Wednesday, January 19, 2005

Banned III - Age of the Universe

I am planning a series of posts to try to demonstrate the premise upon which I am acting, namely that the issues underlying the herem on R. Nosson Slifkin’s books (link) is a matter of contemporary debate, with solid Torah sources on both sides of the debate. This first post is about the age of the universe. Was the universe created in literally six days, i.e. six 24-hour intervals equivalent to the days of any week, and is the universe exactly 5,765 years old? R. Slifkin suggests that from at least some perspectives it was not and is not.

In the Yated Ne’eman article about the herem (link), R. Yitzchok Sheiner is quoted as saying, "He believes that the world is millions of years old--all nonsense!" The actual Hebrew is "afra le-fumeih" which is more of a "God-forbid to say such a thing" than an "all nonsense!" but the implication is the same. However, this is not the only view voiced by contemporary Torah scholars.

It is unclear to me why R. Sheiner would object less to, say, an interpretation that Creation took one decade than that it took 1 billion years. Either way, it is re-interpreting the simple biblical text of six days of Creation. I, therefore, assume that he would object to any belief that Creation took more than six days (or seven, if you include rest) and that the world is older than 5,765 years.

R. Eliyahu Dessler, in his Michtav Me’Eliyahu (vol. 2 pp. 151-153) -- by now a classic of Jewish thought even though its author only passed away in 1954, addresses the six days of Creation. R. Nosson Slifkin translates a large excerpt from this essay in his The Science of Torah (pp. 120-121) and I quote it partially:

"Because six days did God make Heaven and earth..." The days referred to here relate to the period before the completion of creation, when the concept of time was different from that which applies now. But the Torah was given to us in accordance with our own concepts: "Moshe came and brought it down to earth." This is the meaning of the dictum, "The Torah speaks as if in human language"; it speaks to us in accordance with our own perceptions of matter and our own concepts of space and time...

We see from this that in the simple meaning of the text -- that which is conveyed to us in accordance with our own conceptual capacity -- we are to understand actual days made up of hours and minutes. But in its real essence, that is to say, in its inner meaning, the text has quite a different connotation. It refers to six sefiros, which are modes of revelation of the divine conduct of the world.
In other words, on some levels the world was not created in six 24-hour days. Rather, the Torah says that it was because that is a way for it to simplify complex concepts in words that we will understand. It is true, but it is not the complete story. Elsewhere, R. Dessler writes that "creation does not take place in time" (quoted by R. Slifkin, ibid., p. 128).

R. Dessler, a universally recognized giant of Torah thought, alone, is sufficient support for a claim that the six days of creation need not be understood literally. He was arguably the most influential Jewish thinker (ba’al mahashavah) of the twentieth century and a man whose writings are basic texts in the Orthodox world. It is also noteworthy that R. Dessler’s close student and translator, R. Aryeh Carmell, is a strong and vocal supporter of R. Slifkin.

Rabbi Eli Munk, noted rabbi and thinker from Paris (author of the classic The Call of the Torah), wrote a book titled The Seven Days of the Beginning in which he, too, explains Creation as taking longer than six 24-hour days. Most importantly, he cites as support the great twentieth century German posek R. David Zvi Hoffmann (p. 104, cited by R. Slifkin, ibid., p. 114). Again, we need go no farther than R. David Zvi Hoffmann and R. Eli Munk to be able to accurately state that there is a legitimate difference of opinion among Orthodox thinkers today.

R. Aryeh Kaplan, the brilliant rabbinic scholar and scientist whose early passing in 1983 was mourned by all the great roshei yeshiva, offered very vocally his view on the matter. In The Jewish Action Reader (pp. 287-289), R. Yitzchok Adlerstein summarizes a speech that R. Kaplan delivered at a 1979 conference of the Association of Orthodox Jewish Scientists. Basing himself on his understanding of an obscure thirteenth century kabbalistic text, R. Kaplan suggested that the true Torah view is that the world is fifteen billion years old. This is further explicated in R. Kaplan’s posthumously published Immortality, Resurrection and the Age of the Universe: A Kabbalistic View. R. Kaplan was a serious Torah scholar. He was a preeminent talmid hakham who concluded that the world is older than 5,765 years.

Let me now add the voice of one of the leading American roshei yeshiva of the twentieth century, R. Shmuel Ya’akov Weinberg. The following is a (lightly edited) excerpt from an open letter by R. Ari Kahn of Aish HaTorah and Bar Ilan University about the process of his hiring Dr. Gerald Schroeder who, in his book Genesis and the Big Bang, promotes the view that the six days of Creation were really billions of years long:
Many years ago, in my capacity of educational director of Aleynu (Aish HaTorah's outreach arm), I hired Dr. Gerald (Yaakov, as he prefers to be called) Schroeder. When I first heard his material, I was impressed with the novel approach. He then delivered a lecture to senior staff including myself, Rav Motty Berger and Rav Shmuel Veffer. In order to protect Aish from the type of attack it is experiencing now, I introduced Dr. Shroeder to Rav Yitzchak Berkovitz, and then Rav Noach Weinberg. Neither had objections to his basic approach. Later, when his first book came out, we gave a copy to Rav Yaakov Weinberg, and then arranged a meeting. I was there together with Rav Yaakov Weinberg and Dr. Schroeder. Anticipating that one day people will claim that Rav Yaakov Weinberg never could have approved his approach, I came armed with a tape recorder. Somewhere in my house I have a tape of the meeting.

Rav Yaakov's first concern was that the science was valid -- while he was extremely well read and conversant in science, Rav Yakov was humble enough to feel that he could not judge the book scientifically and wanted to know that the science was indeed acceptable. Dr. Schroeder assured him that the book went through scientific peer review at Bantam books. Rav Yaakov was satisfied. Rav Yaakov then gave some guidelines and advice. A major point was never to teach his approach in yeshiva -- but if yeshiva guys with questions came to Aish he should teach them. Rav Yaakov felt that teaching this approach while valid, would be counter-productive for yeshiva students because it would hurt their emunas hakhamim [faith in the sages]. Secular people, on the other hand, he felt should be taught this material.

A number of years later some of the more zealous elements in Israel decided that they did not like Dr. Schroeder's approach and soon a din torah [religious trial] was setup. Presiding was Rav Moshe Shternbuch, representing Aish HaTorah was Rav Yitzchak Berkovitz -- charges of kefirah [heresy] were hurled. Ultimately Rav Berkovitz asked Rav Shternbuch which ikkar in emunah [principle of faith] was being denied. Rav Shternbuch was silent and then turned to the petitioners -- who also could not articulate the exact kefirah. In the end Rav Shternbuch, who did not like it at all, had to admit that this was not kefirah -- even though he did not like it at all.
Two important figures in the Torah world, R. Shmuel Ya’akov Weinberg and R. Moshe Shternbuch, both found nothing heretical in the idea that Creation, on some level, took longer than six 24-hour days. R. Weinberg even supported teaching it to non-observant Jews and -- significantly -- yeshiva students who had questions on these matters.

The point of all of the above scholars is what R. Avraham Yitzhak Kook wrote in the following letter (Iggeros Ra'ayah no. 91, translated in Rav A. Y. Kook Selected Letters, cited by R. Adlerstein, loc. cit., p. 290):
Surely all realize that ma-aseh b'reishit [the acts of Creation] are among the "Secrets of the Torah." If those matters were to be understood simply and plainly, what "secrets" would there be?
In conclusion, my purpose here is to show that over the past century there have been significant figures in the Torah world who suggested, advocated, and found no problem with the idea that the world is older than 5,765 years. What R. Sheiner referred to with the derogatory phrase "afra le-fumeih," others of equal or greater stature supported or at least permitted. This is, in other words, a matter of disagreement within the Orthodox world. The many rabbis who are supporting R. Slifkin are merely following acceptable teachings in a subject that is of debate within the Orthodox community.

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