Author’s note: If you work in Human Resources, I would much prefer you check out my website first. This essay, which comes up on the first page of results if you Google my name, was written as part of my conversion to Judaism, and I’m happy to share it with you after you get to know me professionally.
Where Albert Einstein studied physics in order to understand the physical world, Jews, and in particular Kabbalists, turn to metaphysical study to understand the greatest mystery of life — consciousness. In his biography of the physicist, Ronald W. Clark posits, “It is interesting to speculate on what might have happened to biology in the twentieth century had Einstein decided to turn his genius towards the animate rather than the inanimate world.” By comparing Einstein’s study of physics with mystical study of Torah and Talmud on superficial, structural, and spiritual levels, I aim to show how Judaism has always been researching this field, by seeking to answer that question that only comes with consciousness: What is my purpose?
Some of Einstein’s greatest contributions to science, including his Theories of Special and General Relativity, are the direct product of what he called his “thought experiments.” In these thought experiments, Einstein would imagine himself in impossible theoretical scenarios in 3D space, such as pursuing a beam of light at the speed of light in a vacuum (“Einstein’s thought experiments”). Anecdotally, it is reported that Einstein would enter a trance-like state during these experiments, from which he could not be disturbed. Scientifically, it is reported that he conducted these experiments by inducing a kind of creative cognition known as Janusian thinking, wherein the practitioner considers two antithetical concepts simultaneously. It is not a trance state, but Einstein’s own description of the discovery of his Theory of General Relativity — “At that point there came to me the happiest thought of my life” — reveals a sudden “creative leap of thought” rather than a progressive development of the theory (Rothenberg 39).
At a superficial level, Einstein’s thought experiments can resemble Kabbalistic trance and ecstasy, and indeed has led to speculative confusion of the two. In a theological approach to understanding mysticism, the ecstatic experience imparts knowledge of God and the metaphysical world to the person who experiences it (Arzy and Idel 6). Rabbi Moshe Cordovero defined a Maggid in contrast to demonic possession, writing “similarly an angel may enter man and speak within him words of wisdom, and this what is generally called Maggid” (Arzy and Idel 92). It is not difficult for one to see how Einstein, engrossed in consideration of long ago-memorized equations and models, mirrors the sleepless recitation of the Mishnah from memory, which triggered a psychological state attributed to Maggidic possession in Rabbi Joseph Karo at the end of the Medieval period in Israel (Arzy and Idel 94). Although Einstein’s ability to engage in deep thought and seemingly emerge with answers about the universe have led to conspiracy theories about revelations by cosmic or alien sources (“The Einstein Factor”), he himself constantly stressed that he arrived at his conclusions logically.
A hallmark of ecstatic experience is that it “involves a moment of dramatic shift or change in the experience of self” (Arzy and Idel 31), as opposed to a slow attainment of a mindset resulting in revelation of wisdom over time. The concept of a paradigm shift was, interestingly, first introduced by Thomas Kuhn, another Jewish physicist, and has implications for both science and consciousness. Structurally, there is a need for some balance between paradigm shifts and accumulated knowledge in both. If the paradigm shifts too frequently in science, new developments start to lose credibility and the scientific community risks phenomena like the denial of climate change. If the paradigm of our consciousness shifts too rapidly, we can lose touch with reality, a danger vividly illustrated in S. Ansky’s play The Dybbuk. The student Khonen is consumed by Kabbalistic ecstasy, his mental fortitude is eroded, and he passes away when he learns of his beloved’s engagement to another man, the final blow.
It is also implied by definition that the paradigm shifts away from some previously held belief, thus necessitating an existing canon. New information is defined as correct by its relativity to the old information we collectively reject. Furthermore, once the paradigm has shifted, new information becomes part of the canonical belief system of a society. This duality also exists in most major religions, but in Judaism, we have clear, visual evidence in the pages of the Talmud. The accumulation of wisdom is apparent in the ringed commentary that spirals outward from oldest to newest, but that commentary is itself derived in part from mystical experiences of Jews who were considering previous commentary, and often creates a shift in the understanding of the passage overall.
Einstein’s scientific knowledge shaped his spirituality. In his own words, as a precocious child, he early on “reached the conviction that much of the stories in the Bible could not be true” (Clark 36), and in his writings about his own theology, he “cannot conceive of a God who rewards and punishes his creatures, or has a will of the type of which we are conscious in ourselves” (Einstein 15). However, Einstein was still in his own way deeply religious, and as Clark summarizes, conceived of God “as the physical world itself, … operating at atomic level with the beauty of a craftsman’s wristwatch, and at stellar level with the majesty of a massive cyclotron” (38). His spirituality likewise motivated his study of physics, believing that there was some intelligent design underlying the universe, a “sublimity and marvelous order which reveal themselves both in nature and in the world of thought” (Einstein 35). He explicitly verbalized this once to a friend, saying of his research, “I want to know how God created this world” (Clark 37).
Einstein sought to answer the questions of how and why the physical world operates as it does. Present day research of how consciousness operates is being conducted in part by computer scientists, of all people. The artificial intelligence and machine learning models that come closest are extremely opaque and work by mimicking the behavior of neurons in the brain, and still fall very short of true consciousness. Similarly, cognitive scientists — working in a range of fields including psychology, psychiatry, neurology, and others — have found promising candidates for human-like consciousness in dolphins, chimpanzees, apes, and elephants, to name a few, but would also be the first to caution against anthropomorphizing those animals. The question of why humans are endowed with consciousness has likely been pondered by every living human who is emotionally or developmentally able, most likely at a time when that endowment felt more like an affliction. Certainly, beasts are fruitful and multiply without ever having to shoulder the burden of existential dread.
A religious explanation for consciousness already provided by Judaism for centuries is that humans are “chosen.” In one essay, Einstein describes a “cosmic religious feeling” that is “very difficult to explain … to anyone who is entirely without it” (Einstein 35), but missed a great deal in his physicist’s conception of an unfeeling, unthinking God, of which “…all the systematic thinking and acting of human beings is an utterly insignificant reflection” (Einstein 38). Our consciousness is the mark of our partnership with God. Moreover, with consciousness, we are granted conscience; we have the ability to be critical of ourselves and our environment, and the free will to choose to do good intentionally rather than by pure chaos. When a person experiences the cosmic feeling, “He looks upon individual existence as a sort of prison and wants to experience the universe as a single significant whole” (Einstein 35). Although, “there is nothing divine about morality, it is a purely human affair” (Einstein 38), it’s our uniquely human ability to understand and be kind to one another that brings us together, and closer to experiencing the wholeness of the universe.
Throughout his writing, Einstein frequently cites science as a means to ignite the cosmic feeling. “To be sure,” though, he writes, “it is not the fruits of scientific research that elevate a man and enrich his nature, but the urge to understand, the intellectual work” (Einstein 17). This is well and good for Einstein, who had a large body of scientific information to ponder, but for Jewish mystics, who have a large body of religious information to ponder, study of Torah and Talmud might work more effectively. In both, it is not the work produced, but the act of studying, that evokes the cosmic feeling and imbues a sense of purpose, which starts to answer the why and how of whatever subject one chooses to study.
Ansky, S. “The Dybbuk.” The Dybbuk and the Yiddish Imagination: A Haunted Reader, edited by Joachim Neugroschel, Syracuse University Press, 2000, pp. 3–52.
Arzy, Shahar, and Moshe Idel. Kabbalah: A Neurocognitive Approach to Mystical Experiences. Yale University Press, 2015.
Clark, Ronald William. Einstein: The Life and Times. Harper Collins, 1999.
Einstein, Albert. The World as I See It. Filiquarian Pub., LLC, 2006.
“The Einstein Factor.” Ancient Aliens, written by W. Scott Goldie, Richard Monahan, and Beata Ziel, The History Channel, 2013.
“Einstein’s Thought Experiments.” Wikipedia, Wikimedia Foundation, 10 Sept. 2018, en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Einstein%27s_thought_experiments.
Rothenberg, Albert. “Einstein’s Creative Thinking and the General Theory of Relativity: A Documented Report.” American Journal of Psychiatry, vol. 136, no. 1, 1979, pp. 38–43., doi:10.1176/ajp.136.1.38.