Natan Aviezer is a professor of physics and a former chairman of Bar-Ilan University in Israel. The author of “In the Beginning: Biblical Creation and Science” and “Fossils and Faith: Understanding Torah and Science,” he writes about Torah and science, and contends that the first chapter of the Bible is not a mythological tale but rather is in exact agreement with recent findings in cosmology, astronomy, geology and biology. He was recently in New York on a U.S. speaking tour.
Q: In the last few years, neo-atheists have declared war on God and religion. You disagree with them, I gather?
A: Recently a number of books — like Richard Dawkins’ “The God Delusion,” which tells us that religion is stupid and Torah is an old-fashioned mythological tale, and Christopher Hitchens’ “God is Not Great,” which argues that it’s dangerous to believe in religion — have attracted thousands.
My view is that many statements of the Torah that seem on their face to be illogical and impossible turn out to be absolutely true. … A Jew in the 20th century doesn’t have to decide whether to accept the most recent scientific theories to be faithful to our Torah tradition that is thousands of years old.
You believe that Torah and science are in harmony?
We are not creationists who say that science is the enemy; we believe that science and scientists are our partners in the search for truth. The Torah is not opposed to science. Science has become an important tool for understanding various passages that previously had been enigmatic and not possible to understand.
Give us an example.
The most dramatic sentence in the first chapter of Bereshit (Genesis) is the very first sentence: “In the beginning God created the universe.” The Torah tells us that the universe began through an act of creation. It was thought for a long time that you cannot create something from nothing. Now, science realizes that this is not true. The current theory of cosmology is called the Big Bang theory. It is supported by a vast array of scientific evidence. The theory was awarded the Nobel Prize in physics [in 1978], and its central theme is that the universe began through an act of creation. Every cosmologist uses the term “creation” to describe what happened.
Rabbi Natan Slifkin was branded a heretic a few years ago by a group of fervently Orthodox rabbis for his claim that the earth is more than 5,770 years old.
What’s your reaction?
The question of the striking contradiction between the Torah time scale [about 6,000 years since the Creation] and the scientific time scale [a multibillion-year-old universe] was addressed by the 12th-century scholar Maimonides. He interpreted the Genesis word “day” to mean an “era” of undefined duration. The “Six Days of Creation” are thus understood as referring to six eras in the development of the universe. … Modern Orthodox Jews recognize that the Torah often uses metaphors. Maimonides stressed that when reading the Torah, the “paths of interpretation are not closed to us.”
Isn’t it a contradiction to say that you should interpret the Bible literally and figuratively? Can you have it both ways?
I agree with what Maimonides wrote in his “Guide for the Perplexed”: Much of what is said in the Bible actually fits modern science. Therefore, you should try to understand the Bible literally, but if well-established science contradicts that, then you should understand it figuratively.