Since I had earlier quoted R. Moshe Shternbuch’s ruling in a din torah regarding Aish HaTorah's teaching that the world is billions of years old (here), I feel obligated to direct readers to a public statement that R. Shternbuch recently released on the subject clarifying his view (here). However, once mentioning it, I cannot refrain from commenting on it. I will try to due so with the utmost respect that he deserves, and have had this read by others I trust to ensure that it is written in the spirit of kevod ha-Torah.
I. Miracles and the Laws of Nature
The main theme in R. Shternbuch's statement is that everything is miraculous and it is wrong, perhaps bordering on heretical, to search for natural laws that explain the workings of the world. He writes, "[T]heir concern is to make even this miraculous event [Creation] 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... This is entirely to minimize the acknowledgment of G-d's power and to move instead in the direction of heresy."
I found this attitude very surprising simply because this almost-heretical approach is that of the Rambam (see Shemonah Perakim, ch. 8; Commentary to Avos 5:5; Moreh Nevukhim 2:29). Thus, according to the Rambam, all open miracles were "programmed" into nature during the Creation so that rather than violating the laws of nature they are actually a part of it. This is also the view of the Kuzari (3:73), the Meiri (see his commentary to Avos 5:7 for only one example of many) and the entire Rationalist school of medieval Jewish philosophy.
R. Shternbuch bases his criticism on the Ramban's words in his commentary to Shemos 13:16: "A person does not have a portion in the Torah of Moshe unless he believes that everything that happens in this world is miraculous." A parallel to this can be found in Ramban's Derashas Toras Hashem Temimah (Kisvei Ha-Ramban, vol. 1 pp. 153-154; cf. vol. 1 p. 192; Commentary to Bereishis 17:1, 46:15; Shemos 6:2; Vayikra 18:29, 26:11). For many years these words troubled me because they seem to contradict other statements of the Ramban. However, I found the solution in a brilliant essay by R. Dr. David Berger, "Miracles and the Natural Order in Nahmanides" (in Rabbi Moses Nahmanides: Explorations in His Religious and Literary Virtuosity, R. Isadore Twersky ed.). After marshalling a number of comments of the Ramban that explicitly contradict the above (cf. Commentary to Bereishis 18:19; Vayikra 26:11; Devarim 11:13; Iyov 36:7; Responsum on Astrology in Kisvei Ha-Ramban, vol. 1 p. 379), R. Berger explains that if one reads the passages in the Ramban denying nature within the context of the preceding and succeeding statements, one sees that they are only referring to reward and punishment. Indeed, this is the passage quoted by R. Shternbuch with its continuation:
A person does not have a portion in the Torah of Moshe unless he believes that everything that happens in this world is miraculous, without nature or the way of the world, whether for individuals or communities. Rather, if one fulfills the commandments one is rewarded and if one violates them he is punished.The limitation of this denial of nature to reward and punishment seems quite viable, and taking into account the Ramban's other explicit advocacies of the theory of nature, it seems even likely. Indeed, as a friend (and prominent rav) pointed out, the Ramban was a doctor. Did he really examine his patients and then say "Let's see what miracle G-d has in store for you?" Certainly not. He attempted to cure the patient based on the laws of nature as he understood them (see his Commentary to Vayikra 26:11).
Thus, not only do the Rambam and the Meiri (and those following their school of thought) believe that there are laws of nature and that not everything is miraculous, even the Ramban agrees to it.
I humbly submit two other supporting points to R. Berger's analysis of the Ramban's attitude. First, while in the Derashas Toras Hashem Temimah the Ramban explicitly quotes the Rambam and disagrees with him, he does not quote any of the places in which the Rambam's main theory of natural law is proposed – i.e. Shemonah Perakim, ch. 8 or Moreh Nevukhim 2:29. Instead, he quotes the Rambam's view of the messianic era, which can be seen as an issue of reward and punishment. If the Ramban were going to argue on the Rambam (and call him a heretic!), he should have quoted the more explicit statements in the above sources.
Additionally, the Ramban had an illustrious descendant named R. Shimon ben Tzemah (Rashbatz) Duran. In the latter's classic commentary on Avos, Magen Avos (5:9), he quotes the Rambam's approach to miracles and only disagrees on whether open miracles were "programmed" into nature during Creation or can happen outside of nature. He does not, however, disagree that generally the world operates within natural laws. One would have expected him to at least quote his famous ancestor the Ramban if he were disagreeing with him on such a fundamental point.
In summary, it seems that many of the rishonim, including the Ramban, believed that the world operates according to laws of nature. The Rambam is quite open about his trying to minimize the miraculous. That this should be considered to be bordering on heresy is something that I find very difficult to understand.
II. The Limits of Human Knowledge
R. Shternbuch also emphasizes that there is a limit to what human beings can understand. We will never be able to fully understand why or how G-d created the universe. Nor, he adds, will we be able to understand His ways concerning good and evil. "In these issues we simply rely on our faith in G-d's greatness."
Again, I am surprised by this approach. Do not the rishonim, who fully acknowledge the limits of our understanding, still attempt to comprehend it? The Ramban in his treatise on theodicy, Sha'ar Ha-Gemul (Kisvei Ha-Ramban, vol. 2 p. 281), after proposing many detailed theories about how and why rewards and punishments are Divinely dispensed, raises the question why one should even delve into these matters since it is almost impossible to fully comprehend all of the issues. Why not just rely on faith that G-d is just and forget about the unfathomable details? He states that such is the question of those who despise wisdom. By studying such matters we learn more about G-d's ways. Rather, it is everyone's obligation to delve into such matters and to become satisfied in the justice of G-d's ways. Despite the limits on our understanding, not only may we try but, at least regarding good and evil, we must try.
The Ramhal, in his own treatise on theodicy Da'as Tevunos (par. 18), explains why G-d created the world:
What we can understand here is the following: The blessed Creator is the very essence of good. It is the nature of good to bestow good. This is why the Lord created men – so that He could bestow good upon them.R. Hayim Friedlander, in his Iyunim studies on this passage, emphasizes that the Ramhal begins with the phrase "What we can understand here is the following." He acknowledges the severe limitations of our understanding. However, this does not stop him from attempting to understand!
III. The Agenda of Scientists
R. Shternbuch dwells at length on the hidden agenda of scientists:
"Their main concern is to try to shake the faith in G-d – which has been accepted by us generation after generation."
"Scientists – even those who are described as religious – are ashamed that we don't agree with the views of the leading scientists that man is descended from the apes... They will accept anything that enables them to avoid acknowledging that G-d created man with His wisdom. Therefore they use misleading and distorted citations from Torah literature to claim justification for such scientific beliefs in the words of our Sages."
I am not a scientist nor am I a member of the Association of Orthodox Jewish Scientists. However, I know scientists and members of that association, and I respectfully question whether R. Shternbuch's description is accurate. In matters such as this, which include very serious accusations about emunah, I remain in the position of judging these scientists favorably (le-khaf zekhus) and will say no more although much could be said.
IV. Proofs and Counterproofs
R. Shternbuch discusses a number of proofs for the antiquity of the universe and attempts to disprove them. It is unfortunate that he combined two separate but related issues – the age of the universe and evolution – because it is theoretically possible, and such is frequently the case among Orthodox Jews, to accept an ancient universe and reject evolution. However, I will not discuss those issues here because they are not entirely relevant. If he is arguing from tradition, then there is no need to bring proofs or counterproofs. But... im le-din, yesh teshuvah.
V. Science and Hedonism
R. Shternbuch blames much of the moral problems in today's society on science. Were he to blame it on atheists who use science as a reason for rejecting religion, I would understand entirely and sympathize. However, the blame belongs to atheists and not scientists. Science does not have an inherent moral system. It is a morally neutral methodology of analyzing facts and proposing theories that has nothing to do with behavior or ethics. In fact, polls have demonstrated again and again that professional scientists are by and large believers in religion. If science is combined with a morality, as it frequently is and as the Rambam attempted to do particularly in his Mishneh Torah, Hilkhos Yesodei Ha-Torah, then the catastrophic moral consequences that R. Shternbuch discusses do not directly follow. A true Torah Jew who studies science is not a hedonist and will not become one. Nor, for that matter, is a true Torah Jew who does not study science free from becoming a hedonist. It is the presence or lack of yiras Shamayim that determines the fate of a Jew, and not whether or how he investigates the workings of the world that G-d created.
VI. Heresy or Not?
To the main point, R. Shternbuch concludes with the following:
I do not know whether all those who accept the view of the scientists – that the world is very ancient – are heretics. However I do know that only heretics have such views against our Sages – who are fully accepted by us.If he had said that it is heresy to believe that the world is ancient, then one could simply say that R. Shternbuch strongly disagrees with the Tiferes Yisrael and others. He considers the view that they proposed to be heretical, even though they are not to be blamed for their mistake. However, R. Shternbuch did not conclude in that way. Rather, he said that regardless of whether or not it is heresy, i.e. even if it is not an ikkar of emunah to believe that the world is 5765 years old, anyone who accepts such a theory reject the views of the Sages. Instead of disregarding the theory of these gedolim, R. Shternbuch is stating that they lacked emunas hakhamim. In a sense, his softer condemnation is much stronger and more personal. Who before has said that the Tiferes Yisrael lacked emunas hakhamim?
But is this view heresy? It is still not clear. Perhaps that is why R. Shternbuch decided in favor of Aish HaTorah in the din Torah that was brought before him.
In conclusion, R. Shternbuch has attempted to clarify his view and we must respect his right to do so. I do not understand his statement but since I have never gone to him with my questions before, I will not do so in this case either and probably never will. His Da'as Torah contradicts the Da'as Torah I have received from the numerous rabbanim and roshei yeshivah with whom I have spoken on this matter. Eilu va-eilu...