The other night I read a magazine article on the construction of the Giant Magellan Telescope (GMT), an international collaboration to construct the greatest earth-based observatory up in the Andes Mountains in Chile. The technology involved in manufacturing the massive set of primary mirrors, with an effective diameter of 24.5 meters (80 feet), is remarkable, but what really excites my imagination is the concept of “adaptive optics.” The primary mirrors will gather the faintest light and reflect it onto a set of secondary mirrors, which will in turn focus the light onto an array of sensors to capture the broadest range of wavelengths. These secondary mirrors are designed to adapt their shape in extremely subtle ways to compensate for the distortions of light caused by earth’s atmosphere. Lasers around the telescope will probe the sky in order to measure these distortions, allowing the telescope to adapt the shape of its secondary mirrors and collect the oldest and faintest light at the highest possible resolution. While it is of course preferable to avoid atmospheric distortions altogether by locating a telescope in space (like the Hubble Space Telescope, whose mirror is a mere 2.4 meters), it is difficult and expensive to place and maintain equipment there, making earth-based telescopes an important component of astronomy for the future (see this link from Harvard Magazine for the full article).
Why, you may be asking, am I starting a d’var Torah with a discussion of telescopes? In my integrating seminar this week, my student Philip was discussing Rabbi Isaac Luria’s concept of shevirat hakelim, the primordial shattering of vessels that were intended to convey the light of creation throughout the cosmos, but which were compromised by evil and thus incapable of containing this divine energy. As Philip spoke, I associated this concept with the article on the Giant Magellan Telescope, and realized that both of these are apt metaphors for the religious life. As with astronomy, Judaism is an “observational science.” Astronomers devote themselves to observing the cosmos, searching for the earliest moments of existence, and seeking to understand the nature of both the light and the darkness that present themselves to every creature that scans the night sky. Religion in general, and Judaism in particular, are also “observational” disciplines in that they direct us to study all aspects of existence—physical, spiritual, scriptural and natural—so that we too can understand both the darkness and the light, and can shape our souls to become more perfect mirrors of God. Continue reading