The Double-Edged Sword of Knowledge

Each week Rabbi Yoel Domb writes about issues of business ethics related to the Torah portion of the week.

“Though Nobel was essentially a pacifist and hoped that the destructive powers of his inventions would help bring an end to war, his view of mankind and nations was pessimistic.”

“We can only speculate about the reasons for Nobel’s establishment of the prizes that bear his name. He was reticent about himself, and he confided in no one about his decision in the months preceding his death. The most plausible assumption is that a bizarre incident in 1888 may have triggered the train of reflection that culminated in his bequest for the Nobel Prizes. That year Alfred’s brother Ludvig had died while staying in Cannes, France. The French newspapers reported Ludvig’s death but confused him with Alfred, and one paper sported the headline ‘Le marchand de la mort est mort’ (“The merchant of death is dead.”) Perhaps Alfred Nobel established the prizes to avoid precisely the sort of posthumous reputation suggested by this premature obituary. It is certain that the actual awards he instituted reflect his lifelong interest in the fields of physics, chemistry, physiology, and literature.”

(Encyclopaedia Brittanica -“Alfred Nobel”)

Alfred Nobel was a brilliant inventor, who specialized in developing explosive materials such as dynamite and gelignite. He patented more than 350 different ideas and became an immensely rich man. Yet his conscience could not accept the thought that he would be identified with lethal and destructive weapons, and he hoped that by establishing his trust he would mitigate the damage done by introducing these weapons to the modern world. Perhaps we can now gain a clear understanding of a similar dilemma which faced a priestly family some 2000 years before Nobel conceived his inventions.

The Torah delineates the various plants which were used to formulate the incense used in the Temple. The incense consisted of a highly potent group of species, which when mixed together could produce a pungent odor to serve as “a sweet smell, a sacrifice to G-d.” The Mishna (Tamid 3:8) graphically depicts the effect of this olfactory experience:

“From Jericho they could smell the incense being made”(from 15 miles away!) Rabbi Eliezer son of Diglai added: My father had goats in Michvar (a distant town),which would sneeze from the smell of the incense .”

The Torah also warns that such concoctions cannot be used for any venal purpose, on pain of death. The formula for preparing incense for the Temple was a closely guarded secret held by the house of Avtinas, one of the priestly families at the time of the Second Temple. The Rabbis were upset that this family did not wish to teach anyone else how to prepare the incense and they therefore sent for experts from Alexandria, Egypt to try to imitate the procedure.

The Talmud relates that they succeeded in reproducing the incense, but could not make the smoke rise up straight, since they lacked one of the species which fulfilled this function. Subsequently the Rabbis capitulated, saying that there must be a divine reason why G-d had placed this crucial information in the hands of one family. However the Avtinas family were themselves outraged at this attempt to undercut them, and they forced the Rabbis to double their wages.

The Mishna in Yoma mentions the house of Avtinas among those who are to be disparaged for their conduct, but the Talmud relates that matters did not end there. The Rabbis inquired why Avtinas did not want to teach their skill to others, and they replied “Our fathers knew that the Temple would be destroyed, and they feared that unscrupulous people might obtain the formula and concoct this incense for idolatrous purposes.” Thus it transpired that Avtinas’s motive was not mercenary gain (although they undoubtedly prospered from their skill) but rather to protect G-d’s sacred incense from heathen defilement. However the Rabbis praised Avtinas for an entirely different reason.

“No bride from their house ever used any perfume, and when they wed from other families they stipulated that no perfume be used ,so that no one would accuse them of using their skill for personal use.”

It is not unlikely that this moral integrity displayed by Avtinas pursuaded the Rabbis that their original motive in protecting the formula was a just and true one. The Tiferet Yisrael explains that ultimately they were not disparaged, and the Mishna’s criticism is directed at other people who protected their knowledge out of egoistic concerns.

Both the Avtinas family and Nobel were faced by the challenge of possessing a potent and powerful skill in their hands which could be used for the benefit of mankind but also for evil purposes. Avtinas clung on to their secret tenaciously, while Nobel chose to market his inventions globally. But whereas Avtinas is remembered in history for its role in protecting the incense from being offered to heathen gods, Nobel is associated not just with the famous prizes he established, but also with much of the horrendous human carnage that characterized the 20th century. The lesson we can derive from this is that tremendous care must be taken when a new invention holds potential for evil as well as good, and that science must give heed to ethical considerations with each step forward into the future. With the advent of such momentous innovations as cloning we should indeed be as cautious as the House of Avtinas before we allow such knowledge out of the laboratory and into the hands of every man.

Rabbi Yoel Domb is a graduate of JCT and a member of the faculty of the JCT Bet Midrash. He was awarded a fellowship from the Center for Business Ethics for the academic year 2000-2001. He is currently researching topics of business ethics in Jewish Law and is preparing a curriculum to facilitate the teaching of these topics in Rabbinical seminaries (Yeshivot).