Making Kiddush: Mysticism in the Age of Science
Each Friday night, as part of the ritual of kiddush, I raise my cup of wine and proclaim:
בראשית ב:ב וַיְכַל אֱלֹהִים בַּיּוֹם הַשְּׁבִיעִי מְלַאכְתּוֹ אֲשֶׁר עָשָׂה וַיִּשְׁבֹּת בַּיּוֹם הַשְּׁבִיעִי מִכָּל מְלַאכְתּוֹ אֲשֶׁר עָשָׂה. ב:ג וַיְבָרֶךְ אֱלֹהִים אֶת יוֹם הַשְּׁבִיעִי וַיְקַדֵּשׁ אֹתוֹ כִּי בוֹ שָׁבַת מִכָּל מְלַאכְתּוֹ אֲשֶׁר בָּרָא אֱלֹהִים לַעֲשׂוֹת.
Gen 2:2 On the seventh day God completed the work that He had made, resting on that seventh day from all the work that He had done. 2:3 God blessed the seventh day and made it holy, for on it He had rested from all the work that God had created to be done
That moment is the highlight of my week. It is the most personally significant ritual act that I regularly perform as a Jew. But what is my relationship to that text I so fervently call out? It is one of love and commitment, a feeling that the text is as filled to the brim with meaning as my cup is with wine. It is a statement of my faith in divine Creation, of my gratitude for the gift of perceiving a sacred presence that underlies all that is. But surely it could not be called “belief” in the Torah’s creation story in any literal sense.
I understand that this planet is approximately thirteen billion years old, and that it came to be as a result of a great stellar explosion that took place several billion years earlier. I also understand that the seas and dry land, the trees, grasses, and plants, the birds, fish, animals, and creeping things all described as created on one or another of the six days preceding that first Sabbath of Genesis, in fact evolved over the course of a long and complex bio-evolutionary process, running across thousands of centuries, rather than being “declared” into existence all within a week, however that “week” is conceived. Yet the story of Creation, and the weekly repetition of it, is vital to my religious life.
My non-literalist faith that we live in a created world is part-and-parcel of my personal quest for meaning and my sense of responsibility to act in protection of this beautiful and fragile planet. Such a non-literalist theology of Creation builds not on the world of science, but the world of myth, especially that which grows of ancient Jewish stories about how this world came to be.
What I search for in these tales is not a factual description of the world’s history but the profound kernel of truth that helps us connect to the deeper meaning of the world we live in and our connection to it. And yet, to make the most of these truths as modern people, living in the scientific age, we must find a way to tell them together with the “reality” being daily articulated and refined by astrophysicists, geologists, evolutionary biologists, and lots of others. Such an approach can lend to the new story some of the mystery and depth of the old, while not forcing us to take a stance against scientific thinking and modern notions of truth and knowledge.
Creation with Hebrew Letters
Midrash Genesis Rabbah imagines the Torah serving as God’s blueprint for the creation of the world (1:1):
הַקָּדוֹשׁ בָּרוּךְ הוּא מַבִּיט בַּתּוֹרָה וּבוֹרֵא אֶת הָעוֹלָם.
The Blessed Holy One looked into the Torah and created the world.
Some rabbinic midrashim take this further, and have God make use of the Torah’s letters to create the world. The rabbis attempted to explain the significance of the Torah beginning with bet, the second letter of the Hebrew alphabet. One midrash, whose earliest form is found in the 8th century midrash called “The Letters of Rabbi Akiva” (version B), opens with all the letters competing for this honor:
...בשעה שבקש הקב"ה לברוא את העולם, מיד ירדו כלם ועמדו לפני הקב"ה, זה אומר לפניו בי תברא את העולם...
…When the Blessed Holy One decided to create the world, immediately all of them (=the 22 Hebrew letters) came down [from Heaven] and stood before the Blessed Holy One, and each said “Create the world with me!”…
The letters begin their appeal from the rear of the alphabet, each being rejected for a problematic association. For instance, Tav, the last letter, is rejected because it is associated with death, and God’s creation is to be the home of life. Shin, qof, and resh are all rejected because they together comprise the Hebrew word šeqer, meaning “lie,” while God’s creation is to be a realm of truth. Eventually, it is the turn of bet, which, like the Latin b, is the second letter from the top, and this one is accepted:
אחר כך נכנס בי"ת לפני הקב"ה ואומר לפניו: רבונו של עולם, רצונך שתברא בי את עולמך? שבי משבחין לפניך כל באי עולם בכל יום, שנאמר 'ברוך יי לעולם אמן ואמן.'..."
Afterwards the bet came before the Blessed Holy One and said: “Master of the Universe, would you like to create the world using me? For all the people of the world praise you using me every day, as it says (Ps 89:53): ‘Blessed is the LORD forever; Amen and Amen.’…”
The root ב.ר.כ meaning “bless” begins with a bet (fortuitously translatable with a b as “blessing” in English). The text continues with the bet quoting more and more verses about blessing until God responds:
מיד קבל הקב"ה ממנו ואמר לו הן. ואמר לו ברוך הבא בשם יי וברא בו את עולמו בבי"ת שנאמר בראשית ברא אלהים.
Immediately the Blessed Holy One accepted and said to him “Yes,” and said to him (Ps 118:26) “Blessed be in the name of YHWH he who enters.” And God created the world with the bet, as it says (Gen 1:1), “in the beginning (bereshit), God created…”
The bet of bereshit, victor in this contest, becomes the primal surge of divine energy through which the project of the world’s existence was launched.
Building on the Torah’s Creation through Words
The midrash connects to an important feature of the opening creation story, in which God’s creation is entirely through speech, beginning with light:
בראשית א:ג וַיֹּאמֶר אֱלֹהִים יְהִי אוֹר וַיְהִי אוֹר.
Gen 1:3 And God said: “Let there be light.” And there was light.
As the story continues, God calls each aspect of existence into being by stating its name. This means that ultimate power, that by which all things come to be, resides in language. This verbal myth contrasts with the much more richly pictorial versions of creation in ancient Near Eastern mythology, which involved battles or sexual encounters between gods.
But the authors of our midrash of the letters are not satisfied with this assertion that speech is the ultimate root of God’s power, and seek to get behind this primary speech-act. They want to break down the first divine word into its component parts; they say that letters (here they seem to be thinking of written letters, not just the aural sounds they represent), rather than words, brim with divine energy.
Each of the letters seeks to put its stamp on God’s great project. God the primal speaker has been replaced by God the cosmic Kabbalist, arranging the creative powers by juggling the letters of the sacred Hebrew alphabet.
Bet as Duality
In another midrash (Gen Rab 1:10), R. Judah ben Pazi focuses on the bet’s numerical value as 2 in gematria, and says that the Torah starts with bet, להודיעך שהן שני עולמים, “to teach you that there are two worlds.” The duality noted in the midrash itself is about this world and the world to come, but the idea of creation with the letter bet as being about duality is part of the fabric of the first creation story in Genesis, which is told as a tale of pairs: Light and darkness, earth and heaven, upper and lower waters, sea and land, sun and moon, male and female, weekday work and Sabbath rest are all created in pairs.
The most basic of dualities, to which all these others point, is that of God and world, testament to the crucial change that the One has undergone by becoming Creator. This latter duality of creation is the focus of much theological reflection in later kabbalistic thought.
Elohim: The One Creates the Many
The author of the world of bet or duality is ʾElohim—the name used for God throughout the creation story in Genesis 1. The name ʾElohim itself indicates plurality—ʾeloha (אֱלוֹהַּ) being the singular form for the word “God,” ʾelohim, the plural (“gods”). And yet, in context, the term means (one) God, as attested by the accompanying verbs in the singular. Notably, this divine name begins with aleph, whose value in gematria is 1.
In keeping with the numerical value hermeneutic, the creation of this world with bet marks the passage of the all-embracing One into the realm of duality, self and other, or the transformation of the One as cosmic aleph into Elohim, the plural. The one God begins creation with bet because that is precisely what creation is: the origin of multiplicity out of the realm of the undivided One.
Creation means that the limitless One is forced to become the One-in-relation. Its endless and ever-renewing energy is now to be manifest in the cacophony of infinite growth and diversity, rather than in the austere silence of changeless eternity. Yet the aleph is still there, waiting patiently behind the bet. The unity that precedes and underlies all of being has not been essentially changed by creation. What has been added is only another perspective, that of the creatures.
The Paradox of Creation: How Does One Become Many?
The aleph-bet interpretation of the creation myth leads to the classic theological question: If all is one, how do we get to the many? If there is only aleph, where does bet come from in the first place? The kabbalists, Jewish mystical thinkers, tackle this question in several ways.
1. Gradations: The Early Kabbalists
The early kabbalists dealt with this problem by shading the stages of this transition from One to many into almost indiscernible gradations or manifestations known as sephirot, a network of ten potencies that together comprise the divine self.
First, the One was surrounded by an ether, an air so fine that it could not be grasped. Then there appeared a line so thin that it could not be drawn, then a paradoxical “lamp of darkness,” and a primal point. Step by step, stage by stage, with a step backward for each glance forward, the changeless infinite began to approach definition. Each stage in the defining process necessarily brought about an exclusion; if it is this, it is not that. Hence the origin of multiplicity, opposition, and ultimate dialectical reunion.
But gradation does not adequately solve the problem. To the question “How did the many emerge from the One?” the answer “Very gradually” ultimately will not suffice. So I turn to the next stage of Kabbalah, whose answer derives somewhat from a sense of the inadequacy of the gradation concept.
2. Divine Self-Contraction (Tzimtzum): Lurianic Kabbalah
The mystics of the Lurianic School, based on the teaching of R. Isaac Luria of Safed (1534–1572, also known as Ar”i), opt for a quasi-spatial metaphor: tzimtzum or divine self-contraction. In this approach, the One is all that exists, filling primal space, leaving no room for the many. In order for the many to exist, therefore, the One first has to perform an act of self-constriction, removing itself from a certain realm, from which it is then quite totally absent.
The first creation is that of the primal space that is the non-God. It is within this vacuum that the domain of the many comes to exist, created by new and specifically directed rays of divine energy beamed in from without. The many, thus, represents a strange combination of the absence and presence of the One. It can exist only because of the One’s absence, because the divine all-in-all has chosen to become transcendent (read: “absent,” “distant”) in order to allow for the existence of an “other.”
This approach too has its drawbacks. To say that we exist thanks only to God’s absence is to make us into beings who thrive on alienation from God. This flies in the face of the religious impulse to seek union (דבקות) with the divine. If I need divine absence in order to thrive, how do I keep religious passion—the desire for intimacy—from being at least half a lie?
3. Primal Pair: Chasidic Kabbalah
In a move that may be considered one of the great acts of cosmic housecleaning in the history of kabbalah, the Chasidic masters set aside all of the way stations, potencies, and symbolic configurations from the previous generations of kabbalists. These were henceforth to be considered only of psychological importance.
They emptied the cosmos of sefirot, reducing them to the first and last of its rungs, representing the primal pair: nothingness and being, emptiness and fullness, transcendence and presence. At one end of the empty cosmos stands chokhmah (divine wisdom), the first point on the map of the One’s journey into being. Here all of existence is present in the state of not-yet; chokhmah is the One out of which all being is to be. At the other end of the cosmos is malkhut (divine kingship), the world in all its fullness, the One dressed in the garb of the many, all that potential realized in concrete but ever-changing existence.
Now the task of the mystic is to reveal how the two are really one. Emptiness and fullness, the one and the many, God and world need to be unmasked as two modes of the same reality, two perceptions of the same truth. The unchanging One that underlies reality, that existed “before” it (though that priority is not truly temporal) and out of which the many emerged, stands over against the One that exists within the many, partaking fully of all the variety of life, evolving, growing, changing in each moment, borne within each being. The quest for truth is the attempt to reveal their oneness.
A Developing Narrative of Divine Creation
These mystical notions, which cover centuries of Jewish thought about creation, find their first inspiration in the midrashic observation about the opening letter of the Torah, and indeed, in the Torah’s creation narrative itself. The concerns of the kabbalists were different, of course, and they worked to balance received tradition with dynamic thought to tackle the questions about the universe that were of interest to them in their time.
We too have thoughts and questions about the universe that need to be thought through, and while we must make use of the imagery and concepts relevant to contemporary notions of science, we too can make use of the ancient wisdom of the Bible and the rabbis to help us frame a Jewish discourse.
Experiencing Divine Presence Without Compromising on Science
To be a religious person is to perceive that we exist in a world infused with divinity and to live in response to that awareness. To be a religious person in the twenty-first century is to accept the account of planetary origins provided by the astrophysicist, of life’s origins by the biochemist, and of the emergence of species by the evolutionary biologist, but to see them all as reflecting a sacred process, in our language describable as the self-manifestation of YHWH in every form of existence. This linking of the old and new accounts of origins is an essential task of a contemporary Jewish theology.
How do we embrace the scientific narrative without losing the essential value – and great spiritual power – of “God said: Let there be…?” The question of Creation must be placed front and center in any theology of Judaism in the twenty-first century. This has much to do with the ecological agenda and the key role that religion needs to play in changing our attitudes toward the world within which we humans live. Without such a change, we will wantonly destroy ourselves, as becomes more evident in the headlines from day to day.
We accept the scientiﬁc account of how we got here, or at least, we understand that the conversation about that process and its stages lies within the domain of science. Yet even if we have left behind the parent-God of childhood, the presence of divinity within nature remains essential to our perception of reality.
YHWH and Being: Mystical Panentheism
Such a divinity need not be a Being or a Mind that exists separate from the universe and acts upon it intelligently and willfully, as humans understand those terms. Instead, I prefer a mystical panentheism, namely, the belief that YHWH is present throughout all of existence, underlying and unifying all that is. At the same time—and this is panentheism (“all-in-God”) as distinct from pantheism (“all-is-God”)—this whole is mysteriously and inﬁnitely greater than the sum of its parts, and cannot be fully known or reduced to its constituent beings.
Divine transcendence, in the context of such a faith, does not refer to a God ‘‘out there’’ or ‘‘over there’’ somewhere beyond the universe, but is the mirror image of Divine immanence. YHWH—the biblical name for Israel’s God which I understand as referring to this Being—is fully and profoundly present in the here and now of each moment. There is no ultimate duality here, no ‘‘God and world,’’ no ‘‘God, world, and self,’’ but only one Being and its many faces.
This underlying oneness of being is accessible or “revealed” to human experience, but access to it requires a lifting of veils, a shifting of attention to those inner realms of human consciousness where mystics, and not a few poets and artists, have always chosen to abide. The task of theology, then, is one of reframing the accepted accounts of origins and natural history in a way that can guide us toward a more profound appreciation of that same reality, and indeed inspire us to help to preserve it.
Our Contemporary Story of Creation
If we are to recount the tale of life’s origins and development in religious language, we would come to see as a meaningful process the entire course of evolution, from the simplest life-forms millions of years ago, to the great complexity of the human brain (still now only barely understood), and proceeding onward into the unknown future.
The One extends itself into endless varieties of being, moving (though not consistently) from the simple toward forms of great complexity בגין לאשתמודע “in order to make itself manifest,” in the kabbalistic parlance. If human language were adequate to this, we would say that “it wants to become known.” This is as close as we can come to “divine speech,” and how I understand “God said…and there was” or “God looked into Torah and created the world.”
Here on this smallish planet in the middle of an otherwise undistinguished galaxy, something so astonishing has taken place that it demands to be called by the biblical term מוֹפֵת “wonder’’ rather than by the Greco-Latin φύσις/natura ‘‘nature,’’ even though the two are pointing to the exact same set of facts. The descendants of one-celled creatures grew and developed, emerged onto dry land, learned survival skills, developed language and thought, until a subset of them could reﬂect on the nature of this entire process and seek to derive meaning from it.
Kiddush: Turning a Scientific Account into a Holy Drama
I began by noting how for me, reciting part of the creation story in Kiddush every Friday night is the most personally significant ritual act in which I regularly engage as a Jew. The recitation expresses my sense of wonder and readiness to stand in awe of it all, and turns the scientific account into a holy drama.
There is indeed something ‘‘supernatural’’ about existence, something entirely out of the ordinary, beyond any easy explanation. But I understand the “supernatural” to reside wholly within the “natural.” The process may be an entirely natural one, yet by no means is something to be taken for granted, passed over as though it were not filled with mystery. The difference between the “natural” and the “supernatural” is one of perception, the degree to which our ‘‘inner eye’’ is open, to which we are fully paying attention.
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Prof. Rabbi Arthur Green was the founding dean and is currently rector of the Rabbinical School and Irving Brudnick Professor of Jewish Philosophy and Religion at Hebrew College in Newton, MA. He is Professor Emeritus at Brandeis University, where he occupied the distinguished Philip W. Lown Professorship of Jewish Thought. He holds a Ph.D. from Brandeis University and Rabbinical Ordination from the Jewish Theological Seminary of America. Green is author, editor, and translator of over twenty books, among which are Tormented Master: A Life of Rabbi Nahman of Bratslav and Keter: The Crown of God in Early Jewish Mysticism (Jewish Lights, 2013), The Light of the Eyes by R. Menaḥem Naḥum of Chernobyl (Stanford, 2021), and Judaism for the World: Reflections on God, Life, and Love (Yale, 2020), winner of the National Jewish Book Award.
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