In Lancaster, Pa., where I once served as the rabbi of the Conservative congregation, there is an organization called the Institute for Scientific & Biblical Research dedicated to the premise that the biblical account of creation is literally true. That is, God made the world in six, 24-hour days a little less than 6,000 years ago. Any suggestion that the first chapters of Genesis are not absolutely factual is a threat to the foundation of faith and must be fought with all one’s strength.
You don’t generally see Jews involved in these efforts. It’s not that we don’t believe that the Torah is true — we do. However, our way of reading it is different. Rashi, the great 11th-century commentator, says about the very first verse of the Torah, “It does not come to teach the order of creation — that these things came first.” The Torah is not a science book, and those who look to it for scientific facts miss the point.
When I was in seventh grade, we began to study evolution in public school. And in that charming way that seventh-graders have, we showed up at Hebrew school and announced to the rabbi that the Torah wasn’t true — we had just been taught the real truth about the origin of the world and everything in it.
The rabbi’s response was that we were the ones who were wrong — there was no real contradiction between what our public school teacher had told us and what the Torah taught. The essential teaching of Bereshit was that God created the world and everything in it. Whether God could do that in six days or by setting in motion the Big Bang and the process of evolution that would unfold over millions or billions of years wasn’t really important. In the beginning God created heaven and earth — how God did it wasn’t something that we could know or that we needed to know.
The Talmud puts it this way: “The Torah speaks in human language.” When the Torah speaks about God, who is beyond human understanding, it speaks in metaphors. When the Torah says “the hand of God,” it doesn’t mean that God has actual hands with fingers and bones and muscles. Rather, it means that just as we affect the world using our hands, so too God affects the world, even if we are not able to describe exactly how He does it. Religious truth and scientific truth aren’t in conflict because they don’t operate in the same realm.
Scientist Carl Sagan wrote:
At the beginning of this universe, there were no galaxies, stars or planets, no life or civilizations, merely a uniform radiant fireball filling all space. The passage from the Chaos of the Big Bang to the Cosmos that we are beginning to know is the most awesome transformation of matter and energy that we have been privileged to glimpse. And, until we find more intelligent beings elsewhere, we are ourselves the most spectacular of all the transformations — the remote descendants of the Big Bang, dedicated to understanding and further transforming the Cosmos from which we spring.
You will notice, of course, that Sagan’s account says nothing about the origin of the “uniform radiant fireball” or the Big Bang. So why not, as my childhood rabbi taught us, “In the beginning, God created heaven and earth.”