Newton on Kodshim, or 53 Shopping Years Left Until Apocalypse
It sure seems like the Borei Olam has a wonderful sense of humor.
Just as Dick Dawkins and his fellow best-selling nihilists were riding high, selling books like hotcakes the better to worship their highest being, Mammon, with, along comes Newton’s Secrets, a new exhibit at Hebrew U. revealing Isaac Newton, whom many regard as the father of modern science, to be a wild-eyed fundamentalist not altogether different from your average Brisker, right down to studying Rambam‘s Hilchos Avodas HaKorbanos.
No small exhibit, this; Newton’s theological writings, here on public display for the first time, number close to three million words. Here’s how the Associated Press describes their contents:
Three-century-old manuscripts by Isaac Newton calculating the exact date of the apocalypse, detailing the precise dimensions of the ancient temple in Jerusalem and interpreting passages of the Bible — exhibited this week for the first time — lay bare the little-known religious intensity of a man many consider history’s greatest scientist.
Newton, who died 280 years ago, is known for laying much of the groundwork for modern physics, astronomy, math and optics. But in a new Jerusalem exhibit, he appears as a scholar of deep faith who also found time to write on Jewish law — even penning a few phrases in careful Hebrew letters — and combing the Old Testament’s Book of Daniel for clues about the world’s end.
The documents, purchased by a Jewish scholar at a Sotheby’s auction in London in 1936, have been kept in safes at Israel’s national library in Jerusalem since 1969. Available for decades only to a small number of scholars, they have never before been shown to the public.
In one manuscript from the early 1700s, Newton used the cryptic Book of Daniel to calculate the date for the Apocalypse, reaching the conclusion that the world would end no earlier than 2060.
“It may end later, but I see no reason for its ending sooner,” Newton wrote. However, he added, “This I mention not to assert when the time of the end shall be, but to put a stop to the rash conjectures of fanciful men who are frequently predicting the time of the end, and by doing so bring the sacred prophesies into discredit as often as their predictions fail.”
In another document, Newton interpreted biblical prophecies to mean that the Jews would return to the Holy Land before the world ends. The end of days will see “the ruin of the wicked nations, the end of weeping and of all troubles, the return of the Jews captivity and their setting up a flourishing and everlasting Kingdom,” he posited.
The exhibit also includes treatises on daily practice in the Jewish temple in Jerusalem. In one document, Newton discussed the exact dimensions of the temple — its plans mirrored the arrangement of the cosmos, he believed — and sketched it. Another paper contains words in Hebrew, including a sentence taken from the Jewish prayerbook.
Yemima Ben-Menahem, one of the exhibit’s curators, said the papers show Newton’s conviction that important knowledge was hiding in ancient texts.
“He believed there was wisdom in the world that got lost. He thought it was coded, and that by studying things like the dimensions of the temple, he could decode it,” she said.
The exhibit’s host, the Jewish National and University Library (JNUL), has this to say about the collection:
Newton’s scientific achievement remains unchanged as a result of the uncovering of this vast archive of unpublished papers. White light is still composed of all the colours of the rainbow and Newtonian physics still launches satellites into orbit with exacting precision. But our understanding of the man who made the new physics has been permanently altered. Newton now appears to us a more complex person with an even more widely-ranging intellect than had previously been realised.
Newton was one of the last great Renaissance men, a thinker who worked in mathematics, physics, optics, alchemy, history, theology and the interpretation of prophecy and saw connections between them all. We also see in Newton a Janus-faced figure who looked to the past for inspiration even as his innovations pointed toward the future. Finally, when added to his published writings on physics, mathematics and optics, the manuscripts displayed in this exhibition reveal a man in pursuit of all the multifarious the secrets of God and Nature.
“More complex person with an even more widely-ranging intellect than had previously been realised” ? “One of the last great Renaissance men, a thinker who worked in mathematics, physics, optics, alchemy, history, theology and the interpretation of prophecy and saw connections between them all” ? “A man in pursuit of all the multifarious the secrets of God and Nature” ? Vey iz meer . . . Mr. Dawkins — whose professorial chair is named, if I recall correctly, something like the Oscar Meyer Weiner Chair in the Public Understanding of Science, but is a legume in the presence of Sir Isaac — must be getting indigestion just about now.
Dr. Mordechai Feingold, a CalTech history of science professor and world-class Newton scholar, notes that the Newtonian search for rational, universal principles impacted the development of virtually every intellectual field, even literature, history and psychology. Says Feingold: “Everyone wanted to be the Newton of their field. Adam Smith wanted to be the Newton of economics; David Hume wanted to be the Newton of moral philosophy.” So perhaps there’s a role for Dick the Prof to play, after all; if he tries really hard and sells enough books, maybe he can be the Newton of atheism, although since Newton was about bringing rational analysis to subjects previously governed by emotion, that might be a self-defeating exercise on Dawkins’ part.
A further fascinating nugget about this collection is the following note that Albert Einstein, apparently after having had a look at these writings, penned to Abraham Shalom Yahuda, the Orientalist who first purchased the papers now on display:
My Dear Yahuda,
Newton’s writings on biblical matters seem to me particularly interesting because they afford deep insight into the unique mind and thought process of this great man. The divine origin of the Bible is, for Newton, absolutely certain, a certitude that stands in peculiar contrast to the critical skepticism that characterizes his stand vis-à-vis the Churches. This confidence led him to the firm conviction that the seemingly opaque parts of the Bible must contain important revelations, the clarification of which can only be achieved by deciphering the Bible’s symbolic language. Newton pursued this decipherment, i.e., this interpretation, by means of incisive, systematic thinking and meticulous utilization of every possible source.
While the process by which Newton’s writings about the physical world evolved must remain hidden, as Newton apparently destroyed the preliminary versions, in the realm of his biblical work, which is still mostly unpublished, we have a variety of sketches and ongoing changes that give us a most interesting look into the mental laboratory of this unique thinker.
A. Einstein, September 1940
P.S. I consider it very wonderful that Newton’s aforementioned writings are to be brought together in one place and made available there to researchers.
The JNUL observes that the “treasures of this exhibition invite us to rethink traditional dichotomies: ancients and moderns, science and religion, the rational and the irrational.” Indeed.