Since the time of Aristotle, Jews educated in the sciences of the day have grappled with contradictions between Torah and science. Rambam, who deals with these issues in his Moreh Nevuchim, is one of the many who have worked to resolve these challenges. For example, Aristotle asserted that the world is eternal and was never created. Rambam in the second section of Moreh Nevuchim addresses this issue at length.
In our times, there are three major challenges posed by science. First, the contradiction between traditional Torah belief that the world is approximately 5772 years old and the scientific assertion that the universe is many billions of years old. A second major issue is the scientific assertion that man is millions of years old, with archaeological evidence to support this assertion. The third is the use by some of the theory of evolution to assert that the world as we know it came about without a Director (i.e. Hashem).
In this series of articles, we shall present some of Dr. Gerald Schroeder’s resolutions to these problems. While Dr. Schroeder’s approaches are not the last word or the only approaches in regards to these matters, his are an important voice that is worthwhile to know. After hearing him speak at the Torah Academy of Bergen County, I concluded that his views should be part of the arsenal of everyone who is committed to fulfilling Chazal’s dictum of “Da Mah SheTashiv LaApikoros,” “know how to respond to a non-believer” (Avot 2:14). Dr. Schroeder’s views are available at length in his books and summarized at www.geraldschoeder.com. I thank my students at the Torah Academy of Torah Academy and congregants at the Sephardic Congregation of Teaneck (Shaarei Orah) for their insights into this topic that I have incorporated into this discussion.
Dr. Schroeder has serious scientific credentials and is also an interesting interpreter of Torah. He is (according to his website) a scientist with over thirty years of experience in research and teaching. He earned his Bachelor's, Master's, and Doctorate degrees all at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, with his doctorate thesis being under the supervision of physics professor Robley D. Evans. This was followed by five years on the staff of the MIT physics department prior to making Aliyah to Israel, where he joined the Weizmann Institute of Science and then the Volcani Research Institute, while also having a laboratory at The Hebrew University. His Doctorate is in two fields: earth sciences and physics.
Introduction: Aristotle, Rambam and the Big Bang Theory – The Torah Proven Correct!
Rambam in his Moreh Nevuchim, (Guide for the Perplexed) (2:25), concludes that Aristotle’s argument that the world is eternal is merely a reasonable argument but not a conclusive argument. Rambam surprisingly concludes that if Aristotle would have been able to conclusively prove that the Universe was eternal he would have reinterpreted BeReishit Perek 1 to fit with proven fact. By saying this, Rambam establishes an important rule: the Torah never contradicts an established fact. Thus, when faced with a contradiction between Torah and assertions made by scientists, we have two fundamental options: Either the scientists are incorrect or the manner in which we interpret the Torah is incorrect (or both).
Rambam stopped short of reinterpreting BeReishit Perek 1 because he was not fully convinced of Aristotle’s arguments. This issue continued unresolved until the mid-1960's, when the overwhelming opinion of the scientific community still was that the universe was eternal. Then two scientists at Bell Labs in New Jersey, USA, Arno Penzias and Robert Wilson, while scanning the heavens with a special antenna, detected a weak radiation filling all of space. Working with P.J.E. Peebles at Princeton University, this ubiquitous radiation was identified as the residual energy of the big bang creation. It is now known as the cosmic microwave radiation background. Penzias and Wilson were awarded the Nobel Prize for their discovery, and rightly so. Their discovery changed humanity's understanding of our universe. There was a creation, a beginning to our universe. Science has now confirmed that Aristotle was incorrect and the literal interpretation of the Torah is correct.
Thus, the believing Jews from Aristotle’s time (the fourth century BCE) until the 1960’s who stubbornly clung to the belief that the world was created, contrary to the view of the overwhelming opinion of the scientific community, were correct after all. This is a sobering fact that should be borne in mind whenever one seeks to resolve seeming contradictions between Torah and scientists.
Three Possible Contemporary Approaches to Resolving Conflicts
In light of the experience with Aristotle’s disproven theory of the world’s eternity one could simply conclude that the exercise of harmonizing Torah and science is unnecessary. The Torah contains divinely revealed truths and, by contrast, scientific belief is constantly changing. A friend of mine related that at his graduation ceremony from Harvard University Medical School, the dean of the medical school stated, in the course of urging the graduates to continue pursuing their medical education, that “most of what we taught you is incorrect!” Thus, one could (as many believing Jews do) reasonably refrain from trying to resolve Torah with assertions made by scientists which might be proven incorrect millennia, centuries, years, or even days later. One could argue that the Big Bang Theory proved that Rambam’s grappling with Aristotle’s theory of eternity was unnecessary and we therefore need not repeat Rambam’s efforts to reconcile Torah and science.
However, there are those who nonetheless seek to harmonize Torah with current scientific belief. There are those who argue that in BeReishit Perek 1, Hashem teaches eternal values on how to conduct one’s life, but does not intend to impart scientific information. This approach argues that there cannot be any conflict between scientific theories for the creation of the world and BeReishit Perek 1, since BeReishit Perek 1 does not intend to teach science. Needless to say, many have found this approach to be very controversial, as it argues for a non-literal approach to BeReishit Perek 1. Non-literal interpretations nearly always prove to be very controversial (see, for example, Ramban to BeReishit 18:1).
Dr. Schroeder offers a third possibility. He interprets BeReishit Perek 1 literally and uses only pre-modern Torah sources to interpret this section of the Torah. Yet he presents an approach that renders the literal meaning of BeReishit Perek 1 as completely compatible with current scientific knowledge. I find it particularly worthwhile to be familiar with the sections of Dr. Schroeder’s website entitled “Religious Myths” and “Scientific Myths” and to this we now turn our attention. We begin with Dr. Schroeder’s rejection of how some believers reconcile issues regarding Torah and science.
The Mabul and the Fossil Record
Some wish to resolve the conflicts between Torah and science by arguing that boiling hot water of the Mabul (the flood during No’ach’s time) distorted the fossil record, making the fossils appear much older than they truly are. Dr. Schroeder argues that the Torah indicates that this is not correct:
“We read in Genesis 4:22, that Tuval Cain, son of Lemech, developed the sophisticated working of bronze metal. Though the ages of Cain's progeny are not listed in the Bible, by juxtaposing Cain's progeny with those of Seth we can estimate that Tuval Cain lived approximately in the Biblical year 1000 (that is 1000 years after Adam). The Flood occurred in the Biblical year 1659, 600 years after Tuval Cain. Thus Tuval Cain did his work prior to the Flood and so the waters of the Flood should have upset the relics of his work. Yet along comes the archaeologists and discover the relics of an age that they label as The Early Bronze Age. Scientific dating places it at approximately 2800 BCE or in the Biblical year approximately of 1000, overlapping the Biblical timing of Tuval Cain. If the Flood did indeed alter or change the fossil record, it should also have altered the relics of Tuval Cain. But it did not. The implication is the Flood did not alter the fossil record. The Flood is a poor choice to discredit the fossil record as a measure of true history.
Dr. Schroeder incidentally presents archaeological support to the Torah’s presentation of Tuval Kayin’s achievements. This is similar to other arguments he makes that science often may be marshaled to support Torah belief, as we shall see in coming essays.
While many believe that belief in the existence of dinosaurs is antithetical to Torah, Dr. Schroeder, in his website’s section entitled “Religious Myths” raises the fascinating possibility that the Taninim HaGedolim presented in the Torah (BeReishit 1:21) refer to dinosaurs. He tries to bring evidence (from Shemot 7:10) that Taninim refer to reptiles and that Taninim HaGedolim refer to large reptiles, which is the meaning of the word dinosaur. However, his arguments seem somewhat speculative to this author and many of his students.
In the coming issues we shall continue our presentation of Dr. Schroeder’s resolutions of conflicts between science and Torah. We shall IY”H and B”N discuss the contradictions regarding the age of man and evolution in manners that accepts both the literal meaning of the Torah and current scientific thinking.