Torah Codes and Kiruv Rechokim

By Rabbi Daniel Mechanic

Dr. Barry Simon has chosen to question both Codes research and, by implication, Aish HaTorah’s presentation of Codes in their ongoing kiruv rechokim [outreach] efforts.  Although the answers to his questions and concerns can be found in Mr. Witztum’s accompanying article and at the Torah Codes web site, there is still a need to clarify a number of other important issues.

Rabbinical Support For the Use of Codes

A number of contemporary gedolim and Torah sages have repeatedly given their strong support for the use of Codes as a kiruv rechokim tool.  Included in this prominent group is the renowned Jerusalem posek and rav [halachic decisor and rabbi], Rav Shlomo Fisher.  In addition to his own 1989 halachic ruling stating that “it is a mitzvah to teach Codes,” Rabbi Fisher recently issued a public letter wherein he states that he met with Doron Witztum and Dr. Rips on several occasions, together with Rabbi Shlomo Zalman Auerbach, zt”l.  He testifies that Rav Auerbach not only gave his unequivocal approval of the Codes research but also strongly encouraged the use of this material in kiruv rechokim efforts.

Numerous prominent Torah authorities, who are themselves intimately involved in all aspects of kiruv, have personally sat through Codes presentations at our Discovery seminars.  Among those roshei yeshivah and rabbis who have attended — and gone on record as approving the use of Codes for kiruv — are Rabbis Yaakov Weinberg, Shmuel Kaminetzky, Moshe Heinemann and Yisroel Meir Kagan.  In fact, Mr. Harold Gans, a former senior cryptologic mathematician with the United States’ National Security Agency for 28 years, has had a number of long discussions about the Codes with Rabbi Heinemann.  Despite the recent controversy surrounding the topic, Rav Heinemann remains emphatic in characterizing the Torah codes as “absolutely part of our mesorah, and a kiddush Hashem to teach.”

We also have been scrupulous, of course, in obtaining confirmation of the ongoing Codes research by independent scientific experts, and it is for this reason that we continue to receive approval and encouragement for teaching Codes from universally recognized gedolim and Torah authorities.

The Effect of Codes in Kiruv

Dr. Simon asserts that “Torah Judaism has so much richness to offer” to the potential baal teshuvah besides the Codes which are “peripheral to Jewish values and practice.” Dr. Simon’s unfortunate choice of words contributes to the perpetuation of the myth that Aish HaTorah convinces secular Jews to become observant because of the Codes. Let me therefore set the record straight concerning the purpose and goal of Discovery [seminars sponsored by Aish HaTorah] in general, and Codes in particular. Codes are one class out of a one-day or weekend-long Discovery seminar that explores the many rational bases for belief in a God-given Torah. As such, the Codes are presented in the context of a whole system of classes that examine various aspects of that claim — historical, philosophical, psychological, scientific, etc. If someone finds the evidence for the Torah’s veracity compelling, they will then want to examine its content in depth. Discovery — and Codes — has been overwhelmingly successful in breaking through the enormous barriers that prevent secular Jews from seeing the richness and depth of Torah. It has served as a potent catalyst for secular Jews to open their eyes and take the reality of Torah seriously. The Torah is a mansion; the Codes are but one of many doorways. Discovery -— like 99.9% of its participants — has never made the mistake of confusing an entrance for the home itself.

One of Dr. Simon’s justifications for questioning Aish HaTorah’s use of Codes is that he claims to have received reports that there are some people who were turned off to Judaism because of the Codes presentation. We have on file over 40,000 detailed seminar evaluations from our participants.  These evaluations clearly show that Discovery has a positive transformational effect on the vast majority of its participants. Of course there are a few Discovery participants who were not impressed by the Codes. But after carefully reading these 40,000 evaluations -— specifically for the purpose of responsibly determining what is and what is not effective and well-received -— we found only an extremely small number of attendees who were not strongly impacted by the Codes. Letters, personal anecdotes, and reports from all the major outreach organizations in North America are received daily at the Discovery office describing secularized Jews’ journeys back to Torah that began with Discovery Seminars.  We invite anyone with a serious interest in kiruv to examine carefully the evaluations and the hard data which is, in fact, available. Without such a careful examination, skewed conclusions are bound to be reached.

Dr. Simon is concerned over the potential misuse of Codes by Christian missionary groups in their proselytizing of Jews. If we were to follow Dr. Simon’s reasoning to its logical conclusion, it would lead all of us immediately to ban the Tanach from our homes and schools since for nearly 2,000 years missionaries have misused it as their single greatest proselytizing tool -— far more successfully than the Codes could ever be.  Furthermore, Jews for Judaism, the largest counter-missionary organization in North America, reports that they are unaware of a single Jew who became a believer in J.C. because of the Christians’ misuse of the legitimate Codes research.  In fact, Jews for Judaism reports that subsequent to reading the two articles I authored demonstrating the Christians’ fraudulent tactics and claims, several Jews for Jesus returned to Torah and mitzvos.

Misinterpreted Quotations

Dr. Simon asserts that we are overselling our claims concerning the Codes on the Discovery web site. In fact, as will be demonstrated, it is Dr. Simon who has oversold his interpretation of what was written and, by doing so, created exaggerations that he can then refute.

For example, in an attempt to diminish the rigor of the scientific research, Dr. Simon refers to a letter reviewing Mr. Witztum and Dr. Rips’ work signed by four world-renowned mathematicians whom Dr. Simon attests to as having impeccable scientific credentials.  But Dr. Simon refrains from quoting the letter for the readers, choosing instead to interpret it for them.  He insists that the writers meant “nothing more” than that “they find the Famous Rabbis experiment interesting and worthy of further study.”  Dr. Simon is misleading the readers because, as he is well aware, the actual statement strongly affirms the rigor and seriousness of both the scientific research and the researchers. Their own words are as follows:

“…[T]he author [Doron Witztum] and his collaborators make a rather convincing case for the predominance of equal-spaced occurrences of ‘meaningful’ word pairs… The present work represents serious research carried out by serious investigators.”  (Emphasis added)

Furthermore, in the context of how he claims we present the general scientific community’s opinion of the Codes, Dr. Simon references the following quote from our web site. “The Codes phenomenon is real” (Dr. David Kazhdan of Harvard University). Dr. Simon publicly attacks our integrity by accusing us of both misquoting and of misusing Dr. Kazhdan’s statement. The reality is that this statement is a word-for-word quote of Dr. Kazhdan taken from the Modesto Bee newspaper of November 4, 1995. Furthermore, we heard indirectly ten months ago that Dr. Kazhdan was unhappy about this specific quote being mentioned on our web site. We immediately removed it, leaving it only in an article I wrote refuting the claims of Christian missionaries.  It is mentioned there only to demonstrate how the Christians manipulated the statement of Dr. Kazhdan about the legitimate research and deceptively applied it to their nonsense. In other words, this quote was not used as support for the legitimate research, as Dr. Simon insinuates, but rather as a demonstration of Christians’ fraudulent tactics.*

Finally, Dr. Simon references another quote from the same article. “Since its publication over two and a half years ago, world-class statisticians and Bible scholars have reproduced and verified these results.” Dr. Simon insists that with this statement we are claiming “that the scientific community generally supports the notion that Witztum et al. have proven that the codes phenomenon is real.”

The reality is that that is not at all what was meant by that statement, nor ever claimed by us. This statement means exactly what it says: that other independent academics and scientists have reproduced the results of the Famous Rabbis experiment. Some of those who have replicated the research of Witztum and Rips are Dr. Brendan Mckay, a probabilist at Australia National University and a major critic of the Codes, and Dr. Alexander Pruss, a mathematician and probabilist at the University of Pittsburgh.1  Dr. Robert Haralick, Boeing Professor of Electrical Engineering at the University of Washington,2 and Harold Gans, a former senior cryptologic mathematician for the United States’ National Security Agency,3 have likewise replicated the original results and extended it further as discussed below.4,5

Among those who have gone on record attesting to the seriousness and quality of the research, besides the four world-class mathematicians mentioned before, are: the renowned Israeli mathematician Dr. Robert Auman,6 Dr. Andrew Goldfinger, a senior physicist at Johns Hopkins University and a senior member of the Space Computer and Technology Group, and Dr. Daniel Michaelson, a mathematician at the Weitzmann Institute. Dr. Jeffrey Satinover, previously adjunct faculty at Yale University and a former William James Lecturer at Harvard,7 has written a book called Cracking The Bible Code8 that substantiates the seriousness and value of the research (and explains many of the misunderstandings that have recently arisen).

Slanderous Attacks by the Critics

Dr. Simon states someone who is “an Orthodox mathematician at Harvard and a rabbi” who wrote an article against Codes. Unfortunately, Dr. Simon omitted crucial parts of this story. He failed to tell the readers that this mathematician wrote an article for the American Mathematical Society (A.M.S.) explicitly accusing Doron Witztum and Dr. Rips of knowingly perpetrating a “hoax” and a fraud. His assault was nothing less than deliberate character assassination, in public, of two ehrlicher [upright] Jews whose personal and professional integrity are well known. This professor provided no evidence whatsoever for his charges, and then went on to “shame”—- his word—- the same four world-class mathematicians that Dr. Simon praises so highly in his article for having dared to go on record as supporting the quality and value of the Codes research.  The just-then incoming editor of A.M.S. was so appalled by this professor’s attack that he sent a personal letter of apology to Dr. Rips prior to its publication (which he was unable to prevent). He stated that the manner in which this professor attacked the Codes “is an embarrassment to him (the professor) and to the American Mathematical Society.” Finally, in a letter sent to A.M.S., Dr. Simon himself strongly condemned the the personal attack by this “Orthodox mathematician and rabbi” on Witztum and Rips.

False Accusations of Data Manipulation

In his article, Dr. Simon cites the foremost “codes busters,” Drs. Dror Bar-Natan and Brendan Mckay. He does not mention their colleague and anti-codes co-author, Dr. Maya Bar-Hillel. It is extremely significant to note the mindset of this “foremost codes critic.” Dr. Bar-Hillel commenced her recent anti-codes presentation to academics and scientists at the Hebrew University with the following remarks: “Regardless of the evidence, the Codes phenomenon obviously cannot be valid because that would mean that God wrote the Torah.”

In his article and at the Torah Codes web site, Mr. Witztum has dealt with the false accusation of data manipulation and described several ways to demonstrate the validity and integrity of the data selection.  Another one is as follows: Suppose we took exactly the same list of rabbis’ appellations (alternative names like “Chafetz Chaim” for Rabbi Yisroel Meir Kagan) as in our “manipulated” Famous Rabbis experiment, and paired them not with dates, but with some entirely different piece of information. For example, what if in place of the rabbis’ dates of birth and death, we substituted the cities of their birth and death?  If the experiment is repeated using exactly the same mathematical methods as in the original Famous Rabbis experiment, there is no reason to expect the new list of cities to now show the same kind of closeness to the rabbis’ names as did the dates of birth and death since, the critics claim, the list of rabbis’ names was “manipulated” specifically to work with the dates. This is even more forcefully evident given that the idea of using cities was suggested by Harold Gans, at the time a wholly independent outside researcher (and at first, a critic), years after the Great Rabbis experiment was completed and the list of appellations was made public.  In fact, Mr. Gans has already performed just this experiment using the cities, and has obtained very significant results.9

In a conversation Dr. Simon had with Harold Gans on June 24, 1997, Mr. Gans told Dr. Simon that he had successfully completed the experiment described above, and that the results were indeed highly significant.  In a written correspondence immediately after their conversation, Mr. Gans reported that Dr. Simon understood the importance of this experiment, and understood that were it indeed found to be without flaw, it would unequivocally confirm that there could not have been any data manipulation in the Famous Rabbis experiment.10 Dr. Simon’s criticism is based precisely on the presumption that data manipulation might have occurred. But in light of his knowledge that Mr. Gans’ experiment is undergoing the corroborative process, and that it will provide confirmation that any type of data manipulation was not possible, Dr. Simon’s attack is premature, at best.

Dr. Simon can now engage in a serious and responsible investigation of the research. He knows the appropriate address for his questions and concerns. Mr. Witztum and Dr. Rips would then welcome and accept his contribution, including the potential discovery of a previously invisible flaw, however painful that may be. But readers should understand that, at present, Dr. Simon is shooting from the hip.

Rabbi Mechanic is a senior lecturer for Aish HaTorah and the Discovery Seminar.

Notes

*  The reader should be aware that Dr. Kazhdan is one of the four world-class mathematicians who signed the above-mentioned letter confirming the seriousness and rigor of the Codes research.

  1. Neither Dr. Mckay nor Dr. Pruss subscribes to the methodology or conclusions of Mr. Witztum and Dr. Rips.
  2. Dr. Haralick has published over 400 scientific papers. He is the developer of the Unix image processing system and is a Fellow of the International Association for Pattern Recognition.
  3. The National Security Agency employs more mathematicians than any other institution in the world. It devotes its resources almost exclusively to the cracking of codes.
  4. Cryptologic mathematics is without question the domain of expertise most pertinent to assessing the Codes, and Mr. Gans is the recipient of the United States Department of Defense’s second highest honor, the Meritorious Civilian Service Award. He received this honor for having led a team of mathematical cryptologists in cracking a problem that had been considered all but unsolvable. Almost all of his 180 published papers —- as well as the work for which he received the above-mentioned award -— remain classified by the government.
  5. Gans and Haralick are two of the world’s experts in the application of statistics to decoding and pattern recognition.
  6. Dr. Auman is one of the world’s experts in game theory, and a member of both the Israeli and U.S. National Academy of Science.
  7. Dr. Satinover holds degrees from M.I.T., Harvard, and the University of Texas. Currently, he is studying physics at Yale University.
  8. This book should not be confused with The Bible Code by Michael Drosnin. Unfortunately, Mr. Drosnin’s book is a gross misrepresentation of the legitimate research, and has caused a great deal of confusion as to the validity and proper use of the Codes phenomenon. Almost all of the examples in Drosnin’s book were not generated using any legitimate scientific methodology and bear only superficial resemblance to the research of Mr. Witztum and Dr. Rips. Furthermore, Mr. Drosnin irresponsibly uses his so-called “codes” to attempt to predict future events, a premise rejected outright by all the serious codes researchers.
  9. Another potential confirmation comes from another independent researcher: Dr. Robert Haralick.  He repeated the Famous Rabbis experiment using a totally different methodology.  He, too, obtained very significant results.  This is clearly something Witztum and Rips could have no influence over since Dr. Haralick’s technique was yet to be invented when they performed their original experiment. The results of this experiment are currently undergoing a rigorous evaluation.
  10. The results of the scrutiny of Gans’ experiment by independent experts will be released shortly.
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This article was featured in the Spring 1998 issue of Jewish Action.
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