I'll start off by clarifying my personal position: I'm not Modern Orthodox. Having said that, I feel that any person who identifies himself as Modern Orthodox and is committed to proper observance of halachah with the intention to serve God the best he can is as Orthodox a Jew as the strictest Chareidim in Israel. Chazal tell us that God wants the heart, and that it matters not if one does a little or lot if he does it for the sake of Heaven. This goes for the laity and the clergy of the Modern Orthodox movement.
That's why I've been really bothered by news from the recent Eternal Jewish Family conference on universally recognized conversions. Many people have been aware of the ongoing controversy between the Chief Rabbinate in Israel (and by extension, their Chareidi handlers) and the Rabbinical Council of America regarding the legitimacy of Orthodox, but non-Chareidi, conversions.
I'm not an expert on geirus and would not think to comment on the legitmacy or illegitimacy of non-Chareidi conversions in North America. Much of it seems to revolve around the committment of the convert to live a fully Torah-observant life after the conversion instead of just doing it to avoid the nasty situation of intermarriage.
However, it seems from comments made in public at this conference, the divide between the Chareidi and non-Chareidi sides of the Torah observant world are greater than that. In this case, they revolved around the never-ending argument of how old the universe is.
Here's the problem in a nutshell: The Torah tells us that the world was created in six days and, using the dates in the Torah, this event happened precisely 5768 years ago last Rosh HaShanah. The problem with that is the overwhelming scientific evidence that proves the human civilization is more than 5768 years old, let along the planet and the universe.
The way to reconcile these contradictions has been another source of schism between the Chareidim and the Modern Orthodox. The Chareidi apporach has been to delegtimize and deny all science that disagrees with the concept of a 5768 year old universe. Science is dismissed in simpllistic terms and the evidence is given excuses so facile a child could see through them. And when challeneged, they toss out their ultimate weapon: the threat of heresy:
…In any event, my friend tells me that R[abbi] N[ochum] Eisenstein declared, FROM THE PODIUM IN FRONT OF THE ENTIRE [Eternal Jewish Family] CONFERENCE [in Washington, DC this week], in the name of R[abbi] Eliyashiv, that anyone who believes the world is older than 5000+ years is a kofer b'ikar, and is therefore unfit to serve as a dayan on a beis din, and that consequently any rabbi that holds such a view cannot perform conversions, not to mention that all of his conversions would be posul.
Similar such pronouncements were made about anyone who maintains that Chazal made any error in science or metzeius. Another "distinguished" speaker lamented that he saw a "supposed" dayan actually wearing some "brown" article of clothing and "smelled of cologne"; the EJF speaker commented something along the lines of, "can you imagine such a person serving as a dayan?"…
(excerpted from Failed Messiah)
The Modern Orthodox approach has been different. In some cases, there are those who say that the entire story of creation is an allegory not meant to be taken literally. There may be some merit to this. Certainly the Torah was not written to be a history or science text book. However, to dismiss the first eleven chapters of Bereshis is also not something to be done lightly.
There are others who combine the literal with the allegorical. We are told, for example, that Creation was done over six days, but that the sun, moon and stars were only created on the fourth day. If that is true (and a believing Jew must hold that it is) then how did the first day have evenings and mornings? What's more, in the very first verse of the Torah we are told that God created the Heavens and the Earth. Yet later on the Heavens (1:8) and the Earth (1:10) were created once again.
I do not accept all the theories about multiple authors for the Torah and some mysterious redactor putting different texts together to give us the Torah as we have it today. If there was a redactor, he was clearly an idiot for not doing any proofreading and letting such an obvious inconsistency to get through.
If, then, the Torah is one book written by one man after being dictated by one God, then if there are two Heavens and two Earths, each appearance of the word must mean something different. Might the first instance mean energy and matter? If a day isn't a 24 hour day but rather an era, could we say the universe and our world were created over billions of years that were defined over six eras by God in his Torah?
This should not be a shock to anyone. After all, the verb yada can mean to know or to be sexually intimate depending on the context. "An eye for an eye" is not taken literally by Chazal. What's more, we know that Rabbi Akiva held there were deep meanings in every single letter of Torah. If that's the case, where did this puritanical obsession with saying that creation took precisely 144 hours, not a second more or less?
Furthermore, the text itself may give us some clues as to the correctness of this supposition. After Kayin and Hevel are born, the Torah tells us: "And it came to pass at the end of days that Kayin brought of the fruit of the ground an offering unto the Lord." (4:3) Now, the phrase "end of days" usually follows the mention of a proceeding time period (compare 41:1). But where is that mention here? Not in the preceding verse. In fact, the last time "days" is mentioned is during the story of Creation.
Let us take this one step further. In the first chapter of Bereshis, the Torah tells us the overall story of Creation. At the beginning of the second chapter, it reeturns to the events of the sixth day to detail the creation of humankind but it never returns to the original subject, that is, what happened after Creation ended. The narrative simply continues on with Adam and Chavah being placed in Gan Eden, meeting the Nachash, being thrown out and the birth of Kayin and Hevel. Only here, at Bereishis 4:3 does the phrase "end of days" finally appear. Might this suggest that the events surrounding the killing of Hevel signalled the end of the sixth day?
There may be further support for this from Rashi who comments on Bereshis 1:31, on the words "And God aw all that He had made and behold, it was very good" that "very good" means death was created. Who was the first human being to die? One must say Hevel was.
If there is some element of possibility to this thesis, then how much time passed between the creation of Man and the death of Hevel? A day? A year? A thousand years? If, during Creation time had no meaning like it does today so that the Torah could describe a billion years as a day, how long were Adam and his family around before Kayin killed Hevel? Theoretically it could have been thousands of years.
In short, there is no contradiction between Torah and science. One must simply understand that the Torah must be interpreted in light of scientific fact and the text itself allows that to happen. I could go even further. Given the vast amount of hard evidence that science can present to prove its case for a very old universe, a puritanical insistence that the world is only 5768 years old creates the impression in non-religious Jewish society that Torah beliefs are archaic and irrelevant. After all, if Orthodox Jews believe the world is only 5768 years old, then how meaningful can the rest of our faith be? It is therefore imperative, if we wish to promote kavod haTorah, to see how the Torah itself can yield answers to science's challenges and remain relevant in our lives.
So once again I must ask: Why does the refusal to interpret the first chapter of the Torah with strict, unbending literalness make one a kofer b'ikkar?