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Richard Kronenfeld
Adult Ba'al Teshuvah Ph.D. Physicist

Why are so many scientists atheists? Part II: The age of the Universe

“G-d does not play dice with the universe.” – Albert Einstein objecting to the probabilistic nature of quantum mechanics.

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In part I we found that each time physicists seem to be at the point of understanding the Creation of the Universe, a deeper question arises. Once the Big Bang was generally accepted, the question was what happened in the first instant of time to cause it? Thus came forth the multiverse theory, which describes our universe as “just happening” to come into existence as the result of a quantum fluctuation with the right parameters to make life as we know it possible in accordance with the anthropic principle.

The tie-in to religion should be immediate: the multiverse theory is a modern expression of the Amalekite view that events in our world are strictly random and unconnected. Its proponents even claim that we are approaching a non-theistic scenario for the creation of the universe that is consistent with the laws of physics. So now the question is, how did the laws of quantum mechanics arise such that the vacuum state was able to generate matter? Surely the laws of physics didn’t invent themselves.

Judaism, on the other hand, is deterministic. Actions have consequences, even if they occur many years later. In this post we consider how Judaism responds to the multiverse theory.

We begin with a brief look at the general interaction of Torah and science.  In his fascinating book, Reason to Believe: Rational Explanations of Orthodox Jewish Faith, Rabbi Chaim Jachter presents a detailed account of how Orthodox Jews through the centuries have striven to reconcile Torah and contemporary science, or in the case of Rabbi Moshe Meiselman (citing Rav Joseph B. Soloveichik) and  Rabbi Menachem Mendel Schneerson, the Lubavitcher Rebbe, both argued that no reconciliation is necessary because Torah is absolute truth and science is ever-changing, so that “inquiry regarding the origin of the universe (cosmology) is beyond the legitimate sphere of science.” [R’ Jachter p.79] A comparable formulation by MIT physicist Dr. Jeremy England holds that Torah and science describe Creation using different ‘languages’. Creation, Dr. England explains, is presented in the Torah using language that is suited to the goal of preparing its readers to serve Hashem following a specific code of law.” [R’ Jachter p. 95]

In his masterful book The Great Partnership: Science, Religion, and the Search for Meaning, Rabbi Jonathan Sacks z”l notes that in 1905, in response to a questioner troubled by Darwinism, Rabbi Abraham Kook quoted an ancient rabbinical teaching that “at the dawn of time, God kept creating universes and destroying them, until He created this one, and said, This one pleases me; those didn’t please me.’”  Note the parallel with the multiverse theory of proto-universes coming in and out of existence.

Specifically in response to the multiverse theory, Rabbi Sacks writes that it postulates greater improbability than Creation, since we can’t establish that there are parallel universes without contacting them, but if we could, the parallel universe would be part of ours.  Moreover, it must “…hypothesize the existence of an infinity of self-creating universes for which we have no evidence whatsoever. The rule of logic known as Ockham’s Razor – do not multiply unnecessary entities – would seem to favour a single unprovable God over an infinity of improbable universes.” [Rabbi Jonathan Sacks z”l, The Great Partnership, p.269]

The bottom line is that no matter how many mechanisms physicists can devise to explain our existence in purely physical terms, the process must be set into motion. And who or what else besides Hashem can do that? We know Ein Od Milvado – there is none other than Him.

We stipulate that the truth of Torah means we are not required to justify it in the light of what appears to be contrary scientific evidence. Nevertheless, the skeptics flaunt scientific evidence with such certitude that it doesn’t hurt to deflate their claims. Our focus will be on the age of the universe, which is a critical factor in Creation and evolution, with the caveat that in evaluating scientific evidence, we need to consider, as Ramchal (Rabbi Moshe Chaim Luzzato) wrote in Derech Hashem, [and concurred with by Nachmanides (Genesis 6:19} and Rashbam (Exodus 14:21), quoted by Louis Pollack, Fingerprints on the Universe, p. 78:

“In the vast majority of cases…God desires to maintain nature according to its natural laws…Nevertheless, this does not prevent Him from changing [them] for whatever reason He may determine…[be it] to demonstrate … His providence… or for many other reasons that are not comprehensible to us at all.” [As, for example, in the crossing of the Red Sea.]

 

THE AGE OF THE UNIVERSE

Mockers and scoffers frequently ridicule Bishop Usher’s famous calculation, based on Biblical chronology, that the world was created in October 4004 B.C.E. Bearing in mind Chazal’s admonition that certain subjects, namely the Creation and Eliyahu HaNavi’s fiery chariot, should be off limits to human inquiry, we present an overview of the attempts to reconcile Torah and science in this regard.

As a starting point, while the Torah explicitly states for each day of Creation, “It was evening, it was morning, a (number) day,” it doesn’t say whether these were 24-hour days as we measure them now. With that basis, Dr. Nathan Aviezer, professor of physics at Bar-Ilan University in Tel Aviv, adopts the view that the six days should be taken metaphorically, insofar as the word yom (day) can refer to an era, and since the sun was created on the fourth day, the length of the first three days is flexible. [R’Jachter, pp. 85-86] In contrast, Dr. Gerald Schroeder, holder of a doctorate in geology and physics from MIT, asserts that since the Talmud (Chagigah 11a), Rashi, and Ramban (Nachmanides) all declare that the six days were indeed 24 hours each, the answer lies within physics itself. Einstein’s theory of general relativity asserts that the presence of matter distorts space-time, so that the relativistic concept of time dilation (moving clocks run slower) extends to the conditions of the Universe immediately after the Big Bang. On this basis, Dr Schroeder calculates the age of the Universe to be 15 billion years. NASA gives a value of about 14 billion years. Considering the many approximations, and that the Bible works with only six periods of time, the agreement to within a few percent is extraordinary. He observes, “The universe is billions of years old, but from the biblical perspective those billions of years compress into five and a half, 24-hour days.”

As remarkable as this contention is, it pales in comparison with the discovery that many centuries ago, Torah scholars arrived at essentially the same answer without the benefit of modern physics. Rav Aryeh Kaplan, the twentieth century sage and physicist, explained that a kabbalistic work, Sefer HaTemunah, written by the first-century Tanna, Rabbi Nechunya ben HaKanah, sets forth the idea that when the Talmud says that a world lasting 6,000 years will be destroyed in the seventh millennium, it refers to one of a series of seven shmitah cycles of 7,000 years each, totaling 49,000 years or one yovel (Jubilee). Rabbi Nechunya deduced that the age of our world was 42,000 years, based on our world being in the seventh cycle, though opinions differ as to which cycle our world is in.

From there, Rav Kaplan went on to write of finding in the Lenin State Library in Moscow, the only complete copy in existence of a manuscript Otzar HaChaim by Rabbi Yitzchok of Acco, a noted 14th century Kabbalist and a student and colleague of the Ramban. In Rav Kaplan’s own words, “Rabbi Yitzchok writes that since these Sabbatical cycles existed before Adam, their chronology must be measured not by human years, but by Divine years. Since, according to many Midrashic sources, a Divine day is a thousand earthly years, then a Divine year, consisting of 365 ¼ days, is equal to 365,250 years. Therefore, when the Sefer HaT’munah states that the world is 42,000 years old, it is not speaking of human years, but Divine years. …

“Thus, according to Rabbi Yitzchok of Acco, the universe would be 42,000 x 365,520 years old.” [Rabbi Yitzchok Adlerstein, “Holy Alliance,” reprinted in the Jewish Action Reader, OU Press, Volume I, 1996.] This works out to be about fifteen billion years, in agreement with Dr. Schroeder’s calculation over 700 years later!

There is still more to this story. In his fascinating book, Hidden Light: Science Secrets of the Bible, the late physicist Dr. David Medved a”h (the father of commentator Michael Medved) questioned Rabbi Nechunya’s and Rabbi Yitzchok’s argument for two reasons: first, the concept of Sabbatical cycles for the world is still controversial, and second, for our world to be in the seventh cycle, six other worlds would have to have been destroyed. He proposed an alternative argument that goes back to the basis for equating a Divine day to a thousand earthly years, namely Psalm 90:4. The pasuk reads: “For a thousand years in Your eyes are but a bygone yesterday, and like a watch in the night.” If the latter phrase is considered, since a watch is generally held to be four hours, there are six watches in a 24-hour day. Equating one Divine watch to a thousand earthly years then means that there are 6 x 365,520 = 2.1915 million earth years per Divine year. Now if each of the six days of Creation before the creation of Adam correspond to 1000 Divine years, the age of the Universe is 6000 x 2.1915 million earthly years = 13.149 billion earthly years, which agrees with the most recent NASA value of 13.7 + 0.2 billion years within about 4% ! [Dr. David Medved, Ph.D., Hidden Light, Maggid Books, 2010, pp. 50-51]

Returning to the initial Creation, the background radiation filling the universe clarifies a perplexing verse at the very beginning of the Torah.

“It is written in the Torah on the First Day of Creation: And there was light (Genesis 1:3). But at that time, there existed neither stars, nor sun, nor moon, nor people, nor any other known source of light. Therefore, how can one understand this ‘light’?

“Scientists have now discovered that there was light at the very beginning of time: the primeval lightball whose appearance heralded the origin of the universe. The creation of light did not occur within the existing universe. Rather, the creation of light was the creation of the universe. In other words, the Torah does not record two separate creations on the first day – the creation of the universe and the creation of light – but only one.”

A position that everyone can agree with is that of the co-discoverer of that background radiation, Arno Penzias. Responding to a question from a New York Times reporter about his personal Judaic beliefs, Dr. Penzias said, “If someone disproved the Big Bang theory, I wouldn’t start lying or cheating. My faith is not dependent on physics.” [New York Times, May 12, 1993, page C10, quoted in Pollack, p. 193.]

 

Having shown that Torah can account for the scientific value of the age of the universe, we turn from the cosmos to an even more heated controversy, the origin of life, in part III.

 

 

 

 

 

About the Author
I'm a native New Yorker (Brooklyn, to be precise) transplanted to the desert as a teen-ager. I hold a Ph.D in Physics from Stanford and have taught mathematics and physics at the high school, community college, and university level. I'm an adult ba'al teshuvah and label myself as centrist Orthodox and a Religious Zionist along the lines of OU, Yeshiva University, and Mizrachi.
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