PROFESSOR FINK VIDEO ON RELIGION & SCIENCE
SCIENCE VS. TORAH; CONFLICT OR ILLUSION?
Rabbi Yitzchak Etshalom
from Between the Lines of the Bible; Vol 1; Yashar Books
Much has been made of the apparent conflict between Science and Torah.
In clearer terms, since the world has embraced the methods of scientific reasoning and has been willing to challenge a fundamentalist reading of the Bible, these two versions of reality have been constantly thrown against each other. Is the world 6,000 years old - or several billion? Were there six days of creation - or many trillions? Did Man evolve from "lower species" or was he formed ex nihilo as the crown of creation?
Responses to this apparent problem have fallen into three groups:
GROUP 1: THE REJECTIONISTS
There are those who maintain that the Bible must be understood as being a literal account of creation, the flood etc. Besides the internal contradictions, this clearly pits the Biblical account against science. This leaves adherents to this perspective with two options - either accept the Biblical account in toto - and reject the findings of the scientific world - or else reject the Biblical account in toto.
Each of these "rejectionist" approaches is rarely confined to the issues in question - someone who believes that the Bible is trying to promote a specific version of creation - one which he rejects on account of science - will not be likely to accept the Biblical mandate in other areas of wisdom, ethics or personal obligations. Similarly, someone who rejects the scientific approach to creation, evolution etc. out of hand is not likely to "buy into" the scientific method in other areas.
The result of this first approach is the rejection of one or another of the disciplines as the bearer of truth.
Although some of our fellow traditionalists have opted for such an approach (to the extreme of maintaining that G-d placed fossils on the earth in order to test our belief in the age of the world!), most contemporary Orthodox thinkers are too committed to the scientific method as a valuable expression of "Creative Man" to reject it so totally.
GROUP 2: THE INTEGRATIONISTS
Of late, there has been a good deal of study and literature devoted to an attempted harmonization between the disciplines of Torah and science. Usually building on RAMBAN's commentary on Genesis, works such as "Genesis and the Big Bang" try to demonstrate that the latest findings of the scientific world are not only corroborated - they are even anticipated - by the Torah.
(A marvelous example of this is RAMBAN's comment on the phrase "Let us make Man in Our Image", troubling enough on theological grounds. RAMBAN explains that G-d is talking to the earth, creating a partnership whereby the earth would develop the body of Man and G-d would, upon completion of that process, fill that body with a Divine spirit. The notion of the earth "developing" the body is curiously close to the process outlined by Darwin - in the widest of strokes.)
The advantages of this approach over the first one are obvious - there is no need to reject either area of study and a person can live an intellectually honest life as a member of "modern society" without sacrificing religious creed.
The "downside" is not so clear. Besides some "forced" readings (in both disciplines - bending science to work with Torah is sometimes as tricky as "bending Torah" to achieve compatibility with science), this method actually "canonizes" the products of the scientific method; since the claim is that these theories are already found in the Torah, that makes them somewhat immutable. What happens when (not if, but when) a particular theory which we have "identified" in the Torah - becomes outdated in the world of science? Will we still hold on to it, claiming religious allegiance?
Although the integrationist school has won many adherents in the recent decades, I believe that the danger outlined above - along with resting on a very questionable foundation - makes this approach a shaky one at best.
GROUP 3: THE TELEOLOGISTS
Before asking any of these questions - about contradictions within the text or conflicts between our text and the world of scientific hypotheses - we have to begin with a most basic question - what is the purpose of the Torah?
[This question is not mine - it is the focus of the first comments of both Rashi and Ramban on the Torah. The assumption which drives each of their comments is that G-d's purpose in giving us His Torah is to teach us how to live (note especially Ramban's critique on Rashi's first question). Besides specific actions to perform or avoid (i.e. Mitzvot), this includes proper ethics, attitudes and perspectives - towards each other, our nation, the earth and, of course, towards the Almighty.]
Rabbi Sh'mu'el David Luzzato, (19th c. Italy) put it as follows:
“Intelligent people understand that the goal of the Torah is not to inform us about natural sciences; rather it was given in order to create a straight path for people in the way of righteousness and law, to sustain in their minds the belief in the Unity of G-d and His Providence.”
Therefore, our approach to issues of "science vs. Torah" is that it is basically a non-issue:
Science is concerned with discovering the "how" of the world; Torah is concerned with teaching us the "why" of G-d's world. In clearer terms, whereas the world of science is a discipline of discovery, answering the question "how did this come to be?"; the world of Torah is concerned with answering a different question - "granted this exists, how should I interact with it?" (whether the "it" in question is another person, the world at large, my nation etc.).
[Since the goal of the Torah is to teach us how we should live and proper beliefs about G-d and His relationship with the world (and the relationship we should endeavor to have with him), then it stands to reason that "multiple versions" of narratives are not "conflicting products of different schools" (as the Bible critics maintain); rather they are multi-faceted lessons about how we should live - different perspectives (and different lessons) of one event.]
the spritual dimension of Creation
historical description of the development of the physical world
begins with the absolute unity of G-D & describes the unfolding of patterns and diversity
takes our present experience of diversity ("kinds") & extrapolates backwards
G-D is the first cause
says nothing about the first cause in a chain of events
Creation begins in the spiritual realm and originates in the mind of G-D
Evolutionary Theory orginates from experience & the mind of man
describes the reason WHY; the Ultimate Purpose
describes the WHAT & HOW
The Torah's [Bible's] purpose has much less to do with How G-D created all things and much more to do with declaring Who created all things.
BOTH RELIGION AND SCIENCE ARE BASED ON BELIEFS
from: As a Driven Leaf
"For all truth rests ultimately on some act of faith, geometry on axioms, the sciences on the assumptions of the objective existence and orderliness of the world of nature. In every realm one must lay down postulates or he shall have nothing at all. So with morality and religion. Faith and reason are not antagonists. On the contrary, salvation is through the commingling of the two, the former to establish first premises, the latter to purify them of confusion and to draw the fullness of their implications. It is not certainty which one acquires so, only plausibility, but that is the best we can hope for."
BOTH A CREATIVE ORDERING "FORCE" AND ENTROPY (A DISORDERING FORCE) EXIST
Dr. Paul Davies; Professor of Theoretical Physics; University of Newcastle upon Tyne
The Cosmic Blueprint (p. 20):
There exists alongside the entropy arrow another arrow of time, equally fundamental and no less subtle in nature. Its origin lies shrouded in mystery, but its presence is undeniable. I refer to the fact that the Universe is progressing -- through the steady growth of structure, organization and complexity -- to more developed and elaborate states of matter and energy.
It is difficult to accept the explanation of some "literalists" amongst our rabbinic leaders who see the irrefuted facts of science as a test of man's faith: The Creator purposely placed dinosaur bones, and other fossil remains where we would find them to test our faith in the teachings of our Sages.
Did Hashem [G-D] make this last world in six days and rest on the seventh, or was it six millenia? Either assumption can be correct.
THE JEWISH CALENDAR YEAR IS DATED FROM THE TIME OF ADAM
(NOT THE BEGINING OF THE UNIVERSE)
Rabbi Dr. Moshe David Tendler
Professor of Microbiology; Yeshivah University
"The Theory of Evolution: Impact on Scientific Thought and Torah Beliefs";
Jewish Action; Fall 5754/1993; (54:1); p. 73
The Torah [Bible] is not a biology text nor even a book of history. It is an instructional book of morals and ethics for Jew and non-Jew.
...the notion of a common thread that interconnects the biotic world is both utilitarian and elegant. It does not violate any Torah beliefs. The Talmudic literature refers to prior worlds and earlier men before the present world that is dated [5700 years] from the birth of Adam Some of our great Torah sages accept this literally and see in it a concurrence with the scientific claim for a very ancient world.
If our Torah traditions were in full opposition to scientific claims, we would not hesitate to reject the relative truths of science in favor of the absolute truths of our Torah. But, if it is possible, through intensive study of both Torah and scientific texts, to avoid such confrontations, it is our duty to do so. There cannot be real conflict between Torah and Science, only apparent disagreement. and his wife, Eve.
THE DIVINE AND THE BEASTIAL IN EACH HUMAN BEING
The following is based upon the writings of Rabbi Shlomo Riskin; Chief Rabbi of Efrat, Israel:
“Let us create man in our image,” [Genesis 1:26]
This expression is distinctly different from what G-D says during the previous 5 days of Creation!
According to the “Nahmanides” (Rabbi Moshe ben Nachman Gerondi “RAMBAN”; 1194-1270), the Catalan Rabbi, Philosopher, Physician, Kabbalist & Biblical Commentator, the ‘our,’ refers to G-D “speaking” to the rest of the physical world of creation.
The human being shall be comprised of everything in Creation. His “lower self” subject to all the limitations of the physical and animal worlds: birth, development, decay, death, as well as requirements for nutrition, excretion, rest and sexual reproduction.
But at the same time, his “higher self” [soul] will be a veritable reflection of the Divine, containing a soul which is “a portion of G-D from on high”.
Hence every human being is engaged in a life-long battle over which aspect of himself will gain ascendancy, the Divine or the bestial, the positive force towards life and development or the negative force towards death and destruction.
And since our physical properties are also Divine creations, the greatest challenge facing us is how to energize every aspect of our beings, physical and spiritual together in service of G-D and humanity.
Modern science maintains that the planet is billions of years old.
This never posed a serious theological problem for me, since the Bible records that the sun and moon (the source for our 24-hour day) were created on the 4th day, which means that the Hebrew word "yom" (day) when used for the days of Creation could not possibly refer to a 24-hour period.
Indeed, the Midrash refers to the primordial days of creation as being G-D's Days, and notes that for G-D "1,000 years in your eyes are as the day of yesterday," as the Psalmist says [Psalms 90:2].
But if that's the case, why does the Bible say Creation took a week? Why not picture six or seven indeterminate epochs?
I believe the answer lies in the most vital commandment in the Bible, the central injunction:
"And you shall walk in His ways." [Deuteronomy 5:33 & 13:5]
We are to emulate G-d in our actions (Imitatio Dei).
Just as G-d was engaged in creative activity for six "days" and rested on the seventh, so must we be engaged in creative activity for six days and rest on the seventh.
In effect, our very first commandment is to be creative.
Now what does it mean that G-D rested from creation on the seventh day?
It means that G-D created an incomplete and imperfect world, a world with darkness as well as light, chaos as well as order, evil as well as good [Isaiah 45:7] - a world in which "G-D created for the human being to do," to complete.
Hence, G-D rested from Creation in order to leave room for human creativity.
But herein lies an inherent danger: If human beings have the freedom and power to create, it follows that we also have the freedom and ability to destroy.
Rabbi Shlomo Aviner on Human Evolution
Rabbi Shlomo Chaim haKohen Aviner is the Rosh haYeshivah of Ateret Cohanim Yeshivah in Jerusalem, and Rabbi of Bet El.
Did Man Evolve from Monkeys?
First of all, no one claims that man came directly from monkeys. Some say that man and monkeys have a shared ancestor, and this shared ancestor split into human beings and monkeys...
Regarding the essential question of whether Hashem (G-d) created man directly from the earth or whether Hashem created man in a slow process from the earth in stages, we do not know factually, since we were not there. It is possible to explain the verses of the Torah either way. When the Torah says that Hashem took earth to make man, it is possible to explain that he created man in an instant and it is possible to explain that He created man in a long, long process. After all, we have found skeletons of creatures which are intermediates between man and monkey. We have found them in many places. We have also found drawing on walls in France from thirty thousand years ago. It is possible that these creatures were not like man, but had some intellect and knew how to draw. The simple meaning of the Torah is that Hashem created man directly from the earth, but it is possible to explain the beginning verses of the Book of Bereshit not according to their simple meaning, but as deep secrets...
In sum: We are involved with Torah; we are not involved with science. We love science, we respect science and we respect scientists. There is even a blessing upon seeing a great scientist: Blessed is Hashem…who gave of His wisdom to flesh and blood (Shulchan Aruch, Orach Chaim 224:7). The Torah, however, is not a science book. Whether man was created directly from the ground or from a long process is not the subject of the Torah. Our subject is how man needs to act...
Does Science make belief in G-d obsolete?
“Of Course Not” says Kenneth R. Miller, Professor of Biology at Brown University and the author of Finding Darwin's God: A Scientist's Search for Common Ground between God and Evolution and of Only a Theory: Evolution and the Battle for America's Soul.
Science itself does not contradict the hypothesis of God. Rather, it gives us a window on a dynamic and creative universe that expands our appreciation of the Divine in ways that could not have been imagined in ages past.
As an outspoken defender of evolution, I am often challenged by those who assume that if science can demonstrate the natural origins of our species, which it surely has, then God should be abandoned. But the Deity they reject so easily is not the one I know. To be threatened by science, God would have to be nothing more than a placeholder for human ignorance. This is the God of the creationists, of the "intelligent design" movement, of those who seek their God in darkness. What we have not found and do not yet understand becomes their best—indeed their only—evidence for faith. As a Christian, I find the flow of this logic particularly depressing. Not only does it teach us to fear the acquisition of knowledge (which might at any time disprove belief), but it also suggests that God dwells only in the shadows of our understanding. I suggest that if God is real, we should be able to find him somewhere else—in the bright light of human knowledge, spiritual and scientific.
And what a light that is. Science places us in an extraordinary universe, a place where stars and even galaxies continue to be born, where matter itself comes alive, evolves, and rises to each new challenge of its richly changing environment. We live in a world literally bursting with creative evolutionary potential, and it is quite reasonable to ask why that is so. To a person of faith, the answer to that question is God.
The English poet Matthew Arnold, at the dawn of the modern era, once lamented that all he could hear of the "Sea of Faith" was its "melancholy, long, withdrawing roar." To some, that melancholy roar is a sound to be savored because faith is a delusion, an obstacle, a stumbling block on the road to progress and enlightenment. It is the antithesis of science.
In this view, God is an explanation for the weak, a way out for those who cannot face the terrible realities revealed by science. The courageous, the bold, the "brights" are those who face that reality and accept it without the comforting crutch of faith by declaring God to be obsolete.
But science itself employs a kind of faith, a faith all scientists share, whether they are religious in the conventional sense or not. Science is built upon a faith that the world is understandable, and that there is a logic to reality that the human mind can explore and comprehend. It also holds, as an article of scientific faith, that such exploration is worth the trouble, because knowledge is always to be preferred to ignorance.
The categorical mistake of the atheist is to assume that God is natural, and therefore within the realm of science to investigate and test. By making God an ordinary part of the natural world, and failing to find Him there, they conclude that He does not exist. But God is not and cannot be part of nature. God is the reason for nature, the explanation of why things are. He is the answer to existence, not part of existence itself.
There is great naiveté in the assumption that our presence in the universe is self-explanatory, and does not require an answer. Many who reject God imply that reasons for the existence of an orderly natural world are not to be sought. The laws of nature exist simply because they are, or because we find ourselves in one of countless "multiverses" in which ours happens to be hospitable to life. No need to ask why this should be so, or inquire as to the mechanism that generates so many worlds. The curiosity of the theist who embraces science is greater, not less, because he seeks an explanation that is deeper than science can provide, an explanation that includes science, but then seeks the ultimate reason why the logic of science should work so well. The hypothesis of God comes not from a rejection of science, but from a penetrating curiosity that asks why science is even possible, and why the laws of nature exist for us to discover.
It is true, of course, that organized religions do not point to a single, coherent view of the nature of God. But to reject God because of the admitted self-contradictions and logical failings of organized religion would be like rejecting physics because of the inherent contradictions of quantum theory and general relativity. Science, all of science, is necessarily incomplete—this is, in fact, the reason why so many of us find science to be such an invigorating and fulfilling calling. Why, then, should we be surprised that religion is incomplete and contradictory as well? We do not abandon science because our human efforts to approach the great truths of nature are occasionally hampered by error, greed, dishonesty, and even fraud. Why then should we declare faith a "delusion" because belief in God is subject to exactly the same failings?
Albert Einstein once wrote that "the eternal mystery of the world is its comprehensibility." Today, even as science moves ahead, that mystery remains. Is there a genuine place for faith in the world of science? Indeed there is. Far from standing in conflict with it, the hypothesis of God validates not only our faith in science, but our sheer delight at the gifts of knowledge, love, and life.
Does Science make belief in G-d obsolete?
“No, Not at All” says Jerome Groopman, Recanati Professor of Medicine at Harvard and author of How Doctors Think.
As a physician and researcher, I employ science to decipher human biology and treat disease. As a person of faith, I look to my religious tradition for the touchstones of a moral life. Neither science nor faith need contradict the other; in fact, if one appreciates the essence of each, they can enrich each other in a person's life.
So, the question of obsolescence is miscast, because science and faith should exist in separate realms. Science uses logic and experimental methods to measure and describe the material world. It yields knowledge about the workings of molecules and machines, mitosis and momentum. Science has no moral valence. It is neutral. DNA technology can craft a cure for a cancer or produce a weapon of bioterrorism. It is only a person's application of science that takes on a moral dimension.
In that light, an atheist creates his or her own moral precepts in the absence of God. A believer looks to religious texts for guidance in what is right and what is wrong. Right and wrong, for both, do not come from physics or chemistry or biology. Science does not instruct how to treat one's neighbor as oneself, how to clothe the naked and feed the hungry, why it is wrong to murder, steal, bear false witness, honor one's father and mother, and perhaps most difficult of all, subsume envy and covetousness. There are no Ten Commandments in thermodynamics or molecular biology, no path to righteousness and charity and love in Euclidean geometry or atomic physics. The truths of mathematics, biology, chemistry, and physics are different from the truths we seek in human behavior and human choices. The truths of science can be measured and experimentally verified; the truths of a moral life are matters of belief—whether you are an atheist or a religious person. Religion should view science as a way to improve the world; science should see religion not as a threat but as a deeply felt path taken by some.
So why are we bombarded with polemics from extremists on both sides of this issue? Why is the question of obsolescence asked about God, who is not material and therefore doesn't "age"?
The clash comes from the two extremes. Fundamentalist religious believers in the United States want to change the Constitution so that it includes injunctions about sex and prayer from the Bible. In the Middle East and in parts of Asia, their counterparts, the Wahhabis, press for sharia, Islamic law, to prevail over a liberal society. Atheists have their own fundamentalists who characterize people of faith as naïve, infantile, and neurotic in their rituals, too irrational to live by the light of pure logic. The polemics of believers show an ignorance of science, what it offers to improve life, and the polemics of fundamentalist atheists ignore the wisdom found in religious texts. Both seem threatened by diversity and wish to erase any doubt under a blanket of blind belief.
There is another way, a "third way" of articulating the benefits of science and faith. On this middle ground, a person can hold two different sensibilities, two different types of thought, feeling, and action. Yes, there are times when a scientist like myself who believes in God is filled with doubt. But that should be expected. As the esteemed Protestant theologian Paul Tillich once observed, the basis of true faith is such doubt. Similarly, atheists should sometimes doubt their negation of God, because it is not a matter of proof but of subjective belief on their part.
In my own tradition, the rabbi, philosopher, and physician Maimonides, also known as the Rambam, embodied an apparent cognitive dissonance. He was a scholar of the Bible and Talmud while, at the same time, a scholar of scientific medical practice. He was a person of faith who rejected magic and sorcery as nonsense. He viewed the natural world as governed by laws familiar to us through physics and chemistry. But he also contended that each of us makes a personal decision about whether or not to believe in God. There is no need for mental gymnastics to generate a proof of God's existence; it is a futile exercise. God is axiomatic or not. Faith is not deduced but felt. Religion, at its best, becomes a vehicle to arrive at the good—the good for oneself, the good for others and for the world.
Tolerance is actually a tenet of my tradition. The Hebrew Bible asserts more than thirty times that we should respect the stranger and treat him with dignity, because we were strangers in the land of Egypt. The stranger represents "the Other"—what is foreign and different and at times threatening to our beliefs. There is no need to conquer or erase differences in culture or perspective. The same tolerance should be found among atheists. They should not belittle or ridicule as fools those who struggle to find meaning in life, to confront mystery, based on a belief in the Divine. Science does not threaten faith, and faith need not reject science. Neither will ever be obsolete.
There is No Inherent Conflict Between Macroevolution & the Torah [Bible]
by Rabbi Shlomo Brody (Yeshivat Hakotel ); J. Post; Oct. 30, 2008
I have spoken about the compatibility of Judaism and the theory of evolution in many forums, and am constantly amazed by the widespread fear and ignorance of this issue. Among many others, I've met haredi rabbinic students who never heard of fossils, Evangelical Christians at Ivy League universities searching for help from others and modern Orthodox Jews seeking but incapable of showing the compatibility of science with Torah.
Within the Orthodox world, some figures, usually haredi, believe that Genesis's first chapter refutes any notions of macroevolution. The late Lubavitcher rebbe, Rabbi Menachem Schneersohn, wrote in the 1960s that these "far-fetched" scientific claims stem from a hubristic desire to provide natural explanations for supernatural phenomena. He further maintained that G-d might have created fossils that appear ancient but in actuality are less than 6,000 years old.
More recently, Rabbi Moshe Sternbuch, contemporary leader of Jerusalem's Eda Haredit, denounced attempts by religious scientists to affirm evolution and accused these figures of adopting heretical ideas to please non-Jewish colleagues. As such, some haredim excise pictures of dinosaurs from their textbooks and homes, refusing to acknowledge their existence.
Yet as Rabbi Natan Slikfin (zootorah.com) has painstakingly documented (despite vitriolic attacks against him), many leading Orthodox figures have affirmed the compatibility of Torah and evolution, including Rabbi Samson R. Hirsch, Rabbi Abraham I. Kook and Rabbi Joseph Soloveitchik. While various arguments, some more developed than others, were taken by different figures, 2 major schools of thought have emerged to show the compatibility of Torah and evolution.
One school contends that the alleged conflict is fundamentally flawed since the Torah's account of creation includes non-literal and allegorical elements. They cite, for example, Rashi's (11th century, France) assertion that the Torah did not record the sequence of events in the world's creation, since water is present on day one even though it only gets created on day two. [Braishith 1:1] Others similarly note that vegetation, which requires sunlight to grow, gets created on day three, while G-d only creates the sun on day four.
A larger problem for a literal, historical reading of the story stems from the Torah's alternative depiction of creation in Chapter 2 of Genesis - which was the real event? Instead of providing a scientific history, the Torah was teaching theological beliefs about G-d's dominance over the world and humanity's role within it.
A precedent for this approach comes from Maimonides, who confronted a similar issue with regard to the ancient debate over whether the world was eternal, as Aristotle claimed, or created, as many theologians advocated. While Maimonides affirmed the latter position, he stated that if advocates of the former position could logically prove their claim, he would have no problem reinterpreting the biblical text accordingly, since the "gates of interpretation remain open" (Guide, II:25). He, as well as Hasdai Crescas (14th century, Spain), further asserted that the creation chapters must be interpreted allegorically.
A different school resolves this question by highlighting different sources that indicate, explicitly or implicitly, macroevolution and the antiquity of the universe necessary for macroevolution to take place. An early midrash, for example, states that many worlds, spanning eons of time, were created and destroyed before the Genesis narrative began (Bereishit Raba 3:7). Following this idea, medieval kabbalists espoused the "doctrine of sabbatical years" which asserted that many worlds existed before ours and new ones will be created. As Prof. Raphael Shuchat has documented, some post-Darwin rabbis went so far (and perhaps too far) as to assert that these pre-Darwin sources not only show the compatibility of the nascent theory of evolution with Torah, but even prove the superior wisdom of our tradition.
Unfortunately, a combination of religious ignorance and anti-religious polemics by secularist scientists has led some to deny this nearly universal scientific theory and perilously ignore classic sources.
Rabbi Ovadia Seforno (16th century, Italy), for example, asserts that the "Adam" created in Braishith 1:26 refers to a general species which was only later blessed with the divine image to create the first individual human called Adam [Braishith 2:7]. When Rabbi Gedalia Nadel, a Bnei Brak haredi rabbi, used this source to argue for evolution's compatibility with Torah, his posthumously published lectures were banned and removed from stores.
To my mind, modern Orthodox Jews, like me, have wisely not supported the "intelligent design" movement. We believe that Torah represents both true doctrines and a passion for truth, and see no reason, as believers, to attack universally-held scientific theories that do not contradict traditional interpretations of the Torah. We have no need for bans and no desire to guise our theology in pseudo-scientific theories, and will continue to use the full range of traditional sources to understand G-d's Torah and His universe.
The writer, editor of TraditionOnline.org, teaches at Yeshivat Hakotel and is pursuing a doctorate in Jewish philosophy at the Hebrew University.
EMULATING G-D'S GOODNESS RATHER THAN G-D'S POWER
[Noach; The Tower of Babel; 2007]
Sir Jonathan Sacks, Phd; Chief Rabbi of the British Commonwealth
[underlining for emphasis was done by professor fink]
Set between the pre-history of humanity as a whole and the particular covenant with Abraham, the story of the Tower of Babel is one of the turning points of the biblical narrative, central to its vision of what can go wrong in civilizations and societies.
The story itself - told in a mere 9 verses - is a compact masterpiece of literary and philosophical virtuosity. The first thing to note is that its historical background is exceptionally precise. The tower or ziggurat was the great symbol of the ancient Mesopotamian city states of the lower Tigris-Euphrates valley, the cradle of civilization. It was here that human beings first settled, established agriculture, and built cities. As the Torah makes clear with unusual attention to what seems like a peripheral fact, one of the great discoveries of Mesopotamia (along with the wheel, the arch and the calendar) was the ability to manufacture building materials, especially bricks made by pouring clay into moulds, drying it in the sun, and eventually firing it in kilns. This made possible the construction of buildings on a larger scale and reaching greater heights than hitherto. From this came the ziggurat, a stepped building of many stories, which came to have a profound religious significance.
Essentially these towers - of which the remains of at least 30 have been discovered - were man-made "holy mountains," the mountain being the place where heaven and earth most visibly met. Inscriptions on several of these buildings, decoded by archeologists, refer, as does the Torah, to the idea that their top "reaches heaven." The largest - the great ziggurat of Babylon [the Tower of Babel] reached 7 stories, 300 feet high, on a base of roughly the same dimensions (further details can be found in Nahum Sarna; Understanding Genesis).
Not only is the story of Babel historically precise. It is also shot through with literary devices: inversions, word plays, ironies and puns. One of the most masterly is that the 2 key words, l-v-n, "brick," and n-v-l, "confuse," are precise inversions of one another. As so often in the Torah, literary technique is closely related to the moral or spiritual message the Torah wishes to convey. In this case it is the phenomenon of inversion itself. The results of human behaviour are often the opposite of what was intended. The builders wanted to concentrate humanity in one place ("Let us build a city . . . and not be scattered over the face of the whole earth"). The result was that they were dispersed ("from there the L-rd scattered them over the face of the whole earth").
They wanted to "make a name" for themselves, and they did, but the name they made - Babel - became an eternal symbol of confusion.
Their pride lay in their newfound technological ability to construct buildings of unprecedented grandeur. They did not realise (the message signaled in the opening verses of the Torah) that the greatest creative power is language ("And G-d said . . . and there was"). It was not a technical problem that caused them to abandon the project but the loss of the ability to communicate. What is holy for the Torah is not power but the use to which we put it, and this is intrinsically linked to language - the medium in which we frame our ideals, construct imaginative possibilities, and call others to join us in realising them. The word is prior to the work.
What, though, was the builder's sin? The narrative signals this, again, by a series of verbal cues. The first is the phrase with which the episode both begins and ends, kol ha-aretz, "the whole earth." It begins, "And the whole earth was of one language," and ends, "from there the L-rd scattered them over the face of the whole earth." (The phrase kol ha-aretz appears 5 times in the 9 verses: all 3-, 5- and especially 7-fold repetitions in a biblical passage signal the presence of a key theme). A framing device of this kind is highly significant.
The second is the phoneme (a basic unit of sound) sh-m, either as sham, "there," or shem, "name." This appears 7 times in the passage. It is clearly linked to the word shamayim, "heaven" - the place the builders attempted to reach in building the tower. The thematic elements of the narrative are thus clear. This is a story about heaven and earth - but in what way? To understand the point at issue we must return to the opening chapter of Bereishith and its description of creation.
Two words in that account are decisive. The first is tov, "good," which appears 7 times. G-d says, "Let there be," there is, and G-d sees "that it is good." Creation in Bereishith (Genesis) 1 is not primarily about the power of G-d but about the goodness of G-d and the universe He made. In historical context, this is an extraordinary statement.
For the most part, the ancients saw the world as a dangerous and threatening place, full of dangers, disasters, famines and floods. There was no overarching meaning to any of this. It was the result of clashing powers, personified as conflicts between the gods. Religion was either an attempt to assert human power over the elements through magic and myth, or a mystical escape from the world into a private nirvana of the soul.
Against this, Judaism made the astonishing assertion that the world is good. It is intelligible. It is the result not of blind collisions and random mutations but of a single creative will. This alone is enough to set Judaism apart as the most hopeful of the world's faiths.
There is however another key word, the root b-d-l, "to separate, distinguish, divide." This appears 5 times in Bereishith 1. The goodness of the universe is itself a matter of order, boundaries and distinctions. G-d separates the different domains (day 1, light and dark; day 2, upper and lower waters; day 3, land and sea) and fills each with its appropriate objects or life-forms (day 4, sun and moon; day 5, birds and fish; day 6, land animals and mankind). So important was this idea to Judaism that we have a special ceremony, havdalah, to mark the end of Shabbat and the beginning of each cycle of "the 6 days of creation." Like G-d, we begin creation by havdalah: making, noting and consecrating distinctions.
This too is fundamental to the Judaic world view. Goodness is order; evil is disorder, an act or person or entity in the wrong place. The word chet, sin, comes from a verb meaning "to miss the target." The word averah, like its English equivalent "transgression," means to stray across a border, to enter forbidden territory. Many of the chukkim or "statutes" of Judaism are about inculcating respect for the inherent orderliness of the universe - and thus not mixing milk (life) and meat (death), wool (an animal product) and linen (a vegetable product) or sowing a field with "mixed kinds" of seed.
Creation itself is seen as the slow emergence of order from chaos. This, as the physicist Gerald Schroeder points out (in Genesis and the Big Bang) is implicit in the Hebrew words erev and boker, "And it was evening (erev) and it was morning (boker)." Erev in Hebrew means an undifferentiated mixture of elements. Boker comes from a root meaning "to reflect, contemplate, seek clarity." Much recent work in physics, biology and cosmology has converged on the discovery that the birth of stars, planets and life itself is a matter of the slow emergence of ever more complex systems of order swimming, as it were, against the tide of entropy.
An ordered universe is a peaceable universe in which every form of being, inanimate, animate and human, has its proper place. Violence, injustice and conflict are forms of disorder - a failure to respect the integrity of each life-form or (in the case of humanity, where "every life is like a universe") each person. That was the state of the universe before the Flood, when "all flesh had corrupted its way on earth."
This was not an abstract idea. The world of myth, against which Judaism is a sustained protest, was one in which boundaries were not observed. There were human beings who were like gods and gods who were like human beings. There were strange mythological hybrids - like the sphinx, half human, half animal. Religious ecstasy was often accompanied by a ceremonial breaking of boundaries in various ways. To the Judaic mind this is paganism, and it is never morally neutral. G-d creates order; man creates chaos; and the result is inevitably destructive.
The most fundamental boundary is stated in the Torah's first sentence - that between "heaven" and "earth." Never before or since (except among religions or cultures influenced by Judaism) has G-d been conceived in so radically transcendent a way. G-d is not to be identified with anything on earth. "The heavens are the heavens of the Lord," says the Psalmist, "but the earth He has given to man." This ontological divide is fundamental. G-d is G-d; humanity is humanity. There can be no blurring of the boundaries.
That was the sin of the builders of the tower. Their aspiration (to "reach heaven") was laughable, and indeed the Torah makes a joke of it. They think that their construction – 300 feet high - has reached heaven, whereas G-d has to "come down" to look at it (in general, the one thing that makes G-d laugh in the Torah is the pretensions of human beings when they think of themselves as like the gods).
However it was worse than laughable. The Netziv (R. Naftali Zvi Yehudah Berlin, 1817-1893), writing in Czarist Russia and prophetically foreseeing the worst excesses of communism, sees Babel as the world's first totalitarianism, in which to preserve the masses as a single entity, all freedom of expression is suppressed (that, for him, is the meaning of "the whole world had one language and a unified speech"). Intoxicated by their technological prowess, the builders of Babel believe they had become like gods and could now construct their own cosmopolis, their man-made miniature universe. Not content with earth, they wanted to build an abode in heaven. It is a mistake many civilizations have made, and the result is catastrophe.
In modern times, the re-enactment of Babel is most clearly associated with the name of Nietzsche (1844-1890). For the last ten years of his life, he was clinically insane, but shortly before his final breakdown he had a nightmare vision which has become justly famous:
Have you not heard of that madman who lit a lantern in the bright morning hours, ran to the market place, and cried incessantly, "I seek G-d! I seek G-d!" . . . "Whither is G-d? he cried. "I shall tell you. We have killed him - you and I. All of us are his murderers . . . G-d is dead. G-d remains dead. And we have killed him. How shall we, the murderers of all murderers, comfort ourselves? What was holiest and most powerful of all that the world has yet owned has bled to death under our knives. Who will wipe this blood off us? . . . Is not the greatness of this deed too great for us? Must we not ourselves become gods simply to seem worthy of it?"
As George Steiner pointed out (in his In Bluebeard's Castle) there was less than three-quarters of a century between Nietzsche and the Holocaust, between his vision of the murder of G-d and the deliberate, systematic attempt to murder the "people of G-d" (Hitler called conscience "a Jewish invention").
When human beings try to become more than human, they quickly become less than human. As Lord Acton pointed out, even the great city-state of Athens which produced Socrates, Plato and Aristotle, self-destructed when "the possession of unlimited power, which corrodes the conscience, hardens the heart, and confounds the understanding of monarchs, exercised its demoralising influence." What went wrong in Athens, he writes, was the belief that "there is no law superior to that of the State - the lawgiver is above the law."
Only when G-d is G-d can man be man. That means keeping heaven and earth distinct, organising the latter only under the conscious sovereignty of the former. Without this there is little to prevent human beings from sacrificing the many for the sake of the few, or the few for the sake of the many. Only a respect for the integrity of creation stops human beings destroying themselves.
Humility in the presence of Divine order is our last, best safeguard against mankind arrogating to itself power without restraint, might without right. Babel was the first civilization, but sadly not the last, to begin with a dream of utopia and end in a nightmare of hell. A world of tov, "good", is a world of havdalah, "boundaries and limits." Those who cross those boundaries and transgress these limits make a name for themselves, but the name they make is Babel, meaning chaos, confusion and the loss of that order which is a precondition of both: The world of nature (the world G-d creates) and the world of culture (the world we create).
I also recommend these web-sites:
Gerald Schroeder BSc, MSc,PhD all from MIT: http://www.geraldschroeder.com/
Prof. Paul Davies; recipient of the 1995 Templeton Prize: http://cosmos.asu.edu/
The John Templeton Foundation:
Intelligent Design: http://www.2001principle.net/
Creationism & Intelligent Design (critique):
AAS; Evolution on the Front Line:
Dr. Gerald Schroeder; Beyond Intelligent Design; The Scientific Case for a Creator:
Sir Jonathan Sacks, Phd; Chief Rabbi of the British Commonwealth: www.chiefrabbi.org
Essays on Jewish Law (Halachah): http://www.jlaw.com/Articles/
Halachic Organ Donor Society: http://www.hods.org/
Association of Orthodox Jewish Scientists: http://www.aojs.org/
B'Or Ha'Torah Journal of Science: