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Grappling With Truth Behind Bars
by Dr. Arnie Gotfryd

"From a scientific perspective, believing that G-d created billions of atoms... that later developed and evolved... is no different than believing - in accordance with the straightforward meaning of Bereishit - that G-d created the heavens and the earth on the first day...". The Rebbe
 
 
Readers Write
 
The Truth of Torah: Literal or Literary?

Rabbi Shmuel Spritzer forwarded me this query from one of the hundreds of Jewish prisoners he contacts every month.
 
Do his questions sound familiar? Here's a mitzvah you can do without getting up from your chair - Take a few minutes and compose your own response to Yaakov.I'll forward them to him and together we will "lighten" his sentence.
 
I will publish some of your responses (anonymously if you wish) as well as mine, in a future newsletter - AG


 
Dear Rabbi Spritzer,
 
In your recent letter, you pose a difficult and sticky question. I cannot offer you a complete answer, in part because I don't know.
 
The short answer is that I take the Torah seriously, yet not literally. I am comfortable taking much on faith and I realize that much of what I/we believe is unproven and unprovable.
 
I have no problem with that, yet when something is proven to my satisfaction, I cannot reject it without evidence to the contrary. Science is an empiric discipline. One develops a theory based upon prior knowledge, develops a method to test the hypothesis and then evaluates the data. The data can support the hypothesis, negate it, or be neutral. Optimally, one replicates the data through similar and different methods.
 
I have seen quite a bit of evidence that has me convinced that the universe is on the order of 10's of billions of years and the Earth is about 4.5 billion years old.
 
Let's start with distant stars. We know (at least our current conception is) that light travels at 186,000 miles per second. A light year is the distance traveled by light in one year. According to Einstein's work, nothing can surpass the speed of light. As a particle approaches the speed of light, its mass increases toward infinity. Photons (what we see as light) have no mass to increase, so they can travel that fast.
 
Dr. Gotfryd mentions the Red Shift. This is similar to the Doppler Effect, the shift in pitch that sound undergoes as the source of the sound passes us. You've likely heard a lowering of pitch as a train whistle or an ambulance siren passes by. Light has properties of a wave as well as of a particle, so as the source of light moves away from us, the light becomes more bluish.
 
The source has to be moving rather quickly. Consider how quickly the Earth moves around the sun. This is easy to calculate. The distance to the sun is 93 million miles. The circumference can be calculated by the formula, c = 2 π r. where r is the radius of a circle and pi (π) is a number approximated by 3.14. Knowing that a (solar) year is 365 ¼ days and the Earth has to travel one circumference in one year, we come up with a speed of about 60,000 miles per hour. Luckily the atmosphere is also moving along with the Earth, otherwise the wind would be too strong for us. Similarly, riding in a car, plane or train, we don't feel the movement.
 
As mentioned in the email, the distance to the Crab Nebula is about 7-10,000 light years. The Red Shift is one way to measure the distance. Another method is parallax. Briefly, if we look at an object from two separate points, we can see how far it is by the angles between the points [triangulation]. Our depth perception depends on this effect constantly, as we look at things from a slightly different angle with each eye. For a really cool demonstration of this, go to a 3-D movie, then take the glasses off so both eyes have the same view and it becomes flat.
 
If we go back to the geometry of Euclid, who lived in the early 2nd Temple Period, if we know the angles of a triangle, and the length of one side, we can calculate the lengths of the other two sides. This is easy with short distances and big angles. But as the far angle becomes tiny and the long sides become huge, measurements must be extremely accurate to be meaningful.
 
Using parallax to triangulate the distance to even a relatively nearby star obviously won't work if you simply look through each eye alternately. The base of your triangle is then only a few inches. Observing the star from two sides of the Earth only gets you up to some 8,000 miles. Astronomers have come up with a clever solution. They measure the angle from the earth to the star at 6 month intervals. The base of the triangle is then 186,000,000 miles (twice the distance from the Sun to the Earth), and the angles to the star are larger too.
 
Measurements to stars by these two methods, parallax and Red Shift, have been shown to agree to within a fraction of one per cent.
 
More distant stars and galaxies have been observed to be billions of light years away. Assuming that the speed of light is a constant, that means it would take 10 billion years for its light to get to us. Even if the astronomers were off my a factor of 1,000, we are still talking about 10 million years, a lot larger than 5769 years.
 
I also accept the geologic, radiologic, biologic, and genetic evidence that the earth is about 4.5 billion years old and life has been present for about 3.5 billion years and that all the incredible life forms that are present today evolved from one-celled. Again, I've seen reams of evidence to and no credible evidence to refute it.
 
I've heard people say that evolution doesn't describe the actual origin of life. I agree that it doesn't adequately answer that question, but it offers an excellent model of the development of species since then.
 
I'd like to apologize if my explanation was way above or below your level of understanding. Usually when I teach, the student is with me and I can quickly assess their level of comprehension. Based on your comments about a lack of "worldly" knowledge, I presumed that your scientific and mathematic background was minimal yet your ability to comprehend great.
 
Although some people feel that the Bible is a History book, I reject that view. I don't view it as a book about the world or about man, but a book about G-d. If concepts like relativity and the vast epochs of time, vast distances in space, quantum mechanics, etc., were described to the initial recipients of the Torah, they never would have accepted it. It had to be written in a language and with concepts that they would understand.
 
Just as I don't believe that Hashem controls our actions, I believe He set certain processes in motion billions of years ago which we're still trying to figure out today. Fortunately, the process has endowed us with minds capable of learning, experimenting and advancing our knowledge to gain a better understanding of ourselves and the world around us.
 
If we took one of our Biblical characters, told him we were going to fix his lethal heart problem by putting him to sleep, cutting him open, stopping his heart, fixing it, starting it up again, close up his chest and then he'll live long and  be well, what would he think?!
 
Similarly I believe that much of what we "know" now will be laughable in 10, 20, or 100 years.
 
I too have evolved. As a child, I believed the Torah literally. Later, as I learned science, I believed that since parts of the Torah do not comport with my model of the world, I needed to reject the Torah in its entirety. Today I believe that the Torah is a valuable book about G-d, told in a way that we could understand. I accept it as truth but not as literally true stories.
 
I hope I've been clear. Did I answer your question? Or did I just give you tzores?
 
Shalom u'bracha,
Yaakov
 
PS, With G-d's help, we'll get to have more of these discussions face to face soon!

 

 


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