Entanglement, Chesed, and the Quantum Biology of Incense

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After the end of the Sabbath service meant to recall the sacrifices in the Temple, we recite a curious addendum. It’s a recipe taken from the Talmud (Kereisos 6b) for a kind of incense that was used in the Temple. It required 11 ingredients in specific measures, including “galbanum,” a terpentine-smelling extract of gum plants, and “Carshina lye,” which is toxic and can be substituted for by urine. Indeed, it sounds altogether foul, although if you knew the ingredients of the most expensive perfumes out of Paris, you’d turn up your nose, too. Likewise, together these 11 substances produced a divine smell. Furthermore, the mixture was so sacred, violating the formula by one jot was punishable by death.

Although the Amidah is meant to substitute for the Temple service, and the spreading of smoky incense was the conclusion of the service, this technical, arcane process from a relatively obscure Talmudic passage seems out of place when the rest of these Shabbat prayers are abstract, about holiness, peace, and the greatness of God.  The fact that it is so insistently technical, earthy, materialistic and sensory, even more so than the original in Exodus 30, makes it more jarring.

On a recent Shabbat (2016), R. Yitzchok Feldman of Emek Beracha in Palo Alto expounded on the mitzvah of the incense used in the Temple, ketores. He explained its connection to the kabbalistic sefira (aspect) of God called chesed, usually translated as “kindness” – but meaning much more. The ketores produces a transformative scent. It influences all who smell it and binds them together in its experience. Like acts of kindness, it emanates and spreads throughout the congregation and out into the world in unforeseen ways that bind humanity together and elevates them.

I naturally thought of the concept of entanglement in quantum mechanics. Ok, that’s weird. Let me try to explain.

Quantum Biology Breaches the Wall of Our Reality

For the last century, most physicists treated the troubling and enigmatic implications of quantum mechanics as something to be banished to the realms of philosophy and metaphysics, trying to keep the nose of the consciousness camel out of the tent of strictly causal and objective physics. Physics still largely quarantines the absurdity of subatomic shenanigans from the observable macroscopic world we live in by claiming the two realities are unconnected. The world we experience continues to behave in an orderly, Newtonian, commonsensical fashion. Things don’t change each other by magic. Reality is there whether someone’s looking at it or not. Stuff can’t be in two places at once and no where at all.

But in the last decades, this quarantine has become increasingly difficult to maintain. Science itself has stormed its own comfortable cliches with experimental results that show consciousness, human or at least intelligent consciousness, is implicated in determining reality even in the macroscopic world we experience directly through our senses.  Experiments in the 1960s and 1980s have shown that two objects separated by any conceivable  connection, even at other ends of the universe, are entangled and somehow affect each other instantaneously. Still, physics had a whole armory of ways to wall off these disturbing phenomena from commonsense reality. saying that when the quantum world interacted with a macroscopic phenomenon, that macroscopic entity “observed” the probabilistic quantum, collapsing it into a stable realism. Its formal name is “Decoherence.”

But in the last ten years, quantum biology has shown that behaviors in our familiar world of nature are directly connected to and reliant on quantum processes. The orientation of migrating birds. The operation of genes. Photosynthesis. The comfortable quarantine that has kept our sense of reality simple and free from philosophy and metaphysics has now collapsed. And that collapse is utter and complete. It can’t be confined, because it is now likely to be shown that the whole universe interacts at all levels with quantum weirdness.


One of those quantum phenomena that is impossible to ignore at the macroscopic level is entanglement: the spooky coordination between the behavior of objects that have no material, physical or any other possible connection either invisible or theoretical. Even objects – photons – that are traveling apart at the speed of light or are separated by vast distances instantaneously coordinate their reality. When one is tickled, its entangled twin across the universe laughs.

Perhaps we can get comfortable with the way this betrays our commonsense notions of reality for photons, because they are weird little buggers to begin with, both wave and particle, expressions of a probability formula that ineluctably shows they don’t even really exist in any proper sense of the word until they are observed.  But entanglement isn’t confined to photons and other sub-atomic particles. As two physicists explain in a recent book:

“We talk in terms of twin-state photons because that situation is readily described and subject to experiment. In principle, however, any two objects that have ever interacted are forever entangled. The behavior of one instantaneously influences the other. An entanglement exists even if the interaction is through each of the objects having interacted with a third object. In principle, our world has a universal connectedness.
“Quantum entanglement for large objects [like chairs or people] is generally too complex to notice. But not always.”

Bruce Rosenblum and Fred Kuttner, QUANTUM ENIGMA: PHYSICS ENCOUNTERS CONSCIOUSNESS (Oxford UP, 2006)

This wasn’t written by tripped-out tree-hugging Zen Juddhist ecstatic hippies, but by two well-respected tenured physicists at UC  (admittedly, it is Santa Cruz, but nonetheless…). Their book, published by the well-respected Oxford University Press, chronicles how orthodox physics has suppressed those enigmatic but unavoidable conclusions of quantum mechanics. And the most disturbing of these enigmas is the conspiracy between human consciousness and the way it binds our reality to the spookiness of the quantum level. Once things including human things, interact with quantum weirdness, it is entangled with it. And, by the way, everything in the universe interacts.

These aren’t just mystic metaphors  They are the serious and real, if often censored, consequences of quantum physics. They troubled Einstein and generations of brilliant physicists since, but experimental evidence shows they are incontrovertible.
The science that studies how quantum mechanics breaches the wall of biology is called Quantum Biology. One of the known ways that behavior in our natural, observable world is actually produced by quantum events is the navigation of birds. Another is photosynthesis. A third is enzymatic reactions, including those that transform the nature of one organic substance into another, like milk into cheese via rennet, or juice into wine via yeast, or flour and water into bread, also via yeast.  These have rituals attached to them in many cultures. But in Judaism, the metaphysics of their physics (or organic chemistry) is revealed, if we read it through this lens, by the halacha attached to them: cheese, wine, bread.

Another event that relies on quantum biology, and all the metaphysical implication it brings, is smell.

I always wondered why ketores is recited after the end of the Musaf amidah. It seems like such an odd and specific intrusion in the climax of the service. But Rabbi Feldman brought it all into focus by connecting the incense with chesed.  Ketores is designed to created the most beautiful, pungent, memorable, unique, and transporting scent, wafted on smoke to fill the Temple. We’re supposed to remember that Divine smell – or rehearse the rabbis’ memory of it  –  and also remember their pain at its loss. We are supposed to long for that smell as we long for the Temple, with the curious admixture of ache and inspiration, in the hope of the time when we can smell that smell again in the rebuilt Temple. Nostalgia, nostos algia, pain for home. And in the particular technical instructions for making it, we are reminded of the elaborate instructions for building the Mishkan, the Sanctuary of the Temple, in two sections of the  Torah itself. And so we are looking forward to rebuilding it.

Metaphysics in the physics (and chemistry)

The recipe for ketores specified in the Talmud, specifically the part of the formula that will produce an emanating smell I believe, is an enzymatic reaction produced by lye, which as I said above, relies on quantum mechanics. Lye, which is highly alkaline, catalyses and binds all the other ingredients into an active, dynamic new compound that transcends the sum of its parts. The siddur specifies that urine could be substituted for lye to rpoduce the same outcome, but it is undignified for use in the Temple. It makes sense: it would introduce the same highly alkaline catalysis, depending on the diet of the donor. (At the risk of boring you, lye is produced by a membrane cell chloralkali process, which is itself a quantum biological process.)
So when Rabbi Feldman taught that the smell of ketores means chesed because it spreads out and connects all of us in unseen and ineffable ways, it is literally true at the level of physics. If we dug a little deeper, I’m convinced we find equivalence between the kabbalistic meaning of chesed as universal connectedness and emotion – as Proust knew, nothing affects emotion and memory like smell – and this quantum understanding of the process the ketores formula unleashes, its entanglement and not just as a mere metaphor,  but as an actual physical process.
The G-Theory: Orthodox Judaism, Quantum Biology, and the Weakening of Orthodox Science
From the viewpoint of orthodox science, the ultimate heretical implication of quantum mechanics is that the universe is sustained by an unimaginably dynamic and omniscient Universal Consciousness Who observes every one of the infinite quantum events occurring everywhere in every sub-nanosecond and His observation enables reality to unfold. Even our Jewish heretic physicists, Rosenblum and Kuttner, completely avoid mention of the G-word, except in one dismissive, and I believe, self-contradictory sentence (“God may be Omnipotent, but he is not Omniscient” – p. 171).
However, accepting the G-Hypothesis actually does away with some fairly absurd and, so far, unprovable assertions. I think of them as contortions, illogical turns designed to preserve logic in the face of experimental and mathematical proofs that show logic’s limitations. Although these still dominate the way orthodox physics is taught today, I predict they will be short-lived: The Many Worlds Hypothesis, String Theory, and some other gyrations too technical and in the end self-contradictory to delve here (A Universal Robot Consciousness; Decoherence, as I explained above; Random Collapses of the Wavefunction, and others).
On the other hand, embracing the G-theory explains plenty of scientific mysteries without introducing any idea not consistent with what science itself has shown. It explains the “Unreasonable Efficacy of Mathematics in the Natural Sciences,” as Eugene Wigner described it in his 1960 paper. It explains the otherwise unreasonably and statistically far-fetched coincidence of constants  (Planck’s Constant, the strength of electromagnetic, gravity, and weak forces, among others) in the universe enables life to arise. It opens the door to implicating a Conscious Force in the Creation of the Universe, for which science has no satisfactory theory, and how Free Will and Determinism can both exist without contradiction.
At the same time, this vision – or scent – of a Quantum-Mechanical, Reality-Unfolding, All-Observing God moves in the opposite direction, from science to an appreciation of spirtual matters, for it gives us a pretty good understanding of what the Torah might have meant by His ineffable Name, an Unfolding Ever-Present Consciousness observing every minute event in the universe, even at the ineffable and impossibly infinite quantum level.

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