Cracking God's Codes

A Mercer Island Police car blocks entry into the already full lot at B'Nai Torah synagogue, and an officer with a flashlight directs traffic down the hill. From the steeply inclined street, tree-lined and dark as a country lane, late-comers converge briskly as rain begins to spatter and the warm lights from the doorway of the temple promise inner comfort. It is early April just after Easter, and Christian neighbors are perhaps guessing that it is Passover. But no, Passover is still three weeks ahead, and 80 percent of the arriving throng is Christian. Inside, as people settle into chairs and open the pamphlets handed out at the door, no one expresses surprise at the references to quantum mechanics at the top of one page, citing Einstein's energy equation to define De Broglie's wave-particle relation. Below are columns of printed Hebrew text, extracts from the Bible. The speaker this evening, Eastside conservative intellectual and KVI talk-radio host Rabbi Daniel Lapin, likes to present religion with a scientific flourish.Much of the lecture that follows, though heavily salted with conservative politics and centered upon how to live a moral life, is underpinned by reference to scientific logic. "I'm speaking as a scientist," declares Lapin, who has a degree in mathematics. "I'm speaking as somebody trained in logic."In his presentation on the Torah -- the first five books of the Hebrew Bible, or the Old Testament to Christians -- Lapin draws the keenest attention when he uses the printed columns of Hebrew to illustrate what he calls "the astonishing coding inserted into the Bible to help yield its inner meaning."With that the rabbi touched upon a millennial computer-age twist on old-time religion. Some religious Jews are claiming to have found encoded within the Bible hidden references to events that happened long after it was written, including the Nazi Holocaust, the Arab-Israeli peace process, and the AIDS epidemic. The heady mix of reason and faith has provoked both rapt belief and ridicule. The Bible Codes, writes an associate of Lapin's in Bible Review magazine, may be the "signature" of God. No, another rabbi insists, they represent a "puerile view of what religious belief is all about."At the center of the story is a scientific paper produced by a team of Orthodox Jewish mathematicians in Jerusalem. Led by a senior mathematician at that city's Hebrew University, they claim a result that, if true, would offer proofof the supernatural -- proof indeed that the Torah is a divine document. The team has programmed computers to do massive word searches, extracting words from a block of letters by reading backwards and diagonally, in effect mimicking on a vast scale what kids do in word search puzzles. These mathematicians claim not only to have found coded information within the Hebrew text that no human being could have inserted, but crucially to have proven statistically that the phenomenon cannot be due to chance. Let's be clear here, we are talking about scientific proof that God exists.You don't have to be secular to think that sounds ridiculous. But a small number of the most brilliant men in the world are taking it seriously, including mathematicians at Harvard and Yale universities. "It is very wrong to see it as irrational," insists Professor Eliyahu Rips, a co-author of the paper. "This is science."Tellingly, the fervently religious stand on both sides of this argument over rationality. The work of the Jerusalem mathematical team is being strongly rejected not only by secular mathematicians, but by an opposing group of Orthodox Jews who see their deepest spiritual beliefs trivialized in a foolish search for mystical crossword puzzles. This anti-Codes group of Orthodox Jews, which is also in Jerusalem, has joined in a vigorous Codes-debunking coalition with an Australian mathematician, Brendan McKay, and Shlomo Sternberg, a mathematician at Harvard who is also an Orthodox rabbi. "There's some revulsion against all of science that's taking place here," says Sternberg struggling to explain why respected colleagues have embraced what he considers nonsense. The combined arguments of this coalition, based on mathematical, textual, and religious reasoning, seem set to seriously undermine the credibility of the Codes in the public mind.But not before the issue has exploded prematurely in a blaze of international media attention that displeased the Codes' enthusiasts and critics alike. Until late May, public discussion of these Codes had been confined largely to the Internet and to small groups of believers like those listening to Rabbi Lapin.Then Michael Drosnin's book The Bible Code was published with a media blitz of promotional hype, based on the book's sensational claims. After an appearance by the author, a journalist formerly with The Wall Street Journal and The Washington Post, on NBC's Today show and on CNN, the publisher Simon & Schuster took out a full-page ad for the book on the back of The New York Times op-ed page.News stories followed in major US newspapers and in Time and Newsweek. The subject provoked cartoons in The New Yorker, satire on Israeli TV, serialization of the book in England's Daily Mail, and a full-scale debate on Italian television.To get that kind of promotion Drosnin needed an angle on the Bible Codes. The peg was right there on the cover of his book. A rectangular block of Hebrew text showed the crossings of two codes: running vertically was the name of Yitzhak Rabin, the late Israeli prime minister. Running horizontally were words translated as "assassin that will assassinate." Simon & Schuster's supreme selling point was that Drosnin had met with Yitzhak Rabin in 1994 to warn him in advance of the implied threat. When Rabin was assassinated a year later, Drosnin's first thought, he writes, was "Oh my God, it's real."If Simon & Schuster wanted sensation, Drosnin duly delivered. Nostradamus-like prophecies don't normally get attention beyond the supermarket checkout line. But having established his credentials with the Rabin prediction, Drosnin didn't hold back. His book cites coded messages in the Bible that seem to predict a nuclear holocaust in Israel and a world war in either 2000 or 2006. Around the same time enormous earthquakes will destroy both California and Japan. Drosnin does not shy from predicting the Apocalypse. He hedges a little by casually invoking Heisenberg's Uncertainty Principle -- a scientific tenet of quantum mechanics -- to add spurious rationality and give him a way out by saying that these are probabilities rather than inevitabilities. Yet Drosnin's caveat isn't very convincing. If Drosnin has any credibility, in 2012 anyone still around will be wiped out when a comet strikes the Earth.But let's not get sidetracked by Simon & Schuster's marketing department into dealing only with the lunatic fringe of Codes believers. Every source cited by Drosnin in his book has categorically repudiated his use of the Codes to predict the future. (Indeed, his doing so contravenes an explicit prohibition in the Bible, points out Sternberg, the rabbi dedicated to debunking the Codes. Deuteronomy 18:12 asserts that diviners and soothsayers are "abominable to the Lord.") But what about those soberly rational mathematicians who still support the Codes? Where did this come from anyway?The roots of what are known to Jews as the Torah Codes go back to an assertion in the Talmud -- the traditional commentary upon the Torah and the ultimate authority on Jewish law -- that God used the Torah as a blueprint for creation. Building upon Talmudic tradition, in the 18th century "the Vilna Gaon," an esteemed Lithuanian rabbi who died 200 years ago, (and from whom Rabbi Lapin claims a direct lineage of discipleship), wrote that "all that was, is, and will be unto the end of time is included in the Torah ... and not merely in a general sense, but including the details of every species and of each person individually, and the most minute details of everything that happened to him from the day of his birth until his death." According to tradition, when asked to explain this the Vilna Gaon pointed to a verse in Exodus 14:26, where the first letters of four consecutive words in the text spell out the Hebrew name of the great 12th-century rabbi Maimonides. Since that time hunting for such acrostics has been almost a diverting hobby for certain very religious Jews, who believe that behind the surface meaning of the text lie hidden all the secrets of the world.In 1958 Rabbi H.M.D. Weissmandel pushed the subject further. Weissmandel had been a hero of Jewish resistance to the Nazis; he had escaped Auschwitz, though he lost his wife and child in the Holocaust. Later he emigrated to the US and founded a Torah school in upstate New York.There he published his finding that meaningful words were spelled out in what he called Equidistant Letter Sequences (ELSs); that is, significant words could be formed, from say, every 50th letter. Here's a potent example: the word HaShoah, Hebrew for the Holocaust, is found at 49-letter intervals starting with a word in Chapter 14 of Deuteronomy wherein God threatens to abandon the Jews.Yet despite the strong emotional resonance of such an anecdotal example, the credibility of the Torah Codes rests on the publication of a single scientific paper. It appeared in an American peer-reviewed journal called Statistical Science in 1994. The primary authors were Professor Rips and Doron Witztum, a former physics lecturer at Hebrew University. Their early work on searching for Codes was supported by many religious Jews, including the congregation of Pacific Jewish Center in Los Angeles, a synagogue headed by Rabbi Lapin at the time, with its donation of computer equipment. The paper described a statistical experiment designed to test Weissmandel's ideas. The researchers took a list of names of 32 famous rabbis chosen from a Jewish encyclopedia, and compiled a list of dates of their births and deaths. (In Hebrew dates occur not as numbers but as letters with numerical values.) They then wrote a computer program to search Genesis for ELSs containing those names and dates treating the text as a continuous stream of single letters, undivided into words. The computer searched methodically for ELSs with skips of two letters, then three letters, and so on up to thousands of letters. They found most of the names, not all, and most of the dates. Any name and any date can be seen in relation to another by creating a rectangular block of letters arrayed in rows and columns. The rows are the actual text of the Bible. Reading vertically or diagonally within such a block gives an ELS. Statistical analysis of the result showed that pairings of a given rabbi with his own date of birth or death occurred closer together than could be accounted for by pure chance. Control tests were done on garbled versions of Genesis with the letters rearranged; on the Book of Isaiah; and on a Hebrew translation of Tolstoy's War and Peace. There was no statistically significant result in any of these. Only Genesis had the effect. Apparently, hidden within Genesis, the names and corresponding dates of these rabbis, all of whom had lived long after the Torah was written, occurred inexplicably close to one another. The result was calculated to be statistically highly significant. The odds that this could happen by chance came out as 62,500 to 1. Though Witztum has no serious mathematical credentials, and neither author is a statistician, Rips is a highly regarded mathematics professor. Born in the former Soviet Union, he is a man of intensely passionate beliefs and described by all who meet him as a man of transparent integrity. In 1969 he attempted to immolate himself in the city of Riga as a political protest against the Soviet invasion of Czechoslovakia. Only the quick intervention of passers-by to extinguish the flames saved him from serious injury. He became an observant Jew after emigrating to Israel. In an interview, Rips declined to indulge in philosophical or theological speculation as to the implications of his result. He prefers, he says, to remain within a "scientific, technical framework." Others are not so shy. Rabbi Ezriel Tauber of New York, who has taught about Codes for many years, has seen firsthand the power of the Codes to convince those skeptical of religion."Thousands of Jews, and also non-Jews, came to believe through the Codes," he says, "to believe that the Torah was written by divinity. I witnessed it myself in the last 25 years again and again." And the Codes have been trumpeted as "scientifically proven" ever since publication of the Statistical Science paper. Aish HaTorah, or Flame of the Torah, a Jerusalem-based international organization set up to draw secular Jews back to their religion, runs a seminar series called "Discovery," which last year attracted 25,000 mostly non-observant Jews to listen to lectures on the Codes.Aish HaTorah lectures report that biblical codes miraculously prefigure events including the Holocaust, the Gulf War, the Middle East peace process, and the source of AIDS ("from monkeys"). Spokesman and Codes lecturer Rabbi Daniel Mechanic says the seminars are given to "provide a rational basis for the authenticity of the Jewish religion and the Torah." To put all this into perspective, one needs to know a rather astonishing fact. It is this: In any large block of text it is possible, and with computers quite easy, to find ELSs that say pretty much anything you want. If you allow yourself any length of letter skip, the number of possible combinations of letters is colossal. It doesn't have to be a holy text to find apparently meaningful words "hidden" inside. The neatest illustration of this is given by Rabbi Mechanic himself. Orthodox Jewish believers became more than a little upset when some evangelical Christian missionaries got wind of the Codes and naturally wanted to know if there was anything in them about Jesus. When the Christians ran computer searches of their own, sure enough they found what they wanted.Grant Jeffrey is a Toronto-based evangelical Christian pastor and author, with a penchant for apocalyptic predictions. (Independently of Drosnin and of the Codes, Jeffrey also predicts an imminent world war that begins with an attack on Israel; in his account this heralds the rise of Satan's "Antichrist," which is somehow vaguely connected with the Catholic Church, and is a prelude, after horrific destruction, to the Second Coming of Christ.) Jeffrey's book The Signature of God reveals that the Hebrew version of Jesus, which is Yeshua, is found encoded in ELSs throughout the Bible, and that the phrase "Yeshua Shemi," which translates as "Jesus is my name," occurs in an ELS embedded in Chapter 53 of Isaiah. For Christians this occurrence in a passage of the Old Testament, which they have always understood as prefiguring the Messiah, may be almost as emotionally powerful as the Holocaust ELS is for Jews. But as Rabbi Mechanic points out in a very effective dismissal of the so-called "Jesus Codes" published on the Internet, it is equally easy to find "Mohammed Shemi," "Buddha Shemi," "Lenin Shemi," and even "Koresh Shemi," all of which occur in biblical ELSs. "Koresh Shemi" is encoded 43 times in the Torah; Buddha and Lenin, 18 times; Mohammed, seven times. And McKay, the Australian mathematician who is at the forefront of Code debunkers, finds mischievous delight in identifying biblical ELSs for "Yankee Doodle" and other such trivia. After Drosnin's book came out, the embattled author told Newsweek defensively, "When my critics find a message about the assassination of a prime minister encrypted in Moby Dick, I'll believe them." McKay rose to the challenge in advance of a debate between the two on Italian TV. He downloaded the English text of Moby Dick from an Internet site and ran his ELS search program. He came up with ELS references to the deaths of, among others, Indira Gandhi, Anastasio Somoza, Leon Trotsky, Martin Luther King, and Robert Kennedy. An ELS for Kennedy's assassin, Sirhan Sirhan, crossed an ELS for "shot" and another for "RFK." Unless you believe that Herman Melville was God, the point is that you can find just about anything in any block of text. Thanks to books like Jeffrey's, Jewish believers in the Codes readily admit this. As Rabbi Lapin says, "You will find meaning in a cookbook if you allow yourself the luxury of any jump at all."The official line of the Codes researchers in Jerusalem, and of such organizations as Aish HaTorah, is that only Codes scientifically proven to be statistically significant should be taken seriously. In other words, only the Witztum/Rips version of the Codes; not the Christian version, and not the Drosnin version.But for some people with a strong religious faith the search for any secret meaning beyond the actual words as written is akin to seeking messages in Beatles records played backwards or in the entrails of sacrificed chickens. Shlomo Sternberg, a professor of mathematics at Harvard and also an Orthodox rabbi, is a religious rationalist, and a passionate critic of the Codes.Wearing his rabbi's hat, which around Cambridge is usually a beret, Sternberg declares: "The whole business is outrageous. It's never been part of traditional belief; it's sort of looking for magic. Instead of trying to look for the true message of the Bible you are trying to look for hidden signatures."He points to Drosnin's Rabin prediction as an illustration of this. What Drosnin translates as "assassin who will assassinate" is from Deuteronomy 4:42, where Moses lays down the law regarding a "slayer who kills" but, as the verse goes on to say, unawares, without intent. It is, precisely, a verse stating how the law should be applied to accidental homicides. Taken out of context the Hebrew word can be translated as "assassin," but only when taken out of context. Drosnin sold his book by ignoring what the Bible actually says.Sternberg makes it clear however that he regards Witztum and Rips as just as much the "lunatic fringe" as Drosnin. He sees Drosnin's use of the Codes to predict the future as "the obvious next step" once the existence of Codes is accepted."One of the major problems that we face in our age is to find some way of blending rational thought with religion," he says. "What this kind of thing does is promote a blind fundamentalism and a belief in magic. It converts a holy document into a crystal ball."Sternberg also cites a compelling textual argument from the Talmud. The Talmud includes a discussion of an error check for scribes that tells us exactly where the middle letter of the Torah occurs. That letter, which in any Torah scroll in any synagogue in the world is written twice as large as normal, is in fact 4,830 letters off from the middle of the current text. People are finding all these Codes in a text that has come down to us far from letter perfect. Yet any real ELS in the original Torah would immediately disappear after the deletion or insertion of a single letter within its span.A small group of highly observant Orthodox Jews in Jerusalem who share Sternberg's feelings have joined him in publicly attacking the Codes. The efforts of this group may well prove more convincing to public opinion than any mathematical arguments.The group has carried out computer experiments paralleling the one by Witztum and Rips. It identified the fact that the Witztum result depended on the series of choices made by the researchers. One experiment they did repeated the same test on Genesis, but using different choices from the long list of widely varying forms of possible names and dates for the same rabbis. The result was negative.Then they repeated the experiment on a Hebrew translation of War and Peace, carefully choosing by trial and error the forms of names and dates so as to get a good result. They duly got one; the names and dates of the rabbis appeared closer together in War and Peace than chance allowed, with apparent odds of less than one in a million that the result was random. Professor Rips sees this experiment as designed to question his integrity. "It says that there is a way to cheat," he interprets, but adds firmly, "Our work was done in good faith; they have no evidence otherwise." However, McKay considers the result important to public perceptions. "What you can conclude is that it is possible for them to fake it. You can't conclude that they did fake it," he says, "but there is a popular belief that it's all objective and they had no way to fake it. [The War and Peace experiment] proves conclusively that it can be done." One spokesperson for the Jerusalem anti-Codes group of Orthodox Jews is 46-year-old Alec Gindis, a master of every religious and mathematical nuance of the controversy. Gindis, a businessman with a scientific training, is from the former Soviet Union and grew up an atheist. He spent 15 years in the United States, where he learned perfect English, and immigrated to Israel some five years ago. Now a strictly observant Orthodox Jew, religion is the center of his life, and the Torah the basis of that religion. "I believe that over time Codes promoters can cause very serious damage," says Gindis, "because some will say, 'All the religious people are like that,' and it's not true." Gindis, though he is one of the few sources for this story who is not a rabbi, proves an inexhaustibly energetic and eloquent teacher on the meaning of religious Judaism. "We believe that you can know truth pretty much via tradition," he explains. "The events of the revelation of Sinai are so far away from us that you cannot get any reliable information on what exactly happened there. So we accept our tradition, and our tradition gives us the text, the ways to learn it, the way to interpret it." While he says that this emphasis on tradition still leaves "enormous room for understanding and creativity and research" for any particular Jew, nevertheless anything totally new, like these Codes, must be viewed with suspicion. Gindis has no problem accepting that an omnipotent creator could have put Codes in the Bible."In principle, any believer would say nothing is impossible for God," he says, but he cannot fathom the need for such a trick. "I don't believe that God leaves traces or footprints," he says with passion. "Mysteries he left, including the mystery of the origin of the world in all its complexity and magnificence, but to leave very obvious footprints, like something that defies nature openly -- that I don't believe exists, because our freedom of will would be severely curtailed."He argues that if the Codes were proven true beyond a shadow of doubt then "you could wiggle yourself out of an obligation to convert to Judaism, but only with some difficulty." God, he believes, does not leave such ultimata. On this point Gindis receives support even from some who believe in the Codes. "There is no such thing as 100 percent proof," says Rabbi Tauber, who nonetheless has used the Codes in his efforts to help persuade non-religious Jews to become observant. "That would take away free choice, which God would not do. There has to be left room for the skeptic." Expressing his own beliefs to a stranger, Gindis conveys a faith strengthened by humility. "There are people who know what God knows and wants," he says. "I don't, and the people I deal with don't either. We have a certain tradition; we have certain obligations; our tradition is very old and we do not know exactly to what degree we received it intact. We struggle to learn it, to reconcile it with modernity; and to understand through that how the world is built and our place in it, and our relationship with God and with people. ... And it's not easy." Yet religious belief, however deeply felt, cannot be decisive in this Codes controversy. The hard fact of the mathematics and of its eminent backers remains. Anyone seeking a rational judgment must decide, on grounds more objective than ideology, whether to regard the Witztum/Rips result as sound.Given the proliferation of codes of dubious merit, Rabbi Tauber recently decided to stop lecturing on the subject, although he still believes in the principle. "In the codes you find at random, you can find anything," he says. "Only the sophisticated, scientific codes by Witztum are valid." This of course only puts more weight upon that single scientific paper. Those who dislike the Codes must still somehow respond to that result. The paper certainly does not lack for weighty supporters, even if much of the support is now publicly cautious. Early backers of the work of Witztum and Rips included eminent professors of mathematics Ilya Piatetski-Shapiro of Yale and David Kazhdan of Harvard.From his home in New Haven, Piatetski-Shapiro declares that he believes the Codes are real. Kazhdan, winner of a prestigious MacArthur fellowship, is constantly cited by those, including Christian evangelicals, seeking to give credibility to the Codes.In public, Kazhdan now treads carefully, emphasizing that he has done no mathematical analysis but expressing belief in the possible validity of the Codes. "Rips is a first-rate mathematician," says Kazhdan. "Something which he claims should be taken seriously."Asked to name an expert supporter, Witztum himself nominates Professor Robert Aumann, another mathematician at Hebrew University, and a world leader in his field. At a series of Friday-morning extracurricular lectures dubbed "Rationality on Friday," he recently gave a presentation on Witztum's work.Drosnin asserts in his book that in private Aumann (and also Kazhdan) told him that they believed the Bible Codes were real. When approached however, Aumann also tenders circumspect answers, offering support to Witztum, but eschewing any definitive statement on the validity of the Codes. In forthright opposition to this mighty mathematical line-up is a man who bears with mischievous good humor the mantle of crusader for rationalism. Brendan McKay, a mathematician at the Australian National University in Canberra, has stepped into the breach with Sternberg and Gindis, and has prepared a mathematical refutation of the paper. McKay identifies numerous problems and concludes that the experiment has "fatal flaws." His highly technical paper, which he sent to Eastsideweek, is presently in draft form and will be made public within the next two months.Dror Bar-Natan, who is a mathematician in the same department as Rips and a member of the same Orthodox anti-Codes group as Gindis, will co-author the paper with McKay. In the meantime it is being reviewed by top statisticians and McKay is consulting with Rips to try to reach agreement on the mathematics. Unfortunately, agreement, and therefore an undisputed conclusion, looks unlikely.It may strike the layperson as odd that there is any room for dispute over mathematics. Isn't it always just right or wrong? In pure mathematics, yes, but unfortunately not in the field of statistics, a very specialized and less black-and-white branch of mathematics. The "Great Rabbis" experiment involved comparing the set of correctly matched names and dates with a million permutations of incorrect matches. Essentially, McKay asserts that the particular set of names and dates chosen by the researchers introduced such a complex web of interdependent variables that Witztum and Rips are not comparing like with like. In McKay's analogy it's as if you compared the heights of men and women by measuring the combined heights of three women and only two men, and with all the women being sisters. What they end up measuring, he suggests, is not a property of Genesis alone, but is partly inherent in the shape of their selected data, which lack necessary independence and uniformity. Indeed an understanding of the convoluted detail of the Statistical Science paper reveals that the effect measured in the experiment is very much weaker and less impressive than a bare telling might suggest, notwithstanding the level of improbability cited. The layperson might get the impression that one name matched up miraculously against one corresponding date. In fact, as indicated earlier, the set of rabbis' names and dates is not so straightforward; all of the rabbis were known by numerous different appellations with various spellings, and most had many purported dates written in varying forms. In the search for a correct match one rabbi was represented by 11 different names and six different dates. In addition, many of the names and all of the dates are quite short Hebrew words that occur in many hundreds of ELSs in Genesis. The methodology of the researchers ignores all ELSs except those that occur "with minimum skip," an arbitrary choice with no particular logic to it except that it gives them a result.And McKay points out that almost all of the names that were found were closer to an incorrect date than to one of the "correct" ones. In light of McKay's analysis, Rips and Witztum both declare, "We have full answers to all his questions," and suggest that new versions of the experiment be performed on the data to take account of his criticisms. But the Australian counters, "Re-evaluating the same data over and over is just not going to cut it." He says that any repeat of the experiment could only be statistically valid if done without prior knowledge of the previous results, i.e., with a fresh, objectively compiled list of rabbis' names. But that fix means starting over. As this story was being written McKay met Rips in Jerusalem; no agreement was reached on a resolution. However, since the onus is on the Codes believers to prove their case, McKay's criticisms would seem to fatally undermine this sole claim to scientific validity. Both Witztum and Aumann stress that McKay's work is still unpublished, and set great store by the "peer-reviewed" status of the Statistical Science paper. But Professor Robert Kass, head of the statistics department at Carnegie-Mellon University in Pittsburgh, who was executive editor of Statistical Science when the Rips paper was published, now backpedals fiercely, denying that publication of the paper signified any stamp of scientific approval. He says that the paper was published merely to present a curious result. "Rips is not a statistician," says Kass now. "They wouldn't be doing this if they were statisticians. I'd be very surprised to see any statistician believe any of this."And one of the most eminent statisticians in the world, Professor Persi Diaconis of Harvard, who is cited by Witztum and by Aumann as having approved the precise form of the experiment, turns out to be somewhat less than a champion of the work.Diaconis is turning down all requests for interviews at present; but in a letter released to interested parties last December he seriously questions the statistical methods of the paper and declares the Statistical Science experiment "far short of a serious study that such fantastic claims deserve." After publication of Drosnin's book the unlikely coalition of McKay, Sternberg, and the Orthodox group of anti-Codes activists in Jerusalem went public. Each has paid a price. Sternberg has had to confront friends and colleagues within the close-knit world of Orthodox Jewish mathematicians. In Israel, Gindis and others in the Jerusalem group have been accused of "collaborating" with secular and non-Jewish elements; various rabbis have approached individual members asking them to back off to avoid "internal strife."Most egregiously, McKay, on his recent visit to Jerusalem, was viciously smeared on a small religious radio station. On the air, a rabbi declared that some religious Jews were working with "a Gentile and known anti-Semite called McKay." This so upset Gindis, who expresses affection and admiration for McKay ("Brendan is a truly great guy; I enjoy talking to him every minute") that he visited the rabbi and persuaded him to broadcast a retraction the following week.So much for rationality. Yet such bigotry is the exception. The promoters of the Bible Codes are, after all, attempting to bolster religious credibility with recourse to reason. Indeed it is ironic, given the long ideological war of attrition between religion and secular rationalism, that religious authorities are co-opting science to win back ground lost to New Age superstition.Secular rationalism, never a majority opinion in the United States, has nonetheless been the dominant Western intellectual philosophy throughout most of this century. Now, more than 200 years after the Enlightenment, with science appearing to have reached a plateau of out-of-touch respectability, and traditional religion no less out of fashion, irrationality and New Age superstitions are resurgent. The culture of science, which once promised the moon both literally and figuratively, has declined in public esteem ever since it delivered on that promise. Science has a huge PR problem, which puffy media stories about the discovery of rocks and dust on Mars will not solve. Added to these historical shifts that now leave both science and traditional religion weakened, apocalyptic fears over the impending millennium strengthen belief in New Age religions, UFOs, and astrology, and encourage the growth of cults either suicidal (Heaven's Gate) or destructive (Aum Shinrikyo). Yet when, to counter such developments, religious authorities preach a scientific basis for traditional belief, there is a line they will not cross: belief in God takes ultimate precedence. Rabbis Tauber, Mechanic, and Lapin, believers in the Codes, all declare that if the Rips paper were to be completely discredited, it would not affect their religious belief one jot."The validity of this work doesn't change at all our religion," says Rabbi Tauber. "If it's found to be flawed, so what? No big deal. So we find another key." Even Professor Rips himself says the same. But that sets severe limits to any accommodation between religion and science. By seeking to use science to confirm immovable beliefs, ideology contaminates the reasoning. And ideology, whether secular or religious, is the antithesis of science.The critics of the Bible Codes who are religious have come to terms with science in a different way, an intellectual variation of rendering to Caesar what is Caesar's and to God what is God's. By accepting the limits of human knowledge and the inadequacy of science to answer existential questions, they have carved out overlapping territories for science and religion, each with its own integrity. The question of sovereignty may not be entirely settled, but enough to make possible a peaceful coexistence. Following Drosnin's dismal effort, Dr. Jeffrey Satinover, a psychiatrist and author who is on the board of Rabbi Lapin's conservative political group Toward Tradition, will this summer publish a new book supporting the Codes, a book hailed in advance by both Lapin and Aish HaTorah as definitive and accurate.But Lapin admits that though he once thought the discovery of the Codes would change the world he is by now reconciled to the fact that the secular world just will not accept them as valid. "The tunes of the Bible sing in the ears of believers," he says cheerfully. And yet, skeptics of the Codes -- who include the religious and the irreligious -- hear other melodies. Whether the music is sacred or secular, their ears are attuned to songs that convey no easy listening. Dominic Gates is a freelance print journalist and a staff writer with PreText, a multimedia company. He has a degree in mathematics.


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