Science, Spirituality, and Judaism, Part 2

by Rabbi Burt Jacobson

God and the Big Bang

Kabbalah is the central tradition of Jewish mysticism that developed and deeply affected Judaism from the twelfth through the eighteenth centuries. The 1960s saw an explosion of interest in Eastern spirituality in the U.S., and a resurgence in interest in Kabbalah that continues to this day.

Daniel Matt, one of the premier scholars of Kabbalah in the world, lives and works here in the East Bay. Matt’s greatest achievement has been his translation into English of the major tracts of the Zohar, the “bible” of kabbalah, channeled and written by Rabbi Moses de Leon in Spain during the thirteenth century. The Zohar is a fascinating description of a mythical spiritual community centering around the figure of the great mystic, Rabbi Shimon bar Yochai. It also contains a commentary on the mystical aspects of the Torah. Numerous Jewish scholars identify the Bible, the Talmud, and the Zohar as the three greatest bodies of the Jewish tradition.

I have studied the Zohar with Danny and I honor him as a master teacher and friend. In 1992, before undertaking his translation work, he published a pathbreaking book, God & the Big Bang. In this work, Matt draws on the insights of physics and Jewish mysticism, emphasizing the sense of wonder and oneness that connects us with the universe and God. The book describes the parallels between modern cosmology and medieval kabbalah, revealing how science and religion together can enrich our spiritual understanding.

At the center of God & the Big Bang is the modern theory about the origins of the universe known as the Big Bang. As you might know, most cosmologists today believe that the universe began some fifteen billion years ago when a hot, dense seed of energy that was infinitely compressed by the pressure of gravity exploded wildly, setting the universe into motion. This point of energy contained all the future energy and mass of the universe, which has been expanding outwards since its origins.

Matt became excited when he recognized that a particular teaching in the Zohar described the birth of the universe in language reminiscent of the Big Bang:

            A blinding spark flashed within the concealed of the concealed, from the mystery of the Infinite, a cluster of vapor in formlessness . . . Under the impact of breaking through, one high and hidden point shone. Beyond that point nothing is known. So it is called Beginning.

In this passage the Zohar is describing the creation of the cosmos as a blinding spark—a big bang, if you will—that burst out of the unknown. Remarkably, the Zohar also uses the image of a high and hidden point, just like the Big Bang theory’s description of the point of energy which contained all the future energy and mass of the universe. Both narratives also envision the original point of energy as having emerged out of some enigmatic mystery. Evidently, Moses de Leon intuited a key piece of information regarding the origin of the universe that twentieth-century science has shown to be essentially correct. I found this confluence to be astonishing.

Both Kabbalah and science picture the universe as having evolved through a series of stages, each new phase proceeding out of and dependent upon all of the previous stages. And both of these disciplines understand the cosmos to be an intricate, complex multi-layered reality. But the Kabbalists envision the universe as an organism being directed by conscious spiritual forces, while the physicists and cosmologists stay clear of all metaphysical language, at least when they are engaged in describing the processes of the natural world. Most scientists picture those forces as physical in character and mechanical in their operations.

When examined side by side these two differing perceptions of the nature of the cosmos give rise to a perplexing question: Is the universe more like an organism or a machine? Mainline physicists and cosmologists tie their understanding of reality to a materialistic view of the world; thus they believe that scientific method is the only way to arrive at the underlying truth of the physical universe. Spiritual traditions from all over the world, however, favor the view that the universe is more like an organism and that its origin lies in some kind of cosmic blueprint that transcends the physical realm. It will be no surprise to readers that I find myself in this latter camp, but at the same time I must candidly admit that when it comes to positing a definitive answer to this kind of question I am, in the end, an agnostic—it seems like an unknowable mystery to me.

But this raises another vital question: Is scientific methodology the only way to discover the truth about the world? What about poetry, fiction, drama, music? What about dreams and mythology and the insights of spiritual teachers throughout the world?  John Haught, who directs the Georgetown Center for the Study of Science and Religion, proposes that the sacred symbols and myths of religion “may, at a certain level of understanding, come closer than science to registering what is really going on in the narrative depths of the universe. A religiously informed consciousness. . . may be able to detect signals arising from the depths of nature that the method of science. . . will inevitably (and quite appropriately) overlook.” The last half century has seen the rise of a cadre of scientists who have been engaged in integrating science and spirit, and I imagine that most of them would agree with Haught’s remarks.

Would you like to read about scientific pioneers who are pursuing spirituality? You might start with Danny Matt’s God & the Big Bang. But you can also check out Shirley Jones’ delightful little book, The Mind of God & Other Musings: The Wisdom of Science (New World Library, 1994). A good follow up would be Rabbi David W. Nelson’s Judaism, Physics, and God: Searching for Sacred Metaphors in a Post-Einstein World (Jewish Lights, 2005).

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