POSTED ON JANUARY 13, 2016 BY SCOTT ALEXANDER
The Talmud says that God created the Torah nine hundred seventy-four generations before He created the world. Generations of who, I don’t know. The Talmud is kind of crazy.
But the Torah is basically a few short stories about Creation and the distant past followed by a long and intricate biography of Moses. Why would God care so much about one Israelite guy that He would lovingly sketch out his story long before the first day rose upon the universe in which that guy was to live?
There’s another episode in the Talmud, one where Moses is ascending Mt. Sinai to receive the Torah. God discusses how carefully He wrote the Torah over countless eons, and the angels say – then why are you giving it to this Moses guy? Who’s he? Some random mortal nobody! We’re angels! Give it to us! Moses argues that the people of Israel are sinful and so need it more. The angels accept his reasoning.
But this argument is less interesting for what it says than for what it leaves out. Moses doesn’t say “Uh, guys, have you even read the Torah? Four of the five books are totally about me, personally. There’s even a section describing how God gives me the Torah, in the Torah. How can you challenge my right to have my own biography?”
The rabbis explain this by dividing “Torah” into the historical Torah, meaning the records of Moses’ life – and the legal Torah, meaning the ritual code. God wrote the legal Torah beforehand. The angels wanted the legal Torah for themselves. But that doesn’t work either. Take a look at the legal Torah and it’s all sorts of rules about which kinds of animals to eat and which close relatives are too close to have sex with. This also seems like the sort of thing you don’t necessarily need to have finished 974 generations before you create the world. And it also seems like the sort of thing that angels don’t have to worry about. So what’s up?
Before I propose an answer, a survey of some apparently unrelated fields.
Cosmic history begins deep in the past, but shortly after the Big Bang the universe cooled down long enough to allow mass and the breaking of symmetry into the laws of physics.
Natural history begins deep in the past, but goes into high gear billions of years ago with the appearance of mitosis, the replication process which allowed the reproduction and evolution of all subsequent life. Mitosis replicates and preserves the “genetic code” of DNA which determines animal phenotype.
Human history begins deep in the past, but goes into high gear after the rise of the Mesopotamians, history’s first civilization. Shortly afterwards, these develop the Code of Hammurabi, ancestor of all the law codes and all the states and governments that came afterwards.
American history begins deep in the past, but goes into high gear after the American Revolution starts in Massachussetts. Shortly afterwards, the Americans ratify the Constitution, the law of the land.
Each of these apparently unrelated forms of history starts deep in the past, but experiences a sudden phase change marked by the letters M-S-S in that order, followed shortly by the establishment of a code of rules.
So when we find that the Bible begins with the creation of the world, but experiences a phase change marked by a man named Moses, and then the giving of the Law on Mount Sinai, maybe we should interpret this as being about a little bit more than just one guy1.
Gebron and Eleazar define kabbalah as “hidden unity made manifest through patterns of symbols”, and this certainly fits the bill. There is a hidden unity between the structures of natural history, human history, American history, Biblical history, etc: at an important transition point in each, the symbols MSS make an appearance and lead to the imposition of new laws. Anyone who dismisses this as coincidence will soon find the coincidences adding up to an implausible level.
The kabbalistic perspective is that nothing is a coincidence. We believe that the universe is fractal. It has a general shape called Adam Kadmon, and each smaller part of it, from the Byzantine Empire to the female reproductive system, is a smaller self-similar copy of that whole. Sometimes the copies are distorted, like wildly different artists interpreting the same theme, but they are copies nevertheless.
For example, consider the objection that Chinese history does not fit the pattern. Yes, it starts in the beginningless past and transitions into a more civilized form with the arrival of a lawgiver, but that lawgiver is named Confucius, and there is no M-sound-followed-by-two-S-sounds in his name. A sign that the structure has failed? No. Confucius gave the laws, but they did not achieve prominence until they were recorded and interpreted by his successor Mencius. The narrative and phonological aspects have been split into two closely related people2.
Other times two separate people in the Bible get merged into a single character. Consider Moses and Adam. Moses leads the Israelites to freedom, destroys the Egyptian army by crossing the Red Sea, gets the Commandments, and serves as the first leader of the Israelite people. Adam transgresses his Heavenly Father’s commandment not to touch a fruit tree.
But in American history, both these aspects are merged into the person of George Washington. It is Washington who leads the Americans to freedom, destroys the British army by crossing the Delaware, gets the Constitution, and serves as the first leader of the American people. But it is also Washington who transgresses his father’s command not to touch a fruit tree. Further, the Adamic and Washingtonian stories are subtly different: Adam tries to deflect blame (“It was the woman who bade me eat”) but Washington humbly accepts it (“I cannot tell a lie, Father, I cut down the cherry tree”). Thus Israel is born fallen, but America is born pure, a “shining city on a hill”3.
Here we also see the same division between semantic and phonetic4 aspects as in the Confucius example: Washington’s successor was named “Adams” and came from Massachussetts. Note that the Biblical Adam was created beside the Tree of Knowledge, and John Adams was born in Braintree.
Other correspondences are spread even further afield. Moses’ wife was named Zipporah, Hebrew for “female bird”, but her American counterpart doesn’t show up until LBJ. It took all the way until the turn of the millennium before America listened to a bush and then got stuck wandering in a desert without an exit strategy.
Twist and stretch as it may, the underlying unity always finds a way to express itself. If you’re a science type, think of the cells in the human body. Every cell has the same genes and DNA, but stick one in the brain and it’ll become a brain cell; stick it in the skin and it’ll become a skin cell. A single code giving rise to infinite variety. If you don’t understand the deep structure they all share, you’ll never really understand brains or skin or anything else.
The Torah is the deep structure of the universe, and ‘structure’ is exactly the word for it. It’s pure. Utterly formal. Meaningless on its own. But stick it in a situation, and its underlying logic starts to clothe itself in worldly things. Certain substructures get expressed, certain others shrivel away. Certain relationships make themselves known. Finally, you get a thing. Box turtles. International communism. Africa. Whatever. If you’re not looking for the structure, you won’t find it. If you are, it’s obvious.
At the crucial moment in the Hebrew Bible, a man named Moses is born, ordains new laws, and changes the destiny of Israel. If you’re a Biblical Hebrew, then to you that’s the Torah. If you’re an angel, the Torah is something different. And if you’re God 974 generations before the creation of the world, the Torah is all of these things and none, just a set of paths and relationships and dependencies pregnant with infinite possibilities. A seed.
Understand the seed, and you understand everything that grows from it. This is the kabbalah. The rest is just commentary. Super-important commentary. The kind of commentary that’s the difference between a sloughed-off skin cell and a thinking brain.
1: Moses was supported in his mission by his brother Aaron, who is significant among kabbalists for bearing the Shem haMephorash on his forehead. Mass is carrried by baryons. In mitosis, DNA is helped along by its relative RNA. The Mesopotamians were trading partners and allies with their relatives across the Tigris in Iran. Massachussetts was ably defended by the New England branch of the Continental Army led by Benedict Arnold.
2: The R-N word associated with Confucius is clearly “ren”, his concept of benevolence, which plays a preeminent part in his Analects. TheAnalects themselves are cognate with mass’ complement energy, mitosis’ anaphase, Mesopotamia’s Anunnaki, and Arnold’s Canadacampaign.
3: The original “city on a hill” was Jerusalem, with its Temple upon Mt. Moriah. As per the Bible, King David bought the Temple site for 600 shekels and King Solomon decorated it with 600 talents of gold; King Herod later rebuilt it 600 feet by 600 feet in size. The name of America’s capital Washington is followed by “DC”, which is Roman gematria for 600.
4: We can analyze the name “George Washington” as follows: “George” means “farmer” in Greek, which is clearly related to the name “Adam” meaning “dirt” in Hebrew; Adam was banished from Eden and sentenced to “till the dirt from which he was made”. “Washing” means “to place under water” in English, which mirrors “Moses”, meaning “to draw out of the water” in Hebrew. But “washing” also means “to cleanse”, and “ton” means town referring to the polis or state. So “George Washington” references similarities with both Adam and Moses, but also contains an additional meaning of “the one who cleanses the state”, ie purifies it from corruption and foreign influences.