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Oppenheimer and Isaiah (Eikev – 08/05/23)

Oppenheimer and Isaiah

Spoiler Alert. “Oppenheimer” wasn’t what I expected. I thought it would be about the race with Nazis to develop the atomic bomb and the challenges of the Manhattan Project. It’s actually about Oppenheimer’s resistance to our country’s policy of nuclear proliferation in the 1950s and the accusations and trials he faced when they tried to remove him from high-level governmental clearance.

While his Jewishness is only briefly mentioned, he may have been channeling some deeply rooted Jewish ideas concerning his worries about nuclear proliferation.

In ancient Israel, they didn’t have bombs, but new technology was developing with a great capacity for violence: Iron.

Our Parsha, Eikev, describes Israel as abundant in copper and iron (Deuteronomy 8:9):

אֶרֶץ אֲשֶׁר אֲבָנֶיהָ בַרְזֶל וּמֵהֲרָרֶיהָ תַּחְצֹב נְחֹשֶׁת

“A land whose rocks are iron and from whose hills you can mine copper.”

The blessing of the tribes in Deuteronomy mentions Asher in association with both of these metals (Deuteronomy 33:24):

“And of Asher, Moses said: May your door bolts be iron and copper, and your security last all your days.”

Before the tenth century B.C.E., almost all metalwork in the Middle East was from copper. While it’s a great conductor of heat and beautiful when mixed with tin (forming bronze), copper was not very useful for ancient war machines; it’s too soft.

However, the 10th–9th centuries B.C.E. saw a major change in the use of metals in agricultural and fighting implements: tools and weapons were mostly made of iron. Bronze declined, and iron became the metal of choice for producing tools and weapons.[1]

Now when do we see iron mentioned in the Bible? Mainly regarding war:

In Joshua 17:16, the Josephites express concern about their ability to conquer the Canaanites in their allotted territory because the Canaanites had iron chariots:

“We’re not able to take control of the hill country for all the Canaanites who live in the valley area have iron chariots…”

The tribe of Judah had a similar problem (Judges 1:19): “God was with Judah so that they took possession of the hill country; but they were not able to dispossess the inhabitants of the plain, for they had iron chariots.”

Nine hundred such iron chariots feature in the battle of Israel against the Canaanite general Sisera in the Deborah story.

The difference between having iron chariots and not is comparable to the Polish cavalry facing the tanks of Germany’s Blitzkrieg during the beginning of WWII. You can’t win a 20th-century war with 19th-century weaponry.

After releasing the devastating fury of a fission bomb, Oppenheimer hoped to suppress the creation of the Hydrogen bomb – a weapon with one thousand times the power.

Any time a new technology is developed, humans will figure out how to weaponize it. With iron, it was with the chariot, and of course, there’s no need to say swords, maces, etc.

When I first visited our local Museum of Aviation, I learned the same happened with the airplane. The Wright Brothers had just figured out how to fly in 1903, and within a few years, way before travel by plane became commonplace, someone affixed a gun to it. WWI, barely ten years after the dawn of flight, was rife with aerial warfare.

With the advent of Quantum Physics in the mid-20th century, scientists learned that splitting the atom could unleash vast amounts of energy.

The first uses of this technology were the atomic bombs in 1945. In contrast, the first nuclear power plant was constructed in America in 1958.

Just as Oppenheimer feared the destructive capability of fusion-based bombs, the Torah also had some reservations about iron.

When the Torah instructs the building of the altar in the Temple, it says (Deuteronomy 27:5):

וּבָנִיתָ שָּׁם מִזְבֵּחַ לַי־הוָה אֱלֹהֶיךָ מִזְבַּח אֲבָנִים לֹא־תָנִיף עֲלֵיהֶם בַּ

“When you build an altar to your God, it should be an altar of stones. Do not wield an iron tool over them.”

As the rabbis comment, the altar is meant to lengthen a person’s days; therefore, we shouldn’t craft it with the item that shortens them.

Perhaps the prophet Isaiah was the one who feared this new destructive technology the most:

“They shall beat their swords into plowshares and their spears into pruning hooks; nation shall not lift sword against nation, neither shall they learn war anymore.”

When we come from a “dog eat dog” worldview, it’s logical to turn all technology into implements of war. Yet, humankind has a higher calling. If we’d only understand that we are all here on this planet together to exist in harmony, we’d embrace new technology for its productivity. Iron for plowshares would be the general rule.

Was Oppenheimer a modern-day Isaiah? I’m not sure. He may just have been fearful of a fusion bomb’s tremendous destructive ability. However, for humanity to survive with a utopian future, we must see Isaiah’s ideal: that all new technologies be utilized solely to benefit society. One thing we can say about Oppenheimer is that he rallied behind his beliefs, even suffering greatly for them. Making a positive change in the world is never easy; it’s arduous and time-consuming. But it’s also something we’re all here for. Let’s help forge an ideal future.

R’ Neil

[1] The History of Iron in Ancient Israel by Dr. Naama Yahalom-Mack.

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