As the James Webb Telescope represents another great leap for imaging space, the great distance it can reach might inspire us to think about the peculiar relationships between space and time that we can see when we zoom far, far out in the galaxy. If we can see how far light has traveled, might we be able to go back to where it all began? What does that mean for our existence on the tiny blue marble we call Earth?
Dr. Stephen Rosen and Rabbi Dan Geffen discussed these topics from their complementary perspectives of astrophysics and Judaism, respectively. Astrophysics has advanced in very clearly visible ways, but even small differences in language among different translators and interpreters has changed the Jewish perspective on creation and cosmology over millennia.
(This post is part of Sinai and Synapses’ project Scientists in Synagogues, a grass-roots program to offer Jews opportunities to explore the most interesting and pressing questions surrounding Judaism and science. Temple Adas Israel in Sag Harbor, NY has developed a program under its auspices called Science and Religion in Sag Harbor. Rabbi Dan Geffen is Rabbi of the congregation and Dr. Stephen Rosen is a physicist, an artist, an educator and author who has worked at Los Alamos National Laboratory and the Institut d’Astrophysique).
Judy Klinghoffer: Good evening everybody, and happy Thursday to all of you. This is the first of a series of dialogues on science and religion. So tonight, we’re going to kick it off taking a look at the cosmos, and hopefully we will boldly go where no temple has gone before as we explore the universe scientifically and spiritually. So, lucky for all of us, we are a very special congregation, and we have a lot of respected scientists in our ranks. So we are well-equipped to explore strange new worlds of thoughts and ideas. Two Star Trek references, not bad.
Okay, so this is a dialogue, I want to remind everybody. If you have questions as the evening is progressing, please put them in the chat box, and you will get some very interesting answers, I promise you. So we’re going to be kicking off our journey tonight with Dr. Steve Rosen, and of course our wonderful Rabbi Dan. So, quick introduction of Steve – he’s a physicist, an artist, an educator and author. He’s worked at Los Alamos National Laboratory, the Institut d’Astrophysique in Paris and he has authored a book with his beautiful wife Celia Paul, Career Renewal. You can also visit Steve’s website devoted to Einstein and relativity at www.AlbertEinsteinReturns.com.
So, of course, we all know Rabbi Dan who has, since 2014, gotten us through some crazy times. So I’m going to throw it over to him, so he can tell us a little bit about how things started.
Dan Geffen: Thank you Judy, it’s a wonderful introduction, and it’s great to have all of us together in one form or the other. And I do want to take a second to really, again, acknowledge why we are together. And for those that were with us for Shabbat – this is now probably several weeks ago, right, after I came back from a conference in the city. I talked in detail about this wonderful program, this wonderful thing that we have come into contact with, known as Sinai and Synapses – and as we are saying that, I want to acknowledge Rabbi Geoffrey Mitelman, who’s with us this evening. He may have to leave in a little bit, but he is exactly the reason we are all together tonight. So I think we could take a second to give a round of applause to Rabbi Mitelman, who envisioned this entire idea of really trying to bring us together through this conversation of where science and religion interact with each other, perhaps overlap with each other, and even perhaps disagree with each other, but to create the kind of space in our — especially in our synagogues, where this kind of conversation can happen.
And we are also grateful to the Templeton Foundation, which is one of the main feeders to make it financially possible for us to put together a whole year’s worth of programs that we are calling “Scientists and Synagogues in Sag Harbor,” if I have it correctly, but Steve, you’ll correct me from there. So really, we’re going to dive right into it tonight. And we’re going to be talking about some big things, but I can’t imagine a better group of people to be doing that with. So I’ll turn it back over to you, Judy. To get a start –
Judy Klinghoffer: Okie doke. So let’s sort of define where we’re coming from with this – how are we looking at science and religion? How are we actually defining those terms? – to see what viewpoint you two gentlemen are coming from.
Dan Geffen: Well, I’ll defer to my wonderful colleague Dr. Rosen to define, as he sees it, science. I remember a wonderful thing that was shared with us at the conference, that is probably my basis for it, and then I’ll give a sense of what we mean when we talk about religion.
Judy Klinghoffer: What do you feel [are] the similarities and differences between science and religion?
Stephen Rosen: Good question. So, I’ve been thinking about this. I think science and religion are different narratives about the universe. Religion is about the truth in values, human values, and science is about the truth in facts, externalities that we can measure. I think both science and religion ask you to suspend your disbelief. And that’s certainly true about some of the happenings in the Bible, some of the miracles. But believe it or not, there are a lot of things about science that are hard to digest, as I will show you in a few moments, such as the origin of the universe, the Big Bang, which I’m going to try to explain to you. I will tell you that these explanations require a willing suspension of disbelief, and they all have unknowns in them. In fact, we don’t know about dark energy or dark matter, just like we don’t know about God.
Both science and religion share awe and wonder, as I’m going to show you in some slides in a moment. Maybe we should put the slides up now, Dan?
Dan Geffen: Sure, give me one second, I’ll get right to it.
Stephen Rosen: So I’m going to give you a very short description of what most astrophysicists think about the origin and evolution of our universe. I’m going to come back to this question in a moment, but let’s go down to the next slide, Dan, that’s our talk, that’s what we’re doing.
And I wanted to put this up, because this, to me, is magic. This is awe and wonder and reverence, all in one photograph, from the James Webb Telescope that just started operating recently. I think a lot of people have seen this, but looking at this, from a personal point of view and from a physicist’s point of view, I feel awe and wonder and revelation.
So the next slide – oh, here’s some more awe and wonder. The next slide shows us the Big Bang, which is an artist’s rendition of what it might have looked like. This is more or less accepted by most astrophysicists today, including myself. And this notion, this theory, this hypothesis, would have us believe that the universe began about 14 billion years ago, where matter was created out of nothing. I’m going to repeat that, because I find it difficult to believe, as you will. Matter was created out of nothing, okay, almost 14 billion years ago, on the left side of the diagram.
Immediately after matter was created, there was an enormous inflation in the space that matter occupied, and there was a lot of radiant energy, which we can still see left over from the Big Bang – that green disk on the left.
So as the matter increased and as the space in the universe increased, the modern view is that the atoms started to clump together and became stars and galaxies. And the universe kept on expanding as we moved to the right. Hubble, in the late 20’s, discovered that the further a galaxy was from us, the faster it was moving away, which the artist has tried to indicate this. And the Hubble Telescope discovered that not only are these galaxies moving away from us, but they’re moving away from us at an accelerating pace.
Now, I find all of this hard to believe, and I suspect you do too. So this is an example of having faith in what scientists are saying. Now, I want to go back to the first slide, please, and ask you a question, which I’m going to have to answer: Why is the night sky dark? Now, it’s a simple question, and there are a couple of answers. If you asked a character in a Sholem Aleichem novel, he would say something like, “Well, the night sky is dark so that we can see all the beautiful and wondrous stars in the heavens.” But there’s an astrophysical answer to the same question, and I’m going to answer this and show you that the fact that the night sky is dark, believe it or not, is some evidence for the notion that the universe was created in the Big Bang.
Now, how could this be so? Well, imagine if the universe was infinite, and that there were an infinite number of stars. And if that were the case, every line of sight from your eye would terminate on a star, and so the night sky would be blazingly bright. But the evidence is that the night sky is dark, and because of that, that means that the stars are spaced out from each other. It’s not a bright sky. And not only are they spaced out, but they must have been closer together because of gravity. So you can see this is starting to suggest that there must have been a Big Bang.
And let’s move to two more slides down. I’m going to talk about empty space, and again, the willing suspension of your disbelief. Empty space is not empty, and scientists now believe that below the level of our ability to see or detect what’s going on in empty space, in a vacuum, there are what’s called quantum FOAMS, which means that particles are popping into and out of existence – neutrons and protons and antiprotons, electrons and positrons, all popping in and out of space. So how does that get us the creation of matter out of nothing?
Next slide – there’s a rubber band, a very big rubber band, and I’m stretching it. Now, if I stretch this rubber band – if you’ve ever stretched a rubber band, put it next to your cheek, you’ll notice it gets warm. That’s because when you stretch a rubber band, you’re adding energy to it. Now, we know that energy and mass are equivalent, and it would take a lot of energy to add mass to a stretched rubber band, but this is just a way of discussing how empty space – which, I said is not empty – when stretched, could produce matter, because one is adding energy to it.
Now, I leave the question to Dan as to who is stretching the empty space. And this is not a debate, by the way. We’re friends, and this is a dialogue. So now, if you imagine space being stretched and adding energy and therefore mass, that is an argument for the Big Bang image that I showed you before.
The next slide: here is hard evidence for the Big Bang. Already I discussed [how] the darkness of the night sky is one argument for the existence of the Big Bang, that Hubble’s Law, which discovered the relationship between the speed of recession of distant galaxies and the distance from us – the further they are, the faster they’re moving – that itself is a big hint that some of them must have been closer together at some point. But that’s observation, and that’s hard evidence.
The universe seems to be homogeneous – that is to say that we are not, our location in the universe is not, special. And furthermore, that it’s isotropic. There’s very strong data showing that the sky looks the same in all directions to one part in 100,000. So all of these are hard evidence for this strange notion, which I find hard to believe – but I accept it on faith – for the existence of the Big Bang.
And that’s the short version of the current idea of how the universe came to be. A little later, if you’re interested, I can give you a history of the ancient ideas of the origin of the universe. And some of them are very, very interesting. So I’m going to stop here.
Judy Klinghoffer: Okay. So we’ve moved on to the Big Bang. So in the beginning, was it the Big Bang, then, or is it “In the Beginning,” the way we know it in the Bible?
Dan Geffen: That’s an excellent way of transitioning, I’ll say, but first I want to answer Steve’s question – you know, who’s stretching the universe? It’s Dr. Stephen Rosen. We saw it in the picture, so we now have empirical proof that the universe has solved all the problems. (Judy laughs)
Steve, that was great. I mean, my head is swimming. I certainly ended up a Rabbi – I’ll tell you the story another time of my GRE math scores, and you’ll understand why it is I’m a Rabbi and certainly not a physicist. It’s not my area of expertise, in understanding these things. But I certainly can see a little bit more.
You know, I think actually one of the great things that you already identified, Steve, is part of our identity, right, as religious thinkers, as scientific thinkers, or as both, is that we’re trying to understand our world more. And I think, actually, that was the – I’m paraphrasing from the conference, but somebody said something to the effect that “the definition of science is trying to know more today than I knew yesterday.” And I think that the same can be true, to some degree, of religion. Perhaps the things that we are desiring to know more about are a little bit different. But that pursuit of – let’s put “truth” in very big quotation marks, right – but that pursuit of a concept of truth, I think, is very, very important.
So going back to Judy’s wonderful transition, which I totally screwed up going on a tangent, what Rabbis do – let’s go back to the very beginning. So I’m going to share my screen with you, as, typical of me, you know, I’ve got to come with texts, that’s the way us Rabbis work.
So let’s start with the beginning, right. This is the thing that we all assume we all know really well, okay. So the Hebrew – consistent – it’s been consistent for as long as we’ve had Torah – phrase is
Bereshit bara Elohim et hashamayim v’et ha’aretz
V’et ha’aretz hayta tohu vavohu, v’chosech al p’nei tehom, v’ruach Elohim m’rachefet al p’nei hamayim
Vayomer Elohim, “Y’hi or,” va’y’hi or
Great, now, let’s get complicated, okay. Every translation that we look at is already now positing a different way of looking at what we all presume to be the same exact thing, right. God creates the universe, creates everything, okay, but even in these first few words, I’m going to show you that there actually are a number of different ways to translate, and a number of different takeaways from those different kinds of translations. And by no means are the three that I’m going to present to you tonight reflective of the totality. There are hundreds, perhaps, of different translations of just this couple of first verses, and it’s a good indication of where we’re going to go in this conversation, of just how complex this idea is, and how, let’s say – non-linear, non-singular, I should say – our perspectives may be.
Okay, so the first translation is one that’s most familiar to us in our congregation, which we use what’s called the JPS translation, the Jewish Publication Society translation. This one ranges to about 2006, so you know, we’ve got some updating to do, but it’s a good indication of kind of a standard procedure, in this case. But it’s going to already look different for a lot of you than you’re perhaps thinking in your mind. Okay, so it says in English:
“When God began to create heaven and earth, the earth was the earth, being unformed and void with darkness over the surface of the deep. And a wind from God sweeping over the water – God said” – and this is going to be a very important piece – “God said ‘Let there be light,’ and there was light.”
Okay, now I want to go to Everett Fox. Some of you may be familiar with Everett Fox. If you’re not, this is actually a wonderful Torah translation to have in your repository. It is by no means standard, and it is much more of an idiomatic translation of the Torah into English, as opposed to a literal translation – or it’s skewing more in that direction, trying to understand, but still playing with the actual Hebrew itself, but putting it in very different terms.
So what do we see here? “At the beginning of God’s creating” – okay, so “creating” as opposed to “creation” – “of the heavens and the Earth, now the Earth was confusion and chaos, darkness over the face of the ocean, rushing-spirit of God soaring over the waters. God said: let there be light!” Exclamation point. “And there was light.”
Okay, so right off the bat, we see two very different kinds of readings – different translations of key words, still trying to talk to us about the essence of this moment of creation, but very different, right. When you talk about creation versus creating, what’s the main difference, right? One is an ongoing idea and one is a static moment in time. Okay, so very good to keep that handy.
And now, just for a point of clarification, to go back to what we would call sort of probably more like what we grew up listening to, and hearing, the Koren Jerusalem Torah is one of the more standard forms you’ll find in most Modern Orthodox, even Orthodox, communities as an excellent Torah translation. And this is the one that we’re most familiar with: “In the beginning, God created the heavens and the earth, and the earth was without form and void, and darkness was on the face of the deep, and a wind from God moved over the surface of the waters. And God said, Let there be light: and there was light.”
So really, the only thing that we see tying all these things together is we know that we’re starting at the beginning of something, and we know that God’s speaking is what brings these things into existence, but a lot of these differences are actually really important. We could spend an entire semester just talking about these three verses and these three translations. We’re not going to do that tonight. This is mostly to illustrate the idea that for us, as Jews, the concept that there is a singular way of viewing the moment of creation, a singular way of discussing the concept of cosmology, is already the wrong way of thinking about it. It’s going to lead us in the wrong direction, it’s going to suggest to us that there is a single way of viewing, that it’s always been that way, that we must think the same way, and anybody who thinks differently is wrong.
All right, these are already four fallacies that I want to chop down as quickly as I can, because in reality it’s not the case. And I’m going to prove it to you, even beyond this. We started with Torah – I’m going to walk us through a little bit of history. And as I said, the topic of cosmology could be a semester. Rabbi Mitelman could teach this class at HUC, it’d probably take more than a semester. But this is at least an indication of kind of where are people thinking.
So one of the things we struggle with as human beings, even in hearing Dr. Rosen’s presentation a few moments ago, is even if we know somebody says this is factual, even if I have the math to provide, to produce, all those different descriptions as Dr. Rosen gave us, of how the idea of the Big Bang came together, most of us as human beings don’t speak that language, the language of mathematics, to the degree to which we can understand it in a one-to-one way.
And the Rabbis sort of understood this as well about religious thought, right. And about something as big as the idea of creation is that the average person of us is not necessarily a 60-year Torah scholar, right, not well-versed in every stream of Jewish thought. We’re coming into this – not necessarily with no knowledge, but certainly not with the kind of knowledge that’s going to help us to understand it necessarily on a one-to-one level.
And this is one of the places where Midrash comes in [and] is extremely helpful, and already, again, is going to buttress my argument here, which is to say if we thought that we would leave the story of Beresheit, the story of creation, alone, and not touch it and not think about it, not ask questions of it, and not posit stories that relate to it. This Midrash, which comes, roughly speaking – Beresheit Rabbah is roughly from the Talmudic era, 300-500 CE, give or take. And it is a representation, as I said, one of the best representations we have, of Midrash.
Midrash, in itself – drash – is the idea of taking an already existing idea or text or concept and then expounding upon it, right, trying to take this kernel that we’re given and make it into something – forgive the pun, Big Bang, right – taking this kernel and making it explode into all sorts of different directions. So here we’re not going to get into too much of the weeds of the text itself, it’s more illustrating the point I’m ultimately trying to make, but it’s already going to throw a wrench into our idea of “There was nothing and then there was something.”
Okay, so in the beginning of God’s creating, we’re told, six things preceded the creation of the world. Six things, okay. So right off the bat, we can knock down this idea that there is a complete understanding, that “Everything began at Beresheit rabbah elohim.” Forget for a second whether we ourselves believe this, or understand it, or whatever. Just as a concept, it should already be putting a chink in the armor of the idea that there is this sort of mono- you know, right – (I don’t want to say monotheism) – this sort of a singular way of thinking within Judaism. And we’re talking about 300-500 CE, you can see where we’re going.
So in the beginning, six things preceded the creation of the world. Some of them were created, and some of them were decided to be created, okay. So we’re getting more complicated, not less complicated. The Torah and the Throne of Glory which is the sort of envisioned way in which God is sitting and residing in the heavens, okay, both of these things, the Torah itself and the Throne, were created before creation. If your brain isn’t melting yet, it’s going to get more confusing from here. I promise, right, how do we know this? So now this is what the Rabbis do, especially in Midrash and in Talmud. They cite proof texts. So interestingly enough, just to make things more complicated, they’re citing a proof text from the Book of Proverbs, okay. If we’re thinking, chronologically speaking, the Book of Proverbs is a far shot away from the story of creation. So they’re quoting something that happened after creation to tell us about what happened before it.
Okay, so are we following? So, just nod if you’re following along, otherwise I’m going to be worried that everybody’s glazed over. Okay. So here I will skip over the proof texts, because they’re less relevant in this case.
So what else was created? The patriarchs – apparently not the matriarchs, just the patriarchs, just Abraham, Isaac and Jacob, sitting around, right. Israel – okay, it could be referring to the person or the people. The Temple itself – the Temple that stood in Yerushalayim – and even the name of the Moshiach, right, even the name of the messiah was decided before creation even began.
Okay, proof text, proof t proof next okay. Rabbi Ahavah said in the name of Rabbi Ze’ira: “Even repentance [even teshuva] was created before creation.” You may remember I quoted this a number of – you probably won’t, but a number of years ago, in a High Holiday sermon, in which we talked about how important teshuva is. It’s primordial, it’s before – it’s not even primordial, it’s before anything, we’re told that teshuva exists, which is a good thing for us as we’re starting to move towards the High Holidays, to remember. “However, I do not know which was first, if the Torah preceded the Throne of Glory or the Throne of Glory preceded the Torah.”
So here you go, right. You think you’ve got some stuff, it just keeps growing from there, okay. And it’s unending. I pulled out a handful of verses from a conversation that goes on for pages, just about these first couple of verses of the Torah itself.
Okay, now we’ll skip ahead in time to Maimonides. And Maimonides, I should say, is not by any means the only view. And Maimonides and his Guide for the Perplexed actually does a tremendous amount of philosophical work to summarize, and then attack, the various other streams of thought as it relates to the question of cosmology of the creation of the world. Neoplatonic, Aristotelian, you name it, there’s a bunch of different ways to consider it, and Maimonides, basically, he kind of attacks all of them. I’m not even going to talk about his own particular view, but I’m going to use what he does here, which is to try to summarize what he believes to be the Mosaic view, right, the “traditional,” so to speak, in quotations, Jewish understanding of how the universe came into existence.
And remember, again, Maimonides is writing, as you can see, 1138-1204. So we’re talking about now generations past the period of the Talmud.
“The first theory – [This is the theory of] those who follow the law of Moses, our Teacher, [which] holds that the whole Universe, i.e. everything except God, has been brought by God into existence out of non-existence.”
Okay, so if anybody is remembering back just a few moments ago, as Dr. Rosen was talking about the Big Bang, and about the idea of, you know, something out of nothing, here we can already see – we may not say it in the same way, or think the same way about it, but both sides of this equation are both parallel streams of thought, [and] are wrestling with this really hard-to-understand concept of, “Well, how can something exist in nothingness,” right? How does that make any kind of comprehensive sense?
So Maimonides says, “In the beginning God alone existed, and nothing else; neither angels nor spheres”– don’t worry about that, it’s a whole other complicated philosophical thing – “nor the things that are contained within the spheres existed,” right.
The spheres are sort of a shorthand way of saying, let’s say, all the laws of physics, all the systems of life, all the things of the universe, the orbits of the planets, all the things themselves, right, that none of this stuff existed, only. God then “produced, from nothing, all existing things such as they are by God’s will and desire, even time itself…”
Even time itself is among the things created, okay. So this is an important thing to understand, because for us as human beings, we think of everything in terms of time. Almost everything is constrained within the laws of time – forward, backward, whatever it is. In order for us to understand the world of existence, we have to think of it in those terms, and yet at the same time, we’re learning here, right, there wasn’t time. In God’s existence before creation time doesn’t exist, it’s a creation of God as well.
Okay, “for time depends on motion.” In other words, “on accident and things which move.” And I think it’s acting on things which move and the things upon which whose motion time depends are themselves created beings, which have passed from non-existence into existence.
So as I said, everything, motion, physics, all of these things, anything that we experience as reality, in one of the philosophical mindsets, especially in the Medieval period, a big conversation was about God as what’s called a “prime mover,” okay. That God is the thing that moves everything into its place and then it operates in its own kind of capacities, as it were.
Okay, he continues: “We say that God existed before the creation of the Universe. Although the verb ‘existed’ appears to imply the notion of time. We also believe that God existed in an infinite space of time before the Universe was created. But in these cases, we do not mean time in its true sense. We only use the term to signify something analogous or similar to time.”
So why is this important? It’s important because it’s an example of somebody, even Maimonides, who’s trying to be definitive to some degree in a conversation that naturally fights against that instinct. He is trying to remind us that a lot of our description of things relating to God, or the cosmos, or cosmology, or the creation story, or anything, is often our human attempt to try to wrap our heads around something that almost inherently can’t be understood by us. And so, when we talk about things like time, or energy, or motion, all of these things are words and concepts that we use to try to understand what, to God, is simply God being God, right. That these things are happening because God decides so. And if we remember back to our earlier verses, right, this idea of “God speaks, and it comes into existence” – [is a] very, very important piece of the puzzle.
Okay, I promise not too much. We’re going to turn back so that Steve can get back in here. But I want to talk about Kabbalah, and I’m sorry, actually, I don’t have the image, but in Professor Larry Hoffman’s book, My People’s Prayer Book, which is an amazing thing. He’s talking about Kabbalah Shabbat, and he’s talking about Kabbalah, and he’s trying to encapsulate it. I think actually it might be Sharon Koren‘s piece within it – Professor Sharon Koren, I should say. They draw a picture that looks actually very similar to the picture that Steve put up just a few moments ago about the Big Bang in talking about the beginning the creation story as viewed by the Kabbalists. and in particular, in this case we’re borrowing from Gershem Shalom’s wonderful book, Kabbalah and Symbolism, on Rabbi Isaac Luria, known as Ha’Ari, who was one of the most preeminent, if not the most preeminent, Kabbalistic scholars of all time, and leaders.
And here he uses the word “myth” – well, we’ll put that aside for a second. It’s not necessarily the most helpful word in this case, but it already describes the idea that the Kabbalists are taking the story of creation and adding a whole lot more to the narrative – a whole lot more, so much so, in fact, that Kabbalah is something that makes my head burst as much as as physics does.
It’s not my area of expertise, so I’m not going to spend a lot of time getting into the specifics of it, but in essence, he breaks it down as sort of three components – that the creation of the entire universe is really about three elements.
The first one, which we talked about, actually, extensively at the conference with Rabbi Mitelman and our guest speakers, is the idea of tsimtsum, which is a great human teaching for all of us, right. In order for creation to take place, God had to sort of pull Godself back a bit, right, to retract, to self-limit, as it says, to create the kind of space to then be able to create creation in so in a way of thinking, right, everything was God, until God decided to kind of shrink Godself in order to create the space to allow for creation to take place. Can I get a nod of sort of some understanding? In that case, okay, good.
The second piece is this idea of shevirah, this idea that the world – in part of this process of creation, there is a brokenness that takes place, the breaking of the vessels. Again, we’re not going to go into specifics of what the vessel is about or whatever it might be, but that in part of the process of the creation was one of of some amount of disorder, right, a certain amount of things that — perhaps maybe disorder is not the right word, but that sort of element that we understand as existence, right, that has contained within it a certain amount of randomness, a certain amount of pain and suffering, right. Because if otherwise we would think about it, it makes sense that God would create only something perfect. Okay, that’s one of the first challenges that the philosophers have – is if God created everything, why are our lives so complicated? Why does everything function the way that it does? It’s because there is an inherent brokenness in the world. And thankfully, though, there is a restitution for that, there’s a way of restoring, which is what we call Tikkun.
Most of us are familiar with this word through the phrase tikkun olam, right, but Tikkun Olam is built off of, really, this idea of “What is tikkun?” It’s a repairing, it’s an attempt to take that which is either broken, or misunderstood, or out of whack, and put it back into place. And that’s our role in existence, is to be part of that process itself.
But, same idea here – the Kabbalists are not content with just sitting there with the Beresheit bara elohim – “God created the world in six days, and people, on the seventh day, rested.” There needs to be more of a conversation here. And the Kabbalists are not hesitant to get into some very wacky theories as to what it is that is going on in creation, after creation, and so forth.
Okay, so lastly – and I know this is no surprise to my people knowing that I’m quoting Heschel, I know. But sometimes you just know, right, because there’s one person who’s going to talk about it, and as Dr. Rosen talked about at the beginning, right, questions of awe and wonder, these are things that are actually very important to the religious mind as they are to the scientists. It was one of the most important takeaways I had from the conference we were at, is [that] for all of us to realize that that is the language in which we are unified, right. Just because a scientist may empirically understand something and be able to prove its purpose and existence does not in any way, shape or form take away from the wonder that’s associated with it, nor does it say to the scientists that, “In order to live in life, I have to understand everything.” Sometimes the pursuit of understanding is the thing that generates awe and wonder in that sense of things as well.
So Heschel writes, in one of his many essays, “In the Presence of Mystery”:
“To become aware of the ineffable is to part company with words. The essence, the tangent to the curve of human experience lies beyond the limits of language. The world of things we perceive is but a veil. Its flutter is music, its ornament science, but what it conceals is inscrutable. Its silence remains unbroken; no words can carry it away. Sometimes we wish the world could cry and tell us about that which made it pregnant with fear-filling grandeur. Sometimes we wish our own heart would speak of that which made it heavy with wonder.”
So Heschel, in his unique, kind of poetic way, what is he saying? And what is my ultimate point about sort of all of this? It’s to say that from the religious perspective – and I hesitate to speak in such broad terms, so I’ll put it in the “I,” right, myself, as a person who I believe is a religious person, as a person who loves and experiences the beauty of Judaism on a daily basis, I am perfectly comfortable living in a world that I do not necessarily understand everything about. And that part of my not understanding is both awe-producing and wonder-producing, because I don’t know, but also impels me to want to know more, right – that idea of knowing more today than I knew yesterday is part of both my religious identity and part of my – what I would call scientific identity, right. The thought of,“What does it mean to try to make sense of the world?” and when we come up against something that, even if it is proven correct, right, even if the theory is 100% correct, as Dr. Rosen talked about, I’m not necessarily going to understand it in a way that’s actually going to provide my life any kind of meaning. But pursuing that question, right, talking to somebody like Dr. Rosen, who has a passion for understanding in his way. in his language, is exciting to me as well. But I don’t feel the need to really justify or to explain or to make absolutely, unequivocally valid my belief of the creation story in its original form. Nor do I have to ascribe myself to the Midrash, or to Maimonides, or to the Kabbalist, or even to Heschel.
But at the same time, we say, we stand on the shoulders of those that came before us, the giants – in particular, of our people, who have spent their entire lives just trying to figure out an answer to these kinds of questions. And that, in the end, I think has created our identity as Jews to some degree, is that pursuit. And to me, I don’t see these streams as, you know, as Judy was asking at the beginning, right as in conflict with each other like that, but really oftentimes just a different language for pursuing the same kinds of questions.
So that’s really, again, a sort of survey of – and there, as I said, are hundreds more Rabbis, texts, documents, translations, any number of ways just to talk about this question of, you know, what happened at the beginning – and again, what happened before the beginning.
Judy Klinghoffer: So I’m actually wondering – what I find is that, from the religious point of view, you’re often examining and re-examining existing texts. Not necessarily adding new texts, but interpretations and reflections on them. In science, it feels as though science is always changing because new data comes into the picture. And the recent picture of the Hadron Particle Collider that we were talking about earlier. And there’s new data – I mean, I think they’re starting to see particles that they say are from just after the Big Bang.
So Dr. Rosen, as new data is coming, I know you keep up with things – do you feel as though these two areas, of the scientific view and the religious view, that they actually come together to sort of support each other? You know, that basically we’re all talking about the same thing, even if we’re coming from different disciplines?
Stephen Rosen: So the universe does not come loaded with meaning, and people like Rabbi Dan and Maimonides and all of those other thinkers seem to me to be eager to endow the universe with meaning, so that we can take something away from their origin theories. And it seems all of their origin theories are interesting in the sense that they seem to imply a mission for us to do. Stephen Hawking, who was an atheist, said that “asking what happened before the beginning of the universe, before the Big Bang, is like asking what is south of the South Pole.”
That’s a physicist, that’s an atheist talking. And I think it’s a very beautiful image. And it sort of tells me to shut up. I’ve been talking about this, and I like it because it’s so different from what Dan was talking about. But I love what Dan was saying about all of these multiple opinions about the origin of the universe for most ages. And I think a lot of it is poetry, and a lot of it is predicated on the notion that we want a message from a meaningless universe that tells us how to go forth and be bold and be good people.
And I personally take Judaism – which, I’m very proud to be a Jew. I’m so proud that I’ve been Bar Mitzvahed twice, once at age 13, because my parents wanted me to, and the next time at age 83 – by the way, here at Temple Adas Israel. And that was because I wanted to be. And by the way, I had the same portion, “Love thy neighbor as thyself,” both times.
So I like being a Jew. I like thinking about Jewish things. And I like Jewish people. I love Rabbis. Some of my best friends are Rabbis.
Dan Geffen: Like chopped liver? That’s very important.
Stephen Rosen: I love all that stuff. So I know it’s – I’m not sure I answered your question, Judy.
Judy Klinghoffer: But it was fun. So we’re going to get a little silly now. Good extraterrestrials – Yes? No? Maybe?
Dan Geffen: Steve, you want to take this?
Stephen Rosen: We know some – you know, I think in my experience, seems that way.
Dan Geffen: Well, I’ll take a first stab at it, right. So this, of course, is that movie Contact – I think it was based on a Crichton [Carl Sagan] book. I think that one of the sort of inevitable challenges of of the search for extraterrestrial life – let’s say we find it tomorrow – is, “How does the particularly religious world respond to that?” Because, remember, while we as moderns now have a much greater understanding of the cosmos and all these things, right, for most of human existence, the idea was that the Earth was the center of the universe, that everything revolved around us, that our world was created for us, and the concept that there could be some thing or some other entity living somewhere else in the world is an automatic challenge to our primacy as people.
So again, one can take a sort of narrow view in that sense. But at the same time there’s a certain, almost ridiculous, hubris to think that it’s just us, because here we’re talking about this entity that we call God, powerful enough, all-encompassing enough, to create what we see as the cosmos. To suggest that God is limited in any way is actually a great struggle for many of the great Jewish philosophers, including Maimonides, to the point where Maimonides basically came to the conclusion that we really can’t talk about what God is, we can really only define what God isn’t. It’s what’s oftentimes referred to as “negative theology.” And what he’s basically saying is that we can’t even really begin to conceive of what God is, what God does, what God’s purpose for everything is, etc. So in that universe, it’s not hard for me to imagine, as a religious person, that absolutely there is some other, you know, existence in the world.
And me, again, as a scientific mind, while I don’t possess the knowledge of Professor Rosen or anybody of the sort, I can look up at the stars of the sky at night and realize it’s far more than I could count, even if you gave me a lifetime. And just my very minuscule understanding of statistics would tell me that the very likely chances that there is something out there. Whether any of us will see it in our lifetime, I don’t know, but I will tell you just on experience, again, should we find E.T. tomorrow, my Judaism does not change. My faith does not change one iota. I’ll just be thrilled to meet him. That’s it.
Stephen Rosen: So I want to chime in here a little bit with my ignorance about extraterrestrials. I know Judy and Mike are big fans of science fiction, and so am I. However, I think that, you know, there are 1011 stars in our galaxy, and there are 1011 galaxies. If you multiply those two numbers together, you get 1022 , and that’s a very large number. That’s larger than the number of grains of sand on the Earth, which is only, I don’t know, 1080.
Dan Geffen: A lot, anyway.
Stephen Rosen: So I think it’s not unlikely that there is some kind of other life somewhere, and probably unlike us – different chemistry. But the distances between us and them, wherever they are, are so great that it’s very unlikely that we will be visited anytime soon, if at all. However, it doesn’t rule out the notion that we could be contacted remotely by electromagnetic waves, or maybe even a spaceship or something. But I think it’s also very unlikely. And I love science fiction, and it lets us think about this stuff. But I am not optimistic about visitation. And I think it’s barely possible that there might be, someday, some kind of communication. I’m sorry to put a wet blanket on Judy and Mike’s science fiction ideas, but that’s where I got. I guess I’m a skeptic,
Dan Geffen: As a scientist ought to be, and as a religious person, to be quite frank.
Stephen Rosen: I’m very strong on defending Israel, which has nothing to do with it.
Dan Geffen: No, that doesn’t. But you know, it’s a good statement to make in general. We all – you know,
Judy Klinghoffer: In case E.T. shows up –
Dan Geffen: In case E.T. shows up, it will be at the Temple Mount.
Stephen Rosen: I’m a skeptic on extraterrestrials. How’s that?
Dan Geffen: Good, good. You know, Judy, it’s something of a bit of a tangent, but it just occurred to me, as we’ve been talking – one of the things I think, actually, all of us probably ought to do, and I think it came up in an earlier part of the conversation, right. Even with new theories in science – when you take courses in school, they still teach you the earlier theories, right. It’s important to understand the evolution of thought, not just the end point, right.
So the same is true for us as well. Okay, we still teach the Torah, we still read the Torah every week. I still teach my students every week. But inherent to Judaism is the idea that with each person that learns Torah, teaches Torah, shares their learnings with others, right, that the Torah grows. It doesn’t mean that we leave behind its origin point. It just means that, you know, it’s a living entity, it’s something that is a part of us in that kind of way. And I think it’s, as I said, a very similar piece in science.
And you know, one of the things that pushes scientific ideas forward, from my understanding, is rigorous debate, rigorous discussion, and even sometimes arguments, like actual flat-out arguments. But the purpose of the argument, as we say in our tradition, L’shem Shamayim, right, for the purposes basically of furthering the idea for our whole existence, right, including our Creator, this idea that we are benefited by this kind of interaction.
And one other thing that just occurred to me a few moments ago, one of the things of studying world religions in general – almost every culture, religion in existence – people that have ever lived, especially prior to the modern period, in which we’ve come to understand the world in slightly different ways – every one of us creates, or has, or is given, a creation story, some kind of idea. But most, many, of the creation stories are ones actually that are born out of violence, right, a tremendous amount of tumult. Things exploding, wars being fought, right. It’s all sorts of things. And the story for us is one that’s very different, right. The world comes into existence, the universe comes into existence, by voice, right, by the voice of God. And I think it shouldn’t be lost on us, that there is something really quite powerful in that.
But yes, even when we’re talking about the cosmos exploding out in a million different directions, right, the way that we think of the word “explosion” is almost always inherently connected to destruction and to death and to terrible kinds of things. But it’s science, right, it’s this idea of taking something that is contained and centralized and then spreading it out in every conceivable direction. But how powerful to think of it as coming from the voice, right, of coming from the essence of that element of existence, as opposed to, you know, at the expense of that. So just a random thought, as it were.
Judy Klinghoffer: But to follow along on that random thought, which I like very much, a voice is a sound wave. So once again –
Dan Geffen: There we go!
Judy Klinghoffer: Instead of, you know – I remember learning in school about how science and religion are so adversarial, that, you know, the church is burning the scientists at the stake, and making them recant, you know, “Say no, your view of the the cosmos is erroneous, if you don’t recant, we’re going to burn you.” But the more I listen this evening, I feel as though there could be a nexus of science and religion, particularly in Judaism, which is such an intellectual and abstract kind of religion. So I’m curious if you might agree with that.
Dan Geffen: Well, Steve, I’ve been talking a lot, you go.
Stephen Rosen: I have a slide, Dan, which is a timeline of ancient beliefs about the existence of the universe. We can pull that up, we could walk through it together and show the variety and the richness of ideas about how different people, at different times in the universe, believed that the universe came into being. Can you find it?
Dan Geffen: So it’s on the slide, but actually it says that we are forbidden – we don’t have permission to access, which I think I’m going to put this on screen, because nobody’s going to trust me that I say it. Well, I can’t write these things, but you know, I think that is a very telling indication that we’ve stumbled on something very important. It is verboten.
Judy Klinghoffer: Wow. You know, so you might have to try to summarize it as best we can. And we’re going to send out a follow-up email to everybody registered with some interesting stuff and some ways to connect through Sinai and Synapses and all that. So Dr. Rosen, if we can get that working, we can send that along every for everybody’s edification.
Stephen Rosen: Yeah, okay, that’s a good save.
Dan Geffen: They teach this in Rabbinical school.
Stephen Rosen: You know, I can’t remember, but each tribe in prehistory had a different notion of of how the universe began. And for some of them, you know, it began in an animal, a wolf, or some of them, it came from the sun. I can’t remember them, but they were very rich and interesting series of ideas from different peoples based on their own lives and their own circumstances. So I’m sorry I can’t remember much, but I’m 88 years old and –
Dan Geffen: And you look great, don’t worry.
Stephen Rosen: Good. Give me some slack.
Dan Geffen: You’ve got all the slack in the world. No, I mean I think you know it’s important in these conversations, and especially, I think, it was really – I think it was great to start with cosmology as the starting point of this ongoing dialogue that we’re going to have with a number of different experts, in a number of different fields, because, you know, it’s a great exemplar of how we can take a story that every one of us knows more or less, right, backwards and forwards – and I put that in quotations, but the reality is, just like I showed you in the Midrash, right, it would have been so easy to not go in that direction, just leave things at “God creates the universe” and go from there.
So why do the Rabbis attempt to say, “Well, before creation there was Torah”? It’s because there is, you know, inevitably going to be questions asked of the narrative, right, questions asked of, well, you know, “If God created all this stuff and if the Torah is created down the road, you know, how can you create the Torah on Mount Sinai and it’d still be talking about Midrash generation?” Before, again, rather than getting sort of caught up in this, I think, almost perverse desire of human beings to be right, the desire is not necessarily to be right, it’s to increase our sense of meaning in the world, right. And what an unbelievable thing from – I mean, there’s a great, great thing which I’ve shown to some of my students in some of my classes. There’s a wonderful website called Sefaria, if you’re following the Hebrew. One of the things they do there is they created a visualization, a sort of physical manifestation, of all the connecting points between our Torah and Talmud, for example. Tens of thousands of lines of connection, tens of thousands – I mean, it’s to the point in which a person’s head is going to literally explode. But it’s the Rabbis writing, you know, between 200 and 500 C.E., writing down in the Talmud, in the Mishnah, making connections to the Torah and then back again, and then connecting those things over and over and that way.
But it all really begins from here, from cosmology, from this question of, you know, if we can add to the narrative of creation, that opens a whole world of dialogue to us, a whole world of drash, a whole world of opportunity for us as Jews, and I think us as human beings – to take something that is as sacred as the creation story, but make it our own, right, to make it relevant to us in each generation, as we learn more about ourselves and the world in which we live, that we actually appreciate the story more, not less.
And I think the tendency, as I said, the perversion of this, is this human tendency that we all have, is we like to be right. And we like other people to be wrong. And I think one of the things I appreciated so much about the way that Rabbi Mitelman presents Sinai and Synapses, the way we came to this, is to break that kind of mentality. We’re not in conversation, certainly not here tonight and not in any of our programs – we are not in a conversation about me being right and Steve being wrong or vice versa, or anything of the sort, right. We are simply gathering together as people who are clearly right, they have this many people on a beautiful night in the Hamptons on a Thursday night, and we’re here talking on Zoom. It’s because these things matter to us. These big questions matter to us. And the study of it, and the debate about it, is exciting, Dr. Rosen.
Stephen Rosen: So some of you know that I have this habit of writing songs for various occasions, and before we go to the Q&A, with your indulgence–
Dan Geffen: I think we were going to close with that. Well, let’s do it. We only have one Q&A, I think, so why don’t we take that question, Steve, and then we’ll close out with you regaling us, because I think that’ll be good. So this question, I’ll pose it because it came to me, and it’s not because the person happens to be married to our moderator, okay, not by any means. Just because Michael Klinghoffer is a wonderful, brilliant guy, and he poses a very very important question. So he says: “the Bible is full of miracles. Miracles are basically the suspension of natural sciences. The sun stands still, the parting of the Red Sea, etc. So this question really starts to you, Dr. Rosen. How does the scientist rationalize or explain miracles?”
Stephen Rosen: Well, I’m going to take a cheap way out and say it’s poetry, it’s metaphor, it’s romance, it’s romancing the facts. That’s my answer, and I’m going to stick to it.
Dan Geffen: I think it’s a good answer. I will say, like most things, one of the first things you have to do is define the word “miracle,” and I think that everybody’s definition of that word is going to be a little bit different. But I think, to actually in our prayer book in Mishkan Tefila, early on in the service on Saturday mornings, there is a series of blessings which collectively, in our prayer book was referred to as Nisim B’chol Yom, right, daily miracles, blessings for daily miracles, which includes blessings for opening our eyes, being able to take steps, right being able to learn Torah, all sorts of different kinds of things, that if you look at the list, you’d say “None of these are miracles, right. These are things I do every single day, right.” There is, of course, the absurdity, right – what is a Daily Miracle? How can that even be possible?
Stephen Rosen: But I think another answer for me is that they’re trying to attract your attention. And how can you get the attention of primitive peoples? I think the idea of having a miracle, describing a miracle, even in poetic terms, is a way of getting your attention so they can proceed to suggest new directions in your life. And again, that’s – you know, that’s from a scientist’s point of view. But I think it makes a certain sense to me, at least.
Dan Geffen: And the only thing I would say – as I was saying about sort of our concept of the word – to me, what we’re doing right now is a miracle, right. The very fact that we are in all the places that we are in, and able to have this conversation, to maintain connection and community, to learn together, I just don’t even understand how it’s possible. I do not understand how ones and zeros floating across the Wi-Fi, ethernet, whatever you might have at home, producing the image of my friends who I miss and haven’t seen but I can see, right, that to me is a miracle, and something worth certainly celebrating. But when it comes to the question of, “How does science describe it,” Michael, I think it’s actually a really fascinating question, and one that probably we ought to leave thinking about a little bit.
But what I would say – this is the Rabbi in me, to leave you with some amount of Torah, right, is to not close your eyes to the daily miracles, right. To not close your eyes to the things that that may be explained and may have an explanation as to why, but they are no less miraculous in their existence, as far as I’m concerned.
Stephen Rosen: But let me give you a scientist’s idea of a miracle: the unreasonable effectiveness of mathematics in describing physical reality. This has been noticed by many scientists, including Einstein – the unreasonable effectiveness of mathematics in describing physical reality. And I think that’s a gift, and it’s extraordinary that by thinking about things, we’re able to understand stuff outside of our brain.
Dan Geffen: Very good.
Stephen Rosen: That’s a miracle.
Judy Klinghoffer: Before we close that, because we just got one last question from one of our future presenters, Dr. Arlene Auerbach, who asked a very good question: “So the new Webb Telescope can bring an image from close to the time of the Big Bang, related to the speed of light. Do you, Steve, think that someday we will actually get an image of the Big Bang itself?”
Stephen Rosen: I have no idea. Thanks for the question, Arlene. I’m going to get even with you when you have a dialogue with Rabbi Dan! (Dan laughs)
Dan Geffen: Very good.
Judy Klinghoffer: It’s going to be next month. So I just want to remind everyone, I believe it’s actually August 18th. And Dr. Auerbach is going to be speaking on genetic testing. She’s going to be having that dialogue with Dan on August 18th. And these dialogues are going to be continuing throughout the Fall, and I think into 2023, also.
So just keep your eye on the e-blasts, because I think they’re going to be fascinating.
Dan Geffen: So I want to say thank you first of all to Judy and Steve. Steve, we’re going to close out with your song in a moment. To all of you, and of course, to, as I said, Rabbi Mitelman, Sinai and Synapses, and the Templeton Foundation, for making this possible, and for making all the learning that we’re going to do over the next year possible – we hope this was a good start. We got two thumbs up from the Rabbi, so that’s a good sign. We’re in good shape there. And as I said, for those that are with us tonight, those who also registered, I’m going to send a follow-up email tomorrow with some useful stuff, including signing up for the Sinai and Synapses weekly e-blast, which is a great, great resource for a lot of these kinds of conversations, pushing things forward.
It really was a great start, great to be with all of you. And Steve I’m going to put the lyrics up. You’ve got a little bit about the origins of the cosmology of this song I suppose you know,
Stephen Rosen: So I wrote a love song to the stars. Can you hear me? If you want to sing along, just keep yourself muted.
So I also like singing in the rain, so here’s the melody, and here’s the lyric: “My stars are up above/and stars are what I love/I am thrilled when I see them/they’re my museum/I love the ones I see/I see the ones I love/the dipper gets me high/I’m singing just singing about the sky…”
Judy Klinghoffer: Thank you, Steve, that was wonderful. So everybody have a good evening, and you’ve got a lot to think about the cosmos indeed.
Dan Geffen: Thank you everybody, thank you Judy, thank you Dr. Rosen, and reminder, just for those that are our members, tomorrow night, because of the conflict with the church, our services are virtual only. Saturday morning will be in person, if you want to come. But tomorrow night, virtual only. It’s old school Zoom Shabbos. So join us, we’re going to have a good time. Maybe we’ll talk about cosmology, who knows. And we’ll see you very soon. Thanks so much. Thank you, everybody.