Dear Jewish Response Staff,
Does Judaism discourage scientific inquiry into the distant past and the beginnings of the universe? The following sources indicate that it does.
The Talmud says, "Anyone who looks at four things would have been better off not being created: what is above the universe, what is below it, what was before creation and what will be afterwards. And anyone who does not care about the honor of his Creator would have been better off not being created." (Chagigah 11b)
The Talmud comments on this teaching: "We understand why one should not ask about what is above and below, and what will be afterwards. But why may one not ask what came before the universe? It happened already! Rabbi Yochanan and Rabbi Elazar both said: This may be compared to a human king who told his servants, Build me a large palace on top of the garbage dump, and they went and built it. The king does not want the garbage dump to be remembered or mentioned." (Chagigah 16b)
It sounds as though the Talmudic rabbis prohibited scientific investigation into these matters. What were they trying to hide? Were they afraid that we would discover something that contradicts the Torah?
And indeed it seems that the discoveries of modern science do contradict the Torah. Science says that the universe is billions of years old, not the 5771 year figure given by the Torah. Science has unearthed the remains of creatures that became extinct long before the Torah's time of creation.
Professor Herman Jacobs
Dear Professor Jacobs,
The rabbis are not saying that there is some secret we could discover but are prohibited from doing so. They are saying that we are incapable of knowing these matters. What human being could know what came before creation? Even if science claims to know what happened over the past 14 billion years since the "Big Bang," what happened before the Big Bang? Even if science claims that the size of the universe is 100 billion light years, what lies beyond that? (Of course, all these numbers are unproven and estimates are constantly changing, with no apologies for previous blunders. One has to wonder what this branch of science will be saying 10 years or 50 years from now.)
The Talmud is teaching us that we are limited beings. It is clear to us that there must be a Creator, but we cannot fathom His nature, nor can we understand how He accomplished creation. We are like the cow, who knows its owner exists, yet cannot understand the decisions that guide its owner's daily life.
This is why the Talmudic rabbis questioned the motivations of those who study the remote past. Look at the following Midrash:
"Let the lips that speak falsely be muted, those who speak of the hidden matters of the Righteous One, with arrogance and disrespect" (Psalms 31:19). This refers to those who speak about the matters that G-d hid from His creations; they are showing contempt for G-d's honor. Anyone who gets himself honor through the embarrassment of his friend has no share in the World to Come, all the more so one who gets himself honor through disregarding G-d's honor. That is why the next verse in Psalms speaks of the World to Come: "How great is Your goodness that You have hidden away for those who fear You" - and not for those who show contempt for Your fear. (Bereishis Rabbah 1:5)
The rabbis call these cosmologists "lips that speak falsely" because they claim to have all the answers, to reveal that which G-d concealed, when in fact their answers change nothing. Judaism teaches that the amazingly complex world that we see is the work of a great Designer. The cosmologists seek to avoid that inescapable conclusion by describing a world slowly developing over billions of years. But in the end they have solved nothing. They have only found that all matter expanded from one point - and before that?
Therefore, their words show nothing but a desire to boost their own glory by despising G-d. They show contempt for the fear of Him, and for those who fear Him. They wish to make the believers appear outdated and ignorant.
Of course, not all those who investigate the remote past are liars and despisers of G-d. There are those who don't know any better and innocently believe what they read. The Book of Jonah tells the story of how G-d had mercy on Nineveh and did not destroy it. Chapter 4, verse 11 reads: "And should I not have pity on Nineveh, the great city, which contains many more than 120,000 people who do not know the difference between their right and left hands, as well as many animals?" Rashi explains that the 120,000 people were the children, and the "animals" were the adults, who were like animals in that they did not know who created them. This seems puzzling: Why would G-d spare Nineveh in the merit of people who denied His existence?
The answer lies in the comparison to animals. Just as an animal cannot be blamed for not recognizing G-d's existence, because G-d is above its level of intelligence, so too these people. They didn't have enough intelligence to entertain the question of how the world came to be. Thus they were the only innocent ones, and Nineveh was saved for their sake. It was the more intelligent people, who did wonder about the origins of the world, and were therefore capable of recognizing G-d, yet refused to do so, who were considered sinners.
When the Talmud says that we are not capable of knowing what came before and what will come after, what is in front or what is behind, it is describing the greatness of the human mind, which sets us apart from the animal kingdom: the ability to ask unanswerable questions. We humans have the unique ability to realize that we are limited and that our questions have no answers. It is this ability that makes it possible for us to realize that there is a Creator.
The Talmud (Chagigah 11b) says that the source for the notion that we cannot ask what happened before creation is the verse, "Ask of the earliest days in the past, from the day when G-d created man on earth, and from one end of the heavens to the other" (Deut. 4:32). Just after that, the Torah says, "You were shown to know that the L-rd is G-d, there is no other besides Him" (v. 35). The juxtaposition makes sense in light of what we said above: The fact that our knowledge is limited is what enables us to recognize G-d and feel that we are nothing compared to Him; there is no other besides Him.
This brings us to the question of how to explain the scientific evidence, such as fossilized bones, that indicate the world is older than the Torah says it is (if the evidence and dating methods are true and credible). The Torah measures time from the point at which G-d created "man" - in Hebrew, "adam". The word "adam" means a man intelligent enough to recognize his Creator. Before that, the Midrash tells us, G-d did create other worlds:
Rabbi Yehuda ben Simon said: It does not say "let there be evening" but rather "there was evening..." (Bereishis 1:5). This indicates that there was a series of times before this. Rabbi Avahu said: This teaches that He was creating worlds and destroying them, until He created these [creations]. He said, these are pleasing to Me; the others were not pleasing to Me. Rabbi Pinchas said: Rabbi Avahu's source was the verse, "And G-d saw all that He had made, and behold it was very good" (Bereishis 1:31) - these are pleasing to Me; the others were not pleasing to Me (Bereishis Rabbah 3:7).
There are three more Rabbinic sources for the concept that there existed something before this present world. The first is the end of Bereishis Rabbah 1:5 cited earlier. It says: In the way of the world, when a human king builds a palace on top of a sewer, or garbage, or a foul-smelling place, anyone who comes and says, "This palace is built on a sewer, or garbage or a foul-smelling place" - is he not insulting the king? So too, anyone who says, "This world was created out of tohu vavohu (astonishing emptiness) is he not insulting? Rav Huna said in the name of Bar Kapara, "If the thing had not been written, it would have been impossible to say it: "In the beginning G-d created heaven and earth" - from what? "And the earth was tohu vavohu..."
Of course, G-d was the creator of the tohu vavohu as well, as Bereishis Rabbah 1:9 points out: "A philosopher challenged Rabban Gamliel, "Your G-d is a great artist, but He found good paints to use: tohu vavohu, darkness, wind, water and the deeps." Rabban Gamliel replied, "All of these were created, as it says, He forms light and creates darkness, makes peace and creates evil (Yishaya 45:7)..."
The Rabbis are telling us that before creating this world, G-d created these raw materials. From them He formed other worlds, and eventually our present world.
The other Rabbinic source is the Talmud in Chagigah you yourself mentioned: "We understand why one should not ask about what is above and below, and what will be afterwards. But why may one not ask what came before the universe? It happened already!" In other words, the Talmud understands well why one may not ask about what is above and below, because that is beyond human comprehension. But the distant past is not beyond our comprehension; it is simply events that took place. Why shouldn't we investigate them? The answer is, again, that "the king does not want the garbage dump to be remembered or mentioned."
The bones we find are from those previous worlds; the same applies to all other scientific evidence of a universe more than 5770 years old.
The third source is a Midrash Rabbi Nechuniah Ben Hakanah quoted by the Ramban in his commentary on Bereishis 1:1, which says, "And the earth was tohu - this implies that already before creation, it was once tohu, but now it is bohu."
Rabbi Saadia Gaon finds another source to prove that there were worlds before the current world: "If there is anything people claim is new, it has existed before in the worlds that were before us." (Koheles 1:10)
We see here that there are two types of people who investigate the past. There are the "lips that speak falsely" who claim to have all the answers and claim they can explain the universe without G-d. And there are others who do not speak falsely, but rather insult G-d by revealing what He does not want revealed: that He built His world on the ruins of previous worlds He created. We are only permitted to publicize and reveal what the Torah and the Rabbis themselves revealed.
Every world G-d created was an upgrade of the previous one. Now, for the first time, we are in a world that includes "adam" - humans with enough intelligence to recognize G-d. But there will be another stage after this, say our Rabbis. The Talmud says that this world lasts 6000 years, and after that G-d will renew His world (Sanhedrin 92b). Everything will be again upgraded: the righteous humans will become like angels, as it says, "Your eyes will see your master" (Yishaya 30:20). The animals will reach the intelligence level previously held by humans, as it says, "The wolf with live with the lamb... and the child will play on the snake's hole... They will do no evil or harm in all My holy mountain, for the world will be full of knowledge of G-d" (Yishaya 11:6-9). The plants, and even the inanimate rocks, will reach the intelligence of animals, as it says, "The mountains and the hills will burst out in song, and all the trees will clap their hands" (Yishaya 55:12). But of course, those humans who had the intelligence of animals in this world, not recognizing the Creator, will not be upgraded to angels.
This is why the Rabbis compare the world to a palace built atop a garbage dump. The "garbage dump" is the remains of those previous worlds created by G-d. G-d does not want those remains remembered or mentioned, because it is likely that they will be used to mock believers in the Torah, or to claim that G-d erred in His earlier creations. As the Talmud (Chagigah 13a) quotes from the Book of Ben Sira, "Do not search into what is too far above you; do not investigate into what is hidden from you." And as the Midrash quoted above says, these are "matters that G-d hid from His creations."
In view of this, it is not a coincidence that the next verse in Psalms refers to the World to Come as "goodness that You have hidden away for those who fear You". It is not just the reward that is hidden away; there is a hint here that the reason the reward is so great is because the great truths of the world are hidden from us in this life. If everything were open and revealed to all, there would be no reward for those who recognize G-d. We would be like the angels, who see things so clearly that they have no other choice.
Therefore, G-d wanted us to be limited, although this causes an unavoidable disgrace to Him, as we say in the Rosh Hashanah prayers, "It is fitting for the Holy One to receive praise from holy ones." The greater the servants of a king are, the greater the honor to the king. Yet G-d chose us to be His servants, despite the fact that we lack understanding and are so limited. He gave up His own honor so that we should receive reward.
Let mankind be grateful for His kindness, and let His holy name be blessed forever and ever.