Friday, January 22, 2010

Is darkness a separate entity, or simply absence of light? Science vs. proofs from gemaras

Summary: Is a question of scientific metzius as to the nature of light and dark really up for discussion, on the basis of the implications of pesukim and or gemaras?! It would seem that it indeed is, in some quarters.

Post: I saw an interesting explanation on vayamesh choshech in Kol Eliyahu, from the Vilna Gaon, the other day. Rather than bothering to translate it precisely, I will rely on the translation / summary provided by Rabbi Pinchos Winston, crossing out some hedging and providing my own correction in red bold.

"There are some who say is to say that light is an independent creation, and that darkness is an independent creation, not like those who say that darkness is just an absence of light. In truth, it is not like this, but rather, darkness is in fact an independent creation that is pushed away by light, and that's the way The Holy One, Blessed is He, made nature. Therefore, here (in this plague), G-d changed nature, because it says, 'a darkness which can be felt,' which means that the darkness 'pushed' away the light, and not the light, the darkness (the root of the word 'vayamaish' is from 'and he [Yehoshua] didn't move (yamish) from his tent (Shemos 33:11)'."
(Kol Eliyahu, Bo 53)

In a lengthy footnote at the bottom of Kol Eliyahu, we have the following:

and Rabbi Winston's translation/summary. This skips over much of the detail, so read the Hebrew inside:

A sefer called HaK'sav v'HaKabbalah on Parashas Bereishis also quotes the Gra saying that darkness is in fact an independent creation. However, the Radak seems to hold that darkness is the result of an absence of light.The Talmud, which treats darkness as an "object," seems to provide support for the Gra's opinion:
... This is what it means to say: G-d called to the light and commanded it in the mitzvos of the day, and G-d called to the darkness and commanded it in the mitzvos of the night ... (Pesachim 2a)
As well, the Talmud states that:
... We must mention the "trait" of night during the day blessings, and the "trait" of day during the evening blessings, to counter the heretics who claim that He who made the day did not also make the night. (Brochos 11b)
If darkness is only the absence of light, then how could the heretics think such a thing? We would only be dealing with one creation, the creation of light, and the lack of its presence. (Nevertheless, the Bach on theTur considers darkness to only be an absence of light, though there are so many proofs to support the Gra.)
I would note that Radak on Yeshaya is not necessarily presented as arguing that darkness is absence of light, but rather that the earth, by blocking sunlight, makes it such that there is darkness there. (But if we say like Gra that light pushes away darkness, we might still say this; the point is there is no proof of creation of a separate entity from that pasuk.)

In terms of the Bach, it is in a discussion of the correct nusach of Asher Yatzar. In Orach Chaim, siman 6, the Tur has the nusach of chalulim chalulim, rather than chalalim which would refer to empty spaces. The Bet Yosef explains that, since we say ברא in the blessing, and one cannot create empty space, but rather the matter surrounding the empty space, one cannot say chalalim. See this statement, to the right.

Bach argues with this. He points to that pasuk in Yeshaya about creating darkness, and states that darkness is just the withholding of light -- yet one can call such withholding "creation". So too, a gap can be called a creation, though it is the withholding of matter.

The footnote ends with a tzarich iyun. And Rabbi Winston also ends this subportion of it with the statement that "Nevertheless, the Bach on theTur considers darkness to only be an absence of light, though there are so many proofs to support the Gra", implying that there is something wrong with that.

This is mystifying. Perhaps the Gra, in his time and environment, could take issue with the assertion that darkness is simply absence of light, and instead assert that there is some entity called darkness which is pushed away. But nowadays, it seems fairly clear that light is a particular form of electromagnetic radiation which happens to be visible to the human eye, and darkness is absence of that light. I would guess that there would be some sort of scientific experiments one could design to prove one over the other. But Talmudic statements as "proof" of something decidable by modern science seem strange to say the least. And the "so many proofs" by the Gra on the basis of interpretations of pesukim or gemaras should not stand up, to make a counter-assertion difficult. It is almost like bringing the Gra's proof that the world is flat from a pasuk in Iyov (see here and here and here), and referring to the difficulty of those who would argue and assert that the world is round!

I wonder if presenting this position of the Gra as straightforward is unique to kiruv organizations. I see this dvar Torah from Rabbi Winston from Neve's web page. And I see a similar presentation from Rabbi Sinclair on Ohr Sameach's webpage:
The Torah describes the plague of darkness thus: "And there was darkness on the land of Egypt and the darkness removed the light." When the Torah tells us the "the darkness removed the light" it means that darkness is not the absence of light, it means that darkness is a creation just as much as light is a creation. In the normal course of events, G-d allows light to push away the darkness. In the ninth plague, He chose to reverse nature's polarity and it was the darkness that removed the light.
I would note that this position of the Bach is not just his. It is also put forth by Rishonim. We have seen Radak, above (and follow the link). We also have the Rambam, in Moreh Nevuchim, chelek 3, perek 10:

etc. He explicitly considers darkness to be absence of light. And other Rishonim maintain this as well. Thus, in a critique of Rabbi Slifkin, Rabbi Miller wrote:
The Gra’s words in Aderes Eliyahu are also noteworthy and are brought down in his name in the book Giviey Gvia Hakesef as follows; darkness is not an absence of light but rather a creation unto itself as it states “who forms light and creates darkness.” Darkness is the substance upon which light operates. In this area the scientists err, not taking into account what the Gra has written [with respect to choshech].
Emphasis mine. In response:
The Vilna Gaon’s view was that of Kalaam, and Rav Saadia Gaon argued against it in Emunos Ve-Dei’os 1:3. Ramban also states that darkness (in non-supernatural circumstances) is the absence of light (Bereishis 1:4 and Shemos 10:23), as does Rambam (Moreh Nevukhim 3:10), and the Ran (Derashos Ha-Ran 3, p. 40 in the Feldman edition). How the Vilna Gaon’s explanation “strengthens the hearts of  those who have been exposed to heretical doctrines which claim that our holy Torah is contradicted by the knowledge of scientists” is mystifying. Rabbi Miller has admitted that the Gra’s words are contradicted by the knowledge of science. They are also contradicted by Rav Saadia Gaon, Rambam, Ramban and Ran. Rabbi Miller does not give any evidence at all that would demonstrate that the Gra is correct and Rav Saadia Gaon, Rambam, Ramban, Ran and science are all wrong.
What should we do about the proofs from the various gemaras, then? Well, I would observe three things.

First, all these Rishonim argued on the Vilna Gaon's understanding of the nature of darkness. We saw how Radak, or his father, could take the proof from the pasuk and turn it around. The same is likely doable for any gemara brought as proof. Any source is interpretable, and one should not take an interpretation from one side as the ultimate proof. Indeed, Rambam was a strong proponent of rendering aggada as metaphorical. In terms of the gemara regarding Hashem calling to, and issuing commands to the light and darkness to serve during the day and night, can be taken metaphorically, or idiomatically. In terms of the gemara about the views of the heretics, who says that the heretics were right? Perhaps this is just to answer leshitatam. And there might be more at play here, once we understand the heresy (a dualist theology), perhaps we could understand this more metaphorically.

Second, even if these gemaras indeed do all say this, it is possible that Chazal were wrong in this scientific fact. Perhaps they relied on contemporary science. If so, modern science should trump incorrect ancient science. Of course, members of some religious Jewish groups would have difficulty with saying this. I would not.


Akiva said...

Science currently postulates the existence of dark matter and (I love this one) dark energy. For the current cosmological models to work, 95% of the matter and energy in the universe must consist of these as-yet-not-understood materials.

Assuming these postulates are true, dark energy would seem to fill the category of a separate creation of darkness.

It would seem the final scientific word on this is not written yet.

Wikipedia: Dark Matter

joshwaxman said...

indeed, my father suggested this same thing to me before i posted it. and it is a good candidate for a separate creation of darkness.

however, it would not fit into the Gra's words, nor into the Talmudic prooftexts, which are about regular darkness. and the Rambam et al are still surely correct about regular darkness and light...


Christopher Darren Horn said...

I've always thought it was like this:

Just my humble opinion. LOL. I like reading your blog.

Thank you.

Akiva said...

One other possibility that might fit is Zero Point Energy. It's a clearly measurable something (at the quantum physics level) that exists when there is nothing else around. (Measurable but not extractable or accessible.)

Wikipedia: Zero Point Energy

Christopher Darren Horn said...

Hello Akiva, I like your blog too, neat stuff there. Thanks for bringing that up. Tom Bearden at his website: has some interesting stuff on that as well. He points out the Nobel Prize awarded for the extraction process and he even has a patent out for just such a device, called the MEG (Motionless Electromagnetic Generator). You can view the patent from a link at his website or here:
it is a pdf file so you'll need Adobe to view it, but it's free if you or anyone didn't know it was.

Very cool stuff

zach said...

"Very cool stuff"? Me thinks not.

"The MEG has never been independently verified and there is no known working prototype."


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