This article is dedicated in honor of Prof. Yaakov Brawer, my Chavrutah and dear friend of 40-odd years.

Introduction - Kabbalah and Science in Our Time

Developments in the physical and biological sciences over the last two millennia have, in the minds of many, challenged the belief systems of the major Western religions. Consequently, many Jews and others longing to understand the nature of reality and the meaning of human existence have been lured away from their faiths in a quest for more ‘objective’ truths. Some, seeking transcendent experiences and a more holistic worldview, turned to Eastern mysticism. Others eschewed religion altogether, preferring instead to place their ‘faith’ exclusively in science and secular philosophy.

But are these reactions to the perceived ‘threat’ of science intellectually justified?

By now it should be patently obvious that scientific theories are evanescent, and what we regard today as immutable fact may well be discounted as fiction tomorrow. How sad it is that Jews felt compelled to abandon their tradition when Aristotle’s proclamation of an eternal universe was understood to contradict Genesis 1:1. How premature that response now appears in light of 20th century Big Bang cosmology, and in light accruing physical evidence that the universe indeed had a beginning. Along similar lines, classical physics, the accepted wisdom regarding the fundamentals of reality prevailing from the time of Isaac Newton (1643-1726) to the early 1900s, left little room for consciousness and free will to operate in what was construed as a strictly mechanical universe. Then came the counterintuitive, but more nuanced and highly successful, field of quantum mechanics. In addition to facilitating the advent of truly disruptive technologies (lasers, computers, MRI machines, etc.), a process referred to as ‘quantum entanglement’ hinted at the Creation’s deep underlying unity and the phenomenon of ‘wave function collapse’ implicated the hitherto unimaginable role of the observer (consciousness) in the ‘selection’ of discrete, tangible outcomes from among a host of potential realities.

Even Darwin’s theory of evolution, sacrosanct among biologists who wield it as a refutation of the Creation narrative, is now facing critical review given what some scientists and mathematicians now claim to be the statistical implausibility of biological complexification by random mutation.1

Philosophers have likewise challenged the hard materialism of the Darwinian theory on the basis of what has become known as “the hard problem of consciousness.”2

But the reconciliation of Torah and science goes much deeper than this. To witness the last hundred years of scientific discovery provide ‘openings’ for traditional Jewish conceptualizations of Nature is certainly gratifying. But what many may not be aware of is the stunning confluence of the esoteric Torah—the Kabbalah—with theories and observations at the cutting-edge of science and philosophy. As the Lubavitcher Rebbe has pointed out, we seem to be at the cusp of the great outpouring of ‘upper’ and ‘lower’ wisdom—the Kabbalah and deep scientific truths—that was foretold in the Zohar as a precursor to the onset of the Seventh Millennium or Messianic era (Eleph Ha’Shvii).3

Although the terminologies employed by these disparate disciplines are radically different, many contemporary innovations in science and mathematics are conceptually similar, if not identical, to ancient Kabbalistic principles. I hope to prove convincing on this point in this series by demonstrating remarkable symmetries between the Kabbalah and several prime developments in 20th century physics and philosophy. In this first instalment, evidence is adduced that an ancient Kabbalistic construct known as the Unknowable Head (Reisha D’Lo Ityadah; RADLA) may be the spiritual counterpart or source of Heisenberg’s Uncertainty Principle—a cornerstone of quantum physics.

Part 1 - The Uncertainty Principle and Quantum Mechanics

The Uncertainty Principle dictates that paired physical properties of a system cannot both be observed to arbitrary precision.4 In other words, the more precisely one property is known, the less accurately the other can be measured. What is vitally important here is that this imprecision does not depend on the skills of the observer or the accuracy of the measuring instrument; it is an inherent attribute of Nature itself! The Uncertainty Principle overturned classical Newtonian mechanics by profoundly claiming that we cannot know, as a matter of principle, the present in all its details.5 In classical physics, it is possible, at least theoretically, to ascertain the position and momentum of every particle in the universe and thereby precisely determine the future. In contemporary quantum physics it is fundamentally impossible to predict future events because one can never attain full knowledge of the position and momentum of even a single particle.

But things got weirder still: In the standard (Copenhagen) interpretation of quantum mechanics, every possible outcome for an event exists in the unobserved state (as represented mathematically by Schrodinger’s statistical wave function). The act of observation causes a ‘collapse of the wave function’ whereby one of these many potential outcomes is ‘selected’, seemingly at random, as the reality we actually experience. This is exemplified in the results of Young’s counter-intuitive “two-slit experiment,” wherein light was shown to behave as both both a wave and a particle, with one or the other facet revealed by the consciousness of an observer.6

The standard interpretation of quantum mechanics was supported after attempts to refute it on theoretical and experimental grounds failed.7 Moreover, a series of insightful gedanken (thought) experiments and the confirmatory bench work of Alain Aspect and colleagues at the University of Paris in 1982 brought about the inescapable conclusion that all particles and forces comprising the observable universe are interconnected (‘entangled’).8 The results of these experiments led to some truly astonishing conclusions which correspond beautifully with Kabbalistic teachings:

  1. All elementary particles emerging from the Big Bang singularity (the point-like origin of the universe) retain a permanent ‘connectedness’ with one another.
  2. Each particle therefore has an ‘awareness’ of the existence of every other particle.
  3. The properties of one particle (position, momentum, spin, etc.) change immediately and commensurate with changes in a ‘partner’ particle regardless of the extent of their physical separation (a phenomenon Einstein referred to as ‘spooky action at a distance’).

For such immediate change to arise by the mechanisms of classical physics, information would need to pass from particle A to particle B at impossible, greater-than-light speeds. Quantum theory reveals that the particles’ shared history forever ‘locks’ them in a pattern of coordinated behavior—known as ‘quantum entanglement’—that does not require the transmission of new information between them (referred to as ‘acausality’).

One of the most obvious innovations of quantum theory is the scientific acceptance of the fact that the fundamental realities of physical existence are subject to fundamental paradoxes, and more so, with uncertainty. The ramifications of this development for the philosophy of science and its relationship with the authority of Torah were discussed in detail by the Lubavitcher Rebbe, who had studied with Erwin Schrödinger, one of the great pioneers of quantum theory, at the University of Berlin.9 But here I want to take up a different avenue of exploration: the quantum notion of “uncertainty” strikes me as deeply resonant with the Kabbalisitic notion that the fundamental root of all reality is in the “Unknowable Head” (Reisha D’Lo Ityadah), referred to by the acronym “RADLA.”

Part 2 - The Unknowable Head and Kabbalistic Cosmology

The RADLA construct is described in the classical Kabbalistic texts (e.g. the Zohar and Etz Chaim) and is unpacked further in the writings of the eighteenth century scholar, R’ Moshe Chaim Luzzatto (Ramchal).10 RADLA is described as remaining transcendent or ‘outside’ the cosmological entities that emanate from it and therefore opaque to human understanding—“a head that is unknowable and not merely unknown.”11

The striking parallels between the RADLA and Heisenberg’s UP are highlighted by comparing statements of leading 20th century physicists (A) and Kabbalists (B):

A. The Intrinsically Incomprehensible Universe – Quantum Physics:

  • “Uncertainty is perhaps the central feature of quantum theory.”12
  • “It is safe to say that nobody understands quantum mechanics.”13
  • “We cannot know, as a matter of principle, the present in all its details.”14
  • “In more than forty years, physicists have not been able to provide a clear metaphysical model (of quantum reality).”15
  • “The creation lies outside the scope of the known laws of physics.”16

B. The Intrinsically Incomprehensible Universe – The Kabbalah:

  • “(The RADLA) is the source; from it issues forth all uncertainty at the outset: שֶׁהִיא הָרִאשׁוֹנָה, שֶׁבָּהּ נוֹלָדִים הַסְּפֵקוֹת בַּתְּחִלָּה.”17
  • “We cannot imagine or know anything (of the RADLA). This is the concept of ‘unknowable’ (by its very nature and not merely unknown): אֵינָם מֻשָּׂגִים וְנוֹדָעִים כְּלָל, זֶהוּ עִנְיָן דְּלֹא אֲתֹידָע.”18

A. Worlds in Potentia – Quantum Physics:

  • “In quantum mechanics, every possible outcome for an event exists in the unobserved state prior to collapse of the wave function.”19

B. Worlds in Potentia – The Kabbalah:

  • “Every combination….(of reality) that could possibly be found was, in fact, made: כָּל מִינֵי הַחִבּוּרִים שֶׁהָיָה אֶפְשָׁר לְהִמָּצֵא - בֶּאֱמֶת נַעֲשׂוּ.”20
  • “One moment it appears that (the outcome determined by the RADLA) is one thing, in another moment it looks like something else: כִּי פַּעַם אַחַת נִרְאֶה שֶׁיֵּשׁ בָּהּ כָּךְ, וּפַעַם אַחַת יֵשׁ בָּהּ כָּךְ.... וְאִם מִסְתַּכְּלִים בְּאוֹתוֹ הָעִנְיָן יוֹתֵר נִרְאֶה שֶׁאֵינוֹ כָּךְ, אֶלָּא בְּדֶרֶךְ אַחֵר מִתְחַלֵּף מִמֶּנּוּ21
  • “These uncertainties (of the RADLA) are unlike the uncertainties of the (familiar) world. In the latter, we may be uncertain whether a thing exists or not; whereas, in truth, all things perceived as ‘uncertain’ are present in her (the RADLA): שאין הספיקות ההם כמו ספיקות דעלמא, שאנו בספק אם יֵשׁ דָּבָר אֶחָד, אוֹ אִם אֵינוֹ, אֶלָּא הָאֱמֶת הוּא, כָּל מָה שֶׁאָנוּ מַזְכִּירִים בַּסְּפֵקוֹת - כָּל אוֹתָם הַדְּבָרִים יֶשְׁנָם בֶּאֱמֶת בָּהּ 19.”

This latter description of the paradox of reality may be the most supportive Kabbalistic statement in favor of ontic uncertainty, where the paradox is inherent to Nature, as opposed to epistemic paradox, which results from limitations of our cognitive faculties.

Through the prism of Ramchal, all possible physical outcomes emerging from a Schrӧdinger wave-like probability curve can be understood as being rooted in RADLA. As in Young’s two-slit experiment, only when consciously measured do these possibilities ‘collapse’ into one or another classical realities. The ‘chosen’ outcome emerges from RADLA and progressively ‘coarsens’ in its ‘descent’ down the cosmological ladder(Seder Hishtalshelut) described by the Kabbalists, and ultimately materializes as a discrete physical entity within the familiar macro-world.20 Both the RADLA veil and the Uncertainty Principle set a limit on what can be predicted and establish that the observed reality is ‘selected’ in a seemingly random manner. We understand little concerning the mechanism governing the translation of RADLA/quantum phenomena into events of the experiential world. What can be said is that the seemingly random fluctuations inherent to the former realm limit what can be predicted about all future events.

Conclusion - Uncertainty, Unknowability, and Free Will

From this perspective we can suggest an account of free will that splices together the kabbalistic and scientific notions of unknowability and uncertainty. This serves as an example of the usefulness and fruitfulness of this kind of dialogue at the cutting edge of Kabbalah and science:

Our choices, ethical and otherwise, are for all intents and purposes kept ‘free’ by operating within the confines of the RADLA—without which human consciousness would be thoroughly inundated and commandeered by Divine Intent. But RADLA ‘scrambles’ knowledge of Divine Intent and conveys the encoded information to the lower realms of the Kabbalistic hierarchy, and ultimately to the physical realm. The Heisenberg-like randomness imposed by RADLA preserves our sense of free will by insulating our tiny ‘bubbles’ of consciousness from the Mind of G‑d. For each individual, commensurate with their spiritual, moral and intellectual standing, a proper balance is struck between awareness of G‑d and the preservation of personal autonomy and free will.

More information on this topic can be found in Schipper HM. Kabbalistic Panpsychism — The Enigma of Consciousness in Jewish Mystical Thought. Winchester, UK: John Hunt Publishing, 2021

Kabbalistic Panpsychism: The Enigma of Consciousness in Jewish Mystical Thought
Kabbalistic Panpsychism: The Enigma of Consciousness in Jewish Mystical Thought