A Tradition That Embraces Looking to the Heavens

By Yitzchok Adlerstein

Published January 23, 2004, issue of January 23, 2004.
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In the 18th century the great talmudist Rabbi Yonatan Eybeschutz penned a commentary to Genesis arguing that the Tower of Babel was not really a tower at all. Rather, he wrote, it was a chamber in which the burning of fuel would propel the edifice toward the heavens.

We need not worry, however, that President Bush’s recently announced space initiative will prompt a divine hand to come down from heaven and scatter Cape Canaveral all over Florida. Indeed, for those who desire to explore the mysteries of our universe, the Jewish tradition provides encouragement.

Many have questioned whether space exploration is a good use of man’s energies and resources. Why spend billions exploring the solar system when we face so many real problems here at home? The spirit of intellectual conquest for its own sake, however, resonates deeply in Jewish thought.

In the last decade of the 16th century, Rabbi Judah Loew of Prague argued that human intellect, because it is married to the image of God, “transcends” nature: It is only properly utilized when it flexes its muscles and unlocks all the secrets that can be known. In other words, it is inherent in our very humanity that, within the realm of the permissible, “we can do” morphs into “we must do.” It is this spirit that drives us to explore our solar system.

No doubt there are also those who fear that, in our exploration of space, we may make discoveries that will shake our cherished assumptions about the uniqueness of life on Earth. Jewish history, however, teaches us that such fears are misplaced.

While the church agonized over the emerging heresy of heliocentricity, the Jewish world adjusted to the notion that the Earth orbited the sun with minimal discomfort. Jewish attitudes toward scientific investigation made all the difference. Moses Maimonides taught that the tried and true way to nurture love of God, and not just obedience, was to sample His wisdom. We would find it, he said, by studying His Torah as well as the natural sciences.

Jews had supreme confidence that science would find nothing — indeed could find nothing — that would shake their most important beliefs. Maimonides argued in his “Guide to the Perplexed” that if the eternity of the universe could be logically demonstrated to him, he would have no problem reading Genesis in that light. Essentially, he posited that if rational inquiry yielded new unassailable conclusions, we would learn to live with them, incorporate them into our worldview and retool our reading of sacred texts. The essential lessons of those texts would always emerge unscathed. We were — and are — well equipped to deal with whatever we will find.

But won’t dramatic thrusts into space change the way we look at ourselves, providing us with even more reasons to be drunk with our own greatness?

Not if we remember how it all happened. Isaac Newton observed that the paths of falling objects followed certain gravitational laws. He then realized that these also described the moon’s orbit around the Earth, which in turn could be described in some simple and elegant mathematical shorthand. The accuracy of that equation allows us to travel to Mars. But just why is it that the laws of nature can be so easily and compactly stated? Why are they so knowable, so user-friendly? The Austrian mathematician Eugene Wigner put it this way: “The enormous usefulness of mathematics in the natural sciences is something bordering on the mysterious, and… there is no rational explanation for it.”

Wigner, as was common in his generation, hid his Jewishness. To believing Jews, however, the elegance of the laws that govern our universe is no mystery. Jewish tradition taught that God created the world to suit man, not man to suit the world. If the universe seems as if it was deliberately laced with hints and help, those steeped in Judaism were not going to be surprised. Understanding this will keep us humble.

Still others fear the opposite. Inching out from an insignificant planetary rock pile, tucked away in a corner of an unremarkable galaxy, we will become increasingly aware of how small we are. Will we cease seeing human beings as unique and special?

Rabbi Abraham Isaac Hacohen Kook was asked why our ancestors believed themselves to be the center of the universe. The answer is quite simple, he responded. Had ancient man realized how small he stood relative to the cosmos, his spirit would have been sucked out of him. He first needed to believe in his importance, to feel unique and central. His ego intact, he was then able to confront something vastly larger than the cosmos — the presence of God — without being crushed.

Competing creation stories saw man as a plaything and servant of the gods. In the Jewish version, it is God who attaches importance to each individual, assures him of the trust He puts in him, and informs him of the task He places before him. With God holding man’s hand, man would never have reason to doubt himself. The humbleness of his earthly abode relative to the grandeur of the galaxies would not matter. Man alone could choose to live morally, and that distinction would make him the center of the universe, no matter where his travels would take him.

In searching for the genesis of our solar system, we may rediscover Genesis and its lessons about man. It is the non-Jewish poet T.S. Eliot who perhaps put it best:

And the end of all our exploringWill be to arrive where we startedAnd know the place for the first time.

Rabbi Yitzchok Adlerstein holds the Sydney M. Irmas Chair in Jewish Law and Ethics at Loyola Law School and is the author of “Be’er Hagolah: The Classic Defense of Rabbinic Judaism Through the Profundity of the Aggadah” (Artscroll, 2000).

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