologist is not trustworthy. Just that one has enough faith in one's understanding of the Torah to expect that this is one of the elements of geology that will evaporate as the discipline refines its theories. – Micha Berger Jul 18 at 16:44
  • You are bit vague here. In any case, you might want to rephrase that approach. – Bach Jul 18 at 18:36
2

I once heard HaRav Aharon Lopiansky quote the following from HaRav Aharon Lichtenstein Zt"l:

המתחתן עם הדור הזה מתאלמן מן הדור הבא

or, in less-poetic English,

One who marries this generation becomes widowed from the next generation.

In other words, Creation was something that happened a rather long time ago, it's cryptic and unclear exactly what happened, and we could certainly find a way to explain everything away to fit with current scientific consensus, as has been done many times with different issues throughout history. However, tomorrow, or decades from now, science may make new discoveries and change their minds. This is nothing wrong with science; science is a process of discovery. But we will have tied down the Torah to this now outdated explanation, while Science has marched on without us, and we'll be left without Science and without Torah.

So how does Torah deal with the differences between scientific evidence and Bereishis? Tentatively. We accept that we don't really understand Creation, and rest our faith on the multitude of other parts of Torah that we see the truth of. Torah does not need to be definitively reconciled - we aren't basing our belief on fitting with science's current view.

  • 1
    "science will make new discoveries and change their minds" I think you mean to say "science might make new discoveries and change their minds". The key here is not to say that the Torah definitely means [what modern science says], just that it totally could. We don't know if science will sharpen and improve its guesses, and it might not, but that's not a problem if we're not tied down. Science is still our current best estimation as to what Creation was like physically. – Double AA Feb 4 '16 at 4:32
  • @DoubleAA Agreed to your will vs. might point. Re your second point, that was my point - we tentatively make suggestions of what it could mean, but we don't determine what it does mean. – Y     e     z Feb 5 '16 at 1:35
2

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.

1

(As Joe already began in this direction)

From the verse at Bereshis 2:1, the Talmud (Chullin 60a) says that

כל מעשה בראשית בקומתם נבראו וכוי

"All the Genesis' action were created in their height [=adult state]": all the creatures began their life like immediately efficient adults. Adam was looking a 20-years old man, a cow was looking 3 years old as Rashi (ibid) points out:

והיינו שור פר ביום שהיה שור היה גדול כפר שור בן יומו קרוי שור כדכתיב שור כי יולד פר עד שלש שנים

So, if mature state for a man is looking like 20 years old, for a cow is 3, we can say mature state for the Earth is looking like billions years old.

(Maybe if there was more carbon14 than now, it would be toxic...)

0

As the Rambam says in Hilchos Teshuva, free will is the great primary pillar of the torah. Thus, part of the creation is that there needs to be a possibility of explaining the world through nature.

0

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 dilemma as follows (found this in Marpe Lenefesh commentary to Shaar Yichud end of ch.6 in this dafyomireview.com article):

"The Rambam in Moreh Nevuchim, part 2 chapter 17 brings 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."

The Rambam 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 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.

  • 2
    Science doesn't know what happened before a fraction of a second after the big bang. The equations just go to infinity and are useless. There are some speculations (some of which imply an eternal universe and some of which don't) but they are just that: speculations. This question asks about everything that happened in between then and now, events about which science does say something definitive about. – Double AA Jan 28 '13 at 20:14
  • 2
    That's like saying that since you don't know what happened on January 28, 1800, we shouldn't trust you about anything that happened on January 28, 2013 because clearly your memory is suspect. In any event, if that is your essential argument then it should be included in the answer, not down here in the comments. – Double AA Jan 28 '13 at 20:53
  • 2
    This question isn't about the existence of a Prime Mover Whom you call God! It's about what happened over the last ~15 billion years. If what you learned from the shaar yichud is that God must exist and that's your point in this answer, then it does not answer the question at all. – Double AA Jan 28 '13 at 22:55
  • 1
    the question was about the beginning of the world. not what happened after beginning – ray Jan 29 '13 at 6:05
  • 2
    I wish I could downvote again after your edits. I specifically showed you a link to a theory which breaks your false dichotomy, so I protest your misuse of my (user)name. Besides that, your logic is still sorely lacking (see above comments). And as I pointed out in your answer here, YOU STILL NEED TO RECONCILE. If you want to do so with the Omphalos Hypothesis, fine. But it is a reconciliation. Claiming there is no question is like being blind. (Did you really just question the scientific method in your comment above? And you do so on the internet? So oblivious...) – Double AA Jan 29 '13 at 6:14
-2

Attempts to "reconcile this 7 day creation story with evolution, geological and cosmological evidence of the age of the universe are absurd, requiring a twisting of the words of the text in ways they never remotely meant". "Of course the Biblical picture is not a factual, literal account of the universe's origin. The evidence to this effect is overwhelming". (Commentary on the Torah with a New English Translation by Richard E, Friedman 2001 Page 14)}

  • 1
    Actually the other answers to this question are much better. The author you cite is a follower of the Wellhausen "Documentary" mythology and does not know what he is talking about. – sabbahillel Sep 1 '16 at 14:00
-2

I would like to address some points not covered by existing answers, not really answering the question.

As frum Jews, why do we care?

Hashem runs this world by mysterious ways. Buy we can classify them all into two: General providence (GP - השגחה כללית) and Private providence (PP - השגחה פרטית).

  • GP can be summarized in "חוק נתן ולא יעבר" (Tehillim 148:6) or "מה שהיה הוא שיהיה" (Ecclesiastes 1:9). This is the Nature and the Science as we know it, that wants to know Hashem's fixed laws that He swore the Creation to abide.
  • PP is exactly the opposite - Hashem holds the exclusive right to "override" those laws for His or His people's sake, what a layman calls "a miracle".

As Moses said "הוֹדִעֵ֤נִי נָא֙ אֶת־דְּרָכֶ֔ךָ וְאֵדָ֣עֲךָ֔" (Shmos 33:13), we all want to know G-d's ways. So for every phenomenon we encounter either in reality or in written we'd like to know which way of the two is it - was it "natural" or was it "miraculous".

Same with the Creation , we'd really like to know, what part of it was a super-natural miracle, and what part (or since when) the world is just following G-d's laws of physics, chemistry or biology.

Therefore instead of presenting this contradiction as one between the Science and the Torah, we can see it as a contradiction within the Torah itself, similar to many interpretations of famous miracles - Makot Mizraim, Splitting of the Sea, Mannah etc.

  • You are very welcome. I still don't understand exactly what you are trying to say. Let's say that the Torah implies the world is very young, and science implies it is very old, how would this approach apply? – mevaqesh Dec 11 '17 at 15:38
  • Why not ask this question about any life phenomena - a person is born - is it natural or miraculous? Imagine an alien coming to Earth a seeing a newborn, after a year he doubles himself, how come we don't have people 200 feet high? Or he observes a person from 20 to 60 changing very slowly, wouldn't that alien expect the person to die in a thousand years, based on that tendency? My point is that we are surrounded by this controversy of linear and abrupt changes, which I refer to השגחה כללית and השגחה פרטית. – Al Berko Dec 11 '17 at 15:49
  • On the other hand, all scientists agree that there were many unexplained abrupt and unpredictable changes in history, like inflation, dinosaur extinction, Homo Sapience emerging, AI emerging or even a simple phenomena like water expanding after freezing etc we can call השגחה פרטית. – Al Berko Dec 11 '17 at 15:53
  • I don't understand how that is relevant to the question. The question was about scientific evidence about the beginning of the world vs. Torah. The question wasn't how God could create the universe miraculously, but how to deal with the contradiction between the Torah's account and science's account. || Are you suggesting the science's understanding is predicated on the presumption of constancy of natural law; a presumption you are challenging? – mevaqesh Dec 11 '17 at 15:57

You must log in to answer this question.

Not the answer you're looking for? Browse other questions tagged .