Bible Codes: Response to a Misleading Hamodia Article

letter-447577_1280

The article on the so-called Bible Codes in Hamodia’s weekly magazine of March 21 is both laden with inaccuracies and dangerous. We hereby set the record straight, albeit briefly.

When the Bible Codes were first introduced as a kiruv tool, we spent hundreds of hours investigating their authenticity, reading the articles of both proponents and opponents, speaking in depth with mathematicians, and meeting the with some of the rabbanim who wrote the haskomos. We recognized how counterproductive it would be to claim something as a chizuk emunah if audiences would discover its flaws. After consulting with gedolei Torah, we were encouraged to sound the alarm – if only so that skeptics would not be able to point with glee to the ease with which Torah-observant Jews could delude themselves into finding support where there is none. This would be a massive chilul Hashem. In fact, we have met too many people whose original enthusiasm for Torah turned to contempt when they came to understand how the Codes presentation that baited them lacked foundation.

Nothing has changed in the last decade, since the debate raged. Those who are interested in background can look at an early paper on the subject. After the debate carried on for a while, two preeminent scholars (one of them a Nobel laureate, the other a Wolf Prize winner), both frum, helped oversee an experiment that both sides agreed would be dispositive. The experiment failed to confirm any Codes effect. Their paper is a matter of public record. We note that in halacha, matters of metziyus are settled by following a plurality of mumchin/ experts. The experts in evaluating the validity of the Codes are mathematicians (not cryptographers, who use a different set of tools) familiar with very special considerations of probability. A group of fifty such mathematicians a decade ago argued that no verifiable Codes effect had been demonstrated. Contrary to the assertions of the Codes promoters, those mathematicians (among them some of the preeminent thinkers in the field) included several who are entirely frum. We know of virtually no mathematicians of note (Dr. Rips being one of the few exceptions) who support the Codes. Mr. Gans, whose intentions are undoubtedly leshem Shomayim (as are ours, to the best of our knowledge) cannot assemble anything remotely equivalent to their authority.

Specifically, we reject the article in the following ways:

• Torah ha-Kedoshah does not require “proof,” nor can proof of the Torah which is the template of Creation come from the world of science. A celebrated talmid of Rav Wolbe zt”l told us that this was the most serious objection to the Codes, and accused us of underestimating how hashkafically unsound they were!
• The Codes experiments, including the published results of the Great Rabbis experiment, are described inaccurately in the article. In any event, the follow-up research and attempted replications (and that is a foundation for acceptance of any scientific theory) showed how flawed was the experimental design in several regards, including the choice of parameters and use of statistical tools.
• The methods used to compute the “probability” of finding “meaningful” combinations of letters in the text of the Bible (or any other text) is not considered valid in the mathematics world.
• Contrary to what the article states, the phenomenon they point to can be found in any sufficiently large text, including Moby Dick. Christians have assembled volumes of them, including ones demonstrating the divinity of someone we do not regard as divine in Isaiah 53.
• Contrary to their assertion, gedolei Yisrael were not of one voice a decade ago. One of them told us that he would not publicly condemn the use of the Codes because he found it impossible to believe that anyone would confuse such nonsense with Torah. Another one picked up the phone to call Rav Noach Weinberg zt”l to order those in his orbit to stop using the Codes in kiruv.
• None of the gedolim who are listed as supporters was given anything remotely approaching sufficient mathematical background to evaluate the validity of the Codes. They were told that a group of bnei Torah had found a valuable tool to support Torah min ha-Shomayim, and were opposed by kofrim and dupes. They signed to show their support of the former against the latter.
• Nothing has changed in ten years. The new experiments are nothing but the same approach discredited earlier. It is true that the critics have been silent. So have opponents of Flat Earth enthusiasts. At some point, the serious thinkers say enough is enough, and don’t bother responding.
• The notion that six papers introduced (and subsequently ignored, rather than critiqued or published in the official journal) at a forum in which many people of varied backgrounds and credentials were welcome to present somehow “proves” something according the “rules of science” is ludicrous. As Dr. Barry Simon, himself a world-class mathematical physicist memorably wrote, “I have been an editor of the most distinguished journal in my specialty for roughly twenty years and I have pride in the high standards of my section but I wouldn’t eat in a restaurant whose standards of kashrut were only as high as that of my journal.” Peer review is important but it is a limited system. And any peer review of these papers didn’t even reach that level.
• Mr. Gans statement “According to scientific rules, in order for critics to disprove the Torah codes, they would have to find fatal flaws in each of the six papers, each paper presenting a different approach and a different code” is based on a caricature of the method of science and does grave injustice to the seriousness of scientific research. Moreover, we emphasize that the critics have never claimed to disprove the codes – they only assert that the claimed proofs of the Codes proponents are fatally flawed. As emphasized by Aumann and Furstenberg, it is difficult to conceive of an accurate experiment to test the so-called Codes hypothesis. The bottom line is that the Codes have no claim to scientific validity according to the way the term is understood by scientists.

We feel the need to respond only because we know the Codes to be a black mark on the seriousness of Torah, and on the good work done by so many kiruv workers. They should not be dragged down by the mistakes of a minority, however well-motivated they may be.
אין הצר שוה בנזק המלך

We are not going to accept comments on this post. We put in our time a decade ago, and have no desire to get drawn into fruitless and endless debate. We will make an exception – offline – for mechanchim who need to make a determination about using a tool that seems exciting, but once more confirms the non-rabbinic maxim, “If it seems too good to be true, it is.”

Rabbi Yitzchok Adlerstein, Los Angeles
Rabbi Dovid Kamenetsky, Yerushalayim
Rabbi Shaya Karlinsky, Yerushalayim

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