Academic Nonsense, Science, and Torah




Gershon Winkler


It was recently brought to my attention that a respected so-called Old Testament scholar and author in The Netherlands recently made an earth-shattering discovery that she will be presenting at Radboud University in The Netherlands. Wow. What a discovery. She claims that the first sentence in the Book of Genesis “In the beginning God created the Heaven and the Earth” is not a true translation of the Hebrew. (No kidding! We don’t translate it that way, either!)  Rather, she has done some “fresh textual analysis” that suggests that the great book never intended to imply that God created the world. Actually, she says, the Earth was already in place when God made humans and animals. Someone else must have created the universe itself long before God came on the scene and added a couple of people and animals and a shrub or two. She derives all this from her analysis of the etymology of the Hebraic word “bara,” customarily translated as “created.” It doesn’t really say that, she claims. “Bara” she insists, means to “spatially separate” and if you read the first line of Genesis with that translation, she posits, you will realize that God only spatially separated the heavens and the earth, which in turn implies that the heavens and the earth were already extant and that God only added a few features to what was already there as opposed to having created the universe from scratch, ex-nihilo (The Telegraph [UK], October 8, 2009).


        Mind-blowing. I have been up all night trying to understand her theory and how it proves anything but the sad state of academia. Scholars who have no idea of the vernacular or intention of our Torah have for centuries been drawing theories about its content and have had the audacity as well to present their “findings” at international scholarly conferences. Perhaps I might compose a definitive critique of the science of Neuropsychology since I am totally unlearned in that field, and present it to some Conference on Psychiatry in Vladivostok. Not being a historian, I might also write a thesis about American History, that George Washington is a myth invented in the early 20th century to boost patriotism in anticipation of the Spanish American War. Or that Theodore Roosevelt was really Captain Kangaroo (similar mustache).


        Even though there is some truth to the professor’s “discovery” that “bara” means a lot more than “created,” it certainly is not anything new to those of us who have a knowledge of Hebraic and Aramaic etymology and who have studied the classical commentaries on the Torah writ by ancient and early-medieval rabbis. More importantly, however, it proves nothing about her cartoon theory.


        In the Kabbalaistic writings, the unknowable, unpeggable, un-namable mystery behind the origin of existence, which we glibly refer to as “God”, created space first, within which to create matter, thus spatially separating creation from itself, so to speak. As the ancient Kabbalists put it: “Were God to fill the universe, the universe could not exist; and were God to not fill the universe, the universe could not exist. The space of the universe is thus both filled with God and void of God, in the sense that it is just sufficiently void of God in order to enable the possibility of existence, and just sufficiently filled with God in order to enable existence altogether. Thus is God at the same time hidden and revealed, hidden and revealed” (Zohar, Vol. 1, folio 39b). “Behold the Sacred Ancient One, they wrote, “the mystery of all mysteries, is separate from everything and yet at the same time not separated from anything, for all is joined within God and God is joined within all. For God is everything, the Ancient of all Ancients and the most hidden of all that is hidden; who is without shape and yet with shape — with shape in order to sustain the universe, and without shape because God Itself is not subject to the Realm of Existence, having created it to begin with” (Zohar, Vol. 3, folio 228a).


        It is sad that so-called professors of the so-called Old Testament continue to present our rich and ancient Torah as some kind of naïve, literal writ, which then places Torah in direct conflict with Science. And many of our people consequently become confounded, not knowing which to subscribe to, Torah or Science. To them I say: theories such as that of the professor are laughable to both Science and Torah alike. It is a shame she didn’t bother consulting with the People of the Book regarding the Book of the People.


        There is no conflict between science and Torah. Nowhere does the Torah imply the universe was created in six days as we know it. After all, we measure time by our spin around the sun, and the sun does not appear on the scene until the fourth “day”! The thirteenth-century kabbalist, Rabbi Yitzchak of Acco theorized the age of the universe to be around 14 billion years old! (in his work Shoshan Yesod Olam). This was written into our tradition eight centuries before modern science arrived at a similar estimate! The ancient rabbis describe the universe as originating with God’s Light, which condensed to form matter (Zohar, Vol. 1, folio 30b and Vol. 2, folios 75b-76a; Midrash B’reisheet Rabbah 3:1). Or as Einstein would put it millennia later: E=MC2.


        Lucy and the recently discovered earlier human ancestor are wondrous discoveries. But do you not also see how each discovery claims to be THE earliest until another is discovered, and then another? And often these discoveries are rebuffed by further investigation but the public is not informed of such.  In the early 1900’s, for example, museums around the globe took turns boasting an exhibition of a stooped, ape-like man, dubbed the Neanderthal Man, I think, with the claim that the missing link in the evolution of humans from apes had finally been discovered. And as we know, this stooped, ape-like man was etched in stone in all of our school textbooks to this day. Soon after, another fossil was discovered, labeled Proconsul Africanus, and was immediately heralded by scientists as the progenitor of both apes and humans, and immediately entered into school textbooks as well. But to the dismay of both scientists and textbook publishers, in 1958 the Congress of Zoology in London declared that (1) the stooped ape-like man was really nothing more than the remains of a modern-type fellow affected by age and arthritis, and (2) the intriguing fossil Proconsul Africanus proved to be that of an ordinary ape! (Time Magazine, July 28, 1958). Have the textbooks been revised to reflect these and other such shifts in scientific discoveries? Of course not.


        Yet, unbeknownst to most of us, the ancient Jewish mystical tradition reminds us that the Genesis story of our Torah is not meant to necessarily imply the beginning of all beginnings but rather the beginning of this world as we know it, of humans as we know them, and so on, and that there was an earlier series of universes, of earths, of people and creatures unknown to us today — except perhaps from fossils. We call this the Torah of Shemitto’t — the cycles of times preceding those of Adam and Eve. According to many of the early Jewish mystics, there were full pre-Adamic human civilizations that had arisen long before homo sapiens walked the earth, and that they were eventually destroyed. As the third-century Rabbi Avahu taught: “God created worlds and destroyed them, created them and destroyed them, until this one came into being” (Midrash Kohelet Rabbah 3:14). The Talmud alludes to 974 generations that existed prior to Adam and Eve (Talmud Bavli, Chagigah 13b).


        Science and Judaism are not in conflict. Science and Torah are more in cahoots with one another than you might think. It is Scientism, that clashes with the notion of God and spirituality, not Science.


        “I think that part of the answer is that scientists cannot bear the thought of a natural phenomenon that cannot be explained, even with unlimited time and money,” wrote scientist Dr. Robert Jastrow, who once served as the Director of NASA’s Goddard Institute for Space Activities. “There is a kind of religion in science…..This religious faith of the scientist is violated by the discovery that the world had a beginning under the conditions in which the known laws of physics are not valid, and as a product of forces or circumstances we cannot discover. When that happens, the scientist has lost control. If he really examined the implications, he would be traumatized. As usual, when faced with trauma, the mind reacts by ignoring the implications…..” In conclusion, he writes: “For the scientist who has lived by his faith in the power of reason, the story ends like a bad dream. He has scaled the mountains of ignorance; he is about to conquer the highest peak; as he pulls himself over the final rock, he is greeted by a band of theologians who have been sitting there for centuries” (published in The New York Times Magazine, June 25, 1978).


        Perhaps the 12th-century Rabbi Moshe ibn Maimon (Maimonides) said it best: “The primary source of confusion in our search for the meaning of the universe as a whole, or even of its parts, is rooted in our mistaken assumption that all of existence is for our sake alone. For if we examine our universe objectively, we will discover how very small a part of it we really are. The truth is, that all of humankind and all the species of life-forms on our earth are as nothing against the backdrop of vast ever-continuing cosmic existence” (Morah Nevuchim [Guide to the Perplexed], 3:12).


        Einstein once summed it up this way: “The most beautiful and most profound emotion one can experience is the sensation of the mystical. It is the source of all true science” (quoted in Newsweek, July 23, 1979).




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