The God Particle’s Lesson on Jewish Living

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I am a far cry from being a scientist. But I do know that if scientists are calling a particle a “God Particle”, science has entered into a religious conversation.

According to what I have read in various online sources, what is being called the God Particle is really a subatomic particle that scientists believe gives mass to all of the different particles currently existing in the universe. Replicating the particle in a laboratory and making it visible can only be achieved through what is essentially a large atom catapult that pushes protons at rapid speeds down a large tunnel and smashes them against other protons. Even at these rapid speeds and with a multi-billion dollar piece of technology, like so many other subatomic particles, the God particle remains barely visible.

My initial reading of this information leads me to believe that the God label for such a particle is very metaphorically appropriate. Just like the God Particle is not overtly visible, so too the Jewish people have always believed that our God is not overtly visible. The God Particle is considered to be the particle from which all other particles originate, and we, as Jews, believe that human beings are created betzelem elohim, in the divine image of God. And if this particle is the origin for giving mass to the other particles in our galaxy, so too as Jews we can accept that it is our God that provides the mass, substance, and meaning behind each of our lives.

Unfortunately, that may be as far as the metaphor extends, as other aspects about the “God Particle” also challenge deeply held Jewish notions of God. Of course, what comes to mind immediately is the idea of God’s size. There are countless examples scattered throughout the Torah and our liturgy referring to God using the Hebrew word gadol, interchangeably used to mean both God’s greatness and physical stature. The midrashic work Pirkei De-Rabbi Eliezer, for example, may agree with the notion that God remains unseen. However, it is not because God is so small, but because God’s massive legs stretch from one end of the universe to the other. The mystical Zohar also views God as a far cry from a mere particle, but as an interconnected network of sefirot, spheres with connected pipes that carry God’s shefa, God’s essence, through the greater cosmos and down into our world. Among Jewish mystics God too remains unseen, but perhaps counter intuitively, it is because God is too large for us to even comprehend.

Now, notwithstanding the contradictions I have just raised, I actually approve of the name, “God Particle”. Not necessarily as a theological statement, but as a lesson in mussar, Jewish values, for even among early mystics there remained challenges to the notion of God’s largeness. They wondered how, if God is so large, it is at all possible that there be any room for any of us to exist. To solve this issue, the mystics understood that when creating the world, God underwent a voluntarily process of tzimzum, voluntary contraction - perhaps, even to a particle like size - so that in God’s greatest achievement, the universe could be created.

In this manner, the God Particle promotes the concept of tzniyut, modesty. God’s greatest impact on our universe, like this particle’s impact, was achieved while being small. So too human beings must learn that to be truly great, to have an impact on the world or to live a holy life, does not always mean that we always need to be big – or even visible. On the contrary. As Sefer Shemot Rabbah teaches hashfalati zo hagbati, it is when we are deliberately low key, self-contract and remain modest like particles, that we may allow worlds to be created and for others to shine alongside ourselves. One small particle continues to have such an indelible imprint on our universe. So too, when we act in small and modest ways, we can do the same.

The God Particle may not be God, but it can teach us a way that we may still live lives that are Godly.

Rabbi Daniel Dorsch is the Assistant Rabbi of Temple Beth Shalom in Livingston, New Jersey.

Two high-energy photons whose energy is measured in the CMS electromagnetic calorimeter. Scientists have claimed the discovery of a new subatomic particle popularly known as the ‘God particle’.Credit: AP / CERN
A real CMS proton-proton collision in which 4 high-energy electrons are observed. Scientists claimed the discovery of a new subatomic particle popularly known as the ‘God particle’ on July 4, 2012.Credit: AP / CERN