Sunday, March 22, 2009

Rav Soloveitchik & Evolution - by Rav Triebitz


This an excerpt taken from Rav Triebitz's introduction to Rav Soloveitchik's as of yet unpublished lectures on Bereishis

The Rav’s view of incommensurability, however, goes only so far. While discussing the Biblical account of the creation of man and its relationship with the modern scientific theory of evolution, the Rav actually appears to be seeking commensurability.

He declares:
“Indeed, one of the most annoying scientific facts which the religious man encounters isthe problem of evolution and creation. However, this is not the real problem. Whatactually is irreconcilable is the concept of man as the bearer of a divine image and the idea of man as an intelligent animal in science. Evolution and creation can be reconciledmerely by saying that six days is not absolutely so, but is indefinite and may be longer. Maimonides spoke of Creation in terms of phases and the Kabbalah in terms of sefiros, the time of which may be indefinite. However, our conflict is man as a unique being and man as a friend of the animal. Science can never explain how being came into being, for it is out of the realm of science, while the Bible is concerned with the problem of ex-nihilo. Aristotle could not accept evolution because he believed in the eternity of forms.” (Lecture XII).

These statements, while delivered orally, are an almost verbatim quote of a passage written by the Rav himself in the recently published posthumous work The Emergence of Ethical Man. As is clear from the above quote, the Rav is clearly not satisfied with incommensurability, but is apparently adopting the commensurable approach of Rambam in chapter 30 of section II of the Guide for the Perplexed where he seeks to interpret the first chapter of Genesis in accordance with Aristotelian science, and which the Rav himself criticized in lecture I. Clearly the Rav is not dismissing the contradiction between evolution and the Biblical account of creation by declaring incommensurability. The reference to the Guide where an Aristotelian physical interpretation of the first two chapters of Genesis is presented is clearly intended to set a precedent for a scientifically commensurable interpretation of Scripture. The other example cited, the kabbalistic interpretation of Bereishis in terms of sefiros, is also being cited as a precedent for a nonliteral interpretation of natural terms, thereby avoiding a clash with scientific theory. The Rav’s assertion at the beginning of lecture II that the Bible will employ ancient outdated theories of science for the purpose of communicating the historical event of revelation is apparently being abandoned. For if the nature of revelation is only to reveal the Will of God, and the details of that revelation will therefore be relative to the science and culture of the time, why does the Rav feel the necessity to invoke non-literal readings of the text?

It appears to me that the Rav’s remarks concerning evolution are an attempt to achieve what I would call ‘halachic commensurability’ and not, merely, ‘scientific commensurability’. While Judaism views man as the “bearer of a divine image” and therefore endowed with the capacity for transcendence, this transcendence, in the Rav’s words, “was always seen against the background of naturalness. The canvas was man’s immanence; transcendence was just projected on it as a display of colors” (Emergence of Ethical Man p. 9). The Rav is clearly speaking from the standpoint of the halachah. In contradistinction, “Christianity succeeded in isolating them and reducing the element of naturalness to a state of corruption” (ibid.). This has to be seen as a consequence of Christianity’s rejection of the halacha
The issue of evolution and its seeming irreconciliation with the Bible “troubled Christian theologians more than Jewish scholars. The naturalistic formula of man was to a certain extent common knowledge among the Jewish sages, who did not resent it, whereas Christian theologians are still struggling with the secularization of human existence by scientific research. The reason lies in the discrepancy between the Jewish Bible and the Christian Gospels, the ‘Old’ and ‘New’ Testaments (Emergence of Ethical Man).
The Rav’s desire to find commensurability between evolution and the Torah is therefore motivated by halachic reasons as opposed to scientific ones. The struggle waged by creationists’ against Darwin is in essence, according to the Rav, a Christian crusade which is in contradistinction to the Halachic conception of man. While Judaism’s objection is to the reductionist interpretation of evolution which reduces man to an animal, it equally objects to the Christian antinomy to evolution which views any naturalistic description of man to be sacrilege. The establishment of commensurability between evolution and the Bible is therefore motivated by a desire to adhere to the true philosophy of Judaism, the halacha, and to thereby exorcise it of Christian and Greek influences. The Rav clearly saw the reconciliation of evolution with the Biblical texts as being vital to Jewish interests.

21 comments :

  1. The Rav clearly saw the reconciliation of evolution with the Biblical texts as being vital to Jewish interests.

    This is very vague> There is no indication here how the reconciliation will take place--how much we accept of the theory and how much we interpret the verses to fit the theory.

    Again, by reading the whole book of Emergence of Ethical Man we can clearly see that the Rav only sees Man as a partly biological entity and not necessarily an actual descendant of animals. He took the scientific view of Man as having animal characteristics but he said nothing which implied he accepted the major assumption about common descent.

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  2. "What actually is irreconcilable is the concept of man as the bearer of a divine image and the idea of man as an intelligent animal in science."

    With all respect, this is not irreconcilable.

    The order of evolution in Bereshit is clear: the animals were created before "man." So, there is no conflict with "man" having physically evolved like all of the other creatures did, and then for Hashem to have endowed human beings with qualities that no other creature has.

    In verse 25 all of the animals were created. Then in verse 26 Hashem declares that He will make "man" in His image etc.... The language seems to imply that "man" already exists and Hashem is remaking or completing him.

    It's clear that it is not our physicality that makes us different from the rest of creation....it is our mentality.

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  3. "He took the scientific view of Man as having animal characteristics but he said nothing which implied he accepted the major assumption about common descent."

    For him the issue is irrelevant. If science proves that many is descended from apes, then so be it. This is not a religous concern according to the Rav. One can believe in evolution or not, as this is a scientific question irrelevant to revelation. The Rav could not have been more opposed to the Orthodox fundamentalists who banned Slifkin, since these fundamentalists err in assuming that the Torah is a scientific text.

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  4. With all respect, this is not irreconcilable.

    The order of evolution in Bereshit is clear: the animals were created before "man." So, there is no conflict with "man" having physically evolved like all of the other creatures did, and then for Hashem to have endowed human beings with qualities that no other creature has.


    This is Rav Solovetchik's point! That as long as one accepts that man has a spiritual component, it makes no difference where his body comes from.

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  5. Rav Treibitz claims that RS seeks commensurability since he mentions non-literal interpretations of Scripture as reconciling the contradictions with evolution. Granted RS mentions these interpretations, however it is clear that this is not what he is interested in. What he seeks to demonstrate is the irreconcilability of the scientific and Jewish veiws of man as a spiritual being.

    The fact that he mentions non-literal interpretations does not, as Rav Treibitz claims, point to his desire for commensurability. In fact the passage should be read as a critique of the search for commensurability - equivalent to his critique in Lecture I - because the search for commensurability distracts from the central issue which is the incommensurability on the spiritual plane.

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  6. Please publish lecture II. It looks fascinating.

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  7. The Rav could not have been more opposed to the Orthodox fundamentalists who banned Slifkin, since these fundamentalists err in assuming that the Torah is a scientific text.

    Correction: The fundamentalists do not claim the Torah is a scientific text describing reality from a strictly scientific point-of-view. (If you have documentation to the contrary, please cite it.)
    Rather they are insisting, as all meforshim on Chumash before them, that the Torah is describing real events that actually happened in some form or another.

    True, these events may not be in the same framework of measured time, nor on the same physical plane that we exist in now, but they are real events-- and not just legends or myths used as a literary device to convey lessons (i.e. allegory).

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  8. It is clear from the aforementioned 7th lecture on creation that Baruch and Ariel are right. The whole excercise here is trying to glean an implied answer to a question RYBS personally considered unimportant.

    FKM, no matter how many times you repeat it, it's actually a rarity for a pre-19th cent meforash to assume a young universe. Whether they, like the Ramban, put the years between 1:1 and 1:2 (and even his assertion that the days are literally days is interpreted in Michtav meiEliyahu to be non-trivial), the Rambam the Mequbalim and the Maharal took the whole process outside of time, etc... Perhaps Rashi, although it's hard to know because his goal is to give peshat. That doesn't mean the history followed peshat rather than derashah. The most common approach is neither history nor allegory, but rather emphasizing its metarationality (being beyond human ken).

    Unless we can delve into the secrets of Maasei Bereishis -- and they are a textbook case of secrets -- all we can do on our level of comprehension is pull lessons. But that isn't the same as allegory.

    But here, bringing it up is a bit off topic, as we're discussing RYBS's perception of literalists, not their own self-perception.

    -micha

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  9. FKM, no matter how many times you repeat it, it's actually a rarity for a pre-19th cent meforash to assume a young universe.

    If you will carefully read what I wrote, you'll see that I have not contradicted anything you said.

    But that isn't the same as allegory.

    Finally! Someone who understands!

    (FYI, Rabbi Slifkin disagrees with us and says it IS allegory. That's really my problem. I quote from page 191 in "Challenge of Creation":
    "Rambam did not believe that the description of the six days in the Torah presents a chronological sequence-a scientific account of physical history. According to Rambam, Genesis does not even present a cosmogeny-an account of the origin and development of the universe. Instead, it presents a cosmology-a discussion of the structure of the universe." )

    Next you said:
    But here, bringing it up is a bit off topic, as we're discussing RYBS's perception of literalists, not their own self-perception.

    Who's "we"? I only see Benjamin's crude off-topic description of the fundamentalists who banned Slifkin.

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  10. I forgot to mention:

    Rav Triebitz writes:
    As is clear from the above quote, the Rav is clearly not satisfied with incommensurability, but is apparently adopting the commensurable approach of Rambam in chapter 30 of section II of the Guide for the Perplexed where he seeks to interpret the first chapter of Genesis in accordance with Aristotelian science, and which the Rav himself criticized in lecture I. Clearly the Rav is not dismissing the contradiction between evolution and the Biblical account of creation by declaring incommensurability.


    This was apparently an attempt which the Rav abandoned later in life after thinking it over more. This explains why he did not decide to publish this manuscript.

    Hear this LATER lecture
    http://download.bcbm.org/Media/RavSoloveitchik/Parsha/Bereishis_Spiritual_Msg_1971.mp3

    on Bereishis from 1971 where he says:
    "It is ex nihilo, yesh me'ayin. You see here we are at loggerheads … from antiquity, with Greek philosophy, Greek science.

    We are still at loggerheads with modern science. There is no way to somehow, to try to eliminate that conflict, or to try to reconcile it. There is no reconciliation and I will tell you quite frankly that I'm not worried and not concerned that there is no reconciliation.
    Because, science absolutely has no right to make a certain statement about briyah.


    …We had a lot of trouble with Greek philosophy …

    We were confronted many times with those who try to deny briyah yesh me'ayin. We are in the same situation and the same condition nowadays too. No matter, whatever, it's completely irrelevant what theory of evolution science accepts – whether it is the big bang theory, or the instantaneous birth of the universe, or it is the slow piece-meal emergence of the universe, whether it is the emergence or the instantaneous so-called birth of the universe.

    But science will always say, as far as matter is concerned, particles of course. Science has no right to say anything, because it is not a scientific problem. It is a metaphysical problem. And in my opinion, it is just as good as the opinion of Einstein about our …

    But again we are still at loggerheads. We are actually still. We have something which the goyishe world has not understood.


    Final verdict of the Rav:
    NO COMMENSURABILITY of Bereishis with origin science.

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  11. R' Micha writes:
    "no matter how many times you repeat it, it's actually a rarity for a pre-19th cent meforash to assume a young universe. "

    This is none-sense. All Rishonim assumed a young universe.

    From R. Slifkin's website:

    "Rabbi Gedalyah Nadel, BeToraso Shel Rav Gedalyah, p. 91
    : …The expression "one day" that the Torah uses, according to its literal translation, refers to one [conventional] day. Maimonides and the other early authorities truly held of this view, that each of the six days of creation lasted for one [ordinary] day, because they had no reason to believe otherwise."

    The M'kubalim that bring the idea of shmittos do not work well AT ALL with current scientific assumptions and do not allow for an old universe in the sense that evolutionists require.

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  12. Michoel,

    The Rambam defines the "days" to be stages of causality, not intervals of time. See this blog entry which is mostly sources collected by RDE.

    RNS may quote R' Gedalia Nadel, a source that comes after the whole science-vs-creation entrenchment. RDE provided lengthy translation of the Rambam himself, the Abarbanel's take on it, the Shem Tov (another commentary on the Moreh), the Ralbag, and the Alshich. Before the whole battle, no one questioned this take on what the Rambam meant.

    Although admittedly, the Rambam could equally as well be saying that all of creation happened in the blink of an eye 5769.5 or so years ago. My point is that he takes age out of the question of understanding the pesuqim.

    The Ramban says "literal days", but he also says they are identical with the subsequent 6,000 years. R' Dessler makes much of this -- not correspondence, actual identity! (Time as we know it is just a perception, leshitaso.)

    The mequbalim say the "days" are sefiros, as RYBS was already quoted as pointing out.

    They also (including Rabbeinu Bachya [Behar 25:10] the Ramban [Shemos 21:2], the Chinukh [330], R' Yehudah haLevi [Kuzari 1:67] and the Ramchal [Shiur Qomah #83]) believe in an undescribed duration of time between the ex nihilo of Bereishis 1:1 and the existence of choshech, mayim, tehom, etc.. in 1:2. The idea isn't "only" qabbalistic, it's from Bereishis Rabba (3:7). See also Shabbos 88b and Chagiga 13a-b. And the Ibn Ezra, not a mequbal, adopts this position in Shemos 21:2.

    This includes the famous R' Yitzchaq Sagi Nahor (a talmid of the Ramban) used by R' Aryeh Kaplan to get an age of the universe of 15.8bn years. (Although it's not necessarily the most obvious way to read the quote, the notion of an old universe is incontrovertible.)

    The Maharal (Gevuros H', introduction) tells us that Maaseh Bereishis is incomprehensible. One of his examples of things about it we can't understand is the very topic of time.

    This insistence on literalism is a reaction to a challenge, and not historically authentic. And in fact our initial response (e.g. RSRH and the Tif'eres Yisrael) was accomodationist. Parading words like "none-sense" doesn't bolster your point.

    Meanwhile, check my sources and see if RGN's take is the more natural one.

    -Micha

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  13. OK, none-sense is not such a nice lashon and I apologize for that. I have seen some of your sources and some others. Obviously, these is a big topic and already highly discussed. I don't think the sources that take maaseh breishis "non-literally" (I put that in quotes because I really don't know what "literally" would mean in this context) allow for squishing in of evolution. I am sure you've given the subject lots of thought, as have I. I do maintain that pre-19th century authorities, almost unanimously, held from a young universe, even if they conceptualized maaseh breishis.

    I am sorry for the un-gentlemanly wording.

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  14. They also (including Rabbeinu Bachya [Behar 25:10] the Ramban [Shemos 21:2], the Chinukh [330], R' Yehudah haLevi [Kuzari 1:67] and the Ramchal [Shiur Qomah #83]) believe in an undescribed duration of time between the ex nihilo of Bereishis 1:1 and the existence of choshech, mayim, tehom, etc.. in 1:2. The idea isn't "only" qabbalistic, it's from Bereishis Rabba (3:7). See also Shabbos 88b and Chagiga 13a-b. And the Ibn Ezra, not a mequbal, adopts this position in Shemos 21:2.

    All this does not negate the point that the creation of planet Earth and all therein happened less than 6,000 years ago.
    Thus nothing is accomplished for the reconciliators.

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  15. FKM, where do you see the earth is created? It already exists in 2:1. The flooding of the earth ends on day 3, but the earth already existed. And even the sun, which it would seem was clearly created on day 4, Rashi tells us was created during this gap and "placed in the sky" on day 4. Both could be anything from cosmic events to meteorological ones.

    My point wasn't to be an concordist (reconciliator, as you put it) or allegorist -- or even a literalist. I already established that I believe maaseh bereishis is simply incomprehensible, and somehow both perspectives describe a truth too complicated to fit in my head. Taking the text as it seems to me literally is therefore wrong, because I can't really understand it. But then, I can't really understand the scientific evidence either. The whole "paradox" is man's hubris in thinking we can explain everything.

    That includes pointing out that the pasuq doesn't actually give an age to the universe. Nothing is actually as clear cut as it looks.

    -micha

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  16. R' Micha,
    Rav Dessler not withstanding, Ramban is very clear that the days are literal, 24 hour periods. Talmidei Rav Dessler can say p'shat otherwise but for the rest of Klal Yisrael, the Ramban says what he says, and we cannot count him as a non-literalist. Im kein, ain ladavar sof and nothing means anything.

    In any case, the length of time issue is obviously far from the only or even primary issue in making Maaseh breishis work even generally with evolution.

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  17. Again the same false dichotomy. REED isn't a non-literalist, he's a meta-rationalist. IOW, he doesn't deny that the days were 6 literal days. He also doesn't deny that they were something else. Nor does he deny the scientific conclusion, although he laments overly physical world-view of the one who sees the universe from that angle. If the two appear to contradict, that's because we can't understand how time really works. (See the Moreh 2:17 about the impossibility of trying to understand creation given only experience of a stable universe.) Neither picture is the whole picture; right, but only in their particular ways.

    Thus, Rav Dessler doesn't ignore the Ramban's statement that the days are literal days. He just looks at the Ramban's other statements and shows that this isn't the rishon's entire story.

    I suggest actually reading R' Dessler's essay before judging it. I wrote a summary, complete with references to where I was up to in the original. Keeping that alongside will make the exercise go faster than going it alone. Or, give you an opportunity to argue that I misunderstood.

    -micha

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  18. I would really like to look at your summary when I have a moment. I have seen Rav Dessler inside and to me, it seems that he is being oker the literal p'shat. But machshava seforim are not my (even relative) forte so I will try to look at your piece, which hopefully will bring it down for me.

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  19. 24 hours is a very 'relative' thing. For example, if one is traveling at nearly the speed of light, one day for the traveler might mean a billion years for someone at rest. This is basic Einstein relativity.

    So, six 24 hour days in one part of the Universe is easily 13 billion in another part. No problems here.

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  20. But there is a problem. If the speed of light existed and the laws of physics existed, then it is NOT creation ex nihilo. Yesh m'ayin means yesh m'ayin

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  21. Except that yeish mei'ayin could have been billions of years before day 1, which would be consistent with Bereishis Rabba and the Ramban. The laws of physics could have preceded day one.

    Or, one could understand the notion that the angels were created first to imply that the laws of physics were created mei'ayin, thereby starting the 6 days of creation. First G-d created the speed of light and the other laws, then light, then...

    Or, one could hold like the Rambam that the creation of time means that creation didn't happen within time. In which case, the "mei-" doesn't imply temporal sequence.

    In fact, the Rambam could have believed in an infinitely old universe that only exists because Hashem does. R' Moshe Narboni (13th cent. CE, Narbonne), and some more academic scholars note that the Rambam does not disprove Plato's notion of the eternity of the universe, only Aristotle's version.

    It is possible (although I'm personally not convinced) that the Rambam understood "yeish mei'ayin" to mean that G-d is the Sole Cause for anything to exist, that there is a yeish and without Him there would be ayin. However, Hashem never changed, and thus He was always Sufficient Cause for things to exist, and thus they always did.

    -micha

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