Recently, I had the pleasure of teaching at Limmud FSU (Former Soviet Union), the version of the wildly successful international learning conference geared toward Russian-speaking Jews. Held at a hotel outside Princeton University, the conference’s theme was science, with an emphasis on Albert Einstein, and the cultural and political sessions reflected the generally rational, secular tastes of the target population.
Except, that is, for one session, late Friday night, on the Bible Codes, the supposedly nonrandom arrangements of letters that prove the divinity (or at least, prophetic and omniscient authorship) of the Tanach. You may remember Bible Codes/Torah Codes from their heyday about 15 years ago: Using computers and a simple set of algorithms, enterprising researchers found that every 14th letter in, I don’t know, the book of Habakkuk, spelled out the name of this or that important rabbi, politician or event. The data is cleverly mapped on a matrix, impressing upon the reader the supernatural nature of the Bible.
One reason that Bible Codes have gone out of fashion is that mathematicians and statisticians have thoroughly, completely and convincingly disproved them. For example, Barry Simon of the Caltech mathematics department has shown that any sufficiently large text will have similar letter patterns in it. Famously, the same algorithms used in the Bible Codes yielded similarly “prophetic” results when used on Hebrew translations of “War and Peace.”
Indeed, when, in 1997, popular author Michael Drosnin (who wrote a book on the subject) challenged critics to find the same “prophecy” regarding the assassination of Yitzhak Rabin in “Moby Dick” as Bible Codes folks had found in the Bible, Australian computer scientist Brendan McKay did just that, and for good measure he found letter arrangements predicting the assassinations of Trotsky, Gandhi and Martin Luther King, Jr.
In other words, the Bible Codes are bunk.
The fact that they persist, though, is interesting.
First, it says something profound about the lengths to which proselytizers are willing to go in order to promote their religious views to other Jews — that is, they’re willing to lie, or somehow ignore the overwhelming evidence that contradicts their claims. In this regard, it’s noteworthy that Simon is himself an Orthodox Jew troubled by the spectacle of rabbis and missionaries conning prospective baalei teshuvah, converts to Orthodoxy, with pseudoscience. I’m not sure if the rabbi presenting at Limmud was a dupe or a knave: that is, whether he somehow didn’t know of this 15-year-old body of evidence, or whether he deliberately ignored it to con the credulous. I’m also not sure which would be worse.
The persistence of the Bible Codes also says something profound about the nature of religious belief itself. At Limmud, I got to talking with a friend of mine who did the Discovery Seminar — the crash course by the outreach-oriented Aish HaTorah yeshiva that includes the Bible Codes — many years ago. I told him that this quackery had been disproved long ago. “Well,” he said, “that’s your opinion.” No, I said, that’s a fact. This isn’t an ethical conversation where reasonable people can disagree; this is math. “In your opinion,” he repeated.
This is symptomatic of a tendency in religious thinking to relativize the nonrelative. This is ironic, of course, since in contemporary debates, it’s conservative religionists who often accuse secular and progressive people of relativism. But to claim that mathematics is a matter of opinion — surely that’s the most relativistic claim of all. Likewise, I thought to myself, the willful ignorance of the fossil record, or of carbon dating, or of linguistic evidence that conclusively establishes when sacred texts were written. These are all facts. Say what you will about science — say that the evidence is a divine trap meant to ensnare the weak of faith — but for sure it’s not a matter of opinion.