Wednesday, May 18, 2011

Reader Response -- Is it good to debunk Torah Codes?

In a comment on a previous post, an Anonymous commenter posted:
To just write off the Torah codes as 'Bunk' is a total cop-out. The codes have at least as much proof as many accepted scientific concepts, if not more. There are many thousands of fully practising Jews in the world today because they accepted this as part of the 'knowledge of G-d' becoming revealed. The nay-sayers just cannot bear having their free choice taken away.
By the way Rav Avigdor Miller did refer to Islam as avodah zarah.
This commenter makes a number of points, and though I disagree on almost every point, nothing he writes is something to be ashamed about. He is fighting the good fight, arguing the good argument, in favor of kiruv rechokim and emunah. As such, I would encourage him to post his name. At the least, he should choose a pseudonym and stick with it, so as to distinguish himself / herself from any other random person who would comment on this blog.

When there are so many points, densely packed into one comment, I need to pull them apart and respond to them one by one. Let me start with Rabbi Avigdor Miller, zatzal. In the previous post, I had written:
Finally -- and this is just for the sake of being comprehensive -- based on the title of the video, idols of wood refers to Christianity while idols of stone refers to Islam. But Islam is not necessarily considered avoda zara. They worship a single God, who they assert is the same one God referred to in our Torah. And Rambam did not consider Islam to be avoda zara:

הלכות מאכלות אסורות פרק יא
ד [ז] גר תושב, והוא שקיבל עליו שבע ... וכן כל גוי שאינו עובד עבודה זרה, כגון אלו הישמעאליים

If so, this is not a very impressive Torah code. (If you ask me in the comment section nicely, I can rationalize for you a worthy rejoinder to this last point.)
To which Anonymous wrote:
By the way Rav Avigdor Miller did refer to Islam as avodah zarah.
This may well be. But why should that matter. Look, Rabbi Avigdor Miller, zatzal, was surely a big tzaddik, and a baal mussar. He was a noted author, lecturer, and kiruv professional who brought many people to Yiddishkeit. Was he a famous posek, though? Looking at his biography on Wikipedia, I see no mention of anything of the sort. Tell me that Rav Shlomo Zalman Aurbach said this, or that Rav Chaim Kanievsky said this, or that Rav Belsky said this, and I might give this some credence. That a popular lecturer was not precise in his language when speaking to the hamon am does nothing for me, and should not be reflected by the Torah codes.

By the way, it is not just the Rambam with a unique position, a daas yachid, on the status of Islam. To cite an essay on the subject (but one can look up the referred-to sources for himself):
Rabbi Yosef Karo, who compiled one of the fundamental books of Jewish law, the Shulchan Aruch, followed Maimonides' ruling: “An idol worshipper can abolish idolatry even that which does not belong to him, and even if he himself does not worship that specific idol . . . however, he must understand the nature of idol worshipping. . . ."9 Rabbi Moshe Iserlish 10 comments there that - "and our nations 11 and Ishmaelites, that are not idol worshippers, cannot abolish idolatry."
and so on and so forth. Note the following, though:
Few Rabbis consider Islam an idolatrous religion due its non-acceptance of the Torah in the manner of the Jew. For these thinkers, Islam’s acknowledgement and exclusive worship of the One God is insufficient. See Responsa Divre Yatsiv, part Yoreh De’ah 40. Other intermediate views consider Islam idolatrous in certain aspects (for them it is forbidden to enter a mosque) but not in other issues. See Responsa Tzitz Eliezer 18:4
Despite this, I am not convinced that even these few poskim would consider it correct to label Islam as worship of 'gods of stone', even if it does, according to them, have a status or quasi-status of avoda zara.

And so, of course, some level argument can be made, but from certain poskim among others, rather than from popular lecturers. However, are we going to then side with one side of a halachic dispute, just in order to make a Torah code work?! Or will we abolish it according to those that take the opposite, majority position?

Another point made by the Anonymous commenter:
To just write off the Torah codes as 'Bunk' is a total cop-out. The codes have at least as much proof as many accepted scientific concepts, if not more.
This, alas, is assertion without proof, though one I have heard asserted before. Just as there was a paper, accepted into a peer-reviewed journal, in favor of the Torah codes, there were counter-articles published in peer-reviewed journals that debunked them and their statistical significance. See my in-depth discussion in the comment section of this earlier parshablog post, about my very own Torah code. Start reading from the comment by Yeshivish.

The proponents, by the way, only talk about the validity of certain Torah codes. The popularly produced ones, like the one presented by Rabbi Yossi Mizrachi in the previous post, and all the ones produced by Rabbi Glazerson, are not the same, and do NOT have the same level of scientific validity, even according to the proponents.

Also, the Anonymous commenter calls it a 'cop-out'. Later, he writes:
The nay-sayers just cannot bear having their free choice taken away.
This strikes me as an ad-hominem attack. It questions the motives of Torah-code opponents, and alleged that it is clouding their judgement. It strikes me that one can say the same, in the opposite direction, about many Torah code proponents. Regardless, there are frum Jews, with long white beards, who know the statistics and therefore oppose it, because they believe that it is nonsense and sheker.

One such, somewhat neutral, example is Dr. Robert Aumann, a Nobel laureate in economics and a frum Jew:
Robert Aumann, a notable game theorist and winner of the Nobel Prize in Economics in 2005, has followed the Bible Code research and controversy for many years. He wrote:[39]"Though the basic thesis of the research seems wildly improbable, for many years I thought that an ironclad case had been made for the codes; I did not see how 'cheating' could have been possible. Then came the work of the 'opponents' (see, for example, McKay, Bar-Natan, Bar-Hillel and Kalai, Statistical Science 14 (1999), 149–173). Though this work did not convince me that the data had been manipulated, it did convince me that it could have been; that manipulation was technically possible."
He agrees that the 'wiggle-room' alleged by the opponents is indeed a possible explanation of the results of the Torah code paper.

For an explicit religious opponent of the Torah codes, we have Rabbi Dr. Shlomo Sternberg, a mathematician at Harvard, who has called the Torah Codes a hoax. He is already religious -- indeed, he is a rabbi. He is a mathematician, rather than someone seeking a 'cop-out'. He is not being biased because of fear of having his free choice taken away, as some might allege. See also Dr. Nathan Aviezer.

A third point made by this Anonymous commenter:
There are many thousands of fully practising Jews in the world today because they accepted this as part of the 'knowledge of G-d' becoming revealed.
This may indeed be so, but it might be irrelevant. I am not sure how to take this statement, but I could interpret it in one of three ways.

(i) 'It must be true because look at its effects!' 

It should be immediately apparent that this is not so. Yes, many people have become religious Jews because of the Torah codes. That does not make them not sheker. Many Jews have unfortunately because followers of Jews for Jesus because of false and misleading yet convincing 'proofs'. It is possible to convince people who don't know any better. And if it is possible to convince people to believe in sheker via sheker, why should it not be possible to convince people via sheker to believe in emes. Just because it is possible does not mean that one should do this.

(ii) 'The ends justify the means, so don't stand in the way!'

I don't know that this is what the commenter meant, but people might say this anyway, so it deserves a response. Here is (update: the blogger) Divrei Chaim in favor of some level of dissembling in kiruv. And Rabbi Nosson Slifkin, at Rationalist Judaism, against it. I am in the camp that is against it.

Furthermore, it is not as if there is only positive results that are associated with Torah Codes. Yes, some people become frum because of it. But once one believes in the validity of this absolute bunk, a lot of baggage comes along for the ride.

For one example out of an unfortunate many, people believe as a religious belief that Obama is Gog. Just as Judaism is absolutely true, as proven by the Torah codes, so is Obama equal to Gog!

Another unfortunate example. There is a cult leader living in Israel today named HaRav [sic] Nir Ben Artzi. He is a navi sheker predicting the coming apocalypse and the collapse of Western civilization. Should we dismiss him? Should we believe him? Well, Rabbi Glazerson has decided that one is permitted to believe him, because of a Torah code which has "Ben Artzi" in proximity to "Chozeh", meaning 'seer'. Thus, there are very real negative repercussions.

(iii) 'It is dangerous to debunk this, because it might turn some of these thousands of frum Jews off the derech'

There is admittedly some merit to this argument, and I am indeed of two minds about this. But people should not be using this for kiruv going forward! And what about how Torah codes are being used in all sorts of other negative ways, such as maligning American presidents and bolstering nevi'ei sheker?


Baruch Pelta said...

In general, a fine post.

I have to take issue with one thing you wrote. I don't mean to take this out on you, but Rabbi Avigdor Miller's been mentioned at a few blogs I read (and like) in unqualified positive terms and I can't help but wonder: What exactly makes Rabbi Avigdor Miller a "tzaddik"?

Rabbi Lamm has an excellent discussion in one of his essays on the attempts of rebbeim -- including Miller -- to explain the Holocaust: "They just know everything about the Sho'ah, especially why it happened. The enormity of this callousness, the outrageousness of such insensitive arrogance in elaborating this zidduk ha-din is mind-boggling. It is, to my mind, unforgivable."

I think "callous," "arrogant," and "outrageous" are good ways to describe the more ignorant and hateful preachings of Miller on topics ranging from evil academics to "the Germans" who deserve to be executed (not the Nazis, just regular modern Germans). If a word like "tzaddik" can be applied to Miller, perhaps words have lost their meaning to my Modern Orthodox friends.

joshwaxman said...

Truth be told, I don't really know much about Rabbi Miller. I haven't read him, or read of him, extensively. So I am not in a position to either condemn or defend. Perhaps other readers / commenters can pick up that task. At any rate, in this post it forms a digression and distraction. My point was just that regardless, he is not a posek.


Baruch Pelta said...

No distraction; That's a fine end to the conversation.

Mike S. said...

Also a distraction, but the Divrei Chaim blog and the Divrei Chaim (written by R. Chaim Halberstam of Sanz)are very different. You had me going there for a moment.

joshwaxman said...

heh. i updated to reflect that. that paragraph was actually mostly a cut and paste job from a blog news roundup, where the context made this clearer, maybe.


Anonymous said...

Please excuse my posting anonymously, this was the only way I could get it to upload in the very limited time available whilst working. My name is Eli, I live in London, England.
I don't know about all these academics, but I myself have done a science degree and realized that there is very little definitive 'proof' for anything in science. Forget all the nonsense about predicting the future through Torah codes, when I was first shown the code for Rambam - Mishneh Torah in parashas Bo, this was as near a proof as anything I'd ever learn't in science. We are commanded to 'know' Hashem as well as believe in Him; at that time I was given sufficient proof to know that a Sefer Torah, or Chumash, contains Divine knowledge that we cannot even begin to fathom. When learning Rambam, which I do every day, I am certain that this work has the seal of the Alm-hty, and so together with many other people with an academic background, made the move into a life of Yiddishkeit. The world of academia spearheaded the departure (Enlightenment) and is now instrumental in the Return. During the miracles in Egypt there were those who put it down to chance.

Having listened to many tapes of the famous Avigdor Miller lectures, I remember him once saying something like " Islam is a form of avodah zarah, whatever anyone says. They have a little puppet called Allah and they make him say whatever they want ". This was fully backed up by friends who were brought up in an Arab country. The Jewish people in exile have alternated between being under Christian and Muslim rule, exactly as prophesied in the Torah, gods of wood and stone

joshwaxman said...

i think we'll have to agree to disagree here, on both counts. in terms of the Rambam code (here and here), the lecturers in the Discovery Seminar, who use this for kiruv, explain that it is not statistically significant. Thus,
You might think, for example, that the "Rambam code" presented on pages 6 and 7 are pretty strong evidence that God encoded a message in Exodus about the great Rabbi Moshe ben Maimon (often called Maimonides or known by the acronym Rambam). This code is well known to Bible coders; you can read about it in Jeffrey Satinover's book or those by Grant Jeffrey.

Nothing in the Discovery book indicates that this code is not really statistically significant. However, your instructor will tell you that (if he covers this particular code). And he'll be correct. This code, including the nearby "Mishneh Torah" code, can not be defended statistically. (Mishneh Torah was the title of the Rambam's best known book.) Your instructor will do a good job of explaining in layman's terms just why this code carries no scientific weight. But the book won't tell you that.

kol tuv,

Anonymous said...

Hello Josh
First of all let me say I have never been to a Discovery seminar and do not have an instructor. I first heard about the Torah codes at the beginning of the research in the 1980s, long before the slick lecturers of kiruv organisations got their hands on it, and long before the cheap, sensational book by Michael Drosnin. I saw a presentation in a very chareidi part of London, to an audience which was not looking for kiruv, but which nevertheless gave out audible gasps. The computer studies only fast-forwarded what was known anyway.

I don't understand what the argument is; it's like I see a building and someone tells me it's not a building. I check some of the codes in my Chumash, and hey presto, I see them.
Another insightful comment I heard on the Avigdor Miller lecture tapes. Something like: "the truth is so important that it is usually kept hidden away. Occasionally truth comes out, but it is quickly covered up again".
Best wishes

joshwaxman said...

thanks for your response.

once again, since i write at length, i would have to respond in a full post.

stay tuned!

joshwaxman said...

the first part of my response is now up. see here. the second part is still in the works.



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