The age of the universe. Fifteen billion or less than 6,000? The debate shows no signs of letting up in the Orthodox community.
One of the latest to toss his hat in the ring is Rabbi Yosef Bitton, formerly chief rabbi of Uruguay and today the head of a Syrian community in Manhattan Beach, Brooklyn. In his recently-published book, Awesome Creation: A Study of the First Three Verses of the Torah (Gefen), Rabbi Bitton scrutinizes the Torah’s words and those of Chazal, comparing and contrasting them with the latest scientific knowledge.
The Jewish Press: What kind of insights does your book offer on science and religion?
Rabbi Bitton: I examine, in depth, the first word of the Torah, “Bereishit.” As you know, the beginning of the universe was proven when scientists detected that the universe is expanding. So, in a sense, modern science is discovering what the first word of the Torah said thousands of years ago. I show that the prophets referred to the expansion of the universe when they said, “noteh shamayim,” that God stretches the heavens.
I also analyze every single word of the second verse of the Torah. I show that many translations reflect non-Jewish ideas. For example, “tohu vavohu” is usually translated as chaos even though this translation differs from how Chazal and most classic commentators understood these words. If you interpret “tohu vavohu” as chaos, you are in a sense following the Platonic view of creation. According to Plato, God was not the creator of the world but the one who put a chaotic universe into order.
Another example is “ruach Elokim.” It should not be interpreted as “spirit of God.” According to Chazal, Targum Onkelos, Maimonides, Radak, Ibn Ezra – practically all commentators – “ruach Elokim” means a physical wind. “Spirit of God” is a Christian concept that reflects the doctrine of the Trinity: the father, the son, and the Holy Spirit.
Now, when you remove all these mistranslations, the second verse gives us an inventory of sorts of how the world looked in the beginning, and it’s very close to what modern science describes: a lifeless world, covered by water, with a dense and dark atmosphere.
How do you deal with the age of the universe?
I show that time was a consequence of the act of creation. Chazal said, “Kol ma’asei bereishit bekomotan nivra’u,” which means that all creation was created in a mature state. That mature state creates the illusion that things are older than they really are. For example, Chazal said that Adam Harishon was 20 years old when he was created. So five minutes after he was created Adam was, chronologically speaking, five minutes old. Nonetheless, he had the body of a 20-year-old man.
So if a scientist determines that the light of a certain star took several billion years to reach Earth, you would say that God created the world with that light already reaching Earth.
Yes, if I am a scientist and I try to track back creation – without considering the act of creation – then of course I will add billions of years to the equation. When scientists analyze and examine the world, they don’t consider an act of creation, which is the big difference between what the Torah says and what science says.
On the issue of dinosaur bones, surely God didn’t need to create a world with bones underground that appear to be millions of years old. Why would He mislead us?
I don’t want to refer to that right now. I’m planning to write another book on the appearance of life, evolution, and dinosaurs. In this book, I deal with the creation of the world as a structure, not with life – everything before life up to the fourth day.
You discuss the Big Bang in your book. I don’t think people realize how revolutionary this theory was in the history of science-religion debates.
Exactly. Popular knowledge has it that the Big Bang and creation are far apart, but that couldn’t be further from the truth. After thousands of years of holding the Aristotelian view of the eternity of the universe, science [since the mid-1900s] now asserts that the universe had a beginning. That’s a breakthrough, and it’s the closest that science has gotten to the first word of the Torah: “Bereishit.”