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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 (350)
January 13, 2015
Q: What is the first scientific equation?
I nominate this: "A seed shall follow its own kind".
Q: What is the first record of the universe being finite?
A: "In the beginning"
Q: What is the first products of the Universe?
A: A duality of darkness & Light, which were then separated to produce two products.
Q: What is the age of the Universe and the Earth according to Genesis?
A: Billions of years for each, as per the separations of light & darkness; and water from land - prior to life emerging.
Q: What is the first listing of life form groupings, later called as species?
A: Genesis first chapter, listing life form groupings from vegetation to speech endowed humans.
Q: What is the first separation of medicine from occultism?
A: The Hebrew Bible, in the ID of Leprosy.
Q: Which Scripture gave humanity all its judiciary laws - exclusively?
A: Not a single law the world accepts comes from any other source than the Hebrew Bible.

There is real science in the Hebrew Bible, even before the word 'science' was formed. Yes/
Joseph
January 12, 2015
What is Truth, Evolution or one of the religions?
Truth: did the Bible come by men or God. Does the Bible hold up on prophecy, on health science (diet & Cleanliness laws), on consistent teaching & history? Yes!
Evolution does not look at all of the possibilities - it denies anything divine. If it does not understand it adds a few million years Kiss a frog & get a prince is a fairy tale, but given millions of years & frogs change to princes.
Then we have timing mechanisms to "prove" the extended times. They admit they do not know the state of the time markers "in the beginning" but still extrapolate their timing. Other timings are upset by water, yet they use them to date fossils & sedimentary layers -all needing water to happen.
Prove your faith, hold fast to Truth. Do not have a belief system based on your parents books or idols, or old rabbis, but look to what changed Abraham from an Iraqi to a true Jew even before his grandson Judah from which they are named. Jewishness is of the heart & head.
The Lord spake & it was done
Ern
Adelaide
January 12, 2015
vertical vs horizontal dimensions
Sometimes, using analogies are cute, but they are just ways of coloring ideas. Don't we live in three dimensional space? Who defines what is vertical and what is horizontal? Some think the opposite, that religion is one dimensional and science is three dimensional. Nothing can change with religion. Yet, evolution is constantly happening and changing. Religion is static. Evolution is change. Religion is faith. Evolution is observation. Religion relies on what a "holy book" says, and which holy book do we use as the true reference? Whcih one is right, and by choosing the right one, you must negate all other religions, since they say different ideas! So, which religion is right, and then say the other religions are wrong, and be strong enough to stand up when they attack you for descriminating and slandering their religion. How can there be more than one correct religion ? Is sat or Sun the holy day? pary facing east or west. pray 3 x a day or 7x? eat pork or not? which?
steve
nyc
January 12, 2015
other religions and their belief of the Earths age
That is what science aims to get rid of. Use every possible piece of eventide to come up with a hypothesis, a guess, then do tests and research to find out a outcome, rinse and repeat until a theory, or answer, is developed. This is how we (in basic terms) found out the age of the Earth, witch is about 4.2 billion years old.
Eli
Denver, CO
January 12, 2015
'steve'
Steve, you are correct. As fact, because there are so many different religions on offer, it necessarily makes all of us an atheist with respect to other religions. Which religion is the correct one? The majority? The oldest? Science is purely objective, there is only one science and it has no association with any type of faith. It relies on evidential support. Science is NOT a religion.
MF
California
January 12, 2015
a simple analogy
Here is a simple analogy. 100 people look at an object and are asked to say what color it is. 10 say it is red, 10 say it is blue, 10 say it is green, 10 say it is yellow, 10 say it is white. The are 50 people remaining. These 50 have the opinions of the first 50 to consider, and there are 5 groups of 10, each sure that their belief is the correct color. Does the belief of the first 50 influence the beliefs of the last 50, who have not yet expressed theirs? So, if you were in the last 50, do you evaluate each of the 5 groups beliefs and then chose the one you feel is most likely? Or, do you go to the object itself and look to see IF you can determine it’s color by examination. Is it possible to come up with a set of criteria to use to get a better idea of what the color is? Or, should you examine the 5 different belief systems and go by the belief system you feel better with? Do you go by one of the belief systems that says, the color of the object is determined by what a holy book my parents gave me and I cannot disagree with what this holy book says, even if it disagrees with the criteria you picked to objectively examine the color of the object.
To summarize, it is impossible to argue a point, when your belief is based on a book that your parents gave to you, that cannot be contradicted even if it disagrees with what you see.
steve
January 12, 2015
My problem with the evolution theory.
It is given as an 'on-going' process. Therefore it should manifest itself continuously without pause. One must start a second after the last one, all over the region. This says we do not have to wait for millions of years to see this in action. And we don't.

The other problematic issue is that of survival of the fittest. If life prevails on earth, even in harsh volcanoes, why has life not occurred by adapting in other harsh planets. Is survival of the fittest exclusive and limited to only one kind of harsh environment?

Such issues make the ToE unlike science, where 2+2 = 4 in all places of the universe.
Joseph
January 12, 2015
other religions and their belief of the Earths age
Can you simply discount that there are many other religions, some that do not use our Bible as their holy book, and these have a different account of the age of the universe and of creation itself? Can Earth be 5000-6000 years old for the Jewish people and a different age for others not Jewish. The answer, if you base your thought on faith, is that the Earth has different ages. Would you look at someone who believes in another religion and tell him, "even though you have faith in your holy book, it is incorrect because our faith in our holy book is more important!" You see, the basic, founding principle that something can be holy for one person and not for another is the problem, it is the root of evil, and the cause of hatred and discord, and leads to disagreements based on "this is my faith, how dare you question its truth". This is the basis of evil, and the loss of free will.
steve
staten enisland
January 12, 2015
Evolution
I think it can be reasonably observed that the proponents of Evolution and most other secular development alternatives treat their convictions as a religion in line with and coherent with your brief description. That it is not such, is probably a matter for the secularists to discuss as I suspect there are vastly differing levels of almost hormonal enthusiasm on such a subject. After all, such are the things that keep academics ensconced in perfecting their ...umm ... professional stature, no?
Doug Schulek-Miller
Ottawa, Ontario
November 28, 2014
is evolution a religion
Evolution is not a religion. The definition of religion is a system of belief or faith. Evolution doesn't fit either of these.
Eli
Denver
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