Torah without science

Jerusalem Post (Israel), Mar. 17, 2003 (Book Review)

Bible Code II: The Countdown by Michael Drosnin. Viking Press. 292 pp. $26.95

Michael Drosnin will go down in history as the Wall Street Journal reporter who turned “Bible Codes” into a household phrase.

Drosnin sparked an international wave of publicity with his first book, The Bible Code, which reported on the scientific findings of two Israeli code researchers, Doron Witztum and Eliyahu Rips. What made Drosnin’s book so famous and controversial was his claim that he had “predicted” the assassination of Yitzhak Rabin by finding the late prime minister’s name encoded in the Torah, crossing through a verse in Deuteronomy that said “a murderer who will murder.”

When Drosnin’s book was published, it was roundly attacked by scientists the world over. In fact, in 1997 when the book was released, I organized a press conference in which Witztum and Rips, the original code discoverers, sharply criticized Drosnin. They demonstrated that his book was based on a fundamental misunderstanding and misuse of science, and countered his claims that one could make predictions of the future by looking for particular words.

Undaunted, and with a flair for doomsday prophecies that made his first book popular among supermarket-tabloid readers, Drosnin now presents us with Bible Code II. If you took his first book seriously, be aware that his predictions regularly fail to come true (Netanyahu being assassinated while serving as prime minister, an atomic holocaust in 1996, and others). If, like me, you found his first book to be entertainingly silly, this one will be a real treat.

Drosnin, neither a scientist nor a Hebrew speaker, makes another attempt to use a scientific protocol to decipher a Hebrew text. The result? Here’s a sampling: he claims to have come across a set of coded words that speaks of a possible atomic holocaust in 2006. He then gets worried, and proceeds to scan the Bible to find a hidden key to further decipher the code, so that he can learn more about how he can warn world leaders to avert disaster.

And what is his “discovery”? That space aliens visited our planet thousands of years ago and planted steel obelisks bearing secret messages in the ground near the Dead Sea, and these messages have the key to unlock the code.

Based on his “findings,” he travels the world over, journalist-turned-prophet, requesting that world leaders including Ariel Sharon, George Bush, Yasser Arafat and Shimon Peres meet with him in the hope of warning them of the impending danger. (In the end, Arafat and Peres actually granted him some time).

Drosnin is a great story teller, and it’s clear that he takes his own predictions seriously he’s even hired archeologists to start surveying a region near the Dead Sea to find his obelisks. But alas, he is not a scientist and certainly not a linguist. One of the most essential and sensitive aspects of any bonafide code experiment is the formation of a carefully constructed list of pre-specified words to search for, as was done in the many successful experiments that real codes researchers have performed.

One can see the looseness in Drosnin’s choice of language. He’ll look for a code of the word Arafat, expecting it to appear encoded near some passage he deems relevant to the story he’s constructing. When he doesn’t find it, he finds a new way of spelling Arafat, and lo and behold, he finds the code he needs to support his theory. So he has Arafat’s name sometimes with an extra alef, sometimes without, sometimes as “YArafat;” we have Temple Mount as har habayit, but when that doesn’t work, he tries har bayit. When he can’t find a code of the word “code” (tzofen in Hebrew), he finds it in English (“kod”).

It leads one to wonder how many other things he looked for and didn’t find before coming up with his examples.

This is precisely the claim that critics have brought to public attention if you fiddle around long enough with variations and spellings of a word or phrase, you can pretty much find whatever codes you like. In fact, critics have countered Drosnin’s Rabin code by finding the assassination of Indira Gandhi “encoded” in the English text of Moby Dick.

Do we therefore conclude that this whole code business is a scientific hoax?

Absolutely not. On the contrary, codes researchers have gone to great lengths to distance themselves from Drosnin. The research they have conducted involves a recognized scientific standard an a-priori list of words, standardized spellings, and a protocol that has led in many cases to stunning results.

Even skeptics have been impressed. For example, Harold Gans, a senior mathematician and cryptologist who worked for the Pentagon, was skeptical of Witztum and Rips’ s findings. After doing his own independent testing he found very strong evidence of codings, and has since joined the research team.

Despite a barrage of attacks, the scientific findings of codes have stood the test of time. The best that critics have been able to do so far is to raise suspicions that Witztum and Rips cheated in order to attain their results.

This, despite the fact that Rips is a world-renowned mathematician and that both men have sterling reputations in their fields.

According to both Witztum and Rips, “the codes are stronger the ever.” Many successful experiments have been conducted in recent years, with strong results. None of them are open to the critics’ claims of data manipulation, and none have been refuted.

(For a good overview of the history of the codes research and the findings, see Dr. Jeffrey Satinover’s Cracking the Bible Code.)

Drosnin’s book suffers from other problems as well, such as his interpretations of the supposed codes he finds. He’ll take a string of letters he found as a code, and find various ways to reinterpret it. We see examples such as the Hebrew phrase chevlai lashon being interpreted as “the measuring lines of Lisan,” and later in his book as “birthpangs of language” (another Drosnin theory a long story that’s not worth delving into).

Based on his understanding of Hebrew and a desire to substantiate his theories, he ends up creating phrases such as “tablet vitalized obelisk,” “in a vehicle your seed,” and “war to a knife,” that actually mean nothing. He translated bshot as “in the lash-like appendage” because it serves his hunch that the secret alien obelisks are located in a rift of land that juts into the Dead Sea.

So how are we to tell a “real code” from a fake? To the untrained eye, counterfeit money can look authentic. Drosnin is essentially playing the same game as Christians who find codes in their holy books, and as critics who find codes in Moby Dick: take any text and look hard enough, play around with spellings, and you’re bound to find what you’re looking for.

Real codes research is conducted by scientists who follow a rigorous protocol and publish their work in peer-reviewed journals. It may not make for good science fiction, but it does make for good science.

The writer lectures around the world on Bible Codes and other topics for Aish HaTorah’s Discovery seminar.

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