Science and Creation: A Kabbalistic Approach

Modern cosmology meets traditional Jewish mysticism.

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Reprinted with permission from Tikkun Magazine.

Modern cosmology--the scientific study of the universe as a whole--no longer sees the universe as an infinite changeless arena in which events take place, the way Isaac Newton did. The universe is an evolving, expanding being, and its origin is the oldest mystery.

For the first time in possibly a million years of human wondering, we are not simply imagining the beginning: We are observing it, in radiation that has been traveling to us since the Big Bang, possibly bearing information generated even earlier. Theorists are piecing the data together into humanity's first verifiable creation story.

Most educated people today have an essentially Newtonian picture of the universe as a place, devoid of all human meaning, in which we happen to find ourselves. If people come to understand the emerging scientific cosmology, however, they may see from what we know of the early universe that we actually are part of an extraordinary adventure. With its mind-expanding imagery, this emerging cosmology gives us a new cosmic perspective, a powerful source of awe, and a potential source of meaning in our everyday lives.

Expansion of the Universe

In 1929, Edwin Hubble discovered the expansion of the universe by showing that the more distant a galaxy is from us, the faster it is moving away. Astrophysicists ran the movie backward and realized that the universe had to have started out extremely hot and dense.

The earliest point was named--derisively by astronomer and novelist Fred Hoyle, whose steady state theory it eventually replaced--the "Big Bang." Standard Big Bang theory explains the creation of the light elements of matter in the first three minutes and seems to be right as far as it goes, but it does not explain what preceded that or what has followed.

Gravity alone could not have created the complex large-scale structures and flows of galaxies that are observed to exist. Gravity magnifies differences--that is, if one region is ever so slightly denser than average, it will expand a bit more slowly and grow relatively denser than its surroundings, while regions with less than average density will become increasingly less dense. But if matter after the Big Bang was absolutely evenly distributed, gravity would have done nothing but slow down the overall expansion.

Consequently, either some unknown force acting after the Big Bang formed the giant structures we observe today--which looks increasingly dubious else gravity must have had some differences in density to work with from the beginning. What could have caused these differences in density? Big Bang theory is silent about its own initial conditions.  

Exponential Growth

The theory of inflation, proposed in the early 1980s by Alan Guth and others, says that for an extremely small fraction of a second before the Big Bang--much less time than it would take light to cross the nucleus of an atom--the universe expanded exponentially, inflating countless random quantum events in the process.

The density differences in the universe reflect these quantum events, enormously inflated. This is the best theory cosmologists have for the origin of the needed density differences. Inflation is exponential growth--the longer it goes on, the faster it gets.

Kabbalah: A Parallel Theory

Kabbalah, medieval Jewish mysticism, is the only traditional cosmology we know of in which the universe was understood to have begun in a point and expanded. We are not kabbalists, nor are we trying to promote Kabbalah. We are not arguing that Kabbalah was prescient, or that the kabbalists somehow knew mystically what science is now discovering.

We are interested in Kabbalah because it developed a set of ideas describing the origin of an expanding universe and integrated these ideas into its religious worldview. Can Kabbalah help us to integrate the scientific concepts we have been describing into our own culture?

Kabbalah is an example of a cosmology resembling our own which successfully penetrated and enriched the lives of a society. In the sixteenth century, the great kabbalist Isaac Luria developed the scheme further, teaching that in the beginning, God began to withdraw into self-exile in order to make space for the universe.

Repairing the World

God envelopes the universe, in the Lurianic way, but when God withdrew, evil became possible inside. God sent holy light into the world, but the world was too weak to hold God's glory. Its cornerstones were vessels that shattered in the light. The role of the Jews is to repair the shattered vessels by re-collecting the sparks of God in the world.

Tzimtzum is the name of God's self-exile. Tikkun olam is the repairing of the world. For Jews in the century or so after the expulsion from Spain in 1492, the concept of a God in exile gave cosmic meaning to their people's traumatic and seemingly endless history of expulsions and exiles. The cosmology alone, however, did not provide the meaning. It came from the circumstances of their lives and their era, but it was expressible at a deep and satisfying level with the help of their kabbalistic cosmological myth. Can the same become true with modern cosmology?

Kabbalah was a cultural outgrowth of medieval European Jewish experience. By the time of the European Enlightenment, Jews who read Descartes and Newton considered the idea of sefirot [divine emanations] as absurd as angels dancing on the head of a pin. But Kabbalah is a metaphorical description of a set of fundamental universal relationships which in light of modern astrophysics appears closer to reality than the infinite rectangular space of the Newtonian worldview.

The Search for a Functional Modern Cosmology

We do not argue that either kabbalistic cosmology or current scientific theories about the origin is "true" in some ultimate sense, but rather that by seeing each in light of the other, we begin to get some sense of what to demand of any cosmology intended to function for human society in the 21st century. Just as light cannot be described accurately as either a particle or a wave but only as something beyond either metaphor, the universe cannot be adequately described as either something scientifically observed or something spiritually experienced. A functional cosmology must do both.

The reason kabbalistic terms are helpful to our account is that they bind together the search for truth with the search for the divine. If terms such as hokhmah [wisdom, one of the sefirot] did not already exist bearing religious significance, we would have had to try to coin them--which would probably have been as successful as Esperanto. The emerging scientific cosmology and Kabbalah are two metaphor systems whose juxtaposition points toward a truth larger than either can express alone.

The theory of eternal inflation, whether or not it turns out to be true, has opened a cosmic perspective on reality and the countless threads of connection, including the spiritual, weaving through. If eternal inflation theory eventually turns out to be wrong, whatever replaces it cannot explain less and will have to do better. A new standard has been set for creation stories.

Vast Implications

If the theory of eternal inflation is correct, then there is an eternal blizzard of universes, in which our bubble is a single snowflake, an infinitesimal capsule of eternal potential, crystallized into unique patterns of matter and energy, which has set off from eternal inflation on its journey to realize itself in a universe.

No one has thought of a way yet to test whether eternal inflation theory is right, but the expansion of perspective the theory requires certainly enlarges our idea of the physical universe. It may also enlarge our ideas of God, because regardless of how much reality one may ascribe to God, one can only speak metaphorically, and most metaphors are limited to the extremely narrow experience of Earth. This does not make them wrong, but they are certainly limiting.

Cosmology provides utterly different metaphors--eternal inflation, endless creation from every sparkpoint--that humans could not have dreamed up had theoretical physics not led them there. It seems to be a general rule that the more metaphor systems through which we try to understand non-human-scale realities, both large and small, the closer we come to truth.

Creating a Balance

In our kabbalistic creation myth, tzimtzum--the withdrawal of God--occurred in eternal inflation. As the notion of a God in exile gave cosmic meaning to the lives of a people in exile, understanding cosmic inflation may give a new, if sobering, meaning to the lives of a people dependent upon inflationary growth. Inflation is a taste of what it is like to be God. It cannot be considered a normal human pace. In a finite environment, inflation cannot continue, however cleverly we may postpone or disguise the inevitable. This is a consequence of natural laws.

The question for our time is, how can we end inflation gently on Earth? How can we slow human inflation enough that creative restoration can overtake it? When we have developed a sustainable relationship with our planet, humanity and Earth will be in balance, and the transition from inflation to stable expansion will have been achieved through the restoration of the world--tikkun olam.

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Joel R. Primack

Joel R. Primack is a professor of physics at the University of California Santa Cruz called Cosmology and Culture. He is co-author with Nancy Ellen Abrams of The View From the Center of the Universe: Discovering Our Extraordinary Place in the Cosmos .