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.

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