This post is the first part of a series addressing Rabbi Meiselman's article, "A Question of Time," which presents an approach regarding the age of the universe. Ordinarily I wouldn't bother responding to such theories, no matter how many scientific and theological inaccuracies they contain. But R. Meiselman's article does not just present itself as a suggestion. Rather, he entirely denies the legitimacy - not just the technical correctness - of alternatives.
R. Meiselman begins his discussion with the following claim:
The issue [of the age of the universe] is not a new one. It was first discussed in our sources in medieval times. Ever since Aristotle, science had claimed that the world had no beginning... Neither the philosophic/scientific proofs of Aristotle, however, nor the scientific proofs of Newton and Laplace moved our Mesorah (transmitted tradition). None of the chachmei hamesorah who confronted the issue ever suggested that the received position be re-evaluated. Creation ex nihilo always remained a fundamental belief. The scientific approach was simply rejected, even in the face of so-called proofs.
R. Meiselman claims that the issue is not a new one - thereby blurring the distinction between the question of whether the universe was created, and the question of how old it is. But these are as different as chalk and cheese. The reason why creation ex nihilo was not re-evaluated was precisely because it was a fundamental belief. As Rambam states:
The belief in eternity in the way that Aristotle sees it - that is, the belief according to which the world exists by necessity, that nature does not change at all, and that the ordinary course of events cannot be modified in any aspect - this uproots the Torah from its foundation, and utterly denies all the miracles, and erases all the hopes and threats that the Torah assures. (Guide For The Perplexed 2:25)
But Rambam makes it clear that received traditions which are not fundamental beliefs can be reinterpreted. He proceeds to say that the Platonic (as opposed to Aristotelian) view of the eternity of the universe could be accepted, and the Torah reinterpreted to match it - and that the only reason not to do so is that this theory has not been scientifically substantiated:
If, however, we accepted the Eternity of the Universe in accordance with the second of the theories which we have expounded above, and assumed, with Plato, that the heavens are likewise transient, we should not be in opposition to the fundamental principles of our religion; this theory would not imply the rejection of miracles, but, on the contrary, would admit them as possible. The Scriptural text might have been explained accordingly, and many expressions might have been found in the Bible and in other writings that would confirm and support this theory. But there is no necessity for this expedient, so long as the theory has not been proved. (Guide for the Perplexed ibid.)
Furthermore, there have indeed been cases where traditional interpretations were re-evaluated as a result of scientific proofs. One example of this is the rakia. Received tradition, from Chazal through all the Rishonim, based on pesukim, was that the rakia is a solid covering to the world. But once it was discovered that there is no such solid covering, the concept was reinterpreted.
Thus, when Rabbi Meiselman compares the topic of the age of the universe to its creation, he is ignoring and negating the very distinction that Rambam stressed and which makes all the difference in the world. It is precisely due to this very distinction that there were indeed Torah authorities who diverged from the received tradition with regard to the age of the universe. Rabbi Yisrael Lipschitz, the "Tiferes Yisrael," argued that there were previous epochs before that described in Bereishis - an approach that was endorsed by Maharsham. Rabbi Dovid Tzvi Hoffman argued that a "day" can mean an "era." And Rambam himself, as explained by Abarbanel, Shem Tov ben Yosef, and Akeidas Yitzchak, along with Ralbag, believed that the "six days" need not refer to a period of time at all. Rabbi Meiselman does not engage in any "Dialogue" with these views, and does not even make any reference to them. In fact, it seems that he considers them religiously unacceptable. Why?
To be continued...