Dear Rabbi Fried,
I was very fascinated by your discussion last week of the parallel universe theory of quantum physics and how it mirrors a kabbalistic interpretation of the ongoing creation of the universe. I was intrigued by your ending that this would obviously raise deep philosophical and moral questions which would have to be dealt with, but you did not explain those questions. Could you please elaborate?
— Mike W.
First I will begin by mentioning that the concept of parallel universes existing in the spiritual realm is a theme which runs throughout Torah thought when one approaches the deeper sources. For example, it is a well-known axiom among commentators to the Torah that is hinted in the Hebrew word pardes. Pardes, meaning orchard, is spelled pey-reish-dalet-samach, each of those letters hinting to another layer of meaning within Torah. Like an orchard, which offers multiple fruits, so too each verse, mitzvah and concept of Torah offers multiple levels of understanding, depth and meaning. At times these meanings may be contradictory or even diametrically opposed, which is the crux of our conversation.
The first letter of orchard, pey, stands for peshat, or “simple meaning.” The second letter reish, stands for the word remez, meaning “hinted meaning.” The third letter, dalet, represents the word derash, or inferred meaning by comparison of texts. Lastly, the letter samach refers to the final level of Torah interpretation, sod, which means the hidden, secretive meanings within the kabbalistic tradition. This system represents four categories of interpretation, each category representing multiple facets within that category. What all this tells us is that the Torah is not simply what it seems to be at face value, but represents untold layers of meaning, all which are part of the big picture of the truth and message of Torah.
One example of this would be the sacrificing of Isaac, of which the Torah, at face value, says that he was taken off the altar before he was actually sacrificed. In a well-known statement of the Zohar, the foundational work of the Kabbalah, Isaac was sacrificed and then brought back to life, albeit in a higher level of existence.
So, we ask, what happened, was he sacrificed or not? The answer is, both! (A very Jewish answer, it depends! Or one may say, an “altar”-nate reality!) In the realm of peshat he wasn’t sacrificed; in the realm of sod he was. The two mesh together in Isaac’s continued existence. This is example of Judasim’s inherent parallel universes.
Another example goes back to the story of Creation. The simple reading of the Torah confines the entire episode into six regular days. This presents an internal problem, given that the sun was only put in place on Day Four, and days are measured by the sun. There is a profound kabbalistic explanation which explains that the primordial days were enormously longer than our 24 days. I was told by a leading kabbalist in Jerusalem, based on that calculation, that kabbalistically the world is billions of years old. This interpretation far pre-dates any knowledge of the carbon dating issue, as well as the discovery of the red-shift in the background radiation, which seem to put the age of the universe at some 15 billion years. So, which one was it, six days or billions of years? The answer is, peshat and sod; both!
Examples of this abound in Torah, such as the simple meaning that man and woman were created as separate beings, and the Talmudic interpretation that they were created as one androgynous being; again, the answer is both! Did dinosaurs exist or not? The answer is, both, depending on which world we are discussing. We are living in multiple realities, depending upon which world we are addressing. This becomes more palatable to our minds when we see that even some of the giants of physics maintain, or at least entertain, the possibility of multiple physical universes.
Some of the moral questions which arise in the multiple universe theory would include who is rewarded for their merits, the person who performed them or the spin-off of that person in the next universe, or both? The entire concept of reward and punishment would need to be understood within the context of each soul becoming an infinite number of souls, with infinite possibilities of existence.
Alas, all this is highly theoretical, and halevai, it would be great if we would just do what we need to do in the one world we know!