How the stars can shed new light on the Torah
Space-age science can enrich our religious understanding, says Rabbi David Lister in an extract from his new book, 'Intergalactic Judaism'.
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M81 galaxy as seen from the Hubble telescope
Recent scientific advances have transformed our understanding of the universe and our place within it. In the last century, we have discovered that our planet is just one of billions of stars and planets in a galaxy that is itself but one stitch in a wondrous, delicate tapestry of galactic clusters stretching across the vast emptiness of a universe.
Modern science has also uncovered baffling mysteries in the subatomic realm. There are particles that pop out of nothing and annihilate themselves in a fraction of a second. Solid matter has been shown to be just a condensed form of energy, which can be released in a colossal nuclear explosion. There may even be subatomic particles that travel both forwards and backwards in time.
Is there a place for all this cutting-edge discovery within the pages of the Torah?
Judaism affirms that God is all-knowing. Expressing a concept echoed across the Bible, Daniel said that God "reveals the deep and secret things; He knows what is in the darkness, and light dwells with Him" (2:22).
This premise enables us to revisit primordial Torah ideas and attempt to reconstitute them as they may have been understood by God and those to whom He vouchsafed His word. A simple biblical reference to something from the physical world takes on startling new depths and dimensions when we bear in mind the knowledge offered to us by advances in astrophysics, quantum mechanics and the like.
Thus, when God spoke of the moon, He knew that it stabilises the earth's rotation, enabling terrestrial life to flourish in a temperate climate. When He compared the Israelites to the stars, He knew that a massive gravitational field can magnify a distant star's light and make it more visible than it would otherwise be. When He spoke about the cosmos, He meant not just the stars but also dark matter, dark energy, asteroids and supernovae.
God 'reveals the deep and secret things'
My book, Intergalactic Judaism, seeks to investigate and enhance our understanding of the Torah's metaphors in the light of the revelations of modern science, using these discoveries as a commentary on biblical imagery.
Employing knowledge of the physical world as an adjunct to spirituality does not constitute a new approach to Judaism. Maimonides emphatically encouraged people to look at the creation in order to reach a higher spiritual plane (Hilchos Yesodei Hatorah 2:2). Centuries later, the revered German Rabbi Samson Raphael Hirsch used Newtonian analysis of white light to explain the symbolism of the rainbow in the story of Noah, in his commentary on Genesis 9:15.
Provided that metaphors are interpreted within the spirit of the explicit Torah text and the traditional explanations that accompany it, we may tentatively use science as a commentary of sorts without violating the integrity of our spiritual heritage.
Let us take, for instance, King Solomon's famous comparison of the Torah to light in the book of Proverbs 6:23). We can take this to mean that, like light, Torah is helpful, cheering and beautiful.
But physics tells us that King Solomon may have had another, deeper idea revealed to him when he wrote this. We know now that light is merely a tiny portion of a large range of waves of different lengths. These range from radio waves that can be miles long to gamma rays which are a fraction of a millimetre in length. Among this vast range of waves with their different properties, there is a small band of waves that are visible - these are light waves.
Perhaps we can understand this to mean that just as visible light has neighbours on the spectrum which are invisible but nonetheless real and powerful, so the Torah has many layers of meaning parallel to the obvious one. The "visible", accessible aspects of Torah are just one tiny fragment of the enormous range of wisdom and inspiration that the Torah contains.
We can understand this metaphor more deeply with reference to another of light's properties. In its most powerful form, light functions as a laser beam, which can maintain its brightness and focus over hundreds of miles, and can even smash through solid matter. We can take this to teach that the most intense absorption in Torah study and observance will produce a massive positive spiritual impact, transcending the barriers of distance and physicality to beam a radiant message across the world.
There is much else besides that one can derive from the Torah with the help of modern science. As scientists uncover more and more wonders in the universe above us and the atoms at our fingertips, so our understanding of the Torah and ourselves may increase in new and exhilarating ways.
Rabbi Lister will be launching 'Intergalactic Judaism' (Urim, £19.95) with a presentation on astrophysics and prayer at Edgware United Synagogue, July 6 at 8.30pm