Sunday, February 21, 2016

A Charedi Concession to an Ancient Universe

Dr. Roni Grosz, head of the Albert Einstein Archives at Hebrew University
A billion light-years. That is a phrase I would never expect a Charedi magazine to use. Unless it was to dispute the very concept of something being a billion Light years away from the planet Earth.  That phrase was used matter of factly in  a Mishpacha Magazine article about  scientist Roni Grosz, a Kopycznitzer Chosid who is in charge of the Albert Einstein Archives at Israel’s Hebrew University. It described  newly discovered  evidence of gravitational waves - a key component of Einstein’s General Theory of Relativity.  A theory that challenged previous widely accepted understandings of the nature of gravity.  Dr. Grosz  described it as ‘music to his ears’ calling it a ‘smile from heaven’.

The article goes on to describe Dr. Grosz’s unlikely trek to his current position as well as how he came to be observant as a Kopycznitzer Chasid. An interesting read, but not the focus of this post. Which is how the Charedi world sees scientific evidence about the age of the universe.  

Until the controversy over Rabbi Natan Slifkin’s books broke, there were two legitimate schools of thought about that. One was that the universe was less than 6000 years old. And that all evidence to the contrary was just planted in order to test our beliefs. A second and more rational approach was that the first verses in the Torah that describes a six days of creation are not literal days. And that therefore the actual age of the universe is much older, but that time was measured after the 6 day creation process.

After Rabbi Slifkin’s books were banned for espousing such notions, that belief was deemed to be heretical in some circles. I remember speaking to one of the Roshei Kollel of the Chicago Community Kolllel (Lakewood) about this sudden turn of events. He shrugged and said he sympathized. He said he was surprised at the ban. Mentioning that Rabbi Sholom Kamenetsky had recently spoken at the Kollel about the legitimacy of an ‘ancient universe’ approach. 

That ban caused a change in how some of the Charedi rabbinic leadership viewed an ancient universe - having once accepted it as a legitimate Orthodox view. Rabbi Aharon Feldman was among those who now repudiated the idea.

At first incredulous about the ban he flew to Israel to consult with the respected Gadol in whose name the ban was issued - to see if it was so. He came back convinced that it was, and then proceeded to try and explain why we must follow the ban, to no one’s satisfaction, least of all my own. This was followed by a variety of American rabbinic leaders who fell in lockstep with that view - severely criticizing dissenters both past and present.

One of the more famous  past dissenters was Rabbi Aryeh Kaplan. Who died well before the ban. He was a brilliant physicist who was very popular in the Charedi world. He had once addressed a meeting of the Association of Orthodox Jewish Scientists and presented an argument in favor of an ancient universe – using sources in the Gemarah, Kabbalah, Rishonim, and Achronim to make the case that the universe was approximately 15 billion years old. Which is what scientists have determined based on evidence.  I recall reading a published version of that presentation wherein he ridiculed those who in ignorance tried to deny it.

There was at least one attempt to refute all the evidence of an ancient universe. Telshe Rosh Hayehiva,  Rabbi Chaim Dov Keller wrote an article in the now defunct Jewish Observer on the subject. What struck me is how he addressed the comments made by the Tifferes Yisrael, an Achron whose commentary is prominently featured in standard editions of the Mishnayos. 

The Tifferes Yisrael said that the 6 days of creation were not counted in human days but in Godly days where one day equals a 1000 years (If I recall correctly). While Rabbi Keller was correct in saying that the Tifferes Yisroel’s timeline did not prove anywhere near 15 billion years, I think he missed the primary point. That a highly respected Achron did not believe that the 6 days of creation were literal days as we understand them. Once you admit that the opening verses in Genesis are not to be taken literally, you open up the possibility of an ancient universe. He did not succeed in refuting that at all.

One of the things that has always convinced me that the universe is ancient is the idea of ‘light years’. That is the distance it takes light to travel over the period of a year.  Which means we can measure how far a star is from earth. A few years ago scientists announced that they saw an exploding star. But in measuring the distance of that star from earth they determined that  it actually exploded over a million years ago. We only saw it now because now is when the light of that explosion finally reached earth. 

How is that possible if the universe is under 6000 years old? One cannot say (as some who deny an ancient universe do) that the light from that explosion was created ‘midstream’ so to speak. That makes absolutely no sense to me. It’s like saying that dinosaur bones were created as bones buried in earth to test our faith - and that dinosaurs never really existed. Really?

It seems that there has now been a quiet reversal of policy about the age of the universe in the Charedi world. A well respected Charedi Magazine that has a rabbinic board censoring what they consider objectionable material – has allowed a reference to a universe existing a billion years ago. Without any disclaimer. If this continues to go unchallenged, I think we have made progress.

Science may not be the ultimate arbiter of truth. But one cannot deny evidence found that supports its theories. Some of that evidence might strongly support one scientific theory while evidence about other scientific theories might not support those theories as much. But evidence it is - and should never be discarded just because it doesn’t fit neatly into one’s preconceived notions. In my view only a scientist who believes in the truth of Judaism as well as the truth of science (like Roni Grosz or Rabbi Aryeh Kaplan) can ever begin to reconcile these two truths.