Bereishit and Allegory – A Third Way Out of the Torah-Science Conflict?
Guest post by R. Eli D. Clark
Rabbi Eli D. Clark lives in Bet Shemesh, Israel. He served as Halakha editor of the Koren Sacks Siddur and also practices international tax law.
Is it possible that science and Torah do not conflict, for the simple reason that they do not discuss the same issues? Can we say that science addresses only the physical world, while Torah deals with the metaphysical?
Regarding the age of the universe, two recent Hirhurim posts addressed the apparent conflict between Torah sources and modern science. One poster (link) assumed that the conflict is real and cannot be resolved; therefore, he concludes that scientific cosmology must be rejected in favor of his reading of Torah sources. The other poster (link) asserted that there is authoritative precedent for interpreting Torah sources in accordance with the conclusions of modern science, thus eliminating any apparent conflict.
These posters hold radically different positions regarding the age of the universe and the compatibility of Torah and science, but they both agree that the Torah –in both the narrow and wide sense of the term – teaches us about the age of the universe. In other words, they both presume that the Torah establishes not just Who created the universe, but how and when.
I too share this assumption, but not everyone does. Some contend that science and religion do not conflict, indeed, cannot conflict, for the simple reason that they represent different fields of inquiry that do not overlap. Perhaps the best known advocate of this position was the late great paleontologist, Stephen Jay Gould (see his exposition here). His memorable phrasing: “We get the age of rocks, and religion retains the rock of ages; we study how the heavens go, and they determine how to go to heaven.”
Gould, a brilliant scientist and gifted writer, was also Jewish. But he was a self-described agnostic with very little Jewish knowledge. So it is easy to dismiss Gould’s position regarding the lack of overlap of science and religion as one that is contrary to Torah sources.
But it turns out that at least two leading Israeli scientists, both of whom are religiously observant, agrees with Gould. The following excerpts come from an interview in HaAretz published about a year and a half ago (the translations are mine).
Prof. Zvi Mazeh, an astronomer at Tel Aviv University: “What the Torah did in the first chapter of Bereishit is take the cosmogony that was known to people at that time and, by adding its own elements, convey the message that God is one, responsible for the oppositions one finds in nature, and that all men were created equal. According to chapter one in Bereishit, humanity developed from one man, which means that everyone – from the king to the lowliest slave – is substantially the same. These two revolutions, the theological revolution and the social revolution, the Torah could not have written using Einstein’s equations, quantum theory or Heisenberg’s Uncertainty Principle. Instead, it wrote it using concepts that were known to every intelligent listener at that time. As a result the messages were absorbed.
“The scientific picture of the world that we have today and the Big Bang Theory are consistent with the idea of creation. That does not prove the existence of God or the Creation. In that sense, my life is easier than that of the Rambam in twelfth century. In those days they thought that the cycles of nature are eternal and that the world always existed. This directly contradicts the picture of Creation, and the Rambam struggled with it a lot. Today they details do not match, but the principle is consistent. The rabbis should have celebrated the modern findings like the discovery of a great treasure.”
In a similar vein, HaAretz quoted Prof. Carl Skoretzki, a professor of medicine at the Technion: “Science does not offer solutions to matters of emotional intelligence. Social matters are the province of Halakha. Torah she-bi-Khtav and Torah she-be-al Peh – the entire complex – are not a science book. They help us know what out direction should be, but not how to study dinosaurs, DNA and astrophysics. Perhaps there are unique individuals who can derive from the Torah a few of the secrets of the world.”
In his treatment of the Creation story, Mazeh goes further than reinterpreting “day” to mean “era”. He is adopting a purely allegorical reading of the Torah’s account of Creation. Is this acceptable?
The answer may depend on how we interpret a difficult chapter in Moreh Nevukhim (2:30), where the Rambam writes (S. Pines translation, p. 350):
The Sages have explicitly stated in a number of passages that the word “et” figuring in his words “et ha-shamayim ve-et ha-aretz” has in that verse the meaning: with. They mean by this that He created together with the heavens all that is in heaven and together with the earth all that is in the earth… Accordingly, everything was created simultaneously; then gradually all things became differentiated. They have compared this to what happens when an agricultural laborer sows various kinds of grain in the soil at the same moment. Some of them sprout within a day, others within two days, other again within three days, though everything was sowed at the same hour…. There is an explicit statement on this point made by the Sages in Bereishit Rabbah. With reference to the light said in the Torah to have been created on the first day, they make literally the following statement: “Those are the luminaries that have been created on the first day, but that He did not suspend until the fourth day.”
What does this mean? According to Abravanel (Commentary to Bereishit, p. 10):
The Rav thought that the various labors were not performed during the six days; rather, according to him everything was created in one day and at one time. But the days of creation were mentioned to hint at the gradations of existing things, which were made according to the natural order. Not that there were actual days or that one thing was created before another in the act of Creation. Rather, after everything was created at once, there were things which only began to operate afterward…. This is the view of the Rav and this was for him a great secret of the secrets of Creation. And he was very clever in how he obscured his intent, as one can see from his words there.
Abravanel explains that, according to the Rambam, the six days are a metaphor for six levels in the hierarchy of natural objects: light/darkness, water, minerals, flora, fauna, man. Abravanel brands this view “an elaborate falsehood (sheker mevu’ar),” but not heresy. R. Yitzhak Arama (Akedat Yitzhak, Bereishit, Sha`ar Shelishi, Ma’amar Rishon, p. 40b) also interprets the Rambam this way: “That the existing things were mentioned according the order of the days only to divide them into their different levels and to present their natural order.” In his commentary to the Moreh, Shem Tov presents the same interpretation:
Cf. Ralbag, Milhamot HaShem 6:8. (All of these sources were cited in R. Slifkin’s footnotes and are discussed in his The Challenge of Creation.)
Does the Rambam represent a precedent for allegorical interpretation of the first chapter of Bereishit? Yes and no. Yes, in the be-di`eved sense that a person who takes an allegorical approach cannot be read out of the community for such a view. On the other hand, the Rambam’s view was criticized by many and is, I think, outside the mainstream of traditional Jewish thought. As such, I would say, le-khathilah, allegorical interpretation of Bereishit should not be championed or trumpeted as an option for Orthodox Jews. To the extent it is taught at all, it should be presented in the context of the criticism it received from generations of Jewish thinkers.
Where does this leave the argument that Torah and science do not overlap? Not kefirah, certainly. But very much on the margins of traditional Jewish thought.