As we experience literally the darkest days of the year, human beings from every religious and secular tradition try to add light to our world. From ancient bonfires celebrating the winter solstice, to the fireworks at Chinese New Year, to the bright decorations of Diwali, to our flickering Chanukah candles—we try to brighten our surroundings. Truthfully, we fear what we cannot see.
Our Torah begins with the quintessential story of light as a creative force that dispels darkness. In Braysheet (Genesis) we read that when God began to create this world, the darkness was palpable: “the earth being unformed and void, with darkness over the surface of the deep and a wind from God sweeping over the water.” Then, with spoken word, “God said, ‘Let there be light;’ and there was light.”
What was that darkness? A black hole?
What was that light? Electromagnetic energy? Radiation?
Is there a dichotomy that requires me to believe our world began with a deliberate act of God or a random explosion of atomic particles?
These thoughts and questions swirl in my mind as my community tries to process the unexpected and heartbreaking loss of Rabbi Adam Feldman z”l. His recent death has made the short days feel even darker at The Jewish Center of Princeton, where he led our congregation for the last 14 years. Yet, we comfort ourselves thinking about his teaching.
Rabbi Feldman, z’l, taught that Judaism does not require me to choose between faith and science.
In fact, he addressed the question in a dialogue with Princeton University astrophysicist David Spergel focused on “Cosmology and Creation—Sacred and Secular Perspectives.” Rabbi Feldman, z”l, was a very strong proponent of our Scientists in Synagogues series and gave a thoughtful presentation.
That evening he said that, “We balance between respect for Jewish text and respect for science. We have a foot in each world—striking a balance between the two.
“Tonight, we are going to look at what Jewish tradition says about the Creation of the Universe and what Science says about the Creation of the Universe. We will look at how these two things complement each other, what impact they have on each other, and how our understanding of one affects our understanding of the other.
“In some ways, we are going to discuss Creation of the World with our head and with our heart—tonight we will bring the two together and see where we go.”
Rabbi Feldman, z”l, explained that there are many ways to understand Torah. We can take a traditional approach—that it was given by God—or a metaphorical approach, looking at the lessons it teaches us. We have many questions, he said, adding that not all of them have answers. For example, what existed before Creation? What is the role of Chaos and Order?
Professor Spergel echoed that theme. “My own work focuses on the First Day,” he said—looking at radiation and leftover heat from the Big Bang that expands to fill every space. He talked about the study of dark matter and dark energy, with so much that we still cannot explain and do not understand.
When did time begin? When scientists talk about starting with the Big Bang, there is no answer as to what was there before it. In other words, he said, “There is nothing North of the North Pole.”
In his presentation, Professor Spergel described his “sense of awe at the remarkable simplicity and elegance of the universe.” He talked about a “handful of ingredients,” such as protons, neutrons and electrons, and specific forces of nature, such as gravity and nuclear energy.
With math and physics, scientists see symmetry and uniformity – for example, in the behavior of our sun and the stars. Yet, that symmetry is broken, as exemplified by matter and anti-matter that annihilate each other. Professor Spergel noted that in science and in the Bible, new, different entities emerge from separation. In the Torah’s depiction of the second day, when God separated “water from water,” the sky comes into existence and then, on the third day, land.
Professor Spergel shared that trying to understand the science feels like a “spiritual adventure.” As he and Rabbi Feldman, z”l, brought the program to a close, they talked about life as a force that creates more life.
It seems unimaginable in the darkness of mourning our teacher Rabbi Adam Feldman, z”l, that each day is now imperceptibly getting longer and brighter. We will continue to draw light and energy from his teaching, from his love of Judaism, and from his enthusiasm for dynamic educational programs. May his memory be for a blessing.
(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. At the Jewish Center of Princeton, NJ on November 27, 2018, David Spergel, PhD, the Charles Young Professor of Astronomy at Princeton University [now emeritus] and the Director of the Center for Computational Astrophysics at the Flatiron Institute, and the congregation’s spiritual leader Rabbi Adam Feldman, z”l, to explore the topic “Creation and Cosmology: Sacred and Secular Perspectives.” Debbi Dunn Solomon was the co-chair of the Scientists in Synagogues series at the Jewish Center.)