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Was That an Earthquake or a Train?
by Dr. Arnie Gotfryd

Often human nature is such that when one is given a simple proof, it is difficult to accept because of its very simplicity.
The Rebbe, Mind Over Matter, p.9.    



Readers Write
 
Shalom Greg, Vadim and Levi,
 
Thanks for including me in your virtual debate about Science and Torah. Your thread is about as long and rich in words as Jewish history is in years since Avraham Avinu, upwards of 3800, and I read it with interest.
 
Clearly you, like most of our brethren throughout the ages, are all intelligent, educated and thoughtful people. You raise dozens of points and counterpoints invoking references to many facts and opinions from a diversity of sciences and cultures as well as your own logical analyses.
 
Your discussion revolves around one central issue: that the believing Jew accepts as fact all kinds of miraculous and supernatural stories just because they are recorded in the Torah, yet categorically rejects any number of alternative histories or refutations no matter how rational, documented, or widely held they may be.
 
That itself would be easier to swallow if the believing Jew would come straight out and say "I believe and that's all," or "Torah is right and science is wrong," but it seems that the believing Jew wants to have his cake and eat it too. He wants to embrace faith and reason, Torah and science.
 
Here is where the problems start, or so it seems. Your claim essentially is that if science is valid to run our hospitals and cell phones, then it should hold sway on all our beliefs about nature and history. When scientific views conflict with Torah, our religious dogma must adapt, even capitulate if need be (so the argument goes). Truth is what counts, wherever that leads us.
 
I think if we analyze this one issue carefully, the rest of the details will fall into place, including your problem with over a million species from around the world suddenly converging on Noah's ark, surviving a year on the boat, and then fanning out over the planet back to their natural habitats without any sign of the whole thing having happened, except a rainbow.
 
To begin, first you are quite correct in characterizing the Jew as both faithful and rational. The Torah has both principles of faith and principles of rational analysis. We approach scripture with the heart, talmud with the mind. Reconciling solar and lunar cycles for the Jewish calendar is a precept of the faith, but to do it requires advanced knowledge of mathematics and astronomy.
 
Jews take pride in study. About 25% of Nobel Prize winning scientists are Jewish, which is about 100 times more than their proportion in the world by population. Are such scholars any less likely to believe? On the contrary, Nobel prizewinners do not have faith despite their secular knowledge, they actually believe in G-d more because of it. For example, see the well-referenced collection of scientist quotes by psychologist Tihomir Dimitrov entitled "50 Nobel Laureates and Other Great Scientists Who Believe in G-d" (
www.nobelist.tripod.com). Who could argue with the likes of Einstein, Planck, Schrödinger and Heisenberg, or Newton, Galileo, Faraday and Maxwell?
 
Not only do such unparalleled scholars believe in some kind of omnipotent and omniscient Creator, but a great many of them believe in the Bible as well, which brings us back to your basic question. How can eminently sensible people accept the possibility that the stories in the Bible actually happened as described?
 
One key to understanding this is to carefully define the notion of truth. When we say something is true we generally mean that it is not subject to change depending on time, place or context. As such it is an absolute. However, the truths of science are not like that. Ever since Heisenberg, we have come to understand that all science is conditional, tentative, and uncertain. If there is some way to determine capital-T Truth, clearly it is not through science.
 
The same science of the quantum that gave scientists a newfound humility, also leads us to acknowledge that the ultimate ground of reality is some indivisible wholeness beyond space and time which is conscious and from which all physical phenomena emerge at every moment via vacuum fluctuations (in chassidus this is called continuous creation ex nihilo). So rather than an omniscient and omnipotent creator being foreign to rational science, it is actually integral to it. In layman's terms we can really talk about science discovering G-d.
 
But there is more to it than that. Physics also negates the traditional notion of matter being made up of separate physical particles bouncing around like so many billiard balls on some giant cosmic pool table. Particles of matter are now seen as condensed energy waves shaped by our consciousness and downloaded from some higher consciousness. With the demise of material realism, science and nature have become re-enchanted. Now every event, each phenomenon is seen as a miracle.
 
This is comparable to what our sages teach, for example the Chacham Tzvi who says that nature is nothing more than a continuous string of miracles. It's just that we get so used to watching nature go by that we neglect its supernatural character.
 
Empowered with a modern scientific outlook, we can return to the question of Biblical miracles with a new perspective. Since nature itself is miraculous, why be disturbed by the possibility of outcomes that are neither rational nor materialistic? And since there is some "conscious and indivisible wholeness" behind all this, who says that such a Being would not choose to communicate with man? On the contrary, why would such a Being create nature in such a way that man could infer His existence if He did not want such a relationship?
 
But, you may contend, the fact that divine communication is possible does not mean that it actually happened. With so many alternative religions and traditions, why believe in the Torah, specifically? This question, too, can be approached scientifically. But let me start with a little story.
 
As I was sitting at the computer today, composing this response, I started to feel my chair swaying back and forth. I listened to what was going on outside and heard a train in the distance. My house is not far from the tracks and I've often felt the house sway a bit when trains pass. But this seemed more intense than usual. Maybe it was a big train? Maybe a small earthquake? I didn't know.
 
I came downstairs and asked my wife if she had felt anything strange. "You felt it too? What do you think it was?" We checked a local news website, but nothing about an earthquake. A short while later, a newsflash popped up. Then I heard about it on the radio. Then google started coughing up news reports and twitter feeds. Then I got confirmation from government seismological websites.
 
Once I saw such a diversity of reports from so many places in
Quebec, Ontario, New York, New Jersey and Connecticut, I was satisfied that indeed I had experienced a 5.0 quake today. We felt it, it was detected by independent means, and was widely reported in diverse media. Nobody is going to come to me tomorrow to say it didn't happen. And if they did, I would not believe them, nor would anyone else.
 
But what about my kids? And their kids? How about in 3,000 years? (Of course Moshiach will come by then but still...) Will my hundredth generation descendants necessarily believe in the earthquake of June 23, 2010? It depends. If there will be evidence from diverse sources describing the same event in pretty much the same way, even though none of those sources are first hand, I would probably believe it. Just like I believe that there was a famous British scientist named Isaac Newton even though no one I know ever met him.
 
On the other hand, if one or even twelve of my friends said they felt something like an earthquake and recorded it for posterity, but the rest of my friends felt nothing of the sort, no news stations reported it, and the seismologists did not register it, in such a case, I may not only have difficulty believing it myself, I would also have trouble convincing any rational, evidence-based society that such a thing happened. Over time, some people would defend the tradition, but others would deny it based on their records.
 
The analogue is probably obvious to you by now.
 
The giving of the Torah at Mount Sinai was not a revelation to one person or even to a small group. It was a public event with the participation of 603,550 censused adult male Israelites excluding women, children, seniors, Levites and converts, probably some three million people in all, who all heard G-d speak to them directly without any intermediary.
 
That public was very diverse and included a lot of independent thinkers. They argued with Moses about bread, meat, water, aliyah, marriage, the priesthood, you name it, they fought about it. But one thing nobody argued about - the divine origin of the Torah. And that's because they were all there. Who were they going to fool? People who experienced it themselves? They all knew they left Egypt without a Torah. They came into Israel with one. It had to come from somewhere. What kind of alternative story could they make up and who would believe it anyways?
 
Even after they settled the Land of Israel, they all had but one Torah text and that text was testimony to the Sinai experience. The next generation had it too and the next. In fact, we've never been without it. The copying is always letter-perfect. Even the oral tradition is exact - the "fruit of a beautiful tree" is always an etrog and the "reminder between your eyes" is always a leather cube with four rolled parchments of Torah passages inside.
 
At what point in our history could someone come along and make something up like this and, more importantly, "sell it" to a whole nation so that they would all suddenly believe that this was their family heritage? Would argumentative Jews like you and me have no dissention on this point whatsoever?
 
So now that the balance of evidence and reason leans toward the Torah being of divine origin while alternative hypotheses are unrealistic, the details of how many animals in the ark and how they got there and how they dispersed afterwards are small change. We live in a miraculous world anyway, so why not this miracle as well? And if you wonder about miracles still, consider the basic building block of your "natural" world, the atom - its enigmatic orbits of unknowable bits of energy with gargantuan proportions of empty space, yet presenting itself as hard, opaque and static. 
 
Gentlemen, we are not Wiccans or Raelians here, we are children of Abraham. Most of the world's inhabitants pride themselves on being his spiritual heir, but what of us Jews? We aren't a cult. We are an empirically validated, philosophically sound, ethically grounded and socially cohesive nation and culture with a faith endorsed by the greatest minds of all time. Lets relax and enjoy who we are, and try just one more mitzvah to bring Moshiach now!
 
 
Dr. Aryeh (Arnie) Gotfryd, PhD is a chassid, environmental scientist, author and educator living near Toronto, Canada. To contact, read more or to book him for a talk, visit
www.arniegotfryd.com or call 416-858-9868.

 

 


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