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.
Ironically, the Bible Codes themselves attempt to make use of “science” by uncovering patterns in the text that are discernible only by computational algorithms. (Proponents make much of the fact that the scholarly journal Statistical Science published one Bible Codes article; unfortunately, the same journal published a convincing refutation of the hoax in 1999.) Perhaps this is why the con endures: It’s just scientific-seeming enough to appeal to that band of Jews appreciative of scientific discourse but, understandably, not well versed enough in statistics or mathematics to approach these claims critically. The Bible Codes are like Intelligent Design: religion garbed in science that, while obviously flawed to actual scientists, seems credible enough to laypeople.
But when faith uses science to justify itself, it undermines itself as well. Surely religious consciousness does not lie on the same axis as scientific proof. When the Earth was discovered to revolve around the sun, the church reacted with bans and inquisitions. Eventually, however, most people made their peace; the enduring lessons of kindness, generosity and holiness do not depend on astronomy.
Yet even today, there are those who insist that demonstrably false views about the age of the earth, the evolution of human beings or the nature of human sexuality are somehow still correct. As if the cohesion of their religious communities and the coherence of their religious ideologies are somehow dependent on which way the science comes out. Would it not be wiser, following generations of philosophers, to differentiate between the zones of the scientific and the religious? Leave science to the scientists, and reserve for the religious crucially important domains of the ethical and the spiritual. We should not turn to science for values — that’s what brought us eugenics and social Darwinism — and we should not turn to religion for facts.
Which brings me to perhaps the most troubling aspect of the Bible Codes, which is the nature of the religion they “prove.” Just as the Bible Codes myth relativizes the nonrelative, so it absolutizes the nonabsolute. If the Bible Codes are correct, then the Torah is unlike every other document on the face of the earth, and contains secret prophecies embedded within it that were intended to be discovered only now, in our age of computer science. This means that the Torah is absolutely supernatural, while the New Testament, Quran and Upanishads are not. And that means, in turn, that the Jews really are the chosen people in the unreconstructed sense: We alone possess Divine revelation, and the Torah is absolutely it.
Well, it’s a good thing the Bible Codes are nonsense, because that reactionary theology is the same toxic brew that has brought us fundamentalism, crusades and jihads. What the Bible Codes hawkers are teaching is not just pseudoscience, but also fanaticism. If our sacred book is divine and the others are so clearly not, there’s very little space for religious pluralism or tolerance. Only we are right. The goyim — by whom I mean, of course, more than 99.5% of the human population — really are wrong. (This is not, of course, to attack more moderate versions of the “Chosen People” doctrine, such as that the Jewish people have a unique destiny on Earth. But the Bible Codes “prove” far more than that.)
And yet there is a thirst for this dangerous drivel. Faith, by its nature, is uncertain. A commitment to religious consciousness necessitates a certain insecurity, which, of course, is why the most dogmatic religionists (Christian fundamentalists, Haredim, Islamists) insist on absolute conviction. The Bible Codes seek to erase the very essence of spirituality by making the truth of religion as irrefutable as the laws of physics. You need no courage, the Bible Codes say, in order to be religious. Indeed, you’d be a fool not to be.
Authentic religious consciousness, however, is not a matter of absolutes, decided once and forever with scientific certainty. That’s just a claim, a cop-out, meant to substantiate that which should not be substantiated. Authentic spirituality exists precisely because adopting it is a choice.
Franz Rosenzweig once wrote that if the Sambatyon — the legendary river that stops flowing on the Sabbath — flowed through the German city of Frankfurt, of course everyone would be religious. But being religious would then be meaningless. There would be no choice, no agency involved. It seems, Rosenzweig wrote, that God desires only those who are free.