A journey through time as viewed through a single Torah-science lens
From biblical times till the Middle Ages, science, like most other human pursuits, was intertwined with theology as normal human activities. In more modern times, with the rapid increase in scientific developments, there appeared to be a divergence between science and religion. Inclusion in one area virtually precluded inclusion in the other area. Scientists had no place for supreme beings, angels and divinely inspired miracles, and Torah scholars could not accept a science where creation takes billions of years, and has no room for a God and spiritual existence.
As a career scientist, I never thought that there was a conflict, and when I started to look into this topic, I found many areas of agreement between science and religion; the more I looked, the more I found. And it was becoming obvious that science and the Torah are, in fact, completely intertwined, and are cut from the same cloth.
The Torah, and by extension the Talmud and the Jewish people, are involved in almost all facets of human activity: art, music, agriculture, forestry, city-building, philosophy, history, economics, justice and warfare. The list is endless. They are also involved in many areas within what we now term science and technology or STEM. These include astronomy, mathematics, health, medicine, animal rearing, architecture, chemistry, epidemiology, etc.
On an individual level, there is now, and has always been, a continuum of people involved in both Torah and science. Some of the world’s greatest scientists and doctors were Jews and even great Talmud scholars, and vice versa. One does not preclude the other. In fact, I find it is interesting that Israel today may be the best demonstration of the symbiotic interrelationship between science and religion. Eretz Yisrael was the beginning of everything 5,000 years ago. It was the font of Torah teaching. Now just barely 70 years after the establishment of the modern State, the same people, in the same tiny piece of land, are a scientific dynamo. Israel is now recognized as one of the most technologically advanced nations in the world. I don’t think that is a coincidence. Torah and science have been linked from day one, literally. The very first pasuk in the Torah, in Bereshit, when Hasem said, “Let There Be Light” was not just a divine act, but also had a scientific dimension.
The many apparent conflicts between Torah and science usually come about because of differences in definition, terms, language and viewpoints, not because of different fundamental facts. Many of these have been satisfactorily resolved, and remaining ones may be resolved in the future. There appear to be other apparent disparities between science and religion, but disagreements are not unique to either science or religion.
In the field of science, mass and energy were once considered to be entirely separate entities until Einstein showed they were interconvertible with each other. The same with time and space, which were once considered separate entities, but again Einstein showed that they were both part of the same fabric of space-time. A more current controversy in science revolves around the nature of the fundamental laws governing the universe. There are the immutable laws of physics which govern the macro universe, and those of quantum mechanics which describe the laws of subatomic particles. A major problem in science today, is that these laws are not compatible with each other, and break down in each other’s domain. Some of the greatest scientists, including Einstein himself, have so far been unable to resolve the differences and come up with one universal theory of the universe. But this will probably happen at some time in the future.
In the religious arena, the major Western religions have often been bitterly antagonistic to each other, but not necessarily because of different perceived fundamental “facts.” Christianity, Islam and Judaism all had a common origin, but followed differing paths and splintered along the way, only under the influence of different apostles and cults. In Torah teachings, Beis Hillel and Beis Shammai argued about almost everything, but neither’s opinion necessarily invalidated the others. The same goes for Rav and Shmuel.
The point is that in the fields of science and religion, separately and jointly, there have been many areas of dispute, controversy, contradictions and disparities in the past, many of which have gotten satisfactorily resolved. There is no reason to assume that many of the remaining apparent discrepancies may not also be resolved in the future. One example is the debate between the Chachomim and R’ Yehuda about a person’s lifespan: whether it was predetermined at birth or whether it can be added to and/or subtracted by his actions. Today, over 1,000 years later, virtually the same debate occurs in scientific circles, as to which is more important, genetic and/or environmental factors. Same concept, different wording.
Here I will discuss some examples of apparently wide chasms between ancient Torah teachings and modern scientific thinking, and see how they mesh. I will cover them starting from the past, going into the present, and project into the future.
One of the most visible perceived conflicts in the past was between the Torah’s description of the age of the earth, which is considered to be about 5,000 years, and current scientific theories which put it at over 14 billion years. However, I am instead amazed at the agreement between them. I think the problem came about because it took scientists thousands of years to explain what the Torah so accurately described some 3,000 years ago. And in addition, making the adjustment in time scales, where one may reasonably equate 3 million man days with one God day, even both time frames become similar.
Let’s start with “day” one, when the Torah talks about God creating the heavens and the earth, which was unformed and void, and God says, “Let There Be Light.” This description in the Torah is in remarkable agreement with the current scientific description of the “big bang,” which formed the universe. Cosmologists compare the big bang to a massive supernova explosion, which is the brightest light that occurs in the universe. In fact, remnants of the big bang can still be measured today as microwave background radiation after over 14 billion (man) years.
It is important to point out that the Torah uses the word “yom,” which we translate as “day.” However, this cannot be the same as what we now call “day,” that is from one sunrise till the next, since there was no sun yet. The sun was only created on day four. Therefore, the Torah’s “yom” must be some other unspecified time interval.
On “day” two, the Torah describes the formation of heaven and earth, the “firmament.” The current scientific explanation is that the unimaginably hot primordial soup formed at the big bang evolved into the universe as we know it now, through subsequent condensations and accretions, first into subatomic particles then lighter atoms like hydrogen and helium, then into heavier atoms, and then gasses, liquids and solids. These then coalesced into larger bodies and some, under the influence of immense gravitational forces, became so large and hot that they ignited as stars, and finally galaxies. All these within the vast, supposed void of space. Again, no conflict.
On “days” three, four and five, the Torah describes the separations of the water on earth into oceans, the sprouting of vegetation on the land, and finally the formations of life as we know it, first from the seas, and then coming onto the land. Amazingly, even the chronological sequence of events is generally in agreement with current scientific theories, except for the apparent transposition of the events of days three and four. In the Torah, day three describes the earth and vegetation, and day four describes day and night. These seem to be reversed, but since the Torah is not just a book of history, but also of laws, ethics and great literature, it often describes events out of strict chronological order, depending on their content. No real conflict.
On “day” six, we see the coming of man himself. This completed the Torah’s narrative. All that remained was to wait 3,000 years for the scientists to catch up and develop their theories to verify it. There is thus no basic conflict between Torah and science on their respective descriptions of creation.
Turning now to more “spiritual” aspects of the Torah-science interrelationship, I confess that I can’t envision what shamayim looks like. My scientific background does not necessarily interfere with the concept of an afterlife, but does nothing to advance it either.
However, the once-rigid demarcation between science and theology may not be so rigid if we take a clue from the field of science itself, specifically, the field of cosmology. Cosmologists claim that when anything falls into a black hole, gravity is so strong that nothing can escape, even light. All information about that object is lost. That implies that all objects outside of black holes must have their information intact and exist somewhere. That reduces the problem to two issues: What does “information” mean, and where does it “exist”?
Time proceeds along a continuum, from the past to present to future. We know something about the past and present, but nothing about the future. From cosmology, we know something about the universe and cosmos. From geology, we know something about the earth’s makeup and history. From archeology, we know something about how our ancestors lived. From historical records, we know something about how our ancestors interreacted with each other. And from our individual recollections, photographs, recordings and writings, we even know something about ourselves, family and friends. However, all these are but tiny bits of information painstakingly gleaned from the vast amount of “information” that precedes us. But, just as each individual has a unique fingerprint and DNA signature, it is also possible that he has a unique “aura” or frequency that he constantly emits into space, which may eventually be recovered.
Thus, when someone passes from this world, what happens to all the “information” about his life? Does it all disappear? Since it didn’t fall into a black hole, it must still be “out there” somewhere with all the other stuff, which scientists call “information.” In other words, that person’s history and information, that is, some form of himself, which we can call an afterlife, continue to exist somewhere in the cosmos, i.e., shamayim.
Scientists, using very sophisticated and powerful telescopes, and also space probes, have gained unimaginable information about our universe. Most laymen are therefore surprised to learn that with all these advances, scientists can still account for less than 25% of the mass of the universe. They have no idea whatsoever what constitutes the remaining 75% of the vast universe, and simply use terms like dark matter, dark energy and antimatter as a cover for these unknowns. Even many serious physicists now feel that there may be more than the four dimensions that we know of today, and some even hypothesize that there may be alternate universes besides the one we currently observe.
This leaves an infinite amount of room out there in the “void” of space for alternate universes, civilizations or beings, including what we may call “spiritual” dimensions, consisting of angels, spirits and neshamas—in other words, shamayim. This point of intersection between Torah and science thus appears to be in basic accordance with both scientific and theological thinking, and does not seem to contradict either one.
Olam Haba—Techiyas HaMeisim
Now, I would like to follow up on these thoughts and project into the future, by discussing possible links between the popular concept of resurrection and the Torah’s concept of Techiyas HaMeisim.
Today, technologies like GPS allow the tracking of individual cars among the many millions on the roads at any one time, and human operators on earth can communicate with individual astronauts up in outer space, and spy satellites can even track the activities of a single individual among the 8 billion people on earth. In view of the exponential advances in science, it is not too far-fetched to imagine that at some point in the future, scientists will be able to tease out all the strands of “information” from single individuals, thus reconstituting his or her entire life, history and spiritual existence, which is basically what the Torah teaches as their neshama.
As for physical existence, scientists, as instruments of Hashem, may eventually be able to verify Torah teachings by providing clues from the field of genetics. They now know that specific DNA groupings are characteristic of specific species, groups, families and even individuals. And since DNA is passed down from generation to generation, individuals today possess some of the same genetic material as their ancestors. Scientists today are at the cusp of being able to clone individual beings from tiny fragments of hair, bones and teeth, so it is entirely conceivable that in the future, they may be able to clone whole bodies from individual fragments found in ancient archeological digs. And given enough time, resources, and with the help of further technological advances, they may be able to reconstruct the physical bodies of entire groups and civilizations. With these in hand, and infusing them with their individually matching neshamas, as described above, entire civilizations may be resurrected. That sounds very much like what the Torah 3,000 years ago said would happen.
This whole discussion can now be distilled into one thought—that there seem to be enough points of intersection to recognize that science and Torah may just be two sides of the same coin. They are intertwined, and are not completely separate entities, and thus all of human history can be viewed through a single combined Torah-science lens. One of the cardinal tenets of science is that information is never absolute, and is constantly evolving. So, it is reasonable to assume that as science moves forward, it will continue to converge with eternal Torah teachings.
And it may be an act of divine irony that science may not only be completely enmeshed in Torah, but scientists themselves may turn out to be the very agents chosen by Hashem to bring His projections to fruition.
Max Wisostsky lives in Highland Park and is a frequent letter writer to The Jewish Link.