Torah & Science

Marc B. Shapiro, history professor, writes:

In the archive of R. Isaac Herzog there are a number of letters from R. Herzog relevant to the issue of science and Torah.[18] He was writing to scientists and historians asking them how certain it is that the world is billions of years old and that humanity has been in existence for more than 6000 years. One of the people he wrote to was Professor George F. Carter. Carter was a believing Catholic, and in his letters to R. Herzog you see that he could not understand why there should be any conflict between Torah and science. It astounded him that R. Herzog seemed to feel that the scientific and historical information in the Torah must be accepted as factual, when from his Catholic perspective the point of the Bible is not to provide facts of this nature. In his letter of November 23, 1953, R. Herzog wrote to Carter.

“[L]et me recapitulate my problem. Not that we have as a dogma a certain chronology but the chronology automatically results from the plain text of the Book of Genesis, as you undoubtedly know yourself, that troubled the minds of some great rabbis nearly a century ago with the rise of the science of Geology. Most ignore the data of science altogether. Some, however, replied that the world was created enormous [missing word] of time ago, but that at certain points mankind was recurrently blotted out and the present world is a certain phase in that recurrent process of creation and destruction. Hence they explained the fossils which bear evidence of such high antiquity etc. They based their explanation upon an old saying in a pre-mediaeval Rabbinic collection: “The Holy One Best be His Name kept on building up worlds and destroying them.” Note that the meaning of “destroying” in that connection is not total annihilation as you will easily understand. Now the problem as it presents itself to me is whether the short period of less than six thousand years or (counting from the deluge when according to Genesis only a few persons survived) some 5000 years is sufficient to account for the numbers of mankind, for its distribution all over the globe, for the advance and progress of mankind, which in the natural course require considerable time, say the art of recording or writing etc., etc. If you assume divine interposition, the progress could be achieved in much less time. Think of the time according to science it took wood to be turned into coal, and of the time it takes for that process at the kitchen fire-side! Yet the question remains: Is it possible to speak of such constant divine interposition within say the first 2000 years of the past 6 or 5 thousand years since the beginning of the Biblical chronology to promote civilisation, the distribution of mankind and to multiply mankind to such an extent? I may add that our great teacher Maimonides from whom your Catholic great thinker Thomas Aquinas drew so much, was in his time confronted with Aristotle’s eternity of the universe which contradicted Jewish belief. He started out with the premise that if Aristotle’s point was absolutely proved, he would explain bara in Genesis not in the sense of created but in another sense, and would thus reconcile the divine Towah [!] with scientific truth, but he found that Aristotle had not proved his point and he therefore left bara in its plain sense.[19] I say something similar. If men of science prompted by absolute truth definitely and unanimously decide that the above chronology is not only unlikely but is actually impossible and therefore absurd, I would reinterpret the Biblical text in a different sense, but before doing that, I must be perfectly certain. Remember that the divine truth of every word in the Pentateuch is a dogma of orthodox Judaism, is believed to be the word of G-d through Moses. Yet orthodox Judaism is not a slave to the literal sense. It teaches that G-d is beyond all human thought and imagination and therefore it regards the anthropomorphisms as mere figures of speech: it also lays down that the Torah speaks in the language of humans. But there is of course a difference between understanding the Eyes of G-d as meaning divine Providence and interpreting the chronology of six thousand years as standing for aeons!”

In this letter, and in other letters in his archive, the issue R. Herzog is most troubled with is not the creation of the world and the evidence that this took place billions of years ago. Rather, his concern is with the length of time of humanity on earth, for if there is indisputable evidence of humanity for tens of thousands or hundreds of thousands of years, then what is one to do with the chronology that “results from the plain text of the book of Genesis,” by which he means the record of generations beginning with Adam? As far as R. Herzog is concerned, this matter is not so much a religious question but a historical question, and that explains why he inquired from experts in this matter.[20] For if we are dealing with a fact, undisputed and recognized by all experts, that humanity has existed for longer than the biblical account would have it, then following Maimonides R. Herzog believes that is no choice but to read the Torah’s account in a non-literal fashion.

Readers can correct me if I am wrong, but I think that in the Modern Orthodox world the matter that R. Herzog was so exercised about has been settled. In other words, I don’t see any evidence that people in these communities are concerned that in Modern Orthodox schools, in classes on ancient history, students are taught things such as that around 10,000 BCE farming communities existed in the Middle East and North Africa. I know from personal experience that textbooks used in Modern Orthodox schools offer precisely this sort of information that assumes that human civilization predates the traditional Jewish reckoning. From what I have seen, this is presented to the students without, however, taking the step that R. Herzog mentioned, namely, explaining what then becomes of the biblical chronology when it is no longer viewed as historical.

About Luke Ford

I've written five books (see My work has been followed by the New York Times, the Los Angeles Times, and 60 Minutes. I teach Alexander Technique in Beverly Hills (
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