Bar-Ilan University

The Faculty of Jewish Studies

The Office of the Campus Rabbi


Daf Parashat Hashavua

(Study Sheet on the Weekly Torah Portion)

Basic Jewish Studies Unit


The Beginning of the Universe , the Beginning of Life and the Beginning of Wisdom

One of the most intriguing questions for any scientist is: what is the smallest possible unit of information in any given scientific field, from which it is possible to infer scientific principles regarding the entire discipline? It can easily be understood that the larger this unit of information is, the less useful it is in explication of the particular discipline. The genius of science lies in the connection between the smallest possible "micro" and the largest possible "macro".

The 31 verses of the Genesis narrative describe with dramatic precision the beginning of the universe and the beginning of life in relation to three scientific fields: physics, chemistry and biology. This has no precedent in any scientific article in any of these three disciplines, even regarding the simplest of subjects. However the main objective of this narrative focuses on transmitting the message already stated in the very first verse: "In the beginning G-d created the heavens and the earth". Leaving the scientific explanations of the beginning of the universe or the beginning of life to be what they may, the Torah seeks to present the basic unit of belief, from which all belief stems, and that is "the beginning of wisdom" (Heb. - Reshit Chochmah). G-d created the world and He is the source of wisdom from which all wisdom stems. Indeed, according to Maimonides the study of the laws of nature which are the laws of G-d will draw us nearer to Him. As he puts it: "Knowledge of the Divine can only be attained after knowledge of nature..." The observation of, and search into, the beginning of the universe through the laws of physics, and the beginning of life through the laws of chemistry and biology, will bring us closer to the source of wisdom -- to G-d.

This article will briefly scan the contemporary understanding of science as to the meaning of the terms "beginning of the universe" and "beginning of life". We will see that the smallest unit of information from which we can understand the physical nature of the universe narrows down to a very tiny microscopic ball. In contrast, biology is still searching for the smallest unit of information from which one can understand the beginning of life.

The beginning of the universe, as it is understood by present-day physics, is the Big Bang. That is to say the entire world was compressed into a tiny microscopic ball which exploded. The enormous amount of energy which was released in the explosion created all the galaxies including our own solar system. The great achievement of physics is that its laws describe the development of the universe beginning with that tiny ball which expanded to reach the present dimensions of the universe. Immediately following the Big Bang there existed only elementary particles (such as protons, neutrons, electrons etc.) and nuclear reactions which occurred at temperatures of billions of degrees. Only a moment later, with the expansion of the universe, the temperature descended to one hundred million degrees and from then on the elementary particles began to create nuclei and nuclear physics began. As the universe continued to expand and the temperature dropped to tens of thousands of degrees, the atoms so clearly described by "atomic physics" were created. As temperatures sunk below the level of 2000 degrees, molecules and the first chemical compounds came into being. At a level of below 100 degrees centigrade, the molecules of water were created, the earth became solid, and bio-chemistry and biology were born. This is a brief summary of the history of the science of the universe, from physics through chemistry to biology.

We understand the laws of physics to very high levels of energy (temperatures of millions of billions of degrees), through the use of accelerators which cause the elementary particles to reach exceptionally high velocities. At the largest international particle accelerator in CERN they have recently succeeded in discovering the particles W+ and W-, which, in collision, create electrons at energy levels of one million billion degrees. The CERN program intends to build a still larger accelerator in order to test the super-symmetry theory from which it should be possible to attain all the known elementary particles. To summarize, physics can explain the physical existence of the universe, beginning from a small fraction of a second after the Big Bang.

If we postulate the validity of the laws of physics in the Big Bang to far reaching extents (energies striving toward infinity), we arrive at the beginning of the universe which is the creation of the world. The basic question of how the universe was created "ex nihilo" lies outside the boundary of questions to which physics can provide an answer. These include questions such as: what existed before the creation of the world? How did the infinite amounts of energy in the Big Bang come to exist? Let us take one step further -- realizing that the Big Bang theory is based on Einstein's doctrine of relativity which is classical theory only -- not taking quantum theory into account -- then the creation of the world came about by some sudden quantum change in the energy of the universe. Even through this approach there will be no answer to the question: what existed before that quantum change ?

Accordingly the opinion of our Sages as to what existed previous to creation is that "Reshit Chochmah" (the beginning of wisdom) preceded the genesis of creation. In the words of the poem from our liturgy "Adon Olam": "The Lord of the world who reigned before any being was created". This is totally independent of the question whether creation was classical or quantum in nature... "Adon Olam" ruled the world before creation and He is responsible for creation as the first verse of Genesis teaches us.

Let us move on to the beginning of life. What is the biological equivalent of the "Big Bang"? The answer is undoubtedly: the creation of life. Can we explain the passage from chemistry to the biology of a living cell with its various genetic codes such as those found in a DNA molecule, for example? The discovery of DNA molecules which transmit the genetic codes from one generation to another won the Nobel Prize for Professors Francis Krick and James Watson for what was taken to be the pinnacle of molecular biology. How was DNA created? What is the smallest possible atomic unit from which life developed until the stage of DNA? (From here to the comprehension of the "macro" - for instance, the function of the human brain, the road is very long, indeed).

Miraculously the reproductive cellular form found in DNA is identical in all creatures from the smallest living body, the microbes, up to and including the largest animals. The principle is called "the identity of biochemistry". Scientists have discovered several ancient rocks from the period following the Big Bang (when the temperature of the universe dropped and the Earth changed from a viscous liquid to the solid body we know today) in which organisms were found. This has enabled us to learn about genetic copying in those pre-historic eras during which life on Earth began. It would appear that the genetic copying process then was identical to what it is now.

How, then, was life created? The Torah tells us that the first life forms were created in a matter of days and this is, in fact, coherent with contemporary scientific understanding. The cosmic radiation in the universe at the time of the solidification of the Earth would have broken down all chemical compounds. Therefore, chemistry could only be created in an area protected against radiation, that is, the sea. We can thus also understand why marine life predated life on dry land, which could only come into existence at a later period after a significant further drop in the temperature of the universe. Parenthetically, even today there exist weak remnants of that same cosmic radiation created in the Big Bang. These were measured by Paznias and Wilson who won the 1978 Nobel Prize for the most revolutionary discovery of this century: the measurement of the creation of the world. What, then, is the source of life? Two extremely conflicting approaches deal with the question. Professor Krick, (the discoverer of DNA -- the discovery of the century in biology) says: "the source of life is almost like a miracle. So many conditions have to exist in order to begin it ...". On the other hand, Prof. Miller says: "I think that we haven't learned the right trick. When we find the answer we will see that it is so simple we'll say -- how come we didn't think of that before ..?"

It is interesting to note that in 1953 the entire world thought that Miller (who was at the time a brilliant student) had succeeded in deciphering the secret of life when, in a fascinating experiment in which a closed glass structure duplicated the atmosphere around the Earth, he introduced methane, ammonia and hydrogen gases along with several liters of water in imitation of the world's oceans, and sent an electric charge into the structure. He succeeded in producing nucleic acid which is the basis of every living cell. All this took place several months before Krick and Watson discovered DNA. Today it is clear that both nucleic acid and the proteins which exist in DNA are needed simultaneously in order to create a living cell which can reproduce itself. It is therefore unclear how DNA was created from a smaller unit which does not contain nucleic acid and protein simultaneously. This question is generally called "the paradox of life". The question of the passage from organic chemistry to molecular biology of the living cell is the question of the century. Are the laws of biology, which describe a collection of self-duplicating and reproductive molecules such as exist in DNA, applicable in smaller ranges? Since no satisfactory solution has been found many have given up the search and tend to believe that the first life forms and biochemistry landed on the Earth from outer space by means of meteors which collided with Earth. Even if this explanation is correct it does not solve the riddle of how biochemistry was created on those meteors. Other investigations have attempted to find biochemistry on the face of the frozen planet Mars, in analogy to frozen Antarctica on the Earth, where prehistoric frozen microbes were found.

While these lines were being written, scientists of the American space agency (NASA) made a dramatic announcement concerning the possible discovery of fossilized, microscopic, one-celled organisms inside prehistoric meteoric rock which was torn off from Mars (as a result of a tremendous collision with a bloc of asteroid rock which struck it) and eventually reached the earth. Even if it becomes clear that this is an accurate discovery, it remains unclear whether those prehistoric organisms reached Mars from the earth or vice versa. In any case this discovery does nor answer the question of the source of life.

Advanced research has recently arrived at the conclusion that despite the fact that primeval chemistry was created in water, biochemistry and primeval biology which are composed of long molecules could only have been created on some flat surface (since only short molecular chains could have been created in the water). Recent statement by researchers have shown that the critical stage of the beginning of life occurred in muddy puddles, probably at the shores of the oceans which covered the Earth after the temperature of the universe dropped and it became solid. This scientific fact fits in well with what the Torah tells us that life began in the earth: "And out of the earth the Lord, G-d, created every beast of the field and every bird in the sky..." (Genesis 2,19). We further read: "And the Lord, G-d, formed man from the dust of the earth and breathed the breath of life into his nostrils" (in Genesis 2,7).

The question, whether life was created by chemical-biological process with which we are familiar today on scales larger than DNA, remains unanswered. The fact that Professor Ferris edits a periodical called "The Source of Life and the Evolution of the Biosphere", is in itself an indication of how problematic the subject is. When something is understood there is no need to devote a periodical to its study with an exceptionally large number of articles each year. That is why no periodical is devoted to Newton's theory of gravity or to Einstein's doctrine of relativity. These are understood and accepted.

After all is said and done the ultimate question is: what is the boldest scientific vision? The most far-reaching answer is that the physicists will succeed in proving the laws of physics to the point of the beginning of the universe (the Big Bang) and the biochemists will succeed in proving that biology was created out of chemistry (which developed from physics) and successfully create a living cell in laboratory conditions. If these things happen, we will have reached "The Great Day" of science, which will have succeeded in uniting physics, chemistry and biology into one scientific discipline. In that case science will have attained a rare achievement -- the explanation of both the physical and living universe from a unit of information no larger than a geometric point.

Since this eventuality is unlikely, I suggest we pay heed to the advice of one of the greatest philosophers of science (who died about a month ago) Thomas Kuhn, who proposed to teach Bible in the biology departments of universities. In any case, the scientific reality remains. The transition from the creation of the world -- the Big Bang -- to the creation of the elementary particles is outside the boundaries of experimental physics. The transition from chemistry to biology of the living cell is also shrouded in mystery. The message of the Genesis narrative, then, is that independently from the question of what is the beginning of the universe or the scientific definition of the beginning of life, G-d is the "Reshit Chochmah -- the Beginning of Wisdom". He created them both. Not in vain did our Rabbis begin the prayerbook with the verse which is directed toward man seeking the beginning of wisdom: "Reshit Chochmah Yirat Hashem", namely "the beginning of wisdom is the fear of G-d" (Psalms 111,10). A Jew must never make the acceptance of this principle conditional upon the understanding of the other primeval issues.

Professor Moshe Kaveh President, Bar-Ilan University