Daily Israel Report

Judaism: Albert Einstein and the Parsha

There is a connection. Read on.
Published: Friday, August 08, 2014 5:46 PM


For the last 90 years, there has been an argument raging among physicists. The positions were first expressed by the greats of physics of the 20th century: in this corner Niels Bohr, and in that corner, none other than Albert Einstein.

After Werner Heisenberg first proposed his uncertainty principle, the great Bohr toiled endlessly to come up with a theory to explain experimental results that came streaming in. Heisenberg had found that one could not simultaneously measure the position and momentum/velocity of an electron- hence, uncertainty. As more and more “weird” results poured in- weird by the standard of Newtonian physics, and everyday “common sense”- Bohr came up with what has become known as the Copenhagen interpretation of quantum mechanics.

Based on the work of Heisenberg, Max Born and others, Bohr could only explain the experimental results and their explanations if “there is no quantum reality beyond what is revealed by an act of measurement or observation. Hence it is meaningless to say, for example, that an electron exists somewhere independent of an actual observation”(Manjit Kumar, in Quantum: Einstein, Bohr and the Great Debate about the Nature of Reality, p.376).

Problem is, Bohr and Heisenberg were not the most humble of personalities. Bohr said that his theory of quantum mechanics was “complete”, allowing no other interpretation. Subsequently, for the next  70 years, no competing theory was “politically correct “ in scientific circles; anyone thinking otherwise was ostracized - and simply not funded with research grants, the scientific kiss of death.

Worse, as with Darwin’s theory of evolution, lesser minds and those with agendas took the theory way beyond quantum mechanics. Even if true on the quantum level, the idea that the world around us lacks reality is highly dangerous. Thus:”If I can’t see the electron, it doesn’t exist” led to “if I can’t see the human soul, or G-d, then the soul and He don’t exist”.

If the big, macro world has no reality anyway, why not steal, cheat, lie or murder. Small wonder that Heisenberg, who had no trouble acknowledging the collaboration of others in his work, later stole the ideas of Jewish physicist (and refugee from Nazi Germany) Lise Meitner, and then himself collaborated with the Nazis in their atomic bomb program. With no observable soul nor G-d, it’s not hard to take the next step and work for Adolf Hitler, may his memory be erased.

Thus it was that there was only one man on earth who could have stood up against this tide. Derided as “over the hill’ and senile, Albert Einstein famously said (probably in another context) that “G-d does not play dice” with Creation. More to the point was his comment:” Does the moon exist only when you look at it?”. Einstein had a context he was dealing from, and it’s a very Jewish one: the world we see has reality, and that reality is “governed by causal laws that it was the job of the physicist to discover” (Kumar, p. 352).

If the Copenhagen interpretation led to the conclusion that nothing in this universe has existence while not being observed, Einstein felt that it could not be a “complete” theory; it had to be missing some essential piece/s that had not yet been discovered.

Where did Einstein get this belief? Certainly, from classical Newtonian physics. But Judaism, of course, has its pillar in The Existence, of an Invisible, Unobservable Primal Existence, G-d. And as we’ve seen, Einstein certainly believed in such a G-d (One who does not play dice).

Moreover, it is possible that he was somewhat familiar with German Rabbi Shimshon Raphael Hirsch. At the very beginning of his magnum opus, his commentary on the Bible, Rav Hirsch comments on: “In the beginning, the Lord created heaven (שמים, shamayim) and earth”. The word for the heavens, shamayim, has as its root “sham”, the word for “there”, pure being, existence. Rav Hirsch says that in this first verse of the Torah, the Almighty promises mankind that it need not doubt the existence of the Universe he sees about him- it IS real.

This Hirschian idea may have been bandied about in the geographical area in which Einstein lived, and he may have heard it, even if not in the name of Rav Hirsch.

The fascinating part of this story is that Einstein was knowledgeable in other fields, including modern psychology. One argument he used against the Copenhagen interpretation was firmly grounded in experimental psychology: humans only “see” according to their preconceived notions, their “theories”. In his book How We Decide, Jonah Lehrer discusses this point extensively. Lehrer cites the example of the “conceptia”, the preconceived ideas limiting the vision of the Israeli General Staff in the months leading up to the Yom Kippur War. As a physician, I know that if I view the patient’s story (or the way he/she presents it) with doubt, I could easily look at their XRay and never see a fracture that is clearly visible to the radiologist who never talked to the patient. Thus, its existence could not depend on “seeing” an electron: if one’s preconception was that the electron did not exist, one would never see it, or any other variables hidden by the theory.

What does all this have to do with our Parsha, Ve'etchanan?   

First, again and again, this Parsha stresses, as Rav Matis Weinberg notes, SEEING:

“You SAW with your own eyes what G-d did in the matter of Ba’al Peor..   (Devarim 4; 2);

“You have been made to SEE, to know that G-d- He is G-d… (Devarim4; 35);

“Indeed, G-d has allowed us to SEE” (Devarim 5; 24). Other examples abound. I previously quoted Rav Weinberg on the correlation of seeing the whole picture in relation to this Parsha’s two covenants, that of the Land and that of the Torah; one sees a whole picture, at once, and so omitting any part of either covenant is a fundamental mistake (“Do not omit any clauses to the words of Torah law”-Dvarim 4; 2).

Here, Rav Weinberg “sees” a whole different lesson. For this Parsha not only mentions Torah and Ten Commandments; it also stresses idolatry, Avoda Zara-and idolatry is nothing except preconceived notions and projections of self. Man has a mental picture of a god - be it golden calf, Pe’or, dollar bill, communism,or Triangles( “If triangles invented a god, they would make him three-sided”; Montesquieu) - and he goes out and makes that god the context of his entire life.

Rav Weinberg stresses that this is what the Rambam refers to in Hilchot Teshuvah, when in the beginnings of chapters 5 and 7 he refers to Reshut, license. “רשות לכל אדם ניתנה”, permission is given to every man to build his own little world. Man’s little preconceptions  and delusions will work for awhile, but eventually they catch up with him, as G-d has enough of these fixed delusions and removes that fellow from His world.

What is the answer to these notions and idolatries? Parshat Ve'etchanan always follows Tisha B’Av (the fast of the 9th of Av) The Talmud introduces the story of the Exile and Tisha B’Av with Rav Yochanan’s dictum: the destruction of Jerusalem is an example of the verse in Proverbs (28; 14) ;"Fortunate is the man who always fears the consequences of his actions; and he that hardens his heart will come to harm’”(Gittin 55b). He is saying that instead of fixed, preconceptions, a person needs to always fear that his ideas and actions could be wrong.

This self-correcting behavior is proper in science , and in life in general. Einstein knew the philosophy of science well enough: all progress in human knowledge has come about from questioning the given notions of the time, just as he, Einstein, had attacked Newtonian physics as being an “incomplete” theory.

So too, Israel, in its long historical march toward perfection, must be willing to question what we do and think, and humble enough to admit that we have failed up to now. If all our Yeshivot have not brought Moshiach; if all our peace processes have brought nothing but war, and certainly no light to the nations (Devarim 4;6-8); then we must be doing something wrong.

Progress will only come when we break out of our preconceived Avodot Zara (idolatries and self-projections) and be open to correction and life-giving Teshuva.