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Professor Douglas Abraham

Professor Douglas Abraham


Thoughts on the Parsha Lech Lecha

The parshat Lech Lecha begins with Avram leaving Ur Kasdim and venturing into the desert. During this time, he made a profound discovery by observing the heavens; this is described by Adolf Jellinek (1821-1893) in his collection: Beit Ha-Midrash (1853-1878, 6 volumes):

When Abraham was young, he sought to serve the Highest. When the sun sank, and the stars came forth, he said: “These are the gods!” But the dawn came and the stars could be seen no longer, and then he said, “I will not worship these, since they are no gods.” Thereupon the sun came forth, and he spoke, “This is my god, him I will extoll”. But then the sun set, and he said, “He is no god” and, beholding the moon, he called her his god to whom he would pay divine homage. Then the moon was obscured, and he cried out: “This, too, is no god! There is One who sets them all in motion.”

For those who have experienced it, observing the night sky in the desert far from artificial illumination is extraordinary: one sees the sky apparently rotating overhead as the night evolves about the axis of the pole star, over one’s shoulder the milky way is doing the same thing and overhead the stars hang down like cotton wool.

The text on the Creation, Genesis 1.3, states: G‑d said “Let there be light”; and there was light. Then, almost at the end of the Creation, on the sixth day, G‑d created man and made mankind trustee of creation. The author of Psalm 8, verse 7 declares: You have made him master over Your handiwork, laying the world at his feet.  On the one hand, trusteeship suggests trying to understand what one is entrusted with. On the other, Koheleth (Ecclesiastes), 1:9, states that: there is nothing new under the sun. This is indeed correct; creation is complete and on Shabbat we are celebrating the fact. But what Koheleth does not discuss is whether we have seen, let alone appreciated or understood, the half or indeed any fixed proportion of the created world.  So, study it! Thus we are prompted to ask the question: what is light? The creation did not reveal this. Rather, it is a clear statement about the attributes of G‑d in the Maimonides sense.

Let me say at this point that arguments and questions of this sort could be made about many fields, such as social matters, aesthetics, medicine. I chose physical science simply because I have spent some years studying applied maths and theoretical science in general. Returning to light, in the second half of the 19th century, extraordinary discoveries were made about this question by Faraday and Maxwell, a timely fusion of experimental and theoretical ideas which enabled Maxwell to propose equations which governed the variation in space and time of electric and magnetic fields. These equations allow wave-like solutions: light is an electromagnetic wave and from this  we understand reflection, refraction interference, colour. Radio communication requires waves of longer wavelength.  It provides the possibility of long distance communication to enlighten people, rescue from disaster and so on. This is the inclination to good, yetzer tov. On the other hand, one can use radar to flatten cities by aerial bombardment or hard X-rays to trigger thermonuclear weapons, a prime example of inclination to evil (yetzer hara).  So, studying nature has a distinct Janus property.

The combination of Newtonian mechanics (from the 17th century) and the electromagnetic theory reduces the entire universe to a clockwork-like problem. Once you know the initial condition, you have not only the world evolution for all time, but also its entire past; freedom of will is inconsistent with this. So where is the solution of this conundrum?

The end of the 19th century was one of great technical success. But there were nagging problems, one being the wavelength distribution of the electromagnetic waves emitted by hot bodies, the cavity radiation. This was sorted out in an empirical way by Planck, who had been advised earlier to stick to the violin, rather than to participate in the wrapping up the odd loose end in the understanding of the physical world! Then in 1905 came Einstein, who turned the description of the physical world on its head. But before embarking on that, let me quote the preface of a recent textbook on Electromagnetic theory, by Andrew Zangwill:

The search for reason ends at the shore of the known; on the immense expanse beyond it only the ineffable can glide.

From Abraham Joshua Herschel: Man is not alone (1951).

The quotation above from Torah is in the ineffable. The discussion about light is from the first part. As J. von Neumann, a Hungarian Jewish mathematical physicist active from 1930 to 1955, put it, to answer a question such as “what is light?”, we must construct a model. This cannot deal with issues such as what was there “before creation” and after the world, as we know it, ends. So this entire intellectual process has intrinsic limitations.

We now return to the millennial demise of nineteenth century physics. Now, back to Einstein; he threw a spanner in the notion of electromagnetic waves in the “aether”, an undefined medium of propagation. One of the things he proposed is that instead of light being wavelike, it is actually particle-like, some of the time, whence the quip “Don’t look, wave; look, particle”.  This solved Planck’s problem and pointed the way to the intellectual revolution of quantum mechanics, from1924/5 onwards to the present day. If you make a measurement at an atomic scale, there are in general many possible outcomes and all you “know” is the probability of any particular outcome. In this sense, there are very many possible evolutions and the “clockwork” model fails. Thus, at this level, there is no intellectual conflict between freedom of will and basic physics. Detailed examination of what G‑d created reveals an utterly incredible world!

Rabbi Eli very kindly drew my attention to two works in the Chabad library by Chaim Halevy Donin, in which, amongst other things, the author reveals his enthusiasm for Ecclesiastes. This book repeatedly points out the futility and falseness of life and makes a number of highly provocative remarks (his views on women in particular) to wind the reader up in preparation for the final remark:

The sum of the matter, when all is said and done: Revere G‑d and observe his commandments! For this applies to all mankind.

This, of course invites the corollary: if one were to apply Reverence to ultimately pointless (in the sense of Koheleth) activities, then they might well acquire a point. In passing, they make a Crime of Galileo impossible within the Jewish framework (ideally!).

But recall von Neumann’s warning: we are building models, playing a game, saying nothing of an ineffable character in the sense of Herschel. I would like to end with an anecdote (a true one!):

An out-of–work (or rather, a between jobs) medical malpractice lawyer has decided to challenge himself by offering a course on cutting-edge astrophysics to Rabbinical students at Yeshiva University in New York. The students do the assignments with apparent ease and ask probing questions. At the end of the final class, he asks:

Did I convince you?


Not exactly, but we loved your arguments.

A little healthy scepticism is a Good Thing!

(as Sellars and Yeatman of “1066 and All That” might have put it).



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