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FOCUS ON ISSUES `Bible code’ book creates stir — and elicits fair share of criticism

NEW YORK, June 3 (JTA) — Imagine someone says he has empirical proof that a higher power authored the Bible. He then writes a book, finds a publisher willing to devote big bucks to marketing it as well as a Hollywood studio to buy the movie rights and you have a huge sensation — not to mention a potential bestseller. That’s the way Michael Drosnin likes it. Drosnin authored “The Bible Code,” published last week by Simon & Schuster, which purports to prove that the Torah contains prophecies about contemporary events, including the assassination of Israeli Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin and a nuclear holocaust that will occur within the next nine years. The findings — which have elicited significant criticism from scientists and theologians alike — have been scooped up by the major national media, from The New York Times to Newsweek to NBC’s “Today” show. In a telephone interview from his Manhattan office as he prepared to board a plane for Chicago, where he was slated to appear on Oprah, Drosnin said, “My book is tapping into the great hold that religion still has on the world.” Drosnin, who describes himself as a secular-atheistic Jew, said that he still does not believe in God, but that his application of a technique known as skip sequencing “proves that authorship of the Bible is quite intentional.” Among his many discoveries, Drosnin said he had found the words “Hitler,” “Holocaust of Israel” and “world war” intersecting with one another among the 304,805 letters of the Torah, or the Five Books of Moses. Mathematical analyses were first applied to the Bible by the Jewish mystics known as Kabalists as early as the sixth and seventh centuries, according to Rabbi Shaul Magid, an assistant professor of Jewish philosophy at the Conservative movement’s Jewish Theological Seminary in New York. They became very popular among the Kabalist Isaac Luria and his followers in the 16th century, as they sought to uncover hidden meanings in the sacred text. In the 1950s, an Orthodox rabbi living in suburban New York investigated letter sequences in the Torah, or the Five Books of Moses. But these analyses were done by hand. About a decade ago, three Israeli scientists decided to use a computer to investigate the same thing and found what have come to be known as Torah codes. The team, led by an internationally known Israeli mathematician, Eliyahu Rips, programmed a computer to read the book of Genesis as if it were one long string of letters, and “decode” words whose letters appear separated by a fixed number of other letters — a process known as equidistant letter sequences. Their findings were published after peer review in 1994 in the journal Statistical Science, along with a note from the editor that he was offering the work to his readers “as a challenging puzzle,” and not necessarily as irrefutable fact. Drosnin, an investigative journalist who has worked for The Washington Post and The Wall Street Journal, took up the challenge. The author of “Citizen Hughes,” a bestseller on Howard Hughes, Drosnin had first heard about Rips in 1992 and met with him repeatedly. The New York author has based his findings on his own application of the work of Rips, a professor at the Hebrew University in Jerusalem. In his book, Drosnin frequently cites and quotes Rips. But Rips is not pleased by how his work has been applied. On May 28, the day the tome reached the bookstores, Rips issued a public statement distancing himself from Drosnin’s work. “The book gives the impression that I have done joint work with Mr. Drosnin. This is not true. I do not support Mr. Drosnin’s work on the codes, nor the conclusions he derives,” Rips said in a handwritten statement. Rips said that after witnessing Drosnin’s prediction of the Rabin assassination — which the author had shared with the prime minister — he had wondered whether “one can, from a scientific view,” attempt to use the codes to predict future events. “After much thought,” Rips wrote in his statement, “my categorical answer is no.” The only conclusion “that can be drawn from the scientific research regarding the Torah codes is that they exist and that they are not a mere coincidence.” Rips and the other chief developer of the Torah codes technique are so disturbed that they scheduled a news conference in Jerusalem on Wednesday to further denounce the book. For his part, Drosnin said he is “simply the reporter, faithfully carrying out the work” and exploring the methodology of Rips. Drosnin’s critics focus not only on his methodology, but also on the predictive use of his findings. Methodologically, he is faulted for allowing too many intervals between letters, as well as for zeroing in on related words that had different intervals between key letters. Several critics said that by allowing an unlimited number of intervals between letters, the technique could be used to locate specific words in anything from the Bible to the daily newspaper to the telephone directory. “By looking for random words I could prove to you that Mickey Mouse is the messiah,” said Rabbi Daniel Mechanic, a Brooklyn-based teacher of Torah codes. Mechanic is involved with the popular Discovery seminars run throughout North American by Aish HaTorah, a Jerusalem-based yeshiva and outreach organization. Aish HaTorah uses Torah codes not as prophecy, but as a way to explain what has happened, and to provide “proof” of God’s existence and the Torah’s divine writing. When asked if he looked for other words in the text, like potato chip, as a control, Drosnin became angry, saying it was “an unintelligent question.” “If you’re looking for nonsense in the Bible code you may find it, but why would anyone look for nonsense in the Bible?” he said. Others decried this whole approach to the analysis of biblical texts. “It’s insulting to faith because belief in God is not predicated on empirical evidence, but on the inner eye, the disposition of heart and mind,” said Rabbi David Wolpe, who teaches modern Jewish thought at JTS. “To pretend that God gave this evidence of faith, but was waiting until we had Pentium chips to uncover it seems to me to be both simple-minded and wrong.”