Monday, July 03, 2006

Rabbi Keller, Rabbi Kaplan, and the Age of the Universe

The latest issue of the Jewish Observer has taken on the issue of science versus Torah. And that is indeed how it is presented there. Torah and science are presented as adversaries. This is exactly the opposite of my approach. As I have stated many times, science is the study of nature and the Torah cannot contradict nature. There are three articles by Rabbi Chaim Dov Keller and one each by Dr. Chaim Presby, and Jonathan Rosenblum. It is by mere chance that both the Jewish Observer and the Jewish Press (through my own article on the subject) addressed this issue at the same time.

I am not going to go into the substance of every single detail of each article. But, my biggest bone of contention is with Rabbi Keller’s presentation. To his credit, he does bring up some valid questions about the theory of evolution. But he is too easily dismissive of it in its totality. He is equally dismissive of reconciling science with Torah claiming that the result is neither science nor Torah. There too, I disagree. And so does Rabbi Aryeh Kaplan who went to great lengths to reconcile current scientific knowledge with the Torah. Rabbi Keller’s approach is much like the ones Rabbi Kaplan mentions about Chasidim. It is the “What do the scientists Know?” attitude. To use Rabbi Kaplan’s wonderful attribution of words to certain types of Chasidim about scientists: “They are a bunch of phonies, a bunch of bluffers, a bunch of Stupidniks.” “Do they really have a way of finding out the truth?” “They find a bone and they think it’s from a monkey.” Well this is essentially the position of Rabbi Keller. And it is a position that Rabbi Kaplan correctly ridicules.

That Rabbi Keller bashes the RCA’s position on evolution is no surprise. Suffice it to say that Rabbi Keller is entitled to interpret the Rambam of the RCA statement anyway he chooses. But he does not have the right to reject the RCA interpretation either.

As I said, I am not going to debate every single point of all the articles. That would be beyond the scope of this essay making it way too long and taking up far too much of my time. But I will make a couple of observations that struck me about Rabbi Keller's argument and where I think he falls completely flat.

The first one is his contention that the days of creation are to be taken literally as 24 hour days and, therefore, the universe cannot be more than 6000 years old. But then he cites the famous Tifferes Yisorel (although not without pointing out that he is not universally accepted by Torah authorities) where he concedes that according to his interpretation of a “day” in B’reishis, the universe can be 26,000 years old. Well how could that be, if we are to take the Torah’s “day” as a 24 hour day? Of course Rabbi Keller’s purpose in referencing the Tifferes Yisroel is to show that relying on his views of the age of the universe does not get you to the 15 billion years that scientists say the age of the universe is.

But he can’t have it his way either. You can’t say that the universe only 6000 years old and then cite a Gadol of the stature of the Tifferes Yisroel as saying it was tens of thousands of years older. By using that source to disprove scientists, he undermines his entire argument for literal 24 hour days.

Another thing Rabbi Keller does is to explain that the concept of our abilty to see light from stars that are millions of light years away. When the stars were created, he says, they were created with the light fully extended to earth and that is why we see them today. But what about an exploding star? Scientists see exploding stars with radio-telescopes. When, according to Rabbi Keller did those stars explode, if we are seeing the light from those explosions first now? Did God create an illusion of an exploding star for us to see only now? Is that what God wants to do? Fool us? I do not believe that.

Finally, it would have been nice for Rabbi Keller to reference Rabbi Kaplan’s famous paper on the age of the universe and deal with the sources there showing a 15 billion year old universe through legitimate Torah sources. He doesn’t even mention Rabbi Kaplan’s name.

It is about people like Rabbi Keller that Rabbi Kaplan was talking when he said that one must not paint himself into an ideological corner. Before landing on the moon there were people who held that Al Pi Torah it is impossible because above the atmosphere there is the Yesod HaAish (the elemental fire) and anything that goes through it would be burned. Of course we now know that people who were fervent believers in that were proven wrong.

Rabbi Kaplan correctly points out that anyone who knows what science is cannot not be so dismissive of it. We have some idea of paleontology, geology, radioactive dating, and astronomy. Of course there are those who say that God just created the world to look old. But, as Rabbi Kaplan says, that touches on intellectual dishonesty and sophism.

My response to letters sent to the Jewish Press about my article will be published in the upcoming issue. I there briefly outline Rabbi Kaplan’s views. His full paper can be downloaded here. And he is far more convincing than Rabbi Keller.