Primordial Serpent — the Incurable Atomist

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Now the Serpent was more cunning than any beast of the field which the Eternal God had made. (Genesis 3:1)

When God placed Adam in the Garden of Eden, He issued a decree:

And the Eternal God commanded the man, saying: “Of every tree of the garden thou mayest freely eat.” (Genesis 2:16)

Having commanded man to eat from every tree of the garden, including the Tree of Life and the Tree of Knowledge, God qualified His command:

“but of the tree of the knowledge of good and evil, thou shalt not eat of it; for in the day that thou eatest thereof thou shalt surely die.” (Genesis 2:17)

There appears to be some dissonance between verses 16 and 17. Verse 16 uses two words, akhol tokhel, each of which shares the same root, alef-khof-lamed, meaning “to eat.” In Hebrew, such repetition indicates particular emphasis on the word, making it imperative. The usual translation, “you may freely eat,” however, does not convey this imperative and should be replaced by “you shall eat” or, at least, “you may surely eat.” This may be interpreted as a positive commandment to eat from “every tree of the garden,” which included the Tree of Knowledge. This positive commandment seems to undermine the following prohibition, in verse 17, of eating from the Tree of Knowledge. If we read the two verses together and consider the second as the qualifier of the first, there is no contradiction. That said, some commentators resolve this seeming contradiction by explaining that Adam and Eve would have been allowed to eat from that tree as well, but only several hours later, with the commencement of Shabbat. (See my essay “Why the first humans were not allowed to eat from the Tree of Knowledge”) Thus, verse 17 is not a permanent injunction, but only a temporary one.

Why didn’t God want the first humans to eat from the Tree of Knowledge right away, but rather to wait until Shabbat?

The Tree of Life and the Tree of Knowledge represent two alternative views of the world: holistic and atomistic. The Tree of Life represents the holistic view that everything comes from God and that everything is one. This is why, in the quantum metaphor we discussed in the chapter “The Tree of Life and Wave Mechanics,” the Tree of Life is a metaphor for a wave function―a holistic mathematical representation of the state of a system. The Tree of Knowledge, on the other hand, represents the atomistic view of the world, where the emphasis is on the details, as expressed in wave-particle duality.

The obvious advantage of the holistic view of the world is in the emphasis on the underlying unity of the creation, which reflects the absolute unity of the Creator. However, for better or worse, this world is the world of multiplicity, with myriad particles, stars, forms of life, and more. The Torah itself acknowledges this multiplicity by revealing that the world was created with the Divine name Elokim, whose plural form hints on the interface between one Creator and a plurality of creations. The holistic view, while focusing on the underlying unity of creation, misses all these details and multiplicity―it is a bird’s-eye view from 20,000 feet in the air. It is akin to the naïve view of children who, unable to dissect and analyze what they see, take in the world with their senses holistically, without analysis or judgment.

Did God want humans to maintain this childish naïveté? Apparently not, as we see from His intention to allow humans a taste of the Tree of Knowledge at a later point in time. The Tree of Knowledge represents the opposite atomistic view, with its focus on the detail. Everything is dissected into constituent parts; everything is analyzed; every word is judged; every statement deliberated upon. The advantage of this approach is the ability to zoom in on details and accumulate knowledge about the constituent parts of the world, its distinct forms and phenomena, and the various laws that govern them. This is indeed the pursuit of science. The emphasis on the particulars is the reason we might associate the Tree of Knowledge with particles in wave-particle dualism. The flip side of this coin is a sense of lost unity —of disintegration of our perception of reality and the fragmentation of consciousness. The danger is in the proverbial losing sight of the forest for the trees.

The dichotomy between the Tree of Life and the Tree of Knowledge is the dichotomy between the klal (the general) and the prat (the particular) modes of Torah interpretation. (For the discussion of klal-prat dynamics, see my essay, “Tzitzit, Korach, and Wave-Particle Duality”) The ideal way to learn is to start with the klal (general), to absorb the sense of unity and godliness of the Torah, then to proceed to the prat (particulars), whereby over time one can develop skills in learning Torah, the splitting-hairs style of Talmudic argumentation, and the ability to derive details from first principles. Only then can one come back to appreciate the klal (general) on a completely different level―integrating the details into a cohesive whole and rediscovering the underlying unity in all its intricacies and specifics.[1]

We have a vivid example of these two modes of learning Torah in the two Talmuds―the Jerusalem Talmud (Talmud Yerushalmi, compiled in the Holy Land and completed sometime in the late fourth or early fifth century) and the Babylonian Talmud (Talmud Bavli, compiled in the third to sixth centuries in Babylon). The Jerusalem Talmud is concise. The law is set forth without much deliberation. The sages of the Holy Land, who compiled the Jerusalem Talmud, understood Torah clearly and had no need for lengthy debates. The Babylonian Talmud, on the other hand, is much longer and more complex, replete with tortuous debates and lengthy deliberations. The reason for this is that the sages who compiled the Babylonian Talmud lived in exile. Nothing was taken for granted, and everything was questioned, having to be discovered from the first principles. Often, the sages of the Babylonian Talmud arrived at conclusions identical to those in the Jerusalem Talmud but much more circuitously.

However, the Babylonian Talmud has a unique advantage over the Jerusalem Talmud―the questioning, arguments, deliberations, need for proof, and digressions ―all of this―uncovered a depth of Torah that we don’t find in the Jerusalem Talmud. The Babylonian Talmud is now referred to as simply “the Talmud,” in that it is the only Talmud studied in Yeshivot (the academies of Torah learning). Besides rulings on ritual law, the Talmud has stories (agadata), midrashim (homiletic teachings of the Torah), mysticism (albeit hidden), medicine, astrology, and general culture. It is an encyclopedia of Jewish life and knowledge. As Rabbi Berel Wein once said, when Jews are referred to as “people of the Book,” the “Book” is the Talmud―the Babylonian Talmud, that is. This is the advantage of prat over klal.

The Divine plan was to give time to the first humans to absorb the naïve sense of unity while they were in an immature state of intellectual development. Only after acquiring some level of maturity,[2] with the commencement of Shabbat, which would have raised their mentality to a higher level, would they be able to properly transition to the mentality of the Tree of Knowledge and to delve into the wissenschaft of creation with all its details and multiplicity, without losing sight of its underlying unity. Simply speaking, Adam and Eve needed time to grow up.[3]

The Serpent (in Hebrew, nachash),[4] however, had different plans. The Serpent was a committed atomist. He saw the world as a collection of disparate pieces. The Torah hints at this in the choice of words to describe the primordial serpent: “the Serpent was more cunning than any beast of the field.” The original Hebrew word in this verse, arum, is translated as cunning, subtle, shrewd, or clever. However, the word arum can also be translated as “piled up,” “heaped together,” or “collected,” i.e., individual items assembled together.[5] The  Serpent saw the world as made of disparate pieces, small particles, that is, atoms. He managed to cleverly put it all together in his mind into a coherent Weltanschauung. And he wasn’t wrong in his atomism―the world is indeed made of discrete atoms and subatomic particles. Moreover, not only does matter consist of separate atoms and subatomic particles but, as quantum mechanics revealed, energy is quantized too. Today, most theoretical physicists (myself including) believe that space and time are quantized as well. However, Serpent’s worldview misses the underlying unity of the creation. The Serpent only saw the prat but not the klal.

The Serpent was the embodiment and personification of qelipah[6] ―“husk,” “shell,” or “peel,” i.e., evil. In Judaism, evil has no independent existence; it is merely a shell or a peel covering and concealing godliness. It was created by God, just as everything else is, and is meant to serve a constructive purpose―to provide a contrast for goodness (for a ray of sunshine is most appreciated when it breaks through the clouds) and to provide us, humans, with freedom of choice.[7]

What was so terrible about the Serpent’s worldview? Besides concealing the underlying unity of creation with his fragmented worldview, the atomism of the primordial Serpent led to the denial of cause-and-effect relationships. Taking atomism to its logical conclusion, the Serpent, like most physicists today, believed that time is also quantized and made up of separate disconnected moments. This conception of time denies the existence of the flow of time—the time-flux. Time, in the nachash’s view, is just a heap of frozen moments. Moreover, this view inevitably leads to a belief that time is not real, but is rather, as Einstein put it, “only a stubbornly persistent illusion.”[8] It is interesting that in Kabbalah, the nachash is the embodiment of olam hadimyan—the “world of illusion.”

Denial of the reality of time strikes at the heart of Judaism, where time takes center stage.[9] The reality of time, which is infused with godliness in every moment, giving us a new opportunity to uncover that hidden godly reality; the never-ceasing flow of time that represents God’s continuous recreation of the universe and the continuous flow of His beneficence; the arrow of time pointing toward the fulfillment of the purpose of Creation, as created by a purposeful Being—these beliefs are at the very core of Judaism. The Serpent’s denial of time was indeed an attack on the very core of the belief system of Judaism.

Time underlies progress; progress points to a purpose; the purpose is defined by the purposeful Being who created it all. To deny time, is to deny progress; to deny progress, is to deny purpose; to deny purpose, is to deny God.

The Serpent’s denial of time helps us understand why he didn’t want Adam and Eve to wait until the commencement of Shabbat to eat from the Tree of Knowledge. Adam and Eve’s compliance with the mandated waiting period would have given credence to the reality of time. As Kohelet says,

There is time for every matter under Heaven” (Ecclesiastes 3:1).

The Serpent’s insistence that they eat the forbidden fruit immediately was the manifestation of his denial of time—that there is no difference between “now” and “then.”

The Serpent was not wrong that time is quantized. Not only modern physics, but the Torah too, agrees with this conception. It is stressed particularly in the philosophy of Chabad Hassidism that the world is recreated anew every moment.[10] However, this doesn’t mean that time is not real.

The timeless Wheeler-DeWitt equation[11] allowed the British physicist and philosopher Julian Barbour to declare the end of time.[12] Incredibly, Barbour calls the collection of all moments in time “the heap of moments.” Is it a coincidence that these words harken back to the word with which the Torah describes the Nachasharum, “heaped together”?

For the Serpent, there was no connection between one moment and the next, no cause and effect, and therefore, no consequence. In physics, we don’t know yet exactly how, but we believe that different moments in time come together to combine into what we perceive as the continuous time-flow, while preserving the cause-and-effect relationship. Chasidic philosophy addresses this point as well, explaining how the continuous re-creation of the world does not contradict the cause-and-effect relationship.

All that, however, was lost on the Serpent. Coming to the wrong conclusion—that there is no cause and effect—led him to believe in total permissiveness and promiscuity —that is, that today’s actions will have no consequences tomorrow. This is exactly what he tells Eve: Eat the delicious fruit, and don’t worry about it, for surely you will not die. After convincing Eve of her impunity, as the Talmud states,[13] with the Serpent was able to seduce Eve—a logical conclusion of his promiscuity.

One of the lessons of the Biblical story of the Serpent is that, while atomism (prat) is important and indeed necessary for discovering knowledge, it cannot come at the expense of the underlying unity (klal) that must be kept in mind as we study the details. This is an important lesson for scientists and for us all. In this light, the drive towards the unification of physics through a Grand Unified Theory (GUT) takes on a cosmic significance as an important step in the process of rectifying the primordial sin and restoring Paradise.

Endnotes:

[1] This principle is illustrated in a Chasidic story. Once, an old Rosh Yeshiva (the principal of a Talmudic academy), who was steeped in Kabbalah and Chasidic philosophy, told his students that the Modeh Ani prayer (a short and simple prayer of gratitude one says upon waking in the morning) of his illiterate grandmother was higher that all his decades of learning Kabbalah and Chasidut. Students protested, “What is the purpose, then, of the decades of study?” The old teacher replied, “To come to this understanding, I had to study Talmud, Kabbalah, and Chasidut for many decades!” Indeed, one can only appreciate the precious naïveté of the sincere prayer of a simpleton after having studied much Torah.

[2] Although, a few hours does not seem to be enough time to reach intellectual maturity, everything happened much more quickly in Paradise. For example, Eve was created, she conceived, and she gave birth on the same day—the first Friday of creation.

[3] There is a great lesson in parenting in this Biblical narrative. In contemporary society, there is a danger in overstimulating and overeducating young children. Parents dreaming of their toddlers enrolling in Ivy League universities tend to overeducate their babies early on, followed by prep schools and countless extracurricular activities, as has become fashionable nowadays. The Torah teaches a more measured approach to parenting―chinuch lanar al pi darko―“teach children according to their way.” Children need to be given the opportunity to be children―to play, to dream, to be bored. Scholastic activities must be in step with the psychological maturity of children. Stuffing children with knowledge they are not ready for can only backfire.

[4] On a literal level, the Nachash was a snake. However, some classical commentators—e.g., Sforno (Ovadia ben Jacob Sforno, 1474–1550, Italian rabbi, philosopher, physician, and Biblical commentator) and Abarbanel (a.k.a. Abravanel, Don Isaac Abravanel, 1437–1508, statesman, philosopher, and Biblical commentator) on Bereishit 3:1—view Nachash not as a physical snake but as a spiritual creature—the Satan or Yetzer Harah (the Evil Inclination, which was then external to humans and became internalized by the commission of the sin). Others, such as Rabbeinu Bahya (Bahya ben Asher ibn Halawa, 1255–1340, a Spanish rabbi and Biblical commentator), seem to hold that the Nachash was a person. This view is supported by midrashim that describe the Nachash as walking on two feet like a man and having had relations with Eve, as she later replies to God, “the nachash seduced me.” Rabbeinu Bahya’s interpretation that the Nachash was human is the most suitable for our purposes; however, our interpretation is compatible with any interpretation in which the Nachash was a sentient being (physical or spiritual) or even an inner voice.

[5] Rabbi Samson Rafael Hirsh translates the word arum as “joining subtle ideas,” “collecting,” or “stacking small pieces,” as in Exodus 15:8. See Matityahu Clark, Etymological Dictionary of Biblical Hebrew (Jerusalem: Feldheim Publishers), 1999. See also Rashi on Parshat Beshalach (Exodus 15:8), where the water piling up is compared to heaps of grain.

[6] Sometimes spelled kelipah, with the plural kelipot.

[7] Kabbalah offers the following parable to explain the purpose of evil. Once, there was a king who was concerned about the fitness and maturity of his son to assume the throne. To test the moral character of his son, the king asked his loyal courtier to pretend to be a courtesan and attempt to seduce the young prince. While dutifully carrying out the royal command, the courtesan, in her heart of hearts, wished that the prince would reject her advances and withstand the challenge, thereby earning the right to ascend to the throne. Thus qelipah—the evil husk— conceals godliness as it must, only hoping we’d throw it away to uncover what lies beneath. Sometimes, however, evil gets overly eager to succeed, forgetting that its raison d’être is to fail.

[8] In a condolence letter to the grieving widow of his late friend, Michele Besso, Einstein wrote: Now he has departed from this strange world a little ahead of me. That means nothing. People like us, who believe in physics, know that the distinction between past, present and future is only a stubbornly persistent illusion.”

[9] See Appendix “On the Nature of Time.”

[10] See Tanya, Shaar Yihud VeEmunah.

[11] This is the first equation formulated to describe the evolution of the universal wave function, i.e., the quantum cosmology. This equation does not contain time. Many physicists and philosophers of physics make a big deal of the fact that time seems to disappear on the quantum level. However, the absence of time in the Wheeler-DeWitt equation has little to do with quantum physics and a lot to do with cosmology. Time is always measured by a clock outside the system. However, the universal wave function describes the whole universe, which includes the totality of existence. As Lee Smolin points out in his book, Time Reborn: From the Crisis in Physics to the Future of the Universe (Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, 2013), there cannot be any clock outside the universe. Hence, there is little surprise that the equation for the universal wave function does not contain the element of time.

[12] Julian Barbour, The End of Time: The Next Revolution in Our Understanding of the Universe (Oxford University Press, 1999).

[13] Talmid, tr. Avodah Zarah 22b

Originally published on Quantum Torah.com.

About the Author
Dr. Alexander Poltorak is Chairman and CEO of General Patent Corporation. He is also an Adjunct Professor of Physics at The City College of New York. In the past, he served as Assistant Professor of Physics at Touro College, Assistant Professor of Biomathematics at Cornell University Medical College, and Adjunct Professor of Law at the Globe Institute for Technology. He holds a Ph.D. in theoretical physics.
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