Rabbi Yosef Bitton and Geology

Rabbi Yosef Bitton is the author of Awesome Creation, which I reviewed on this website in 2014. I periodically receive emails sent by Rabbi Bitton to his email list. The missive dated 6 MarHeshvan 5778 deals with geology, and piqued my interest. Here is Rabbi Bitton’s piece, followed by my comments:

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Another coincidence between science and Tora, that relates to the “evolution” and “age” of planet earth, can be seen in a verse from the book of Yiob (Job). Yiob was a good and honest man who suffered the accidental death of all his children. The book of Yiob, 42 chapters, deals with the subject of Divine justice and when bad things happen to good people. Towards the end of the book, chapter 38, HaShem reveals Himself to Yiob and shows him how little human beings can know about the reality around us. And if our knowledge escapes the grasping of physical reality —material, visible and accessible—, how much more remote is our potential access to the dimension of Divine Knowledge, in this case, the administration of Divine Justice. God demonstrates Yiob the inescapable limitations of human knowledge and thus deterring Yiob (and the reader) from the understanding of Celestial Designs. In this chapter, which is a monologue because Yiob has no answers, God confronts Yiob with a series of fascinating questions on issues related to Creation, the harmony of the cosmos, the mystery of light, the secrets of life on the seabed , and much, much more. It is in this context that we find a verse (38:38) where God challenges Yiob’s knowledge on the formation of the earth. The text says: «[Where were you …] when [the planet] merged into a mass, and the layers of the earth adhered to each other?” This last expression [בְּצֶקֶת עָפָר לַמּוּצָק] which does not appear anywhere else in the Scriptures, led the Rabbis to assert (Yoma 54b) two thousand years ago that our planet is composed of several strata and not, so to speak, of just one piece. The Beur, a contemporary commentary on the Bereshit Rabba written by Rabbi Abraham Shteinberger Midrash Bereshit Raba HaMobar, Jerusalem, Makhon HaMidrash haMeboar, 1980, page 13,), indicates that “the fact that our planet has been created by strata and layers, makes the Earth appear older than it really is, and that is the reason why some non-believers assume that millions of years must have passed between strata and strata “.

It is interesting to know that this coincidence between the Biblical text and geology, was evident only in modernity. For thousands of years scientists did not suspect that below the surface, our planet is made up of different strata. Only after “uniformism” —a concept developed by James Hutton (1726-1797), the father of modern geology— “discovered” that Planet Earth was formed step by step, and consists of numerous layers.

To summarize, the Biblical text states that while our planet was created by Creator in a single instant, it was created composed of different strata, from the center to the surface of the earth. Thus, if a geologist examines the composition of our planet and “discovers” its numerous layers, it will attribute this composition to an evolutionary process that demanded millions of years. From the Biblical point of view, the geologist is not discovering something that contradicts the Tora but something that actually confirms it. The only conflicting element is the “interpretation” that the terrestrial strata implies a process of millions of years. And this “interpretation” is based on taking an initial act of Creation out of the equation. However, when we examine the facts based on the premise of an initial act of Creation, the geological discoveries, a planet with numerous layers, is exactly what we were expecting to find!

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My default position when reading such claims is scepticism. Did Chazal really discuss stratigraphy? Let’s look at the sources.

Here is the relevant Talmudic passage, followed by my informal translation:

מסכת יומא דף נ”ד עמוד ב: ושתיה היתה נקראת. תנא שממנה הושתת העולם תנן כמאן דאמר מציון נברא העולם דתניא רבי אליעזר אומר עולם מאמצעיתו נברא שנאמר ( איוב ל”ח, ל”ח) בְּצֶקֶת עָפָר לַמּוּצָק וּרְגָבִים יְדֻבָּקוּ רבי יהושע אומר עולם מן הצדדין נברא שנאמר (איוב ל”ז, ו) כִּי לַשֶּׁלֶג יֹאמַר הֱוֵא אָרֶץ וְגֶשֶׁם מָטָר וְגֶשֶׁם מִטְרוֹת עֻזּוֹ.

A braisa discusses a disagreement between Rabbi Eliezer and Rabbi Yehoshua. The former argues that the world was created from its centre, as the verse [Job 38:38] says, “when the dust becomes hard and the clods of earth stick together” The latter argues that the world was created from the sides, as the verse [Job 37:6] states, “He says to the snow, Fall on the earth, and to the rain shower, Be a mighty downpour.”

The first thing to notice is that there are two opinions in this passage, the second of which is ignored by Rabbi Bitton. Rabbi Bitton’s claim is that Chazal described a stratified world, which suggests unanimity (“led the Rabbis to assert…”). But the Talmud presents us with a debate. The disagreements of these two tannaim – Rabbi Eliezer and Rabbi Yehoshua – fill the pages of the Talmud, and we usually rule in accordance with the view of Rabbi Yehoshua. Even if one argues that this passage is not a legal passage and therefore not subject to the usual rules of psak, there is no indication in the Talmud, or any later authority, that Rabbi Eliezer’s view is normative.

We do not decide Talmudic debates on external grounds. As Rabbi Moshe Meiselman expresses it in Torah, Chazal and Science (prologue page xxxi), “Certainly we do not invoke criteria external to the Torah in evaluating the correctness of [early authorities’] views… To do so would be as intellectually invalid and objectionable as preferring the Rambam’s ruling over that of the Rashba in a question in Bava Kama because it happens to be in line with a decision of the United States Supreme Court.”

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Now to the heart of the matter. The key assertion made by Rabbi Bitton is this: “This last expression [בְּצֶקֶת עָפָר לַמּוּצָק] which does not appear anywhere else in the Scriptures, led the Rabbis to assert (Yoma 54b) two thousand years ago that our planet is composed of several strata and not, so to speak, of just one piece.”

Looking at both opinions in this Talmudic passage gives one context, which is missing when one presents only Rabbi Eliezer’s view. The tannaim disagree about the direction in which the creation of the world proceeded. While Rabbi Eliezer says that it began in the “centre” and proceeded in an outward direction, Rabbi Yehoshua suggests that the creation of Earth started from the extremities and proceeded in an inward direction. There is no indication that either of these tannaim described Earth as possessing different layers. When clods of earth are pressed together, you get a homogeneous ball of earth, not a stratified sphere.

This point is borne out by the classical commentators on the Book of Job. They all agree that the verse cited by Rabbi Eliezer describes the direction by which a solid Earth formed, starting from the centre:

רש”י שם ד”ה בְּצֶקֶת עָפָר: ביום שיצקתי עפר. ד”ה לַמּוּצָק: ליסוד עולם באמצעיתו. ד”ה וּרְגָבִים יְדֻבָּקוּ: סביבותיו לצדדין עד כי נתמלא ארכו ורחבו

מצודת דוד שם ד”ה בְּצֶקֶת: … בעת היה ניצק העפר להיות יציקה אחת והרגבים יהיו דבוקים אחת אל אחת להיות גולם אחד

All the commentators that I have seen take the key word, רגבים, to mean clods of earth. These clods adhere to each other until the Earth is complete. One could, I think, conclude from this that the Talmud is asserting that the Earth was not created as a solid sphere, like a billiard ball. But saying that Chazal taught that the Earth is stratified is unjustified. Certainly, Rabbi Bitton’s translation of the crucial phrase as “and the layers of the earth adhered to each other” is incorrect.

Furthermore, in geology, the concept of strata is not just that Earth is made up of layers. The key point is that Earth is made up of different layers of rock. One can easily see this in dramatic photos of places like the Grand Canyon, where layers (strata) made up of different rocks are clearly visible.

A distinguished Torah scholar, to whom I sent a draft of this post, pointed out to me another relevant issue . Rabbi Bitton writes that “the Biblical text states that … our planet was created by the Creator in a single instant… [but] of different strata”. But then, how can there be a disagreement over whether Earth was formed from the inside or from the outside? Such a dispute implies a passage of time from the beginning of the Earth’s formation to its completion.

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A number of years ago, I wrote a critique of Dr Gerald Schroeder’s Genesis and the Big Bang. The critique, which can be downloaded from this website, is entitled Genesis and the Big Bluff. I believe that Dr Schroeder and Rabbi Bitton make the same methodological mistake. Their approach consists of finding dubious points of congruence between Judaism and modern science, and presenting them as evidence for agreement between the two. In Dr Schroeder’s case, it was the coincidence between the speculative cosmological concept of inflation and the fact that the Torah uses the phrase Godly wind (וְרוּחַ אֱלֹהִים) only once in the creation story. I wrote the following:

In 1961, Murray Gell-Mann introduced a classification of elementary particles called hadrons. For his work, Gell-Mann won the Nobel Prize in physics in 1969. Gell-Mann’s own name for the classification scheme was the eightfold way, because of the octets of particles in the classification. The eightfold way achieved experimental verification when a previously undetected particle which it predicted, omega minus, was identified in a bubble chamber experiment at Brookhaven National Laboratory. The term Gell-Mann used for his scheme – the eightfold way – is a reference to the eightfold way of Buddhism – a choice which is reflective of Gell-Mann’s eclectic interests.

How would Dr Schroeder approach this? Would he write of the amazing congruity between particle physics and Buddhism, and encourage us to accept the truth of the latter? If not, why not? Is the eightfold classification scheme any less convincing as evidence for Buddhism than associating inflation with wind of God because the latter phrase appears only once in Genesis?

Neither Dr Schroeder nor Rabbi Bitton addresses this methodological point. [In all fairness, I know of nobody in the Torah community who has addressed this issue satisfactorily]. If vague coincidences between Biblical verses and modern scientific theories are sufficient to boost Judaism’s credibility, what about similar coincidences between science and Buddhism or any other religion?

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It seems to me that Rabbi Bitton’s point of departure is that Science and Judaism must be reconcilable. This is what I wrote in my review of Awesome Creation:

Rabbi Bitton, too, sometimes succumbs to the urge to show that, as he puts it, the “Biblical Creation story… is completely compatible with science’s modern discoveries.”

If you start off with the conviction that Torah must be reconcilable with all the latest scientific paradigms, and you then come across the numerous points of divergence that exist, the pressure to conform to your conviction can easily lead to a misreading of Torah sources. As I expressed it elsewhere, if you torture the sources, they will eventually confess…

The correct starting point is that Judaism and Nature are compatible, because God created Nature. But Nature is not the same as Science. Science is the attempt to understand Nature. It is a human endeavour and, like all human endeavours, is fallible.

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As I pointed out in my review of Rabbi Bitton’s Awesome Creation, it is well-worth reading, notwithstanding several weaknesses. But his post on geology simply lacks rigour.

 

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