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The ultimate ‘action at a distance’

Here is something that Einstein could not explain. Nor could the pioneering ophthalmologists conducting a clinical trial to alleviate “Leber hereditary optic neuropathy,” which causes blindness. Nor could I explain what I witnessed at a certain synagogue at 4 a.m. on Shavuot. Nor can anyone, in prayer for the ill, explain its mechanism. What is unexplainable? “Action at a distance.”

Einstein and two of his colleagues coined the term, “action at a distance.” Two particles diverge under the impact of a single force. Then, when the two particles are far apart, a force acting on only one particle actually affects the other particle, too, even though there is no discernible means of impact. The second particle “knows” that something happened to the first one, and it responds as one of a pair. How? Einstein was baffled. He and his colleague could not explain this. How does one particle know what happens only to another one?

Leber hereditary optic neuropathy (LHON) is caused by a mutation in a gene named mtND4. As I said, it causes blindness.

To try to treat patients with the dreaded condition, a group of ophthalmologists in Hubei, China, modified a virus to carry the normal version of the ND4. Millions of gene-modified virus particles were suspended in a droplet of liquid.

A tiny needle pierced the edge of the patient’s cornea and deposited the drop of dense viral soup into the vitreous layer, just above the retina.

Lo and behold, the gene therapy halted the progressive loss of vision in patients with LHON within six months.

Now, the gene therapy was applied to only one eye, but, at 96 weeks, both eyes, the treated eye and the untreated eye, showed significant improvements in acuity. Why did the untreated eye also improve? At this stage, it is guesswork. Is there some as yet unperceived interconnection between retinal ganglion cells, or some other mechanism of connection?* At this point, it is “action at a distance.”

One Shavuot evening in Borough Park, the way I mustered the strength to study Torah all night was by switching my location of study. I left one study hall and entered that of the Bobover Rebbe, R’ Shlomo Halberstam (1907-2000). It was about 4 a.m. The very large hall was almost empty. It could hold hundreds but only about 15 people remained. The Rebbe was studying in his seat up front. I sat down in the back and tried to focus. Fifteen or 30 minutes passed when suddenly, utterly without warning, there was a uniform commotion. The Rebbe had stood up to leave and as he did all of the other people in the shul stood up too — instantaneously — even those in the furthest corners of the study hall. Now, both the Rebbe and everyone else had been peering into their books. No one was looking at each other. Yet, when the Rebbe arose, it was as if an electrical current pulsated through everyone there. Not looking at the Rebbe, everyone “knew” exactly when he stood up. Action at a distance.

What is the ultimate 
action at a distance? It is, I submit, prayer for the healing of a sick person.

I pray. There is no discernible mechanism of impact, no discernible material interconnection, between me and the person for whose health I am praying. Yes, I am praying to G-d, but how and when G-d chooses to heal a sick person is as mysterious as the effect of Einstein’s action on one particle in its impact on still another particle; as mysterious as the impact of one treated eye on an untreated eye; as mysterious as disciples’ “knowledge” of the action of their rebbe.

Yet, explainable or not, there is such a thing as action as a distance, in both the physical and the spiritual realms. If Einstein can affirm it, if ophthalmologist researchers can search for it, if disciples can know it, then I certainly should be able to affirm that it is prayer for physical healing that aids in healing in those instances when a person heals.

It is action at a distance.

* I have drawn and quoted this from The Song of the Cell, by Siddhartha Mukherjee (Simon and Shuster, 2022), pp. 92-94.

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