Thursday, August 31, 2006

Torah and Origin Science

The debate within contemporary Judaism over the interaction between origin science and the Torah (e.g., age of the universe, evolution, etc.) ultimately boils down to a contradiction that must be resolved between what we know is true through empirical scientific observations and what we know because the Torah tells us it is true. There are two ways to resolve this contradiction:

1) The science doesn't mean what we think it means.
2) The Torah doesn't mean what we think it means.

The primary argument of the first method is that the world was designed to look *as if* it were as science demonstrates it to be - a new world created with ancient footprints, individual creations that appear as if they evolved from others. The originator of this Omphalos Hypothesis, as it is properly known, was Philip Henry Gosse, an Englishman who published a work on the matter in 1857. Prior to this time, science was immature enough that such a hypothesis was not necessary, but Gosse was the first to propound it, and R' MM Schneerson, among other rabbanim, embraced it. The fact that it comes from a nochri is not a reason to reject it, as "chochma bagoyim ta'amin". The counterargument is a general sense of discomfort that HaShem would mislead us in such a way - the Torah makes a point of saying that HaShem tests us by giving power to a false prophet, to determine if we love Him with all of our hearts (an extremely interesting choice of words, I think), but does He test us in other ways also? We are, after all, usually expected to go after what our eyes see. Maybe He does. Maybe we are expected to read the Torah according to its simplest reading, and not be driven by a desire to fit in to the Western world.

The primary argument of the second method is that the Torah doesn't mean what we think it means. This category of answers includes finding allusions to an ancient world in the verses (e.g., the work of Dr. Gerald Schroeder), finding ways that contemporary origin science can fit into the Torah (in places where the verses are vague), utilizing allegorical interpretations (although this may be more controversial), and sometimes admitting that we're not sure exactly which method can be used to arrive at the correct understanding of the Torah, but maintaining a belief that there is some answer. The counterargument to this is that this can be considered an exercise in apologetics cum bastardization of the Torah, to mold and shape it in this way. Often the answers are weak relative to the questions. Yet, there certainly exist numerous opinions to rely on in arguing that the Torah is not skin-deep. Why do we expect that the understanding of the Torah taught to a 1st grader should be identical to the truth?

Which of these is correct? That's pretty much the whole R' Slifkin debate, isn't it? Unless one is a talmid kafuf to one of the rabbanim who banned the teaching of these topics, there's nothing wrong with admitting that we don't know the answer to everything, and mustering the courage to hold tightly to both possibilities, not paskening on aggadeta.

See also my post from August 2005 on the acceptability of indecisiveness.



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