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11 Nissan 5765 - April 20, 2005 | Mordecai Plaut, director Published Weekly









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Opinion & Comment
Reading the Divine Book of Nature

by Mordecai Plaut

It seems fair to say that an area of Western knowledge that has always seemed to hold especially great promise for benefit to Torah is the physical sciences.

There is an old line of reasoning that was very common in the times of the Rambam that argues that the Creator of the universe wrote two "books": the Scriptures and the Book of Nature. Thus, we may study them both in order to uncover the wisdom that their Author embedded in them, and thereby come closer to Him and serve Him better. According to this approach, phenomena that are not mediated by man — basically what are now known as the "hard" sciences such as physics, chemistry and biology — have primacy, since in them the work of the Creator is more directly accessible in a state unmodified by man than in the social sciences, which study products and processes mediated by humanity.

It is certainly true that the Creator "wrote" both the Scriptures and the Book of Nature, but that does not mean that both are equally easy to read.

First of all, the Book of Nature is no less a book than Scripture. While it is undoubtedly true that we may read the Book of Nature, we cannot expect more from that reading experience than what we have found to be the case from our reading experience of Scriptures. This has not been unequivocally positive. There is no reason to expect more from the study of natural phenomena than we can see in the results from Scripture itself.

In fact, bitter experience in the past two centuries teaches that it is possible to read Scripture itself and not to be inspired by the wisdom of its Author, to put it mildly. Many have read and studied the works of Torah to varying degrees without thereby becoming convinced of the existence of their Divine Author, alongside the many others who certainly have come closer to the works and their Author through study. So it is clear that studying a text — whether Scriptures or the Book of Nature — is no guarantee in itself that one will thereby become closer to its Author.

The difficulties in this course can be compounded by the way the text is studied, if we pursue the analogy further.

The normal impact, the message sent by its Author, of a text can only be expected to be properly received if it is read in order to receive its content. If, on the other hand, it is tabulated and analyzed with a primary focus of determining when it was written or to make clear its stylistic structure, then the normal, expected impact of the primary content will be minimal or nonexistent. If the text is not experienced but analyzed as an object, its content is trivialized.

Those who read Scripture for what it can tell them about general world history or about literature, will not likely receive its main message as intended by its Author. In fact, many of them did not receive this message.

A similar things happens when reading the Book of Nature. For many very good, valuable and valid reasons (mainly to learn how to get things done in the physical world and to do them), people have been reading it for information that is very different from any moral and existential messages that its Author sent through it. There is no reason that this other information put there by the Author should not be picked up, but this valuable information that enables the important wonders of technology should not be confused with learning faith and love of Hashem from the Creation, the way that the Rambam recommends in the beginning of his Mishneh Torah.

The focus on the quantitative aspects of nature, that became increasingly dominant over the past 200 years, coupled with the aggressive abandonment of any trace of purpose even in a formal sense, have severely diminished the usefulness of the results of modern science for enhancing love of Hashem.

This is not to say that the awe that the deep discoveries of modern physics can inspire cannot be useful, but it is to argue that it is much less special and unique than was the knowledge that the Rambam lays out in his early chapters of Sefer Mada.

The Rambam presents insights of form and matter, a discussion of the hierarchical organization of the natural world, and especially a detailed description of elevated creatures including heavenly bodies and angels.

The Schroedinger Wave Equation, Goedel's Incompleteness Result, or Shannon's Capacity Theorem are all poor substitutes, however stunning and useful they are. Even more, since they are basically beside the point, too much effort spent on them and their ilk — since they are quite interesting — can be profoundly distracting from thoughts of Hashem, in a way that extended contemplation of angels can never be.

We can develop the analogy further.

Chazal tell us that studying Torah is a wonderful way to know and come close to Hashem. Since their recommendation was made for a wide audience, it should be assumed that their intention was to the study of Torah to learn its overt content, the basic information that is contained in it and which is imparted to one who reads the text with the purpose of extracting from it what those who wrote it intended to put into it.

It is certainly desirable, and perhaps necessary as well, to presume in reading and learning it that the ultimate source of the wisdom contained therein is the living G-d.

There are parts of Torah which, it seems, require a greater commitment and preparation as well as more presuppositions, but for the basic goal of knowing Hashem and coming closer to Him, it seems that these two are enough: to study the overt content as intended by the Author, and to presume that the Author is the living G-d.

As to the second requirement, it is voluntary and simple and under the complete control of the reader. If he will, anyone can choose to approach the Torah as coming from Hashem. To do so requires nothing more than a firm decision to do so, and it is done.

As far as the Scriptures, as a written work it can be assumed that the intended content is present and available to a typical reader who understands the language. With all its limitations, writing words is the best means we know of conveying a message.

However determining what the basic content of the Book of Nature is intended to be with regard to studying the wisdom of its Author is definitely not straightforward. If we compare the radically different systems that all purport to describe the same, natural world — say, Aristotelian physics and Newtonian physics — we see how far apart different answers to this issue can be. Moreover, there is no reason to assume that the material that will be uncovered when the primary thrust of research is to learn how to control nature will be the kind of wisdom that is best for us to learn in order to become acquainted with the Creator.

The message in the Book of Nature is not as immediate and present as in a written text. The Book of Nature is certainly a product of the Creator, but it is not presented to us as a carrier of a message. Thus, greater difficulty can be expected in discerning what we are supposed to read in the Book of Nature. We will study what we like but we may not know if we are receiving what He intended to send us or not.

In studying Scripture, we may also choose to concentrate on the literary form as opposed to the primary message of the text.

But in the case of the Book of Nature, the situation is more problematic since in the Book of Nature we can never even be sure when we are studying its "literary form" and when we are studying the primary message it is meant to convey.

In any case, it is clear that a thousand years ago in the Rambam's day, the Book of Nature was studied with the expressed intent of uncovering the messages therein that parallel those in the Scriptures, that is, the content that leads to knowledge of the Author. In the modern approach, this is entirely absent, and modern science is very proud of that.

This is a very sharp divergence between the study of natural science and the content of what was studied in the days of the Rambam and in our days. All study of science then was undertaken from the approach of using it as a vehicle to acquire knowledge of its Author. The content of what passed for natural science in those days included extended references to elements that were frankly spiritual, such as the visible heavenly bodies which were described as having souls.

In fact, all of the content of modern science is only of the kind that the Rambam shows elsewhere as applying to basic belief in G-d and not to love of Him. By showing complexity and the skill of the Designer, it can lead to emunoh.

Yet Rambam does not recommend the study of natural science for acquiring basic belief but for arousing love of G-d — ahavas Hashem.

One of the most basic issues in arousing love of G-d, the ultimate spiritual entity, is getting the person to have some feelings — any feelings at all — towards the spiritual generally.

The material is immediate. It is compelling. It is demanding and overwhelming. It is easy to appreciate.

The spiritual is abstract. It is distant. It does not satisfy any immediate needs and can be easily ignored. It is hard to relate to.

For people in general, establishing a serious relationship with the spiritual in general is clearly the most basic issue in arousing love of G-d.

A person's body is not just a drag on his spiritual progress; it can block it entirely. A first step towards love of the highest plane of spirituality (G-d) is to recognize the existence of the spiritual. In this, modern science is of no help. On the contrary, it reinforces the primacy of the material. Its entire program has been to leave out anything that is not physically sensible and material. This may be good for technology, but it is not a help to developing love of Hashem.

Contemplating the ideas presented by the Rambam does answer this need. The ideas characterize all creatures by their degree of spirituality, beginning with the lowest that are composed of a kind of spirit (form) and matter, and progressing to those of a higher kind of spirit composed of pure spirit (angels).

Learning about the higher forms of spirit is a definite aid in arousing love for Hashem. Since they are intrinsically easier to grasp, since they are still closer to us, we can develop our sensitivity to and feeling for the spiritual. This is not the place for an extended digression on angels, but suffice it to say that to know them is truly to love them. The step towards love of their Creator, who is both like them but radically different, is then very natural.

In all this, modern science is certainly no help and is really part (a very large part for some) of the problem. Since it has proudly excluded the spiritual from its sphere of competence, and has doggedly worked to banish anything that even refers to the nonmaterial such as the discussion of purpose, it cannot be of any help in dealing with this basic issue in achieving love of Hashem. Truly, it would probably even be horrified at the thought that it could be so used.

Many modern discoveries can enhance emunoh, though it does not seem that they are so good at establishing it where it is not previously present. In any case, the scientific discoveries about the wonders of the human body, for example, can generally be learned from the study of secondary, popular works. Spending one's professional career in the intellectual and social environment of science is in many cases more of a threat to one's emunoh than an aid.

Nowadays, one who seeks to arouse and enhance his love of Hashem is best advised not to study modern science. He may study the material that the Rambam suggests at the beginning of Hilchos Yesodei Hatorah, or Chovos Halevovos. Many find that deep study of the lomdishe acharonim enhances their ahavas Hashem.

"This article is part of a much longer article. Comments are welcome."

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