Science and Creation: A Kabbalistic Approach

Modern cosmology meets traditional Jewish mysticism.

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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.

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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 .