The Faculty of Jewish Studies
The Office of the Campus Rabbi
Parshat hashavua--Genesis 5758
"The earth was chaos, ... and the spirit of God hovered ..."
Prof. Moshe Kaveh, President
Bereshit, the first weekly reading in Genesis, begins with thirty-one verses describing the creation of the universe, with all its physical, chemical, and biological systems. These profound verses have stimulated lively discussion among biblical commentators for generations and recently have also become of interest to scientists.
Let us take a moment to consider a verse which seems to stand apart from the descriptive account of creation: "Now the earth was unformed and void, and darkness was upon the face of the deep; and the spirit of God hovered over the face of the waters." What does this verse mean? What does it teach us? What is the connection between being unformed and void, between chaos, and the spirit of God hovering? Why was the world not created with order? What is the purpose of chaotic creation? Perhaps the Torah is trying to convey a special message of great wisdom, which contemporary science is just beginning to recognize after long years of research.
One of the conclusions drawn from research in various sciences is that most systems in the world are not orderly. Throughout all natural systems we find some unpredictable, or stochastic processes. This means that knowing about the past and present of a process does not necessarily provide us information about the future. Miraculously, the general macro-system is amazingly efficient and obeys such laws as global conservation of energy (in physics), or genetic memory (although cell-reproduction on the micro-level is stochastic). The global efficiency of physical or biological systems today is not judged from the point of view of the micro-system, because from this vantage point the system might operate in a random, disorderly fashion.
The most instructive example is the human brain. The brain is the most sophisticated "instrument" existing today. No computer, no matter how advanced, can imitate the brain's abilities in the least. The brain, it turns out, is structured as a non-orderly system. Every neuron in the system works randomly, but the macro-system is very sophisticated and efficient.
This scientific discovery was made only in the last twenty years. Imagine our surprise at finding that the second verse in the Bible alludes precisely to this! The world was created disorderly, "unformed and void." It turns out that it is "easier" to create the world thus; moreover, the efficiency of the macro-system is much greater when the world is created in this way. So the verse teaches us that this shows no flaw or lack of Divine purpose; that despite human shortcomings -- people having for many years interpreted the disorder as lack of God's providence -- the verse stresses that above and beyond chaos there is global order, that "the spirit of God hovers."
This has profound consequences for the philosophy of religion, especially when we encounter developments that raise questions of faith, such as the many decrees against the Jewish people throughout the generations, our long years of exile and the horrors of the Holocaust. Here we see stochastic processes, developments that seem random and incomprehensible. Many Jews grew distant from their religion because of these terrible challenges to faith, which appeared inconsonant with Divine justice.
Then we read the second verse in the Bible, which teaches us that as with systems in the natural sciences (which the remaining verses on Creation address), so too, with justice, there is order and efficiency on the macro-level. Notwithstanding the stochastic and incomprehensible junctures in the annals of mankind, we are commanded to believe in global justice that God causes to reign in the world. Despite local chaos, we must seek the spirit of God that hovers over every incomprehensible crossroads in our private lives and in the life of the nation in general; otherwise we are likely to disown the Torah.
Elisha ben Abuya found himself at such a stochastic juncture when he saw a father ordering his son to climb a tree to fulfill the commandment of chasing away the mother bird before taking her eggs. Two precepts are involved here: honoring one's parents, and sending away the mother bird. For both of them the Torah promises long life, a double reward which stood in stark contrast to the reality perceived by Abuya, when a snake came and bit the son. Seeing this, Elisha b. Abuya asked: Where was the long life promised the son? Was this his reward for following the Torah? Elisha con-sequently abandoned the straight and narrow. We see that it is a mistake to draw con-clusions from isolated events. A person of faith must remember that "chaotic" events also happen; the Torah reminds its believers that nevertheless, the "spirit of God hovers."
Mathematics, the queen of sciences, provides an interesting illustration. Mathematics provides us functions that we can use to describe physical, chemical, and biological phenomena. Some mathematical functions have points at which they are not defined, called singular points. The existence of these singular points does not make the entire structure of accepted mathematics crumble, because mathematics understands that as one moves away from the singular points one obtains the comprehensible characteristics of mathematical functions.
Catastrophes are singular points in our efforts to understand Divine justice. Hence it is our duty to step back from them to obtain a broader view from which we can seek global justice. Therefore, the Torah paused in the second verse from its description of the creation of the natural world in order to teach us that sometimes things lack order, are chaotic, and it is our duty to remember that the "spirit of God hovers."
The weekly Torah portion is distributed with the assistance of the President's Fund for Torah and Science.