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Nothing Gained, Everything Lost
Yesterday, I began a critique of Rabbi Moshe Meiselman's article in Dialogue, in which I pointed out that he blurred the distinction between the age of the universe and its creation - thereby enabling him to claim that those who accept the antiquity of the universe are acting unacceptably in departing from the mesorah. Today, I will begin to address the explanation of Bereishis that he proposes. Rabbi Meiselman argues that science simply cannot measure the duration of creation:
One of the main points of this article will be that all current tools for measuring the passage of time presume stability in the relationships between natural processes, similar to what we observe today. In fact, our entire outlook on time reflects this presumption... The presumption of stability in the oscillations of the cesium atom underlies all notions of time measurement today, as well as their projection into other epochs... The assumptions made by contemporary science in this area were never provable in the first place and they remain matters of conjecture. Our Mesorah has always rejected them and there is no justification for changing that stance now.
I will devote several posts to explaining why Rabbi Meiselman's approach fails in three ways. In reverse order: The third post will explain why his approach can be scientifically disproved very simply, and rests upon a fundamentally mistaken premise about the development of science. The second post will explain why his approach is incoherent when one contemplates how prehistoric life fits in to it. Today's post will explain why his approach has no theological advantage over other approaches, and suffers all their disadvantages.
Before discussing his approach, it is helpful to discuss a similar approach, put forth by Rav Shimon Schwab, which I analyzed in The Challenge Of Creation. He posited that billions of years during the era of creation were equal to six regular days today. His explanation for this is that all the events of those fourteen billion years were sped up such that they took place in only six days. An instant difficulty with this, and its resolution, is discussed by Rabbi Schwab:
...It is obvious that if all motion were uniformly multiplied all radiation, for instance, would become lethal. The accelerated speed would turn every particle into a deadly missile. Also a multiplication of the rapidity of all motion would upset the balance of mechanical forces which function differently at different speeds. Therefore, we should rather think of a uniform nexus of changes in the entire system of the natural order which is observable today, a uniform variation in all functions within the framework of natural law in conformity with the new universal velocity, not upsetting the intricate balance of all physical phenomena and the orderly cooperation of all parts within the whole.
Although this solves the technical difficulties, it now raises another type of difficulty—if the entire system has sped up, in what way is it significant to say that any of it has sped up? Again, Rabbi Schwab raises the question, and proposes an answer:
In fact, without having at least one exception somewhere in the universe, the simultaneous uniform acceleration of all motion is in itself a meaningless concept. The fixed reference point which might give meaning to this whole concept is the Creation Light.
However, the Creation Light, even with Rabbi Schwab’s understanding that it had a physical manifestation, is an insignificant point of reference in comparison to the revolutions of the earth, the movement of the planets and suchlike. If the earth is rotating on its axis billions of times, the sun rising and setting billions of times, and countless millions of generations of animals are living their lives, then how is it meaningful to speak of this taking only six days? Imagine if last week was sped up by God so that it only took five minutes on the Cosmic clock—would this be detectable or even meaningful in any way? If fourteen billion years equal six Creation days, then it is fourteen billion years as we understand it, and the six days are being understood differently from the simple understanding. If virtually everything is being sped up, then effectively nothing is being sped up.
Now, Rabbi Meiselman appears to be at least somewhat sensitive to this problem. He writes as follows:
When we extrapolate backwards in time we are tacitly assuming that throughout the period of the extrapolation all natural processes maintained the same relationships. If, for example, they were all to speed up by a factor of ten we would have no way of measuring or perhaps even detecting the phenomenon.
In fact, it is not just that we could not measure or detect the phenomenon; it is that there would not be a phenomenon. But let us see his continuation:
On the other hand, if one process remained constant we would then have to decide whether the others sped up or that one slowed down.
That is correct. And it would be a fairly easy judgement to make if only one or two processes were different, and all others remained the same. But Rabbi Meiselman proposes that everything was different during creation - that there was simply no such thing as the laws of nature as we know them:
...During the six days of Creation the world was governed by a system of laws that was totally different from the one operative today... Once one accepts the Torah’s version of history—that during certain epochs current natural law was not operative—there is no contradiction at all between the Torah’s chronology and science... The assumptions made by contemporary science in this area were never provable in the first place and they remain matters of conjecture. Our Mesorah has always rejected them and there is no justification for changing that stance now.
In Rabbi Meiselman's approach, since the laws of nature were completely different during Creation, there is simply no way that science can use its ordinary tools to measure its duration. Yet even if what Rabbi Meiselman writes were to be true - and over the next few days, we will prove that it is not true - all that it would mean is that the age of the universe cannot be precisely measured as being exactly 13.8 billion years, as modern science argues. Now, it's clear that it is appealing for him to discredit the modern scientific enterprise. But what is he proposing in its place? In what sense is it remotely meaningful to describe the formation of the universe as taking six days? If the laws of nature and physical processes were completely different, then in what meaningful sense can one say that it lasted six days? It is no more six days than it is six eras or six levels of a hierarchy.
Now, one might counter that the earth turned on its axis six times ("And there was evening, and there was morning"), by which it can be described as six days. But is that really significant? It's six rotations; not six days in any meaningful sense. Furthermore, if sunrise and sunset is all that matters, then you might as well say that the world is billions of years old, and you can accept everything that modern science has to say, with the exception of saying that the rotation of the earth on its axis was drastically slower for all those billions of years.
The particularly strange thing is that in an earlier part of the article, Rabbi Meiselman appears to recognize that some standard of measurement is required, and argues that it exists, but completely fails to explain what it is:
[There are] two distinct conceptions of time measurement — one paralleling our own for use when current relationships are operative and another completely different conception to be used when they are not — both expressed in the same terms. In order for them to work complementarily, however, the existence of a unifying conception applicable in all epochs must be posited. It is this that serves as the true measure of time. Whenever the world is operating in accordance with ordinary natural law the true measure coincides with human convention, making it possible for us to employ the latter and ignore the former. But during those epochs when natural law is not in effect, the true measure ceases to bear any resemblance to our own and it alone has meaning.
But what is this "unifying conception"? What is this "true measure"?! Rabbi Meiselman does not elaborate. Because there is none! And it cannot be posited that God has some Cosmic clock outside of the universe, for two reasons. First of all, it would still be completely meaningless in our terms. Second, elsewhere in the article, Rabbi Meiselman himself endorses Rambam's view that the concept of time presupposes motion, which in turn presupposes a physical world. And so Rabbi Meiselman has not only failed to explain how the universe can be proposed to have developed in six days; he has even made it meaningless to speak about such a timespan.
Furthermore, many of the theological objections that have been raised against those who accept the antiquity of the universe would equally apply to Rabbi Meiselman's approach. In his approach, the flow of time during creation, and also during the deluge (when he claims that the laws of nature were likewise completely different), were completely different from the flow of time at other times. In his words: "...there is an extra-cosmic concept of time which is operative independently of scientific time... this operates at times when scientific time is not applicable." But it has been objected that this undermines the Jewish calendar, as well as legal documents that are based upon it. And others, such as Rav Schwab and the late Lubavitcher Rebbe, argued that any explanation in which the six days were not six ordinary days as we have them would completely undermine the concept of Shabbos:
…The attempt to “reinterpret” the text of the first section of Bereishis to the effect that it speaks of periods or eons, rather than ordinary days… is not only uncalled for, but it means tampering with the Mitzvah of Shabbos itself, which “balances” all the Torah. For, if one takes the words, “one day” out of their context and plain meaning, one ipso facto abrogates the whole idea of Shabbos as the “Seventh day” stated in the same context. The whole idea of Shabbos observance is based on the clear and unequivocal statement in the Torah: “For in six days God made heaven and earth, and on the seventh day He ceased from work and rested”—days, not periods. (Rabbi Menachem Scheerson, Mind Over Matter, p. 110)
Now, I certainly think that such objections can be countered; I did so in my book. But once one is taking such an approach, what has been gained? If you're going to have others condemn you as an apikorus, then you might as well at least be offering a proposal which makes some sort of sense. According to Rabbi Meiselman's approach - the approach that he deems the sole theologically and scientifically legitimate approach - the creation of the universe did not take six days in any remotely meaningful sense of the term, and the universe was not created 5771 years ago in any remotely meaningful sense of the term.