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Just to set the phrase “Torah Code” here evenly spaced at ten characters, I consumed a lot of time anmisplaced energy. Putting nouns, verbs, and modifiers together in intelligible prose is hard enough, but trying at the same time to lace your prose with readable secret messages is guaranteed to tie you in knots: That first sentence, awkward as it is, took hours to compose.

If you believe a new bestseller, however, a code far more complex than mine snakes through the first five books of the Bible. This code, claims author Michael Drosnin, is far too elaborate to have been placed in the text by any human author; moreover, it predicts events that long postdate the composition of the Torah, events down to our own day, and thus seems to represent the Divine signature on the Old Testament.

Drosnin’s The Bible Code would hardly be worth mentioning were it not such a smash hit. From its first pages, in which Drosnin (though he professes to be a nonbeliever) reports having warned Israeli Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin of his impending assassination after the event was allegedly predicted in the Torah, it is a trivial, unsophisticated little book that merits no particular attention. In any long string of letters one can find countless anomalies that will seem like convincing proofs of hidden meaning to the mind that wants to believe that the text is somehow special. Numerological tricks, for example, can demonstrate that William Shakespeare wrote the King James Bible. Such tricks will sometimes yield correct statements (Rabin was killed), and will sometimes yield incorrect ones (Shakespeare did not write the King James Bible), and if you publish only the correct ones, you can make any text look pretty extraordinary. The point is that such gimmicks have absolutely no scientific meaning and prove nothing about the text in question. Yet Drosnin, like a child at a magic show, is so bowled over that the Torah seems to have predicted the Kennedy assassination, the Gulf War, and the Holocaust that he now suspects a nuclear apocalypse is coming down the pike any day because he’s found a code for that too.

The only reason to pay any attention to The Bible Code is that some real mathematics does lie beneath at least part of it. To be sure, Drosnin has taken this research wholly out of context and turned it into a kind of theological parlor trick, but the research itself is not as laughable as critics like myself would like it to be. A group of serious researchers have examined an aspect of the codes claim, applying modern statistical methodologies to it, and they published their startling conclusions in one of the most prestigious journals in the field of statistics. Not only are certain embedded codes present in the Book of Genesis, they wrote, but their existence “is not due to chance.”

Published in 1994 in a journal called Statistical Science, the paper on Torah codes describes a complex experiment in which computers scoured the Book of Genesis looking for evenly spaced sequences of letters spelling the names and birthdays of famous rabbis, all born centuries after Genesis was written. For all intents and purposes, the Statistical Science experiment would seem to prove—or at least strongly suggest—the existence of God. In other words, either this study contains a subtle error, or the world has discovered a long-hidden revelation of sorts. I believe there must be an error, yet the research on the Torah codes shook somewhat my agnosticism.

Once upon a time, science, philosophy, and theology were disciplines largely undifferentiated from one another, and proving the existence of God was a fairly commonplace intellectual exercise. But as the scientific method became increasingly refined, particularly through the nineteenth century, science and religion grew apart. To the modern mind, they now appear to exist on separate planes: by no means mutually exclusive, but not reinforcing one another either. Using the language of science to prove one’s God is generally considered, by scientist and priest alike, somewhat disreputable. Excepting the biblical literalist who promotes “creation science” and the occasional snake-oil salesman with a numerological proof of God’s majesty, modern minds have largely accepted Kierkegaard’s famous maxim that “the only proof there is is faith.”

Skepticism about the Torah codes is certainly justified, and it is tempting simply to dismiss them as just one more cleverly presented snake-oil. The codes, known as “equidistant letter sequences” (ELS), are being promoted by a Jewish religious academy known as Aish Hatorah, which specializes in bringing secular Jews back to traditional Orthodox practice. Aish partisans commonly haunt the Western Wall, inviting tourists to their home base in Jerusalem to entice them to Orthodoxy with lectures about, among other things, the codes. Many people I know would rest easier at night if science could trash the codes and restore the twentieth century’s equilibrium between faith and knowledge.

I confess myself to be among this group. I personally have no desire for Statistical Science (let alone Drosnin) to be the bearer of metaphysical truths, and I readily admit rooting for those scientists working to find a flaw in the paper. Acquaintances of mine have become Orthodox because of the codes; I know of one man who waited until Statistical Science agreed to publish the article before circumcising his son. But mainstream Orthodox Judaism has so far regarded the codes as irrelevant to the essence of rabbinic Judaism: the Divine commandments given by God at Mount Sinai. Quite simply, the codes claim is so fantastical that dismissing it as a piece of intellectual knavery may just be the most reasonable, as well as the most comfortable, solution for religious and secular people alike.

Except that this bit of intellectual knavery might just be the Truth.

The root of the belief in the codes is the almost unfathomable theological premise that the Torah, a set of five books of limited length, contains literally all truth. “According to the tradition,” explains Daniel Mechanic, a rabbi who lectures on the codes for Aish Hatorah ‘s traveling Discovery Seminar, “all of history—including the most minute details of the lives of every human being—is contained in the Torah.” As codes enthusiasts eagerly point out, the Vilna Gaon, the great eighteenth-century rabbi from Lithuania, wrote that the Torah contains all truth “not merely in a general sense, but including the details of every species and of each person individually.”

The belief that the Torah contains encrypted messages dates back at least to the medieval practitioners of the Kabbalah. The Kabbalists had some awareness of the possibility of ELS-coding, one of eighty-four coding schemes they located in the Torah. But the current emphasis on ELS results from work this century, together with a new observation that pairs of conceptually related words tend to occur near one another in the Torah.

True believers have spent hours counting out ciphers that appear to have mystical significance. Count a sequence skipping fifty letters from the first Hebrew T (called a Taf) in Genesis, for example, and you’ll find the word “Torah.” Do the same in Exodus, and you’ll find it again. (This ELS, however, doesn’t appear in the same fashion in the Torah’s other three books.)

But how do you test whether an ELS in the Torah is a meaningful embedded code or mere coincidence? Any text of sufficient length will contain a myriad of accidental ELSs, and if you look hard enough, you can find sequences that say all kinds of strange things. Yet such happenstances are profoundly different from, for example, the sequence I intentionally embedded in the opening sentence of this article. One is a meaningless accident, however mystically important it might seem. The other is an intentionally encoded message that can be plumbed for meaning.

To test whether the codes in the Torah were intentional, three Israeli scientists designed the elaborate experiment on which Drosnin is now cashing in. Eliyahu Rips of Hebrew University’s mathematics department, along with researchers Doron Witztum and Yoav Rosenberg, used computers to examine the Book of Genesis for ELSs that name thirty-two famous rabbis and their dates of birth or death. Because the rabbis on the list were all born long after Genesis was written, no human author could possibly have deliberately encoded their names and dates into the text. Moreover, the rabbis were chosen according to an arbitrary criterion, so the scientists were apparently not looking for names they already knew to be present. As a control, the authors performed the exact same experiment on several scrambled versions of Genesis, on the Book of Isaiah (which, while biblical, is not a book of the Torah), and on a Hebrew translation of War and Peace.

If the phenomenon were due merely to chance, the authors reasoned, they would be as likely to find an ELS naming Rabbi X near one identifying the birthday of Rabbi Y as they would be to find X near his own date. But while this was true for the control texts, it wasn’t true for Genesis. In Genesis, rather, the rabbis were not only mostly present in ELSs, but they tended to appear closer to their own dates than to the dates of one another. When the Witztum group analyzed these findings, they found there was only a one in fifty thousand possibility that such a coding scheme could have occurred as a result of chance.

These incredible results were published after they passed peer review in Statistical Science. The mere fact of their publication is remarkable, and the editors of the journal were apparently aware of just how peculiar their decision to publish the paper was. “Our referees were baffled: their prior beliefs made them think the Book of Genesis could not possibly contain meaningful references to modern-day individuals, yet when the authors carried out additional analyses and checks the effect persisted,” wrote the journal’s editors. “The paper is thus offered to Statistical Science readers as a challenging puzzle.”

Nobody has yet solved the puzzle, if solving it means proving a serious flaw in the experiment and refuting the original. But various statisticians and mathematicians are examining the experiment for flaws that could nullify the apparent effect. The most serious challenge to the published work has come from a group of Australian and Israeli researchers, led by mathematician Brendan McKay. McKay has replicated the experiment and claims to have found serious flaws in it. McKay’s draft report notes that the effect described in Genesis does not appear to exist in the other four books of the Torah. Moreover, he identifies a number of highly technical problems with the experiment that, he says, render it meaningless. His group has also demonstrated that wholly unscientific results like Drosnin’s can be gleaned from all sorts of texts, and the group is planning a paper that will systematically critique the original one.

I suspect this paper will begin to put the scientific questions about Torah codes to rest, but the critique has not yet undergone the rigorous peer review that the original paper withstood. In other words, a significant scientific debate is taking place between the codes’ proponents and their skeptics—a debate not aided by popularizers who cash in on the phenomenon.

Indeed, compared to Drosnin, Aish Hatorah seems positively restrained in its claims. According to Rabbi Mechanic, the codes cannot be read as any sort of window on the Torah’s inner meaning: “They have nothing to do with the religion, nothing to do with spirituality. All they can do is validate the hypothesis that the author of the Torah is not human.”

But this is hardly nothing. Indeed, if the reported effect proves real, the codes present a profound challenge. And however the argument over the Statistical Science article shakes out, the Torah codes’ discovery seems fundamentally unlike any previous claim that science has validated a metaphysical phenomenon. No claims of alien abduction or demonic possession have ever so robustly withstood examination as the Torah codes now have. Moreover, until they ultimately prove illusory, we have to consider the possibility that we can know for sure that God really did write the Torah. What then?

The Torah, after all, is rife with examples of people who are certain of God’s presence and who nonetheless disobey His decrees. In Exodus, for example, Moses leads the children of Israel to the foot of Mount Sinai, where God reveals Himself and gives them the Torah. These Israelites stare with their own eyes at irrefutable evidence of the presence of God. Yet by the end of Exodus—only a few scraps of parchment later—they dance in ecstatic worship around a golden calf. If the codes phenomenon proves real—bolstered by the best methodologies with which science normally attacks mysticisms—how many of us will renounce our secular lives and fall down in worship, and how soon will we leap up again to dance around the idols of modernity?

Benjamin Wittes covers the Justice Department for Legal Times.

Image by Adam Jones licensed via Creative Commons. Image cropped.

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