Wednesday, November 23, 2005


I was recently discussing the writings of Rabbi Dr. Dovid Gottlieb of Ohr Somayach (is that how you spell it?) with friends. Rabbi Gottlieb is the author of "Living Up to the Truth," a must-read online essay that argues that there exist rational grounds for belief in (orthodox) Judaism (just google the title and you'll find it on the Ohr Sameyach website). Rabbi Gottlieb argues that by combining the information we have about the world around us with rational analysis, we can conclude that the Torah was, in fact, given to the Israelites by God at Mt. Sinai. For example, the single most compelling of his arguments, that of Rabbi Yehudah Halevi in the Kuzari, is that empirically, it is impossible for an entire nation to be convinced that their own ancestors, in the not-inaccessibly-distant past, had experienced a series of events as memorable as those described in the Pentateuch, if those events had not, in fact, taken place; and that since the Jews are known to have possessed such a national belief, it must have been an accurate one. (I'm reducing more than an entire chapter into one sentence here; if you have problems with the argument as I have explained it, read "Living Up to the Truth" for a more complete presentation.)

Rabbi Gottlieb has also written on the topic of reconciling the apparent Torah claim that the Earth is 5766 years old with the scientific evidence suggesting that it is far older than that; he suggests simply that the world was created 5766 years ago with the appearance of being much more ancient.

The following question was posed to me (unless I misunderstood it): Assume the Torah definitively states that the Earth is 5766 years old. Rabbi Gottlieb's premise in "Living Up to the Truth" is that we can use our observations of the world around us (historical records, for example) to draw conclusions regarding the veracity of the Torah. But he also proposes that we ignore the implications of our observations of the world around us when they indicate that the Earth is billions of years old, since those implications conflict with the Torah, which we have established to be factual. Would it not be equally valid to argue that we should accept the scientific evidence about the Earth's age, and ignore the evidence that the Torah is truthful, since the Torah conflicts with compelling science?

I believe the answer to the question is no, because the two sets of conclusions described in the preceding paragraph are neither equally plausible, nor logically equivalent. If we accept, based on the evidence, that the Torah is true, and, hence, that the world is 5766 years old, we must, indeed (based on our initial assumption), discard as misleading the evidence that the world is billions of years old. However, we can fall back on Rabbi Gottlieb's alternative (and logically irrefutable) approach to the age of the world, viz., that it just looks very old. If we believe what the Torah tells us about God, it's certainly within God's capabilities to make an old-looking world (no more difficult than making a new-looking one, in fact). There's no evidence that God didn't do exactly that; indeed, from a theological perspective, it actually makes sense that he would have (ask me if you want more explanation of that). The evidence is all reconcilable; we are left with no contradictions.

However, if we accept initially that the Earth is older than the Torah allows, we must then confront and discard the evidence that the Torah is true. Can we explain how that evidence came to exist? Not to the best of my knowledge. We can't say that God manufactured the evidence, because we have (as yet) no evidence that there's a God at all. The facts we know about Jewish history just sit there, crying out their contradiction of our conclusions about the world's age. This approach, unlike the last one, cannot account for the existence of all the evidence. The Torah-affirming approach discussed above may adopt a hypothesis that seems weak, or cheap, but at least it covers all the bases.

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I'd like to aver that there is, in fact, nothing weak or cheap about Rabbi Gottlieb's hypothesis. Suppose academia universally accepts the Documentary Hypothesis of Biblical authorship, and suppose, furthermore, that we all agree with its premise that it is just inconceivable that the Five Books of Moses were authored, in their entirety, by the same human being. Does that mean it's weak, or cheap, or intellectually dishonest or undesirable to ascribe the Pentateuch to God (who can write in a multiplicity of styles)? I believe not, and I believe the same is true of Rabbi Gottlieb's explanation of the world's ancient appearance. It fits the facts very nicely. There's no evidence that it's wrong. At the risk of sounding like a right-wing Haredi lunatic, academia's acceptance of a particular explanation for the existence of a body of facts does not require Jews to accept that explanation when another explanation exists, one more compatible with the sum total of our knowledge.

1 comment:

Poster said...

How does Judaism explain all the evidence for UFO's?

It's not the job of earth geology to explain human religions.

Why, exactly, would G-d want to trick us into thinking that the earth is much older?

The evidence for a much older earth is all over the planet and requires that it is either truly old, or G-d is intentionally misleading us.

If G-d intentionally is misleading us about the age of the earth via the evidence, perhaps there is a G-d, All Powerful, [think Deism] Who has a purpose to equally trick us into thinking the Torah is true. With much weaker and faint evidence.

Respectfully submitted.