August 17, 2011
Secrets of the Hebrew alphabet
“The letters of the Jews as strict as flames,” writes Karl Shapiro in the poem titled “The Alphabet,” “Or little terrible flowers lean/Stubbornly upwards through the perfect ages/Singing through solid stone the sacred names.”
I was reminded of Shapiro’s verse when I opened “The Alphabet That Changed the World: How Genesis Preserves a Science of Consciousness in Geometry and Gesture,” by Stan Tenen (North Atlantic Books: $44). Like a poem, the book seeks to impart the deepest of meanings in the most delicate of expression.
Now I hasten to admit that I can only claim to have understood perhaps 20 percent of what Tenen has to say in this curious and challenging book. The section titled “The Ten-Point Tetractys Triangle As Discrete Dirac Delta Function Models ‘The Same and the Different’ and ‘The One and the Many,’ ” for example, left me dazed and confused. Clearly, Tenen deserves the attention of readers who are capable of grasping his more subtle and more technical assertions more readily than I could.
But I also have to say that whatever fraction of the book I understood, I was bedazzled by the moments of clarity and elegance in his prose, the sheer audacity of his enterprise, and the mad profusion of illustrations, charts, graphs and diagrams, including several charming figures in the form of a deconstructed Rubik’s Cube that are offered to capture the inner significance of the Hebrew letters that appear in the first verse of Genesis.
Tenen argues that the Hebrew alphabet is based on “archetypal hand gestures” that contain encoded secrets about the origin and destiny of humankind. The letterforms in which the Torah is written, as Tenen sees them, originate in those gestures, but they are also “geometric metaphors” that carry far deeper meanings. Indeed, Tenen makes the vaunting claim that “the speculative recovery of the history of the alphabet and the recovery of the practices for which the alphabet may have originally been deployed” augurs nothing less than “the emergence of the next level of consciousness.”
Sometimes the meanings are quite literal and even mechanical. The shape of the Hebrew letter “bet,” the first letter in the Torah, is shown to resemble a human being with an outstretched arm and an open hand: “I beseech you — asking for empathy,” according to Tenen, who interprets the symbolic meaning of the letter as a reference to the Golden Rule.
At other times, the meanings are cryptic and elusive. The torus — a geometrical figure that is manifested in “doughnuts, car-tire inner tubes, and smoke rings”— is invoked repeatedly, but try as he may to enlighten his readers, I could not really grasp what he means when he says that “the distribution of the Hebrew letters in the fist verse of B’reshit have a distinctly toroidal structure.”
The quest for hidden meanings in ancient texts is an ancient and ongoing one, and Tenen is operating in the same tradition. “Fools see only the garments of the Torah,” according to a passage from the Zohar that Tenen invokes, “the more intelligent see the body, the wise see the soul.” What Tenen sees, and tries to show us, is nothing less than a revelation that alphabets are “the building blocks of creation, which, in turn, could be understood as the basic states of the human mind and consciousness.”
As someone who has always been enchanted by letter forms and alphabets, I was intrigued by the title of the book, and once I started studying its text and images, I found myself entranced and enchanted by the meanings that Tenen extracts from the architecture of letters on the printed page, even when I could not fully understand them.