Monday, October 10, 2011

Aish HaTorah II

I changed my mind and decided not to meticulously dissect that old Wall Street Journal article I put up the other day. Instead, I'm just going to jot down a post about it:

I could understand how, in 1996, people might have leaped at the chance to use the Torah Codes as a proof for Torah miSinai. After all, here you had an article in a respected peer-reviewed journal -- Statistical Science -- promoting the Torah Codes as legitimate. You had the head of that journal, a respected statistician, admitting that he was baffled. Of course, it would have been more prudent to wait a few years to see if these codes would be refuted before hastily adopting them. The Codes also were theologically problematic for a number of reasons: How could God put in Codes warning us of things like the Holocaust and all of the gedolim miss out on it? Why were these Codes not in the traditional method of lernin? But we all know that in a Talmudic world, apologetics are amorphous. Surely there was some explanation of those problems. The important thing was that a respected academic journal had printed proof of the Torah.

But see, then there was a slight problem. The Codes were refuted pretty completely and convincingly. Barry Simon, venerable mathematical physicist and a frummer yid -- beard, hat, and all -- spurned the Codes. The editor of Statistical Science who had in his introduction to the Codes article referred to the findings as puzzling, now declared that it "appears...that the puzzle has been solved."

Unfortunately, Aish still uses the Codes as proof for the divinity of the Torah. They've decided not to let those pesky dissenting statistics and math people (and by "dissenting," I mean "almost anybody who knows anything about the issue") get in the way. I've made it clear here that I don't believe in God and I think theists are generally confused, not malicious or intentionally dishonest (and I'm sure many think the same of me). But it takes a special kind of organization to actually lure people in through presenting their proofs as "obvious" even by academic standards, when even kannaim laugh at the Codes.

In the Wall Street Journal article, we were given the following quote, meant to inspire:
"I walked in a secular atheist and walked out believing that the Torah had been handed down by G-d to Moses on Mt. Sinai," says Ms. [Deborah] Grayson, a 24 year old graduate student of Social Work at Columbia University.
For those who might recognize the name, Deborah Grayson is now Deborah Grayson Riegel, the leadership coach who writes a regular column in The Jewish Week. I must admit that I'm unfamiliar with her columns and her worldview today; for all I know, she herself now spurns the proofs given at Aish's Discovery lecture. I have little idea as to what her current worldview is and I wish her the best. But her quote from 14 years ago in the Journal sums up well what my problem with the seminar is. Aish wants people to walk out "believing" and some people themselves walk in ready to believe. But this is clearly a seminar given by people with an agenda. If a person finds an agenda-driven seminar to have a convincing ring, they shouldn't walk out convinced of anything, except that they ought to do research on the claims they were just told, instead of taking them (prima facie) as fact.


  1. I don't know, they believe what they're saying and stand behind the product they're selling. Why wouldn't they continue to say it and sell it? Because skeptics think it's simplistic?

  2. S., you're too kind. The whole point that people get out of the seminar is that to the observer with the facts, the Torah is obviously true. And there's a slight problem that they don't want people to look into the facts.

  3. I am a theist, and as far as that goes, I'll just say that I don't think the issue of belief in general is as simple as one party being "generally confused." My beliefs are not simple enough, or my methods uniform enough, for me to suffer from general confusion, nor do I suspect the same suffering is true of a well-thought out atheist.

    But I will mention something powerfully shaking that I gathered from reading the new piece by Robert Kass.

    When Kass and his colleagues first published the ELS paper, they immediately saw something "fishy." There was a puzzle to be solved--nothing truly remarkable in their trained eyes, but curious enough to warrant publishing and generating further interest by the scientific community. The assumption always was, Kass claims, that someone would find the answer and unravel the mystery.

    I wonder, for those people who do see the argument from tradition and mass revelation (I hate calling it the Kuzari principle, for a number of reasons, particularly because the argument is rarely ever stated correctly by people who use that name) as a convincing basis for faith, is there something we're missing, even if we disagree with all the purported refutations of the argument?

    What I mean is, supposing the argument appears unassailable, would a truly inquiring mind stop there? Would a truly thoughtful person not suggest that all we've found is a curious puzzle? Just as the "God of the gaps" consistently fails to stand the test of time, because invariably the gaps are filled with new knowledge, should we not see the problem of "how did the ancient Israelites come to believe thus-and-so" as simply an unsolved puzzle, one that should not establish profound truth, especially in the light of its many problematic implications?

    I'm not sure the comparison is fair, and certainly historical hypotheses are far less testable than curious statistical analyses, but this thought still gives me pause.

  4. Itick:
    Thanks for your thoughts. I think if somebody runs into an idea which he thinks so stunning as to possibly change his worldview -- after doing some measure of research -- he shouldn't have the chutzpah to go it alone. He should try to contact a logician, a Bible scholar, or somebody else who is better versed in whatever raiya is being brought to him.

  5. Who went alone? I'm not sure your response addresses my comment--which didn't necessarily require response, since it was just food for thought.