From the days of the ancient Greek philosophers until relatively modern times, the dominant scientific opinion claimed that the universe was not created at any specific time, but had always existed. This approach, known today as the “steady-state” theory, is obviously in direct contradiction to the Torah, which explicitly states that the world was created. Among other reasons, the fact that the constellations had appeared static for thousands of years was given as proof that the universe is fixed and unchanging. In view of this fact and other assumptions, the steady-state theory was considered until recently, an indisputable scientific truth.
The first major challenge to this approach was proposed in 1924. A young American astronomer named Edwin Hubble was working at the Mount Wilson Observatory in California, using what was then the world’s most powerful telescope. Until that time, astronomers believed that the Milky Way galaxy, which contains our Earth, constituted the majority of the universe, and that the little that could be seen beyond our galaxy was insignificant. Hubble discovered that the universe extends to vast distances and contains millions of galaxies, making our Milky Way but a tiny speck on a canvas.
This discovery sent a shockwave through the scientific community. Hubble, however, did not rest on his laurels and continued on to his next discovery: the expanding universe. Changes he discovered in the light waves emitted by the galaxies were evidence that they were moving away from each other. In other words, the universe lacked fixed, stable dimensions, but was in a state of constant expansion, like an ever-inflating balloon.
Hubble’s discoveries completely undermined previous scientific theories about the nature of the universe, but it would take another forty years before another wave of revolutionary thinking would surface.
In 1965, Robert Wilson and Arno Penzias, two American scientists working at the Bell Laboratories in New Jersey, measured specific radio waves with the help of a very sensitive microwave detection antenna. To their surprise, the two scientists discovered that wherever they pointed their instrument, they could detect very weak, background electromagnetic radiation flowing through space with a strength of three degrees Kelvin (a measurement of heat). This discovery caused enormous interest and excitement in the scientific community because it provided proof for the Big Bang theory, as put forward principally by George Gamow and his colleagues in 1946, some nineteen years earlier.
According to this theory, the universe came into being with the sudden appearance of something like a vast explosion of light, which was an immensely powerful concentration of energy. At that moment, it was impossible for physical matter to exist, for the immense heat would destroy it immediately. Only after the ball of fire created by the Big Bang began to cool down, could matter come into being and crystallize into its current forms.
The scientific community was so excited about the two American scientists’ discovery of this radiation, which was identified as radiation emanating from the beginning of the universe. It shattered the theory accepted by many generations of scientists that the world had always existed and it was unequivocal scientific proof that the world was created!
Hubble’s earlier discovery of the “expanding universe” now provided further proof for the new approach, which postulated that all the galaxies in the universe are moving away from each other at high speed. Scientists began to calculate backwards in an attempt to establish when this expansion began. They discovered that apparently, all the galaxies began their flight away from each other at one, single point in the space-time continuum and that was the moment that the universe came into being.
Penzias, who together with his colleague Wilson won the Nobel Prize for their discoveries, summed up his research as follows: “Astronomy leads us to a unique event, a universe which was created out of nothing and is delicately balanced to provide exactly the conditions required to support life. In the absence of an absurdly improbable accident, the observations of modern science seem to suggest an underlying, one might say, supernatural plan.”
Penzias was not the only one to suggest that the “universe was created out of nothing.” Many other eminent scientists describe the coming into being of the universe in similar terms. For example, the famous astronomer Allan Sandage, who followed Hubble as Director of the Mount Wilson Observatory said: “I find it quite improbable that such order came out of chaos. There has to be some organizing principle. God to me is a mystery, but is the explanation for the miracle of existence – why there is something instead of nothing.”
In view of this evidence and with almost no detractors in modern day science, the new theory was firmly established as the accepted model for the origin of the universe; it was considered one of the most important discoveries of the 20th century and the steady-state theory of the universe was abandoned.
In contrast, the Jewish People have never needed background radiation or runaway galaxies to know that the world was created. They were not perturbed when initial scientific claims suggested that a sudden creation contradicted the laws of physics. Our Sages and forefathers were confident of the information they held, because it was clearly stated in the Torah, written by the Creator of the world. And who knows better than He how the universe came into being?
It is for this reason that we do not take statements made by scientists about the order and details of the creation as unequivocal truths, such as in the case where scientists’ explanations resemble those stated in the Torah, though not completely compatible with the latter’s description.
Furthermore, we must look carefully at how the Torah describes the first day of creation. Nachmanides (Rabbi Moshe ben Nachman, 1194-1270) comments that the first two verses of Genesis – “In the beginning…” and “Now the earth was unformed and void…” – offer only a general description of the creation, with a detailed explanation of the process of creation beginning from the third verse: “And God said: ‘Let there be light,’ and there was light. And God saw that the light was good; and God divided the light from the darkness.”
What type of light is referred to here? According to the Torah, the sun and the stars were only created on the fourth day. It is clear that the first two verses refer to a light that preceded the formation of matter, not that which radiated from the sun or another star.
Nachmanides writes in his commentary on the Torah that according to the simple meaning of these verses, matter was not created directly from nothing. “Instead [God] brought forth from total and absolute nothing a very refined substance devoid of corporeality but having potential, fit to assume form and to proceed from potentiality into actuality. This was the primary matter created by God; and from this, He brought everything into existence.”
Elsewhere, Nachmanides states that the primary fire of creation was dark (as in the verse: “darkness was upon the face of the deep” – Genesis 1:2). In this context, it is interesting to note researchers’ comments about the darkness that resulted when, according to the new theory, all the light of the initial moment of creation had been captured by the plasma.
Despite the important similarities between scientific findings and the Sages’ comments, we accept Torah statements without question, while listening carefully, but with reserve, to modern scientific discussion about the details of the creation process. This is not because our approach is ossified – as it is sometimes wrongly ascribed – but because it is an enlightened approach that can differentiate between science’s repeated turnabouts with each new discovery and the absolute truth as related by the Creator in describing His handiwork.
We must keep in mind the fact that the Torah preceded science with one very significant piece of information. Science only recently discovered that the universe was created; it still cannot say what caused that creation.
In conclusion, it must be emphasized again that this chapter in no way attempts to confirm the Big Bang theory as an incontestable truth. It only states the fact that today, scientists admit that the world was created, even though they have no idea how to reconcile that fact with the known laws of physics, and further admit that they know nothing about what caused the creation to come into being.
This conclusion has convinced many of the world’s foremost scientists with no religious convictions to explicitly conclude, based upon the scientific findings of the twentieth century, that there is a supreme force.
Currently, the scientific world is discussing quite seriously and publicly – in journals and conferences – the possibility that there exists an “active” God, who is not estranged in any way from creation nor forced to act mechanically, under the laws of nature, but is rather a highly intelligent being with personal understanding of and a deep relationship to life on earth. There are many scientists in awe of the remarkable intelligent design so obvious throughout the creation. Indeed, there are enough scientists who believe in “Intelligent Design” for them to be defined as a specific scientific school of thought.
Yet the Torah teaches us the whole truth, when it clearly declares:
In the beginning, God created the heaven and the earth.
God imprinted the natural laws upon His creation. He is not beholden to those laws and it is within His power to create something out of nothing.