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tradition-cabinetby R. Yitzchak Blau

Tension between the biblical account of creation and current scientific theories about the origin of the universe has generated a variety of religious responses. One such response, concordism, tries to show that the biblical account actually teaches the ideas of contemporary scientific theory. In this carefully argued article, Dr. David Shatz outlines two arguments for and four arguments against concordism. On the one hand, rishonim attempted the same with medieval theories so precedent exists. Moreover, we naturally assume that an omniscient God would relay to us correct information. On the other hand, scientific theories change over time so we might not want to identify the biblical account with a particular theory. Secondly, perhaps our generation is not privileged to receive the true interpretation of Bereishit when earlier generations did not have access to it. Furthermore, the Torah was never meant to be a science textbook. Finally, attempts to read contemporary ideas into the first chapters of Bereishit prove unconvincing.

For each argument, the author explores how the other side could respond: link (PDF)

About Yitzchak Blau

Rabbi Yitzchak Blau is Rosh Yeshiva at Yeshivat Orayta and also teaches at Midreshet Lindenbaum. He is the author of Fresh Fruit and Vintage Wine: The Ethics and Wisdom of the Aggada and an Associate Editor of Tradition.

One comment

  1. Respectfully, I believe Dr. Shatz overstates the value of “rationalist” rishonim like Rambam as a precedent for today’s concordists. Lacking our modern view of scientific knowledge as changing dramatically over time, Rambam believed that a wise, disciplined, moral, right-thinking sage from any era could arrive at the key truths of science through reason, and could then unlock the “true” meaning of Genesis I. In contrast, the claim of today’s concordists is that the true meaning of Genesis I could not possibly have been discerned by Rebbi Akiva, Rambam, or the Vilna Gaon, because they lacked radio telescopes. This is radically and fundamentally different than Rambam’s position — not just a change in the details of cosmology. Rambam never endorsed such an approach, so it seems inappropriate to invoke him as a helpful precedent for today’s new concordism.

    I also feel that Dr. Shatz understates the power of the anti-concordist argument mentioned on p. 225: “we can find the science in the Bible only if we believe it prior to confronting the text.” (Note this critique only applies to today’s concordism, not classical Rambam-style concordism.) Replying to this argument, he writes: “The answer is that [science’s] placement in the context of the Bible augments its inspirational and religious value and makes the religious dimension of science discernible in the text (with the ‘right’ interpretation).”

    Not so. It is true that when we look for modern psychological or literary ideas embodied in stories from Tanach (e.g. regarding family dynamics), this can help sharpen our understanding of those ideas, and at minimum the stories become very powerful vehicles to learn and remember the ideas. Whereas for science/cosmology this is not true, as best I can tell. If you want to understand the big bang, nobody would tell you to read Genesis I, even with the “right interpretation”. The scientific literature will always have clearer, less ambiguous descriptions of current theory. If Genesis I is “really” an encrypted version of scientific facts that can only be deciphered after those facts are already known from other, clearer sources, then what is the “real” value of Genesis I under that view? Whatever moral lessons and inspiration can be derived from evolution and cosmology are just as well discovered by reflecting directly on the scientific knowledge. No moral insight is added by belatedly shoe-horning those same scientific facts into Genesis I.

    This point also negates the “exegetical” argument proffered by Dr. Shatz in favor of concordism. If there is no way for any reader, no matter how wise and diligent, to discern the “non-obvious, literal meaning” of the text without first receiving the same information in more direct form from independent sources (science), then I see no “intuitive appeal” to the concordist reading. What is the appeal of a claim that the Torah surely “conveys” the facts “accurately,” if it does so in a way that obfuscates those facts from everyone except those who learn the facts from independent sources? Why is that any more appealing — exegetically or otherwise — than the anti-concordist view that the Torah is not attempting to teach scientific facts at all?

    My conclusion is that today’s concordism is just an intellectual game: given a scientific theory, find some way to read Genesis I that fits. That is essentially mere mental gymnastics, and reveals no new moral or scientific truths. Under this approach, the “correct” reading of Genesis I teaches us nothing but facts that we already (and only) knew from science.

    I suspect this is why nowadays many Modern Orthodox Jews intuitively reject concordism as a genre, and strongly prefer the view that the Torah “is not a science textbook,” to answer the central question posed by Dr. Shatz.

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