Dear Rabbi Fried,
I have had trouble reconciling my reading of Genesis with current scientific theory. When I read about the beginning of creation, it seems clear that God created the world whole, as well as the rest of the universe. But physics says that there was a primordial speck which exploded in what is known as the Big Bang, and from its expansion the universe and world came to be. Is there a way to integrate the two versions of the story?
Joseph W. T., Ph.D.
Dear Dr. Joseph,
In most translations, the first verse of Genesis/Beresheet reads something like this: “In the beginning G-d created heaven and earth, and the earth was astonishingly empty….” This rendering, which alludes to G-d creating heaven and earth directly and as a complete entity as you mentioned, is a flawed one. The correct translation, as explained by Rashi, the most classical of commentaries, is “In the beginning of G-d’s creating of the heaven and the earth….” The difference is a great one; it is simply introducing the story, not referring to anything created yet!
The continuing statement, “and the earth was astonishingly empty,” also loses its meaning in translation. Another classical commentary, Ramban (Nachmanides, 1270 CE), points out the difficulty implicit in the words “tohu vavohu,” which do not literally form the phrase “astonishingly empty.” Tohu indeed means “astonishing.” Bohu, however, means “all is in it.” The correct translation would be “it was astonishing in that all is in it,” which seems to make no sense.
Ramban explains as follows: “The Holy One, blessed be He, created all creatures from absolute nothingness (ex nihilo), which no other term in our holy tongue describes but ‘bara.’ Not all creatures in the spiritual realm or below the heavens were created ex nihilo; rather, He brought into being from absolute nothingness a very tiny basic material, which seemed as though it didn’t exist at all, but it had within it the power to bring forth other creations, prepared to receive shape, to develop from the potential to the actual … and all was created from it. This matter … is called in Hebrew ‘tohu’ … because if a man would attempt to assign it a name, he would be astonished … because it had no form which would accept a name. The form, which cloaked this matter, is called in Hebrew ‘bohu’ … meaning ‘all is in it.’” (Sefer Yetzira, the Kabbalistic Book of Creation). “He … made from nothing, something.” Ramban quotes similar passages from the Zohar and Sefer HaBahir.
We see from Ramban’s commentary that the verse from Genesis is exactly and precisely in line with Big Bang theory! For the past 700 or more years we were not able to fathom the meaning of the Ramban in physical terms. It defied human understanding to imagine that all the vast mass of the universe could be compressed into an infinitesimally small speck of matter which could not even be observed. One could not even imagine compressing a cup of water into a smaller cup! Only after Albert Einstein discovered relativity and the relationship between matter and energy could we comprehend this in physical terms. According to Stephen Hawking, this original, primordial speck is called a singularity, with infinite energy pulling in upon itself, not allowing any energy to escape. It was the ultimate “black hole.” This was considered a monumental discovery, but something that we have known, although not totally understood, from Torah literature for thousands of years!
One thing Hawking does not explain is how the Big Bang was possible. If there is an infinite amount of energy holding the singularity together, where did the even greater energy needed to pull it apart come from? He indeed does say that time and science had their beginnings only after the Big Bang. Our answer to all this is that the Creator, who was the architect of even the concept of infinity, had the energy beyond infinity to bring about the Big Bang.
As science progresses, we see much more clearly how the physical world and the spiritual world of Torah are one.
Rabbi Yerachmiel D. Fried, noted scholar and author of numerous works on Jewish law, philosophy and Talmud, is founder and dean of DATA, the Dallas Kollel. Questions can be sent to him at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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