When mysticism becomes science

Traditionally, Jewish thinkers were divided into two categories: philosophers and mystics.

From Kabbalah to Avoidance (photo credit: Courtesy)
From Kabbalah to Avoidance
(photo credit: Courtesy)
Over the last two centuries the role of science in society has changed dramatically. It left the closed doors of universities and became public. But it has also undergone qualitative changes.
We can call the science from before the 20th century “the science of common sense.” But the new physics of the 20th century – quantum physics, relativity, information theory – took us beyond logical reasoning. We cannot comprehend four-dimensional space-time. We cannot comprehend that time is relative. We cannot comprehend that a particle can be in different space points simultaneously. There are no proven explanations for these phenomena.
The principal difference between Kabbalah and science are their objects of consideration. Science deals with our universe, whereas the Kabbalah considers it just a part of the whole creation. Consequently, the Kabbalah explores not just the interactions between the entities of our universe, like science, but also their relationship with their source. This is a game-changer. I will expand on this idea in further posts.
Traditionally, Jewish thinkers were divided into two categories: philosophers and mystics.
Jewish philosophy flourished in the yeshivas of Babylon. One of the most prominent figures from the Babylonian yeshivas was Saadia ben Yosef (Saadia Gaon), who wrote the book Beliefs and Opinions. After the demise of the Babylonian Jewish communities, the philosophical tradition was continued by Spanish Jewry. From there came Yehuda HaLevi, Abraham ibn Ezra, and finally, the greatest of all, Moshe ben Maimon (Maimonides), who wrote The Guide for the Perplexed in the 12th century.
Jewish mysticism is much older than this. It was born together with Judaism and never ceased to exist. The basic book of the Kabbalah, Sefer Yetzira, is attributed to our forefather Abraham. In the 1st century CE, another seminal work of Kabbalah was produced. It was Bahir, attributed to Rabbi Nehunia ben Hakanna.
The original Kabbalah was born in 12th-century Provence. The most prominent Kabbalists of that time were Abraham ben David and Isaac the Blind. After that, it flourished in Spain and culminated in the publication of Zohar by Moses de Lyon in the 13th century. Following the expulsion of Jews from Spain in the late 15th century, the center of Kabbalistic thought moved to Safed in Northern Israel.
Yitzhak Luria (Ari HaKodesh), Moshe Cordovero, Yosef Caro, Haim Vital, and many others produced their works there. From the 18th century, the Kabbalistic tradition was carried forward by hassidic masters.
It’s important to note that while Jewish philosophers were scientifically educated people, mystics were either unfamiliar with science or even suspicious of it. They derived their ideas from the Holy Scripture and mystical revelations.
The word mystical translates from Latin as “anti-scientific, irrational.” But from my point of view, the science of the 21st century can also be considered mystical and irrational. Studying Kabbalah and science, I came to the conclusion that the Kabbalistic view of creation deeply resonates with the theories of contemporary science and thus may bring insights into its conundrums.
I elaborate on this idea in my book Infinity to Man. Writing it was an experiment. I attempted to show that people who were unfamiliar with science and deriving their ideas solely from the Holy Scripture and mystical revelations have produced a teaching that can deepen our understanding of contemporary scientific challenges.
The author writes Torah commentaries on Chabad.org and leads a blog on Kabbalah and Science. He is the author of From Infinity to Man: Basic Ideas of Kabbalah within the Frame of Information Theory and Quantum Physics, and Travels with Sushi in the Land of Mind.