‘Modern Science Is Discovering What The Torah Said Thousands Of Years Ago’: An Interview with Rabbi Yosef Bitton
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.”
You cite an interesting mashal by the Rambam about the limits of human knowledge in your book. Can you give a shortened version?
I adapted the Rambam’s mashal for the modern reader. I said: Imagine if robot-like scientists from a different planet would come to Earth, kidnap a three-year-old boy, and study him for two months to learn about the human species. They would see him grow one inch and, working their way backwards, would conclude that he was originally only one inch tall or less.
From studying this boy for two months, they would never be able to deduce the processes of pregnancy and birth. Why? Because they never saw a woman, and all the laws of pregnancy contradict what they know about biology. This boy, after all, has to eat and breathe, and so they would never be able to conceive – or even imagine – that this boy was in somebody else’s body with no air, food, or water.
Similarly, we have to understand that information about creation might not only be beyond our knowledge, but also beyond our imagination.
You quote a British philosopher who compares human knowledge of electrons to that of monkeys and concludes that not only will monkeys “never be able to understand an electron the way we do,” but they are “cognitively closed to it.”
Yes, there are limits to our epistemological capabilities.
You often quote the Sephardic sage Menashe ben Yisrael in your book, the man who was largely responsible for the return of Jews to England in the mid-1600s. Why?
Many reasons. First of all, because I happen to love his style. Second, because I’m trying to do a kind of techiyat hameisim with him and other unknown writers. His book was translated into English in the 19th century by E. H. Lindo, so I used it in the hope that this book and others like it will become better known to the general public.
On your website, you post mini biographies of various Sephardic rabbis. Why?
Because I think Sephardic rabbis are unfortunately unknown to mainstream Judaism, and they have a lot to say. In my opinion, they represent a model of integration between erudition in Torah and general knowledge. They never saw a contradiction between the two, so I think they are a model that is very necessary today to inspire other Jews to follow Torah 100 percent without feeling antagonized from the modern world.
One of these biographies is of Rabbi Eliyahu Hazan who, you write, was the first rabbi to institute a bas mitzvah ceremony in the Sephardic world (and possibly even in the Ashkenazic world).
Yes, this was in the beginning of the 20th century in Alexandria, Egypt. He saw that there was a need for it due to the strong European influence in Alexandria. So Rabbi Hazan designed a ceremony and preparatory course in which the girls would learn more about Judaism. [The ceremony] consisted of the recitation of some prayers, and a test – answering questions dealing with the basic principles of Judaism. I think for his time it was revolutionary. [But he did it] so that girls would be stimulated to have a deeper knowledge of Judaism.
In another post on your website, you write about Rabbi Refael Aharon ben Shimon (1847-1928), who issued an interesting ruling regarding suicide.
He was a rabbi in Cairo at a time when there was, what he described as, an epidemic of suicides [“because of small problems, illusory matters of honor or frustrated romantic expectations”]. So what he did was ban people who committed suicide from a normal burial [even though standard halachic practice is to be lenient on this matter]. And it worked.
But he didn’t only discuss suicide. He discussed and ruled on so many things, and it’s unfortunate that he’s not better known in the halachic world.
What’s your family’s background?
I’m half Syrian, half Moroccan. I was born in Argentina to Argentinian parents. My grandparents, though, came from Tetouan, Morocco, and Damascus, Syria.
How would you describe your present synagogue?
Ohel David & Shlomo mainly serves the Syrian community in Manhattan Beach. It is a very special, warm, highly organized, and very traditional and knowledgeable community. People love to study Torah, people come to shul every Shabbat, and practically every Syrian family sends its children to Jewish schools. The community is also extremely active in chesed.
Sometimes people claim that whenever Sephardim live as a minority among Ashkenazim, they tend to slowly lose their identity. Do you find that to be true?
No, absolutely not. The Syrians are extremely strict in keeping the traditions of their ancestors, and they’ve developed the means to perpetuate those traditions. They have schools, publications, and websites, and they instruct the youth in synagogue. The synagogues are the best schools. It’s not rare to see in most Syrian communities young people in charge of leading the prayers and the Torah reading.
They are very conscious of the importance of the heritage they’ve received and they feel responsible to bequeath that legacy to the next generation.Elliot Resnick
About the Author: Elliot Resnick is a Jewish Press editor and writer, as well as the author of “Movers and Shakers: Sixty Prominent Personalities Speak Their Mind on Tape" and editor of "Perfection: The Torah Ideal."
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