The reciprocal transformation of matter and energy is a major theme of both modern physics and Jewish Mysticism. These thought-provoking parallels give us a holistic picture of ourselves as Jews participating in the greater universe.
Parallels of Mysticism and Science
The secularization of Western man's world viewed during the course of the 'scientific revolution' of the past three centuries has engendered a profound dichotomy between man's religious/mystical beliefs and his intellectual/scientific perspective. The dramatic discoveries in the physical sciences during this century have not as yet profoundly affected this aspect of modern man's basic weltanschauung. However, if one explores the philosophical ramifications of some of these discoveries, what emerges from this analysis is a scientific perception of the universe which has, to a great extent, converged on that of the traditional mystical viewpoint that is central to religious thought.
Matter-Energy Duality; Underlying Unity of Physical Reality
In classical mechanics, a basic distinction was maintained between matter and energy. The various manifestations of energy (electrical, chemical, thermal, gravitational, etc.) may be transformed into one another as may the various states of matter. However, the realms of matter and energy remain entirely disjointed -- each realm retains its own integrity and is subject to its own conservation law. This kind of duality of the physical (matter) as separate from the analogue of the spiritual (energy) is central to classical physics. In contrast, a cardinal tenet of modern physics is the complete unity of the universe. Matter and energy are just different manifestations of the same underlying physical reality. As predicted by Einstein's Special Theory of Relativity, matter can be transformed into energy and vice versa. Matter and energy are both manifestations of the Divine Will and can be freely interchanged and transformed
This synthesis is even more dramatically demonstrated by the theory of Quantum Electrodynamics. The picture which Quantum Electrodynamics portrays of the underlying ground of reality -- of the very nature of space itself -- is profoundly different from the static conception of classical theory. The universe is seen as continuously involved in transformations in which matter and energy are spontaneously created and destroyed. Matter in the form of particle -- antiparticle pairs instantaneously comes into being and disappears. Although this fundamental dialectic is not directly observable, its manifestations become apparent in such phenomena as vacuum polarization, Zitterbewegung (extremely high frequency oscillations in the expected value of the velocity), and the Lamb Shift -- phenomena which make Quantum Electrodynamics one of the most precisely verified theories in all of physics from an experimental standpoint.
This picture strikingly parallels the Torah perspective. In Jewish mysticism the ultimate dialectic of the physical universe is described as a continuous process of Ratzo and Shov The Ratzo signifies the mystical union of the finite with G‑d -- the loss of identity, sense of self and ultimately the voiding of the physical which accompanies a spontaneous plunge into the Infinite Transcendent Source of the universe. Shov signifies the return to physical reality, the coming back down into the material universe as a differentiated entity brought into being by the dictates of the Divine Will. Although the Torah perspective provides a far deeper insight into the dynamics of the process described (Divine purpose as opposed to spontaneous inexplicable fluctuations), at the phenomenological level the descriptions of this ultimate dialectic are remarkably close.
Of course, the ultimate unity of all things as manifestations of Divine Will is the central image of Jewish mysticism. Just as the potential for the infinite, the abstract, the amorphous -- the spiritual and its physical analogue -- energy emanates from Him, so also does the potential for the finite, the limited, the categorized -- the material. Thus the physical and spiritual, matter and energy, are both manifestations of the Divine Will underlying reality and hence can be freely interchanged and transformed. Here also, we have an almost exact parallel to the matter-energy duality of Special Relativity.
A further instance of duality which pervaded classical physics is the sharp differentiation made between the observing subject and the observed object. To classical mechanics, man -- the subjective observer -- can be idealized as being wholly apart form the object of his observation. His interactions with this object are incidental to the observing process. Man's internal, subjective life is disparate from the external, objective reality of the universe around him. This is in direct opposition to the Quantum Mechanical view. In this view such a duality no longer obtains. The observer (subject) and observed (object) can only be described as parts of a total all-encompassing system. The process of observation itself alters the state of the system -- the conditions of the very thing to be observed. Internal life and the external universe, man and his environment constitute one indissoluble entity. Any idealized separation, any duality so distorts the actual situation as to make the resulting system meaningless. Internal life & the external universe, man & his environment constitute one indissoluble entity
In Jewish Mystical Philosophy there is a similar profoundly holistic image of man as part of the plenum of reality. To some extent this is expressed by the microcosm-macrocosm apposition in which the universe -- the macrocosm -- is regarded as a reflection and manifestation of the archetype -- man -- while simultaneously man reflects and manifests the structure of the universe. The theory underlying this reciprocal relationship is that every aspect of the universe is a revelation of Divine creative energies. Hence at every level of the cosmogenic process there is expressed the pattern of the same primal Divine creative energies -- a "homoeomorphism" -- at the level of the individual, human society and the totality of the universe.
Outer and Inner Environment: A Reflexive Relationship
Another major way in which Jewish mysticism vitiates the artificial subject-object distinctions is in its representation of man as the one who internalizes his environment. Man cannot remain a separate, objective observer. He internalizes all external experiences to which he is exposed and incorporates them into his very being. Man's actions profoundly affect on a physical as well as metaphysical level the very nature of the world around him
When exposed to the potential for evil in the world man does not remain aloof. He assimilates part of that evil within himself, thus making his efforts to overcome his grosser nature that much more difficult. The nature of the environment within which man lives profoundly affects his perception and understanding of the world around him. On the other hand, man's actions -- the manner in which he comports himself in his world -- profoundly affect on a physical as well as metaphysical level the very nature of the world around him.
In marked contrast to most mystical systems, Jewish mysticism is profoundly action oriented. The most exalted flights of metaphysical speculation, the most sublime states of ecstatic mystical union are a valueless perversion of mans purpose if they are not coupled with a B'chein -- a constructive, practical consequence with respect to man's life and relationships in the here and now -- the material world around him. Whether it is to sensitize him in his relationships with his fellow man or to re-inspire him to higher devotion to his Creator through his actions (mitzvot) on this world, some positive behavioral modification is of crucial importance. Man, the internal subject, and his universe, the external object, must become a synthesized whole.
[Condensed from the original article and reprinted with kind permission from B'Or HaTorah vol. I (1982), pp. 35-40]