Chabad at Stanford
Wisdom Center
Something from Nothing Bookmark and Share
Something from Nothing
By: Professor Yakov Brawer

creationists constantly invoke miracles to get over the rough spots in their doctrine, whereas the evolutionists conjure with events the probabilities of which are less than 10 to the negative thirtieth power.

The Torah view of existence predicated on the principle of something from nothing is somewhat more difficult to explain than something from something for the obvious reason that "nothing" defies description and can, therefore, only be appreciated by means of analogy. One very useful, albeit imperfect, analogy is creative human thought, an example of which is a daydream.

It is not uncommon, at a particularly boring faculty meeting, let's say, for one's mind to wander. One may, for example, begin to contemplate an upcoming international scientific meeting. In the mind's eye, one envisions the convention center and the mobs of participants. One sees oneself delivering a spectacular presentation. The applause is overwhelming. Hostile journal editors and Medical Research Council members are chastened. As the dream progresses one can, at will, insert sequences in which competitors are exposed as frauds or incompetents. In short, you can fashion reality any way you like.

Indulgence in such pleasant little reveries is common enough, and we don't give them much thought. The act of daydreaming or imagining does, however, contain some interesting parallels to the process of creating something from nothing.

The imaginer, for example, is a creator who has originated a world that did not exist prior to his thinking it up. He has produced a place, populated it with people and things, and provided a time scale for the action. The objection to this analogy is, of course, that the imaginer has, in fact, created nothing. It is only a thought. It has no existence independent of himself, and it exists only as long as the thinker/creator actively chooses to think about it. That, however, is precisely the point. It is a something that is made out of nothing.

Moreover, all the objects, people, and events which characterize this world are made out of the same thing, namely thought. The only antecedent to their existence is the desire of the thinker to think them. The beings who inhabit the thought world have no independent reality and no intrinsic stability since they must constantly be brought into existence and animated by the will of the thinker. If the thinker/creator is bored with imagining a particular character, he does not have to devise circumstances in which the offending individual dies (although he may certainly do so). He simply ceases to imagine him. Similarly, the thinker/creator is not bound by any necessities, laws, or causes. He can just as easily create a world in which things fall up as one in which things fall down. He can assume anything he likes. Shakespeare dreamt up King Lear. In order to get King Lear where Shakespeare wanted him, namely as a foolish old man, Shakespeare did not have to imagine his birth, weaning, adolescence, and middle years. Shakespeare's King Lear is not the product of a series of somethings, e.g., an indulgent, permissive mother, poor social skills as a teenager, and so on. Rather, he is the product of nothing: Shakespeare's unfettered creative intellect.

The metaphor of creative human thought correlates nicely with many, although by no means all, aspects of universal creation. The Torah Jew does not see intelligence and purpose in the design of the universe, but rather, intelligence and purpose are the stuff of which the universe is made. People may reasonably expect that unless something very unusual occurs, the sun will exist five minutes from now. The Torah Jew knows that unless something unusual happens, the sun will not be here five minutes or even five seconds from now. The singular event is that the sun's Creator must trouble Himself to invest it with existence and endow it with definitive properties by thinking it. The facts that the sun has a long history and that its present existence is mandated by natural law are irrelevant since time and natural law are likewise "thoughts" which require constant attention.

As in the case of the creative thinker, the Creator of the universe is alone, and the existence of the universe in no way compromises his "aloneness". Moreover, just as thoughts are united with and dependent upon the will of the thinker, so are the Creator and His "thoughts" one. The great statement of Jewish faith, the Sh'ma ("Hear, 0 Israel, the L-rd is our G-d, the L-rd is One", Deuteronomy 6:4), which is generally known to be the ultimate expression of G-d's unity, is understood by many to mean that there is only one G-d. Although this interpretation is not incorrect, it is trivial, and is, furthermore, entirely consistent with the something from something doctrine explained above. The thrust of the Sh'ma is not that there is only one G-d, but rather that He is all there is. G-d is the only reality. All else, from the totality of space to a dead leaf blowing around in a backyard, are His "thoughts" and are absolutely subordinate, in form and content, to His conscious Will.

Among the many implications of the creation of something from nothing, perhaps the most important is the tremendous significance that it confers upon our natural circumstances. Since even the most paltry events require constant animation by G-d's willed thought, they are obviously of great importance to G-d; otherwise He would not continually trouble Himself to actively think them. In addition, given the infinite, unrestrained, transcendent range of His creativity, the fact that He chose to create our finite world, with all its minutia, is nothing short of astounding. Nothing, therefore, is trivial. The existence of a speck of dust requires the same attention as a galaxy. It follows that the speck of dust is as essential to the fulfillment of G-d's supernal plan as is the galaxy. There is G-dly potential and an absolute, transcendent purpose in everything. Obviously, there is no such thing as happenstance.

Another ramification of the principle of something from nothing relates to the phenomenology of miracles. There has been much agonizing over the "problem" of miracles. All sorts of contrived arguments have been proposed to reconcile miracles with natural events. Such arguments claim that Mount Sinai was really a volcano, the splitting of the Red Sea was the product of a tidal wave, and so on. Even more distressing are the tortured apologetics of religious Jewish scientists who attempt to reconcile miracles with the natural order by invoking the Uncertainty Principle, quantum indeterminacy, and the like. These mental gymnastic are, of course, demanded by adherence to a something from something world view. From the something from nothing perspective, however, natural law is constantly brought into existence by Divine free will. Therefore, natural law is not intrinsically more logical or compelling than a supernatural event. The Creator can imagine water standing as a wall just as easily as He can endow it with what are considered its natural properties. In other words, natural events are no less supernatural than miraculous events. They are simply much more frequent.

The analogy of creative human thought is only a starting point for the discussion of universal creation. The analogy is seriously limited. It does not, for example, address the apparent dissociation between nothing and something. The world does not look like a collection of thoughts. People and things appear to be independent realities. Furthermore, according to the argument developed thus far, G-d's unrestrained creative intellect is termed the "nothing" by means of which all somethings exist. Why should such an exalted emanation from the Creator be called nothing? On the contrary, it is a very big something, since it is the very life of Creation.

We call G-d's volitional creative intellect "nothing" because we have no direct access to it and, therefore, it is outside the realm of our experience. We can't see it, feel it, detect it, measure it, or even imagine it. Something that one cannot relate to in any way is empirically "nothing". A person could spend a lifetime in this world without it ever dawning on him that all is G-dliness. The fact that G-dliness is inaccessible to us does not, of course, in any way compromise its objective reality. It is nothing only with respect to us.

As it happens, Divinely willed thought is nothing with respect to the Creator as well, but for a very different reason. Let us look, once again, at the daydream metaphor. Given a lifetime of experience and learning, as well as unlimited imagination, how much of the totality of the daydreamer is reflected in the daydream? Clearly the "amount" of the individual's creative intellect invested in the daydream is so miniscule as to be nothing. Once again, however, this analogy is inadequate because the Creator is not a human. The extent to which a person transcends a daydream is truly incomparable to the infinite extent to which the Creator transcends His Creation.

All of this leaves us with a very disturbing question. If the Creator's thought is so far beyond our grasp as to be nothing, and if it is so infinitely beneath His essence as to be nothing, does not this preclude any relationship between Him and us? Between His Being and our being is an endless and bottomless sea of nothing.

Indeed, from our side, He is completely beyond reach. Whatever relationship we have with Him can only be established from His side. We can only know of Him what He chooses to reveal to us, and remarkably, He has chosen to reveal quite a bit. This is the miracle of Torah. Torah bridges the immeasurable distance between the Creator and the Creation.

How and why His infinite, essential Will (which reflects Himself) is enclothed in Torah, is unknowable. How a five year-old child studying Chumash (Bible)with Rashi commentary is able to grasp the ungraspableessence of his Creator cannot be explained. How the binding of tefillin (phylacteries) on the head and arm unites the essence of the Jew with the essence of G-d cannot be understood. How seemingly trivial objects such as matzah (unleavened bread) or an etrog (citron) can serve, at specified times, as vessels with which to capture Divinity and reveal it in time and space is unfathomable. It is, after all, His Torah.

The Torah, then, is at the heart of the something from nothing position. All the something from something theorists approach causality from their own perspectives and on their own terms. Judaism, which is at odds with everyone and everything else, is based on the truth that G-d is not a something, and therefore if He is to be approached at all, it must be from His perspective and on His terms.