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    I. Misleading Messages

    One of the approaches to respond to the biblical challenge of the age of the universe is the theory that the world was created fully grown, so to speak. Light was already traveling through space, animal remains had already been encased in the earth, trees already had rings implying age, etc. “All of Creation was created with full stature” (Chullin 60a). Jewish critics of this theory have argued, among other things, that this would mean that G-d created the world in a misleading way. Effectively, G-d is trying to fool us into believing false, perhaps even heretical, ideas. The critics claim that this implication disproves the theory, among other difficulties. I hesitate to assume what G-d will or will not do but I would like here to examine the views of some classical commentators on this subject.

    The Torah (Ex. 14:2) tells the Jews, fleeing from Egypt, to encamp at Pi Ha-Chiros, near Ba’al Tzefon. Ba’al Tzefon is an Egyptian idol. Shouldn’t it have been destroyed during the ten plagues? Rashi (ad loc.) explains that this one idol remained from all the Egyptians idol in order to mislead the Egyptians into thinking that this idol could withstand G-d’s attacks. This idea is supported by the midrashic reading of Job (12:23) that G-d causes the nations to err. It seems from this Rashi that G-d does, in fact, sometimes mislead people into accepting heretical beliefs.

    II. Why Does Idolatry Work?

    The Mishnah and subsequent Gemara (Avodah Zarah 54b-55a) contain a number of challenges to Judaism and rabbinic responses. One challenge is why we see that some people go to pagan healers and are healed from their diseases. R. Akiva answers that the diseases would have healed on their own. People mistake the normal course of a disease to imply that the pagan healers accomplished anything. (This same idea applies to many faith healers today.)

    Rava Bar Yitzchak told Rav Yehudah about idols who, during a time of drought, appeared in the dreams of local idolators and told them that if they sacrificed a man (some say a rooster) to the idol, the idol would bring rain. They did so and rain fell. How could that be? How could a horrible act of murder and idolatry bring an end to a terrible drought?

    Rav Yehudah answered with the verse “that the Lord your G-d has allotted (chalak) to all the nations” (Deut. 4:19). This teaches that G-d misled (hechelikan) the nations in order to lead them to self-destruction. The Gemara connects this to the saying that G-d opens the door for someone who wishes to do wrong and helps someone who wants to do good. Because the idolators wanted to worship idols, G-d provided them with dreams (supposedly) from the idols that misled them to believe their false gods could end the drought.

    III. Misleading or Allowing?

    According to a simple reading of this passage, G-d misleads pagans to believe their idols have power. This seems to be how Rav Shmuel Eidels (Maharsha, Chiddushei Aggados, ad loc., s.v. melamed) understands the passage. Rav Ya’akov Reischer (Iyun Ya’akov, ad loc.) similarly explains that the powers of witchcraft and demons are forms of G-d misleading pagans. Similarly, Rav Avraham Grodzinski (Toras Avraham, p. 232) says that we see from this passage that when someone wants to do bad, G-d actively intervenes by fooling him into doing bad.

    However, Rashi (ad loc., s.v. she-hechelikan) seems to say that G-d merely refrains from correcting the errors of idolators. I take this to mean that these pagans have strange dreams that they interpret in ways that uphold their idolatrous beliefs. The drought ends as scheduled but that coincides with their pagan sacrifice. G-d does not change the schedule but rather allows them to be misled.

    Rav Yehudah Loewe (Maharal, Chiddushei Aggados, ad loc., s.v. asher) rejects the approach that G-d actively misleads people. Rather, G-d refrains from disproving their mistaken beliefs and allows them to follow their desired path. People want to believe crazy things? That is their prerogative. G-d opens the door but does not push anyone through. Maharal explains the Rashi about Ba’al Tzefon as an exception rather the rule. This was part of the punishment of the Egyptians and not a universal behavior.

    According to Maharal, G-d does not mislead people. He might give them what they want (e.g. rain) and allow them to draw their own conclusions. He allows them to interpret the world according to their mistaken views, by refraining from disproving their false beliefs. According to Maharsha and others, G-d actively misleads people. He gives power to dark forces or implies that they have power in order to convince people to do wrong.

    Rav Ya’akov Kamenetsky (Emes Le-Ya’akov Al Ha-Torah, Ex. 6:9) explains that G-d allows these dark forces to exist in order to give people free will. If only true prophets performed miracles, people would be forced to believe in G-d. These dark forces level the playing field. Therefore, as prophets and similar powers for good diminished over time, the dark forces decreased correspondingly. This approach would fit in well with the Maharsha but not necessarily with the Maharal.

    IV. Fossils, Etc.

    How does this apply to the mature world theory? Is it possible within Jewish thought to suggest that G-d placed fossils in the ground (and other similar phenomena) in order to lead people to a false belief in an ancient universe? On the one hand, the case of idolators involves allowing or helping those who want to commit idolatry. Those who wish to do bad will be further pushed along. The evidence for an ancient universe is not reserved for people who wish to adopt a religiously improper belief. Someone could innocently come across this information and follow it to its natural conclusion. On the other hand, the power of demons and false prophets (if they do have power) might convince even someone who is not looking for trouble. That seems comparable to the case of evidence for an ancient universe.

    If our analysis is correct, then according to Maharsha and others, it is possible to say that G-d might have planted evidence in a false direction, perhaps to allow for free will in belief. According to Maharal, that theory would be unacceptable.