Tuesday, June 05, 2007

Quantum Halacha

I've been investigating the nature and development of halacha for the past few months. It is extremely interesting to try and figure out how the pieces all fit together.
How are we to understand the famous statement of Rabbi Yehoshua (Bava Metzia 59b) that 'Torah is not in Heaven' (lo bashamayim hi). According to the simple reading, G-d no longer has a say in the halacha since he has given the authority to the Rabbis (at least until the closing of the Talmud, but probably even until today) to decide what Jews should and should not be doing. But how can G-d not decide the halacha if it is supposed to be Divine?
There is an idea which I have heard from others, which makes a lot of sense to me (even though the Talmud and Rambam can't have known of it in these terms) which is that halacha behaves like a subatomic particle - in a quantum manner. Heisenberg's uncertainty principle holds that we can never know both the momentum and the position of an electron. If we know the position, the electron has, in effect, no momentum. Conversely, if we know the momentum it has no location but appears as a cloud. It was on this point that Einstein famously said "G-d doesn't play dice" (to which Niels Bohr replied "Albert, stop telling G-d what he can do!").
It is even worse than that if you like the billiard ball model of the universe. Most scientists agree that the electron doesn't even have a position or a momentum until we look for it. In other words it is neither until we decide what it should be by looking for it. The observer changes the facts by doing the experiment. This is basically Schroedinger's cat in a nutshell.
People don't like the idea of quantum mechanics because it is really hard to get your head around. I was just rereading 'The Fire in the Equations' by Kitty Ferguson (an excellent book by the way). She gives an analogy in the name of Professor John Wheeler.
Here is his version of Twenty Questions, Quantum Style.
Professor Wheeler is IT. We all assume that he has chosen a secret word, but he decides to play a trick on us. He doesn't choose any word at all. The game begins. 'Animal, vegetable or mineral?' we ask. Prof. Wheeler, having no secret word in mind, just a blur of every noun in his English vocabulary, is free to choose any of the three categories. 'Animal' he answers. As we all shift our attention to the animal kingdom, the blur of possibilities becomes smaller. 'Mammal?' someone asks. 'No answers Prof. Wheeler, though he could just as honestly have answered 'yes'. 'Reptile?' is then next question. 'Yes,' says Prof. Wheeler with a congratulatory nod, although he might just as truthfully have said 'no'. now we all think of snakes and lizards and the like, a blur of reptilian life in our minds. A blur of reptilian life in Prof. Wheeler's mind too. There is no definite reptile lurking there in his mind's eye. As the game goes on Prof. Wheeler may have to be very clever in order to keep each answer consistent with all his other answers, but if he does, can you see that in the end we will arrive at a definite word, although there was not one waiting to be found in Prof. Wheeler's mind? The avenue our questions have taken has helped create the hidden word.

Perhaps halacha operates in a similar way? If we substitute Prof. Wheeler for (l'havdil) G-d, and the 20 questions for the development of halacha, we can arrive at the correct halachic decision using the process without contradicting the intention of G-d.
Lo bashamayim hi - it is not in Heaven. We can make the halacha (as long as we use the correct system). If we do, we will always reach the intention of G-d!
This is a difficult concept, and I'm not sure if it is right, but it helps me to understand why we do what we do. It also removes many of the questions that people have about halacha and tradition. Perhaps more about that later.
Hope you enjoyed this interesting idea (and please excuse the pop science book - a bad habit of mine).
Good night

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