Parsha Bereshit begins with a short, yet incredibly complex, statement: “In the beginning God created …” Then follows a brief account of the steps undertaken by God on the six days of creation: from nothing God conjured up completeness – the heavens and earth, the lands and the seas, the flora and fauna and ultimately, His most unique and greatest creation, man and woman.
That one phrase embodies one of the founding principle of Judaism; the dogmatic declaration that God did not emerge from a pre-existence nor was He dependent upon anything outside of His existence. According to Rambam, the Torah relates the story of God and His creation of the universe ex nihilo – from absolute nothingness.
This idea immediately differentiated the God of the Torah from the gods of contemporary culture. There was no theogony. The God of the Torah did not emerge from a pre-existence nor was He dependent upon anything outside of His existence. In scientific terms He emerged from a singularity. There were no other gods that controlled forces of nature or determined fate and destiny, or who ruled in alternate realms. God was One. The text that follows is just commentary.
The specific steps of Creation recorded in the Torah are perhaps now the most controversial narrative of the Torah, though, it was always considered enigmatic.
Ramban viewed the work of creation as a deep mystery; but also one that could only be comprehended through the tradition transmitted by God to Moses. He viewed God’s role in creation and the nature of the process itself, as creating the raw matter from which all life emerged – something akin to the notion of the “primordial swamp” in which amino acids, the building blocks of life, had initially formed. God did not create the full-blown universe, as we know it, but only the possibility for that universe to happen — and then to keep on happening.
Rambam, not surprisingly, adopted a different approach. He believed that the Torah’s account of creation actually conveyed deeper truths via metaphor; hence it was not required to ascribe a literal meaning to the acts of Creation. Importantly, Rambam declared that one was obligated to understand Torah in a way that was compatible with the findings of science; and, if science and Torah were misaligned, it was either because the science was not properly understood or the Torah had been misinterpreted. He argued that if science proved a point, then the finding should be accepted and the Torah scripture should be interpreted accordingly. Rambam appeared to conclude that one needs only to believe in God as being the source of Creation and that “He alone made, makes, and will make everything”.
The science that the Rambam was forced to confront was relatively primitive; the age of great scientific discovery would not come for many centuries. In the late 1880s, Rabbi Samson Raphael Hirsch faced new scientific discoveries and theories, amongst them Darwin’s Theory of Evolution, which prima facie appeared to contradict the neat hierarchy established in the Torah.
Like Rambam, Rabbi Hirsch did not reject science, though he gave it healthy skepticism: and like Ramban he saw God’s role as the prime force behind Creation. Rabbi Hirsch posited that accepting the existence of evolution will not change one’s appreciation of the universe that God created. Like the Ramban, he focused not on the details of creation, but on God’s role in it:
“… even if the latest scientific notion that the genesis of all the multitudes of organic forms on earth can be traced back to one single, most primitive, primeval form of life should ever appear… if this notion were ever to gain complete acceptance by the scientific world, Jewish thought … would nonetheless never summon us to revere a still extant representative of this primal form as the supposed ancestor of us all. Rather, Judaism in that case would call upon its adherents to give even greater reverence than ever before to the one, sole God Who, in His boundless creative wisdom and eternal omnipotence, needed to bring into existence no more than one single, amorphous nucleus and one single law of “adaptation and heredity” in order to bring forth, from what seemed chaos but was in fact a very definite order, the infinite variety of species we know today, each with its unique characteristics that sets it apart from all other creatures.”
There are various ways that Jewish scholarship has dealt with the mystery of Creation; however, there has only been one way that Judaism has dealt with the Creator Himself.