Essays by Stan Tenen

Scientists and Wordsmiths
©1996, 2003 Stan Tenen 

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 mystical fantasy. 

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 mystical fantasies?

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 scholarship." (1)

This mis-identification of our deepest philosophical works is shameful, and wrong.

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 issue

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)

(1) From: "Jewish Literacy: the Most Important Things to Know about the Jewish Religion, its People, and its History," Copyright ©1991 by Rabbi Joseph Telushkin, William Morrow & Co., ISBN 0-688-08506-7

(2) From: "Hyperspace: A Scientific Odyssey Through Parallel Universes, Time Warps, and the 10th Dimension" by Michio Kaku.  Copyright ©1994 Oxford University Press, ISBN 0-19-50854-0, pp. 330-331:

(3) From: Sefer Yetzira, Ch. 1, Mishna 7, as translated on p. 17 of "Understanding Jewish Mysticism," by David R. Blumenthal, copyright ©1976 Ktav Publishing House, NY.


(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 meaning.


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 chart listed

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."

(c)2001, 2003 SNT/Meru Foundation


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