Friday, June 1, 2007 | return to: arts


Reconciling Genesis and the Big Bang — with the help of Kabbalah

by aron rivin, j. intern

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A few years back — no, strike that. At the beginning of time, there was a tiny little dot, and it was so loaded with energy that when it exploded, it created the universe.

And then there was light.

Depending on your spiritual leanings, that first moment in time may have been either a godly act or a gravitational singularity; it's rare you see it described as both.

But according to Howard Smith, an astrophysicist at the Harvard-Smithsonian Center for Astrophysics, it's not necessary to choose one explanation over the other. In his new book, "Let There Be Light: Modern Cosmology and Kabbalah," Smith argues that science and religion are more compatible than people tend to think.

The book, published by New World Library, draws parallels between Kabbalah's interpretation of Genesis and the Big Bang theory. The two accounts have some interesting correlations: Each suggests in its own terms that the universe wasn't always around; that it had a beginning, a time when it was an infinitesimally small point; and that at that time there was total unity. They even agree that light from the beginning of time ("cosmic microwave background radiation," in scientific terms) still permeates our universe.

It's fascinating stuff, educational at worst and mind-bending at best, but there's a hitch: You've got to be able to get through it.

In the book's preface, the author says that it is "deliberately not a scholarly work." Then, on page six, we're greeted with something straight out of a doctoral thesis foreshadowing otherwise: "In the following pages," Smith writes, "I will present a harmonized account in which religion and science form an alliance that looks beyond literal interpretations to conceptual intent in a mutually enriching synthesis intended to further our understanding of the creation of the universe."

Over the next 210 pages, Smith waxes quasi-academic, "explicating" with examples (and "exemplars") he thinks will help the general public understand things like bosons, leptons and quark-gluon plasma. His abbreviated explanations are intended to make things easier on the reader, but they're nearly as detailed as a textbook.

On the other hand, the portions on Kabbalah are vague and underrepresented in a work meant to draw on both religion and science. Estimating roughly, "Light" is probably one quarter Kabbalah, three quarters science.

Readers shouldn't come to Smith's book seeking any trace of traditional Judaism (other than perhaps its values on intellectualism and spiritual awareness). Kabbalah, Chassidic Judaism's cryptic offshoot, is presented alone, detached from any relation to mainstream religion.

And while the Zohar and other kabbalist works aren't meant to be literal or to make sense immediately — they're "esoteric on purpose," Smith writes — the book's presentation of some of Kabbalah's most basic symbols and metaphors remain inaccessible for the "uninitiated."

Which brings up an important issue: The "uninitiated" will most likely include the majority of Jewish readers. Jews probably won't identify with the mysticism in the book unless they've been previously schooled on it, so an idea like the Four Worlds will probably sound a lot like an arcane ancient myth.

The book would have been aided by a bit of human history — stories about the physicists mentioned, maybe — to give readers a dose of the imaginable along with the unimaginable. It's baffling that the author lets his ideas float so completely in abstraction, considering that a stated goal was to address science's meaning to mankind.

While "Light" fails to provoke rapid page-turning, the ideas and images beneath the lifeless prose make it stimulating on a different level. Readers will be forced to try to imagine a stage before the Big Bang, the edges of existence, and whether other universes might exist.

But without reflections on human history or the present, personal anecdotes, or even background information on the annals of Kabbalah, the only real stories here are of baryons and fermions, strong and weak forces, sefirot and other obscure abstractions.

The most beautiful idea in the book comes when Smith interrupts his lecture for a moment, writing: "Stop reading for one moment, please. Notice where you are and sense the warmth of your skin. Remember that you are surrounded by the radiation of the Creation, the cosmic microwave background radiation, and although it is far too gentle to feel, it fills your room, and you are bathed in its glow."

As an author, Howard Smith is no Stephen Hawking (and Hawking is no William Faulkner), but the universe is endlessly beautiful and endlessly interesting, and even a dull writer can't change that. This book is proof.

"Let There Be Light: Modern Cosmology and Kabbalah,"
by Howard Smith (280 pages, New World Library, $15.95)


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