Five glimpses of the start of Kallah
A psalm of praise for an ice cream cone

Gleanings on kabbalah and quantum physics

TardisMy morning class at Kallah this year can be summed up (so far) as: I feel like I'm trying to pack the time vortex of a TARDIS into my head! The morning class I'm taking at Kallah this year is "Infinity, Nothingness, and Being: Running and Returning, An Exploration in Quantum Physics and Kabbalah, and I'm loving it. I want to share some glimpses of the class with y'all, but I find that I'm struggling to articulate the learning succinctly. This kind of learning is almost like a mystical experience -- I grasp it in a flash of joyous insight, and then when I try to describe it, it slips through my fingers! But I'll try anyway.

"I believe that every way in which we meet the universe, it all matters -- not only in the sense of making meaning, but in the sense of making things matter, e.g. making things materialize, bringing the universe into being anew in each moment."

That's Dr. Karen Barad, one of the teachers of this morning class (she's teaching with her wife Rabbi Fern Feldman.) Rabbi Fern is focusing on the Jewish texts and mystical material; Dr. Karen is focusing on the physics. Rather than drawing analogies between kabbalah and physics, they aim to offer a nondual approach. They're not arguing that quantum physics is just now discovering what kabbalists have known for centuries, or that kabbalah can or should be updated on the basis of contemporary physics. "Instead, we're going to diffractively read kabbalah and quantum physics through each other."

The idea of diffraction recurred repeatedly over the course of our first morning. Diffraction, I learned, refers to the patterns that waves make. (I'm one of the people in the class who has comfort and familiarity with the Jewish mystical texts, but only a dim memory of high school learning about the physics side of things.) First we got an overview of the classical / Newtonian understanding of particles and waves, and then the quantum stuff proceeded to complicate and problematize everything we thought we'd grasped!

ChariotezekOne of my favorite parts of the first class was when we read some Ezekiel (the start of chapter 1, the vision of the fire with lightning sparking in it, and creatures who had the appearance of fire sparking with lightning, וְהַחַיּוֹת, רָצוֹא וָשׁוֹב / v'ha-chayot ratzo v'shov, and those creatures "ran and returned"), and then paused to learn about how lightning works. (Did you know that lightning involves an upward flow of ions / energy as well as a downward flow? That dovetails with some extraordinary metaphors for divinity -- I'm having Yom Kippur sermon ideas!) 

Then we spent some time on Rutherford and Bohr and their atomic models, and on the definition of a quantum leap -- when an electron moves from one energy state to another within an atom. (In other words: contrary to the way the phrase appears in popular culture, a quantum leap is unthinkably tiny.) And then we spent more time with Torah, Midrash, Zohar. All morning long we oscillated between the two paradigms, mysticism and physics, bringing a deliciously poetic sensibility to both.

Rabbi Fern led us through the Biblical account of creation, showing how creation is an eternal fluctuation, a continuing process. "When God was beginning to create the heavens and the earth, the earth was tohu va-vohu" -- wild and waste, empty and void, chaos and a kind of echoing response which floats back over the chaos. Light is in the liminal space between being and not-being, until God says "yehi or," let there be light. (And speaking of that word יהי / yehi - it's spelled yud/heh/yud. The yud is the primal point from which all else flows; the heh represents expansion; the yud is another point. The very Hebrew letters of the word which means "let there be" set out a pattern of emerging from, and returning to, the nothingness.)

"In quantum physics," said Dr. Karen Barad, "we call this a vacuum fluctuation. The vacuum isn't empty; it has structure which foreshadows the possibility of other things. An echo of what might yet be." And there is vacuum, and void, in the tiniest spaces -- the spaces between energy levels in a single atom. As an electron changes energy levels, it makes a quantum leap from one energy level to another -- but in between the two energy levels, there is nothing (no-thing, nothingness), so where is the electron in the moment of shifting between one state and the next? Maybe it re-enters the vacuum and void, the tohu va-vohu from before Creation.

Quantum-imageWe looked at a text from Rabbi Itamar Schwarz about cycles of being and nothingness. He teaches that day is yesh (being / thing-ness), while night is ayin (nothingness). Every night we dip into the nothingness, into the void, when we sleep. We talked about the idea that in every moment we are filled with and held by the no-thing-ness. In our ordinary consciousness we can just barely touch the awareness that there is a constant flickering of אני/ ani and אין / ayin, awareness of self and nothingness. (The two words are spelled with the same letters in different permutations, which allows for some lovely kabbalistic wordplay.) It's not a succession; rather, we are always both.

That's some of what I got out of the first day of class. The second day is even weirder and more awesome: from chochmah (unitive) consciousness and binah (binary) consciousness (Sefer Yetzirah, my old bailiwick!) to how the nature of nature itself changes depending on how we examine it. Maybe my favorite part of the morning was hearing Dr. Barad teach about ontological indeterminacy, which is to say, the teaching that there are no "pre-existing, determinately propertied and boundaried objects to be disturbed by measurement interactions." (Or in other words, ultimately, there is no such thing as an independent thing to be measured. That's Neils Bohr, if my notes can be trusted.)

In Dr. Barad's paradigm, which builds and expands on Bohr's, subject and object intra-act. Through intra-action, they become boundaried and propertied, but they're ultimately inseparable in their mutually determining ongoing intra-acting. Quantum entanglement means not that "this" and "that" are entangled, but that there is no "this" independent of "that." Both are part of an inseparable whole. It's one thing to make this assertion as a theological statement -- ein od milvado; nothing has independent existence (apart from God) -- and another thing entirely to assert this as a matter of physics.

We did some neat learning about the double-slit experiment, which shows that electrons can behave both as particles and as waves. Get this: electrons are not inherently waves or particles. Depending on which apparatus an electron is interacting with, it performs either particle or wave. This is, I'm sure, not new to any of y'all who've studied this field before! But it was entirely new to me, and it blew my mind...especially reading it right after studying some Sefer Yetzirah about different states of consciousness and how we perceive things in those different states. Maybe the bizarre koan that electrons perform particle or wave based on how we're measuring them can only be understood in chochmah consciousness (wisdom-consciousness, unitary consciousness) when we're at one with the Divine.

I'll close with a tiny bit of what I heard Rabbi Fern say on the second day, after leading us through part of a text called Yam HaChochmah / the Sea of Wisdom:

If we imagine everything unified and connected, there can be no giving and receiving. If we're completely separate, there's no flow between. It's only when we make an agential cut, recognize that there's a phenomenon through the intra-action of which there is an emanator and emanated, a giver of flow and receiving of flow, that the giving and receiving can take place. That's how we experience our connections: with Hashem, with each other, with all existence.

Holy wow! Anyway... this class is stretching my brain in exciting new directions, and I'm having a blast.

(For more on this, don't miss Dr. Karen Barad's book Meeting the Universe Halfway - which now resides on my Kindle and I'm psyched to read it.)