In 1964, at Bell Labs in suburban New Jersey, two scientists were tasked with setting up and monitoring a new and highly-sensitive radio telescope. Basically a huge antenna, the telescope was originally designed to pick up radio waves which were being bounced off satellites just in the Earth’s atmosphere. When they turned the machine on and began to look closely at the data that was coming in - it didn’t quite make sense. They weren’t able to pick up anything other that a low, steady, rumbling noise which would sound to you and me like static. The noise was far louder than they expected, and as good empiricists would, they figured it was the equipment. The two men, Arno Penzias and Robert Wilson, climbed out onto the 6-metre wide disk of the telescope and found several families of pigeons nesting there. Assuming their avian neighbours were causing the mistaken results, they quickly relocated the pigeons and cleared out the nests.
Yet, as these stories tend to go, when they climbed back down and took another look at the data - that persistent static noise was still there. Penzias and Wilson didn’t realise it yet, but, they had just made one of the most significant scientific discoveries in the 20th century - a period which was amply animated by advances in science and technology. As they came to find out, studying the mysterious noise, vibrating at a consistent 7.35 centimetre wavelength - the noise they heard came not from pigeons, nor anything on Earth, nor anything in our solar system, nor even anything in our galaxy.
That quiet rumble in their headphones, it turns out, was nothing other than the radiation which had been emitted over 14 billion years ago when the universe was formed. A far cry from pigeon droppings, I’d say. What Penzias and Wilson discovered is what we now call the Cosmic Microwave Background Radiation (CMBR) and it has allowed us to see far beyond what we previously thought possible. The data from that little hum heard in New Jersey allows us to get a glimpse into what the early life of the universe looked like. In 1978, Penzias and Wilson received the Nobel Prize for their accidental discovery and science since has been forever transformed.
I’m thinking of the CMBR and of Penzias and Wilson today because there is a piece of the way that the Rabbis understand parashat VaEtchannan that has always bothered me. If you look at Deuteronomy 4:32, you’ll see, what seems to me, to be a fairly straightforward statement:
“For ask now of the days past, which were before you, since the day that God created humanity upon the earth, and from the one end of heaven unto the other, whether there has been anything as great as this thing is, or if any has been heard like it?”
Said in the context of Moses trying to convince the people of Israel why their story is so extraordinary, the verse itself doesn’t seem terrifically troubling. However, it’s used more than once in rabbinic literature as a proof-text for the exact opposite of what it plainly means. In the Midrash (Bereshit Rabbah 1:10), a rabbi named Bar Kappara inserts the word ‘not’ into the verse, making it "ask not of the days past, which were before you, since the day that God created man upon the earth." He does this to teach that one may speculate from the day that time itself was created, but one should not speculate on what was before that. And one may investigate from one end of heaven to the other, but one should not investigate what was before this world.
Elsewhere, in the Talmud (BT Chagigah 11b) The Rabbis reasoned that the words "since the day that God created humanity upon the earth" in Deuteronomy 4:32 taught that one must not inquire concerning the time before creation. They reasoned that the words "the days past that were before you" taught that one may inquire only about the six days of creation. The Rabbis further reasoned that the words "from the one end of heaven to the other" in Deuteronomy 4:32 taught that one must not inquire about what is beyond the universe, what is above and what is below, what is before and what is after.
Clearly a theme emerges - there is an element of Jewish thought which seeks to use this verse to justify an anti-scientific approach. To limit experimental inquiry to only ‘certain’ domains is, stated or not, the aim of views like this. For some, this can seem like, in a broader fashion, an example of opposition to nature as a whole.
There certainly is a stream of thought in the Torah and in later Jewish tradition that fears nature. So obsessed with squashing any trace of Paganism, some part of the Jewish tradition went and over-corrected, downplaying the natural world, scientific inquiry and the value of experimental and philosophical understandings of our universe to the person of faith.
Perhaps the best-known expression of this sentiment is in Pirké Avot, the tractate of the Mishnah which deals with ethical concerns. There, (3:9) Rabbi Shimon is quoted as saying: “One who is walking along while studying [words of Torah] and interrupts their study and says ‘how beautiful is this tree, how beautiful is this field’—the Torah considers them as though they are guilty of death.”
For me, I simply can’t stand this tendency in some Jewish texts to devalue the natural world. As someone who has always been fascinated by science- and moreover, who sees scientific inquiry and theological speculation as going hand-in-hand, I find myself extremely frustrated by what seems to be a narrow-minded and parochial approach to the world in which we live, love and worship.
One of the first influences on me was Rabbi Aryeh Kaplan, who was one of the youngest physicists to be hired by the US government as well as one of the most brilliant mystics of the last hundred years. I take comfort in the fact that so many Jewish leaders have been people of science and medicine and that so many significant scientists have come from a Jewish background. Out of the 881 individuals who have received a Nobel Prize since 1901 when it began, 197 of them, or 22.4% have been Jewish. Meanwhile, worldwide Jews account for less than 0.2% of the world’s population. That incredible disparity, I don’t think, is due to some ethnic or genetic predisposition or intellectual gift. I think it comes from a culture and a religion which promotes inquiry, questioning, and learning.
If that’s so, we have to find another way to understand these rabbinic statements that the universe’s origin, or nature, or any reasonable subject of inquiry is undeserving of our attention. I once heard Rabbi Marc Angel explain the quote from Pirké Avot above in a way which I think can help us today to make sense of all this.
Where the Mishnah says that ‘one who is walking along, studying words of Torah, and interrupts their study to say ‘what a beautiful tree’ is guilty of death,’ Rabbi Angel suggests that we’ve emphasized the wrong meaning of the statement. What makes them liable, he says, is not that they comment on the beauty of nature - it is that they see that comment as an ‘interruption.’ Flipping the statement, R’ Angel reads it as a call to always see Torah and Nature as one in the same. The sin in the example is not the appreciation of the tree - it is believing, if only for a second, that the Torah that one is learning and the world they see around them are ever separate or separable.
If you were to look at the stars with a typical optical telescope, the space in between stars and galaxies appears absolutely empty. If, however, you calibrate a radio telescope antenna just right, you find that that so-called ‘empty’ space hides the still-blossoming explosion that accompanied the universe’s birth.
We must be willing to take the brave step of seeing our faith and our understanding of science and nature as one in the same. We cannot be afraid to conflate and relate science and religion. After all, once we finish the Torah portion which contains that contentious verse, we read the Haftarah from Isaiah who reminds us:
To whom then to liken God? Lift up your eyes and see: The One who created the stars, called them by name, by the greatness of God's might and strong power each one appears. (Isa. 40:25-26)
As people of faith, part of our process of faith must be to accept that God and nature, science and Torah, study and appreciation of beauty - are not separate things. In a week in which we recite the Shema in its original context - when we remind ourselves that ‘Adonai is our God, and Adonai is One,’ we would do well to remember that must mean God is to be found in both our faith and our follies. Whether the search for God comes from a deep sense of experience and theology, or we stumble upon an echo of creation scaring away some pigeons - the sound that we hear, carried from the farthest reaches of space and the oldest eras of time - is one in the same.