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.

Platonic

 

  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.

Abstention

 

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.

Conclusion

 

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.

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2 Comments

Filed under Philosophy, Rationalism, Science

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

  1. Hi and many thanks.
    Your exposition of the opinions of the Rishonim is excellent::a very good introduction to follow the study. Toda rava ve hatzlakha.

    avi weizmann

  2. Avi K

    Two Pedantic Points

    1. You said “Why would this name of God (אלקים) be employed in Genesis?”
    I don’t think that’s really a valid question. The use of the name Elohim is prevalent in the Book of Genesis and is not restricted to the Creation Account. Also your question of why not use the Tetragrammaton seems to make a lot of hermeneutical assumptions… Maybe the Tetragrammaton *doesn’t* represent God’s will and essence? Maybe the names are just interchangeable? I just don’t think that this is an inherent problem in the text and is really only problematic if you make some interpretive assumptions about God’s names in the Biblical text.

    2. The Aristotelian Theory is not identical to emanationism. Emanationism is the Theory of Plotinus and is very different from that Aristotle. Perhaps you are referring to the prevalent confusion in the Middle Ages between Neoplatonism and Aristotelianism a mix up which the Rambam in the Guide also takes part in… Or maybe you just mean emanationism and the Aristotelian theory are similar because they both posit an eternal world without a chronological beginning of time.

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