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Torah + Science: It all Adds Up

For Mordechai Kornbluth, Advanced Rabbinic and Physics Studies are Part of the Same Equation

At Yeshiva University, students pursue a wide array of interests. Some conduct cutting-edge research with the guidance and support of faculty mentors. Others, fascinated by foreign cultures or historical texts, sharpen their analytic skills and broaden their worldviews with Semitic language courses. And still others deepen their connection to Torah and Judaism by immersing themselves in top-level shiurim [lectures] at the Rabbi Isaac Elchanan Theological Seminary (RIETS).

A former Kressel Scholar, Kornbluth's research on quantum physics has been published in several scientific journals.

In his four years on campus, Mordechai Kornbluth accomplished all three.

Kornbluth, a Teaneck, NJ native who graduated Yeshiva College in May, majored in physics, minored in mathematics and Semitic languages, and enrolled in rabbinic studies at RIETS in his senior year. Now a graduate student in a joint MS/PhD program in applied physics at Columbia University, he is also continuing his semikha studies at RIETS. It may seem like an unlikely combination, but according to Kornbluth, it’s all part of the same equation.

“To become the person I want to be, I have to be well-versed in every aspect of my life, from science to Torah and halakha,” said Kornbluth, a 2005 graduate of YU High School for Boys.

“The Rambam [Maimonides] said that if you look closely at the universe, you’ll see the beauty of creation and it will enhance your relationship with God. He was talking in concepts, not mathematics, but as I see it, physics is the way God created the universe—the principle is similar.”

That logic led him to cultivate tools that would help him better understand the inner workings of Judaism and the natural world—for example, his minor in Semitic languages. “To open up a Gemara, you have to know the language and understand the way the words work, the way the authors intended them,” said Kornbluth. To that end, he took an advanced Biblical Hebrew class at YU’s Bernard Revel Graduate School of Judaic Studies, as well as two Yeshiva College courses in Syriac, a dialect of Aramaic that was popular in the Gemara’s time. “The Gemara actually talks about Syriac in a few places,” he said. “It’s very helpful to understand that component of the text.”

As a Henry Kressel Research Scholar, Kornbluth also explored the hidden dimensions of the laws of physics. “There’s a quest in quantum mechanics to try to send communications as precisely as possible, but that’s often tricky to achieve,” he explained. Picture the beam of a dim flashlight in a room that’s not very dark. “Some of the light you see isn’t coming from your beam—it might be coming from a streetlight outside or a light outside. That’s ‘noise’—something you didn’t intend to communicate.”

Working closely with his mentor Dr. Fredy Zypman, professor of physics at Yeshiva College, Kornbluth spent his last two years on campus searching for situations that minimize those uncertainties within the constraints established by quantum physics.

“This project had interested Dr. Zypman for more than 25 years, but he never found the right student to work on it with,” said Kornbluth. “So I picked it up for my honors thesis and got to work. Eventually I got to a point where I could write out the entire, complete equation for him on a single blackboard. That was a big deal for me.”

Kornbluth is continuing his semikha study at RIETS while pursuing a graduate degree in applied physics at Columbia University.

Kornbluth’s research in the area was published in a recent article in The Journal of Mathematical Physics, which rarely features undergraduate work. He has also published articles in Mathematical Structures in Computer Science and Entropy.

“Ever since I first met Mordechai in Freshman Physics, I recognized his innate abilities,” said Zypman. “He showed great interest in learning new concepts and excellent technical abilities that made the challenging project I gave him possible. This no doubt contributed to his obtaining a Presidential Fellowship from Columbia University to pursue his PhD.”

Kornbluth felt his close relationship with Zypman and other faculty at Yeshiva College was integral as he charted his academic career, receiving their guidance on everything from research topics to graduate school choices. “Dr. Zypman was always accessible, always had ideas about where to go next and was always excited about whatever new or interesting thing I’d discovered,” said Kornbluth. “My goal when I did research was to have enough material to entertain him for an hour using a computer, blackboard and chalk.”

In the summer, Kornbluth plans to begin research focused in condensed matter physics, which studies the way nature interacts with different materials.

For now, though, Kornbluth intends to get the most out of his time in both the classroom and the beit midrash at YU’s Jacob and Dreizel Glueck Center for Jewish Study, where, he feels, there is still so much to learn. Part of the draw for him is the atmosphere of intense communal study. “The top guys there know their stuff backwards and forwards. You can see that the next generation of roshei yeshiva and gedolim are sitting right there.”