Monday, October 11, 2010

The Tower of Bavel as Launching Pad, showing the dangers of scientific inquiry

Over Shabbos, I saw an interesting parsha sheet in English, produced in Bnei Brak, where Haman's grandchildren are presently learning. I'll quote from the Hebrew, instead, because that is what they have online. It seems fairly anti-technology and anti-science. The message seems to be that religion is, after all, better, and pursuit of scientific knowledge will distract from what Hashem truly wants of us, which is introspection.

I would point out that in investigating the world around us, there are different questions that we can ask. One would be "why", and the other would be "how". How is explaining the mechanisms by which the world works. Within "why", there are two forms -- how existing mechanisms account for observed phenomena, and the Divine purpose behind all of this. For example, recently 11 sifrei Torah burned. A scientist could explain the mechanism by which fire works, and explain the temperature at which parchment burns. He could explain how the malfunction in the electric fan occurred, and perhaps what sort of steps they might have taken to ensure better fire safety precautions. I don't know that they should do this, but some Gedolim have offered explanations of why Hashem caused the fire to occur. Thus, Rav Wosner said it was their fault for not treating the beis haknesses with proper respect, and Rav Kanievksy said it was their fault for disrespecting the Chazon Ish, by switching from electricity provided by a generator to electricity provided by the electric company. (I'm not taking a position in this post as to whether proposing these explanations -- yefashfesh bemaaseihem -- is appropriate.) Indeed, scientists don't consider God's reasons for phenomenon -- the why -- on this level. I'm not really sure that the Gedolim should. But that they don't spend their time thinking about this unknowable does not make what they do investigate less valuable, IMHO.

Anyway, on to the devar Torah.

"הָבָה נִבְנֶה לָנוּ עִיר וּמִגְדָּל וְרֹאשׁוֹ בַשָּׁמַיִם" (יא-ד) יְצוּרִים מְעַנְיְנִים הֵם, הַמַּדְעָנִים. קְהִלִּיַּת הַמַּדָּע רָעֲשָׁה כְּשֶׁהִתְגַּלּוּ סִימָנִים שֶׁאוּלַי מוֹרִים עַל כָּךְ שֶׁיֵּשׁ צוּרָה כָּלְשֶׁהִי שֶׁל אוֹרְגַנִיזְם חַי עַל אֵיזֶה כּוֹכָב שֶׁהוּא. עַל מַה הָיָה הָרַעַשׁ?! הַבּוֹרֵא יִתְבָּרַךְ שֶׁבָּרָא זְבוּבִים בְּעוֹלָמֵנוּ, יִתָּכֵן שֶׁבָּרָא זְבוּבִים גַּם עַל אֵיזֶה כּוֹכָב מְרֻחָק... וּמִי שֶׁיּוֹדֵעַ מַדּוּעַ נִבְרָא אוֹתוֹ כּוֹכָב, יוֹדֵעַ גַּם מַדּוּעַ רָאוּי לְאַכְלְסוֹ בִּזְבוּבִים... הַאִם כְּבָר מִצִּינוּ אֶת כָּל חֲקִירַת נִפְלְאוֹת הַבְּרִיאָה שֶׁבְּכוֹכָבֵנוּ אָנוּ? הַאִם כְּבָר יוֹדְעִים אָנוּ מַדּוּעַ נִבְרְאוּ הַזְּבוּבִים כָּאן, בְּעוֹלָמֵנוּ?

I am not certain which star or planet they are referring to that has signs of live organisms. Maybe Gliese 581g, an exoplanet. I don't know that scientists are expecting "zevuvim" there, but maybe that was not the authors' intent. But the authors of this parsha sheet don't think that it makes sense for the scientific community to be excited about the possibility of life existing on other planets. After all, just as God created flies in our world, it is possible that he also created life on that distant planet. And one who would know why Hashem created that particular planet knows as well why He would populate it with flies. Have we really discovered all the wonders of our own planet? Do we already know why the flies were created here, on our own world?

An interesting perspective. Many scientists would not really be considering this question of teleology from the perspective of the Creator, because it is at odds with the evolution, in which there are random mutations which either persist or do not based on natural selection.

But scientists might be able to explain how certain conditions could spark the evolution of a fly. By seeing how life came about on another planet, they might be able to determine more about the mechanisms life came about on our own. And they might be able to better estimate the likelihood that we are not alone in the universe, such that other advanced species (rather than merely "flies") could exist. Besides which, it adds to the general knowledge of the universe, which is a good thing. Sometimes, knowledge of outer space, or development of technology for outer space exploration, has positive practical benefits here on earth. I don't expect chareidim to share the same world perspective as a astrophysicist. But that does not mean that the astrophysicist is misguided in finding this interesting and exciting. It is a shame that to make good mussar, one must knock another group of people.

אֶחָד הָיָה הָאָדָם שֶׁיָּדַע. עַל שְׁלֹמֹה הַמֶּלֶךְ, הֶחָכָם מִכָּל אָדָם, נֶאֱמַר: "וַתֵּרֶב חָכְמַת שְׁלֹמֹה... וַיֶּחְכַּם מִכָּל הָאָדָם... וַיְדַבֵּר עַל הָעֵצִים (תְּכוּנָתָם וְאִפְיוּנָם, מַטְּרָתָם וְיֵעוּדָם בַּבְּרִיאָה) מִן הָאֶרֶז אֲשֶׁר בַּלְּבָנוֹן וְעַד הָאֵזוֹב אֲשֶׁר יֹצֵא בַּקִּיר, וַיְדַבֵּר עַל הַבְּהֵמָה וְעַל הָעוֹף וְעַל הָרֶמֶשׂ וְעַל הַדָּגִים"
(מְלָכִים א ה י-יג). כָּל דָּבָר נִבְרָא לְצֹרֶךְ מְסֻיָּם בְּחָכְמָה כֹּה נִפְלָאָה, וְאָנוּ מִתְהַלְּכִים בָּעוֹלָם כְּבוּרִים וְסוּמִים, "אִישׁ בַּעַר לֹא יֵדַע".

Frankly, I wouldn't take this midrashim about Shlomo Hamelech literally. Yes, we read in Sefer Melachim that he was granted wisdom. On a peshat level I would say that his "speaking" about the natural world meant that his proverbs of pasuk 12 discussed all these things. For example,

יא  כְּכֶלֶב, שָׁב עַל-קֵאוֹ--    כְּסִיל, שׁוֹנֶה בְאִוַּלְתּוֹ.11 As a dog that returneth to his vomit, so is a fool that repeateth his folly.

Regardess, Shlomo Hamelech could know this, but we cannot really know the mind of Hashem in this. But because you don't know X does not mean that knowing Y is valueless!

הַגָּאוֹן רַבִּי יְרוּחָם זַצַ"ל, הַמַּשְׁגִּיחַ מִמִּיר, אָמַר בְּשֵׁם אֶחָד מִסִּפְרֵי הַקַּבָּלָה הַקַּדְמוֹנִים: אֵיךְ יָכוֹל הָאָדָם לְהִתְיַמֵּר בַּהֲבָנַת הַבְּרִיאָה וְהַטֶּבַע אִם אֵין חוֹקֵר אֶחָד הֲיָכוֹל לְהַסְבִּיר, מַדּוּעַ לַבַּרְוָזִים הַשְּׁחוֹרִים יֵשׁ בֶּטֶן לְבָנָה... פְּרָט כֹּה זָעִיר, שֶׁמַּצְבִּיעַ לְמַעֲשֶׂה עַל הַכֹּל.

Thus, Rabbi Yerucham, zatzal, citing one of the books of the early kabbalists, noted that researchers cannot even explain why a black duck has a white belly! So how do they think they know so much about the world?  It is a comical image, intended to deflate the knowledge of scientists.

But I would wonder at the knowledge kabbalist have of the world, if they cannot even explain why elephants paint their toenails red! Scientists know that it is so that they can hide in the strawberry patch. (You've never seen an elephant hide in a strawberry patch? See, it works!)

All kidding aside, it strikes me that this is once again a case of differing whys. In the days of the early kabbalists, it may indeed have been the case that scientists were at a loss to account for white-bellied black ducks. But nowadays, I would guess that scientists would indeed propose a "reason" for the white belly on a black duck. It would provide some survival benefit, for the propagation of the species. Perhaps it is used to attract their mate, being more vivid than a black belly on a black duck. Perhaps it helps them to identify their own species. Perhaps it helps them camouflage and thus avoid predators. Thus, when this mutation occurred, the birds with this mutation would be more likely to survive in this environment. See this article, and this article. To cite from the abstract of the second:
The traditional explanation for interspecific plumage colour variation in birds is that colour differences between species are adaptations to minimize the risk of  hybridization. Under this explanation, colour differences between closely related species of birds represent reproductive character displacement. An alternative explanation is that interspecific variation in plumage colour is an adaptive response to variation in light environments across habitats
Do you think for an instant that if you showed the early kabbalist, or if you showed Rabbi Yerucham, or if you showed the author of this parsha sheet, that scientists do have explanations for feather color differences, that they would then acknowledge that there is value to science?

Update: Rabbi Slifkin mentioned to me that this is called countershading, and is effective camouflage. To cite Wikipedia:
Countershading, or Thayer's Law, is a form of camouflage. Countershading, in which an animal’s pigmentation is darker dorsally, is often thought to have an adaptive effect of reducing conspicuous shadows cast on the ventral region of an animal’s body. In essence the distribution of light on objects that are lit from above will cause unequal reflection of light on a solid body of uniform colour; such shadows could providepredators with visual cues to a prey's shape and projection. Countershading therefore reduces the ease of detection of prey by potential predators by counterbalancing the effects of shadowing.

/End Update

אֶחָד הָיָה שְׁלֹמֹה הַמֶּלֶךְ, שֶׁיָּדַע וְהֵבִין. יָכוֹל הָיָה לְהַסְבִּיר - בַּחָכְמָה הָאֱלֹקִית שֶׁנִּתְּנָה בּוֹ - מַדּוּעַ יֵשׁ עֲשָׂרָה מִינֵי אֲרָזִים (רֹאשׁ הַשָּׁנָה כג.), עֶשְׂרוֹת מִינֵי קוֹפִים, תֻּכִּים, פַּרְפָּרִים. כָּל אֶחָד מֵהֶם הוּא חֶלְקִיק אֶחָד בַּפַּאזֶל הָאַדִּיר שֶׁל הַבְּרִיאָה, כְּפִי שֶׁכָּל גִּיד וְעֹרֶק בְּגוּפֵנוּ הוּא חֵלֶק
מֵהַמַּאֲרָג הַנִּפְלָא, הַבִּלְתִּי נִתְפָּס בְּרֹב מֻרְכָּבוּתוֹ, שֶׁל יְצִירַת הָאָדָם.

וּשְׁלֹמֹה הַמֶּלֶךְ חָתַם אֶת אַחֲרוֹן סְפָרָיו בְּמִשְׁפָּט אֶחָד, מְסַכֵּם וְתַמְצִיתִי: "סוֹף דָּבָר, הַכֹּל נִשְׁמָע אֶת הָאֱלֹקִים יְרָא וְאֶת מִצְוֹתָיו שְׁמֹור... זֶה כָּל הָאָדָם" (קֹהֶלֶת יב-יג). כְּלוֹמַר: מַה לְּךָ, בֶּן אָדָם, לַחְקֹר בַּדְּבָרִים שֶׁמִּחוּצָה לְךָ, לְהִתְבּוֹנֵן בַּסּוֹבֵב אוֹתְךָ, לְהַעְפִּיל לְרֹאשׁ הַהִימָלַיָה
וְלָרֶדֶת לִמְצוּלוֹת יָם, לָתוּר מִדְבָּרִיּוֹת וְלָעוּף בַּחֲלָלִיּוֹת - אֶת עַצְמְךָ כְּבָר הִכַּרְתָּ? אֶת מַעֲשֶׂיךָ שִׁפַּרְתָּ? אֶת מִדּוֹתֶיךָ הֶעֱדַנְתָּ? אֶת עוֹלָמְךָ כְּבָר בָּנִיתָ?!

Yes, Shlomo Hamelech obviously knew the true reason for all of this, and for all the variation. And since he says at the end of Kohelet that "ki zeh kol ha'adam", we should learn from this that all this knowledge is valueless. It is far more important to know yourself than to know science. So is their particular interpretation of a pasuk in Tanach, and so it must be correct.

I don't see, though, that one needs to detract from the other. But they explain why they think so:

וְעוֹלֶה הַחֲשָׁשׁ כִּי הָעִסּוּק הַכְּפִיָּתִי הַזֶּה בְּכָל דָּבָר הַסּוֹבֵב אוֹתָנוּ, עַד לְגָלָקְסְיוֹת נֶעֱלָמוֹת, נוֹעַד כְּדֵי לְהַסִּיחַ אֶת הַדַּעַת מֵהִתְבּוֹנְנוּת פְּנִימָה, מִבְּנִיַּת הָאִישִׁיּוּת
וְעִצּוּב הַמִּדּוֹת. וְכִי לֹא נִשְׁלַחְנוּ הֵנָּה לִתְקוּפַת חַיִּים כֹּה קְצָרָה כְּדֵי לַעֲמֹל בֶּעָמָל הַנּוֹשֵׂא פֵּרוֹת בִּשְׁנֵי הָעוֹלָמוֹת?! הֲלֹא רַק בַּעֲבוּרוֹ נִבְרֵאנוּ. אַךְ יְהֵא זֶה בִּזְבּוּז אִם לֹא יַעֲסֹק הָאָדָם בִּתְקוּפַת חַיָּיו שֶׁנִּתְּנָה לוֹ בְּהִשְׁתַּלְּמוּת עַצְמִית, בְּהִתְעַלּוּת בַּתּוֹרָה
וּבִצְבִירַת מִצְווֹת!

As for myself, I am glad that scientists are investigating the causes of cancer. And that scientists came up with the germ theory of disease. This increased human lifespan and quality of life for the entire world. I would not have preferred that they seek for spiritual causes, inward.

Maybe they only mean looking at other galaxies, or the purely "theoretical" sciences.

בְּפָרָשָׁתֵנוּ מְסֻפָּר עַל הִסְתָּאֲבוּת דּוֹר הַמַּבּוּל, בְּהַשְׁחָתָה שֶׁהֵבִיאָה עֲלֵיהֶם אֶת חֻרְבָּנָם. נֹחַ וּבָנָיו נִצְּלוּ וּבָנוּ עוֹלָם חָדָשׁ. וְכָאן בָּאָה פָּרָשָׁה סְתוּמָה, פָּרָשַׁת
"דּוֹר הַפַּלָּגָה". בִּקְּשׁוּ לִבְנוֹת מִגְדָּל וְרֹאשׁוֹ בַּשָּׁמַיִם, הִשְׁקִיעוּ בּוֹ אֶת כָּל מַשְׁאַבֵּיהֶם, וְהַהַשְׁגָּחָה הָעֶלְיוֹנָה הִתְעָרְבָהּ בְּאֹפֶן חָרִיג, בִּלְבְּלָהּ אֶת לְשׁוֹנָם וּפִזְּרָה אוֹתָם.

מַה הָעִנְיָן, מַה הָיְתָה כַּוָּנָתָם, מַה הָיָה מִפְעָלָם, מַה רָצוּ לַעֲשׂוֹת?

הַגָּאוֹן רַבִּי יְהוֹנָתָן אַיְבְּשִׁיץ זַצַ"ל, בְּסִפְרוֹ "תִּפְאֶרֶת יְהוֹנָתָן", מַעֲלֶה כְּבָר לִפְנֵי מָאתַיִם וַחֲמִשִּׁים שָׁנָה אֶת הַסְּבָרָא, שֶׁהַמִּגְדָּל הָיָה לְמַעֲשֶׂה כַּן שִׁגּוּר לַחֲלָלִיּוֹת.
בְּנֵי אוֹתוֹ דּוֹר חָיוּ בִּטְרָאוּמָה נוֹרָאָה - הִיא טְרָאוּמַת הַמַּבּוּל - עַל כֵּן הֶחְלִיטוּ לְהִמָּלֵט מִכּוֹכָבָם, לִבְנוֹת מוֹשָׁבוֹת בֶּחָלָל וּלְהִתְיַשֵּׁב בָּהֶם. בִּידִיעוֹתֵיהֶם, בְּכִשְׁרוֹנוֹתֵיהֶם, בַּמָּסוֹרוֹת הַנְּבוּאִיּוֹת שֶׁהָיוּ בְּיָדָם מֵאֲבוֹתֵיהֶם, הִגִּיעוּ לְקִדְמָה טֶכְנוֹלוֹגִית מַפְתִּיעָה. עָמְדוּ עַל סַף הַגְשָׁמַת הַמְשִׂימָה.

אוֹ אָז בָּאָה הַהַשְׁגָּחָה הָעֶלְיוֹנָה וְהִתְעָרְבָה.

I am glad that they got Rav Yonasan Eibeshitz's theory correct. In my limited experience, people often get it wrong. But they write, correctly, that it was the launching pad for a spacecraft, rather than the rocket ship itself. The only possible nitpick is that they could have been more precise, that they wanted to move to the moon, rather than just outer space. (That Rav Yonasan Eibeshitz got the science wrong is irrelevant, because their description adequately captures enough of the theory.)

מַדּוּעַ? לָמָּה לֹא יְגַלּוּ עוֹלָמוֹת, לָמָּה לֹא יִכְבְּשׁוּ אֶת הֶחָלָל, יִבְנוּ בּוֹ מוֹשָׁבוֹת? הַאִם יֵשׁ בְּכָךְ אִסּוּר? לֹא וָלֹא. אֲבָל הָאֱנוֹשׁוּת לֹא נִבְרְאָה כְּדֵי לִכְבֹּשׁ אֶת
הֶחָלָל, הָאָדָם נִבְרָא כְּדֵי לִכְבֹּשׁ אֶת עַצְמוֹ! וְאִם הָיְתָה תָּכְנִיתָם מִתְבַּצַּעַת, הָיְתָה הָאֱנוֹשׁוּת עֲסוּקָה בְּמֵרוֹץ שֶׁל מְנֻסָּה, בִּבְרִיחָה מֵעַצְמָהּ, בְּהֶשֵּׂגִיּוּת וּבְפַעֲלוּלִים שֶׁמַּסִּיחִים אֶת הַדַּעַת מִן הָעִקָּר, מִן הַיִּעוּד הַמֶּרְכָּזִי!

However, I think they got the application wrong. Sure, they could adopt Rav Yonasan's theory as their own, and then add their own modifications. But I don't think Rav Yonasan Eibeshitz himself would say this. (Abarbanel, on the other hand, might say something akin to it, for he maintains that Adam's sin, the cause of Hashem's not favoring Kayin, and the sin of the Dor Hapalaga was that they were not Amish enough, and didn't take nature in its pure and natural state.)

But Rav Yonasan Eibeshitz's explicit theory is that while Hashem may have told Noach about the rainbow covenant, the people at large did not know this. Hashem kept it to Himself. The people were therefore living in fear of another Mabul, which was a Good Thing (TM) because like this they would guard themselves from sinning. Only in the time of Bilaam was he poretz geder, by revealing this secret to them. Therefore, it was not space exploration which was in itself a sin, or even negative at all. Rather, if they would succeed at this, then they would no longer be afraid of the already-nonexistent threat of another Mabul, and then who knows what they would do! Presumably, Rav Yonasan Eibeshitz is focused on interpreting the statement וְזֶה, הַחִלָּם לַעֲשׂוֹת; וְעַתָּה לֹא-יִבָּצֵר מֵהֶם, כֹּל אֲשֶׁר יָזְמוּ לַעֲשׂוֹת.

But this is different from a distraction from what their true focus is. So while it works out nice as a vertel, this doesn't mean that Rav Eibeshitz is really a support.

They conclude:
בִּזְמַנּוֹ, כָּךְ סִפְּרוּ, הֻצַּב בִּנְמַל הַתְּעוּפָה שֶלֶט, בְּמַסְלוּל הַיּוֹצְאִים לְטִיּוּל בְּחוּ"ל, וּבוֹ
נִכְתַּב: "סְנוֹבּ, בְּאֵילַת כְּבָר הָיִיתָ?" שֶלֶט דּוֹמֶה הָיָה כְּדַאי לְהַצִּיב בְּכֵּף-קֶרְנְוֶול, עַל כַּן הַשִּׁגּוּר, וּבְכָל מְכוֹן מֶחְקָר: "מַדְעָן, אֶת עַצְמְךָ כְּבָר חָקַרְתָּ?!"... (מַעְיַן הַשָּׁבוּעַ)


Steg (dos iz nit der šteg) said...

כֵּף-קֶרְנְוֶול = Cape Canaveral?

joshwaxman said...

yup. that's what it said in the English parasha sheet.

Anonymous said...

Shalom quiero comentar sobre esta idea pues lei en la "Torah A Mis hijos" del escritor Nelson Sesto lo que esta comentada en ella sobre este tema es de que la palabra babel es una palabra compuesta por dos, palabras y de que este parte de la generacion del versiuclo es por que los hijos de Abel al no ver que los su padre Abel no regresaba quisieron construir una cosa asi de semejante, es a esto es que en bereshit dice elohim a cain la sangre de tu hermano clama a mi desde la tierra refiriendose a esto, que eran los de la torre de babel digamos ahora de la siguiente manera B-Abel (Casa de Abel) esto lo he leido en esta torah que dejo escrita este señor Nelson Sesto quien murio hace dos años la pregunta es como este señor pudo escribir tanta informacion importante para revelar todo estom yo se que alguno diran que la torre fue antes del esto o aquello pero yo creo en la forma que la torah fue escrita y que alguien algun dia la hiba a dar a entender por el momento encuentro esto lo logico cercano a la realidad de lo sucedido en Babel.yo tengo la torah a mis hijos y la darea a quien la quiera mi correo es miguelmetraton@yahoo,com


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