Science, Kabbalah and Orthodox Judaism: History and Meaning

The relationship between Kabbalah and orthodox Judaism with science troubled humanity’s greatest thinkers since the creation of religion and science.

The objective of religion is to lead a person to the realization that God is the Creator of everything, to impart knowledge of the laws of Creation, to establish a framework for the interaction of mankind with God, and to illuminate a person’s role and objectives in life.

The objective of science is to discover, and gain knowledge of the natural laws endowed by God to all of Creation. Science expresses until-then hidden connections between natural phenomena in the non-mysterious and logical language of mathematics, thus expanding our understanding of the natural world.

Science is very adept at explaining how things work, but struggles when confronted with the question of why they work like that. More than that, science does not give us answers for some fundamental questions: Why are we here? What is the meaning of life? How should we live? To name just a few.

On the other hand, the Torah is not a textbook of physics or mathematics. We should not look for equations or formula within it. Torah is the wisdom of the Creator given to us as information. This information (Torah) radically and forever changed the course of humanity. The Torah is the only book in the world whose author is forever living. By learning the Torah, we learn about the fundamental nature of Creation and about our role and objective in Creation.

The relationship between religion and science has in our time become more important than ever. There are several reasons for this.

First, science was for centuries the realm of the lonely scholar, and was denied to the public, conducted behind the closed doors of universities, with little impact on the life of the ordinary man. Today, the opposite is true – science has become accessible to the public, and influences the everyday life of every man, woman and child on the planet.

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Second, before the advent of the 20th century, science was limited to describing the world in classical terms. The discoveries of quantum physics and special and general relativity opened wholly new facets of reality for us. We cannot intuitively understand how a particle can be in two places at once, nor can we wrap our heads around the idea that time is not absolute, but in fact flows differently for different observers. All of this requires explanation.

The relationship between religion and science is a two-way street. However, when speaking about science, we have to remember that scientific truths are relative – the theory that seems right to us today could tomorrow be proven wrong, or to be just a small part of a more encompassing theory.

Scientific knowledge is based on axioms and postulates however, even they can change. A good example would be the fifth postulate of Euclidean geometry, which states that parallel lines never cross. In the 19th century, mathematicians decided to see how geometry would change if the fifth postulate were to be disregarded.

As a result of that, we discovered Riemannian geometry, which at the time seemed like a mathematical abstraction. Fast-forward several decades, and it transpires that Riemannian geometry perfectly describes the space-time of Einstein’s general relativity.

Science, kabbalah and orthodox Judaism history

During the process of their development, the paths of Judaism and science have converged and diverged. Over the course of almost two thousand years, the only dominant scientific theories in the civilized world were the philosophies of Plato and Aristotle, the geometry of Euclid, the Ptolemaic system, and astrology.

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Attempts to combine Judaism and philosophy, and to present Judaism as a faith founded on rational thought, were first made by the Babylonian Gaonim, the most prominent representative of whom was Saadia Gaon. In The Book of Beliefs and Opinions, he proposes the principle of rational thought, and a philosophical and scientific approach with the aim of attaining knowledge of God.

With the decline of Jewish centers of learning in Babylonia, the rationalist tradition was brilliantly continued by Spanish Jews such as Judah Halevi,11 Maimonides, Nachmanides and Ibn Ezra. The Spanish Torah scholars possessed the highest level of scientific knowledge available at that time. This is excellently demonstrated in Maimonides’ great work, The Guide for the Perplexed, in which the laws of the Creator are explained and commented upon both from the position of the Torah and from the point of view of Greek and Arabic philosophy.

Unfortunately, following the expulsion of Jews in Spain, the paths of Judaism and science diverged. In the centuries following the expulsion, mysticism prevailed in Judaism. Many people saw mysticism as opposing rationalism. In my view, this is wrong. They are both inseparable parts of Judaism, and ultimately complementary to each other. The teaching of the Arizal12 on tzimtzum,13 for example, coincides in many ways with modern notions of the creation of the world.

Jewish mysticism was born together with Judaism. By its definition, something mystical is irrational and unscientific. The problem, in my opinion, is that the ideas of Jewish mysticism were many centuries ahead of their time, and only now can we see that they are in fact supportive of science.

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Science, kabbalah and orthodox Judaism history

In the Zohar, there is a commentary on a verse from Bereishit: ‘In the six hundredth year of Noah’s life … on this day, all the springs of the great deep were split, and the windows of the heavens opened up’ (Bereishit, 7:11). In the Zohar, this is interpreted thus: ‘In the sixth century of the sixth millennium, the gates of supernal wisdom will be opened, as will the springs of earthly wisdom’ .

In turn, the seventh Lubavitcher Rebbe explains this verse from the Torah thus: ‘The source of earthly wisdom is our scientific knowledge. By means of this second revolution, or the combining of scientific knowledge and Divine wisdom, the Messianic Era will become closer.

Therefore, it is only with a combination of faith and knowledge that we will be able to complete Creation and make our world a home for God.

We are all given different intellectual potential. No one knows whether our intellectual potential is limited. In my opinion it is. Not everyone can become Einsteins or great Torah scholars. But this does not mean that a person has the right to refrain from intellectual development. We must follow that path, and the Almighty will decide how far we will reach.

The clearest confirmation of the above is to be found in the story of Rabbi Akiva. Until the age of forty, he was an illiterate shepherd and, apparently, believed his intellectual capacity to be very limited. One day, however, seeing how drops of water wore away a stone, he decided to study and become a great Torah scholar. His potential for intellectual development turned out to be huge.