Science has no place explaining religion. Religion has no place explaining science. As someone with a foot in both of these camps, I’m going to completely ignore this conventional wisdom.
Tohu vavohu. Whatever it means in Hebrew (and of this we can never be certain) it is an attempt to describe the universe prior to G”d’s act of creating the universe as we know it. If we want to play with analogies from physics, we can think of it as the state of the universe in those first few microseconds when the physical forces and laws as they now exists were not yet in force (that is, if we accept the big-bang theory of the origin of the universe.) It’s a very simplistic explanation, but certain current models of the formation of the universe extrapolate that it took some time (albeit measured in very minute quantity) for the various forces, strong and weak, that operate in our universe, to come into play. It is not at all clear, at least as far as my limited understanding of the physics goes, that the universe would resolve itself in the particular way it has, and that subtle occurrences during those first few microseconds might not have yielded a universe with entirely different forces and physical laws. (In fact, I understand that there is speculation that indeed different variations did occur resulting in multiple universes with differing physical properties.)
G’d is, perhaps, one way to attempt to explain why the physics of our universe are just what they are. G”d is, and may I be forgiven for this liberty by both my friends scientific and religious, a sort of unified field theorem-or in more recent scientific approaches, a “theory of everything” - an attempt to explain why things are the way they are.
One of the reasons I’m not a scientist is that I have sought (and continue to seek) unscientific answers to the things that baffled me. Science as we know it is full of all sorts of interacting forces, particles, waves, constants. etc. It’s the constants, in particular, that trouble me, because it’s always appeared to me that there’s no clear relationship between some of the constants. This is a gross oversimplification, as many of the constants are related. Planck’s constant (the ratio of a photon’s energy to its wavelength) can be used to derive other functions like the Avogadro constant (the ratio of the number of particles of a substance within a given amount of that substance.) I particularly chose these examples because both these constants can be used to help understand and derive other physical constants. The Avogadro constant, in particular, helps scientists when it comes to matters of scaling – from the macroscopic to the microscopic and v.v.
Einstein remained frustrated until the end for his failure to create a unified theory that connected general relativity with electromagnetism. Scientists keep trying.
String theory, M-theory (those “branes” you often read about,) and quantum geometry (aka Loop gravity) are among the recent theories advanced as best candidates for a “theory of everything” that tie all known aspects of universal physics – reconciling relativity, quantum mechanics, et al.
Religion and Science have this in common – origins in the human desire to understand the universe in which humankind exists. Having dabbled in both disciplines for many years, I am slowly coming to the conclusion that both efforts may be futile when it comes to seeking a complete understanding of everything.
The Wikipedia article on “Unified Field Theory” contains this lovely quote:
“There may be no a priori reason why the correct description of nature has to be a unified field theory. However, this goal has led to a great deal of progress in modern theoretical physics and continues to motivate research.” (Unified field theory. (2011, October 18). In Wikipedia, The Free Encyclopedia. Retrieved 19:06, October 21, 2011, from http://en.wikipedia.org/w/index.php?title=Unified_field_theory&oldid=456260058)
To put it in biblical terms, we have a little Job and a little Qohelet (Ecclesiastes.) Why do we persist in seeking something which need not exist? Might not the universe be little more than organized chaos?
One the one hand, we expect that G”d might want a well-ordered and structured universe. On the other hand, we have a Torah which relates our relationship to a G”d that can be whimsical, random, even unfair. Might not the universe of G”d’s creation be similarly inconsistent? Must it all tie together somehow?
So here’s the thing about tohu vavohu. In terms of a physical understanding of the universe, tohu vavohu describes a time when the rules of our universe were not yet set . How then can we, limited and restricted by the very constants that define our universe, even attempt to understand anything that existed before our universe, outside it? That lovely rationale of the Torah beginning with a “bet” whose shape intrinsic tells us that we can’t go back any further than this, that the answer to the question of what came before this is “don’t go there” or “even if you went there you couldn’t understand it” – there may be something to this. (What I like about this explanation combined with my theory about tohu vavohu is that is precludes any necessity of of asking “what came before the big bang?” because if we can’t even understand our own universe in the microseconds after the big bang before its physics became fixed, how can we possibly hope to go back before the big bang itself?
While religion and theology, even Judaism, came into being as part of humankind’s attempt to understand the universe, Judaism has, I believe, evolved past this. Whereas some religions, and even science, remained largely focused on understanding why our universe is the way it is, Judaism recognized that our efforts may be better spent learning how to live in the universe as it is. It recognizes than human beings have some ability to change and shape that universe, but only up to a point – beyond which they are powerless.
Rashi spoke about tohu vavohu as an “astonishment at the nothingness” It is a nothingness, an emptiness upon which one can only look in awe. “G”d created a universe out of that?” The other day I heard a rabbi refer to tohu vavohu as “play-doh” as though it were simply formless matter waiting to be shaped by G”d. I’ve similarly heard tohu vavohu described as “crazy all mixed up mish-mosh” and all sorts of other metaphors.
Here’s the thing for me. As fascinated and driven as I am to understand tohu vavohu, to discover that there really is a theory of everything, these are mere distractions from the real tasks before me. (Now I am NOT suggesting that science stop seeking answers, or that religion stop as well. There may very well turn out to be a theory of everything. G”d may or may not be a part of that ultimate theory, though we could get into a real semantic loop here.) So I intend to go about my life trying to change the things in the universe that I can change, not trying to change the things in the universe that I cannot change, and seeking from Judaism and science the wisdom to know the difference. (How’s that for the ultimate conglomeration of science, theology-Jewish, Christian and otherwise, and the 12-steps?)
©2011 by Adrian A. Durlester
Other musings on this parasha:
B'reishit 5772 - The Unified Field Theorem of the Twelve Steps
B'reishit 5770 - One G"d, But Two Trees?
B'reishit 5769 - Do Fences Really Make Good Neighbors
B'reishit 5767-Many Beginnings
Bereshit 5766-Kol D'mei Akhikha
Bereshit 5765 (5760)-Failing to Understand-A Learning Experience
Bereshit 5764-Gd's Regrets
Bereshit 5762--The Essential Ingredient
Bereshit 5763--Striving to be Human
Bereshit 5761--Chava's Faith
Bereshit 5760-Failing to Understand