I tend to follow with great interest any news that comes out about particle physics, mostly because I am fascinated by things which we cannot see, yet are fundamental to understanding our world. But also, I love the theoretical aspects of math and physics that speak to the great theological questions that continue to pester us, even as we discover ever more about Creation. Subatomic particles always bring me back to God.
There was a piece of news two weeks ago from the Large Hadron Collider at CERN (Conseil Européen pour la Recherche Nucléaire) in Switzerland. The Large Hadron Collider, a 27-km circular particle accelerator 100 meters underground outside of Geneva, was the international research facility that demonstrated the existence of the elusive Higgs boson in 2012. Without getting too technical, the Higgs boson is a subatomic particle whose existence had been predicted more than 50 years ago by a British theoretical physicist named Peter Higgs, but since the theory indicated that it would decay in a ten-sextillionth (10^-22 or 0.0000000000000000000001) of a second, it would be very hard to demonstrate that it exists. However, as a key particle in the so-called Standard Model of particle physics, proving its existence was extremely important to scientists in the field. The Large Hadron Collider, at a cost of about $10 billion, was built largely (!) to pursue the mysterious Higgs; finding it would effectively “prove” the Standard Model and thus allow many physicists to sleep comfortably at night.
Scientists were so confident in 2013 that they had witnessed the presence of the Higgs in the data obtained from the LHC that they took the accelerator out of service for two years to do some repair work. It came back on line in 2015, and just a few weeks ago, scientists working at CERN went public with a new discovery: yet another, newly-discovered, as-yet-unnamed and -untheorized mystery particle, perhaps a cousin to the Higgs.
What is captivating about all this to me is that in 2013, everything seemed hunky-dory in the field of physics. Big questions were answered. Great theories were proven. Some have referred to the Higgs boson as “the God particle,” because the idea was that once it was discovered, all questions would be laid to rest.
But that did not happen; not all questions were answered. Apparently, the Standard Model predicts many things about matter, but there are others to which there are no answers. (They are too far beyond the scope of this derashah for me to explain.) But that is what makes it interesting.
Are we getting closer to unlocking all of the secrets that God’s Creation has for us? Or is it possible that each door unlocked will lead to another door, which is still locked, and will require many more years and billions of dollars to unlock?
In my first year at Cornell, I read a short story by Franz Kafka called Before the Law. In it, an unidentified man comes from the country to seek the law, and is met by a gatekeeper. The gatekeeper refuses to let the man through the gate toward the law, but tells him that after the first gate is another gate with another gatekeeper and after that another and another, and each gate is even harder to enter. The man spends his entire life trying to gain access. At the end of his life, as the man is dying, the gatekeeper reveals that the gate was created only for him, and it will now be permanently closed. The man has failed.
When I think of the high-level and extraordinarily expensive research that must be surmounted in order to get answers to truly fundamental questions, I think of Kafka’s series of gates that are nearly inaccessible, and each one is harder to enter. And that, of course, brings me back to God.
Kafka, of course, was Jewish, and grew up in a household that knew Judaism; his father was a shohet (kosher butcher). Although he never wrote about Judaism explicitly in his work, this story to me sounds very Jewish. The man strives for entry to the law (i.e. the Torah) for his entire life, but never succeeds; we too strive to live the ideals and mitzvot of Judaism, and we always miss the mark. Part of the drama of the High Holidays is the acknowledgment that each of us has failed in one way or another; each of us is flawed.
But the series of increasingly challenging gates speaks to me of the way that I approach God. God is not provable by any theory or evidence, and that’s OK. God can live comfortably alongside the so-called God particle, the Big Bang, evolution, and so forth, because that is not the way God works. Does knowing where we come from and how subatomic particles behave answer the really important questions, like, “How do I find meaning in my life?” or “How do I make responsible choices in my interpersonal relationships?” No.
Knowing God and understanding the laws of physics are fundamentally different questions. But they are equally challenging in a way that highlights the impossibility of ever arriving at the conclusion. Just as understanding subatomic particles will be an infinite task, so too will our understanding of God.
God is elusive, and sometimes the more we uncover, the more we see that there is even more to know. And yet, we continue to strive for holiness, to seek God wherever Godliness might be found.
Some of us look at those who are deeper and more rigorous in our observance of religious tradition and think, “That guy – he must understand Judaism and God. He’s got it all figured out.” But you’ll have to trust me when I say, it doesn’t quite work that way. We all continue to seek, no matter where we are on the spectrum of Jewish knowledge or traditional practice. And we all return to the same fundamental questions, for which there will never be complete answers. And the whole array of Torah and our tradition remains before us to dig into along our journeys.
And this brings me back to Parashat Shemot, and in particular a passage that has captivated me since childhood. It comes from the episode with the burning bush (Ex. 3:13-14):
וַיֹּאמֶר מֹשֶׁה אֶל-הָאֱ-לֹהִים, הִנֵּה אָנֹכִי בָא אֶל-בְּנֵי יִשְׂרָאֵל, וְאָמַרְתִּי לָהֶם, אֱ-לֹהֵי אֲבוֹתֵיכֶם שְׁלָחַנִי אֲלֵיכֶם; וְאָמְרוּ-לִי מַה-שְּׁמוֹ, מָה אֹמַר אֲלֵהֶם. יד וַיֹּאמֶר אֱ-לֹהִים אֶל-מֹשֶׁה, אֶהְיֶה אֲשֶׁר אֶהְיֶה; וַיֹּאמֶר, כֹּה תֹאמַר לִבְנֵי יִשְׂרָאֵל, אֶהְיֶה, שְׁלָחַנִי אֲלֵיכֶם.
Moses said to God, “When I come to the Israelites and say to them, ‘The God of your fathers has sent me to you,’ and they ask me, ‘What is His name?’ what shall I say to them?” And God said to Moses, “Ehyeh asher ehyeh.” He continued, “Thus shall you say to the Israelites, ‘Ehyeh sent me to you.’” (New JPS)
Call me Ehyeh-asher-ehyeh, says God. “I am what I am.” We might expect this from Popeye, but not from God.
What does it mean? What does it tell us about who or what God is, about the nature of the Divine? Is God merely ducking the question, knowing that in 5776 / 2016 we’d still be asking?
The great Hasidic rabbi, Rabbi Levi Yitzhaq of Berdychiv (Ukraine, 1740-1809) reads this as future tense, “I will be what I will be.” It is as if God is saying, don’t try to pin me down; you cannot fully understand me, and the same will be true effectively forever.
I suppose what was always the most fascinating thing about this line is the translation itself. When I was in Hebrew school, I was taught that “ehyeh” is future tense – I will be – and therefore goes with R. Levi Yitzhaq.
But actually, Hebrew grammar freaks like me know that although modern Hebrew has a tense structure that accords with European languages (past, present, and future), ancient Hebrew does not actually work that way. The Hebrew of the Torah, if you can believe this, has no tense! It has only moods. Those moods are perfect and imperfect. Perfect refers to actions which have been completed; imperfect refers to things that have not yet been completed. Both of these moods can refer to actions in the past, present, or future; although mood can sometimes suggest tense, tense is not intrinsic to the mood.
“Ehyeh” is imperfect. It is an incompleteness, past, present, or future. It might suggest “This is what I am right now, but I will be something different in the future,” or “This is what I will begin to be when we get there.” It could even suggest, “This is what I was being, but I have since changed.”
“Ehyeh asher ehyeh” is a layer of incompleteness on top of incompleteness. It says, “Not only have I not completed who I am right now, but even in the future I will not have even begun to be established.” It’s like Churchill’s statement on the Soviet Union: it was (perfect mood, BTW) “a riddle wrapped in a mystery inside an enigma.”
God is in an imperfect mood. God is not complete. God is still, even today, fashioning God’s self.
This is an imperfect world, and there is much work to do before we achieve perfection of any kind. Maybe it will never arrive, but we first must acknowledge this. That’s the meaning of “Ehyeh.”
Back to the Times story on the exciting, new boson, cousin to the God particle, the Higgs: the reporter who covered this revelation described the discovery of the Higgs as “not the end of physics,” but rather, “the end of the beginning.” This research is in the imperfect mood. Just as physicists will continue to dig deeper to find more answers, and even more unanswered questions, so too will we continue to attempt to enter one gate after another in search of God, in our quest for Torah, in our journey to ourselves. Kafka and the Higgs boson suggest that this search will never be over; our task is to keep looking.
Rabbi Seth Adelson
(Originally delivered at Congregation Beth Shalom, Shabbat morning, 1/2/2016.)
2 replies on “Bosons, Kafka, and God – Shemot 5776”
Absolutely beautiful. Particle physics, Franz Kafka, and Hebrew grammar: what more could anyone want?
Wonderful insight including a great history lesson.
Well done !