Cosmic Santa Cruz couple examine confluence of spirituality, science

Can a Jewish astrophysicist find God at the edge of the universe? Ask Joel Primack and Nancy Ellen Abrams and you get no simple answers. But you do get good ones.

The Jewish couple from Santa Cruz tackle many complex questions in their new book “The View From the Center of the Universe,” which attempts to reconcile the science of cosmology with the human need for spirituality.

Primack is a renowned scientist and professor of physics at U.C. Santa Cruz. Abrams, his wife, is a lecturer, author and attorney. For 10 years, the two have taught a course together at U.C. Santa Cruz called “Cosmology and Culture.”

Their book weaves the latest scientific data with ancient traditions that attempt to explain the universe. Everything from the kabbalists’ Tree of Life to the creation myth of Mexico’s Huichol Indians figures into their thesis. The bottom line: As human beings — self-aware stardust — unravel the deepest secrets of the cosmos, it’s time we placed ourselves back in the center of the universe.

Married for 28 years, Primack and Abrams hold their religion in high regard. In fact, Abrams has even composed a couple of songs, “Abraham was Listening” and “The Book of Life,” that are frequently used by Chadeish Yameinu, the Renewal community in Santa Cruz whose services she attends.

But that doesn’t mean they accept a fundamentalist view of Torah.

“Thinking Jews see very little correspondence with the Bible and the scientific universe,” says Abrams. “You can’t take it literally.”

Adds Primack, “It’s clear that the six-day creation story is the story of a flat Earth. This is the reading of most modern scholars, including most Jewish scholars.”

In their book, Primack and Abrams re-examine the unfathomable scale of space and time, the Big Bang and the destiny of the universe. Much space phenomena — from black holes to string theory — is hard for most people to comprehend. Which is why human societies often turned to religion and myth to explain the unexplainable.

“There’s a human need to explain ourselves,” says Abrams. “We still have to have a story, but we need one that’s believable. So we start with science, but express this story in mythical language and symbol.”

The genesis of their book stretches back to the early 1990s. In conversations with clergy and theologians Primack asked if they thought it made a difference that the universe was expanding. “Many would say, ‘No,'” he recalls. “And that’s pathetic. They were saying, ‘Religion governs my life and has nothing to do with reality.'”

Then he met Daniel Matt, the celebrated translator of the Zohar, the classic kabbalistic text, who was then a professor at the Graduate Theological Union in Berkeley. “I would ask him about Kabbalah and we’d have long discussions, walking in the Berkeley Hills. Nancy and I wrote an article for Tikkun Magazine in 1995 on Kabbalah and cosmology. Now it’s fashionable to make comparisons, but ours was the first.”

That led to an intellectual inquiry that ultimately resulted in the new book.

Primack’s fascination with Kabbalah didn’t come out of nowhere. He grew up in a kosher home in Butte, Mont., in the 1950s. “My mother always lit Shabbat candles,” he says, “but we became more Reform. I’ve continued to read and study about religion.”

He has gone on to chair the Forum on Physics and Society of the American Physical Society, as well as the Committee on Science, Ethics and Religion of the American Association for the Advancement of Science. “We had to spend half our time every year fighting the creationists,” he says. “It was our mission to promote and defend science.”

Abrams grew up in in Maplewood, N.J. Though atheists, her parents sent her to Hebrew school anyway. “I was always asking questions teachers were uncomfortable with,” she says. “When they taught us about Abraham sacrificing Isaac, I said, ‘Who was Isaac supposed to pray to?’ I was sent out of the room.”

She went on to become a lawyer and worked for the U.S. Congress’ Office of Technology Assessment. But over time she and her husband blended their interests, so that nowadays they often work as a team.

As the two ponder the vastness of space on a daily basis, one might expect them to view life on Earth as inconsequential as a grain of pollen. Not so, they say.

“We don’t know if there’s any more intelligent life,” says Primack. “So what happens on Earth in the next few years could affect the whole future. Whether we solve our problems or wipe out life can affect the evolution of our part of the cosmos. We are the pinnacle of complexity in the universe.”

That’s why the two have faith that humankind just might find its way out of the current global mess. And at least for Primack and Abrams, they have a personal head start thanks to their Jewish origins.

“I have always been intrigued that ‘Israel’ means ‘struggle with God,'” says Abrams. “I love that it is embedded in our religion. The struggle is towards oneness, how we become one with the universe.” n

“The View from the Center of the Universe” by Joel R. Primack and Nancy Ellen Abrams (316 pages, Riverhead Books/Penguin Group, $25.95).

Dan Pine

Dan Pine is a contributing editor at J. He was a longtime staff writer at J. and retired as news editor in 2020.