BereshitDivrei Torah BlogsGenesis (Bereshit)

Bereshit 5767 — Science and Religion


God_sistine_chapelBereshit bara El-him et hashamayim v’et ha’aretz, “in beginning God created the heavens and the earth.”



The Torah tells us that God created the world in six days.  On the first day God said “let there be light” and there was light.  On the second day God created Heaven to separate “the waters above from the waters below.”  On the third day God created dry land and plants.   On the fourth day God created the sun, the moon, and the stars.  On the fifth day God created birds and fish.  On the sixth day God first created the land animals, and then said “Let us make man in our image,” and he created Adam and Eve.



The Torah and Tanakh give us detailed genealogies from Adam into the Biblical period which the rabbis in the Talmudic period used to calculate the age of the universe.  The Torah tells us Adam, who lived to 930 years, was 130 years old when he fathered Seth; Seth, who lived 912 years, was 105 when he fathered Enosh.  Based on this sort of information the rabbis determined that the 172nd year after the destruction of the Temple was the 4000th year since Creation.  By the rabbis’ reckoning, it has now been 5,767 years since the story of creation told in the opening chapter of Genesis.



Christian fundamentalists, using a very similar approach, come up with dates about 1,500 years older – they make the universe somewhat more than 7,000 years old.  The difference is because of variations between the Septuagint, a Greek translation of the Torah the Christians use, and the actual Torah the Jews use.



Fundamentalists – Jewish, Christian, or Muslim – are people who take the Scriptures’ words literally.  They believe the universe is actually 5,767 years old.  If you ask them “what about the fossils of dinosaurs” you’ll get a variety of responses, including “God made them that way to fool with us.”


Whether you use the Jewish calculations or the Christian calculations the results are a very long way indeed from what science tells us: that the universe is 14 billion years old, and our planet Earth has been around for 4 billion of them.



What are we to do with this glaring inconsistency?  Which is it?  14 billion years, or 5,767 years?


There are several different alternatives.  One option is to try and reconcile the Bible with science.  To say that both can somehow literally be true.  Which is kind of like having your cake and eating it too.  In his book “Genesis and the Big Bang,” Gerald Schroeder maintains that if science and the Bible seem to contradict each other, one of them is not being understood properly.  He says that you can read the story of creation as taking place of six literal days – and still be scientifically sound.  He says the key to everything is the theory of relativity and one’s point of view.



If you’re my age, you’ll remember that when we learned about the theory of relativity in science class, they taught us that if you had two people on earth, and one of them got in a rocket ship that traveled at a speed approaching the speed of light for some number of years, he would return to earth and only be a few years older, yet hundreds of years would have passed on earth.  Time passes differently when you are moving at different speeds.  Normally we are all moving so slow (even a space ship orbiting the earth at 17,000 miles per hour is crawling compared to the speed of light at 186,000 miles per second) that the differences are insignificant.



Schroeder maintains that if we take God’s position to be at the center of universe, and the universe expands at a speed initially equal to close to the speed of light and then slowing down, the first “day” from God’s perspective – a day someone sitting at the center of the universe would experience subjectively as 24 hours – was actually billions of years in our time.



According to Schroeder, the first of the Biblical days lasted 24 hours, viewed from the “God perspective.” But the duration from our perspective was 8 billion years.

The second day, from the Bible’s perspective lasted 24 hours. From our perspective it lasted half of the previous day, 4 billion years. The third day also lasted half of the previous day, 2 billion years. The fourth day – one billion years. The fifth day – one-half billion years.  The sixth day – one-quarter billion years.  Schroeder says “When you add up the Six Days, you get the age of the universe at 15 and 3/4 billion years. The same as modern cosmology. Is it by chance?”



There are all sorts of other similarities between the Bible and science.  Note that there was light before the sun and moon were created – which is accurate according to the Big Bang theory, which postulates that the universe was completely dark for the first 300,000 years, and then it had expanded enough for light to all of a sudden flash into existence – before there were any differentiated stars.



The order of creation in the Bible seems to mimic the order of creation in evolution – the earth, then plants, followed by fish, birds, land animals, and lastly people.



There are also a number of fascinating parallels between the elaboration of the Creation story told in Kabbalah, Jewish mysticism, and science.  Both maintain that everything is connected.  Both have a theory of “broken symmetry,” that originally everything in the universe was perfectly balanced, but something happened which caused a shattering of the symmetry which allowed the universe as we see it to come into being.



To those of us who love both science and religion, these attempts to reconcile science and religion are very compelling.  Wouldn’t it be nice and neat if the Bible were also “scientifically” true?  I DO want to have my cake and eat it too!



But as attractive as I find that approach, I believe that theologically it’s a dead end.  As a path to deeper faith in God, I think trying to reconcile science with the Torah is a non-starter.



Because as fascinating as the coincidences are when they add up, there are too many places where they don’t add up.  The most recent scientific research now dates the age of the universe at 12.8 billion years, +- 1.1 billion, making the oldest current estimate 13.9 billion years, substantially less than Professor Schroeder’s calculation of 15 and ¾ billion years.  I suppose Schroeder could go back and find some variable he left out.



How about the life spans given in the Torah for early generations?  Abraham living to 170 years is tough enough for us to take; but Adam living to 930?  Or Methuselah living to the ripe old age of 969?  Schroeder claims it is possible that human metabolisms were very different a few thousand years ago.  There is of course no evidence whatsoever for this piece of conjecture – so it’s a rather unscientific approach for a scientist at MIT.



Or how about the fact that the Torah says the earth was created before the sun and stars, when cosmologists are united in understanding that stars formed first?


As I said, the attempt to reconcile the Bible with science and claim that both are literally true is, I believe, a theological dead-end.



Option number two in our quest to figure out what to do with the discrepancy between science and religion is to say “choose!”  One or the other is right.  Decide which camp you’re in.


Atheists would say that science is right, and the Bible is nothing but a bunch of ancient legends.  Obviously as a rabbi I disagree with that answer.



Fundamentalists say that the Bible is right, and it is science that is flawed.


When we say “fundamentalists,” we usually think of Christians or Muslims.  But there are Jewish fundamentalists.



Technical training, sadly, is no vaccine against fundamentalism.  Rabbi Menachem Mendel Schneerson, the last Lubavitcher rebbe, studied at the Sorbonne and received a degree in electrical engineering from a French technical college.  Yet despite that scientific background, he maintained that science was wrong.  In an article he wrote in 1962 he said “In view of the unknown conditions which existed in prehistoric times, conditions of atmospheric pressures, temperatures, radioactivity, unknown catalyzers, etc., etc…conditions that is, which could have caused reactions and changes of an entirely different nature and tempo from those known under the present-day orderly processes of nature, one cannot exclude the possibility that dinosaurs existed 5722 years ago, and became fossilized under terrific natural cataclysms in the course of a few years rather than in millions of years; since we have no conceivable measurements or criteria of calculations under those unknown conditions.”



In other words, one response of the fundamentalists to the evidence of science is that the laws of physics have basically changed in the last 5000 years, and the way the world works today is not the way the world worked 5000 years ago, hence science has been led astray.



And Chabad rabbis of today of course accept their rebbe’s teachings – they believe the world was created in six twenty-four hour periods 5, 767 years ago.  Usually Chabad does not push this approach in their outreach to young people, as not too many university students would buy it.  So I was somewhat surprised that I found the above referenced quote on the website of Chabad of the University of Cambrid ge in Britain.  I give them credit for being upfront with what they believe.


In simpler terms, Rabbi Benny Zippel of Chabad Lubavitch of Utah said (as pointed out on the blog Failed Messiah) “Torah does not believe in evolution.  Torah believes that during the six days of creation, God created man in God’s image.”



Many non-religious people buy into the argument of the atheists versus the fundamentalists.  Many people assume that those are the only two choices.



Unfortunately, I used to be one of those people.  I thought that you had to choose between religion and science.  You either believed the universe was 13 billion years old or you believed it was less than 6,000 years old.  For a long time I thought that to be a religious person meant you had to ignore everything you learned in science class at school.  I thought to be a religious person meant you had to take your scientifically trained mind out and put it on a shelf. 



And since my favorite subject in school was science, and Hebrew school certainly was NOT my favorite, no surprise after my Bar Mitzvah, science won out and I was only seen in a synagogue three times in the next 25 years.



What changed?  When I started studying Judaism as an adult, I learned that the fundamentalists are wrong.  It’s not just a black and white choice, Torah or science.  Maimonides, one of our greatest sages who lived almost 1,000 years ago says that anyone who takes the Torah literally is distorting the Torah.  We have to interpret the Torah, and we have to understand it metaphorically.  If you understand the Torah as speaking metaphorically, there is no problem with reconciling the biblical stories with what we learn scientifically.  Science and Torah are speaking in different realms.


Science is great at answering nuts and bolts practical questions.  How is the world put together?  How does the world function?  But it cannot provide answers to moral, ethical, or aesthetic questions.  In this weeks’ Torah portion it says “And God made the beasts of the earth after their kind, and cattle after their kind, and every thing that creeps upon the earth after its kind; and God saw that it was good.”  Science can now tell us a lot about the process of how God did this act of creation, how one species evolved from another.  But science cannot tell us that “it was good.”  The how questions are the realm of science.  The why questions are the realm of religion.



There are scientists who claim that science can provide everything, even a basis for ethics.  Dr. Norm Hall wrote “Science has succeeded as a cooperative human effort by asserting the belief that the universe can only be understood through the values of integrity and truth-telling. In the process it has become a system of values, and it has provided humankind with a language which transcends cultural boundaries and connects us in a highly satisfying way to all the observable universe. It has the potential to be used as the basis for a workable and profoundly satisfying system of ethics.”


Unfortunately, ethical systems based on science generally seem to be profoundly lacking in, well, ethics.  You look at evolution, and the ethics you would derive is “survival of the fittest.”  Eugenics is a good thing.  Hitler based his ethics on “science,” to create a better race. 



It is not rational, and therefore not terribly scientific, to care about what happens to weak, non-contributing members of society.  Science will not tell us we are all created “b’tzelem Elohim,” in God’s image.  Science will tell us we are created very differently and should be treated differently.


No, science and religion need to co-exist.  The one needs to inform the other.  Just as religious fundamentalists are wrong when they try to deny science completely, atheist scientists are wrong when they try to deny religion completely.  And I use the term “atheist scientists” advisedly: surveys show that the percentage of scientists who believe in God, about 40%, has remained relatively constant over the last 100 years.  All of our scientific progress in understanding the universe has not led more scientists to atheism.  Many, like Einstein did, marvel in the intricacy of God’s creations.


And this approach to science and religion, to understand the Torah as speaking metaphorically, to understand that Torah and science teach us different truths, is NOT some kind of Conservative or Reform rejection of the tradition.  Many Orthodox Jews believe the exact same thing.  While all fundamentalist Jews may be Orthodox, not all Orthodox Jew are fundamentalist.  I already mentioned how Maimonides rejected taking the Torah literally.  Somewhat more recently, Rabbi Abraham Isaac Kook, the very Orthodox first chief rabbi of Palestine said “the theory of evolution accords with the secrets of Kabbalah better than any other theory.  Evolution follows a path of ascent and thus provides the world with a basis for optimism.  How can one despair, seeing that everything evolves and ascends?  When we penetrate the inner nature of evolution, we find divinity illuminated in perfect clarity.  Ein Sof, the infinite God, generates, actualizes, potential infinity.”


So why is it that I bought into the false dichotomy of science vs. religion?  What is it that kept me away from religion all those years?



I believe the problem is that my Jewish education stopped with my bar mitzvah.



Children are not simply little adults.  The psychologist Piaget identified stages of cognitive development that we all go through.  When teaching children you simply cannot go into abstract philosophical concepts.  They are incapable of learning them.  Even smart kids simply haven’t developed the cognitive ability to deal with certain ideas.



So in Sunday school we teach the kids Bible stories without a great deal of commentary about the need to understand them metaphorically.  We teach them about Adam and Eve, and Noah and Abraham and Moses.  We present the stories as written without giving them a bunch of footnotes they would not understand.



Which is why it is such a tragedy if a young person’s Jewish education stops at the age of thirteen.  He or she will have learned the stories of the Bible, but he will not have learned Rambam’s guidance on how we should understand those stories.  When the child grows up, he may be left turned off to religion, thinking it’s a bunch of fairy tales that make no sense and have no relevance to life today.


If we are concerned about Jewish continuity, one of the most important things we can do is to keep our Jewish teens learning.  By the time a young person is in the confirmation class, at age 15, he or she is sophisticated enough to deal with abstract ideas.  In confirmation class we talk about ideas like “who wrote the Bible?” “if God is all good, why is there evil in the world?” “what’s the point of praying?” and the perennial favorite, “what’s the meaning of life?”  When the graduates of our confirmation class become young adults they may not remember all the details of what they learned but they will at least remember that Judaism does not paint the world into black and white where you have to choose between science and Torah.



And it’s not just the kids who need to keep learning—we all need to.  I find it sad that there are many Jewish adults who are very educated and sophisticated with graduate degrees in secular studies, who are 6th grade drop outs when it comes to having a command of the wisdom of the Jewish tradition.  Last week at Simchat Torah as soon as we finished reading the book of Deuteronomy we immediately continued with starting over again at the very beginning of the book of Genesis.  No pause, no break.  The message clearly being that learning never ends.


We’re at the beginning of the New Year on the Jewish calendar.  May we all resolve to learn more Torah this year, to share more Torah with our friends and family.  And Torah doesn’t just mean the Bible.  Go to your favorite bookstore, or go to Amazon and find a book on a Jewish subject that interests you…and read it!



Shabbat Shalom

Barry Leff

Rabbi Barry (Baruch) Leff is a dual Israeli-American business executive, teacher, speaker and writer who divides his time between Israel and the US.

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