Book review: The Alphabet that Changed the World

by Stan Tenen

★★★★

In the beginning God created the heaven and the earth.–Genesis 1:1

Magical words, to be sure, but perhaps we are just now uncovering how magical! Bet you never thought a research book could be written about the first verse of the Bible!

This is a deep look into the possible origins of the Hebrew alphabet, presenting its construction of letters as based on universal hand gestures, with meaning inherent in each and every letter. The Torah (the first five books of the Bible), Tenen surmises, was first written as a series of figures with no intent for them to form spoken words. The “letters” are a choreograph of manual/somatic gestures, which constituted a language in its own right. Each letter becomes intimate, in the shape of the idealized human hand seen in 2-D projection. This language, says Tenen, possibly predates the evolution of our species, as a communicative practice of higher primates! Performed properly, the hand-dance has spiritual and experiential significance, leading the performer to a personal experience of the Transcendent.

Tradition says that the Torah is a template for Creation, so let’s read the first verse of the Bible again, dancing letter-by-letter, rather than word-by-word (Tenen’s interpretation):

The primary distinction, expressed by the topological relationship between inside and outside | initiates | everything | by the expression of | a singularity | and all of its internal and external symmetries. | The primary distinction between inside and outside | reaches out into everything; | everything abstracts back to a point, | framing and/or connecting | a single choice | to the bulk–the plenum of all choices | All of the internal and external reflections (symmetries) | connecting/framing | the expression of the expansion of a single choice among all choices | and | all the internal and external reflections | connecting/framing | everything | from the initiating (principle) | endlessly.

Hmmm. As an explanation of how God created the heaven and the earth, it’s a bit disjointed, but of course the translation may not yet be perfected. But, really, now: could the ancients who wrote the Bible have possibly been this astute? Tenen finds unexpected evidence of ancient wisdom hidden in the alphabet through a myriad of mathematical models, and founded the Meru Foundation in 1983 to further explore these patterns.

What makes the book fascinating is that Tenen does not merely present his findings; he leads us on a visually pleasing journey of discovery, blind alleys and all. His story of learning how to wear the Hebrew arm tefillin, and the insight it brought, made me smile. This book is a mathematician’s playground, roaming through simple pattern matching to base-3 numbering through various topological equivalents. The Torus plays a key role. Along the way, we examine color-coded rubics cubes with Cartesian coordinates (its 3x3x3 structure accounts for the 27 letters of the Hebrew alphabet), a pictorial golden rule, and an inverted T diagram of the relation between Yahweh and Elohim. I hold a B.S. in mathematics, though I’m very rusty, so I’m glad Tenen chose to present everything in diagrams rather than stale formulas—beautiful, color diagrams, mind you—and it awakened within me that old fire to communicate through the most common of languages: mathematics. Topology enthusiasts: you’ve just found heaven.

Tenen is well aware that his hypothesis contradicts common scholarly opinion, in the development of both language and the Torah. For example, it precludes the Documentary Hypothesis, because it assumes construction of the Torah as a single unit. The Documentary Hypothesis states that the Torah contains the writings of at least four different authors or communities, carefully spliced together by a later redactor. One way scholars tell one Torah author from another is by how the writer refers to God: one calls God “Elohim,” another “Yahweh.” Tenen notes this distinction, and explains that the one creator of the Torah did this not by accident; his purpose being to conflate and highlight the two forms of God, as YH-VH (“Lord”) and Elokim (“God,” the eternal). The One and the Many. Singularity and Wholeness.

I should pause at this point to explain that The Mura Foundation is an ongoing project. This book presents a mostly unexamined hypothesis, when extended beyond its analysis of the alphabet and the first verse of the Bible. Extrapolating from the first verse to a belief that the entire Torah contains the same magic seems to me, as yet, unfounded. How and when, for example, did we begin to read the Torah in its more shallow word-by-word interpretation, leading to the stories our children learn in Sunday School? This story-telling overlay is no accident, Tenen explains; it is a means of clothing the Torah’s more intellectual/meditative message to hold the attention and gain the loyalty of a nation, so that its inner significance would be revered and preserved. How this happened, however, is not well explained. Perhaps rabbinic tradition provides the explanation, in the story of how Ezra restored the “original” form of the letters? By the time of Ezra, all the events recorded in the Torah had long since taken place, so dividing the string of the letters up into words and supplying the vowelization required for pronunciation was then possible. From then on, the fact that the “real” Torah consisted of the undivided string of letters was no longer obvious from looking at the text. Never-the-less, caution is required, for if you change the text by even “a jot or a tittle,” that is, if you add or remove even the crown on a single letter, or any other mark, the consequence would be disastrous! The hand dance would fall apart.

So do I think Tenen is on his way to discovering a key to the scriptures, through his theory of how the alphabet developed? I’m naturally skeptical. I’ve reviewed similar books before, by authors looking for a hidden code in the Bible: The Bible Code and From Adam To Noah. The first flopped horribly, while the second was much more interesting but still, in my opinion, overstated its thesis. The first was fun with word puzzles, the second fun with numbers. Tenen’s approach transcends the two, though it’s still quite fantastic.

At the very least, this is a kaleidoscopic journey deep into the mystery and beauty that is the ancient Hebrew alphabet. At most, it is a discovery that rocks the world of the Abrahamic religions, uniting them as one. For me, because I can’t so easily let go of scholarly research that reads the Torah as a spliced collection of unique writings, it’s somewhere in the middle.

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2 Comments

  1. Hello readers,

    First, let me express my thanks and appreciation to Lee Harmon for his thoughtful review of The Alphabet That Changed the World. In no particular order, there are a few points I’d like to add.

    One way to evaluate new ideas is to ask one’s self what it would mean—what would the implications be—if the proposal were true. Objective science is often a matter of suspending disbelief long enough to check out ideas which may not fit easily into current understanding.

    —If what I’m proposing is correct, and the letters come from hand gestures, then one purpose of these gestures could be to standardize and record mental and physical exercises, dances in the mind and dances in the world. (Possibly including Levite dances from Solomon’s temple, and possibly including some Sufi dances—in particular, Rumi’s description of the Mevlevi Sufi Round Dance. See Appendix M of The Alphabet That Changed the World.)

    —Again, if I’m right, there could be a parallel between the function of a Bose-Einstein condensate in physics and a loving, caring, coordinated minyan, congregation, or communion. I’m proposing the possibility of an analogy between the near-absolute-zero temperature of a Bose-Einstein condensate, and the near-egoless participation in a loving minyan.

    —I’m not asking anyone to take these (at best) informed speculations as true. I’m proposing that these ideas be tested. (We can discuss how they might be tested separately.)

    As to how and when these ideas were lost, I think it’s likely it was due to 2000 years of erratic and often persistent persecution of Jews, Christians, and Muslims who knew of these deep teachings. (The Gnostics, for example, are no longer with us.)

    For a highly readable history of what may have happened, I recommend James Carroll’s Constantine’s Sword.

    What I’m proposing does not actually conflict with most established scholarship. I’m proposing that the “Bible stories” are essentially true. Their purpose is to preserve the tradition, and to preserve the deeper levels of meaning. The idea that the stories may or may not have been gathered from disparate sources is not addressed by what I’m proposing. Instead, I’m proposing that the stories—whatever their origin—are interwoven with the patterns in the letter-text (as I try to illustrate on pages 119-121 of TATCTW).

    I’m trying to find a way to understand traditional Jewish, Christian, and Muslim perspectives, as well as perspectives of modern scholarship and what comes from the application of the scientific method—all at the same time.

    For example: I’m proposing that the Indo-European language hypothesis is likely correct, but I’m also proposing that it applies more to spoken language than to written language. If I’m right, there is good reason for words like LeVaNah in Hebrew (meaning “white”) and aLBiNo in Latin (also meaning “white”). There is also an operational correspondence (though not a phonetic correspondence) between YH-VH in Hebrew (meaning “Lord”) and JEFE in Spanish (meaning “chief”). And so on, generally across the board—including all the Latin- and Greek-root languages. (This needs to be further tested and confirmed, so I’m currently working on a dictionary.)

    The upshot of all of this is:

    1) All of science and all of spirit are based on the Golden Rules, and in fact, God is not just love in the simple sense, but rather, the Lord-God is the process of loving-kindness raining down on us and filling our sails at all times.

    2) Messiah/Moshiach is the emergent consciousness of a loving coordinated minyan/assembly/communion/umma—and this could be verified objectively (by experiments that still need to be performed).

    Conscious Being / Moshiach
    emerges from
    Spirit / Shekhinah
    emerges from
    Vessel / Merkabah
    emerges from
    the Pool of the Mikveh
    emerges from
    a Loving Minyan
    Coordinated by the Alphabet.

    If what I’m proposing is valid, then the three Abrahamic covenants are like three separate vital organs in the same body politic, each performing a different function and with different needs, but all coordinated for the common good. This is a win-win-win model, not a zero-sum game.

    There is much more. Please don’t take what I’m proposing on authority; please ask questions until you understand for yourself. This is a place where reason and faith can converge.

    Best,
    Stan

    PS You can find much additional discussion in Meru Foundation’s eTORUS Archive at http://www.meru.org/Newsletter/journalindex.html.

    Recommended reading:
    Arthur M. Young, The Reflexive Universe
    Aryeh Kaplan, Meditation and the Bible, ch. 2, “Floating Distraction”.
    (All works by Aryeh Kaplan are recommended).
    For basic knowledge on the Hebrew letters, see Wisdom in the Hebrew Alphabet by Rabbi Michael Munk, and its Appendix by Rabbi Nosson Scherman.
    And for historical context, as mentioned above, James Carroll’s Constantine’s Sword.

    • Lee Harmon

      Thanks for contributing a more personal view, Stan! If you don’t mind, I’ll give it a few days to digest, then form a new blog post with your comments to see if we can generate some conversation.

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