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Science and Judaism: The Strange Claim of Dr. Schroeder (Part I)
The literal accuracy of the biblical description of the origin of the cosmos and of life itself has been the subject of controversy and reinterpretation for millennia. Even before recent scientific discoveries made the story of a six-day creation simply untenable as fact, many Jewish scholars, among others, readily acknowledged that the opening chapters of the Bible do not reflect a true portrayal of historic creation. (See, Post 10/11/11.)
Today that view has achieved a sort of consensus. With respect to B’reishit (Genesis), the Reform movement’s latest commentary asserts that the Bible “has a great deal to tell about God’s relationship to the world and about human beings and their destiny,” but concedes that the opening chapters are “unscientific, antiquated myths” that may be approached “in the same manner as one approaches poetry.” (Plaut, The Torah, rev. ed. (2005), at 6.) Etz Hayim, the Torah commentary published by the Conservative movement (2001) holds similarly: “The opening chapters of Genesis are not a scientific account of the origins of the universe. The Torah is a book of morality, not cosmology.” (At 3, emphasis supplied.) The Chumash (The Stone Edition)(1993), published as part of the more traditional Art Scroll series, accepts Rashi’s understanding that Torah starts with Creation in order to establish God’s supremacy, but acknowledges that “the Torah is not a history book . . . .” [All year citations are CE, unless otherwise noted.]
Of course, for some people, Jewish and non-Jewish, the notion that the biblical creation story is not the error free Truth is unacceptable. They still insist on the accuracy of the description of some or all of creation as written in first verses of B’reishit. For instance, in a recent post (see, Post 09/22/11), I noted the existence of a group of Jews in New York who insist that evolution is science fiction. And, in the aforementioned Stone Chumash, when considering the story of the serpent in the Garden of Eden (Gen. 3:1-7), the editors state, without citation or elaboration, that the “consensus of the commentators is that the serpent of the narrative is literally a serpent.”
Dr. Gerald L. Schroeder, a Massachusetts Institute of Technology trained physicist who for the last forty years or so has resided in Israel, takes another approach. Seemingly rejecting allegory, Schroeder understands Torah as literally true. He also takes science to be true. His view is that modern science and biblical creation stories fit comfortably together.
More specifically, Schroeder states that physics and contemporary cosmology confirm the account of creation in the first two chapters of B’reishit. One of his more audacious arguments is that the universe was created both in six days as stated in B’reishit and billions of years ago, as shown by modern science. In other words, according to Schroeder, both versions of creation are entirely correct.
Schroeder’s position was first set forth in Genesis and the Big Bang: The Discovery of the Harmony Between Modern Science and the Bible published in 1991. Since then, Schroeder has written a number of books pursuing and expanding upon the same or related themes: The Science of God: The Convergence of Scientific and Biblical Wisdom (1997), The Hidden Face of God: How Science Reveals the Ultimate Truth (2001) and God According to God: A Physicist Proves We’ve Been Wrong About God All Along (2009). Schroeder also maintains a website at www.geraldschroeder.com. And a summary of his position on the age of the universe can be found at www.aish.com/ci/sam/48951136.html. For the purposes of this post, unless otherwise indicated, I will be referring to the slightly revised 2009 edition of The Science of God [“TSOG”], because in it Schroeder has modified or supplemented some of his earlier statements.
Schroeder is, unapologetically, a believer in the God of the Torah who was the creator of the universe and who intervenes in history. “God runs this world,” Schroeder says and, when appropriate, “God steps in and redirects the way.” (TSOG, at xiii.) Based on a medieval rabbi’s interpretation of a psalm, Schroeder asserts that “(t)he first Divine creation was wisdom” and he seeks to use “that wisdom” to “explore the workings of God in our magnificent universe.” (TSOG, at xiii-xiv.) This he calls “the science of God.” (TSOG, at xiv.)
While he sometimes speaks about objectivity and sometimes even speaks objectively, Schroeder has a clear goal. He seeks “to fit fifteen billion years into six twenty-four hour days.” (TSOG, at 47.) The arguments he musters are designed to help him do just that.
The result, in TSOG, is a generally easy read, almost too easy. Schroeder so thoroughly mixes textual commentary and scientific commentary that a reader might have difficulty separating out the elements of his stew. And, if a reader is not careful, s/he can get swept away before realizing that some statements are at best misleading. For instance, after Schroeder makes his argument that the Bible treats the time before Adam differently than the time after Adam, he states the proposition as one of three “facts,” known “with complete certainty.” (See, TSOG, at 52, emphasis in original.) You can accept Schroeder’s construction, if you like, but exegesis is just that, an explanation or interpretation of a text. It is not fact.
Let’s leave Schroeder’s style alone, and address his case. If one treats Schroeder’s argument seriously — one should given the apparent popularity of his books — and steps back a bit to analyze it, one finds that there are two substantive problems with the way Schroeder deals with the Bible and with physics. One is the Bible. The other is physics. This post will consider Schroeder’s approach to the Bible hopefully sufficiently to provide the reader with the flavor of Schroeder’s claim. To do so, I will look at three examples of his use of text for the purpose of discussing source selection and reliance, translation, and textual accuracy and completion.
The next post will discuss his Schroeder’s use of physics. After that, we will see where his analysis takes us and whether he has successfully accomplished his goal, i.e., whether he has fit billions of years into a week of biblical creation.
* * *
Schroeder recognizes at the outset that the creation text contained in the opening 31 verses of B’reishit is quite sparse, and, in and of itself, cannot be reconciled easily, if at all, with modern science. Referring to a Talmudic commentary, however, Schroeder argues that the opening chapter of Genesis “is presented in a manner that conceals information.” (TSOG, at 10.) To make his case for conflating Torah truth and scientific truth, therefore, Schroeder must go beyond the literal text to find “meaning.”
There is, of course, nothing at all unusual in the Jewish tradition about seeking to interpret or extrapolate Torah text. And there are a number of recognized ways to do so. For instance, one could seek a simple or literal interpretation (peshat), or an allusive or hinted one (remez), an allegorical one (drash) or, as Schroeder does, a more esoteric or mystical one (sod).
Given the various approaches to text, one can find support for virtually any position that one seeks. The Talmudic sages themselves recognized the issue, and understood that a single scriptural verse could yield many meanings. (See, BT Sanhedrin 34a.) But the resort to the mystical approach that Schroeder favors, while not necessarily suggesting that a lack of rigorous analysis may be coming, does raise a warning. While it may be insightful and instructive, it surely is not science.
Indeed, Schroder seems to understand the danger, or at least he anticipates some skepticism. Taking the stance of the dispassionate analyst, he says that he wants “to avoid the subjective tendency of bending Bible to match science or science to match Bible.” (TSOG, at 19.) He proudly announces that, with respect to theological sources, he intends to restrict himself primarily “to works that predate by centuries the discoveries of modern science.” (Id.)
Therefore, to uncover the hidden meaning necessary to reconcile Torah with science, Schroeder turns to Kabbalah, which he calls “logic, not mysticism, but logic so deep that it might seem mystical to the uninitiated.” (TSOG, at 10.) And, primarily, he looks to a thirteenth century kabbalist, Moshe ben Nachman, known as Nachmanides or Ramban (1194-1270). Schroeder likes Nachmanides because over 700 years ago Nachmanides seems to have anticipated Big Bang cosmology by speculating that the universe at its creation was not bigger than a mustard seed, but expanded resulting in all the matter we are and see. (See, TSOG, at 55-58, 62, 184.)
This restriction and this reliance, however, exemplify one of the main problems with Schroeder’s approach to the Bible. By saying that he wants to avoid modern biblical commentators, Schroeder is precluding the consideration of a considerable amount of instruction, skewing his analysis in the process. In the last 150 years, the work of biblical translators and commentators has been immensely enriched by developments in archeology, Near Eastern studies, linguistics, manuscript analysis and other disciplines which have provided greater context for and understanding of the biblical text and its development.
Among the many, many valuable modern commentaries are those of Samson Raphael Hirsch (1808-1888), Martin Buber (1878-1965) and Franz Rosenzweig (1886-1929), Nehama Leibowitz (1902-1997) and others cited in this post. They do not all agree with each other, but so what? If you were truly interested in what the Bible really means, why would you forgo all of that insight? Wouldn’t it be better to hear their voices and accept their teaching, or not, on the merits of their arguments rather than on some preconceived notion of scientific taint.
Moreover, if you were to decide to limit yourself to pre-modern sources, why would you rely almost exclusively on Nachmanides’s commentary? Seriously? Is there nothing of value in Yitzhak ben Yehuda Abravenal (1437-1508) or Avraham Ibn Ezra (1089-1164) or Shlomo Itzhaki (Rashi)(1040-1105) or Saadia Gaon (882-942)?
Schroeder does tease us with an initial quote from Moshe ben Maimon (Maimonides or Rambam) (1135-1204) to the effect that “(t)he only path to knowing God is through science—and for that reason the Bible opens with a description of the creation.” (TSOG, at vi, 17.) But he fails to cite to Rambam substantively after that with respect to the main argument presented.
One of the valuable, as well as enjoyable, aspects of studying Talmud, carried on perhaps to a lesser extent in modern commentaries, is entering into the conversation, the give and take between persons across centuries who have different views of a particular text. If the goal was to see whether the biblical text concerning creation harmonized with science, the ancient model of Talmudic commentary would seem to argue for presenting the debate, not just the conclusion. (For those interested in a fuller, more textured view, see Norbert Samuelson’s Judaism and the Doctrine of Creation (1994).)
Let’s be clear. There is nothing inherently wrong with looking to Nachmanides as a source of biblical knowledge. And relying on Nachmanides solely (or even primarily) is certainly a permissible way to make an argument, to offer a polemic. But Schroeder’s selectivity violates his own dictum against bending the Bible. It’s just not objective. Nor, however clever, is it science.
* * *
Moving from Schroeder’s selection bias to his argument, Schroeder’s premise is that the Bible treats six days of creation differently than all other recorded time. (TSOG, at 47.) He is certainly correct that the events of creation are reported in a uniquely terse, yet moving manner, with a compelling rhythm and use of the repetitious reference to an evening and a morning, another day. But what does this really prove, if anything? We could actually draw a number of conclusions from the shift in style. But we have no testimony from the author or redactor of the text as to any literary intent. Schroeder’s concept is interesting, but nothing more.
Perhaps sensing this weakness, Schroeder tries to buttress his argument with an unconventional translation of the repeated biblical reference to an evening and a morning. The Hebrew words at issue are erev for evening and boker for morning. Schroeder asks, fairly enough, how there can be an evening and a morning before biblical Day 4, when the Sun was made. (Gen. 1:14-16) (TSOG, at 10, 102.) He finds his answer, not surprisingly, in a “deeper meaning” of the words as explained by Nachmanides.
This answer, in turn, depends on the root of the word, i.e., the two or three Hebrew consonants that form the word. The meaning of the “root of erev is disorder, mixture, chaos” he tells us, and the meaning of the root for boker is “orderly.” (OTSG, at 102.) Therefore the real meaning of the phrase “and there was evening and there was morning” is not that twenty-four hours passed, but that there was chaos and then there was order. (Id.)
Here, Schroeder makes a serious methodological error, one that was unnecessary, and one that ultimately undercuts his main argument. As Bible scholar Richard Elliot Friedman notes in his Commentary on the Torah (2001), biblical Hebrew is built around three letter roots, and studying them can be helpful, but “we must be cautious not to commit the etymological fallacy.” That means “we should not automatically derive the meaning of a word from its root.” (At 9, emphasis in original.) Language maven Dr. Joel Hoffman agrees: “internal word structure is interesting, and it has a solid foundation as a cool way to look at words. But it doesn’t tell us what words mean.” (Hoffman, And God Said (2010), at 30.)
In this instance, changing the meaning of erev and boker, of evening and morning, distorts the obvious definitions, runs counter to the poetic tempo of the text and creates considerably more problems than it solves. All other verses in the Bible that refer to the six days of creation (see, e.g., Ex. 20:8-11) and texts that rely on six creation days, like Kiddush, the traditional blessing over wine, would require reinterpretation. And so would the creation story itself, as it would become a story of cycles of chaos and order instead of a story of orderly progression.
Moreover, biblical commentators (albeit modern ones) recognize that one of the major themes of B’reishit is the systematic separation of aspects of a universe in an orderly sequence. In The Beginning of Wisdom (2003), University of Chicago professor Leon Kass (crediting Umberto Cassuto and Leo Strauss) uses a graph and a cladigram, to depict the parallel double creation of the first three days and the second three days. One distinction between the first three days is that of place, and one distinction between days 1 and 4, days 2 and 5 and days 3 and 6 is that of motion. Further separations are effected for life and for God’s image. (Ibid. at 31-36.) Schroeder could have more simply and more credibly parsed the text and arrived at a similar spot.
Note also, though, that a B’reishit more concerned with hierarchy and order is one less concerned with the chronological order of events. (Id. at 31.) And that reading undercuts Schroeder’s larger point about different treatments of time in the Bible. But this is a problem to be confronted, not avoided, as Schroder does. And it is certainly not one to be obfuscated by translations which are not well grounded in text or context.
* * *
A final example of how Schroeder deals with the Bible concerns his attempt to deal with time post-Adam. Part of his argument relates to the generations that issued through Adam’s son, Kayin (Cain) and ending with Tuval-Kayin. Schroeder asserts that Genesis, at 4:22, “attributes the start of sophisticated forging of copper and brass to Tuval-Caine (sic) . . . .” (Id. at 136.) By Schroeder’s calculations, Tuval-Kayin lived “some seven hundred years after Adam, or about five thousand years ago.” (TSOG, at 136.) For Schroeder, this places him at roughly the same time as the start of the Bronze Age, and provides proof that the Bible and science are compatible. (Id. at 137.)
About a decade ago, Mark Perakh, former professor of physics at California State University and commentator on science and religion, dissected Schroeder’s claim as contained in Schroeder’s first book and as modified in the original version of TSOG. See generally, “Not a Very Big Bang About Genesis,” at www.talkreason.org/PrinterFriendly.cfm?article=/articles/schroeder.cfm. As Perakh notes, Schroeder’s description of Tuval-Kayin is a truncated version of the Genesis verse. The complete verse regarding Tuval-Kayin states that he “sharpened all cutting implements of copper and iron.” (Stone Chumash trans., emphasis supplied.)
This omission is highly significant, Perakh contends, because the use of iron started about 1,500 years after the use of bronze. If Tuval-Kayin made iron tools, as well as copper or bronze ones, then, according to Perakh, he lived much later than Schroeder would have us believe and Schroeder’s post-Adam chronology collapses. (See, Perakh, above, at 6-7/18.) As an aside, Perakh is also irked that in TSOG Schroeder has changed some dates and some chronologies from those stated in his first book, Big Bang and Genesis, and done so without explanation. (See, Id., at 13-14/18.)
Of course, dating Ages is not precise. In the Near East, the Bronze Age ran from about 3300 BCE to 1200 BCE, and the Iron Age from about 1300 BCE to 600 BCE. The use of iron instruments may well have occurred intermittently before iron assumed dominance. Schroeder could have and should have addressed that possibility directly. He did not.
Schroeder’s almost shocking lack of completeness in dealing with the text at issue is a serious flaw, one which undercuts his credibility. His 2009 edition of TSOG makes no attempt to complete the reference to Tuval-Kayin or explain the problem raised by the timing of the Bronze and Iron Ages. Nor have I seen Schroeder attempt elsewhere to counter Perakh’s criticism regarding Tuval-Kayin. So here we have a deceptive biblical argument (one based on a significant text omission) and bad science (a failure to deal with archeological times).
* * *
In The Science of God, Gerald Schroeder set a high standard for himself. He expressly recognized that authors who write about the Bible and science have a tendency to bend one toward the other. And he suggested that he wanted to avoid that tendency. But by his restrictions on commentators, his translations and his omission of text, he has failed in his task. Perhaps it was inevitable that one who sought to squeeze billions of years of cosmic history into six biblical days of creation would have to skew his reading of Torah text in order to do so. But then, he should not have pretended objectivity.
In the next post, we will turn our attention to the other part of Schroeder’s argument, physics, in order to see how objective he is in that field, and whether he has bent science to meet the Bible.