Posts by Rabbi Mara Young

Monday, June 26, 2023

Alternate Universes

Given this ritual [ed. we had just lit a candle in commemoration of the yartzeit of Roe v. Wade] we just participated in, you might find yourself asking, “what year is it?” or, as I have heard some of you say, “this feels like an alternate reality.”

Regardless of topic, we have all, at some time, felt that surreal disbelief of reality, whether it’s that weird feeling you get after a car accident, or when you’re experiencing extreme grief. Call it surreal or deja vu, we ask ourselves: Is this real life?

These feelings are not new. Even Plato and Plutarch hypothesized realities on top of our own, recognizing that humans, in our limitations, can only perceive so much of reality. Nowadays, the word en vogue is “multiverse.” The Marvel Cinematic Universe has one, so does the Oscar Nominated “Everything, Everywhere, All at Once.” The dictionary defines it as an infinite realm of being or potential being of which the universe we know is regarded as just one part or one instance.

Writer and artist S.I. Rosenbaum pondered the multiverse in a recent NYTimes opinion piece. They wrote: “It’s easy to see the appeal of the multiverse, even as metaphor: the notion that we’re surrounded by a multitude of parallel selves, one of which might be living in a better timeline than the one we’re stuck in. It’s probably no coincidence that the idea has become so popular during an era of pandemic, climate change and political turmoil, when so many of us have felt helpless and trapped. Who doesn’t want to imagine a different world?”

Lest you think this is relegated to our subjective psyches and sci-fi, many well known scientists and astrophysicists are proponents of the theory of the multiverse existing. There are opponents, though, who argue that one cannot test the multiverse theories with empirical evidence, and therefore the multiverse is more theory, or faith, than science.

Do we Jews have a multiverse concept? It would seem, yes, to a degree. Rabbi Yehuda Shurpin points out that:

“According to Kabbalah, all of existence can be divided into four worlds, known as Atzilut (World of Emanation), Beriah (World of Creation), Yetzirah (World of Formation) and Asiyah (World of Action—our world). Although they are referred to as worlds, in reality these aren’t separate planets or galaxies. Rather, they exist right here together with us, but in another plane of reality. Each of these worlds is really about the degree of Godliness that is revealed on each plane.”

When it comes down to it, we Jews do have a more precise term for the multiverse - we call it “God.” We call God “HaMakom,” The Place, the totality of all existences ever. God’s proper name is spelled yud-hey-vav-hey in Hebrew. We render this in English as “the Eternal,” because the root word of God’s name is the verb “to be.” Yud-hey-vav-hey can be past, present, or future, hence “Eternal.” All possibilities, all existence that was is and will be, parallel or intersecting - that is God.

Indeed, one of the critics of multiverse theory, Paul Davies, writes: “To be sure, all cosmologists accept that there are some regions of the universe that lie beyond the reach of our telescopes, but somewhere on the slippery slope between that and the idea that there is an infinite number of universes, credibility reaches a limit. As one slips down that slope, more and more must be accepted on faith, and less and less is open to scientific verification. Extreme multiverse explanations are therefore reminiscent of theological discussions. Indeed, invoking an infinity of unseen universes to explain the unusual features of the one we do see is just as ad hoc as invoking an unseen Creator. The multiverse theory may be dressed up in scientific language, but in essence, it requires the same leap of faith.”

Indeed. And because we Jews understand God to be the ultimate mystery, the scientifically unprovable, our tradition stresses that we live in the World of Asiyah, of action, and must take action in a way that values our here and now and our behavior here and now above all else.

Rosenbaum makes a similar point. They are concerned about what a multiverse ideology means for human beings. They say that “we can joke or wonder whether we’re in the wrong timeline…But it can also be a dangerous way of imagining the cosmos…we risk becoming detached from the world we can see and touch. Regardless of whether we can prove that the multiverse exists, the idea of it can distract us from doing the work we need to do to make this world better. This timeline is the only one we have access to, and it’s got to be enough.”

And isn’t this the Jewish approach anyway? Isn’t this the root of our social action, our acts of teshuvah (repentance) and the compassion we show?

We do believe we can access the Divine, touching the multiversed cosmos. These are the moments when we feel like we have felt a holy space outside of ourselves, whether through prayer or in community. That feeling of transcendence and awe. It’s not scientific, but I know you’ve felt it, as have I. So while it remains unclear how much life may or may not be like the comics, we can keep reaching outward while keeping our feet securely on the ground, doing the work we need to do to make THIS WORLD one of justice and peace.

Ongoing Liberation: Rahab and Juneteenth

In July of 1985, The World Conference to Review and Appraise the Achievements of the “UN Decade for Women” took place in Nairobi. The reason the “achievements” of the prior conference needed to be “reviewed” were because there hadn’t really been any. Violence against women was still raging worldwide and real measures had to be taken by the international community. To open the conference the U.N. invited an Australian Aboriginal woman and activist named Lilla Watson.

Speaking to a room of delegates she stood at the podium and famously said, "If you are here to help women, people of color or people of different ethnicities, go home. You are wasting your time. However, if you have come because your liberation is bound up with mine, then let us work together."

Her words have reverberated through the decades. If you ask her about it today, Watson does not like having these words attributed to her alone. She says they were an important sentiment expressed in her activist circles; the sentiments of many.

It is still the sentiment of modern liberation movements and it is important we express it again this Juneteenth weekend. When Juneteeth became a federal holiday, only 2 years ago, it entered the consciousness of every American. This makes it impossible to turn away from the history of slavery in our nation and impossible to turn away from the contributions and achievements of Black Americans. I’m gratified knowing that when my kids learn about Juneteenth in school, they learn about their role in the ongoing liberation of all oppressed people and the beauty of cultural diversity.

Furthermore, Juneteenth falls during the federal “Honor America Days” - the 21 days between Flag Day and the 4th of July. This is an important detail that emphasizes the holiday’s message. It is not enough to be a nation born out of the ideals of equality, we have to struggle to make those values real. Only then can we truly be a free nation, with the dignity of all citizens and residents asserted loudly.

These 21 days in the American calendar are sort of like our Jewish omer. You’ll remember the omer is the time between the Exodus from Egypt and receiving the Torah at Mt Sinai. As we counted the omer, every day for 7 weeks, we stressed that freedom is yoked to responsibility to care for one another. Individuals can only truly be free when they live in a safe and just society. While people of color were liberated all those years ago, they still do not live in a safe and just society where they are truly free.

Therefore, as Jews, as people who understand the struggle for freedom, we must work for the betterment of our country. We also know that anti-semitism and racism are closely linked and tend to emerge together. We know that our destinies are indeed bound up with each other.

Victoria Raggs is the Co-Founder & Executive Director of Atlanta Jews of Color Council. In reflecting on the significance of Juneteenth as a Black woman and a Jew, she wrote:

“To me, Juneteenth is a time for rejoicing and a time for our country to reckon with a very painful historical legacy that continues to impact our society today. Gaining a deeper historical analysis around this national holiday is useful for everyone experiencing true equity, justice, and liberation. The Jewish dimension of Juneteenth is that no people exist in isolation. Because our liberation is bound together by our shared humanity, no group is free until we all are free.”

This was the essence of Lilla Watson’s words as well. Don’t enter this conversation as one who pities the oppressed. And don’t come in expecting to play savior. Come to the business of liberation recognizing that by lifting one another up, we raise all of humanity closer to the Divine - the origin point for each of us.

So many Jewish texts illustrate this point. But this week we get a particularly provocative one. It comes out of the haftarah portion: Joshua chapter 2. The story goes like this:

Before the Israelites cross the Jordan, Joshua sends Israelite men to scout out the land. Arriving in Jericho, they decide to spend the night at an inn owned by a Canaanite woman named Rahab. It might have also been a brothel. How do we know this? Well, when we meet Rahab, she is explicitly described as a “eishah zonah,” a prostitute.

When the king of Jericho hears that these Israelite men have entered the city and he demands that Rahab give up the spies. Yet in an act of defiance, Rahab hides them in the thatch of her roof. She lies to the king, saying the men had come to her home but then left.

Her ruse works and she goes up to have a chat with the Israelite spies. She says, “I know that GOD has promised this land to you. We heard about how God parted the Sea of Reeds for you, and how your enemies have been defeated in your journey.” And then she pledges: “I will show loyalty to you and your God.” With that heartfelt pledge, she asks that when the spies return with the Israelite army to take over Jericho, they will spare her life and the lives of her father and mother, as well as her brothers and sisters. The spies swear to spare them.

Rahab then helps them escape through the window and indeed, the spies make good on their promise. Rahab and her family join forces with the Israelites after they return to Jericho.

Now to be clear, I’m not looking to draw strict parallels here, as they would quickly break down and could be pretty problematic.

What I want to do is draw attention to Rahab specifically because we can learn a lot from who she was and what she heroically chose to do.

As biblical scholar Tikva Frymer-Kensky points out, Rahab is a triply marginalized person—Canaanite, woman, and prostitute. Yet she moves from the margins to the center of the narrative “as bearer of a divine message and herald of Israel in its new land.”

We have to ask, why does Rahab choose to help the spies, and by extension, the Israelite nation? It’s not just simple self-preservation. She tells us in her own words: she’s seen the miracles. She sees the struggle of the recently freed Israelites fighting to make new, liberated lives for themselves.

As a marginalized person, she understands that her own liberation is bound up in saving the lives of the spies, and thus allowing the Israelites to fulfill their destiny while also solidifying hers. Frymer-Kensky encourages us to move past our squeamishness of Rahab’s profession and understand the deep compassion and activism within her that leads her to righteous action.

So how may we be like Rahab? How may we see that we must work together, oppressed and marginalized people, to protect one another, to shelter each other, and help one another to escape danger?

No one person or group exists in isolation. Lifting one another up only raises the moral bar higher. This Juneteenth, by the example of the African-American community, may we celebrate, educate, and agitate for the deliverance of all humankind. Amen.