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All Evolutionists are Atheists!? The Polemical Battle Underlying the Creation-Evolution Debate

It has virtually become a truism: religious practitioners believe that God created the world ex nihilo, while atheists put their money on the Big Bang – and subsequently evolution – for their own cosmogonic picture. This division, though, is no longer limited to the worlds of theology and physics alone. Today, the media, political parties, the Supreme Court and even public schools have joined the debate by also bifurcating into one of two camps: the God-fearing or the Godless. Consequently, as time passes and the propaganda multiplies, the chasm separating the two yawns farther apart making reconciliation less and less likely an option for two so myopic stances.

This insurmountable divide is all the more surprising when one notes how little the majority of both groups actually grasp of the pertinent arguments. Unfortunately, Isaac Asimov’s estimation that “[t]ens of millions of Americans, who neither know nor understand the actual arguments for – or even against – evolution, march in the army of the night with their Bibles held high,”[1] can be equally applied to hordes of evolutionists brandishing their favorite personal argument from evil. There can be no doubt that most atheists who fall before evolution’s supremacy cannot even enumerate Darwin’s most pivotal contributions to evolutionary biology or the humanities – let alone the five historical epochs the evolutionary theory rests upon. Similarly, as Asimov posits, their religious equivalents would be just as hard pressed to explicate a medieval exegete’s or a Church Father’s approach to a particular topic of the creation narrative. With few exceptions, most people simply recognize that their own position is true without troubling themselves with all the fine points or the facts of the issue.

The two sides, however, rest upon unequal grounds. Creationists – who for the most part garner their approach from the Bible – possess a plethora of available approaches in which to construe the Bible’s cosmological account when faced with practical difficulties.[2] Atheists, on the other hand, are to a great extent trapped by their own beliefs. What is the alternative to some form of evolutionism? – to believe the world is the product of a purposeful Creator – that is the exact notion they seek to exclude. By default, as the evolutionary theory is the only viable alternative to creationism and God, atheists side with the less God-infused approach.

Notwithstanding the transparent agendas present on both sides of the picket lines, we need not take for granted the necessity for such polarized factions and concise schisms. Today, we possess the proper philosophical and historiographic tools to question the necessity of the aforementioned truism. Is it truly necessary that atheists gravitate towards evolution instead of its alternative cosmological picture: creatio ex nihilo, or that creationist and evolutionist camps be consistently represented by theists and atheists respectively? Is it a historical accident that this correspondence became the case, or was there no other way for history to play itself out? While the apparent impetus that leads creationists and evolutionists to gravitate towards a respective cosmological camp is clear, the actual root of the argument lies much deeper than the issue of theism alone: many times, cosmology is just the face for much more serious concerns. Accordingly, we will scrutinize the philosophical and theo-political assumptions underlying the various methodologies employed by several religion traditions in their interpretation of the opening lines of the Genesis narrative. By doing so, a more-clear and accurate picture of the various camps’ motivations will materialize. Subsequently, we will show why evolution need not be equated with atheism.




Even though the Talmudic Sages may have already proffered an interpretation of a biblical verse, the medieval biblical exegetes (Rishonim) boasted a certain leeway in rendering a verse according to the p’shat (simple read) over its Talmudic treatment. This does not mean that some exegetes were not extremely reliant on the Talmud’s and Midrash’s exegesis, but, nonetheless, a Rishon could still accept, reject, or amend the Talmudic treatment of a verse to better fit with his own exegetical and philosophical underpinnings. Accordingly, along with the power to elucidate the Divine text, the traditional commentator bears the daunting task of wielding God’s stamp of truth with every penned word. Historically, this license has seen the Bible pass through the hands of Gnostics, neo-Platonists, mystics, rationalists and fundamentalists, without ever arriving at a clear consensus of who, if any, should be the true torch bearer.

With this in mind, we will analyze the staples of medieval biblical exegesis not to see what they said, but by reading between the lines, to see why they commented as they did. Generally, it is exceedingly difficult to uncover a commentator’s motives or underlying assumptions; to some, it is heresy to even intimate that the biblical exegete has any agenda. Accordingly, we will limit our examination of each exegete to his commentary on the Bible’s initial verses. By analyzing commentary on the same verses, the variance and disagreements between the exegetes itself will be telling of the specific methodology employed. And we shouldn’t let the simplicity of the King James translation induce us into thinking the first verses are noncomplex or monolithic; the array of following commentaries will make it evident that the Bible’s initial words are anything but obvious.

To start, we will first look at the most renowned of the medieval biblical commentators: R. Shlomo Yizhaqi (1040-1105). He suggests that the first two verses of the Bible are an introductory sentence for the rest of the Genesis narrative. He is forced to explain as such as the first word ‘בראשית’ – usually translated as ‘In the beginning’ – is actually a noun in the construct state. Hence, a better translation would be ‘In the beginning of.’ Because another noun does not follow ‘בראשית’ – as one would expect in the case of a noun in the construct state – R. Yizhaqi takes it for granted that the Bible has an implied word following the first word.[3] He, first and foremost, feels compelled to uphold the grammatical integrity of the verses, and thus interprets them as follows:

In the beginning of [creation], God created the Heavens and the earth when the earth was tohu and vohu and there was darkness…[4]


In this reconstruction of the opening verses, he inserts a noun into the narrative in order for the verse to read properly. Accordingly, the Bible does not inform the reader of the actual order of creation in its first two verses; they are simply prefatory to the rest of the Genesis narrative. R. Yizhaqi further buttresses his claim by pointing out that the Bible only later specifies that the Heavens were formed on the second day (so they could not have been created on the first day) and that the spirit of God seems to hover over the surface of the waters (even before they were ever officially created on the third day). R. Yizhaqi’s insistence on interpreting the Bible’s first word in line with the verse’s true grammatical structure forced him to: (1) assume the implied word ‘creation’ in the initial verse, (2) interpret the verse as an introductory sentence, and thereby keep a literal translation of the latter half of the verse (as actually referring to the Heavens and the earth) as well, (3) render the prefix vav (and) that precedes the second verse as a conjunction meaning ‘when,’ instead of its more common rendering as the connective ‘and,’ and last (4) accept the Talmud’s[5] assertion that the Heavens were constructed from fire and water. Accordingly, R. Yizhaqi is not swayed by any political or philosophical motives; what he believes to be the best read, the p’shat, is the final litmus test for him (in this case); his philosophy is formed and molded by the best read of the text.[6]

R. Abraham Ibn Ezra (1092-1167), who is renowned for his outstanding grammatical expertise, focuses instead on the diction of the verses at hand. Following suit with other Jewish neo-Platonists of his era, R. Ibn Ezra rejects the commonly accepted understanding of ‘בראשית’ as referring to creation ex nihilo for philological reasons. He cites verses 21 and 27 as 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 entity was not created ex nihilo. Bearing this in mind, R. Ibn Ezra concludes that the etymology of the first word in the Bible (ברא) refers not to ‘creating’ but to the ‘cutting’ or ‘setting boundaries’ of something that had already existed. Accordingly, he is able to justify the Neo-Platonists’ contention that an original matter existed for which God ‘cut’ or ‘set boundaries.’ Hence, the Bible itself lends support for R. Ibn Ezra’s neo-platonic understanding of the world’s beginnings.

Nachmanides (R. Moshe ben Nachman, 1194-1270) has a different agenda altogether. From the very start of his commentary on the Bible, he highlights that those who reject creatio ex nihilo reject the Torah of Moses.[7]

For there is a great need to begin the Torah with ‘In the beginning God created,’ for that is the basis of our faith, and someone who does not believe in it, but thinks that the world has existed eternally, he is a heretic in a fundamental, and has no connection to Torah at all.


All grammatical and lexicographical issues are secondary to the ultimate aim of the verse. To him, the opening verses can refer to nothing but creation ex nihilo. Only after this not-so-subtle proviso, he goes on to explain the opening verses of the Genesis narrative. He continues by differentiating between the verb (ברא) and two other similar meaning words: ‘formed’ (יצר) and ‘made’ (עשה). He explains that the cognate ברא exclusively indicates the creation of something from absolute nothingness (יש מעין), while the words ‘formed’ and ‘made’ are used to describe making something out of a pre-existing material – they never denote creatio ex nihilo[8] – even though, as R. Ibn Ezra observes, ברא is employed occasionally to mean ‘not creation ex nihilo.’

In line with his focus on creation ex nihilo, Nahmanides is forced to interpret the first verse in its colloquial non-literal sense ‘In the beginning,’ instead of R. Yizhaqi’s more precise translation of ‘In the beginning of.’ Owing to this understanding, Nachmanides explains the other two key terms of the verse “the Heavens and the earth” (השמים and הארץ) non-literally as well, given that the Bible proclaims the Heavens were created on the second day. Nahmanides understands that the usage of the two terms in the first verse designate the potential for all future stages of physical reality. In other words, God executed one act of creation; an infinitely small substance was first created and then it went through a kind of non-Darwinian evolution (a form of super evolution) with the hand of God directing the world’s formation and development. He explains the phrase “the Heavens and the earth” in light of his contemporary Greek knowledge. They correspond, first to the hyle matter, and subsequently, to the four primary elements. Far beyond the two explanations of the aforementioned medieval exegetes, Nahmanides is willing to completely undermine the literal sense[9] of the first verse in order to buttress his philosophical and scientific framework.

While we could end our Jewish exegetical section here, it seems only appropriate to conclude our study on the first verses of Genesis by looking towards the halakhic-philosophic giant of the medieval era: Maimonides (1138-1204). Though he never wrote a systematic commentary on the Bible, one can cull his opinion on many verses by reading his other works. He devotes much of the second book of the Guide for the Perplexed to the issue of creationism, so it would be impossible to put forth even a truncated analysis of his viewpoint. Instead, we will simply take note of the methodology he implemented when his contemporary science or Aristotelian logic contradicted the literal gist of a biblical text. In the Treatise on Resurrection,[10] published near the end of his life, he says that:

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.


Unlike other medieval commentators, Maimonides always refrained from betting the farm on any specific interpretation. He would exclude the literal meaning of a text when it could be demonstrated logically to be false; obviously, the Divine text could not impart fallacious information. Consequently, by the story of creation, he says without hesitation:

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[11] 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. (italics mine)[12]


While Nahmanides deems one heretical for rejecting the creatio ex nihilo position, Maimonides asserts 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 Bible, and would accept it without hesitation.[13] Maimonides emphatically proclaims Themistius’ rule that “That which exists does not conform to the various opinions, but rather the correct opinions conform to that which exists.”[14] In a similar vein, even R. Yehuda ha-Levi, the author of the Kuzari, who is more sympathetic to the viewpoint of Nahmanides, 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…[15]


Obviously, R. ha-Levi understood that a person must follow his own perception of truth. Similarly, Maimonides did not feel obliged to follow the literal sense of the Bible where it led him towards philosophically or scientifically inadmissible conclusions.

So, we have seen that the four aforementioned exegetes each present widely differing criteria (and methodologies) for interpreting the opening verses of the Genesis narrative. R. Yizhaqi focuses on the grammatical integrity of the verse, R. Ibn Ezra upon the diction, Nahmanides highlights his own philosophical and scientific underpinnings, and Maimonides accepts the literal understanding of the verse until it is contradicted by some demonstrated truth.




This bias in the exegetes’ interpretation of the Genesis narrative, especially prevalent in Nahmonides’ approach to the opening verses of Genesis, is equally evident in the Christian approach to creation. The Christian right of America, generally identified with the Evangelical or conservative Protestant movements, has promoted a take on creationism that is based on a hyper-literal reading of the Genesis account.[16] They have aligned themselves with the scientific creationist movement (or young-earth creationists) who believe that the world is less than 10,000 years old.

Much to the surprise of many, scientific creationists refrain from claiming that all of their insights into the creation and subsequent development of the world are explicitly stated in the Bible; rather, they piece together a cosmological picture based on the logical implications of a holistic read of the Bible, embracing modern science when it buttresses their argument. To be able to piece together such an integrated cosmological picture is obviously an exceedingly tough task, but to construct one that fits accurately with the suppositions of both archaeology and science is daunting. The much heralded former engineering professor-turned-anti-evolutionist, Henry M. Morris, has assembled such a picture, and has so effectively promoted its validity, that approximately forty percent of the American population regard Morris’ picture of creationism as correct. Of course, the fact that he has founded a journal, an institute for creation research, a college (Christian Heritage College) and has written over fifty books including his three-volume boxed set The Modern Creation Trilogy, may have helped a bit.

His basic assumption, identifiable with conservative Christians, is that the creation account in Genesis provides a:

“marvelous and accurate accounts of the actual events of the primal history of the universe,” that goes “far beyond those that science can determine,” while offering “an intellectually satisfying framework within which to interpret the facts that science can determine.”[17]


In other words, if one wants true scientific ratiocinations without all the fuss of the scientific method, one need look no farther than the Bible. Evolutionary theory, along with all other scientific notions that contradict the literal sense of the Bible should be disregarded, for who knows science better than God – the founder of the rules of science.

Within the ranks of scientific creationists, there are no secular thinkers or apologists for the “Word of God” in the Bible. The Bible is the most vital and central book that guides their lives and it contains nothing but truth. They are taught from the earliest days of their youth the Biblical stories and the centricity of Jesus Christ. But, one has to wonder why the Christian right has put so much effort into promoting their cosmological approach. Besides journals, a seemingly endless array of creationist books, and a college, they have even built a twenty-six million dollar Creation Museum in Petersburg, Kentucky – a 60,000 square foot museum built on five acres of flatland and designed by an ex-Universal Studios exhibit director that presents an alternative theory to that of evolution – and they plan on making several more in other American cities.

With this kind of high-tech hype, overwhelming media attention on the internet, and in the news, as well as the seemingly endless public school debates – the Scopes trial was over eighty years ago![18] – it would seem that this is the key issue that Protestants fight for in America. What Christian issue is given more prominence in the news than creationism? Ironically, as of late, the world is exposed to less “Jesus talk” and more creationism. However, we should wonder: is this issue truly the key issue between the conservatives and the rest of the world that Christians willing go into battle over – and if it is, then why? One would imagine that the notions of Jesus’ Messiahship, the notion of salvation or the Afterlife would be higher on the laundry list than promoting Old Testament creationism.

In order to understand the pivotal role that creationism must play in Christian theology, we will look towards the roots of the Protestant Reformation. Before the sixteenth century, many other groups splintered from the Church before Martin Luther (1483-1546) – an Augustinian monk and professor of theology at the University of Wittenberg – triggered the bifurcation of the Church. These revolutionary groups sought to reform the Church and its teachings, though never intended to disunite Christendom. Nonetheless, until the pope officially recognized certain splinter groups, they hung in limbo on the narrow stretch between orthodoxy and heresy.[19] Like the Waldenses of the 11th century,[20] the English cleric John Wycliffe (1328-84) and the Bohemian priest Jan Hus (1373-1415), these dissenters knew that there was something awry in the Church and its teachings, and aspired to repair it.

The hallmark of the Protestant Reformation, like the Karaites before them, was the importance placed on the primacy of Scripture – individualistic, subjective reading of the Bible, that recently has led to a hyper literalistic approach to reading the Old Testament. The root cause of Luther’s protestations was his own Church experiences in the 16th century. While the Church decided early on to reject the obligation to uphold most of the Biblical commandments and ritual cult, Luther pined over the fact that the modern incarnation of the Church simply replaced the old commandments with a litany of new commandments, sacraments and indulgences, none of which were clearly indicated in the New Testament. They rejected one set of laws, only to impose a whole other set – a set completely determined extra-biblically. Luther felt that the Catholic Church had missed the boat and was prescribing exactly that which Pauline Christianity came to wipe out.[21]

As Luther’s Protestant views came into focus, next to sola fide and sola gratia, stood sola scriptoria, the Scripture principle. With the primacy of Scripture as the fundamental principle upon which all Protestantism rests, it is clear why Christian conservatives put so much weight on the actual words of the creation narrative. In contrast to medieval Catholicism, which was content to interpret the Bible allegorically or spiritually, Luther insisted on the literal sense of Scripture. Accordingly, if the Protestant movement abstained from upholding the literal truth of any aspect of the Bible, then their whole argument against the Catholic Church would be completely undermined.[22] Hence it follows that in and of itself, the creation narrative may be relatively unimportant from a Christian perspective, for Jesus’ message would be true independent of which creation process God chose to implement. Nonetheless, the opening verses of the creation narrative must remain literally interpreted as it rides upon the coattails of other more significant Protestant theology that also must be interpreted literally.[23] For if one can challenge or undermine the Bible’s message or intent in one area, there is nothing to stop people from doing so in other areas. For once we allow even the points that are less important and non-crucial to be interpreted allegorically, symbolically, metaphorically, etc., then we open the Pandora’s Box that ends with the vindication of the Catholic Church, the sacraments, indulgences and its overwhelming authority.[24]




Unlike Conservative Christians, Catholics are in no way bound to the literal reading of the Old or New Testament. To the contrary, commentators within the Catholic world have produced countless interpretations of the Genesis narrative, from significantly different vantage points, and will continue construing the text based on the archeological, scientific and philosophical findings that arise in each generation.[25] The Church has not institutionalized an official way to read the Genesis narrative, and unless the Church actually deems some way to be heretical or to be officially binding, all may carry on producing their own stances on most of the Genesis account.

Far removed from this approach has been the Church’s stance on Darwinism as reflected in the positions of the various popes since the nineteenth century. The first pope to respond to Darwin’s theory propounded in Descent of Man was Pope Pious IX. He writes that Darwinism is:

a system which is so repugnant at once to history, to the tradition of all peoples, to exact science, to observed facts, and even to Reason herself, [it] would seem to need no refutation. Did not alienation from God and the leaning toward materialism, due to depravity, eagerly seek a support in all this tissue of fables.[26]


More recently, the official stance of the Catholic Church on the creation-evolution debate has been propounded by Pope John Paul II.[27] He begins his article Evolution and the Living God by acknowledging that “revelation, [the Holy writings] for its part, contains teachings concerning the nature and origins of humanity,” and continues, “We know, in fact, that truth cannot contradict truth.” Accordingly, one would assume that the past pope plans on giving revelation its fair shake against the conclusions of science; but, he never does. Instead, he quotes his predecessor, Pope Pius XII’s opinion found in Encyclical Humani generic “that there was no opposition between evolution and the doctrine of faith about humanity and human vocation, on condition that one did not lose sight of several indisputable facts.”[28]  Pope John Paul II claims that:

New knowledge leads us to the realization that evolution is more than a hypothesis. It is indeed remarkable that this theory has been progressively accepted by researchers, following a series of discoveries in various fields of knowledge. The convergence, neither sought nor fabricated, of the results of work that was conducted independently is in itself a significant argument in favor of this theory.[29]


Besides recounting that man is created in the image and likeness of God, Pope John Paul II does not deal with any other details of the Genesis narrative in this essay. For his purposes here, they are completely worthless. The importance of the Genesis narrative lies in the details involving man’s relationship to God; the rest – the vast majority of the narrative – need not worry the theologian or the scientist.

However, Pope John Paul II insists that theistic evolution[30] is acceptable only as long as it coincides with revelation. He says that

theories of evolution which, in accordance with the philosophies inspiring them, consider the mind as emerging from the forces of living matter, or as a mere epiphenomena of this matter, are incompatible with the truth about humanity.[31]


Thus, Pope John Paul II accepts the conclusions of scientists, but only as long as they do not contradict “revelation.” But what does Pope John Paul II mean by “revelation?” For those of the Jewish or Islamic faiths, revelation would denote either the Divine words recorded in the Tanakh or the Qur’an respectively. So we might be suckered into thinking that the Pope means to imply the messages found in the Old or New Testament by his usage of the word “revelation;” but really this is not the case. In truth, Pope John Paul II is unconcerned with the doctrines or dogmas put forth by the Holy writings.[32] Even his treatment of the man’s image and likeness of God stands upon the interpretation put forth by the conciliar Constitution Gaudium et spes that human beings are “the only creature on earth that God has wanted for its own sake.” Definitely an interesting and promising interpretation, but by no far stretch the only possible one. But from Pope John Paul II’s perspective, that is the main drive of Genesis narrative – the centricity of mankind before the Lord.

Not by a long shot was he, or his predecessor, the first Catholics to take the Genesis account, in part or in full, non-literally. This precedent was set as early on as the Early Church Fathers. Some of them thought that the opening verses of Genesis had important information about the physical world, as well as the spiritual world, but many of them subordinated the literal meaning of the text before their own philosophical outlook. For example, one would be hard pressed to find Origen’s (185-254) Platonic ideology including an apophatic God whose external self-manifestation is first revealed in the Logos[33] within a literal reading of the Bible. Similarly, though St. Augustine’s (354-430) famously exclaims “nothing is to be accepted save on the authority of Scripture, since that authority is greater than all the powers of the human mind,” his approach to Biblical exegesis in his The Literal Interpretation of Genesis can hardly be deemed literalistic. He says:

With the Scriptures it is a matter of treating about the faith. For that reason, as I have noted repeatedly, if anyone, not understanding the mode of divine eloquence, should find something about these matters [about the physical universe] in our books, or hear of the same from those books, of such a kind that it seems to be at variance with the perceptions of his own rational faculties, let him believe that these other things are in no way necessary to the admonitions or accounts or predictions of the Scriptures. In short, it must be said that our authors knew the truth about the nature of the skies, but it was not the intention of the Spirit of God, who spoke through them, to teach men anything that would not be of use to them for their salvation.[34]


Also, the Church Fathers Origen, Clement of Alexandria, Justin Martyr, St. Irenaeus of Lyons and many others put forth non-literal interpretations to several verses or even the whole of the Genesis account. It is as much part of the Church’s tradition to deal with verses as it sees fit as any of its other catecheses.

In order to understand this leeway of interpretation, we must first understand the foundation of the Church itself. The Church’s catechesis summarizes the primary details of Catholic belief including orthodox trinitarian Christianity, as well as the belief that Jesus set up the Church around the twelve apostles on earth before he died. They cite the Gospel According to Matthew as the source for Jesus’s appointments of the Church; the verse states: “And I say also unto thee, That thou art Peter, and upon this rock I will build my church; and the gates of hell shall not prevail against it.” While the present Pope is viewed as Peter’s (head of the Early Church) contemporaneous successor, bishops are the modern day successors to the apostles. This organization of the Church is kept from doctrinal error by the guidance of the Holy Spirit. The Sacred Magisterium infallibly teaches and interprets the truth of faith.[35] Accordingly, Catholics consider their philosophical viewpoints as produced by the Holy Spirit and the Church, for the most part, as infallible.

This fact is easy to see within the world of doctrinal beliefs, but it also holds true for Biblical exegesis. A surprising corroboration for this method of interpretation can be found very early on in the Gospel According to Matthew (subsequently referred to GAM) 2:23 which (possibly) quotes the verse from Isaiah 11:1 to prove that Jesus returned to Nazareth to fulfill the alleged prophecy from Isaiah: “He will be called a Nazorean.” First of all, this prophetic fulfillment is anything but: if the quotation’s source is Isaiah (11:1), the verse calls the Messiah a branch (נצר), while the verse from the GAM clearly is referring to the city Nazareth, which would have an altogether different Hebrew root (נזר).

Possibly, this prophetic fulfillment could be accounted for by transliterating the Hebrew letter zadi (צ) as a Greek zeta (ς).[36] Still, even in a transliterated text could account for the Matthean usage, it is hard to believe that this prophetic fulfillment would convince any of Jesus’ followers.[37] First, the city of Nazareth is not mentioned once in Tanakh, so there can be no prophetic fulfillments involving the famed city. Next, the GAM assumes that it was God who directed Joseph to Nazareth, yet this is not the case; the angel merely told Joseph to enter the land of Israel.[38] There is no evidence that Jesus’ family were directed or even intended to reach Nazareth. Last, and most importantly, no where in the prophetic writings, or any writing besides the GAM, does any one claim regarding the Messiah that “He will be called a Nazorean;” the Evangelist simply made it up. So what was the author of the GAM trying to accomplish by misrepresenting the Isaian prophecy?

This issue would present a crushing blow to the exegetical integrity of the New Testament if not for, as Goodwin[39] puts it, the “hermeneutic presupposition” (Divine Hermeneutic license) underlying New Testament exegesis.  By this, he means that the Church has the ability to construe a verse away from its original, intended or literal meaning in order to better fit with the Church’s theology or propaganda. Ellis explains:

In the use of the OT in the New, implicit Midrash appears in double entendre, in interpretive alterations of OT citations and in more elaborate forms. The first type involves a play on words. Thus Matthew 2:23 cites Jesus’ residence in Nazareth as a “fulfillment” of prophecies identifying the Messiah as Nazirite or a netzer.[40]

From this example, it is evident that already in the period of the writing of the New Testament, Evangelists assumed that they enjoyed the authority to construe the Old Testament to buttress their own theology, very much as the rabbis exploited a similar methodology through the use of Midrashic exegesis. With the exception of the early second century movement Marcionism – which rejected that the vengeful god of the Old Testament was identical with the loving god of the New Testament – the Old Testament was always a ripe source for the Evangelists to procure prophetic fulfillments, messianic ideology and pseudo-Jesus references. Just as these Old Testament construals were deemed by the Early Christian to be accurate and true in God’s eyes, analogously, the Catholic Church also feels that they may construe the Testaments however they see fit. The existence of the Church’s Divine right to authoritatively interpret the Bible might explain why it took so many centuries for the Church to encourage Bible study,[41] for the literal sense of the text does not convey Divine truth; rather, Divine truth rests solely within the authoritative interpretation of the Church. Therefore, some verses will be construed away from their obvious meaning, while others may be (seemingly) totally disregarded: accordingly, grace is not a free gift of God; it is gift to those who accept and follow the whim of the Church.

Now it is clear why the Catholic Church has accepted a version of evolution as their official cosmological picture. Above all, the Catholic Church stands for their own unflinching authority. Salvation is not attained through metaphysical speculation or individualistic spiritual development, but solely through accepting the Church’s pathway to heaven. This position parallels the stance taken by the Buddha, and since characterized by Theravada Buddhism in Southern Asia, towards metaphysical speculation. Malunkyaputta, a monk and student of the Buddha, was drawn towards abstruse cosmogonic speculation and decided to seek the truth from his master. The Buddha responded:

Well, Malunkyaputta, anyone who demands the elucidation of such futile questions which do not in any way tend to real spiritual progress and edification is like one who has been shot by an arrow and refuses to let the doctor pull it out and attend to the wound. If the weakened man were to say, “So long as I do not know who the man is who shot me… until then I will not allow the arrow to be pulled out or the wound to be attended to.” – that man, Malunkyaputta, will die without ever knowing all these details. A holy life, Malunkyaputta, does not depend on the dogma that the world is eternal or not eternal and so forth. Whether or not these things obtain, there still remain the problems of birth, old age, death, sorrow… all the grim facts of life – and for their extinction in the present life I am prescribing this Dhamma. Accordingly, bear it in mind that these questions which I have not elucidated… I have not elucidated purposely because these profit not, nor have they anything to do with the fundamentals of a holy life nor do they tend toward Supreme Wisdom, the Bliss of Nirvana.[42]


Just as the Buddha’s parable shows that Malunkyaputta may squander his life away by focusing on matters that do not lead one towards achieving the purpose of life or nirvana, so too, a good Catholic practitioner may miss the boat by speculating about metaphysical issues without the assistance of the Church’s authoritative positions. Really, the Church, like Buddha, places no emphasis on metaphysical notions that do not lead a person to observe the proper holy life as defined by their own respective dogmas. Whether the earth was created ex nihilo, or is eternal, or is the product of some five and a half billion years of evolution is religiously worthless; as long as one’s stance does not undermine the Church’s message and authority, any of the possibilities could be made to jive with the diction of the Bible; the Church’s Divine hermeneutic license ensures as much.

In the end, Pope John Paul II, as well as his predecessor, both accepted evolution simply because the science of the day supported it; the Bible does not really have any say in the debate. The Bible’s literal stance is no longer a viable option for interpreting the universe’s beginnings. Ernst Mayr explains that creationists believe that:

Everything in the world today is still as it was created. This was an entirely logical conclusion based on the known facts at the time the Bible was written. Some theologians, on the basis of the biblical genealogy, calculated that the world was quite recent, having been created in 4004 B.C., that is, about 6,000 years ago.[43]


But today, when creationism is not the logical choice, the Catholic Church feels no obligation to fall before the literal sense of the Bible. Evolution is accepted, not because it is the best read, but because Catholics are not truly interested in the best read. Indeed, there is no intended interpretation that we should discern on our own; there is only the canonical interpretation which the Church alone may define. Today, science is as accurate, if not a better source of the natural sciences as the Bible. In Catholicism, what matters is the hierarchal structure; knowledge of how the Bible said that God created the world is insignificant apart from the Church’s interpretation.




Before evolution was associated with atheistic schools of thought, Jewish commentators and world leaders had no fear or problems with the idea that the world is much older than six thousand years; to the contrary, many kabbalists and then contemporaneous rabbis thought the scientific findings of evolutionists supported the literal understanding of countless Midrashim and Aggadot. R. Israel Lipschutz of Danzig (1782-1860), who wrote one of the standard commentaries on the Mishnah entitled Tiferet Yisrael, says in a sermon he delivered in the spring of 1842:

And now my beloved brothers, see on what a sound basis our Torah stands. For this secret [of the world’s destruction and recreation] handed to us from our ancestors, revealed to us hundreds of years ago, can be found in nature in our own time in the clearest manner. The restless spirit of man, the desire to discover all mysteries, has [brought him to] dig and search the belly of the earth like a mole, as well as the highest of mountains, the Pyrenees  and Carpathian, and in the Cordilla mountains in [South] America, as well as the Himalayas, digging and searching until they found an awesome order of fossils, one on top of another at a hair’s distance, where one can assume that a word of catastrophe was caused through the His Divine hand, which sends fury through the land and causes it to tremble…They found in 1807 of their calendar, in Siberia, in the north of the earth under the permanent layer of ice, a mammoth elephant… Also the remains of fossilized sea creatures have been found within the highest mountains. From all this, we can see that all the Kabbalists have told us for so many years about the repeated destruction and renewal of the earth has found clear confirmation in our time.[44]


In a similar vein, R. Elijah Benamozegh (1822-1900) – who was a traditional Rabbi, philosopher and exegete of Italy – also makes use of evolution, but in a most surprising way. He asserts in Il Mio Credo (1877) that:

I believe, as science teaches, that animal forms appeared on the earth and evolved into more perfect beings… More and more perfect species have developed, one after the other, over the course of millions of years on the face of the earth. The most perfect form is Man. But will nature stop here? This would indeed be strange. Present humankind, as Renan says, will evolve into another, more prefect human being… All this is stated by Judaism, and is called the Resurrection.[45]


One can only speculate about how R. Lipschutz and R. Benamozegh would further integrate today’s evolutionary theories and concepts into their own Kabbalistic and philosophical outlooks. Nonetheless, we can see that, at least initially, the evolutionary theory was not looked on as a frightening idea sure to shake the core of Jewish beliefs.

However, one could make the case that this acceptance of modern science was only welcomed because it did not uproot any of their fundamentals of faith; had the scientists proffered conclusive evidence that for the validity of polytheism or that Zeus truly created the world, we could be sure that R. Lipschutz, R. Benamozegh and other Jewish theologians would surely censure such evidence and question the validity of the scientists’ findings. This is exactly how the late Lubavitcher scion, Rabbi Menachem Mendel Schneerson (1903-1994) acted,[46] along with most ultra-orthodox rabbis of the last fifty years in the face of evidence that the world is more than six thousand years old.

So, we must conclude, theologians are stuck upholding their tradition sometimes even against the pangs of science, but are atheists stuck upholding the evolutionary theory? We will observe that atheists are not actually stuck in the same corner as the theologian. Really, the evolutionist’s corner was self-made, and that corner, actually, is just an accident of history. To illustrate this point, we will turn to the infamous Dan Brown and his other novel, Angels and Demons.

The book’s beginning chapters describe how the Catholic priest physicist, Leonardo Vetra used the world’s largest particle accelerator to create anti-matter; in other words, he was able to simulate the Big Bang. He reasoned that his machine would render viable proof to the fact that God exists in that his machine works in the same way in which God originally acted in creating the universe. While the premise of this argument might seem tenuous at best, really, it is not one to be scoffed at. The medieval exegete-philosopher Gersonides (1288-1344) accepts a Platonic account of the universe’s origins based solely on the fact that it is a logical contradiction for new matter to be created. Hence, for him, not even God could create ex nihilo.

Let us take Brown’s fiction into the realm of reality. Let us imagine that scientists were able to create such a machine: so, within the normal rules of the physical world, it is the case that sometimes things are created ex nihilo as Vetra’s machine could. Because this machine works without the direct assistance of a deity, the scientific world would have produced an alternative to the first step of the evolutionary theory, i.e. the Big Bang; as of today, there is no alternative cosmological picture for atheists.[47] This being the case, Vetra’s machine would offer the atheistic community the alternative to evolution that they never had.

Given the possibility of a scientific alternative to theistic creationism before the theory of evolution was ever hypothesized, the world’s atheists would have happily joined the “creatio ex nihilo machine” bandwagon. That machine would offer the atheists an alternative approach – a scientific approach – to explain the world’s beginnings.[48] Therefore, creation ex nihilo would be an equally viable option for the atheistic scientific world (even though evolution would still be an option). Really, it is an historical accident that the evolutionary theory became the foundation of the atheist movement. The atheists’ stance is not a case of fact (evolution) flowing from the theology, but theology following fact. There is nothing whatsoever within atheistic dogma that forces one to side with evolution. Really, had the world played out differently, creation ex nihilo could have been associated with the God deniers, while evolution would be, at best, a competing theory.




As we have seen, the primary driving force behind Genesis exegesis, and possibly sectarian biblical commentaries in whole, is not so much what the verse says, as what the commentator thinks before ever penning a word. This point is highlighted by Rabbi Joseph Soloveitchik (1903-1991) in The Emergence of Ethical Man. He says:

I have always felt that due to some erroneous conception, we have actually misunderstood the Judaic anthropology and read into the Biblical text ideas which stem from alien sources. This feeling becomes more pronounced when we try to read the Bible not as an isolated literary text but as a manifestation of a grand tradition rooted in the very essence of our God-consciousness that transcends the bounds of the standardized and fixed text and fans out into every aspect of our existential experience.[49]


Nonetheless, R. Soloveitchik’s assertion should not be surprising, nor alarming. Most of the scholars who take the time to put forth integrated, well-thought out commentaries on the Bible, are those who are invested in its message and live according to its guidelines, as they interpret them. Therefore, of course they will interpret the Biblical narrative in line with the mores and values of their society. No matter what one’s religious orientation, and regardless of one’s acceptance of theism, we have seen that people will do what it takes to ensure that their own beliefs are manifest, not only in the physical world, but also in the Divinely inspired texts.


[1] Isaac Asimov from Science on Trial by Douglas Futuyama (New York: Pantheon Books, 1982), p. 175.

[2] For example, creatio ex nihilo, neo-Platonism, and allegorical positions (including apologist, accommodationalist, and scientific) are some of the valid approaches available to biblical exegetes.

[3] It is not uncommon for R. Yizhaqi to allow for implied words in the Bible. He proffers four other examples: Job 3:10; Isaiah 8:4, 46:10 and Amos 10:12.

[4] Rashi’s commentary on Genesis 1:1.

[5] BT Hagigah 12a.

[6] And, based on the grammatical nuances of the verse, he will accept the Midrash that best fits the exegetical issue he is addressing.

[7] Nachmonides commentary on Genesis 1:1; see also his commentary on Exodus 13:16 (D”H Ve’Atah Omer) and Leviticus 25:2 (D”H VeHene Ha-Yamim).

[8] He apologetically explains Ibn Ezra’s issue by claiming that the cognate (ברא) is employed by sea monsters to illustrate their immense size, not that they were actually created ex nihilo. He does not even try to explain the usage by mankind (probably because the intrinsic difference between man and the rest of creation is self evident.)

[9] According to Nachmanides, the whole verse is lav davqa – each word is not to be taken in its precise meaning.

[10] Treatise on Resurrection, from Crisis and Leadership: Epistles of Maimonides, trans. Abraham S. Halkin. and D. Hartman (Philadelphia, 1985), p. 228.

[11] See Maimonides, Guide for the Perplexed, (trans. Shlomo Pines, Uni. of Chicago Press, 1963), II, 30.

[12] Ibid., II, 17, p. 298

[13] See Ibid., I, 71, p. 179

[14] Ibid., I, 71, p.179

[15] Cuzari I 67

[16]  Some Evangelical Protestants take the “catastrophic approach” to creation. This approach (which parallels the modern Ultra-Orthodox understanding of creation first proposed by Kabbalists who interpolate the literal sense of the creation account with several Midrashim and Aggadot) hypothesizes that several worlds were created and destroyed on earth before the present epoch came into being. This approach, though, is exceedingly less common than the simple literal read of the Genesis account among Evangelicals. Furthermore, Protestants submit other approaches to creationism including the “gap theory” adopted rather early by Cyrus Ingerson Scofield (1843-1921) and the “day-age” theory, still agued today by Hugh Ross in his Fingerprint of God: Recent Scientific Discoveries Reveal the Unmistakable Identity of the Creator, 2nd ed. (Orange, California: Promise Publishing, 1991), and several other concordist approaches.

[17] Morris and Morris, Modern Creation Trilogy, 1:13/14.

[18] In 1925, the Tennessean high school teacher John Scopes was found guilty of violating the law against teaching evolution in the class room.

[19] This was the case regarding the Franciscan Order in 1210 and the Dominican Order in 1216.

[20] They were started by the European layman preacher Peter Waldo (d.1218) petitioning for a more literal reading of the New Testament

[21] Luther relied on the teachings of Paul that grace is a free gift of God and that faith alone justified a sinner to effectively call into question the Church’s whole ritualization of Jesus’ message. We do not intend to enter the debate whether Luther is begging the question by basing his interpretation of Christianity and critique of Roman Catholicism almost exclusively on Paul’s interpretation of Christianity.

[22] According to Luther, the super-structure of the medieval Catholic Church arose by departing from the literal sense of Scripture. He understood that the Bible itself is to provide the checks and balances; in fact, Luther and Calvin insisted on Scripture providing the foundations of a prophetic critique paralleling the prophetic rejection of the super-structure of pre-exilic Israel.

[23] For example, with no literal Fall or transmission of Adam’s curse to the rest of humankind, there is no necessity for Jesus’ death.

[24] Ironically, the hallmark of the Protestant movement, as well as the reason that there are more than ten thousand branches of Protestantism in America alone, is the freedom to interpret the Old and New Testament as one sees fit. Yet, when it comes to creationism, even though grammatically, philologically, and exegetically, there are other, of not better ways to read the text, many Protestants hold fast in their alleged literal reading of the text.

[25] In this way, the Catholic Church’s approach to exegesis closely parallels the method employed by the Jewish medieval exegetes, while the modern Protestant approach to exegesis exactly corresponds to contemporary right-wing Jewish commentaries in their censorship of non-literalism.

[26] Science on Trial by Douglas Futuyama (New York: Pantheon Books, 1982), p. 24, from Andrew Dickson White, A History of the Warfare of Science with Theology in Christendom, Vol. 1 (London: Macmillan, 1896; reprint ed., New York: Dover 1960).

[27] Evolution and the Living God, Pope John Paul II chapter 9, Peter’s Science and theology, pp. 149-152.

[28] Cf. Acta Apostolicae Sedis 42 (1950), pp. 575-6.

[29] The present pope, Pope Benedict XVI endorsed a similar statement when, in his pre-pope days as president of the Commission and head of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith in July 2004, said: “it is virtually certain that all living organisms have descended from this first organism.”

[30] The Church believes in some form of theistic teleological evolution.

[31] Pope John Paul II also wrote to the Pontifical Academy of Sciences on the subject of cosmology and how to interpret Genesis:

Cosmogony and cosmology have always aroused great interest among peoples and religions. The Bible itself speaks to us of the origin of the universe and its make-up, not in order to provide us with a scientific treatise, but in order to state the correct relationships of man with God and with the universe. Sacred Scripture wishes simply to declare that the world was created by God, and in order to teach this truth it expresses itself in the terms of the cosmology in use at the time of the writer. The Sacred Book likewise wishes to tell men that the world was not created as the seat of the gods, as was taught by other cosmogonies and cosmologies, but was rather created for the service of man and the glory of God. Any other teaching about the origin and make-up of the universe is alien to the intentions of the Bible, which does not wish to teach how heaven was made but how one goes to heaven (Pope John Paul II, October 3, 1981 to the Pontifical Academy of Science, “Cosmology and Fundamental Physics”).

[32] Obviously this is a statement that Paul would deny; nevertheless, in practive, what drives the Church is not the literal sense of the text. The Church always finds a way to interpret the Bible consistent with their beliefs.

[33] Origen says that “we have treated to the best of our ability in our notes upon Genesis, as well as in the foregoing pages, when we found fault with those who, taking the words in their apparent signification, said that the time of six days was occupied in the creation of the world” (Against Celus 6:60).

[34] See St. Augustine 2:9; also see 1:19–20, Chap. 19.

[35] The Magisterium is headed by the Pope who serves as the primus inter pares (first among equals) over the rest of the bishops.

[36] Similarly, when a ‘צ’ is transliterated into English, many times, an author will simply write a ‘Z’ with a dot under it. See BT Shabbat 117a where the word ‘בי נצרפי’ appears referring to the annex of a church.

[37] Charlesworth (Charlesworth, James H., & Weaver, Walter P. The Old and New Testaments. Valley Forge, PA: Trinity Press International, 1993) says “to many Christian readers, to say nothing of the Jewish reader, the NT’s interpretation of the Old appears to be exceedingly arbitrary,” (p. 209), and that’s putting it lightly.

[38] See GAM 2:20

[39] Goodwin, Mark J. (April 2005). Hosea and the “Son of the Living God” in Matthew 16:16.  Catholic Biblical Quarterly, 67 No. 2, pp. 265-283.

[40] p. 202, E. Earle Ellis in “How the New Testament Uses the Old” in New Testament Interpretation. Edited by I. H. Marshall. Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1978.

[41] At Vatican II, the council concluded that both clergy and laity were to continue making Bible study a central part of their lives. This only reinforced Pope Pius XII’s encouragement of scholars to study the Ancient Biblical languages for a better grasp of the original meaning of the text, in his 1943 encyclical letter Divino Afflante Spiritu.

[42] Majjhima Nikaya, I, 1966. Cited in Kenneth Morgan, ed., The Path of the Budda (New York, 1956), p. 18.

[43] Ernst Mayr, What Evolution Is, 2001, Basic Books, p. 4.

[44] Lipschutz, Rabbi Yisrael. Derush Ohr ha-Hayim in Teferet Yisrael, Danzig (1845) quoted from Raphael Shuchat’s article “Attitudes Towards Cosmogony and Evolution Among Rabbinic Thinkers in the Nineteenth and Early Twentieth Centuries: The Resurgence of the Doctrine of the Sabbatical Year” (pp. 15-48), from The Torah U-Madda Journal (2005). In many ways, the renowned R. Abraham Isaac Kook (1865-1935) put forth a similar approach to that of R. Lipschutz in regards to evolution.

[45] Benamozegh, R. Elijah. “Il Mio Credo” found in Teologia-Dogmatica E Apologetica, Liverno (1877) Vol. 1, pp. 276-77 quoted from Raphael Shuchat’s article “Attitudes Towards Cosmogony and Evolution Among Rabbinic Thinkers in the Nineteenth and Early Twentieth Centuries: The Resurgence of the Doctrine of the Sabbatical Year” (p. 29), from The Torah U-Madda Journal (2005).

[46] Rabbi Menachem Schneerson, Mind Over Matter, pp. 32-3, Jerusalem: Shamir, 2003, from R. Natan Slifkin’s The Science of Torah.

[47] Though, Bertrand Russell pointed out that, philosophically speaking, it is possible that the world was created but a moment ago, and hence there was no real historical beginning to the universe; nonetheless, atheists, for obvious reasons, would not quickly consent to that alternative.

[48] One might wonder how it is that that machine was able to work given that there was no physical existence, but this technical question would not faze the atheist. Just as s/he does not ask who initiated the Big Bang, so too, s/he would not be interested in who turned on the creation machine; the atheists could argue that sometimes stuff like that just happens, and if it did not, we would not be here to question it.

[49] Soloveitchik, Joseph B. The Emergence of Ethical Man (New York: Toras HaRav/Ktav 2005), p. 6, quoted from R. Natan Slifkin’s The Science of Creation.



Filed under Philosophy, Science

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

Is Modern Biblical Scholarship A Danger to Traditional Belief? (Part 3)

Why is King Shapiro the picture in this post? Keep reading to find out!

Just in time for Shavuot, I’ll post some notes from the question and answer session with Rabbi Menachem Leibtag and Dr. James Kugel on modern biblical scholarship and traditional Jewish belief. The first posts, notes on the presentations from Leibtag and Kugel, are available here and here.

I don’t remember all of the questions, but they can be partially inferred from my notes. The first had to do with the historical accuracy of the Torah.

In regards to this, Rabbi Leibtag emphasized what he had pretty much told us already: The Torah is not a history book. The goal of the Prophets is not to teach us history. Rather, we study Torah for the message in it. Archaeology has the goal of teaching us history, and obviously Rabbi Leibtag thinks this can be important. None the less, to focus on what happened historically seems to be to miss the point in his opinion.

Kugel added to this that it’s hard to argue with archaeologists, but as Rabbi Leibtag said, the texts are out to teach us something other than history. We all know that the Creation narrative bumps up against science. But the point of Bereshit isn’t to teach us science. The lesson there is that we must keep Shabbat, which is separated from the first six days.

Kugel also described an idea at that point which he has described elsewhere, and which we have eluded to before. This is the idea that the Torah is like an old family photo album, which has captions on the photos. The modern scholar tells us to ignore the captions. A picture doesn’t lie, so we should only pay attention to the photographs if we want to know the history of the people in the photos.

We, however, look at the photos in another way. We received not just those photos, but “all those words”, that came with them. We interpret the photos according to the captions, our Oral Torah. “What we care about is what the words mean”, not what took place in history.

On this note, I want to emphasize it is not only that the Torah is not a history book. It is also not a science book. Science is important, but the Torah focuses on what many call “the ought”, that is, what one ought to do. Science tells us how we might do it, but doesn’t provide a reasoning for us to choose one action over another. Without some goal, direction, or philosophy, there’s simply no reason why one “how” should be chosen over another. So why would the Torah be a science book?

There are other reasons to argue against the Torah being a science text book, but this isn’t the place. Back to biblical scholarship.

2) The next question was in regards to the authorship of the Biblical books. Modern scholarship seems to have challenged our traditional beliefs about who wrote the books, so should we still believe in the divine authorship of the Bible?

I think Kugel was the one to answer this. According to what I wrote down, his response was again something he had already said to us: Who cares who the prophets are? If it is divinely given, that’s good enough for us.

We don’t know the rules of prophecy, and contradiction may not be a problem in it, so that shouldn’t necessarily cause us to look for more authors anyway. There’s really no way to prove authorship one way or another.

In regards to the similarities between our religion and others (for instance, the Mesopotamian Sabbath), Kugel noted that we focus on the differences between our religions, presumably because those are the things that will tip us off to the messages in the Torah. Additionally, he noted that if Judaism had no similarities to other religions, it would have had to start from scratch.

This might confuse people as a rationale for the creation of religion; if God is communicating with man, why doesn’t He just communicate a pure divine work that has nothing to do with the rest of the world, let alone other religions?  Won’t people think our religion is just copying others, and that we made it up?

However, the truth is, there are many good reasons for Judaism to look like other religions. The basic reason is that the Torah is the meeting between the divine and man. If you want to see more, I posted about it recently here.

3) The next question had to do with the Sages, and their knowledge of the back-histories of the Bible. If the Sages didn’t know that some parts of the Bible were similar to Pagan writings and religion, why should we trust them? Additionally, would they have cared if they did know?

Rabbi Leibtag answered first, flatly telling the crowd that the question doesn’t matter at all. Again, in his opinion, perhaps the Torah has a history most of us are unaware of or not, but in the bottom line, it is divinely authored (or edited!) and we look for the messages in the Bible. This is what’s important, and we don’t really care about this kind of question.

Kugel chose to elaborate a little more on the question. In his opinion, the Sages were in fact aware of the (now) surprising history of much of Judaism (I suppose we might find it similar to Rambam’s long description of idolatrous histories of the mitzvot in MN starting 3:30-ish), but they did not focus on it. Rather, like Rabbi Leibtag said, they focused on the divine message in the Bible, as opposed to the history of the text. The divine messages and lessons are what they focused on and tried to pass on to us.

Interestingly, Kugel told us at this point that in his opinion, his work and perspectives are a continuation of the tradition of the Sages. Most of us would have thought that a professor of biblical criticism would not consider himself to be so traditional. However, tradition for Kugel is what guides us in reading the Bible. He just seems to think that the Rabbinic tradition is a little different than what most of us think (for instance, in his opinion, many of the Sages probably thought God has a body, despite Rambam’s protestations otherwise in his principles and elsewhere).

4) Finally, one questioner asked about what he termed “the elephant in the room”. It seemed many times during the night that Rabbi Leibtag and Dr. Kugel were advocating a position which contradicted our belief in Mosaic authorship of the Torah. This is of course one of Rambam’s principles of faith, and as I like to remind people, Rambam wrote that we should hate and destroy someone who does not believe in his 13 principles. So this is an important question. Should the crowd have lynched Dr. Kugel, before turning to kill Rabbi Leibtag?

Rabbi Leibtag answered first. First, he told us (for the second time that night) that in an argument between Rambam and him, you should follow Rambam.

Next, he recommended that we read Marc B. Shapiro’s amazing (my description) book on the 13 principles, where he lists many traditional authorities who disagreed with the Rambam’s formulated dogmas. These great rabbis and sages throughout Jewish history disagreed with Rambam, and (it seems) it was OK.

Additionally, Rabbi Leibtag conjectured that Rambam may have written the belief in complete Mosaic authorship for the masses. However, his own opinion may have been that it was not heresy to believe the Torah was not entirely authored by Moses (and we’ll remind readers of the opinion in the Talmud that Moses did not write the last 8 verses in the Torah).

However, one may also interpret the Rambam away from what he seems to be saying, in Leibtag’s opinion. It is not so much that Moses wrote every word of the Torah, that is important to Rambam to emphasize. Rather, Rambam wants to emphasize that every word came from God, and that it is all true. To focus on the authorship misses the point.

(I have to note here that on its face, this seems like quite a stretch as an interpretation.)

At any rate, Rabbi Leibtag emphasized that the Bible has a message for us, and to focus on who wrote Isaih and how many authors it had simply misses the point. There is a call to us, and we must listen.

Finally, Rabbi Leibtag told us that there is no fourteenth principle of faith that Rambam is always right. Perhaps he got this one wrong. This was one of the highlights of the night in my opinion.

Happily, we have now reached the disagreement between Dr. Kugel and Rabbi Leibtag. Leibtag speculated that Dr. Kugel would tell us only to study the Bible with our present traditions (the “captions” which Dr. Kugel mentioned earlier). In Leibtag’s opinion, however, we created new traditions, and we survive challenges through our Torah study.

Dr. Kugel then stood to also answer this question, and also began by recommending Dr. Shapiro’s book. He also recommended Dr. Menachem Kelner’s “Must A Jew Believe Anything?”. These are two of my favorite authors, so I will happily tell you here that I felt quite validated hearing this.

Dr. Kugel also raised the possibility that Rambam was writing for his time when he posited a pure Mosaic authorship for the Torah. At the time, it was a common Muslim attack on Judaism that Ezra had falisified the Torah, and that our Jewish tradition was in fact false. In response to this, Rambam wrote that not one word had been changed since Sinai, when Moses received the entire Torah. This would have aussuaged doubts in the Torah.

The last thing I’ll note before closing up over here is that Dr. Kugel told us that in his opinion, to read the Torah by focusing on the words without our tradition (as many Orthodox Jews, including Rabbi Leibtag at times, do today) is an exercise that must end with biblical criticism. In his opinion, there is no realistic line that can be drawn.

Dr. Kugel lingered for some time after the question and answer session, and he said many more interesting things to the group of people who pestered him, including being very gracious to the weirdo who asked him for a photo. Additionally, he remembered my wife from his class a couple of years ago, which was completely awesome. Finally, I asked him to sign his book “In the Valley of the Shadow: On the Foundations of Religious Belief”, which is a superb book which I highly recommend. Having said that, I really recommend all of his books that I have read.

I think, if there is anyone left who is interested, that I’ll continue this little series with a follow up or two. In my next post I might include some of the things Dr. Shapiro wrote in his book about great rabbis in our history who did not accept a complete Mosaic authorship of the Torah, which is really interesting. Additionally, he wrote recently on the Seforim Blog about divine authorship, and it’s worth checking out. Just to be clear, I recommend actually buying this book so you can have it around.

After the Shapiro post, I think I might post about Sarna or Cassuto, or maybe Rav Dovid Zvi Hoffman. We’ll see. I have a feeling I might be the only interested person by the time we get to that.

Have a Chag Sameach!

PS. I feel that after the first two posts, I should include another great quote from the night. Besides for Rabbi Leibtag’s remark that there’s no fourteenth principle that the Rambam is always right, the winner is probably Dr. Kugel’s statement that “I’m not schizophrenic”. People seem to think that to teach biblical criticism and believe in divine authorship is only possible for a split personality. Based on the things he said to us, I believe him; what do you think?


Filed under Philosophy, Tanakh/Bible

Is Modern Biblical Scholarship A Danger to Traditional Belief? (Part 2)

Me with James Kugel!

Me with James Kugel!

Picking up where my last post left off, I’m going to write down some of the notes I took on Dr. James Kugel’s talk at Lincoln Square Synagogue the other night. Dr. Kugel, beyond being an eminent scholar in the Bible and its early ancient interpretations, is a charming speaker with a subtle sense of humor (the same goes for his writing). He clearly enjoys the topics he writes about, and as a reader and listener, I find his attitude infectious.

Entertainingly, he began with a “PG13” warning. Biblical scholarship is not for everyone in his opinion. In fact, when asked to speak more loudly after he had listed some of the challenges that modern scholarship poses to traditional faith (he must have listed somewhere between 6 to 9 examples in quick succession), he joked that we were better off for not being able to hear him.

Some of the challenges arising from biblical criticism strike right at the heart of Jewish belief; the Torah implies (and later tradition asserts outright) that all of the Torah was given at Sinai, but the Documentary Hypothesis and its derivations argue there were many authors, who lived in different time periods. They also make this claim about several other books in TaNaKH (the Bible), and question whether or not King Solomon really wrote proverbs or the Song of Songs, and whether or not many stories in the Torah are historically accurate, including the Exodus, the conquest of Israel, and King David’s dynasty. (He mentioned that while some elements of the Exodus story have been affirmed by archeology, the evidence doesn’t seem to point to the Israelites having been there when the Torah implies.) And so on, and so forth.

In Dr. Kugel’s opinion, there are 4 ways for the faithful to approach modern biblical scholarship.

1) Dismissal of archeological evidence: Kugel thinks this is too hard to do, and he also mentioned that most Bible scholars are not out to disprove the Bible. The exception, he quipped, was in regards to the children of ministers who later become scholars. I think he really meant this though.

2) Some choose to accept what goes well with faith, and to ignore the difficult parts. Thus, we might say Isaiah has 2 authors (Ibn Ezra says this, after all!) but to say this about the Chumash itself is too hard, and we draw a line. Kugel doesn’t think this is a good idea, and he thinks if you accept the basic approach of the critics, then it is very hard to draw a line denoting when you no longer accept their conclusions.

3) To say “it’s right, but I don’t want to know”. It seems obvious to me why such an approach really doesn’t work. Kugel confessed that he is unable to live like this, and that he couldn’t hold himself back from studying research which is vital to the things he believes. In fact, he told us, it was the things that bothered him which brought him to the road he’s on now, and led to his career.

4) The fourth option isn’t hard if you think about it, or so Dr. Kugel told us. Or at least, it didn’t seem hard to him, since he’s adhered to this option for some 40 odd years.

The way Kugel phrased it, modern scholarship is NOT the truth about the Bible. Rather, it is the truth about a certain kind of way of looking at the Bible. As he explains it, modern scholarship is born in the Protestant Reformation when Protestants attacked Catholic readings of the Bible, which consisted of many oral traditions. This tactic served to undermine Catholic power and influence. The argument between the Catholics and the Protestants could be rephrased as follows: do the words of the Bible tell you the whole story? If yes, as the Protestants believed, then traditions which deviated from it should be ignored. If no, as the Catholics believed, then extra-biblical traditions were a vital part to understanding the words of the Bible. The Protestant motto was sola scriptura, “just the words (on the page) of the Bible”.

Of course, even with just the words on the page, interpretation was hard to pin down, and some people were being sentenced to death by Protestants for not keeping the Sabbath! Pinning down the objective meaning of the text being the goal, they sought to learn more about the text from just the words themselves.

What do they tell us?

If we just look at the words themselves, we’ll naturally have many questions about historical accuracy, since verification (as well as many details) is not included in the word economical Bible.This serves as the basis for modern scholarship, which to this day seeks to learn about the text from itself.

Jewish tradition, however, has a different perspective. Jews have never thought the Bible was just the words on the page, and we have always had an Oral Torah, with commentary and meaning clinging to every word. “An eye for an eye” now means money, and there are 39 categories of prohibited creative labor on the Sabbath, etc. Our Torah is incomplete without the oral traditions which came down with them.

But how old are these traditions?

Quite old, in Kugel’s opinion. Jubilees (c. 200 BCE) talks about Abraham’s 10 tests 400 years before the Mishnah does, and the Dead Sea Scrolls similarly contain many traditions which weren’t written down in Rabbinic writings until later on.

“This is no minor disagreement” in Kugel’s opinion. Modern scholarship is not interested in these traditions, but Judaism doesn’t think the Bible can be read without them. Because modern scholarship doesn’t focus on the Bible with its traditions, it should not be considered the objective truth about the Bible. Rather, when the scholarship is good, it is the truth about a certain conception, the “just the words on the page” conception, of the Bible.

As for us, we’re obsessed with the Oral traditions, which basically tell us how to fulfill the most basic idea of the Bible: How do we serve God?

If it seems the literal text of the Bible contradicts this goal, then the Sages informed us how to reread the verse. Why? Because the Oral tradition and the goal of serving God come before the literal text of the Torah. This may seem like a radical idea, but in truth, those of us who study Talmud know that the phrase “Don’t read it this way; rather understand it to mean…” is quite common.

The Torah serves as the first word in how to serve God, but this mission is continued and embodied in the Oral tradition, later written down in the Mishnah, Talmud, etc. Our oral tradition continues, and in Kugel’s opinion, now includes the prohibition of using electricity on the Sabbath. All of this in order to better serve God, in the most exact way possible.

When we stop to think about Kugel’s conception, Rabbinic Jews will probably find it easy to understand. Abraham is not the first monotheist in the Torah. Esau doesn’t really seem so bad. But the Sages read the literal words in light of Rabbinic theology, and we don’t read the Torah without the captions written in by the Sages.

In regards to the divine origin of the Torah, Dr. Kugel echoed Rabbi Leibtag’s point that modern scholarship simply cannot shine any light on this issue. We don’t know the rules of how God communicates with man, and the Torah doesn’t contain markings that tell us exactly how prophecy works. While scholars can help us understand the historical context of the Torah, in the end divine origin is beyond their purview.

However, Kugel asked, if divine origin can’t be proven (and if it can’t be disproven, it can’t be proven either), then why believe it? A rabbi once told Kugel that he thought the Torah is man’s response to the ineffable (too great to be expressed in words) God. In Kugel’s opinion, this approach is far from the truth. In fact, “ineffable” is the opposite of God’s policy. God is “extremely effable” in Kugel’s words.

What this means is that Judaism believes it is God’s policy to talk to man, and a lot. He comes into our world, and He interferes in it. A man made Torah is impossible in Judaism. Rather, God, who constantly speaks to man, comes down and gives it to us.

While we hold that God comes into our world, and that the Torah came from heaven, it is important to note that God has given it to us. There was a “hand off” (his phrase) from God to us, and now we’re in charge, and we’re responsible for interpreting the Bible.

Kugel concluded his speech by telling us that his words were basically plagiarized from his forthcoming book “The King in the Sacntuary”. I cannot wait to read it.

I’ll finish this section with Dr. Kugel’s quote of the night. He told us that a teacher in an Orthodox high school remarked to him that they were using his book, “How To Read The Bible”, to teach seniors about biblical criticism. “Don’t do that!” he responded. “It wasn’t written for people in 12th grade!”

The teacher,however, retorted that Kugel is fooling himself if he thinks seniors don’t know what biblical criticism is, and if they don’t know in high school, they’ll be in for a real shock when they get to college. At least with proper instruction, they will not find it so threatening.

I’ll finish off part 3 with some of the questions the crowd asked to Rabbi Leibtag and Dr. Kugel, and the answers they gave to them. I’ll also just mention here that after he was done speaking, Kugel twice said that he really had a lot more he wanted to say, but he didn’t have time. Some of what he wanted to say will be in his forthcoming book, and if I recall correctly, he told us at least one point he wanted to discuss is in his book on Jubilees, “A Walk Through Jubilees“. If you’re interested in it, go to a library, because it is prohibitively expensive.

Part 3 will also make explicit the disagreement between Dr. Kugel and Rabbi Leibtag that I mentioned in the last post, but if you’ve read both of them, you’ll be able to figure out what it is before I tell you.

If you’d like to submit a guest post or response, please contact me on Facebook or Twitter.


Filed under Miscellaneous, Tanakh/Bible

Is Modern Biblical Scholarship A Danger to Traditional Belief? (Part 1)

LSS scholarsip and belief

Most of us never stop to think about modern biblical scholarship, and in the Orthodox community my impression is that it’s generally viewed as either a danger to be avoided, or a seriously misguided approach to the Torah and the rest of the Bible.

But is this really true? Lincoln Square Synogogue’s Community Scholar Elana Stein Hain just organized a forum on the topic, with two presentations and a question and answer session from two of the most prominent Orthodox Bible scholars today, Rabbi Menachem Leibtag and Dr. James Kugel. Rabbi Leibtag is a teacher at the Har Etzion Yeshiva, as well a prominent teacher, lecturer, and writer on TaNaKh (Bible). He regularly lectures in both Israel and North America. Dr. Kugel,  a world renowned expert on Biblical scholarship and author of  “How To Read the Bible” (among other fascinating works), was a professor at Harvard before retiring to Israel and Bar Ilan University. 

Both speakers were superb, and I want to share some interesting points I wrote down from their presentations and answers. I’m a long time Kugel fan, so getting to hear him was very exciting for me, and I actually (and probably very awkwardly) asked him to take a photo with me. Why not?

I’ve never heard Rabbi Leibtag before, but I’ve heard high praise lavished on him, and he didn’t disappoint. I’m definitely going to check out his writings now, and I’m excited to learn some new things.

One of the most interesting points that came out of the evening was a fundamental disagreement between Dr. Kugel and Rabbi Leibtag, but I’ll get to that later.

Rabbi Liebtag spoke first. He was an entertaining speaker with some surprising views, but I think his perspectives would be considered a lot more mainstream in Israel.

If I understood him correctly, Rabbi Leibtag views modern biblical scholarship as a tool in studying Torah. This means that while we believe (unshakably) that God gave us the Torah, we don’t know exactly how this took place. Modern scholarship delves through history to find out what actually happened, and thus sheds light on this question.

This can be compared to modern science telling us how God created the world. It is our belief that He did so, but we don’t know how, exactly. Science and modern scholarship become tools to answer these questions, though in Leibtag’s opinion, archaeology is still in the baby stage.

This being the case, scholarship is not only not a danger, but a useful tool in our toolbox (this is his phrase).

The problem with modern scholarship really comes in when it comes to teaching it. In Rabbi Leibtag’s opinion, God created the world to have nations. He then chose one nation as His servants in order to bring Godliness to the world. This is the goal of the Torah, and the question is what role scholarship plays in this goal.

As we said, it is a tool in his opinion. The problem with scholarship is as follows:

The goal of Godliness may be likened to a bridge. When building the bridge, we need many parts. The cement, the pillars, etc. Sometimes we need to replace parts, and so too we sometimes replace parts in our belief system.

In his opinion, the parts we replace should not be viewed so much as traditional beliefs, but as traditional understandings of traditional beliefs. Thus, our understanding until this point in time did not include modern scholarship. Now it does, and our understanding has been somewhat adjusted.

However, the tool of modern scholarship is a “power tool”, and it’s not for kids. When we replace parts of the bridge, we need to do so carefully. If you’re ready, it’s a great tool. If you’re not, the bridge may fall apart.

That was really his main speil, I think. Importantly, he mentioned that he believes we should bring new understandings to the Torah. He quoted his teacher Rabbi Bruer as saying “You should read Torah like Rashi did: Without Rashi”. Therefore, while some understandably take the approach that a new interpretation must be wrong or one of our past interpreters would have thought of it already, the best approach is actually to read the Torah anew in every generation.

If we did not do this, no one would ever have written a commentary after Rashi, or Ramban, etc.

Tied into this point is the role of subjectivity in reading the Torah. While there are many objective tools (language and theme connections, contradictions, similar stories, etc.) in the end we make a subjective choice of how to understand the Torah, and this is our hiddush, novel understanding.

The Torah is not a book which makes simple clear points like a law book, which wants you to know exactly how to act. Rather, the Torah has many different voices, repetitions, contradictions, and styles, all of which invite the reader to delve into the text, rather than to skim it. To simply read the Torah like a book of directives is to miss how one should read Torah.

His quote of the night was in regards to this. In his pithy phrasing the Torah is “not an artscroll how to think book.” It takes effort to read it, and we have to engage in deep study and thought to use objective tools to come to a new subjective conclusion.

Part two will follow with some of Dr. Kugel’s remarks.

If you’d like to submit a guest post or response, please contact me on Facebook or Twitter.


Filed under Miscellaneous, Tanakh/Bible

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