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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 (322)
June 30, 2014
But... and isn't there always a "but..."?
Though I have heard an explanation in some quarters that Hashem placed objects in the Earth for mankind to find, I do not believe in the idea - it just does not fit with the behaviour He has shown toward mankind; though far be it from me to imply any limitations to His ability to act on anything. It just doesn't "fit" as Hashem does not play dice with His world nor employ random acts to confuse us.

Perhaps it is that we mere mortals cannot explain evidence such as the following: www.maltanow.com.mt/?p=2927 , acknowledging that many of the Ooparts "discovered" are legitimately judged to be non-authentic. But even though the Rebbe used to point out that dating techniques were often incorrect, even an error of 50% in some of these would be astounding - and the objects found within coal seams are highly improbable to be faked by human hands.

Can we account for this with out present understanding, even our understanding at the level of Sod? I don't know. I am asking.
Doug Schulek-Miller
May 10, 2014
How Old is the Universe?
B"H Even if Our Creator utilized the life forms, which in size comparison are but like the dust on a marble, as compared to the size of planet Earth, in the Process of Forming Mankind (chapter 1 Elokim says, "...and let Us give THEM dominion..."). it is still within the scope of Torah Truth to convey. Evolution is simply a process. One that is easily within the abilities of The Creator. His ability to expand and to contract Time is also written of in Torah, and in The Prophets. Therefore, He Is capable of squeezing millions of natural years into a single moment or a Day. To us, it would still appear to have taken millions of years. Just a few years ago, we still believed Atoms to be the smallest particles of Matter, but now it has proven to be abit more like Magic holding all of our physics together. Ask the Wizards at CERN, Switzerland. What is a boson, Professor Higgs? and How does it differ with the ancient mystical ideas presented by The Zohar, that everything IS just vibration
Anonymous
Pasadena, CA
May 9, 2014
Age of universe
The first letter in the Torah- a bet-- the Sages say its shape indicates we cant know what happened before the beginning--in other words what initiated the beginning--the Big Bang. And science (mans quest for knowledge about the universe) cant either since its outside our realm of measurement.
The Big Bang just says that all that is contained in the universe--even time began at one point and expanded outward. Which in itself is hard for the human mind to grasp. We can only see so far as human beings within creation. True scripture is true but doesnt deal with or reveal information for the sake of being the answer to every question we have. It is a limited answer to what mankind need to know --not what G-d knows. As G-d says: you can see My back but My face you cant see.
Amen Ness
Redwood City, CA
May 8, 2014
This answer avoids and answer
Disagree. A true scripture 'MUST' align & transcend science. The Torah does this while respecting the status quo of its times. 'Beginning' refers to finite. Separation of water & land = Earth is billions of years old. Day & Week but no DAY = epochs of time rather than 24 hour days.
The Big Bang cannot be correct because it refers to a first particle that expanded or exploded - this is not possible with only one entity, it needs another entity to interact with. This alludes to a pre-existing force that is at the helm. Torah also introduced the first separation of medicine from occultism with the ID, treatment & quarantine of incurable contagious diseases like leprosy. All judiciary laws come exclusively from the Torah.
IamJoseph
Sydney
May 8, 2014
the age of the universe?
So what is the kvetching and kabitzing about G-d blessed be his Holy name wrote it all out for the believer and if you are looking. The holy one blessed be he will show you. No great mystery to Work on. I can't help but think that the opportunity to study is there for anyone who is interested to see if you like. A day to G-d is as a Thousand years there is nowhere in Torah where it says how long It took to create the universe the Earth yes and besides in the long-term Time is for us to observe the mitzvot and help make the world a better
Place and await the coming of moshiach.
Ephraim ben Avraham
May 7, 2014
This answer avoids and answer
There is no contradiction between the Torah and the scientific account for the Big Bang or evolution or gradual transformation of the earth. You only need to come up with convoluted explanations when you have to make the Biblical account tell the whole story--which it doesnt and was never meant to. Its not book about how the earth was made just the overview of the idea as it pertains to our relationship with G-d.
Amen
CA
May 5, 2014
No disrespect intended
There is a kabbalist theory which states the earth being remarkably close to the date now reached by modern science. Very controversially (to a Judeo, Christian or Islamic purist) theories which link (Darwinist) evolution to Bereshis. From various videos I've watched on The Rebbe he would appear to state his literal belief in 6 days of making (so as not to subtract from the importance of the holy sabbath), the earth being as old as the date on our chabad calenders and a strict adherence to denying that we could possibly have evolved from apes (G-d forbid). No disrespect intended as tone and meaning can sometimes be lost when relaying something in textual form.

"My opinion is, as stated in the Torah, that during the six days of creation, G-d created the Four Kingdoms (minerals, vegetation, animal and man independently of each other. Our sages have enlarged upon this question in detail. However, this Creation does not deny the possibility of evolution after that..." The Rebbe
Anonymous
ox
May 1, 2014
How Old is the Universe?
B"H Ever wondered about your own memory? It seems like Right now This moment we are experiencing, is somewhat longer than yesterday was. in fact, we can almost remember yesterday and all of the events which transpired, in a matter of moments. Also, if we were in a desert, or a flat area such as the Great Plains, standing in the middle of a set of railroad tracks you would notice that the further away from your position the closer together the rails of the tracks appear to be. Of course experience tells us that this is an optical illusion. While I think of time as I am experiencing it, it seems constant. The further away we get in our observations from our Present locale the closer the years get to each other. There is a formula for Sound and for radio waves, which uses TIME & Distance, and Velocity to account for this apparent dilation, and we use this in Sonar, RADAR, and in astronomy. Similarly, day7=100,000 yrs, D6=1million D5= 1bill,D4= 2bln,D3= 3bl,D2=5bln, D1=12bln years
Anonymous
Pasadena,CA
April 30, 2014
In the wise words of Albert Einstein, "Distinction of time is but a stubbornly persistent illusion." Time is relative to the perceiver. Our definition of one year is a revolution of Earth around the Sun. The only truly open minded and purely logical approach to this age old question of time supports what the Rabbi is saying. No one can know about the true age of the universe except The One who was there when it was created.
When a child makes wild stories up in his head and babbles on and on, I find it cute and special. The child is using the tools he has in his mind to fantasize and feel like he knows what he's talking about. We may laugh as adults because we know that what he is saying has no relevance or reason in our world but is bringing him vast joy nonetheless. If we truly think of our understanding of science from a cosmic perspective; it is laughable! I am pleased to believe that my thoughts and actions may cause my Creator to laugh.
Yitzchak Chaim
January 27, 2014
Creation of the universe.
According to modern science, Everything in the entire universe is made up of matter. Matter is made up of elements, which are made up of atoms, which overall are made of only energy. The first law of thermodynamics, the conservation of energy states- " Energy can be transformed from one form to another, but cannot be created or destroyed." This proves that the universe was created supernaturally.
Anonymous
New York
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