In (Cosmic) Light of Chanukkah

In (Cosmic) Light of Chanukkah

According to the traditional retelling of Chanukkah, the essential miracle is about light and energy. It’s the discovery of a small quantity of something, a substance, expected to be convertible into a day’s worth of light — but unexpectedly stretching into eight days’ worth, an expansion of energy and space and time.

Put aside for now the factual perspective, which is that a miracle involving a cruse of oil is not mentioned in any of the original sources close to the events of the original rekindling of the menorah in the Temple in 164 B.C.E. But for a long time, Jewish thought has understood the miracle of the original Chanukkah lights metaphorically. The cruse of oil represents the or haganuz, the “hidden light,” of the first act in the book of Genesis. That light is understood as hidden because, despite light being created on the first day, it’s not until the fourth day that light-emitting sources visible to us come into being — the sun, the moon, and the stars.

 The candles of Chanukkah thus represent the conversion of the original light into something visible and perceptible, extending out more and more from its original, concrete location, out into the universe.

Rabbi Yitzchak Luria, the 15th-century kabbalist from Tzfat, made this metaphor even more layered. He posited an original Divine “contraction” from which came a concentrated source of spiritual light, prior to anything else recognizable in the universe. From a single point, he taught, this light attempted to enter the universe, but the process was at once creative, explosive, and initially unstable. Quickly, this original spiritual light cooled down, so to speak. It took form – as spiritual energy, as matter, as ideas. Some of this light is perceptible as is, but the vast majority is trapped in kelipot or “husks,” which prevent us from easily perceiving the original nitzotzot or “sparks” within them.

All this is remarkably parallel to the understanding of origins of the universe that physics and cosmology have pieced together in the last century. It’s conventional scientific wisdom that there was a Big Bang, in which an original energy compressed in a single point burst out and was transformed in phases into  energy and matter. There is also “dark” energy and matter that prevent us currently from investigating them. The or haganuz is parallel to these forces, or perhaps to the cosmic background radiation that our eyes don’t see, but that is real and powerful nonetheless.

Our religious community has become aware of these striking parallels in the past twenty years thanks to scholars such as Daniel Matt, author of God and the Big Bang. But are these just inspired coincidences? The amateur simplifications that rabbis like me love for our sermons? The shape that creative thought naturally takes across different realms? Or is there some kind of spiritual and ethical learning that comes from contemplating modern cosmology in “light” of Jewish tradition?

Our synagogue, Temple Beth Abraham, is one of fourteen selected for the current cohort of Sinai and Synapses’ Scientists in Synagogues grantees. Thanks to the leadership of Sinai and Synapses, we invited Harvard astrophysicist Dr. Howard Smith for a pre-Chanukkah talk to explore these questions. (Click here to view the entire program.)

Listening to Dr. Smith, I was struck by his sheer excitement in these discoveries. As he told us, just the basic picture never fails to leave him choked up! And all the more so, how remarkable, for a religious person, a traditional and observant Jew, who is also a scholar, to be enchanted by the age of the universe, its vast and expanding scope, and the growing realization of what we will never know. These could easily rock the world of someone also enchanted by the biblical, Talmudic, and spiritual traditions of Judaism – and for many, they do.

But Dr. Smith suggested a few spiritual responses. One is the traditional notion of yirah, which he explained as both an overwhelming awe at our insignificance and an empowering awareness. Our consciousness and our quest for understanding are rare, and not unique, in the universe. So too is our complexity, among all the entities we can currently know or posit throughout space and time. What matters is not how small we are, but how unique. So understanding science and preserving our planet and one another – these are imperatives. No other intelligent beings are out there with answers we don’t have, or are on their way to save us or supplant us.

On Chanukkah, we are all challenged not to take the many hours of darkness each day at face value. Rather we are taught to discover and reveal precisely then sparks of light, and to stretch them out farther than we realized they could do in space and time. But Chanukkah is not merely a challenge of discovery, perception, and explanation. It’s a challenge also to choose a way to live, right here where we are. The answer to the vastness is to believe that a single light, right here, is part of the original spark of the entire universe, and to act from yirah right where we are.

(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. Rabbi Jon Spira-Savett is rabbi at Temple Beth Abraham in Nashua, NH, and this post was inspired by their program on December 11 with Dr. Howard Smith, titled “Science and Religion; Starting at the Beginning.”)

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