Comparing and Contrasting Quantum mysticism and Jewish mysticism

By Jeff Silverman

I would like to compare and contrast Cabalah1, or Jewish Mysticism, with Quantum mechanics, or Scientific mysticism. But before I do, I beg your indulgence for a moment with a glass of water.

It occurs to me that Jewish mysticism and modern physics have much in common with one another. For example, it is virtually certain that at least one molecule of water that I just drank has passed through the urinary tract of Moses. This is a consequence of the fact that there were more molecules of water in this glass than there are glasses of water in all the seas and glaciers and ice caps of our planet. I am amazed when I compare how small a molecule of water is and how big is a galaxy; and yet there are structures which are smaller than molecules and larger than galaxies. Clearly, a proper understanding of physics and a proper understanding of the nature of G-d can clearly lead to the same emotional response: awe.

I turned 40 last January, and Rabbi Jonathan and Jo Merrick both gave me books on Jewish mysticism. I have been studying both books, and I understand neither: Jo tells me that I have had an authentic mystical experience. However, there are some things I have gleaned from my study; one of which is that Jewish mysticism is both similar and different from Quantum Mechanics.

Before I can discuss Quantum mechanics or Cabalah, there are some terms I should define.

Mysticism = "The experience of a union of something having a spiritual meaning or reality that is neither apparent to the senses nor obvious to the intelligence of the person. A belief without sound basis postulating possibility of direct and intuitive acquisition of ineffable knowledge or power".

Quantum Mechanics is the branch of physics that was invented by Albert Einstein - in fact, he won his Nobel prize for work that became quantum mechanics. Einstein discovered that when things become very, very small, they tend to come in packets which you can count with integers. These packets, called "Quanta", are a fundamental to the universe. One of the fundamental properties of these quanta is that they are so small that you can't tell where they are and how fast they are moving. I am sure that a real quantum mechanic would be offended at my calling Quantum Mechanics mystical­after all, it has a sound theoretical and empirical basis. Nobody can use a modern computer or listen to a radio or a CD or see a laser and not be assured that quantum mechanics is real and not mystical.

Microscopic - an object is microscopic if its behavior can be understand using quantum mechanical principles. Molecules are borderline microscopic. Atoms and subatomic particles certainly are. Take this definition with a grain of salt: General Electric sells a superconducting generator for power plants that weighs well over 100 tons. Although it weighs more than this congregation, it is still a quantum mechanical device. Also, the fact that an iceberg floats in fresh water can only be explained with Quantum Mechanics.

Macroscopic - an object is macroscopic if its behavior can be understood using Newtonian mechanical principles. Viruses, bacteria, and anything larger is Macroscopic. I myself am about 5 Kgs more macroscopic than I would like to be.

Jewish Mysticism or Cabalah - I want to distinguish between Cabalah and regular Judaism. A physicist can't see the difference because both schools of thought are based on faith rather than experiment. A Jew, of course, does see a difference. Cabalah is a relatively recent (12th Century) creation based on a book called the Zohar which was written by Isaac the Blind and others.

Let me begin by discussing the nature of the Universe from the point of view of both Quantum Mechanics and Cabalah. In the quantum mechanical view of the universe, the universe is made out of an incredibly large number of particles which are held together by one of 4 forces. These forces are Gravity, Electromagnetism, the Strong Force, and the Weak Force. Gravity is the force that is pulling all of us towards the earth's core. Electromagnetism is the force that keeps us from sliding through the floor. The strong force is what holds the nuclei of atoms together. The weak force governs certain interactions between some subatomic particles. The electrons in the atoms are bound to the nuclei using electromagnetic force; and atoms that comprise the molecules combine using electromagnetic forces. Chemists call these forces covalent, ionic, or metallic; but physicists know that these forces are all electromagnetic.

Cabalah believes that the universe is comprised of little bits of matter mediated by a mystical force called ein sof. Rabbi Jonathan believes that ein sof is a kind of light that illuminates us. But Rabbi Jonathan doesn't understand how light can be within everything and between everything. Physicists know better: light is an electromagnetic phenomena. What we call "light" is actually a special case of radiation that includes electricity, radio, infrared, ultraviolet and X-rays. If a Cabalist were to tell a physicist that the world is full of light, even in the darkest cave or the rainyest, moonless night, the physicist would reply, "Nu?".

Cabalah discuses how G-d is everywhere and yet we cannot sense G-d's presence. Actually, the idea that there is knowledge we cannot know is older than Cabalah; such thinking dates back at least to the book of Job. At the end of the book of Job, G-d presents a list of wonders to Job, and then asks "Who are you, to demand of me that I account for myself?". Similarly, at the end of his paper, Heisenberg proves to us that we can not be omnipotent, that in fact there are some things we cannot ever know. Quantum Mechanics discusses how particles can be somewhere and not elsewhere, but it is meaningless to ask in detail where they are and how fast they are moving. Similarly, both quantum mechanics and Cabalah note that some things just do not happen. Water does not flow up hill, and two leptons cannot exist in the same state at the same time. So both Cabalah and Quantum mechanics are in agreement that there are some things which cannot be knowable and there are some things which cannot occur.

I want to discuss the Heisenberg uncertainty principle, since it is important to understanding the nature of the Quantum Mechanical Universe. We are going to do a physics experiment. I am going to walk around this room. In this experiment, we are bouncing photons from the incandescent lights and observing that they form an easily recognizable pattern on the retinas of yours eyes. Using stereopsis and your kinestetic sense, You can locate me, and measure my position and velocity simultaneously. This is no big deal, really, all animals do this all the time. What is interesting is if I look at, for example, a bacterium using the same technique, I can still locate the bacterium and measure its velocity at the same time. However, if I get down to the size of an electron, then at that point the momentum of the electron and the momentum of the photons I am using to locate the electrons become comparable, so we can't locate the electrons anymore. Why is this a fundamentally meaningless question? It turns out that whenever you accelerate a charged particle, you get synchrotron radiation. The electrons are moving so fast in their little orbits that the synchrotron radiation would cause all of the electron orbits to decay and the electrons would crash into the nuclei. We have been observing things made out of atoms for millennia and we don't see atoms collapsing like that. So Quantum Mechanics comes to the rescue and says that because the position and the velocity of the electron is smeared out, there is no acceleration as we understand acceleration with macroscopic objects, and the atoms don't collapse. Since this theory agrees with what we observe, we accept it.

Cabalah talks about the continual recreation of the world. The world is not just running on autopilot, but rather G-d is continually recreating the world and making it a more holy place. When Cabalists talk about G-d as a verb, we are talking about this continual recreation process. Since we don't observe the universe collapsing, we conclude, albeit on rather shaky logic, that G-d is still busy recreating the world.

One of the areas where Quantum mechanics and Cabalah diverge is in the field of ethics. Quite frankly, Quantum Mechanics says nothing about ethics. Although in my studies of Cabalah, I haven't really found anything that says "this is unethical", my sense of the authors is that their vision is so far beyond the day to day matters of the world that ethics can be assumed. Consider this thought experiment. If I were to hold in my hands two hemispheres of pure plutonium each weighing about 500 grams and each being roughly 4 cm in diameter, and bring them together rapidly, the ensuing explosion would kill every man, woman and child within a kilometer of here. That's what E=mc2 is all about. Quantum mechanics answers "Why does this occur?" while Cabalah would ask the question "Why would you want to something like that?". Quantum mechanics also describes how neutrons spin. Nuclear Magnetic Resonance Imaging, or NMR, allows physicians to probe into the brain of people with cancer, to locate tumors and save lives. Cabalah exclaims "isn't that wonderful?". The underlying physics of nuclear weapons and NMR imaging is roughly the same. The outcomes and the ethical considerations are vastly different.

Cabalah does hold, as a central tenet, the idea that all things and all people are interconnected together. This interconnectedness is a powerful argument for acting in an ethical manner. Any evil that I do to you is going to turn around and come back to me somehow or other. One need look no farther than Russia to see what happens when ethics and morals break down. Rabbi David Cooper in his book, God is a Verb, recounts a fascinating story which took place in the mid 1970s. A Catholic woman was dining with David and his wife, Shoshanna. All of a sudden, David noticed that this woman was crying. Apparently, since her childhood in the early 1950s, she had had this recurring nightmare in which she was on board one of the trains carrying Jews to the death camps of Nazi Germany. There is no logical explanation for this nightmare, no scientific theory that explains how this woman could have this memory. And yet it is so. A Cabalist would have no difficulty with the idea that the interconnectedness of all things is such that the death cries of 6 million people would reach this woman somehow. A scientist, and here I am including not just physicists but all scientists, should be very careful not to reject an observation simply because it doesn't fit into any of our established theories. Just because something doesn't make sense is not reason for it not to be true.

To wrap this up then, I've tried comparing and contrasting Jewish Mysticism and Quantum mechanics in four different areas: on the nature of the universe, on why the universe doesn't collapse, on what is knowable and not knowable, and on ethics and right behavior.
Cabalah Quantum Mechanics
The nature of the universe The universe is little bits of dark matter which are surrounded and held together by a light called ein sof The universe is little particles with positive and negative and neutral charge which are surrounded by and held together by 4 forces: gravity, electromagnetism, strong, and weak
Why the universe doesn't collapse G-d is constantly recreating the universe. The creation of the universe is an ongoing process. G-d is a verb. The smeary, indistinct nature of subatomic particles keeps the universe from collapsing
On what is knowable and unknowable The name of G-d is not knowable. The nature of G-d is not knowable. However, questions about the nature of G-d and the role of humans in the work of creation are very important issues. Since G-d's existence cannot be demonstrated by experiment nor predicted by theory, it is meaningless to talk about G-d.
On ethics Because of the interconnectedness of the universe, it is imperative to behave in an ethical manner. We are encouraged to think about how we have wronged others and dealt with others who have wronged us. Nothing

This is some heavy thinking material. I tried very hard to condense what I wanted to say into 10 minutes - and Rabbi Jonathan was adamant about 10 minutes. So I have posted this devar torah on my website, at and go from there.


On November 30th 2003, my wife, Judith, noticed that I had consistently mispelled "Kabbalah". When I wrote this essay in 1998, there was no Google. In 2003, it is the premier search engine. As of this writing, Google thinks there are 1210 occurances of "Cabalah", over 11,000 occurances of "Kabalah", and over 219,000 occurances of "Kabbalah". Google appears to round these counts to 3 significant figures.