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Studies in Berlin: Science, Torah & Quantum Theory

Studies in Berlin: Science, Torah & Quantum Theory



Rabbi Menachem Mendel’s studies at Berlin’s Friedrich Wilhelm (Humboldt) University coincided with Erwin Schrödinger’s tenure as Professor of Theoretical Physics.1 Many years later, in conversation with the American mathematician Paul Rosenbloom, the Rebbe recalled that he enjoyed Schrödinger’s lectures very much.2

During this period Schrödinger was embroiled in a debate with other leading physicists over how to interpret the counterintuitive and paradoxical findings of quantum mechanics. Light was found to behave both like particles and like waves, depending on the kind of experiment set up to observe its behavior. According to Werner Heisenberg, this showed that objective reality is actually an indeterminate spectrum of possibilities; only subjective observation forces any one of those possibilities to materialize. Schrödinger disagreed. The indeterminate findings of quantum mechanics, he asserted, simply mirrored the incompleteness of the current theory.3 In conversation with the American mathematician Paul Rosenbloom, the Rebbe recalled that he enjoyed Schrödinger’s lectures very much.“There is a difference,” he wrote, “between a shaky or out-of-focus photograph and a snapshot of clouds and fog banks.”4

Albert Einstein, who was also on the faculty in Berlin at the time, but didn’t teach, shared Schrödinger’s concerns. It was his correspondence with Einstein that helped Schrödinger formulate the cat thought experiment to demonstrate the absurdity of Heisenberg’s position.5 Heisenberg’s “uncertainty principle” can be interpreted in various ways and has been supplemented with various theories, leaving the discussion open until today.6 Together with Einstein’s theory of relativity, according to which phenomena can no longer be measured in absolute terms, the uncertainty principle thoroughly undermines the classical notion that the empirical observations of science can provide a precise account of objective truth.7

The Rebbe’s position, formulated in various letters over the years, might be seen as a mediation between the two poles articulated by Heisenberg and Schrödinger.8 But more importantly it constitutes a mediation between science and religion. The Rebbe accepted the uncertainty principle as a scientific self-description of the limits of scientific investigation, but not as a conclusive statement about the nature of reality. This position rested on his surprising assertion that the Torah view of science is actually “at variance” with science's newfound self-circumscription:

“Where in the past scientific conclusions were considered as natural ‘laws’ in the strict sense of the term, i.e. determined and certain, modern science no longer holds this view. Parenthetically, this view is at variance with the concept of nature and our own knowledge of it (science) as espoused by the Torah, since the idea of miracles implies a change in a fixed order and not the occurrence of a least probable event.”9

The Torah perspective is predicated on divine revelation, which asserts a foundation of absolute certainty. In contrast, scientific scrutiny of its own foundations "The Halacha accepts scientific findings, in many instances, not as possible or probable, but certain and true..."arrived at the uncertainty principle, generally regarded as the best candidate for a universal description of the physical world. For the Rebbe this did not undermine the legitimacy of science, but rather crystallized the terms of its relationship to Torah. In his view, the assumption that science should dictate those terms was fundamentally flawed.10 On the contrary, it was only by virtue of Torah’s authority that science too could be endowed with a measure of certainty:11

“As a matter of fact, the Torah bestows upon science - in certain areas at least - a validity much greater than contemporary science itself claims. The Halacha accepts scientific findings, in many instances, not as possible or probable, but certain and true... In the light of what has been said above... modern science cannot legitimately (and I mean ‘legitimately’ even from the viewpoint of science itself) challenge Torah from Sinai.”12

Accordingly, the Rebbe insisted that a religious Jew, even a professional scientist, should not have any qualms about accepting a literal reading of the Torah’s description of creation, or any other Torah deviation from commonly accepted scientific theory.13

The developments in quantum theory during the years that the Rebbe was in Berlin deeply impacted his perception of the relationship between Torah and science. In a 1962 interview with the Israeli journalist Shlomo Nakdimon the Rebbe remarked:

"The discoveries in the laws of atoms shake up the very foundations according to which science worked until now. Until now, they said science is stable, but Torah is no more than belief. Now we see that the premises of science and technology do not have lasting truth. These revelations were made specifically through the study of the atom….”14

Scientific method is an excellent tool in the hands of humanity, but none of its hypotheses "The discoveries in the laws of atoms shake up the very foundations according to which science worked until now."warrant apologetic reinterpretation of the Divine word. Such apologetics were characterized by the Rebbe as “the outmoded legacy of the 19th century and before.”15 It was precisely the advances made by modern science that rendered them obsolete. With the old confusions cleared up, he argued, Torah and science are today free to progress in collaborative harmony.16

The function of Torah, and especially Chassidism, is to reveal the unity of G‑d in the world.17 Previously scientists thought that the universe was composed of many different elements, but modern science reduces everything to the union of energy and matter. Science itself, the Rebbe said, is discovering the underlying unity of all existence.18

See Moore, Schrödinger: Life and Thought, Chapter Seven.
As heard by Tzvi Freeman and recorded here .
A general overview of the debate can be viewed here.
The Present Situation in Quantum Mechanics, as translated by John D. Trimmer in Proceedings of the American Philosophical Society, vol. 124, No. 5, page 328.
See Fine, The Shaky Game: Einstein, Realism and the Quantum Theory, pages 77-79.
See Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy,The Uncertainty Principle.
See Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy, Scientific Revolutions.
He referred specifically to Heisenberg’s uncertainty principle several times. See Igrot Kodesh, vol. 13, p. 143, and the letter cited below, note 9.
Letter to the Association of Orthodox Jewish Scientists, viewable here (scroll down to view).
In a similar vein the Rebbe also invoked the uncertain foundations of mathematics, see for example this letter and the unfinished journal entry published in Reshimot #3.
It is interesting to note that the Rebbe adopted a similar position regarding the nature of time. While he accepted the implications of Einstein’s theory of relativity, he also maintained that there was also an absolute continuum of time functioning independently of any measurement: " There are two aspects to Time: Measured Time (by some sort of movement, whatever that may be) and the Essential Continuum of Time (which is called by Jewish philosophers by the name given in Moreh Nevuchim, Shiur Zman or Dmut Zman. Or, in the language of the Sefer Ha-Ikrim, Zman Bilti Meshuar ["Unmeasured Time"].) ...many people confuse these two concepts of Time and through this become ensnared in error. For example, those who deal in Einstein's Theory of Relativity. But this all concerns only the first concept of Time. They err, as above, and consequently derive extremely peculiar conclusions.” See Letter on Time. A letter applying the theory of relativity to the sun’s position in relation to earth is viewable here. Another discussion of relativity appears in a letter viewable here.
Letter to the Association of Orthodox Jewish Scientists, cited above note 9.
Another letter on this topic is viewable here, and a related letter regarding the distance of stars from the earth and the age of the universe is viewable here.
The article in the original Hebrew is viewable here.
Letter to the Association of Orthodox Jewish Scientists, cited in note 9.
More letters on the topic of Torah and science are viewable here.
For more extensive treatment of the Rebbe’s focus on the unity of Torah see here and here.
Likutei Sichot Vol. 15, pages 42-48.
Eli Rubin studied Chassidic literature and Jewish Law at the Rabbinical College of America and at Yeshivot in the UK, the US and Australia. He has been a research writer and editor at since 2011, focusing on the social and intellectual history of Chabad Chassidism. Through his writing, research, and editorial work he has successfully participated in a range of scholarly interchanges and collaborative endeavors.
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Michael Peterson Greensboro February 7, 2016

Reply to drgsrinivas. When Einstein learned of quantum theory, he said that "G-d does not play dice." Niels Bohr, advocate of the new theory, told Einstein "to stop telling G-d what to do with His dice." Reply

Eli Rubin October 19, 2014

Truth, Science and Religion (response to drgsrinivas) Surely anyone seeking truth must take the empirical discoveries of science into account. These discoveries must be weighed and critically questioned, but to reject them as stupid is to replace the open minded pursuit of truth with the blind folly of dogma. Reply

drgsrinivas India October 17, 2014

Religion of science Obviously it is the religion of science which dominates our 'eduacted' modern society. In the struggle for existence, other religions have started associating themselves with science and which ever religion manages to associate the most with the weird theories of modern physics, that religion can claim as being closer to the truth.

The truth is that by associating one's religion with the stupid preachings of modern physics, one is actually degrading one's own religion. Every other religion on Earth is much more rational than the religion of modern physics. Reply

Twenty-eight articles, each encapsulating a period of the Rebbe’s life, and highlighting key themes that distinguish his ideas.