Excerpted with permission from Tradition: A Journal of Orthodox Thought.
Our Sages constantly remind us that the Torah can be understood on many different levels (shivim panim la-Torah). Indeed, the Talmud and the midrashim (commentaries) constitute a rich store of profound allegorical interpretation of biblical passages. However, in spite of the significance of these midrashim, Rashi and other commentators repeatedly stress the importance of the literal meaning of the biblical text. Thus, the traditional Jewish viewpoint is that there is no contradiction between conflicting interpretations of a biblical passage: each interpretation has validity on its own level.
When analyzing the first chapter of the Book of Genesis, there has always been a certain reluctance to treat the text in its literal sense. Such reluctance is not surprising. Everyone with an awareness of science recognizes that there seem to be a large number of contradictions between the “facts” as represented by scientific knowledge and the “facts” as implied by a literal rendering of the first chapter of the Book of Genesis.
Taking the Text Literally
The question that is addressed in this essay is whether it is possible to understand the opening verses of the Book of Genesis in their literal sense. To answer this question, a detailed comparison is made between the biblical text and current scientific evidence. This analysis shows that, despite the widespread notion to the contrary, there is in fact remarkable agreement between many passages of the Torah and recently discovered scientific knowledge.
As is well known, in all areas of science, important and often dramatic progress has taken place in recent years. However, it is rarely appreciated to what extent this new-found knowledge can have a profound influence on our understanding of the first chapter of the Book of Genesis.
Indeed, it is the thesis of this essay that modern science has provided us with a unique opportunity to discover new and deeper insights into numerous biblical passages that otherwise seem enigmatic. Far from being the antagonist of the Torah, science has become an important tool for its understanding.
There is a tendency these days to disparage science by emphasizing the transitory nature of scientific theory. However, every competent scientist can distinguish between the more speculative theories and those that are firmly established. It is the former that are short-lived and whose demise is regularly reported in the popular press, whereas the latter have an excellent record for longevity.
For example, the theory of relativity and the quantum theory have had unqualified success since their inception in explaining hundreds of different phenomena. Such well-established theories are constantly being refined and extended, but they do not undergo fundamental revision. Of course, the empirical nature of science precludes the possibility of the absolute proof of any theory. However, the chance that a well-established theory will eventually be overthrown is extremely slight.
It will be shown that current scientific evidence provides an answer to each of the questions that is asked about the biblical text. This does not of course imply that the Book of Genesis can be read like a science textbook. But it is proposed that there exists a scientific explanation that is consistent with the text. Establishing this consistency is the task to which this essay is dedicated.
The creation of the world has now become accepted by all leading cosmologists. The reason for this widespread acceptance is that by making appropriate measurements, every scientist can see clear and convincing evidence in support of the conclusion that creation indeed occurred.
It is instructive to quote a few statements made by the cosmologists who stand at the very head of their profession. Professor Stephen Hawking of the University of Cambridge writes, “The actual point of creation lies outside the scope of presently known laws of physics.” Professor Alan Guth of the Massachusetts Institute of Technology and Professor Paul Steinhardt of the University of Pennsylvania write, “The instant of creation remains unexplained.” Professor Joseph Silk of the University of California at Berkeley chose the following title for his recent book on cosmology: The Left Hand of Creation. And finally, a recent scientific article published in one of the foremost international journals of physics carries the following title: “Creation of the Universe from Nothing.”
The term “creation” has clearly left the private preserve of the biblical scholar and has entered the lexicon of science. Indeed, creation plays a leading role in the current scientific discussion of cosmology.
We now turn to the central issue–the vital question of what caused the sudden appearance of the primeval fireball that heralded the creation. As stated above, in the words of some of the world’s leading cosmologists, the creation of the universe is “outside the scope of presently known laws of physics” and “remains unexplained.”
In contrast to the scientist, the believing Jew does have an explanation for what caused the creation of the world, an explanation that is written in the very first verse of the Bible: “In the beginning, God created….”
(ii) The Light
Cosmologists now recognize that the sudden unexplained appearance of the primeval fireball is the creation of the universe. The biblical expression “Let there be light” may therefore be understood as designating the creation of the primeval fireball–the big bang–that signals the creation of the world.
All the matter and energy that exists throughout the universe results directly from this “light.” Note in particular that there were not two separate unconnected creations on the first day–the world and the light–but only one.
(iii) Separation of the Light
The big-bang theory predicts that the sudden transformation of the plasma into atoms shortly after the creation caused the radiation (“light”) of the primeval fireball to “separate” from the dark matter (“decouple,” is the scientific term) and shine freely throughout the universe. This decoupled radiation was eventually detected l5 billion years later by Penzias and Wilson.
(iv) Tohu va-Vohu
Important developments have occurred in the big-bang theory since 1980, which fall under the general heading of “the inflationary universe,” proposed by Guth and Steinhardt. A recent (1984) article summarizing these new findings contains the following words: “The universe began (again without explanation) in a random chaotic state.” A recent (1983) book on cosmology (The Left Hand of Creation) discusses at length the phenomenon of the “primordial chaos” and its important cosmological implications. This discussion appears in the section of the book called “Primeval Chaos” which is part of the chapter entitled “Chaos to Cosmos.”
It lies beyond the scope of this essay to explain the nature of this chaos and its importance, but it should be emphasized that the role of chaos in the development of the very early universe has become a major subject of cosmological research. The relevance of this to our discussion is clear: the Hebrew expression for “chaos” is tohu va-vohu.
(v) Creation in a Single Day
It is a common fallacy to believe that because cosmological changes occur extremely slowly at the present time, it must have always been so. Indeed, this is precisely the philosophy behind the now-disproved earlier theories of cosmology. By contrast, according to the modern big-bang theory, a long series of dramatic cosmological changes occurred within an extremely short time at the very beginning of the universe.
This point was brought home very forcibly by Professor Steven Weinberg by his choice of title for his popular book on modern cosmology: The First Three Minutes. lt takes Professor Weinberg l5l pages of text and diagrams to describe the momentous cosmological changes that took place in our universe during a mere three minutes.
In conclusion, a revolution has occurred in cosmology during the last two decades, a revolution that augurs well for the believing Jew who takes seriously the biblical text. Moreover, it is possible to show that the remarkable consistency between science and Torah exhibited here is not limited to cosmology, but extends to other areas of science as well.
A most appropriate summary to this essay can be found in the words of professors Guth and Steinhardt, who comment that “from a historical point of view, probably the most revolutionary aspect” of the modern theory of cosmology is the claim that matter and energy were literally created. These cosmologists emphasize that “this claim stands in mirked contrast to centuries of scientific tradition in which it was believed that something cannot come from nothing.”
In short, recent scientific discoveries regarding the cosmos have produced a picture of the origins of the universe that is in striking agreement with the simple words that appear in the opening passages of the Bible.
Pronounced: TALL-mud, Origin: Hebrew, the set of teachings and commentaries on the Torah that form the basis for Jewish law. Comprised of the Mishnah and the Gemara, it contains the opinions of thousands of rabbis from different periods in Jewish history.
Pronunced: TORE-uh, Origin: Hebrew, the Five Books of Moses.