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How Old is the Universe According to Judaism?

How Old is the Universe According to Judaism?

The Jewish View on the Age Old Question

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The Short Answer

We can't tell how old the universe is by examining it, because we don't understand how it got here in the first place.

A Longer Answer

If you met someone on the street and wanted to determine how old this person is, you would have one of two options. You could examine circumstantial evidence. Or you could ask this person, "Excuse me, how old are you?"

Let's start with the first method and do this systematically. We have overwhelming evidence that the universe is currently expanding. All we have to do is measure how fast it is currently expanding, its size, and its total mass, and we can work backwards to when it must have started. The result? The current estimate is fifteen billion years.

Piece of cake, right? Well, not quite. You see, we're missing an important step--the very first one. We've traced our universe back to the starting line, as a single glob about to explode. But what made it explode? How did it get there? What came before?

So now we're left with the job of tracing something back to nothing. That's not so simple. If we want to be thorough, we will need to reconstruct various degrees of nothingness and somethingness in between, and describe how one evolved into the other. All these are things our scientific instruments cannot measure--science deals only with things that are something. Science is lost when discussing something before it became something. To get technical, science can discuss temporal causalities, but not ontological ones. Which means that if you're going to direct the question, "How did our universe come to be?" to a scientist, you might as well direct it to an accountant, an artist or a real estate agent.

The Kabbalists, on the other hand, dealt with just that: A hierarchy of being, starting with an Ultimate Source which transcends the whole system of being and not-being, and working down through a systematic, interlinked chain (evolution) of multiple universes that terminate at our rock bottom, physical world. But none of this is within the domain of the physical sciences, which rely on precise measurements of phenomena or their effects.

On the contrary, as the Lubavitcher Rebbe wrote to Rabbi Dr. Herzog in 19561 (the following is my own free translation from the Hebrew): "According to the conclusions of contemporary science, the annihilation of anything--to return to nothing, or the opposite, creation of something from nothing--are impossibilities within the natural law.

"And further, creation ex nihilo, from a scientific perspective, is more implausible than having a human being appear out of the inanimate mud, just as he is, with no stages in between."

Now we've thrown a wrench in the works. How can science tell how long the world has been around, when it can't describe--or even allow the possibility of description of--the processes by which the world came to be in the first place?

Cosmic Birth

To give an analogy, let's say I examine an alien to determine his/her/its age. I announce to this friendly and cooperative being that by my calculations, he/she/it was born 108 years ago. To which he/she/it responds, "Who says I was born?"

Good point. Maybe our friendly alien gradually took form, passing through a period when it was neither alive nor inanimate. If so, how do we determine the point to begin counting its age? Or perhaps it existed initially as an ethereal being and only yesterday materialized as a fully adult alien.

If you think this puts you at a disadvantage, imagine if we would turn the tables and ask the alien to age us. He may perform a thorough examination of us and our environs and determine that, given the cosmological forces of which his civilization is aware, and given the chemical and energy makeup of our planet, for such a complex bio-system to develop out of the earth would take about 2.5 million years. To which we respond that we humans are actually born with limbs and organs already in place.

Don't be surprised if he flatly rejects such a notion as absurd. Even an earthling, Maimonides, gave 43 reasons why live birth is rationally impossible. If you've ever been in a delivery room, you'll know what he's talking about: In a moment, a new, complete person appears on planet earth. It just doesn't look, well, normal.

Yet, within our biosphere, birth is the standard form of origin. Things tend to arrive on the scene fully assembled. The alien may not have known about this. But the human being has no excuse for failing to integrate this phenomenon into his intuition. Instead, we insist on speculations that over-simplify the cosmos into neat, gradual evolutionary patterns on a single, horizontal plane of existence.

Which is just what we are doing here: When we wind back time to the origin of the universe as a single glob and only then ask the question, "Now how did that get there?" we are arbitrarily breaking a single answer into two steps. We're saying, First it came into being. Then it evolved to its present state. But maybe that's not so. Maybe both processes occurred at once. Perhaps the process was shared over multiple states of being, wherein processes occurred at varying rates?

A simple analogy from geometry: Draw a square. Now make a path from the top right corner of that square to the bottom left corner. Did you first travel to the bottom right, and then over to the left? Or did you make a diagonal straight to your target?

Figure 1: Time & State of Being--choose your path


So, too, here, there are two co-ordinates:

a) The process that led to the design and form of our cosmos.

b) The ontological transition from nothing to something.

Perhaps they occurred simultaneously, in tandem. Or maybe they didn't. That's just the point: We have no way of knowing.

But the answer is crucial to our quest, because there is another unknown: How does time behave in a higher state of being? When form and substance are more loosely defined--as they would be in a pre-material state--can cause and effect occur over a shorter period of time? In truth, is there any sense in talking about time at all at these stages?

G-d's Womb

Before you get the feeling that we are completely lost, let me point out that in truth, we do have some frame of reference. In the form by which G-d created heaven and earth--the macrocosm, so He made Adam--the microcosm. The human being includes processes that match every level of the ontological hierarchy mentioned above. We don't just perform material tasks, we talk about them, we think about them, we have feelings about them, we conceive what those tasks will be somewhere in our consciousness or pre-consciousness, and--even before any of this--we begin with a simple desire for something to be. So, by examining those processes within the microcosm of our own psyche, we can get a picture of how all this works in the grand macrocosm.

And lo and behold, a discovery awaits us: The higher we go up the hierarchy, the more rapidly those processes occur. What takes years to perform may take only hours to describe, minutes to dream about, and a flash of a lightning bolt to desire and conceive.

If the cosmos was conceived and incubated in the womb of G-d's mind, at which stage was it born into the time continuum that we measure with our physical senses? Is it conceivable that geological, chemical and organic processes that would take billions of years in our realm could occur within the equivalent of hours or minutes or even nanoseconds--or perhaps zero time--when occurring at a higher state of being but counted from our realm?

Take the oceans, for example. The account in Genesis begins discussing the Creator's conception of a single ocean and concludes with His actual creation of multiple oceans. Could continental drift have occurred within the gestation period between conception and birth--thereby breaking the great ocean apart? If so, many questions would be answered: Continental drift requires huge expenditures of energy that should melt the earth in a short time.2 Perhaps in a higher ontological realm the process could occur non-destructively, as well as much faster.

How about the origin of life? The Ramban (Nachmanides, 14th century Jewish scholar) understands Genesis as saying that the water, through its movement, metamorphosed into the creatures of the sea. This, then, is a description of a kind of evolutionary process. It's not just G-d says fish and fish are there. G-d directs a natural element to become fish, just as He directs the earth to sprout forth vegetation. But it occurs rapidly and with deliberate direction. The origin of life from inanimate chemicals remains an elusive puzzle for biologists--it is statistically impossible for it to have occurred by chance. Could this synthesis have occurred, as we said, in the womb of G-d's creative mind, at a higher plane of being?

Interestingly, the Kabbalah also describes an incremental process of formation--albeit in terms far beyond the crude mechanics of materialistic evolutionism. Rather than physical organisms transmuting into increasingly complex forms, the ancient Book of Formation describes the letters that form the words of the account of Creation passing through an (almost?) endless series of permutations to recombine and generate all the details of every instance of the cosmos.

The process has been compared to the workings of the human mind: The mind begins with a simple seed of an idea. Then, in gradual stages, it generates vast sets of corollaries, analogies and applications, each with its particular set of words by which the mind articulates these ideas to itself and to others. Certainly, this paradigm provides a coherent alternative to Darwinism to explain the apparent phylogeny of the species.

Once upon a time, scientists assumed they had the keys to absolute knowledge. The last hundred and fifty years has brought us to acknowledge there is no such thing within the realm of standard human perception and reason. When it comes to facts alive and well in the real world, we can make some pretty good stabs at the truth. When it comes to questions of the future, we can make limited speculations. When it comes to knowing the origin of things, empirical materialism is completely out of its realm. Perhaps we are ready today to recognize a place for the inner vision of the prophet and the mystic.


The Alternative Answer

As we said before, there is another method of determining age other than hypothesis and speculation. If the subject is a conscious being, we can ask him/her/it, "Excuse me, do you have a memory of how old you are?"

In the case of the cosmos, we have asked. Of course, some will call it speculation, or even "primitive imagination." But then, I wonder what scientists a century from now will call the speculations of today's cosmologists? As for me, my understanding of the Torah is that it is not a human voice, but the voice of the essence of the cosmos itself.

So we asked.

The answer at the dating of this writing is 5,761 years.3


NOTES:

To be truthful, the Rebbe's uncompromising rejection of any marriage of Darwinism and Genesis often puzzled me. So many theologians have been quite eager and willing to reinterpret a few lines of the Torah to make room for the scientists, whereas the scientific community is almost universally intolerant of those who step outside the Darwinian catechism. It would have been so much more convenient for the Rebbe to concede to the scientists and thereby please both sides. But then I read an essay of a significant American scientist, Prof. Wolfgang Smith (Cosmos, Bios, Theos , pg. 115, ed. Margenau and Varghese, Open Court, Chicago, 1992). The entire essay is worth reading (as is the book), and I admit to having borrowed some of his terminology in this essay. To quote one succinct paragraph:

At bottom, evolutionism is the denial of transcendence, the desperate attempt to understand life on the horizontal plane of it manifestations. Religion, on the other hand, is perforce concerned with transcendence and the vertical dimension, in which alone the re-ligare or binding back can be effected. The supposed merger, therefore, of these opposed doctrines constitutes one of the most bizarre happenings in these already confused and confusing times.

FOOTNOTES
1.

The entire letter is well worth reading and is published in Ma Rabbu Maasecha page 262, and in Igrot Kodesh, vol. 13, pg. 143.

2.

See Cook, Melvin A. 1966. Prehistorical Earth Models, Max Parrish, London.

3.

This age is according to ancient Jewish tradition, and can be calculated by compiling the chronologies written in the Torah.

Rabbi Tzvi Freeman, a senior editor at Chabad.org, also heads our Ask The Rabbi team. He is the author of Bringing Heaven Down to Earth. To subscribe to regular updates of Rabbi Freeman's writing, visit Freeman Files subscription.
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Discussion (334)
November 19, 2014
transcendence
You quote "At bottom, evolutionism is the denial of transcendence,..." In reality it is just the opposite. evolution itself is transcendence, it shows how life can function without the need for a supreme being to intervene. That is transcendence! To rely on a supreme being who creates via miracles is the taking the easy way out, a way where there is no thought. What do you mean by the word "transcend"? Religion is relying on "someone told me this", whereas evolution is direct examination and discovery. Evolution transcends man's mythology and the so called "holy books" written even before we discovered the earth was not flat! How can you rely on a so called holy book written before electricity, before everything we hold important, and say that is anything but backward and ignorent!
Steve E Abraham
New York
November 17, 2014
The universe is 14 billion years old. We know this by measuring the cosmic background radiation. Witch, according to the speed of light, tells us how long the cosmic background radiation has been there,
Eli Asarch
Denver
October 27, 2014
The Torah and time
I understand that the oral law was given to Moses on Mount Sinai and he taught this during the 40 years in the desert. What happened before this? Were these immutable laws non-functional before? For example, the laws of Kashrut are not explicit in the written law, but are clarified in the oral law. If the oral law was given on Mount Sinai, then those before could not have followed kashrut laws. How could anyone make conclusions using a book as reference that did not exist at the time it claims to have recorded?
Steve E Abraham
New York
October 26, 2014
The Hebrew Bible never said the earth is flat.
Its the only scripture that never said so.
JOSEPH SHELLIM
Sydney
October 26, 2014
Center of the Universe.
IMHO, all places are centers. The most likely place is the beginning [BBT] because everything expanded equally and in all directions. Thus earth or any place else, can be the center.
JOSEPH SHELLIM
Sydney
October 26, 2014
"It is not a scientific manual."
The first recording of these science validated premises come from here - one must not expect to see terms and words that were not in the lexicon 3,000 years ago:

1. That the universe is finite with a beginning.
2. That light is a primordial product.
3. The first separation of life form groups ["species"]
4. That a seed shall follow its own kind.
5. That life forms emerged as male/female gender dualities than split apart.
6. That the universe & earth are billions of years old.
7. That Adam is the first recorded speech endowed human in the oldest active calendar of 5775 years, exacting to the year and day.
8. That the stars are signs [astronomy] and omens [astrology]
9. That humans are the only life form requiring clothing.
10. The introduction of the DAY & WEEK.
11. The first separation of medicine from occultism: the ID of malignancy and quarantine [leprosy]
12. Washing of hands as a medicinal law.

No other ancient or modern writings have more science and said it first.
JOSEPH SHELLIM
Sydney
October 7, 2014
Science and Its Truths
Galileo, who believed in Bible, once said something to the effect that the Bible is not meant to be a textbook on Astronomy. We see in the writings of Maimonides that the Torah is meant to be read figuratively. It is largely allegorical. It is not a scientific manual. Therefore, we should not consider it as a guide in our quest to solve questions relating to the astronomy, physics, and cosmology.
Regarding the age of the universe according to the Torah, there was no sun until the fourth day, so how long was a day? Without sunrise and sunset there is no way to determine the length of a day. Time is relative proposition. We know that for each planet in our solar system time is different. The length of days and years depends respectively on the rotation of the planet on its axis and on its revolution around the sun. The Torah makes no mention of these phenomena. It was not intended to be a textbook on astronomy.
Regarding the changing models of the universe in science… yes, they keep on changing over time. This is because they have new and different ways of making observations and of inferring their vision of reality from these. Yes, the scientific thinkers are flawed, but they are seeking truth and are willing over time to abandon past conceptions of reality.
People who rigidly stick to older models of the universe are missing out on the voyage of discovery. Galileo was imprisoned and almost executed in part because he challenged the church’s view of the universe. I would like to think the Judaism would be more informed and more flexible than the Catholic Church was at the time of Galileo. Enlightenment is about being open to possible truths. Science is about exploration and discovery. This is exciting and we are well advised to consider all of the proposed possibilities.
Anonymous
NYC
October 5, 2014
why do we have to accept that the earth is the center of the universe and flat? you're mixing apples and oranges Mr Rosenthal. while I have my problems understanding the thoughts conveyed above, I don't think that questioning current scientific doctrine means we have to accept all of the foolish theories that came before ie if she floats, she's a witch, if she sinks, she's human.
if I understand correctly, the argument on one level is a philosophical one, although I'm certain that's not the intention. If we cannot explain what came before the Big Bang, then we're dealing with something coming from nothing 'ex nihilo', which is impossible form current scientific doctrine ie matter can neither be created or destroyed. The other issue is that as time goes by, different scientific facts that were accepted as truths have been discredited by newer discoveries, with the advent of more sophisticated experiments and/or scientists. Quantum Mechanics puts a whole new wrinkle into the mix...
Anonymous
September 29, 2014
This is very deep. Nice.
Anonymous
September 3, 2014
According to the latest scientific evidence, 13.8 billion years.
The Biblical story of creation was derived from the Epic of Gilgamesh.
If we are to take the Biblical account literally, we must also accept that the Earth
is the center of the Universe, fixed immobile and not rotating, and flat--shaped like
a table top.
Daniel Rosenthal
California
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