IS GOD BROKEN?
“Hear O Israel, the Lord our God, the Lord is One.” (Deuteronomy 6:4)
Here is a short selection from my forthcoming book, tentatively entitled Does the Universe Have a Soul? If everything goes according to plan, it will be published next year. The final chapter of the book begins with a discussion of the Sh’ma, which appears in this position.
Jews who attend synagogue regularly probably know by heart two of the most important prayers in their liturgy. The first prayer is the Sh’ma, which Jews say every morning and every night. Traditionally it is the first prayer a child learns while young and the last words one says before death. Sh’ma Yisrael Adonai Eloheinu Adonai Echad. “Hear O Israel, the Lord our God, the Lord is One” (Deuteronomy 6:4). The second prayer is Alenu, taken from the Rosh Hashana liturgy to end every service. It ends with the verse B’Yom HaHu Yeyeh Adonai Echad u’Shmo Echad, “On that day the Lord will be One and His Name One” (Zechariah 14:9).
Jews enthusiastically sing both these verses. They probably do not realize that the two verses contradict each other. Is God One now as the Sh’ma claims? Or will God become One someday in the future as Alenu claims? Should we believe Deuteronomy or Zechariah? How can they both be true? Quantum physics speaks of complementarity, two contradictory things both being true at the same time. Light is both a wave and a particle. Perhaps this is a religious example of complementarity. God is both One in the present and One in the future. How can that be? This idea became the basis of Jewish mysticism, the complex tradition known as kabbalah.
According to Kabbalist Isaac Luria (1534 – 1572), in the beginning there was simply Ein Sof, “Without End” or Infinity, an entity beyond all knowledge. Mystics often speak of Ein Sof as Efes, literally “Nothing.” We can know nothing about this entity. This would allow mystics to speak in the same terms as philosophers, the universe was created from nothing (creatio ex nihilo). But the nothing for the mystics was not an empty vacuum. It was teeming with potentiality. It is fascinating how close this is to the idea in quantum physics that a vacuum cannot exist, it is filled with virtual particles coming in and out of existence.
Ein Sof filled everything. There was no room for Ein Sof to create a universe outside Itself, as Genesis describes. Rather, Ein Sof had to begin with an act of self-contraction, tzimtzum, to leave room for a universe. Tzimtzum is central to the mystical ideas, only by self-contraction could God leave room for a universe to flourish. After this act of tzimtzum, a divine light flowed into this empty space, filling the universe. The light was held in vessels that permeated everything.
Then comes a powerful idea known as shevirat hakelim, “the shattering of the vessels.” The vessels could not hold the divine light and were broken – shattered, sending sparks of light everywhere. This seems very close to the central idea in modern physics that the universe was created by a series of broken symmetries. With the shattering of the vessels, brokenness entered the universe. To Luria, who lived shortly after the Spanish exile and inquisition, this brokenness explains the existence of evil in the universe.
With the shattering of the vessels, the divine light or divine sparks (netzitzot) permeated everything. But they were covered by kelipot “coverings.” With the divine sparks scattered and broken, God’s oneness became broken. God had been One but is now no longer One. God became broken. But all is not hopeless. We humans are able to uncover these holy sparks and help them return to God. In a sense, we humans can put God together again. The word for repairing the universe is tikkun “to repair.” Tikkun has become one of the most used, some would say overused, terms in Jewish life. In fact, for a long time there was a Jewish magazine on social justice and spirituality called Tikkun. The source of the idea is also a line from the Alenu prayer mentioned above, l’taken olam k’malchut Shadai “to repair the world as a kingdom of God.”
The Lurianic creation story of tzimtzum (self-contraction), shevirat hakelim (shattering of the vessels), nitzitzot (holy sparks), and tikkun (repair), have created powerful images in contemporary Jewish life.