How did I get here and why did I start writing about Kabbalah and science?
I was born in 1960 in Ukraine, which was part of the Soviet Union at the time, in the city of Dnepropetrovsk. My late father, Vladimir Shyfrin, was a professor of metallurgy. My mother, Eugenia Alexandrovskaya, was an engineer. Our family lived in a semi-underground apartment comprising one bedroom and a kitchen; legs constantly flashing in the window are one of my earliest childhood memories.
My parents couldn’t afford a car or a bigger apartment. However, they always found means to keep the house full of books.
I was brought up in an atheistic society and didn’t know anything about Judaism and the Torah whatsoever. I spent my last three years of school in a special class for physics, and for two consecutive years I won the all-Ukrainian physics Olympiad competition.
Despite these academic achievements and the fact that I scored 24/25 on the entrance exam (the entry requirement was 13) I was rejected from the Moscow Physics and Technology Institute. This happened because I am a Jew. Then I applied to the Moscow Steel and Alloys Institute to the physical chemistry department.
After graduating from university, I was sent to work on the metallurgical factory Dniprosptetsstal in Zaporizhye, a city in Southern Ukraine. I moved there with my wife and son and started my career at the mill as the foreman of the electric arc furnace. It was quite successful; in three years’ time I was already managing a thousand employees. In 1991, I completed my PhD in the physical chemistry of metallurgy, and in 1993, ten years after graduating, I left the mill and started my own business.
I met a Rabbi for the first time in my life in 1996, in Kiev. I got involved with a Jewish charity and, as a result, built a synagogue and a Jewish educational centre dedicated to my late father in Kiev. I was still far from Judaism though.
In 2002 a health issue changed my life. All of a sudden, existential questions started to bother me, and I felt that If I did not answer them, I would not be able to move on. My Rabbi advised me to get closer to G-d and to start the process of spiritual return: Teshuva.
I studied the Holy Scripture along with Jewish customs and traditions, yet my scientific mind pushed me to ask certain questions. It seemed to be that the Torah and modern science were in full contradiction with each other. Existing sources didn’t help me resolve this apparent conflict. Since it was not in my character to back down, I decided to try and answer my questions myself. That’s how my journey into the world of Kabbalah and science began.
I explored the Torah and the Kabbalah and revised scientific literature. I learned Hebrew so that I could read the Holy Scripture in its original language. As a result I published a number of Torah commentaries on the website Chabad.org and wrote a book From Infinity to Man: basic ideas of Kaballah within the framework of information theory and quantum physics (also available on Amazon.co.uk)
Three important questions have continuously fueled my quest for truth:
- Why science and religion?
The existing literature on science and religion often talks about them contradicting each other, or the necessity to reconcile them. I consider this approach wrong. In my opinion, there cannot be any contradictions between science and religion as both are revelations of One G-d. If it appears to us that there are contradictions, it means that our knowledge is either false or incomplete.
The scientific method involves finding patterns, expressing them mathematically and making predictions on their basis. But science often cannot answer why certain phenomena occur. Also, science is morally neutral. The fact that 2 x 2 = 4 can’t be considered good or bad.
Nor does science answer the basic questions of our life: why are we here (and hence the famous question of Leibniz: Why is there something rather than nothing)? How should we live? Why does the world work in a way that makes us doomed to die? What is the soul? What happens to us after death? And many other questions.
The Torah and the Kabbalah are not physics textbooks. We can’t expect to find formulae there. However, they contain the fundamental ideas underlying reality. Hence I believe that science and religion complement each other.
Over the last two centuries, the role of science in society has changed dramatically. It left the closed doors of universities and became public. But it has also undergone qualitative changes. We can call the science from before the 20th century ‘the science of common sense’. But the new physics of the 20th century – quantum physics, relativity, information theory – took us beyond logical reasoning. We cannot comprehend four-dimensional spacetime. We cannot comprehend that time is relative. We cannot comprehend that a particle can be in different space points simultaneously. There are no proven explanations for these phenomena.
The last time an exhaustive account of the relationship between Judaism and Science was given was by the great Maimonides 800 years ago. Since that time, our body of scientific knowledge has grown enormously. I do believe it’s high time to examine the relationship between Judaism and the science of the 21st century.
The principal difference between the Kabbalah and science are their objects of consideration. Science deals with our universe, whereas the Kabbalah considers it just a part of the whole Creation. Consequently, the Kabbalah explores not just the interactions between the entities of our universe, like science, but also their relationship with their Source. This is a game-changer. I will expand on this idea in further posts.
- Why Kabbalah and science, not philosophy and science?
Traditionally, Jewish thinkers were divided into two categories: philosophers and mystics.
Jewish philosophy flourished in the Yeshivas of Babylon. One of the most prominent figures from the Babylonian yeshivas was Sadia ben Yosef (Saadia Gaon), who wrote the book Beliefs and Opinions. After the demise of the Babylonian Jewish communities the philosophical tradition was continued by Spanish Jewry. From there came Yehuda haLevi, Abraham ibn Ezra, and finally, the greatest of all, Moshe ben Maimon (Maimonides), who wrote The Guide for the Perplexed in the 12th century.
Jewish mysticism is much older than this. It was born together with Judaism and neveceased to exist. The basic book of the Kaballah, Sefer Yetzira, is attributed to our forefather Abraham. In the 1st century A.D. another seminal work of Kabbalah was produced. It was Bahir, attributed to Rabbi Nehunia ben Hakanna. The original Kabbalah was born in 12th century Provence. The most prominent Kabbalists of that time were Abraham ben David and Isaac the Blind. After that, it flourished in Spain and culminated in the publication of Zohar by Moses de Lyon in the13th century. Following the expulsion of Jews from Spain in the late 15th century CE, the centre of Kabbalistic thought moved to Safed in Northern Israel. Itzhak Luria (Ari haKodesh), Moshe Cordovero, Yosef Caro, Haim Vital, and many others produced their works there. From the 18th century the Kabbalistic tradition was carried forward by Hassidic masters.
It’s important to note that, whilst Jewish philosophers were scientifically educated people mystics were either unfamiliar with science or even suspicious of it. They derived their ideas from the Holy Scripture and mystical revelations.
The word mystical translates from Latin as ‘antiscientific, irrational’. But from my point of view, the science of the 21st century can also be considered mystical and irrational. Studying Kabbalah and science, I came to the conclusion that the Kabbalistic view of Creation deeply resonates with the theories of contemporary science and thus may bring insights into its conundrums. I elaborate on this idea in my book Infinity to Man. Writing it was a clean experiment. I attempted to show that people who were unfamiliar with science and deriving their ideas solely from the Holy Scripture and mystical revelations have produced a teaching which can deepen our understanding of contemporary scientific challenges.
- Why is all of this important today?
In the 19th century, after the walls of the Ghetto had fallen, the process of Haskalah, the Jewish Enlightenment, began. On the one hand, it gave us Freud and Einstein, along with thousands of other talented scientists, doctors, lawyers, etc. But on the other hand, many people lost their Jewish identities to assimilation. I think that this happened mainly because they couldn’t connect the paradigms of the Holy Scripture and those of the newly open world.
Currently, the process of assimilation continues. I myself used to be a typical representative of educated Jews without any religious knowledge. I consider it of utmost importance to help our brothers and sisters to return to their faith by showing them that scientific development by no means denies its main postulates. This is what I sought to achieve with my book. I don’t know whether I will succeed or not, but I think that even if it helps even one Jew to return, my mission will be complete.