Parshas Bereishis discusses the creation of the universe and the world. It is this concept that, for we who believe in HaShem and His Creation of the world, comes into direct conflict with certain key areas of modern science. Herein we shall briefly examine some interesting Rabbinic opinions and statements that I have recently found to be of interest. While this author does not personally subscribe to all modern theories of Evolution, I would like to explain some of the words of Chazal and the classical meforshim to see if and how we may answer some perceived difficulties. By no means is this essay to be a comprehensive discussion of these complex matters, nor do I claim to have a system of thought completely worked out. Rather, it is best described as simply some of my musings on the topic as an outgrowth of various intriguing sources.
Age Of The Universe
To begin, Kuzari states that the world may actually be older than our traditional Jewish count since we are only counting from Adam HaRishon, and not actually the creation of the world. This may not even require us believing that our count begins with the first creatures that science calls Homo sapiens, as we do not have to classify beings the same way that science does. Therefore, we could in theory accept a world that existed for many years prior to Adam HaRishon, and perhaps that there were even man-like creatures that inhabited the Earth.
It should be pointed out at this juncture that there is nothing theologically wrong with believing that God created the world already looking older than it actually is. Why would He do this? Ultimately, we can never know. Writing off as ridiculous the idea that God did such a thing as a test of faith, though, fails to account for the fact that the Torah itself promises such tests (Deut. 18:15-22). We find in the Torah God telling us that a prophet may appear — and even perform miracles — trying to change the Torah; we are, of course, not to follow such a false prophet. We are warned that such false prophets are sent only as a test.
Another possible avenue to explain the age of the universe is God’s “creating and destroying of earlier worlds.” This is based on Midrash Rabbah (3:7) and it would also seem to be the understanding of the Gemara in Chagiga (16a) which states that the reason we are not allowed to delve into what existed before the creation of our world is because it is comparable to “reminding a king about the fact that he built his palace upon a garbage heap.” Such statements of Chazal as these are difficult, if not impossible, to understand without an explanation of a world older than ours, an idea that allows for easy meshing with Evolution. Following such an approach, HaShem created worlds, but destroyed them and started fresh from nothing. The reason why all creation that occurred before our current world is referred to as a “garbage heap” is because HaShem built our world “on top of the leftovers” of the previous worlds. The easiest way to explain these cryptic statements of Chazal is actually with modern Evolutionary theory. We can now say that what the scientists perceive to be an Evolutionary process is in fact an observation of the “leftovers” from God’s previous worlds1.
While R. Moshe Meiselman, for one, strenuously argues against such an approach, I think the aforementioned Kuzari does lend support to this approach. Our world can indeed be much older than we think it is, and even have been inhabited for a long while by human-like creatures. It was simply not until the person called by God “Adam HaRishon” that we begin our traditional count2.
I further believe there is proof to the above approach that can be brought from R. Meiselman’s own words. He acknowledges that the substance referred to as “tohu u’vohu” is in itself a creation, not “nothingness3.” Following this approach, it does not seem too difficult to suggest that whatever destroyed earlier worlds there were prior to ours left behind some form of remnants, perhaps even this “tohu u’vohu” itself.
The actual proposition that humans evolved from a lower life form would seem to contradict — amongst other traditional sources, of course — a Gemara in Rosh HaShanah (11a) that states that all creatures were created “in their height,” that is, in the erect form in which we now see them. This strongly implies that there was not some sort of Evolutionary process, rather HaShem created the whole world from nothingness, all in its final form. However, such statements by Chazal needn’t rule out any form of an evolutionary process. Indeed, there are, of course, many legitimate Rabbinic sources — most notably, perhaps, R. Shimshon Rafael Hirsch (Collected Letters vol. 7, pg. 257) — who did not think that the modern doctrine of Evolution is necessarily contradictory to the belief that HaShem created the world. Our Gemara in Rosh HaShanah, then, could simply mean that the various species were not created in their youth, but rather further along in their development process.
Tosafos in Niddah (25a), for instance, states that the leather-skin clothing made by HaShem for Adam and Chava were actually made out of human flesh. If so, it is possible that this was, in fact, some sort of evolutionary process guided by HaShem, covering them with the skin that we now know. Midrash Abkir even states that, until Noach was born, humans had attached, webbed-like hands without fingers. If so, we may ask what other features might have changed and evolved throughout history.
This essay is not the place for a comprehensive discussion of this topic, but there are, of course, many other writings that deal with this topic to which I would direct the reader; specially the works of Dr. Gerald Schroeder, Professor Cyril Domb, and Dr. Lee Spetner.
In further discussion of Evolution and the age of the universe I would like to briefly discuss the mabul of Parshas Noach.
It is generally true that modern science rejects the concept of a mabul as described in the Torah as there seems to be no proof for such an event having ever happened. There are, however, a number of statements in classical Rabbinic sources that in actuality might help as small starting points to resolve many of these difficulties.
Chazal make clear, for instance, that besides for there being a flood, there were also major topographical changes that occurred to the world. While obviously our essential timeline does not coincide with that of modern science, such topographical changes have indeed been found. We also find in Ramban that the climate changed from before the mabul to afterwards. Climate changes during earlier periods of the Earth’s development have also been noted by science. The key thing to note is that these changes mentioned by Chazal and the classical commentators were written at a time when science had no way to prove or even test such claims, strongly suggesting that such truths stemmed from some sort of tradition.
Far from being anything bordering on conclusive, such statements in early Rabbinic works are interesting and helpful nonetheless. There is still much work to be done — indeed, dealing with the flood is perhaps the most difficult of these topics — but in bringing such topics up I hope that I have shown that there is certainly room for us to maneuver.
I hope that some of what we have mentioned helps people be able to reconcile some of the seeming contradictions between Torah and science. To conclude, it may also be of interest to note the thoughts of the famous astronomer Fred Hoyle, the man who coined the now ubiquitous term “the Big Bang.” After being an atheist for many years he finally came to believe in some higher power, which he expressed as follows:
“A super intellect has monkeyed with physics, as well as with chemistry and biology, and… there are no blind forces worth speaking about in nature”.
May those of us who are forced to confront these issues stay strong in our faith, and serve HaShem with all our heart.
1. This could also explain the major gaps in the fossil records: when HaShem created the next world, He made a “jump” in the evolutionary process.↩
2. While Kuzari does not mention this, nor does this approach necessarily need to mean the earlier worlds were destroyed, it still seems to be a rejection of R. Meiselman’s basic understanding. Then again, it is possible that the true approach of Kuzari is actually different from the approach that we just outlined.↩
3. Chazal state that if the learning of Torah would cease for a moment, the world would be returned to “tohu u’vohu.” Following this approach, however, this would not mean a returning of the world to nothingness, but rather to an early primal state, as “tohu u’vohu” is itself a creation, as stated.↩