Wednesday, August 27, 2008

1:2:1:1-12 (The Creation of the Universe)

First an introduction..

I'm chillul Who?. I'm just a guy with a fondness for Torah and for stories with lessons. I'm looking forward to wandering through the orchards of Sefer ha-Aggadah with all of you, tossing around whatever thoughts, questions, and insights we are inspired to.

I expect my style in these Wednesday posts of mine to fall within the genre of the moralistic intellectual stoner. I want to know what the speakers and authors of the aggadot under discussion mean to say about right and wrong and about personal responsibility. I want to know how their conceptions of the world and of Divinity are different and the same as my own. I'll be sort of random. I doubt I'll dismiss much off-hand, no matter how dated a passage from rabbinic literature may appear. I'll likely spend more time turning it upside down and poking around inside, holding it up to the light calling out "dude, the colors in gotta check this one out..."


Now for the creation of the world:

It's somewhat strange to think that beginnings by themselves could be so controversial, and yet selection #4 concludes with Rav Huna presenting a teaching of Bar Kapara:

Were it not written in plain text in the Torah, it would be impossible for us to claim that "In the beginning, God created" all -- for the story starts with the Earth already present, "chaotic and empty" as it may have been.

Big Bang say what? And yet, in today's society the concept of a created universe is so ingrained that an otherwise-imaginative associate of mine found it impossible to conceive of an un-created, eternal universe -- despite knowing the scientific reality that matter and energy can neither be created nor destroyed. Everything has to come from somewhere, and everything has to have a beginning. Do you think this awareness came from our Torah? In the Greek cultural surroundings within which Chazal/our sages lives and taught, the predominant view was the opposite one: the world had always existed. There were no beginnings. Bereshit bara was a revolutionary, counter-intuitive proposition.

And talking of the Big Bang, what of the first three and a half selections for today? When members of Chazal discourage seeking knowledge of "what came before" creation and of "what is above or below" the universe or "to its left or right", what do they mean to say? Is the study of cosmology wrong? futile? Do the sages even mean scientific research as we know it? Is "creator" one of the characteristics of God we are not meant to emulate, like "the jealous one" or "the lone judge"? I'd always gotten the message that it was Jewish to go looking for answers and to learn as much as possible, and I've gotta say, I'm pretty fond of that message.


David A.M. Wilensky said...

chillul, I too was troubled by the idea that we are to search only amongst what is in front of us.

I began wondering, are ht heavens the space around our Earth, extending infinitely out into the Universe, containing everything that our telescopes can see and beyond? Or is it something deeper, more hidden.

I would tend to think that God wouldn't have given us the faculties to examine the cosmos if we it was something we ought not do. I wonder the heavens refers to something more elemental that we can't even grasp at.

chillul Who? said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
chillul Who? said...

Thanks David for the comment and thoughts.. I'm starting to think along the same lines as you that maybe the distinction between what we're told is okay to study and what we're told is not okay to study is a distinction between different types of knowledge:

The knowledge of this world is stuff you can touch/question/extrapolate/taste/observe. ("science")

The knowledge of before-the-world or outside-the-world is stuff that can't be accessed that way. ("metaphysics"? "mysticism"?)

That would make the message of these aggadot more like "Don't walk into 'the pardes'" than like "Don't ask questions".

feygele said...

Can we also go from scientist hat to mathematician for a second? The aggadah that used the letter bet as proof wasn't working for me. If there are four places we're not meant to look and only one way to inquire, then a three-sides-closed bet that has one side open doesn't add up. Shouldn't it be a five-sided shape/letter?

David A.M. Wilensky said...

@ feygele: Good point.

@ chillul: I like the way you're thinking. Mainly because I like science a lot and I can't stand metaphysics. This could be proof for not looking into incomprehensible, unproveable things, such as those one find in metaphysics! I love it!

Richard Friedman said...

Feygele --

The text says, "Thus, you may not say, 'what is below,' 'what is above,' 'what before,' or 'what after' except from the day the earth when the world was created and thenceforth." While it's somewhat unclear, I don't think it means that "from the day ...." is a 5th possibility separate from and in addition to the 4 that are proscribed; rather, I think it means that "from the day ...." is the exception to what would otherwise be a blanket ban on speculation -- you _may_ ask what comes after from the time of creation.