Thursday, October 06, 2005

Happy Birthday to the World and Me

The world turned 5,766 yesterday, and I turned 27 today. I want to wish everybody a happy Rosh Hashanah! If I have offended anybody over the past year I would like to here and now apologize (without necessarily admitting malice, wrongdoing, or negligence.)

I have been receiving the yearly parade of phone calls for my birthday, and in wishing her a happy Rosh Hashanah, my 16 year old skeptic sister bluntly pointed out the fact that the world is not 5,766 but, in fact, approximately 4.7 billion years old, and hence that going to Rosh Hashanah services is a waste of time. I'm so proud of her! She has matured from being childishly obnoxious to intellectually obnoxious. My natural response was, "Shut up."

But she raised an excellent question: how can a person on the one hand function in the western world, with its dependence on fact, impartial judgment, and critical thought, yet at the same time be a religious Jew and believe in the Torah as the revealed word of God, straight from Mount Sinai? It's especially difficult for me, being an engineer, a profession requiring measurement, calculation, and a cold analysis of whether a solution to a particular problem is, in fact viable.

The easiest way to deal with such questions is to simply ignore the elephant sitting in your living room. For the religious, this means that anything contradicting the literal Torah view must be shut out, including books, movies, and news reports. Why is there fossilized evidence that creatures existed eons before the biblical 5,766 years of creation? How can we see light traveling from stars which are more than 5,766 light years away? None of this is a problem if you live in a Torah bubble.

Similarly, a secular person can to dismiss substantive arguments that the Torah is true as religious superstition. Why does the surrounding culture always react with great violence and hostility to Jews when they attempt to assimilate, contrary to the experience of all other exiled peoples? Why do the Jewish people, the weakest and smallest, survive when all the great and powerful nations of the earth have vanished, contrary to every rational argument? If you can brush off such questions as exceptions and quirks without a second thought, then you're out of the intellectual woods.

There are some who, in desperation, try to split this argument into two issues. "Science explains how the world works, and Torah explains why." In other words, don't try to mix the two, you're only asking for trouble. I've tried each of these methods and none of them work. The little unasked questions don't go away, they gestate and feed on my subconscious, growing into major doubts.
The next step is to try to reconcile the two ideas. There is an idea that the world was created in-situ. When God created the world, he created trees full-grown. Thus, if you were to cut down a tree on the sixth day of creation and count the number of rings, the tree would seem to be 70 years old when really it was only 3 days old. Likewise fossils were created already buried in the earth, and starlight was created already on its way here, such that it would appear to the scientific observer that the world is four billion years old when it is really only 5,766. All evidence contrary to divine creation is simply a divine test of faith.
Likewise, there is the scientific theory, called "intelligent design," postulating that the world was created through a natural process, but that this process was constantly guided by God's hand.

I have never been a big fan of either of these theories, since I don't see anywhere else that God tries to "fool" us with evidence to contradicts his words. "I have set before you life and death, the blessing and the curse; therefore choose life, that you may live…" (Deut 30:19.) No tricks or demands that you live with your head in the sand, just the expectation that you live properly and the Torah, the teaching, of how to do so.

My own belief is that the two systems are part of one system, they simply haven't been reconciled yet. The physics world is experiencing a similar problem. Einstein's theory of relativity today explains how the world of the very large, galaxies, stars, light, and gravity, operates. Quantum physics explains how the world of the very small, the atoms, electrons, neutrons, and protons, operates. However, when one applies the laws of relativity to the very small, they do describe what is seen in a laboratory. And quantum physics, while beautifully explaining the world of the very small, doesn't bear any resemblance to reality on the very large scale. Still, there is no doubt that they do both, in fact, explain the same universe, and the search is on to find the "Grand Unified Theory" to unite them.

We know from physics that time is not necessarily a static quantity. Relativity tells us, and it has been scientifically observed, that what a person traveling at close to the speed of light experiences as a day may take years or centuries to a stationary observer. Likewise, one of the four Talmudic explanations of the Chanukah miracle is that, although outsiders observed the Chanukah menorah to burn for eight days, time inside the Beit Hamikdash where the menorah was burning was actually only one day, stretched out so that an outside observer would observe eight days.

There are aspects of the observable universe that science explains and aspects that only the Torah can explain, and sometimes pretending to know the answers is more destructive than admitting, "I don't know." The physicists argue over quantum mechanics and Einstein's relativity, but meanwhile we continue to enjoy televisions, computers, microwave ovens, and all the inventions that require both of these seemingly contradictory theories to function. Likewise, I have no doubt that with the coming of the Moshiach, we'll finally have our "Grand Unified Theory" of Torah and science. Until then, I'll keep using my microwave and keep going to minyan on Rosh Hashanah.