From "Facing Current Challenges: Essays on Judaism," by Yehudah
Levi, as quoted in a book review by Yosef Gavriel Bechhofer in the Fall
2003 issue of Jewish Action, p. 86.
"To sum up our findings on the Torah's
attitude toward secular studies, we must first be aware that a
simplistic approach will not suffice. We cannot dispose of the whole
issue with a simple "yes" or "no"; instead, we must ascertain precisely
what is in question in each case. Generally speaking, the Torah's
attitude toward the study of natural science is definitely positive. On
the other hand it is negative, or at least reserved, toward study of
the humanities based on non-Torah sources. As we have seen, this
distinction is based on the difference in the methods used to formulate
principles in these disciplines: whereas man was given senses to help
him reveal the laws of nature and to test his findings, he has no
equivalent faculty enabling him to test his conclusions in the area of
the humanities. Thus there is no reliable source of knowledge in
this area other than that which God reveals to man -- the Torah given
on Mount Sinai (221)."
As a person trained in the physical sciences I have been surprised to
find that scholars who are trained in the liberal arts often make very
different assumptions about language and communication than I do.
Just like a person working in the trades, arts, and crafts of the
ancient world, as an experimentalist, I learn by what I see, what I
hear, and what I can measure. I manipulate this experience mostly
visually, without words, and I express this experience mostly in
numbers and especially in abstract relationships - for which I use
various formal languages. I rarely think in phonetic sentences
when actually doing my work. I know where the next part goes
because I can remember seeing it in my mind's eye and I can feel what I
am doing as I act. My actions are non-linguistic or
pre-linguistic, and confirmed by feedback from the physical world.
Reading and writing phonetic narrative language is relatively
new. In the ancient world, people did things. A
craftsperson in the ancient world needed a diagram or a map - in
pictures - not a string of symbolic letters and words. The picture
could be drawn on a skin or woven into a carpet, a part of one's
clothing, or a basket. Some feelings and processes are best
preserved as music. The woven picture or sound tells the
craftsperson what to do or how to feel without words. I would
rather someone showed me a picture of a woven basket than told me about
it, if they wanted me to make a duplicate. I would rather see a
dance performed or see "snapshot" pictures or diagrams of a dance
rather than read a description of it, if I wanted to learn to do the
dance for myself.
Consider what would happen if a future researcher familiar only with
phonetic narrative language were to come upon a computer program
written in BASIC - which is a formal computer instruction code written
in what seem to be ordinary phonetic-narrative words. Unless the
future researcher understood that this was a formal and not a phonetic
narrative language, how could they interpret it except to "translate"
it as if it were some form of poetry or arcane mythology? (See
the Appendix to this essay for examples.)
That is why it has been so much of a surprise to me to come upon areas
of modern scholarship where most scholars seem unable to recognize
visual and technical metaphor. Imagine the distortion in meaning
that takes place when a technical specification, written in a formal
language that uses visual terminology borrowed from the physical world,
is "translated" as a narrative description in phonetic language.
The "translation" must end up as a sort of mystical-mythical poetry,
because the coherent meaning of the text cannot be detected. When
this "poetry" is analyzed and compared to other poetic or mythic
"translations", a scholarly "house of cards" of spurious, content-free
associations is produced.
This "scholarly house of cards" is exactly the sort of
humanities-oriented non-Torah scholarship that our sages, according to
Yehuda Levi, have grave reservations about. Sadly, this
apparently includes the academic field of religious studies --
including the study of classic works of Kabbalah.
Having read several thousand scholarly (and not so scholarly) volumes
during the past 30 years, I have observed that academic scholars of
religion have little or no ability to recognize language that is not
exclusively phonetic and narrative. The Greeks' and other
ancients' philosophical views towards numbers are acknowledged, but
then dismissed as meaningless mythology or mysticism. However, my
studies indicate that a wide range of ancient philosophical and
spiritual texts use formal rather than phonetic narrative
language. When this formal language goes unrecognized, little or
no content can be perceived, any translation is necessarily garbled,
and the text is relegated to the realm of mythology, poetry, or
This evaluation effectively deters technically trained persons, who
could recognize the formal language and visual-technical metaphor, from
ever examining the pertinent texts. What scientist (or technical
professional in any field) would wish to spend their valuable time
looking for topological relationships, for example, in mythical or
I recognize the scholarship and dedication of scholars in the field of
religious studies. I could not have read so widely if their
translations had not been published. But, regardless of the
scholars' dedicated efforts, academic publications on Kabbalah, for
example, are from a technical point of view entirely devoid of
content. Sadly, I wonder if the scholars who write these
commentaries and make these "translations" are even aware that
something is amiss.
In the world of humanities-oriented "religious studies", there an
implicit denigration of the scientific value of the craftspersonship of
the ancient world, just as there is a strong avoidance of mathematics
and the hard sciences in general. Common and universal
technologies, such as spinning, weaving, knot and rope making, are not
seen as being employed for technical and spiritual communication.
Only the phonetic narrative words are studied and compared. But
aren't crafts-based communications media older and more fundamental
than phonetic narrative? Because the scholars simply don't see
the technical content of classic works of Kabbalah which use metaphors
based on these ancient crafts, study of these works in the academic
world is relegated to the "humanities" that our sages had such grave
reservations about -- rather than the "natural science" (i.e.,
observations of how the world actually works, with testable results)
about which the sages are so positive.
As a scientifically-trained person, accustomed to forming theories and
testing them based on observations of the natural world, I examine
these classic Kabbalistic works using the visually and
physically-oriented perspective I'm accustomed to. As a
mathematician, I am also familiar with basic geometry and its
usefulness. But how can even accomplished word-smith scholars be
aware that there is explicit meaningful practical content in
kabbalistic texts, when they do not use and are unfamiliar with these
modes of thought in their own lives? How can those who have never
woven a basket recognize the philosophical implications - the feelings
- of a person who has?
Modern scholars, in studying the philosophies of the ancient world,
have dismissed the basic requirement of the Platonic Academy:
"Only those who know geometry can enter here." This dismissal is
both arrogant in my opinion, and unproductive. Would any honest
scholar or researcher not take seriously the need to study Elizabethan
English before reading Shakespeare for content, or the need to study
programming before attempting to find meaning in computer software, or
the need to know how to read an electronic schematic before attempting
to understand or duplicate the circuitry?
It is this blindness to the natural physical and visual metaphors used
in a society where nearly everyone worked as a craftsperson, with their
hands, that has exiled the study of classic Kabbalistic works to the
humanities, where there are no "laws of nature" to help scholars test
their findings. Thus, to quote another scholar, the study of
Kabbalah is "the study of nonsense:"
"Professor Saul Lieberman, the great
Talmud scholar of the Jewish Theological Seminary... said that several
years earlier, some students asked to have a course here in which they
could study kabbalistic texts. He had told them that it was not
possible, but if they wished they could have a course on the history of
kabbalah. For at a university, Lieberman said, "it is forbidden to have
a course in nonsense. But the history of nonsense, that is
This mis-identification of our deepest philosophical works is shameful,
Sadly, I have come to the conclusion that many scholars of religious
studies, whose scholarship is based on the wordsmithery of the
humanities, do not -- like scientists and technical researchers - seek
knowledge wherever it is to be found. Are there Religious Studies
scholars who are willing to study the mathematical abstractions and
language of geometric metaphor if it that is what is necessary to find
the meaningful and useful content that the authors of our spiritual,
philosophical, and "mystical" texts intended?
Do word-smith scholars understand that words are often not
enough? Do they encourage or even permit discussion of these
Physicist Michio Kaku, in his book Hyperspace: A Scientific Odyssey
Through Parallel Universes, Time Warps, and the 10th Dimension,
expresses what he views as the contrast between the "God of Order,"
which is pointed to by study of the natural world, and the "God of
Miracles," to which Kaku, interestingly, ascribes the same non-logical
and non-corroboratable qualities as our sages ascribe to those areas of
human experience now called the "humanities".
"Scientists usually are reluctant to
engage in theological debates about God and Creation. One
problem, I have found, is that "God" means many things to many people,
and the use of loaded words full of unspoken, hidden symbolism only
clouds the issue. To clarify this problem somewhat, I have found
it useful to distinguish carefully between two types of meanings for
the word God. It is sometimes helpful to differentiate between
the God of Miracles and the God of Order.
"When scientists use the word God, they usually mean the God of
Order. For example, one of the most important revelations in
Einstein's early childhood took place when he read his first books on
science. He immediately realized that most of what he had been
taught about religion could not possibly be true. Throughout his
career, however, he clung to the belief that a mysterious, divine Order
existed in the universe. His life's calling, he would say, was to
ferret out his thoughts, to determine whether he had any choice in
creating the universe. Einstein repeatedly referred to this God
in his writings, fondly calling him "the Old Man." When stumped
with an intractable mathematical problem, he would often say, "God is
subtle, but not malicious." Most scientists, it is safe to say,
believe that there is some form of cosmic Order in the universe.
However, to the nonscientist, the word God almost universally refers to
the god of Miracles, and this is the source of miscommunication between
scientists and nonscientists. The God of Miracles intervenes in
our affairs, performs miracles, destroys wicked cities, smites enemy
armies, drowns the Pharaoh's troops, and avenges the pure and noble.
"If scientists and nonscientists fail
to communicate with each other over religious questions, it is because
they are talking past each other, referring to entirely different
Gods. This is because the foundation of science is based on
observing reproducible events, but miracles, by definition, are not
reproducible. They happen only once in a lifetime, if at
all. Therefore the God of Miracles is, in some sense, beyond what
we know as science. This is not to say that miracles cannot
happen, only that they are outside what is commonly called science." (2)
These are the words of a scientist. Like our sages, Kaku also
perceives the profound difference between a science-oriented approach
to learning, and an approach rooted outside of science. In fact,
Kaku's approach to the "God of Miracles" has much in common with the
sages' admonition to rely on Torah for knowledge which is not based in
the observation of the natural world.
Religious persons tell us they believe in what Prof. Kaku calls the
"God of Miracles." Some religious persons - usually scientists
and physicians - also seem to believe in Prof. Kaku's "God of Order",
but they often keep them separate.
A complete, rational, spiritually sound and intellectually honest
"science of consciousness" must include both "The God of Order" and
"The God of Miracles" as a Single Unity. It is helpful to
identify "The God of Order" with Elokim (the 5-letter name "God" in
Hebrew) - the Whole manifest Order (and Chaos) of the universe.
Likewise, we can identify "The God of Miracles" with HaShem (the
Tetragrammaton, the "Lord" in Hebrew) - the ultimate Unitary personal
experience of the Transcendent. These are declared to be Echod -
Exquisitely Unitary - in the opening line of the Sh'ma (from
Deuteronomy: "Hear O Israel, the Lord our God, the Lord is One").
The Abrahamic faiths are based on the recognition of the reality and
identity of HaShem (the Singular Transcendent) with Elokim (the
Manifest Whole.) Thus, the content of our kabbalistic tradition
deals with the relationship between the Immanent and the Transcendent,
and their personal, experiential demonstration to each of us.
This content must be invisible to scholars who can only barely
recognize the scientists' "God of Order." This is an additional
reason why we have so much academic scholarship in Kabbalah with so
little understanding of its meaningful content. It is also why
there is so much fear and disregard of Kabbalah among religious
persons. For academics, Kabbalah has too little real content; for
religious persons, it has too much content. Thus the content is
not known, not sought, not valued, and not studied, and what is known
is partial and misleading. Persons who advocate this study are
dismissed, and both Judaism, and academic Jewish, studies, are the
lesser for it.
With only two half-views available, is it any wonder that our children
see no value in either?
But this doesn't have to be. Science can respect faith, and faith
can respect science: Unity exists when the "flame is wedded to
the coal." (3)
(Adapted from Meru Foundation
eTORUS Newsletter #8)
Here is a real-world example of how easy it is for the presumption that
what one is reading is phonetic, narrative language, to displace the
intended formal meaning.
The following line was taken verbatim from the screen of a cable TV
program. Exact translation is not required, just the basic
"DJ FM AM J JASON"
What does this mean? Note that "word divisions" may or may not be
expressed properly, and "punctuation" has been omitted on purpose.
Most people I have shown this sequence to first notice the "FM
AM", and think that this refers to the two common modes of radio
broadcasting: FM and AM.
However, the INTENDED meaning of this letter sequence has nothing to do
with a "DJ" (disk jockey) on an "FM" and "AM" radio station who is
named "J Jason."
Here is the same letter-sequence without spaces or punctuation (as it
originally appeared on TV):
This appeared on the MSNBC business report, on a chart showing the past
year's performance of a particular stock. Since the report was in
November 2001, the monthly chart of the stock's performance started
with December 2000.
Quite naturally, the horizontal (time) axis on the bottom edge of the
Dec., Jan., Feb., Mar., ...... Oct., Nov.
Thus, the INTENDED meaning of "DJFMAMJJASON" is not a word or words,
not a phrase or a sentence. It is a list of the initial letters
of the names of the months of the year, starting with "D" = December.
In my opinion this is exactly what has happened with the Hebrew text of
Genesis. The undivided, unpunctuated, sequence of letter-operator
"initials" has been interpreted as words in a narrative language
sentence, analagous to the way that a computer program written in BASIC
could be interpreted as poetry. The true situation is that each
of the Hebrew letters is better interpreted as entire "word" in a
formal operator system. Hebrew words are actually "acronyms" for
sequences of formal (non-phonetic, non-narrative) operations.
The same problem appears in the most basic Kabbalistic text, the Sefer
Yetzirah ("Book of Formation"). There is a rather famous word -
"B'limah" - that translators do not agree on and cannot translate
unambiguously. The presence of this word makes sense, however, if
it is not interpreted as a word at all. "B'limah" is simply a
list of the letters at the beginning of the Hebrew text of Genesis
which must be paired (based on the symmetry of the alphabet) in order
to find the geometry in Genesis that the Sefer Yetzirah then goes on to
describe and make use of.
The first verse of the Hebrew text of Genesis (28-letters) makes use of
only 12-letters of the alphabet. This means that there are
literally hundreds (over 900) distinct narrative "translations" that
can be found by separating the undivided string of letters to form what
appear to be different sequences of Hebrew "words." The most
famous of these "translations" reads: "In the beginning God created the
heavens and the earth." But this is only one of the hundreds of
possibilities. The only thing it has to recommend it over most of
the others is that it conforms to our traditions, presumptions and
expectations for what we think the text should say.
Considered as an acronym-like sequence of letter-operations, the Hebrew
text of Genesis actually outlines "creation" in a modern sense.
Pairing the letters folds the text-string into recognizable geometric
forms that have immediate meaning. The first thing the text
string does is to specify the geometry of the letters used to write the
text itself. This is extremely logical. After all, in a
technical text, the first thing you do is define your symbols.
Narrative "translation" of Torah, which has come to displace the deeper
meaning at the letter level, has been consistently condemned by the
rabbinic tradition as dangerous and misleading ever since the
Septuagint Greek translation was ordered by Ptolemy Philadelphus, circa
285 BCE. Over the centuries, we have lost the early sages'
knowledge of this deeper meaning, recorded in the acronym-language of
the Hebrew letter-text. This loss has led, step by step, to the
present-day scholarly conclusion that the study of classic works of
Kabbalah -- originally written to explain and work with this deeper
meaning of our Torah -- can only be "the study of nonsense."