Rav Dessler’s Approach to Creation

(You might want to see also Different Approaches to Creation, a survey that just touches on a variety of opinions, as well as Divine Timelessness.)
I think that in order to understand Rav Dessler’s position about the nature of time during ma’aseh bereishis one needs to start with MmE vol II pp 150-154, aptly titled “Yemei Bereishis veYemai Olam“. Comments of my own that I feel can’t wait for the end of the maamar are in square brackets.
Rav Dessler opens by defining the nature of time-as-we-know-it. In the first two paragraph he establishes the connection between time and free will. The flow of past to future is that of desire to fulfillment.In the section “Havchanas haZeman“, Rav Dessler points out that time passes as a function of the number of experiences we have. When we have more experiences, we have more opportunities for choice, for fulfilling desires.

But while man’s choice now revolves around many issues, Adam qodem hacheit [AQH] had only one choice, and therefore didn’t have the same connection to the flow of time. [pg. 151] We can not understand what time was like to AQH.

The next section is “Zeman Sheishes Yemei Bereishis“. It opens with the assertion that since the 6 days of bereishis were before the completion of creation, the havchanas hazeman was different. The six days are “diberah Torah kelashon benei adam” (the Torah talks like the language of people), that the Torah’s discussion of ma’aseh bereishis (the act of creation) is like explaining something to a blind person by drawing parallels to touch.

[Does that qualify as justifying allegorization of the narrative altogether? His phrase is “bederekh dimyon” (in the manner of comparison). But at least with regard to time, Rav Dessler is saying the Torah’s terminology is one of dimyon, not literalness.]

Rav Dessler quotes the Ramban (1:3) who explains that the 6 days were literal days of hours and minutes, and also the 6 sephiros from Chesed to Hod. According to Rav Dessler this means that to our perception it would be 6 literal days, but the core of the issue is that of 6 sephiros. The Bahir says that this is why the pasuq says “ki sheishes yamim” — through these 6 days, 6 sephiros — “asah H’ es hashamayim ve’es ha’aretz…” — Hashem made the heaven and the earth….

[Sidenote: The Rambam also identifies the days of creation with steps of unfolding creation, rather than a measure of time. See this entry.]

[pg 152] Rav Dessler again quotes the Ramban (this time, 2:3) who draws parallels between the 6 days and the subsequent 6 millennia. The Ramban sometimes says that one is “romeiz” (hints at) the other, sometimes “kenegdo” (corresponding to it), and sometimes the actual identification — that the day “hu” (it is) the millennium. From this Rav Dessler concludes that the Ramban identifies the two — the current millennium is the same thing as the Friday of creation, which seems to us to be a hint to it, or corresponding to it.

The Gra identifies the 6 days with the subsequent 6 millenia, and [pg 153] had Adam not eaten from the eitz, the world would have only lasted those 6 days, and the first Shabbos would have been olam haba. And in the end of days everything will return to their maqor. And (emph Rav Dessler’s or Rav Aryeh Carmell’s) “the present is this time, which is knowledge of good and evil.” Rav Dessler understands the Gra to mean that the six millenia we’re living through is a post-sin perception, it is entirely a product of our knowledge of good and evil.

The last section “Zeman: Qevi’as Mahuso” (Time: Establishing His Nature) takes it’s name from the nature of the person. With each moment and each impression, some of the potential of the person is actualized. People think of themselves as stable, and the world moves around them. But this is an error.

It says in Nidah 30b that a baby before birth sees “from the end of the world until its [other] end”. But when he’s born, he enters the hiding caused by time, the unity of creation speaking the Unity of the Creator is concealed, and only the present seems real. In the world of action (olam ha’asiyah), every moment is fixed by the action. [pg 154] Every moment following the Torah adds some light to his mahus, and similarly ch”v in the reverse. Through his free will [thus connecting this definition of the time to the one in the opening of the lecture] he establishes his nature, thereby giving a flow to time.

Rav Dessler compares our perception of time to looking at a map through a piece of paper with a small hole in it. One can move the hole from city to city along the roads. But that progression is a product of how we’re looking at the map, not the map itself. After death, the paper is removed, and one can see the entirety — not a progression.

Hashem is the One Who “looks until the end of generations” because He can see the whole. Rav Dessler closes with an exhortation to learn Torah, do mitzvos, cling to the truth, to rise beyond seeing the world through a little hole in the paper.

Some more of my own thoughts:
Rav Dessler holds that time-as-we-know-it flows, time-as-AQH-knew-it barely flowed, and time before AQH didn’t flow at all. Because the concept of a flow from past to future is so central to what people think of when they read the word “time”, I think it’s fair to say that time didn’t exist during the act of creation, only something more like “Time” (capitalized in the style of Platonic ideal, but in quotes) or “block time”.
Why “block time”? It’s Paul Davies’ term. Davies is a philosopher in Australia who published some popular books on science and philosophy. one of them titled “Time’s Arrow” about where the flow from past to future comes from. (He also has Scientific American article on the subject available on line.)
In relativity, the universe is not so much a 3D movie as a 4D sculpture. The flow of time isn’t inherent in relativity, and it’s difficult to explain why time is experienced so differently than the 3 dimensions of space. This 4D “block” lead to the term “block time”. This sculpture sounds much like Rav Dessler’s “seeing the entirety”, so I think the use of his term is meaningful when speaking of his view of “Time” during creation, the end of days, or of a soul before and after its life.

It is interesting to follow the parallel between Rav Dessler’s metaphor and Davies’ to explore how Rav Dessler’s position compares to R’ Yaakov (“Gerald”) Shroeder’s resolution of the time of creation issue. To start: both dismiss the notion that 6 days does not rule out it also being something else.

Trends in Resolving Torah and Science

This is the nearest I plan to get to discussing L’affaire Slifkin on this blog. I’m not going to discuss issues dealt with by R’ Gil Student in his Hirhurim blog, or in any of the other Jewish blogs. My opinion is already better represented on line already than what I could produce. When I read R’ Shternbuch’s article I noticed a subtext. Once I stripped away all the points about which I disagree, this unwritten given that I saw as a subtext still rung true.I see two basic and opposing trends in how segments of the frum world approach the question of apparent conflicts between Torah and science. An action, and a reaction. I find both worrisome. And, while R’ Shternbuch’s essay represents an example of the reactionary trend, I share his concern about the action.

R’ JB Soloveitchik, in The Lonely Man of Faith, contrasts Adam as described in Bereishis 1, with that of ch. 2. Adam I is described as the last step in creation, the pinacle, who should “be fruitful and multiple, fill the earth and subdue it. Rule the fish of the sea and the bird of the sky…” Master of all he surveys, through his science and technology. Adam II is a partner with G-d as he names the animals. His marriage isn’t about procreating, but “and they shall be one flesh”, having a relationship with another. In the ideal, one finds a balance of these archtypes; using halakhah, we can navigate this dialectic. However, in contemporary society, where “progress” is identified with technological progress, man overly identifies with Adam I.

So, one can phrase the current encounter as a dilemma between how to balance Adam I and Adam II when our perceptions of science and of Torah contradict. I write “our perceptions” because in reality, of course, they can’t contradict. The same Author wrote both nature and the Torah. However, our understandings can be inaccurate, incomplete, or simply limited by our being merely human trying to understand something with the complexity of a masterpiece by an Infinite Author.

While many scientists do realize that saying “The apple fell because of gravity” and “G-d made the apple fall” do not contradict, many do. There is an entire culture of Scientism which believes that religion stems entirely from an ignorance they’re working to eliminate. For example, I found a HS bio book that said (roughly, from memory):

Using evolution, we can explain how life as we know it emerged. We see how complex organisms can arise without there being any preexisting design.

If not exactly that, it’s pretty close to it. Or less subtly, people like Dawkins or the “Skeptic” column in Scientific American wouldn’t be complaining about Intelligent Design. ID is the idea that all of current theory about our origins is as right as any other theory, but that it shows there is a Designer who got us to this point. These people and numerous other scientists labeled “Creationism in sheep’s clothing”.

In “Scientism” the pursuit of science is confused with the pursuit of knowledge. There is an old saying that science is like climbing a cliff. When the scientist finally scales to the top of the cliff, he’ll find himself where the religious have been all along. However, the person who turns science into his “Ism” will mistake the religious man for just more cliff, and keep on climbing! (And sure enough, he’ll reach the top of the man’s head and not find anything when he looks around…) It is an egotistical cry of Adam I, proclaiming himself master of all and denying the existance and reality of anything beyond his mastery.

When frum Jews seek natural explanations, what motivates us? Why isn’t “G-d performed a miracle for His unfathomable reasons” sufficient? How many of us are doing so because deep down we’ve bought into Scientism’s premises, and we only do invoke G-d for things we can’t otherwise explain. The notion of finding physical explanation is sound, defending by the Rambam, his son R’ Avraham, the Ralbag, and others.

I’m speaking about our motivation for choosing this path: Is it hashkafic?

Nor is a lack of creationism the only objection under discussion. It’s also, a question of the mabul and Bavel, which many Orthodox Jews question the historicity of, or question whether they were global, neither idea have the same masoretic foundation to build from as a non-literal creation. And a general question of when Chazal’s pronouncements are to be questioned. The role of changes of scientific theory in pesaq. Are maamarei Chazal placed “on the run” fleeing from the advancing tide of science? Or do we better anchor them, and try our hardest to find their own logic, unchanging in the face of changes in theory?

In theory, these could be very different hashkafic questions. So why are so many people reaching the parallel conclusions in each? Regardless of the existence of a reason or justification for each step taken, there is an emergent pattern in much of contemporary O thought that is disconcerting. Why does one seek those reasons that so consistently justify retreat? Is this not typical of western man, of this over-focus on Adam I, maximizing the role of human comprehension and minimizing the need to invoke G-d?

I think that’s what R’ Shternbuch was writing about when he says, “Nevertheless their concern is to make even this miraculous event as close to nature as possible. In other words, they much prefer to make the world as natural as possible and to minimize the miraculous.” He’s not talking about nature vs. miracle, but whether we elect to invoke G-d, or elect to keep the universe a place we can comprehend or master. And if it’s not R’ Shternbuch’s concern, it’s still mine.

But I’m no less concerned by this reaction to the shock of modernity, common in a large segment of the population. The proper response to rampant Adam I-ism is not an exclusive focus on Adam II. Man was not designed to be a passive recipient of G-d’s beneficience, but a covenental partner. We can not forgo our own ability to think and create, or to leave that responsibility to a select few.

Someone emailed me about the current “antisophical” trend in world view. He described it as a reaction to the birth of Reform. I also described this phenomenon way back at the start of the creationism discussion, when I wrote that I believe that more people insist on literalism now than did before there was a scientific challenge. It’s why so many insist on taking every medrash literally (a position not supported by rishonim or the vast majority acharonim). It’s also why even amongst the words of chazal, we gravitate toward the fantastic. For example, there are two Rashis about the age of Racheil when she married Yitzchaq. Children are taught the opinion that she was 3, not necessarily the one where she was 15.

This trend I see as more damaging even than another reaction to Reform — the neglect of Nakh and diqduq.

There is no word “antisophical”. The tendency to prefer black-and-white solutions is described from a word related to the Sophists, though: it’s “unsophisticated”. Preference should be given precision, not simplicity.

So how do I expect these conflicts to be resolved? Each one, case by case. No easy answers, no trends should emerge. It’s a dialectic tension, a point over which life isn’t supposed to be easy. And many questions will not yield an answer to us. It still is the problem of the finite man trying to understand the work of an Infinite Creator.

A mashal:

We currently have two very successful physical theories: quantum mechanics (QM) which was born in the head of Heisenberg y”sh and developed by numerous other people — most of them Jews. Including Einstein. There is also relativity (which has two parts: special and general), which was pretty much entirely Einstein’s. QM works well in the domain of the very small, relativity works well with the very large. (In between, Newton’s old system is a good enough approximation and people don’t bother with such things.) But they are based on contradictory assumptions. Figuring out quantum gravity — a theory of gravity that fits both QM and relativity, is a challenge. Filling this challenge are things like string and membrane theories, the Higgs Boson (the subject of the book “The God Particle”, and others. For now, there is no real resolution.

But even though the two theories are built on contradictory assumptions, scientists place trust (bitachon) in them. They each work so well in their chosen domains, making more successful predictions than any other theories in science. For example, in a GPS device, a chip that was designed using QM adjusts for the effects of gravity on the signal from the positioning satellite, in accordance with general relativity. The scientist and engineer have faith (emunah) that each will have to be tweaked only minorly to get them to fit, not a major overhaul.

As you can tell from my use of language, I think this is a fitting metaphor. There are times when you simply have to use science for its target domain, understanding how the physical universe behaves, and Torah for its target domain — understanding how I ought to behave, and my place in life. And simply have emunah that some resolution exists.

Different Approaches to Creation

[Modified Feb 6, 2005: References raised on an Avodah discussion added.
[Modified Feb 5 2009: References to later essays added. -mi]

I know of a number of approaches to evolution vs creation in Jewish thought. As far as I can tell, it seems that an insistence on the Torah giving literal history with it being roughly 5,769 years since ex nihilo, became more popular after the scientific challenges of the past two centuries, not less. As though we dug in our heels in the face of so many rejecting the Torah for a blind acceptance of the zeitgeist and the importance it gives scientific research.

1- Rejection of scientific conclusions. Theories change over time. Rather than worry about a contradiction between current theory and the Torah, one can simply wait without concern as science slowly converges to the Torah’s truth.

After all, in the last century theory has gone from Aristotle’s eternal universe to acknowledging that it has a beginning. Compared to that, current difference are small.

This is the basic approach taken by R’ Avigdor Miller.

2- History as a backdrop. As one opinion in the Gemara has it, Adam was created as a fully mature man of 20, and trees were created fully grown, etc… The Lubavitcher Rebbe zt”l concludes that this opinion would hold that the universe as a whole was formed with a history consistent with a natural, scientific, progression.

One may then ask why Hashem chose to create a world that has an artificial age. Or perhaps not: Can one understand why G-d chooses to do anything?

Personally, I have adifferent problem with this position. How does one ascribe a time to creation? It can’t be on the Creator’s clock, since He Exists outside of time. Therefor, when we speak of “when” creation happened, we mean the beginning of the universe’s timeline. So then how could we talk about G-d creating the universe at some point in the middle of the line, allowing history to go in both directions — past and future — from that point?

3- Conflict resolution. Invoking relativity or whatnot to show that 15 billion years can be 5758 years in another frame of reference. Perhaps relativity justifies the differences between frames of reference (as suggested by Rabbi Yaakov “Gerald” Shroeder). The “birds” of day 5 are actually dinosaurs, which are most similar biologically to birds of any thing living today. Creation of the sun on day 4 is actually about the sky clearing to the point the sun could be seen on earth, etc…

As can be seen from my treatment, I don’t consider this opinion fair to either the Torah or the scientific data. Yet, many popular books have come out in the past two years promoting this kind of position. Perhaps someone else can do it justice.

[The next two paragraphs are minor paraphrases of material R’ Gil Student wrote for his Hirhurim blog.]

On the other hand, however Bereishis 1 is understood, there is a poetry to the idea. In Collected Writings VII pp 363-264, R’ Samson Raphael Hirsch rejects an insistence on literalism, common to both of the previous approaches, and waxes poetic about the greater display of Divine Wisdom a natural unfolding would suggest. Similarly, Rav Kook makes the same point in Orot haQodesh 91.

R. Menahem Kasher, in Torah Shelemah (Bereshis, ch. no. 738), quotes a responsum from the Geonim in which it is stated that Adam was first created as a speechless creature, like an animal, and only later was given speech. This could certainly be interpreted as a precedent for the claim that Adam was descended from humanoids. R. Kasher suggests that this is a matter of dispute between the Ramban and his student R. Bahya ben Asher, with the Ramban on the side of the Gaon’s responsum. In his Hibah Yeseirah (Bereshis 1:26, printed in the back of Bnei Banim vol. 2), R. Henkin writes explicitly that Adam’s body was taken from creatures that preceded him and it was only his soul that was created ex nihilo. In other words, Adam evolved from lower creatures and became human when God created and implanted in him a human soul.

4- Multiple creation times. This is the approach of the Tif’eres Yisrael. He cites an opinion of the tannaim, a central theme amongst the more kabbalistically inclined rishonim, that Hashem created worlds and destroyed them before this one. Dinosaur bones and starlight are legacies of these earlier worlds. The Tif’eres Yisrael did not say anything about evolution, just that this earlier time explains what the fossils are fossils of. In Techeiles Mordechai, R’ Shalom Mordechai Schwadron speaks laudably of the Tif’eres Yisrael’s resolution.

In Gen 1:1, G-d creates ex nihilo (matter from nothing). Then, before verse 2, these other worlds (in this opinion, epochs) rose and fell. Then, there was “chaos and emptiness” from which our world emerged. The universe as a whole, even the planet, can therefor be older than 5758 years.

Since current theory is that the world started as a singularity — IOW, not within the purvey of science, it is all a matter of faith if the ex nihilo was with the intent of the Creator or not.

Rabbi Aryeh Kaplan quotes R’ Yitzchaq meiAkko (a student of the Ramban) who concludes from the Zohar that the first creation was 15.8 billion years ago — the age astronomers and physicists seemed to be converging on in the 1980s and 1990s, given multiple ways of measuring the age. It is unclear that this is truly the intent of R’ Yitzchaq meiAkko, but that’s Rabbi Kaplan’s take. The original lecture to AOJS, which is more complete and persuasive than the mention in his NCSY book, is available on line. This is built on an idea discussed by Rabbeinu Bachya and numerous other kabbalistically inclined rishonim, that of our world being one of a cycle of shemittos, so that there is history and time before our universe.

5- Rejection of a literal read of the Torah. This is much easier, halachically, than it sounds, as there is a long tradition, including the Rambam and the Vilna Gaon, teaching that Genesis 1&2 actually convey deeper truths via metaphor. The gemara, after all, limits the number of students (to 2) that one may teach the secrets of the Act of Creation — so clearly we can’t just take the text at face value.

Another commonly sited proof for non-literalness is that the word “day” precedes the creation of the sun. Therefor, it can’t be used, at least in this narrative, to mean our 24 hour period.

The Rambam takes “day” to mean a stage in the causal chain, not a reference to time altogether. See The Rambam on Time During Creation.)

6-The Maharal (intro to Gevuros Hashem) teaches that creation is so alien to human experience that we don’t have a comparison to it. Therefor prophecy, which is transmitted by visions, can not describe it. (The World to Come is similarly explained. This is why it only appears in Tanach as “your days will be prolonged”. Continued existance we can understand. The rest of the details, no.)

However, creation is also so alien that we can not understand it by extrapolation, either. In general, the Talmud teaches that “wisdom is greater than prophecy”. The Maharal explains that this is because the power of extrapolation and deduction takes you further than just what can be presented metaphorically in visions. In this case, though, creation is beyond wisdom as well — which is why the Talmud limits the forum where it can be studied.

His conclusion is that the Torah can’t provide us with a comprehensible history AND that science must be wrong. (It may be implied from the Maharal that science can get you closer to the history, but not a correct history.)

R’ Dessler (vol. II) ascribes a similar opinion to the Ramban, at least with regard to time during creation. That the days of creation were both literal days of seconds, minutes and hours, but also the subsequence six millenia. Not that they represent or parallel the subsequent millenia, but they are literall the millenia themselves. These two perspectives appear to contradict, but only because of limitations of how humans perceive time ever since eating from the tree of knowledge. (A longer description of Rav Dessler’s opinion can be found at Rav Dessler’s Approach to Creation.)

In the two last opinions, the presumption must be that Gen 1 and 2 teach some deeper truths about reality. Either because that’s the only meaning of the text, or because all we can understand from the text are partial truths that don’t quite add up to a whole picture. In either case, without having a metaphor, there would be little reason for its inclusion in the Torah.

The Maharal explains some of the symbolism of the number 7 later in Gevuros Hashem. The seventh should be made holy even without the creation story, so it is possible the details of the story are made to describe this point.

One can also see a pattern: light, sky-and-sea, earth; repeated twice. First Hashem created light. On day four, He created the stars, moon and sun — the sources of light. Second, He seperated sky from the sea. On day 5, He created those who liv e in the sky and the sea — the birds and the fish. Third, Hashem made the seas converge to show land. On day six, the animals and people inhabited the land.

What is important to us as Jews is not what actually happened, that is, whether G-d used natural or miraculous means to create the universe. Rather, to take the lessons of creation, or the lessons encoded into the story of creation, and live them.

Tanakh and Allegory

Someone on scjm asked the following question:
Mainly for those who think some of the tanach is parable
Tanach parable or historical?
How much is parable & how much is historical?
all parable?
parable up to exodus?
parable to david & goliath?
up to Samson & Delilah?
Discovery of the lost scrolls?

A somewhat remedial question, but one I think worthy of having a thought-through canonical answer. Here is a polished version of my reply:

My own opinion, one Orthodox opinion among a wide variety:

All of it, from “In the beginning” is historical. Much of that history may also be parable; G-d orchestrating an event to teach a lesson.


The story of creation, as it actually occurred, is incomprehensible (to anyone less than G-d). The historical layer of the text is therefore inaccessible to us. I can therefore take whatever I do glean from it and treat it as though it were allegorical, because that’s all of it that I can understand.

To my mind this is entirely true for Genesis ch. 1, ch 2 (the Garden of Eden and the forbidden fruit) is somewhat more comprehensible but still too alien to our post-fruit experience to be entirely taken at face value.

And of course, the visions actually described by the prophets (including but not limited to the Throne vision in Exodus, and the Chariot visions of Ezekiel and Jeremiah) are historical descriptions of visions actually seen, but the visions themselves are allegorical constructions.

(Whether G-d constructs the allegory, or the person’s own intellect wraps the alien into the usual matter of sensory experience, I leave open.)

Last, there is an opinion in the talmud that Job was a parable written by Moses to teach about providence, justice and suffering.

I know many O Jews who would consider my view on Genesis 1 to be too liberal, whether Young Earther omphalists [the universe was created with the illusion of age] or believers in a history before this world [invoking Bereishis Rabba]. I also know a few on the left edge who would consider everything up to Abraham as allegory.

Technically, the only bit that definitionally being Orthodox requires you to believe is historical is the exodus; the events commemorated in the holidays and we are commanded to remember daily; or the books of Exodus through Deuteronomy — and I’m not even sure every detail of those. There are only 13 mandatory beliefs, and the historicity of Abraham isn’t actually one of them. But I never encountered an Orthodox-affiliated Jew whose beliefs are anywhere close to that level of minimalism, and most of us would consider him very misguided (or mistakenly brand him a heretic).

Then there are iffy bits, like Maimonides’ belief that the three angels visiting Abraham, Bilaam’s donkey, and any other story in which an angel is seen or heard, must be prophecy. (Angels aren’t physical, so how can they be seen or heard outside of prophecy?) Not that many O Jews know of his opinion, but those that do can’t consider its rejection “mandatory”.

One last omission from the discussion: Idiom isn’t metaphor. G-d’s “Hand” is an diomatic expression about His Might. The “anger of His ‘Nostrils'” is an idiom based on the human response of flaring nostrils when angry; not a parable.

M-Theory and Creation

There is much todo in some circles about Stephen Hawking’s latest book, “The Grand Design”. Co-written by Leonard Mlodinow, but it’s Hawking’s name in science and sheer genius that gives the book its gravitas, not Moldonow’s explanatory abilities.

Here’s one sample review from The Washington Post. A snippet:

[They] have taken on that ultimate question in a somewhat more rigorous form by asking three related ones:

Why is there something instead of nothing?

Why do we exist?

Why does this particular set of laws govern our universe and not some other set?

With that background, Hawking and Mlodinow get to the real meat of their book: the way theories about quantum mechanics and relativity came together to shape our understanding of how our universe (and possibly others) formed out of nothing. Our current best description of the physics of this event, they explain, is the so-called “M-theories,” which predict that there is not a single universe (the one we live in) but a huge number of universes. In other words, not only is the Earth just one of several planets in our solar system and the Milky Way one of billions of galaxies, but our known universe itself is just one among uncounted billions of universes. It’s a startling replay of the Copernican Revolution.  The conclusions that follow are groundbreaking. Of all the possible universes, some must have laws that allow the appearance of life. The fact that we are here already tells us that we are in that corner of the multiverse. In this way, all origin questions are answered by pointing to the huge number of possible universes and saying that some of them have the properties that allow the existence of life, just by chance.

If there is a logical reason for there to be an infinite number of different laws of physics all coexisting in different places, then there is no surprise that some of them support life, produced life, and that that life reached sentience. The numbers allow one to apply evolution-like arguments to the laws of physics. Something is unlikely, but if you roll the dice enough times, even the unlikely will happen.

As USA Today quotes from the book:

Spontaneous creation is the reason there is something rather than nothing, why the universe exists, why we exist. It is not necessary to invoke God to light the blue touch paper and set the universe going.

Before I make my primary point, two smaller issues:

First, M-theory is not all that compelling. For that matter, the book came out at a time when the popularity of String Theory, upon which M-Theory is based, is starting to wane. See Roger Penrose’s review of the book in the Financial Times.  Penrose is another major physicist who made a name for himself writing popularizations.

Second, while Hawking and Mlodnow write “Spontaneous creation is the reason there is something rather than nothing”, they only shift the question to the meta-level. Given a multiverse that conforms to M-Theory, the existence of some universe that supports beings capable of wondering why we’re here does not require further invocation of the concept of a Designer. This answer gives Hawking a way to explain why the physical constants are tuned to such perfect values. But not why there are constants to begin with, nor why it involves these constants, these forces, these symmetries, etc…

Now, for the more fundamental issue. Two parts:

M-theory is not a theory. Here they more accurately describe it as a set of theories — but that set is open. There is as of yet no testable prediction that can be experimentally verified as showing that the actual physics of the world conforms to M-Theory or falsified by proving it doesn’t. And thus, M-theory still stands outside of the domain of science. (It’s the continued inability to limit the range of possible candidates for String or M-Theory so that they could find an experiment that could confirm or deny them that is largely fueling the defection of some scientists from researching in that area.) So, the book isn’t really about a scientific explanation.

Second, the whole explanatory power of M-theory is not the features of the M-dimensional branes (from the word “membrane”) that it involves. Rather, it’s from the concept of a multiverse — the notion that our universe is just one “corner” of a far grander idea. An infinity, or should I say “Infinity”, that can not be reached empirically, but still posited to exist for explanatory reasons.

Look at those two points (one in each of the previous paragraphs): both epistomologically and topically,  Stephen Hawking is talking religion. Hawking didn’t so much replace the need for G-d in the argument by design as posit his own kind of deity. One that lacks purpose and values, and thus poses no demands on the individual.

When Science and Torah Conflict

(Initial post: With thanks to R’ Eli Turkel for providing some of the sources and all of the motivation for this post.

(Dec 21st: Significantly expanded to include sources I dug up for further discussion with R’ Zvi Lampel, who I thank as well.)

Obviously (I hope), the scenario described in the subject line of this post can’t happen. There is only one truth — even if we might have conflicting experiences within it — and thus science and Torah can’t conflict. E.g. Rabbi Yehudah haLevi writes (Kuzari 1:67):

חלילה לאל מהיות דבר התורה סותר עדות דבר הנראה עין בעין או דבר שהוכח במופת שכלי

G-d forbid there would be anything in the Torah which contradicts the testimony of something eyewitnesses or proven intellectually.

And similarly the Rambam (Moreh Nevuchim 2:25) compares why it is okay to say that anthropomorphic descriptions of G-d, such as “yad chazaqah — strong hand”, “vayeired Hashem — and Hashem went down” (as though He were within space) are idiomatic, but he did not take this approach to Creation. After all, Aristotle taught the eternity of the universe, so why didn’t the Rambam reinterpret the first chapter or two of Bereishis idiomatically or allegorically to conform?

We do not reject the Eternity of the Universe, because certain passages in Scripture confirm the Creation; for such passages are not more numerous than those in which God is represented as a corporeal being; nor is it impossible or difficult to find for them a suitable interpretation. We might have explained them in the same manner as we did in respect to the Incorporeality of God. We should perhaps have had an easier task in showing that the Scriptural passages referred to are in harmony with the theory of the Eternity of the Universe if we accepted the latter, than we had in explaining the anthropomorphisms in the Bible when we rejected the idea that God is corporeal. For two reasons, however, we have not done so, and have not accepted the Eternity of the Universe. First, the Incorporeality of God has been demonstrated by proof: those passages in the Bible, which in their literal sense contain statements that can be refuted by proof, must and can be interpreted otherwise. But the Eternity of the Universe has not been proved; a mere argument in favour of a certain theory is not sufficient reason for rejecting the literal meaning of a Biblical text, and explaining it figuratively, when the opposite theory can be supported by an equally good argument.

Secondly, our belief in the Incorporeality of God is not contrary to any of the fundamental principles of our religion: it is not contrary to the words of any prophet. Only ignorant people believe that it is contrary to the teaching of Scripture: but we have shown that this is not the case: on the contrary, Scripture teaches the Incorporeality of God….

The Rambam thus gives two criteria — (1) that the philosophy be a solid proof, which he shows in the previous 10 chapters the argument for eternity is not, and (2) that the conclusion not defy “any of the fundamental principles of our religion… the words of any prophet.” But an actual conflict, in which a philosophical proof does contradict a Jewish teaching? Impossible.

You may have noticed a logical jump I made there. The Rambam discusses “fundamental principles” and prophecy. Why did I generalize that to “Jewish teaching” in general?  It is clear from other instances in the second section of the Moreh Nevuchim that the Rambam sees the meaning of prophecy to be prophecy as Chazal understood it, and not just a blank-slate read of the text of Tanakh.

For example, when discussing the celestial spheres in chapter 5:

The opinion of Aristotle, that the spheres are capable of comprehension and conception, is in accordance with the words of our prophets and our theologians or Sages.

Chapter 11, on metaphysics and ontology, the Rambam defines this same criterion as being “anything taught by our Prophets or by our Sages”:

In the same manner the creative act of the Almighty in giving existence to pure Intelligences endows the first of them with the power of giving existence to another, and so on, down to the Active Intellect, the lowest of the purely spiritual beings. Besides producing other Intelligences, each Intelligence gives existence to one of the spheres, from the highest down to the lowest, which is the sphere of the moon. After the latter follows this transient world, i.e., the materia prima, and all that has been formed of it. In this manner the elements receive certain properties from each sphere, and a succession of genesis and destruction is produced.

We have already mentioned that these theories are not opposed to anything taught by our Prophets or by our Sages….

In discussing the other end of eternity, chapter 27’s discussion of whether the universe will end, again mention of our sages as to what is the Torah’s teaching:

There remains only the question as to what the prophets and our Sages say on this point; whether they affirm that the world will certainly come to an end, or not.

And in ch. 47 the Rambam points out that one shouldn’t take hyporbole in Tanakh too literally — again citing Chazal for justification.

Returning back to our primary example, his rejection of Aristotle’s argument for the eternity of the universe, let’s look at the very next chapter (26):

… But let us premise two general observations.

First, the account given in Scripture of the Creation is not, as is generally believed, intended to be in all its parts literal. For if this were the case, wise men would not have kept its explanation secret, and our Sages would not have employed figurative speech [in treating of the Creation] in order to hide its true meaning, nor would they have objected to discuss it in the presence of the common people. The literal meaning of the words might lead us to conceive corrupt ideas and to form false opinions about God, or even entirely to abandon and reject the principles of our Faith. …

Assuming the description of creation (as opposed to the fact of creation as a whole0 is allegorical is fine because Chazal did so, and being literal would lead to heresy. Continuing:

Secondly, the prophets employ homonymous terms and use words which are not meant to be understood in their ordinary signification, but are only used because of some other meaning which they admit, e.g., “a rod of an almond-tree (shaked),” because of the words which follow, “for I will hasten (shaked)” (Jer. i. 11, 12), as will be shown in the chapter on Prophecy….

The first obsercation is that our sages understood these first chapters of Chumash to include allegory. The second observation is that prophets used idiomatic expression, and in fact homonymity due to idiom is a strong undercurrent of the prophetic process.

We see that when the Rambam speaks of prophesy, and in particular in section 2 of the Guide and its discussion of prophesy and philosophy/science describing the same truths, he is speaking of how the ideas enter the mesorah, but not to the exclusion of the mesoretic transmission and development of those ideas.

So, in the case of incorporeality, the Rambam shows how our mesorah endorses his philosophical interpretation, and therefore the literal read bows to what is logically and mesoretically compelling. And in the case of eternity, the mesorah does not allow for the possibility, and the philosophy isn’t compelling, so there it’s the philosophy that bows.

Notice that within this model, the question isn’t literal vs. figurative readings of Tankh, but whether one has permission to go beyond a mesoretically supported reading. And there the answer is no — because the situation of compelling philosophy contradicting all mesoretically supported readings would never arise.

As I see it,  the often-asked question, “Would the Rambam have found a new interpretation of the Torah if the philosophy was sound?” is meaningless — the Rambam denies the the possibility of that happening. We would never require a new interpretation in response to real proofs, as the hypothetical — a solid proof of something which doesn’t fit the Torah as our mesorah explains it — cannot occur.

Note how the Rambam concludes the chapter. Freidlander’s translation:

If, on the other hand, Aristotle had a proof for his theory, the whole teaching of Scripture would be rejected, and we should be forced to other opinions. I have thus shown that all depends on this question. Note it.

R’ Yosef al-Qafeh (“Kapach”) renders it:

כי אילו הוכח החידוש, ואפילו לפי השקפת אפלטון, היה נופל כל מה שהעזו בו הפילוסופים נגדנו.
וכן אילו נתקיימה להם הוכחה על הקדמות כפי השקפת אריסטו, הייתה נופלת כל התורה ויעבור הדבר להשקפות אחרות.
הנה ביארתי לך שכל הענק תלוי בחקירה זו דעהו.

And Dr Yehudah Schwartz:

כמו כן אילו התאפשרה להם הוכחה מופתית לקדמות על-פי שיטת אריסטו, התורה כולה היתה מתבטלת, והיו מתקבלות דעות אחרות. הבהרתי לך אפוא שהדבר כולו תלוי בבעיה זאת. דע זאת אפוא.

I could only find Ibn Tibbon in PDF, pg 68. So rather than manually type in yet another translation, let me just note he also has “tipol haTorah bikhlalah” (the entire Torah would fall). You would have to take another hashkafah (Kapach) or religion (Schwartz). If Artisto had a solid proof to the eternity of the universe, he would reject “the whole teaching of Scripture”. “All depends on it.” Not just reinterpret the one pereq or two, but it would be a proof against Torah, and Torah would be demonstrated as wrong.

Reinterpreting something allegorically because of non-Torah arguments isn’t on the table. Either things work mesoretically, or we disproved prophecy as understood by the Oral Torah, and the whole enterprise of Yahadus would be undone. Since that is an absurdity, the Rambam concludes with a Reductio ad absurdum.