Several things have happened recently that cause me to think heaven could be making a big comeback.
First, the recent Nobel Prize awarded to scientists who discovered the Higgs boson, commonly known as “the God particle.” Thousands of scientists who spent countless hours of research, supported by billions of dollars, discovered the definite existence of a force that they cannot see or amply describe, yet which they are sure provides a force to other particles, which enables their existence and without which those particles and yes, even we, would cease to exist. This discovery is astonishing, though I have long heard of it in a different, religious pretext of hashgacha pratis, or Divine providence.
Another insight came at our post-celebration farbrengen on Simchat Torah. One of the attendees, there for the first time, asked for help to understand the meaning of a farbrengen. The classical explanation is a gathering of souls. We have both heavenly and beastly souls and inclinations. A farbrengen is where multiple joined forces of Godly souls, namely of those participating, can bring us collectively to a more spiritual place through shared sacred word and song, thus hopefully diminishing the animal, or beastly, soul within us individually as a result.
I began to describe the need for our making space for others, as we all know that no two things can occupy the same space at the same time. One participant insisted on pointing out that indeed there are “force particles” that can occupy the same space at the same time; the “matter particles” cannot. Force particles give spirit, or energy force, to the otherwise dead masses of matter particles. There you have it, I now explained, a farbrengen is a sort of “collusion” by force particles within us, the neshamot, or spiritual souls if you will, coming together to diminish the deadness of the matter particles within us. Science validating chasidic thought, on Simchat Torah of all times. You gotta love it, as they say.
We also recently saw the new study out by the Pew Center, and the extrapolation from it by the Steinhardt Project at Brandeis. The results of that scientific (even if, as some claim, maybe somewhat inaccurate or incomplete) study points to a rapidly growing, solidifying future within the Orthodox part of the Jewish community, increased observance of mitzvot generally, while certain affiliations are struggling if not slowly dissipating in numbers and attendance, especially compared to the last such study over a decade ago.
It appears unanimous that Jewish learning and tradition, in consistent practice, are key to the difference. And remember a key discovery — according to the Pew study, 94 percent of those identifying as Jews are proud to be Jews — a reversal of even our recent past. If only we could bring more traditional substance to that pride in Judaism which could also preserve the identity itself.
This survey shakes me to my core as I ask, “Whither my brethren?”
A third experience. This week we hosted a large group of young Jewish women from Moscow, comprising students and professionals. I was awed by their strengthened traditions, and one of the rabbis accompanying the group explained to me just how far the strides are which they have made in their Jewish identity and practice. Now, my own grandparents fought vigorously against the old Soviet forces which sought to crush Jewish spiritual identity and practice in the last century. One grandfather even swore according to Jewish law — an awesome act for any Jew — to fight to his last drop of blood to defend Jewish life in Russia. (Indeed, while engaged, he was arrested and sent off to Siberia, where my righteous grandmother followed him and they married.) They endured persecution, torture and poverty, but did not yield. Now to see this group, which I was advised was a mere representation of the new vibrant young sector of the Russian Jewish community, practicing their Jewish life so energetically and openly, got me thinking how the victory in the struggle of Soviet Jewry is that of the Jewish people, not those who sought to erase Jewish life there.
Now, for my main point — the one which sews all the above together.
Science seems to have now declared, after working through it on its own terms and with its own methods, there is a force which drives all of life and without which life cannot continue even for an instant. Demographers find, in their own way, that without strong practice of tradition and robust Jewish learning there is no real way for Jewish life to have much of a future. Indeed, many leaders in the Jewish world have, after many years of trying other ways to inspire communities or calculate numbers, have come to the same conclusions; some even offering very humble if bold admissions in their statements.
We also see a resurgence in Jewish life in places thought impossible, whether in the U.S., on campus, Russia, Asia or elsewhere. Judaism is thriving where it was thought to be short-lived (and sadly looking bleak in some places where it was once thriving). And we remember that force particles give matter (mass) particles a way to thrive.
A body needs a soul to be alive, and vice versa. A Jewish community needs strong Jewish tradition — practically, not merely in theory — to have a hope of sustenance and continuity. And the world at large is realizing, albeit through its scientists if not its spiritual leadership, that there is some force driving life, which we cannot see but whose effect we feel and without which we disappear.
I actually see our Creator is on a roll, so to speak, and heaven is making a comeback in the collective thinking of our society. If only we could also let it make that comeback in study and practice on a much wider and personal scale in our community. We can refocus the drive toward Torah and mitzvot and not just noble pursuits we see in the quest for social justice, etc., which might crown but cannot replace Jewish life as it has survived through the ages. We can then hope to make heaven here on Earth even stronger and a greater reality in our lives — which I suggest is the real goal of life itself as Judaism sees it.
Rabbi Levi Shemtov is executive vice president of American Friends of Lubavitch (Chabad), Washington, D.C.