Welcome to the year 5,776(,000,000?)

This past Thursday night, I gave a relatively long Shiur on the various Jewish views regarding the age of the universe.  Time and time again I come across people who are distressed by the contradictions between the beginning of the book of Genesis and Science.

The contradiction is obvious.  Modern cosmologists have dated the origin of the universe to be about 13 billion years ago, while a simple counting of the chronology given in the Torah tells us that the world is less than 6,000 years old.

Most of the modern sources that discuss this topic seem go one of three ways:

The first group will either try to discredit the scientific evidence or the obvious implications of that evidence.  Take for example a quote from the Rebbe, Menachem Mendel Schnerson:

(a)” In view of the unknown conditions which existed in “prehistoric” times, conditions of atmospheric pressures, temperatures, radio-activity, unknown catalyzers, etc., etc. as already mentioned, 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.

(b) Even assuming that the period of time which the Torah allows for the age of the world is definitely too short for fossilization (although I do not see how one can be so categorical), we can still readily accept the possibility that God created ready fossils, bones or skeletons (for reasons best known to Him), just as He could create ready living organisms, a complete man, and such ready products as oil, coal, or diamonds, without any evolutionary process. As for the question, if it be true as above (b) why did God have to create fossils in the first place? The answer is simple: We cannot know the reason why God chose this manner of creation in preference to another, and whatever theory of creation is accepted, the question will always remain unanswered. The question, Why create a fossil? Is no more valid than the question, Why create an atom? Certainly, such a question cannot serve as a sound argument, much less as a logical basis, for the evolutionary theory.” (Mind Over Matter)

The Rebbe opens up his discussion by trying to discredit science itself, and then eventually goes on to state that even if the evidence is correct, maybe the obvious implication of scientific findings, e.g. the fossil record implying that dinosaurs existing, is simply a test from God and in a Kierkegaardian manner we should reject all empirical attacks on our faith.

The second group of people, attempting to address this question, use a different strategy of trying to cleverly reconcile the reading of the Pasukim (verses), with the scientific date of the world.  Commentators in this camp are quick to point out the fact that the sun was not created until day four, so who knows how long the first three days were?!  Others, will argue that a day in God’s eyes is much longer than a day in human eyes.  To back up this claim, they quote a verse in Psalms (90:4) which states that 1,000 years on Earth is like a day in God’s eyes.

Still, other sources in this group with more of a Kabalistic bent, will quote the Talmud (Shabbat 88b) which states that there were 974 generations before the giving the Torah, and then using a lot of arbitrary math (especially multiplying by the number 7 for Shmitah) they end up in the billions of years.  Dr. Gerald Schroeder in his various writings and lectures on the topic even tries using Einstein’s theory of relativity in an attempt to argue that since time is relative anyways, the world can be both 6,000 and 13,000,000,000 years old at the same time.

Finally, the last group will claim that the reading of the creation of the world in Genesis was never meant to be taken literally.  Support for this view comes from the Rambam, which the Abarbanel sums up quite nicely:

The Rambam believed that there were not separate creative acts on 6 days but rather everything was created on one day in a single instant. In the work of Creation there is mention of ‘6 days’ to indicate the different levels of created beings according to their natural hierarchy; not that there were actual days, nor that there was a chronological sequence to that which was created in the acts of Genesis 

Unsurprisingly, it seems that this view is growing very quickly in popularity as people are realizing the true difficulty of this question.

I will leave the analysis of these three opinions to the reader.  For now I wish to look past these different ways of reconciling Genesis and science, and ask a very fundamental question.  Should it even matter if we have a way of reconciling Genesis and the Big Bang?  Let’s say, for example, that no Midrash or Rishon ever said that we can read the story anything but literally – would we then be forced to say that the story of creation is historically accurate?

Personally I would answer of course not!  Being religious does not mean that one is forced to throw out ones rational and intellect.  It is not a sign of piety to ignore evidence and fact but rather a sign of stupidity.  Faith only starts where the intellect ends – meaning that having faith does not mean ignoring all evidence, but rather when there are questions which cannot be solved by evidence and facts, faith begins to enter the conversation.  While this sort of thinking is contrary to the idea of needing a “Leap of Faith” or a “Leap to Faith” in which the religious philosopher Soren Kierkegaard writes that man must sacrifice his intellect to be religious – I think that the only true way to serve God is via the intellect.  For in the words of Galileo:

“I do not feel obliged to believe that the same God who has endowed us with sense, reason, and intellect has intended us to forgo their use”

Instead of viewing our intellect and rational as opponents or obstacles to our faith and religious thought, we must view them as partners.  For as Einstein famously said:

“Science without religion is lame, Religion without science is blind”

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