If Maimonides were alive today he would give us the same answer he gave when addressing the question of the ancient world theory. Let us try to rewrite the words of Maimonides replacing “ancient world' with the word “evolution” and see his message for our times.
“You should know that we don’t disqualify the claim that man comes from apes just because our scriptures say that man was created from the earth. For we find other verses that we do not explain according to their simple translation. For example, the verses that say G-d gets angry or that G-d has a hand. In truth we can explain the verses of the Torah according to the understanding that the world, animals and man evolved from simpler forms and that the world is actually millions of years old. It would be far more convenient that way for we would be spared the need to argue with the evolutionists.
Eventhough we could explain the verses that way, we don’t explain them that way because we don’t believe in evolution for two reasons. Firstly, logic does not compel me to think that living beings evolved or that the world is millions of years old. Secondly, science hasn’t empirically proven that evolution in fact took place or that the world is millions of years old. Scientists only estimate and hypothesize about the source of life, matter and the universe. Many scientists in our generation believe that evolution did take place and that the world is ancient just as scientists and philosophers in olden times believed in a primordial world that wasn’t created. So you needn’t be impressed by their great numbers and their impressive academic vocabulary, for they are the same as the philosophers and scientists of yore that held theories for thousands of years which were disproven in a few short years.
Of course we don’t close our eyes to true science based on actual discoveries and empirical evidence. If it were proven that evolution was the truth along with the age of the world based on empirical evidence and not on theories and educated guesswork, we would have no problems believing these facts. We consequently would have no problem explaining the verses in the Torah in a manner that is consonant with these findings. But after all is said and done we have no right to change explanations of our verses in the Torah without a logically sound reason.
There are people who misunderstand these passages in Maimonides and ask: “The Torah is above intellect? Not only don’t we need to bend the Torah to science but science will prove to be true all that we know from the Torah?” Those readers may have understood that according to what Maimonides wrote, we theoretically would bend the Torah to fit in with science and we can make everyone happy. But that is not what Maimonides meant!
It’s important to understand one thing. In reality it is impossible for a contradiction to exist between Torah and science! Why? Simply because the Giver of the Torah was the Creator of science! We believe that G-d created the universe and he is the one who gave us the Torah!! They both came from the same Creator!!
If we do find what seems to be a contradiction between Torah and science, it proves one of two possibilities; either we misunderstood the Torah or we misunderstood science. The contradiction will rise because our finite human intellect doesn’t have all the answers. There’s no problem with reality or with the Torah! Maimonides simply explained that if science shows something empirically to be true which is different from our understanding of the Torah, that tells us we misunderstood the Torah! It doesn’t give us license to understand the Torah as we see fit nor does it tell us that the Torah is subservient to science. It only tells us were given new tools with which to understand the Torah in a more exact manner and to better understand G-dly truth.
Does this mean that science is always right?
Many readers will be astounded by these things. Everyone knows that scientific theories come and go sometimes once in a century or even once in a millennium. Once, learned people believed that the world was primal and there were but a few thousand stars in the sky and that bugs get created from rot. One hundred years ago scientists laughed at Quantum Physics and the Big Bang. Who can guarantee that in a few years they won’t laugh at evolution or the age of the world?
There’s no doubt that in many instances our scientific knowledge or our way of understanding phenomena is mistaken. Therefore we do not explain the Torah according to the passing whims of scientists. Even Einstein admitted (after many years of being stubborn in the face of empirical evidence) that his understanding of the universe was mistaken and Steven Hawkings changes his theories every few years. There are many examples of hypotheses and theories that every self-respecting scientist knew as fact and in the end; the Torah’s interpretation was more accurate.
We therefore do not hurry to explain verses according to the latest claims science makes. These facts must be very highly scrutinized and only if our sages say that these things are indeed true may we proceed to explain the Torah according to this new understanding. It is for this purpose that Maimonides wrote the “Guide to the Perplexed” so that we don’t rely on our own intellect and our enthusiasm for science programs and the impressive vocabulary of all types of academic scholars. Our first obligation is to hear the understanding and conclusions of the Torah scholars of our generation. On this the verse says; ”And you shall do as they instruct you”.
Maimonides spoke of empirical evidence that compels logic and not reinterpreting verses to line up with theories and transient hypotheses “to get along with everyone”. The Torah is not clay in our hands for us to mold and we don’t give new interpretations to the Torah if logic doesn’t support doing so. The primal world, evolution and the age of the world are all concepts that are nothing more than theories that have not been proven by science.