Is the Torah Believable?

In the six hundredth year of Noach’s life, in the second month, on the seventeenth day of the month, on the same day were all the fountains of the great deep broken up, and the windows of heaven were opened. (Sefer Beresheit 7:11)

  1. Science vs. Torah

A student asked me an important question. Should we understand science in light of the Torah or should we interpret the Torah in light of science? He identified instances in which the position of the Torah seems to be at odds with contemporary science. How should we respond to these apparent contradictions? Should we assume that the Torah’s view is correct and that the scientific perspective is flawed or should we revise our understanding of the Torah in order to bring it into conformity with science?

He offered a number of illustrations. According to the Torah, the universe was created less than 6,000 years ago. Science claims that the universe is billions of years old. How do we reconcile these views? Do we assume that the evidence supporting the scientific view is somehow flawed or do we reinterpret the Torah’s account of creation?

This is an excellent question. But the most important element of this question is its underlying premise. The question assumes that knowledge should be segmented into Torah knowledge and scientific knowledge. There is an alternative to this view. The alternative is that all knowledge is inter-related. Discoveries in one field can provide solutions to problems in other fields. Specifically, Torah can provide insight into scientific fields and scientific discoveries can yield insight into Torah perspectives.

  1. Science and Torah as complementary

Since ancient times, science has struggled with the riddle of the origin of the universe. Aristotle responded to this mystery by positing that the universe is eternal. Modern discovery of the rapid expansion of the universe indicates that it originated at the moment of the big bang. What caused this primordial explosion? For decades scientists contemplated a model of an oscillating universe that repeatedly contracts into a tighter and tighter configuration until internal pressures set off an explosion. From this explosion a universe evolves only to ultimately collapse upon itself. This contraction and expansion repeats itself through an eternity of time. This oscillating universe model has been replaced by newer models that attempt to provide an explanation of the universe’s origin.

Many scientists approach this mystery with the assumption that there cannot be an intelligent first cause. In other words, they seek a “scientific” explanation for the origin of the universe and assume that the explanation suggested by religious thought – an intelligent act of creation – cannot be accepted in the scientific framework. However, if all knowledge is an integrated whole, then the origin of the universe can be attributed to a Creator.

Another example of the complementary nature of scientific and Torah knowledge is suggested by research performed by a group of graduate students at the University of Leicester. There is a substantial body of research regarding the ideal dimensions of large seagoing vessels. Scientists have developed sophisticated algorithms designed to predict the optimal dimensions of immense vessels designed for various purposes.[1] These students wished to determine whether a wooden vessel constructed with the dimensions of the ark would actually be seaworthy. In other words, does the Torah provide a plausible design for a vessel of immense proportions without recourse to the advanced algorithms used by modern ship designers? Their analysis revealed that the ark would be very stable.[2] If these researchers are correct in their conclusions, then the Torah provides an accurate blueprint for the design and construction of an immense seagoing vessel!

Similarly, science can provide insights into the Torah. The Torah explains that on the first day of creation, Hashem created light. This primordial light came into existence before the creation of the luminaries. What is this light that is generated without a luminary? Modern scientific research into the initial moments of the universe’s creation suggests a number of possible insights into the nature of this ancient light.[3]

And Noach went forth, and his sons, and his wife, and his sons’ wives with him; every beast, every creeping thing, and every fowl, whatsoever moves upon the earth, after their families; went forth out of the ark. (Sefer Beresheit 8:18-19)

  1. The reestablishment of biological diversity after the Deluge

Parshat Noach presents a number of assertions that seem to be inconsistent with science. One of these is the Deluge upon which much of the parasha focuses. According to the Torah, the Deluge occurred approximately 4100 years ago. Taken at face value, only Noach, his family, and the animals he rescued survived this catastrophe. All other life was destroyed. When the Deluge was over, Noach, his family and the rescued animals left the ark and repopulated the earth. It is assumed that the ark settled somewhere in western Asia. Life spread from this location to all the continents and even to remote Islands. For this migration to have occurred land bridges would have existed between the continents and even extended to earth’s many Islands.

Geologists suggest that at some point in the ancient past the continents were connected. However, all available evidence indicates that the continents separated from one another long before the Deluge. If the Deluge destroyed all life on all of the earth’s continents, then how was life reestablished in every corner of the globe after the Deluge?

Rav David Zvi Hoffmann (1843-1921) was not only a recognized Torah scholar but also held a doctor’s degree from the University of Tübingen. In his commentary on Sefer Beresheit, he discusses this problem. He observes that some of our ancient Sages explicitly suggest that the Deluge did not encompass the entire earth. He notes the comment of Ribbi Yochanan that the Deluge did not encompass the Land of Israel. According to Rav Hoffmann, Ribbi Yochanan’s comment supports the view that the Deluge was a localized phenomenon. It destroyed all life in the region that was known to civilized humanity. However, it did not extend to other continents or to all lands.

Rav Hoffmann’s view solves a number of problems. First, it explains the profusion of organic life on all continents and islands. This life was not re-established after the Deluge. It existed in these far-flung lands before the Deluge and was not destroyed by the catastrophe. This view also addresses the question of how the ark contained representative pairs from every species of non-aquatic life and the provisions to maintain this immense population for the duration of the Deluge. Noach’s ark provided succor to only a relatively small portion of the Earth’s diverse biological life.[4]

And the waters prevailed exceedingly upon the earth; and all the high mountains that were under the whole heaven were covered. (Sefer Beresheit 7:19)

  1. The Torah speaks in real-time
    One of the most interesting aspects of Rav Hoffmann’s view is its treatment of the statements in the Torah that seem to contradict his position. For example, in the above passage the Torah describes the waters of the Deluge rising above the high mountains under the entire heavens. Rav Hoffmann remarks that this statement retains its truth even if it refers only to those mountains within the portion of the world inhabited by civilized humans.[5]

Rav Hoffmann seems to mean that we should not insist upon interpreting the passages of the Torah from the perspective of our era. Instead, the passages should be viewed as real-time accounts. To those who experienced the Deluge in real-time, the waters covered all of the mountains of the world that they knew. That the waters did not cover mountain ranges in lands unknown to humanity of that time and does not detract from the truth of the passage.

If Rav Hoffmann is correct, then through synthesizing science with Torah, an important insight into the Torah’s narrative style is uncovered. The Torah speaks to every generation. But its language and its mode of expression is not necessarily reflective of our contemporary awareness. Terms and phrases are used that are true and accurate from the perspective of the real-time observer. From the perspective of the generation of the Deluge, the entire known earth was destroyed. From our perspective, a portion of the globe was subjected to the upheaval, but other distant lands were untouched.

  1. Science vs. Torah revisited
    Returning to my student’s question, perhaps, neither approach is proper. We should not try to reconcile science with our understanding of Torah. We should not reject science that seems to oppose Torah views. Instead, we should seek a synthesis in which Torah provides important perspectives and insights into phenomena studied by the scientist, and science enriches our understanding of the Torah.

 

[1] Naval Ship Concept Design: an Evolutionary Approach, Shmuel Shahak, B.S.M.E. Technion, Israel Institute of Technology, Haifa 1992.

[2] http://www.smithsonianmag.com/science-nature/could-noahs-ark-float-theory-yes-180950385/?no-ist

[3] For example, see Gerald Schroeder, Genesis and Big Bang and Nathan Aviezer, In the Beginning.

[4] Rav David Tzvi Hoffmann, Commentary on Sefer Beresheit, pp 140-141 and pp 151-152.

[5] Rav David Tzvi Hoffmann, Commentary on Sefer Beresheit, pp 151-152.