The Limits of Human Knowledge

When Samuel Morse first sent a message in 1844 using the telegraph he had invented, he was so impressed and overwhelmed by what had just happened that famously said, “What God has wrought!” More than a century later, when Neil Armstrong first set foot on the moon, he famously said, “That’s one small step for man, one giant leap for mankind,” (Armstrong later divulged that in the pressure of the moment he had misspoken, and should have said “That’s one small step for a man…”). What’s the difference between these two statements made by such notable men, one a painter and brilliant inventor, the other an explorer for the ages? Morse gave credit for his achievement to God (as a Calvinist, he was a religious man). In Armstrong’s statement there was no mention of God, no attribution of any aspect of the achievement of walking on the moon to a higher power who endowed human beings with the skill and ability to learn and to make discoveries.

What we can learn from this contrast is that, at our best, human beings not only achieve great things but also live and function with an awareness of the finiteness of being human. We do not know all that there is to know, nor will we ever rival God’s omniscience. There is a limit to human knowledge.

We find this idea within the story of the Garden of Eden in Parashat Bereshit, the first portion in the Book of Genesis that kicks off the annual Torah reading cycle this Shabbat morning. In chapter 2 of Genesis, we read the story of how God instructed Adam not to eat from the Tree of Knowledge of Good and Bad that had been planted in the middle of the garden. In verses 16 and 17, we read: “And the Lord God commanded the man, saying, Of every tree of the garden you may freely eat; But of the tree of the knowledge of good and bad, you shall not eat; for on the day that you eat of it you shall surely die.” How should we understand the phrase “Tree of Knowledge of Good and Bad?” Gunther Plaut z”l, a brilliant scholar and author of the Reform Movement’s commentary on the Torah, writes that the story can be interpreted as God’s warning to human beings not to attempt to rival God’s knowledge. The fruit of the “Tree of Knowledge of Good and Bad” can be understood as containing the seeds of all knowledge (just as the phrase “the long and short of it” means all the sum total of an explanation). By eating the fruit of the tree, Plaut suggests, Adam and Eve were attempting to gain the knowledge of all things. By disobeying God’s orders not to eat the fruit, they committed an act of hubris, of defying God and striving to become Divine. Thus, they were expelled from the Garden of Eden and condemned to die, put into their proper place as mortals who could never become like God.

Human beings are capable of many things. We can invent, engineer, create and design almost anything. The Jewish religion, at its best, teaches us two things. First, while human beings can do many things, there are some things that we cannot do and will never be able to do. Second, while we are capable and brilliant, there is a ceiling to our knowledge and understanding. We do not know everything, and when we pretend that we do we get into trouble. We should strive not only to deepen our knowledge and expertise, but to grow in our humility as well.

When we do or see something remarkable, we would do well not to praise and admire ourselves but to say, “What God has wrought!”

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