Torah and Backwater Newtonians:


Are you trapped by the Greco/Newtonian view of reality ?  By this I mean someone who has a naive and unsuspecting lack of perspective on the development of western logic and its underlying assumptions starting from the ancient Greeks and culminating in Newtonian physics. I do not mean whether you are some sort of expert in Aristotelian logic or a physicist or anything like that. Rather I am concerned that the reader may not have any clue what the difference is between the metaphysical assumptions before and after the time of Einstein's relativity physics. While physicists consider themselves the high priests of the new culture, the average layperson yawns and says big deal.


 The difference is that such a person is far more likely to be hypnotized by his own bias towards an idea which does not fit the mold of his subliminal assumptions of how the world functions. Why ? Because a person who understands the importance of questioning the intuitive (i.e. his senses), is more likely to appreciate the need to inspect ideas carefully with less assumption.  It is all the more obvious in our age, not just because of the mindset engendered by modern physics, or our electric based culture, but also by virtue of the fact that  we live in such a cosmopolitan world where east and west are thrown together. It should be little wonder to us that until we began to assimilate eastern cultures, their mindsets and thought modes were very much alien to our own. And not for lack of development. It has been pointed out by scholars who study these things, that Eastern cultures have a much easier time adapting to post relativity math and physics then their western counterparts, why ?


While Greek, or more specifically Aristotelian logic and philosophy are much admired, there are many who are not aware of the limitations inherent therein as well as those of  prerelativity science. The Torah and specifically the Oral Law does not suffer from the type of human visual bias which characterizes these two and which led to their becoming the preeminent pillars of the reductionist methodology. That is the emphasis on the breakdown of  phenomena into component parts, rather than emphasis on the whole being greater than the sum of its parts, conversely referred to as the holistic methodology. This reductionist approach failed since it eventually reached the point where the collection of parts no longer fit into a coherent whole.


The logic used throughout the Talmud is much closer to the logic and assumptions of Relativity and Quantum physics than to Newtonian physics. This may sound strange but it is quite true. First of all, the basic metaphysical assumptions of Torah are diametrically opposed to those of Aristotle and Plato and their inheritors in the later Newtonian world view. Since the Torah’s base assumption is that the physical is a function of the abstract spiritual it avoids absolutizing the material world and conversely treating the abstract or spiritual realm as if it were material. This is one of the reasons that there is no direct mention or description of life after death in the written Torah, something which other cultures have a hard time avoiding. The Written Torah is based on prophecy. The common translation for prophet in Hebrew is "Chozeh" which literally means  seer, because the prophet depends on a visual connection to that which he is prophesizing about and anything which cannot be visualized is not a subject for prophesy. The talmudic sages expounded this by saying that a wise man is greater than a prophet because the power of analytical thought can go to realms which are closed to the prophet. Abstract subjects are speculated on and celestial beings (such as angels) are discussed in the Midrashim (homelitic writings by the ancient sages), Oral Torah and in prophetic writings but this is because men have had visual experience in this realm, but the life of the soul does not fall into this category. However, this does not extend to kabbalistic writings, which are on a different level completely than the Written Torah a.k.a the Bible.


 Secondly, based on the influence of the creation story as put forth in Genesis, Torah puts the emphasis on energy (light, the first thing created) and words or letters (speech, the method used to create) and that which transcends natural limitations rather than worshiping nature and human designed thought constructs.  As an illustration of the first idea I offer the contrast of the Greek principle of identity which forms the basis of their logic and math. A is A and not B, and "common sense" makes this so. The measure of A and its properties give it its identity which is the basis of its existence and how we recognize and define it. This is for example the basic assumption of Euclidean Geometry. While this may intuitively strike us as so basic as to be indisputable, and useful for practical worldly matters (such as construction), as a tool for understanding the nature of the world, it is at best misleading and at worst deceptive,  primarily because our visually based intuition is too often a poor model for reality. It follows the Greek habit of believing the evidence of their eyes, rather than being aware of what is actually happening through empirical evidence. Many of the modern objections to Aristotelian principles stem from just such an intuitive and visual based feel or reasoning.


As an example let us examine Einstein's analysis ( in his book “The Evolution of Physics”) of  Aristotle's description of motion in his treatise on physics. Aristotle basically says that an object in motion will continue in motion until the force behind it can no longer act upon it. If we apply this to a common everyday situation, say the motion imparted upon a wheeled object by pushing it, we find that to our eyes this sounds like a fair description of what we are seeing. However, this gives us a mistaken idea of what is actually happening. What really happens is that the energy of the push is dissipated primarily by the friction of the wheels on the ground and axel. If it were not for this friction (and some help from gravity) the wagon would continue in motion indefinitely or until it was opposed by an equal but opposite force. So how you say does this impact our lives ? It beguiles us into treating motion as an artificial state imposed upon the more natural state of rest. It is also based on the lack of understanding of the nature of friction, heat and energy. This is symptomatic of the type of error which held back the development of science for centuries. Of course it is true that the idea that physical principles should involve verification through experimentation did not take hold until the renaissance when men such as Galileo and later Newton finally grasped that only through experimentation could we have a fair idea if a physical principle was effective or not. Regardless, Aristotle's understanding of this and many other things was considered the final word on things for well over a thousand years. Newton basically took Greek visual logic further and held similar misconceptions especially in regard to time, treating it as an unchanging absolute. It wasn't until Einstein and Poincare saw through this error that western thinking progressed towards a more holistic view. While Newton greatly advanced science both theoretically and mathematically in terms of scientific formulas, he and others like him ( Huygens, Descarte, Pascal, LaPlace) basically cultivated a view of the world that was very similiar to the logic of a clock. This is not surprising since the centuries from after the Middle ages up to the discovery of the nature of energy by scientists like Michael Faraday and James C. Maxwell, could really be called the age of the clock. It was not only the cutting edge of western technology, but symbolized the entire idea that further advancement in knowledge was dependent on the breakdown of phenomena into their component parts and sequential order. Faraday's experiments with electricity and magnetism finally put to rest the idea that only force and motion working in straight lines determined the operation of the universe. This new idea called field theory helped form the basis of  the Relativity and Quantum theory revolution which broke down the mental barriers preventing men from understanding the new holistic view of the world. It is interesting that a number of the artists of the previous eras (William Blake, W.B. Yeats, etc.), saw Newton, Locke and  other 18th century intellectuals as hypnotized narcissists, who had actually impoverished culture and thinking with this type of mechanical repetitive logic, such as is fitting to a clock.  The majority of people even today still have no clear idea of how much the new physics changed everything. (It also shows that the artists of a given age are often way ahead of the scientists in their perception of things.) Credit should also be given to David Hume, the philosopher who was able to convince even Emmanuel Kant (the preeminent European philosopher of the 18th century) that there is nothing compelling about lineal sequencial logic which western intellectuals were so hung up on.


So how is the  the Torah view superior ? After all, Torah scholars also did not apply experimentation to physical phenomena and did not cultivate mathematics for its own sake. Regardless, the Jewish sages had been taught by tradition how to calculate and coordinate the lunar and solar calendars (which together make up the Hebrew calendar) to a matter of  of minutes each month. The Jews of antiquity were able to formulate perfectly accurate calendars which are still in use today as they were two thousand years ago with no change at all. Compare this to the Roman calendar which was hopelessly inaccurate for centuries. Their interest in the calendar was not accidental, but follows from the religious need to know when to celebrate the festivals. This testifies that the Oral Law was a unquestionably a vital part of the Torah as there was no impetus to investigate these phenomena for their own sake out of the context of the Torah. Thus we see that rather than begin with visually intuitive assumptions, the sages looked to the revealed word of G-d though the received traditions to make their decisions. In other cases they applied the multi perspectived reasoning of the Oral Torah. That is, to rotate the relationship between the various parts of the physical or logical event to determine which one fit best. By fitting best we mean is consistent with a similar situation already found in the law and verse. As an example I would offer the discussion in the Talmud concerning the the motion of an object thrown from one domain to another. Here a bit of backround is necessary. One of the forbidden categories of Sabbath labor is carrying from domain to domain. A domain can be someones home which is called a private domain. Another type of domain is the street, road or areas where members of the public congregate or travel. One is not permitted to transfer a physical object from one domain to another on the Sabbath unless certain conditions are met. This also extends to certain types of throwing. The question arises in the Talmud is one allowed to throw an object from a private domain to another private domain across a public domain, which would be illegal if the object were carried. In order for the thrower to be culpable, the thrown object has to come to a state of rest in the public domain. But in this case it is constantly moving and passes through the public domain without coming to rest or having its motion suddenly halted. That is if we consider rest to be absolutely irreconcilable with motion. But not being constrained by visual logic and assumptions, the sages debating this issue were free to consider another view to the idea of rest. So at least one of them proposes that even though the object is in a state of passing though the public domain, we can also say that it is absorbed temporarily in the space of that domain and therefore can be considered the equivalent of at rest. This is not an absolute view, but a "quantum" description of the situation.


 The Torah does not consider the material, visual aspects or even the unique measurements of an object or phenomena as its identity. Measurements are relative and fluid rather than fixed. Nature, while manifesting great beauty to the eyes, is more of a mask which hides the divine dimension by fostering the illusion of separateness as the dominant factor in physical phenomena. Furthermore, while the idea of a multidimensional reality has become the stock assumption of physics since Einstein and Relativity, it was well known in Torah eons ago, and one can find the outline of Relativity in Jewish writing going back a long time. (See my quote from Torah sources in the essay "Another look at creation").


 Remarkably the more one studies the Talmud, the more one can appreciate its multi faceted approach to examining concepts. Rather than attempt to devise definitions of  phenomena and thereby restricting their scope by focusing more narrowly, the Talmud in exploring an idea will try to widen its perspective by relating a thing to as many perspectives as possible. Building a legal network of principles and their details is perhaps the most exacting way to throw into relief the web of inter-connectivity between things on the widest possible scale.


 But if I had to boil the Greek/Jewish conflict down to one point of contention, it would be the concept of Bris Milah (circumcision) and why it was so dear to the Jews and such an anathema to the ancient Greeks. To the Greeks, circumcision was a violation of nature whose sacredness depended on man leaving her as she is (since only natures absolute integrity is divine) and whose wholeness leaves nothing for man to add himself to. For the Jews on the other hand, natural phenomena are in actual need of ‘tikkun’, the act of human intervention (symbolized by circumcision) which elevates them to partake of the divine dimension of creation by fulfilling their potential and thereby becoming an act of worship and tribute to the one who created them. This is perfectly in line with the idea of the primary source of Torah being the Oral aspect. The Oral Torah also symbolizes human intervention in the world becoming the elevated form of creation.


I am not saying the Greeks lacked creativity and genius. We give them credit for a number of accomplishments in math, art, culture, and  not least of all for establishing a framework which helped nurture further development in the western world. But when one tries to calculate the things which have survived and remained useful because of their innate truth, Greek culture leaves much to be desired as a way of life and methodology for acquiring knowledge. It has come to embody the very aspects of life and culture which while externally attractive, end up fostering the type of decay brought on by a view of things embedded in separateness. Thus in many respects it has not withstood the test of time. **


Aside from the above, we find that what we call democracy and human rights leans heavily on biblical sources. While government by the people is associated with the Greeks, the bedrock of democracy depends on the recognition that others besides yourself have rights which are greatly strenthened by the concept of man being similar to his creator. True dispensation of justice (as in equal before the law) and   impartialiality are absolutely necessary and are both basic Torah values. Overall, Greek and Jewish values sharply diverge, and we are mostly left comparing the Greek obsession with physical valor and sense of manly honor, as against societies' consciousness of the need for justice and sense of right from wrong which was the constant theme of the prophets. Which of these has survived and imparted the greatest impression upon human history ?  


* Rabbi Lowe of Prague in chapter 46 of his book Gevorot Hashem, circa 1580


**  See Patterns in Time, by Rabbi Matis Weinberg, 2005