Monotheism in Judaism as a Harbinger of Science
By Ilya Leibowitz | 10/12/2009
This article offers a certain interpretation of an ancient Jewish text, in which the text indicates a failing in the picture of the world presented by nonscientific approaches to explain the world. The essay includes the conception that the negation of polytheism is the most important element of monotheism. According to the proposed interpretation, monotheism's negation of idolatry is based on an awareness of several important principles on which modern science is built. The antithesis of ancient paganism offered by pure monotheism is also the antithesis of contemporary postmodernism
Some Jews congratulate themselves for the Jewish religion having been the one to giving the Western world, and perhaps all humankind, the concept of monotheism, the idea of the one God. How is monotheism superior to polytheism? The current article answers this question by offering a possible interpretation of monotheism that is based on traditional Jewish sources. According to the suggested interpretation, the concept of monotheism, or to be more precise, the principle of the negation of polytheism, expresses the worldview that underlies the modern scientific conception. Monotheism's superiority lies in it being an important element in the approach to understanding the world called "science" in modern language, that Western culture consciously recognized and adopted only after the sixteenth century. The scientific approach, with monotheism being able to be understood as one of its components, inestimably expanded the human race's horizons, and is the basis for all modern civilization. Incidentally, this article will show that - in contrast with the conception of a part of Israeli Orthodoxy, that, out of narrow-mindedness, wants to put Judaism in a sort of spiritual Procrustean bed - the classical Jewish sources also contain clear expressions of free and critical approaches for the understanding of the world and the perception of man's place in it. The antithesis of ancient paganism offered by pure monotheism is also the antithesis of contemporary postmodernism.
This article offers a certain interpretation of an ancient Jewish text, in which the text indicates a failing in the picture of the world presented by nonscientific approaches to explain the world. The essay includes the conception that the negation of polytheism is the most important element of monotheism. According to the proposed interpretation, monotheism's negation of idolatry is based on an awareness of several important principles on which modern science is built. The language in which the text's ideas are set forth is naturally that of the era in which the text was written. The message itself is transmitted by means of a narrative-aggadic medium, while the message's meaning is universal, and it exceeds the boundaries of time. The current article does not make a claim of exclusivity for its proposed interpretation of the text, but the suggested understanding is possible and legitimate. Its validity can be tested by any reader of Hebrew, whose way of understanding the language is the criterion for examining whether the text really contains the meaning attributed to it. The text's author, who lived more than 1,600 years ago, might not have consciously thought of the meaning we will ascribe to his work, certainly not with the linguistic and intellectual tools that we will use, but such a meaning is indeed implanted in it. It is present in the text even if not explicitly included in it, by force of the intuition of the author who composed it. This is one of the characteristics of exemplary works that are called great literature, such as many passages in the Bible and in the Rabbinical literature, and obviously, also in world literature. Great authors are those who succeed in including in their works a large interpretive expanse in which the reader has almost unlimited freedom to uncover old or new ideas and to reach elevating understandings regarding the world and regarding man.
We should also note that the discovery in extremely old literature of intellectual components similar to elements of the world of modern thought should not be deemed miraculous. Even without recourse to magic and the discovery of wondrous signs by numerology or skipping letters, we can identify within a 1,600-year-old text worldviews and insights that began to receive explicit expression in the culture of the Western world only some 300 years ago. The paratemporal bridge that connects human intellectual statements that are centuries apart is possible because the biological structure of the human brain has not hanged during the course of the past thousands of years. Consequently, thought patterns that the contemporary mind is capable of developing, and that are not dependent on recently-created knowledge, language, or modern linguistic terms, could be formed also in the minds of those from previous generations in human history.
As a final prefatory remark, I will also note that there is no intent to argue in this article, or to allude in it or in its title, that modern science is the direct descendant of or any cultural evolution from Jewish monotheism. The article proposes that in the ancient classical Jewish literature, that was written at least a thousand years before modern science burst into human culture, we can find insights on the world and human awareness, which form part of the basis on which the method and means to understand the world known now as "science" are founded. Is the science that, in practice, developed in Europe beginning in the seventeenth century is indeed a derivative of any Jewish elements? This is a question that the current article does not presume to answer.
Religion as Cosmology
One of the central functions that religion fills in peoples' lives is explaining the world. During the course of the last tens or hundreds of thousands of years the human mind developed into a system with the built-in need to interpret the flood of signs that a person incessantly receives from his environment. People search for a system that explains the world's phenomena. Religion is one of the first responses to this need. Obviously, religion also fills other roles in the psyche of the believer and in the life of society. Admittedly, there are perceptions of religion in general, and especially of the Jewish religion, that deny it any role in explaining the world. Such a conception finds expression, for example, in the first question with which Rashi begins his commentary to the Torah. Relating to the Bible's commencing with the wording "In the beginning," Rashi states: "The Torah should have begun with 'This month shall mark for you the beginning of the months' [Exodus 12:2], which is the first commandment given to Israel." Rashi's question, which is almost certainly only rhetorical, expresses the approach that religion and scripture have only a single function: defining a system of ethics and laws for society. The answer to Rashi's question, of which Rashi himself was cognizant, and which he, in effect, accepted, is that the Torah begins with the Creation narrative because people need a cosmology.
In this article we will relate to the concept of monotheism in the sense of the negation of idolatry within the cosmological aspect of religion. A comparison between the idea of the one God as a source for human morality with the polytheistic conceptions that base ethics on a multitude of gods, too, could be an issue worthy of study, but we will not do so here.
The "invention" of monotheism is frequently mentioned as one of the Jewish people's greatest contributions to human culture. It is possible that the Israelite religion is indeed the first religion that expressly advocates a single divinity, and, as a historical fact, Judaism might have the first claim to disseminating this idea in the world. But we can ask: what is remarkable about monotheism? How, and in what respect, is monotheism superior to polytheism? In what way is the single God of the Jews superior to the multitude of Canaanite, Greek, or Roman gods?
The answer to this question is given by the midrash in the well-known aggadah about Abraham, the first person to recognize the Creator's oneness. The famous narrative appears in Genesis Rabbah and in Tanna de-Vei Eliyahu. The following is its rendering in the English translation of Sefer ha-Aggadah by Bialik and Ravnitzky:
Then Abraham took all the gods and brought them back to his father Terah. Terah's other sons said to their father: This Abraham does not know how to sell gods; come, then, and let us make him a priest. Abraham asked: What is a priest's work? They replied: He waits upon the gods, offers sacrifices to them, and serves them food and drink. So they made him priest. Abraham promptly set food and drink before the images and said to them: Come and eat, come and drink, that you may be able to bestow good upon human beings. But not one of them took anything at all to eat or to drink. Then Abraham began to recite the verse "They have mouths but they speak not; eyes have they, but they see not; they have ears, but they hear not; noses have they, but they smell not; they have hands, but they handle not; feet have they, but they walk not" (Ps. 115:5-7).
A woman came carrying a bowl of fine flour and said: Here, offer it to the gods. At that, Abraham seized a stick, smashed all the images, and placed the stick in the hand of the biggest of them. When his father came, he asked: Who did this to the gods? Abraham answered: Would I hide anything from my father? A woman came with a bowl of fine flour and said: Here, offer it up to them. When I offered it, one god said, "I will eat first," and another said, "No, I will eat first." Then the biggest of them rose up and smashed all the others. His father replied: Are you making sport of me? They cannot do anything! Abraham answered: You say they cannot. Let your ears hear what your mouth is saying! Terah took hold of Abraham and turned him over to Nimrod [...] They immediately took Abraham out to cast him into an open fire.
(Hayyim Nahman Bialik and Yehoshua Hana Ravnitzky, The Book of Legends/Sefer ha-Aggadah, trans. William G. Braude [New York: Schocken, 1992], p. 32)
Paganism as an Explanation of the World
The Abraham aggadah is a story of the smashing of idols. In order to absorb the message it contains, the significance of idols in antiquity must be understood. Idols played a decisive role as an explanation of the world. For example, every day man stands before the stunning phenomenon of the rising of the sun in the morning, when the wondrous ball of fire appears at dawn at the ends of the east. During the course of the day the ball of fire slowly moves in a lengthy arc over the sky, until it disappears in the evening in the west. Man, amazed, seeks the meaning of this. An explanation for this wondrous appearance is to be found in the existence of the sun-god, Helios for the Greeks, Ra among the Egyptians, or in the deification of the sun itself in the Aztec culture in Mexico. The sun's behavior is an expression of the will of that god. The sun rises in the morning and sets in the evening, because this is the will of its master Helios, who desires to rise every day in his chariot, which is the chariot of the sun, and cross the heavens with it. According to the Egyptians, Ra desired to set sail daily in his boat that bears the sun over the sea of heaven. The wonderful phenomena connected with conception, birth, and the preservation of the race are explained in the Canaanite culture by the desire of Astarte, the goddess of fertility. The earth brings forth food, and agriculture exists on the face of the earth by force of, and according to the will of, Apollo, the god of farming; and the sea is quiet or stormy by command of Poseidon, the sea god. Thus, for thousands of years, many generations of people saw the desires of the gods as a reasonable explanation for the physical reality, and also for the social reality (peoples, wars, etc.). The god's will was the point at which human curiosity came to an end. The god's assumed existence was the final and satisfactory explanation for any occurrence.
The Concept of Will as the Boundary of Consciousness
Today as well, by critical observation of the array of contemporary human knowledge, we can discern that wherever the concept of will enters to explain a phenomenon - in physics, cosmology, and all branches of science - in practice, this delineates the boundary of human comprehension. If a phenomenon cannot be explained on the basis of the accepted physical conceptions, man always uses the "will" card as his "trump card." For example, when a tennis ball hits the floor, bounces, and lands on the tabletop a meter above the floor, this can easily be explained by the laws of classical mechanics. The ball bounces upward because the elastic energy that was latent in the rubber that was compressed when the ball hit the floor was released due to the elasticity of the rubber. This energy was transformed into the kinetic energy of the ball's upward movement, and was stored once again as the potential energy of the ball that now rests on the table. The source of the elastic energy is in the potential and kinetic energy possessed by the ball when it fell toward the floor, when it was thrown from the other side of the room to the bounce point, and so on. In contrast, when another mass of similar size bounces from the floor to the table, a mass called a kitten, the explanation given for the phenomenon will be that the kitten "wanted" to jump to the table. Most people would regard this as a reasonable explanation, that would put an end to the examination. Others, in contrast, would not be satisfied by it. They would continue to inquire after the meaning of this desire, what caused its creation, how it is realized as the giving of kinetic energy to the mass, etc.
The modern history of the discovery of pulsars can provide an outstanding example of the role that the concept of will can fill when the process of explaining a phenomena reaches a dead end. These are cosmic bodies whose existence was discovered by chance in 1967, when radio signals in the form of a rapid, regular, and stable pulse were received on Earth. All the astronomical knowledge at the time could not provide any explanation for the strange pulses that were received. After all the astrophysical processes known to then had been exhausted and were found to be unsuitable, leading scientists from several prominent places in the world began, increasingly seriously, to raise the conjecture that the signals were broadcasts from an extraterrestrial civilization. For a short time the sources of the inexplicable radiation were humorously called "little green dwarfs." When no physical explanation was found, man once again needed the old and always winning trump card, the "will" card. If the radiation of the pulsars is the work of the hands or mind of intelligent beings, their quality of will can explain the nature of the strange radiation, to everyone's satisfaction. It should be noted that the green dwarf model was rejected almost as soon as it was proposed, when, a few weeks later, the explanation for the phenomenon was found, based on the model of a revolving neutron star. The historical anecdote of the discovery of pulsars graphically illustrates that the concept of will, as an explanation of phenomena in the world, in practice marks a boundary. When in our attempt to explain the world we arrive at the need to use this concept, this means that we have arrived at the limits of our perception. Connecting "will" to a phenomenon in the world means needing a metaphysical concept, that is, leaving the bounds of physics.
The Narrow Expanse of the Pagan World
Modern science, too, and not only the pagan world, reaches the border of human perception. The saying that the more we know the less we know, is not merely a cliche. We don't understand if the world was created, and how. We even do not know the nature of the decisive majority of the material from which it is made. Nor doe we know the fundamental structure of the material that we possess. The number of questions and the depth of our ignorance concerning complex natural systems, and certainly regarding life phenomena, are inestimably greater than what we know in these realms. Modern science, that is, the way of knowing the world that attempts to remove the metaphysical from its explanations, has a great advantage over the pagan explanation. This advantage is in the expanse within which science succeeds in giving answers before it reaches its limits. The pagan cosmology and science took small and few steps until they very quickly reached the limits of perception, which are called "the desires of the gods," in whose bosom pagan culture found comfort. In practice, this culture hardly included any expanse with room for any sort of explanation. In the very same collection of midrashim that contains the antipagan manifesto of the Abraham aggadah, we find a Jewish expression of such idolatry (Genesis Rabbah 10:6): "R. Simon said: There is no plant that does not have its own planet in heaven that strikes it and says, Grow!" The linkage of a god (or heavenly body) to every plant, to every star, and to every natural phenomenon, and the explanation of evolution and the dynamics in the world as expressing the will of the gods or compliance with their commands, is nothing other than throwing up one's hands and surrendering without a fight in the struggle to understand the world. A person who worships idols is satisfied by such an explanation of the world, and it contents him.
The Revolt against Idolatry
The Abraham legend is the story of a revolt against the self-satisfaction of the pagan world. In addition to its rejection of the pagan explanation, it also recognizes several important components of an alternative attitude to the world, what is today called the "scientific method." According to the narrative in Genesis Rabbah, Abraham reaches his conclusions based on the experiment that he conducts: "Abraham promptly set food and drink before the images and said to them: Come and eat, come and drink, that you may be able to bestow good upon human beings. But not one of them took anything at all to eat or to drink." Abraham fashions his conception solely on the basis of the experiment and his observation of its results. The experiment brought him to the radical conclusion that the explanation of the world based on the will of gods is not satisfactory.
The Abraham legend takes another step beyond this. It also depicts, in a sort of caricatural style, one of the most severe flaws inherent in the pagan explanation of the world. Not only is this explanation unsatisfactory; its greatest deficiency is that it brings man to a contradiction within his own awareness. The pagan explanation is an inconsistent explanation of the world. According to the aggadah, Abraham succeeds in showing even to Terah, the archetypical idolater, that there is an unbridgeable contradiction between his belief and his perception: "Abraham answered: You say they cannot. Let your ears hear what your mouth is saying!"
Two additional details in the Abraham legend are noteworthy. In total contrast to the Biblical narrative of Abram in Ur of the Chaldeans, in which God is revealed to him, Abraham's smashing of the idols in the aggadah is not the consequence of any divine revelation. God makes no appearance in the aggadic narrative. Abraham's awareness is a completely autonomous creation, and Abraham himself is its master, and sole ruler.
The second detail worthy of our attention is that the aggadist chose to present specifically Terah, Abraham's father, as the pagan against whom Abraham rebels. Even though "terah" became an expression that Hebrew gave the meaning of unsuccessful or bothersome - perhaps because of this aggadah - there is no mention in the Biblical narrative that Terah differed in any manner from the other people of his land. We could have expected that the aggadist, as an interpreter of the Torah in which "Honor your mother and your mother" is written, would not have had Abraham rebel against his father, of all people. The fact that the aggadist nevertheless chose to tell his story in this manner is undoubtedly not by chance. This literary preference transmits a sharp and clear message: tradition cannot come in place of judgment. Sentiment, obedience, the giving of honor, an age or class gap, or good manners - none of these should have played a decisive role in the intellectual and psychic processes that bring a person to an understanding of the reality and the construction of a worldview in his consciousness. A person's inner awareness and ability to see the truth take precedence even over honoring one's father.
More than a thousand years had passed since the writing of the aggadah about Abraham, when a person arose in Italy whose writings and deeds expressed, for the first time in Western culture, fundamental principles for the building of knowledge and human perception similar to those hidden in the aggadah. This man was Galileo Galilei. According to a legend connected with him, around the year 1600 he assembled the worthies of the city of Pisa and conducted before them free-fall experiments from the top of the renowned Leaning Tower of Pisa. In front of these astounded Pisa elders, he exemplified and proved in the experiment that the velocity of a free-falling body is independent of its mass. A heavy body, such as a large brick block, falls with the same velocity, or, to be more precise, at the same acceleration as that of a small piece of gravel. If both are released together and fall freely from the top of the tower, both touch the ground at the same time. Like the experiment that Abraham conducted in Ur of the Chaldeans, in Pisa, as well, an experiment conducted by Galileo is presented. And in Pisa, too, it is the experiment that brings the spectators to the awareness of the inconsistency and contradiction within the system of beliefs and views accepted at the time. According to the holy writings of the period, the works of the Greek philosopher and scholar Aristotle that had been sanctified by the Church, a heavy stone is drawn downward more strongly and therefore falls more quickly. This belief was accepted for centuries as sound and reliable knowledge of the world and nature, because it was so written in the holy books. Galileo's experiment, like that of Abraham, illustrated that tradition, holy writ, and prevalent beliefs are not a basis for knowledge of the world. Effective knowledge of the world is possible only on the basis of experiment, observation, and measurements.
Needless to say, Galileo has many successors. Almost all modern science is a consequence of this profound Galilean-Abrahamic understanding concerning the source of effective knowledge of the world. Galilean science's superiority over the pagan worldview does not consist merely of it being more intellectually satisfying for at least a not inconsiderable number of people. The very existence of modern human civilization and the achievements of medicine, technology, and electronics prove the great practical superiority of the scientific worldview. This was made possible only by the process that began in Europe in the seventeenth century, of the removal of paganism and metaphysics from the world and the adoption of the scientific method as the basis for understanding it. One of Galileo's most important successors was another Jew, Albert Einstein. He, too, succeeded in demonstrating for people the lack of consistency and the inner contradiction in their world. He showed that the perceptions and beliefs that are most deeply rooted in people that are connected to the perception of the essence of time and space run counter to other awarenesses resulting from observation of certain experiments that were conducted at the end of the nineteenth century. Like Abraham in the aggadah, who did not hesitate to smash idols in light of the results of the experiment that he conducted, so Einstein, in light of the results of physical experiments, was not afraid to completely uproot deep beliefs concerning the qualities of space and time, that had been thought since the dawn of history to be unshakeable truths.
The Criterion of Knowledge
Abraham (in the aggadah) and Galileo and Einstein (in the reality) all share the awareness that the criterion for the validity of a system of information, theories, and worldviews is the absence of inner contradictions within these systems and the degree of their correlation to the results of experiment and observation. When a person wants to accept some information, a belief, or a theory, he must put it to the test of consistency with his other conceptions and with his observations in the world. The only one who can conduct such a test is, obviously, the individual himself, and therefore only the individual person himself can be the source of the validity of any information or perception that he possesses. No conception, belief, or explanation can be accepted as valid only on the basis of tradition, the authority of the source, intuition, or inertia. A person must constantly put his understandings to the supreme test, that of their inner consistency, and of their consistency with the experimental. Whey they fail this test, he must seek their correction or change. This, in practice, is the essence of the work and role of the scientist. This is a person who incessantly puts his conceptions to this supreme test, and courageously and wisely draws the necessary conclusions from this unremitting examination.
According to the aggadist, the source of worthwhile knowledge does not lie in external authority, nor in divine revelation. Man himself is the supreme arbiter on the question of the validity of his belief and awareness. The scientific revolution is the beginning of the spread of the Abrahamic conception. This is why, unlike what is common in most of the major religions, science has no holy writ. Likewise, unlike the religious reality that has the "view of the Torah," the "word of the Church," or the "manifesto of the Qur'an," there is no Council of Science Sages, nor is there any form of the "view of science." Nor does science recognize the concept of heresy. The greatest physicists of the twentieth century, the fathers of quantum theory, were capable, like young twentysomethings, of publishing theories that completely overturned entire worldviews of their teachers, who, too, were as great scientists as these upstarts.
Scientific Thought and Political Thought
The seventeenth century is thought to mark the birth of modern science. This was also the century in which the ideological seeds were planted that would chart the way for the French and the American revolutions, which led to the creation of the enlightened Western democracies. The correlation in time between these two revolutions in the history of human culture might not be incidental. These are the two faces of a single new fundamental human insight. The scientific revolution, too, liberated man from his dependency on others; this dependency consists of political subservience to rulers, princes, bishops, or kings. Consequently, the two great revolutions of the seventeenth century were revolts against conventions and authorities beyond the individual. Both set the individual person as the exclusive source of authority, as master of his physical fate, in the context of the political revolution, and as master of his awareness and inner world, in the context of the scientific revolution.
Idolatry and Postmodernism
Hundreds of years ago, the author of the Abraham legend sensed one of the founding principles of science, that make it a tool for creating effective knowledge about the world. The tale that he tells expresses his (explicit, or at least implied) view that a proper understanding of the world is possible only after the removal of idolatry from the interpretation, that is, the rejection of the power of will as a factor that can explain the physical reality. The achievements of modern science since the time of Galileo can serve as a proof of the validity of this view. The contemporary postmodernist view is, in a certain sense, a return to idolatry. It restores the power of will as a basic datum; in actuality, as the only element of its worldview. The postmodernist approach is distinguished from idolatry in that the will that it introduces to the world is that of the introspective man, while idolatry attributes will to metaphysical entities. Despite this major difference, the two approaches have much in common. In practice, both refrain from the intellectual effort needed to create an objective and effective information bank on the world. Postmodernism might ask difficult questions regarding the world, and its claims against science and against all human knowledge could contain elements of justified criticism. Paganism, as well, asked trenchant questions about the world, some of which remain to the present without a satisfactory answer. But both approaches, the ancient and the postmodernist, suffer from a similar defect. Both find answers that, in effect, are a flight from the fascinating and deep problem that the world, in all its manifestations, presents to the thinking human mind by its very existence. Both pictures of the world are anchored in self-satisfaction, which are insufficient for the troubled intellect of thinking people.
Prof. Ilya Leibovitz is an Israeli astrophysicist
translated by Ed Levin