To Boldly Go...
This article originally appeared in the Jewish Free Press, Calgary

To Boldly Go...*

According to the Torah, the designers of the tower of Babel were motivated by the hope that their monument would “make us a name, lest we be scattered abroad upon the face of the whole earth.” In preventing the tower’s completion, God seemed less concerned with the project itself than with the potential threats that might emerge from a populace that was concentrated in a single place and spoke a common language.

The most familiar interpretation in Jewish tradition has it that the tower was to be used to climb up the the heavens and make war on God or the angels.

For the eighteenth-century Rabbi Jonathan Eybeschütz, that reading was unsatisfactory. At whatever altitude we choose to locate the “heavens” to which the tower was suppose to reach, any novice architect would recognize that for such a structure to be stable, its base would have to be very broad to keep it from toppling over—broader, perhaps, than our entire planet.

Rabbi Eybeschütz suggested, therefore, that the tower’s builders had a more modest objective in mind: to make themselves impervious to any future flood that God might decide to inflict on them as punishment for their misdeeds. Although some might immediately dismiss this scenario, citing God’s pledge after Noah’s flood that he would never again smite the earth in this way, Eybeschütz pointed out that that vow had been introduced with the words “and the Lord said in his heart” —implying thereby that it had not yet been disclosed publicly (so as not to remove its deterrent effect). Consequently, the iniquitous humans were not yet aware that there was no pressing need for their ambitious project. The  no-more-flood clause would not be revealed publicly until the advent of the wicked Balaam who used his prophetic skills to leak it to the heathen nations.

The tower’s engineers based their strategy on some simple scientific observations. They were aware that all rainfall originates in the water vapor that is stored in the clouds; and rain-clouds are never located higher than five miles above the earth’s surface. Therefore, they reasoned, it would be possible to keep dry during any future deluge by ascending to a higher altitude.  And once you are climbing that high, you might as well find a comfortable and stable place to stay. So why not the moon, which seemed to be amenable to human habitation?

But how could humans reach the moon? Rabbi Eybeschütz did not regard that as an insurmountable difficulty. The journey could be accomplished by harnessing some basic principles of aeronautical engineering—perhaps inspired by the mechanics of everyday kites. Since the motion of the winds seems to carry objects upwards, the trick was to construct a ship-like vehicle whose sails were laid out horizontally to catch the gusts. In keeping with his understanding of aeronautics and meteorology, Eybeschütz believed that it is much easier to understand how a vessel can keep ascending skyward than to explain how it can return to earth. The latter process is in a sense anomalous, occasioned when the aircraft comes under the influence of the heavy moist air that is found closer to the the earth’s surface.

In that primitive age near the beginning of Genesis, some people were still under the sway of ignorant superstitions and believed that the winds were animistic beings who could be manipulated by magical rites. They tried their hand at offering sacrifices so that their aircraft would be lifted from below, but were disappointed to discover that wind and air are not willful beings who are subject to persuasion, but merely impersonal natural forces. Consequently, a consensus was reached that they should pursue a more scientific approach to achieving their objective. Put another way: after a prolonged period in which they tried out multiple strategies, humanity had now reached a state in which “the whole earth was of one language.”

And so our stalwart band of aviators planned to launch their airship from an elevation beyond the pull of the heavy winds that would have drawn them downwards.  Having passed this crucial point, it should now be clear sailing to the moon. An irrefutable proof of their scientific theory was the fact that nobody had ever seen a bullet or cannonball fall to the ground after it had been shot straight up in the air by a powerful blast of gunpowder. This, according to Rabbi Eybeschütz, was an empirical fact upon which there existed a clear scientific consensus.

In discussing this factor, he was anticipating by more than a century an approach that would be preferred by Jules Verne in his 1865 pioneering science-fiction novel From the Earth to the Moon. Verne’s craft was indeed propelled from a huge cannon and was calculated so that it would be powerful enough to lift the craft beyond the pull of the earth’s gravitational pull.

Back to the Bible story: The best thing to do at this stage was to launch their missile from a point that was higher than the heavy air that was impeding its ascent.

This, then, was the purpose of the tower. It was intended to serve as the launching pad for the spaceship that would transport the intrepid travelers to their moon base where they could safely wait out any excessive rainfall that might be directed at our planet as retribution for their crimes.

We should bear in mind that Eybeschütz was not always sympathetic to the most advanced scientific discoveries. In his work Ye‘arot Devash he rejected Copernicus’s claims that the earth orbits the sun. This was the result of his commitment to the Aristotelian theory advanced by Maimonides according to which the sun and the visible planets are in reality “separate intelligences,” beings of pure intellect without physical matter, the beings that the philosophers equated with the angels of the Hebrew scriptures. It is an essential and irrevocable part of the divine cosmological plan that these beings continue to revolve in their eternal orbits as they contemplate ultimate truth. For Eybeschütz this metaphysical axiom was so crucial to Judaism that he was confident Copernicus’s apparent proofs to the contrary would be refuted imminently.

We should relate in a similar spirit to his failure to raise the question of how humans would breathe in outer space (Jules Verne  took the trouble to furnish his spacecraft with an oxygen-producing machine, and to describe a moon that possessed a thin atmosphere and a bit of water). Rabbi Eybeschütz, in fact, was more concerned with describing  how the expanses between the earth and the moon contained winds to lift the wings of the ancient airship. This was no problem for him, since he took very seriously the principle that nature abhors a vacuum. Looked at from a theological perspective, this taught him that it would be wasteful and uneconomical for the Almighty to leave immense sections of the universe completely empty. Hence, there would always be helpful breezes to carry the rebellious sinners up above the rain clouds.

Based on  similar reasoning, he deduced that Noah’s flood did not consist of water falling onto the surface of the entire world—for why waste good rainwater on oceans or on uninhabited regions (he mentions America as such a barren place)? Rather, what God did was to temporarily suspend the upward motion of the air so that the rainwater would cease to rise and evaporate.

Well, we all know how the debacle of the tower of Babel ended. According to Rabbi Jonathan, it was not on account of any flawed science or engineering, but only because of the divine intervention. It kind of makes you wonder what sort of experiments he was conducting in his garage.

Of course the ensuing division of mankind into diverse languages might require the launching of an International Space Station—but that, I suppose, is another story (“Babel 2”?) that Rabbi Eybeschütz did not pursue.

This article and many others are now included in the book

Chronicles and Commentaries
Chronicles and Commentaries

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  • First Publication:
    • The Jewish Free Press, Calgary, October 17, 2014, p. 13.
  • For further reading:
    • Bettan, Israel. “The Sermons of Jonathan Eybeshitz.” Hebrew Union College Annual 10 (1935): 553–597.
    • Brown, Jeremy. New Heavens and a New Earth: The Jewish Reception of Copernican Thought
    • . Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2013.