In the last few years, our family has become increasingly religious. Now that our children are learning in a religious day school, they have had to face certain conflicts between their former secular education and Torah, especially when it comes to science. For instance, questions like the age of the earth, and did the snake in the Garden of Eden really have legs, have me at a loss how to answer. Is there some general rule I can follow?
The Torah does not come to negate scientific knowledge or theory. In fact, science can often expand our understanding of Torah ideas. Nonetheless, it must be noted that unlike religious truths, scientific knowledge is constantly being challenged and changed. Rabbi Kook, in a series of letters that address the thrust of your question, gives us an encompassing approach to this issue. Concerning the story of the world’s creation, Rabbi Kook writes: “The Torah certainly obscures the meaning of the act of Creation and speaks in allegories and parables, for indeed everyone knows that the stories of Genesis are part of the Kabbalah. If all these narratives were taken literally, what secrets would there be? The Midrash states, ‘To reveal the power of the act of Creation to mankind is impossible, and therefore the text, In the beginning, is worded vaguely.’ What is important about the act of Creation is what we learn in regard to the knowledge of G-d and the truly moral life.” The Zohar underscores the importance of this deeper understanding: “Rabbi Shimon said, Alas for a man who regards the Torah as a book of mere tales and everyday matters…. The stories of the Torah are only the outer garments, and whoever looks upon those garments as the Torah itself, woe to that man for he will have no portion in the World To Come….Wine cannot be kept save in a jar – so too the Torah needs an outer garment. These are the stories and narratives, but it behooves us to penetrate beneath them.” Rabbi Kook continues: “There is no contradiction whatsoever between the Torah and any of the world’s scientific knowledge. We do not have to accept theories as certainties, no matter how widely accepted, for they are like blossoms that fade. Very soon, scientific technology will be further developed, and all of today’s new theories will be derided and scorned, and the respected wisdom of our day will seem small-minded - but the word of G-d will remain forever.” A parent need not take a defensive stance when his child confronts him with scientific theory that contradicts the literal meaning of Torah. Rabbi Kook emphasizes that the Torah’s primary objective is not to tell scientific facts and events of the past. “What is most important is the Torah’s interior – the inner meaning of the subjects, and this understanding will become even greater in places where there is a counter-force, which motivates us to become strengthened in our beliefs.” Regarding the seeming conflict between science and Torah concerning the age of the earth, Rabbi Kook writes that in the world of Torah: “It is generally accepted that there were many early epochs preceding our recorded world. This was common knowledge among all of our first kabbalists and is mentioned in Bereshit Rabbah, He was building worlds and destroying them. If scientists want to insist that the world is billions of years old, we have no problem with this. The days of Creation in the Biblical account are not meant to be taken as literal days. The Torah starts its genealogical count, not with the Big Bang or “Let there be light,” but with the creation of man – this is what is important to us. The Torah’s foremost concern is to teach the world that everything in existence is the handiwork of G-d. The means by which the world was created, whether it be a sudden explosion, or a gradual evolutionary process, or the Ten Divine Utterances in the Torah, everything came about through the direct command and supervision of G-d. “Even if it were proven that the order of Creation was through the evolution of species, this would not contradict our calculation of time. We count according to the literal text of the Torah’s verses which is much more meaningful than all the knowledge of pre-history, which has little relevance to us.” Prophetically, Rabbi Kook writes about the Theory of Evolution which was gaining credence throughout the secular world in his time: “The idea of gradual evolution is only in its beginning, and there is no doubt that it will change its form and give birth to conceptions that will also include sudden leaps of creation (the appearance ex nihilo of entire new species in line with the Torah account) to complete the picture of nature, and then the light of Israel will be grasped in its clarity.” In general, Rabbi Kook teaches that in the battle of ideas, we do not have to reject knowledge which seems to contradict the Torah. “Rather, we should build the palace of Torah above it.” 1. Rabbi Kook’s Letters, 91. See the translation in “Selected Letters,” by Tzvi Feldman. 2. Zohar, Part 3, 152A and B. 3. Letters, 134. 4. Bershit Rabbah, 5:3.