Bereishit and Science

It’s that time of year again. Tonight is Simchat Torah when we finish reading the Torah and restart again from Bereishit.

As a religious Jew, how does one reconcile the seeming contradictions between the Bereishit narrative and science?

A lot has been written on this and I am not going to be adding anything new to this discussion, but I hope this post will still be interesting for those that read it.

The first issue that needs to be addressed is the conflict between religion in general and science. In my opinion, there is no conflict between the two. Religion deals with God, how a person should act, with the ultimate purpose of life and living a meaningful life. Science deals with describing the physical world. Religion’s goal is not to explain the physical world and the goal of science  is not to tell us how to live a meaningful life. This is not an attack on science, this is merely the reality of the situation. The fact that mathematics doesn’t tell me how to live a meaningful life is not a problem with mathematics, it’s just not what mathematics is about. And the same is true about science in general.

Science can help us make decisions. It can help clarify the situation. Science produces medicine and it produces bombs. How we use those and whether we use them for good or for bad are not scientific questions. Good, bad, morality, meaning, God, etc. are not things science can address. This is not a flaw in science. It’s just the reality of the situation and it’s a mistake when people think that science can deal with these questions.

A person may come to the conclusion that life is pointless, that there is no ultimate meaning, that good and bad are an illusion or that God doesn’t exist, but none of these are scientific claims. Science may have played a hand in determining these beliefs and that is not at all unreasonable, but ultimately, these questions are not questions that science can address.

Lastly, if a religion goes and makes scientific claims, then of course there can be a conflict. Now religion has entered the scientific world and science can have something to say about the claim.

And this brings us onto the topic of Bereishit and science. I do believe that there is a conflict here. The Torah does make claims that definitely at first sight, do not fit with science. For example, a simple reading of the Torah would suggest the world is almost six thousand years old. Science claims that it is 13.7 billion years old. Here we have a contradiction. How old is the universe? Can the contradiction be resolved?

A number of different approaches have been taken. Some will claim science is wrong, but I don’t think this approach can be taken seriously. (Not that the science of today will be the same as the science of tomorrow. Things will definitely change. Science is not set in stone, but science will never reach the conclusion that the world is 6000 years old as opposed to many billions of years old, for example).

Another approach is to claim that science and Torah are saying the same thing and if you think there’s a contradiction, you just don’t know how to read the Torah properly. I don’t like this approach either. Not because it is fundamentally flawed, but because the reality is that Bereishit and Noach just don’t fit well with modern science without extremely forced readings. (Claiming that a day means a long period of time is not a stretch. Dealing with evolution in general isn’t a problem either. The Torah doesn’t talk about it and it doesn’t have to. But this approach still falls short of explaining away all the contradictions. When we get down to the details things really don’t fit so well, IMO. For example, the problem of the “rakiya”, the ordering of the six days – there were no plants before the Sun existed, but according to Bereishit there were).

Others will claim that Bereishit and Noach are supposed to be read allegorically. This may be true for parts of the creation narrative, but even using this approach, I don’t think this can be used to explain all the contradictions.

In my opinion, the best approach is to take a step back and ask what the purpose of the Torah is and to think about who it was given to. The Torah is a book that teaches man how to live a religious life, a Godly life, a moral life. Informing man of exactly how  the world came to be is not what the Torah’s primary aim. Some of the most important lessons we learn from Bereishit are that God created the world, there is one God and not a multitude of gods, God cares about the world, the world has a purpose, the world is good, that man has a purpose, man is created in the image of God, man is expected to do good, that man is rewarded and punished for his actions, what the day of Shabbat signifies, etc.

When compared to other Ancient Near Eastern literature of the time, some of these ideas are extremely novel and extremely important to teach the Israelites. For example, that God created the sun or the sea and that they have no power of their own is an idea that was a chiddush (novelty) in the Ancient Near East. Due to the success of the Torah, it is difficult to find polytheists nowadays (at least in the Western world). This, in large part, is due to the success of the Torah’s impact on mankind and it is something we often forget.

One of the major problems with the approach that the Torah is teaching us science in the first chapters of Bereishit is that if this is indeed so, nobody has understood Bereishit properly for the last three thousand or so years. And even more than that, now that we apparently do “understand” Bereishit properly, with the help of modern science, we don’t need Bereishit anymore, since we have modern science textbooks to teach us what Bereishit teaches us.

I understand that there are reasons that one might not like this approach, but I personally find it to be the best and most intellectually honest approach.

I think another issue that has to be thought about in relation to this topic is exactly what is meant by the word of God. At the very least, the word of God has reached us through the mouth or pen of man.

If you want to read more about this topic, I recommend the following books:

The Challenge Of Creation by Rabbi Natan Slifkin

Understanding Genesis by Nahum Sarna (you can read the first chapter which deals with the first chapters of Bereishit till Noach here).

Genesis And Jewish Thought by Chaim Navon (also available in book form)

This is also a good resource page with a YouTube video:

I might write a bit more about this topic in the next week.

Simchat Torah Sameach!



Filed under Torah

2 responses to “Bereishit and Science

  1. thanks

    Actually as a scientist and Jew I am constantly amazed and inspired by unique and very close alignment between descriptions in Bereishit and what modern physics/cosmology and evolutionary biology–compare it to the “creation” stories of every other religion and philosophy before the 19th century. How is it that a small nomadic people emerging from slavery more than 37 centuries ago could be inspired to write down a creation account that would not be revealed by science until the 20th century??.

    The fidelity of the bible to the scientific revelation is astonishing if you accept that yom means a period not a 24 hr day (which is actually easier than a literal solar day for many reasons), that hashamayim ve’et ha’arets.(“heavens and earth”) can also be interpreted as “energy and matter” (again this is textually logical since “heaven” is name later given to hamayim), and some very slight miss-ordering in the order of appearance of plants and animals and the moon/sun/stars (again given the differences in Genesis 1 and 2). . Similarly the text supports that not everybody descended from Adam (who was Caine afraid of, whom did he and Seth marry). Conversely science does support that most everyone descended from a “Noah” (genetic studies indicate that humans descended from a very small first family that survived a genetic “bottleneck” event. Also, a more fair reading of Bereishit is that Adam in Bere2 is not the same as Ish in Bere1, and rather is first modern human ready to be civilized from animal to a creature having a spirt fashioned in the image of Hashem,

    I truely believe that Hashem communicates through word (bible) and deed (tangible existence). Of the two, I think deed must take precedence as it is the direct presentation of the Hashem’s will or any form of error (with respect, the Bible used today descends from a 10th century text, and was itself first recorded in the time of Ezra, and is joyfully subject to interpretive differences in textual and semantic interpretation).

  2. Pingback: Understanding Genesis | The Jewish Miracle

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