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Torah & Science

Exploring the interplay between faith and logic, religion and critical thinking, tradition and technology.

How Scientific is Torah?

By Tzvi Freeman


So we hear all the time about how Torah and science don't really contradict. But can you give me at least one or two examples where they actually coincide?


• The most outstanding example: For millennia, we were ridiculed for believing the world began. Only in the latter half of the 20th century did the evidence come out overwhelmingly on our side. As Dr. Arno Penzias (one of the three who received a Nobel Prize for identifying the "background radiation" that became one of the pillars of the current Big Bang cosmology) writes, "creation is supported by all the data so far."

• Abraham was a maverick for believing that all the forces of the cosmos are really a single force. This is the contention of science for the past 100 years and the driving force behind the search for the Unified Field Theory.

• The Torah's account of Creation and of events that defy the laws of physics -- and even defy logic -- implies that the laws of logic are not absolute -- i.e. it is not impossible for those laws to have been created otherwise, and even now, the Creator could adjust them or supersede them at whim. An inkling of this kind of thinking opened the way for modern mathematics, breaking away from the Euclidian view that the axioms of geometry are absolute "self evident truths," and laying the ground for Einstein's relativity. Indeed, later attempts to demonstrate that mathematics is based on logic have all failed. Thinkers today question the absoluteness of logic itself.

• Torah, by presenting the concept of Divine Providence within nature, requires a universe that is only loosely linear, rejecting the determinist concept that cause and effect are inherently linked. This is an outcome of the Principle of Uncertainty, first enunciated by Heisenberg in 1928. Over the past 30 years, experimentation has repeatedly affirmed this concept.

• Torah does not talk in terms of matter as a self-contained substance, but as an event, a 'word'. Today we understand matter as simply a dynamic of concentrated energy, as in the familiar formula E=mc2. Or, in physicist David Bohm's definition, "That which unfolds, whatever the medium."

• Torah relies on witnesses and observation over intuition. Today we call this objective empiricism. It is what distinguishes the scientist from the Hellenist or medieval philosopher.

• Torah recognizes the role of human consciousness as an active, rather than passive, participant in forming reality. This outcome of the standard model of quantum mechanics was first enunciated by John von Neumann in 1932.

• Torah consistently relies on the concept of synergy: The whole is greater than the sum of its parts. This has become an essential principle in many modern disciplines, from sociology to chemistry.

• Torah, in many halachic applications, relies on "quantum" -- smallest possible increments of change within space and time. This was the postulate of Max Planck that opened the field of quantum mechanics.

• The Torah describes all of humankind as descending from a single man and -- earlier -- a single woman.The overwhelming genetic evidence concurs, although the dating is still somewhat skewed. They're still catching up.

• Torah understands the human psyche as being multi-layered and multifaceted -- there isn't just one person inside. Welcome to modern psychology.

• Torah describes planet earth and the entire cosmos in holistic terms. Science today is moving sharply in this direction, in life sciences and in physics and cosmology.

• Torah provides inference to many of the customs, beliefs, politics, technologies, etc. of ancient times at which historians once balked and archeologists have only recently confirmed.

• Torah presents and rigorously develops the chazakah: An event must occur repeatedly under identical conditions to be considered the most likely outcome in the future (such as the case of the consistently goring ox). This is the basis of the scientific method.

• Torah prescribes public education, popular involvement and constitutional governance. Sociologists describe how these elements generate stability and productivity in a society.

• Torah prescribes a responsible stewardship of our environment. Today we have demonstrated that such an approach is the only one possible for sustainable life on the planet.

Many of these examples may seem obvious and trite, however none of them were accepted as such until recently. I'm sure there are more -- if you think of some, please fire them over. Acknowledgement is due to Dr. Moshe Genuth for his valuable suggestions and assistance with this article.

Religion and Science

An interview with physicist Dr. Charles Townes

Transcript of an interview by Steve Inskeep of NPR Radio with physicist and Nobel Prize laureate Dr. Charles Townes, March 10, 2005

Steve Inskeep: Even as some Americans debate teaching evolution or creationism in schools, one scientist says religion and science do not have to disagree. Charles Townes is a Nobel Prize winner and co-inventor of the laser, and in 1966, he wrote that religion and science should converge. Yesterday, he was awarded $1.5 million, the annual Templeton Prize, for work in the field of religion.

Charles Townes: Let's consider what religion is. Religion is an attempt to understand the purpose and meaning of our universe. What is science? It's an attempt to understand how our universe works. Well, if there's a purpose and meaning, that must have something to do with how it works. So those two must be related. In addition, we use all of our human abilities to understand both. Science has faith. We call them postulates and we believe in them but we can't prove them. And sometimes these postulates are wrong. For example, most scientists in the past thought, well, the universe could not have had a beginning. It had to always be here, always be the same; Einstein felt that very strongly. And now scientists discovered, yes, there was a beginning to our universe, of all things.

SI: You also write about the fact that it's presumed that religious knowledge is revealed as opposed to unearthed in an experiment. Scientific knowledge, you think, is sometimes revealed in a similar process.

CT: Yes. I think there are even revelations in science. We don't generally call them that, but as I think of my own recognition of how to amplify light and microwaves, discovery of the maser and the laser, I'd been working on this some time. I sat on a park bench and thought and suddenly I had the idea. A lot of it was a revelation. I say it's a little bit like Moses wondering about how to help his people and so on. Then in front of a burning bush one time, he suddenly said, "This is what ought to be done."

SI: As you've been trying to figure out the way the universe works, do you find yourself sometimes wondering about the nature of G-d?

CT: Yes, certainly. I have a very personal feeling that, yes, there's a spiritual being there and it interacts with me and that's important for me and so on. On the other hand, exactly what it is, I don't know. I don't picture him as some old man with a long white beard. I can't describe it. I don't think anyone can appropriately.

SI: In this famous essay, Charles Townes, in 1966, you wrote that science and religion should at some time clearly converge. It's been almost 40 years since you wrote that.

CT: Yes.

SI: Seen much sign of convergence?

CT: I think there has been, yes. Within the last few decades in particular, I think more and more science has noted the really very special nature of our universe. The laws of physics have to be certain particular ways in order for us to be here at all. And if it changed just a little bit, then we couldn't be here. Unfortunately, if we start labeling that intelligent design, then that kind of a label is just fundamentalist or something like that, but many scientists recognize, "Well, gee, maybe there's been some systematic thing here that's been affecting us and planned and so on," and it is very suggestive.

SI: If we were just going to give a thumbnail definition of intelligent design, we might say it's the idea that the universe is so complicated that somebody must have designed it, it couldn't have happened by chance.

CT: It's not just that it's complicated, but, in fact, that it comes out in just such a way that we can be here.

SI: It sounds like you're deeply skeptical of the debate over intelligent design as it's been presented in the public. But when it gets right down to the way that things have worked out, you really are filled with a sense of wonder.

CT: There is a sense of wonder, and it's very peculiar that we come out this very special way and what did it. And maybe there was something that kept directing us or planned it or something, and that's very striking. And many scientists are impressed with that now.

SI: Charles H. Townes, congratulations, and thanks very much.

CT: Thank you.

Quantum Repentance

By Arnie Gotfryd

Imagine if you could turn your very worst liabilities into your most precious assets. Nice dream, isn't it? Well, as it turns out, this is no wistful fancy but a daily reality, according to both cutting edge science and state-of-the-art religion, i.e., Judaism.

To explain, let's peer into the subatomic world of the quantum and explore an amazing property of nature, a weird, almost quirky kind of fact: Wave-particle duality.

The idea is that things are what you choose them to be, literally. For example, when photons pass through a barrier with two slits, you can choose to observe them as waves, in which case they necessarily went through both slits, or as particles, in which case they went through only one. You determine the reality.

But it gets even stranger. An implication of this "observer power" is that once you choose to see the photon as a wave, it was a wave all the way back to when it was emitted. Similarly if you choose to observe it as a particle, it was a particle not only at the time of observation, but retroactively all the way back to its origin. "Whoa!" says the logical brain. "How can it be that an observation I make now is changing things earlier? It makes no sense. There must be some mistake here."

But there is no mistake. In 1978, physicist John Wheeler concocted a thought experiment to test this time-travel effect observers have on quantum systems, and lo-and-behold by 1984 it was proven in the lab and replicated dozens of times since. Today there is no doubt about it. Observer choices made now determine the history of quanta in the past, whether it's nanoseconds, minutes, or millennia ago.

And it's not just a matter of proton here and a neutron there. The entire cosmos is made of this stuff, so it turns out that any observations and all observations share this remarkable property. We recreate all of history and even pre-history just by opening our eyes in the morning!

In Judaic terms it's not all that strange. Jews celebrate the renewal of the universe every day in their morning prayers, which speaks of the Creator's "daily, constant renewal of the work of Creation." And all of that is because of us, as the Talmud states that "every individual is obliged to say: For my sake was the world created." But this whole retroactive reality business has an even a deeper spiritual significance. It refers to the power of teshuvah, "repentance," more accurately translated "return" or "restoration."

We all have some fixing up to do in preparation for the New Year. But in this there are different levels. There's a basic kind of restoration that rights a wrong, repays a debt, gets us back to level ground. But then there's another, higher mode of teshuvah, where negatives get transformed to positives. A teshuvah where errors become assets, where even intentional sins become merits. Where darkness is transformed to light.

And here's where photons can illuminate our spiritual life as well. By choosing to return in the best possible way, we demonstrate to our Creator that we are in tune with the possibility of reinventing ourselves, of transcending sustainability, surpassing even tikkun olam, achieving a perfection within ourselves and the world.

Where Kabbalah Kisses Science

Three points of interface
By Yitzchak Ginsburgh

A demonstration of how three major aspects of modern scientific theory beautifully interface with key concepts found in Kabbalistic tradition.

1) The quest for unity

Science, in its quest to reveal the underlying unity within nature, constantly finds itself returning to the origins of the universe -- to the primordial "day one" (yom echad) of Creation. The universe, in its present state, is too cool and solid for one to find within it an intimation of such unity. Only amid the energy and heat that reigned at the very inception of time and space, could all the forces and elements of nature meld into one. Such are the premises that underlie the unified field and "big bang" theories. Should one seek the even deeper unity that binds "existence" to "non-existence," then it becomes necessary to propose even more obscure theories -- such as string theory -- which exude an almost meta-physical character.

The quest for unity begins with the generally accepted principle in modern physics that time shares a common "geography" with space: just as all points in space co-exist along a single continuum, so too do all points in time -- past, present, and future -- simultaneously distribute within the same network.

The cosmological process that produced this space-time continuum is presently understood by many to have taken place in four stages -- the first three of which are derived from the "string" theorists while the last is popularly known as the "big bang theory". First, the mathematical properties and relations governing space-time had to be defined or "created". Next, in a single quantum leap, "something-ness" emerged spontaneously out of that "abstraction". At that point, a great "inflation" of the universe occurred wherein it expanded, instantaneously, to the order of 10 to the 50th power. Finally, the "big bang" unleashed the full thrust of its force from within a single point inside that inflated universe. From then on, the universe as we know it began expanding -- albeit infinitely slower than it had up till then -- congealing into its present state as its structural elements proceeded to cool down.

In Kabbalistic terms, these four stages can be viewed as corresponding to the four-letter sequence of G-d's ineffable Name -- Yud Hei Vav Hei, the model upon which all meditation directed at G-d and Creation is based. The first letter of His Name, the scintilla-like Yud, represents the initial "contraction" (tzimtzum) of Divine light from which was produced the primordial vacuum of space and time. The second letter of His Name, the spatially-expanded Hei, represents the initial emergence of created-being ex nihilo. The third letter, the linear Vav (possessing the numerical value of 6), symbolizes the sudden extension of that being into all six directions of space. It also hints at the premise contained within string theory that there exist an additional six hidden dimensions which are actually "enfolded" within the four that we commonly identify. Finally, the repetition of the letter Hei at the end of G-d's Name hints once again at the idea of expansion -- this time, the final expansion of the universe whereby it settled into its Divinely-intended form.

The assumption of an underlying unity within Creation brings with it the concomitant belief in a consummate state of symmetry having characterized the incipient universe. (The mathematics of modern physics utilizes symmetry-groups when it wants to cancel out "undesirable" conceptual phenomena such as infinities.) As the stages of creation progress, this initial state of symmetry in the universe appears to break down. Thus, any return to the primordial unity of creation would seem to imply a corresponding return to maximal symmetry.

The final verse of the Torah section of Bereishit (Genesis 5:8)refers to the chen (pleasantness or favor) that Noah found in the eyes of G-d. The term chen is understood in Chassidic thought to imply the particular kind of graceful beauty that derives from the possession of innate symmetry. Noah, who represented the last vestige of natural grace left in Creation after the great moral decline that brought on the flood, was identified in the eyes of G-d as a source of chen -- as intimated by the fact that the Hebrew letters of his name -- the nun and the chet -- form a mirror image of the word chen. Thus Noach's finding chen in the eyes of G-d figuratively suggests the identification of sufficient symmetry within Creation to arouse Divine compassion and save the world from utter destruction. The pupil of the eye is actually referred to in Hebrew as the ishon -- literally, "little man" -- perhaps hinting at the image of Noah which occupied the center of G-d's vision while assessing the future of His creation.

The Torah commonly refers to the eye as the ultimate gauge of chen. The role that symmetry plays in the process of visual perception is clearly expressed through the function of the lens which generates an inverted image of the visual cue upon the retina that is only afterwards reprocessed by the brain so as to produce the rectified image that we actually see. This indicates to us that the way to discover the hidden chen of the universe is to try and envision an "inversion" of reality -- whereby Divinity is fully revealed while Creation's material aspect recedes into abstraction.

2) The uncertainty principle and the consciousness of faith

Next to the underlying unity of nature, the most "enlightened" focus of modern scientific inquiry can be thought of as the intimate relationship between consciousness and the laws of physical reality.

The uncertainty principle of quantum physics, which in essence establishes the impossibility of simultaneously determining certain pairs of subatomic phenomena (such as position and momentum), implies that the very act of human observation -- or "consciousness" -- irrevocably affects one of the properties which one is observing. Physicists disagree as to what degree of consciousness is necessary to the measurement of physical reality. Nevertheless, the implication remains -- as supported by the corresponding meta-physics of Kabbalah -- that consciousness can determine of its own the nature of the world we seek to know.

The uncertainty principle is a good example of how the fundamentals of modern physics can contradict the axioms of common sense. Ultimately, the intellectual courage to challenge the consensus of reason derives from the suprarational force of faith inherent within the Divine Soul in man. Before the advent of quantum physics, science believed that determinism ruled the universe. Now, with the principle of uncertainty, it has become clear that nature cannot be explained in purely causal mechanistic terms. The most we could talk about is "probability", thus leaving room to re-accommodate such "unscientific" phenomena as free-will and moral responsibility which had been entirely dismissed by earlier scientific thinkers.

The litany of modern physics is replete with assaults upon common sense: the speed of light remains constant regardless of the circumstances surrounding its measurement; energy-changes in the universe occur at fixed "quantum" intervals (Planck's constant) rather than in contiguous increments. These two "constants" in nature -- "c" (the speed of light) and "h" (the quantum-energy unit) -- change forever the way we conceive classical concepts such as "infinity" and "zero". A third "constant" in nature, derived from these first two and positioned -- as it were -- between them, is the "inverse of fine-structure constant" equal to the "pure" (i.e. dimension-less) number of 137. (The number 137 is also the numerical equivalent of the word Kabbalah in Hebrew.) Together, these three constants comprise a set that corresponds to the sequence of stages in one's service of G-d explained elsewhere in Chassidic tradition.

3) The Descent of Creation to a Position of Rest

Another foundation of modern physics is cited as the postulate stating that all physical structures tend toward their lowest possible energy level. This fundamental principle is reflected in the Kabbalistic doctrine of "descending worlds" whereby Creation is viewed as descending from the infinite energy of Divine Being into the stasis of material reality.

The purpose of this descent is ultimately to provide G-d with a dira b'tachtonim -- a "dwelling-place in the lowest realms" -- where the Glory of His Kingdom might become eminently manifest by virtue of the effect that the service of Torah and mitzvot have upon the created order.

The revelation of Divine Majesty which will attend the final rectification of our physical world will far outshine any previous revelation of G-dliness in the history of Creation. For this reason the tendency to "descend into materiality" overpowered the initial state of sublime symmetry which characterized incipient Creation. The universe is in essence seeking out that "lowest energy state" from within which it is destined to manifest a radical new symmetry within Creation: that which harmonizes G-d's primordial perfection with the deficient realm of material reality.

In Kabbalah, the property of "descent" associated with the material realm achieves its ultimate expression in water -- which by nature flows downward, seeking out the lowest ground. The opposing property of spiritual ascent is modeled in the flame of fire, consuming matter in its attempt to ascend upward. Ultimately, the force of gravity associated with water supersedes the force of lightness connected with fire -- just as the world's grounding in materiality over-rides its inner desire to be consumed within Divinity.

According to most physicists, the universe has already achieved its lowest level of energy distribution. This would mean, according to Kabbalistic faith, that the world is about to enter into a new state of symmetry. The Shabbat can be seen as providing the ultimate metaphor for this new reality.

We should try to envision Creation as a process which proceeds from one sabbatical state of balance and harmony to another. The first "Shabbat" -- identifiable with the infinite expanse of Divine Light that initially permeated all reality -- was a reflection of G-d's "first thought" regarding the imminent Creation that was to follow: that it be constructed upon the principle of "din" -- strict measure contributing to ideal form. The symmetry implied by this program was one of perfect uniformity, as inspired by the absolute Oneness of the Divine Light out of which it was conceived.

A deeper intention, however, emerged with G-d's decision to jointly apply, together with din, the principle of rachamim -- Divine compassion. It was this attribute that was responsible for the "tolerant" form that Creation eventually took -- one which accommodated the imperfections of finite material reality. Having begun its "descent," the universe set out on the mysterious course toward the "Shabbat-to-come" when the world will be redeemed from its restlessness and turbulence.

The above depiction of the opposing principles at work in Creation is reflected in the famous Midrash describing how the two attributes of chesed ("Benevolence") and emmet ("Truth") appeared before G-d prior to Creation and argued over whether the world should indeed be brought into being. Truth demanded that this world not be created as it would eventually become filled with the "asymmetry" of lies and falsehood; Benevolence, arguing that a material creation can never justify itself, demanded that the world be created nonetheless if only by merit of G-d's Kindness as well as the opportunity it gives us to enrich one another.

The Midrash concludes of course with G-d's favoring the position of Benevolence as He proceeds to "cast Truth to the ground" -- an act that reflects His desire that strict idealism be tempered by empathy and consideration for the limitations of finite existence. Implicit in this act is the wish that "Benevolence and Truth meet each other, Justice and Peace kiss; that Truth spring out of the earth and Justice look down from Heaven" (Psalms 85:11-12). It is the revealed symmetry between Benevolence and Truth that will grace Creation as it enters into its eternal Shabbat-day.

Recognizing Creation's true purpose and destiny necessitates that the Divine Soul enclothe itself within a physical body. Only then can man fulfill G-d's Will through the grounded pursuit of Torah and mitzvah service. Ultimately the fulfillment of this mandate will serve to arouse a revolutionary Divine spirit layinG-dormant within the universe. The successful awakening of this spirit will expose G-d's true intention in generating the descent of Creation: the ultimate sanctification of His Name and Kingdom along with the ascent of Mankind and all reality to a plane infinitely higher than that from which they initially set out.

The majesty of the Messianic age -- the eternal Shabbat of the future -- is a reality that we slowly construct through the Divinely revealed discipline of thought, word, and deed which shapes every passinG-day of life in this world. It is a discipline that, by allowing us to refine our consciousness of the Divine perfection underlying reality, renders us all architects of a new world order.

The perfection of the Shabbat is immutable and eternal; only our consciousness is subject to the variance and distortion imposed upon it by the material shell in which it is encased. By neutralizing the effect of that shell, we simply free the soul's native awareness of Divinity so that it can assert itself supremely and thereby illuminate the true essence of material reality. Thus, the culmination of this process requires that every last semblance of material-being be illuminated and "clarified" by our consciousness of the Divine. This is the reason that Creation must descend to its lowest level before the hidden symmetry of the Sabbath can manifest itself forever and ever.

Our present physical reality bears little hint of the future greatness for which it is destined. What we perceive with regard to the "descent of Creation" is the related physical phenomenon of "entropy" whereby the universe appears to be proceeding inexorably forward in time toward greater and greater decomposition. The force of entropy is reflected in the Kabbalistic concept of Tohu (chaos). The eventual defeat of Tohu through the force of Tikun (rectified order and symmetry) is not evident at the macrocosmic plane of human experience, just as time-reversal and many other proven phenomena of quantum reality are not.

But from the wondrous realm of subatomic reality -- the hidden microcosm which only G-d can "know" directly -- numerous intimations of Creation's true character surface. Elementary particles move backward in time, leaving "footprints" that are experimentally observable. Thus, the force of Tikun -- of negative-entropy -- can be said to reside safely within the realm of the infinitely small. Man accesses that force by rendering himself equally small and humble so as to share in G-d's unobstructed vision of reality.

In conclusion, we now see how three fundamental tenets of modern science -- the underlying unity of nature, the uncertainty built into subatomic reality, and the universe's tendency toward increasinG-dissipation -- end up "kissing" Kabbalistic belief at three junctures: the primordial past (belief in the initial Divine unity out of which Creation was conceived), the continuous present moment (belief in the ongoing construction of reality through refined consciousness), and the developing future (belief in the higher unity that will assert itself once every last element within Creation is illuminated by the soul).