Category Archives: Rationalism

The Prayer of Exiles

The evolution of Jewish prayer began in flames, liquidation and the Romans crushing the tiny state of Judea. Even after the Temple’s embers ceased smoldering, Jews could no longer serve God as He demanded in the Book of Leviticus. Prayers that never played a central role in the Temple Service, now emerged with resurrected significance alongside the Temple’s ruin. Jewish liturgy is the child of destruction. Yet, it soon converted to the voice of the downtrodden, a vehicle of hope and the official means for Jews to express gratitude towards their Maker over the last 2000 years.

True, there has always been Jewish prayer. Abraham disputed; Rebecca sought. Jacob struggled; Moses fell on his face: all in prayer. To deny the historical actuality of Jewish prayer pre-70 is to ignore humanity’s universal need to seek out the Divine. We pray because we’re human. Biblical Judaism – probably as a polemic against this natural tendency – rejects prayer as a transcendent outlet. Instead we get our hands dirty, lighten our wallets a bit and serve our Deity by slaughtering animals by the myriads. Over the last 2000 years, starting with the Temple’s Destruction, Jews have been weaned off the Temple cult, culminating in some modern-day Rabbis even denying animal slaughter as an ideal worship that ought to be reinstated. After all, they could reason: words are abstract, beautiful… holy; and a cow is a bloody mess.

A famous Rabbinic dictum declares that God considers the recitation of the Biblical verses on sacrifices religiously equivalent to one sacrificing animals in the Temple itself. Lovely that God’s eyes see no disparity, but how should we feel? Can I also internalize this theology of replacement, and accept wide-ranging Service of the heart? It appears that this can be compared to a person who loves playing basketball, and the Divine divulges that it is just as good to simply ritualistically utter an NBA handbook three times a day. While he might get credit in Heaven for such excursions, we have to question the experience’s equivalence to real substantial action. In the Temple, most animal offerings were eaten, at least in part, by the donor. In other words, BBQ was the Service. When we compare that – as the primary method of Service – with today’s manifestation – where prayer is primary – the sheer volume of liturgy recited cyclically in the pews should raise a few eyebrows. We replaced a holy dinner with recitation. And, Jews pray and pray a lot.

But, why? Why do we pray so much? Why do people sit in the pews all day Yom Kippur, all morning Tishah be-Av and countless hours abound? When we look towards the Medieval Rabbis, the question is even further compounded. While Maimonides counts praying but a moment daily as one of the 613 Biblical commandments, Nahmonides on the other hand, claims that this minimal prescription does not even exist. For Nahmonides, at least on a Biblical level, prayer is not about thanking the Deity or building a relationship, but crying out to your Maker in a time of need. Thus, it is clear Rabbis created the prescriptive nature of the tri-daily version of prayer Jews recite, not God.

While it is remarkable that most of what Jews do in synagogue daily is not officially deemed prayer by the Rabbis, every element of the service obviously fills some function. Meaning, apart from the Amida, almost all other elements of the prayer service serve some other function than formal prayer. For instance, morning blessings were moved to synagogue from the bedroom because people had trouble doing them at home. Pesukei Dezimra is meant to get you in the mood for what follows. The blessings before and after Shma, and the Shma itself, are recited to fulfill an alternative obligation. But none of these recitations are Halakhic prayer.

Yet, when one considers synagogue life today on a typical Shabbat morning, with mesheberachs, prayers for the State, soldiers, Israel, etc., Av HaRaḥamim, An’im Z’miros, songs at the end of prayers, blessings on all aliyot, annual Torah recitation cycle, Haftorah, communal musaf, rabbinic speeches, long p’sukei d’zimra, etc., etc., etc., it is clear that one of the goals of synagogue itself is to keep you in synagogue. Evidently, just as Jews picked up vocabulary, food and dress over the last 2000 years of Exile from their host countries, they repeatedly enlarged the prayers as well and built it up piece by liturgical piece.

One significant example of this phenomenon can be seen in the weekly Sabbath recitation of the Haftorah. No theologian or historian has definitively identified the circumstances that led to Jews to start reciting the weekly Haftorah, but proponents of one of the more famous explanations hypothesizes that Jews were forbidden to read from the Torah, so they instituted a weekly Haftorah reading so a Biblical text would still be read Shabbat morning during synagogue. Yet, when Jews were permitted to chant from the Torah again, the Haftorah remained an integral element of the Service. In other words, the Haftorah Service that was created because of persecution, somehow became embedded in the very consciousness of the Service, and could not be detached or omitted. The ball of foil grows and grows.

Contemporaneous prayer is conceived and created by the exiled Jew for the Exile. For the free, BBQ is the Service; it is not ever-expanding. It is not expressing hope for redemption or a cessation of intermittent genocide. It is not having women recite the whole book of Psalms. It is not additional prayers for auspicious days. It is not slichot. It is joyous and physically orientated. The more Jews were raped, enslaved, slaughtered, maimed, and generally not in control of their own destiny, the longer prayer services have gotten. Indeed, expressions of sadness as well as happiness have become the domain of liturgy. The exiled seeks catharsis in words, not in action, as he has no control over his own fate. With the ingathering of the Jews, may we find reason for expressing our gratitude and hopes more concretely.


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Filed under Philosophy, Rationalism

Is Listening to Non-Jewish Music OK? (A Non-Halakhic Discussion)

Joshe Homme, lead song writer and frontman for QOTSA, is one of my favorite musical artists. No one else I know likes his music.

Before we get back to biblical criticism (and I hope we’ll have some more guest posts before I get to  Rabbi Umberto Cassuto and some others), I want to talk about non-Jewish music for a moment. Why? Because Queens of the Stone Age are back, and I love their music. In my excitement, I’d like to point out a few theological issues with non-Jewish music. As I listen to non-Jewish music almost daily, you may conclude that I am either hypocritical on this matter, or that I think there is no problem. You’ll decide for yourself. As to the bottom line halakha le’ma’aseh (practical Jewish legal) aspect, I suggest you ask someone qualified to answer.

1) Avoiding Non-Jewish Music (A Mystical Perspective):

I’ll first outline why some mystical thinking would lead to the rejection of non-Jewish music. I won’t quote sources here, so please feel free to take me to task for this. Ask someone who is well versed in Kuzari, Tanya, Zohar, etc., regarding the points I’ll make here, and feel free to check out Maimonides’ Confrontation With Mysticism as well as Maimonides on Judaism and the Jewish People, both by Menachem Kellner, regarding Rambam and these views.

If one assumes that the Jewish soul is inherently superior to the non-Jewish soul, and also that the soul’s positive or negative qualities become a part of anything created by a person, then we have reason to reject non-Jewish music. This is because of the assumption that a non-Jewish soul is impure (if only because non-Jews eat non-Kosher food), and that it can only create something similarly impure. Non-Jewish music being impure, it will affect our souls negatively if we listen to it. In this view, spiritual forces, good and bad, work in a way which we might consider analogous to physical cause and affect. A good spiritual thing causes purity, while a bad thing (such as evil speech) causes spiritual impurity1.

So, if you believe these things, I suggest you try and phase out non-Jewish music, as well as the traditional Hasidic songs which really come from non-Jewish authors. This is by far more common than we think. It happens to be that my favorite tune for a Shabbat Song is Dror Yikra when sung according to the tune of “Sloop John B.”, the song most famously sung by the Beach Boys. My second favorite happens to be Dror Yikra according to the tune of “When the Saints Go Marching In”. That’s a really fun one, so I suggest you try it this week.

A rationalist may reject all of the points we have made here, however. Such a person will not assume that one’s soul is inherently good or bad, or that a person’s soul automatically affects their creation.Generally speaking, rationalists do not think that there are spiritual forces akin to physical cause and affect in play when we eat Kosher food, thus improving our souls, or harming them when we eat non-Kosher (the same goes for other mitzvot, such as the performance of sending away the mother bird, say). Rather, as we have explained elsewhere, keeping the mitzvot improves our souls in an entirely different way, which we will not get into here. In sum, keeping the mitzvot leads to the betterment of society and the soul, in Rambam’s opinion, and this is a natural process. . Now then, other points must be dealt with.

2) The lyrics:

I do not listen to lyrics, but I am weird in this regard. Most people do, and this being the case, it is harmful to listen to music which praises bad qualities such as excessive partying, materialism, etc., or even worse. Some songs praise rape or other unspeakable things, and even if you don’t listen to lyrics, we shouldn’t support people who praise these crimes.

So classical music is obviously on the table. There’s nothing wrong with it, and we’ll talk about the positive qualities good music has later on. It should be noted that there are certain artists whose lyrics can’t be ignored. Bob Dylan is the best example, but check out the “Reload” album by Metallica for some really impressive writing (or so I thought when I was 14). However, when it comes to artistic poetry, most of us will recognize the immediate value in this, so we won’t get into that here. Rav Aharon Lichtenstein fans will tout this, I imagine, though I find it hard to picture R. Lichtenstein listening to contemporary music.

3) The Danger of Having the Wrong Role Models:

Even worse is the danger that we’ll look up to artists as role models. Even when they are fine, normal people, it’s not like they’re moral philosophers or anything. They’re just guys who are good at one amazing thing. So no one should confuse a good musician for a role model. And of course, this is in regards to the good ones.I love Led Zeppelin and the Rolling Stones, but they are not role models for Halakhic Jews by any stretch of the imagination.

4) The Positive Aspects of Non-Jewish Music:

I’ll risk stating the obvious here: Music can be an amazing and positive thing. It can be expressive, therapeutic, inspiring, and all of these things mean that we’ll be able to serve God better. We should be emotionally healthy (v’chai bahem), use the world to praise God (like King David did with his harp), and appreciate the marvelous wisdom in the world (ma rabu ma’asekha HaShem). When we hear great music from Josh Homme, about whom I know next to nothing, we should appreciate the wisdom God has given to man. Now that we have seen that non-Jewish music can be a good thing, we should ask if there is a  Halakhic reason to avoid it. I’m not qualified, so I won’t get involved, but everyone should be aware of the possibility that going to concerts and non-mitzva related parties with live music is forbidden. I’ll get back to this at the end. Obviously, in weddings and other religious celebrations we should have music, and we enhance our celebrations with it. But what about Jewish Music?

5) Jewish Music:

“There are two types of Jewish music: The kind that is mekarev (brings one closer) to God, and the kind that is merachek (brings one away from) God.”- Rabbi Shlomo Riskin

Sadly, most modern Jewish music is terrible. Listeners might get the feeling that writers aren’t even trying. Besides for the overwhelmingly simplistic nature of most modern Jewish music, the style of music and melodies are almost always taken from a non-Jewish source. I’m really not sure what completely original Jewish music would sound like anyway. Klezmer, Carlbach, Miami Boys Chior, etc., all belong to non-Jewish musical cultures. Perhaps that should be considered an issue for some. This being the case, Jewish music should really be judged by the same criteria as non-Jewish music, though of course when it comes to lyrics, people taking from Tehilim, etc., are obviously giving us music with lyrics that can help us along spiritually. So then, I think we’ve touched on most of the major issues. For a superb summary of Halakhic and Jewish theological perspectives on music, check out what Rabbi Howard (Chaim) Jachter wrote here. If you want to know about the prohibitions involved with listening to music today, and especially with going to concerts or a bar with live music, then I suggest you read his post before discussing the problem with someone who is qualified2. I’ll finish off my own post with the last lines of Rabbi Jachter’s article.

“What should emerge from this review of Jewish perspectives on music is that we must take care that the music we listen to is in harmony with our Torah lifestyle and goals. Music with lyrics such as “she don’t lie, she don’t lie, cocaine” is very obviously incompatible with a Torah Hashkafa and lifestyle. The same can be said regarding all leisure activities. Care must be taken to ensure that one’s leisure activities enhance one’s relationship with God and Torah and do not, God forbid, detract from it.”

Before we actually get back to biblical criticism, I hope we can aslo discuss what the sin of Korach is. I have an idea, and I’d love some feedback.


1-Are you thinking of Plato’s ideals here? Me too. Check out 9 and 1/2 Mystics by Herbert Weiner for some interesting points about this. I’m in the middle of it now. Also, Gerschom Scholem’s Major Trends In Jewish Mysticism is a must for interested laymen.

2- Also, don’t forget to read Rambam in the 5th chapter of his “Shmoneh Perakim” as well as his commentary on Avot, 1:16. Further recommended reading is Siach Nachum R. Nachum E. Rabinovitch, OH (alt. OC) 35. He says there that 1) Even before the Temple was destroyed, music which was lustful, led to inappropriate desires, or had inappropriate language was forbidden, and 2) After the Temple was destroyed, celebration with live music or purely vocal music sung over wine was forbidden as well. Number one likely covers a lot of music today. A much more limited point is made by R. Kagan in his MB on a note Rama makes. In OC 53:25, Rama writes that a Shaliach Zibbur who enjoys non-Jewish music should be removed if, after protest, he does not stop listening to it. MB says this is in regards to music used for Avoda Zara, and not just any music. He quotes Bach as saying it must be music which is designated for the purpose of  AZ.


Filed under Kabbalah and Chassidus, Rationalism

What Are Rambam’s 13 Principles of Faith?

As I said in my last post, I want to continue writing about modern scholarship and traditional faith with a post listing some of the traditional rabbinic sources that deny a complete Mosaic authorship to the Torah. I’m not sure how many places you might look for such sources, but Marc B. Shapiro wrote a fascinating book which is mostly a compendium of these sources.

At any rate, before I post about some of the sources listed in Shapiro’s book (which I’ll do next time), I thought I’d post what Rambam’s 13 principles actually are. Even though as a community we seem to pay a lot of lip service to the principles, and certainly in the Orthodox community, the Yigdal poem (a version of the principles) is recited daily or weekly, it still seems like a lot of people don’t exactly know what each of the principles are.

Before we get to the actual list, I want to emphasize again how important the principles are. In Rambam’s opinion:

1) One who accepts the principles of faith will certainly have a place in Olam HaBa (The World to Come/Paradise). If someone accepts the principles, but sins in pretty much all other regards in Judaism, this person is treated with love and compassion as a member of the Jewish people.

2) One who even doubts the principles has removed himself from the Jewish people. Jews are obligated to hate and destroy this person, even if such a person is exact in keeping of the mitzvot (commandments).

These aren’t small points to make. You may argue that there is no 14th principle that Rambam is always right (as Rabbi Menachem Leibtag pithily remarked in his fascinating talk at LSS) or that Rambam changed his mind later on, wrote his true views esoterically, etc. For these reasons, and others, it is really hard to view the 13 principles as the end of the discussion when it comes to Jewish dogma. Menachem Kellner’s Dogma in Medieval Jewish Thought is essential reading on this topic, and can’t be recommended enough. Like other Littman books, you might find it a little pricey, and prefer to go to the library. Littman is a non-profit publisher, so I don’t really hold it against them for charging a little more than I’d ideally like to pay. Not to mention that every single book I have read from their publishing house has been superb. That is kind of amazing, actually.

So, then. On to the principles.

1) God exists in a unique and self sufficient manner. If God stopped existing, so would everything else, since the totality of existence relies on God, who is the cause of everything in existence. However, if all of the existence were to stop existing, God would not be affected, as he is not caused by the universe. Yahu Skaist reminded me I should have been clear, as Rambam is there and in MT Yesodei HaTorah 1:3, that it is not possible for God to cease to exist. Rather, this is a theory discussed to make a point.

2) God is one, and His unity is entirely unique1.

3) God has no body, nor any physical attributes at all2.

4) God is beyond time.

5) Only God may be worshiped3.

6) God communicates with man, in what is known as prophecy4.

7) Moses was the greatest prophet, and God spoke to him directly while Moses was awake, as opposed to through an angel, while asleep. This is how all other prophets receive prophecy. Moses was not weakened by prophecy, like other prophets. Additionally, he was able to choose when to receive a prophecy, as opposed to all other prophets, who had no idea when they would have another revelation.

8) The entire Torah was given to Moses at Sinai.

9) The Torah cannot be replaced or changed in any way. It has therefore not been changed since Moses received it in its entirety on Sinai.

10) God knows of, and cares about, the actions of mankind.

11) God rewards good and punishes evil.

12) There will be a Messiah/Messianic age.

13) God will resurrect (at least some of) the dead at some point.

Many have been noted that the principles can be put into 3 classes: 1-5 are about God, 6-9 are about revelation, and 10-13 are about reward and punishment. Additionally  Abravanel writes in his Rosh Amanah that really all beliefs in the Torah are equally important. This being the case, it is worth discussing why Rambam would write his principles in the first place, but that’s for another post.

Now that we’ve gone through the principles themselves, I feel we can discuss some of the traditional opinions which differ from them, specifically, in regards to the principles about Mosaic prophecy.


1When we describe unity we might refer to several things which are unified, such as the several players on a baseball team. Cars have parts, books have pages, the universe has perhaps infinite pieces. However, God’s unity precludes any “other” whatsoever, and He is not subject to the division of parts. His oneness is dis-similar to all other unities.

2This is really implied by the second principle, and L. Jabocs (Principles of the Jewish Faith) quotes Friedlander as saying that Rambam includes this principle because it was a prevalent belief that God has a body, even among Jewish scholars.

3As we have already ruled out the possibility of other deities (since God is the cause of the everything else, is One, so that nothing else is similar to Him, and is not affected by anything else so that we might think He has a partner or equal), this principles comes to preclude the worship of God’s works and messengers. Angels, the sun, the deceased, etc. Obviously, the sun is a gift from God, and we ought to appreciate it. But to worship it as a form of appreciation to God would still be forbidden. The same goes for everything else in life.

4Before you get clever and question whether Rambam’s principles should be considered incorrect because he relies on an Aristotelian understanding of metaphysics for his principles, I’ll note that Rambam did not rely 100% on Aristotle’s metaphysics. Rather, he regarded it as the best theories available. However, all theories of what goes on beyond the moon were considered uncertain by him. This means that if Rambam included the active intellect in his 13 principles, it is not that you should accept the active intellect as dogma. Rather, we should accept the bottom line, which is prophecy, and examine for ourselves what might be the best metaphysical theory today. Rambam includes his theory because that is the best they had at the time.


Filed under Philosophy, Rationalism

Why Does Judaism Look So Much Like Other Ancient Religions?

The ever prolific blogger Dov Bear posted a question on facebook, apparently on behalf of some other anonymous thinker/friend of his:

What would “authentic” judaism look like? Let me clarify the question: what would Judaism look like if you stripped out anything that was “borrowed” from other religions or pagan practice…

I’m not so bold as to try and figure out what “authentic” Judaism would look like, but I do want to pose the following question: Why is Judaism so similar to the religions and societies that were around at time the Torah was given (as well as to those from the time of Avraham)?

The answer, as usual, can be found in Rambam among others, but I’m posting this as a lazy sketch, not a real post, so bother me later for sources if you really want them.

One important explanation is really quite simple. I think I might just post what I commented on Dov Bear’s status on facebook, where I responded specifically to a commenter’s claim that Rambam would exclude sacrifices (korbanot) from Judaism if he could, because sacrifices exist only to wean us away from paganism in his opinion.

Just to put out a thought I think is important and relevant here.

First, Rambam wouldn’t exclude sacrifices. Just because it exists in his opinion to wean us away from paganism (like many, many, other mitzvot in his opinion) does not mean that if we would start again we would not have them. Rather, we should learn that God gave the Torah to man, to fit man as he basically still is, but more specifically was, at the time the Torah was given.

If the Torah resembles Hamurabi’s Code, it is because God wanted the Torah to be given in the most understandable way possible for people at that time. They would have understood that code, and even if it was reinterpreted and changed, they would respond to it with sympathy and understanding (“imagination” and rational thought being necessary in this case, see Faur’s homo mysticus on the MN).

Same goes for brit milah, and endless things. The Torah was given in the language of man, etc.

“Native Judaism” is a Judaism that is not just native to the Divine, but is also native to the people who were taken out of Egypt, as well as to the human psyche in general.

The Moreh Nevuchim will probably always be the best book for this point of view, but it pops up here and there, and seems implicit from TaNaKH (the Bible) itself.

As usual, it’s always good to recommend anything by Nachum Sarna, because he explains beautifully in many places how the Torah wanted to take a pagan world view and make it into a monotheistic one, with all of the implications that come with this.

Taking this understanding with us also allows us to understand many Aggadic (non legal statements) from Chazal (The Sages) in a new light.


Filed under Philosophy, Rationalism

Divine Providence in Maimonides’ Guide of the Perplexed

by David Pellow

This post was originally submitted as a midterm paper in David’s course ‘Maimonides and His Modern Interpreters’ with Dr. Kenneth Green.


In the final chapter of The Guide of the Perplexed Maimonides writes “the perfection of man that may truly be gloried in is the one… who knows His providence extending over His creatures as manifested in the act of bringing them into being and in their governance as it is” (III.54, Pines p. 638). Maimonides devotes significant attention in the Guide to understanding divine providence “as it is”. He presents his own beliefs on divine providence as being directly opposed to an opinion of the Sages and some of the Gaonim (III. 17, Pines, p. 471) and highlights a contradiction between two opinions presented in the bible (III. 23, Pines p. 492). He refers to some of the details of his understanding as “extraordinary speculation” which reveals “divine secrets” (III. 41, Pines p. 624) and as something which “came to me through something similar to prophetic revelation” (III. 22, Pines p. 488). This paper will present Maimonides’ understanding of divine providence and attempt to highlight some of the divine secrets which it reveals.

Five Approaches to Providence:

There are five opinions about the nature of divine providence that Maimonides considers before developing his own. The first opinion is attributed to Epicurus and states that there is no providence whatsoever. Maimonides considers this opinion to have been successfully disproven by Aristotle and dismisses any further consideration of it. The second opinion is that of Aristotle who believes that the permanent and ordered things which exist in the natural world receive divine providence. This means that the celestial bodies and the species are the objects of providence, while individuals, even of the human species, are not – everything that happens to them is by chance. The opinion of the Ash’arite sect is that everything is the object of divine providence; even the random movements of inanimate objects result from the divine will. The fourth opinion is that of the Mu’tazilite sect which believes that man has free will but also that divine providence governs everything according to the divine wisdom. (III. 17, Pines pp. 464-470)

Before presenting the Jewish opinion, Maimonides explains the reasons behind the other opinions of providence. Aristotle’s view conforms to his observation of nature in which what occurs to individuals of earthly species is not orderly. The Ash’arites’ opinion is a result of the principle of God’s omniscience – since God knows all, everything which occurs is necessary with reference to Him and results from the divine will. The Mu’tazilites do not want to ascribe the injustices of the world to divine will and believe in human beings’ free will. Therefore they say that all of God’s actions are a result of His wisdom and there are no injustices. (III. 17, Pines pp. 465-469)

The Opinion of the Jewish Law:

The opinion of the Jewish Law rests on two principles – that humans have absolute free will, and that nothing God does is unjust. The consequence of these principles is that all the good or bad circumstances which befall people are the deserved rewards or punishments for their actions. However, “the various modes of deserts” (III. 17, Pines p. 469) are unknown, which explains why occurrences can appear to be unjust.

After presenting these opinions, Maimonides summarizes them and mentions a number of additions to the opinion found in the Torah made by Sages and Gaonim which he does not agree with. He then presents his own opinion. By structuring the discussion in this way, Maimonides suggests that his own opinion follows the opinion of the Jewish Law but will be formulated in a way which addresses the legitimate issues that necessitated the development of the other opinions. The complications which Maimonides’ view of providence must explain are: the seeming lack of natural order in what occurs to individual people, divine knowledge of everything that occurs and will occur, humans’ free will, and the apparent injustices that seem to contradict the principle of deserved reward and punishment.

Maimonides’ Opinion:

Maimonides agrees with Aristotle that the events which occur to the individuals of all other species are “due to pure chance” (III. 17, Pines p. 471) but he says that individual humans are watched over by divine providence. While Maimonides says that his opinion is based only “upon what has clearly appeared as the intention of the book of God and of the books of our prophets” (III. 17, Pines p. 471), it does build on the Aristotelian explanation of how providence works. According to Aristotle, the various intellects which exist “overflow from God… and they are the intermediaries between God and all these bodies” (II. 4, Pines p. 259). Aristotle says that divine providence only reaches the permanent things such as the species, however he also says that “the individuals of every species are also not neglected” (III. 17, Pines p. 465) in that every individual is given capacities which allow it to survive, ensuring the permanence of the species. In humans this includes the “faculty through which every one of them, according to the perfection of the individual in question, governs, thinks, and reflects on what may render possible the durability of himself as an individual and the preservation of his species.” (III. 17, Pines p. 465)

Maimonides extends this opinion of Aristotle’s and combines it with the Jewish opinion, saying

the species with which this intellectual overflow is united, so that it became endowed with intellect and so that everything that is disclosed to a being endowed with intellect was disclosed to it, is the one accompanied by divine providence, which appraises all its actions from the point of view of reward and punishment. (III. 17, Pines p. 472)

He argues that this way of extending Aristotle’s opinion makes sense since “the divine overflow that exists united to the human species, I mean the human intellect, is merely what exists as individual intellects” (III. 18, Pines p. 475). This means that the providence which reaches the human species through the overflow of intellect does in fact reach individuals of the species.

Likewise, Maimonides interprets the Jewish opinion of providential reward and punishment in a way which makes it fit into an Aristotelian natural order. Since providence over human individuals depends on the divine overflow of intellect, it watches over each person proportionately to the intellectual excellence that he has achieved.

The fact that some individuals are preserved from calamities, whereas those befall others, is due not to their bodily forces and their natural dispositions… but to their perfection and deficiency, I mean their nearness to, or remoteness from, God… those who are near to Him are exceedingly well protected… those who are far from Him are given over to whatever may happen to befall them. (III. 18, Pines, p. 476)

According to this, the “punishment” for those who lack perfection is that they are not governed by divine providence, instead everything that occurs to them is the result of pure chance.

The major argument which Maimonides must defend his theory against is the observation that there are wicked people who do well and good people who have many evil occurrences befall them. First, Maimonides addresses the possibility that this disorder is a consequence of God’s ignorance of what happens to individual species, an opinion which is incompatible with his explanation of divine providence. He explains that ignorance would be a deficiency in God which must be denied (III. 19, Pines p. 477) and therefore the nature of God’s knowledge must be explored in order to understand why it does not contradict empirical observations of what occurs. Maimonides’ key insight on this topic is that confusion about God’s knowledge is caused by extrapolating from the nature of human knowledge to God’s knowledge when in fact God’s knowledge is fundamentally different from human knowledge.

we do not know the true reality of his knowledge because it is His essence, we do know that He does not apprehend at certain times while being ignorant at others… that His knowledge is neither multiple nor finite; that nothing among all the beings is hidden from Him; and that His knowledge of them does not abolish their natures, for the possible remains as it was with the nature of possibility (III. 20, Pines, p. 483)

Any apparent conflicts between divine knowledge and actual occurrences must be attributed to limitations in human understanding, not God’s.

The Book of Job and the Problem of Reward and Punishment:

After bracketing the problem of knowledge in this way Maimonides is left to tackle the bigger problem of explaining observed occurrences which contradict the principle of reward and punishment. According to Maimonides the authoritative Jewish source on this question is the book of Job. Maimonides explains that Job is a parabolic esoteric book which uses repetition to hide the particular notions expressed by the characters in it. (III. 22,23, Pines p. 486,495) Maimonides uses hints and “mention” to convey the “great enigmas” and “truths than which none is higher” (III. 22, Pines p. 486) contained in the book of Job. I will attempt to reconstruct the interpretation that Maimonides presents through these hints.

Satan, who causes Job’s misfortune, is not present intentionally but rather as a by-product of the existence of the other “sons of God” which act as agents in creating the natural order. Satan’s existence is a particular feature specifically of the earthly realm because of its nature. The effects of Satan’s actions only reach terrestrial things, but cannot affect the human soul. However, because Job is not wise or intelligent, he is not a recipient of the divine providence which overflows specifically onto the intellect, and therefore is left to the mercy of the pure chance which governs the world. (III. 22, Pines p 487-489)

According to a dictum of the Sages “Satan, the evil inclination, and the angel of death are one and the same” (III. 22, Pines p. 489). Satan is the nature of the physical, earthly world of generation and corruption which provides opportunity for the evil inclination to lead one astray, resulting in misfortune according to the pure chance which governs the rest of the natural world apart from the perfect who are watched over by divine providence. Maimonides makes this clearer in a number of other discussions. In his discussion of the nature of divine overflow he says “imagination… is also in true reality the evil impulse” (II. 12, Pines p. 280). In the discussion of man’s form which “is the image of God and His likeness” being “bound to earthy, turbid and dark matter” (III. 8, Pines p. 431), Maimonides makes clear that the very nature of this world creates a struggle of human intellect over the low, physical nature which is “consequent upon his matter” (III. 8, Pines p. 431). He says that noble people

seek a state of perpetual permanence according to what is required by their noble form. They only reflect on the mental representation of an intelligible, on the grasp of a true opinion regarding everything, and on union with the divine intellect, which lets overflow toward them that through which that form exists. Whenever the impulses of matter impel such an individual toward… the generally admitted shame inherent in matter, he feels pain because of his entanglement, is ashamed and abashed… (III. 8, Pines p. 432)

One without intellect who does not overcome his base matter follows the evil inclination, i.e. the imagination, and, as Maimonides already explained, does not receive divine providence. He is left to suffer the chance circumstances of the material world. The discussion of evil also confirms this interpretation. Maimonides writes that1

it may in no way be said of God… that He produces evil in an essential act; I mean that he … has a primary intention to produce evil… He only produces being, and all being is good. On the other hand, all the evils are privations with which an act is only connected… through the fact that God has brought matter into existence provided with the nature it has – namely, a nature that consists in matter always being a concomitant of privation… it is the cause of all passing-away and to being attained by any of the evils. (III. 11, Pines p. 440)

Secrets of Providence:

After explaining the reason for the evils which befall righteous individuals, Maimonides continues to explain the rest of the book of Job’s secrets regarding divine providence. Job’s original opinion and those of his three friends correspond to the four opinions of providence previously outlined. These opinions are criticized by God. Specifically, about the opinion of Eliphaz, which Maimonides says corresponds to the opinion of the Jewish Law, God says “For ye have not spoken of Me the thing that is right” (III. 23, Pines p. 492). The true opinions are those of Elihu and Job after his revelation. Elihu says that several times throughout an individual’s life an angel may intercede and rescue him from the evil circumstances into which he has fallen. These occasions correspond to the occasions when “God speaketh once, yea twice” (III. 23, Pines p. 495) to a man through prophecy, which occurs when his intellect overflows into his imaginative faculty (II. 36, Pines p. 372). According to Maimonides, Elihu’s opinion is confirmed by his description of the natural world. Likewise, Job’s revelation which leads him to the true understanding of his situation consists solely of descriptions of nature. By understanding that the nature of how the world works is not similar to anything which is within human ability to apprehend one can understand that it is impossible to comprehend divine providence. One must simply believe that there is divine providence which cannot be fully understood. This will allow him to accept the evils he sees in the world without them causing any “doubts regarding the deity” (III. 23, Pines p. 497).

There is an inherent contradiction in this exposition of divine providence. According to Maimonides, the main point of the most important biblical source on providence (a source which supersedes even the common opinion of the rest of Jewish Law) is that it is impossible to apprehend divine providence. Yet in these very chapters Maimonides has gone a long way in explaining providence, and he explains even more in another discussion of providence in the final chapters of the book. Maimonides explains that the realization of the incomprehensibility of providence will lead one to not become doubtful as a result of the misfortunes which occur. But in Chapter 51 he explains how misfortunes occur to perfect people and says that it is this explanation which resolves the doubts raised by philosophers regarding the misfortunes that befall excellent individuals (III. 51, Pines, p. 625).

In the final section of the Guide about achieving human perfection Maimonides expands his explanation of divine providence. “The intellect which overflowed from Him… toward us is the bond between us and Him” (III. 51, Pines p. 621) which can be strengthened by focusing on loving and knowing God and weakened by ignoring God and occupying oneself with other things. The most perfect prophets – Moses and the Patriarchs – reached a state such that their intellect was always occupied with God and this bond was always present. This allowed them to receive divine providence even when they were occupied with material things (III. 51, Pines pp. 623-624), and, in the case of Moses, “all the gross faculties in the body ceased to function” (III. 51, Pines p. 620). For other people, even those “endowed with the most perfect apprehension” (III. 51, Pines p. 624), there are always times at which their thoughts are emptied of God, and in those times “providence withdraws” (III. 51, Pines p. 625). This is not a complete withdrawal to the state of those with “no cognition at all” (III. 51, Pines p. 625) who are like those that walk in darkness, but rather it is like someone on a cloudy day who is separated from the light of the sun. Maimonides’ “extraordinary speculation” (III. 51, Pines p. 624) is that any evils of the world which befall the perfect men and prophets must occur during these times of preoccupation with other matters, when they are occupied with their intellectual apprehension of God “all evils are prevented from befalling” them (III. 51, Pines p. 626). This explains why it appears that misfortunes occur to excellent people – they are all during times of preoccupation with things other than God when divine providence is cut off. It also fits together with the earlier statement that the intervention of an angel will save a man only several times in his life – most people do not reach the level of true apprehension and love of God except for during a few brief “lightning flashes” in the darkness of their life.

It is now possible to address the problem with Maimonides exposition of divine providence mentioned above. Most of what Maimonides has said about providence is negative – he claims that most of the time most people are not the recipients of personal divine providence. In keeping with his view of negative theology, he claims that the most important lesson about divine providence is that it is in no way similar to human providence and it is beyond all apprehension. He explains why there is usually no divine providence – it is part of the nature of the material world of generation and corruption which separates it from God. He says that humans can overcome this limitation of the material world through their intellects and describes what happens as a “bond” caused by the “overflow” of divine intellect and an individual person’s intellect. However, he does not explain how this happens, it is something which is beyond apprehension and tied to the similarly incomprehensible ability for prophecy, and can result in miraculous interventions which save one from the misfortunes which occur to all those around him. He has indeed left the key question of how individual divine providence is able to occur in the natural world as something which is impossible to apprehend, as he claimed.

Trials in the Torah:

There is one last issue which Maimonides as biblical interpreter must address, particularly since it is a potential cause of perplexity for students of the bible. This issue is the problem of trials – cases in the Torah where it seems that God caused misfortune to befall someone or a group of people who have not sinned in order to give them a reward. Maimonides addresses all the cases in the Torah where this occurs and shows that in all of them the purpose of the trial is to make known the degree of the faith or obedience of the individual or group who is being tested (III. 24, Pines p. 499). In this way he removes the possibility of becoming confused by the words of the Torah into a wrong belief regarding the nature of providence.


A proper understanding of divine providence is considered by Maimonides to be one of the most important secrets of the Torah which is necessary to achieve human perfection. Divine providence is inherently related to prophecy, divine knowledge, God’s actions in the world, the Jewish notion of reward and punishment, and the conflict between human beings’ base matter and imagination and their divine image, the intellect. By defining a number of inviolable principles such as absolute human free will, the impossibility of any ignorance or injustice being attributed to God, and the Jewish idea of reward and punishment, Maimonides is able to combine ideas from Aristotelian philosophy, traditional Jewish sources, and the key biblical source on providence, the book of Job. The understanding that results from this is that punishment is the absence of providence which leaves one susceptible to the pure chance of the natural world, and reward comes in the form of miraculous protection provided by providence whose mechanisms in the natural world are impossible to apprehend. By understanding that one cannot truly apprehend how providence works, one is able to gain a more perfect understanding of God which will be strengthened rather than shaken by the natural order of what occurs in the world of generation and corruption as a necessary result of its material nature.

David Pellow is studying for a degree in Engineering Science at the University of Toronto

1 Compare the use of “intention” in this quotation and in the explanation of Satan’s presence among the sons of God


Filed under Philosophy, Rationalism

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