Those who treat science with religious reverence might be surprised to discover that physics and mysticism have a lot in common.
Just as physicists seek to understand the origins and workings of the universe, so do the Kabbalists of the Jewish mystical tradition. Indeed, Kabbalah and cosmology have “an interesting affinity,” says religious studies professor and Kabbalah scholar Elliot Wolfson of the University of California, Santa Barbara.
The Jewish mystics of the Middle Ages described the beginnings of the universe in terms that correspond to the phenomena scientists are now describing—particularly when it comes to the Big Bang and black holes. And they grappled with propositions that preoccupy physicists today, such as developing a “unified theory of everything.” So it’s worth considering how physics and mysticism might now work together to fill in the big picture.
“There is no doubt in my mind that mysticism and science can inform each other,” Wolfson tells Quartz. “The most important point of intersection is the quest for both science and mysticism to grasp the underlying unity of all reality.”
The prevailing scientific theory on the origins of the universe posits that everything began with a Big Bang. In the moment after, the surrounding temperature was about 10 billion degrees Fahrenheit (5.5 billion Celsius), and a vast array of fundamental particles such as neutrons, electrons and protons were swimming around in a dark, invisible primordial soup.
There was no light. ”The free electrons would have caused light (photons) to scatter the way sunlight scatters from the water droplets in clouds,” according to NASA. But over thousands of years, as the temperature cooled, the free electrons joined nuclei and created neutral atoms. This process eventually allowed light to shine through about 380,000 years after the Big Bang.
In other words, in the beginning, everything was black for a long, long time. Then there was light. That sounds pretty similar to what’s written in the Bible.
Notably, black is a very important color in Jewish mysticism—the color from which every other hue and all of life emerge. In the Kabbalists’ preeminent text, the Zohar, existence is divided into a tree of life, with each branch devoted to different characteristics and dimensions of reality, represented by different colors. The supreme dimension—the crown or “keter”—is black. It represents “primordial darkness” and the “black light of creation,” philosopher and forensic psychologist Sanford Drob explains in his 1999 book Symbols of the Kabbalah: Philosophical and Psychological Perspectives.
All of existence started with an explosion from one point that is continually multiplying, according to Jewish mysticism. Thus, Wolfson sees a distinct relationship between the contemporary Big Bang theory and the Kabbalistic notion that the universe burst forth from a single point, which in mystical terms is the limitless light of the divine, or Infinite, known as the “Ein Sof.”
In Hebrew, “Ein Sof” literally means “no end.” So the divine, or god, is just another word for infinity. Kabbalists are people who study the manifestations of infinity. And just as physicists seek a single principle, a so-called “unified theory of everything” that will explain all of life, so do mystics. “For the kabbalists, that one principle is the light of infinity, which materializes into the multiplicity of all beings,” Wolfson says.
That light emerging from darkness is both physical and symbolic, the professor explains. As an idea, it shows that things are often much more complex than they appear at first glance, and that the most abstract of notions explain the material world. “Cast in the lingo of quantum physics, we could identify the immaterial light as the particle and the material vessel as the antiparticle, which meet and collide in the zero gravitational energy of empty space, the nothingness that spawns the something that is the stuff of being,” Wolfson says.
The notion of darkness containing light described in mysticism also illuminates black holes, places in space where gravity’s pull is so strong that even light can’t escape. As NASA explains, the gravity in a black hole has such a forceful pull because matter is compressed into a tiny space.
Scientists believe that when the universe began, small black holes also formed. We can’t see black holes with the naked eye, but we know they exist because of the effect they exert on the stars orbiting near them. Black holes bend light toward them.
It’s notable, then, that holes are also an important concept in Jewish mysticism. “Black holes are the physical embodiment of spiritual holes that Kabbalah speaks of,” according to a post by trained theoretical physicist Alexander Poltorak on the website Quantum Torah, which explores the intersection between science and religion.
In Kabbalah, a hole is called “rah,” meaning “evil” in Hebrew. Holes are portals from the domain of good to that of evil. But they are part of the infinite, and so they aren’t purely bad—they just are. Likewise, black holes suck up matter, energy, and information from the universe. And some cosmological models posit that black holes could be wormholes—portals to parallel universes, which is similar to the kabbalistic concept of holes as an entryway to “the other side.”
In 2016, a paper published in the Physical Review of Letters reported the first observed merger of two black holes at the Laser Interferometer Gravitational-wave Observatory (LIGO). This merger created gravitational waves that scientists were able to observe and convert to sound waves. According to Poltorak, the discovery shows that, like “rah,” black holes don’t just take matter from the universe. They give something, too. The gravitational waves emitted when black holes merge provide a window on the past. Listening to the converted gravitational in sound form, scientists can hear a kind of cosmic song—the sound of the first darkness, if you will. Listening to this is like hearing “echoes of the Big Bang and the birth of the universe,” Poltorak explains.
Remarkably, though the Kabbalists of yore had neither tools to detect black holes nor the mathematical models that led physicists to conclude that the universe began with a bang, their understanding of cosmology nonetheless had startling parallels to the findings of today’s physicists. “The scientific data reinforces the mystical paradigm of a universalist singularity predicated on the juxtaposition of the monolithic and the polymorphic,” Wolfson says.
Or, more simply put, scientists are finding—like the mystics before them—that all of existence emerged from one thing that multiplied, and continues to multiply, in the endless act of creation that is the universe. The universe is varied and chaotic, but there’s a certain constancy to how it works.
In his own scholarship, Wolfson uses scientific concepts to illuminate mystical texts, and vice versa. ”I think it is eminently worthwhile for the two disciplines to interact,” he says. “More generally, it is crucial for scholars of the humanities to be in better contact with natural scientists and for natural scientists to be in better contact with scholars of the humanities.”
Many science types are wary of spirituality, however. As Zeeya Merali writes in an Aeon article about Buddhist philosophy and cosmology, “Mentioning spiritual texts in the same breath as physics is not fashionable; the danger is you will come over as both a wannabe guru and a flaky physicist.”
Still, some brave souls—including Abhay Ashtekar, a physicist at Pennsylvania State University who studies Buddhist philosophy, and cosmologist Andrei Linde at Stanford University in California who examines Hindu philosophy—are exploring the intersection of physics and mysticism to help explain the universe’s persistent mysteries. If nothing else, mystical and philosophical metaphors offer clues for the direction of scientific exploration.
Wolfson recognizes the distinctions between science and spirituality. But—perhaps unsurprisingly, given mysticism’s focus on interconnection—he sees no need for division. The Kabbalah scholar believes the mystical worldview is highly relevant to contemporary scientific understanding, not just of cosmology but also of ecology, for example.
He notes that the intertwined nature of everything, a fundamental aspect of mystical thought, has proven key in the environmental sciences as well. We now know that there’s an intricate interplay between all beings in an ecosystem. If a mosquito population goes down or an invasive plant flourishes, the rest of the ecosystem shifts. The scholar suggests, ”The interconnectivity of all things promulgated by mystics can be very helpful in our current environment, to sensitize people to the fact that everything is indeed related to everything else.”