The opening verse of Parsha Bereshit can be translated into English in a number of different ways. The 1917 edition of the Jewish Publications Society’s translation of the Torah read “In the beginning God created” which was revised in the 1985 edition to read: “When God began to create”. Art Scroll provides a number of different translations in its various publications. One is: “In the beginning of God’s creating”, another version reads: “In the beginning God created”. The Plaut Commentary has a slight variation: “When God was about to create”. However phrased, the question remains; when was the beginning? The short answer is only when God began to create. Before that, there was nothing.
Medieval Spain was for at least for two centuries the West’s marketplace of ideas and stood at the confluence of Islam and Christianity, with the Jews serving as the nexus for explanation and inspiration. One source for study was Greek philosophy, which was translated from ancient Greek to Arabic and then to Spanish. Aristotle and others (including some rabbinical sources) believed that the universal was eternal and that time existed before the creation of the universe. The universe could not emerge from nothing; it could only come into existence from all ready existing matter, which had to be eternal, an endless Russian nesting doll. Conversely, the Platonic theory of Creation espoused the belief that God imposed form on pre-existent matter; that there was always present some eternal matter that coexisted with God, and at some point, God Created, i.e. formed it into Heaven, Earth and all that is contained within.
The Rambam, the pre-eminent Jewish philosopher of 12th Century Spain, appears to have rejected both of these approaches and in their stead professed the conviction that God created the world and everything out of nothing, Creation ex nihilo.
The Ramban, the pre-eminent Torah commentator of 13th Century Spain, appears to have agreed with the Rambam in rejecting the Aristolean view of eternity, but he also seems to have both rejected and reframed the Platonic theory of pre-existing matter. God, he declared, “created everything out of complete nothingness”. Further, “there is nothing under the sun or above it to generate a beginning out of nothingness. He alone brought into being, out of complete and absolute nothingness, a very fine substance which is not corporeal but has power to become, to assume form, to proceed from potentiality into actuality, the first matter which the Greeks call hule. After creating hule, He did not create anything, but formed and made, because from hule he makes everything, by giving it forms and arranging them.”
Both the Rambam and the Ramban appear to have presaged today’s common scientific theory, colloquially, the Big Bang theory, which has been described Steven Hawking thusly: “The singularity didn’t appear in space; rather, space began inside of the singularity. Prior to the singularity, nothing existed, not space, time, matter, or energy – nothing. So where and in what did the singularity appear if not in space? We don’t know. We don’t know where it came from, why it’s here, or even where it is. All we really know is that we are inside of it and at one time it didn’t exist and neither did we”.
Arguably, the theories of creation are remarkably similar, agreeing that the moment before the bang, like the moment before God’s creation, there was nothing.
Bereshit tells only a very general story of how the earth came into existence – because that was not its enduring message. Bereshit has but one purpose – to introduce God, a new God and the only God. The God of Israel was different than the other gods worshipped by surrounding cultures – and not because of His powers or His characteristics – He was different on a cosmic scale. The God of the Torah did not emerge from a pre-existence nor was He dependent upon anything outside of His existence. He was not born nor did He have a lineage. He was the God that creates both light and the darkness; He was the God of good and evil. He was a God free of mythology and magic. And in the world in which the Torah was given, those ideas were the biggest bang of all, and indeed the greatest gift of the Jews.