What I Learned About Social Justice From the Higgs Boson

I don't often get to say that I feel like Moses, but I did at one point in the past year. There was a discovery made this summer of epic proportions, one that is going to change, we are told, the face of physics and perhaps our entire understanding of the universe.
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A version of this piece was delivered as my Yom Kippur sermon.

A famous story in the Talmud (Menachot 29b) recounts the following: Moses once went up on high and saw God embellishing the letters of the Torah with fancy crowns. Moses asked, "What is with the crowns, Holy One?" God responds, "One day, many generations from now, there will be a wise scholar, Akiva is his name, and he will interpret many laws from these very crowns." Moses asks to see this Akiva and, in a moment of Back to the Future-like wizardry, he is transported ahead in time to Akiva's classroom. He is sitting in the back row and as he listens to the lesson, he is astonished. He has absolutely no idea what Akiva is talking about in this lesson! He starts to feel faint and disoriented, until one student raises his hand and asks Akiva the source for a particular point of law he was expounding. Akiva answers, "From Moses at Mt. Sinai!" Moses feels better, for despite the fact that he does not understand Akiva's lesson, he is comforted that it is indeed rooted in his own tradition.

I don't often get to say that I feel like Moses, but I did at one point in the past year. There was a discovery made this summer of epic proportions, one that is going to change, we are told, the face of physics and perhaps our entire understanding of the universe. Known as the Higgs Boson, it is the cornerstone of modern physics, believed to play a key role in imbuing things with mass. It is the last missing part of the Standard Model, a suite of equations that has held sway as the law of the cosmos for the last 35 years. It could explain, for example, why the universe is made of matter and not antimatter, or what constitutes the dark matter and dark energy that rule the larger universe. What was discovered at CERN, in Geneva, could constitute a rendezvous with destiny for a generation of physicists who have believed in the boson for half a century without ever seeing it. The finding affirms a grand view of a universe described by simple and elegant and symmetrical laws, but one in which everything interesting, like ourselves, results from flaws or breaks in that symmetry. Mass, energy, light, particles, protons, collisions, equations. To this point, I have no idea what I am talking about and in this regard, I feel completely like Moses! And if you are not one of the many among us who work at Caltech or JPL, maybe you feel like Moses too. But at the end of the article in the New York Times, which I was just quoting from to describe Higgs, I got my moment of relief: the Higgs Boson is what some like to call the God Particle. Eureka! Now you are talking my language! While I am struggling to help my kids with 5th grade math, thereby making physics completely beyond me, understanding this discovery as what we might call God, the glue that holds the universe together, the power that makes for both unity and diversity, described by scientists as "the only manifestation of an invisible forcefield, a cosmic molasses that permeates space and imbues elementary particles with mass," this makes perfect sense. I would have loved to have been in the room at CERN, with all the celebrations and toasts and jubilation and prayed "maariv aravim" or "sh'ma yisrael" with all of them! While science needs to have physical proof, through equations, which I totally respect and admire, I also feel kinship with those that have said they felt this field existed without being able to prove it. To me, that is faith, that is God, that is the glue that holds us together. Call it what you like, use math or science or Hebrew or Greek or English or whatever; like Moses, we can all have that feeling of connection when the pieces are put in place.

In another piece of witty Talmud (Kiddushin 40b), the sages ask, "What is more important: study or action?" In a very Jewish answer, they respond, "Study, because it leads to action." The God particle, the glue that holds us together, becomes visible when we transform our faith into action. So I ask: Where is the God particle in Syria, as a civil war continues to rage on, with babies slaughtered before our eyes, with the world community sitting on the sidelines? Where is the God particle in Darfur, where that war continues to rise and fall as we struggle to figure out how to help, or in the Congo, that war-ravaged land where the minerals we all use in our cellphones come from? Where is the God particle in our world as the president of Iran -- a man who, on a regular basis, threatens to destroy Israel, and is threatening to bring our world to the brink of another massive war -- is speaking at the United Nations today, right now, as Jews around the globe are fasting and praying? Rabbi David Wolpe preached last week that the Iranian threat of acquiring the bomb is the single greatest issue facing Jews and the entire world, and he may be right. Where was the God particle when extremists, acting like brutal savages, took the lives of Ambassador Stevens and his staff? And where was the God particle when insidious human beings tricked B-rate actors into making a shabby movie that they then converted into an anti-Islamic piece of propaganda trash? Where is the God particle when one in five American children lives in poverty and hunger, where schools are closing, where food is contaminated, where droughts, floods, fires, storms and melting ice caps threaten our planet and all the creatures who call Earth home? Where was the God particle in that locker room at Penn State? The God particle remains invisible, remains an elusive and unattainable equation that offers us nothing, if we human beings do not bring it to light, living out our destiny as creatures created in the image of that God particle.

And lest you think that I am giving another gloom and doom sermon on Yom Kippur, one that will leave us feeling weighed down, not lifted up, I want to share some ideas from three books I worked through this summer, two of them given to me by congregants. The first is called "Rational Optimism," by Matt Ridley, who suggests that the world is actually much better today, and getting even better, than our ancestors ever imagined it could be. In category after category, for almost 400 pages, he brings evidence for feeling positive and hopeful. I didn't agree with everything in this book and the author's British wit and sarcasm left me bristling at times. But he said something at the end that moved me. He writes, "It is precisely because there is still far more suffering and scarcity in the world than I or anybody else with a heart could wish that ambitious optimism is morally mandatory" (Ridley, p. 353).

Ambitious optimism -- that phrase to me sings of the God particle. Whether Ridley would agree, I don't know. But I believe, like Ridley, that we have the capacity to fix the real challenges we face if only we can summon the courage, creativity, will and ambitious optimism to work together with the right motivations.

The second book was "Bonhoeffer, Pastor, Martyr, Prophet, Spy" by Eric Metaxas about Dietrich Bonhoeffer, a German Lutheran minister who fought against, and eventually was killed, by the Nazis for being part of a plot to assassinate Hitler. Bonhoeffer, a smart, aristocratic and wealthy man, born into a noble family, twice came to America: first to study with influential theologian Rienhold Niebuhr, and then to teach at Union Theological Seminary in New York. It was in America, and particularly in Harlem at the Abyssinian Baptist Church, that he learned about segregation and the oppression of African Americans. Through listening to fiery sermons from the likes of Adam Clayton Powell Sr. in Harlem, and Rabbi Stephen Wise at the Free Synagogue, Bonhoeffer came to understand the sufferings of minorities, and the ineptitude of his church to do anything serious about them. It was during this time, early 1930s America, that he is said to have "turned from phraseology to reality." He taught, spoke out, gave thousands of speeches, started a new church, a new seminary and organized against the Third Reich. After coming again to Union in 1939, his conscious ate at him for running from evil. He did the unthinkable when he left the safety of America in late 1939, to return to this native Germany to fight against the Nazis. He is said to have been on the last chartered ship across the Atlantic. I was quite inspired by his notion that God was so good and compassionate, so full of righteousness and justice, that he, Bonhoeffer, couldn't sit back and not try to bring his own Godly energies into the heart of darkness that was engulfing the world, and murdering our people. He was arrested and hung in 1945, just days before the war ended. This man, a friend to the Jewish people and humanity, from a privileged class, was a vivid example of a life centered around one's God particle.

The last book I spent time with this summer was the Torah. I know, that doesn't count, right? Especially for the rabbi. I spent time looking carefully at chapter 19 of Leviticus -- the Holiness Code -- where it famously says, kedoshim ti'hiyu ki kadosh ani adonai eloheichem, "you shall be holy for I, Adonai your God am holy." Being holy, which gets fleshed out in the later verses of that chapter, as not putting a stumbling block before the blind, not cheating one another, not hating one another in our hearts, not bearing a grudge, not insulting the deaf, and positively, to love our neighbors as our ourselves, reminds me that the God particle lives in the world when we act in ways that activate God's call to us. It is the theology of Rabbi Harold Schulweis, what he terms Predicate Theology, one that teaches if we have a hard time with God, then look for acts of Godliness in our world. If God could do it without us, we wouldn't have been created. There is a teaching of the Netivot Shalom, the Slominer Rebbe, who says that we all are born with a sh'lichut elyonah, "a higher message or purpose," each of us called to bring a certain aspect of holiness into the world in our time, in our place, from our own lived experience. What is yours? What will you be committed to do to bring your own bit of the God particle into the world?

Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel, who had a similar awakening to social justice just a few decades after Bonhoeffer, taught us that the God particle comes to life when we stand up and shine our divine lights into the darkness that permeates our world. Dr. King taught us that lesson and, like Bonhoeffer, paid for it with his life. The parents of Syrian children who marched in the early days of the war, standing up to the tyranny of oppression taught us that lesson. Israeli and Palestinian parents who have lost children to terror and war, yet still come together for reconciliation and peace, teach us that the God particle lives in us. People who donate bone marrow, organs and blood for others; people who volunteer in the Armed Services to protect our nation; doctors, nurses and therapists who care for the elderly, the sick and disabled; teachers who work hard and creatively to educate; all these folks bring the God particle to life. Gilad Shalit, surviving five years of captivity, released this past year, healing and rebuilding his life to cover the NBA finals last spring and celebrate in the Miami locker room, he brought the God particle to life. The two NFL players, who, against the prevailing culture of their sport, stood up recently and publicly supported marriage equality -- they are bringing the God particle to life. Micha Feldman, the amazing savior of Ethiopian Jews who orchestrated the airlifting of thousands of people from Africa to Israel in one, long weekend, and who now dedicates his life to helping these souls become integrated into Israeli society, he is teeming with the God particle. Members of my own community, here in Pasadena, who are tutoring kids at school, feeding the hungry, fighting for fair housing, safer policing, better business practices and healthier food for us to eat -- all of us together are working to bring the God particle to life.

If we -- each one of us -- don't do our part to take care of our world, if we don't take the necessary risks to stand up, to speak out, to work against the forces of darkness and evil that do want to destroy our amazing world, then the Higgs Boson, the God particle, religion, prayer and God Herself, Himself, Itself, however you believe or don't believe, all of that will be meaningless, useless and forgotten. What I hope for, what I pray for, what I seek is how to work more creatively, more effectively, more productively, more lovingly, more compassionately, more profoundly, to help build a world where, perhaps a video of Muslims, Christians and Jews praying and working together, for peace and reconciliation, as my friends and I at AFPI are working to create in a program a few weeks from today, can spark a revolution as widespread and as emotionally charged to bring people together rather than tear them apart; a world where the knowledge of a force field of invisible energy, one that ties the entire universe together, inspires us to finally lay down our arms, lay down our hate, lay down our anger, lay down our disappointment, lay down our fear and come together to feed, clothe, heal, protect, share and celebrate as one human family. Let us be inspired to figure out that equation, with all the ambitious optimism we can muster, in the coming year.

"I want to thank my colleague Rabbi Sharon Brous for suggesting the examples of the Syrian parents, the NFL players and the bone marrow donors, as well as the teaching of the Slonimer rebbe that I cited. I regret the omission."

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