October 26, 2010
Rise of the religious charlatans
Oh G-d no. Not another Bible codes book. And this one launched in a full page ad in The New York Times highlighting how in May 2008 Oprah Winfrey sent a Bible code to Barack Obama that he would become President.
Surely I as an orthodox Jew ought to applaud a book that proves that the Torah has encoded prophecy, thereby proving its authenticity. But aside from the question of whether President Obama is G-d’s anointed, I have serious objections to the Bible codes.
First, there is the fact that you can take nearly any lengthy book, put it through a computer, and pull out prophecy. Prof Brendan McKay of Australian National University found 13 predicted assassinations of public figures encoded in Moby Dick, including several presidents and Prime Ministers. McKay also found an encoded phrase in Moby Dick that predicted “Drosnin (the author of the codes series) will be murdered by Eli Rips (the Israeli scholar who first discovered the codes) in Athens.” Other scholars found results that were as statistically impressive as Rips in a Hebrew copy of War and Peace.
Next, associated with the codes there is the usual apocalyptic bunkum that has so tarnished religion. The codes apparently predicted an atomic Holocaust in 1986 and, if that didn’t happen, that the world would end again in 2006. (It’s worth noting my cardinal rule about the difference between a real religion and a cult: religion teaches you to revere life while a cult teaches you to fear death). The codes predicted a world war in the year 2000 and that Israel would be destroyed in a global cataclysm (let’s hope Ahmedenijad isn’t reading the book). The book further predicted a comet would strike earth and obliterate much of it in 2006.
What makes an even greater mockery of the codes is that the Torah today is somewhat imprecise in that some of the letters of the Hebrew alphabet can be replaced by vowels and we are not certain whether the vowel, or the letter itself, should be in certain passages. Insert a few of these missing letters and the codes become gibberish.
But none of this has stopped a few Jewish outreach organizations, most notably Aish HaTorah, from employing the codes as a principal tool by which to attract young Jews to their tradition. Little do they realize that Christian missionaries are now putting the New Testament through computers to demonstrate, through their own codes, that Jesus is the foretold Messiah.
But my personal objection to the codes is something else entirely and has to do with the rise of Judaism as magic and Rabbis as soothsayers. Over the past twenty years we have witnessed a slew of mostly fraudulent Cabbalists and questionable mystics running around the world and telling gullible Jews their future. Many are Rabbis who even claim illustrious pedigrees. The majority employ a classic ‘cold reading’ - where without even realizing it, you end up supplying the information to the ‘seer’ who can really only see your wallet – and are about as capable of telling the future as I am of playing in the NBA. You receive a private audience with these much sought-after Rabbis and they immediately wish you a speedy recovery for your ailing back. They tell you they know you’re having tension with one of your children and that your dead mother has forgiven you for the time you forgot her birthday. They offer sop and comfort, but ask them anything truly useful, like when will the next bomb go off in Jerusalem so as to save innocents from dying – and they stealthily change the subject. But that hasn’t stopped wealthy, educated, and sophisticated Jews all over America from lining up around the block to line these charlatans pockets and get business and personal advice.
We are living in an age that desperately needs religion. Modernity is only a blessing so long as its technological advances are governed by values. Wealth in the West has ended poverty but has brought in its wake soullessness and materialism. Putting the professional before the personal has lead to the decimation of romantic relationships and the neglect family and children.
This is why the Bible is more relevant than ever before. Western men and women need to read of a wealthy nobleman named Abraham who personally sat outside his tent to welcome wayfarers. Politicians who eviscerate each other in attack ads need to read of Moses who brought Pharaoh to his knees yet remained ‘the most humble man who walked the earth.’ Brothers and sisters who haven’t spoken in years need to read of Joseph who became the most powerful man alive but forgave his siblings their attempt at fratricide. Men who cheat on their wives must read of King David who engaged in the most severe penance after his affair with Bathsheba.
But religion as pious sorcery threatens to undermine its moral dimension. The Bible codes and mystical, magical Judaism tell us it’s not the inspirational guidance and wisdom for life which makes the Bible special but it’s hidden numerology and nascent predictions. You turn to the Bible not to learn how to be close to G-d but to predict the next property surge.
So let me be clear. I couldn’t give a damn if the Bible can predict the next President and I don’t need the Torah to forewarn me that I’m about to become nuclear melba toast. Rather, I turn to Judaism to discover the values by which I should lead my life and maximize my human potential. I seek not to discern the future but master the here-and-now. Religion is a roadmap not to some underlying codes hidden in the Bible but my underlying G-dly nature that sits beneath my ambition, selfishness, and egocentrism and strives to come out.
If you want a vulgar forgery of faith there are any number of religious charlatans who, for a couple of bucks, are ready to read your palm. But if you’re an adult then you’re ready for religion as something that attunes you to G-d and humanity’s needs rather than focusing exclusively on your own.
Rabbi Shmuley Boteach, “America’s Rabbi,” is founder of This World: The Values Network which seeks to use universal Jewish values to heal America. His newest book is Renewal: A Guide to the Values-Filled Life” (Basic Books). Follow him on Twitter @RabbiShmuley.