Monthly Archives: January 2013

Is Judaism Too Dry?

There’s no deeper feeling than the awareness of a man that he has accepted upon himself the yoke of the Kingdom of Heaven, and there is no joy like the joy of one who lovingly bears this yoke of Torah and the Commandments.” – Yeshayahu Leibowitz

It seems more and more people today charge that Halakha (Jewish Law) is too dry, that it doesn’t have enough “soul” to it, or that it is a shame to limit Judaism to pedantic legal discussions.

Rather, someone may ask, shouldn’t it be more about how we feel about God, or about the values behind the law? It just seems so small minded to spend all of our time on the specifics of endlessly detailed rituals that don’t even make the world a better place! Why is it so important when a steak is kosher, or when a Sukkah (Tabernacle) is tall enough, or when it’s OK to turn the TV on?

In the end, wouldn’t it be better if Judaism was more spiritual, and less legal?

 These are good questions in my opinion, and I think they each deserve careful thought and consideration. Furthermore, I think it would be foolish to claim that we can answer them all with the certainty of a mathematical equation, even though, as Halakha observing Jews, we may try. And I really do believe there are many answers to each “Why” we have raised.

However, I do not want to write about any of the answers to these questions. Rather, I want to offer my side of the coin, since you’re talking about me when you mention to someone how odd it all is, that people place such emphasis on a legal system. Maybe my experience could serve as a kind of explanation for why we do what we do, or at least why I attempt to do what I believe I should be doing.

To me, Halakha is not dry or soulless. That is not the way it feels. It does not feel small minded, and though it is highly concerned with the smallest legal points, this is part of why keeping it is a rich spiritual experience.

Why do I feel this way?

Well, how could I not? It’s how I serve God.

I can’t tell you that I’m always excited about it, because I’m not. Keeping Halakha is hard, and trying to improve how I keep the mitzvot (commandments) is always a struggle. But I am committed to doing my best, and in my best moments, I love it completely.

What could be greater than serving God? My words of praise and thanks could never be enough, so I use the words of the Sages. My life could never be enough, but I may fill it with actions and moments that are devoted to serving Him.

These tiny details and pedantic discussions are my concern because I want -in my best moments- to serve God is the best way that I can. Not haphazardly, but with a commitment that researches even the smallest questions, and asks how long a wall should be, or what the best shade of color for an etrog (citron) would be. Halakha forever asks: How can we best fulfill what is required of us? And our Sages seek to answer just this question.

It may or may not improve the world when I light a candle, or say a blessing, but for many of us, the service of God is a world value in it of itself.

I cannot ask you to feel this way with us. That will have to be your decision. But now you know -to some of us at least- keeping the smallest elements of Jewish law is nothing less than the richest of experiences, where we may each take part in the best man can accomplish.



Filed under Halakha

When Religion Contradicts Science: What to do, Chapter VI of the Handbook

Jewish theologians have never shied away from delving into contemporary science; on occasion, they even have a religious obligation to do so. When paskining (ruling) on a halakhic matter, it is incumbent upon the Poseik (religious authority) to be aware of all the ins and outs of the relevant and contemporary scientific data in order to evaluate all the pertinent pieces of information. For example, in order to decide whether and when it is forbidden to use electricity on the Shabbat, one must first understand what electricity is and how it works. In order to declare a person halakhicly dead and authorize someone to pull the plug, one must gain an expertise in human biology and medicine, besides an expertise in halakha.

This necessity for such virtuosity in scientific matters, on occasion, propelled the Jewish theologians to the forefront of certain scientific fields. It was not uncommon for a Jew to be known as the most excellent doctor, philosopher, mathematician or astronomer of his day. These Jewish professionals, raised on the wisdom of the Talmud from an early age, always had two authoritative sources of information available to them: religious and secular. While the Talmud provides both types of knowledge, to become the world leader in an area, the Sage had to also study secular books.

To the surprise of some, secular data sometimes takes precedence over the scientific facts supplied by the Talmud. But, how could this be? The Talmud is supposed to be the authoritative book of the true religion! Furthermore, this acceptance of non-Jewish conclusions could instigate a slippery slope that leads to disaster: where is the religious practitioner supposed to draw the line? Once we could reject scientific information in the Talmud, can we not also reject its halakhic information too? In recent years, this has caused the dissemination of three types of books within Orthodox Jewish circles.

(1)   Literalist books – These books will take the creation account and all of its details literally. This approach may add details into the Biblical account, but those details can never contradict the basic understanding of the text proffered by the Rabbis in the Talmud. This approach rejects all scientific conclusions that contradict the Torah or the Oral Law propounded in the Talmud. In truth, everything (including science, metaphysics, every event in the history of the world, etc.) can be found in the Torah, if you know how to look.

(2)   Metaphorical books – These books will take the creation completely metaphorically. All of the details in its account are meant to impart some psychological or philosophical notion about the place of mankind. There can be no arguments between science and Torah for the Torah is not a science book and, accordingly, does not proffer any scientific information. Those who do draw conclusions about science from the Torah are plainly making a false assumption about the nature of Torah. Not everything can be found in the Torah.

(3)   Accommodationalist books – These books are the happy medium between the two previous approaches. They will either bend the verse or the science to fit with their own understanding of an event. This approach, generally, will assume that the Torah puts forth facts of the world’s beginnings in its opening chapters, but only to those individuals qualified to understand the minutia of astrophysics. These books trust the Torah for science only so far as their science allows. This approach will take famous rabbinic dictums out of context, as well as Talmudic and Rishonic statements to fit its purpose.

Unfortunately, once can also divide the Jewish world into one of these three categories; but instead of passing judgment on any, in this chapter, we will evaluate to what degree a Jew must trust in the scientific assertions scientific of the Talmud. Also, we will look at the efforts so far to unite the Torah with science by looking at the scholarly (and not so scholarly) books on the relationship between science and religion.

This chapter will be broken into two parts:

1)      When should a religious Jew accept or disregard the scientific claims of the Torah and the Talmud based on the Sages?

2)      Why are so many books/people put into excommunication over these topics recently?

A Jewish Approach to Science

In this section, we will explore many halakhic authorities’ opinions about how much credence an Orthodox Jew should give to scientific statements in the Gemara and to the science of his own day. The following quotes are for the most part self explanatory, but when an explanation will help to elucidate the issue, one has been provided.

At the onset, though, one should be aware that traditional rabbis have expressed viewpoints that at times support, show ambivalence or even reject modern science. Those who reject scientific conclusions which run counter to the most obvious reading of the Talmud will often claim that nature has changed since the time of the Talmud, or that science today is incorrect. This approach to science, which presently represents the majority of fundamentalist rabbis, is an approach that one could find tremendous support for throughout rabbinic literature; this is no surprise. Accordingly, we will not explore this perspective any further at it runs counter to the purpose of this book which is to show a basic harmony between Torah ad science ; instead, we will focus on the rabbinic viewpoints which respect the opinion of modern science.


R. Yehuda HaNasi (2nd century)

The sages of the nations say, during the day the sun moves below the sky, and at night, below the ground. Rebbi said their words seem more correct than ours (the Sages) because in the day the springs are cold and at night they are warm (Pesachim 94B).

R. Shmuel bar Hofni HaGeon (9th century)

Haggadah is any interpretation which appears in the Talmud concerning a matter which is not a commandment. This is [called] Aggadah, and one need only learn from it that which seems logically correct. For you must know that whatever our Sages affirmed as being a commandment received from Moses our teacher, of blessed memory, which he in return received from the Almighty, one may not add thereto not remove therefrom. But that which the Sages interpreted, each one according to what occurred to him and what he saw fit in his mind, one learns what one finds acceptable form these interpretations and one need not rely on the rest (Mavo HaTalmud).


We are not required to accept the words of the Ancient ones (the Sages) if they contradict the intellect (commentary to I Samuel 28).


R. Sherirah Geon (10th century)

Our Rabbis were not physicians. They merely said what they observed among patients here and there. These are not commandments [to believe the Rabbis]. Therefore, do not rely on their cures… unless it was tested and definitely ascertained through skilled physicians that this remedy will not cause harm or endanger the patient (Otzar HaGeonim Gittin 68, 376).


R. Hai Geon (11th century)

You ought to know that the words of Aggadah are unlike the received tradition. Rather, each person expounds them as them as occurs to him, [while saying to himself] perhaps [my explanation is correct], or one can say [such an explanation], but not definitively. Therefore, one need not base oneself upon them (Aggadot).


R. Bahya ibn Pakuda (11th century)

Although tradition is the first thing that is taught to students, for that is what they need first, nevertheless, it would be half-hearted to rely exclusively on that tradition if one is capable of attaining certainty by way of rational argument (Intro to Duties of the Heart).


R. Moses ben Maimon – Maimonides (12th century)

1. Do not ask me that all that is mentioned on the subject of astronomy be compatible with the facts of the matter, because scholarly knowledge at that time (when the Talmud was written) was deficient. They (the Sages) did not speak of these matters as a tradition from the Prophets, but rather because they were the scholars of the generation in these matters, or because they learned them from the scholars of the era (Guide for the Perplexed 3:14).

2. That which exists does not conform to the various opinions, but rather the correct opinions conform to that which exists (Guide for the Perplexed 1:79).

3. I believe every possible happening that is supported by a prophetic statement and do not strip it of its plain meaning. I fall back on interpreting a statement only when its literal sense is impossible, like the corporeality of God; the possible however remains as stated (Treatise on Resurrection).

4. All these assertions (about creation) are needed if the text of Scripture is taken in its external (literal) sense, even though it must not be taken as shall be explained when we shall speak of it at length. You ought to memorize this notion. For it is a great wall that I have built around the Law, a wall that surrounds it warding off the stones of all those who project these missiles against it (Guide for the Perplexed chap. 17).

5. I know that you may search and find sayings of some individual Sages in the Talmud and Midrashim whose words appear to maintain that at the moment of a man’s birth, the stars will cause such and such to happen. Do not regard this as a difficulty, for… it is not proper to abandon matters of reason that have already been verified by proofs, shake loose of them, and depend on the words of a single one of the Sages from whom possibly the matter was hidden. Or there may be an allusion in the words; or they may have been said with a view to the times and the business before them…A man should never cast his reason behind him, for the eyes are set in front, not in back (Letter on Astrology).

Analysis: Maimonides offers three possible defenses (in his Letter on Astrology) to a Sages’ statement that contradicts science.

A.The sage might not have known the truth. The Sages were not infallible in philosophical and scientific matters; therefore it is possible that one individual Sage was wrong.


  • he statement was not meant to be taken literally. Throughout the Torah and the Talmud, we find countless statements that obviously were never meant to be taken literally. When the Torah states that God took out the Jews from Egypt with an “extended right hand,” does that mean that God has a physical right hand? When the Talmud tells an historical account, it does that mean that the event must have taken place exactly how the Talmud described. To claim such would relegate the Talmud to a simple history book, instead of a religious guide to life. (Se‘adya Gaon, R. Sherira Geon, R. Hai Geon, R. Hananel, R. Nissim, R. Isaac Alfasi, and R. Judah ha-Levi all upheld the principle אין סומכין על דברי אגדה – that Aggadata may be explained figuratively and could even be dismissed altogether.)

C.The Sage did not believe his own statement, yet some external factor deemed it necessary to teach the idea anyways for political or religious reasons; this is sometimes referred to as a “necessary belief.”

6. It is my intention in this chapter to draw your attention to the ways of research and belief. If anybody tells you in order to support his opinion that he is in possession of proof  and evidence and that he saw the thing with his own eyes, you have to doubt him, even if he is an authority accepted by great men, even if he is himself honest and virtuous. Inquire well into what he wants to prove to you. . Do not allow your senses to be confused by his research and innovations [stories]. Think well, search, examine, and try to understand [the ways of nature] which he claims to know. Do not allow yourself to be influenced by the sayings that something is obvious, whether a single man is saying so or whether it is a common opinion, for the desire of power leads men to shameful things, particularly in the case of divided opinions (Pirkei Moshe, the Medical Aphorisms of Maimonides).


The Destruction of Science

1. They (Kalam theologians) assert that when a man moves a pen, it is not the man who moves it; for the motion occurring in the pen is an accident created by God in the pen. Similarly the motion of the hand, which we think of as moving the pen, is an accident created by God in the moving of the hand. Only, God has instituted the habit that the motion of the hand is concomitant with the motion of the pen, without the hand exercising in any respect an influence on, or being causative in regard to, the motion of the pen.

2. If the above-mentioned doctrine were true, then all our scientific notions concerning the nature of the world would be destroyed. This is because it makes it such that everything is dependent upon the direct action of God at every instant. Because there is no assurance that He will choose to sustain that world at every moment the way He had chosen the moment before, all empirical data, all inductive logic and all assumptions based on prior information will be worthless. Even though there is no way to prove that this is not the case, Rambam believed that the concept of a fixed natural order in the sub-lunar world is the opinion of Judaism (Guide for the Perplexed 1:73).

3. If a boor is not content with having his doubts about this, so that neither view prevails, but chooses to adhere to the popular opinion, and finds fault with my view and damns me for thinking that the angels and the members of the world to come are separated from matter and free of it, I hold no grievance against him. I forgive him and freely admit my “fault.” There is no limit to the number of homilies that serve as refutations of my opinion, and I am not surprised. There are just as many biblical verses and even prophetic passages that refute me, since their simple meaning teaches that God is a body with eyes and ears. However, since the intellectual proofs and the incontrovertible deductions that rule this out are valid, it becomes clear, as the Sages say, that “the Torah speaks in the style of people.” …Those who presume that they are corporeal cannot appreciate these proofs (Essay on Resurrection 216).

4. Everyone knows that scholars are not expected to rehearse homilies and the curious tales of the sort that women tell one another in their condolence calls. What is wanted is their interpretation, and an exposition of their implied meaning, so that they conform to a rational position, or at least approximate it (Essay on Resurrection 218).

5. Everything that has been demonstrated does not increase in validity or become more certain because all the Sages agree on it, nor will its validity decrease because the whole world disagrees on it (Guide for the Perplexed 2:15).

R. Avraham ben HaRambam (13th century)

He who wishes to support a particular position and to exalt the person who said it and to accept his view without examination or understanding… as to whether it is true or not… Such… is forbidden both by Torah’s path (me-derech HaTorah) and by way of reason (me-derech ha-sechel). It is inappropriate from the perspective of reason, because [by doing so] he causes lack and deficiency in the reflection of what one should believe. And it is forbidden by the Torah’s path because he deviates from the way of truth and from the straight line… It does not matter whether one accepts that opinion as justifies without proof, or whether one believes he person who says it, honors him and claims that the truth is with him without any doubt because he is a great person… For all this is not proof, but is forbidden (Sefer HaMaspik Le-Ovedei Hashem).

One is not obligated, as a consequence of the greatness of the Sages of the Talmud… to accept their views in all their sayings in matters of medicine and natural science and astronomy… as we believe them in the interpretation of the Torah (Sefer HaMaspik Le-Ovedei Hashem).


R. Moses ben Nachman (13th century)

At the disputation between Nachmonides and the Christian clergy in 1263, one of the many lines of attack that Fray Pul utilizes to illustrate that the Messiah has already come is a literal understanding of Midrashim. Fray Pul contended that an Aggadah states that the Messiah was born on the same day that the Temple was destroyed. Nachmonides responds:

“Truly, I do not believe that the Messiah was born on the day of the [Temple’s] destruction. Either this homily is not true or it has another meaning, [which lies] among the secrets of the rabbis. Yet [even if] I would accept its literal meaning as you have expressed it, then it is a proof for my contention, for …” (Dispute in Barcelona 11)

When Nachmonides was faced with a Midrash that he found difficult to accept at face level, he offered three lines of attack towards Fray Pul:

  1. To deny the historical truth of the Midrash
  2. To assume that it has a deeper meaning that only a trained rabbi could decipher
  3. To repudiate the challenger’s position based on a literal interpretation of the Midrash

Many would find Nachmonides’ first contention hard to stomach, yet he further explains:

I said, even though, I do not believe in this, that passage would support my words. I shall now explain to you why I said I do not believe in this [passage]. You should know that we have three kinds of books. The first is the bible… The second is what is called the Talmud… We have a third book called Midrash meaning sermons. It is just as if the bishop would rise and deliver a sermon, and one of the listeners who the sermon pleased recorded it. With regard to this book [of sermons], if one believes in it, it is well and good; if one does not believe in it, he will not be harmed [spiritually]. We have Sages who wrote that the Messiah will not be born until the time near the end [of the exile], as which time he will come to redeem us from the exile. Therefore, I do not believe the statement of this book that he is born on the day of the destruction. We also call [the Midrash] the book of Haggadah, meaning Razionamiento. That is to say, it is nothing more than matters which one person tells another (15). KH308-9

Even though one should keep in mind that this statement was said at a tremendously unfair dispute between the dominant religion and its predecessor, one can still learn of the Ramban’s approach from it.

Interpretation of Problematic Verses and Midrashim

When one faces a problematic Midrash, one in which science, logic or common sense shows it to be unfounded, one must choose between two poles. On the one hand, one could reject all secular and logical claims that run contrary to revealed truth, or on the other hand, one could take a less anti-secular approach and interpret the Midrash accordingly. The Ramban employs a very interesting methodology in such cases. When the Greeks or modern science shows that the literal understanding of a verse is problematic, he first assumes the scientific point to be true, then informs the reader what the Torah or the Midrash really meant. Two examples will be offered, but countless others exist.

1. The verse (Genesis 2:17): And from the tree of knowledge of good and bad, you may not eat from it, for the day that you eat from it, you will die.

The problem: Adam was forbidden to eat from the tree. This implies that eating was something that he would normally do. The only reason one would have to eat is because his body needs nourishment. But once we admit that, then it is clear that Adam would have one day died. Accordingly, from mankind’s very inception, he was destined to die; the very composition of his body testifies to this fact. If this is true, then how could it be that God punished man with death, when he was already destined to die nonetheless?

Nachmonides’ comments:

He further states in (3:22) that one of the reasons that man is forbidden to eat from the tree of life is because the decree that he must die would then be nullified. Or according to the opinion that he was destined to die anyways, the possibility that someone’s sins would cause an earlier demise falls away.

His answer:  When the Torah said that he would die, it actually means that he will die sooner, as he was always destined to die. In other words, Nachmonides reinterprets the phrase away from its normative, most-obvious translation.

2. The verse (Genesis 9:12): And God said, ‘This is a sign of the covenant that I am giving between Myself and between all of you, and between every living creature that is with you, for all generations.

The problem: A cursory read of the Torah would seem to imply that the rainbow was a new creation; so before the covenant between God and Noach was forged, rainbows had not been created yet. Contrary to this belief, Greek scientists have shown that rainbows are a consequent of physical reality and should have always existed.

Nachmonides’ comments: “This is the sign of the covenant that I give.” It would seem from this sign that the rainbow which appears in the clouds is not part of the acts of creation, and only now did God create something new, to make a rainbow appear in the sky on a cloudy day… But we are compelled to believe the words of the Greeks, that the rainbow is the result of the sun’s rays passing through moist air, for in any container of water that is placed before the sun, there can be seen something that resembles a rainbow. And when we look again at the wording of the verse, we will understand it thus. For it says that “I have set my rainbow in the cloud,” and it did not say “I am setting it in the clouds”…

His answer: When one reads what the Torah says, he will come to the same conclusion as the Greeks. No where does it says that God created the rainbow at this junction in the world; rather, the rainbow always existed, but before the time of Noach, it did not act as a sign for mankind.

Rabbi Avraham ben HaRambam (again)

One who wishes to maintain a certain opinion and honor the one whom expresses it, and accept his opinion without examination and comprehension of this opinion and whether or not it is true – this is one of the worst attitudes, and it is proscribed both from the standpoint of the Torah and the standpoint of reason… We are not obligated… to defend them and uphold their opinion in all their statements regarding medicine, science and astronomy. (Ma’amar Odos Derashos Chazal).


Several years ago, Rabbi Natan Slifkin’s three books, Scienceof Torah, Mysterious Creatures, and The Camel, the Hare and the Hyraz, all books that will fall into our accommodationalist category, were deemed heretical and even forbidden, by a few, from being touched on the Sabbath (though they are all being reprinted). He made the mistake of taking positions in favor of modern science over traditional viewpoints and reinterpreting the Torah to fit with his assumptions. This bold decision to excommunicate his books was taken by several formidable Israeli rabbis and subsequently agreed to by many rabbis abroad. In the following we will examine what it is that these rabbis found so damaging to the foundations of Judaism.

What happened?

R. Natan Slifkin, also known as the “Zoo Rabbi” is both an ordained rabbi, as well as a trained zoologist. He decided to use his knowledge and love of animals for the benefit of Jews world wide. He wrote three books in English specifically designed to answer hard science questions that seem to oppose the teachings of the Torah.

Upon the publication of his third book, certain rabbis including Rabbi Michel Yehuda Lefkowitz, Rabbi Moshe Shapiro, Rabbi Yitchak Scheiner, Rabbi Elya Ber Wachtfogel (These rabbis are specifically listed because they wrote original criticisms of Rabbi Slifkin.) came out with an extremely strong voice against his books. The various claims against Rabbi Slifkin’s books include:

  • He believes the world to be millions of years old.
  1. He claims that Chazal can err in worldly matters.
  2. His books are full of heresy, misrepresentation of Chazal’s words and disparagement for the foundations of Emunah (faith).
  3. The publication and distribution of these books present a spiritual danger.

Rabbi Aharon Feldman, the Rosh Yeshiva of Ner Israel, argues that the two points that brought upon the ban were Slifkin’s approach to cosmology and his approach to the credibility of the Sages. On the first issue, he shows how R. Slifkin misapplied Talmudic principles and misinterpreted Rishonim. He offers the example of how R. Slifkin misuses the principle “There is no chronological order in the Torah” to reject the order of creation put forth by the Torah; R. Feldman argues that R. Slifkin rearranged the days of creation to fit better with evolutionary theory. No one can deny that R. Slifkin applied this principle in a way that no person before him ever had. But that in of itself is not blameworthy. Many great Sages have taken famous rabbinic phrases and applied them in ways or situations that they were never intended. For example, Maimonides famously employed the phrase “The Torah speaks in the language of man” and applied it to his anthropomorphic agenda. Also, the Hatam Sofer ironically reapplied the phrase “Hadash (new) is biblically forbidden” to include within the prohibition the creation of novel interpretations of the Torah, even though that interpretation itself was novel. No one would deny that R. Slifkin had an agenda in the writing of his book, a book which at the onset declares that it will show the creation account in Genesis and evolutionary theory could coexist.

On the second issue, R. Feldman’s comments are much in line with the approach that countless other Achronim have carved out before him: one must believe that Daas Torah are the authentic and authoritative spokesmen for traditional Judaism, and ipso facto, for God Himself; hence they unceasingly carry out the will of God on earth. Though this is not the place to argue the philosophical merit of such a point, it is worth noting that the Rishonim, of which we have analyzed earlier, did not believe in their own infallibility or supreme righteousness in the eyes of God. The Geonim and the Rishonim were willing to accept truth no matter where the source was. Maimonides says that if anyone could prove to him the world is eternal, he would accept it. Nachmonides discarded the traditional viewpoint about the inception of rainbows in favor of the Greek’s opinion. R. Hai Geon used to consult with the head of the Syrian church about biblical lexicography. The Jew would goto the Goy for Torah knowledge! Maimonides famously proclaims in his commentary on Ethics of Our Fathers called Shemoneh Perakim that one should accept truth no matter what its source.

R. Slifkin, relying on many authoritative sources, explains that the Rabbis in the past relied on others for their scientific knowledge and are fallible. In response, Rabbi Feldman explains that “although these [Torah] giants did indeed espouse this view, it is a minority opinion…”, and “we are enjoined to follow the majority opinion.” Really, there is no reason to believe that an opinion expressed by a minority should be rejected as long as it comes from a reliable source. Otherwise, world Jewry (the minority) are in trouble of their own religion forcing them to convert to Christianity (the majority) solely based on the numbers. Really, according to one approach, the biblical principle of “After the majority you should sway” does not apply to biblical interpretations; it is to be solely invoked when deciding halachic matters. In its most limited sense, according to Maimonides, it refers to the fact that a person must follow the rulings of the Great Sanhedrin in Jerusalem, not the rulings of individual rabbis, and not in matters of philosophy and science. Maimonides goes so far as to say that one may personally hold how ever he wishes when given a situation where Chazal did not rule on a non-halachic matter. He states in regards to the assertion that the generation of the deluge has no share in the world to come (Mishnah Sanhedrin 10:3) that “all arguments between the Sages that have no practical [halachic] consequent to the dispute, for they are only arguing reasoning (S’vara), there is no reason to rule like either of them.” Obviously, R. Feldman is not explaining the principle in line with Maimonides’ approach. Accordingly, we must assume that he is relying on the Sefer HaChinuch’s formulation of the principle in Mitzvah 495. He holds that this principle enjoins one to follow the greatest sage of his generation.

In this book, we have striven to focus on the approach of the Rishonim with the basic premise: they must have understood the true Jewish approach. If they didn’t understand Judaism, we have no hope, for they were the authentic interpreters and conveyors of our religion. Once we enter the sixteenth century, Judaism becomes so compartmentalized and differentiated that it would be wrong to say that any one figure epitomized Judaism and its values as did the Rishonim. Accordingly, we will look at only two more famous personalities to further our understanding.

Rabbi Moshe Shternbuch commenting on evolution states an opinion very much in line with R. Feldman’s approach:

I do not know whether all those who accept the view of the scientists – that the world is very ancient – are heretics. However I do know that only heretics have such views against our Sages – who are fully accepted by us. I want to note in addition that those who accept that the world is ancient also prefer to hear and accept the words of the scientists. Furthermore, these people mistakenly think that they have found support for their views amongst our traditional sources. In fact, however, we are obligated to always give precedent to Da’as Torah. These are the mainstream accepted views expressed in the Talmud as well as the writings of the great writings through the ages. Only those views which are widely accepted are valid – and not minority views that have been rejected or ignored. Only after we fully accept the Torah understanding of an issue, can we consider the words of the scientists and accept that which is compatible with the words of our sages.

In the end, one must decide whether what R. Slifkin did was so bad. Is presenting unsubstantiated information and rejecting Daas Torah’s conclusions about science enough to say that a book should be burnt and be declared heretical?

Do Not Stray after Your Heart

There is a prohibition of “straying after your heart.” Included in this prohibition, according to Rabbi Ya’akov Weinberg (as well as Rabbi Moshe Feinstein) is that it is forbidden to objectively compare Judaism against other religions. R. Weinberg shrewdly points out that this proscription is meaningless if someone already harbors a theological doubt. You cannot answer a person marred with doubts regarding Judaism’s fundamentals by telling him that Judaism prohibits harboring such doubts. The real prohibition of “Do not stray after your heart” is to put yourself into a position where the doubt can arise; once you have doubts, there is a religious obligation to deal with them.

Using R. Weinberg’s advice, we can understand what the great chasm that divides the two camps. The “Gedolim” feel that it is their God-given job to protect the Torah, their Mesorah, and their way of life. In our generation, and in the past, this has taken on the form of fundamentalism hallmarked by literalism towards the Torah, towards aggadah and laden with anti-secular polemics. Some of them argue that the every words of the Gemara is the word of God as given to Moshe at Har Sinai. Accordingly, the greatest lesson that they could impart to the next generation is a certain fortitude in their attitude towards Torah and the “other.”

But when someone is not raised in this fundamentalist way, under this umbrella of comfort and protection from heretical viewpoints, the philosophical Pandora’s box flies open, one has a religious obligation to eradicate ideas and thoughts that in any way undermine belief in the true religion. Whether science, math, astronomy, philology or biblical criticism is the key to unlocking one’s lost faith, the person must traverse this path to God. One cannot not just play the “Emunas Chachamim” (Belief in the Sages) or “Daas Torah” cards to questions that seriously undermine one’s faith. Labeling a Jew a “heretic,” “apikoris,” or “goy” for ideas that he reasonably accepts as true does not lead a lost soul back to Judaism; it only ensures that he will reject Judaism forever without fail.

Other Bans

Besides R. Slifkin’s books, some have tried to ban Professor Schroeder’s “Genesis and the Big Bang.” Upon the realization of the benefit and impact that Prof. Schroeder’s book could have on the Kiruv (outreach) movement, he was invited to lecture at Aish HaTorah (the world’s leading Kiruv movement). After hearing Prof. Schroeder’s compelling understanding of the creation narrative, in an effort to derail any possible debacles of the likes of the Slifkin affair, the Rabbis at Aish HaTorah felt that they should receive an official approbation from a Gadol HaDor (leading Sage). So before they officially associated with him, after Schroeder presented a lecture to all he senior staff and heads of Aish HaTorah, they arranged a meeting between Prof. Schroeder and the late R. Ya’akov Weinberg of Ner Israel. First, R. Weinberg asked is all the science material in his book and lectures were accurate, to which Prof. Schroeder assured him that the book went through scientific peer review at Bantam books before being published. Second, R. Weinberg insisted that this approach to creation never be taught in Yeshivas. R. Weinberg felt that even though this approach to creation is valid, it would be counter productive for Yeshiva students because it would diminish their Emunas Chachamim.

Similar to the Slifkin affair, some fundamentalists in Israel decided that Prof. Schroeder’s book really is heretical; therefore a Beit Din (court) was established to evaluate whether his book was truly heretical and forbidden for a Jew to read. In the end, no one on the court, nor the rabbis casting aspersions at his books, could point to the principle in faith that was being denied. R. Shternbuch, presiding over the case, unhappily agreed that Prof. Schroeder’s book did not uproot any of the fundamentals of belief.

From R. Weinberg, we can learn two important facts. One should ensure that the science he learns is true. Second, one has no religious obligation to uproot the simple faith of others. Non-creationist theories should only be imposed upon those that are in need of a Genesis theory that they can accept. To most Jews, the method that /god employed in creating the world is not especially interesting. The most important thing for a Jew is to know that the Torah is true. Without Torah, there are no rabbis, nor debates, nor bans.

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The Handbook for the Creation-Evolution Debate, Chapter V: Rebuttal of Evolution?

Rebuttal of Evolutionary Theory


In this section, we will put forth the principal arguments, criticisms and questions lodged against evolution. Many creationists put as much time and effort into the repudiation of evolution as they do into argument of creationism. This is because creationists only need one compelling refutation of any of the major claims of evolution to prove their side. In reality, there are only two options about the world’s beginnings: evolution or creationism. So, if creationists could just punch one good hole in evolution, then they automatically win the battle.

However, on the flip side, evolutionists di not enjoy such a luxury: even if an evolutionist would punch a forceful hole in a pivotal point for the creationist, still, the creationist can and will remain steadfast in his/her beliefs. While creationism sometimes fronts as a scientific theory – such as in its “Independent Design” form – at its very core, creationism is really a theological assertion. Consequently, no matter how many holes one punches in creationism, it will stand strong and proud amongst its believers. Proponents of evolution lack the luxury – or the intellectual right – of believing in evolution once an element of its scientific argument has been shown to be faulty. As science, it must uphold to science’s laws, and so, when facts are found that belie the validity of the theory, one’s own intellect honesty compels that person to reject said theory.

A scientific theory, or a scientific paradigm, remains useful only as long as it shows itself to be the best possible explanation of the given facts. This does not mean that there are no other possible ways to explain the facts or that two competing theories cannot co-exist side by side; so in the case of evolution, it just means that given the present knowledge of the facts and sciences, evolution is the best explanation that accounts for all the information. So over the last one hundred years, while the theory of evolution has been updated, changed, reorganized and recalculated, the scientific community has persistently claimed that evolution, even with its faults, holes and biases, still best explains the facts.

Accordingly, we will not evaluate here the truth content or scientific legitimacy of the following creationist claims. In the author’s opinion, as well as in the eyes of many prestigious scientists, many of the following claims are false. Nonetheless, here is not the proper place to evaluate each and every one of the points; rather, they all will be succinctly given for the purpose of making the reader aware of the issues.

  1. 1.    Evolution cannot be observed today


  1. Evolutionary does not identify any observable biological process that impels simple organisms to mutate to complex ones; why does evolution always favor more complex organisms?
  2. Natural selection is tautological; it only ensured that the fittest survive, but the only way to define the fittest is by those who survive.
  3. Mutations are exceedingly rare and yet they are the source for all genetic variation. In truth, mutation usually results in the animal’s death or disfigurement. There have been no beneficial mutations recorded since the theory of evolution was first put forth.
  4. No one has even produced an observable species through evolution.
  1. 2.     Lack of Evidence


  1. The fossil record never shows that one species evolved into another.
  2. The Cambrian explosion (the sudden appearance of virtually all major groups of animals in the fossil record in a small amount of time) fails to produce a plausible ancestor for all life as we know it today.
  3. There is a regular absence of transitional forms across the board; we cannot accurately trace the ancestry of even one species. Many of the classical examples of evolution today are accepted as non-conclusive.
  4. No new phylum ever evolved after the Cambrian era even though there has been plenty of time.
  5. The fossil record shows that evolution happens in spurts Animals remain unchanged for millions of years and then go through epochs of drastic change. This fact is called ‘punctuated equilibrium.’ It is highly unlikely that the main characteristic of a philosophy of change is changelessness.
  6. Some bones have been mistakenly identified as transitional animals.


  1. 3.     Evolution Never Happens at All, Nor Is It Possible


  1. Evolutionists still have not presented any model that allows for a living being to mutate from in inanimate object through natural processes. And even if there were a model, the probability that is could occur is virtually zero.
  2. Given the two possibilities, evolution and creationism, the more rational option is creationism through God; it assumes less chance work.
  3. There is no evidence that the stars or the universe evolve. Scientists and mathematicians assume that all their work is true even though it is unverifiable, and does not hold up to the standard that they themselves have set.


  1. 4.     Circumstantial evidence says no to evolution


  1. Just because scientists cannot find the function of various organs (vestigial organs, tailbone, appendix, pseudogenes) does not mean that they do not have a purpose. Though, scientists have found that most organs fill some need.
  2. There are many animal organs that defy evolutionary development, including mammal hair, teeth, eyes, the poison mechanism of snakes, etc.
  3. Never has an animal in a transitional state been found.
  4. Some assume that the development of an embryo in the womb parallels evolution; even evolutionists do not believe this anymore.


  1. 5.     The Fossil Records is Best Explained Through a Sudden Death


  1. Under normal circumstances, dead animals do not fossilize: they decompose.
  2. There are no real breaks in geological epochs that allow them to be differentiated scientifically; rather, the start and close of all epochs are randomly asserted based on personal biases of the theorist. If all the animals died in one mass event, then all differentiation of epochs would be a farce.
  3. One could easily argue that the fossil records depict the mass death of all animals during the flood.
  1. 6.     Earth’s Age


  1. Science claims the earth is roughly 4.6 billion years old, yet by adding up all the years in the bible, one arrives at an age fewer than six thousand. By proving that the earth is much younger, evolution is ruled out for lack of time to be carried out.
  2. Most sciences rely on each other and reinforce each other’s biases. Geological epochs are generally defined by the different strata of fossils found, but this argument is tautological. Once one assumes that fossils are appropriate markers for geological epochs, then one is simply assuming evolution as a given. Furthermore, many rocks, allegedly from different strata, exist side by side in the same rocks, but the theorists slice them apart in order to give the appearance that they are from the same strata.
  3. Whenever the rock stratum is in discordance with the chronology of the evolutionist, he simply claims that the discordance is proof that the strata has been displaced, even it is hundreds of thousands of square miles.
  4. God created a world that appears old; therefore, all empirical estimates are inherently worthless.
  5. Radiocarbon dating could lead one to the conclusion that the earth is less than 50,000 years old.
  6. Measurement of decay of the earth’s magnetic field shows the earth to be even younger than this.
  7. The days mentioned in the story of creation is not meant to be taken literally. Really, they refer to much longer epochs of time.
  1. 7.     The Design Argument


  1. The immense complexity found in every facet of the world cannot have been produced by sheer chance.
  2. It is more likely that God created the world with all its many facets as we find today.
  3. Given the choice of nothingness or design, it seems more likely that nothing would exist. Given that, not only something – the universe – exists, but that it is remarkably well ordered, it must have an intelligent cause.

By definition, evolutionists will have an answer to everyone of these questions, otherwise than cannot honestly still hold on to their theory. Without a doubt, some answers will better than others, but to uphold its status of a scientific true theory, the evolutionist is obliged to supply at least some answer.


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The Handbook for the Creation-Evolution Debate, Chapter IV: Evolution

The theory of evolution by natural selection was proposed in 1859 by Charles Darwin in his book On the Origin of Species. While science, by its very nature, is inductive (basing a theory on countless examples), Darwin created a new type of life science: evolutionary biology. Unlike other sciences which must be tested over and over again to verify one’s conclusion, Darwin introduced historicity into the sciences. The evolutionist’s primary concern is of constructing a historical narrative of what has already happened, as opposed to theorizing about what will happen in the future based on theories and laws. In his argument, Darwin claimed that two things must take place for evolution to occur.

  1. Branching evolution – all living species come from a common ancestor which over time underwent many changes
  1. Natural selection – (i.e. “survival of the fittest”) – the production of abundant variation in the population followed by the elimination of the inferior beings

The arguments in support of evolution are ever-changing. With each discovery of new information, scientists attempt to integrate the new facts into their prior theories to buttress, augment or possibly reject them entirely. The science of evolution is still young and new facts are constantly being found, but the basic argument for evolution and the steps necessary to allow for its progression have gone unchanged for almost a century. Any argument for evolution will always include at least five epochs:

  1. Big Bang event
  2. Period of stellar evolution
  3. Origin of life from complex organic molecules
  4. Development of natural diversity
  5. Origin of the human species

In the following, we will present the necessary pieces for an evolutionary theory. They will be listed along with a brief description of how they occurred and the arguments which favor their case. Even though an endless collection of additional shifts could also be inserted to construct this historical narrative of the universe, the following five epochs are the staple for any evolutionary theory.

1. Big Bang

There are three primary pieces of evidence that directly point to the historical conclusion that there was a Big Bang event:

A. The Expansion of the Universe

The expansion of the universe is evident from two sources. First, in the 1920’s, Edwin Hubble observed that the light emitted from farther away galaxies was redder than the light from those galaxies that were closer. In order to explain this phenomenon, he hypothesized that all the universe’s galaxies were moving away from each other; and all subsequent measures since then have achieved similar results. Second, according to Einstein’s Theory of General Relativity, not only should the universe be contracting or expanding at all times, but a static universe would be impossible.

These two points led scientists to theorize that the universe was once much smaller and that an explosion must have occurred at some earlier point that caused this observable expansion. Interestingly, they realized that as we look at earlier stages of the universe’s development, the density increases, the temperatures raise, and periods of exceptionally high energy are prevalent. George Gamow made two predictions based on this information, both of which were later discovered.

B. The Universal Background Radiation

The first of Gamow’s predictions was that a universal background radiation would be left over from such a large explosion as the Big Bang. In 1965, Arno Penzias and Robert Wilson discovered this radiation and won the Nobel Prize for their efforts.

C. The Distribution of the Elements

Gamow’s second prediction was that the elements should be found in the universe according to their complexity, with the simplest ones being found most often, while the most complex ones turn up the least. Accordingly, because hydrogen is the simplest of the elements, it should be the most widespread with helium following in a close second, etc. Luckily, the estimation of the quantity of the elements is not especially complex, and we have found that the universe very much parallels the predictions set forth by Gamow.

2. Period of Stellar Evolution

When one looks into a telescope, one is also seeing what stars and galaxies looked like billions of years ago. The farther one looks back, the more a hydrogen dominated universe will be found. Though, supernova explosions account for the diversity of elements present in our universe. It is known through direct observation that older, second generation stars are more dense and have heavier elements than younger, first generation stars. The theory of stellar nucleosynthesis can be used to predict much of what we see when we look into a telescope.

Stellar evolution presumes that three stages of development occurred in order to arrive at a galaxy in which could support life.

A. Basic Elements

After the Big Bang, the only elements were hydrogen, helium and traces of lithium, beryllium and boron.

B. Supernova Explosion

When stars use up their nuclear fuel, they die. There are two types of star death: massive stars die violently in a supernova explosion, while smaller stars die more peacefully by shedding its outer layers and forming planetary nebulae. Freshly synthesized heavy elements are injected into space where they mingle with the surrounding interstellar gas and dust.

C. Second Generation Galaxy

Because our galaxy has heavier elements, it must be the product of a supernova explosion; it is a second generation galaxy. In other words, there was a supernova explosion before our sun came into existence. The heavier elements of our galaxy were the product of nuclear burning inside the earlier star. The burning of hydrogen produces helium, while the burning of helium produces carbon and oxygen. All the elements on earth today were once part of stars.

3. Origin of Life

Ever since Charles Darwin privately suggested that life could have started “in some warm little pond, with all sorts of ammonia and phosphoric salts, light, heat, electricity, etc. present,” no one has really been able to get much closer to definitively describing the actual process that produced the origins of life. While it is known that the earth formed 4.555 billion years ago, and the first fossil microorganisms discovered are 3.5 billion years old, there is no scholarly consensus on the bridge that links the two periods. Even though scientists are aware of the necessary components to construct life, and currently there are six viable theories on the table, the phenomena of life cannot be reproduced in the laboratory. Until now, none of the current theories have been verified, yet neither have they been rejected. Though, one matter that has gained universal acceptance is that of common ancestry – all life on earth comes from one original organism. It is virtually impossible that the similarity in all life is accidental. Some of these similarities include:

One Source of all Life

A. Carbon – All living things consist of carbon rich material.

B. Amino Acids – The proteins found in organisms are fashioned from one set of twenty amino acids.

C. RNA and DNA – All organisms carry their genetic information in nucleic acids, in RNA and DNA.

D. Genetic Code – They all use essentially the same code (sequence of nucleotides); they instruct the cell how to act. Because the structure of a gene is generally preserved over millions of years, it has been discovered that many of the basic genes for higher organisms can be traced to homologous genes in bacteria – their ancestor.

E. Common Ancestry – Our last common ancestor stored genetic information in nucleic acids that specified the composition of all needed proteins.

F. Molecular Biology – the more closely that two organisms are on the evolutionary tree, the more similar their molecular makeup (and their genes) will be. Even when the morphological evidence is ambiguous, one can fall on the molecular evidence to define relationships.

Unnecessary Characteristics that Demonstrate Common Ancestry

G. Embryonic similarities All early mammal embryos resemble each other. As the embryo gets older, it becomes more highly specialized. Though it would be wrong to say all embryos are identical as some early embryologist theorized, neither can their overwhelming similarities be disregarded.

H. Recapitulation – Certain structures appear and then disappear in the development of the embryo; this is called recapitulation. For example, embryos of birds and mammals develop gill slits and then they disappear.

I. Pseudogenes – they are unnecessary and functionless genetic material that is past down from generation to generation; they do not influences species’ biological structure. Identical Pseudogenes have been found in varying species.

J. Vestigial Organs – Like pseudogenes, vestigial structures – some not fully functional and some not functional at all – which are remnants of functional structures in their ancestors.

K. Homologous Bone Elements – certain characteristics of two species are nearly identical, except for evolution’s adaptive modification. For example, humans, cats, whales and bats all have nearly identical bones in their respective hands including five fingers.

Necessities for Life

Once we admit that all life had a common ancestor, the next step is to identify that living organism and how it evolved from a non-living predecessor. The problem is that we are searching for something that would not quite be called alive, though possesses many of the character traits that we would only associate with the living. There are entities around today that might help us to understand this point; they also blur the line between the living and the non-living in our world. For example, seeds and viruses, which both could remain dormant for centuries (lacking all the characteristics of a living entity), then spring to life given the right impetus. So should we define seeds and viruses as living or not? Similarly, we are looking for something which also blurs this line, but it must also have genetic information (heritable instructions for functioning and reproducing) that allows for some random variation in the heritable characteristics of its children so that new species could arrive. One can imagine how big of an obstacle this really is. .


In the following, we will outline the primary theories scientists are toying with today. Though, one should keeping mind that all these theories are still in their early stages, and it may be many years until one is established as the true mechanism for evolution (if any of them ever are). The name of all the articles containing the six prevalent theories, and where they can be found, are found in the additional readings.


RNA weakens the boundaries that distinguish between life and inanimateness. RNA (ribonucleic acid) can reproduce itself, and not simply assemble and disassemble like other molecules. Furthermore, nucleic acids that make up RNA and DNA can be found in places that have early earth conditions. Some further proofs for this theory include:

1. The main reaction in the synthesis of proteins is done by a type of RNA

2. The first enzyme that bonded amino acids to transference could have been RNA

3. There exists a rudimentary genetic code in certain retro viruses.

B. Hot World Hypothesis

Submarine volcanoes contain rich ecosystems that might have sprung the first living beings. The bacteria present there could withstand intense heat and other harsh conditions.

C. Clay Hypothesis

The crystals in clay possess the ability of replicating themselves, growing and evolving through natural selection. At a certain point in time, this clay system could have come to the point where it included in its structure organic molecules, specifically RNAs that, through the passage of time, eventually gained control of the process.

D. Asteroids

They provided the necessary elements to produce life. Asteroids with real organic substances have been discovered including graphite, 74 amino acids and almost 250 different hydrocarbons, and five nitrogenized bases of DNA (adenine, guanine, cytosine, thymine and uracil).

Origin of Proteins

But where did these proteins come from? We have already said that stellar evolution could only account for the elements present in our world. Nonetheless, one interesting possibility was discovered in 1953. In an attempt to emulate the primitive atmosphere, the chemist Stanley Miller poured a mixture of ammonia, hydrogen and water vapor, what has been called ‘primitive soup,’ into a wide container. Once the container was sealed, he caused an electric storm in its interior. After two weeks of this, Miller analyzed the results and found that that at least two amino acids had been formed: alanine and glicine. Conducting similar experiments, 14 of the 20 natural amino acids appeared.


1.  It is not known how then DNA stole the leading role from RNA.

2.  It is not known how organic matter came together to originate the first cell.

3.  Nowadays nucleic acids are synthesized only with the help of proteins, and proteins are synthesized only if their corresponding nucleotide sequence is present. It is extremely improbable that proteins and nucleic acids, both of which are structurally complex, arose spontaneously in the same place at the same time. Yet it also seems impossible to have one without the other. And so, at first glance, one might have to conclude that life could never, in fact, have originated by chemical means.

4. Development of Natural Diversity

Before proceeding to the fourth epoch of evolution, we will digress to introduce Darwin’s contribution to science, namely, evolutionary biology and hopefully explain why Darwinism is now almost unanimously accepted by knowledgeable evolutionists. Evolution is one of the most misunderstood theories in Jewish circles. This point is highlighted when one takes into account how many Jewish books include the design arguments such as “watches don’t randomly appear in deserts without a maker” or “the complexity of an orange itself disproves evolution.” Is one to assume that evolutionists and biologists are all ignorant of this point? Are we to think that they do not know how complex the eye is? These arguments, while well intentioned, fail to respond to the primary claims of Darwinian evolution.

A. Non-Constancy of species (i.e. evolution)

Evolution is the change in the inherited traits of a population from generation to generation. Mutations, and other random changes in these genes, can produce new or altered traits, resulting in heritable differences (genetic variatio) between organisms. Evolution occurs when these heritable differences become more common or rare in a population. In of itself, evolution is a passive processed that can only be discerned after the fact.

B. Branching evolution

This is the theory that one species may give rise to a multiple of others. Branching evolution is accomplished through speciation. There are many types of speciation, but in general, it means that one population somehow is divided into two and evolve independently. Eventually, they cannot breed any more with the one another; they are called reproductively isolation. Taken to it logical conclusion, the theory of branching evolution leads to the assertion that all living things on earth come from one common ancestor. This is referred to as the theory of common descent.

C. Gradual Evolution

Even though Darwin thought that evolution was a gradual process, all evolutionists today now accept that it happens in quick epochs.

D. The Multiplication of species

A species is a group of organisms that can reproduce with one another. When a species is separated into populations that are prevented from interbreeding, then mutations and other mechanisms result in the accumulation of differences which, in turn, cause the emergence of new species. At some point, every species broke away from a sister species when the children of one could no longer mate with their distant relatives.

E. Natural Selection

Natural selection is a process that causes heritable traits that are helpful for survival and reproduction to become more common, and harmful traits to become rarer. This occurs because organisms with advantageous traits pass on more copies of the traits to the next generation. Over many generations, adaptations occur through a combination of successive, small, random changes in traits, and the natural selection of the variants best-suited for their environment.

It locates the mechanism of evolutionary change in a “struggle” among organisms for reproductive success, leading to improved fit of populations to changing environments. It is a principle of local adaptation, not of general advance or progress.

a. Survival of the Fittest

Unlike the forces of physics which are determined based on the initial equation, natural selections’ mechanism is simply the elimination of inferior individuals or to say it crudely “survival of the fittest.” The discovery of natural selection made unnecessary the invocation teleological premises for nothing is predetermined for randomness is the force which drives reproductive isolation. Once a diverse population appears, elimination of the inferior population necessarily follows.

b. Reproductive Isolation

We have already pointed out that all life forms come from one common ancestry, and therefore must also share a common genetic code. There are many facts that point to a common genetic code among the world’s living beings. Natural selection provides us with another proof of life’s common ancestry. When species no longer have the ability to reproduce with one another, they are called “reproductively isolated.” Many times a geographical barrier will arise that bifurcates a species into two dissimilar habitats, and given enough time for adaptation through mutation and selection, this  geographical isolation will foment the primal species to bifurcate into two distinct species unable to reproduce with one another.

5. Origin of the Human Species

There is a seemingly endless array of anatomical, fossil and molecular evidence that supports the theory that mankind evolved from African primates, and more specifically from apes. While paleoanthrologist assume that chimpanzees are mankind’s closest relative in the animal kingdom, the historical narrative that describes mankind’s descent from apes is still tentative, and subject to change with every new discovery of a pertinent fossil.

In the following, we will proffer a truncated viewpoint of the sequence of events that started roughly eight million years ago when the descendant of the human race broke off from apes. The most important fossils found are:

  1. Though there is no fossil evidence for the branching between the chimpanzee and mankind. Australopithecus ramidus lives about 4.5 million years ago.
  1. Lucy, dated around 3.5 million years ago, weighed about seventy pounds as an adult, walked erect and had a smaller brain than we do today.
  1. Homo habilis lived two million years ago. He had a larger brain and used tools.
  1. Homo erectus, whose fossils were found in many places, used fire and lived until about five hundred thousand years ago.
  1. Homo sapiens appeared about two hundred thousand years ago.

Besides the fossil records, other evidence exists that could trace human ancestry to primates.

  1. Considered the strongest evidence for evolution, human DNA is ninety-eight percent identical to chimpanzees, our closest relatives. Even though man’s lineage separated from chimpanzees six million years ago, the especially complex molecules of the hemoglobins of the two are virtually identical.
  2. Our many vestigial organs can be traced to necessities at earlier stages of our evolution.


  1. Tradition – Mankind is unique in that man is the only animal to bestow learned cultural information on the next generation.
  1. Awareness – Mankind is the only animal who is able to talk about the future and the
    past; other animals lack the mental capabilities to adopt syntax.

Concepts the theory of evolution has shown unnecessary:

  1. Typology (essentialism) – There is no longer any reason to uphold any classifications within populations; variation is accidental. Because all beings share a common ancestry, the differentiation between groups of living organisms is not noteworthy.
  1. Teleology – Natural selection opposes determinism, and nothing is predetermined in the physical world; it makes unnecessary the invocation of any final causes.
  1. Supernaturalism – Evolutionary theory does not invoke God or any other supernatural force to explain the diversity and detail in the world.

To be remembered:

A. God – The theory of evolution does not reject God or theistic belief. There is no problem with saying that the Big Bang was directly caused by God or that God cares about the world or the human race.

B. Science – Evolution is fueled by the notion of “Occum’s razor:” the simplest explanation is the right explanation. Evolution explains the physical world without invoking any supernatural elements, but it does not negate them. Technically, the evolutionary theory does not supply any opinion about God, the human soul, salvation, theology or metaphysics; it cannot. The second it does, the impenetrable chasm that separates the two is broken, and the exercise is no longer science, but theology.

C. Miracles – Though the theory of evolution rejects miracles as an explanation for the appearance of the present world, it does not reject the possibility of miracles.

D. Mankind – The rejection of typology (essentialism) also means the rejection of mankind’s unique status among the organisms of the world. Nonetheless, even though the theory of common descent of Man deprives mankind of a special typological status, it does not divest him of his Divine inheritance: his soul. Evolution has nothing to add.

E. Scientists – Not everyone who believes in the theory of evolution is an atheist.


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The Handbook for the Creation-Evolution Debate, Chapter III: Creationism


Scientific creationists are those who are devoted to a scientifically viable version of creationism that is compatible with the Torah. They appear in two groups: those who interpret the Torah literally and those who allow for some parts of the creation account to be interpreted metaphorically or scientifically. Nonetheless, for the most part, both groups assert that evolution is not a legitimate mechanism for explaining the origins of everything found in the world, as the Torah describes creation as a supernatural creative act by God. In their argument for an evolution-free creation, biblical and scientific creationists take two primary lines of attack:

A)    They interpret all the verses of Genesis scientifically for they believe that valid science cannot contradict Biblical fact

B)    They refute the possibility of evolution. They are not worried about disproving other creation epochs. For them, there is only one Bible, and hence, all the creation myths of other religions need not be taken seriously. Because creationism and evolution are the only two options on the table, if one were able to discredit the latter theory, then formulating a forceful argument is unnecessary: either organisms first appeared as we see them today on earth – and have been left for the most part unchanged ever since – or they did not.

Evolutionists, on the other hand, argue that certain principles of the world have been in place ever since the Big Bang. It is even possible that those principles predated the Big Bang, but there is no way to verify that. These rules are the staples of the universe and they are unchanging. We should keep in mind that not all evolutionists are atheists, but evolutionists do believe that they could explain the world without appealing to the Divine. Scientific creationists agree with evolutionists in that the rules of physics are unchanging, but that the present set of physics laws has not always been the case; rather, only since after the flood when God said (Genesis 8:22): “Continually, all the days of the earth, seedtime and harvest, cold and heat, summer and winter, day and night shall not cease,” have the rules of nature in which we presently experience been in place. Before the flood, God had no qualms with changing reality in any way that He saw fit. Scientific creationists argue that these changes could be subsumed under three main categories.

While we will take a deeper look into the first chapters of the Genesis account in a later chapter, it would be helpful to take a glance at those chapters if they are not fresh on your mind.

Scientific Creationists

3 Stages of Change in Reality

1. First Six Days – Law of Conservation of Energy

2. The Sin – Law of Increasing Entropy

3. The Flood – leaves the world with a new natural uniformity

First Six Days

1)      The universe is created perfectly, made fully functional and prepared for Adam.

2)      All life is created fully formed, just as Adam was.

3)      All creatures are herbivores for no death exists.

The underlying rule behind the perfection of the universe was the First Law of Thermodynamics – the law of conservation of Energy for this new creation is fully sustained by God. Furthermore, one cannot inquire or reveal anything about the way that it used to be then, for our world is totally different and not sustained in the same way.

The Sin (The Fall)

1)      The world’s perfection was destroyed with the first sin.

2)      Death was caused by that sin.

3)      A world without death needed modification to accommodate this new situation.

4)      Therefore, deterioration and disorder were introduced.

On top of the First Law of Thermodynamics, this Second Law of Thermodynamics was superimposed, such that they would work together. Adam and Eve’s sin caused a drastic change in the physical realm so that all physical processes would naturally deteriorate and increase entropy.

The Flood

1)      The worldwide flood at the time of Noah killed all living being except those in the ark.

2)      The flood waters had an effect on the surface that makes all geological studies and fossil records unreliable. The fossil record is an interpretation of the havoc in which the flood had on the world. The different strata of fossils and geological epochs may also be explained this way.

On the flip side of the coin, not only do scientific creationists assert that the Torah offers its readers true facts about the origins of all species and the universe, but the theory of evolution is so flawed that even without the Torah informing the world that creationism is true, any rational person would still reject evolution.


The other line of attack in which creationists take is to fully reject the findings of science that contradict the traditional Jewish position. While all would agree that the Torah’s position and storyline for creation is esoteric, complicated and deeper than it seems at first glance, many contemporary commentaries and rabbis will not allow the text to stray far from its simple/literal meaning. So far has the literal interpretation of the text been accepted in the present generation that most books that propose a non-literal approach are deemed heretical and the author is warned not to further disseminate his deceitful and fictitious position. Nonetheless, there are still many books which bend the biblical account to fit with a philosophical or scientific approach. In the following, we will examine some of these approaches and how they make the Torah and their modern science coalesce.

Biblical Creationists

1) Genesis and modern physics can be reconciled.

Gerald Schroeder’s Genesis and the Big Bang

Basically, Schroeder argues that the clock that determines that the human race is presently in its sixth millennia starts after the first six days of creation. He argues that before the earth was created, the Torah writes from the universe’s perspective, not from mankind’s perspective. Because absolute time does not exist, it passes differently based on the differing gravitational pressures. He calculates that six days under the extreme conditions when the universe was exceedingly small and hot is much longer. Therefore, he reasons, the six days that the Torah speaks of parallels the fifteen billion years that the scientists speak of.

2) Previous Worlds Theory

This approach is found in Bereishit Rabbah (3:7):

Rabbi Yehuda ben Shim’on said: It is not written here [in Bereishit] “Let there be night,” but “and there was night.” From here [you can learn] that a time-order existed before this juncture. Rabbi Abahu said: This teaches us that [God] created worlds and destroyed them until He reached this world. He (God) said: this one pleases me and the others did not please me.

This Midrash, in conjunction with the Talmudic statement: “Rabbi Katina says: six thousand years the world exists and one thousand it is destroyed” (Sanhedrin 97A), has impelled many Kabbalists (and almost all Kabbalists since big bones started to be found everywhere) to conclude that many worlds were created and destroyed before our present stage of existence. Each of those cycles lasted seven thousand years; the cycles parallel both the days of creation and the shmittah (sabbatical) cycle in which work is done for six days, while the seventh is to be a day of rest. Similarly, just as one works his land for six years and then leaves it fallow for the sabbatical year, so too, the earth is operational for six thousand years, and then it lies in a state of ruin for a thousand years. This approach has been put forth by R. Ibn Ezra (Leviticus 25:2), Nachmonides (Genesis 2:3 and Leviticus 25:2) and R. Bahya b. Asher (Leviticus 25:2). Most traditional books on creation accept this theory including Mysteries of the Creation by R. Dovid Brown.

3) The World is a Test

God purposefully placed dinosaur bones and other fossils in order to test our faith about the Torah’s authenticity and to test our faith in the Sages. We know that the idea of God (or Satan) testing is not foreign to Jewish tradition from many biblical examples including the ten tests Avraham Avinu had to endure, the many travails of the Israelites in the Sinai desert and the trials that Job went through.

Furthermore, if one ascribes to the last theory – that many worlds were created and destroyed before our own – then those previous worlds are beyond investigation. Not because it is difficult to find and identify ancient bones and artifacts, but because the Mishnah in tractate Hagigah (2:3) states that anyone who gazes at that which is before him, it is fitting that he did not come into the world. The famous Mishnaic commentator R. Pinchas Kehati explains the phrase ‘before him’ to mean that a person should not investigate that which was before the creation of the world. So by investigating the details of those previous worlds, one transgresses the Mishnah’s proscription. Hence, the fact that there is so much archeological findings present in our present world to investigate is itself a test: not a test of belief, but a test of obedience. Also, it should be noted, that the author of the Mishnah might have felt that knowledge of events prior to our present world would be detrimental to the overall well being of an individual, an hence, discouraged against it.

4) The World is fooling you

The presumed age of the earth and the universe are unreliable because God created the world fully functional. Many Midrashim and Rishonim presuppose this hypothesis. For example:

  1. Adam and Eve were created as adults.
  2. Adam was created as a twenty-year old man (Bereshis Rabbah 14:7).
  3. Everything in the work of creation was created in its full form (TB Rosh Hashanah 11A).

5) Theistic Evolution

A brief introduction will be beneficial here. Above, several positions have been presented that either:

A) take some aspects of the Genesis account non-literally, or

B) alter some aspect of the standard evolutionary theory in order to fit better with the Genesis account

In theistic evolution, some form of naturalistic evolution will take place, but God will be pulling the strings ensuring that the world go a certain course. People who maintain the belief in theistic evolution will have a genuine respect for the conclusions of science, yet refuse to accept the atheistic picture proclaimed by the majority of scientists today. There are three possible approaches that a theistic evolutionist will put forth in order to explain has God interacts in a world ruled by the cold determinism of physics.

1. God controls events that seem to be random

A. Quantum Mechanics – there is genuine randomness in nature and God controls that randomness. Atoms are in states of flux in which there is no way to ever know how they will change, and it is not just ignorance on our part of the true pattern; the changes in the atoms are truly random and there is an intrinsic element of unpredictability in the world. God influences the physical world at the subatomic level and controls events that appear to be random. Somehow, God could even control evolution to ensure some happy result.

B. Chaos Theory – a system ruled by chaos theory can have vastly different behaviors even though they started with indistinguishable conditions. Here, also, is a place where God could interact in the world without violating any of the rules of physics.

2. God designed the system of chance in the world

A. Anthropic Principle – God designed the world, from the onset, with built in potential: such that it was capable of self-organization and transformation. All the amazingly precise conditions that allow for human life to be sustained: the strength of gravity, the mass of a proton, the distance of the earth from the sun, the charge of an electron, such that if any on of them were off by the smallest amount, life could not evolve into what it is today, were set by God to ensure the production of life and the human race specifically.

3. God influences events without controlling them

A. Divine Influence – God influences the outcome of all events and is ever-present in all events. Just as God was able to harden Pharaoh’s heart without actually altering the rules of physics so that he would disallow the Israelites from leaving Egypt, so too God has the ability to influence all events in the world to ensure a specific outcome

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The Handbook for the Creation-Evolution Debate, Chapter II: Genesis and Its Commentators

בראשית ברא אלקים את השמים ואת הארץ


In the beginning, God created Heaven and Earth

(Genesis 1:1)

It’s only seven words in Hebrew, but it has caused a world of literature to spring up around it and triggered a seemingly endless debate. Of course this verse is not the only contentious point between the many camps, but surely it is the most important. So, to start this chapter, we will point to some of the ambiguity latent in this verse and in the genesis story as a whole.

A)    The first word בראשית, usually translated as ‘In the beginning,’ is really a noun in the construct state (ie it is modified by another noun, usually the next word); so a better translation would be ‘In the beginning of ...’ But that is problematic as then the phrase presupposes that there is something like a temporal order already in place before creation.

B)    The word ברא, usually translated as ‘created’ is ambiguous. The various Rishonim disagree about its actual meaning. What does it mean ‘to create’? Moreover, it is not even used consistently throughout the Genesis narrative.

C)    Why would this name of God (אלקים) be employed in Genesis? At other places in the Torah, this name of God is used to describe false gods as well as Jewish leaders. Would not the four letter name of God (the Tetragrammaton), the name that signifies God’s essence and will, be more apt for such a momentous occasion as creation?

D)    What does השמים and  הארץ mean? They may refer to the sky and the land (or earth). They may refer to the metaphysical world and the physical world. They may refer to this world and the next: we just don’t know.

E)     It is possible that this verse is simply introducing the rest of the chapter, and should not be overly analyzed with such an attention to details.

F)     In Genesis, it seems that there are two creation stories (1:1-2:3 and 2:4-2:9), along with two stories of Adam’s and Eve’s inception. Furthermore, in Isaiah (44:24), creation, again, is described differently.

Once we are made aware of all these issues, it should be no surprise to discover that there is no clear consensus on what actually happened in the beginnings of the universe or how to interpret the Torah’s message. Not only is the matter not a simple “open and shut” case, but it seems from time immemorial that the only thing that the Sages could agree on was to disagree. Presumably, the main hurdle in settling this age-old question is interpreting the first verse from the Torah correctly, yet for every commentary you turn to, another understanding of the beginnings of the universe is presented. Furthermore, most Jewish commentators confront the hurdles of interpretation while responding to the scientific and philosophical conclusions of the age: by in large rejecting a division between Divine science and natural science. Commentators have always felt a need to reconcile the contemporaneous scientific data with revealed truth, science with Aggadata.

Without hesitation, most people would assert that Judaism is a strict creationist (creatio ex nihilo) religion. So, the question of evolution never arises; there is no need for it. This position generally follows from a literal reading of the first line of the Torah, quickly followed with a pious disclaimer asserting that you really do not understand the deeper levels of the text. Yet, when we turn to Midrashim, we encounter a wholly different picture. Here are six examples of Rabbinic accounts that would question a strictly literal interpretation of the Torah.

  1. Seven worlds were created before this one… (Nedarim 39B)
  2. Six things came before the creation of the world… (Genesis Rabbah 1:4)
  3. He answered them that he has come to receive the Torah. They said to him that the secret treasure, which has been hidden by You for nine hundred and seventy-four generations before the world was created. (Shabbos 88B)
  4. It is taught: Rabbi Shim’on the Pious said: These are the nine hundred and seventy four generations who pressed themselves forward to be created before the world was created, but were not created. (Chagigah 14A)
  5. How did the Holy One, blesses be He, create His  world? He took two balls, one of fire and one of snow, and intermingled  them, and the world was created from them. (Genesis Rabbah 10:2)
  6. Where-from were the heavens created? From the light of His garment. He took some of it stretched it like a cloth, and thus they  were extended continually, as it is said: Who covers Thyself with light as a garment. Who stretches out the heavens like a curtain. Where-from was the  earth created? From the snow under the throne of His glory. He took some of it and threw it, as it is said: For He said to the snow, But you are earth. (Pirkei de Rabbi Eliezer III)

Independent of the philosophical implications latent within the Midrashic writers’ hands, we can see that the Rabbis spoke without reluctance about matters taking place before the actual creation of this world and even described creation in a way different from the Torah. Some have even tried to explain the existence of Tohu, Vohu, and Chosheich (emptiness, void and darkness) at the first moments of creation by offering explanations found in these Midrashim. Clearly one cannot outright say that traditional Judaism accepts a strict creatio ex nihilo stance unless these Midrashim are all meant to be taken metaphorically to teach some lesson about life, psychology or God, but not about the physical world. These Midrashim point to the obvious reality – that even early on in Judaic commentaries, this matter was always ambiguous.

Before we turn to the Rishonim, first we must take in the three cosmological traditions that one would expect them to fit into considering the science and philosophy of the Middle Ages. Even though the Rishonim will slightly amend the doctrine they ascribe to, these three positions are the templates for any understanding of the Rishonim’s stances.

1)      Creation Ex Nihilo – (יש מעין) Creation Out of Nothing; God brought the world into existence after absolute non-existence

2)      The Platonic Theory – Creation from Eternal (Primordial) Matter. This theory is found in Plato’s Timaeus.

3)      The Aristotelian Theory – identified sometimes with emanationism. The world has always existed as it is today along side God. There never was a point of creation.

But why would three traditions exist within traditional Judaism when Judaism so obviously supports creation ex nihilo? Simply, it is not the case that Judaism unconditionally supports the creation ex nihilo model. For that reason, we should not be surprised that the Rishonic (medieval) interpretations also take the form of one of these three traditions. In the following, we will see the diversity that exists throughout the Jewish interpretations of the opening chapters of Genesis. But, we will not delve into how each Rishon understood how the world itself evolved. Most of the classical commentators take, at some level, the development of the world as described by the Torah quite literally. So, for example, they will combine the two stories of Adam and Eve’s creation (Genesis 1:1-2:4 and 2:4-2:24)

Biblical Commentators


R. Shlomo Yitzchaki (Rashi) (1040-1105)

 (1:1)אם באת לפרשו כפשוטו כך פרשהו בראשית בריאת שמים וארץ והארץ היתה תהו ובהו וחשך ויאמר אלהים יהי אור. ולא בא המקרא להורות סדר הבריאה לומר שאלו קדמו, שאם בא להורות כך, היה לו לכתוב בראשונה ברא את השמים וגו’… אם כן תמה על עצמך, שהרי המים קדמו, שהרי כתיב ורוח אלהים מרחפת על פני המים, ועדיין לא גלה המקרא בריית המים מתי היתה, הא למדת שקדמו המים לארץ. ועוד שהשמים מאש ומים נבראו, על כרחך לא לימד המקרא סדר המוקדמים והמאוחרים כלום:

• Rashi understands the opening verse of the Torah as an introductory sentence to the story of creation. He would read the Torah as follows: “In the beginning of God’s creation of the heaven and the earth, when the earth was tohu ve’vohu (astonishingly empty).

• According to Rashi’s read, the heavens and the earth were not the first things created. He maintains that the heavens were made from water and fire.

• Rashi is most concerned with the grammatical structure of the verse, and therefore interprets that here is an assumed word in the first verse and that the prefix vav that starts the second verse, usually rendered ‘and,’ in this context means ‘when.’

R. Avraham Ibn Ezra (1092-1167)


(1:1) רובי המפרשים אמרו שהבריאה להוציא יש מאין, וכן אם בריאה יברא ד’ (במד’ טז:ל). והנה שכחו ויברא אלהים את התנינים (ברא’ א כא). ושלש בפסוק אחד: ויברא אלהים את האדם (ברא’ א:כז), ובורא חושך (ישעי’ מה:ז), שהוא הפוך האור שהוא יש. וזה דקדוק המלה ברא לשני טעמים. זה האחד. והשני לא ברה אתם לחם (ש”ב יב: ז), וזה השני אל”ף תחת ה”א, כי כמוהו ויבוא כל העם להברות את דוד (ש”ב ג: לה), כי הוא מהבנין הכבד הנוסף. ואם היה באל”ף, היה כמו להבריאכם מראשית כל מנחת ישראל (ש”א ב:  כט). ומצאנו מהבנין הכבד, ובראת לך שם (יהושע יז:טו), ואיננו כמו ברו לכם איש (ש”א י”ז:ח) , רק כמו וברא אותהן (יחז’ כג, מז), וטעמו לגזור, ולשום גבול נגזר, והמשכיל יבין.


1)      Philosophical Approach – Following suit with other Jewish neo-Platonists of his era, Ibn Ezra rejects the commonly accepted notion of creation ex nihilo for philological reasons. Verses 21 and 27 are defeaters for the thesis that ברא refers to creation ex nihilo for those verses use the term ברא in a context that clearly indicates that the thing was not created ex nihilo. Therefore he concludes that the etymology of the first word in the Torah (ברא) refers not to ‘creating’ but to the “cutting” or “setting boundaries” of something that already pre-existed. It would make sense to assume that Ibn Ezra is referring to the Platonic matter that co-existed with God and was cut (or molded) at the time of creation.

2)      Mystical Approach – It is not known exactly what aspects of the mysticism that we have today were known to Ibn Ezra, but he interprets the second word of the Torah to mean that God set boundaries upon something. Mystics will claim that Ibn Ezra is not referring to Plato’s eternal matter, but to Himself (צמצום). God created the world by limiting His own being. Accordingly, the act of creation has two steps:

A) God (אין סוף) accepts limits upon Himself through an unprompted act of will. (This thought is labeled חכמה in Zoharic Kabbalah.)

B) He further limits Himself by taking on matter to ultimately produce the universe. Accordingly, the only thing cut (ברא) on the first day of creation was the supernal light.

The two verses offered by Ibn Ezra to prove his contention that the cognate Bara (ברא) does not actually refer to a creation ex nihilo are:

  1. And God created the great sea-monsters and every living animal that creeps, in which the waters teemed after their kinds, and all wings birds according to their kind; and God saw that it was good (Genesis 1:21).
  1. And God created the man in His own image, in the image of God He created him; male and female he created them (Genesis 1:27).

R. Moshe ben Nachmon (Ramban or Nachmonides) (1194-1270)

Before Nachmonides explains the story of genesis, he says: “The account of creation is a deep mystery, which cannot be understood by [merely] reading the verses, and cannot be known with clarity except through the tradition that goes back to our teacher Moses, from the mouth of the Almighty, and [furthermore] those who do know [the tradition] are obligated to conceal it…” The Talmud proscribes divulging the secrets of creation unrestrictedly. Accordingly, we should not expect to find every detail of creation explicitly formulated in his commentary. Nonetheless, Nachmonides goes on to construct a historical narrative of the creation form start to finish. That narrative, though, is founded on one key point: creation ex nihilo.

Nachmonides, at the outset, distinguished the words ‘created’ (ברא) from ‘formed’ (יצר) and ‘made’ (עשה). While the cognate ברא exclusively indicates the creation of something from absolute nothingness (יש מעין), the words ‘formed’ and ‘made’ are used to describe making something out of a pre-existing material; they never denote creatio ex nihilo. Accordingly, there is no room for ambiguity in the Nachmonides’ stance; he rejects the Aristotelian and the Platonic accounts of creation, But Nachmonides does not present the classical picture one would expect from a creationist. In the following, we will present a summary of Nachmonides’ physical/mechanical account of creation that he expressed in the straightforward scientific language of his day:

God created all that was created from complete nothingness… God brought into being from complete nothingness an exceedingly tiny element that has no physical substance; yet it contains the potential to bring other things into existence, ready to receive form and to emerge from its state of potentiality into actualization: this is the primary substance that the Greeks call ‘hyle.’ And after [the formation of] hyle, God did not create anything [else]; rather, he [merely] crafted and executed [from previous substance], for from it (hyle), everything comes into existence, is endowed with form and perfected.

In other words:

1)      Originally God alone existed.

2)      God created ex nihilo an infinitely small element lacking any describable attributes.

3)      This element contained the potential to generate hyle from which everything else is ultimately formed.

4)      At his stage, the earth was ‘Tohu’ (matter without substance) which eventually became ‘Bohu when God clothed it with form.

5)      God ensured that the potential be actualized in certain definitive ways.

6)      God never created anything ever again.

This account sounds remarkably similar to how an astrophysicist would describe the Big Bang event. Nachmonides even explains that the phrase ‘heaven and earth,’ as referenced in the first verse of Genesis, does not denote the actual heavens and earth; rather, it designates the potential for all the future stages of physical reality. He maintains that ‘heaven’ refers to the potential for the heavenly bodies and ‘earth’ refers to the potential for the four elements that the physical world is made up of: fire, wind, water, and dust. Furthermore, Nachmonides describes some form of evolutionary theory after the original act of creation. While his evolutionary theory does not match Darwinian evolution for the most part, still we can extrapolate from his comments that he believes that the Biblical narrative must be tempered with the philosophical assertions of his day to be true; we may not simply say that God created things every day. Also, Nachmonides’ understanding of evolution is teleological; he adds at the end of his commentary that “God endowed all things with form and perfected them.” He is clearly insinuating that no aspect of the process was left to chance or randomness.


R. Gershon ben Levi (Ralbag or Gersonides) (1288-1344)

Following R. Ibn Ezra’s approach, Ralbag explains in Book 6, part 1, of his Milchamot Hashem, that the world was created from eternal formless matter; so when the Torah speaks of creation, it is referring to the point in which the world we live in right now started. He actually maintains that creation ex nihilo is impossible: not even God can make something out of nothing. For Ralbag, that is logical impossibility. For Ralbag, God creating the world ex nihilo would be the equivalent of God making a square circle. (Maimonides explains and rejects this position in the Guide 2:13 as he argues that creation is not a type of generation, so the Platonic principle should not apply to creation.)

Philosophical Commentators


R. Sa’adya ben Yosef HaGeon (Sa’id al-Fayyumi) (892-942)

Many times referred to as the father of medieval Jewish philosophy, Sa’adya Geon produced four arguments in favor of creation ex nihilo in his famous “Book of Doctrines and Belief.” Before he presents his philosophical arguments, he asserts that a simple translation of the opening verse of the Torah and a similar verse in Isaiah would lead one to conclude that Judaism preaches the creation ex nihilo approach. He says:

From these introductory remarks, I go on to affirm that our Lord has informed us that all things were created in time, and that He created them ex nihilo, as it is said, “In the beginning God created the heaven and the earth” and as it further said, “I am the Lord that makes all things, that stretched forth the heavens alone, that spread abroad the earth by myself” (Isaiah 44:24).


After this assertion, Sa’adya Geon goes on to offer proofs that the world cannot be eternal; there must be a point in which it started, he reasons. Instead of analyzing all of these arguments, we will instead break down the first argument for the sake of simplicity. His first argument exploits Xeno’s paradox to produce a modus ab absurdum argument to show that the world has a finite character; it goes as follows:

1)      one must assume an infinite regress for an eternal universe to exist

2)      an infinite regress could never be traversed

3)      therefore, we could never arrive at the point in which we presently exist

4)      therefore, we do not exist

5)      since we know we do exist, the universe is not eternal, and must be created


R. Joseph Albo (ca. 1380-1444)


In his book “Ikkarim,” R. Albo posits that one should believe in creation ex nihilo, but that premise is not based on the verse of Genesis. Furthermore, he allows for one to believe in that the world is eternal, but unlike Aristotle’s version of an eternal world.

He says: “Creation ex nihilo is a dogma which every one who professes a divine law is obliged to believe… The story of creation at the beginning of the Torah is not intended to teach that creation ex nihilo is a fundamental principle of the Torah, as many authorities have it…”

“It follows therefore that though a person who believes in the eternity of the world as Aristotle conceives the doctrine, is a denier of the Torah and its miracles, one who conceives of eternity in the manner mentioned before, does not deny the Torah or its miracles, for belief in the Torah and its miracles does not imply belief in creation ex nihilo. This is why we said in the preceding chapter that the purpose of the first section of Genesis is merely to teach the existence of a Maker, which is the first essential principle of the existence of a divine law, without which it cannot be conceived…”


R. Moshe ben Maimon (Rambam or Maimonides) (1138-1204)

Unlike other Biblical exegetes, Maimonides never wrote a systematic commentary of the Torah; rather we must piece together his opinion from his various treatments of the topic scattered throughout his writings. This may sound easy, but in truth, to extrapolate Maimonides ‘s true opinion from his writings is a task which many people have spent their whole lives trying to do. While Maimonides’ Magnum opus, the Mishneh Torah is known for its clarity and precision, his Guide for the Perplexed (Moreh Nevuchim) is known for its ambiguity and cunning. He warns his readers in its introduction that he plans to hide the truth from those who are not ready for it. He accomplishes this by misleading the reader through cleverly placed contradictions that only the erudite reader will be able to resolve. To this day, many of Maimonides’ true stances are left up to scholarly debate. The issue of creation is one of those topics that just could not stay out of storm’s way. It seems that more literature has been devoted to Maimonides’ views on creation than any other theme in his philosophy. Therefore, it would be audacious as well as foolish to attempt to present Maimonides’ true stance in regards to creationism, so in the following I will present the three possibilities proposed by the shrewd readers of Maimonides over the centuries.

In order to understand the extent of the confusion inherent in this undertaking, we will present the prophetology-cosmology debate as Maimonides does: this discussion lies at the heart of the matter. For some reason, Maimonides suggests a thematic correspondence between three opinions on prophecy and the three opinions on creation mentioned above. He says: “The opinions of the people concerning prophetology are like their opinions concerning the eternity of the world or its creation in time.”

                       Prophetology                                                      Cosmology

1. God chooses who He wishes (Pagans)     1. Creation ex nihilo (Jews)

2. Perfected peoples become                          2. Eternal Matter (Platonists)

prophets (philosophers)

3. God can withhold prophecy from             3. Emanation Theory (Aristotelians)

even a perfected person (Jews)

Maimonides’ true belief concerning the correspondence between the three possibilities of prophecy and the three possibilities of creation has been debated ever since Maimonides first proposed such a correspondence.

Creation Ex Nihilo       

  1. “Those who follow the Law of Moses, our Teacher, hold that the whole universe has been brought into existence out of non-existence. In the beginning God alone existed, and nothing else, neither the angels, nor spheres, nor the things that are contained within the spheres existed. He then produced from nothing all existing things such as they are by His will and desire” (Moreh Nevukhim II:13).
  2. He outright rejects the Platonic, Aristotelian (emanationist), and Epicurean version of the world’s earliest days throughout the Guide.
  3. Rambam wrote two editions to his Commentary on the Mishnay. In the latter version of the 4th article of faith, he says: “Know that the great principle of the Torah of our teacher Moses is that the world is a new creation. It was formed and created out of absolute non-being” (Sanhedrin, chapter chelek).
  4. The fact that Maimonides spent so many chapters in the Guide for the Perplexed arguing for creation would be completely unnecessary and worthless had he not actually believed in creation ex nihilo himself. Had he believed in another possibility,      he would not have devoted so much time and effort to the topic.

Possible reasoning behind this stance:

1)      The theory of creatio ex nihilo fits as well into the Biblical account as does others, so unless we have ample (whether philosophical or scientific) reason to side with another approach, one should accept its literal truth.

2)      Maimonides believed in creationism, but he held it at the expense of forsaking some of his more philosophically astute conclusions.

3)      Maimonides equates the Platonic and Aristotelian viewpoint (2:13), and as the Aristotelian position undermines the Torah, creationism was the only real possibility.



  1. “If one could demonstrate its truth, one could accept the Platonic theory. It does not destroy the Law and one could interpret      figuratively the texts that contradict its opinion” (328, Pines version of the Guide).
  2. “If the Platonic viewpoint were true, the Jews would be able to justify their religion to the philosophers” (330).
  3. “Plato’s opinion does not undermine the Law, while Aristotle’s does” (2:25).
  4. The famous Maimonidean scholar Davidson accepts this as Maimonides’ position.

Possible reasoning behind this stance:

1)      Maimonides felt that this approach offered the most philosophically accurate picture.

Aristotelian (1:1, 2:2, 3:3)

  1. The very existence of ambiguities in Maimonides’ position on creation itself testifies to the fact that he must have held some secret belief. It is possible that Maimonides deemed that most Jews could  not handle the truth.
  2. All of Maimonides’ proofs for the existence, unity and incorporeality of God presuppose the “eternity of the world” (as he      says in the beginning of book two of the Guide); so, “our knowledge of God” is based on the Aristotelian premise of eternity.
  3. The position of Aristotle is generally equated with the position of Divine necessity which Maimonides, many times, advocates.
    1. “The works of the Deity… are of necessity permanently established as they are, for there is no possibility of something calling for a change in them” (2:28).
    2. “God never undergoes any changes, nor does his relationship to anything other than Himself because He has no       relationship with that that is other than Himself” (1:11, 37-38).
    3. “For [Aristotle’s] opinion [concerning eternity] is  nearer to correctness than the opinions of those who disagree with him       insofar as inferences are made from the nature of what exists.” (2:15)
  4. Maimonides hints to the fact that R. Eliezer ben Hyrcanus, R. Yehuda ben Shim’on, and R. Abbahu all held the Aristotelian      position (2:30).
  5. Maimonides never even claimed to offer a  demonstrative proof of creation.
  6. The first translator of the Moreh Nevuchim, Samuel ibn Tibbon, whom Maimonides himself praises, assumes eternal creation as a  given in his work “Let the Waters be Gathered.”
  7. Maimonides says that if someone could offer him a sound demonstration for the eternity of the world, he would have no      problem fitting it into the words of the Torah, and would accept it      without hesitation even though he says elsewhere that the belief in the  eternity of world undermines the Torah.

Possible reasoning behind this stance:

1)      The only reasoning given by Maimonides (and Albo) for his rejection of the Aristotelian approach is that it uproots the Law, for the possibility of miracles is thereby negated by his approach. However, one not need conclude that Aristotle’s approach destroys the Law; really the Law and Aristotle might be presenting an identical picture of reality

2)      Maimonides agreed with the Aristotelian approach to creation, but for political reasons, he was forced to remain silent on the matter. Though, he did hint to his shrewd readers throughout the Moreh Nevuchim that he held this stance.

3)      Maimonides felt that this approach offered the most philosophically accurate picture.



Many recent studies have concluded that Maimonides remained agnostic in regards to the creation debate. Given the heated debate shown in the three above cases, one may conclude that Maimonides himself never found any decisive evidence to determine his own view, and therefore he hinted at arguments for all three positions even though he himself was agnostic about the matter. Julius Guttman (and Isaac Husik) has even gone so far as to conclude that though Maimonides believed in creationism, he held is at the expense of forsaking some of his more philosophically astute conclusions.

Some (Klein-Braslavy) have shown that Maimonides offers many different interpretations of the term BARA. He even admits that if there were a logical proof or a demonstration that Aristotle’s position on the beginnings of the world, he would have no problem in reconciling this view with the verses from Genesis. Clearly, Maimonides held that the language of the Torah is inherently ambiguous and there is no truly accepted, universal Jewish position on the matter.

Possible reasoning behind this stance:

1)      The account of creation is ambiguous enough to uphold all three theories.

2)      Practically, it makes no difference which approach is true, for there is room in the Jewish tradition for all three positions.

3)      Maimonides was not sure, so he presented all three theories so that every person could feel justified in his own understanding.



We have seen that Sa’adya Geon upholds the “alleged” traditional standpoint that God created the world ex nihilo, while many of the other Rishonim do not. Rashi maintains that water preceded the world’s creation in Genesis, Ibn Ezra upholds some form of the Platonic theory, Nachmonides advocates a non-Darwinian, God-directed evolution, while no one is really sure what Maimonides holds. If we should learn anything from these Rishonim’s approaches to the creation narrative, it is that they did not feel justified in simply translating the text. They do not base their positions solely on the philological conclusion that one would draw from the verse; they equally include their knowledge of philosophy and science to analyze the verse. They felt that all pertinent pieces of information must be utilized in order to interpret the Torah correctly. Maimonides himself declares that he would accept any position that is accompanied by a valid logical proof. Obviously, he is not working with any concrete, unbendable assumptions.

Similarly, the author of the Kuzari, R. Judah Halevi (1075-1141), who himself supports the position of creatio ex nihilo, recognizes that the Platonic theory of creation is an acceptable Jewish belief just as Maimonides, Albo and Ibn Ezra did. He says: “If, after all, a believer in the Law finds himself compelled to admit an eternal matter and the existence of many worlds prior to this one, this would not impair his belief that this world was created at a certain epoch…” (Kuzari I 67). Nothing compels the Kuzari to offer this allowance to potential heretics save the sincere belief that people must, in the end, follow truth, even if it is not the best read of the Torah.

The only limitation Rishonim imposed upon the advancement of scientific and philosophic matters is when the topic undermined a Jewish dogma. If one looks close at why Maimonides and Albo rejects the Aristotelian cosmological picture, it is not because they objected to the notion –they simply rejected the logical implications of such a doctrine. It was assumed that the Aristotelian stance obviated the possibility of miracles. Because Judaism accepts the possibility of miracles, as well as that miracles once happened historically, the Aristotelian position was excluded for philosophical reasons.

From time immemorial, Jews have debated this topic, and we should not be surprised that this debate continues to be fought in our own generation. Based on these Rishonim – who are and define the traditional perspective – it seems that the only blasphemous statement one could really voice about creation is that the official Jewish stance is of one opinion: for once that is heralded, some of our holy Tanna’im, Amora’im and Rishonim (different kind of Rabbis) are thrown to the wind. In the end, we must admit that Jewish tradition does not speak with a single voice or with a single story on the subject of creation. With every new commentary, with every new scientific discovery, a new twist on the creation narrative and the Torah as a whole is further revealed. The traditional stance of Judaism is to ensure that our interpretation of the Torah completely fits with truth, not the other way around; our job is not to impress our will, or opinion upon what the accepted truth is; rather, it is our job to take into account every pertinent piece of information and mold our interpretation accordingly.

In view of the multiple interpretations presented above, it is reasonable to assume that the Torah was not even attempting to present a scientific doctrine of how the world came into existence. The Torah was not putting forth an esoteric doctrine of which most of the Jews spanning the history of the world never could understand. Rather than explain God’s prowess in astrophysics, the opening verses of the Torah presents one unassailable fact: God is the one and only master of the world. This is analogous to what Albo said above: “The purpose of the first section of Genesis is merely to teach the existence of a Maker, which is the first essential principle of the existence of a divine law.” Other facts that can reliably cull from the creation account include: (1) He is outside the realm of nature of which is subservient to Him, (2) There is no need for a myth to explain His origins, (3) there is a relationship between man and God; the story of creation teaches these statements of faith. The fact remains that the Torah’s story of creation is more noteworthy for what it leaves out than for what it includes. We find no mention of angels, forces, instruments, competing forces, magic or the like. The Jewish religion is non-mythological; accordingly, Genesis begins with an account of the acts of the pre-existent God, without any theo-biography.

Furthermore, we would be remiss if we did not stress the relative unimportance that the story of creation is given in comparison to the rest of the Torah. Rashi asks why the Torah does not start with the prescription of sanctifying the new moon (the first commandment). In order to justify that question, we must assert that Rashi understood that the Torah to be, first and foremost, a book of commandments, not of narratives. We should wonder why the creation story is even found in the Torah. As opposed to other pagan religions, the creation story presents neither a political picture nor a practical obligation: neither the land of Israel, nor the Holy Temple, nor the nation of Israel are referenced or even mentioned in the whole account. Its sole goal is to teach us about God’s relationship to the world and mankind.


Filed under Philosophy, Rationalism, Science

The Handbook for the Creation-Evolution Debate, Chapter I

Over the course of six days, I plan to post the six parts of my “Handbook for the Creation-Evolution Debate.” Working on college campuses, I find that this topic is one of the more challenging ones for Jewish students. This Handbook is meant to help those students overcome that issue.

These chapters, will be: “Introduction,” “Arguments for Creationism,” “Arguments for Evolution,” “Rebuttals,” “The Approach of the Rishonim (medieval exegetes),” and last “What happened to Slifkin?”


When I was an adjunct professor of religion at Florida International University, all walks of religion (or lack thereof) passed through my doors. With an awareness that religion class need not, and should not be relegated to lecturing on history alone, in my introductory course, I tried including issues directly relevant to the lives of my students. My fascination with the interplay between science and religion had led me to devote two classes a semester solely to that topic. One of the days is spent on various topics: neurotheology, bioethical issues, genetic determinism, etc., but the other, I devote solely to the creation-evolution debate. At first, I pit two groups of students against each other to debate whether creationism should be taught along side evolution in public schools. I specifically choose students that passionately support their position. While the two groups are discussing their arguments and counter-arguments outside the room, I quickly identify the key issues for the class, so they will be aware of what to look for in the arguments they are about to hear.

The primary goal of the debate is to show the class that most people, sadly, don’t know what they’re talking about. While creationists believe it is their religious obligation to believe such, evolutionists believes that only God-loving fundamentalists are blind enough to still accept creationism. However, when you get down to the details of the respective arguments, there is usually more name-calling than substance. As a religion adjunct, I did not feel compelled to undermine or support the beliefs of either party: they both have legitimate positions. So, I educate. I put forth the arguments in favor of both positions and let the student decide for themselves. At least then, they will be in a position to make an educated decision.

In my personal life, I take a similar route. Instead of arguing for the validity of either side, I’m more interested in ascertaining why other people believe what they do. On one occasion, a midst a casual conversation with an old friend, out of nowhere, our conversation turned into a heated debate over this very issue. He, being trained in engineering and biology, boldly spurt out that evolution is more than a theory – it’s a well known fact – and the Torah’s account of creation is not only outdated and silly, but to say it bluntly, it’s wrong. The fact that he came to this conclusion was not surprising to me at all; really, I can’t blame him. He grew up in a Modern Orthodox home where Torah matters always took a backseat to business concerns and enlightened values. If his Western mind, trained in philosophy and science, determines that evolution is true, and by default, that creationism is false, what should we expect of him – to deny his mind! Should he reject his extensive background in philosophy and the sciences, the facts that form the cornerstone of the very way in which he thinks, perceives and interprets the world, or should he reject his juvenile conception of the Torah’s account of Genesis he received as a child? The choice was easy for my friend.

For the most part, people are taught creationism from a very young age, and though they hear mention of the creation account from time to time over the course of the year, rarely are the concepts reflected upon at any serious level.  As opposed to the sciences, where a collegiate student is expected to acquire a profound grasp of the deeper echelons of the subject matter, mastery of the Biblical creation story is not included within the corpus of vital religious studies. Religious Jews are likely to feel unsympathetic to the necessity of a mature understanding of this topic. People feel that the Torah’s first chapters are so esoteric and abstract that abstinence is the only saintly approach – much like traditional Jews are expected to excuse themselves from mystical texts like the Zohar or Sefer Yetzirah. Many feel that these texts are beyond the ken of the common Jew and are only meant to be studied by “those Kabbalistic Jews living in Tzfat.” So what happens? People do not study the first two chapters of the Torah at any advanced level and never progress beyond the understanding of a 13 year old, at best.

The Rishonim, medieval exegetes, did not feel that one should refrain from studying the creation account. On the contrary, they believed that cosmogony, physics and, for the matter, all fields of science were inextricably intertwined: one could never understand the intimate workings of the Divine hand in nature without a deep appreciation for Genesis. Accordingly, not only was it imperative to know every aspect and nuance of the Torah’s creation narrative, but every other pertinent piece of information was also taken into account: whether Kabbalah, science or philosophy. To be lacking in familiarity with creation would manifest itself as a lacking of knowledge of God Himself. Yet, if you were to ask your local religious engineer or astro-physicist for Ibn Ezra’s or Nachmonides’ take on creation, you more often than not will find that even educated people do not know the opinions of our Rishonim. They do not know the staples of Jewish interpretation of Genesis. They do not know how traditional Jews would answer hard questions from geologists or philosophers. They simply assume that evolutionists would win in a debate with a Jewish theologian, independent of what the Jewish theologian would preach. Science would reign supreme over theology in any open forum.

If a religious professional were posed a difficulty in the Torah’s account of Genesis or questioned about the Jewish approach to evolution, most likely there would be no cogent response. What answers could be given?  It is highly unlikely that one would be in a position to give an educated answer. How many have really gone through the training or done the research to give the proper reply? While one might be familiar with some of the basic arguments evolutionists propose, the intricacies have always been left for the scholars who tell people how to think and feel on these matters and the Torah itself. So where does that leave us today? We live in a world of religious minded Jews, coming from traditional homes, who reject the Torah’s account of creation without bothering to check out the Jewish take on it, and accept evolutionary arguments which they haven’t quite gotten around to checking out either.

But even a more dangerous road has been paved which threatens the very heart of the Jewish community. The Orthodox world, in general, accepts Maimonides’ thirteen principles of faith as the hallmark for defining the necessary beliefs that are Jew must subscribe to in order to be viewed as someone part of the Jewish community. Those who do not believe in any one of the thirteen principles are excluded from the congregation of Israel as well as from its joint fate. Even though the belief in creationism is not one of Maimonides’ principles, the belief in the truth of the Torah is. Because the aforementioned college-educated Jews view the Torah’s alleged position on evolution, the Big Bang or Darwinism as uninformed and wrong, they not only ignore the Torah’s true stance, but preach a heretical viewpoint. It is one thing to harbor reservations about a complicated set of verses, but to allow one’s own ignorance to burgeon heretical attitudes by rejecting the truth of the Torah is to throw away the boat because of a corroded plank. This sacrilegious viewpoint is not the product of a well thought out understanding of all of the intricacies of the debate between the creationists and the evolutionists, but rather a conclusion deduced by an inexpert mind.

In the past, the world’s Jewry need not fall to heresy given philosophical dilemmas of this sort. The advanced layman could posit that he does not understand the gamut of divine matters and fall before the authority of the Rabbi. He could do this because he knew that, despite their differences, he could take refuge in the positions of the clergy. But, as the religious right became more and more encapsulated within a fixed and strict religious dogma, with less freedom of expression and flexibility of thought, these laymen lost the impetus and ability to find solace within the right’s preaching or sermons. They no longer can look towards the accepted Gedolei HaDor (religious leaders of the generation) for those Rabbis no longer speak for the layman’s religious practices, let alone his/her beliefs. They’re forced to tread the seas of heresy without a religious leader to follow, and what happens? What should we expect of a herd without a shepherd? Without leadership, strong direction or the values of truth leading the way, our engineers, biologists and modern thinkers are forced to reject the juvenile and undeveloped theory of “right” Judaism in place of something, to say it simply, more grand.

We live in a misinformed world, where prejudices and biases are more often than not the strongest arguments of all. While people’s hearts search for guidance, their minds take hold of what is available and plausible. People search for truth more desperately today than ever before, but the truth out there isn’t flowing from the same waters that their parents drank from. They’re forced, against their will and expertise, to make exceptionally tough decisions about their beliefs in Torah values and religiosity as a whole. It is the intention of the following chapters to remedy this debacle: to create an informed public about both sides of the creation/evolution debate, to present our Rishonim’s interpretation of Genesis, and to obviate the possibility that some misconstrual or compartmentalization of religion lay the foundations for heresy.

I hope you enjoy the next five posts over the next five days.

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Filed under Rationalism, Science

Would Rambam Say the Ten Plagues Are Miracles?

Equipped with my very own Little Midrash Says as a child, I did not question that the ten plagues were extraordinarily miraculous. In fact, after existence itself, I think they might just be as miraculous as it gets. Don’t you?

We often like to point out little miracles all the time, because if God gives us a miracle, then He must love us. Rambam, however, insists that nature is a constant state of affairs1, and this is an important backbone for his worldview.


He therefore minimizes how often we say something is a miracle- which we might define as God’s disruptions to the natural order of things- and tells us that all miracles were actually planned and prepared to occur before there any laws of nature, that is, before creation. God sets a timer, the miracles occur and disrupt the natural order of things, and then everything goes back to normal2.

In fact, not only does he limit miracles to things that have been prepared since the Big Bang, but he seems intent on taking away as many of our miracles as possible!

This can be seen from his statement in the Treatise of Resurrection:

“Only in those cases when we are taught explicitly that a particular event is a miracle and there is absolutely no possibility of giving any other account of it, only then do we feel forced to admit that it is a miracle.”3

So two things need to happen for us to call something a miracle: We have to be taught clearly that it’s miraculous, and it needs to be impossible to explain it in a natural way. Otherwise, it’s just not a miracle.

So what does this mean for the plagues in particular?

Were we taught they were miracles? Yes. Is there “absolutely no possibility of giving any other account of it”?

Well, maybe.

If you take Nahum Sarna seriously- and I hasten to remind you that even Haym Soloveitchik respects him– then perhaps the plagues may be explained in a natural manner. In his “Exploring Exodus”4, which is well written and generally awesome, he gives natural explanations for the first nine plagues, which in his words “can all be explained within the context of the familiar vicissitudes of nature that imperil the Nile Valley…”.


He then begins to detail not only how the first nine plagues are natural occurrences, but how they each naturally caused the following plague! Now cause and affect, science fans, is nature at its very best5.

We will not go into detail here in regards to the natural explanation to each plague, but Dr. Sarna references a paper which explains the theory, and we are forced to ask if this qualifies as a “possibility” of a natural explanation. “Possible” is a pretty broad word, so my guess is yes, but you may know better than I.

At any rate, we then have nine non-miraculous occurrences, wondrous and providential as they were6. The tenth however, remains impossible to explain, and may be viewed as a miraculous plague against the Egyptians that was prepared before time.

To me this raises the question of free will versus God’s ability to see the future, but we’re not going to get into that here. At any rate, this isn’t so much a Dvar Torah, but a way to annoy your friends and family, I guess.

Do so at your own peril, and if you’re looking for a lesson, then perhaps end with “and therefore the natural order of things is truly important to Jewish theology!”

This lesson is always a winner at big meals.

Shabbat Shalom!

1“The world goes according to its custom” – BT Avoda Zara 54B

2Fox, in his superb Interpreting Maimonides (page 274) writes that “This view holds an obvious attraction for Maimonides. It preserves the order of nature, and for him this is of the highest intellectual and practical importance…Even the attested miracles are held by some sages to have been built into the order of the world at creation, and this too serves to reduce the effect of the breaks in the natural order resulting from active divine intervention.” This is based on the Guide 2:29.

3Treatise on Ressurrection. Cited and Translated by Marvin Fox in his Interpreting Maimonides, p..34. See also Guide for the Perplexed, 2:25., Eight Chapters, section 8.

4 p. 63-81

5 He even goes so far as to explain how they naturally would not have affected Goshen, in case anyone out there remembers to ask.

6Though of course providence is quite a complicated topic in Maimonidean thought.


Filed under Parshah, Rationalism

Spiritual Racism: The Jewish Response to Shas’ Prejudiced Ad

In light of the Shas party’s ridiculously prejudiced ad which insulted converts and the people involved in the conversion process in Israel, I thought I might post a beautiful Midrash which sums up the proper Jewish response to converts.

(Image: frame from the Shas campaign ad)

The truth is, there’s a certain prejudice that creeps among the Orthodox community, and every so often we hear of a ger (convert) who experiences what might be called a “spiritual racism”. This racism is basically the belief that a born Jew is better than someone who converted.

If anything, we would think that someone who joins the Jewish people should be treated with a great respect, since we can only imagine how difficult it is for a person to change his or her entire life and suddenly acquire a new God, many new commandments, privileges and challenges, and a new people.

Of course, this would be hard enough if a person joined a welcoming community, and it must be much worse when they periodically come up against a painful condescension from their Jewish brethren.

The Midrash, in the Soncino translation, goes as follows:

The Holy One, Blessed-be-He, greatly loves the proselytes. To what may this be compared? To a king who had a flock, which used to go out to the field and come in at evening. So it was each day.

Once, a stag came in with the flock. He associated with the goats and grazed with them. When the flock came in to the fold, he came in with them; when they went out to graze, he went out with them. The king was told ‘A certain stag has joined the flock, and is grazing with them every day. He goes out with them, and comes in with them.’

The king felt an affection for him. When he went out into the field, the king gave orders: ‘Let him have good pasture as he likes; no man shall beat him; be careful with him!’ When (the stag) came in with the flock a,so the king would tell them, ‘ Give him to drink!’ And he loved him very much.

The servants said to him: ‘Sovereign! You posses so many he-goats, you posses so many kids, and you never caution us about them; yet you give us instructions ever day about this stag!’

The king said to them: ‘The flock have no choice; whether they want or not, it is their nature to graze in the field all day and to come in at evening to sleep in the flock. The stags, however, sleep in the wilderness. It is not in their nature to come into placed inhabited by man. Shall we then not account it as a merit to this one which has left behind the whole of the broad, vast wilderness, the abode of all the beasts, and has come to stay in the courtyard?’

In like manner, ought we not to be grateful to the proselyte who has left behind him his family and his father’s house, aye, has left behind his people and all the other peoples of the world, and has chosen to comes to us?

Accordingly, He has provided him with special protection, for He exhorted Israel that they shall be very careful in relation to the proselytes so as not to do them hard; and indeed it says. “Love ye therefore the proselyte, etc.”…

-Bamidbar Rabba, 8:2

The view given here in the Midrash, that we should be grateful to the proselyte, is a far cry from the sad view that someone who is born Jewish has some inherent quality which makes her better than even someone who converts!

This view appears in our tradition, and not necessarily uncommonly, sad as that may be. It is a spiritual racism, as we said above, and the right way to relate to our converted brethren is to simply treat them as we do any other Jew, with the exception of 2 things we must do:

  1. We should express our gratitude to the people who have sacrificed to join us. We don’t know what it’s like, and we can’t put ourselves in their shoes. It must be hard, and the fact that they have joined us gives us strength by validating our goals and adding to our numbers, and helps us serve God better.
  2. We should be careful to give them some extra support once they join our communities, precisely because of the hardship involved not just in being Jewish when you once were not, but because the emotional journey and stresses involved must be tremendous.

What’s interesting to me is that spiritual racists may express these two sympathies with the exception of their prejudice, which must be very insulting and hurtful. I have heard cases of people who did not want their children to marry a convert, or even the child of a convert, and I can’t imagine the pain involved in being the person who is snubbed in this scenario.

It’s easy to see how this kind of behavior is contrary to the 36 times the Torah commands us regarding the proper treatment of gerim.

I’ll end with a quote from Rambam, because our blog needs Rambam like Epic Meal Time needs bacon. The quote is addressed to Obadia the proselyte, in a very famous letter:

“Do not consider your origin as inferior. While we are the descendants of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob, you derive form Him through whose word the world was created. As is said by Isaiah; “One shall say, I am the Lord’s, and another shall call himself by the name of Jacob”.


Filed under Miscellaneous

Are the Sefirot Heresy? Rashbash Takes On Kabbalah As We Know It

In the vein of my last post, where we discussed the surprising fact that some consider Kabbala to be “at odds” with the Torah, I thought I would point out the view of someone who does not, strictly speaking, oppose Kabbala, but does oppose the doctrine of the Sefirot as possibly heretical. This is the view of Rashbash, as we will see below.


To sum up the concept of Sefirot as succinctly as possible, we might just say that in their efforts to relate to the living God, many Kabbalists make statements about the nature of God, each according to their own unique schools of thought, which seem to imply that God has 10 “parts”1.

The problem that arises from saying God has different aspects present (even in a uniquely divine realm) is that it seems to contradict the idea that He is one and infinite, and therefore by definition does not have parts. (As we have mentioned, God’s unity is one of Rambam’s principles).

For this reason many people opposed the doctrine, and I’ll just bring the objections of Rashbash on the matter, in a non-perfect translation.

He begins by noting that Kabbala is an inherently secret tradition which is only passed on to the extremely wise, and then only by word of mouth. Therefore, anyone who publicizes kabbala is either making things up or violating the law to not publicize it. He then says regarding the Sefirot in particular:

“Furthermore, they don’t know what these ten Sefirot are; if they’re  descriptions, or names, or influences that emanate from God…”

In Rashbash’s opinion, these are the only plausible understandings for what the Sefirot may be. He then discusses each option.

If you say they are (just) names, then they (must not be) independent parts; but if they are independent entities then they are a multiplicity of parts, and if this is the case, the Christians claim there are three parts (to God), and these ones (publicizing Kabbalists) claim there are ten!

And if you say they are (descriptive) attributes, then why are these ones different than the other attributes which describe God? God taught Moses about 13, so why have they diminished from this number by 3?…And if Moses did not reach (the level to know the Sefirot), how could another reach (the level to know) them?

…And if you say they are influences…that is to say, angels…one who prays to them- if he says they are powers or influences- if this is the case, one who prays (to) and concentrates on them is a heretic, since anyone who prays to one of the angels is a heretic! And one who thinks (the Sefirot) are things unto themselves and different than God is a heretic!

And if you say they are attributes, they should tell us what difference there is from the other ones.”

He concludes with the following:

 ‘…students who have not learned enough, and who do not want to put in effort into legal topics, choose impatiently to glorify themselves with the knowledge of Kabbalah, in order to make themselves great before women and ignoramuses, and to take a crown for themselves with light words…and one who guards his soul will stay away from them.”

Harsh words, I think!

First of all, Rashbash’s general objection to publicly taught Kabbala is very interesting, since it makes us doubt whether the Kabbala that we hear of and are often taught in schools is the real deal. For that matter, it seems that Rashbash would be very uncomfortable in particular that the Sefirot are often referenced in the midst of Jewish education, and commonly feature in paintings and other works of art in Jewish homes and synagogues. But of course, his is not the only opinion on the matter.

At any rate, I just thought it was interesting that someone who was not opposed to Kabbala was so strongly opposed to one of its most famous and relatively standard doctrines.

What makes his opinion even more interesting is that Rashbash’s father was actually a noted Kabbalist, and likely subscribed to the doctrine of Sefirot. I have no idea if they discussed the matter, but i think that accusing your father of holding a possibly heretical idea is one of those things that cause a lot of tension at thanksgivings and bar mitzvas.

Anyway, if you are interested in the topic, you can see how many generations of rabbis treated the question of the Sefirot in Louis Jacobs’ “Theoogy in the Responsa”.

As a bonus, I’m including a picture of Peter Haas’ book, which I came across as I was looking for the Rashbash’s book of responsa. Needless to say, I did not read it.



1I cannot do the doctrine of the Sefirot justice, since it’s enormously complicated, so if you want to learn more I suggest the interesting discussions in Moshe Hallamish’s “Introduction to Kabbalah“, Scholem’s “Kaballah”,or his classic “Major Trends in Jewish Mysticism”.

The Sefirot, as I understand, are the mystic’s way to solve the problem of a distant God, the “Ein Sof”, who cannot be described or related to, since He is completely transcendent. Therefore, they explained God’s relation to the world (and apparently Himself) through the doctrine of Sefirot.

As Wikipedia puts it (succinctly), the Sefirot “are the 10 attributes/emanations in Kabbalah, through which Ein Sof (The Infinite) reveals himself and continuously creates both the physical realm and the chain of higher metaphysical realms (Seder hishtalshelus).”

In Scholem’s useful language, the Sefirot are a “realm of divinity, which underlies the world of our sense-data and which is present and active in all that exists.”


Filed under Kabbalah and Chassidus