On this blog, we search for structural parallels between the Torah and science; we look for scientific metaphors that help us to understand the Torah better; and we look for Torah insights to help us understand science more deeply. However, this endeavor is fraught with peril. Using superficial parallels that don’t hold up under scrutiny serves neither the Torah nor the science and likely discredits this interdisciplinary research. I don’t like to criticize others, as my own work is not free from errors. But I feel compelled to sound a cautioning note.

One such unfounded “parallel” that has troubled me for years is the purported analogy between the four bases (“letters”) of the genetic code and the four letters of the Tetragrammaton—the proper name of God. This parallel, advocated by some highly intelligent authors with nonscientific backgrounds, goes something like this: All biological life is based on DNA, which is coded by four letters. The name of God is also made of four letters, which is why it is called in Greek the Tetragrammaton (literally “four letters”)—and thus the name of God is encoded in the genome of all life forms.

This so-called parallel is a fallacy on many levels. There are indeed four bases: adenine (A), thymine (T), cytosine (C), and guanine (G). These four letters—A, T, C, and G—code three-letter words, which combine in different ways to form the twenty essential amino acids that make up proteins, the building blocks of life.

The Tetragrammaton is made of four letters: yud (Y), heh (H), waw (W), and heh (H). But as we see, there are only three unique letters, since the letter waw occurs twice—in the second and fourth places.

We don’t need to look any further—the analogy falls apart right here. The Tetragrammaton codes a four-letter word with three unique letters. In genetics, on the other hand, three-letter words are coded with four unique letters (bases). The sole purpose of these three-letter words is to create combinations to form the twenty essential amino acids that make up our proteins. It is hard to see a direct parallel with the Tetragrammaton.[1]

Furthermore, the four letters of the genetic code are base pairs. They are called “pairs” because they pair with each other, forming rungs of the ladder connecting two strands of DNA. Thus, adenine (A) always pairs with thymine (T), and guanine (G) always pairs with cytosine (C). Although the first two letters of the Tetragrammaton, yud and heh, and the last two letters, waw and heh, are sometimes paired in Kabbalah,[2] they make up two units and do not connect anything, unlike the case of genetic base pairs.




Base pairs, with cytosine always combining with guanine and thymine always combining with adenine. (Source: National Human Genome Research Institute)

Figure 1. Base pairs, with cytosine always combining with guanine and thymine always combining with adenine. (Source: National Human Genome Research Institute)

Recent discoveries have dealt the final blow to this unfounded analogy. In three papers published in April in Science, authors describe an alternative fifth base—2-aminoadenine, which was dubbed “Z.” It is usually found in bacteriophages—viruses that feast on bacteria. In some phages, the Z base replaces A and pairs with T. Needless to say, there is no alternative fifth letter[3] that ever replaces one of the letters in the Tetragrammaton.

I do not doubt that good intentions drive authors who make such unfounded analogies. Kabbalists teach that all created things draw their “energy” from some permutation of the letters of the Tetragrammaton. For example, Rabbi Moshe Chaim Luzzatto, in 138 Openings of Wisdom, said,

In sum, all that exists is founded on the mystery of this Name and upon the mystery of these letters of which it consists.[4]

Thus, in a sense, everything is “connected” to this name of God. The desire to locate this connection in nature is understandable and praiseworthy. However, it is one thing to meditate on how all creation came from God; it is quite another to make specific pronouncements that sound very scientific but do not hold water. We, myself included, need to be more careful in expounding structural parallels between the Torah and science.


Endnotes

[1] To be sure, the first three letters of Tetragrammaton, yud-heh-waw, represent a Divine Name in its own right, which is often used in various kabbalistic meditations. One may also discern an analogy in combining triplets of letters in Shem HaMeforash—the 72-fold name of God from Exodus 14:19–21  comprised of triplets of letters when read boustrophedonically (Rashi). See Rabbi Kaplan, Aryeh. The Bahir: Illumination. (1989: Weiser), p. 42.

[2] According to the Kabbalah, two first letters of the Tetragrammaton, yud and heh, form a separate divine name written as Ya-h (Psalms 68:4; Isaiah 12:2, 26:4, and 38:11), but pronounced in the vernacular as “Kah” (because one is not allowed to pronounce a divine name outside the context of a blessing or a Torah reading). The last two letters of the Tetragrammaton, waw (or vav) and heh, do not form a separate name but do form a unit. It is said that the first two letters of the Tetragrammaton represent Olam d’Yiskasia (the hidden world), whereas the last two letters represent Olam d’Yisgalia (the revealed world) (Tanya, Lekutei Amarim, ch. 26). Moreover, each of the letters represents partzufim—divine visages (dynamic configurations of interincluded sefirot). Yud corresponds to the Partzuf Aba (Supernal Father), heh corresponds to the Partzuf Ima (Supernal Mother), waw corresponds to the Partzuf Ze’ir Anpin (or Z”A—“small face,” and the upper cusp of the yud), and the last heh corresponds to the Nukva d’Z”A (female companion—the sister and the bride—of the Z”A). Aba couples with Ima, and Z”A couples with Nukva.

[3] Actually, the fifth element in the Tetragrammaton does exist—it’s a upper cusp of the letter yud, which corresponds to Partzuf of Arich Anpin—but it is not a letter and it never replaces any other letter.

[4] Rabbi Moshe Chaim Luzzatto, “Opening 31,” in 138 Openings of Wisdom, tr. by Rabbi A. Greenbaum (Azamra Institute, 2005).

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