Rabbi David Walk, Education Director

Congregation Agudath Sholom | 301 Strawberry Hill Ave | Stamford, CT 06902 (203)-358-2200 www.agudathsholom.org

Wednesday, October 10, 2012

Walk Article



Rabbi David Walk


            There's an old joke about the trouble maker in a Jewish school who used to answer every question about who was responsible for any action with "I didn't do it.'  So, when the teacher asked the class who made the heavens and earth, this student was quick to respond, 'I didn't do it.'  For once our young person was telling the truth.   But that doesn't solve the greatest 'who done it' of them all.  Miss Marple, Sherlock Holmes and Hercule Poirot together can't crack this case.  It's the case of the created universe, and there seem to be only two suspects:  God and Blind Chance.  Recently I have become concerned about how advocates of both sides present their cases, but I'm getting ahead of myself.  Before we critique the opponents, allow me to present the two salient issues.  First, was the universe created or was it always here?  And, second, how do we date the age of this universe around us?  These were the two challenges to religious views on the universe, but the game radically changed in the second half of the twentieth century.

            The thornier of the two attacks on a vision of the universe as described in this week's parsha was the concept of an infinite and eternal universe.   In our Torah reading the main idea is that God created everything which exists.  This idea bothered scientists for the last three centuries.  During this period the main scientific concern has been conservation of matter and energy.  In other words, what you see in this universe is what you get, and what you've always gotten.  The universe was, the universe is and the universe will be.  This all changed starting in 1931, when Georges Lemaitre (incidentally, a Roman Catholic priest) suggested that the observations that the universe was expanding could be extrapolated back in time to a starting point.  In 1949 Fred Hoyle, an opponent of this idea, sarcastically called this theory the Big Bang.  The court of scientific opinion remained unconvinced until 1965 when two scientists working at Bell Labs in New Jersey found evidence of the initial explosion.  In 1978, Robert Wilson and Arno Penzias won a Nobel Prize for their work.

            In 1979 I met Arno Penzias, who came to an NCSY shabbaton in Highland Park, NJ, to discuss his discoveries with high school kids.  Dr. Penzias was amazing.  His patience and his wisdom blew me away.  He freely admitted that he came to the conclusion that if there was an act of Creation out of nothing (the Big Bang), then concluding that there is a Creator is neither irrational nor unreasonable.  This refugee from Nazi Germany and veteran of the Kindertransport (Jewish children rescued to England before World War II) abandoned his atheism for a return to the Judaism of his youth.  He was impressive, moving and convincing.  Science and religion could agree on al least one principle, namely Creation.

            The other problem is much less difficult.  How old is this Creation? Most physicists favor an age for the universe of 13.75 billion years, give or take a hundred million years.  But what's a hundred million years between friends?  On the other hand, starting with this week's parsha and the six days of creation, when one adds all the years accounted for in the Bible, we get an age of 5773.  This number is, of course, is a tiny fraction of the margin of error for the other number.  But this doesn't bother most Jewish commentaries, because it's not necessary to take the numbers in the Bible literally.  And this makes sense because we don't expect the Torah to teach us science or math or history; we expect it to teach us ethics.  We Jews are used to going to different sources for different kinds of information. 

            So, neither of these problems bugs me.  What does bug me?  Mostly mosquitoes, but that's another story.  What really bothers me is how the two sides treat each other.  Historically the religious right displayed tremendous animosity towards the innovations of the scientific community.  We can rehash the stories of Copernicus and Galileo, but, dear reader, you know all that.  Organized religion has shown an intolerance of scientific breakthrough.  Thankfully Judaism has been less involved in these controversies.  As an example of Jewish tolerance here are the words of Rav Abraham HaCohen Kook (1865-1935):  Regarding the number of years since creation in relation to the geological calculations of our day… In truth, however, none of this is a bother… The main thing is what arises from the entire story – knowing God and living a truly moral life.

            Even though the bias of the religious right bothers me, it is to a certain extent understandable.  These are not people used to scientific theory or trial and error research.  Their intellectual baggage is freighted with dogma and accepted truths.  However, what I never expected to see is the new militant atheism, which displays some of the same bigotry and prejudice of the religious right.  These are scientists who are trained to rationally debate issues, and their intolerance surprises and disturbs me. 

            The leader of this movement is Dr. Richard Dawkins.  He has said, "What has 'theology' ever said that is of the smallest use to anybody? What makes you think that 'theology' is a subject at all?" and "I think there's something very evil about faith … it justifies essentially anything. If you're taught in your holy book or by your priest that blasphemers should die or apostates should die that clearly is evil. And people don't have to justify it because it's their faith."  In a recent appearance with Rabbi Jonathan Sacks, he said that God is the most unpleasant character in all fiction.  Rabbi Sacks pointed out that Dr. Dawkins was perpetuating prejudice against Judaism and the bible.  Dr. Dawkins countered that some of his comments were a joke. 

            Sadly none of this is funny.  Attacks from both sides are sad.  Dr. Michael Ruse recently said, "I am a non-believer. Yet I refuse to put science and religion at war. This is partly because I do not think they have to be — I see them as asking different questions."  The splendor of Creation will be best understood when both sides grant the other their space to glorify the majesty of our universe.  Solving the mystery is less important than appreciating it.  

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