Note: This was originally written for a symposium on the works of the Rebbe, Rabbi Menachem M. Schneerson, held at Brandeis University in the summer of 2000. I’ve now (April, 2013) made some revisions, added some material and deleted much more, and added footnotes. Comments and critique of those in the scientific community are invited. I reserve the right to correct or change my mind about anything written herein.

Losing Grip on Reality

Anyone who ventures more than ankle deep into the weirdness of quantum mechanics quickly realizes that reality is not what we once thought it was. From the time it was introduced, its most respected scientists have groped for new understandings of the nature of reality, often turning to mysticism and religion for answers.

Max Planck, who planted the first seed of the quantum model, was convinced by his studies that “There is no matter as such…the mind is the matrix of all matter.”1 Erwin Schrodinger, who established the basis of the wave mechanics behind QM, theorized that individual consciousness is only a manifestation of a unitary consciousness pervading the universe.2 Wolfang Pauli, another of QM’s most significant pioneers, turned to Carl Jung for clues of the mysteries with which he was dealing, writing essays about “the mystic experience of one-ness.”3

In case you were hoping for a consensus, Nick Herbert4 counts no less than eight diverse versions of reality generated by quantum physicists, several of them quite mystical, all of them—including the most pragmatic and most realist—exceptionally weird.

The real problem is that all of them seem to work. Furthermore, it’s hard to see how any of them could be falsified—at least, with foreseeable technology. Which means that, as it stands now, QM, while touted as the most pragmatically successful theory in scientific history, can provide no definitive answer concerning the question that burns most intensely in the human mind: What exactly is really going on out there? As Bryce DeWitt and Neil Graham note, “Basically, physicists have suffered a severe loss: their hold on reality.”5

Physicists have lost their hold on reality. Which could be welcome news.

For the Jew with traditional leanings, this could be welcome news. The old determinist view of reality accepted by Newtonian mechanics was certainly at odds with the classic Jewish worldview. Could QM allow once again for a world of divine providence, miracles and free choice, a world in which the creatures interact with their creator? Could it perhaps even provide us a better understanding of that legacy perspective?

As the underpinnings of the classic Newtonian/Euclidean world model were being rewritten by a small group of brilliant quantum physicists, the Rebbe, Rabbi Menachem M. Schneerson was studying at the eye of the storm—in the University of Berlin, from 1928-1932. It’s hard to imagine that he did not hear first hand the theories, concerns and reservations of the faculty there, which included Albert Einstein and Erwin Schrodinger. It’s likely as well that he sat in on the debates when Werner Heisenberg and his friends from the Copenhagen School came to lecture.

Just how much those years and those ideas are reflected in the Rebbe’s thought is a subject for research and debate. What interests me here is the approach he took. Rather than rewriting the traditional Torah worldview, the Rebbe treats the revolutionary discoveries of that era as empirical support for that which previously had been couched only in terms of faith.

I'll touch here upon a few examples of the Rebbe’s treatment of empirical science, with an aim to understanding the Rebbe’s own concept of reality, our place in it, and what science can and cannot tell us about it.


There are a number of letters in which the Rebbe refers to the Uncertainty Principle. In 1971, in a letter to the editor of the Journal of the Association of Orthodox Jewish Scientists, the Rebbe attacks the apologetic stance of some of that association’s members on the grounds that they simply are not up to date with what is science. The Rebbe refers specifically to those who…

…seem to be ashamed to declare openly their adherence to such basic tenets of the Torah as, e.g. that G‑d created Adam and Chava, or the possibility of a miracle (Ness) in the present day and age, as a miracle is defined in Torah, namely, an occurrence in defiance of the (so-called) laws of nature.

Need one remind our orthodox Jewish scientists, who still feel embarrassed about some old-fashioned Torah truths, in the face of scientific hypotheses, that Heisenberg’s principle of indeterminacy has finally done away with the traditional scientific notion that cause and effect are mechanically linked, so that it is quite unscientific to hold that one event is an inevitable consequence of another, but only most probable? Most scientists have accepted this principle of uncertainty (enunciated by Werner Heisenberg6 in 1927) as being intrinsic to the whole universe. The 19th century dogmatic, mechanistic, and deterministic attitude of science is gone. The modern scientist no longer expects to find Truth in science. The current and universally accepted view of science itself is that science must reconcile itself to the idea that whatever progress it makes, it will always deal with probabilities; not with certainties or absolutes.

These words are a clear echo of Heisenberg’s own classic statement:

It seems to me that In the sharp formulation of the law of causality—”if we know the present exactly, we can calculate the future”—it is not the conclusion that is wrong but the premise.

In other words, since there is no way to know a precise present, we cannot calculate the future. Heisenberg took this one step further: He challenged the notion of simple causality in nature, that every determinate cause in nature is followed by the resulting effect.7 Rather, each state allows infinite possibilities and all we can predict is which are more probable than others. Why one occurs and not another is simply not within the realm of science.

The concept that there are laws of nature which will not allow certain events to occur is no longer an acceptable position.

If so, the Rebbe declares, science is in no position to declare any event impossible. Improbable, perhaps. But the concept that there are “Laws of Nature” which, in their absolute omnipotence will not allow certain events to occur—this is no longer an acceptable position. And so falls by the wayside the ancient assertion that has survived since the Hellenists versus the Maccabees—perhaps even since Moses versus Pharaoh’s research scientists—that miracles cannot happen. Today, everybody agrees that anything could happen. As the Rebbe goes on to state:

This is all the more regrettable precisely in this day and age, after science has finally come out of its Medieval wrappings and accepted the Heisenberg principle of uncertainty, etc., etc., which makes its so easy for an orthodox Jewish scientist to espouse the Torah-hashkofo boldly and forcefully, without fear of contradiction.

So far, it seems that the Rebbe upholds Heisenberg’s principle. But then, in the same letter, the Rebbe continues:

Needless to say, it is not my intention to belittle science, applied or speculative, and especially for quite another reason. For, 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 as certain and true. There is surely no need to elaborate to you on this.

And in another letter,8 the Rebbe goes so far as to undermine the “anything is possible” proposition of Uncertainty:

Parenthetically, this view is at variance with the concept of Nature and our knowledge of it (=science) as espoused by the Torah, since the idea of nissim [—“miracles”] implies a change in a fixed order and not the occurrence of a least probable extent.

The Rebbe is saying, in other words, that there are facts that are not just probabilities and they are knowable through human observation. This is basic to Torah in two ways: First, because Halachah (Torah law) relies on the testimony of human observation—which includes science. Secondly, because nissim—miracles—are defined in Halachah as something outside the regular order of nature, implying that there is a regular order of nature, only that there are events that do not fit into that order.

To understand all this we must first state something which should be obvious: It is in fact absurd to imagine that the Rebbe should adopt the concept of reality held by Heisenberg et al. The very basis of their world views are so opposed, it is difficult to imagine they could converge at all.

The foundation religion of Heisenberg is what we call “positivist pragmatism”: All that exists is that which can be verified in a laboratory experiment. Heisenberg even used this basis to reject the theorems of the older Ernst Schrodinger, claiming they assumed the existence of entities that could not be verified, and were therefore metaphysical. Heisenberg reasoned that just as Einstein had rejected the notion of absolute time and absolute space since these were no more than metaphysical concepts as far as the laboratory is concerned, so he and his colleagues can reject Schrodinger’s wave mechanics on the same grounds.9

This was an important step for science. Without it, it’s hard to imagine any advance into the territories that have proven so fruitful. Science is enabled and empowered, when it limits itself to that which it can measure. We must deal with time and space only in relative terms until we find a way to measure these things in absolute terms—if that is possible. Similarly, we must reject a concept of causality in the quantum realm until we can find a way to observe what is really going on down there—and discover whether there truly is causality or not.

But the pragmatist view of reality takes this a step further: If we cannot observe it and we can not use it in science, it is not real.

Most intelligent lay people don’t really get this Neo-Humean Pragmatism—in other words, they can’t really believe that these scientists are really saying what they are saying: That all that exists is that which the current set of laboratory data says exists. But that is certainly the basis of Heisenberg’s rejection of causality. He realized that there are certain things inherently beyond the realm of precise measurement, due to the very nature of human observation: When we measure the position of an electron, we cannot know its velocity. When we measure its velocity, we cannot know its position. Therefore, it does not have a precise velocity and position because we cannot know it—and all that exists is that which we can know.

On the other hand, his logic continued, something we can know and can describe with current mathematics is probabilities. And we can verify probabilities in the laboratory. Therefore, probabilities exist. But discrete events do not.

(Admittedly, Heisenberg did not go to the extremes of his mentor, Niels Bohr. Bohr refused to acknowledge that there was any deep reality whatsoever. All that exists is that which we can measure, period. Heisenberg, on the other hand, believed that there must be a deeper reality that exists prior to our observation of it, but not one at all like the post-observed reality. Rather, it is a reality purely of potentials, one in which opposites could coincide—until our act of observation intrudes.)

The Rebbe, on the other hand, begins with the assumption, “In the beginning G‑d created the heavens and the earth.” There is a world. It was here for five and something days before we arrived on the scene—so it doesn’t depend upon us to exist. And so it is possible—although not necessary—for the electron to have a precise position and velocity even if we cannot measure it. G‑d can measure it—since He put it there.

Similarly concerning Einstein: The Rebbe writes that paradoxes arise from Einstein’s relativity due to a failure to regard the existence of Absolute Time. How does the Rebbe know that Absolute Time exists? Because, “In the beginning G‑d created the heavens and the earth.” Which implies the creation of Time.

Therefore, the Rebbe can accept that there is an established order of nature—whether we are able to know precisely what that order is or not.

Could we say then that the Rebbe doesn’t at all agree with Heisenberg? That he is only countering the argument of the scientists on their own ground, saying, You want to rely on science? Science itself says don’t rely on me! But perhaps the Rebbe himself believes that we can rely on science, that there is a chain of cause and effect throughout nature—only that miracles can occur to break that chain.

It is difficult to read the words of the Rebbe’s letter that way: “Heisenberg’s ‘principle of indeterminacy’ has finally done away with the traditional scientific notion that cause and effect are mechanically linked.” But, most compelling, this would put G‑d, His providence, miracles and Torah in a very exogenous position to the cosmos. All these things would have to be considered aliens breaking into our orderly world. This doesn’t at all fit with the description Chassidic teaching gives of the Creation, and certainly not consistent with the Rebbe’s version, as we will soon see.

Rather, it appears that the Rebbe has his own modified version of the reality behind uncertainty and the rest of QM. He asserts that there is an established order to which miracles present an exception, yet concurs that this established order is not a product of cause and effect and neither is it strictly determinate. The Rebbe does not agree that reality begins with human observation, but he does believe that discrete events only exist within the realm of human observation. And, most interesting, the Rebbe views the ultimate world as that world of human experience.

Resolving the Cosmos

I found this position most starkly articulated in a few lines of a talk printed in Likutei Sichot, volume 35 (pages 1–6). There, the Rebbe discusses the following lines from the second chapter of Genesis:

G‑d had formed every beast of the field and every bird of heaven out of the ground. He now brought them to the Adam to see what he would name each one. Whatever the Adam called each living thing, that is its name.

In his talk, the Rebbe points out that the story appears not only as a narrative concerning the history of the human being, but as a continuation of the creation narrative. Something about creation has been left incomplete, and it’s left up to Adam to finish the job.

Adam is here more than an individual. He is “Adam HaRishon”—the primal human being, all of humanity in a single body. The events of his creation and his life are a description of our position in the universe. So when the Rebbe asks, “What exactly was Adam accomplishing by naming each creature that no other being, not even the angels, could accomplish?” he is in effect asking, “What does the human being achieve by observing, categorizing and applying the tools of his language to the world about him?”

To which the Rebbe provides an astonishing answer:

As G‑d’s creation alone, the created beings are not separated into particular species. There is only a general division into general categories. We find in the ten utterances by which the world was created that only general categories are stated. For example, on the third day, “The earth should sprout herbage…fruit trees…” On the fifth day, “The water should swarm with a swarming of living creatures…and flying creatures flying over the earth…” On the sixth day, “Cattle and creeping things and beasts of the earth.” There were no particular species, such as oxen, donkeys, etc.

This then was the meaning of Adam calling the creatures names—through this, each species became distinguished and distinct as its own being.

…Accordingly, the effect Adam had by calling names to the creatures was to complete the creation itself. Only then was each species complete with its characteristics that distinguish it from the other creatures of the same category.10

In other words, G‑d says to Adam, “I have just formed all my creatures, big and small, but I have left the finishing touches up to you. I have a specific idea of what each thing is and how it should be, but I have nevertheless created no more than generalities. I said, ‘Let there be trees’—and the power invested in those words brought trees into being. But I didn’t specify in those words the particular characteristics I desired for each tree. And similarly with animals, and with everything else I created: I have brought them to a state of general existence, but their individuality is left unresolved. Your job is to resolve each thing into its unique, discrete state—as I originally had in mind.”

In short, Adam, with his power of cognizance and speech, is completing Creation. That is the unique position of a human being who observes a physical world: He is the place in the cosmos where all things are resolved, defined and crystallized as discrete entities.

(This is also reflected in a later stage in this same story: When Adam and Chava ate from the Tree of Knowledge and acquired a mundane experience of the world, the entire world was redefined and descended with them. When you’ve got that kind of power, you’ve got to watch out what you do with it.)

This role as partner in the final stage of Creation is what G‑d meant Adam to be when He placed him in the Garden, to work it and to protect it (Genesis 2:15). As it turns out, Adam’s compulsion to name things is as much for his sake as for the sake of that which he is naming. By naming the creatures, Adam brings them from a latent state to their fulfillment. Until Adam builds his own understanding of a creature through observation, and then articulates that understanding in his own speech, the creature doesn’t yet fully exist.

The similarity to many of the reality conceptions suggested by QM philosophers is undeniable—but with caveats: In the Rebbe’s concept, there is already a loosely defined world before Adam gets there. Adam is not creating a reality out of a limitless range of probabilities, he is only bringing it to a higher level of definition. And secondly, Adam’s determination of reality has the imprimatur of the Creator Himself. This world of human experience is that which the Creator of All Things originally desired (yet left unarticulated), and is therefore a true reality.


If this interpretation is correct, one would expect to find the same concept pervading Jewish thought. In fact, anyone familiar with the Talmud recognizes that its sages have a quite different understanding of reality than is generally accepted. Applying the insight we have just described renders that conception much more congruous.

As an example, there is a Talmudic dictum, A blessing cannot rest on something that has been counted, weighed or measured, but only on something which is concealed from the eye. Meaning that until a thing is measured, its amount is still indeterminate and subject to more than one outcome. Only once measured is it of a fixed, specific amount.

This is not just a nice aphorism. It is a practical Halachah:11

Our rabbis taught: One who enters his granary to measure his grain should say, “May it be Your will, G‑d, our G‑d, that you send a blessing in the work of our hands.”

Once he begins to measure the grain, he should say, “Blessed be He who sends His blessing to this mound.”

If he measures and then says the blessing, this is a vain blessing. For a blessing will not be found in something that has been weighed, or measured or counted, but only in that over which the eye has no domain.

Of course, a miracle could happen and magical wheat could appear out of nowhere. But, as the Talmud discusses in this regard, we are not discussing miracles here. We are discussing the nature of things. Before something is measured by a human being, it is indeterminate by nature. Once counted, measured or weighed, its amount is fixed in a way that only a supernatural occurrence can change.12

A more pervasive example is the Torah concept of testimony of witnesses. In Torah law, the only conclusive evidence is the testimony of two corroborated witnesses testifying to precisely the same event from the same perspective. As Maimonides writes, even if we see two enter a room, one runs out and the other is found inside dead with a knife in his back, we do not have conclusive evidence that A murdered B. If two witnesses did not see it, we have only a probability. Once it has been witnessed, it is a fact.

Perhaps—and this is my own thinking here, I haven’t found support for this yet from any classic authority—perhaps this could give some rationale to why the Torah demands two witnesses. A single witness in a capital or corporal case, even if he be the most impeccable of witnesses, is no more than an idle gossiper. A hundred witnesses, on the other hand, are no better than two. Perhaps this is because to absolutely determine an event we need not just an individuals perception and testimony, but a perception of the collective consciousness. Once we have two concurring seats of consciousness, we have left the realm of the individual and entered into the realm of the collective group, and so the matter is sufficiently established as a discrete event. A fact.13 This notion of subjective concurrence is also vital to the modern scientific method.

Eidut —the testimony of witnesses—is such a pervasive concept throughout Torah, that the entire veracity of the Torah itself rests upon it. How do we know the Torah is true? Because we have testimony not of one individual, but of a mass of people who all witnessed the same event and agreed with a common and precise description of that event. Even the testimony of later prophets is only accepted on the basis of this mass testimony, as is explained at length by Maimonides.

This is also reflected in the Rebbe’s response concerning scientific speculation. Facts are those things that can be observed and reproduced under the same conditions. Conjectures about the future or the past cannot be considered science—since there has been no human observation. Once a phenomena has been observed under the same conditions repeatedly, it may be considered that we have discovered a pattern in the established order of things—but we have not established that this phenomena must continue occurring, and certainly not that it always has occurred in the past.

But the most pervasive and persuasive evidence that the Torah considers what’s out there to be inherently indeterminate is from one of the foundation stones of Torah itself: the concept of free choice. If the universe were a set of discrete objects on precisely determined paths, obviously there would be no room for our free choice. The fact that there is a Torah containing commandments, with reward and punishment attached, is a direct implication that the world is essentially indeterminate. This is quite succinctly the classic Torah world view: Reality provides a range of possibilities, even probabilities—but (mostly) malleable ones. Nature does not determine all the outcomes. That is left up to us.


What does this order of things look like before we get there?

Before we attempt to answer this, consider an analogy: Let’s say you were a cold blade of grass inside a morning mist. The mist condenses onto your stalk as droplets of water.

What would you know of that mist? You cannot see it. You cannot hear, smell or in any other way perceive the mist until it reaches your stalk. So you know the wetness of the droplets. But would you ever know what is mist? Obviously not. Because you only know the mist as it touches you. But a mist is not the wetness of droplets of water. It is a mist. Perhaps, before it touches you, the mist is dry.14

Our perception is limited in a similar fashion. Although, unlike the blade of grass, we are capable of seeing beyond ourselves, our physical senses are only capable of handling discrete sensations. As the Talmud rules concerning listening to the reading of the megillah or the sound of the shofar, we are not capable of paying attention to two voices at a time. Not that we cannot hear them—the sound certainly enters our ears and is processed by our brain. But it is processed in a serial fashion, so that the more involved we are in defining that sensation in order to articulate it in words, the more linear it becomes.15

This is how we describe the difference between a physical object and a non-physical one. Ideas can coexist and freely blend into each other. So can emotions—a mature person can sense many different, even conflicting emotions at the same moment. The prophet is capable of blurring the limitations of time, so that he speaks of an event yet to come as though it has already occurred.16

The more refined the level of spirituality, the more this is so. Until, within the realm of the divine, all things and all of time coexist within a single point.

Physicality, on the other hand, is by definition precisely the opposite. A physical object is that which cannot share its space with another physical object. When your put your physical finger to it, it either resists or gets out of the way. At best it may fill the open crevices that allow it in. But there is no physical object that does not demand its discrete, private space.

This, then, is the limitation of our physical perception: Being physical, we cannot perceive without defining everything into tight physical packages—just as the grass cannot touch the mist without condensing it into water. And the deeper our perception, the more defined the object becomes.

This is why the Rebbe tells us science needs Torah—especially the mystical aspects of Torah—and Torah needs science. Science discusses the outer layer of existence—the droplets of water that reach our perception. Torah discusses the inner soul—the mist thats out there, and further still. Since the droplets are of the mist, they can best be understood by one who knows the mist as well. And, on the other hand, understanding the droplets is a vital part of understanding the mist.


We now have a unifying picture of the human being— his scientific ventures, his technology, his culture and acts of human expression in art, music and especially in words—not as an outside observer of the creation, but as an integral part of the ongoing creative process.

Indeed, together with the harnessing of power, all our technological progress can be traced along the precedent Adam set in the Garden of sharpening definition. The revolution of written language— particularly the highly linear form of the phonetic language; the development of mathematics and especially calculus; and in our time the ultimate reduction of all media to digital terms allowing the development of a vast communications network and multimedia, all follow this pattern that Adam began by naming subcategories of “every beast of the field and bird of the heaven”. Each time we fine-tune the tools of language and mathematics to describe our world in more precise and linear terms, we find ourselves leaping ahead in our dominion over our environment.

As we reduce all phenomena to their most fundamental elements, we uncover a deep, inherent oneness in the universe. As we reduce all information and media to a common language made of only two words—yes and no—we discover the paths by which we can integrate them to form a single whole, with all of humanity swept along into a single consciousness reminiscent of the consciousness of Adam and Eve in the Garden.

Divorced from the inner reality that lies beyond our physical perception, we have nothing other than more and more fragments—a very bewildering, endless collection of fragments. Once we reintroduce to our journey the element of the transcendental, a knowledge of the mist from whence those droplets come, the fragments race to arrange themselves in purposeful resolution.

May that final resolution be sooner than we imagine.