Thursday, January 16, 2014

The Biomolecular Structure Of Torah - Reflections On Parashat Yitro 5774

Judaism is dogma-averse, and there are very few religious axioms that we are asked to accept on faith alone. Maimonides named thirteen. Some say three. Perhaps there's only one - that Gcd simply is.

We proclaim one of those axioms after every public Torah reading. The Torah scroll is hoisted aloft for all to see the words inside, and we proclaim in unison: "And this is the Torah that Moses placed before the Jewish People, from the mouth of Gcd through the hand of Moses."

Within 100 years of Jesus' death, there were many wildly discordant accounts of his life & times; in the end, only four were selected by the early Church to be included in their canon.

Seven variant texts were incorporated into the standard Uthmanic Koran, and Moslem scholars freely admit that transcription errors have crept in over the centuries.

400 years on, there are several variants of Shakespeare's works (or is that Bacon's works warmed over?)

But there's only one Torah. We have intact Torah scrolls dating back to the 12th century, and fragments going back two millennia. And they're all identical. Stop and think about that.

On a stormy summer Saturday morning 3,325 years ago, at the foot of a nondescript hill in the middle of nowhere, millions of people were eyewitness to the Revelation of Sinai. But, incredibly, we don't have millions of versions of what happened there. This is all the more remarkable in light of the overused aphorism about Jews: 'From two Jews, you'll get three opinions." (have you ever been to a synagogue board meeting?) We have only the one. No variants, no alternative fragments, no extra or deleted verses. No Torah of Korach the Rebel. No Sadducee Torah. No Karaite Torah. No Sephardi Torah, no Ashkenazi Torah. Just the one Torah, the very text given by Gcd to Moses, and faithfully and painstakingly transmitted from generation to generation since.

Understanding the provenance and authority of Torah is central to understanding who we are as Jews.

From a cryptic story told in Tractate Chagigah 14b, we learn that Torah study is divided into four layers of increasing complexity:

- Pshat: the plain meaning of the verses;
- Remez: hints, i.e., esoteric meanings of the verses beyond the simple;
- Drash: homiletics; and
- Sod: the deepest secrets of the verses.

The acronym for these layers is "Pardes" meaning orchard, and is the source for the English word paradise.

This gemara has always made me think of - proteins. 

When you stop sniggering I'll explain.

Proteins are the backbone of life. DNA are tinkertoys compared to the complexity of proteins. Beyond the structural value of proteins like muscle, hair and organs, thousands (millions?) of metabolic processes in the human body are mediated by enzymes (which are a form of protein) custom engineered to their specific task. Without enzymes life is not possible.

Proteins also have four levels of structure:

- Primary: the simple string of amino acids that forms a polypeptide chain, often millions of amino acids long;
- Secondary: complex loops, helices and or pleats are formed in the string of amino acids by hydrogen & sulfide bonds;
- Tertiary: the pleats, loops and helices fold over each other creating a three dimensional structure; and
- Quaternary: several of these 3-D polypeptide chains interlock.

The primary structure of proteins corresponds to the pshat of Torah: like amino acids, letter follows letter, word follows word, all in perfect order. This is the simplest meaning of Torah, the "quaint Bible stories" that most third graders know. 

The secondary structure of proteins corresponds to the remez of Torah: heikesh and gezaira shava (hermeneutical tools) are like the hydrogen bonds that create loops and helices in the text;

The tertiary structure of proteins is the drash: how we connect incidents in different parts of the Torah to each other and what those connections teach us; and

The quaternary structure of proteins corresponds to sod: how the Five Books of Moses work seamlessly to create one integrated, organic whole.

Instead of thinking of the Torah as a string of words that tell a story, try to picture the Torah in 3-D: not so much a beginning, middle and end, but more like words linking words, folding, twisting, reaching out from Genesis over to Numbers, Exodus to Deuteronomy, creating a complex 3-D structure of ideas. 

And just like an enzyme, any minor alteration of the primary structure will affect the final 3-D structure and functionality of the whole. Every word and space MUST be in it's proper place.

The metaphor can be extended. One idea of how enzymes work is called the lock-and-key model. The 3-D structure of the protein creates a highly specific receptor designed for a specific substrate. When the substrate 'locks' into the enzyme, it alters the 3-D structure of the enzyme-substrate complex. The metabolic process occurs, the substrate is released, and the enzyme returns to its original shape, ready to accept another substrate.

If Torah is the enzyme, then the substrate is the human mind. Like an enzyme, Torah is powerless by itself. But when we engage Torah, study it, grapple with its difficulties, reflect on it, laugh with it, we are both miraculously changed and amazing things happen in the universe.

The Torah is a singular document. It's not Shakespeare or Melville. The more we study it, the more it reveals it's depth, it's eloquence, it's complexity; the more it becomes apparent that no human - not even a Moses - could have been brilliant enough to forward-engineer a document that works on so many independent levels, and levels within levels. 

So perhaps it should come as no surprise that direct analogues exist between the way we're built and the way the Torah is built; after all, each was designed for the other and both share a common Author.

Now that's an axiom I can hang my hat on.

Shabbat Shalom.


  1. Really interesting concept! As an artist, I would love to see this as a 3 dimensional sculpture. I realize that it couldn't be literal interpretation, but as a conceptual one, it could be amazing!

  2. Very original. I wonder if the Bible Codes group has ever compared Human DNA or the Genome to the Torah for any similarities or consistency as a code.

    The old line that if you had a "thousand moneys typing at typewriters for 100 years eventually you would get the works of Shakespeare." I don't think you could ever say that about the Torah.

    1. Not tiring to diss Shakespeare, which I think is a genius (like Mozart) without compare.