In G‑d in the Talmud, I discussed how infinite divine wisdom can be found in the lively discussions of the Talmud. But to find that you need to see past the outer clothing—the cows, donkeys, barrels and other subject matter—to discover the thought processes underlying its debates and dialogues. The Talmud is much more like an extended aria than it is a compendium of Jewish law—less about where you’re going and more about how you get there.
Several readers complained that I didn’t present any concrete examples of this depth. So in this article, I hope to do just that: to take a difficult halachah, lay it on the operating table to find what breathes within, and demonstrate some inkling of the divine wisdom that awaits us there.
Discoveries of modern science have clarified for us concepts of Torah that would otherwise be extremely difficult to conceive.
Along the way, I want to show that the discoveries of modern science have actually clarified for us concepts of Torah that would otherwise be extremely difficult to conceive. Specifically, I will enlist an idea from quantum logic to help explain a halachic ruling of Maimonides, a puzzling Talmudic story, a midrash about the splitting of the Sea of Reeds, and a rabbinic teaching about the relationship between Torah and existence.
I’m taking a deep breath . . .
The Married Divorcee
Strange as it may sound, one of the most popular texts of study in a Talmudic academy (yeshivah) is Gittin, the tractate of the Talmud dedicated to the subject of divorce. Given the uncommon traditional devotion to family life that this group as a whole still clings to, divorce is not a likely prospect for these young scholars. Even if it would be, most of their study of this tractate will be of little practical application. Yeshivah study is generally less concerned with questions of how, why and what if, and more with legal concepts of more general concern, such as intent, consent, proxy, effective point of acquisition, and conditional agreement.
Here we’ll be dealing with the conditional agreement. Specifically, we’ll look at a conditional divorce agreement. But I want you to look beyond the content of the particular cases and into the reasoning behind them. The cases themselves are extremely unlikely. The reasoning, as we will see, has implications as wide as one could imagine. Here is the case, as stated in a mishnah in Gittin:
A man gives his wife a bill of divorce [known as a get] and tells her, “This is your bill of divorce, and it is effective if I do not return within twelve months.” If he dies within the twelve months, there is no divorce.
“It is effective from the present time onward if I do not return within twelve months.”
A man gives his wife a bill of divorce and tells her, “This is your bill of divorce, and it is effective from the present time onward if I do not return within twelve months.” If he dies within the twelve months, this is a divorce.
As I wrote, it doesn’t have to be a bill of divorce; it could be any contractual agreement. Someone might sell his house, effective from the current date, on condition that he finds a new house within twelve months. What we’re interested in is the logic behind this.
You study Talmud by asking questions. The first question to ask here is: Why would a man do this? Best way to answer that is to make this into a story:
Dave and Miriam are married, but they have no children. Dave has been drafted into military service for one year, and doesn’t know if he will return alive.
To complicate matters, Dave has a brother, Joe. Since Dave has no descendants, Torah law prescribes that if Dave dies childless either Joe must take Miriam as his wife (called yibbum), or they must perform the chalitzah ceremony, by which both would be released from having to marry.
Now, Dave doesn’t trust his brother Joe to take care of the yibbum/chalitzah issue. Maybe Joe is incapable of performing the ceremony. Or perhaps Joe harbors some ignoble intent. Whatever the reason, Dave wants to get around it by making sure that if he does not return, his wife will not be a widow—she will be a divorcee. For a divorcee, there is neither yibbum nor chalitzah. She can immediately remarry whomever she pleases.
Dave doesn’t want to divorce his wife. He’s hoping to come back alive. So, just in case, Dave says, “If I don’t return, this is a divorce.” But the Mishnah tells us that doesn’t work so well. If he does not return, it may be because he is dead. Dead people can’t give their wives a divorce.
So, the Mishnah tells us, Dave is better off using a conditional, retroactive mechanism to cover all grounds: “If I don’t return within twelve months, this is your bill of divorce effective from the present time onward.” Basically, he ties the divorce to an event in the future—his return. If that event happens, they were always happily married, and still are. If that event does not happen, they have been divorced already for twelve months.
Before we go on, ask yourself an analytical question: What is Miriam’s marital status for these twelve months? The most obvious assumption would be, “We don’t know.” She might be still married to him, she might not. We’ll find out later. Basically, “yet to be determined.”
So, of course, she shouldn’t marry, since Dave might return. On the other hand, if she did jump the gun and marry, we would wait and see. If Dave doesn’t return, that means she was divorced all along and the marriage was okay. If Dave does return—well, everyone’s in big trouble.
We haven’t yet arrived at the crucial issue—the discussion of the Mishnah in the Talmud. Here it is now:
We learned that they permitted her to remarry…Rabbi Elazar asked a certain elder, “Did they permit her to remarry immediately? Or did she have to wait for the twelve-month period to end?”
Who permitted who to marry? And what is the question?
In terms of our story: Six months pass, and Dave is reported killed in action. His body is identified and his death duly confirmed to the satisfaction of the rabbinical court. Miriam comes to the rabbinical court and asked if she could remarry. They permit her to do so. Problem is, we don’t know whether they permitted her to remarry immediately, or told her to wait until the end of the stipulated twelve months.
What Rabbi Elazar is asking, then, is really this: Is Miriam now a divorcee who can immediately remarry? Or is she a widow until the twelve months are up, in which case Joe is still in the picture until then?
Well, following our logic above, Miriam’s status is no longer “yet to be determined.” It’s settled—Dave’s not coming back, so the divorce was a divorce and Miriam is a divorcee. She should be permitted to marry immediately, and Dave’s brother Joe would have no claim to her.
Rabbi Moshe ben Maimon, the Rambam
Seems obvious enough. But the Talmud never settles Rabbi Elazar’s question. About a thousand years later, Rabbi Moshe ben Maimon (known as Maimonides, or in yeshivah, “the Rambam”) compiled a code of the entire corpus of Torah law, called the Mishneh Torah. In doing so, he provided his ruling on many unsettled Talmudic questions and disputes. Here is how the Rambam decides this case:
If he dies within the twelve months, although the divorce will become effective—for there is no way that he can come—if she would have been obligated to perform the rite of yibbum, she should not marry until the twelve months pass and the condition is fulfilled.
The Rambam is saying that Miriam’s status is still not determined. Joe is not yet out of the picture—not until the twelve months are up. But since we know that “there is no way” Dave can return, don’t we also know that the divorce was immediately effective when it was given? Miriam has not been married to Dave for the past six months. Yibbum is for widows. She’s not a widow; she’s a divorcee. Why is the Rambam still involving Joe here?
Truthfully, the Rambam has to rule this way. The Talmud doesn’t come to any conclusion, so, due to the gravity of the issue, the Rambam must take the side of caution. But that doesn’t solve much for us. There still must be some reasoning behind this stringent ruling.
Thankfully, we’re not the first to sweat over this. Rabbi Vidal of Tolosa wrote a gloss on the Rambam’s code entitled Maggid Mishneh in the latter half of the 14th century. No one studies the code without it. Following Jewish tradition, we generally call authors by the name of their most important works, so we call Rabbi Vidal “the Maggid Mishneh.”
The Maggid Mishneh struggled to understand a different ruling of the Rambam that appears to have no source in the Talmud. Eventually, he realized that the source is this ruling we are now discussing. He realized that the Rambam must have understood the stringent opinion in a certain way, and applied that logic to derive yet another ruling.
Here’s that other case, again in terms of Dave and Miriam:
The Dave of this story is a nasty one. He hands Miriam a bill of divorce dependent upon a condition that Miriam will give him two hundred zuz (a zuz was a common coin of the time). But Dave was also sloppy. He never fixed a time limit by which Miriam must fulfill this condition. And he dies (doesn’t say how, but I can guess) without her ever fulfilling it.
Since Dave is dead, we now know that Miriam is not going to be surrendering to his extortionate demands. She can’t. Even if she hands over the 200 zuz to his inheritors, that won’t help, since that’s not what he stipulated. One would think that Miriam should now be considered a widow, since the divorce never took place. Strangely, the Rambam rules that Miriam must act as though she is both a widow and a divorcee: Joe cannot perform yibbum, but neither can Miriam marry without Joe performing chalitzah.
How can she be both? The Maggid Mishneh explains:
Fulfilling a condition doesn’t clarify the past, but creates it.
The Rambam learns from the previous case—the twelve-month noble soldier case—that fulfilling a condition doesn’t clarify the past, but creates it. If Dave returns within the twelve-month period, that means he never gave Miriam a divorce. He gave her a piece of paper. If Dave does not return within the twelve-month period, that means he gave Miriam a divorce—twelve months ago. But Dave dying within the twelve-month period doesn’t accomplish anything. The act of giving the divorce is intrinsically tied to the fulfillment of the condition twelve months later. Nothing else can give it a meaning. The two events are a singularity.
If so, the Rambam reasons, what if there is no time limit set on the condition—as in the “Dave as extortive tormentor husband” case? In that case, once Dave dies without getting his extortion money, Miriam is left in a suspended state. The second half of the divorce is left eternally unfulfilled. Miriam’s only way out is to accept chalitzah, freeing her to marry.
In a word, what we discover is that fulfillment of a condition doesn’t simply blow the cloudiness away from an uncertain status. Rather, it reaches back across time into the past and creates that status.
If your head is having difficulty wrapping around this idea, you’re not alone. The Maggid Mishneh writes that he struggled to fathom the logic of the Rambam, and concludes that this ruling is an indication of his “wondrous intellect.” Five hundred years later, one of the most brilliant talmudic scholars of the late 19th and early 20th centuries, Rabbi Shimon Shkop, toiled over this same ruling. Using sharp Talmudic logic, he too found himself bewildered:
Until the twelve-month period, Rabbi Shkop reasoned, either the bill of divorce is valid or it is not. As we said, Dave’s failure to return doesn’t clarify matters; it either uproots a valid divorce, or leaves an invalid one untouched.
Rabbi Shimon Shkop with Rabbi Chaim Ozer Grodzenski
Let’s say it’s a valid divorce for those twelve months. If so, once Dave is reported dead, Miriam knows the divorce will never become invalidated, and should be permitted to marry. But that’s not how the Rambam rules. So we have to say it’s an ineffective divorce. Dave’s death can’t make it effective. It’s only Dave’s failure to return that retroactively makes it a valid divorce.
Miriam is a divorcee and a married woman at once.
So let’s go with that: We’ll say there’s no effective divorce for those twelve months. If so, let’s look at the case where Dave doesn’t set any time limit, and dies before Miriam can give him the 200 zuz. Since there was never a valid divorce, Miriam should be considered a widow, and be allowed to accept yibbum from Joe. But she’s not. The Rambam rules she must have chalitza and cannot accept yibbum. So the divorce must be both valid and invalid, rendering Miriam a divorcee and a married woman at once.
“But,” Rabbi Shkop writes, “this is not understandable or perceivable. How can we have two opposites in one thing!”
Cat, Dead or Alive
While Rabbi Shkop was spending his final years directing a Talmudic academy in Grodno, Belarus, a tight-knit community of theoretical physicists not so far away was discussing a strikingly similar problem. Instead of a married woman, however, the subject was a cat.
It was the summer of 1935, and Erwin Schrödinger’s thoughts were preoccupied with the fate of a small cat that had somehow been trapped in a metal box with a glass bottle of cyanide. A small hammer hung precariously over the bottle, attached to a kind of Geiger counter, on top of which sat a substance containing a single atom of some radioactive material (my guess would be nitrogen-13). The cat was certainly in danger. As soon as the atom would decay, the Geiger device would drop the hammer so as to smash the bottle, releasing the cyanide and killing the cat.
How did Dr. Schrödinger get involved with this poor cat? It seems his buddy, Albert Einstein, had wheedled the thought into his brain. That entire summer they had been writing back and forth, grumbling their discontent with Niels Bohr and his young whippersnapper Werner Heisenberg and all their following who claimed that quantum theory was basically complete. These two older scientists found the theory self-consistent, successful and stunningly accurate—but also absurd.
Truth be told, ol’ Albert was the one who started the trouble. Thirty years earlier, he was the first to realize that light travels as discrete quanta that act as waves and are detected as particles. And he had been proven right, again and again. But he had always thought, “Well, that’s kinda weird,” and that someone would eventually explain things a little clearer.
But they hadn’t. And not only had they not; they had gone on to create an entire model, “The Copenhagen Model,” based on the idea that—until someone takes a measurement—you can’t really say very much definitive at all about anything in the subatomic world. All you can do is list the probabilities of how it might look if you take a peek. Until you peek, this quantum stuff acts like waves of energy spreading through space. As soon as you peek, they start acting like particles with precise XYZ positions. Until then, they don’t have real positions and momentums, just probabilities of being in certain places if you might look for them there. If you do manage to get the momentum of one of them, it no longer has a real position—and vice versa. And the once sacred-to-science dictum of cause and effect is up for thorough reconsideration, because if you can never say what is now, how can you ever say what will be because of it?
“If all this quantum madness is true,” he confided in Niels, “for what are we scientists?”
Erwin had even written the math for all those probabilities. But he still couldn’t swallow his own papers. “If all this quantum madness is true,” he confided in Niels, “for what are we scientists?”
Thoroughly exasperated, Schrödinger took it out on the cat. All right, he didn’t actually stick the cat in the box. It wasn’t a laboratory experiment; it was something very talmudic in flavor that physicists call a “thought experiment.” But he did hire a draftsman to draw the pictures.
You see, among other things, quantum mechanics can predict the half-life of an element precisely. For example, it can predict that if I had a balloon filled with nitrogen-13, approximately half the gas in that balloon would become carbon-13 in 9.97 minutes. But when it comes to a case-by-case basis—why this positron would rush to fly off from this atom at two minutes, while another is particular to fire off smack at the ten-minute point, while yet another dallies on for twenty minutes—here quantum theory begins to sound more like the stock market than science.
Like I said, until there are observations, the Copenhagen Interpretation firmly states, there are no discrete states, only probabilities. At the ten-minute half-life point, every atom in that balloon is in a state of being both nitrogen-13 and carbon-13 at once. Only once we record a measurement do they make up their minds and decide what they are—some one way, some the other.
Cats are either dead or alive. Therefore, Erwin declared, this whole thing is nuts.
If Bohr and Heisenberg are correct, Schrödinger asked, what would be the state of my poor little cat after ten minutes? Of course, since the single atom of nitrogen-13 has a ten minute half-life, we have a 50/50 chance of happily being greeted by a live cat when we open the box. But what is the state of the cat before we open the box? Something like those atoms, it’s both dead and alive at once. Which doesn’t mean it’s depressed.
Cats are either dead or alive. Therefore, Erwin declared, this whole thing is nuts.
Much to their colleague’s chagrin, Bohr and Heisenberg were all the more delighted. Heisenberg was the child of a classicist. He waxed philosophical about ancient concepts of being and becoming, or potentia. Until we observe the world, he held, it is only in a state of potential (“becoming”). In such a state, nothing ever really happens. It is only in the actual state—the world in which we live—that things must be one way or the other.
Einstein and Bohr shmoozing over some Talmud
Niels Bohr took another slant, which he called “complementarity.” In this worldview, everything that exists has a counterpart that is its opposite. Space can be seen as a smooth continuum, or as many distinct locations. Any object can be seen as part of a whole, or as a distinct entity of its own. Time can be seen as a singular process, or as a series of events. So, an electron in some respects is a wave, but in others it is a particle. It is only that we can observe only one reality or the other, but not both at the same time. Bohr applied this as a universal truth. One of his favorite sayings was, “A great truth is that whose opposite is also a great truth.”
As for Albert, he had no patience for any of this. Writing to Schrödinger that summer, he resorted to calling Bohr a “talmudistische philosoph”—a talmudic philosopher.
What Do a Divorcee and a Photon Have in Common?
My guess is that had the news arrived in Grodno, Rabbi Shkop would have been delighted. Einstein and Schrödinger were taking the position of the lenient opinion in the Talmud, while Bohr and Heisenberg took the stringent opinion—which the Rambam ruled as the final halachah. Miriam could be both divorced and married at once, contingent on fulfillment of a specified condition, just as quantum stuff may be in a superposition of two mutually contradictory states contingent upon our observation.
On the other hand, what if the friendly physicists had paid attention to a genuine talmudistische philosoph across the Polish border? For one thing, they might have realized that this strange interplay of measurement and determination also works retroactively, instead of having to wait for John Archibald Wheeler to wake up to the notion decades later. Just as Dave’s returning home, or failure to do so, determines Miriam’s marital status up to twelve months earlier (including that of any children she may have had from a second marriage), so the measurement of a subatomic particle’s position can retroactively determine the path it took to get there.
Back to our case, now with the language of quantum mechanics:
Once Miriam received that conditional divorce, she entered an indeterminate state.
Once Miriam received that conditional divorce, she entered an indeterminate state. But indeterminate doesn’t mean—as we supposed above—“yet to be determined” as in “once we know, we’ll know, but now we don’t know.” Indeterminate means a superposition of two opposed states: Miriam is both married and divorced at once. Married, because Dave might return; divorced, because he might not. And the only thing that can change that status is that twelve-month period coming around and allowing one state or the other to roll out into actuality. Once that happens, the other state is annulled, as though it never was.
The same then applies in the case where Dave was the extortive tormentor: When Dave granted her that conditional divorce, Miriam was thrown into that same indeterminate state. She became both divorced and married at once. Dave is no longer with us, but he put no timeframe on the condition, so Miriam has no exit from that dual state. She cannot marry until she receives chalitzah from Joe—since she’s a widow. But neither can Joe and Miriam decide to do yibbum and live together—since she’s a divorcee. She’s two Miriams in one. The best she can do is go through the chalitzah, at which point the widow side of her is free to marry.
But if someone would ask her, “Miriam, are you a widow or a divorcee?” she would have to answer, “Yes.” Something like asking a photon whether it’s a particle or a wave.
But here is the puzzle—one over which physicists continue to holler and pound desks to this day: We’re not talking here about phenomenology—about the limitations of human perception. We’re talking about how our observation of things has real impact on their behavior. Why on earth should the status of reality be contingent upon our observation? Why can’t it make up its own mind?
If we didn’t create this place, why does it rely upon us for its status?
Yes, Miriam’s status is contingent upon a condition her husband made when he handed her a bill of divorce—that’s easily understood. But what is there about electrons, positrons, photons, et al—the stuff that makes up everything we can observe—that must rely upon our activities for their status? We certainly didn’t create them—we don’t even understand how they work! When did we ever make a deal with them?
For that, we have to discuss the splitting of the Sea of Reeds.
Splitting Hairs, Splitting Rivers
While Bohr and company were busy developing quantum mechanics, a Talmudic protégé was studying at the University of Berlin, attending the lectures of Erwin Schrödinger, and fascinated by them. When this student later became the Lubavitcher Rebbe, he applied very similar use of logic in developing Talmudic ideas—citing not quantum mechanics, but rather discovering these same dynamics in halachah, midrash and kabbalah. But if you know what you’re looking for, you’ll find it there.
The story of the splitting of the Sea of Reeds is one such instance. Let’s start by retelling it:
Having escaped from slavery, the Children of Israel have just made their miraculous way to safety via a dry path through a divinely engineered split in the Sea of Reeds. The Egyptian army, following close behind, has been foiled, the wheels of their chariots snatched away by the mud, riders and chariots dragged tortuously by their horses.
Now Moses holds out his staff once more. In the language of the Hebrew text, “The sea returned to its strength”—with a fury, drowning an entire army at once.
“The sea returned to its strength.” The word for “to its strength” here is l’eitano (לאתנו). The rabbis of the Talmud make a play on words, changing the order of the letters. L’eitano, they say, can be read as litena’o (לתנאו)—meaning “to its stipulation.”
Which stipulation? A stipulation G‑d made with the sea when He created it. “When the Children of Israel get to this point,” G‑d stipulated, “you are to split so they can get through. Got it? Okay, so now you exist.”
This sort of talmudic play with words belongs to a genre called midrash. In fact, this particular teaching does not appear in the Talmud, but in a collection of midrashim contemporary to the Talmud, called Midrash Rabbah. But the rabbis don’t create midrashim just to play. They’re out to make a point. The point of this teaching seems fairly straightforward: Everything had been prearranged. Why things had to be prearranged is not explained. Certainly, if things had not been prearranged, the Creator of All Things could have managed just as well. Just as He made a sea to begin with, now He will make that sea split. Why must He discuss the matter with the sea at all, making a stipulation with it?
Aside from that question, the Rebbe takes this midrash to task on its own terms. Playing with words of the Torah certainly has a valid basis in tradition. The Hebrew Bible itself often juxtaposes words in this way. But in this case, the two arrangements of these letters are in direct opposition with one another: L’eitano—to its strength; litena’o—to its stipulation. A stipulation weakens an agreement. In that sense, the two readings are opposites.
Hold on to that question. Because the key to answering it is held in another story about another body of water splitting when needed. This one is told in the Talmud of a great sage and man of good deeds, Rabbi Pinchas ben Ya’ir:
Rabbi Pinchas ben Ya’ir was on his way to perform the mitzvah of redeeming captives. At a certain point, the Ginai River blocked his path.
He commanded, “Ginai, split your waters so I can pass through!”
The river replied, “You are going to perform the will of your master, and I am going to perform the will of my master. You may not succeed in your task, while I will surely succeed.”
Note that the river has a valid argument here. Rabbi Pinchas is certainly doing the will of his Creator. He’s on a mission to release innocent people from their wicked abductors. But the river is also doing the will of its Creator. It’s flowing, right where it was told to flow—however inconvenient that may be for Rabbi Pinchas. Why should one give way to the other? Here’s how Rabbi Pinchas responded to that challenge:
He responded, “If you don’t split, I will decree that water should not flow in you forever!”
The river split.
Follow his argument? Not quite. For that, we’ll need the words of the master teacher and Kabbalist Rabbi Dov Ber, most commonly known as “The Maggid of Mezeritch.” The Maggid was considered the heir to the Baal Shem Tov, from whom he said he received this teaching:
When Rabbi Pinchas retorted to the Ginai river, “If you don’t split, I will decree that water should not flow in you forever!” he wasn’t telling the river that it would dry up. He was telling it that if it continues to interfere with his mission, it never existed. No one would remember that there had ever been a river here. Because it never would have been.
No one would remember that there had ever been a river here. Because it never would have been.
By what right? Because the river, the Maggid explained, was following only the word of its Creator. But Rabbi Pinchas ben Ya’ir was doing the will of his Creator. There’s a difference. Word is what is. Will is what should be.
The Creator sets out what is by His word, like an author setting up a story, or a programmer setting up the parameters of his program. But what is is not there just to be what it is. It is that way for a reason. It is that way so that the Creator’s will can be carried out—what should be. And what should be is left for us to play out.
When the Creator made His world, He had already decided on the should be. Should be is the halachah, the pathways by which His will should enter this world through our efforts. According to that should be, He designed a what is. Which means that the very is-ness of a thing is contingent on the fulfillment of its should-ness. It’s conditional.
That’s what the rabbis meant when they taught that G‑d made a stipulation with the sea upon creating it. Not with the sea alone, but with every creation. The entire universe is a conditional creation. As the prophet says, “If not for My covenant day and night, I never appointed the laws of heaven and earth.” “My covenant” refers to the covenant between G‑d and man—the Torah, the should be. Any moment, whether of day or of night, is real only due to the meaning that covenant imbues within it. A moment that opposes its meaning, or is simply void of it, is a moment that never was. Even the laws of heaven and earth, if they interfere with that covenant, were never made.
Yes, there’s initially an apparent conflict. Innocent people have been abducted. Rabbi Pinchas has to leave his Torah study and put himself at great risk in order to rescue them. And then this river obstructs the way—and refuses to budge. By looking at the way things are, you’re not going to be able to figure out why they are that way—for what purpose. That unfolds with the story.
There are times that purpose lies in hiding deep beneath the ground, waiting for a great tzaddik to dig it out, or for one of us regular guys to struggle with the world and with the Torah until we wrestle it out. Outwardly, the entire universe may kick and scream. Inwardly, its every detail was set in place to somehow, in its own magnificent way, fulfill the will of its Author.
And He is a very good author. “All that G‑d created in His world, He created for His glory.”
Existing As a Non-Entity
G‑d, then, does something similar to what Dave did. Not with a bill of divorce, but with a bill of existence. He says to His creation, “I am granting you existence from this point on, but on condition that the human beings I place within it will make you into the world I really have in mind.”
Now, as you will recall, when Dave made that precondition, he threw Miriam into a superposition of two states: Miriam was for an entire year both married and divorced. When the Creator of all things makes a precondition with all that He creates, what state does that throw them into? Following our line of reasoning, they both exist and do not exist at once.
If you would ask G‑d whether the world exists or does not exist, He would tell you, “Yes, that is the question.”
In other words, if you would ask G‑d whether the world exists or does not exist, He would tell you, “Yes, that is the question.”
What happens, however, once the condition is fulfilled? Meaning, once His will is carried out, and the world becomes not just what is, but what should be? Here we have another very telling statement of the Talmud, describing the day when the Torah was given at Mount Sinai:
“From heaven, You let judgment be heard; the earth trembled and was still.” (Psalms 76:9)
If the earth trembled, how could it be still? And if it was still, how could it tremble?
But at first it trembled, and subsequently it became still.
Without our explanation of a conditional existence, it’s hard to see what this is telling us. What was the question, and what’s the point of the answer? Now, everything becomes clear: Initially, as the text implies, the earth both trembled and was still—it both existed and did not exist. Once the Torah was accepted at that event in Sinai, however, earthly existence stabilized. Retroactively, the world became real. It was and had been.
Hopefully, you’re still hanging on to that question we asked earlier. The Rebbe asked what “the sea returning to its strength” has to do with the sea keeping its stipulation. A stipulation does not strengthen, but weakens. But now we see that once the stipulation is fulfilled, the sea’s superposition of being and not-being is resolved. By fulfilling its purpose, it establishes that it is—and retroactively always has been—a stable, strong existence.
The Rebbe applies the same principles to another puzzle in Jewish lore. The liturgy we read on Rosh Hashanah, the Jewish New Year, calls that day “the birthday of the world” and “the beginning of Your works.” We are also told that this was the day that Adam, the first human being, was created. But Adam was not created until the sixth day of creation. Why is his birthday called “the birthday of the world”?
Only then did the world begin to exist five days earlier.
Because until Adam was around, there was no being that could bring this creation to its purpose. Only once Adam was there, and began to seek meaning and purpose in his existence and in the existence of all about him, only then did the world begin to have something of a true existence.Only then did the world begin to exist five days earlier.
Fantastic midrashim about G‑d’s negotiations with the sea, and a rabbi’s with a river, are now exposed for their plain meaning: The true reality of each creation is not its plain earthly function, but its part in a higher divine plan. The essence of what is is what should be. And we are Adam, the being responsible to bring out that essence, to bring the divine purpose from potential into actual, to transform the world from a transient mirage into an eternal garden of delight, a place where the essence of the divine shines.
Now we can return to the question we asked way back, a key philosophical puzzle of quantum reality: If we are not the creators of this world, why should our passive observation have such a profound effect upon it? Why should waves suddenly collapse into photons just because we want to watch them in action? Why, when we observe anything at the quantum scale, does it immediately shift from a potentia of probabilities to actual discrete data, from becoming to became? Why this strange interplay between our opening the box and the state of what is inside?
Rabbi Menachem M. Schneerson, the Rebbe
What I would like to suggest is that perhaps the Rebbe’s application provides us at least an inkling of an answer: If the very existence of the universe is contingent upon the meaning we give it, small surprise that the details also dance to our footsteps. Indeed, that is our very place in the creation, not as an outside observer, but as an integral part of the ongoing creative process. The being that brings the essence of all things from potential to actual.
There’s another enigmatic teaching of the Talmud that says much the same—once placed under the microscope: “Every person must say, ‘For my sake the world was created.’” But looking closer, it doesn’t say, “For my sake . . .” It says bishvili—upon my path. Every person must say, “I am the path by which the world is created. If I make that path a crooked path, the world will come out accordingly. If I make it a straight path, a clear path, a divine path, in that world I shall live.”
All of reality is contingent upon how you determine to use this moment now—the kind of thoughts you think, the words you speak, and most vital, the actions you take. Not the future alone, but the past as well. There is nothing more precious than the moment now. All of time depends upon it.
The Contingent Universe
There is so much more to say. Bohr’s notion of complementarity rings of the Talmudic dictum, “All that G‑d forbade us, He provided something similar to be permissible.” Rabbi Yosef Rosen of Rogatchov explained how many of the halachic debates between the Talmudic sages Abaye and Rava were really two distinct ways of looking at time—as a series of points, or as a smooth continuum. In general, the signature of the Talmud is that for every opinion on almost anything, there’s an opposite opinion—and one that is also true. When Rabbi Evyatar asked for G‑d’s opinion on an issue he was debating with Rabbi Natan, the response was, “Well, Evyasar My child says like this, while Natan My child says like this . . .” As a voice from heaven is said to have once declared, “Both are the word of the living G‑d.”
I would humbly submit that this device of discovering the ultimate reality (“atzmut”) through the conjugation of parallel opposites seems to be a leitmotif in the Rebbe’s talks, and especially in his deepest maamarim. Examples include the juxtaposition of infinite and finite, spiritual and material, faith and intellect, prayer and trust, the natural and the miraculous—and there are many more.
As for Heisenberg’s description of potential and actual realities, it is strikingly similar to the Kabbalistic notion that designates our world olam ha’asiyah—the actual world—while all other worlds are worlds of potential/becoming. The quantum world of which this world is made is apparently not quite of this world. (On this, see my kabbalistic sci-fi fantasy,The Angel Files.)
The creation reflects, in magnificent form, the absolute oneness of its Creator.
But most striking is how quantum mechanics yells loud and clear that this entire universe can be understood only as a singularity. Phenomena appear in a certain place at a certain time, but the underlying reality is non-local—all of space and time is interconnected as a single whole. The creation reflects, in magnificent form, the absolute oneness of its Creator.
The Zohar calls science “the wellsprings from below,” and Torah wisdom, “the windows of heaven.” In The Last Day of History, I quoted the Zohar’s prediction that not long before the messianic era, a flood of wisdom would occur, mirroring the flood of Noah. Both the wisdom from below and the wisdom from above must flood the world in order to prepare it for that time. Wisdom from above, on its own, is extrinsic—we need to discover the wonder within our world from within. Wisdom from below, on its own, provides us no meaning, no purpose, nothing sublime. Together, they provide a perfect harmony.
In footnote 9 I mentioned Professor Paul Rosenbloom, a prominent American mathematician who made many important contributions, especially in the realms of curriculum and education. Professor Rosenbloom had many opportunities to speak privately with the Rebbe.
The first meeting Prof. Rosenbloom had with the Rebbe was scheduled for 11 PM. Prof. Rosenblooom realized that the Rebbe would be seeing many people before and after him. Feeling that the area in which he shared the greatest common interest with the Rebbe was education, and to save the Rebbe time, he wrote some of his ideas down and gave them to one of the Rebbe’s secretaries.
When he gave him the note, Prof. Rosenbloom told the secretary the general thrust of his thinking: that the programs of Torah studies and secular studies in Jewish day schools should be integrated.
The secretary reacted with shock. “There must be a distinction between the holy and the mundane!” he told the professor. “A child must know what is sacred and what is not.”
When speaking to the Rebbe, however, Prof. Rosenbloom received a different picture. “Children should be taught to appreciate that everything is connected with the Torah,” the Rebbe told him. “When they perform an experiment in a science lab, they should know that it is G‑d’s creative power that is causing the chemical reactions they observe.
“There are some,” the Rebbe continued, “who have two sets of bookshelves, one for sefarim [sacred texts] and another for secular books. That is the wrong approach. If a person thinks of secular wisdom as something unrelated to the Torah, he does not understand the Torah, nor does he truly understand the secular subject he is studying.”
I began by explaining that Talmud—and Torah in general—is not so much about thoughts as it is about a way of thinking. The subject matter—whether that be donkeys and oxen, barrels and porters, bills of divorce or marriage ceremonies—all that is packaging, shipping and handling. The real goods is the “How does my Creator think?” inside.
But I also demonstrated something else: That the packaging speaks. The wrapping itself becomes a teacher of the secret it holds. The world itself becomes an accessory to Torah, somewhat like the cloth in which we wrap a Torah scroll, or the silver hand used by the reader to point to the words as he reads them. There is a time around the corner in which the world itself becomes Torah, so that “the world will be filled with the wisdom of G‑d as waters cover the ocean floor.”
As the Rebbe taught, “We need only to open our eyes, to see that everything is already here.”
In memory of Reb Lipa Dubrawsky, friend and teacher, chassid and scholar.
For more on this subject by the same author, see Quantum Reality & Ancient Wisdom.
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