Happy new year to all my Jewish friends out there! On Tuesday and Wednesday we celebrated Rosh Ha’Shanna, and welcomed in the Hebrew Summer of Love, yes folks, it’s 5769.
If you’re wondering why that number sounds familiar, it’s because it’s been in the news recently: proponents of “Intelligent Design,” including the Republican Vice Presidential candidate Sarah Palin, believe that it, rather than the scientifically accepted value of 13.7 billion years, corresponds to the actual age of the Universe.
That people are willing to believe so blindly disturbs me for two reasons. First of all, the year number is arbitrary. To the ancients, the events of the year were more important than the number assigned to it. So, while the months of the Hebrew calendar and the positions of festivals have remained fixed for millennia, the epoch, or start date of the calendar, has changed several times.
In biblical times, the year would be quoted with reference to the time from major events, or to the monarchy, for example, “in the third year of King David’s reign…”
The modern Hebrew epoch is based on the Seder Olam Rabbah, by Yose ben Halafta circa 160CE. In this impressive work, the author made a biblical timeline by collating the reported ages and dates in the Torah (the Old Testament). He worked backwards, and when he reached creation, counted the seven days as just that; seven twenty-four hour periods.
There are, however, some problems with his approach. In particular, the sun was not created until the fourth day. Without the sun, you can’t have a day of any length, never mind twenty-four hours. Also, why take it literally? The Torah is full of metaphors and euphemisms, and the word “yom” (day) in the context of the creation story may be one of these. So, if you are trying to align science with scripture, it makes far more sense to interpret the seven “days” as creative periods of indeterminate length.
Second, even if one assumes that the Torah is divinely inspired, to reject the weight of knowledge in favour of this number makes no logical sense. Results from all fields of science indicate that the Universe has existed for many billions of years. If it were only a few thousand years old, then the stars, galaxies, metals, rocks and fossils could not exist.
Also, if you do believe that God created everything, then it follows that it was God who gave us the capacity to explore and understand our habitat. Therefore, to ignore science in favour of Intelligent Design is to reject mankind’s God-given intellect.
So, this week, while we Jews celebrated the New Year, I took time to appreciate the Universe, and to give thanks for the ability of scientists to explain it. Happy new year!