Guest Post: A Clear Statement from the Rambam on the Age of the Universe [Can we "pasken" the age of the universe? (Part 6)]
Copyright 2014 by David Ohsie. All rights reserved
In our previous post, we examined Rabbi Meiselman's contention that "hashkafah" is practical. In this post, we'll examine whether or not such a category of "practical hashkafah" can be applied to disputes of the age of the universe, making it amenable to P'sak.
Can we "pasken" the age of the universe?
As described in the last post, the notion of "practical hashkafah" is bounded by the set of mandatory beliefs in Judaism. What are these mandatory beliefs according to the Rambam?
It is necessary to bear in mind that Scripture only teaches the chief points of those true principles which lead to the true perfection of man, and only demands in general terms faith in them. Thus Scripture teaches the Existence, the Unity, the Omniscience, the Omnipotence, the Will, and the Eternity of God. All this is given in the form of final results, but they cannot be understood fully and accurately except after the acquisition of many kinds of knowledge. Scripture further demands belief in certain truths, the belief in which is indispensable in regulating our social relations: such is the belief that God is angry with those who disobey Him, for it leads us to the fear and dread of disobedience [to the will of God]. There are other truths in reference to the whole of the Universe which form the substance of the various and many kinds of speculative sciences, and afford the means of verifying the above-mentioned principles as their final result. But Scripture does not so distinctly prescribe the belief in them as it does in the first case; it is implied in the commandment, "to love the Lord" (Deut. xi. 13). It may be inferred from the words, "And thou shalt love the Lord thy God with all thy heart, and with all thy soul, and with all thy might" (ibid. vi. 5), what stress is laid on this commandment to love God. We have already shown in the Mishneh-torah (Yes. ha-torah ii. 2) that this love is only possible when we comprehend the real nature of things, and understand the divine wisdom displayed therein. We have likewise mentioned there what our Sages remark on this subject. (Moreh 3:28) [emphasis mine]
The Rambam makes a clear distinction between the basic assertions about beliefs in God and reward and punishment, and the subject matter of the speculative sciences which are very important to religion, in his view. In the former case, the Torah teaches us specific principles, such as those encompassed by the Rambam's 13 principles of faith. In the latter case, we are enjoined to investigate them in order to fulfill the Rambam's understanding of the mitzvah to "to love the Lord", but we are not given a specific set of beliefs:
What is the path [to attain] love and fear of Him? When a person contemplates His wondrous and great deeds and creations and appreciates His infinite wisdom that surpasses all comparison, he will immediately love, praise, and glorify [Him], yearning with tremendous desire to know [God's] great name, asDavid stated: "My soul thirsts for the Lord, for the living God" [Psalms 42:3]. (Yesodei Hatorah 2:2)
Now let's examine Rabbi Meiselman's application of his principle of P'sak in "practical Hashkafah". He explicitly applies his theory of P’sak to Rabbi Aryeh Kaplan’s attempt to resolve the known age of the universe using various Kabbalistic concepts such as the existence of 6 sabbatical cycles in addition to the cycle that comprises this world (see The Age of the Universe). In this work, Rabbi Kaplan explicitly relies on minority opinions, since no P’sak is possible in “Hashkafah”, which Rabbi Meiselman maintains is an illegitimate approach (TCS pg. 535).
To begin with, the age of the universe is a scientific and factual question. As demonstrated above, the underlying reality of the universe’s age cannot be determined through the process of P’sak. Rabbi Meiselman is sensitive to this problem and devotes some chapters of his book to the notion that the conclusions of modern science are either based on false assumptions or else are mere “theories” with no compelling evidence behind them. In my humble opinion, it is difficult to see, based on this, how any legitimate effort to reconcile the Torah with well-established science could be problematic simply because a only minority of prior interpretations of some elements of Torah can be accommodated.
In addition, a young earth is not one of the thirteen principles of belief enumerated by the Rambam. Based on the definition of “practical Hashkafa” above, it is unclear without more analysis, why the belief in an old universe would impinge on any of the 13 essential beliefs postulated by the Rambam. Instead it seems to fall squarely in the realm of "speculative sciences" where the Rambam declares that we were not given specific items of belief.
While a young earth was certainly the belief of most authorities in Judaism until recent times, so were beliefs in an unmoving earth at the center of the solar system, the existence of crystalline spheres in the heavens, and the composition of all matter out of 4 or 5 basic elements. In fact, these are all beliefs held by the Rambam, and some were used in his explanation of Pesukim and in his interpretation of the commandment to believe in God's existence:
This entity is the God of the world and the Lord of the entire earth. He controls the sphere with infinite and unbounded power. This power [continues] without interruption, because the sphere is constantly revolving, and it is impossible for it to revolve without someone causing it to revolve. [That one is] He, blessed be He, who causes it to revolve without a hand or any [other] corporeal dimension. (Yesodei Hatorah 1:5)
In order to render the age of the universe a matter of “practical Hashkafa” we would have to analyze whether such a belief contradicts our Masorah in some fundamental way, despite the fact that the Rambam seems to exclude the speculative sciences from this category.
Fortunately for us, the Rambam has already done much of the analysis for us. In his discussion of the possible “eternity” of the universe, he states the following (Moreh 2:25):
We do not reject the Eternity of the Universe, because certain passages in Scripture confirm the Creation; for such passages are not more numerous than those in which God is represented as a corporeal being; nor is it impossible or difficult to find for them a suitable interpretation. [...]
For two reasons, however, we have not done so, and have not accepted the Eternity of the Universe. [...] the Eternity of the Universe has not been proved; a mere argument in favour of a certain theory is not sufficient reason for rejecting the literal meaning of a Biblical text, and explaining it figuratively, when the opposite theory can be supported by an equally good argument.
Secondly, [...] [i]f we were to accept the Eternity of the Universe as taught by Aristotle, that everything in the Universe is the result of fixed laws, that Nature does not change, and that there is nothing supernatural, we should necessarily be in opposition to the foundation of our religion, [...] If, however, we accepted the Eternity of the Universe in accordance with the second of the theories which we have expounded above [that of "Plato" which allows for Providence] [...] we should not be in opposition to the fundamental principles of our religion [...] But there is no necessity for this expedient, so long as the theory has not been proved. [...] we take the text of the bible literally, and say that it teaches us a truth which we cannot prove: and the miracles are evidence for the correctness of our view.
The amazing implication of this Rambam is that even an eternal universe is not automatically excluded by the Pesukim of Genesis or any other fundamental principle of Judaism. Instead, the Rambam emphatically rejects the eternity of the universe on two grounds:
1. An eternal universe that doesn’t admit of Providence, such as that of Aristotle, would contradict many of the fundamental beliefs of Judaism such as the belief in divine reward and punishment.
2. There is no proof of an eternal universe. This excludes even speculative theories of eternity which admit of providence, such as that of Plato.
It seems clear that if an eternal universe can theoretically be fitted to the Pesukim of Genesis and the fundamental principles of Judaism, then an 13.8 billion year old universe most certainly can. And since the age of the a non-eternal created universe has no implications on the possibility of Providence, the only remaining factor is whether or not there is actually strong evidence for an ancient universe. We won’t delve into that question here, but the evaluation of that evidence is a matter of science and not a matter that can be decided by P’sak. And since it is apparent that an old universe, according to the Rambam, can be fitted to the Pesukim, the fundamentals of Jewish belief are not implicated and the possibility of a limited of role for P’sak in “practical Hashkafah” has no bearing on this topic.
In the next post, with God's help, we’ll complete our examination of Rabbi Meiselman’s thesis by examining his assertion that the Rambam decides non-halachic issues on halachic grounds.
The views in this post are mine and may not represent the views of the blog owner. I encourage comments and will make every attempt to address any questions in the comments section.