Update: I have revised the original post to reflect the observation made by ProgJohn in comment five, and Raka in comment eleven.
Over at HuffPo, Rabbi Adam Jacobs presumes to explain “The Jewish View of Creationism.” The title alone is a bad sign. The standard line is that if you put ten Jews in a room you get eleven opinions. The idea that there is a Jewish view of anything is pretty unlikely.
Jacobs focuses entirely on the question of the age of the Earth, and not of biological evolution. He writes:
To the secularist, the notion that we should flippantly toss aside hundreds of years of scientific investigation unequivocally demonstrating an extremely old universe simply because some ancient tome says it was created less than 6,000 years ago is nothing short of idiocy. What I hope to demonstrate is that Judaism’s understanding of this matter (and many others) is significantly more nuanced, complex and surprising than what is currently believed to be the standard religious gloss on the subject. The truth of the matter is that Judaism is frequently (and unfairly) lumped together with other religious systems that actually have vastly different ways of looking at things.
Pretty good so far. I always bristle a bit when people refer to “Judeo-Christian” values, since I see the differences between Judaism and Christianity as far more significant that the similarities. Outside of ultra-orthodox circles most Jews do not attach much weight to doctrines and specific beliefs. It is about practice and community, and is generally focused entirely on this life.
But now things start to go down hill. What is this complex and nuanced view?
Two centuries later, Rabbi Isaac of Akko, a disciple of the great Moses Ben Nachman (Nachmanides) and one of the foremost Kabbalists of his generation, wrote some surprising commentary regarding the age of the universe. In his work “the Trove of Life,” he explains that the Earth was actually 42,000 years old when Adam was created and that these years are “divine” years and should not be thought of as 365 regular days. Rather, a divine year is 1,000 times longer or 365,250 years. He based this on a verse in Psalm 90 that says “1,000 years in your eyes is like a day gone by.” Do the math. According to Rabbi Isaac, the universe is 42,000 x 365,250, or 15,340,500,000 years old. This figure is squarely within the ballpark of where modern cosmology places the age of the universe. How did he know this? And how did he posses the temerity to conclude it in the midst of the Dark Ages? Perhaps our fundamentalism is not quite as primitive as is supposed.
Isaac was assuming that a year had 365.25 days. However, there is something very fishy in Jacobs’ arithmetic. If a divine year is one thousand times longer than a human year, then there are 365,250 days in a divine year. If we multiply the 42,000 years by 365,250 days per year, we get just over fifteen billion days for the age of the universe. In years it is, of course, forty-two million.
There is a further problem. Isaac was discussing the age of the Earth, which is nowadays estimated to be roughly 4.5 billion years old. It is the universe that is typically estimated at 13.7 billion years old. Of course, Isaac probably thought the universe and the Earth were created at essentially the same time, but Jacobs’ has no such excuse for treating them as the same question.
Presumably Jacobs meant that the universe was already 42,000 divine years old when Adam was created. If we figure on 365.25 divine days in a divine year, then we come up with just over fifteen million divine days for the age of the universe. Each of those days is a thousand human years, which implies that the universe is a little over fifteen billion human years old.
But even if we grant this amusing calculation, and blur the distinction between the creation of the Earth and the creation of the universe, we are still just cherry picking one ancient scholar who lucked into the right order of magnitude through a method that does not really make sense.
There is a sad tradition among certain very orthodox Jews known as Gematria. First we assign numbers to various words and phrases, and then we attach great metaphysical significance to the inevitable numerical coincidences that arise. It is pure numerology. Jacobs’ argument is not much of an improvement.
OEC’s are fond of citing the verse in Psalms to justify their own cavalier interpretations of the word “day.” Even the YEC’s find this absurdly literal, and they are right. In context the verse is clearly not meant as a literal metric for understanding what a day is. It is a poetic statement about the timelessness of God. Jacobs employs it here only because he believes it is convenient for his purposes.
Dr. Gerald Schroeder, an Ph.D. in physics from MIT, has spent the last 35 years investigating the confluence of science and Torah and has a novel, yet compelling, approach. Starting with Einstein’s discovery of the relativity of time, he explains how great changes in gravity or velocity produce measurable changes in the flow of time. He demonstrates that on an imaginary planet so massive, with a force of gravity so great, that its time was slowed by a factor of 350,000, a visitor would live out three minutes of normal-feeling time while concurrently, the folks back home would have lived out an entire two years. Looking from Earth, the actions of the “big planet” visitor would appear to be unfolding extremely slowly, and vice versa from the other vantage point. Big Bang theory posits that the entire universe at its inception was but a minuscule speck. This notion was supported and recorded by Nachmanides in the 13th Century when he explained that the universe was originally condensed into the size of a mustard seed. As the universe expanded (again, a notion supported by both science and Torah), time expanded with it so that every time it doubled in size, time would pass at half its original rate. Following this logic, Dr. Schroeder demonstrates that it is perfectly conceivable that from the universe’s perspective, six 24-hour periods had passed and concurrently the dilated outer reaches of that space would view it as if 15 billion years had elapsed. Have a look at his book The Science of God for the full treatment, including charts outlining the exact duration of each Biblical day.
Physicist Mark Perakh has done yeoman’s work explaining everything that’s wrong with Schroeder’s theorizing.
All of this is an exercise in after-the-fact rationalization. Religious scholars through the centuries have tossed off all manner of speculations regarding attributes of the physical universe, but people of scientific temperament have known better than to take them seriously. Then, after science figures out what’s really going on, religion’s supporters try to pretend they knew it all along.
In a way, this is similar to our recent discussion oforiginal sin. For centuries Catholics told us the doctrine was related to Adam and Eve. Now that science has shown the traditional story to be complete nonsense, people dutifully revise the doctrine and tell us that scientists have finally caught up to the deep insights of religious scholars.
I suspect the majority view among Jews regarding creationism is that science will tell us such things as can be known about natural history and the age of the Earth, and who cares what the Torah says. That is certainly a far more sensible view than anything Jacobs is offering.