Essays by Stan Tenen

A Few Notes on Literalism
©1994 Stan Tenen

Introduction by Grace Ackerman

The following article was prompted by a continuing discussion of the creation story in B'Reshit (Genesis), its degree of literalness and the difficulty of trying to reconcile a literal view of creation with the scientific one. In larger terms, this addresses the question of how a person of faith can be true to what that faith teaches and still live in the modern world.

When faced with the stress of this seeming paradox, some isolate themselves from general society as best they can, refusing to look at, or study science. Others, not willing to so isolate themselves, opt for a kind of schizophrenic existence, separating their religious lives from their scientific lives as much as possible. Another segment has decided that the religious version of creation is meant to be metaphorical rather than literal. The following discussion resolves the paradox in a different way, honoring B'Reshit as it is written, and still granting validity to the results of many generations of inquiring, scientific minds.

This discussion took place on Mail-Jewish, an electronic mailing list whose primary participants subscribe to the tenets of Orthodox Judaism. Footnotes have been added to define terms which may not be familiar to some readers. While this is not a technically rigorous paper from a mathematical perspective (and the simplified discussion will require tolerance on the part of the technical professional), every attempt has been made to assure that the article is both accurate and considerate of the beliefs of those who read it. To the extent that we may have failed in this effort, please accept our apology and the assurance that offense is not intended.

Grace Ackerman
Meru Foundation

A Few Notes on Literalism, by Stan Tenen

When ideas are displayed in a sequence of peripheral discussions, it is sometimes hard to see the basic underlying premises clearly. Perhaps it would be useful if I clarified my views on "literalism" in Torah, Talmud, Kabbalah, and the teachings of our sages.

As a person who does not have a yeshiva education and who can read Hebrew only haltingly, with no knowledge of grammar, I was not and am not in a position to evaluate the Hebrew text of Torah for myself. I can only evaluate translations of Torah (and Talmud, etc.), so I am, in a sense, completely limited to the simple, translated meanings. This means that I have become unusually sensitive to shades of meaning in translations. If I am going to do my research in any meaningful way, I must attempt to understand what the original Hebrew (or Aramaic) is actually saying by "looking through" the translation – or by attempting to integrate the common meaning behind several differing translations. This is not an easy task, particularly when accuracy is essential. That is also why what I find must be confirmed by the teachings of our traditional sages and by the internal coherence of the result itself. (Einstein pointed out that internal coherence is the test of a theory, not the data alone.)

So, while I am not in a position to discuss the literal meaning of Torah for myself, I have no choice but to accept it as given fact. Now my problem is, how do I make sense of the facts? As a rational person who has examined the data and done some of the experiments for myself, I know that the universe is many billions of years old. For me that is a fact every bit as real as gravity or my own hand. As a Jew, I know that what Torah is telling me is also fact.

Here now is the challenge: Without altering our traditional teachings, how can I understand what they say (creation takes 6-days) with what I know to be true from my own experience (the universe is billions of years old)? I cannot reject my own experience any more than I can reject gravity or my own hand. I cannot reject what B'Reshit says without rejecting Hashem.1 But, Hashem gave me my hand, and Hashem gave me my Torah. I choose to believe that these two seemingly disparate teachings, coming as they do ultimately from the same source, are in fact identical.

Before I can make any progress, I must choose. Choice is critical to Judaism (as it is to all conscious life). If I were to choose to believe that there was no way to reconcile Torah teachings with my own personal experience, then I would be split and vulnerable to hypocrisy. I would have to segregate in my mind what I believe from what I know, and my "blind" faith or "true" belief would leave me vulnerable to unfounded superstition as well. This would be the opposite of the traditional concept of Toko K'Varo (Integrity) = insides like outsides: "personal transparency" or egolessness. And, of course, if I choose to believe that Torah and (rational "scientific") experience are not consistent, I will never even try to find out how it could be that they are. That would surely be a self-fulfilling prophesy.

What tools or methods can I use in my investigation of the relationship between Torah and rational experience? I start with traditional teachings and I take them literally. For example:

  1. Torah is a "template" and/or "templet" of creation, and a "tree of life for those who grasp it."
  2. The "secret" of Torah is in the first letter, the first word, the first verse, the first day, the first week, the first chapter, the first ....
  3. Elokim creates a "fruit tree yielding fruit whose seed is inside itself."
  4. The Hebrew letters are "elements of creation."
  5. Understanding of Hebrew as a universal language was lost at Babel.


Most observant Jews, and nearly all scholars and non-Jews, do not take most of the above statements fully literally. Most persons, even most fully observant Torah Jews, take most of these statements to be allegorical. I do not. I take these statements as literal. (But not mechanically or in a mechanical sense.)

  1. When I am told that Torah is a "tree of life for those who grasp it," I immediately ask what Hebrew words (letter combinations) are being translated. That way, I can tell what sort of "tree," "life," and "grasp" are being discussed. When I examine "tree" I do not look for a pine tree or an oak tree, I look for "treeness." I am searching for a meaning that is non-idolatrous, that does not depend on image or form, but rather on relationship. After all, it is not the form of a tree that is most important. I assume that Torah, particularly in B'Reshit, is being very spare, and therefore whatever is included must be presented in its most archetypal and universal aspect. Otherwise how could so short a text as Torah actually literally unfold into all of the universe? I take literally that Torah is a "template" and/or "templet" of creation. So, I must examine "treeness", not trees.
  2. The same goes for "life." When I take "life" (as in "tree of life") literally, I understand it to apply to all life, not just to a particularization of life. What does all life have in common? What relationships always hold? We can differentiate between life and death because life continues to reproduce itself, endlessly. Whatever just sits there, even when offered proper nourishment, we see as dead. Whatever seeks to eat and to reproduce, we see as alive.

    And, if I am being literal, I must ask myself what does "grasp" refer to? Why a "grasp"? One literal meaning implies that whatever this "tree of life" is, it is intended to be held in the hand. (That is why discovering the Hebrew letters in a Tefillin2 strap in our hand is so appropriate.)

    Now I must find a literal treeness or treeing, that literally represents all of life that I can hold in my hand.

  3. The "secret of Torah is in the first letter, the first word, the first verse, the first day, the first week, the first chapter, the first" .... tells me more about how Torah and all-of-life are similar. Torah is described as a hierarchical structure, where the bigger the piece I examine the more information and clarity I can see – but what I see is always the same. This is very similar to a fundamental property of living systems: self-embeddedness. Here each level is not only embedded in the next level, but all levels are somehow similar to each level separately. (Think of the hyper-coiling of coils of coiled DNA, for example.) There is more to the formal definition than I include here, but this sort of self-embedding is very close to what we now call fracticality. (According to its modern discoverer, Benoit Mandelbrot, fractal mathematics, but not fractal images, of course, was known in the ancient world.)
  4. Because I take literally that the "secret" is in the first letter, any results I obtain must demonstrate how that is so. Because I take literally that the "secret" is in the first word, any results I obtain must demonstrate how that is so. Etc.

    Because the first letter, Bet, and the first word, B'Reshit, were (initially) too short to gain much information from, I chose to examine the next complete unit of B'Reshit: the first verse.(By the way, I know the verse divisions are fairly modern. It is the Vov after Ha'aretz at the end of verse 1. and before the Ha'aretz that starts verse 2. that makes the natural division, not the modern verse numbers.) So, that is what I did. What I found was that, literally, exactly as we are taught, the Bet of B'Reshit represents a compact version of the word B'Reshit, and it in turn represents a compact version of the whole first verse. – etc.

    Notice, if I did not take our teachings literally, I never would have even considered doing what I did.

  5. B'Reshit I.11, tells me that Elokim created a "fruit tree yielding fruit whose seed is inside itself." Taken literally, this tells me a lot of what I want to know about how Torah is a "tree-of-life". This is a basic definition of life. It is consistent with the teaching that Torah is hierarchical (Letter, Word, Verse, Day, etc.). And, for the first time, it also literally tells me how G­d has chosen to illustrate the basic principles of treeness and life. Mathematical idealizations must initially be limited to topology. No form is implied. If I make up a form, that would be an idol. Only Hashem gets to choose what things look like without being an idolater. So, unless I am literally told what shapes and forms to use, I would be on very shaky ground to pick a form by myself. But we are told that we are dealing with a "fruit" tree. Now, I know the forms. They are the forms of a living fruit and living fruit trees: Seed, sprout, stem, leaves, buds, flowers, fruit, new seed – or some similar progression that actually grows a new seed of itself within itself. (This model holds for all fruit: apples, pomegranates, wheat, etc.; and for all trees: oak, pine, maple, palm, etc.)
  6. I could represent the minimal self-referential process of fruitness and treeness topologically as the surface flow pattern that defines a torus (a bagel or doughnut shape), because that is how it is usually drawn in mathematics books. Topology does not deal with specific form, but rather with invariant relationships, so it does not matter what exact shape the torus has – to mathematicians. If I am to take Torah literally, apparently the shape does matter to Elokim. A fruit does not usually look like a doughnut or a bagel. Instead, a fruit is more like a double-thick bagel, or a sphere dimpled in around the stem and flower ends. If I take out the stem, the seed-pack and the flower stub, an idealized fruit – representing all fruit – is a torus. The new seed sits in the hole. When it grows into a tree of its own, this new seed is projected, via its tree, into its newer fruit with newer seed – endlessly. "A fruit tree yielding fruit whose seed is inside itself" tells us that we should identify the newer seed with the new seed, with the "original" seed. The beginning and end of this self-referential toroidal cycle are connected, in a sense, to make a single module of life. (A module is a "rib", if you will, on the "great chain of being" that starts with Adam-Kadmon.3)

  7. The Hebrew letters are "elements of creation." This teaching is an excellent example of how confused we have become about literalness. I have lectured on my research at dozens of synagogues. Often I start my lecture by carefully drawing an Ashurit Merubah4 Bet5 (as shown in Mishnas Sofrim6) on the blackboard. I then ask the audience if they believe that the Hebrew letters are "elements of creation". Everyone says yes. Then I repeat and I ask, do you literally believe that the Hebrew letters, such as this Bet that I just drew on the blackboard, are actually elements of creation? Some folks catch on and are a bit more hesitant, but most still strongly agree, yes the Hebrew letters are elements of creation.
  8. Then I ask someone to explain to me how the letter Bet that I just drew on the blackboard, or any letter for that matter, could actually be an element of creation. Invariably I get blank stares. What is this guy talking about? Is he really asking if we actually really literally believe that an alphabetic letter, even a Hebrew letter, is really an element of creation?

    The answer is yes – and I believe, unless we wish to have our stated beliefs taken to be no more than lip-service, it is our job to find out how this could be so. No fudging, no apologia, no saying "it's not something we can understand" will do – because that would mean that we do not literally believe what our Torah and sages teach. It is expressly because I am bound to take the literal teachings of our tradition literally, that I am forced to discover how these teachings are literally true. It is also essential, if this task is going to be meaningful, that I accurately distinguish between which teachings are intended to be taken literally, and which are not. This is why it is so essential to remove idolatrous "things" from our understanding of the deeper levels of B'Reshit -where and when "things" cannot and should not exist. (Is Hashem a thing? Is Zim-zum7 a thing? Is Moses' prophetic experience a thing? Is creation itself a thing? Are the 6-days of creation things?)

    The letters of the Hebrew alphabet are literally the elements of creation – including even the Bet I draw on a blackboard – when we understand what they represent. The contents of our consciousness are found by looking in different directions in our mind's eye. All entities in physics can be specified by the quantum state vector, which is an arrow that points in a particular direction in quantum mechanical space. Both conscious space and physical space can be shown to be hyperdimensional. It has been demonstrated (by Coxeter8 and others) that the 27-lines that solve the general cubic equation co-define (in a sense) the surface of a hypersphere in 4-dimensions, and in an equivalent manner, hyperspheres in all dimensions. Thus hyperspace can be thought of as having 27-fundamental pointing directions from which all processes and states in physics and in consciousness can be specified. These 27-unit vectors are all that is necessary to fully "navigate" in physics or consciousness. The Hebrew letters correlate one-to-one with these 27-vectors. In this sense, each Hebrew letter truly, literally, represents, not an element of creation in the sense of the "things" of creation expected of a mechanical and G­dless universe, but rather the basic motions and dynamics that underlie the physics of all things in every space, everywhere, for all time.

    Taking the teachings of our sages that the Hebrew letters are literally the elements of creation leads to discovering how and why this is so. Taking this teaching as religious hyperbole only leads to the loss of knowledge of how it is literally true.

    And finally,

  9. Understanding of Hebrew as a universal language was lost at Babel: As those who have followed my postings on the Mail-Jewish list have likely already gleaned, we have found that the letters are formed by the different views of a model human hand in the form of a specially shaped "Tefillin strap"2 bound on our hand.
  10. To see the outline of a Peh, put your hand(s) to your mouth; to see the outline of a letter Yod, draw your hand towards your chest in the "me" gesture; to see an outline of a Samek fold your arms in a cradling gesture, etc. (Peh means mouth; Yod refers to self; Samek means support.) It is because human hand gestures are (or can easily be) essentially universal that an alphabet of hand gestures can represent a universal language. It is because hand gestures can point both in the physical world and in the mind's eye (we can always see our hands in our mind's eye) that the Hebrew letters are universal for both physics and consciousness – outer and inner life.

    Our hand is not a thing; it is a means. Our hand does our pointing, both in physics and in consciousness. The "hand" principle – not the hand-thing – is the means by which we and Hashem act in the world. Pointing in our mind is not a thing either – it is a feeling and/or a relationship.

If I did not take the teaching that our letters are the elements of creation literally, none of this would have been possible to find.

There are many other examples of literalness, where it is due, not being taken seriously. I believe that it is essential to take what our sages tell us literally, or we will never come to understand how and why they came to teach what they did. I believe that it is equally essential to not take the word-stories in B'Reshit literally, because I believe that was never intended. I believe that a literal interpretation of B'Reshit can lead to an idolatry of the thingness of 6-days, rather than to the literally true non-idolatrous process of continuous creation of everything taking place in 6-cycles of growth.

By the way – on the matter of "Continuous Creation" vs. "In the beginning" (or the "Big Bang" theory), let me quote from our daily prayers (Shacharis,9 Artscroll publishers, Ashkenazi10 edition): "Hamchadash b'tuvo b'kol yom tamid ma'aseh B'Reshit." – "In His goodness He renews daily, perpetually, the work of creation." I believe that we should take this literally. Creation is renewed daily, perpetually. This is not something that (only) happened in 6-literal-days way back then. It was not 5755-years ago, and it was not billions and billions of (Sagan's) years ago. That leads to gratuitous contradictions and internal inconsistencies in our teachings. B'Reshit is not discussing (only) the past. B'Reshit is defining what is happening in 6-yomim (not days, but cycles or phases) right now, eternally and perpetually. Literally.

I believe that we should take the admonitions in Mishneh Ain Dorshin11 (The Babylonian Talmud, Tractate Hagigah) literally. We should not speculate on Ma'aseh B'Reshit, etc. We should not expect to understand B'Reshit unless and until we have acquired knowledge for ourselves. Here the word used for knowledge, Dalet-Ayin-Tov (literally: Divide (Dalet) in your eye (Ayin) for yourself (Tov)), refers to critical judgment. Before we can understand the literal meaning of B'Reshit, we must determine in what way B'Reshit is literal, and in what way it is not. If we have not (yet) developed our critical judgment, we will not be able to see this distinction, and we are therefore prohibited from speculating on an understanding of B'Reshit. Is this not the literal meaning of what Ain Dorshin is saying?

I hope this helps to elucidate my methods and logic, and I hope it addresses satisfactorily the issue of literalness in B'Reshit and in Jewish tradition (at least to some extent.) I know that my interpretations are not standard ones, but I also know, from speaking at length with a wide range of recognized (Orthodox Jewish) experts, that these views, while not emphasized, are well within the bounds of traditional orthodox understanding.

There are many strong feelings on these matters. My intent is to be inclusive. I believe that we need the efforts of the entire halachic community to sustain true Torah Judaism. Kabbalah is not for everyone, and literalism may be a valid entry point for understanding. We need persons who study only the narrowest of traditional views just as much as we need more free-wheeling kabbalists – as long as we all adhere to Halachah and mitzvot.12 In my opinion, we are dependent for our survival on each other; this includes both extremes, and also on everything and everyone in between.

Stan Tenen
December 1994

1 Literally, "The Name." Used to refer to G-d in any written or spoken context which is not specifically prayer.

2 A leather strap attached to phylactery boxes wound on the arm and hand during the morning prayers. Of course, the "hand" form is not a halachic tefillin strap, nor do we recommend its use as tefillin. It does, however, fit the same description, and have the same function, as set forth in the Sh'ma.

3 The primordial, or "prototype" Adam.

4Ashurit Merubah is a particular form of the Hebrew letters used inthe writing of a Torah scroll. Ashurit refers to Assyria (i.e. Babylonia). Merubah means "square-shaped."

5Bet is the Hebrew equivalent of the letter B, and is the first letter of the Torah.

6The document which describes in detail the rules which must be followed by a sofer (scribe) in the writing of a Torah scroll.

7The "contraction" or withdrawal of G-d's essence which allowed a space for creation to occur, according to Kabbalistic teaching.

8British mathematian, H.S.M. Coxeter. See Polytope 221 Whose 27-Vertices Correspond to the Lines on the General Cubic Surface, published in The American Journal of Mathematics, 1940, Vol. 62, pp. 457-486.

9The name for morning prayers said daily by observant Jews.

10There are two major versions of the siddur (prayer book) – one, the Ashkenazi, is used primarily by Jews from Northern Europe, while the other, Sephardi, is used primarily by Jews of Middle Eastern and Southern European origins.

11Section Ain Dorshin ("Don't discuss...") is part of the Babylonian Talmud, Tractate Hagigah.

12Halacha is the name for the laws which govern the daily life and spiritual practice of an Orthodox Jew. Mitzvot means commandments. Talmudic tradition teaches that there are 613 commandments in the Torah. The mitzvot are a part of the body of halachah.

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