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Science, Spirituality, and Judaism, Part 1

by Rabbi Burt Jacobson

Science and Psychedelic Experience

The field of science was of little interest to me while I was growing up. And because of my dyslexia I was a poor student in mathematics and science both in high school and college. And then during my late adolescence I became a strictly observant traditional Jew, and I judged science and technology to be secular materialistic distractions from my newfound path. But by the 1970s, I had overthrown all of my narrow religious assumptions, and I became intrigued with the search for scientific truth. I began to read popular books on science, and later delved into systems theory as well.

As I read book after book, I discovered that modern scientists hold radically differing attitudes toward religion and spirituality. There are, of course, those who are so tied to the rational assumptions of scientific method that they oppose all religious faith and spiritual concerns as sheer superstition. Others are willing to admit that religion does offer distinct truths, yet they assert that science and religion are two totally separate realms, each valid in its own domain and operating according to its own set of assumptions. Science, they maintain, explores the world of nature seeking knowledge of how natural law works; religion, on the other hand, attempts to fathom the underlying meaning of existence, positing the reality of some kind of higher power, and emphasizing an ethical and moral way of living.

A third school of scientists and spiritual seekers contend that science and faith are two different ways of grasping the deeper truth of reality. Many of those who subscribe to this approach have been involved in fashioning a new scientific paradigm that is moving beyond the materialistic/mechanistic/dualistic model still espoused by the majority of scientists. I found myself identifying more with the quest of these thinkers than I did with either of the two previous approaches. Among those who are working in this area, there are a number of Jewish writers intrigued by the similarities they find between physics, cosmology, and kabbalah.

During my psychedelic experiences in the 1960s I experienced the universe as a single vast and mysterious presence. The traditional Jewish notions of God that I had once believed in seemed miniscule in comparison with this newfound truth. And when I later discovered the Ba’al Shem Tov, I found a Jewish teacher who had undergone mystical experiences similar to my own, and who used the language of kabbalah to talk about the physical world. He envisioned the universe as a sacred realm filled with lights and mysteries, insisting that “there is no place devoid of the divine.” He saw it as one of his most important tasks to enable his disciples to actually experience the truth of reality.

As I delved deeper into the Ba’al Shem’s pantheistic thought I wondered how his particular views, formulated in the 18th century, would hold up in the light of modern science. That is when I turned to books on physics, cosmology, and brain science for answers to my questions. It was exciting finding numerous parallels between the discoveries of the physical sciences and the teachings of Jewish mysticism.


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