Parshas Beraishis (5769)
One of the most common challenges to traditional Judaism in modern times stems from a reading of the Creation story as recorded in the Bible in the beginning of Genesis. The Torah seems to claim that the entire world was created in six days exactly 5769 years ago, while scientists seem to have shown that the world began with a Big Bang well over 13 billion years ago and that prehistoric man roamed the earth well over 100,000 years ago. The question of the age of the universe seems to pit G-d against Science - and for many moderns science will always win.
I believe that it is this type of challenge to the truth of the Torah that Nachmanides (13th century Spanish Bible commentator and philosopher) aims to address in his very first commentary to Genesis - a full 700 years before Big Bang cosmology was scientifically established.
He first quotes Rashi who opens his supercommentary to the Torah with the following: "Said Rabbi Yitzchak: The Torah should really have begun from "This month is for you the first of the months," (Exodus 12:2) which is the first commandment that the Israelites were commanded [as a nation], Now for what reason did He begin the Torah with "In the beginning, G-d created ...?" Because of [the verse] "The strength of His works He related to His people, to give them the inheritance of the nations" (Psalms 111:6). For if the nations of the world should say to Israel, "You are robbers, for you conquered by force the lands of the seven nations [of Canaan]," they will reply, "The entire earth belongs to the Holy One, blessed be He; He created it (this we learn from the story of the Creation) and gave it to whomever He deemed proper When He wished, He gave it to them, and when He wished, He took it away from them and gave it to us."
Nachmanides then continues: "One may question Rabbi Yitzchak's view as cited by Rashi. For there is a great necessity to begin the Torah with "In the beginning, G-d created ..." It is the root of faith; and one who does not believe in it [creation ex nihilo] and thinks the world is eternal denies the essential principle of Judaism and has no Torah! The answer is that the story of creation is a deep mystery not to be understood from the verses ... it is for this reason that Rabbi Yitzchak said that it was not necessary for the Torah to begin with the chapter of "In the beginning, G-d created ..." - what was created on the first day, what was done on the second and other days, as well as an extended account of the creation of Adam and Eve, their sin and punishment - because all this cannot be understood completely from the verses."
What Nachmanides is telling us here is a very critical idea that greatly changes the way we approach the study of Genesis - that the Creation narrative and the story of Adam and Eve in the Garden of Eden is not as simple as it would have us believe. In fact, it is so shrouded in mystical secrets that it simply cannot be understood from a plain reading of the verses, and would better be left unwritten - even though our belief in Creation is the root of our faith - because it distorts and hides so much more than it reveals. And, as Rashi quotes from Rabbi Yitzchak, the entire purpose of its being written at all is not to explain the traditional Jewish version of cosmology and the origin of the universe, but rather to give legitimacy to the [later] Jewish claim to the Land of Israel in the face of those who would claim that we illegally occupied it.
With this (new) understanding of the Biblical account in Genesis, we are far better equipped to deal with this latest challenge to the Bible from Science - the discovery that the universe seems to have begun with a Big Bang 13.7 billion years ago instead of only 6000 years ago. We can now appreciate that the Torah, when offering up its own version of the Origin of the Universe and of Man, was not pretending to be a book of Science and Cosmology and had no intention of providing an exact play-by-play account of Creation just so we would know how the world started. It only mentioned the Creation story - knowing full well that most of us would distort it without proper mystical teachings to guide us - as a concession to justify and legitimize the Jewish nation's future claim to the land of Israel.
Now we certainly have to deal with the challenges to the Creation story presented above - and to that end I recommend two fascinating essays, one on the Age of the Universe which can be downloaded at http://www.lulu.com/content/86052 and the other on the appearance of prehistoric man long before Adam and Eve were created at aish.com - but it is important to always bear in mind that the Torah is not a Science book or a History book but is first and foremost a Book of Instructions for Living. It is the best-selling Book of all time and it has withstood all the challenges against it from science and elsewhere over the centuries and millennia, and I am supremely confident that it will withstand these modern-day challenges as well.