Awesome Creation: A Study of the First Three Verses of the Torah
Rabbi Yosef Bitton
The Cosmos is all that is, or was, or ever will be. Thus spake the late astronomer and author Carl Sagan, expressing his belief that reality consists of nothing but matter and energy. Sagan’s atheist slogan may have been borrowed from the ancient Greek philosopher Heraclitus (circa 500 BCE): “This cosmos, the same for all, was neither made by God nor man, but was, is, and always will be.” Heraclitus was conveying a notion that held sway for millennia and was endorsed by modern science until very recently – that the universe has always existed. He is quoted in Awesome Creation, a Study of the First Three Verses of the Torah by Rabbi Yosef Bitton.
Rabbi Bitton eloquently presents the Jewish response to claims of the universe’s eternity: Bereishis bara! The universe was created by God out of nothing; it has not always existed. And Big Bang cosmology, now accepted by the overwhelming majority of the scientific community, involves a rather reluctant acknowledgement by many scientists that a cherished philosophical notion had to be forsaken.
In recent decades, a veritable cottage industry has arisen within the Torah community, with authors claiming to harmonize the respective viewpoints of the Torah and Science on the question of ultimate origins (of the universe and humanity). These authors make it their business – a lucrative business at that – to pander to readers whose point of departure is, “How do you reconcile Judaism and Science?” without realizing that they are not asking a question but rather expressing a prejudice. It never occurs to them to ask, “Are Judaism and Science necessarily reconcilable?” Having decided at the outset that the two viewpoints must always coincide, these authors proceed to make sure – if necessary by torturing classical sources until they confess – that Torah sources submit to political correctness.
Awesome Creation, for the most part, avoids this pitfall. It does an excellent job of elucidating the key terms in the first three verses of the Torah. What does tohu really mean? And bohu? How about rakia’? Does darkness mean the mere absence of light or is it a tangible entity? Rabbi Bitton analyses these words on the Torah’s own terms, using the Hebrew text, Chazal and classical authorities. And in pursuing the legitimate meanings of obscure terms, the author is sufficiently confident to criticize well-known writers – Rabbi Aryeh Kaplan, for example – for mistranslating certain phrases. Mostly, the author succeeds in sticking to his objective that “Science is used in this work only to the extent it contributes to the understanding of the Biblical text, which is the main goal of this book.”
But not always. Rabbi Bitton, too, sometimes succumbs to the urge to show that, as he puts it, the “Biblical Creation story…is completely compatible with science’s modern discoveries.” Nu nu. At any rate, writing that Ramban anticipated a post-Newtonian conception of physics or that Rambam identified primeval darkness as…[an] invisible form of energy was unnecessary. Overall, however, Rabbi Bitton’s scholarship is dispassionate and focused.
Awesome Creation makes the occasional innocent mistake. The famous astrophysicist Arthur Eddington was not an uncompromising atheist (he was a committed Quaker, and, because of his pacifism, faced imprisonment in 1918, when he was 35 years old and still subject to conscription in WWI) and citizens of the “eternal and stationary universe of Aristotle” did not ponder elliptical orbits (nobody did that until Kepler). But I quibble. On scientific matters, Awesome Creation is almost always accurate and informative.
One of the novel features of Awesome Creation is its willingness to cite lesser-known sources (a point the author acknowledges in a recent interview with this newspaper). This is innocuous and even illuminating, except for the odd occasion when this practice goes overboard. Do we really need Jorge Luis Borges to tell us that nature and the Bible are two books written by the same Author? Galileo said so 400 years ago (and Rabbi S.R. Hirsch used the same idea in his 18th Letter). But again, this is nitpicking. Mostly, Awesome Creation sticks to standard sources. And even when novel rabbinic sources are cited, they are not there to convince the reader that radical and fringe views are legitimate Torah viewpoints, because in hashkafa anything goes. (See, however, note 4 on page 63.)