Is the universe 5,779 years old or 13.8 billion years? Did animals evolve from earlier species or were they all independently created from the earth?
For those unaware of the relevant scientific evidence, or who reject the modern scientific enterprise, accepting the straightforward reading of the Torah is simple. However, others have to grapple with serious issues.
Take the age of the universe, for example. Without getting into complicated and irrelevant matters such as carbon-dating, there is very clear evidence that the universe is a lot more than a few thousand years old. For example, dinosaur fossils are found in layers of rock in thousands of places around the world, but no fossils of people or dogs or lions or any other contemporary species are found in these same layers, which demonstrates that dinosaurs lived in an era of their own.
The Rishonim didn’t grapple with the issues raised by modern science, but they did wrestle with similar challenges and provided useful approaches for dealing with them. The Rambam, for example (Guide for the Perplexed 2:29), states: “Contrary to popular belief, the account of creation given in Scripture is not intended to be literal in all its parts.” The commentaries to the Guide explain that the Rambam believed Bereishis to be describing – not six days, or even six time periods – but a six-part hierarchy in the natural world.
What about evolution? There is a widespread belief that evolution has been scientifically discredited. However, only people who have religious objections to evolution believe this. In the scientific community, evolution is regarded as well-proven – at least, one aspect of it. “Evolution” actually refers to two very different things. First is the historical claim that all species developed from earlier species and thus common ancestors. Second is the proposed mechanism by which these transformations happened.
The first aspect is universally accepted in the scientific community (and even by many in the Intelligent Design movement). It is supported by an overwhelming convergence of evidence from many different areas of biology. These include the fossil record (forget about the gaps – how does one account for all the fossil intermediate species that do exist?); the presence of vestigial organs (such as the tiny, useless wings of flightless birds); the geographical concentration of similar species (such as the marsupials of Australia); and the overall structure of species.
But how could such mutations occur? This question is debated in the scientific community, but this debate is entirely irrelevant from a theological perspective. Judaism has always maintained that God works through nature. Just like we don’t need to posit supernatural intervention to see God’s hand in history, the weather, and medicine, we likewise do not need to posit supernatural intervention to see God’s hand in the development of life. God works through politics and medicine, and He works through biology.
Just after Darwin proposed evolution, Rav Samson Raphael Hirsch wrote that if it is ultimately accepted as factual by the scientific community, “Judaism in that case would call upon its adherents to give even greater reverence than ever before to the one, sole God who, in His boundless creative wisdom and eternal omnipotence, needed to bring into existence no more than one single, amorphous nucleus, and one single law of ‘adaptation and heredity’ in order to bring forth, from what seemed chaos but was in fact a very definite order, the infinite variety of species we know today, each with its unique characteristics that sets it apart from all other creatures.”
Even “random” evolution is not necessarily problematic. After all, lotteries are “random,” and yet a lottery was used to divide the Land of Israel (with God’s hand obviously behind it). The entire message of Purim is that events that appear to be entirely random, with no overt Divine role, are really guided by Hashem.
But what about human evolution? Interestingly, centuries before Darwin, Rishonim already said man was created on the same day as animals because physically there is no significant difference between us. The Ramban even says man was first created as an animal, and only then given the soul that made him different.
In other words, it makes no difference whether our physical bodies come from apes or frogs or fungi or dirt. What sets man apart is the ability to use his free will to refine his unique soul and become more than just an animal.
Controversies rage over these issues. Yet, they are no different from the controversies that have raged for centuries, even millennia, over the literalness of various Scriptural accounts such as the tale of Iyov or the story of the snake in Gan Eden.
In short, a person who accepts the modern scientific account of the universe’s development, and seeks to interpret the Torah accordingly, certainly has ample support in our tradition to rely upon.